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Simulation Hypothesis

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Alfred placed the dinner plate into the microwave and hit the 'start' button, watching the carefully prepared meal rotate slowly. This was the fourth time this week that Bruce had skipped his evening meal. He was spending every free moment down in the cave, only leaving in the early hours of the morning under Alfred's stern glare. The man had also been exceptionally moody lately, even for his standards. Alfred tutted to himself, standing alone in the vast Manor kitchen, as the microwave dinged loudly. Something was definitely bothering his charge.

He delivered the reheated oyster-glazed spatchcock with julienne vegetables to the western library, where a sullen Bruce was sitting in a bathrobe, staring out into the pre-dawn murk. He merely grunted when Alfred set the side-table beside him for dinner, and didn't even react to the butler's look of disapproval. Breaking propriety, Alfred took the chair opposite Bruce, sitting down with an exaggerated sigh. It was only then that Bruce actually looked at him.

"Something bothering you?" Bruce asked, reaching over the arm of the chair to absently push the peas around with his fork.

"Oh no, sir, I've always believed that microwaving improves the texture of certain vegetables," Alfred replied snidely.

Bruce gave him an impassive look and slowly placed his fork down. "What's wrong, Alfred?"

"I'm concerned about your recent fixations. I believe they're doing you harm."

Bruce immediately shook his head. "No, I'm just-"

"I know what you're 'just' doing, sir. And I think there are alternative ways-"

Bruce stood up abruptly, wiping his mouth with a napkin. "Thank you for your concern, I'll take it under advisement." With that, Bruce strode from the room, and Alfred heard the subtle click of the concealed cave entrance being opened.

Alfred shook his head sadly, staring at the barely touched meal slowly cooling on the table for the second time that evening. Clearly, he required backup, and Alfred knew just who to call.

----

Batman and Superman were traveling to Denevra when, suddenly, the Javelin was hit by some sort of energy beam. The next thing Batman knew, he was lying on the floor, several feet away from the control post where he'd originally been sitting.

"What just happened?" he asked, pulling himself back to his feet.

"Your guess is as good as mine," Superman told him, shaking his head sharply as a means to recover his senses.

"Are you all right?" Batman inquired as he walked back to the front of the ship. Superman kept shaking his head - things were definitely not all right...

"I can't--" Looking up, a confused expression on his face, Superman finally explained, "I can't hear. Super hear. Or...or see. My vision is just normal now." He punched the console in front of him, wincing in pain as his fist hit the hard metal. "I've lost my powers," he announced, looking lost and confused.

There was an almost immediate expression of surprise from Batman before he said, "And I seem to have somehow inherited them." His voice was oddly neutral in the face of such a discovery. "You don't have any broken bones," he told Superman, as a means to prove his statement. "But I really could have lived the rest of my life without having seen the inside of your stomach..."

For a long moment, Superman stared at his hand as though he was seeing it for the very first time. His knuckles were reddened and throbbing with pain. "What do we do now?" he asked, sounding defeated.

"We figure out how it happened and we fix it." There wasn't even a trace of worry in Batman's voice, only his usual assurance and determination.

"I don't think there's time," Superman said in a sigh, and he gestured to the viewscreen where the image of a green planet was coming into view. "We'll be there in less than two hours. They've likely picked up our signal on their radars already."

"All right, well, then we..." For a moment, Batman stood still, deep in thought. "We exchange costumes," he said all of a sudden. "I'll be Superman, you'll be Batman. We take care of the mission, and figure this out on the way back, a couple of days from now."

Superman stared at him, eyes wide. "Are you out of your mind? That'll never work!"

"Why not? They expect to see Superman and Batman, but they've never met either of us," Batman explained. "Superman without any powers would look suspicious, considering they're counting on you to help rebuild their city. But, since your powers now reside in me, if I show up there wearing your costume, why wouldn't they believe that I am Superman. Besides, we look enough alike that we should be able to pull it off. Black hair, blue eyes, about the same height and the same build. How are they going to know?"

"I really don't like this plan, B. We should call for backup instead," Superman suggested.

"What? And wait around for three days while it gets here?" Batman retorted, shaking his head. "What are we supposed to tell them in the meantime? Sorry, we've arrived, but we can't help right now?"

"No, I guess not," Superman sighed. "But...I don't know how to be you!"

"It doesn't matter, Clark," Batman insisted, "They barely know a thing about me. Just try and be a little stern, speak in a lower tone, and you'll be just fine."

"But-- and... What about you?"

"I'll figure it out," Batman assured him.

"Bruce! Super hearing, you have no idea what that's like!" Superman protested. "There isn't much to hear now because we're in the dead of space, but believe me, when we get closer... you'll feel like your brain is being assaulted. When the power first manifested itself, when I was younger, I nearly went mad. Just learning to filter out--"

"Clark, don't worry, I can handle it," Batman said, adamant. "I've been trained to filter out pain. Excruciating pain. Trust me, I can figure this out. Flying on the other hand..." He shrugged. "I've got two hours to learn."

"This isn't a good idea..."

"Do you have a better one, then?" When Superman just shook his head, Batman went on, "Then give me your suit."

"Are you sure that armor of yours is even going to fit me?" Superman asked, dubious. "I'm taller than you are. Probably a bit bigger."

"It'll fit you well enough to fool them," Batman replied, frustration starting to seep into his voice. "Come on, strip..."

Somewhat reluctantly, Superman nodded and began to shed his costume, turning around in an unusually self-conscious gesture. Batman remained a few feet behind, licking his lips absently as he watched Superman strip, unable to look away from the strong muscles rippling under every inch of newly exposed skin.

"Shouldn't you be getting out of yours?" Superman asked, pulling Batman out of his thoughts. He handed him the blue spandex suit and the red cape.

"I, uh..." Batman swallowed, all of a sudden very nervous. "I can't," he finally admitted. "I can't control your strength yet, I'll break all the snaps." He lifted up a crushed piece of equipment that he'd tried to pull out of his utility belt. "You'll have to help me."

Superman sighed. "Couldn't you have told me that before I stripped right down to my underwear?" With a shrug he walked up to Batman. "Where are the snaps, anyway?" he asked.

"Here, under the cape" Batman said, pointing to his shoulders, "then here -" he pointed to his sides "- and, uh... -" he gestured vaguely toward his inner thighs "- down there," he said, his voice uncharacteristically hoarse. "You need to remove the cape first, and the cowl, and then--"

"--I'll figure it out, Bruce," Superman said, already starting to unfasten the cape. Then, annoyed at Batman's fidgeting, added, "Would you stand still!"

It wasn't long before the cape, the cowl and the belt were off, and Clark started undoing the snaps and removing the armor.

Every time Clark's fingers brushed against his skin, Bruce's heart raced ever faster and it was all he could do to keep from showing signs of arousal. He'd never in his life been so glad that Superman had been stripped of his powers and was therefore unable to see or hear the telltale signs. As it was, Clark seemed oblivious to Bruce's reactions, though Clark did seem increasingly flustered as he worked the last snaps on the armor's legs. By the time Bruce could finally step out of the armor, they both appeared more uncomfortable than either of them would admit to...

"You're on your own with the suit," Clark said, his voice uneven as he started picking up Batman's armor from the floor. "You can't possibly destroy that anyway. Thankfully."

Batman's only reply came in the form of a grunt as he reached for the suit before starting to pull it on.

It wasn't very long before both transformations were complete. Standing there, staring at one another, it was almost like looking at themselves in a strangely distorting mirror.

"I still don't like it," Clark said, in a tone that was meant to pass as Batman's voice: low and hoarse.

Bruce's lips curled upward in a small smile. "But it works," he said. "You're very convincing."

"Right," Clark snorted. "And you sound almost genuinely supportive enough to be me. Now, let's see if we can get you to control my powers..."

----

Bruce looked down from where he was standing on the ledge of a building, taking a short break from the construction duty he'd been on all morning. This structure was almost completely rebuilt now, and there were fewer and fewer left to repair and solidify. He fully expected to be done in a few hours - the smaller repairs could be left to the townspeople, they only needed him for the jobs that absolutely required super construction abilities.

He waved to Clark who happened to be walking nearby with a few of the city's officials. While Bruce was thankful not to have to deal with the diplomats, he was also starting to tire of the tasks he'd been stuck with instead. Although having so much power was a little bit intoxicating - he could do so much more now than he'd even been able to before - force was to admit that lifting heavy objects and flying them up several stories in the air at super speed was really no fun at all compared to solving mysteries and catching criminals; using his brain instead of his muscles. He'd be more than happy to leave this place and find a way to revert back to his normal self again. After nearly two days of having to pretend he was Superman, Bruce was starting to ache to be Batman again. He also wouldn't mind going back home again, and this time, he wouldn't even complain about the three day trip through space, stuck in a small ship alone with Clark.

When he looked down again, he saw that Clark was being ushered away. Forcefully ushered away, as a matter of fact. Something was obviously wrong down there. Immediately, Bruce flew down toward the ground, but as he got closer, he started getting this odd nauseating feeling that grew progressively stronger. As he touched ground, in front of the group that was attempting to whisk Batman away, Bruce was suddenly overcome with an intense feeling of dizziness. So bad, in fact, that he could barely stand up, and when he tried to pull a punch and fight, he staggered to the side and fell flat on the ground. The last thing he felt before blacking out completely was a sharp stab in his side which brought intense waves of pain throughout his entire body.

"Computer, stop simulation," Batman ordered angrily, pushing his chair back from the computer console.

He rubbed at his ribcage, feeling a ghost of the pain that his simulated self had felt when he'd been stabbed. This wasn't right, it shouldn't have happened this way...

"Computer," he said aloud, "Reset simulation parameters and begin again, time index 091215"

The computer acknowledged the command, small lights blinking on the display. As he was getting ready to immerse himself into the virtual scenario once more, the communications device in Batman's ear chirped and a voice immediately followed. "Hey, B.," said Oracle in a cheerful tone, "Got something for you..."

"Not now!" he spat angrily. "Can't you tell I'm busy?"

"You're always busy," Oracle replied, a touch of confusion in her computer-altered voice. "And yet normally you get annoyed when something's up and we don't disturb you..."

In a frustrated sigh, Batman asked, "What is it, then? Or are you disturbing me simply to discuss my moods?"

"There's a robbery in progress," she explained, in a flat, all business tone. "Looks like a group of Penguin's bird-brain associates. I just thought you might want to know."

"Have Robin check it out," Batman told her after a short moment's reflection. "Contact me again if the situation gets bad enough that he needs assistance. Batman out."

"Wait... B.?" Oracle asked, somewhat surprised. "Are you okay?"

"Yes," he answered pointedly. "Just get Robin to check this one out, will you? Or is that too much to ask?"

"Whatever you say, boss." The communication cut almost immediately.

"Computer, resume simulation," Batman all but spat at the simulator.

A moment later, Bruce found himself on the ledge of the same building he'd been, just a few moments before he'd seen Clark be taken away. This time, he told himself, he would get it right. He waved down at Clark, who waved back, just as he'd done the previous time.

Bruce patiently waited until he saw three tall men walk up to his friend down at street level, and then he started his descent toward them, carefully hovering down, as though he was completely oblivious to the impending threat. He landed on the street just as two of them grabbed Clark, who almost immediately went limp in their hold. Wasting no time at all, Bruce stepped forward and pulled a first punch, hitting the man on Clark's left squarely in the chest.

And then all of a sudden, just as unexpectedly as before, Bruce felt nauseous again. The wave of dizziness was even worse this time than the last and Bruce was on his knees before he could even think to look for the person who had Kryptonite in their possession. Frustrated, he let himself fall to the ground and black out, knowing he would need to run this scenario again if he ever intended to get it right. Obviously, Oracle's interruption hadn't helped his concentration one bit.

As if on cue, Batman's communicator chirped again. He tapped it lightly, answering with nothing but a frustrated sigh.

"B., Robin needs assistance," Oracle said urgently.

Batman cursed under his breath. He should have handed the situation right away, he knew. Letting Robin take care of this on his own was a poor judgment call. Immediately, Batman hopped inside the Batmobile and sped out of the cave. The simulation could wait. It would still be right there waiting for him when he got back from patrol.

----

"Are you sure we need to be doing this?" Superman asked nervously, feeling conspicuous in his bright uniform in the darkness of the Cave.

"Absolutely. B's been really cryptic lately and spending way too much time holed up in the Cave. Even Alfred called me last night, he's so worried about him." Oracle's voice was slightly tinny in the receiver in Clark's ear.

"I don't see anything different here," Clark mused, scanning the vast shadows.

"Alfred said it was something to do with his computer? Some kind of new AI server he's been using to run immersion simulations."

"What, you mean... games? Batman's playing computer games?"

"Not quite," Oracle laughed, "more like combat scenarios, I think. I've tried to get in to take a look myself, but B's isolated these programs on a different hard drive, with a more advanced set of firewalls and security. It'll take me some time to crack into it."

"So what do you want me to do? Bring you the computer?"

"No, no, that's way too obvious. I want you to try these things out."

"... What?"

"Just run a few scenarios, see what they're like and why they're eating into Bruce so much. You should have seen the readings on his vitals just before he left the cave, his stress levels were almost off the scale. Something's really gotten to him. Please, Clark, it's the only way I can think of until I finally hack into these systems."

"What would I have to do?" Clark asked warily.

"I have no idea. I guess, fire one up and see what happens."

Clark frowned, but there was no one else in the Cave with him, so it didn't quite have the effect he wanted. With a resigned hum he walked up to the huge screen that filled the computer bay and tapped at a key gingerly. The screen sprung to life, with a list of code and cryptic titles scrolling down the side. "I really don't think I'm the right person to do this..." Clark mused.

"Nonsense, you'll be fine! Besides, I couldn't contact anyone else. There's only you, S."

Clark eyed the list of scenarios warily. "All right then, I'm gonna try... WF#862 Chachapoyan? Okay, what do I do?"

"You should be able to select the program from the list and then execute it."

Clark tapped at a few more keys, then nodded. "Okay, I think it's ready to go. I'll keep you updated with what happens."

"Excellent. Good luck!" Oracle called cheerfully, as Clark hit 'enter'. For a moment nothing at all happened, then the world around him faded away to black and Clark was left with the disturbing feeling that he was floating through space. Then colours, light and sound snapped into place around him.

The cold voice of the Bat computer intoned "simulation initiated" and Clark automatically tensed, unsure what to expect. At least the familiar, confined space of the Javelin were reassuring; the controls were quiet and all seemed peaceful. Then Clark looked up and noticed a bright red and blue figure standing on the other side of the room; he was glad the man was looking away, as Clark's double take was embarrassing. He took a step forward, and was instantly aware of weight all around him. It made him stop short and he looked down to be met with a sea of black leather and Kevlar.

Batman.

Clark was Batman.

The thought made his mind turn slowly on the spot for a moment. Clark exhaled slowly, flexing his fingers and feeling the leather gauntlets flex. He was Batman. Right.

Clark was going to have a word with Oracle as soon as this was over.

He took another step, his boots loud and un-Batman-like on the metal deck of the small ship. 'Superman' was still facing away from him, attention focused on something in his hands. Clark cleared his throat, and the man turned to look at him over his shoulder. And it really was him, right down to the spit curl resting on his forehead. Clark stared dumbly for a moment, then cleared his throat again. His eyes travelled down to the smooth, golden orb in the man's hands.

"What have you-" he broke off, then dropped his voice lower.

Batman. He could do this.

"What have you got there?" Clark asked.

Superman cocked an eyebrow at him. "The artefact from Chachapoyan. You're not going to demand I throw it out the airlock again, are you? I told you, I've scanned it and there's nothing inside. It's harmless."

Clark frowned a little. "Chachapoyan?" Why did that sound so familiar? "Wait, that was that planet where-"

But Superman's attention was back on the orb, running his hands over the smooth surface.

"No, don't!" Clark yelled, reaching out a hand to grab the artefact, but he was just a moment too late. At that instant Superman's hands aligned in just the right way and the artefact glowed gold, illuminating the whole room. The light lasted little more than a second, but by the time it had faded, Clark had dropped his arms into a resigned slouch.

"I remember Chachapoyan now." He sighed. "Why on Earth would Bruce want to relive this? I thought he was going to kill me the first time around."

But Superman wasn't listening to him. He was staring down at his own body, orb entirely forgotten. The silken blue tunic was hanging loose of his shoulders, falling in waves to his mid-thigh; thankfully, as his tights had fallen down completely to pool into his too-large boots. Clark sighed, and the movement highlighted the extra space that now existed within his breastplate – except where it was uncomfortably tight across his… well. The breastplate was more aptly named now than before. The rigid shape of the armour was the only thing holding it up, and Clark had been slightly more fortunate in the tights department. The feeling of absurdity within his own body was familiar, despite the unconventional form. But it shouldn't, really, because Clark had been here and done this and had the uncomfortable mission debriefing.

Superman was still looking horrified, but Clark felt little more than resignation. And he remembered exactly what Bruce had said at this point.

"I told you not to touch it," Clark announced, and the high pitch of his voice made it sound alien in his ears. Superman finally looked at him then, and Clark eyed the large eyes, fine cheekbones and perfect, pouting lips with an absurd fascination. He'd always wondered, if he'd had sister, what she'd look like. Now he had a pretty good idea.

"What the hell just happened?" Superman asked.

"It's a fertility idol, very ancient. Very magical."

Superman closed his eyes slowly and gently set the orb down on the storage crate he'd taken it from. "I hate magic." He crossed his arms uncomfortably, and the movement cradled his pair of newly formed breasts.

Clark tried not to roll his eyes. If he remembered this particular mission correctly, and since it was burned into his psyche he undoubtedly did, they were in for a long trip home.

----

Two hours later and Clark was resigned to this brief foray into womanhood. Superman had disappeared shortly after their transformation and Clark had let him go. If Bruce had modelled this simulation on the actual event from last year, than Batman had left Clark to his own devices for the majority of the transformation. Clark was sitting in the pilot's chair, staring out into space. The cowl kept slipping down across his eyes, and he was constantly pushing it back.

He had to confess he was at a loss as to why exactly Bruce had recreated this. It had been one of the most awkward instances Clark could think of, and he'd been sure Bruce had felt the same way.

But apparently not.

What on Earth was Batman trying to work out with these computer games? When Oracle had first contacted him Clark had assumed that Bruce was using them as some kind of training aide. But then why was Bruce running scenarios that they'd already encountered? Did he seriously think Clark was stupid enough to repeat this episode? Clark was affronted. There must have been something else going on.

A shuffle behind him made Clark sit up, and he turned to see the simulated Superman standing defiantly in the doorway, red cape wrapped around her- him like some kind of toga. Clark struggled not to smile. This was new. When they'd experienced this... alteration before, Batman had disappeared into his sleeping quarters by the time Clark had emerged from his, and refused to come out until the enchantment wore off.

Superman eyed Clark warily, then walked carefully and folded himself into the co-pilot's chair, tucking the cape around himself. "I'm sorry for getting us into this," he muttered.

Clark just looked at him. Okay, he distinctly remembered not apologising at this point. Superman was looking at him expectantly. "It's... fine. It happens," Clark said awkwardly, then added for good measure, "but I did tell you not to touch it."

Superman smiled at him slightly. Clark shook his head. This was too weird. The cowl slipped down with the movement, and he pushed it back up.

"Would you take that damn thing off?" Superman asked suddenly. "There's no one who can see you here. Well, no one but me."

Clark was still for a moment, considering what Bruce would do, then pushed the too-large cowl back off his face and let it fall over his back.

Superman's smile widened. "That's better."

Clark felt himself smiling in return. He wondered what it would look like, on feminised Bruce's simulated face. Bruce never really smiled at him. Or anyone, for that matter.

"I really didn't mean for this to happen."

"It's fine, really. It won't last long."

Superman looked up at him sharply, and Clark winced at breaking his role. "I mean, it'd make- it's only logical that this is a temporary transformation."

"Good," Superman announced, "because there's no way I'm buying pantyhose when we get back."

Clark laughed, and Superman joined him. It felt surprisingly good. Superman was smiling at him again and Clark took the opportunity to study his own feminised face. Superman's cheekbones were well defined, framing large, impossibly blue eyes framed by long, dark lashes. Superman didn't seem to mind the scruitinty, and his eyes were similarly focused on Clark's face. Superman leaned forward in his chair, the cape carefully draped around his shoulders slipping down slightly. Clark blushed slightly as his eyes couldn't resist trailing down the column of Superman's throat to that smooth expanse of skin, sliding down to the soft, roundness of... Clark blushed furiously and looked away. Oh god he didn't just do that. Superman wasn't some woman to be oggled- he was him!

The thought was too disturbing to even fully comprehend, and Clark felt even more blood rush to his face. This was getting weirder by the minute. He was expecting Superman to be furious with him, but when he glanced back Superman was still looking at him the same way. As he watched, Superman reached up to flick his fingers through his short hair and leaned forward even more, the red silk slipping entirely off his shoulder and was he flirting with him?

Clark was utterly certain he wasn't prepared for a lesbian experience.

He jumped to his feet, oddly wishing that he had the cowl to hide behind. No wonder Bruce liked wearing it so much. Just how much of a 'fertility' idol was this alien artefact really? No, forget that, Clark absolutely did not want to know.

"Well, I don't know about you but I'm beat," Clark said rapidly, backing away towards the rear of the cabin. "I'm gonna get some shuteye and let this curse wear off. I'll see you later." He turned on his heel and almost ran out of the room and to his own quarters, thankful that he couldn't hear any footsteps following him.

Once safely inside he paced the four steps between the walls a few times, before sitting down on the bed and putting his head in his hands. What the hell was he doing? Not only had he just walked into something he didn't understand - Bruce was always chiding him about that - but he was prying into his closest friend's personal space. He sighed and dropped his hands to his knees. If things were going badly, it was nobody's fault but his own.

Clark lay down on the narrow bunk, uncomfortable in the rigid armour. This was insane. He really, really need to get out-

As soon as he'd finished the thought, the familiar grey walls of the ship vanished and Clark found himself staring at text spooling across the screen of the Bat computer. The cool, quiet atmosphere of the cave surrounded him and he relaxed into the confort of Bruce's chair with a long sigh, closing his eyes and letting his head fall back.

"Thank heaven that's over," Clark muttered.

"Oh come on, it' couldn't've been that bad." The almost monotone computer voice made him jump.

"Oracle," Clark gasped, "it's just you."

"Just me? That's not very-"

"Bruce isn't nearby, is he?"

A moment's pause. "He's out near the docks. He should be gone for hours still. So, how was it?"

Clark winced, suddenly feeling like he was about to recount someone's diary. No, not just someone's. Bruce's.

"I really don't think I should be doing this."

"Really? If you've got things to do I could ask Dick-"

"No!" Clark yelled sharply. "No, I don't think that's a good idea."

"So, what happened?" Oracle asked.

"Ah... it was... Do you remember that 'incident' last year, coming back from the diplomatic mission on Chachapoyan?"

The 'Oracle' image frowned, lumiouns green eyes narrowing. "Chachapoyan? That was the... Oh. Really?"

Clark nodded slowly.

"Huh. I never in a million years would have picked that as one of the scenarios."

Clark just smiled resignedly.

"I guess Bats do love their secrets."

"Yes," Clark added quickly. "They do. I don't think it's a good idea for us to be prying-"

"We're not prying. We're investigating. Another thing Bats love."

Clark sighed.

"Try another one?" Oracle asked hopefully.

"I don't know, O..."

"Please?"

"Surely there's another way..."

"Pretty please?"

Clark wondered why Barbara had programmed her avatar to batter its eyes. And then pondered how it could actually be effective. "Okay, okay..."

"Excellent! I'll boot the next one up! Initialisation in three, two..."

One.

The moment the simulation started, Clark saw that he was standing in the newsroom at the Daily Planet. Immediately, and without conscious thought, he headed toward his desk. It wasn't until one of the girls from the society pages winked and addressed him as 'Brucie' that Clark remembered who he was supposed to be.

He tried not to jump when a female reporter, who had come out of absolutely nowhere, leaned in a little and whispered a husky "hello," in his ear. Clark forced the best playboy smile that he was capable of pulling off onto his lips. Thankfully, the woman just kept on walking - her backside swaying left and right in an obviously exaggerated manner. Clark couldn't help the small sigh of relief that escaped him; he hadn't the slightest idea how to be Bruce Wayne, billionaire playboy. Batman, he could at least relate to a little bit, but this guy? Clark didn't even know how Bruce managed to play this part so convincingly!

This led Clark to wonder if this was a scenario meant for Bruce to practice social interactions. The library of available simulations was extensive, and there were some for every sort of situation imaginable, after all. But just as he was about to try and ask Oracle to interrupt this scenario - he didn't think he could learn much from flirting with women - Clark heard someone gasp very audibly, and all of the sudden, the newsroom went almost completely quiet.

Looking around quickly, Clark realized that everyone seemed to have their heads turned in the direction of the TV sets in the centre of the newsroom. He almost gasped as well when he saw the image on the screen and read the closed captioning comment at the bottom.

Superman, somehow, had been spotted robbing a bank.

Robbing. Which made no sense whatsoever. But there it was, showing up on every single screen almost simultaneously. Superman, coming out through a gaping hole in the wall of the First Metropolis Bank - a hole he'd more than likely made himself - carrying large bags from which dollar bills were fluttering out. And then, as unbelievable as it seemed, instead of heading toward the police car parked right there in the street, the spandex-clad hero took off to the sky in a bout of almost maniacal laughter.

Clark gaped at the screen for a moment before his thoughts caught up to him again. Superman had somehow been compromised. All right, at least he knew what the goal of this simulation was. He needed to find the superhero and break whatever hold had been put on him. Probably magic. Perhaps Kryptonite, but most probably magic. And boy did he ever hate magic.

That's when Clark realized there were quite a few things about Batman that he didn't know. The most important one at this very moment being: how was he supposed to turn into Batman in the first place? The armor was bulky and heavy, and obviously there was no way Bruce could possibly wear that under his business suit the way Clark wore Superman's spandex suit under his. But not only that, where did Bruce keep the armor anyway? He kept several in the Batcave, of course, but there was no way he could possibly get all the way back to Gotham quickly enough.

And then it hit him... What could Batman do right now anyway? He couldn't fly. He wasn't fast enough to catch up to Superman, flying at the speed of light. No... Bruce wasn't meant to go and quickly turn into Batman and jump into the action. At least not in this simulation. Batman wasn't just a trained martial artist. Batman was a detective. Bruce Wayne didn't need to be wearing a Kevlar suit with a bat over his heart and a pointy-eared cowl over his head to be able to do his job. All he needed was to use his head and investigate. Find clues, solve the mystery. Turn into someone else altogether if need be - disguise himself to obtain information.

This... this was something Clark Kent knew how to do, too. He was pretty good at it, even. Nowhere near as proficient as the World's Greatest Detective, but nevertheless, Clark was, after all, an investigative reporter. He could definitely do this. It might even prove to be fun - especially after all the gender-bending nonsense he'd just been through.

All Clark needed to do was to gather clues and find out what had happened to turn Superman into a bank robber, and then find a way to being the Man of Steel back to his usual incorruptible self, and the criminals behind bars where they should be.

When he suddenly noticed Cat Grant strutting in his direction, Clark decided that now was a great time to start his investigation and he made a bee-line for the elevators. He'd spent the last few years trying to avoid Cat's shameless, and very much constant, flirting, he wasn't about to start participating in the activity now. Besides, Clark honestly didn't have the first clue how to talk to women. And since, at the moment, he wasn't Clark Kent, dorky reporter, but Bruce Wayne, chick magnet, it was probably best to avoid anyone of the female persuasion - especially Cat Grant!

Having escaped from the elevators with most of his dignity still intact - seriously, didn't any of these women have anything more enlightened to do than try to grope his ass? - Clark was more than relieved to see Bruce's black Rolls-Royce Phantom parked just a few paces away from the entrance to the Daily Planet building. He climbed into the backseat as quickly as he could.

"Was your meeting canceled, sir?" asked Alfred, turning around to peer at him from the driver's seat.

Clark let out a small surprised "Oh?" before immediately recovering with, "Something more important came up. There's a situation."

"A situation?" Alfred echoed, raising an eyebrow.

"It appears that Superman's been compromised," Clark explained, trying his best to sound clinical rather than nervous or worried. Bruce wouldn't sound that way, and Alfred would likely recognize an impersonator very easily. "He's been seen busting out of the First Metropolis Bank, carrying large amounts of money. He looked--" Clark shrugged, unable to find a word to properly express his thoughts. "He looked deranged."

Thankfully, Clark had ridden in this car before and he knew exactly where to reach for the laptop that Bruce kept hidden under the seat; the one that could enable him to open a direct, secure connection to the computer in the Batcave. He also knew how to use it to contact Oracle, which would undoubtedly make the task of gathering information much easier. So, while Alfred drove toward the satellite Batcave that Bruce had built in Metropolis, Clark busied himself, gathering as much information as he could. Luckily for him, he had access to the absolute best in data gathering resources. It took very little time before Clark knew that, after having robbed the First Metropolis Bank, Superman had been seen flying toward Hob's Bay, and that he'd landed on the rooftop of a warehouse which happened to belong to LexCorp.

"Luthor!" Clark spat angrily, "I should have known he'd have something to do with this!"

"Should we alter course, sir, and head toward the docks?" Alfred asked.

Clark frowned, deep in thought. "I'm not certain what the proper course of action is in this situation, Alfred," he said after a moment. "Should I go running after Superman in the hopes of being able to reason with him, or should I pay Luthor a visit and see if I can find out what he's done to him?"

"If I may, sir," Alfred replied thoughtfully, "I believe the odds are that you will find both Superman and Mr. Luthor at the docks. Given the man's fascination with Superman, I should think that, especially in this case, he'd want to be present to welcome the hero home, so to speak. Should that not be the case, the fact that Superman chose to land there seems to indicate that the base of operations is probably located in that warehouse, in which case you'd still be hitting two birds with one stone."

Clark just sat dumbly for a moment, then nodded. "Er, very well then. Let's get down to the docks!"

Somehow Alfred managed to get the Roll's tires to screech as he pulled up next to the abandoned warehouse. Clark was almost out of the car door before it had even pulled to a full stop, but Alfred pointedly, and loudly, cleared his throat while popping the release for the car's rear storage compartment. Clark just looked at him blankly for a moment, before starting and laughing nervously.

"Right. Thanks. I'll just go, uh..."

"Might I suggest the empty shipping container to the left? It should be quite private."

"Good idea!" Clark said as he climbed out of the car.

"I understand," Alfred started, causing Clark to lean back in through the open door to hear, "that seeing Mr. Kent in peril can be...distressing for you, sir, but getting distracted now could prove detrimental to your plan."

"Um, thanks. Alfred," Clark said. He grabbed the inconspicuous looking black case from the back of the car and headed over to the container. He was slightly better at changing into the Batsuit this time around, but it still took him way too long. By the time he'd made it up to the rooftop where Superman had landed, he was half afraid it would be deserted.

Luckily, the red and yellow cape caught Clark's eye - Superman was standing on the far corner of the building, gazing out to sea.

Clark suddenly remembered that he'd given Bruce a sliver of green Kryptonite to use in case of emergency. This was such a case. He rummaged through the contents of Batman's utility belt as quickly as he could. Miraculously - or so it seemed - Superman remained still on the roof of the building, and Clark managed to find the piece of Kryptonite without being noticed. Perhaps this was the result of whatever Luthor had done to the Man of Steel, making him overconfident to the point where he didn't even seem to think that anyone might be nearby. Unless it was somehow the simulation's doing - after all, this wasn't exactly Superman and he couldn't be expected to react the way the real one might, brainwashed or otherwise.

"What are you doing here?" Clark asked Superman, attempting to use a voice somewhat akin to Batman's. He held the sliver of Kryptonite hidden in a fist, behind his back. It was odd, he thought, being able to hold this lethal piece of meteor and yet feel absolutely none of its effects.

When Superman turned toward him, Clark noticed that his eyes had a wild look to them. Luthor had definitely done something to him...

"Do you really think that you can stop me?" Superman asked in a dark chuckle. "I can kill you where you stand. Crush you with my bare hands. Turn you to ashes with a glance." When Batman took a step toward him, Superman seemed to hesitate and then, as though he was waging a war against himself, he said, "Leave now, while you still can," his voice was strained and his expression showed obvious signs of inner turmoil.

"This is Luthor's doing, isn't it?" Batman asked, and he took another careful step forward.

"I said leave," Superman insisted through clenched teeth.

Batman loosened his grip on the Kryptonite and brought his hand to his side, knowing that Superman would start feeling its effects then. And just as he'd predicted, Superman's face contorted in pain and he stumbled back.

"No," Superman whispered, eyes wide, when Batman lifted his fist up and opened his hand, revealing the small piece of green crystal he held in his glove. As Batman moved ever-so-slightly forward, Superman staggered back, now evidently in a lot of pain. "No!" he yelled.

"I'll stop if you tell me who's behind this," Batman said cooly. He hated doing this, but couldn't see any way around it. He wasn't nearly strong enough to overpower Superman, nor did he know how to use Batman's gadgets well enough to have the upper hand in battle. "Tell me what I need to know and I'll put the Kryptonite away."

Superman staggered back a few more paces. "No! I-- I can't!"

"I don't want to hurt you," Batman told him, yet he kept walking forward, holding up the Kryptonite in his hand. "Don't make me hurt you..."

As he took another step back, Superman tripped and fell. "Luthor," he finally choked out, eyes starting to water. "Controlling-- can't-- help it," he said between ragged, painful breath intakes.

This time, Batman remained immobile. "What's he done? Tell me how to make it stop."

"Don't-- know," Superman admitted, lying on the corrugated metal of the rooftop, writhing in pain. "Don't--" he started again, but then he shook his head miserably, holding his sides, obviously in agony. "Hurts," he said, eyes pleading, "Make it-- stop."

There was a long pause during which Batman weighed his options. He didn't exactly have many, he knew. If he stored the Kryptonite away, it would take just a few moments for Superman to regain all his powers, and there was no telling if he'd be able to fight against Luthor's mind control - Batman had no idea how Lex was even controlling the man. What if, upon regaining his strength, Superman immediately attacked? Batman couldn't take that chance. He needed to keep Superman restrained while he figured out what had been done to him, and the only way he saw of doing this...

"I'm sorry," Batman said in a whisper, and he took the last few steps between them. "I'm sorry," he said again, as he stabbed Superman with the piece of Kryptonite.

Superman blacked out just seconds later, unable to fight the pain, stripped of his powers momentarily by the green crystal sticking out of an open gash in his thigh.

Clark staggered backward, feeling nauseous, hating himself for what he'd just done, though knowing there was no real way around it. He knew exactly how it felt to have a piece of Kryptonite embedded in his flesh this way - he'd been there, he'd suffered through it - and now he also knew how it felt to have to be the one to inflict this sort of punishment upon someone. This, he guessed, was probably the very reason why this scenario existed in Bruce's library of training material. Though he'd had this morsel of Kryptonite, he'd never had to use it in such a drastic way, and based on what Clark had witnessed today, and what he'd just lived through moments ago, he could imagine that such a thing needed training for. As cold as he appeared to be as Batman, Bruce wasn't indifferent at all, especially not, it seemed, to Clark, and he might definitely have second thoughts about causing such pain and agony to this man.

Shaking the thoughts out of his head, Clark gathered all his strength and dragged Superman's limp body back toward the car, which Alfred had moved to a more inconspicuous location. Together, they hoisted the unconscious superhero in the back of the limo, and drove off in the direction of the satellite Batcave, near Suicide Slum.

Hours later - though time in the simulator didn't exactly pass at the same rate as it did in the world - Clark had finally found a way to free Superman of the mind control which Luthor was exerting over him. Superman would be without his powers for some time, but at least he was back to being himself. In so much as this simulated version of Superman could be himself. Sunlight would help, but it would be a few hours still before there was any. A good night's sleep would help too, which is how Clark found himself at the wheel of one of Bruce's expensive sports cars, driving Superman, now wearing civilian clothes, back to his apartment on Clinton Street.

"Do you want to come up?" the computer-simulated Clark asked. "You know, just for coffee?" he added almost immediately when the man he saw as Bruce Wayne gave him a surprised look.

Unable to bring himself to refuse, for reasons he didn't fully comprehend, Clark agreed, and they made their way up to the third-floor apartment. Not surprisingly, this Clark's apartment was in every way identical to the real one. If ever Clark had doubted Bruce's ability to notice details, or his attention to them that bordered on obsession, he no longer had any reason to. He walked around the simulated replica of his living room while the other Clark busied himself, making coffee in the kitchen. Everything in the room was the way Clark would have expected it to be if he'd been standing in his actual living room in Metropolis, rather than standing in the middle of a computer generated version of it, in the Batcave in Gotham.

And then all of a sudden, Clark noticed something which wasn't in his own, real living room. On a side-table, next to the couch was a small picture-frame holding a photograph of himself standing next to Bruce, both of them smiling and looking quite happy. A photograph that Clark could not, for the live of him, remember owning, nor having posed for, for that matter. This wasn't any picture that actually existed... this was something that the computer had placed there - or that Bruce had told the computer to place there.

----

"Learn anything from this one?" Oracle asked just seconds after Clark had interrupted the simulation.

"I think... A thing or two, anyway," Clark told her, frowning. He leaned in closed to the keyboard and started entering a few commands at super-speed.

There was an amused sound on the other end of the communication's device. "What are you doing there, S.? Is that-- a picture?"

"It's nothing, never mind," he replied. "You didn't see me do it, and before you ask, yes, I have a good reason. Thank you."

"If you say so," Oracle's computerized voice answered, sounding almost wounded, though it was hard to tell, what with the voice modulator... "Care to share what you've learned from this?"

"I didn't exactly learn anything useful," Clark replied. "At least, nothing that would be useful to you. It was just a very standard mind-control scheme. Where Superman was being controlled by Lex Luthor, of course..."

There was a short pause. "Say, if I look at the data I see here, and the titles of the simulations, it looks like a lot of these center around Superman. Is that--"

"Just keep trying to crack the system, O.," Superman cut her off immediately as he reached to grab a printout from the computer. "I'm going to start another simulation and see what I can get from that, but you'd better hurry and hack into this, all right?"

"Yes sir," she said, resigned.

----

'Simulation resume' flashed before Clark's vision, before disappearing to reveal a pair of searing blue eyes it took him a moment to place. He was standing directly before Superman, looking up slightly to meet him eye to eye. For a moment Clark didn't move, letting the now-familiar swirl of the computer's artificial environment around him. He idly wondered what the simulation would bring this time… Another alien invasion? Earth shaking explosion? He waited for something to happen.

But nothing did. Superman was just standing silently in front of him, gazing into his eyes. It was then that Clark noticed that they were holding hands, his own blue-clad glove held firmly in Superman's tight grasp. And they weren't moving. At all.

Clark felt a surge of embarrassment and his cheeks reddened; he couldn't feel the simulated cowl covering his face, but he was glad for a moment for its intangible presence. Superman didn't look embarrassed at all and Clark could hardly recognise the open and needy look in those blue eyes. Against his better judgement Clark relaxed, letting the intimate moment envelop him. Superman's hand was large and wrapped firmly around 'Bruce's', warm and soft and yet strong in all the right places. Inviting. Clark felt his heart turn in his chest. After all the insanity he'd seen through these damn simulations, was this what Bruce really wanted from him? Clark opened his mouth to speak, but it would be pointless to ask this computerised doppelganger of himself - he might as well ask his toaster. Clark ached to actually talk to Bruce, the real Bruce, and have more than just these whispers of desires and ghosts of dreams Bruce had left within the programme.

Clark's train of thought and the quiet expression of the moment were broken by the sudden shrill of an alarm. Up until that point Clark hadn't even noticed the simulation was set in his Fortress, he'd been too… absorbed. He almost went to reach for the flashing control panel himself, but Superman beat him to it and Clark had to remind himself that he was Batman here. He still found the notion vaguely disconcerting.

The simulated Superman's fingers danced over the controls. "It appears to be a meteor, Batman, innocent enough save for one fact."

Clark studied the readouts flashing over the other monitors. "It's headed right for us."

"Close enough, anyway, for a 'striking coincidence'," Superman added. Clark frowned lightly; he didn't sound that pompous when he talked, surely. He added that to the list of things he was going to have to discuss with Bruce later.

"That can't be random," Clark said, half musing aloud. The meteor was indeed headed straight for them, and wasn't showing any signs of breaking up in the atmosphere. Some sort of artificial object? This didn't bode well. He really wanted to get out there and take a look at-

"Right. You stay here and monitor my actions, Batman. I'll use the microphone to relay my findings," Superman announced without even turning to look at him. Within a second he was airborne, a blue and red blaze disappearing out the open top of the Fortress

"Wait!" Clark yelled. "You can't just..." But he was already alone. Superman had just swooped off without even checking with him. That was really annoying.

"Damn it," he muttered under his breath, but went to the monitoring station anyway. If he was going to be left out of the action he might as well do something useful.

The computer seemed to be automatically tracking Superman's flight – the real Fortress computer didn't do that. Clark filed the idea away for the next upgrade. He focused the external cameras on Superman and the object hurtling towards the Earth. Superman was already speaking, voice almost lost by the wind and the roar of the incoming meteor - he was going on about lead in the meteor blocking his x-ray vision. Clark was checking the readings the Fortress was spitting out – there was no way that was a natural meteor. The mineral ratios were wrong and the density was way off. In fact it almost looked like it was hollow inside… But surely it would have broken up under the stress of atmospheric entry if it was, unless… His train of thought was broken by Superman's next words.

"Still, better to play it safe by intercepting the thing."

"No, wait!" Clark yelled into the communicator, "Don't-!"

Too late. Clark watched the monitor as Superman reached for the hurtling lump of rock, almost in slow motion. As soon as his bare hands touched the rough surface the entire screen flared into a blinding light. Over the hiss of the overloaded speakers he could just make out Superman's grunt of pain.

"Superman!" Clark yelled, the words vaguely foreign on his own lips. There was no reply. "Superman, are you alright?" On the monitor the light had cleared, revealing both the meteor and a blue-clad figure falling towards the Earth. Clark surged forward and scanned the screen frantically, but there was nothing he could do. He felt so powerless and weak, trapped here with no way to reach the falling man. In a moment of clarity Clark understood how Bruce had felt every time he had to stand by and watch Clark risk his own life; every time Superman had returned from a mission, but smiling, only to meet the cold glare of the cowl and an abrupt snarl. It was an uncomfortable sensation.

Then the speakers crackled to life. "-Fine, the flash blinded me for a moment, that' all."

Clark looked up to see Superman had stopped his tumble through the sky and was hovering as the meteor crashed into the ground not a mile from him, debris filling the air. The Kryptonian was absorbed in watching the destruction, cape twisting in the wild wind. "But now that I can see again, you bet I'm going to investigate it."

Face in gloved hands, Clark had the resist the urge to shake his head too. There was no way he was this blindly optimistic.

"Looks like it's had a eventful journey, anyway – scarred by run-ins with cosmic debris," Superman continued over the comm. line.

Clark lifted his head to run down the computer read outs again. "If you wanted to analyse it you could've just done it from here…" he muttered under his breath. On the screen he could see the caped figure walking amongst the fragments of the object, littered in the icy impact crater. As Clark watched, the jagged fragments started to shake and crumble, breaking apart to reveal squirming bodies. Clark watched in horror, his expression mirrored on Superman's face on the tiny screen.

"What the hell-" Clark breathed.

"Batman! –" Superman was talking again, but Clark was too focused on the bizarre image to take in his words.

What on Earth-? The 'aliens', for lack of a better term, were long and worm-like and writhing, standing proud out of the remains of their meteor. Each body had a ring of long, green tentacles that moved to their own rhythm, and the whole scene was slightly... bizarre. Superman was in the middle of the chaos, apparently as horrified as Clark was. Then, just as rapidly as the whole thing had started, the creatures fell limp and hung lifeless from their cocooning shards of rock. The abruptness of it all stunned Clark and he sat dumbly watching the screen. The distance, the remote view of it all, made the situation feel surreal. Only the familiar form of blue and red reminded him that this was real…

No, this wasn't real. This was a computer program. Clark frowned and shook his head, as if to clear it. He was really starting to lose it… The movement restored his senses.

"-to them. I'm going to bring the entire thing to the Fortress for analysis." Superman's voice was cool and authorative over the speakers.

Clark blinked. "Wait, what? Er, I don't think that's a good idea."

"Don't worry, Batman," Superman replied. "My fortress is equipped with a sterilizing device for killing any alien microbes I might bring back from my trips into space – there's no risk of contamination."

Superman had already picked up one of the meteor shards and was speeding back towards the fortress, a brilliant blur against the stark icescape below. Clark sat back heavily in his chair, and ran a hand over his face.

"I don't think contamination is the major problem here…" he sighed. For a moment he tried to think like Bruce would; what exactly was he intending to get out of this scenario? So far all Clark could gather from it was that it was… weird. Mysterious aliens? Meteors from space? Then again, it wasn't like their usual missions didn't include oddities like these, so maybe Bruce was just… Clark shook his head again. He would never understand the man.

He heard the Fortress doors open and close behind him and Clark heaved himself out of the chair to check out 'Superman' and his science project. The caped man had already made it to the science labs by the time Clark caught up with him, laying the meteor chunk, with dead alien-worms hanging limply out of assorted orifices. Clark approached it warily, but Superman turned and smiled at him with such assurance that Clark felt himself drawn closer. Surely he didn't really smile like that…

"It's not a meteor at all, Batman!" Superman exclaimed, turning back to study the object. "It really is some form of… 'natural spacecraft' which--"

Clark was studying the lump of rock from over Superman's shoulders as he spoke. On closer inspection, the aliens looked even more bizarre; heavily scaled bodies ending in a puckered opening that Clark could only guess was some kind of mouth. He stepped closer to the exam table, almost brushing against Superman's cape. Clark wondered what Bruce would make of… Had one of the aliens just moved? Clark frowned, studied them intensely and wished for his super-vision. If these things were still... There!

"It moved! That one there!" Clark exclaimed. Beside him, Superman tensed and the creatures all began to stir at once, writhing excitedly, green tentacles erect.

"They weren't dead – merely in a form of suspended animation brought on by the Arctic cold…" Superman said excitedly, "they were frozen – and now they're thawing!"

The creatures, now turgid and wriggling, all turned to face them at Superman's words, and Clark jumped back in surprise, almost pulling Superman with him.

"We need to get-" Clark's words trailed off as a pink haze enveloped the two heroes, swirling about them thickly. "What the hell?"

As soon as it had formed, the pink aura started disappearing, and Clark gasped in horror as he saw that the erect worms were inhaling it through their mouth…things. Clark stepped back further, feeling lightheaded, but the aura was almost gone. Out of the corner of his eye he could see Superman stumbling also, head thrown back in distaste.

"We need to get out of here, now," Clark said, hating the weakness he heard in his own voice. His eyes grew wide as the worms slipped from their rocky encasing and plopped onto the floor of the lab, advancing towards them in a sinusoidal writhe. Clark started to back away from them, but quickly felt a wall against his back. "We really need to get out of here. This is… insane." Clark looked over to Superman, who was pressed against the wall beside him.

"Just keep retreating, until they force us to react," Superman said, wide eyes fixed on the worms.

Clark felt stunned. "Are you mad? This entire thing is mad? I really need to get out of-"

"What the—!?" Superman's shout cut him off, and Clark turned to see the weapons on display around the room, scientific curiosities from around the galaxy, peel off their brackets and hover menacingly in the air, surrounded by radiant, golden auras.

"Oh you're kidding me…" Clark sighed.

"The weapons – coming to life – flying off their display stands… -- and attacking us!" Superman cried as a laser streamed passed his head, turning the wall behind him into fine dust.

Clark was saving his breath, dodging another laser beam that was about to to knock him off his feet. The entire room felt like it was filled with deadly weapons and deadlier light. Clark was painfully aware that with the confines of the scenario he was without his super powers. He knew that Bruce wouldn't let the program turn fatal… Well, actually, with Bruce it was hard to know how he'd configure his simulations… Clark, really, really didn't want to find out the hard way. So he dodged and danced around the laser beams and photon blasts, feeling the heavy dark cape swirl around him dramatically.

"The slug-aliens must be responsible! There's no other explanation—" Superman said as he reached up to crush one of the weapons with his bare hands.

Clark tried not to roll his eyes at the obvious statement.

"—Because I deactivated these things before putting them on display," Superman finished, smashing the wayward gun over his knee.

Clark frowned beneath the cowl. "So if you've made all these inactive, then how are they firing?" He dodged another beam of light. His mind went back to the pink haze the aliens had induced before, and now he really, really didn't want to get hit by those energy weapons. He ducked around a floating plasma gun and spun over a Grellian light sabre before finding himself back against the wall again. He was breathing heavily. How did Bruce do this all the time? With no powers it was all he could do to keep himself from being killed…

Wait. Clark fumbled at the pouches on his belt; forgotten until now. Bruce used gadgets to get ahead. But Clark had no idea how to… ahah!

He pulled a grappling hook from the belt triumphantly and flicked it into the air with a smooth motion that he'd seen Batman use a thousand times. The cord flew through the air, then wrapped around a hovering machine gun with a tug of Clark's wrist. As soon as the cord was tight, Clark dragged the weapon down, smashing it against the floor. As the fragments of metal skittered about his feet, he smiled triumphantly. That felt rather satisfying. But the moment was brief – a heartbeat later, another gun was tracking to his position and priming to fire. Clark almost didn't leap clear in time, and the heat of the blast seared his back. Trellian optic rifles usually fired supercold blasts…

"These things must be using energy from the aliens. Maybe some kind of life force?" Clark shouted over the chaos of breaking machinery, thinking back to the way the light had seemed to emanate from Superman and himself before all this madness had started.

"Right, Batman, but there are only two weapons left now and one of them could be the solution to our whole problem!" Superman was punching another gun out of the air, shrapnel flying everywhere. "It's Brainiac's neural inhibitor--!"

Clark winced at the very mention of Brainiac.

"If I can train it on-"

The rest of Superman's words were cut off; a sudden burst of light made Clark's eyes water. One of the final hovering weapons had fired directly onto Superman's chest, the beam bouncing harmlessly off his impervious body and deflected right in Clark's direction. He only had time to tense up before the blast it him, turning his muscles into a torrent of fire and pain. He screamed soundlessly, body contorting, and everything was heat until it was smothered by a cool darkness and then nothing.

Clark awoke with the cold stone of the Cave's floor against his cheek. He groaned and pushed himself upright, feeling the odd sensation of his muscles protesting. He desperately needed some sun. His head felt weird, and for a moment he couldn't remember if he was in a simulation or not. Everything seemed slightly… off. He raised a hand and scrubbed at his face, and the grit and gravel from the cave floor scraped against his skin. This had to be real.

Right?

But what the hell just happened? Clark's chest still tingled from the nonexistent blast, and he rubbed at it absently. And then there were the… things. Worms. Aliens. What could Bruce possibly hope to learn from that particular scenario? Clark was slipping back into introspection when the computer console next to his head beeped. He reached up automatically to accept the incoming transmission, and Oracle's computer-generated face filled the screen.

"Are you okay? It's been over an hour since your last transmission."

Clark took a deep breath. An hour? Wow. "Uhh, yeah. I'm fine. Just… no, I'm fine."

"Are you sure?" The image of a giant, green face frowning down at him was a little disturbing.

Clark elegantly rolled up to his feet and sat in the vacant chair. "Yeah, yeah. That was just a weird one… "

"Did you black out?"

"No. Yes... No, I'm fine." Clark rubbed at his face again. "These computer scenarios take more out of me than I thought."

"Looks like B. built them to be pretty unforgiving."

"But they can't hurt him, right?"

Oracle was still for a moment, and Clark could picture her scrolling through the lines of code. "I… they're built to be challenging."

"But they can't hurt…" Clark trailed off into a sigh. "Right, we're talking about Batman here."

"What was this scenario like?" Oracle's change of topic was obvious.

Clark gathered his thoughts before answering. "It was… interesting. I think. There was an alien… invasion, I guess. This meteor fell from the sky, but it wasn't a meteor. It broke up and there were these… aliens. They looked… Do you have any record of an alien species that look like giant worms?" Clark measured out their length with his hands. "They're about this long, with a hole at the top and, um…" The look on the generated face was all the answer Clark needed. "Never mind…"

"And these 'worms' attacked the Earth?"

"No, just the Fortress. And I don't think they really 'attacked', it was more… autonomic. Like an animal response. I don't even know if they were sentient."

"What do you consider the goal of the scenario?"

"Err…" Clark trailed off, thinking back to the very personal way the scenario had started.

There was no way Barbara's generated image could give him such a knowing look, but Clark found himself turning away in embarrassment anyway. It didn't take a computer genius to put it all together; all of Bruce's scenarios had revolved around Clark. From body switching, to controlling his mind, to the thing with the… whatevertheyweres. If Clark had had any doubts at all, that handshake at the start of the last scenario had shattered them.

Judging from all of this, it was pretty obvious Bruce was more than a little obsessed with him, and not in the same way he was obsessed with his cars or his computer, or anything, really. A special kind of obsession that was simultaneously endearing and slightly frightening. And Clark realized there was a part of himself that rather welcomed the thought. There was no way Batman would ever admit to his obsession, however, no matter how Clark confronted him.

Unless...

----

Clark watched the code spool across the large computer screen. "Are you sure this is going to work?"

"Do you doubt my coding abilities?" Oracle challenged. "Of course this is going to work, Clark!"

"Sorry, I'm just worried, I guess," Clark replied. He ran a hand nervously through his hair, then hesitantly, "Hey, O.? Can I... can I ask you a question?"

"Sure, anything."

Running a finger down the console of the computer thoughtfully, Clark, asked casually, "Had you ever noticed before? That Bruce seems to be--" he coughed "--obsessing about, uh... me, it seems?"

There was a long, awkward pause. "I might have, yes."

"And you never thought to tell me?"

"This is Bruce we're talking about," she replied in a computerized sigh. "His secrets are his own, and we're not even supposed to act like we know anything about them, at least as long as we value our life..."

Clark exhaled slowly, then glanced at the screen. "Okay, the transfer is complete."

"Excellent. I've written all the coding for you and integrated the new commands into the program. All you have to do is download it into the remote and hang onto it."

He turned the small, smooth device in his fingers, watching the lights flicker. "Okay. I think I can do this. You're sure that this is going to let me into whatever simulation Bruce runs?"

The green computer generated face nodded. "B's on his way back now, ETA seven minutes. You'll do fine, S."

"Thanks," Clark said, sounding unconvinced. "Oh, and Babs, if--" he laughed nervously "--if he kills me over this--"

"--don't worry, if any of these scenarios are proof, killing you is the very last thing on Bruce's mind."

"Don't be so sure..." he muttered to himself.

"Good luck, Clark," Oracle said softly.

And with that the generated face dissolved in a shimmer of pixels, leaving Clark alone in the cave. He swallowed, turning the small device over once more in his hands. Oracle had said it was a mini-computer, but Clark had never seen so small.

"Okay, I can do this." He went and hid in the archive room, hidden from the entrance of the cave by a short tunnel. It was cool and dark, and he could hear every drip and hum from the cave beyond. It wasn't long at all before he heard the roar of the Batmobile, followed by the sharp squeal of brakes and then silence broken only by determined footfalls.

"Computer, resume simulation," Batman ordered almost immediately as he took his seat in front of the main console.

Hidden from view, Clark waited for the world to dissolve around him in a now familiar way, and then he watched in horror as the simulation resumed and he realized that this was unlike any of the scenarios he'd witnessed before...

----

When Bruce opened his eyes again, he was sitting on the floor of a cold, damp room. His entire body ached, and he felt very dizzy. Painfully, he tried to get up, only to realize that he was chained to the floor. He pulled, hard, assuming that he'd easily be able to break the shackles and the chains, but was shocked to realize that not only was he completely unable to do so, but that the attempt had caused sharp pain to soar from his wrists all the way up to his shoulders.

His powers - or Superman's at any rate - seemed to be gone.

He felt a more intense pain in his side, and upon inspection realized that he'd been injured. It didn't look too serious and there wasn't than much blood around the wound, but it hurt quite a bit more than it should have. He vaguely remembered having felt a stab before blacking out, but he couldn't be sure what had happened and whether this injury was a result of that, or if he'd received it sometime after then.

With a frustrated groan, Bruce looked around the room, trying to find clues as to where he might be - or why he'd been captured. He briefly wondered what they'd done to Clark and whether he was all right, but his musings were interrupted when a door at his left flew open. Bruce turned his head sharply to look, his eyes squinting against the bright light coming from the other room. A strong wave of nausea washed over him, and he swallowed a few times, trying to get the feeling under control, but it just seemed to intensify.

Everything suddenly made sense when he caught a glimpse of a faintly glowing green crystal in the hands of the man who'd just walked into the holding cell. As the man walked closer, nausea turned into sharp pain, just as it had the first time Bruce had felt the effects of Kryptonite. The pain was almost unbearable, but he forced himself to ignore it as much as humanly possible - or failing that, at least staying conscious long enough to be able to find out why he was here, and what this man wanted from him...

When the man finally spoke, it was in a language that Bruce didn't understand. It sounded almost familiar, and it seemed to Bruce that the answer was right there on the edge of his mind, that if he tried hard enough he might be able to figure it out, but the pain he was fighting was too great and he just couldn't concentrate enough for the task.

The man spoke again, repeating the same words. His tone made it sound like he might be asking a question, and he didn't seem to be of a very friendly disposition.

"I don't understand," Bruce told him, his voice hoarse from the pain. He paused, then tried to say it again in the two alien languages he could manage to form the sentence in.

Looking absolutely irate, the man started to shout. Unable to figure out what his captor wanted, Bruce just looked back at him silently. Under normal circumstances, Bruce would have already found a way out of his restraints and would have been able to overpower the other man - he was certainly strong enough, and well-trained enough - but with Superman's powers, he'd also inherited his greatest weakness, and it was all that Bruce could do right now to even stay conscious.

There was a short pause, during which Bruce's captor seemed to be waiting for an answer, but Bruce didn't know what he should say - and in which language - in order to pacify him. The man spat something then, augmenting his statement with a swift kick to Bruce's side. With a painful yelp, Bruce pulled against his restraints. They didn't give. His efforts were very much in vain, given the very small amount of strength he had left in him, and the added pain now radiating from what he was quite certain were broken ribs, but he had to try something. He couldn't stand up, he could barely move, and his mind was so clouded by the pain that he could hardly think straight anymore.

The door flew open again, and Bruce was faintly aware that someone was calling his name. A remote part of his brain registered that as being odd, but he was too tired now, and there was too much pain, and he just couldn't bring himself to try and understand what was going on. There was shouting, possibly fighting, but Bruce didn't even bother to look up to see what was going on.

Suddenly, he felt a hand on his side; a gentle hand.

"My god, what are you doing to yourself?" said a voice, and it occurred to Bruce that, not only could he understand the words that were spoken, but he recognized the voice speaking them.

With what little energy he found left within himself, Bruce opened his eyes and looked up to see Clark kneeling next to him, wearing Batman's suit but with the mask off. Bruce tried to speak, but the words came out mostly as an unintelligible grunt.

"It's all right, you're safe," whispered Clark, as he busied himself trying to unlock the chains that held Bruce tied to the floor.

Bruce nodded, or tried to, at any rate. Clark smiled - a sad but relieved smile - and with infinite caution, he removed the shackles and the chains, then he tried to get Bruce on his feet again. Bruce tried to force himself upright, but his legs felt like rubber and his knees gave way under the weight of his body. Clark caught him before he hit the ground again and held him up, and when it started to look obvious that Bruce couldn't walk on his own, Clark lifted him up and carried him out.

"I thought they might have killed you," Bruce managed to mumble somewhat comprehensibly.

"More like you're killing yourself, Bruce," Clark muttered, mostly to himself. And then his demeanor changed completely and he added, "You know what? Enough's enough. I'm not letting you do this."

Before Bruce could even process what was going on, Clark had put him down again and in as commanding a tone as he'd ever used had said, "Computer, abort this simulation, right now."

And then the world shimmered slightly around them until finally, they were standing in the cave, face to face, both of them flesh and blood.

Eyes narrow in anger as the pieces of the puzzle snapped together in his mind, Bruce glared at Clark for a long moment. "What the hell are you doing here?" he said in a slow, menacing tone. "What have you done to my simulator? What gives you the right to--"

"Oracle called me after Alfred called her," Clark replied, holding his hands up in surrender. "They were worried about you, Bruce. We were all worried about you. You've been spending so much time in this virtual reality... it's not healthy."

"It's called training, Clark," Bruce told him in an icy cold tone, "Some of us require it."

"Training? You can't be serious! This is torture! If I hadn't come along when I did, that-- that monster could have killed you. What were you thinking, Bruce putting yourself in danger like this?"

"It's a simulation, Clark, and there are safeguards against that sort of thing, but obviously it's not meant to be easy or there would be no point."

"All right, maybe I can see how you'd run this one for training purposes, but...what about the other ones? What do you keep those around for? Recreational purposes?"

"What other ones? What have you--"

"You've got what looks like dozens of fantasy lands in there, where all the action seems centred around me!"

"Don't be preposterous," Bruce spat.

Clark slowly folded his arms, incredulity evident in the curve of his mouth.

"These are combat scenarios for training purposes," Batman continued, "you've just misinterpreted-"

"The artefact from Chachapoyan is required for a combat scenario? Or my apartment? Is my apartment necessary for you to train?"

Batman rolled his shoulders in a shrug. "I also had the computer reproduce the Cave and the Manor, it's simply so that the surroundings were familiar."

"Fine, but did it need to be exactly identical to the actual one, right down to the color of the wallpaper?"

"I'm attentive to detail," Batman told him, raising an eyebrow. "Most detectives are, you know. At least, the good ones..."

"Oh? Then what about this?" Clark reached for the picture he'd printed earlier and held it up accusingly. "What kind of a detail is this, Bruce? This picture was never taken, yet it was there, in my perfectly recreated apartment, inside your simulation. What's that about, huh? Is it something you think I might have, or something you wish I did?"

"It's just a picture, Clark, what the hell difference does it make?"

"It's a picture of us, together, a fake one where you're smiling, and we look happy. Why would I have something like that in plain view in my apartment, when in reality I'm barely supposed to know Bruce Wayne. This isn't even something a guy would have in his home unless it meant something, like if we were in some sort of relationship. Is that what's going on? You're having some sort of imaginary relationship with me?" When it didn't seem like Batman was going to answer him, Clark took a step forward, and in a challenging tone said, "Would you mind telling me what's going on here? Because I really don't understand."

Eyes closed, Bruce heaved a long, almost heartbroken sigh. "No, of course you would never have understood if you'd found them," he said, shaking his head miserably as he turned away.

"If? It's a bit late now-"

"Computer," Batman called, "end simulation."

Clark blinked out of existence mid-argument, and Batman was left standing in the dark expanse of the Cave. Alone.

"Computer," Batman repeated as he pushed the cowl down and started pulling off his gloves, "delete simulation, archive all logs and backups to secondary storage and recreate holographic simulation from original data parameters. Bring up feed #92, current time index."

The computer chirped as it complied and the large screen was filled with a tranquil parkland scene, moonlight filtering through tall trees and dancing across the grass, with the art deco skyline of Metropolis beyond. The diffuse light caught on a marble statue now and then, making its stone cape appear to dance in the wind, as the real one had once used to. Every so often a stray beam of light would caress the carved, sincere face that Bruce sometimes wished he could forget, and that no holographic simulation in the universe could ever truly replace.

Batman watched the feed for long minutes, but his eyes were glazed over and he could no longer focus on the video feed. Eventually he forced himself to look away, and glanced instead at the computer display. He waited until the lines of tiny, white text stopped scrolling on screen and the words "holosimulation reset and ready" finally appeared. He reached and blindly hit the button to execute the program again, and a small shower of light particles filled the empty space to his left.

"You should turn on some lights," said the newly generated holographic representation of Superman, "You're going to ruin your eyes."

"In case you hadn't noticed, I like it in the dark," replied Bruce for what had to be the hundredth time, in a low, hoarse voice that never quite hid his heartbreak well enough.

=> End.