For the first time in a long time, Clark awoke with a migraine. The headache throbbed viciously behind his eyes, augmented by a queasy feeling in his stomach and a vile taste in his mouth, as though he had spent hours licking a brick composed of sour milk and asphalt.
Getting out of bed felt like wading through tar. Thinking was swimming through sludge. Brushing his teeth made him feel slightly more human, figuratively speaking; but, the man in the mirror had more in common with Bizarro than Superman.
“Been on a bender?” Lois asked when he stepped gingerly out of the Planet elevator wearing sunglasses and a grimace.
Clark pressed a clammy hand to his forehead. “Met an…old friend.”
“Might I suggest hair of the dog.”
“No thanks, Lois.” Clark sagged into his chair and dropped his face onto the blissfully cool desk. “I have vowed never to drink again.”
Perry’s voice boomed gratingly over the bullpen. Clark flinched and raised a trembling hand. “Coming, Chief."
Lois slipped him a chilled can of beer from the break room and Clark immediately pressed it to his forehead. “Good luck, Smallville.”
“Kent!” Perry barked as Clark staggered into his office. His voice was many decibels higher than Clark’s aching ears could handle. “You look like death warmed over!”
“Late night, Chief,” Clark muttered, now holding the cold can to his neck and uttering a pornographic moan.
Perry White’s tone was thick with mocking amusement. “I’m sorry, Mr. Wayne; I wanted you to meet one of our best reporters, but it seems the pod people have replaced him with me from thirty years ago.”
Only then did Clark realize there was someone else sitting in Perry’s office.
Perry rolled his eyes as the CEO of Wayne Enterprises stood, buttoned his excellently tailored suit jacket over an equally well-cut vest, and extended a manicured hand. “Bruce Wayne.”
Oh, boy, Cat Grant had not been lying. Wayne really was ridiculously handsome. “Clark Kent.” They shook while Clark tried to dispose of his incriminating beer can as discreetly as possible in Perry’s waste basket. Uncooperatively, it landed there with a resounding thunk. “Sorry for the late arrival. I ran into an old, um, friend. Things got a little out of hand.”
Wayne grinned boyishly while Clark’s stomach flip-flopped. “Have a few ‘friends’ like that myself. Women, mostly; but, not exclusively.”
Perry lit one of his noxious cigars and addressed Wayne while fixing Clark with a warning glare. “Kent will be the one interviewing you this afternoon.”
“I thought Lois wanted to cover the Planet’s buyout,” Clark blurted. Lois would murder him with salad tongs if he ever stole a story from her.
“Lane is busy typing up the Justice League report,” Perry replied. When both Clark and Wayne stared blankly, he elaborated. “Last Friday, Brainiac destroyed a power plant where someone had subterraneously stockpiled several tons of Kryptonite.” Three guesses who, Clark thought bitterly, remembering the tell-tale LexCorp stamp on the bright emerald bars. “All the meteor rocks vaporized in the explosion and, according to eyewitnesses, Superman got a face-full of glowing, green powdery stuff. He hasn't been seen since.” With a particularly scathing glance at Clark, Perry added, “Honestly, Kent, how did you miss this? You work for us.”
Perry exhaled and a cloud of noxious cigar smoke hit Clark in the face like a slap. “Take Mr. Wayne out to lunch. Pretend you’re a professional for the next eight hours and I’ll let you go home early.”
“Eight hours is a full work day, Chief.”
Perry’s smile was all teeth. “This is the Planet, Kent. A full work day is when you come home to find your fish died two weeks ago.”
A few minutes later, after splashing water on his face in the men’s room and letting Cat Grant fix his tie, Clark stood in the bull pen by his desk with a white knuckled grip on the back of his chair. The wave of nausea—staved off by a combination of Dr. Thompson’s pills and Clark’s meticulous hydration—had crashed over him once again, leaving a taste of bile so thick in his mouth he could barely breathe.
Thankfully, like adrenaline, professional pride took over basic motor function. Against his own expectations, Clark stood up straight, smoothed out the front of his cheap suit, and turned to his new assignment with a smile—albeit a shaky one.
“Let's do this at the diner.”
Clark tried to find the address in his scrambled brain. “Bibbo’s. Corner of Fifth and Row. Kind of a hole in the wall, but they make good coffee.”
“I’ll tell Alfred to bring the car around.”
When they exited, Wayne's chauffeur was waiting for them in front of the Planet's offices next to a sleek, black limousine with tinted, curtained windows. Clark slid inside and immediately closed the tiny drapes while Wayne fetched him a chilled bottle of water from the minibar.
Clark immediately pressed it to his throat with a moan before realizing that Wayne was still watching him.
“Thanks.” The frigid bottle felt exquisite on his neck.
With a nod to Alfred, Wayne settled into his seat. They drove off.
Clark took a quick sip of water. “Sorry.” He cleared his throat self-consciously. “I didn’t realize I had drunk quite that much last night.”
“Sometimes it’s not how much but what you drink that makes the difference.”
“Lots of experience on that front?”
Bruce Wayne’s side-eye was sharp. “Is this part of the interview?”
Clark shook his head and flinched at the abrupt pain that shot up his neck. “I would never infringe on Cat’s—Miss Grant’s—territory,” he said seriously.
Wayne quirked a smile as he adjusted his cuffs. “I may have attended a few parties over the years,” he offered modestly.
Clark snorted. “I’ve always been a straight-laced kid. Well,” he amended with a sheepish expression, gesturing at his aching forehead, “mostly.” Interviews like this always went better if the information exchange didn’t seem one-sided. “Bit of a rebel in high school, but that was by Kansas standards.”
“Tipped over some cows? Played chicken with tractors?”
“You’ve watched too much ‘Footloose’,” Clark said, rolling his eyes. “I joined sports teams against my dad’s wishes: first Little League, then football.”
“Why was your father…?”
“He thought I’d get hurt.” Jonathan Kent had feared his son would lose control of his powers, reveal that he was not human, and spend the rest of his days strung up in a government lab until someone decided to stick his organs in jars of formaldehyde. “He had a bad knee from playing high school football. What about you?”
Wayne paused. “Lacrosse. Rugby, when I switched to a boarding school in Britain. Also fencing and horseback riding. I’m not bad at polo.”
Clark stared. “Mr. Wayne?”
“…I’m starting to think you grew up rich.”
That earned him a surprised laugh.
Smoothly, Alfred slid the limo to a stop outside Bibbo’s and Clark stepped out into the too-bright, mid-afternoon sunshine. Hunched over, he led Bruce inside to request a booth far away from the sun-drenched tables by the windows. While Wayne studied the lunch options, Clark ordered their coffee and pulled out notepad and pen.
Wayne glanced up. “Hungry?”
“I don’t think I could keep anything down. But if you—"
A head shake. Wayne neatly stacked their menus off to the side.
“So,” Clark began, “why did you buy The Daily Planet?”
“I like it.”
A slight tilt of the head. “It’s having a hard time, like any paper in the internet age, and might need some reform—perhaps pick up more of an online presence—but I don’t want it to turn it into a tabloid rag either. I figured I'd save it.”
“Save it? How?"
“By doing absolutely nothing.”
Clark considered his new boss. “You don’t intend to start dictating the tone? Or the content?”
“Of course not!” Wayne’s grin was all glitz and charm. “What do I know about journalism? I would rather keep things as they are since, for the most part, that seems to be working.”
“Even if Cat Grant continues to post salacious articles about the, uh, ‘Prince of Gotham’—?”
“I’m not a fan of gossip columns, but I’ve been told it’s one of the big draws for readership.” Wayne studied his coffee. “Sometimes, you have to do things the ugly way to get them done at all. I’m not going to infringe on Ms. Grant’s… reporting, as long as it benefits the rest of the paper.”
Clark looked at him in surprise. “That’s very mature of you, Mr. Wayne.”
Wayne winked. “I'm not always just a pretty face; though, I admit, Perry gave me a crash course on newspaper economics this morning while we waited for you. You’re making money off of the sports and society sections. The only time that changes is when there’s a front page article on Superman.”
“He has his uses, sure,” Clark said modestly.
Wayne stared. “You don’t like him.”
Clark backtracked. “No! No, that’s not what I meant. I mean, he’s fine!”
“He does alright,” Clark offered weakly. “I’m sorry. This is supposed to be your interview.” He studied his notes. “…‘a pretty face’… You’re not adjusting the circulation?”
“The work force?”
“It’s dominated mostly by Wayne Enterprises anyway, so there won’t be much of a change.”
Clark latched onto that. “‘Much of a change’?”
Wayne’s expression turned cold. “LexCorp and its constituents will have to turn to other print media for ad space.”
Over a sip of coffee, Clark considered pursuing that line of inquiry; but, after another quick glance at Wayne’s hostile expression, he decided to take the easy route—for now.
“Are you thinking of buying other newspapers? Magazines? Journals?”
“I won’t know until another opportunity presents itself. This was a very spur of the moment decision, you understand, driven more by sentiment than longterm financial gain.”
Clark raised his eyebrows. “A newspaper is a very expensive impulse buy, Mr. Wayne."
“Don’t worry about me, Mr. Kent.” Bruce dimpled, leaning over the table. "I grew up rich.”
There was a dangerous thump somewhere near his throbbing skull and it took Clark a moment to realize it was his pulse hammering through his skin. His pen hovered over the notebook, eyes boring into Wayne’s.
“You aren’t in it for financial gain,” he mused aloud. Wayne’s irises looked Jolly Rancher blue this close. Clark could count every single long, dark eyelash. “Nor is this a reputation boost or a power grab. What is your angle?”
Wayne leaned back against his seat.
“I want some vestige of my childhood to survive.” For a moment, Clark thought he saw the cool exterior fade. Wayne looked away, voice deepening. “When I was a child, my Father told me, ‘If you really want to know if something is true, you’ll need more than one source.' He and my mother subscribed to a number of periodicals and journals, everything from The Gotham Gazette to National Geographic. They would read articles to me until I was old enough to read myself. I remember quite a few mornings spent with them, breakfast growing cold, too busy checking stocks on Bloomberg and perusing the Planet to bother with something as mundane as eating.” He glanced at Clark, eyes oddly bright. “ I know when I open the Planet that I’m going to get the cold, hard truth, plain and simple, but eloquently told. And I’d like to keep it that way. I want honest things—truly, selflessly, deeply honest things—to exist for as long as they can.”
Clark fiddled with his pen. "If you really mean that, Mr. Wayne, it would make you a very rare beast.”
"A good man."
Wayne laughed. "When you have the means, it's easy."
With a tight grimace, Clark returned to his notebook and muttered, “Not in my experience.”
Now Wayne really was looking at him curiously. Clark could feel the color rising in his face.
“Do you have any message for your new employees at the Planet?” he asked hurriedly.
Wayne didn’t hesitate. “Three raw eggs and a Virgin Mary.”
Clark stared at him.
“It’s an old hangover remedy.”
“It’s disgusting,” Clark countered, forgetting himself in the face of such terrible advice. “Tomato juice and raw eggs? Are you trying to give me salmonella? What is wrong with you?” With finality, he drained his mug.
“I’d write you a list,” Wayne replied delicately, “but Wayne Enterprises is trying to save the rainforests.”
Clark almost snorted coffee out his nose.
“Can I offer you a ride back to the office?” Wayne asked an hour later after Clark had capped his pen. “Spare your hangover?”
Clark, sticking his notebook back in his pocket, glanced nervously towards the entrance. Glaring sunlight still poured through the diner windows. “Yes, please. Thank you, Mr. Wayne.”
“Just Bruce. Please.”
“Call me Clark, then.”
After they had ducked into the dim limo interior and Bruce had pulled the curtains across the tinted windows, Clark removed his sunglasses to press another cold water bottle to the bridge of his nose. The pleased noise he made was utterly unfit for polite company.
“Would you like to go out for lunch tomorrow?” Bruce asked abruptly. His voice sounded slightly strangled. With a more seductive lilt he added, “I could swing by your office and kidnap you around noon.”
The current image of Bruce Wayne—cobalt-eyed, chiseled-jawed, broad-shouldered, devastating—overlapped briefly with “Mark of Zorro” reruns Clark had seen as a child. His heart gave an interested thunk.
“I would like that.”
Clark was so distracted by Bruce’s dimpled smile that he forgot his shades in the back seat of the limo. It wasn’t until he sat down at his desk with his regular glasses on his nose that he realized his head didn’t ache anymore.
Clark was just finishing up his appointment with Dr. Leslie Thompkins when the comm call came in from the Watchtower.
“Joker rigged a blimp. It’s flying in over Gotham,” the Flash said. “Batman caught him and Harley, but Oracle thinks he might need someone who can fly and—”
“Everyone else is out.”
Clark pulled off his glasses and started on his tie, one handed. “That’s easy for you to say. You’re not about to enter his territory.”
“Clark.” Leslie was watching him, arms folded resolutely over her white lab coat. “You only started flying again this afternoon. Your super speed is off and your strength is severely compromised.”
Superman swung himself up onto the windowsill. “I swear, right after this, I'll take the night off.”
“If something happens to you now, you’re not invulnerable! The Kryptonite still isn’t out of your system!”
“Sorry, Doc. Duty calls." With a grin, Clark launched himself into the sky and flew (rather sluggishly, if he felt like admitting it, which he didn’t) over Metropolis’s skyline. “Flash, I’m going to need a Zeta-Beam to Gotham.”
Minutes later, after appearing in an alley behind Wayne Tower, Superman managed to push a burning blimp away from an apartment complex and divert its fiery decent away from the heart of the Gotham. As Clark considered his options, Batman dropped inside the airship's cab—here Clark switched to his X-ray vision—to diffuse the bomb strapped to its controls. That simplified things; all Superman would have to do was fly the whole flaming mess away from civilization, let Batman swing clear, and watch what was left of the airship drop into the bay. He shouldered the cab—searing hot against his Kryptonite-saturated skin—and slowly pushed his cargo out to sea.
God, the thing was heavy. Obviously—it was the size of a small building—but it was heavy for him. And could hear the skin on his shoulder sizzling.
“Are we there yet?” Batman growled over comms. He sounded extra charming tonight.
“Give us a minute, all right?” They were almost over the docks. “Is the bomb off?”
“It goes in thirty.”
“Son of a—”
Clark threw in a burst of reserve strength, the bit he had been saving for returning to shore in one piece, and flung himself into the fiery death trap.
Batman was elbow deep in wires and bomb guts, seemingly oblivious to the surrounding inferno. Without pretext, Clark slung him over his shoulder like a bale of hay and flung them both out into the open air.
With a final heave, he pushed the blimp out over open water.
"Flash! Containment field! Now!"
A flickering beam of wide, pale, multi-colored laser shot down from the Watchtower, engulfing the airship in a hollow pillar of impenetrable plasma. When the bomb exploded, it shot a column of fire up and down the inside of the barrier, destroying only a mercifully unoccupied boardwalk below. After the flames choked themselves out and the containment field retracted, Clark sank back to Earth to set Batman down on the beach.
“Are you okay?”
“Fine.” Batman didn’t sound fine. “Throw me around like a rag doll again, and I’ll shove Kryptonite down your throat.”
Clark felt a muscle going in his cheek. “I’ll remember that the next time you feel like dying bloody in a boobytrapped blimp.”
Batman stepped into his space. “It’s not what you did. It’s how you did it.”
“There wasn’t exactly time to explain—”
“Why do you think I gave you thirty seconds?”
“Thirty seconds is nothing without super speed!”
Batman shot a grapple hook into the nearest building and launched himself back into his city. Clark watched him, feeling like he had swallowed a meteor rock and it had just landed in the pit of his squirming stomach.