30/30 - Hidden Beauty
Disclaimers and other information in "Opening Credits"
No dice. He and Batgirl had sat surveillance for almost three hours in Tricorner before he finally conceded that Rondoval syndicate was not going to move anything or anybody anytime soon. At least there was tonight's date to look forward to.
He had been relieved that J'onn's choice for the evening was something relatively low key, sparing them both the irritation of paparazzi and freeing Bruce from the effort of disguise. He smoothed his sports coat as he activated the teleporter. A romantic dinner on the Watchtower observation deck, under the stars. Not the newest of settings, but even Clark could not object. Bruce certainly had never had a date there before and had rather frowned on the practice when his teammates had so indulged. However, tonight was a rare moment, astronomically speaking; the earth, the moon and Mars were lined up one right behind the other in a straight line from the sun. True, the dates had been limited to "this planet," but so late in the game and on such a special night? Clark had agreed to bend the rules.
The usual tingle of teleportation swept through his body, and the Batcave melted away to the brighter surround of the Watchtower teleportation area. He stepped down from the tube, scanning the room...
An average looking woman of medium height and build smiled tentatively at him and stepped up to meet him. Straight brown hair fell over her forehead in low bangs and settled over her shoulders tidily, but without any particular style. Her eyes - green, of course - peered at him through wire-framed glasses. She wore a calf-length straight skirt and a conservative blouse. Bruce managed to keep his disappointment off his face, but he couldn't suppress it quickly enough.
The woman tiptoed and kissed his cheek. "Not what you expected?"
"Well," Bruce hedged. So she wasn't stunningly beautiful. She was still J'onn.
"Kristin," she introduced herself, shrugging a little. "Kyle helped me design her."
Bruce felt a flare of jealousy. "Ky-"
He was hushed by a finger over his lips. "Sketches," Kristin explained soothingly. "Not direct suggestion. Come on. I'll explain."
Bruce set his lips and nodded, following as Kristin led him away from the teleporter and toward the lift to the observation deck. She did not move gracefully, although she was not ungainly. It was as if she was accustomed to her body rather than comfortable in it. Her shoulders were slightly hunched as if to hide her bosom, a habitual stance that Bruce recognized as a sign of an early bloomer whose body had raced ahead of her psychological readiness to be a woman. He knew something of the type from the various offices and labs of Wayne Enterprises: competent and often quite intelligent, but neither dangerous nor desirable and hence relatively uninteresting to him beyond their instrumental value in their jobs.
There was a moment of awkward silence in the lift, broken when Kristin asked, "So how was your day?"
"Long," he replied, aware that his monosyllable bordered on rude.
Kristin caught his hand and gave it a little squeeze, and the lift doors opened.
Kristin stepped out into the observation deck with a visible sense of relief, and Bruce followed her. He paused to take in the scene.
It was impressive, he allowed, noting the centrally placed table draped in flawless linen. It was elegantly set with wine chilling to one side. A faux candle provided the only light, steady where a flame would have flickered, low enough that the view of the star field outside was uncompromised. That view was, of course, breathtaking, and the red star that was Mars stood precisely at the apex of the sky.
The shift of a chair drew his eyes back to Kristin, and she again offered her shy smile. "Come sit," she encouraged.
Bruce obeyed, unable to get to the table quickly enough to draw Kristin's chair out for her. She had already taken her seat and spread her napkin over her lap.
A salad of late greens and vegetables was waiting for him, and as he settled into his seat, Kristin poured two glasses of white wine. "Please," she encouraged, "eat."
Well, the salad looked appetizing enough. He poured a bit of vinaigrette over the greens and picked up his sterling salad fork. Kristin's eyes followed as he brought the first bite to his lips.
He let his surprise show on his face as he bit into a bit of yellow squash and escarole. "This is excellent," he remarked, meaning it. Even the Manor rarely got vegetables so very fresh.
Kristin blushed a little and ducked her head, pouring the vinaigrette over her own salad. "John Johnstone stopped by the Kents to help with the garden," she explained, and after a moment, Bruce clicked to one of J'onn's alter-egos. "Martha insisted on sending something home with him."
Bruce nodded, savoring the salad. Kristin worked through her salad in precise bites, occasionally glancing up at Bruce's face.
He swallowed a mouthful of tomato and lettuce and studied her for a moment. "You said you would explain," he prompted.
She pushed a bit of salad on her plate, then glanced up at him. "Don't be angry."
He blinked, feeling suddenly guilty. This was still J'onn, after all, no less his beloved for appearing before him in a frumpy form. "I-"
His reply was cut off by a shake of her head. "It's okay. I just-" She met his eyes finally. "Bruce Wayne can have any woman he wants. Sometimes..." she trailed off, moving her fork through her salad again.
"Go on," Bruce urged, not certain he wanted to hear this but feeling beholden.
"You like strong, beautiful women. Exceptional women. Confident women."
He nodded slowly. True enough.
Kristin set down her fork. "Ready for soup?" she asked brightly.
Bruce frowned and reached out to catch her hand. "Kristin," he said warningly.
She twisted free of him. "I just wonder sometimes if you would give an ordinary girl a chance," she said too hastily, picking up her plate and his own and disappearing behind a Japanese screen set to one side.
Bruce stared after her, stunned.
She returned a moment later, carefully balancing two soup bowls on their plates. She set them down, and Bruce noticed her nails were unadorned. Plain. She sat again, resettling her napkin on her lap and picking up her soup spoon.
Bruce remained motionless, still watching her. "J'onn?"
Kristin did not respond, dipping her spoon into her soup and lifting it to lipstick-free lips.
Bruce took his own spoon uncertainly, spooned out some broth. Subtle spices played across his palate, and again he felt a sense of surprise. He had dined in the best restaurants in the world, and Alfred ensured that meals in the Manor were nothing short of perfection, but this... "This is wonderful," he complimented.
Kristin shrugged. "I asked Dolphin for her recipe. Some of the sea salts were hard to find, but..." she shrugged again, taking another sip of her soup.
"Well, it's delicious," Bruce stated.
Kristin didn't respond, and for a few minutes they ate in silence that for Bruce grew increasingly uncomfortable. Finally he set down his spoon and regarded the woman across from him. "What did you mean by ordinary girl?" he asked.
Another shrug. "I know you appreciate beauty. I think sometimes, though..."
"Sometimes you don't see beyond surface beauty," Kristin finished reluctantly, setting down her own spoon. "I asked Kyle to draw for me a woman hiding inner beauty."
Bruce blinked. "Hiding... are you saying I'm shallow?" He felt like that should make him angry, but instead he was only perplexed.
Kristin shook her head. "No. No, not - obviously-" She sighed. Her hands fiddled with the napkin in her lap, and she stared unseeingly into her soup bowl.
Bruce sat back in his chair, puzzling through her words. He understood inner beauty. After all, he understood Dick's attraction to Barbara, who was pretty enough in her way, but it was really her strength of personality... strength... He thought about his early reaction to Kristin, to her hesitance, her "safely conservative" clothes, the way she reminded him of other unbeautiful women...
Kristin quietly rose and took away their bowls. Bruce didn't stop her, disturbed at his line of thought. Ordinary girls. Well, J'onn was anything but ordinary, and...
A new plate was set before him, steaming tantalizingly and making his mouth water in unconscious response. The pinks and whites and reds of fresh seafood spilled over a bed of pasta, and the savory aroma of a butter sauce cut through his thoughts. "Wow," he commented, studying his plate. He took a careful bite, the al dente pasta complimenting perfectly the melt-in-the-mouth sauce. "Is this handmade pasta?"
Kristin's cheeks colored and she nodded.
Bruce paused and studied her. "You've been cooking all day, haven't you?"
More color rose in Kristin's face. "Yes," she admitted quietly.
"For me," Bruce stated.
Kristin didn't answer, began quietly to eat.
He watched her, reached across the table to still her hand. "You're right," he said.
She looked up at him with a confused expression.
"I am shallow sometimes."
She shook her head vigorously. "No. No, you're not. I ... presumed..."
He was startled when her eyes began to well with tears. "Kristin? J'onn?"
She continued to shake her head, removing her glasses and bringing her napkin to her eyes. "I'm sorry- I-"
"No," Bruce said firmly, rising and crossing to her side of the table. She raised her eyes miserably, and Bruce was surprised at the intensity of their green. He touched her cheek. "J'onn?" he asked again.
She tried gamely to smile. "It's my fault. I thought... I was thinking about... well, sometimes what a person wants isn't... I thought maybe there were things you wanted that you... that you didn't see. That were buried too deeply for me to read. I... I wanted..."
"Shh," Bruce murmured, leaning down and gently pressing his lips to hers. She stiffened for a moment, then began to respond. Her body leaned into his, her breasts pressing against his chest. It was a... soulful kiss, her heart and being poured into it. Bruce broke the contact reluctantly, staring at her with wonder. Her lips were reddened from the kiss, her skin still flushed from her earlier tears, her eyes shining...
He cupped her cheek. "Hiding your beauty," he murmured.
"I'm sorry," Kristin said again, lowering her face.
"Don't be," he answered, nudging her chin up so she met his eyes. "I had a crappy day, and I've been taking it out on you."
She shook her head. "I should've-"
"No, I should've. Should've lots of things. And right now I'm trying to understand some things, like why I've made the most beautiful being in my life cry."
"Shh. I do want to talk about this. But I also want to eat this glorious pasta you spent all day making before it gets cold. And then I want to take that dessert that I'm sure you've got hiding behind that screen and find a few cushions and stretch out on the floor and feed each other and watch Mars go across the sky."
Kristin sniffled a final time and put the napkin to her nose, nodding her assent. Bruce gave her knee a little squeeze and went back to his place. He wound some pasta on his fork. "This really is marvelous. Let me guess. Gypsy? Or maybe someone more unlikely. Eel!"
Kristin laughed a little and put her napkin back in her lap. "No, although Eel does make the world's only edible tuna casserole." She reached for her glasses.
"I don't want to know how you know that. Do you need those?" he asked, gesturing toward her glasses with his fork.
Kristin hesitated. "I suppose not. Why?"
"You have the most beautiful eyes I have ever seen," he answered sincerely. "I couldn't see them before."
Kristin blushed and set the glasses back on the table. "You flatter me."
He shook his head. "No, actually. But are you going to tell me where the pasta recipe came from?"
Kristin took a bite of her dinner and chewed thoughtfully. "You'll laugh."
"No, I won't."
She looked at him sharply. "Don't tell me you won't, because then you'll have to try to keep a straight face, and I like you better when you let yourself laugh."
Bruce started. "Really?"
Kristin nodded. "I - I always feel happier when I - you let the weight lift sometimes. I know I can't carry it for you but-"
Bruce considered her for a moment, a rush of love for her - for J'onn - warming him. "Okay. If it's funny..."
She ducked her head, and this time he found the gesture endearing. "Well, it was this old lady in Venice, Carmella. She used to take me home-"
"Take you home?" Bruce interrupted, his eyes narrowing suspiciously.
Kristin laughed. "Not like that. I was a cat." She grinned and took another bite of food.
Bruce stared for a moment. "You were... a cat."
"Yes. She called me Tomasso and she would feed me scraps as she cooked."
"A cat. She gave her recipe to a cat?"
"No, I poached it from her mind."
Bruce stared incredulously, then began to laugh. "You stole her recipe!"
"It's good!" Kristin defended, and a lightness showed in her eyes that had not been there before. "It tasted a little different when I was a cat, but-"
Bruce almost choked on the water he had brought to his lips. He sputtered for a moment as he brought his napkin to his lips. "Warn a guy!" he protested, his eyes smiling.
"I said you would laugh," she pointed out primly, and he noticed that when she smiled fully, her face was transformed. He could see her relaxing for the first time all evening, the hunch of her shoulders easing. She took a sip of wine, her eyes dancing over the rim.
"That you did," he allowed. He raised his own wine glass. "I propose a toast."
"To hidden beauty," he declared, holding his glass out.
She hesitated. "Really?"
In the glow that the uncertain pleasure brought to her face, Bruce wondered how he had ever thought her plain. "Really."
Their glasses clinked together, and they both drank, finishing their dinner in the easy camaraderie that had eluded them before. They retired, then, with a small plate of tiramisu and two dainty dessert forks, curling together on cushions Bruce pulled from a storage bin. Kristin sighed as she nestled against Bruce's shoulder, her hair fanned over his arm. She accepted a bite of the sweet, her eyes fixed on the starscape outside.
"It seems so far away," she said wistfully.
"I know," Bruce said, setting the plate to one side and running his fingers through her hair. "Some nights I wish there was a way I could bring it back for you."
Her eyes remained focused on the sky. "I am sorry about tonight."
He shook his head. "Don't be." He trailed his hand over her shoulder absently, deep in thought. "I've never made you cry before."
Kristin shrugged dismissively. "Something in the identity. It was... in character."
Bruce looked at her suspiciously, but he kept his tone light. "Figuring out the female of the species?" he asked.
"Something like that," she agreed, moving closer into the circle of his arm.
Her body was soft against his, yielding. Not quite fat, but not muscular, either. Warm. Comfortable. He felt a slow burn of desire growing in him. He dropped his head to let his lips rest against her shoulder for a moment. "I should not have been disappointed when I got here," he said, sincere and contrite.
Another shrug. "You had a bad day. You know what you want and you know I know it, so..."
"No." He brushed his lips across her temple and touched her chin with his hand, urging her to meet his eyes. "I didn't know I wanted late season vegetables or soup seasoned with rare sea salts or a pasta dish that tastes different to a cat. You know me, and knew I would like those things that I had never known before." She watched him earnestly, studying the depths of his blue eyes. "And I didn't know-"
He leaned down, claiming her lips with his own. The sweetness of the tiramisu lingered in her mouth, and her tongue yielded to his as it pressed into her mouth. He slowly backed away, and she sat for a moment with her eyes still closed and her lips still parted.
Finally she opened her eyes and ran her tongue thoughtfully over her own lips. "Did you get enough dessert?" she asked.
He gazed into her amazing eyes, then wrapped his arms around her, pulling her close as he kissed her deeply. "No," he whispered, and his fingers began to undo the buttons of her blouse.
She smiled steadily at him, a hand resting softly against the side of his neck as she pressed her body against his exploring hand. "I don't think I did either," she breathed, and as they kissed again, Bruce realized that he had what he wanted.