Aftermath

- beginning -

The bruising would fade. The cracked ribs might take a little longer, but they were bound, and he could work. Just. At the least, he could sit in his chair and orchestrate the tracking down of the men who'd formed the paedophile ring.

Or work monitor duty as necessary.

The doors behind him opened. He didn't turn around.

There was only one person it could be, and he knew who it was even before they rose up beside him, arms crossed, jaw set.

"I'm sorry about the bruising."

His shrug was slight, making the least of it. The other man had doubtless scanned him; he knew the full extent of Bruce' injuries. "It happens in my line of work." And in my line of humanity.

This time the hestation was deliberate. "I'm sorry for what led up to the bruising, too." And now there was the faintest hint of dry humour in Clark's voice.

It forced Bruce to ask, "Is that sorry as in, 'you regret it happened', or sorry as in 'you regret you got caught'?"

"Both," Clark said. "And neither."

No surprise at the ambiguity. Bruce wasn't so sure he'd regret sleeping with Diana if his circumstances were the same as Clark's.

"A holiday?"

"A leave of absence from the League. Drastic emergencies only."

That might be more difficult than Clark had any idea of - it wasn't in his nature to sit back and smell the roses when there were wrongs to right. Then again, considering the wrong he'd done his wife, it might be that rebuilding that relationship would take more energy than even Clark expected.

Silence again. They were stuck in silence - stuck between worlds, stuck between lives. J'onn had once deliberately made the observation that Clark and Bruce were very much alike as men; even to loving the same women. In that, they were stuck, too.

Bruce hoped Lois would be okay. It would take more than a leave of absence for her to work things out within her soul, and none of it would be pretty or comfortable. He almost wished he could be there for her.

Almost. He was the Batman after all.

"Drastic emergencies?"

"Darkseid, the Imperiex, a fleet of alien ships..."

"Drastic."

It was about as lighthearted as they were going to get at this moment. Time would either mend the rents between them, or dry and curl the edges of the tear so there was no hope of fixing what had been broken.

"Why'd you taunt me into it?"

A small red dot flared briefly on one screen. Bruce pulled up the screen and checked the data. A minor chemical spill at a specific factory in Hungary. He left the flag where it was - it was a civil authorities concern, not League business.

"Your emotions were running you," Bruce said flatly. "The way I presume they were when you slept with Diana."

"And if you presumed wrong?"

He shrugged, ignoring the subtle malice of Clark's voice. It would be a while before either of them stopped resenting the other for what they could and could not have. "Diana indicated that it was unexpected and unintentional - emotion-fuelled. I took her at her word considering she had the lasso around her wrist at the time." He glanced slightly at the man beside him and zoomed the screen back from Hungary to the map of Eastern Europe.

"You screwed up. Or just screwed." One corner of his mouth tugged, although his stomach was churning. Doubtless Clark could see that if he cared to. "You're not the first man to mess up and I doubt you'll be the last."

"And if I'd messed up by killing you?"

Cynical humour twitched his mouth. "Then we wouldn't be having this conversation." The answer was not satisfactory for the other man, he could feel the frustration emanating from beside him. "You would have remembered who you were, what you swore to, sooner or later, Clark."

"And if it meant your death?"

He shrugged, a more nonchalant gesture than was probably required. "Then it would have been the price for the world to have Superman back."

"That's not how it works." The admission was low and pained.

"Maybe. Maybe not." Another shrug. "It was a calculated risk."

A very calculated one, involving a self-control of steel. He would not easily forget the death that had come so close to him. He would not easily forget the betrayal that had stuck in him - vows or not, Clark had known he held the balance of power in their respective relationships with Diana, and he had used that against Bruce.

"And you always win." There was a bitter note to Superman's voice; an envy that surprised him. A meta envying a human? How novel.

No response was necessary. Superman knew perfectly well that the Batman didn't always win - that Bruce Wayne had lost more to Clark Kent than either man was willing to bring up at this point in time.

The knowledge pricked him, and he squashed it. "Give my regards to Lois," he said in plain dismissal. He said nothing more to the other man. They weren't friends again. Not yet. But at least they knew where they stood now.

It was a beginning.

-

It was hard not to go out flying at night; not to circle the city in the air.

Harder still to act normally when he overheard a conversation between her and Bruce the evening he came home from the Watchtower for his leave of absence.

"Tell me, Bruce, am I being an idiot? Will this really change anything?"

"I don't know everything, Lois."

"You didn't answer the question about whether you think I'm an idiot."

"You're no more an idiot than I am," Bruce replied with dry egotism.

She laughed then, a soft, slightly choked sound. "So, idiots together, then?"

"As if we ever needed company in being idiots."

"True." Her sigh whispered through the receiver. "I have to go. Bruce?"

"Lois?"

"I hope things work out."

"So do I."

"And thanks."

"You're welcome."

It was all the hope he had to go on - that Lois wanted thing to turn out right between them. Because he lay on the other side of the bed at night and listened to her sleep, or sometimes cry, and wished he'd never pushed the boundaries of his relationship with Diana.

In the first few days after he absented himself from the League, he spent some time at the Fortress, mostly rearranging things, and carefully putting away his memories of that night. Not lingering over them as he had at first, but carefully putting them aside, making himself remember other things - times with Lois rather than Diana.

It wasn't easy, but nobody had promised him easy.

Especially not Lois.

"Lois..."

"Clark, I said I needed time. Are you going to give me time, or are you going to try to make yourself feel better by pushing?"

There were moments when he contemplated leaving it all. Giving up on this all-too-human relationship and turning his back on it.

He couldn't.

He couldn't because she was his and he was hers, and even if he'd betrayed her, the woman he woke up beside - the woman he wanted to wake up beside - was Lois.

So he stayed on and went to work with her, dogged her when she tried to ditch him, and suggested small things for them to do together.

He gritted his teeth and stuck at it when she said 'no' again and again. He gritted his teeth and continued to reach out when she still didn't want him to touch her. He gritted his teeth and kept going back home instead of running away to the Watchtower or the Fortress.

And every time he thought about leaving, he remembered the blunt words of Jonathan Kent talking to a teenaged Clark after his son had witnessed an argument between his parents. "Too many men give up and get out when it gets hard, Clark. They get tired of life or their work or their wife, and they opt out. They get out and start anew, but the problem isn't their circumstances - the problem is them. So, after a while, the old troubles turn up and they get tired and run away again - it never stops. And the man who leaves behind too many of his responsibilities isn't a man anymore: he's a leech."

Bruce would probably say it worked for metas just as well as it worked for men.

It was nearly two weeks before Lois said 'yes' to one of his ideas: her favourite ice-cream in the park on the way back from an interview. She walked beside him instead of two steps in front, and laughed when an adolescent boy crashed into her while roller-blading and landed them both in the flowerbeds.

She even let Clark help her up and brush her off, eyes sparkling as the kid picked himself up, looked at her, flushed, looked at Clark, paled, mumbled something and scrambled away.

And if she stiffened when she realised how close he was standing, or that she was letting him touch her without flinching, if she stepped back from him after a self-conscious moment, she nevertheless walked just a little closer to him all the way back to the office.

Clark had a sudden urge to leap tall buildings.

It was a beginning.

-

It had been a month since she'd begun working with him in Gotham.

A month since the night she'd come to him, feeling tainted in the knowledge and memory of what she'd done to herself, to Kal, to Lois.

Kal was back among the League. Their interactions were not precisely comfortable - they were too aware of their companions watching them, judging them, too aware of the delicacy of his relationship with his wife, rebuilding day by day - but they worked. Only time and crisis would see if they would work under pressure and strain.

In the meantime, Diana had other matters to take her attention.

She was aware of the delicacy of her own rapport with Bruce, the fragility of it. Tolerance had given way to acceptance, but she was not welcome in Gotham. At least, not by him.

The 'Batclan' accepted her, more or less. Nightwing and Robin teased her, Batgirl didn't hold back against her in a fight, and Oracle offered dirty jokes and anecdotes of the whole clan. But Batman watched her, corrected her, informed her, reprimanded her, and held back from her with exacting quietude.

The frustration of it fuelled her actions one night as she and Batgirl took care of a number of gang-related problems. She wasn't in Gotham every night, of course, her own commitments in Gateway City also demanded of her time and energy. But Gotham had become a continuing interest of hers, growing upon her in all its unlovely gloom.

At the end of the night they returned to the Batcave and the man who sat in front of the computer systems in cowl and robe, feeding data through the screens. Batgirl's description of Diana was succinct. "Has issues."

The girl went to change and clean up, and Diana pulled her Hecate mask from her head with a sigh and hung it from the hook where she'd put her lasso earlier tonight.

"Issues?" She could hear the arch of his brow in the word, although he didn't turn from the screens.

She regarded the curve of his head, the lines of throat and shoulders, back and bicep before her, gleaming dully with the reflected light from the monitors around him. Here, in his lair, she could observe him without shame or fear of discovery. The solitude gave her privacy, and the darkness freed her to study him, and study him she did.

He carried his darkness about him, like a snail carried its shell. Sometimes, Diana thought that, like a snail, he would be lost without it. Yet he was whole in his pain and his passion, as complete as any man or woman on this great planet would ever be: simply...different.

And she loved him in his darkness.

She hadn't answered his question, and now he was watching her watching him, the opaque eyes of his cowl hiding his expression.

"Out of all the cities in America, you had to pick this one, Bruce," she murmured. "The one city where the crime never stops."

"The crime never stops in any other city, either."

"But it never stops in Gotham," she said. "Not for anything or anyone - even you, Bruce." And then the question that was nagging her. "Why do you keep doing it?"

Broad shoulders lifted and fell in a shrug. "Perhaps I have a fondness for lost causes."

"Is that why you love me?"

The words were crueller than she'd meant them, instinctive from her lips, and there was a long moment when he didn't move.

Diana berated herself for being reckless, for saying what she had not meant, for hurting him again. "I didn't mean..."

"Yes," he said, swivelling the chair to face her. "I think you did."

"Bruce..."

"Diana." And there was something soft and low in his voice, although the tones still itched in gravelled velvet. "You're making this difficult for yourself. Nobody else."

"Then make it easier for me."

"How?"

"Kiss me." The plea hung in the air between them, slowly chilling in the frigid air.

He turned back to the computer, abruptly, although she saw what might have been the faintest movement of his adam's apple beneath the throat of his cowl. "I dislike being the consolation prize, Princess. It's a human thing."

Before she knew what she was doing, she'd yanked her lasso from the hook and pulled the coil tight around her wrist. "You are not the consolation prize, Bruce," she said, knowing her voice held an element of desperation to it. "You never were, and never could be."

She loved both men. She could no more help it than they could help being who and what they were. That circumstances and recklessness had led to her relationship with Kal was a function of situation. If it had been Bruce sparring with her in the Batcave, teasing her, touching her, kissing her, then she would have responded just as ardently. She knew that in her soul - she'd felt the hard tug of desire for him often enough these last few weeks.

The difference was that Bruce did not let go, he would not lose control, and he would not cross the line.

He sat too still now. She'd said too much. And now the rending would begin, because she had laid herself bare before him, and he would not do likewise - could not do likewise.

As always, he surprised her.

One hand reached out stealthily and wound the tip of a finger into the coils of the lasso as the other pulled back his cowl from his face. Honesty and openness for one to whom felt he could not afford it, and the deep blue gaze of a man who knew his worth and counted it less than she did.

We think of ourselves as freaks. As not good enough. Because of them.

"I'd like to believe you," he said gently.

Stung, she protested. "The lasso..."

He held up his free hand, silencing her. "I believe you think you're telling the truth, but I don't believe you."

And the innate cynicism that was his nature.

Regret caught in her throat, and the question was yanked from her lips. "What would it take for you to believe it as truth?"

She saw him jerk slightly, his fingers still caught in the golden loops of the lasso. And while she hadn't intended to force him to respond, it still compelled his true answer.

"If you could make love to me with the lasso wrapped around you, then I would be able to believe it." The words escaped his lips, a brutal and unexpected revelation. He pulled his hand back from the lasso as though it had burned - and perhaps it had. Still, he kept his composure as he looked back at her and quietly said, "That wasn't an invitation."

Her body had taken it as such, stirring gently into warmth and desire. She leashed its hunger. "All I asked for was a kiss."

The challenge was laid down, the gauntlet flung; he would accept her gage or walk away.

She knew what she expected, but she hoped otherwise.

Diana watched him as he stood there, waiting, watching, measuring, considering. He should not be coerced, would not accept any attempt to persuade his mind. She would have him of his own will and willingness, or not at all - no pleasant lies for either of them.

The moment stretched out, too far, too long, and she acknowledged her loss with something that was halfway between a smile and a wince.

It was a night for surprises. One gauntleted hand touched her cheek, turning her head towards him. "One kiss."

A little imp moved within her. "I didn't specify how many."

One corner of his mouth twitched as he cradled her jaw and leaned in to her.

Skin touched skin, lightly, no urgency, no haste. Mouth moved in mouth, softly, no hesitation, no doubt.

Even in the midst of kissing Kal, she had known that there was a wrongness about what they were doing. She had known that there were consequences to be borne, an aftermath that could not be avoided.

There was none of that here.

Bruce's mouth against hers was gentle, delicately sensuous, and oh, so sweet.

...because I love you...kiss me...not the consolation prize...I'd like to believe...one kiss...

Her hand came up to cradle his head, afraid that he might pull away too soon, too fast.

The night she'd come to him, the lasso had burned her flesh for her self-deceptions and lies. Now, she was surprised to find her fingers still full of its loops, half-draped over his shoulder.

And when he finally let her go - or she let him go; she didn't know which it was - the taste of him in her mouth and against her skin held no taint at all.

Something not quite like a smile gleamed in his expression as he turned away, but she felt the warmth of it all through her belly.

It was a beginning.

- fin -

A/N: Thank you very much for reading. I hope you enjoyed it and leave a message at the 'beep'. And if you didn't enjoy it, then I hope it touched you in some small way, and that you'll still leave a message at the 'beep'.