Eggshells

by Chicago

Disclaimers: Characters owned by DC Comics and borrowed without permission, but only for fun, and not for profit.

Continuity notes: Follows J'onnverse year 2 story, "22 Minutes," and references events in that story. Also directly references events in "Waking" from year 1. Implied references to "Only Human," "All's Fair," and "Paper Hearts" from year 1, and "The Apprentice" and "Cages" from year 2.

Rated: PG

The intercom hissed to life, and there was a hint of harriedness in the professionalism of Maggie's voice. "Mr. Wayne?"

"Go ahead, Maggie."

"Clark Kent is here at my desk. I have explained to him that he does not have an appointment and that you are otherwise engaged-"

Bruce Wayne leaned back in his chair as he listened to his secretary's words. Decision was reached before she could finish her explanation, and he snapped forward. "Entirely my fault, Maggie. I ran into Kent earlier this week and promised him an interview."

Maggie couldn't be happy, but no sign of irritation was evident in her tone. "Shall I send him in, then?" She was good. Of course, she had to be for him to hire her. He had the best secretarial team in the Fortune 500 set, and he paid to keep it that way.

"Yes, Maggie, I'll talk to him. Next time I'll remember to have him call you or Shondra to set something up." It was a small, mollifying promise, and it wouldn't prevent a certain amount of complaining over coffee, but who knew what Kent wanted? He pressed a button under his desk to kick on the sound baffles.

His office door opened, admitting the ever-affable Kent, already (still?) apologizing to Maggie for inconveniencing her and being so insistent. Damned farm boy.

Bruce gave Maggie a little acknowledging nod. "Thank you, Maggie," he dismissed, settling into apparent disinterest in his chair as she turned and closed the door behind her.

"Bruce," Clark greeted, holding out a hand as he approached Bruce's desk. "It's good to see you again."

Bruce ignored Clark's hand, focusing an expressionless gaze on Clark's face. "I assume there's a reason you're hassling my secretary?"

Clark dropped his hand, a stung look fleeting over his features. He recovered quickly. "I figured it would be easier to talk to you alone here than at the Manor. Or elsewhere."

There was a hint of emphasis on the "elsewhere" that was at least in part a question. Bruce ignored it. "Alone?"

Clark met his gaze levelly. "Yes." He took another step forward and gestured his hand toward the unoccupied chair he stood beside. "May I?"

"Are you asking me or telling me?"

Again there was that stung look. "Bruce-"

"Sit, Clark."

"Thank you." He spoke as if he had received a well-mannered invitation, and it wasn't quite farm boy politeness. Bruce let his seemingly lazy gaze sharpen its focus.

"What do you want, Kent?"

Clark felt the challenge, and a bit of the Kryptonian pride stared out from the farm boy eyes, refusing to back down. Then, abruptly, he sighed. "Bruce, don't be like this."

"You've come to my place of business with a flimsy excuse - if you had an excuse at all - and you have required me to aggravate one of my secretaries for no apparent reason. I am not the one who's out of line."

"Lois."

Bruce's affronted air developed an undertone of calculation. "Is something wrong with Lois?" It was a careful question; Clark wanted to believe he could keep his wife safe from every possible harm. If Clark was asking for help, there had already been hurt done to his pride. His intrusion could be forgivable.

But Clark was shaking his head. "She's fine. Sort of. Fine in the way she's Lois." A helpless look was in his eyes when he met Bruce's gaze again. "She told me if I didn't come talk to you, she was going to. I thought you'd rather deal with me."

Nothing in Bruce's demeanor changed, but his thoughts started spinning in new directions. "Why are you here, Kent?"

Clark broke eye contact with the billionaire and swept his eyes around the room as if looking for an answer to Bruce's question among the tastefully grand photographs framed on the walls. Finally his eyes came back to rest on Bruce. "We have to talk about what happened out on that oil derrick."

Bruce raised an eyebrow. "We do?"

"Or you have to take it up with Lois." Now there was defiance in Clark's blue eyes - or threat? Perhaps both.

"Lois wants you to talk to me about what happened on a mission."

"Lois wants me to talk to you about you and J'onn."

The affected indifference left Bruce's frame, replaced by disdain shading toward anger. He stared coldly at the reporter across from him. "I do not see," he began stiffly, "how my relationship with J'onn is any of your business."

Clark seemed to gather conviction from Bruce's reaction. "I know it's not," he replied levelly, not breaking eye contact. "At least, it's not except in that you are both my friends and I care about you."

It was a clever response, almost disarming in its unexpectedness. Bruce's cold stare suffered a split second of surprise, but it was only a split second. He covered it by sitting back in his chair, shifting to an attitude of amused tolerance. "So tell me, Kent, as a friend, what it is about me and my relationship that requires you to trek to Gotham to prevent your wife from making the trip?"

"You died, Bruce." Clark was answering bluntly, but something hollow flashed in his eyes as he spoke.

"I am alive," Bruce discounted, not releasing Clark's gaze.

"Bruce-" Exasperation, but not enough. Clark was not going to leave until he said his piece, Bruce realized.

"We've all had brushes with death. We deal with it. Is that all?"

Clark gave him an incredulous stare. "Is that all? Bruce, you drowned. I still don't know what happened that J'onn was able to bring you back, but you were gone. And I swear to you that from the way J'onn was when we got back to the Watchtower? I'm not sure he wouldn't have died with you if you hadn't come back."

The words triggered an involuntary wince, but Bruce quickly recovered himself. "He wouldn't have."

"You didn't see him, Bruce. Not the way I did."

"He wouldn't have."

"So you've talked about it?"

"J'onn would not have died."

"J'onn did die, Bruce - on Mars, remember?"

Bruce's features hardened, his eyes going dangerously flat. "Who told you that?"

If Clark was worried about revealing something he shouldn't have, he gave no sign. "J'onn did. No one else knows."

"Not even Lois?"

"No, although she knows it was bad. And it was bad, Bruce. When the two of you came back-"

"We're fine, Clark." Bruce's tone was firm, brooking no argument.

"You're not." Clark was gaining confidence, the concern he was finally voicing outweighing any trepidation about voicing it.

It was making Bruce angry. "How dare-"

"I care, Bruce. Yes, I was the one who had some of the biggest issues with the two of you being together at first; I admit that. But over the past two years-" Clark broke off and seemed to think for a second. "You and J'onn are both intensely private people. You've both been hurt before - badly. You know how to protect-"

"J'onn doesn't -" Bruce defended automatically.

"J'onn does, Bruce. He distances people as much as you do. He does it by giving so much that no one thinks to ask more, just like you do it by being a bastard."

Bruce's nostrils flared at the insult, all the more surprising from the source. "If you think I'm going to let you come into my office and suggest that J'onn-"

Sudden frustrated laughter cut him off. "You do love him. That's the hell of it, Bruce. Have you even noticed the way the two of you are on eggshells around one another?"

"We're not-" The defense was automatic and cut off just as automatically.

"You are, Bruce. How many times in the past two years have one or the other of you been badly hurt? Yes, I know it comes with the territory, but you have to talk about it, Bruce. Hell, Lois and I wouldn't have lasted nearly as long as we have if we didn't talk about all the times we've almost lost each other."

"We've talked about it, Clark."

The firm assertion sat in the air between them as Clark stopped to study Bruce's face. "Are you sure?" he finally asked.

"Yes." Bruce's expression was defiant, and he met Clark's scrutiny without flinching.

"I believe you think you have," Clark finally said. "But you also did not see J'onn's face when he thought he had sacrificed you to save the world." The reporter stood. "Talk to him, Bruce."

"There's nothing to talk about. J'onn's fine. I'm fine. You can tell Lois, that, too."

"I will. She won't believe me, but at least I've done what she asked. And for the record, I think she's right."

"Lois sticks her nose where it doesn't belong."

"Professional hazard," Clark allowed, turning toward the door. "I'll see myself out."

Bruce watched Clark's retreating back, speaking just before he reached for the doorknob. "Clark?"

Clark turned. "Yes?"

"You said you wanted to talk to me alone. Were you planning to bother J'onn with this, too? I know you didn't already, or he'd have told me."

Clark's face mirrored Bruce's calm dispassion. "You're going to forbid me to?"

"Adamantly."

They locked gazes again, raw challenge palpable in the air. "You're going to tell him about this conversation?" Clark asked.

Bruce hesitated.

"I figured," Clark said softly, turning back toward the door but not yet opening it. "I came to you because I knew you'd be angry," he stated, "but J'onn would be hurt. I won't bother J'onn with this, but you should think about why."

Before Bruce could form a response, Clark opened the door and stepped out. "Thank you so much, Mr. Wayne," he said cheerfully, clearly for the benefit of Maggie and anyone else who might be in earshot. "I'll be in touch if we decide to run any quotes." He pushed the door closed and was gone, leaving Bruce alone with his thoughts.

Bruce, for his part, swiveled in his chair to stare over the Gotham skyline spread out at his feet. His fingers reached to his wrist to fidget with his watch, and Ace tightened around his fingers at the touch. He continued to stroke the metallic form the zo'ok had assumed, lost for a long while in thought. Finally, though, he made his decision, and he let his hand drop. He was irritated at Clark, to be sure, but J'onn didn't need to be bothered about it.

end