They distrusted each other from the moment they met.
"I've been wondering when you were going to stop by." The black-clad man's voice was raspy, low, clearly disguised. Superman hovered in the air above Gotham, facing the man people called the Batman for the first time. The vigilante was crouched in the shadows. Superman caught a glint of eyes in the inky darkness. "Around the world in eight hours, rescuing puppies in Paris and moppets in Melbourne. Nice P.R. stunt."
Superman bristled despite himself. "I don't do P.R. stunts."
"Really." The response was dry, sardonic. Not a question. "Gotham doesn't need your help or your approval, alien." The last word was loaded with icy venom.
All right, then. If the man wasn't even going to try and be civil...Superman narrowed his eyes, focused his x-ray vision on the black cowl. Then he frowned.
The gravelly chuckle was as fake as the voice. "Special lead-based alloy weave. Did you think some of us weren't going to prepare in case you bothered to come back?"
"That sounds uncomfortable to wear."
Superman made his voice as cold as he could to match. "I'm not your enemy."
Batman edged out of the shadows just a bit. "I'll need some proof of that."
"I've read about your actions in the Narrows during the Night of Fear. You saved a lot of lives."
"This is my city. I won't let people hurt it...or dominate it." A pause. "Go home to Metropolis. Or Krypton. Just get out of my city."
Superman considered Batman's words. Was he engaged in some kind of turf war? Did he really see Gotham as a thing, a possession? Did he care only about the city, the bricks and glass, or did he also care about the people within it?
Superman cocked his head, focused. "There's a woman getting mugged three streets over in that direction." A jerk of the head. "Just thought you'd like to know."
Batman's lips curled in something like a snarl, but Superman barely had time to register the expression before the vigilante was running for the next roof. Interesting. A lesser man would have refused to believe Superman--or pretended to--so as not to seem beholden to him. So the people did come before this man's personal pride.
The mugger cowered as Batman fell from the rooftop and disarmed him with a swift kick. A quick snapping-on of restraints, a curt nod to the grateful, tearful woman, and he was soon back on the roof. He heard the rustle of silk behind him. He supposed it was too much to hope he could finish up his patrol in peace.
"You could have handled that yourself." He didn't bother to turn around.
"It's your city."
Now Batman did turn around, trying not to let his surprise show. At that moment, the sun slipped just above the horizon. The alien's face was bathed in rosy light. Batman blinked. A gust of wind caught their capes, red and black streaming together, almost touching. Almost.
"I...appreciate the help." The words came hard.
"But you still don't trust me." The Kryptonian's voice was mellifluous and smooth, unruffled by emotion.
Batman glared at the floating figure in its nimbus of morning light. "You appeared in Metropolis on April 16, six years ago. You started saving kittens and children and falling reporters, changing lives and doing good." He tried to give the words sardonic freighting and might have succeeded. "And then, five months later--five months!--you disappeared. Just vanished. You didn't even give humankind half a year!" He tried to sound angry rather than indignant.
"You tell me why I should trust you now, just because you've decided to come flitting back to visit your pets. The Earth isn't just some pretty bauble you can put down when it bores you and pick up again when you feel like it. Its people--they matter."
Superman shifted from foot to foot, a strangely human gesture for a man hovering sixteen stories above the ground. "I know they do."
"Well, start acting it! Show us earthbound mortals some fidelity and I'll trust you. Prove to me you see this world as something other than a playground for some capricious godling and I will trust you. But not a moment sooner." The golden morning light was annoying. It made Superman's face look sad rather than remote, which was distracting. "It's past my bedtime." He turned his back on the alien and made as dignified an exit as he could. The ability to fly must make dignified exits substantially easier, he thought irritably.
Two days later, watching Superman fall from the sky like a pale star on his television, he felt a pang which he resolutely ignored. He rewound to watch the images of the Kryptonian lifting the crystal continent on his back. Was it exertion that had nearly killed him? Or was it something else?
Chunks of the blackish continent falling about Superman's figure into the ocean. Glints of green in them. Interesting.
: : :
They disliked each other from the moment they met.
Bruce Wayne sipped from his glass of champagne, his arm around...Alyssa? Alice? Well, she was blonde. The string quartet was playing Haydn in the background while Gotham's finest milled about, chattering politely. Not many were talking to him. They still hadn't quite forgiven him his drunken tirade on the Night of Fear, when he had chased them out of Wayne Manor as sycophants and parasites. But little by little they were starting to warm up again to playboy billionaire Bruce Wayne and his feckless, winning ways.
Money might not be able to buy you love, Bruce had discovered, but it could easily buy you friendship. Or, at least, a reasonable facsimile thereof.
Speaking of which...Lex Luthor was coming toward him, a wide, sharkish smile on his face. The man was wearing tails. At five o'clock. At a business reception. Bruce tried not to roll his eyes and held out his hand, smiling amiably.
"Brucie boy!" exclaimed Luthor, shaking his hand vigorously. He chucked Alanna/Arianna under the chin. The dark-haired woman behind him rolled her eyes. Bruce grinned and she looked surprised, then smiled warily back. He'd have to look into who she was.
Luthor didn't seem to have noticed the interchange. He took a place on Bruce's unoccupied side and wrapped a friendly arm around the playboy's shoulders. This, Bruce thought irritably, was why he tried to keep a woman on each arm.
"We're going to achieve great things together, Brucie! Great things!" He spread a hand out in front of him like a marquee. "LexCorp and Wayne Industries, what a combo."
Bruce tried to edge away a little, get a little personal space without seeming overly rude. Luthor let him gain a few inches between them. It was clear who had most of the power in this partnership; LexCorp was only a few weeks old and in a much more precarious position than the established Wayne company. But it was also clear that Luthor thought "Brucie" was a dim bulb that he could manipulate if necessarily. It screamed from every bit of body language the man had.
That was how Bruce had planned it, after all. A foppy idiot is more likely to be underestimated than a ruthless businessman. There was certainly no reason to be insulted that most people found it so easy to take him for granted. And certainly no reason to feel depressed about it.
His eye candy on his arm, his business partner sizing him up like a piece of meat, surrounded by people who thought him a vapid fool, Bruce Wayne felt a stab of cold go through him. Ridiculous. He hadn't been lonely in the most remote, desolate places in the world. Why should he feel lonely here?
He was still feeling off-balance when he heard someone to the side of him clear his throat hesitantly. He and Luthor both turned to see a man standing nearby with a press badge and a notebook. He ducked his head nervously, thick black bangs falling over the rims of heavy glasses. "Mr. Luthor, Mr. Wayne...may I interrupt for a moment?"
Luthor grinned at the new arrival. "That's why we're here, m'boy! Meet and greet, press the flesh, answer questions!" He held out his hand to the newcomer, who shook it.
"Right. Press the...press the flesh," said the reporter. "Clark Kent, Daily Planet." Bruce shook his hand in turn and was annoyed to find himself out-limped in the handshake department. He usually tried to keep his handshake just a touch weaker than the person he was shaking hands with. He relaxed his hand a bit...and the reporter's grip also went just a little more gentle. There was an awkward pause and the handshake went on rather longer than it should while Bruce struggled to extricate himself gracefully.
"Daily Planet? Aren't you a little off your turf?" Bruce noticed the reporter was surreptitiously wiping his hand on his pants leg.
"I'm here to cover the incorporation of LexCorp and whatever deal Luthor is announcing here tonight with your company. As LexCorp is a Metropolis-based company run by a known felon--" Kent's voice remained mild, "--the press has a responsibility to keep an eye on its activities."
Luthor's grin grew barbs. "The verdict against me was vacated, Mister--?"
"Kent. Clark Kent."
"Right. Kent. I'll remember from now on." Luthor gave the reporter a long, appraising look. "Anyway, I'm a reformed man, Mr. Kent. I only want to give back to the great city of Metropolis some of what it deserves. In partnership with Wayne Enterprises, of course," he added hastily.
The reporter blinked owlishly behind his smudgy glasses. He abruptly turned his attention to Bruce as though Luthor was beneath his notice. "Mr. Wayne, you're going to announce a joint project with LexCorp tonight. May I ask what it is?"
Bruce mustered his most charming smile. "Well now, Mr. Kent, wouldn't that spoil the surprise?"
Not a glimmer of an answering smile crossed the reporter's face. "I don't like surprises."
At this point, Bruce didn't bother to hide his annoyance. "People without a sense of humor rarely do."
Kent ducked his head a bit. It wasn't a concession. "Ah yes, the Wayne sense of humor. Like burning your parents' house to the ground."
"I think you're rather out of line, Mr. Kent." Bruce smiled and kept his voice low, but put every bit of fury he felt into it. Playboy Brucie would be angry at this tactless ass, so it was all right if Bruce was too. "If you want to get your story and not be escorted out by security, I would suggest you shut your mouth."
Clark Kent shut his mouth.
"And an apology would be nice."
Kent's blue eyes blazed behind his glasses and he whirled and walked away.
"Nice job, Brucie!" Luthor clapped him just a little too hard on the back. "You really put him in his place." Amanda...Ariel?...giggled appreciatively at Bruce Wayne's bon mots.
Bruce finished off his champagne a little faster than he should have.
Clark Kent scowled into his glass of orange juice, watching Bruce Wayne pal around with Lex Luthor. From his research, it seemed unlikely Wayne was bright enough to even know how dangerous Luthor was. Wayne had the classic good looks of East Coast blue blood--sharp, refined features, dark wavy hair, and a charming smile--but he had squandered the advantages of his birth, spending years as a wastrel in Europe and Asia. Just a few months ago he had waltzed back into Gotham and quickly become its most eligible bachelor and toast of the town, despite his careless ways and general fecklessness.
Bruce Wayne was the kind of man who was going to spend his life skating by on his good looks and his parents' inheritance, not caring how many people got hurt on the way. He was just the kind of man Clark Kent had dedicated his life to counteracting.
Wayne and Luthor walked to the podium together. Luthor waved his arms to get people to stop talking and pay attention. After watching him gesticulate for a minute, Wayne held his hand up and silence immediately fell across the room. Luthor shot the playboy an annoyed look. Wayne smiled blandly back and handed him the floor with a gesture.
"Ladies and gentlemen of Gotham," announced Luthor, "I'm pleased and proud to be in your fair city this evening, to announce the start of a joint venture between LexCorp and Wayne Enterprises." A slide appeared on the white wall behind the two businessmen. It showed what seemed to be an offshore rig.
Bruce Wayne cleared his throat. "Recent events in Metropolis have left humanity with a great opportunity." More slides showing what appeared to be a launching pad for ocean exploration. "The artificial continent that was threatening the Eastern seaboard is gone, but fragments of it remain below the ocean." A slide showing a small submarine picking up rocks from the bottom of the ocean. The rocks were dark green. "Considering the awesome potential power of these minerals, it is essential to scientific progress that we retrieve as much of the debris as possible and analyze it for possible uses."
Luthor elbowed Wayne out of the way to seize the floor again. "The rocks from this continent could be used for space exploration, or for weapons manufacturing--"
"--or, perhaps, to help cure diseases or create sources of alternative fuel," cut in his dark-haired partner smoothly. "Certainly we can't afford to let such an opportunity go unexplored." The slide show came to an end on the image of a scientist holding up a glowing green test tube with a smile. "Are there any questions?"
Clark held up a hand. Wayne's icy blue eyes passed over him without acknowledgement. "Yes, Ms. Vale?"
A blonde reporter smiled winsomely at the playboy, who raised his eyebrows appreciatively. "Mr. Wayne, considering these rocks seemed to have an adverse affect on Superman, how do you justify trying to retrieve them?" The crowd murmured.
"Why, Vicky, that's an excellent question." Wayne seemed completely unflustered. "Personally, I doubt that the actual crystals in the continent were what harmed the Metropolis hero. Surely the Herculean efforth would have been more than enough. But even if it were something in the minerals themselves, would it not be better if those minerals fell into the hands of his friends, rather than his enemies?" Next to the playboy, Lex Luthor's smile went sharp and feral for a moment.
The statement seemed to mollify the crowd somewhat. There were a few of other questions, and the press conference broke up with polite applause.
Clark looked at the smiling scientist on the slide, with his gleaming green vial, and did not join in. He wandered out to the balcony, hearing Bruce Wayne and Lex Luthor's companionable laughter behind him. He looked up at the stars he could see through Gotham's lights, glittering and perfect and distant. He had spent a lot of time with those stars lately. Maybe he knew them better than he knew humanity now.
Bruce Wayne tried not to shake Luthor's oily hand off his shoulder. He was surrounded by false friends, snares and deceptions. For a moment he felt a wave of self-disgust and dread pass over him. His life from now on would be nothing but a hollow sham, with nothing to turn to but his mission. He had chosen that path, chosen it freely. He had no right now to feel so lost.
Clark Kent looking at the stars, unwavering and cold in the distance. Bruce Wayne surrounded by faces that have never known want or loss. Both are thinking to themselves: No one in this room, in this city, in this world, is as alone as I am right now.