This Clark Kent guy is better at cyber anonymity than he is at writing. That’s the first thing that occurs to Bruce when the investigation begins. The kid does good, actually. The average INTERPOL or FBI database once over wouldn’t be able to crack the layered VPN and proxies Mr. Kent has set in place so that right there sets him apart from the usual. That said, any pro could crack him (Bruce has cracked him) but who would crack a Kansas boy’s privacy settings? Who would look twice?
If you toss Kent’s apartment, you might get the impression he’s a criminal. Back up hard drives, trashed laptops, a microwave clearly used to nuke a variety of sensitive disks. There’s a lot of cash, a lot of passports, a lot of IDs. Not all of them say ‘Clark Kent’, but when your day job is, very specifically, overly aggressive war correspondent for the Daily Planet and 80% of your time is spent in other countries getting shot at, it might seem reasonable that he’s got half a dozen aliases put together for his own protection.
The point is: Clark Kent is plausible but unavailable. Out of the country, a face on a screen. A blurry pixilation approximating a man with dark hair and glasses. All his photo ID’s are kind of shitty looking, Bruce has noticed. Consistently so.
It’s subtle really. The composition of his invisibility.
Clark Kent drinks coffee but not like he needs it, just because he likes it. He hunches his shoulders a lot to appear shorter, looming apologetically over flower stands and asking about tulips from the vast loopiness of his sailor-knit scarf. He dresses like the weather is constantly about to turn on him. Work boots, jeans, and a thick button-down. He’s constantly windblown and doesn’t comb his hair, always breathless, always wide-eyed and arriving just in time to not be late. He’s a mess. He’s their top war correspondent and Lois Lane’s only protégé.
He looks uncomfortable and largish standing in Perry White’s office, like he got out of bed about ten minutes ago. White’s face suggests this is Kent’s primary state of existence.
“Sorry,” Kent says, blinking rapidly. “Can you…? Sorry, hi, of course.” He steps forward to take Bruce’s hand in his, a smile finally finding its way through his confusion. It’s genuine, Bruce notes, despite the blind siding, his handshake strong and dry. His hands are, oddly, uncalloused. “Nice to meet you Mr. Wayne.”
“Likewise, Clark.” Kent’s grip gives a little in Bruce’s hand. Interesting. “It’s good to finally see you in person.”
A flicker in Kent’s pale eyes, a question, whisked aside for the moment. He steps back and readjusts the strap on his battered shoulder bag, straightening it just slightly. There’s a bullet hole punched through the front right pocket of the leather satchel, what looks like a burn mark along the bottom, a few patches stitched into the canvas paneling. Old. A boy scout badge and what looks like a name in Cantonese. Kent just continues to gaze nonplussed at his boss, glancing occasionally at Bruce.
“As I was saying,” White says slowly, “Mr. Kent here is our top war correspondent. You’ll have to forgive him some jetlag. It was a long flight from Syria.”
“Uh, yeah.” Clark smiles, sheepish. “I apologize. I’ll wake up soon.”
At 4:46am PST, Superman was reported breaking the sound barrier over the North Atlantic Ocean, rocketing across the planet toward destinations unknown. At some time just before 5am PST, Superman hit ground in Khartoum, Sudan in time to pull two hundred people from the roofs and flash-flooded streets of the city. Images are still coming in, video of Superman carrying people two and three, even four at a time from collapsing multi-story buildings. There’s something about candid photos, phone videos. They catch the inelegance of it – people screaming, clinging, pointing. Everyone pointing in twenty different directions. Superman choosing one.
Kent adjusts his shoulder strap again.
“Mr. Wayne here wanted to talk with you, Clark.” White’s tone holds the subliminal suggestion that he cannot imagine why but Kent better not fuck it up. “I was just explaining what great work you do for Lois. A real up and comer.”
“Well, uh, with a mentor like Ms. Lane you either learn fast or drop out.”
Interesting. Kent struggles a little with eye contact. He fidgets.
“I was also saying,” White continues, “that your primary expertise is in international news and, you know, the occasional sports op-ed.” Kent nods amiably at this assessment until White leans forward and says, with somewhat more emphasis. “Kent, remember how I said, I’ve been meaning to get your feet wet in… more local interest pieces?”
Something in Clark’s brow says his boss has never once asked him any such thing. The knit in his forehead also suggests that, actually, White wanted him as far away from local interests as possible. Local interests would burst into flame if he glanced at them, if he attempted to write even one sentence about local interests. At least according to Perry White. Clark catches on a hairsbreadth too late to be inconspicuous.
He coughs. “Oh, right. Yeah. Did… is that what…?” He looks at Bruce expectantly.
“Yes, that’s right,” says Bruce, drawling a little to give the impression he didn’t notice the exchange. “I’ve been thinking about giving an interview for a while and, well, since the acquisition I thought I figure it only makes sense to break the story at the Planet.” He crafts a magnanimous smile. “Now that Metropolis is finally back on its feet, it feels like the news cycle could handle something a bit lighter.”
“I thought you didn’t give interviews,” says Clark, blinking. White cocks his head at Kent. His eyes promise death and dismemberment to rookie reporters who scare off exclusive interviews with reclusive billionaires. Kent, noticing the look, amends, “Or, rather, you hadn’t given one in a long time?”
Bruce shrugs one shoulder. “It’s been a while.”
“Ten years, in fact,” says White, less irritated with Kent. He’s eyeing Bruce now. “The Planet has done very well with your company’s support. We’re more than happy to set up an interview. Though, if it’s a PR piece you’re looking for, I feel that Lois Lane or Angela Chin could very easily –”
“Oh that’s alright. I think I’m looking for Mr. Kent’s particular perspective on this.”
White repeats, but slowly, suspiciously, “Clark’s perspective?”
Kent, genuinely baffled, says, “Mine?”
“Yeah.” Bruce circles the room a little, looking out the window. He can feel Kent and White exchanging looks. In the reflection of the window, he thinks White is mouthing things at Kent who just squints uncomprehendingly. Bruce glances over his shoulder. “It’s certainly not war crimes in the Middle East, but everyone needs to come back down to earth sometimes.”
Clark, visibly taken aback, blinks a few times. He glances at White for a cue of some kind but Perry remains where he is, leaning on his desk, large arms folded across his chest, maintaining the arch of his brows that says: I am envisioning your foot in your mouth imminently.
Kent, utterly missing that that, adjusts his glasses and says, “Why would you want my perspective?”
“Why wouldn’t I?”
“I’m just a junior correspondent.”
Bruce shrugs. “A year on the job.”
“That’s junior,” says Kent. Less trouble with the eye contact now. “I’m also from Kansas. I don’t have the best grasp on Gotham…”
“I think a fresh take would be appropriate.” Bruce offers up another smile, affable but insincere. “I’m also rusty as this interview business. I figure it levels the playing field.”
Clark tilts his head. “I somehow doubt you’ll have trouble fielding questions from anyone, Mr. Wayne. But if you’re looking for softballs from a junior correspondent, you’ll probably get it.”
Perry clears his throat very loudly. “What Mr. Kent means is that he will be happy to help you with whatever piece it is you need but, like any story produced here, we can’t promise it won’t be honest.” A slightly tormented smile as he eyes Kent sidelong, secret machinations in his newsman mind creating fantastic scenarios where he throws Kent through a window. “But that’s why you bought the Planet, right, Mr. Wayne?”
“Or at least we hope it,” says Kent mildly.
Bruce can literally see Perry restrain a Pavlovian urge to lunge at Kent, but he waits until Bruce is out of his office (but not until he’s completely out of earshot) to start yelling something along the lines of ‘WHAT DO I PAY YOU FOR, SMALLVILLE? BECAUSE BEING A SMARTASS ISN’T IT.’
“What were your impressions, Master Bruce?”
Bruce opens his eyes. He’d been sitting in his computer chair, eyes closed, hands folded on his lower belly while he thought. Alfred’s set a tray with water, Ibuprofen, and a ham sandwich on the desk beside him with a small cast iron kettle and a tea cup. He can smell the bitter fumes of the green tea even from here. Alfred’s expression does not quite count as neutral. Undercurrents of something there – disapproval or worry. Probably worry. Alfred is primarily annoyed and worried these days and that means snark, generally. Bruce does not bother lifting his head from where it’s sunk back into the headrest.
“Either he’s a lousy liar or a really good one.”
“I rather doubt the latter. Mr. Kent has not proven particularly good with maintaining aliases.”
“I still can’t believe he told someone, as Superman, that he’s from Kansas.”
“I know,” drawls Alfred, pouring the tea, “it’s almost like he was raised a farm somewhere by normal country people and has no appreciable talent for deception. It’s so odd.” He hands Bruce the tea, ignoring the way he scowls at him. “And in his defense, he told someone else he was from California and another person he’s from Minnesota, and at least one person claims he’s Canadian. So on and so forth. So at the very least he realized the first admission was a mistake. It’s a bit of a meme now, did you know that?”
“No and I did not want to know that.”
“My initial impression,” says Bruce, ignoring the other man, “is that he’s maintaining a low profile –“
And here Alfred coughs, “Not that low.”
“ – doing a job,” continues Bruce forcefully, “where he can investigate international war crimes and determine if he should intervene. I gave myself access to Kent’s active assignments at the Planet. Superman rarely shows up in the exact war zone Kent is assigned to, but he always seems to show up in some adjacent conflict.”
“As far as I know, Superman hasn’t yet acted against any active government powers. He intervenes exclusively in an aid capacity against natural disasters and… post-conflict collateral. He’s controversial, but he hasn’t cocked it up yet, at least, as far as the world powers are concerned. He’s sticking to what he said he’d do back in October.”
“Help,” says Bruce, but not like that word means what it should.
“Indeed. Note that his inaction is often viewed just an unfavorably as his actions. Half the bloody world wants him to rocket off into Africa and mow down Boko Haram or take out Kim Jung Un but he doesn’t.” Alfred has a finger out, is wagging it. “He hasn’t broken his word. No government yet can say he’s opposed them.”
“It’s only a matter of time before some outrage is too much. Superman won’t stick to mediating acts-of-God forever.”
“I thought you’d have some sympathy for that – disregard for the law in the name of a greater good.”
“Be honest Alfred. Do you really want a Superman with my moral compass?”
“He doesn’t have your moral compass, Master Wayne. That is the point I think I am trying to make. He is not our enemy.”
“Twenty years, Alfred.”
Bruce gets up from his seat, moving to stand in front of the multi-display. On it, there’s a clip of Superman ripping the roof off a car, another of him talking to a group of Metropolis police who are pointing and something while Superman points, questioningly, in the same direction. There’s a photo of him, blurry, chaotic, crouched in the center of a war zone with his arms around a child, bullets ricocheting off his body. In the image, he’s looking over his shoulder at the gunmen and there’s something in the stare, the impression of his eyes in the footage – maybe a faint flicker of red.
“I’ve got twenty years of history that says we should be worried about a guy like this. So, let’s run it down.”
Alfred looks up from where he’d taken a seat, frowning at the wiring in the latest voice modulator.
“The full Kent file, Master Wayne?” He doesn’t need clarification. He just wants Bruce to qualify the statement.
“Yes. If we do this, let’s be sure.”
“Yes, lets,” says Alfred but in that tone that makes Bruce want to shove him into the drainage pool beneath the cave bunker.
Bruce eyes his eponymous butler while the man clicks a few things at his work station and the multi-screen changes up, spiraling out into a collage of resumes, transcripts, photos, and witness statements. In the center screen – a long-range photo of Clark Kent, smiling, wind-tussled and hugging a small but sturdy Martha Kent. The photo-array cycles slowly through the stage of the hug, the initial embrace, deepening as he ducks his smile into his mother’s shoulder. Disengaging. Her hands on his face. Still smiling.
Bruce slants a long hard look at Alfred.
“That’s not the photo-reel I uploaded to that file.”
“Oh bother. It must have gotten swapped out. Did you want the side by sides?”
“Oh no,” says Bruce mildly. “That one’s completely appropriate for our purposes here. I definitely want a photo of Kent’s mother on screen while we determine whether her son is a monster or not.”
“Well, even monsters have mothers. Let’s review.” Alfred keys a few more commands into his computer while Bruce stands up and circles from his side of the desk. “First record of Clark Joseph Kent can be found in the Smallville city registry. Appended is the Lowell County police report where Martha and Jonathan Kent reported finding an infant boy left in a field behind their house. According to the paperwork it appears they fostered, then adopted him one year later. The police investigation closed as an abandoned child case, no birth parents found.”
“No anomalous meteor activity though.”
“No,” agrees Alfred, “but given what we know about Kryptonian technology, it’s entirely possible that he landed without detection and the Kents concealed the ship on their property. Further records of our elusive reporter show he was homeschooled until about age seven, attended grade school, middle, and high school in Smallville. A history of behavioral problems in grade school: ADHD, tantrums, constant trips to the nurse, low attendance. All of these issues vanished by middle school. After that, we get into the… odd stuff.”
“Lois Lane’s investigative report.”
“We ran up the same leads she did. No official records, but if you ask enough people Clark Kent or someone who looks like him tends to show up in the middle of local legends, the most solid being the story of a thirteen-year-old Clark pushing a school bus out of a river.” Alfred clicks on a file and a police report pops up to fill the screen. “And yet, Jonathan Kent died in a tornado when Kent was eighteen. Report of the death says Clark and Martha were present and witnessed it.”
“Meaning either Superman let his adoptive father die or, for whatever reason, he could not get to the man in time.” Bruce lets that one hang for a moment, gauging Alfred’s reaction. When his partner in crime offers up no commentary, he goes on. “Kent drops off the grid after twenty-two. He attended community college in Lowell County, never far from home. Studied history and political-science. Worked in the local mechanic shop. No incidents. He drops out of college after completing his Associates. Two point eight GPA. No student loans.”
Alfred drums his fingers on the counter. “Do you assign any significance to his non-performance in academics?”
“No, because Kent is a small time forgery expert with a mid-level cyber-security proficiency.”
“You just don’t think he cared about school then.”
“No, it’s likely he only did enough to either appear normal or please his mother.”
“Sounds like a real killer, sir.”
“Fifteen thousand people are dead directly due to the world engine event in Metropolis. I don’t care if bakes cookies for Martha Kent every other week, Alfred. His ability to give a damn about other people is what makes him dangerous, not his indifference. If he levels a city or assassinates a world leader, it won’t be because he doesn’t care it will be because he thinks it’s the right thing to do.”
Alfred sighs. “You could talk to him, you know.”
“That’s what I’m doing.”
“No, I mean actually talk to him. Batman has been fighting the bad men of the world far longer than Superman; maybe there’s some value in their talking. It’s possible Kent would welcome the advice.”
“If you could punch holes in tanks, would you take advice from some guy in bat-armor?”
“If I was a farm boy from Kansas with a PR problem and no allies?” Alfred shrugs very, very slightly. “I might at least consider it.”
“His PR worries me,” says Bruce, pensive, thumb tapping. “I’d prefer it if he were popular. Popular men try to please their audience for longer. Popular men don’t get tired as quickly.”
“His public approval ratings internationally are about eighty percent, sir.”
“Yes, every country that didn’t have a city cratered by the world engine, every country with corrupt governments unable to send aid to their own people, every country with nothing to lose and everything to gain from inviting a super being to come and dam rivers and pull people from the flood waters. America hates him and, by extension, most of the larger super powers.”
“What’s that, sir?” Alfred drawls. “The countries with power dislike the idea of someone else with power?”
“You can be snide, Alfred, but Superman stood in front of the United Nations and told them that he unequivocally operates by the consent of the people. If someone says ‘help’ he’ll come.” Bruce snorts. “So there’s two sides to that: he’s telling the powers that be that he’ll ignore them if he thinks they’re letting people die that don’t have to. Alternatively, if humanity tells him to fuck off, supposedly, he’ll do that.”
“No government is going to win popularity by ordering Superman to let their people die.”
“But on the other hand Superman breaks dozens of international laws every times he drops unannounced onto sovereign soil to save cats from trees or whatever. And what if he helps someone he shouldn’t? Comes into a conflict he has no understanding of?”
“But like I said: he hasn’t cocked that up yet.”
“Yet. But he’s going to. I’m worried what Superman does when threatened by the people he’s trying to protect.”
“Sir, if humanity says they don’t need him, it sounds like he’ll leave.”
“Did that ever stop us?”
Alfred sighs. “Clark Kent is not you, sir. Or any other vigilante. We don’t know how he thinks.”
Bruce shuts down the multi-display. “Right. That’s why I want to see what he’s like when he’s not speaking as Superman.”
“You think Clark Kent will be any more candid talking to Bruce Wayne?”
“Bruce Wayne has a way of getting… authentic reactions from people.” Bruce jogs up the stairs to toward the elevator. “You’re right about the farm boy thing, though. It shouldn’t be hard to get him talking.”
“Consider, still, Master Bruce, that he can throw you through the ozone layer.”
“I’ll go easy on him.”
He does not go easy on Clark Kent.
The next day Lois Lane, who is eating lunch across the water in the safety of Metropolis, gets a text message.
what the hell lois
What’s happening, Kent? How’s Gotham?
were at a stripper sushi restaurant.
wtf wtf who does interviews like this? what do I do?
Poor baby. Bruce Wayne is gonna eat you alive.
what does that mean? what is happening?
Is he hitting on you? He does that sometimes to tabloid reporters. Don’t let him seduce you, Kent.
what? youre joking right? lois youre joking
She does not help him.
Mostly because he is bulletproof and an adult, but also because it’s somewhat of a relief to get work-related angst from him rather than listen to the latest newsreel on Superman’s collateral impact – the constant simultaneous mishmash of love and hate pours through Twitter feeds and social media and the back channels of international position. At the center of it all: several hundred people alive who should be dead and aren’t. Which, honestly, is what Clark should focus on but she knows that’s hard for man who hears everything.
Meanwhile, in Gotham, Bruce Wayne orders two bottles of sake and doesn’t bother pretending he’s not amused. There’s something perversely funny about watching Kent become increasingly physically uncomfortable while knowing, simultaneously, that someone could hit him with a bullet train at full speed and he’d be, at most, mildly inconvenienced.
“Hey, Cindy. How’s business?”
The mostly naked woman lying on the table between them smiles easily up at him. “Better since we changed management.” She wrinkles her freckled nose in glee. “We get healthcare now.”
“Glad to hear it. That new service-industry work benefits bill seems to have made a real difference.” He nods to Clark who hasn’t said anything since Cindy laid down. “This is my friend Clark Kent. He’s a reporter from Metropolis. First time in Gotham. I’m showing him the town.”
Cindy beams. “Well, hello. I hope you enjoy your stay.”
“I’m trying to,” says Clark. His smile when he speaks to her seems real, consciously casual though. “Recommend anything?”
“The California Roll is pretty good. If you don’t do sushi much I’d start there.” She points. “That’s the one there on my thigh. Nope, left thigh.” When Clark looks kind of hapless and defeated she says, sympathetically, “You can order a side plate, hon.” He gives her a stare of such profound gratitude and relief she giggles and flags down the waitress. “I’ll get that for you.”
“So what do you think of the summit being called?”
Clark, distracted by the waitress, blinks. “Sorry?”
“The summit. They want Superman to come to the capitol and speak about his actions in Zambia. What do you think?”
“I think that Superman will probably show up. He usually does when it’s international and public.” He blinks like maybe that was too much information. “But Lois Lane usually covers the Superman stuff.”
“Lois is a good reporter.”
Kent smiles a little, unconsciously. “The best.”
Bruce tries to fathom what Lois Lane is thinking. On the surface, her choice to mentor and protect Kent as a Planet writer seems sound in a shallow perfunctory kind of way: she can keep an eye on him at least and deflect suspicion, divert the investigative attention of her fellows from her disheveled new war correspondent. Kent is, perhaps, the most bald-faced example of hiding in plain sight that Bruce has ever seen, but on the flip side he cannot deny it’s a little hard to see the Man of Steel in the anxious second-rate newsman before him. Maybe Lois thought the same. Or maybe, like Kent’s infrequent visits to her apartment suggest, she’s infatuated with the alien that saved her life in Metropolis.
“I dunno.” Bruce picks up a sake bottle. “You don’t think she’s soft on Big Blue?”
“Big… oh, Superman?”
“Yeah. Superman saves a cat out of a tree and your paper rights a fluff piece about how he’s saving the world.” A shrug. “Seems a little biased.”
Kent sighs. “No. Yeah, that’s true.”
Bruce cocks a brow. “You think Lois Lane is biased?”
“No!” Kent’s eyes get huge. “No, she’s a professional I don’t mean that. Sorry!” He looks horrified, legitimately so and Bruce imagines that winding this guy is going to take less effort that he imagined. “Look, any reporter worth their salt generally has a strong quantifiable opinion that they bring to the public to vet. Lois’ opinion is that the world is better off with Superman in it. Lots of people share that opinion.”
“I think our problems are bigger than one man in the sky.” And when that gets him a curious look, Kent sits forward a little. “I don’t disagree with Lois. I think Superman does good stuff, like I think the Red Cross does good stuff. But I also I think people want Superman to save them.” He shakes his head. “He’s distracting. At the end of the day, Superman, can’t punch away world hunger.”
Bruce props his chin on top of his curled fingers, elbow braced against the armrest. “You’re saying you’re not impressed with Superman?”
“No, I’m saying that until we can turn that power into impact, his presence doesn’t make that much of a difference in the world.”
“Define ‘impact.’” Bruce can feel his phone vibrating in his left breast pocket.
“Uh, scalable influence?” Kent ponders a second. “Putting out a fire or stopping a speeding train is great, but that’s an impact of a few hundred people at a time at most.” He gestures, open handed, animated. “Norman Borlag created high-yield crops that doubled food production and saved over one billion people from starvation. I say he’s had a greater impact than Superman.”
“And saving the world from Zod.” Bruce checks his phone. “That’s not an impact?
“Saving people from a problem you caused isn’t a valid reason for people to trust or respect you.”
There’s a single text from Alfred: found info on WP. Come now.
“Wow,” says Bruce, waiting until Kent feels comfortable enough to go for a piece of sushi. “And here I was hoping that you’d just confirm that Lane is or is not banging the guy.”
Kent immediately chokes on his California roll.
“Hey, I’ve got another engagement to get to. Sorry, I’m gonna have to cut this short.”
“What? But we just –”
“Reschedule,” says Bruce, standing up. “I’ve got the tab. Feel free to get drunk and enjoy yourself. See you soon, Mr. Kent.”
“And I’ll leave the limo with instructions to get you home.” He claps Kent on the shoulder as he passes by. “Good talk. We’ll knock out the rest of this soon. Give Perry my best and make sure Cindy doesn’t talk you into any cocktails. They’ll kill you, Smallville.”
I think he’s trying to kill me.
Well that’s not as fun as trying to hit on you, but he is like fifteen years your senior. What’s he done?
His limo dropped me off in a bad part of Gotham
Wise up Smallville. All of Gotham is a bad part of Gotham. If you were in a really bad part three people would have stabbed you already.
There’s a long pause.
Clark did someone try to stab you?
No. Of course not.
I can’t tell if you’re serious or not. Are you serious? Did Bruce Wayne fucking leave you in skidrow Gotham?
I know you’re fine, dipshit. I want to know if I have to KILL a billionaire today for leaving a farm boy to die in his shitty sinkhole city.
I think we’re getting excited.
You bet your big blue ass I am.
DON’T TEXT THAT.
You bet your big plaid-wearing ass I am.
Don’t text that either.
“It was only a slightly shitty part of Gotham.”
“Clark, stop talking and eat your toast.”
He does that, but warily.
Lois paces her apartment, predatory and scheming.
“That douchebag. That fuckknuckle. What a goddamn tool.” Then she repeats herself in Arabic, because she didn’t embed in Iraq for a year to not learn how to call men dog fuckers in several dialects. “You should go find his Mercedes and dump it in the Gotham River. Say it was double-parked. It’ll be great for Superman’s PR. People hate rich jerkoffs who double park, even in Gotham.”
“Think Perry will let me call him a shitlord in print?”
“Wayne wasn’t that bad. Honestly.”
“Stripper sushi and skid row, Kent.”
Clark makes a sound suspiciously like ‘meh’ and drinks the mug of tea she left by his knee. When it becomes apparent that no level of fire-breathing will get a rise out of her flat-mate, Lois clambers over the back of the couch to take a seat on the sofa, kicking her legs up over his lap. Clark accommodates her, fitting one hand to the back of her knee and resting his elbow on her thigh.
“You should tell Perry. That guy is a maniac. You should not interview with him again.”
“It’s not fine. You always say things are fine when they’re objectively fucking awful, Kent.”
“It’s how I cope. Can you hand me the sugar?”
“You always eat all my goddamn sugar when you visit. Fucking all of it.” Kent spoons three piles of sugar into his mug. “You monster.” He picks her hand up by the wrist and idly kisses her knuckles. “You need to be less of a pushover.”
“I think I’m fine.”
“You need to stop saying you’re fine all the time.”
“But I am fine.”
“The UN is calling Superman to a summit so they can grill him about breaking international laws while in the process of saving people. Again. I know this shit stresses you out. I know big disasters stress you out. You get mopey. It’s like having a kicked puppy in the house. And, while we’re on the subject, you also need to stop doing that thing with your cape when people talk to you. They have iPhones with video capture, hon.”
“That thing where you kind of fiddle with the hem of your cape while you’re talking. Granted, you only do it with civilians, but it’s taking away from your image as dignified and otherworldly.”
“I come off as dignified and otherworldly?” He sounds offended.
“Clark.” She uses her serious voice.
He continues not to meet her gaze, sipping at his drink then peering doubtfully into his mug like the sugar isn’t melting away fast enough. She reaches out eventually, slowly, setting her fingers under his chin. He lets her guide his face up to look at her, a sort of resigned half-smile in place by the time he makes eye contact. Her fingertips where she touches him feel hot. Clark always feels hot, like he's running a dry fever, or sun-warmed – like he’s constantly giving off a faint residual heat. The only time she’s ever felt him cold was on Zod’s ship, coughing blood, and near death. She tries not to imagine him cold.
Lois holds his gaze until he looks away again.
He says, “Wayne asked me what I thought about Superman attending the summit.”
“Before or after the naked sushi girls showed up?”
“After,” says Clark, unfazed by her attempt to faze him. “And Cindy was very nice. She’s working on her doctorate. Anyway, he asked me whether or not I thought Superman was good for the world, basically.”
“Maybe he didn’t ask me that exactly, but it’s what I ended up talking about.”
“Clark.” She moves her free hand and runs it gently across his cheekr, carding her fingers through his hair. “We’ve talked this through over and over. The world is better with Superman in it. It’s better with you doing what you do.”
“I believe that, Lois.” Something in her face must be doubtful because he takes the hand she’s threaded through his hair and holds it. “Honestly, I believe that. I just think there’s conversations the world isn’t having because of him.”
“Then let’s start having those conversations. And maybe stop talking about Superman like he’s a different person than you. It’s okay if you’re doubling. But that whole three months after the world-engine… just let me know you’re not doing that.”
He shakes his head and Lois takes the opportunity to pull him sideways, tugging his head onto her shoulder. Clark lets her do this and shifts his position so they’re lying side by side on the couch, his considerable weight not directly on top of her. Lois loops one arm around his shoulders, combing her fingers through his hair again, letting the blunt edges of her nails ran down to the root and over his scalp. She knows, because she pays attention, that he relaxes when she does this. Clark, right on cue, yawns.
“I’m not dissociating. But it is easier to think of Superman separately from Clark or Kal-El.”
“Because Superman has to make tough choices.”
“A tsunami hits, I can save three out of four people. I can hear every single person I don’t choose.”
“You can’t think that way if you’re going to do this.” She can feel his chest expand with a deep, long breath, then hold.” Even firemen and emergency responders have to think in terms of triage. You’re just doing it on a larger scale.” She waits until she feels him let the first breath go then adds, “No one expects you to do more than that.”
Clark sighs. “They do.”
“Yes, but the public are idiots. You’re one man with two hands and it doesn’t matter how fast you can run. MACH 4 kills civilians. Physics still apply and you’re right about that scalable impact thing and I promised you an expose but give the world a chance to breathe, Clark.” She squeezes his giant shoulders a little. “They haven’t had thirty years to think about what to do with power like yours. It’s okay if all you do is pull people from rooftops for a while.” Clark’s breathing has been evening out slowly as they lie here, the lazy spin of the ceiling fan beating a slow breeze through the room. She lowers her voice a little. “And let’s be very real, you rebuilt a good chunk of Metropolis in ten months. I wouldn’t be flip about that.”
Clark snorts. “No, I cleared out debris and followed instructions.”
“But at super speed and for free and tirelessly nonstop while stopping looters and helping the police and every construction zone with every goddamn little thing." She takes a breath. "You didn’t sleep for weeks.”
“For one hour out of every twenty-four hours and sometimes only every forty-eight hours. I kept track. Did you even know you could do that? That it wouldn’t kill you? For almost a year you did that, Clark, non-stop fucking drudgery and construction and dirty work rain or shine or snow or whatever. There was nothing glorious or superior about the guy in blue picking up whole dump-truck sized bins of busted concrete and hauling it out of the city for hours at a time.”
“People died, Lois, it was the least I could do.”
“I know that. Any decent human being would have shown up but you showed up and kept showing up and that means something to people: that you’re a decent person and you don’t run from the aftermath, you stand right there with people in the mud and do the right thing.”
Clark sighs, but there’s a smile in it. “You always have an answer.”
“Bet your ass I do, buster. You know, Wayne Enterprises developed an entire set of Superman-safe hauling containers just to maximize logistics with your strength at the core of the design. We brought Metropolis back from the fucking dust because you were there, Clark. That is what you’re talking about right? You want to see what humanity can come up with, collectively, for Superman to do?”
Clark laughs a little, the short staccato bursts vibrating against her ribs. “Hopefully something more impactful than garbage hauling.”
“Don’t get snooty. It takes billions of dollars to launch anything from Earth into space. It’s one-thousand dollars to send one pound of weight into geo synchronous orbit. You could haul an entire shuttle into space in about twenty minutes if we can think of a smart way to have you do it.” She laughs, loose and happy. “Clark, there are so many things Superman can do to save the world that have nothing to do with stopping disasters or fighting wars. We have so many goddamn possibilities.”
“Actually save the world,” Clarks murmurs.
“We just have to get imaginative!" Lois gestures at the ceiling. "That’s all. Everyone is still in shock over you, but give them some time and they’ll figure out something amazing to ask. Just wait. We’re gonna come up with something incredible. Something to change the world. Okay? I promise.” Lois waits, listening to the soft spin of the ceiling fan and Clark’s breathing. She sighs. “Okay, you fell asleep and I can’t move now. Cool. I’ll just sit here for a minute.” Then, when Clark still doesn’t stir, she whispers, “I love ya, Smallville. Hang in there.”
“Another strange story in the Superman controversy,” says Angela Chin, calm but urgent from the television screen. “At approximately 9:45 this morning, Superman arrived at the steps of the DC Supreme Court where an anti-Superman protester hurled what appears to be a Molotov cocktail at the caped hero.” To her left, wide-angle footage of something exploding against Superman’s shoulder then igniting into flame and smoke. “No civilians were injured in the attack, though several onlookers came to Superman’s aid with water and blankets. The summit proceeded on time while the perpetrator has been arrested. No word at this time if Superman is pressing charges or, point of fact, if he can press charges. The Kyrptonian’s legal status remains a perpetual gray area even one year, six months after the world engine event. Witnesses had this to say…”
A cut to a high-school aged girl, Latina, a knit cap on her head. “I don’t care if he’s fireproof. That was terrible. He didn’t do anything but show up like we asked him to do and what do they do? Let him get firebombed. I don’t care if he’s invincible that’s not right! What if he did move, huh? What if he tried to put it out and got accelerate on someone else? He just stood there and let it burn because he didn't want to risk it. That's messed up.”
Another cut, “Uh, he’s invincible,” says a blonde, faintly annoyed looking man in a button down. “That’s like throwing fake blood on someone wearing fur. I think the fire was stupid though. There were normal people nearby.”
Another cut to an older woman in a hijab shaking her head, wide-eyed. “Are they crazy? What if Superman gets mad!? Why are they antagonizing him?”
Back to Angela. “Superman could not be reached for comment and left the courthouse directly after the conclusion of the summit hearing. We were able to catch up with Senator June Finch who only had this to add…” A quote floats up on the screen. “’What happened is unconscionable. If Superman is to face justice, recrimination, or punishment in any form it should be at the hands of the government and its powers, not the vigilantism and hatred of the masses.’”
“Quite the spectrum of opinion,” says Alfred, flipping the channel on the central display.
“They still held the summit,” says Bruce from under a workbench. He plugs in a few extra monitors. “Everyone talks about Superman getting his hair singed, but no one talks about the actual summit. Kent was right. He’s distracting. Even the news is missing the talking points.”
“The BBC has the details, but it’s all very familiar. The UN representatives of Zambia offered their gratitude for his help in the earthquake fallout but cited their concerns about his unilateral actions across borders. Superman asked them what, specifically, they would like him to do but they had nothing specific to offer. It’s not as though they can give him an 800 number.”
“Because the whole damn world is calling him for help,” mutters Bruce.
“Incidentally, I will never stop being amused by the court-house sketches that come out of these summits. He’s in a cape, for the love of god, in public and in a courthouse.”
“You want him to float down in a business suit, Alfred?”
“I suppose not. It’s just so… ridiculous. At least the Bat sticks to the shadows where no one can see how peculiar it all is.”
“Any time, sir.”
“Someone tried to Molotov the guy.” Bruce levers himself out from under the table, standing up. “If he was in a business suit, he’d have a different kind of PR problem.”
“Think he’ll be late for your interview this evening?”
“Probably, but not because of the Molotov. He strikes me as someone who is late to things on purpose so you’ll never expect him to be on time. That said, I’m curious what his mood is going to be like after getting firebombed.”
“Firebombed then wrist-slapped by government for helping,” clarifies Alfred. “Oh. And a few smaller news feeds are reporting that Superman’s approval ratings went up after the Molotov incident. Apparently getting set on fire wins you universal sympathy regardless of whether you’re fireproof or not.”
“I will say this: The Bat never has to worry about his PR.”
“Yes, because you prefer your PR to be godawful, sir.”
“Damn straight,” says Bruce. “Where are we with the White Portuguese?”
“Sir, before we change topics entirely, has your position changed somewhat on Clark Kent?”
“Not particularly.” Bruce leans against his work bench, giving the question some visible thought. “He’s reaffirming pretty much everything I assumed: He’s young, he’s stupid, he’s idealistic. There’s nothing dangerous about that until you pair it with the ability to crater an entire city with your fist. I’m willing to concede that he might be genuinely trying to do the right thing and earnestly believes in making the world a better place.”
“And so what? Every despot and tyrant in history has a narrative where they thought they were doing the right thing. Power is never innocent even if Kent might be for the time being.”
“Then you’d agree he’s innocent?” Alfred quips.
Bruce shoots Alfred a look. “No one is innocent. But I’ll agree he’s not malicious. He’s…” Bruce sighs, annoyed. “…he’s trying. When the world disappoints him, I want to have some idea how he’ll respond.”
“You could do something about that, sir. You have his ear professionally, so to speak, you could influence him. Completely independent of the Bat. You can’t tell me it hasn’t crossed your mind. Or rather, I hope it crossed your mind before you left the boy in the sushi house.”
“I’m investigating him, Alfred. I’m not trying to be his friend.”
“Maybe you should consider it. Like you said, it’s unlikely Superman will take direction from the Bat, but he might take direction from Bruce Wayne.” A shrug. “As you said: consent of the people and all that, sir. He might respond to someone’s indirect constructive criticism.”
“He can flatten cities. This isn’t an employee review.”
“He’s also very, very human in every way but the city flattening thing, sir. You’ve talked enemies down before. Are you saying you can’t talk down a farm boy?”
“If you’re appealing to my ego, that won’t work.”
Alfred snorts, flinging his hand s up. “I’m not appealing to your bloody ego, though you certainly have one, I’m appealing to logic and pragmatism. If Bruce Wayne has access to Clark Kent then by extension Batman has access to Superman and if the day comes you need to do something about the latter then I hazard it’s easier to hurt Kent than Kal-El.”
Bruce just looks at Alfred for a while. Saying nothing, then, “I’m not saying that didn’t occur to me, I just didn’t like the idea of Bruce Wayne killing Clark Kent.” He folds his arms, considering his butler. “You’re proposing I get close so I can stab him in the back? You. You’re proposing this?”
“No one dislikes this notion more than I, Master Bruce.” Alfred crosses the floor, leans on the table between them so he can meet Bruce’s eyes, unwavering. “But at least if you know the man then you’ll know when he needs to be stopped. That’s all I propose: Know your enemy. Know that he is your enemy.” Alfred gestures to the screen, shaky camera footage of Clark stepping backwards, engulfed in liquid flame and startled to be so. “Or what differentiates you from some hoodlum with a Molotov?”
It’s a long and heavy silence.
“I’ll think about it.”
“Are you okay?”
“Do you need to come home? You have a change of clothes, right? I left the window to the bedroom open.”
“I’m fine, Lois. It didn’t do anything.”
“That’s not the fucking point, Clark! That’s not the point! People are not allowed to throw gas on you and set a fucking match! Jesus. Jesus Christ.”
“They arrested the guy, Lois. No one is saying it’s okay.”
“Lois, I’m okay. Please don’t cry.”
“I’m not crying. We’re on the phone. You can’t tell if I’m crying. I’m not crying. Goddammit, Clark. I just promised you we were going to get better. I just promised.”
A soft laugh. “Don’t be dumb. Your promises do not make the rest of humanity act sane, even if you might think so.”
“I’m so sorry, Clark.”
“Don’t be. One person threw a bottle, but four people jumped the barricade and tried to put me out. That’s people. Okay?”
“I’ll see you later. I have that interview with Bruce Wayne.”
“Oh, god I really am sorry.”
“He’s not that bad.”
“Why do you like him?”
“I don’t know. I’ll tell you when I figure it out.”
“You know what’s interesting about Gotham?”
“The fact we have the highest murder-per-capita in the United States but also one of the highest grossing municipal economies?”
Kent, rather than being thrown by this highly specific example, gets thoughtful. “That actually is interesting. It’s also tied directly to the interventions of the Wayne family and the five founding families dating back over five generations.” He hesitates when he catches Bruce’s arched brow. “But I think you already know that. I was talking about the bat vigilante.”
“To be clear,” says Bruce, tapping a thumb against the rim of his coffee mug, “you’re taking up part of our interview time to talk about Batman?”
“We talked about Superman last time.”
“Right, but Superman is a walking Hiroshima. Batman is a guy with body armor and a grudge.”
“Well, you had an opinion on Superman. Figured I’d ask your opinion of Batman.”
“And what’s my opinion on Superman?” When Kent just tilts his head, Bruce smiles, a little sympathetically. “I didn’t give my opinion on Superman. I asked you your opinion and then implied Lois Lane was banging him and then I left you with Cindy and slightly unsanitary sushi. That’s not an opinion. That’s deflection. You’re very green at this reporting thing. Lois would be disappointed.”
“’Superman is a walking Hiroshima. Batman is a guy in body armor.’” Kent shrugs. “That sounds like a quote, but you’re right. I’m really not very good at interviews. So what’s the difference?”
“The difference,” repeats Kent. “Why Batman, not Superman? Is it just potential collateral between the two?”
Bruce tilts his head very slightly. Debates if he’s going to do this: argue Batman merits with Superman’s alter ego. In the end, he feels almost obligated. He sits forward.
“Because the Bat may break the law but at the end of the day he’s just a fed up son of a bitch.” A shrug. “On bad days, I can relate. Superman on the other hand is an alien who could, if he wanted to, burn the whole place down and there wouldn’t be a damn thing we could do to stop it.” He waits for Kent to voice a defense or say anything at all, but he just waits – giving Bruce the floor to finish what he must think is an unfinished thought. Bruce laughs a little, not bothering to keep the condescension in check this time. “You really want to work this angle for your story, son?”
Kent doesn’t flinch. “So your stance is that the Bat is preferable because he’s human, even if he tramples civil liberties? Or is it just a rooting for the home-team thing?”
Bruce levels a look at this kid, this alien, this bulletproof boy-scout son of a bitch and rather before he can stop himself he says, “Maybe it’s the Gotham City in me, but we just have a bad history with freaks dressed like clowns.”
Kent blinks. “Well, there’s an opinion.” Unoffended, matter of fact.
Bruce snorts. “Sorry, that was a bit strong, huh?”
“Most people’s opinions about Superman are pretty strong. It’s fine. He’s a controversial figure, though, I’d argue the same of the Bat.”
“They’re both in the news lately.”
“But only one of them is being set on fire.” Kent’s expression and tone sounds dry and unaffected, but in context seems a little tired. “Like I said: distracting.”
Bruce considers Kent’s expression for a half beat longer then says, “Did you know none of the sixty-seven countries that have offered him citizenship have actually created any concrete laws or protocols for calling him in? Or what classifies as a Blue Level event or come to any quorum about anything but prevention? Like I said, he’s Hiroshima. People tend to be distracted by that.”
“I know,” says Clark, who is Superman, who seems tired.
And Bruce thinks: It’s been eighteen months and he’s tired already. Fuck. But he doesn’t let on. He remembers being tired at eighteen months.
“Seems to me if the governments of the world can come to trust Superman and get over what he might do; they could think a bit more about what he could do. These conversations are happening, but at the bottom line of every possibility is the possibility that he goes nuclear.”
“Distracting,” says Kent.
“Right. Batman doesn’t have this problem because he’s a criminal operating without the consent of the people or the law. Arguably, the people don’t seem to have a problem with him on account of his targeting murderers, slavers, and rapists but no one is going to put him on an ethical podium. No one is distracted by him either because he doesn’t incite conversation. He just is what he is. There’s no potential in what the Bat does.”
Kent is listening more intently now. “Should I be recording?”
“You can if you want. Batman polices madmen and scum. Superman is asking us what, if anything, he should be policing globally. Look, there are three questions you should ask anyone with power or in power.” Bruce holds up on finger. “In whose interests do you exercise power?” Two fingers. “To whom are you accountable?” Three fingers.” And, most importantly, how the hell do people remove you from power?” Bruce drops his hand an picks up his mug. “Superman answers those questions and we have a system.”
“Hasn’t he answered those questions?”
A half shrug. “Sure. Those first two. He acts in the name of the people. He’s accountable to the people and he says the people can get rid of him if they tell him to fuck off. The problem is no one believes the last part.”
Clark looks uncomfortable. “Because he’s too powerful.”
“The ugly truth is there’s no kill switch for Superman and that makes people uncomfortable.”
“That’s… kind of messed up, Mr. Wayne.”
“So is the world. The world’s messed up and it’s not fair. My parents getting shot and dying in a gutter wasn’t fair. The world as it is does not care about fair. It’s humans who try to make it fair. So. Fair’s fair. If Superman goes nuclear, we’d like to know we can nuke him back.”
Kent’s eyes are wide behind his glasses. “I’m sorry. I didn’t…”
“I brought it up, Kent. It’s been a long time. But if you want a Gothamite opinion on Superman, that’s it. Why do we prefer Batman? We know how to kill Batman. At the end of the day, a bullet in the head will take him off the board.” Bruce stands up. “We don’t have a bullet for Superman.”
“Are you going?”
“Yeah. I’ve got a meeting I can’t be late for. Think you’ve got a story in all that?”
Kent stands up, offers a hand which Bruce takes. “I think so. Uh, thanks for sitting with me.”
“Any time.” He starts to walk away, stops, turns. “Look, Kent. I’m not saying we need to use the bullet or that anyone wants to, it’s just having it. Does that make sense?”
Clark sighs, but nods. “Sure. It does. But I have to ask: Do you have a bullet for all your problems?”
A smile, brittle, tighter than he means to allow looking at some bulletproof kid in a coffee shop. “Not yet. I’m working on it though.”
Did I crib a line from Transformers? Yes I did. You're welcome.
“You cannot publish this.”
“Did you…” Clark squints at her from where he’s seated on her couch. “Did you read my rough draft?”
“The Superman Problem?” Lois raises her voice, but not too much because the walls to her apartment are not exactly sound proof. “Clark, you cannot publish anything about Superman, much less an extremely controversial piece where you point out the power-dynamic between the world and Superman might be solved if we knew how to kill him. What the fuck, Smallville?” He shrugs a little, but in that way where he’s not really very sorry even a little bit or at all. “This is what you got out of your conversation with Bruce Wayne? Bullshit. This is something you’ve been thinking about, hasn’t it? You’ve been thinking about it.”
“At no point do I actually suggest a kill switch is the solution, I’m pointing out the mass psychology of an alien arms race.”
“You are starting a conversation about a nuclear response to Superman. And you want to publish it at the Daily Planet, the same entity that first published about the existence of Superman, where I work. Where people know I work. If you publish this someone is going to look you up and notice, gee wilikers, this motherfucker looks a lot like Superman.” She brandishes his notebook at him, pages flapping. “Are you out of your mind?”
“Lois.” He gets up and gently takes the notebook. “That’s not the story I’m publishing.”
She stops. Processes. “Then why…?”
“I know I can’t publish it. I just wanted to write it.”
“Again, why? Why would you want to write that? It’s fear-mongering and alarmist and reductive. It’s also you suggesting that the world find a way to kill you, Clark. Let’s not forget about that.”
Clark tosses the notebook on the end-stand. “I never said that.”
“No, you just implied it a lot like the rest of the world isn’t already thinking up ways to kill you. Like the US goddamn government isn’t already full time on that task. Everyone on the planet with no imagination and more fear than balls is trying to find that magic bullet.”
“I know.” He shrugs. “That’s why I’m not publishing it. I just… I don’t know. I wanted to air out the argument.”
“What… are you publishing?”
Clark sighs and drops back on the couch. “I don’t know. Wayne gave me plenty to write that controversy piece, but not much for a lousy PR piece.” A pause. “I might be able to just ask him. He told me to call if I –”
Lois jerks slightly. “You have Wayne’s cell?”
“Oh.” Clark blinks. “Yeah. He gave it to me. But I’m not gonna just –”
“Oh my god, Smallville, The billionaire recluse who owns our paper asks you to write a story about him then gives you his personal cell number? That’s like the reporter equivalent of a free blowjob.” Clark looks offended, which was why she said it. Lois puts her hands on Clark’s sizable shoulders. “Look, Perry asked you to write a puff piece about Bruce Wayne. He will actually kill you, Superman or not, if you don’t publish something mostly about Bruce Wayne.”
“I’m more interested in the Bat thing, honestly.”
“Perry does not care. And Perry signs your paychecks, handsome.” She pokes him in the chest. “Publish the puff piece, then pitch the Bat thing. Call Bruce Wayne.”
“I don’t know. That seems rude? I call him because I didn’t ask the right questions in the second interview? Maybe I can just – what? Why are you laughing?”
Lois sighs and gets up on her toes to kiss him. “You are fucking hopeless, Kent. I love you.” She kisses him again. “You’re sweet.” Another kiss. “You’re hopeless.”
Clark, who is easily impaired by kisses, says, fuzzily, “I’m trying.”
She slides her fingers up behind his head, gingerly curling them into his hair. She pulls his head down this time so she can kiss him and listens for the small helpless sigh he makes when she does that to him. He likes it when she takes control, she’s noticed. She kisses him until he seems sufficiently warm and happy before sitting back on her heels and very carefully pulling him toward the bathroom. She kisses the bemused grin from his mouth.
“What are we doing?” he murmurs.
“I’m taking a bath,” she says, kissing him again. “And you.” Another kiss. “Are coming with me.”
He laughs a little. “Alright. I can do that.”
“Did I ever tell you exactly what he said, Mercy?”
Mercy Graves, who is in the middle of a scheduling call with their distribution head in Tokyo, shoots Lex an infinitesimally annoyed side glance that contains (among other things) a threat to pitch the skinny billionaire out the window of his moving limo and a promise to answer his question the moment she isn’t literally in the middle of a complicated sentence. She wraps up her conversation with a series of warm formalities that in no way reach her eyes and just barely reach the unpainted corners of her mouth.
She hangs up.
“No, Lex, you never did.”
Mercy’s English has always been steady and exact, not because she hasn’t grasped or picked up on the sliding scale of informality within the language, but simply because it annoys her. Working with Lex has been a practice in in exacting details from a man who works in world where he needn’t ever explain any detail to anyone. Not even his full-time personal body-guard and assistant. Mercy does not look up from phone screen.
“I assumed the contents of the conversation was essentially immaterial as you already made the choice to fight a subversive war with the most physically powerful being on the planet.” She looks up so she can blink twice and give him the effect of her complete disinterest. “Is it relevant now?”
“No.” He seems pleased. “But I want to tell you.”
“Very well.” She picks her tablet out of her purse and flips it open, unlocking it to pull up her email. “I am listening.”
“You are working.” He cants the last syllable up so it’s kind of pout.
“I am working and listening, Lex. It is what you pay me for. So, what did Superman say to you?”
“What do you think he said to me?”
“I despise guessing games, but if I recall it was something like ‘A fire just broke out on Sixth and Bricksters.’ And then he took off at Mach 2 and got mud on your shoes.” She finishes sending a note to their head of security and looks up again. “Is that not what he said? December 1st, 2014? You met with him at one of the final construction zones in city center. It was unscheduled, but he knew who you were and I can lip-read. So, I think that is what he said.”
“You’re no fun at all. But that’s only the last thing he said to me.”
“Well, I didn’t see what he said before that. Was is something to do with his strange need to rescue small animals from trees? The most essentially useless task he could ever perform for the social good?” She glances at Lex who is grinning at her. “What is it?”
“You’re being sarcastic, but he did talk about that.”
“No, he did not.”
“Not from trees though.”
“From what then?”
“Rooftops?” Lex drums his fingers against the window. “The streets? Sinking ships? Fires that break out on Sixth and Bricksters now that you mention it.”
Mercy narrows her eyes just slightly. “I meant rescuing cats from trees as a useless public service.”
Lex smiles at her, it’s warm and happy, just a little condescending. “Small animals, Mercy.”
She keeps her eyes narrowed. “Most people would disagree with your classification of several hundred people as ‘small animals’ but I’ll leave that to your PR department and remind you that that is yet another thing you cannot say to anyone but me, though I feel you know that.” Mercy, giving him her full attention now, says, “He asked you about rescuing people?”
“He said that my company’s provision of aid was invaluable and asked me if there was anything he could for me. Anything at all. Like, did I have a task or a thing that I thought would be just, you know, great if he would help with it. It was very considerate of him. Adorably subservient really.” Lex smiles at her, a toothless, disingenuous up-curl of the lips. “And you know… I did have a few things I thought he could do for me. Many things actually. The possibilities were breathtaking.”
“Nothing that a good boy from Kansas would actually do for you, I imagine.”
“Not a one.”
“Then he flew off and got mud on your six-thousand dollar shoes.”
“Yes, Mercy, he did. But I’m not petty! I do not hold that against him. Not at all.”
“You are one of the pettiest individuals I have ever met, Lex.”
“Fine. I hold it against him.”
Mercy, deriving exactly zero pleasure from this admission, goes back to her tablet. “So we are killing Superman because he got mud on your shoes. Good. Glad to have that cleared up.”
“No, Mercy, I am not killing him because he got mud on my shoes.”
“Oh good because that would be foolish.”
“I don’t even want to kill him.” He sounds wounded, deeply saddened by her assumption. “No, no. Mercy. He’s got potential. He’s got moxy. I can see a future for this guy.”
“Where and in what condition?”
Lex grins, a real grin this time. “Under my heel and well trained, ideally.”
Mercy looks up at her boss and the part of her that knows Lex Luthor – knows the unfathomable scope and depth of his patience and his hate and the shapes his intellect bends toward sociopathy and ambition – sees a world where his premonition is true. A slice of the future framed in her mind: Clark Kent, in uniform or not, on his hands and knees on some shining floor of the LexCorp building, terrified and hurting, alone with Lex standing over him. She pictures herself in this room, standing aside, holding a clipboard perhaps or a gun. She would wear her best shoes, maybe her favorite skirt, and the small razor detail of the diamond earrings she would pick for the occasion – that gives her pause.
She blinks slowly. “Ah.”
“No, I see the tactical advantages, but I do not think we have a collar big enough for your animal.”
“Working on it. And, if nothing else, a gun big enough to put the dumb beast down if we’ve got to.”
“You dislike like him because he’s stupid.”
“No, I wouldn’t say stupid. More like… average.” He wobbles a hand to indicate ‘ish’. “He’s mediocre.” A shrug. “In every way except his biology. Mediocre people, especially mediocre alien people who accidentally level my city with their fucking intergalactic bar brawl, don’t get to keep flying around benefiting from the love and admiration of the masses.”
Mercy regards him with two lightly raised brows. “Rush Limbaugh proposed a similar solution.” When Lex looks appropriately offended she goes on. “He said, I believe, ‘Someone put a collar on that big blue menace. Before he blows us all up.’ Something about enslavement being the proper tax for his involvement in the world engine event. I think that was his argument. It was difficult to follow, but it’s a popular opinion.”
Lex presses a hand to his heart. “Owch, Mercy.”
“To your credit, your wanting to control Superman has nothing to do with his actions, past or present. It is simply because he deserves to be controlled because of what he is. Because he could serve humanity so much better if he were under your direction. I am also pointing out that Superman is not protected by the love and admiration of the people. Not yet. If allowed to continue his acts of good will, provided he does not make a mistake, then on a long enough time line it will win their trust and their love. He will be harder to hurt when people love him. Popularity, as you well know, wins you forgiveness for almost anything.”
Lex has that smile, the one she knows. “Indeed I do.”
“Then we must bring him down before he can protect himself. While he is alone. This is why we move quickly, why we had Senators Finch and Barrows come in. Personally, I think it went well.”
“It was a good line, wasn’t it? What I said?”
“The bit about the silver bullet and the kindness of monsters?”
“Yes, I rather liked it. Was it good?”
“Senator June Finch did not seem wholly convinced by your deterrent argument. It’s as we predicted: she’s sympathetic to Superman. She prefers him free in our skies and democratic approach to controlling him. I think she will block the import license for the stone.”
“Yes, yes.” Lex flaps his hand again. “She prefers her summits and her hearings and peering retroactively at the actions of an uncontrollable demi-god then politely asking him to show up for a scolding. And by the way, the fact Superman shows up at all to be scolded just indicates to me he’d be much happier with someone holding the leash, just putting it out there. He’s wanting for direction, Mercy. But never mind that. Finch may not share my vision but Senator Barrows answers to higher powers.”
Mercy inclines her head. “Amanda Waller is always swayed by appeals to deterrence.”
“I’d rather speak with her directly rather than these… overtures through intermediaries.”
“You both are best off keeping your hands clean and distance between you. She’s showing her support. You have access to the crash and Zod’s remains. However, Waller will likely be watching to see what you do with your research. She has not left any aspect of your work unsupervised.”
“Yes, yes, I know. But, oh darn, that pesky June Finch is blocking my import license. So that big block of Kryptonite is just gonna have to disappear for a bit.” Lex checks his phone briefly, as though penciling in a moment to bring a demi-god down. “I’m thinking a small field test is in order.” He holds up one finger. “Nothing flashy, nothing crazy, just test run.”
Mercy carefully re-crosses her legs, thoughtful. “Superman himself is extremely cooperative and makes himself available to the people, in particular the people of Metropolis. He feels guilty. He favors them and because of this he’s vulnerable. If you wanted, he would probably come right to you. If you do so, I am available to be the vector for your test.”
“Mercy, as thrilling as it would be to watch you put a little green bullet in Superman’s throat from five-hundred meters, I think what I’m looking for is more subtle.”
“Mr. Wilson is available if we need a third party to intervene.”
“No, subtler than that. You know, I put in request for a Planet reporter to cover the charity event at the Metropolis Library. The who’s who of our sister cities will be there and why not our intrepid small town reporter, Clark Kent?” Lex beams and rifles briefly in his right breast pocket, producing something small – a tear drop of brilliant emerald green. “I rather think we’d be better off approaching from the farm boy angle, don’t you?”
There is an issue of TIME magazine with a picture of Superman on the cover and a single caption: “The Aftermath – Stories from the streets of Metropolis, April 15th, 2013.”
In this photo, Superman stands on in the middle of the cross-street in Metropolis. He looks over his shoulder, not at the photographer but at something that’s caught his attention across the way. He’s worried, an open anxiety on his face – the first clear image of Superman in the aftermath of the world engine disaster. A curl of smoke obscures the top left corner of the shot. Behind him, fireman and police officers crowd the streets, civilians blurry in the background. On his left though, clearly framed: a dark-skinned woman in EMT gear moves toward him, her body frozen in the attitude of jogging, one hand outstretched.
It is the first in a series of images captured by Daily Planet photographer Jimmy Olsen.
The next photos are dozens of still frames chronicling Latoya Davies, the EMT, asking Superman for help clearing flipped vehicles from the street. The shots follow Davies getting his attention, Superman listening, Davies leading him down the street and the strange surreal-ness of it – her hand gripping his cape a little where she touches his shoulder, the brightness of her uniform and his, the brightness of both of them walking through the warzone together.
Davies, now a household name in the story of Superman’s arrival, is quoted in the article: “Everyone was too scared to talk to him. He came down and just kind of stood there, you know, with his cape and everything. He was so… lost looking, I guess. Sure I was scared, but people needed help and… well, I just figured he looked like he could use something to do.”
Jose Martinez, a Lieutenant in the Metropolis PD and one of the men in the backdrop of the photo, recalls this event: “Yeah, I saw her. I know Latoya. Great EMT. Scared of nothing. She just goes right up to him, you know. Three dozen armed cops on the street just staring at this guy, too scared to do nothing, and she just walks up and, like, taps him? Ha. You know, just taps him on the shoulder like whatever. Gets him to move cars for her and after that, man, I followed her and I asked him to help my guys too.” In the photo, Martinez has one hand on his holster. “Yeah, we were all scared of him, but in person Supes is real nice, ya know? A little stiff, actually. Like he don’t know what to say. I worked with him a lot after that. He knows me by name now.”
Lois Lane, interviewed separately, confirmed that this event with Davies and Martinez occurred less than ten minutes after Superman’s fight with General Dru-Zod which ended with the General’s death in Metropolis Central Station. Jimmy Olsen continued to follow and chronicle Superman’s exploits in the city after the world engine event. Olsen purportedly never asked the Man of Steel for an interview, but only approached him once to ask permission to take his photo. Since then, Olsen’s photo reel remains as one of the most complete records of the world engine aftermath and recovery. This is because, famously, Superman asked for Olsen’s cell number and would routinely ask to borrow someone’s phone to call him whenever he arrived in the city.
Olsen’s photos never have captions or quotes from Superman himself, only the second-hand stories of the other people in the photos after Olsen approaches them afterward. Many other photographers have captured moments of Superman’s involvement in the reconstruction, but no narrative so carefully frame the events as Jimmy Olsen’s purposeful exclusion of Superman’s perspective. Olsen’s film crafts a human story – Kal-El of Krypton from the perspective of the onlookers alone.
From the hundreds of photos, the dozens of stories, one stands out in particular:
Christmas Eve, 2013. Snowfall put a stop to almost all construction in the city, but Jimmy nevertheless got a call from a beat cop working security for a LexCorp construction site.
“Better get down here,” she said on the call. “Supes is still loading up rubble in the snow. It’s shitty and fuck me cold up here, but he’s still at it. Come down here and help me get him to stop. You're his buddy right? How about it?”
Jennifer Hale and her partner Jace Nakamoto, bored and cold and stuck on the streets during Christmas Eve, passed the evening by shouting questions at Superman from the cab of their patrol car. Superman, moving massive concrete slabs to city loading bins for extraction, answered almost all their questions for the entirety of the night. A session that lasted about five hours and ended with the 3am phone call to Olsen.
“We were trying to get him to take a break and have a coffee with us,” explains Nakamoto. “I mean, every cop on the force knew Supes by then, right? He’d been on the ground with us for months. Non-stop working. It was insane. And it was just Christmas Eve and Hale’s Jewish and I don’t celebrate Christmas, so we didn’t care but there was something really… lonely about what he was doing that night. Usually there’s a bunch of guys yelling at him to move things or help with something but that night it was just him. I guess we just wanted him to stop for a second. I kinda felt bad for him.”
The photos ultimately captured by Jimmy Olsen are taken at 4:23AM at the 24-hour diner directly across the street from the construction site. In the photos, Hale and Nakamoto sit at the bar with Superman seated next to them on the stool at the end of the counter. They are eating. Animated shots of Hale (pretty, dark haired, laughing and slamming her fist on the table) and Nakamoto (eye-rolling, slender, stuffing fries in his mouth) capture the unguarded normalcy of it – Hale and Nakamoto swapping stories while Superman, quiet, smiling slightly (the first photo of its kind), meticulously reconstructs his burger.
The night-chef, Kelly Riggs, reports that they each had a coffee and Nakamoto bought a burger and fries for himself and Superman. Supes had extra onions, no mayo, but put the fries in his burger covered in mustard before eating it. This is now a specialty order you can get at the diner.
“I guess it’s weird that he’s just a guy,” said Hale. “But he is. He’s just a guy. He wanted to go home for Christmas like everybody else and he hates mayo like a real human being. And he’s just some guy that General Zod wanted to rip apart cuz he wouldn’t let him pancake our planet. It’s really weird. He’s really weird, honestly. I mean, the guy’s an alien, but he still orders his sandwich with or without condiments like everyone else. Anyway, I invited him to my cousin’s bar mitzvah next month. I get it, honestly. I get not belonging any place in particular. Plus, did you know ‘Kal-El’ means ‘of God’ in Hebrew? True fact.”
TIME magazine leaves out some of the other stories, other images – the ones where children run screaming, or a man tries to hit Superman with a piece of rebar, or the woman who hit him with her car when she saw him speaking with a police officer on the sidewalk by her house. It doesn’t have photos from the bar mitzvah, which he did attend and ended up with three plates of noodle kugel. It does not include the photo of a small hand-written congratulation card he gives Hale's cousin, the chicken-scratch "mazel tov" scribbled in ballpoint pen. It does not keep the close up, through a high-scope long distance lens, of Superman wiping red paint from his hair after a protester hurled a bucket of it in his face. They don’t keep the photo of him carrying a one-ton support beam on his shoulders to the top story of a building. They don’t keep the photo of him rubbing the back of his neck like it aches.
But TIME keeps the pictures of the woman who slaps him at a bus stop and nearly breaks her wrist.
The picture of him kneeling down to pet a large dirty Dalmatian in the ruins of a pizza parlor.
The picture of a college student who asks for a selfie and steals a kiss.
A firefighter shaking his hand.
A little girl holding onto the corner of his cape while they wait for her school bus to come.
Alfred brings this issue of TIME in with the mail.
“I hope the next generation of Waynes won't inherit an empty wine cellar.” Bruce, who is pouring coffee at the coffee table by the fireplace, does not look up from what he’s doing. He’s only just gotten into the comfortable functionality provided by the combination of painkiller, IBProfen, and three shots of expresso and he won’t be annoyed by Alfred’s judgmental squinting just yet. By the time he turns around, Alfred is tugging his scarf from his neck, muttering below his breath but not inaudibly, “Don't think there's a likely to be a next generation…”
Bruce ignores him professionally and places the large mug of coffee on the table for the man, then gives Alfred the benefit of a side-eye. This goes ignored entirely and Alfred takes a seat at the desk, idly going through the mail he’s just brought in. Behind him, mist rises off the brackish lake waters beyond the glass panel walls of Bruce’s lake-front home. The windows can polarize opaque if needed, but this deep into private property there’s rarely a need.
Alfred glances at the coffee. “Thank you, sir.”
“This,” says Bruce, moving right along, “is every call made from the Russian's phone.” He leans two hands against the back of his desk chair, facing Alfred squarely with his laptop on the table between them. Alfred, unflappable but still faintly judgmental in his demeanor, listens closely. “Two mentions of business with the ‘White Portuguese’ and its continually transmitting black out data to the personal residence of Alexander Luthor.”
“You think Lex Luthor is the ‘White Portuguese’?” Alfred arches one brow slightly, then continues to sort the mail. “I can't see that he needs the income from imported arms.”
“Regardless, I'll need to put a leech in his house and I'm going to need the suit.”
Alfred sighs. “The Bat interrogated 6 people and came away with nothing.” He peers through his glasses. “It was Bruce Wayne that got that information from the Russian. The same way he’s been Bruce Wayne to speak to profile Clark Kent. I might suggest that you identify a pattern here, sir.”
“Kent is still a problem I’m not sure Bruce Wayne will solve, Alfred.”
“That is yet to be seen. You should read that TIME article. They have a very compelling piece by that Jimmy Olsen fellow. Put all his work together very nicely.” He shrugs a little. “Superman’s reputation is recovering from the world-engine event. Slowly but surely. I hazard that if Miss Lane and an upstart photo-journalist can have this kind of impact on Superman, then Bruce Wayne should have more than enough influence to do the same."
Bruce manages not to roll his eyes.
“Well,” he says, “Bruce Wayne can't break into Lex Luthor's house.”
“Bruce Wayne won't have to.” Alfred hands a sheet of paper to him. On it: expensive and tasteful print for an event RSVP. An event for the Metropolis Library. “He's been invited.” Alfred picks up the coffee mug finally. “Are you sure this is still about a dirty bomb? It seems… odd for Luthor.”
“It’s a weapon, Alfred. That I know for sure.”
“Very well. Save the date. While you’re in Metropolis, perhaps Bruce Wayne should check in on that second problem.”
“I am not friends with Kent, Alfred.”
“Right. Quite right.”
Bruce narrows his eyes but Alfred just sips his coffee and continues to sort the mail.
Sometimes, he still thinks Jason is in the house.
Bruce smells rye bread toasting in the kitchen or there’s a bowl left out on the table, half eaten, and for a moment he forgets that he does those things now. He forgets what the world is now. On those mornings or evenings, he draws the breath to call Jason from the next room or the gym or whereever he’s gone and sometimes he even starts to shout his name and… Alfred has caught him forgetting only a handful of times, but when he does catch him, Alfred pretends he didn’t notice. He just clears away the mess.
Occasionally, he hears the boy talking in the other room. It’s never him of course. Usually, it’s the TV or some news feed Alfred’s put on. Sometimes, it’s nothing. Just wishful phantoms, the brain filling in the silence with the sound of a young man muttering song lyrics to himself while setting a centrifuge or lifting finger prints off a piece of bloody glass. Jason liked to put earbuds in while he worked on ‘the boring shit’ as he put it – the actual solve. Jason had a knack for the tracking bit of the work, the finding of people, the hunt, and the take down, but less imagination for narrative. He had trouble putting stories together from cold crime scenes. He drew the emotion from blood and violence but not the facts.
Bruce imagines that’s what killed him.
He wakes up when he hears Jason laughing in the next room. So he picks up a bottle from the nightstand and drinks. Bruce waits a moment listening to the house settle, hears someone walking barefoot in the hall, someone about six two, two-hundred pounds of athlete. Bruce takes another drink and focuses inward. Ignores the shadow he thinks he saw move under the door. The groan of the floorboards under phantom weight, sympathy pains in the structure. He hears someone knock on the door. And – because sometimes, in the worst of it, the door will open – Bruce takes two pills and waits until the house goes silent.
“Master Bruce?” Again the knock at the door.
“I’m up, Alfred.”
“Very good, breakfast is up. Or lunch rather.”
“Be there in a moment.”
“You better. We need to go over the floorplans for tonight. I’ll not have you getting arrested by Lex Luthor’s personal security.”
Bruce sits up, scrubs a hand over his face.
“Jesus, old man.” Jason crosses the room, a movement in Bruce’s peripheral, glistening red at the back of the skull. “You’re getting slow.”
Later, Alfred peers at him over the kitchen island. “Are you quite alright, Master Wayne?”
“Fine. Let’s go over the floorplan.”
It’s still dark out, slats of moonlight stacked across the comforter, curving over the shape of his bare shoulder like an animal with stripes. In the dark, the light from outside catches silver in the black coils of Clark’s hair, the shadows making a blur of his features in sleep. Outside, she can hear the murmur of the city through the window. Here, she leans her body against his, hard familiar lines, clean familiar scent – her own shampoo from the bathroom, bar soap, and the specific smell of Clark’s skin only detectable in proximities this small. She smooths one palm over his shoulder. She leans down to whisper.
“Hey, hon. Wake up.”
He groans. Clark’s an extremely heavy sleeper. From what he’s told her, there’s something he does when he sleeps that allows him to completely block out all external noise and he essentially becomes deaf to anything but the sound of his own heart beating. This is the sound that puts him to sleep at night – a steady hum in the sensory deprivation chamber of unconsciousness. So speaking his name doesn’t do anything. It puts a little vibration into the air maybe. Her hand on his shoulder ultimately is the thing that brings him out – the warm electromagnetic pull of another living thing touching his skin.
He blinks groggily, slow… then jerks, inhaling hard. “Lois?”
“Hey, handsome.” She quickly ducks her head close to his, pressing near. He’s said before that people feel distinctly different to him. Skin-to-skin there’s no mistaking who she is. He keeps her tone upbeat. “Hey. You’re okay. Hi. You awake?”
It takes him a moment to orient then: “Yeah, I… I thought…”
“Just a dream. Was it the same one?”
The one where Zod and Faora come back and tear him apart on the front lawn of his childhood home.
Clark just nods.
Lois isn’t sure the world understands: that soldiers came down from the stars and tried to kill a country boy from Smallville.
He rolls over to face her and she re-adjusts the sheets around them. Once settled, she pulls near and runs her hands back into his hair – curly and kinked with sleep, soft, but unfathomably tough. She curls her fingers lightly, holding on. It’s what she always does when he’s upset or she suspects he’s upset. Even in the dark his eyes catch blue, eerily pale in the shadows. She thinks they get pale when he’s afraid (the way blood backs out of a person’s face). Some kind of chromatic emotional response. They seem silvery now in the dark.
“Want me to make us some tea? I have cookies in the pantry. I have… a whole bag of sugar. You can have the whole thing if you want.” That earns her a smile, like catching a handful of sunshine. Vindicated, she says, “You’re awful you know. Eating whatever you want. Damn alien genetics.”
“That’s because my digestive system literally processes none of your food and I subsist off sunlight.”
She hesitates. “Wait. Is that true?”
He frowns. “Have I not mentioned that?”
“No. You have not. Are you…” She sits up in bed. “Do you just eat for fucking sport?!”
He looks guilty. “Technically. I mean… look, I couldn’t eat most food until I was seven. Once I could, I just kind of… went ham I guess. I don’t think it’s that weird.” Her face tells him it’s very weird. “Hey, when I was little, everything made me sick. I had asthma until I was four. Sorry, if I like doughnuts now or whatever.”
“You were an infant with asthma?”
A nod. “Yeah. And I was kind of starving all the time because maybe a fraction of what I ate was actually giving me any nutrition –”
He laughs. “I’m okay now.”
She struggles briefly with rage and appall. It’s thirty years too late and useless to Clark Kent’s infant self, but she feels it profoundly nonetheless.
“So you’re photosynthetic.” She sighs. “That’s ridiculous. What are you?” Lois throws up her hands and flops back into the bed next to him. Clark ignores her dramatics and pulls her into a hug, tucking his head against her collarbone. “You’re an alien,” she announces. “I mean, I know you’re an alien, but lest I forget: you might be a type of space fern.” She glances down at him, letting her gaze rove across the landscape of his shoulders and upper back. “A really, really hot space fern…”
“At one point Kryptonians were bio-luminous and internalized radiation through the skin.” He says this like one might announce the weather. His head is tucked against her shoulder. He’s warm and faintly groggy sounding. He yawns. “I don’t remember exactly. I just know it was an abandoned evolutionary option.”
“Why do you know that? That isn’t dissuading me from the possibility you’re a space cactus.”
“More like a Venus Flytrap,” he murmurs. “My people still ate. Farmed. All that. I didn’t get to ask anything more before the scout ship was destroyed.”
Her tone gentles. “You mean Jor-El’s construct?”
Clark nods against her shoulder. His lashes lie flat against his cheekbones, slight movement behind his closed eye lids.
“There’s still one ship left. It’s Kryptonian and you’re Kryptonian, I feel like… if you asked…”
“The UN doesn’t want me near the ships.” Clark’s voice is soft.
Lois sighs and runs her fingers again through his hair, fathoming men somewhere, government researchers digging in the wreckage of Zod’s ship looking for ways to stop Clark’s strange heart beating. (It’s in the middle of his chest, by the way, directly behind his sternum and a little higher than a human’s.) She wonders if they know that, if they’ve found of way to crack open the corpse Zod left behind and study it for ways to hurt the Kryptonian in her bed. He’s half asleep in her arms. He’s got bedhead and nightmares. He tends to eat pastries to improve his mood. He cried once because the dog died in a movie. Lois Lane does not know how to articulate that to the world that first beheld him as a man on fire – a demi-god burning up on re-entry, caught in the eye of a terrible war engine.
She lowers her voice a little. “You know I love you, right?”
Clark must be mostly asleep again because he only goes, “Mmm-hmm.” But his arms around her middle tighten very slightly. She’s not sure why that tiny attempt to be closer does strange things to her heart.
“Okay. But… you shouldn’t tell me about how your powers work.”
His eyes open. He leans back slightly, bracing his weight on one arm so he can look her in the face. “Why?”
“You just told me you need sunlight to survive, Clark.”
“Lots of things need sunlight to survive, Lois.”
“Not so exclusively. What if someone else found that out?”
“They… would have to put out the sun?”
“Don’t get flip. Clark, you’re not invulnerable.” She drops her forehead against his, closes her eyes and feels him lean into it. “I’ve seen you bleed, kiddo. Zod tried to use me to hurt you once. He won’t be the last to think of it. I just really think you shouldn’t tell me anything that you don’t think is really important for me to know.”
He considers her face for a moment, expression unreadably neutral. Then, “My invulnerability is conditional. If I’m not concentrating or my adrenaline isn’t up, things hurt me more. So theoretically catching me off guard is the best way to injure me.”
“I can’t see through lead, everyone knows that now, but I can’t see through anything denser than lead either. I figured that out when I was fifteen. Mom took me to a science museum and they had metal samples on display by molecular density.” A shrug. “Seems obvious in retrospect.”
“My powers themselves can hurt me if my mental block ever gave. Hearing the world all at once is debilitating –”
She covers his mouth with her palm, hard. “Stop.”
It’s a full five seconds they sit there, her fingers warm against his face before she takes her hand away.
“I just…” His eyes seem so pale now in the dark. “I just want someone to know.” He hesitates. “Is that… selfish?”
“No. No, it’s not. It’s exactly how people in love behave.” She smooths a hand across his cheek. “It’s just tactically unwise.”
“Maybe, but if you’re scared for me, how about this?” His eyes are dark, dark, unfathomably blue. “I’m still very hard to kill.”
The Kansas boy who runs on sunshine. She slides her fingers into his hair and pulls him into a kiss, pulls him down on top of her. He’s warm and familiar and even as his mouth opens against hers, Lois imagines someone shutting Clark up in a sunless room. He’s in bed with her. He’s fine. In her mind, he’s starving to death in the dark. He’s bulletproof. He’s dying. The two versions of him exist simultaneously within her and she asks both of them, “What the fuck am I gonna do with you?”
The Daily Show with John Stewart is playing on the secondary monitor. The primary monitor runs a complicated encryption program for a secure wireless connection, but the secondary monitor plays on.
“Rush Limbaugh recently proposed that the US government put a collar on Superman.” Audience laughter mixed with ‘ooohs’ of horror. “No, no, I'm not kidding you. That is a thing he said on live air about the dude who, you know, shoots lasers from his eyes.” A graphic of Limbaugh with poorly photoshopped flames on his head pops up and low chuckles rumble on the sidelines. “I mean, I guess we shouldn’t be surprised. The Right’s been going after the Big Guy pretty hard lately. It’s right up there with Palin saying his outfit is too tight in the crotch last month.” A graphic of Superman with a black box over his groin immediately bounces into screen. “Though, honestly, good on her for the ultimate in equal opportunity slut shaming – shame them all: boys, girls, alien super beings from other worlds. Cover it up!”
A quick camera change, Stewart swiveling to face the new angle, looking very serious.
“But back to the Limbaugh thing: Now, the last year and a half have given us lots of photographic evidence that Superman is definitely a dog person, but I think old Rush is taking it a bit literally.” A photo of Superman petting a Dalmatian replaces the previous graphic. Low ‘aww’s of approval move through the audience. “I know right? He literally saves cats from trees. He’s handsome. Tall. Palin says his crotch area is too bodacious for public display.” Uproarious audience laughter while Stewart visibly tries to keep a straight face. “Gee, put it like that and I think I hate him too.”
Laughter dies out slowly, Stewart sobering now.
“No, but seriously, I do understand the fear. I do. Superman is, for all intents and purposes, an alien refugee in America. And like most immigrants to the States, he’s got a PR problem. Unlike most immigrants in the States, he has an incredible amount of power and people are right to be worried about that power like they should worry about any institution or person with power. Power needs to be regulated, needs to have rules. Superman is a new frontier. How do you legalize a single person’s existence and regulate what he or she can or should do? Especially someone like Superman? Can we regulate him? Should we? And how? It’s a tough question, a serious question, the question, honestly. But…”
A graphic scrolls up. A candid shot of Superman making a weird judgmental face with the caption “@$%& off” along the bottom. The audience bursts into laughter and applause.
“…I’m going to argue that threatening said person with literal slavery is probably not the most diplomatic goddamn choice there, Rush. Just gonna put that out there: maybe America doesn’t appreciate our resident bigot with a radio program suggesting we do to Superman what you’d really like us to do to, I dunno, every minority that bothers you.” The studio audience bursts into howls of laughter, whoops, and applause while Stewart swivels to another camera angle. “Congrats Supes. Limbaugh hates you cuz you’re an immigrant. I can now officially welcome you to Earth.” An image of Will Smith from Independence Day rolls up while Stewart shakes his head and salutes. “Honestly, why the BEEP are you sticking around?"
The program cuts to commercial.
“Alfred, can you turn that off?”
“I can hear it through the comm.”
“Oh, terribly sorry. Quite right.” Alfred clicks the program to mute. Through the speakers he can hear the faint background noise of the car engine and how Bruce has neither the radio nor music on while he drives. “Do you want to go over it again?”
“The server room should be in the basement. We don’t know the level of security though.”
“Worst case scenario, just case the place for now. The Bat can do a smash and grab if somehow you make a hash of it tonight.”
“Considering that we’re talking about Lex Luthor and the provenance of what may or may not be a dirty bomb in our fair city, I think some measure of nerves would be due.”
Bruce, terse as ever, only grunts, “We’ve seen worse.”
“Indeed. Lex Luthor has never exactly had the cleanest hands in the business world, legal or illegal, but this seems strangely lowbrow for him.” When Bruce doesn’t offer up any insights, Alfred goes on. “Not that I would put it past any of his subsidiaries or shadier affiliates. It just seems strange to me that he need to be so… intimately involved with this particular shipment. Suggests something larger scale if he’s willing to dirty his hands personally.”
“That’s what worries me.”
“Not yet. That’s why… I’m…” He trails off.
“What is it?” Alfred sits forward. “What’s wrong?”
“Kent is here.”
“I – what?”
“Why is he here? That can’t be an accident. Why would – hold on.”
The comm goes dead. Seconds later Alfred’s phone buzzes, a text notification lighting up the screen.
Kent is here. I think he’s covering the event for the Planet. Why on earth is he covering this event? He’s a war correspondent.
Why are we using text?
So he won’t overhear you on the comm. He’s an investigative reporter with super-hearing and x-ray vision.
Understood. Can you do the job without me?
I’ll be fine.
Do not be distracted. It’s a coincidence. You’re here to get data about the dirty bomb not Superman.
Remember: You’re Bruce Wayne. Get in, get out. Socialize. Flirt.
There’s no indication Bruce read the last message so Alfred texts again:
Let some young lady from Metropolis make you honest.
Again, he gets no message back so he sinks back into his seat and plucks his flask from his breast pocket. “Right. In your dreams, Alfred.”
Clark stands half a head over the average person in the crowd and Bruce very distinctly saw him squinting down the red carpet at new arrivals. Despite this, it still takes Bruce the better part of five seconds to find him again. He’s tucked back among the other media personnel, scribbling something in a notebook, head down, an extra (or forgotten) pencil stuck behind his ear. It’s a trick, Bruce is certain, his ability to shrink. Something in how his sports jacket swallows his figure and the glasses change his eyes. He parts his hair differently when he’s Superman.
It seems absurd that such small camouflage would make a difference, but Bruce knows this better than most: the human eye looks for wholes, not pieces, and there are certainly pieces of Superman in the shy, self-effacing whole of Clark Kent... but only if you’re looking for it.
His concern: he’s not the only one looking for it.
Kent looks up, a startled blink of blue behind the glasses. “Mister Wayne?”
Bruce reaches past a few other reporters to shake his hand, parting the crowd like a sea and stepping off the camera-flashed red carpet. The crowd closes up again behind him. Kent continues to be surprised for a moment longer, precisely as long as it takes Bruce to finish shaking his hand, then he tilts his head a little and something shifts in his expression. Bruce recognizes it now that he’s interviewed a few times with this kid – that flicker of inquisition, not quite suspicion but curiosity. It looks youngish and disarming on Kent where it would look predatory and intimidating on Lois Lane.
“I didn’t know you’d be here,” Clark says, pocketing his notebook. He turns his face away just as a camera flashes. “Are you a donor?”
“Yes, my foundation is always in the business of supporting, uh, books.” Clark blinks, but before he can say ‘huh?’, Bruce sets a hand against Kent’s shoulder and steers him toward the door, ignoring the surprised little look this earns him. “So, why are you here? Perry still got you on the local interests beat?”
“Yeah.” He doesn’t sound thrilled about it. “I’m supposed to catch a… flight into Iraq next… week… uh. Where are we—?”
“Smile and walk, Kent.”
Bruce steers them through the remainder of the crowd to the door and into the foyer. The interior of Luthor Manor gleams – long planes of glass interlocking across pristine white walls. The glittering assemblage of the Metropolis elite mill through the room while Frank Sinatra plays quietly over murmured conversation. Kent looks impressed, peering up and around, admiring the vaulted architecture while Bruce scans the back of the room for the stairs to the basement and server access room. He also wonders why, of all the Planet reporters, Clark Kent is here.
“Ever interviewed Lex Luthor before?”
“No. Lois has though. She warned me in advance.”
“What did she say?”
“Lex Luthor wants to save the world, but he thinks he needs to own it first.”
“Interesting. Did she warn you about me before our interview?”
“No. Apparently she underestimated what a jerk you are to first time reporters.”
Bruce, who was casing the place and not fully engaging in this conversation, stops casing the place and turns his head to give Kent his full attention this time. Clark’s giving Bruce this bland blue-eyed look that says he knows exactly what he just said and he’s not taking it back, but with the mildest of expressions possible. Bruce notes, for no reason in particular, that Clark is about two inches shorter than him. He’s known this for a while, but for some reason it only feels relevant now while Superman’s alter ego tells him politely that he’s sort of a dick.
“I hurt your feelings, Kent?”
“You left me on a street corner in Gotham. I wasn’t worried about my feelings, Mr. Wayne.”
Kent is a super-being who could (and did) level half of Metropolis in a fist fight. He’s an alien with enough power to vaporize whole continents. He’s so unfathomable, there’s no evidence that even a nuclear bomb would destroy him. He’s a fixed point. Inhuman. Dangerous. He also seems mildly wounded that Bruce doesn’t feel guilty for leaving him in the bad part of town as a joke. Bruce also considers the possibility that Kent is fucking with him; Kent’s wide-eyed poker face thing is fairly solid.
Bruce feels an impulse and follows it. “Want me to make it up to you?”
“I don’t know. Will it involve strippers again?”
But before Bruce can do anything like defend his honor, the lights dim then brighten slightly and the curator for the Library of Metropolis takes the stage. Clark turns his attention forward as the curator, Nikki Holdings, begins to speak about the library and its struggles over the last year. 100% of its struggles were the fact that General Zod grabbed Clark by the throat and threw him through the top of said library like a human-shaped wrecking ball. If Kent has any recollection of this, he manages to keep his face admirably neutral.
Up front Nikki switches gears for an introduction.
“Philanthropist. Bibliophile. True friend of the library of Metropolis…. Mr. Lex Luthor.”
Applause and the crowd splits down the middle, the lanky figure of Lex Luthor breaking away from the rest of the guests and moving forward through the clapping onlookers.
Bruce backs out of the crowd.
Alfred can’t help him now but the blueprints in his head take him down the stairs at the back of the room. The wait and kitchen staff mill busily. He keeps his stride purposeful, unassailable and allowed. Passing the kitchen, he catches mixed conversation in Spanish and English, laughter, the rattle of dishware and the news program running, saying, “—more video coming in now from the events of November the 2nd. The last day in Mexico’s Day of the Dead celebration. A massive factory fire broke out in Juarez, trapping half a dozen people inside, possibly consigning all victims to death if not for the intervention of Superman –”
The conversation fades out of earshot and on the left-hand side of the corridor, Bruce finds two closed glass doors. He waits until a clear moment to quickly enter the server room and clip the leech in place. For the three minutes it takes for the leech to do its work, he exits the server room and stands near the bottom of the stairs where he feigns being in a difficult business call by calling his own voicemail and speaking in terse tones about an earnings report he needed at an arbitrary time. Then, finding another clear moment, he ducks back inside the server room and retrieves his leech.
And another win for Bruce Wayne.
Alfred, he knows, will be thrilled. As he heads back upstairs, he can hear the program again: “—smartphone and video footage of the Man of Steel speaking to local firefighters and families of the rescued victims. He remained on-site to help extinguish the flames for another three hours’ time. Local authorities had this to say about --”
Someone laughs. “Superman’s Spanish is pretty bad, man. Pretty bad.”
“At least he speaks it,” says someone else.
“Badly. He’s got an American accent, man. Real bad.”
“He wears red and blue, bro. What were you expect—?”
Bruce jogs up the stairs back to the house level, carefully threading his way back into the crowd. He’s in time to hear the end of Luthor’s speech.
It’s not going that great.
“Books are knowledge and knowledge is power,” Lex is saying, somewhat rapidly. “And I am – heh heh heh, no.” He blinks. “I, umm. No, what am I? Alright, what am I supposed to say? No.” He shakes his head slightly and the audience stirs, uncomfortable. In the crowd, Bruce catches Mercy Graves lifting her chin slightly and mouthing a word. That word is ‘slow’. Lex alights on what he wants to say finally, crashing into his closing statement. “The bitter sweet pain among man is having knowledge with no power. Because... because that is paradoxical and umm...” In the crowd, Mercy Graves mouths ‘no’. Lex smiles. “Thank you for coming. Please, drink. It's free.”
Bruce wonders how much of LexCorp is still standing based on the silent interventions of a small Japanese woman in show-stopping stilettos. More than Lex would probably admit.
Clark’s writing something in his notepad when Bruce moves to stand beside him again. A quick glance indicates that Clark uses some kind of shorthand, because it looks like purposeful gibberish. There is, Bruce notes, a tiny drawing of a stick-figure man holding a balloon in the upper right hand of the note pad. And the word ‘EGGS!!’ at the bottom of his notes.
Bruce tries not to think about Superman picking up eggs at the super market and says, “There’s a quote for you.”
“Knowledge without power. Sounds like an adequacy problem.”
“Remember what I said about saving the world and owning it?” Clark doesn’t look up from his pad. He’s scratching down a few more hieroglyphs. He glances at Bruce once he’s done. “Jury’s still out.”
“Boys!” The shout stops Kent cold only partly because it startles him. Mostly, he stops because the speaker is Lex Luthor and he’s very suddenly coming through the crowd toward them. “Mm, Bruce Wayne meets Clark Kent.”
Lex beams, hands on his hips, grinning in a way that would have an unfiltered kind of charm in any other context. Up close, Luthor looks uncomfortably young in his white converse and a black sports jacket. No tie. As expected, he doesn’t look like he combed his hair in the last week. Mercy Graves, Bruce notes, hovers in her boss’s wake like a small (probably weaponized) satellite monitoring system in custom Jimmy Choos.
“Ah, I love it!” Lex says. “I love bringing people together! How are we?”
Bruce takes his offered hand shake. “Doing well.” I’m presently stealing from you. Superman in glasses is trying to get an interview. “Nice speech up there.”
“Eh, speeches don’t make the millions. Thank god.” He drops Bruce’s hand. “So, after all these years, we've finally got you over to Metropolis.”
“Well, I thought I’d come drink you dry.”
“Well, you're welcome. You should hop the harbor more often though. I’d love to show you my labs. Maybe we could partner on something.” There’s a slight smile in how he says that. “My R&D is up to all sorts of no good.”
“Can I quote you?” says Clark mildly.
“Only if you quote me kindly to Lois Lane.” The young tech mogul smiles at Kent, offers his hand and introduction as if it’s needed. “Lex. It is a pleasure to... Ow!” Clark immediately let go of Luthor’s hand. “Wow. That is a good grip! You should, not pick a fight with this person.” Lex thwaps a hand against Clark’s chest hard enough it makes a kind of dull thumping sound. Kent blinks. Bruce remains neutral. “So, Mr. Kent. Lois Lane must see something in your work. You’re her top stringer, isn’t that right?”
“I’m one of her correspondents, yes.”
“Oh, she and I go way back. She’s been critiquing my business practices since day one.”
“She holds people to very high standards,” Clark says, a little warily.
“She does. She does do that. In fact, I was thinking… you and I should have a chat sometime. Yes. Mend a few fences maybe. Mercy?” Ms. Graves ghosts forward, smiling. “Would you help Mr. Kent with scheduling something? I think it’s been a while since we said anything to the Planet. I was thinking, maybe, something about our clean water initiative.” Mercy inclines her head in an affirmatory way. “Perfect. Why don’t we – oh. Are you feeling okay?”
He says this because Clark’s making a strange face.
Kent shakes his head. “Yes. Of course. I just… headache suddenly. Maybe it’s the lights.”
“Oh dear. Mercy, would you –?”
“Of course.” Mercy moves forward, gesturing slightly with one hand. “Come with me. I am sure there is a cold press I can –”
“Ah.” Clark flinches this time, as if stabbed. His hand jumps up toward his face. “Sorry,” he blurts, “Migraine. I…” He blinks. “I’ll be…”
He probably means to say ‘fine’ but Mercy Graves puts a hand on his shoulder gently (fingertips and filigreed emerald) and he collapses out from under her touch. Bruce’s reflexes kick in before he hits the floor, snagging Kent under the armpit – not fast enough to stop his knees hitting the marble but fast enough to stop a full-body fall.
“Geez…” Kent murmurs, actually says ‘geez’, one hand to his head.
Lex Luthor stares down at him but Mercy moves immediately to touch Kent’s other arm which almost earns her a Smallville-style look of gratitude… except he gasps and slumps forward, one hand hitting the floor and for a second it seems like he’s going to puke. Mercy wisely stands back up and steps her $2000 shoes away. Clark shivers. Bruce (in that moment) assigns no particular significance to Luthor’s inaction, the long moment where Luthor does absolutely nothing to help and stands there taking in the view – the back of Clark Kent’s head from a kneeling position on the ground.
Then he says, “Too much to drink, Mr. Kent?”
“No, he hasn’t had a thing,” Bruce grunts, pulling the reporter to his feet. Kent feels… strangely light for a man his size. Solid, but internally buoyant somehow. Like his bones contain helium instead of marrow. “C’mon, Kent. I’ll get you a taxi.”
“Awfully kind of you,” Lex says mildly. Almost condescending.
Bruce, adjacently, wonders what the hell that’s about.
“Something’s wrong,” Clark says blurrily. Bruce remains visibly calm He scans around the room, as though for a source and Bruce feels a pull internally, like his cardiovascular root system has been twitched suddenly inside him. Because Clark Kent sounds sick. Superman sounds sick. “I need to go.” He shivers again. “I don’t feel right.”
“What does that mean?” Bruce asks, maintaining an authoritative calm. “Kent, what do you mean?”
“I don’t know.” He keeps shivering. “My head’s splitting…”
“That sounds bad.” Lex, again, sounds mildly bored. “Maybe you should get home.”
“I will go tell the valet,” says Mercy. She backs away from the three of them, heels clicking as she heads for the door.
“I’m okay,” Kent says. “I should probably go. Don’t want to… be any more embarrassing…”
“You don’t look okay,” Bruce says, guiding the rumpled war correspondent away from onlookers. Lex is still watching them, a neutrally curious expression in place. Bruce can’t place exactly why that irks him. “Need a ride?”
Even through whatever pain has him afflicted, the journalist part of Clark Kent trained by Lois Lane – top investigative reporter, woman who dodges bullets for the scoop – immediately comes to attention. He shoots Bruce a look and gets nothing readable back from his deadpan expression.
“Bruce Wayne leaves party early. There’s a scoop.”
“You caught me. I’m in my late forties. I’m sure Metropolis will shocked.”
“Can I ask questions while you drive?”
“You can ask,” Bruce says, carefully not looking over his shoulder at Lex who (in this new moment) seems less innocuous than before. “No promises I’ll give you anything useful.”
Thanks for reading! Funnily enough, Diana is a 5000 year old Amazonian princess who might not care that some guy took a grainy photo of her back in WWI. That said, she's still very much in this story. She's just not swanning around at Lex Luthor's fancy dinner party so she can steal Bruce Wayne's shit. Comments and feedback are extremely appreciated and every message read. <3
“I honestly don’t know what to say.”
“Then I am flattered. I don’t often find you speechless, Miss Lane.”
Lois, who does not in fact find herself speechless very often, cannot lift her face from where she has buried it in the manila folder on the table. It’s stacked thick as bagel sandwich. It’s, in a word, hefty. She’s processing, mind chugging through it all, compiling, composing the narrative and structuring it into a story. Several stories. Half a dozen lousy plot lines and one real winner.
“Diana.” Lois looks up finally. “You might be the most interesting source I’ve ever had on anything.”
She seems unmoved by this statement, though appreciative.
“I will take your word for it,” she says, one brow inclining upward.
Lois still can’t place the accent and she’s good at placing accents. Diana Prince sets her coffee cup down, thumbing a small smudge of lipstick from the porcelain. Outside the rain drives sideways against the window, thundering, muffling the sounds of all other conversation. Diana came in from the storm looking rather like there wasn’t one happening – dressed to the nines in a tailored wool jacket, hair bound up in a smooth black twist at the back of her head. Lois, who is frizzy and damp at this point, isn’t entirely sure how the physics of Diana’s beauty work, but she’s pretty sure the woman is breaking a few of their laws. If Lois were compelled to describe her look, it would have been ‘statuesque’… but in the sense someone brought one to life and she’s looking at you.
Presently she says, “Most people bringing me this kind of story would want to be featured more prominently.”
“I am a private person. You know this. And more to the point, the great work these women have done is their work alone. Any support provided by myself or by my foundation in the past has been peripheral at most, the initial momentum to set these people into motion. They are self-sufficient now. I do not work directly with any of them at this time.”
“Seven neighboring – and historically warring – nation states have just locked in a long-term cooperative peace treaty… entirely outside the intervention or purview of the United Nations.”
“These are small countries. The greater international community is largely concerned with its own affairs.”
“What’s your opinion of the violence that preceded this peace?”
Diana picks up her coffee cup again. “Hmm. Needs more cream, I think.” She doesn’t get more cream, just takes another sip. “I don’t think much of it. Violence is often an intermediary step in change. Not always and not ideally, but it does happen.” Her eyes, dark, dark and weighty when directed at Lois, hold a question. “Do you sympathize with the dead in this case?”
“They were tyrants and war criminals. It’s hard to pity them when highly organized coalitions of their own people rise up simultaneously and fucking kill or de-throne them all.” Lois carefully closes the file and folds her hands on top of it. “Usually that sort of thing results in civil war. That’s what everyone’s been waiting for in the last year.” Diana’s expression gives her nothing. Maybe a vague agreement, but on what point – unclear. “Once this goes fully public, the whole world is going to sit up and pay attention. Four presidents and two prime ministers and a queen coming to power with a plan to immediately join their nations. How… it’s mind-boggling. The long-term willpower and focus required…”
“It hasn’t been perfect. The violence goes on, but there is stability where there was none. Cooperation. A seven-nation treaty thirty years in the making, but made nonetheless.”
“This isn’t like any of your other projects, Diana. I don’t think there’s an example like this in… recorded history.”
“Maybe not recorded. But I personally don’t find it that unfathomable – that people may work together toward mutual benefit. The United Nation exists on the concept that cooperation is preferable to yet another world war. I prefer to think people are inclined to help each other, given the option, because it’s the smarter option.”
“That would make you wiser than most people.”
Diana tilts her head. “Is that your opinion of the state of the world, Lois?”
“What do you mean?”
“Do you think people are still close-minded, unwilling to stand together?”
Lois considers, then, “I think people are wising up.”
“Well, technology and industry are at a tipping point right now. Every other day, we have the Luthors, Waynes, and Okamuras of the world threatening to give us clean sustainable energy the moment they figure out how to make it profitable or palatable. Japan will probably beat America to the punch. ToyaTec was the first conglomerate to put together an action plan that involves Superman… and then actually ask Superman to give his opinion on it. Country-wide conversion to clean energy if they can get Superman to help with logistics. Hiro Okamura’s – what? – fifteen now? And he’s outpacing everyone on scalable impact planning.”
Diana nods. “You believe we are on the verge of a paradigm shift.”
“Yes. People are thinking differently. We have possibilities we did not have before and people are starting to get imaginative. Another example: NASA technically was the first to propose a Superman-based public works program. Rich Purnell—an astrophysicist—published a theoretical orbital launch program to the internet where, basically, they ask Supes to haul things into space for them. It has massive public approval. I think people are coming around.”
“You view these overtures as signs of a world ready to cooperate? You think… they’re inspired?”
“Well, yes. And with reason.” Lois inhales. “Alien invasions really put things in perspective.”
Diana sits forward slightly. “Have I told you that your bravery throughout that event is beyond admirable?” Lois feels her face get hot. Holy fuck. What is this? High school? Lois Lane, age forty-two, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter (motherfucking grown-up) cannot be blushing over a compliment. Diana never seems to notice the effect she has on people, or if she does, she’s polite enough not to acknowledge it. She continues calmly, “In my family, a woman like you would hold the respect and attention of all others.”
“That’s appreciated, but I was just kind of dragged along for the ride. The fact I survived to write a story about it afterward doesn’t make me anything in particular.”
Diana runs her thumb idly along the rim of her cup, thinking a moment.
“My mother taught me to pay attention to people who tell the right stories at the right time. She said, there are many witnesses to great atrocities and great achievements. Those who tell the story afterward ensure we learn from both.”
“Why did you bring this story to me? I mean, I’ll just be one in a million people talking about it.”
“But you will be the first by a small margin. That’s enough.” Diana smiles. “And you have a knack for finding pivotal people. You’re also a woman, and a woman in the center of several of the world’s greatest conflicts. Who better to set the tone?”
“When are they announcing it?”
“Next week. Sunday. You will be the only one with the details from all seven leaders.” She gives Lois a look, intent, open. “Do you think their alliance can last in this world?”
“Under the right conditions, yes.” Lois sits back in her seat. “I sure as hell want it to last. Just the idea of it – that’s hope right there. Hope that we can get along for once.” She shrugs. “Like you said, it’s not perfect. I’m sure they’ve all got motives and problems. Some of them definitely have blood on their hands. That Kasnian Princess in particular…” A beat. “Queen now, I suppose?”
“Now? Yes.” Diana hesitates, then, “She’s a spirited woman. You’d like her in a party.”
“Are you sure you don’t want any mention in this?”
“I think you’re downplaying your efforts somehow. I don’t know how exactly, but that’s my gut instinct.”
“Write what you feel is necessary, but I would prefer to be left out. I distract from the narrative that should be theirs alone. And I think you agree.”
“I do, but that doesn’t mean I’m not curious.”
Diana smiles. “Well, I must be doing things right. The great Lois Lane – curious.”
“Careful, my curiosity got me shanghaied onto an alien warship once.”
“Lois, let me ask one more question: Do you truly believe this is a world that can stand together? I’ve made it my life’s work to bring others together in cooperation, to solve problems through dialogue and action. But do you truly think the world is ready to follow through on their promises, to make the necessary changes for real impact?”
“I think we need to try.” Lois shrugs. “The iron’s hot. People… have a bit of wonder right now. Everything’s changed. Humanity’s been recontextualized and right now, we don’t know what we’re capable of so… maybe we’re capable of anything.”
Diana doesn’t react for a moment, just looks at her. Then she smiles.
“A bit of wonder could work,” she says.
Lex has a room in his house that used to belong to his father. He’s kept everything just the way his father left it when he died choking and shitting himself in his hospice bed. Most days, Lex keeps it locked. Even Mercy does not have access to this room -- at least, by traditional, consensual means. Mercy has every confidence that she could access this room. If it were absolutely necessary. If it were crucial.If Lex was on the other side and needed her to reach him when, in the past, no one did.
He wants to talk over their experiment in Lionel Luthor’s study and Mercy isn’t entirely sure what motives to assign to that decision. Melodrama, maybe. Lex has a weakness for it, despite himself. This is how neatly carefully scripted charity ball speeches turn into allegories about Greek gods and lightning and open bars.
“That went well,” Lex says, unlocking the door to the study.
Mercy follows him in, closing the door behind her. It’s soundproof in here. She knows because Lex has told her and because she knows the feel of a room that can eat human screams.
“What did you think, Mercy?”
“I think it took a dime-sized disk of this mineral to render the Superman too weak to stand.” Mercy inclines her head. “I wasn’t expecting the effect to be so profound. We have options now.”
Lex gestures expansively.
“No! What we have is our silver bullet… or rather, our emerald bullet, I suppose. To be precise. What the hell should I call this stuff?” He thinks for exactly two seconds, then, “Kryptonite. That too obvious? Yes? No?” He wrinkles his nose. “Whatever. I think it’s got a ring to it. Kryptonite to kill the last Kryptonian.” When Mercy’s face remains determinedly unamused, he flaps a hand at her. “Killjoy.”
“You may have a collar big enough for your beast, Lex. You may want to consider carefully if you should use it. Consider why.”
“Mercy, Mercy, I see you seeing me and drawing conclusions. I do. I see it and I get it. I would be worried too. You think I’m making this personal.”
“Do you deny it?”
“Of course not. I’m making this very personal. Unreasonably so from Kent’s perspective, probably.”
“Emotion clouds the strategy of pure logic and ambition. Are you certain that you have sufficiently separated your emotions from the decision to capture Superman?”
“Eh, I won’t go on saying I’ve severed the two completely, but I do promise this: from a purely logical standpoint it makes sense to take Superman out of the skies. Some game theory would suggest that if there is even a one percent chance that he is my enemy then I should take it as absolute.”
“Some,” says Mercy. “Not most. Not all. Holding position and striking only when struck would also be sound game theory.”
“Not when your enemy strikes and the fucking skies burn, Mercy. Preemption is the only option with a thing like Kal-El. And if no one else on the planet is smart enough or willing enough to clip his wings, then I have a moral responsibility to keep the fate of humanity in the hands of humans.” He takes a seat in the warm leather armchair by the desk and picks up the crystal bottle from the tray there. He smiles a little. “So I will.”
Lex pours himself a glass of brandy and takes a sip, swiveling slightly back and forth in his seat. “Also, he’s not as smart or well-resourced as I am and that alone from a capitalistic business stance makes him fair game.”
“But…” Mercy trails.
“But I’m making it personal. Yes. Okay. I admit that I am taking a certain pleasure in bringing this guy down. I will sleep better at night knowing he’s not out there zipping around the skies. I like taking out my enemies, putting them all in a row. You know this.”
“He is not your enemy, though.”
Lex peers at her over the glass, the smooth amber rolling lazily with his wrist movement. For a moment he doesn’t say anything, but she can tell he’s got something to say, has been waiting to say it.
“Superman’s existence is an attack, Mercy. Even if he’s too stupid to know what to do with his own power, just his being here holds all of humanity in submission. The dumb fuck at least seems aware of the power imbalance. It’s why he keeps coming when called. Showin’ us his country boy kindness.” He puts on a mocking Southern twang for that last past. “And he does this because he knows he’s got us dead to rights any time of the day. He could annihilate us all, but he doesn’t because he doesn’t feel like it aaaaand that just… doesn’t really…” There’s a grit now in his voice. “… just doesn’t really sit with me, you know?”
“That does not sound like pure logic.”
“Because it’s not, Mercy. I just said that. But the logic is sound behind the personal.”
“Superman is dangerous as an enemy.” Mercy sets her tablet aside and slowly circles the table, moves to lean her weight back against its edge so nothing stands between Lex and herself. She folds her arms loosely across her stomach, maintaining a calm and analytical mien. “For now, he is not our enemy specifically, only a potential enemy to the world. Are you certain it is wise to risk exposing ourselves?”
“It would be wiser to act through third parties, but I’m not going to do that.”
“Because it is essential that he knows it’s you that destroys him.”
“That is purely emotional.”
“I know. I’m petty. I’m rolling with it, Mercy. It’s non-negotiable.”
She nods. “The risk… you find it acceptable?”
“How far are you willing to go? Is this Pyrrhic in nature? If so, why?”
“It’s not self-destructive, Mercy. I don’t plan to go down for this. Things could go wrong, sure. Worst-case scenario: Superman goes postal and kills me. But if he does that then everyone will know what he is.” When she gives him a long, calculating look he sips his drink and tilts his head. “Aw, you’re worried.”
“That is my job.”
“You’re worried about me.”
“You pay me obscene amounts of money to worry about you. It is a singular position. Your worst-case scenario involves your death. It is my responsibility to question that as it would be my responsibility to take a bullet for you were it necessary. Superman is a trigger point for you and you know he is. Endeavor to remain above the trauma.”
Lex narrows his eyes. “That’s a bit on the nose, Mercy.”
“You just described a suicide by super-being. I will be tactless as that warrants. Do you disagree? Shall I be less direct?”
He thinks about it, slumped there in his seat looking up at her and she can feel the weight of his calculation, the cipher and tick of a myriad checks and balances. She waits. Eventually Lex sighs and takes another large gulp of brandy. “No. It’s fine.” And, internally only, Mercy releases the breath she held. Lex finishes off the glass. “It’s not like I don’t know it, Mercy. I know it’s not logical, the way I feel about it. I know that. It’s irrelevant because I’m going to act anyway.”
“It is my job to check.”
“What is our next step? We’ve proven the effectiveness of your mineral. Now what?”
“Now?” He’s not smiling anymore. “We set the trap.”
Three missed calls from Clark and a text that says, Call me. Something weird happened.
Lois calls him. It rings three times, then he picks up.
“Define weird,” she says.
“Bruce Wayne drove me home last night.”
“Okay. That is a bit odd. Are you okay?”
“It’s fine. I think he felt bad for the stripper sushi thing. He seemed… sad about the fact I live in the Metro Towers.”
“ I’m sad about the face you live in the Metro Towers. That’s why I told you to stop going there and just stay in my apartment.” She juggles her bag and a notebook, tucking her phone between her shoulder and her ear. “I have couches, Clark. Nice ones. And a table to sit at and a fridge. Like real people, Clark.” She listens to him snort before going on. “Why did he drive you? You guilt him?”
“No.” A beat. “A little. Mostly he just seemed worried, which is a weird look for Bruce Wayne. He also told me that Lex Luthor is dangerous and I should avoid him. That seemed… random. I wasn’t aware they didn’t like each other.”
“Okay, that’s weird. He’s not wrong, Luthor is a capitalist libertarian motherfuck, but we’ll circle back to that. I assume you didn’t call me about Bruce Wayne having a weird hard-on for you.”
“No, I – wait. What ?”
“Focus. Define weird.”
“How do I focus when you casually mention hard-ons in the middle of conversation?” She can feel him stalling, imagine him rubbing the back of his neck, thinking. “I got sick while I was at Luthor’s party. It was only for… maybe three minutes or so. I feel fine now, but I’ve never felt like that. Like a migraine and extreme vertigo and just… I don’t know, like my skin hurt.”
“Do you think something’s wrong? Medically?”
“I don’t know.”
Talking about Superman stuff on the phone without talking explicitly about Superman stuff is aggravating. She frowns. “Where are you right now?”
“I just got back to my apartment. I’m changing.”
“I’m going to come to your place. We can talk about it there.”
“Uh. It’s a crash-pad with a mattress. All my neighbors are broke college students. It smells like old drywall and weed.”
“I know. I’ll bring doughnuts and a bottle of Febreeze.”
“I love you.”
“So, you drove Mr. Kent home last night?”
Bruce, currently bent over and up to his forearms in the engine of the Batmobile (as Alfred likes to call it), has to slowly extract himself from the guts of the vehicle and straighten up. Alfred stands behind him at the foot of the stairs to the lower garage level, hands in his pockets, sweater-vest immaculately matched to his neck scarf and gray slacks. He must have just come from outside – his face is wind-chapped.
“Why? I thought he was very specifically a risk to your heist.”
Bruce bends back down over his work, not because he can focus on it, but so he can avoid eye contact for this. “I need to talk to you, Alfred, and you’re not going to like it.” He keeps his eyes on the engine. “That said, I need you on my side for this… because it’s too important for you not to be.”
Behind him, Alfred sighs. “Master Wayne, since the age of seven you have been to the art of deception like Mozart to the harpsichord. But you’ve never been too hot at lying to me .”
Bruce blinks, pulse quickening slightly. When he looks over his shoulder, Alfred wears an expression that dates back to Bruce’s childhood. It’s evolved somewhat, lost its sympathetic softness over the years, hollowed and sharpened for adult purposes, but it’s there all the same. Familiar as an old boot in its weathered utilitarianism.
“The White Portuguese isn’t carrying a dirty bomb,” says Alfred. When Bruce doesn’t offer protest Alfred steps forward. “So what, pray tell, is it carrying?”
“It’s a weapon,” Bruce says. “It’s a rock, a mineral capable of weakening Kryptonian cells.” Alfred’s mouth thins out immediately. “The first sample big enough to mean anything turned up in the Indian Ocean three months ago. It is now aboard the White Portuguese being delivered to Lex Luthor.” Bruce picks a towel off a nearby table and wipes the grease from his palms. “I’m going to steal it.”
“To keep it from Luthor.” Alfred, even as he says it, doesn’t seem convinced. “To destroy it?”
“Yes and no.”
“Are you building your silver bullet?”
“Yes. I know you want me to be past this, but we’re not. Clark Kent is unstable.”
“You mean he’s a human being with emotions.”
“He’s not human, but he is emotional. Dislike it as much as you want, but people are still dead because of him. A lot of people are dead. I don’t blame Clark personally for that; as far as I can tell, he was going to stay quiet in Kansas. But Zod showed us all what he is and what he is is dangerous. Tell me I’m wrong.”
“You’re not wrong, but you are afraid .” Alfred’s mad. His breathing comes controlled and even. He’s very, very mad. “Fear makes men stupid. That’s how it starts. The fever. The rage . The feeling of powerlessness that turns good men… cruel .” Alfred says nothing for a moment, lets that stand. Then, stepping slightly closer her says, “There is a fine line, Master Wayne.”
“I’m not going to kill Superman unless I absolutely have to.”
“Clark Kent. You’re not going to kill Clark Kent unless you absolutely have to.”
“I don’t hate him, Alfred.” Something about his tone must arrest the man, because his expression gives a little, the anger creasing into question. Bruce sighs, runs one hand into his hair, feels old . “Maybe I did, for a while. But this isn’t about hating him. I don’t. He’s just a…” Don’t say ‘kid’. Alfred will project significance into it. Don’t. “He’s just a man trying to help. I can sympathize, but there need to be a failsafe in place for that kind of power.” When Alfred doesn’t say anything, Bruce goes on. “Do you believe me, or do you think I’m honestly just looking for an excuse to murder someone?”
Alfred’s expression gives again, loses some of its adult edges. “No. I don’t think that.”
“I don’t blame you if you do. I’ve been… reckless.”
“You’ve been grieving . There’s a difference.”
Bruce side-steps this attempt to veer the conversation. “None of that matters now,” he says. “We have to move much faster than I anticipated. I have to steal it and I need to do it now.”
“Why? Do you know Luthor’s time line?”
“Not precisely, but I think he knows who Superman is.”
Alfred cocks a brow very high indeed. “What makes you think that?”
“Because Clark Kent – a relatively unknown war correspondent who happens to be the goddamn Superman – was invited to a Lex Luthor charity event. Luthor has access to the only known weapon against the Kryptonian species. Odds seem against that being an accident.” Bruce leans forward. “I think I raw their dry run last night.”
“What do you mean?”
“Kent got sick at the party.”
Alfred narrows his eyes. “How sick?”
Clark lives in an apartment complex on the edge of a train yard that looks more at home in Gotham than Metropolis. The elevator works but only if you hold the floor button down really hard and do a little dance to unstick it sometimes. Clark lives on the fifth floor facing the loading yard and she lets herself in with a spare key. She finds Clark lying on his bed with his hands knitted on his stomach, glasses on his forehead, looking pensive. He doesn’t seem surprised, so he saw or heard her coming.
“I got you doughnuts.”
She sets the box down on top of the microwave which is stacked on the mini-fridge near his mattress and lies down next to Clark. The comforter and sheets are freshly laundered and were clearly brought with him from Kansas. The quilt looks hand-stitched, a Martha Kent original.
Once she’s settled, he says, “I read an article today about dogs that look like Superman.”
“Sounds like hard hitting journalism.”
“I liked it.”
“Of course you did. You’re the people clickbait is baiting.”
“What kind of doughnuts did you get?”
“All of them.”
“ Thank you!”
“You already said that, dear.”
She kicks her heels off and inspects a large water stain on the ceiling. Clark’s studio apartment is a tiny $300 a month bare brick, shit hole with no utilities but the sink and shower in the cramped, decidedly not Clark-sized bathroom. There is a single functional outlet which Clark admits he rewired himself. He’s made this otherwise horrific space weirdly tolerable by scrubbing the whole placed down to the floor boards and then putting all his things directly in the center of the room.
Lois notes: the center of the room gets sunlight through the big bay windows all day long.
He put down a massive circular woven rug, then arranged his mattress and the rest of his belonging within the confines of the rug – creating a localized spot of color and warmth in the center of an otherwise dead industrial space. A single beautiful antique wood armoire stands by the bed and must contain Clark’s entire wardrobe. It’s far, far too fucking nice for this shitty apartment and must have also come from Kansas. There’s a sturdy but squat wood bookshelf stuffed with paperbacks, magazines, and electronics. There are ABC magnets on the mini-fridge.
“How do you do work here?”
“I use my phone as a hot spot. I have a really good data plan.”
“You finish that charity write up already?”
“Yup. It’s in Perry’s inbox.”
“What about the Bruce Wayne piece?”
“I’m… working on it.”
“Live dangerously, Kent. What is that extra microwave for? The one in the corner?”
He scratches his chin. “Destroying hard drives and stuff.”
She lets that pass. “There’s only one outlet.”
“I have an extension cord.”
“You can afford a little better, I think.”
“I like the privacy and I can pay cash. The landlord likes me and he’ll alibi me no questions asked.”
“So you got sick?”
He looks at her finally. “I’m thinking about it. Just going through it in my head over and over. I can’t figure out what it might have been. I was talking to Bruce, Luthor, and his assistant, Mercy. I just –” He makes a face, the one where his mouth scrunches up and pulls to the right. “Maybe it’s… some residual pangs from fighting Zod. Like a trick knee or something. I just don’t know how alarmed to be.”
“You don’t seem that alarmed. I saw you on the news. I didn’t know you were doing projects in Sudan.”
He brightens. “I’m getting really good at building things fast. I could build you house in twenty minutes if you give me all the material. I mean, honestly, most houses are basically made from kindling and insulation at this point. Brick I can’t help with. That needs drying time and –”
“More construction?” She interrupts him gently before he starts complaining about the dry time of mortar. (Which she knows he will; it tormented him during the reconstruction of Metropolis: the fact he couldn’t just weld together a structurally sound skyscraper in ten minutes or make mortar dry instantly.) “I thought you were going to help with that oil thing in Rio?”
“I did. That’s done. Should be up on the BBC by now. So I picked something else on the way back.”
“Sudan is not ‘on the way back’ from Rio.”
“Same difference,” he says, pawing for his phone on the floor. “There’s a couple of group-think sites now. People up-vote certain social service proposals and argue their merits in a public forum. I kind of… pick from there when I can’t find an actionable disaster to help with.” He hands her his phone so she can scroll the list. “This one was doable in a really short time frame. Building school houses and digging wells takes no time at all and with irrigation ditches dug, they can do their own farming.”
“Did you reroute a river?”
“No, part of the river. The civil engineers said it was fine.” A beat. “Do you know how irrigation works? I would not reroute a whole river.”
Lois ignores his farm boy critique and reads. After a while she says, “Clark, can I ask you something?”
“Everyone on the planet is asking for your help. Powerful people and organizations. Okamura wants you to help him put Japan on clean energy. NASA wants you to help them put research stations into orbit. It’s good stuff. It’s what we talked about.” She glances at him. “You know that’s going to piss people off.”
“Everything I do pisses people off.”
“You’re giving free labor to massive projects that could otherwise be monetized. People don’t like people who do things for free. You’re moving out of charity into industry. That is going make you a new kind of enemy.”
“If people are just critiquing what projects I back, that’s better than wondering aloud if I’m going to punch the moon to dust...”
“Be serious. People are already calling you un-American. A traitor just because Japan was the first country to get the logistics together enough to ask you for help. They will politicize your aid, but one-thousand times what they are now. Helping build school houses can only be so controversial. Building a power grid for a foreign nation is inherently political.”
“You know you can still walk away from all this. You could just be Clark Kent. That is an option.”
He looks at her. “No. It’s not.”
“It is, even if you won’t consider it. I just need you to think about this.” She puts his phone down so she can look him in the eyes, monitor his reaction. “You are probably right -- most people aren’t the people who throw bottles. Most people are the ones who jump barriers to help. I believe that.”
“But you do need to consider that you are a legitimately good person and there are assholes out there who want to take advantage of your abilities. I know you know this, but it bears repeating: Monsters are not always warlords. Sometimes they’re normal, petty, people who only are good because they can’t get away with being fucking monsters. Just because they don’t have the balls or the means to be awful doesn’t make them good.” She examines his face when he doesn’t really react. “Just a friendly reminder: we’re not all friendly.”
“I hitchhiked around the world, Lois. Yes. I know regular people can be assholes.” He sounds amused, but not dismissively so. “Why are you asking me this?”
“I don’t know… I have a friend I liked her. She talks… the way you talk sometimes. She reminds me of you if you were older and had time to figure things out. If Zod hadn’t… outed you before you were ready.” Clark waits. She thinks a long moment, considering. “She’s been organizing people as a career and lifestyle for a while. I think you’d like her.”
“What’s her name?”
“Diana Prince. Her foundation supports a shocking number of long-term programs for social entrepreneurship and I think she might… have had a hand in one of the most impressive diplomatic feats of our time. I’ve been in touch with her on and off for the last year or so – always a signal boost or a scoop on some project or program for women’s education or human rights. I admire her a lot.”
“Do you… think I should talk to her?”
Lois blinks, a slow realization dawning. “I think I do .”
“As… Clark or…?”
“Oh, Jesus, as Clark. Don’t do what you did to that NASA guy and just show up on his porch to ask questions.”
Clark gets cagey. “I wanted to know the math...”
“Of course you did. But don’t show up on the porch of some poor astrophysicist and ask him math questions without pre-amble. There are so many iPhone videos, Clark. Why do you like NASA so much?”
“Because they’re underfunded and inspire hope.” He shrugs. “NASA is cool.”
Lois sighs. “Yes, Clark. NASA is cool.”
Feel free to ask questions and leave feedback. Both keep my brain chugging. :)
“So,” says Alfred.
“Yeah,” says Bruce.
The Kryptonite, a chunk about the size of a basketball, glows slightly. Faintly radioactive and internally luminous. It’s sitting on a table next to half a dozen smoke grenades, a spare utility belt, and an empty cup of coffee. That seems a little odd, Bruce thinks, that the thing capable of killing the most powerful being on the planet could casually occupy the same space as sour coffee and spare parts. Of course, he knows that’s absurd. Terrible things occupy the same space as regular things all the time. Like a bullet in a chamber in a gun in a pocket, passing by families on the street.
It’s 3 AM and Bruce is pretty sure he got hit in the head at some point during the extraction.
“It’s done then,” Alfred says, less because it seems he believes it, more to get the conversation out in the open where they can air out their thoughts. “We have it. Luthor’s silver bullet is off the table.”
“It’s Lex Luthor. And fifty pounds of Kryptonite makes for an arsenal, but from what I’ve seen, it might not take that much to bring Clark down.” Bruce, seated in a high-backed swivel chair – wearing post-mission sweats and a mysteriously acquired Gotham University sweatshirt – is far too tired to rise from where he’s chosen to slump. “So we’re not exactly done here.”
Alfred sighs. “So we’ve got the great bloody green rock, but your concern is we didn’t get all of the great bloody green rock. Very good, sir. What do we do about the remaining bits still in play?”
Bruce folds his arms, contemplating the rock in front of him. “Option A: Warn Kent outright, which would neutralize our advantage if we ever needed to use the weapon against him ourselves. Option B: Keep after Luthor long term in an effort to take the last of the Kryptonite out of play.” Bruce rolls his shoulders a bit, ignores the twine of a pulled muscle somewhere in his lower back. “Luthor’s never been hit directly by the Bat before. It’s likely he doesn’t think I’ll keep after him. That said, we’re assuming that he’s going to give us any time to steal what remains.”
“And you’re certain Luthor knows Kent’s identity.”
“Almost certain. At least Superman is wary about people taking potshots at him. Clark Kent thinks he’s safe.”
Alfred digests this a moment. Then: “Luthor… I know you have limited dealings with him in the business world, but have you a measure of the man? Is he really committed to harming Clark Kent? Because the particulars of his conviction is rather what concerns me, not that it occurred to him to do so.”
Bruce closes his eyes: replays it. Hunting for details. Lex introducing himself, Lex shaking Clark’s hand, Lex standing over Clark and staring down at the reporter gasping on the ground in front of him. Bruce opens his eyes.
“If it’s just about profit, there’s no obvious time limit on killing him. Superman’s public projects like Okamura or NASA or any of his NGO work – none of that links in a profitable way to Luthor’s business holdings. Killing Superman doesn’t eliminate a business competitor. If he’s after immediate monetary gain, then selling the weapon is the most profitable possible move.”
Alfred snorts. “I know plenty of people in our own government who’d be interested in that.”
“Like it or not, this chunk of rock.” Bruce points for emphasis. “Is worth more than I want to think about. If all Luthor wants to do is sell his deterrent, then he’s the average white-collar arms dealer and I’m as worried about him as I am any other billionaire weapons manufacturer.”
“Yes, but not immediately.”
Alfred tilts his head. “And if he’s not after profit?”
Bruce closes his eyes again. For some reason, he cannot remember for the life of him where or when he got the sweatshirt he’s wearing. It’s bothering him. He found it in the post-mission closet near the armory, the one he piles comfortable clothes in specifically for the purpose of swapping from the suit to long hours of lab work. He can’t remember when he put this in with the rest of his clothes. He ignores that. Focuses. Luthor’s face – is he remembering those micro-expressions correctly or not? The flicker of hate or interest? Arousal? (Just a hint of it?) Feigned boredom. Feigned for sure, because Bruce knows it was a test run, his weapon in action. How did he look at Clark Kent when he was hurt?
“If he’s not after profit, if he really wants to hurt Superman…”
“Awfully kind of you,” Lex says mildly. Almost condescending.
“…then he’s not going to wait.”
“Why?” Alfred folds his arms. “Based on what? What makes you think he’s going to do something immediately?”
“This isn’t my sweatshirt,” Bruce says, staring down at it.
Alfred freezes just a heartbeat, then says, “No.”
His tone means he noticed, but had been hoping Bruce would not.
Bruce stands up and pulls off Jason’s sweatshirt (it was in the bottom of the closet, in the back, he’d missed it, of course, somehow, Jason must have stuffed it in) and folds it up. He places it on the table next to the Kryptonite and the coffee. He breathes in and then looks at Alfred.
“He’s not going to wait, because he’s an arrogant genius with means who just had his goal snatched from him at the last possible second. And I think he hates Clark Kent more than he can stand to wait.”
“Listen. What will motivate you to finish writing that piece? What do I have to do to you? What motivates space ferns? Because the imminent danger of Perry White throwing you off the building clearly isn’t doing it for you.”
“He could just threaten to fire me,” Clark says around the pencil in his mouth, poking out like a cigarette. “And stop calling me a space fern.”
He’s lying on his stomach in Lois’ bed presently, typing on his laptop. He types extremely fast, fast enough that it’s a little inhuman. She can’t follow his fingers. The clicking of keys sounds like a buzzing sound. The cursor flies across the page like he’s got his thumb down on a single key, except he doesn’t and fully coherent (if terse, perfunctory, and matter-of-fact) sentences are left in its wake. Clark doesn’t delete things often. He’s confessed it’s because he’s started thinking faster lately. Not necessarily better, just faster. She can tell, because his writing hasn’t improved much. His organization of his thoughts has, but not the writing.
“C’mon, Kent. Bruce Wayne is a… fill in the blank. He’s a jack-ass who left you in a strip club. He’s a nice guy who gave you a lift. He’s a billionaire playboy philanthropist mega-tech titan of industry. Just a pick an angle and run with it. Please.”
He lets the pencil drop. “I’m working on it.”
“Perry hates you, you know.” She paces near the foot of the bed, nursing her coffee. “Lex Luthor wants to set up an interview. Bruce Wayne keeps being nice to you. You’re billionaire bait. He’s thinking of lighting his hair on fire.” She sips her coffee. “That’s a lie. Perry is too pragmatic for that. He’s thinking about lighting your hair on fire.”
Clark becomes cagey at long last. “Is he really that mad? The deadline isn’t up yet.”
“You’re failing to write a puff piece about a rich recluse billionaire and can’t get it on his desk before absolute deadline.” Her tone carries the appropriate amount of Pulitzer Prize winning disappointment. Clark responds to her judgement by sinking very slightly into the pillows and something about watching a massive farm boy try to disappear behind a pillow, again, reminds her that most of the world thinks he’s a threat. She keeps that thought from her face and says, mocking, “Perry hates it and wishes you were back in Iraq.”
“I am going back to Iraq. Next week. He’ll have his story before then.”
“Clark.” Lois flops on the bed next to him, carefully keeping her mug of coffee upright. “You know my history with Lex right?”
“You mean that part where you built part of your career publishing about how his subsidiary companies are the literal devil and he’s a capitalist libertarian despot?” He’s looking sideways up at her. “That part?”
“I’m just saying, he might have been weird at the party with you because of our history. He specifically wanted to set up an interview with you and, frankly, he avoids the Planet like toe fungus most of the time.”
“I could go a whole lifetime without another billionaire being weird with me.”
“Hey, you charmed Bruce Wayne. But I wouldn’t recommend getting friendly with Luthor, even if he’s opening a door. And don’t let Luthor goad you into saying something sneaky-sarcastic. He’ll notice. Don’t get cute.” Clark gives her a wide-eyed look of confusion. “Oh, put that away. You know perfectly well what I’m talking about.”
“I’ve met Lex. He didn’t seem…”
“You met him for two seconds as Superman and five minutes as Clark Kent. You didn’t meet him. You don’t ‘meet’ men like that, you meet their personas. I’m saying if he wants another interview to be careful. That’s all. That’s my two cents.”
“Don’t say that. It does things to me.”
Clark grins up at her.
“No. I have to get up in an hour. Not all of us are thirty-five and solar-powered. Knock it off.” He does not knock it off. “This is why the US government doesn’t like you. You’re incorrigible.”
“And really hot,” he reminds her.
“Shut up, Smallville. You need to go. You’re meeting Diana today and you will not make me look bad by being late and… and… rumpled.” He continues not to knock it off. “You’re lucky you have super speed, bucko.”
He’s younger in person.
Maybe that’s not fair, given Diana’s particular perspective on the age and maturity as it applies to the human race. But it’s raining when he comes in from the streets and he looks nothing in person like he does on TV – armored and framed by disaster. Re-contextualized to the rainy streets of Metropolis, he’s a tall dark-haired young man frowning down at his water-beaded glasses. She observes him for a moment -- scrubbing the lens ineffectively on the cuff of his also soaking overcoat. Some details remain consistent: strong jaw, sun-dark skin, blue, blue eyes. Even from here. An Olympian physique in a large jacket.
His curls – thick, so black they sheen blue – are dripping but somehow resist losing volume, the water wicking away as if from wax paper. So when he – like a very large and bemused Labrador – shakes his head a bit, several patrons in splashing distance look affronted.
“Sorry.” He puts the smudgy glasses back on. They are extremely smudgy. “Sorry.”
She’s not sure who he reminds her of. It’s been a very, very long time since she stood in a room with someone like him and, in truth, she’s never been in a room with someone exactly like him. She stirs her cup of cocoa with a thin peppermint stick, chin propped in one hand, while Lois Lane’s protégé casts around the room looking for her. She’s being a little rude, not immediately rising to reveal herself, but watching Clark Kent hover unobtrusively through a bustling café – there’s a carefulness in it that’s only immediately apparent to her in how he touches a woman’s shoulder to get by her, turns his shoulder to let another patron pass. He stops to towel his glasses again with the edge of his shirt.
He looks up, finds her. He smiles. “Diana?”
She smiles back. “Hello.”
He adjusts his shoulder bag as he approaches her table, offers her a hand to shake.
“Honored to meet you Ms. Prince. Lois talks a lot about you.”
She stands and takes his hand. “And she you. I’ve been looking forward to this.”
“Same. Thank you for meeting with me. I wanted to ask you…”
He stops talking. He stares at her for a full three seconds. Then he stares at her hand, still around his palm, grasping firmly. His grip is warm her hand; almost hot, actually, like a pot long from the kiln but still holding heat. She’s gripping his hand very, very firmly. Too firmly. Like men sometimes do to show dominance. (A tactic she doesn’t exactly condone, but acknowledges.) She hopes her other hand, set gently palm down over their joined hold, is enough to express that is not what she’s doing. When it seems her point is made, Diana lets go and sits down.
For a moment longer, Clark stares blankly at her.
“I…” He looks around the room. The customers continue to sip tea, chatter, and clip away on laptops. He looks at her again, hands moving to grip the strap of his bag in two hands. A nervous gesture. “You need to explain or I’m leaving.”
“I’m sorry.” She hopes the sincerity of it comes through enough to reach him. “I just thought it would be better to get that in the open right away. I couldn’t have an honest conversation with you otherwise.”
He hesitates, then takes a seat. “What are you?”
“I’m not one of your people.”
“I didn’t think you were. You feel differently and your heart is in the wrong place.”
Diana blinks. Clark blinks back, unapologetic about having clearly x-rayed through her skeletal structure to view the arrangement of her internal organs. Fair, given her blindside. She can feel that he’s tense, an almost gravitational shift in the room. The air around him seems… heavy. Her estimate: the shy, gentle man navigating a crowded coffee shop – that man is real, but the blue-eyed alien staring her down with a gaze that cleaves steel molten… he’s also very real.
“I did not lie to Lois. My legal name is Diana Prince and my body of work over the years is real.” She picks up her cup, blowing steam gently from the top. “But in the way that you are not really a US citizen, I am not really a citizen of Rome. Despite what my papers may say. We both necessitate… flexibility in bookkeeping. I think you know something about that.”
“I do, obviously, since you know who I am.”
“I do. So to be fair, I will tell you who I am.”
“You could lie to me,” he says, not accusatory exactly, but pointing it out.
“I could. But I won’t.” She takes a long drink of her cocoa, the warmth spreading pleasantly from her mouth and fingers, radiating inward. “I am a five thousand years old diplomat from an island nation of immortals.”
She smiles apologetically.
“Prove it?” he says, a little uncertainly.
“The appropriate response.” She sets her cup down. “Immortality is difficult to prove, actually. It’s so easy to falsify evidence in this day and age. I can be anyone, as you well know.” She picks her handbag up from the table, tugs open a small, gold, envelope-sized cigarette holder. She snaps it open and, very carefully, removes a photograph. She does not hand it over right away. “Please be careful with this. It’s the original and I’m… attached to it.”
He hesitates in the motion of reaching for it.
“I promise to be careful.” She hands it over. She doubts he’s trained in the peculiar art of authenticating photographic evidence, but perhaps some peculiarity of his senses give him insight into it. He looks up at her as he hands it back. “This could be fake. You’re right. So if you are what you say, how would you prove it?”
“You could have Lois authenticate this story. I am an obscure but trackable urban legend from the World War One. You need only know where to look.” She takes the photo and turns it over to show the hand writing on the back. “There is no doubt that a woman who looks like me fought Nazis in 1940 Berlin. The names of the men in the photo are all accounted in military records. You can speak with their children and grand-children. Some of them know me and would vouch for my story, if you were so inclined.”
“I’ll look up those names later.”
“Do you want to write it down?”
“I don’t need to write it down.” He never breaks eye contact with her.
“I’ll leave that to you, then. But even if my strength is real and even if you buy that I am the same woman from the photo, that will not be enough, because the fact of the strength and my longevity does not prove my origins. My people are myths to history. Amazons. Poor translations of a reality. My people were simply changed by forces the rest of man’s world has forgotten.”
“So how will you convince me, if I won’t take you at your word?”
“I hope my… physical ability carries some weight.”
“It does, but being strong and being… mythical are two different things.”
“In older time, your power would make you mythic to the people of this world. Some still consider you so.”
“Then I’ll prove an absurdity.” She picks up her jacket, folded over the back of her seat. “If you’ll let me do that.”
“I have a tool that is powered by the same forces that gave me my strength. I can demonstrate here and now.”
Diana carefully unspools a loop of golden cord from the deep inner pocket of her jacket, laying the jacket itself down on the table between them. She holds it carefully in her hands, like a jeweler showing someone a length of pearls or precious stone. It looks dull in the cafe light – like a loop of woven rope, smooth and faintly gold in her palms. It feels warm, like skin, like holding a living thing. Clark, she notices, leans forward, frowning down at it.
“This rope, when used as restraint, compels truth from the one restrained.”
“It’s a lie detector?”
“No, it makes the user answer any question I ask truthfully.”
“And… you want to prove it’s real by using it on me?”
“Only if you allow me. I would let you dictate the question I can ask when I use it and you only need hold it with a loop around your palm.” She tilts her head. “Does that seem fair to you?”
He frowns at the cord in her hands for a long moment. “You should know up front, I don’t believe you.”
“That’s actually for the best. What question would you like me to ask?”
“Uh, my favorite baseball team?”
“Very well.” She offers him one hand, palm up on the table. “May I?”
He hesitates again, but eventually gives her his hand. Diana can feel a couple people watching what she’s doing but Clark clearly doesn’t seem to care so she supports his wrist in one hand and with her other hand circles two loops of the cord around his palm. She pulls it just tight enough for there to be a little friction then folds the jacket over a little to screen it from the eyes of other. Then she waits for a non-verbal or verbal signal that he’s ready to begin. Clark frowns at the thin loops around his hand, either skeptically or anxiously. She’s not sure.
He looks at her and nods.
“Clark.” The cord around his palm pulses once, hot, gold. “What is your favorite baseball team?”
“I don’t have one. I hate baseball,” he says, quickly, almost conversationally.
He blinks at her. She thinks, but is not sure, that his eyes get a little pale and he immediately pulls the loop of rope off his hand. He sits back in his chair, taking his hands off the table. His jaw’s a little tight.
Diana covers the rope in her jacket. “Are you okay?”
“That… felt very strange.”
“Yes, the effect can be disconcerting.” Privately she thinks, Usually a participant resists a little. But she doesn’t say that because Clark’s posture has gone stiff, a kind of controlled immobility that feels the way a loaded gun does – resting potential in the silence. She assesses his expression, then volunteers: “It’s only power is to compel truth. It cannot compel anything further and, with practice, it’s effect can be resisted by some.” He relaxes very incrementally, almost invisibly if she were not looking for it. Diana folds her jacket and pulls it into her lap, away from him. “Have I overstepped?”
“No. You warned me. That was just… uncomfortable.” He’s looking at her lap. Something in the focus suggests he’s looking through the table and after a moment he looks at her. “If you really are five-thousand years old, that makes you one of the most important people in human history. Why are you coming to me?”
“First of all, being old does not translate into importance. Secondly, I’m here to offer my friendship, if you’d like it.”
Clark’s smile looks brittle. “Lots of people say they want to be my friend. Zod said that up until the moment I was choking blood on his warship.” His eyes have gravity of their own, inside them somehow. The spin of the earth pulls differently at him. “You made friends with Lois. I assume you knew who I was when you did. You used her.”
“No, actually. I made friends with her because, yes, I was interested in her connection to the world engine event. But I didn’t know who you were. Not at first. Your relationship is relatively… platonic from an outside perspective. Is that Lois’ idea?” Clark doesn’t answer but some inclination of his eyes confirms it. “She’s smart, sending you away. The average person wouldn’t notice what you are when you’re constantly hundreds of miles away. Would not notice Clark Kent within her professional sphere.”
“But you did.”
“I’m old, Mr. Kent. I know how titans look when they walk the earth.” She picks up her cocoa. “Even if they are walking gently.”
“Are you watching Lois?”
“No. I saw a picture of you in April. The one on the end-stand in her living room.”
“If it’s the picture I think you’re talking about…” A private moment, a disposable camera, a small restaurant, the two of them smiling cautiously but excitedly into the lens. Diana suspects Lois doesn’t keep pictures of Clark on her phone, that she has pre-paid phones and a memorized number. The structure of Lois Lane’s protection: pragmatic, thorough, vigilant. Clark says, “Lois doesn’t keep that picture out when guests are over.”
“I know. She removed it when I sat down. I managed to catch her off guard. It was still early days back then, for her.”
“That’s it? That’s all it took?”
“No. Seeing you in person, physically, how the pull of the earth responds to you as you stand, how you feel in a room, the minutia of irregularities. That’s what it took. Without my particular insight, one might simply notice a striking resemblance.” She takes a drink of her cocoa and adds, “You’re worried someone else can figure it out.”
“Not using the methods I did. Someone would need to be close to Lois and she doesn’t let many get near.” She takes a quick read of the way his eyes hold hers, his jaw tenses. “It’s not my intention to complicate things for you or Lois. I merely wanted to offer my assistance and experience; precisely as Lois described. If you prefer, we can walk away from this table and never speak again.”
Clark doesn’t answer right away and she continues to sip at her drink, giving him a moment.
Eventually, he says, “I don’t think I want that, Diana.” He might not mean to, but he glances downward. She gets the feeling he’s looking through the table at the lasso on her knees again. “But I don’t know exactly how to react right now. You’re… At least when Zod showed up, I had a context for his arrival. I don’t really have one for yours. I’m still not sure I believe your reasons for reaching out to me.”
“That’s fine. You don’t have to believe me. But at the least you know my work is real. I am real. Whatever else about me you may doubt, you can call on me, Clark Kent. I will answer.”
“Lois would tell me to suspect you.”
“Lois is a smart woman. I encourage you to tell her about me… though, I would ask for an hour or so to let me call her. I would prefer to tell her myself something of what I am.” She acknowledges the slight know of guilt beneath her breastbone for what it is. “I regret not telling her the truth about me. It’s been a long time since I revealed myself to someone.”
“I can do that.”
“Thank you, Clark.”
He sighs, openly frustrated now. “I want to trust you.”
“I will take that as a compliment. Why do you want to trust me?”
He looks a little embarrassed. “Because it would be nice to talk to someone… a little like me.”
Diana rolls the warm cup between her palms for a moment, gazing at the swirl of foam along the surface.
“Over the decades, I have not been allowed to return home. I miss my family. My sisters. My mother. But until I finish my work here, I cannot return to them. As a result, I live in a world of strangers and, like you, I worry what the public might do with my existence were they to discover me.”
She looks up at him.
“It can be solitary. I admit that part of what brought me to Metropolis was the possibility of meeting you at some point. I figured we would have some interests in common. That we might be able to help one another.”
“Lois tells me that’s what you’re best at. Bringing people together.”
“I’ve had practice. From what she tells me… you have a few questions about that.”
Clark tilts his head. “How does Lois talk about me at all?”
“Mostly, she makes fun of you, but in an endearing way that implies she respects your professional work despite your difference in style and approach. She’s older and done war time embedding, like you. So she’s had time to form opinions about how it should be done.” Clark snorts, then tries to look like he didn’t. He does not succeed. Diana smiles. “She’s very careful in how she talks about you, you know. She also tells me you’re heading to Iraq next week. I wonder, when you’re done there would you be interested in covering some of the work I’m doing in China? I’m looking for the right outlet to tell my story and I’d like Lois to cover it after the Seven Nation Alliance.”
“You’d have to ask Lois about that. I’m her stringer.”
“I will, but would you be interested?”
His eyes are very blue and Diana thinks they change in the light, catching it and reflecting it in subtle refractions and shifts. The color of his curiosity in the intersections of shade and contrast. She thinks the glasses aren’t quite enough to hide it, if you’re looking for it. It seems odd to her that two isolated evolutionary systems independent from one another by almost unfathomable distances of space and time would somehow evolve along identical anatomical lines. It’s strange to her he’s not composed of sunlight and fire. That he’s not a living pulse of heat and thought arcing through the universe. In the taxonomy of her pantheon, he seems too small. The wrong shape. The wrong species. The wrong time.
“I might be.”
“Okay.” Diana draws a thin business card from her left breast pocket and slides it across the table. “Call me if you need to talk. Or don’t.” She stands shrugs her coat on. “Like I said, I’ve been around a while and I will be around a while more.” She starts to go, then stops. She tilts her head slightly, studying Clark’s face. “Do you want this conversation to be over?”
Clark seems startled by the question. “Uh. No, actually.”
She has an impulse. Her mother would have told her not to follow impulses. But she has not survived in man’s world by following the mandates of Amazons and, in fact, is no longer certain her sisters would recognize her now. She has more in common now with a blue-eyed Air Force officer now a century gone, his face in every skyline she looks toward, like an atmosphere around her. She imagines he would have liked Clark. That he would have had a similar opinion of him as he had of her when she began. She thinks he’d had bought him a beer.
She smiles and says, “Would you like to see something no one else has seen in a hundred years?”
Clark smiles back. She can see some of the sun in how he does that. “On the record?”
She gives him a look.
“Just kidding.” He stands up and follows her out into the rain.
“Okay,” says Lex. “This is a setback.”
Mercy, who can kill a man at three-hundred yards with a variety of military grade armaments, side-eyes her boss and acknowledges the mild twinge of… not anxiety – wariness, perhaps, that runs through her fingers when he says that. It’s a reflex, she knows, to put her hands on a weapon. He’s got his back to her presently. He’s considering the shards of the smartphone that he just whipped against the bullet-proof plate window ten seconds ago. It’s a quarter to midnight. Outside the city skyline cuts a glittering edge against the dark and Lex, facing the window, cuts an agitated silhouette against the Metropolis glow.
It’s in moments like these and Mercy Graves takes stock of her employer: when he’s looking at something other than her.
“You know, I expect curveballs. I usually see those coming. There’s a million-million variables with statistical probabilities attached to them and statistics would suggest that of all the particular variables to interfere with my goals, the motherfucking Batman wasn’t high on the possibilities.” He inhales. Then exhales. “I’m just saying. I can’t be faulted for this one. Or maybe I can. I dunno. I’m mulling it over. Did I miss the memo where Batman A: is keeping tabs on my business practices and B: after ignoring so many of my other shadier subsidiary practices, would decide to go after the alien rock smuggling bit of my operation?”
Mercy’s monitoring the tiny twitches in Lex’s right index finger, which he taps now and again against his thigh. His sneakers are scuffed. He’s got helmet hair, sticking up in some places, flat in others. Like a streak of wheat raked sideways. The angle of his head suggests he’s trying to align what he now knows with his goals as they stand now, afflicted by the events of this morning. At 2AM this morning, Gotham’s urban legend gunned a military-grade street-car out of an empty cargo container in the Gotham docks and T-boned the armored truck carrying the Kryptonite cargo. He then broke the arms and legs of about eight armed guards, took the Kryptonite, and vanished. The encounter took less than fifteen minutes.
“Actually,” says Lex after a while, “it’s my own fault for selling that whack-job short. I mean. I figured the Bat is some trust-fund psycho with a grudge for street-level crime, but apparently he’s better resourced than I gave him credit for. That transport was moving legal cargo with a single extra box loaded that very night. So he knew exactly what he was looking for meaning the Bat wants Kryptonite.”
“Maybe he shares your intentions,” Mercy says, not sure that’s a good thing.
“I doubt that.”
“You think there’s another possibility?”
“Hnnnnngh,” Lex says, making the strangled noise he does when something aggravates him. “I think vigilante justice might flock together. The Bat seems like he’d be a fan of unilateral action outside the law. Birds of a feather and all that.”
“You think he’s… trying to protect Superman?”
“Maybe crazy Bat-people, farm boy aliens, and junior Senators from Connecticut share value systems. Either way, they are fucking up my day.”
“I assume you’ve considered the contingency?”
“Of course I have,” he says, rolling his head like he’s loosening a knot in his shoulders.
Mercy watches his index finger tap a two-four rhythm against his thigh again, notes the whorl of musculature tension still twisted into the top of his spine. There, between the shoulder blades. Riding his motorcycle does that. He tenses up too much while riding and Mercy’s told him that over and over, but he tells her he sees too many things happening at once out there, the world coming at him at eighty miles per hour and he can’t relax. She’s told him to stop getting on the fucking sports bike. That weedy tech-moguls shouldn’t go that fast if going that fast puts your brain in overdrive.
Naturally, he says that’s why he does it.
“Do we move forward then?”
“Yes. By the end of next week, Earth loses its power fantasy.”
“And the Bat?” Mercy tilts her head. “His interference…?”
Lex finally gives her a look, expression scrunched in confusion.
He says, annoyed, “Who gives a fuck about the Bat?” Then, seeing her expression then, he laughs. “Mercy. He’s been punching clowns in Gotham for twenty years and this, this little heist on the dockyards, is the closest he’s ever been to relevance. And you know what? It’s not stopping a damn thing. This was it. That’s the best he has.” Lex looks back over the city, the one he owns, and says, “I’m still gonna knock his sun god out of the fucking sky.”
Mercy says, “I’ll make some calls.”