Author's note/warning: I nearly changed the rating to 'M' for this chapter… but I've decided that since very little cynicism is required to appreciate it, and no teenager would be scarred for life from reading it, it'll stay rated 'T' unless someone complains. Enjoy!
Chapter 4: Worse than Almost
Irony, I feel, is a very high form of morality. –Jean Stafford
An hour passed, the first minute hurried and the other 59 nice and slow. Still, things were a bit sweaty by the time Lois was finally just cuddled against his chest, the sheets pulled up around the both of them. Clark smoothed her hair from her face, tucking it behind her ear for her, which made her smile. A perfect, quiet moment passed, and then, at the exactly the same time, they both sighed.
"…What was that for?" Lois asked, at the very same time that Clark said, "What's on your mind?"
"You first," Lois said, snuggling in a little closer.
"Well…" he sighed again, and Lois couldn't help but smile to herself some more as his chest rose and fell beneath her cheek. "I know you're probably not going to let me apologize, but… I want to anyway."
Lois frowned. "Apologize for what?"
"For today. Earlier… I don't know how to tell you this, so I guess I'll just say it. I almost slept with her."
Lois rolled her eyes. "Then I suppose I'll almost let you apologize, and I'll almost forgive you."
"Thanks," he replied, and she could hear the smile in his voice. He adjusted his arms around her, waited patiently in the silence, and then cleared his throat a little. "Your turn," he said. "What were you thinking about?"
"oh, I was just thinking about the time."
"The time?" Clark asked, slightly taken aback. "Why? We're both off from work tomorrow, so…"
"Believe me, I've taken that into account," she informed him. "I was just thinking, that seeing how round one took about one hour, round two should take more like two."
Clark breathed in and closed his eyes, lifting his chin out of her way as her lips found their way to his collarbone. "…or three," she whispered in between kisses.
Clark raised his eyebrows. "You're the boss," he replied, and was nothing if not the happiest man on earth.
"I know," Lois said lovingly, sitting up slowly so that her hair fell over her shoulder. Once she was quite squarely straddling his waist, she casually flung her head to one side, flipping her hair around so it settled behind her. Clark loved the sight of that so much it made him want to float—and he might have let himself do just that, but at that moment—
The phone rang.
Lois and Clark just looked at each other.
The phone rang again.
"…Are you going to answer that?" Lois asked, smirking.
"Hmm," Lois said, stifling a giggle. She leaned down and was about to kiss him again, when, on the fourth ring of the phone, he winced. Lois frowned and sat back up. "Ugh, it's the Bat-phone, isn't it? You always make that face when it's the Bat-phone."
Lois was already climbing off of him. "Really. You should tell him to adjust the frequency so it stops hurting your ears."
She sighed, exasperated, and quickly kissed his forehead. "I'll be right back. He's probably just calling to make sure you got home okay." She slid off the bed, stood up. "I'm gonna get a glass of water. Want one?"
"Uh, no thanks," Clark said, undeniably bothered by the shrill beeping that only he could hear. Lois slipped out of the room, and Clark ground his back teeth together and reached for the phone.
He picked it up. "Batman-"
"Why the hell didn't you answer my call?" Bruce growl-shouted into Clark's ear. Clark winced again and held the phone out about a foot from his head. "I called your cell thirty minutes ago!"
Clark frowned, brought the phone a little closer to speak into it. "Sorry, Bruce, this isn't a good time—"
"I don't care if it's a good time, I want to know why you ignored my call!"
Clark blinked a few times. "Okay… my cell phone? I remember now. My cell phone was in my jacket earlier today when all my clothes were vaporized by that… thing…"
"So it vaporized everything? Even your phone?"
"Yeah—I think so."
"Wonderful," Bruce grumbled. "I had just finished upgrading that belt."
Clark was confused. He shook his head a little, and looked up just in time to see Lois appear in the doorway, beautifully naked-- one shoulder leaning against the doorframe, sipping her glass of water and staring directly at him with a look of hungry amusement. "uh-- Look, Bruce, I'm gonna have to call you back," Clark said abruptly.
"What?" Bruce's growl was so deadly it gave Clark goosebumps. Or maybe that was from watching Lois silently creeping towards him, one graceful foot in front of the other.
"You listen to me, Clark, unless the world's ending right this instant, you WILL stay on the line," Bruce snarled through audibly clenched teeth. Lois set her glass on the nightstand, but instead of sliding back into bed as Clark had hoped she would, she moved a short distance across the room, leaving Clark at a loss, alone in the sheets.
"Where are you right now?" Bruce demanded.
"Home," Clark said, his eyes on Lois. She bent down; she was picking something up off the floor.
"Of course. Metropolis. Oh…" The 'oh' was for Lois, who had retrieved one of those leis of red flowers from where they had been discarded in haste on the bedroom floor, and was currently in the act of draping it around her neck.
"Good enough," Bruce grumbled.
Now Lois was picking up a swath of abandoned red silk. She shook it out, raised one eyebrow at Clark, and then wrapped it loosely around her hips, tying it at one side.
Meanwhile, Bruce was growling away, relating something about signals and wavelengths and the Watchtower's matter converters but Clark wasn't listening. Instead, he was watching, mouth slightly open, as Lois raised both her arms to one side, stroked the air in little waving motions, and then slowly began to sway her hips, imitating a hula dance.
"Uhn—Bruce. I gotta go," Clark said, cutting him off.
"Don't you dare hang up, Superman, not after what you did to me." There was so much anger in his voice, it just hurt to listen to him. Clark winced again at his tone, stared longingly at Lois for a minute, and then registered what Bruce had said.
"Wait-- what?" he narrowed his eyes and tried to focus on the phone call. "What I did to you? What's going on?" Lois was at the edge of the bed now.
"What do you think is going on?" Bruce seethed. "I'm trying to escape!"
"Escape from what?" Clark asked. Lois sighed and settled herself against the pillows beside him. Clark gave her a desperately apologetic look.
For other women, Lois supposed, hearing their husband ask Batman what he was escaping from would be something out of the ordinary. In her case, however…
"Don't play with me, Clark. I know this is your fault," threatened the voice from the phone.
Well, whatever Bruce's situation was, Lois decided she wasn't going to let it spoil her fun. Suddenly smirking, she wriggled down under the sheets, out of sight.
Fueled by anger, Bruce went on: "I bet I even know what you said to her: 'Gee, Maxima, I'm not too good at this stuff, mostly I'll just cry and want to cuddle for hours afterwards-- if you're looking for a good time, you should call Batman.' Just tell me if I'm wrong."
Under the sheets, Lois could still hear Bruce perfectly through the phone, and had to smother her laughter against Clark's stomach.
Clark blinked a few times, trying to make sense of Bruce's accusation. "You're wrong," he decided. Lois began gently dragging her nails down his sides, and he had to bite back a whimper.
"Then how'd you get home?" Bruce demanded.
"I don't know," Clark breathed. "Lois rescued me," he managed to conclude.
"Then maybe Lois can explain why I'm a naked prisoner on an Almeraci ship!"
"Why you're a what?" Clark asked, confused again. Lois's fingernails were making their way down his thighs, now, with just enough pressure—she was good at this, she was really good.
"Prisoner. On an Almeraci ship. Naked. Except for my cowl," Bruce grumbled, spelling it out.
"You're wearing your cowl?" Clark asked absently, somehow avoiding comprehension of Bruce's plight. Lois giggled, and shifted under the sheet in front of him.
"Did you just ask Bruce what he was wear—"
"No!" Clark exclaimed, blushing.
"Hmm," Lois giggled again, and then whispered, "You're delicious when you're embarrassed."
And with that she licked her lips --which Clark saw because he'd decided to cheat just a very little bit, using the slightest hint of x-ray vision to make the sheet transparent-- and as she pressed the first little kiss just south of his navel, Clark was severely tempted to throw the phone through the wall.
"Obviously as a bounty-hunting tool it's programmed to leave the quarry intact from the neck up for identification purposes, since most sentient species rely on--" Bruce was explaining something again, but Clark wasn't paying him the least bit of attention. Instead, he was watching Lois through the sheet. Her shoulders, so perfect, her long legs, her knees pressing into the mattress, which seemed shamefully unnecessary since he could just hold her up and—
"Clark." There was that horrible voice from the phone again. "Are you even listening?"
"No," he admitted.
Bruce was silent for a moment. And then he chuckled, in that dark, dangerous way that he did only when he was trapped and helpless but still in the mood to intimidate people. It was scary enough to make Clark shiver a little. Or maybe that was because of what Lois was doing with her tongue on his skin and her soft, wet little lips—
He swallowed, trying to focus. On what, he wasn't sure. Bruce was talking again.
"The only reason I'm not going to kill you…" Bruce growled.
"Batman doesn't kill people," Clark recited in a rush. It had finally dawned on him that Lois wasn't just teasing—she was about to start something that, under the circumstances, seemed incredibly inappropriate. "Lois…" he whispered, and reached for the side of her head, his fingers sliding through her hair—
"Clark, Clark, Clark," Bruce said slowly, distracting him. Lois was still partially eavesdropping on the phone call, and decided, mischievously, to play a little game.
"Clark, Clark, Clark," Lois echoed, huskily.
"Um," Clark said helplessly.
"For you, you know I'd make an exception," Bruce threatened.
"For you, you know I'd make…" Lois slid forward, kissed him again "…an exception."
Clark took a deep breath and closed his eyes, no longer willing to stop her from doing whatever she wanted to him.
"The only reason I'm not going to kill you is because the Earth might need you to fend off Lobo and his gang when Maxima throws her tantrum," Bruce was saying.
"Yes—ah—that's good," Clark half-whispered, a little deliriously and probably not in response to Bruce. He could feel everything—Lois's pulse through her fingertips, her breath on his skin—
Bruce seemed taken aback. "…I knew it," he muttered after a moment. "Maxima must have drugged you," he concluded. "That would explain why you're so disoriented. Let me talk to Lois."
Clark swallowed, opened his eyes, and dared to pull aside the sheet. He didn't want to have to cheat to see her anymore. Uncovered, Lois looked up at him, sly and so completely self-assured he knew he'd never stop adoring her. "Lois… can't talk right now," he said, strained.
Lois had to stop at that, and sat up, laughing. Clark gave her a desperate look.
"Whatever. Just stay on the line for two more minutes," Bruce growled. "I'm almost done configuring the trajectory."
"I'll configure your trajectory," Lois murmured, smirking, her eyes not leaving Clark's, and even though Clark really had no idea what she meant by that, it sounded quite exciting. Except… he frowned, realizing that he had no idea what Bruce had meant either.
"Wait a minute. Bruce—what are you talking about?"
"The teleporter. Like I explained to you—I've hacked this ship's para-portation system and routed it through the Watchtower's matter converters. In two minutes I'll be able to teleport myself to your location."
Clark's eyebrows rose. "My location?!" he asked, his voice a little higher than usual. Lois's mouth fell open in a classic 'uh-oh' expression.
"Didn't you hear a word I said? I told you this already! I'm using the signal from your phone to—"
"Oh, right. Sorry-- I was kind of distracted. Lois was, um," he briefly recalled her little hula dance and realized there were no words for explaining how badly he wanted and needed her at that very moment. "Anyway," he went on, sounding just a bit more distressed, "did you have to call here? Couldn't you have called Alfred?"
"Alfred told me it 'served me right' and hung up on me," Bruce growled, furious. "And so did Nightwing. After he finished laughing."
Clark bit his lip. "That's terrible, Bruce, and believe me, I am really, really sorry about this, but—"
Bruce used his scariest voice. "You wouldn't dare."
Clark looked at Lois, made a face that was a silent plea for help. Lois smiled and graciously took the phone out of his hand. "Bye, Bruce," she said, and hung up.
Clark didn't waste another instant. Lois breathed in and suddenly his mouth was on her neck, his hands were on her back, and then her whole world was Clark and it delighted her to realize that for once he hadn't asked permission. She shut her eyes, settling into it, cooperating… "Oh my god, Clark," she muttered into his shoulder, a few minutes later. "I'm gonna have to get Bruce to call you more often."
"Is that so?" Clark asked, having regained a little of his cognitive ability now that so much seemed right in the universe. "Well. Just you wait until I catch you on the phone with Lana."
Lois gasped, feigning surprise that he could suggest something so naughty, and then she used the sultriest voice she could manage: "Why, Clark Kent. Are you actually plotting revenge?"
"Now now, Miss Lane," Clark protested in his most mildest-mannered voice. "You know me better than that."
She had to blink away happy tears then, because he'd just won so completely that she couldn't even begrudge him the victory. And while she vaguely recalled saying something about two hours, she knew, more than anything, that two eternities wouldn't be enough. "Yes," she conceded in a whisper, her lips reaching for his. "I do."
Almerac. Bruce had never been there before. His first impression, once he found himself teleported into Maxima's throne room, was that it was a place of old and not-yet-faded glory. Crimson banners, ponderous columns, bold zig-zagging patterns reminiscent of a Navajo blanket in the cut stone floor. Golden light from tall lamps and even taller windows. Not enough shadows.
Fearing another decapitation, the guards fled as soon as they'd parked their prisoner in the center of the room.
Maxima herself appeared a few moments later, and was far too interested in inspecting her new acquisition to be troubled by the absence of the guards.
"Hmm…" she said, looking him up and down. Bruce stood with his feet spread and his shoulders hunched. "Tensed like a spring," Maxima observed, and not disapprovingly. Her eyes changed color several times. "Turn around," she instructed, sounding curious.
Instead, Bruce took a menacing step towards her, taking care not to touch the invisible wall of his cell. "Let me out of here," he growled.
Her eyes cooled a bit. "Defiance. I've destroyed men for less," she purred in a voice as smoothly dangerous as his was rough. She made a motion in the air, and the entire portal-cell lifted off the ground and began to rotate around.
"Hmmm…" Maxima said again as the spherical cell completed a full revolution. "But you are a fragile thing, aren't you?"
Bruce decided it was probably in his best interest to capitalize on that angle. "I hope my friend Superman bothered to warn you that I'm not exactly invulnerable," he cautioned.
"Superman?" Maxima cocked her head to one side. "Superman never mentioned you."
Bruce narrowed his eyes as his every assumption about his situation instantly dissolved.
"Anyway, I suppose I ought to provide you with some clothing. My scholars have done a little research on you, Bruce Wayne. They say you're the closest thing there is to 'American' royalty, so I believe these garments will suffice." She snapped her fingers, and Bruce felt sleeves crawl up his arms and pants unfurl down his legs, and before he knew it, he was dressed. His new outfit, he quickly discovered, even came with a cape.
Problem was, it was a white cape. The whole costume was white, and disturbingly… sparkly. And, the closer he inspected it, the more familiar it seemed, until suddenly it dawned on him. "American royalty," he grumbled. "I see."
Maxima turned her head. "What do you think, Diana? Does it suit him?"
And just then, Diana walked into the room, wearing a sleeveless white robe. Bruce did a double take before he recognized her; barefoot and with her hair in a ponytail over her shoulder, she seemed more…casual… than her usual shoulders-back, hands-on-hips appearance. She looked like Sunday morning.
Bruce was instantly wary and even more defensive. He was a prisoner on an alien world. Ostensibly, he was also the intended mate for an alien queen with an array of superhuman powers that he didn't fully comprehend. And for all his genius and skill as a detective, he could not fathom a single logical reason for Wonder Woman to be involved, unless she'd already been dispatched by the League to rescue him—which didn't seem likely, especially given her appearance and the noticeable lack of animosity between her and Maxima.
Her eyes flew straight to him and she turned bright red, trying her best not to laugh at the sight of Batman in an Elvis costume.
She cleared her throat. "Couldn't you just put him in his regular clothes?" She asked nicely.
"I suppose could try," Maxima mused, and closed her eyes for a minute, borrowing Diana's clearest memories of what Batman's 'regular clothes' were like. A moment later, the loose white costume morphed into a skintight charcoal grey one, with gloves and boots and a very black cape. As a final touch, an elegant black bat symbol appeared on his chest, and a utility belt settled around his hips. He checked all the pouches right away. They were empty. He pressed his lips together, grim.
"There," Diana breathed a sigh of relief. "That's better." The red started to fade from her complexion, leaving just enough to keep her cheeks on the rosy side.
"Diana. What are you doing here?" Bruce asked gruffly, completely at home in his new costume and not wanting to waste any more time figuring out what was going on.
"Well," Diana began, and smiled, and looked over at Maxima.
"We've become friends," Maxima supplied, striding over to Diana and curling an arm around her shoulders. Diana reciprocated by wrapping her arm loosely about Maxima's waist in a brief embrace. Bruce looked at them in disbelief. Side by side, they were practically identical until you got to their faces and their hair and eye color. Maxima stood about three inches taller at the moment, but was wearing boots with three-inch-tall heels. Diana's smile, he hated to admit, seemed too genuine to have been put there through mind control. But he still couldn't rule it out completely.
Diana caught Bruce's expression and realized she owed him an explanation.
"Once I understood Maxima's situation, I decided to stay and help," she said, and Bruce immediately wondered if she had any idea what sort of questionable images that statement conjured up in his mind. Help with what, exactly?
"Stay??" he asked.
"Yes. You see, earlier today, I came here on Lois's behalf, to fight Maxima for Superman, and--"
"Wait. You fought for Superman but you're not going to fight for me?" Bruce asked, more than a little anger rumbling out through his voice.
"Bruce, calm down. Superman's wife wanted him back."
"But there's no one to want me back. Ah, it makes so much sense now. Perfect."
Diana frowned at him. "You aren't pleasant when you're sarcastic," she admonished.
"I'm generally not pleasant when I've been abducted," Bruce countered.
The women traded glances. "…Let's take this conversation somewhere more comfortable," Maxima suggested.
"Good idea," Diana agreed. "He's being difficult because he's confused. But I'm sure we'll be able to make him understand."
"Does he always smell that way?" Maxima asked.
"No… not always." She looked up at Bruce, blinked her big blue eyes. "What were you doing when they captured you?" she inquired.
"My job!" Bruce growled. He'd been in the middle of a knife fight with some bums in a subway tunnel, actually. The sweat had dried hours ago, but still…
Diana looked back at Maxima and spoke with absolute certainty.
"He needs a bath."
And so, that was how Bruce Wayne ended up approximately where he had started, up to his neck in hot water and hating the fact that it felt so good. Only now he was also hating the fact that he was Maxima's prisoner, and that Wonder Woman didn't seem to have the slightest intention of helping him escape. She and her newfound 'friend' were sitting on the far edge of the bath, their feet in the water. Maxima had changed her own clothes with a swish of her hand and was now wearing the same sort of robe as Diana.
Neither woman seemed to appreciate how unfair it was that he'd been stripped of his costume just as quickly as he'd been clothed in it. He glared at them, sulking, trying to formulate some kind of plan.
"You poor creature," Maxima murmured, her eyes running down Bruce's arms. "Shall I heal some of those old scars for you?"
"No," Bruce grunted. "I need them."
"What for?" Maxima asked.
"To remind me that there's a price for mistakes."
Maxima's eyes swirled to molten gold. "A fascinating philosophy. You have a true warrior's soul."
Diana decided this was as good a time as any to bring up the delicate subject of what Maxima needed from him. "Bruce," she began diplomatically, "I know you don't appreciate being taken away from your mission, but won't you consider—"
"I can't believe you're on her side," Bruce said, his voice cold.
Diana was undeterred. "Try to understand. She's thinking of the future. For her people. And it's not like it would be very difficult for you to—"
"Define difficult." Bruce grit his teeth. "She isn't some bimbo looking for a war story to share at the spa. Look at her. She's a monster."
Diana looked at Maxima with renewed interest, while the 'monster' herself stared at Bruce with ominously brightening eyes.
"You say that, yet there is no fear in you," Maxima mused. "How very…attractive." She leaned forward, staring at him, and something about the shift of her shoulders called to mind a lioness in mid-stalk."I shall enjoy you," she decided, in the same tone of voice she might have used to say 'I shall have tea'.
"I'm sure you will," Bruce promised darkly, his voice giving Diana goosebumps. "But that's not what this is about, is it? You want a child. I don't. And no matter what you've heard about me, I've never gotten anyone pregnant."
"I can tell there isn't a biological reason for that." Maxima smirked at him. "You've just been careful. And clever. But you won't be able to fake anything with me, I assure you."
"Which is why I don't want to do anything with you," Bruce replied in earnest. "I won't father a child only to abandon it."
"I will be solely responsible for the child," Maxima stated, making it clear that it was a non-negotiable fact.
Bruce shook his head. "If I had a child, there's no way I would leave him to be raised by some alien tyrant that I barely even know."
Diana and Maxima blink-blinked at him as if he'd suddenly started speaking another language. Then they looked at each other, wide-eyed and amused, and Bruce was instantly infuriated because they knew something he didn't.
Maxima did that thing with her shoulders again. "The child will be female," she informed him, in regal confidence.
"Does that change your mind?" Diana asked, completely straightforward.
"Of course not. Children deserve to be raised by their parents. I wouldn't want my daughter to grow up without her father. It would be wrong."
"Why?" Diana asked, openly curious. "I grew up without a father."
"As did I," Maxima said.
Bruce grit his teeth.
"Think of it, Bruce," Diana encouraged, resting her elbows on her knees. "Your beautiful little daughter, growing up as an Almeraci princess…"
Bruce's eye twitched a bit. Of course, his daughter, if he ever had one, would be a princess no matter where she grew up. But what really caught his attention was the unmistakable wistfulness in Diana's tone.
"She'll be a strong little girl, with your blue eyes and a fierce temper," she was saying, smiling. Bruce got the impression that it wasn't the first time that Diana had fantasized about this little girl, and he was taken aback by a quiet, unexpected ache for the possibility of what might have been, if only things were different.
"And one day she'll assume the throne as the ruler of Almerac," Maxima added, bringing Bruce back to reality.
"That's another thing," he growled. "I'm not convinced this Almerac of yours is fit for children at all. From what I know of it, it's full of violence."
"The multiverse is full of violence," Maxima reminded him. "But don't forget, as my descendent, our daughter will be as powerful as I am."
Bruce chewed on the corner of his lip. Knowing that his daughter would be innately protected by some degree of invulnerability…
"What about Lobo?" he remembered suddenly. "Superman said you're married to that maniac. And I wouldn't want him within a hundred light-years of her."
"Lobo holds legal status as my consort," Maxima stated. "But he's just my slave. In my presence, he is a lovesick puppy. And I keep him on a very short leash—but, if it will ease your mind, I will not hesitate to exile him from Almerac forever."
"I don't know, Maxima. You still seem too ruthless to be much of a mother."
Instead of seething with rage at that comment, she looked flattered. "I make no apologies for the traditions of my race." Her eyes turned orange, like distant flame. "I will raise my daughter to be fearless and just," Maxima said solemnly. "She will lead her people with courage and wisdom. And when I tell her the story of her father, she will be proud that she shares your blood."
"Are you convinced?" Diana asked, looking at him fondly.
Bruce looked at them both and spoke with a cast iron voice.
The women traded glances again.
Then Diana stretched her arms in front of her, fingers interlaced, palms out. "Mmh," she said, slowly shaking her head. She smiled at Bruce again, eyes twinkling. "Let's see how you feel after a backrub."
When Bruce finally made it home, Alfred Pennyworth and Dick Grayson were lighting up cigars.
"Welcome back, sir," Alfred said, his voice full of a certain starched joy. "And, congratulations."
Dick beamed at Bruce. Bruce glowered at the world. "We hear it's a girl," Dick said brightly, clapping Bruce on the back.
"Grrmph," Bruce grrmphed, and stalked away to his cave.
"…I see your timing is as wonderful as ever," Bruce muttered without looking up. "You've managed to show up again exactly when I don't want you here."
"Alfred says you're depressed," Clark said, as that pretty much explained the reason for his presence.
It was a few days later, and Clark was hovering obnoxiously in the background as Bruce was trying to work. The tiny piece of the Mad Hatter's circuitry under the microscope suddenly cracked apart, and Bruce pushed his chair back from his workbench in frustration.
"I'm fine," he asserted, shoulders hunched.
"Look, Bruce, if you're angry because of what happened--"
"But you called us for help and, well, we didn't take you seriously," Clark reminded him.
"Hmf. Don't worry about it. I figured out what you were so preoccupied with about three seconds after you hung up."
Clark turned a bit pink, and he cleared his throat. "Well, it doesn't change the fact that we all ignored you when you needed us."
"It's all right, Clark. It wasn't a big deal. I can take care of myself."
Clark sighed. "We just want you to know that we're sorry."
"Alfred's not sorry."
"But he is worried about you. And he wants you to know that he loves you."
Bruce blinked, and then looked up at Clark, as if debating whether or not to say something.
"We all love you," Clark said.
Bruce stared up at him for another few seconds, and then turned abruptly to rifle through a drawer. "She's going to name her after Lois," Bruce grumbled.
"Maxima. She told me. She's going to name her daughter Lois."
Clark laughed. "Really?"
"Something about how much she admires the woman who's earned the devotion of the one man Maxima herself couldn't have."
"I'll never meet her," Bruce said into the drawer.
"Don't be too sure. In twenty years or so she might show up and try to conquer the Earth or something."
Bruce grit his teeth. "That isn't funny."
The darkness in his voice made Clark frown. He landed silently on the floor, stood for a moment beside Bruce's chair. Bruce didn't move.
"…Can I tell you something?"
The question sank like ink, spreading through the emptiness of the cave, and Clark did a triple-take. Had Bruce actually just asked him that?
"Sure," he answered.
"I'm jealous of you."
Clark raised his eyebrows. "Trust me, Bruce, I wish you were bulletproof probably more than you do."
"It's not that," Bruce said. "It's what you have with Lois. I'm still not as happy as everyone else seems to be about what happened with Maxima, but I am glad it was me instead of you. Because what you have with Lois is important. It's something special."
Clark was speechless. How could he tell Bruce how much that meant to him? He wished from the bottom of his heart that Bruce would someday find a happy ending… but that didn't take away from how thankful he was for Bruce at that very moment.
Bruce almost smiled then, which proved that he understood everything that Clark didn't know how to say.
"All right," he said gruffly, picking up the tiny glass slide with the broken circuit on it. "Are you done cheering me up now? Because if you're going to stick around any longer, you might as well help me figure out how to fix this."
Clark took the slide as Bruce handed it to him. This was one of those times, Clark realized, when he had managed to show up exactly when Bruce needed him there. And he was definitely going to stick around.
Side by side, they got to work.