“-and oh man, that out? I was on the edge of my seat!” Jimmy gestures excitedly. Clark winces as the disposable coffee cup in Jimmy’s hand makes an alarming sloshing sound. “Could you believe that?”
“No. No I could not,” Clark says. He has no idea what they’re talking about.
“And then, and then! It was so close at the end, and -” Jimmy gestures again, and Clark sees the balance of the cup tilt too far. Jimmy’s going to pour his coffee all over himself. That coffee is very hot. Not hot enough to send someone to the hospital, but hot enough to hurt.
Clark calculates the necessary force, then sucks in a rapid, powerful breath to get the cup to tilt away from Jimmy, and then, at a little faster than average human speed, starts standing and reaching.
“Jimmy, the coffee-”
The cup spills on Clark’s hand, down his arm. Which is not actually what he meant to have happen. He meant to tilt the cup enough that it wouldn’t spill on Jimmy, not have it pour down on him instead. Some of it gets on his desk, but the top of Clark’s desk has stayed pretty clear of stuff since he figured out that Lois wasn’t going to stop treating his desk like a second chair, so that’s not a big deal. What’s a bigger deal is that now he’s going to have to act like Jimmy’s coffee hurt him, which is not fair to Jimmy, at all. But the coffee is still steaming, and if Clark doesn’t react to it... Clark flinches and lets out what experience has taught him is a decent approximation of a pained yelp.
“Oh fuck!” Jimmy says, deforming the coffee cup in his haste to yank it away from Clark. “Fuck! I’m so sorry!”
“It’s not your fault,” Clark says, biting his lower lip hard enough to turn it white. “I’m just going to go… wash this.”
“Shit, are you burned? Do you need an icepack?”
“I think if I run cold water over it, I’ll be fine.” People are staring. He didn’t want this.
“I’ll clean off your desk. Shit, C.K., I am so sorry.”
“It’s really not your fault. Stuff happens.” It is very very difficult to strike the correct balance between ‘acting reasonably pained’ and ‘not sending Jimmy on a horrible guilt trip that he in no way deserves.’ Clark would prefer to err on the side of not sending Jimmy on a guilt trip. “I’ll just…”
“Yeah! Yeah, go.” Jimmy drops his coffee in Lois’s waste bin as he runs to the breakroom - presumably for napkins. Clark cradles his arm and tries not to think too much about how many people are looking at him or how red his face probably is right now.
Today is off to a great start.
Clark manages to rinse most of the coffee out of his shirtsleeve, but he knows the smell is going to linger and bug him all day. He also scratches his arm and hand, irritating his skin until he actually looks like a human who’s had a hot liquid spilled on them. Then he leaves the bathroom, hoping that in the time it’s taken to make himself presentable something more interesting than ‘newbie journalist gets coffee all over his arm’ has occurred and no one will look at him ever again.
Something more interesting has happened. It’s ‘Perry wants to chew out newbie journalist for blowing off interviews with Lex Luthor.’ And everyone is looking at them.
“- don’t know how you do it, Kent, but that won’t matter if you don’t actually follow up! Lex Luthor, man! If he’s not news, what is?”
“Union disputes at Metropolis General Hospital?” Clark says before he can stop himself. He knows Perry wasn’t looking for an answer. He knows. And most people, Perry included, don’t like it when Clark answers their rhetorical questions. But Clark has been covering the union disputes, and he hasn’t had time to meet with Luthor, and quite frankly, he doesn’t want to meet with Luthor anyway. He doesn’t like seeing what Luthor’s become. Plus, he can’t think of any good reason why Luthor would want to see him, now, after all this time, and that not knowing makes him nervous.
“You can take an hour off of that and go talk to the man, for Chrissakes, Kent! The unions will still be in dispute when you get back!” Perry turns to Lois’s desk. “Lane! You make sure this kid gets over to Lexcorp! Do an interview of your own in case he doesn’t follow through again.”
“You got it, chief,” Lois says. “Let’s go, Kent.”
A thing with Lex Luthor.
It was a long time ago, before Lex Luthor was the Lex Luthor of today. He was just a kid, living under the shadow of his father’s last name, smart enough that no one really knew what to make of him. Clark could relate to the last part. They talked about history and world events and science fiction. Lex talked about fusion and fission and clean energy and Clark listened, and Clark talked about dromaeosaurs and pterodactyls and the Mesozoic and Lex listened. They took turns driving the Kents’ tractor down the fields in the short time between bringing in the harvest and the beginning of the winter chill. They laid on the roof of the Kents’ house at night with a thermos of cider between them, taking turns pointing out constellations and making up new ones. They held hands, sometimes.
It all went south before the word ‘boyfriends’ ever got tossed around, but Clark had thought about it, a few times. Before. And now he’s thinking about it again. Funny how meeting someone from a long time ago can bring back all those what-ifs and could-have-beens. He’s half-hoping Luthor wants to talk with him, Lex to Clark, and maybe they can talk about what happened and clear things up and maybe Luthor will stop… whatever this is, this thing he’s started doing, where he sabotages spacecraft and blows up his own warehouses and causes missiles to misfire and almost hit schools. Allegedly does those things. Whatever.
But Clark knows that’s probably not what this is about, and even if it is, it’s not like Luthor will talk about all that with Lois present, and Clark can’t tell Lois to go away, because ‘I kind of sort of almost dated Lex Luthor once, so please let us have a private conversation’ is not a thing he wants to say.
Lois shows the person at the desk their press passes, then leads the way to the elevator. Clark is not dragging his feet. He’s just. Walking slowly. The marble floor is very shiny, it could be deceptively slippery.
“Sometime this year, Smallville!” Lois calls, and Clark picks up the pace.
The elevator up is very fast. It’s only a few seconds after the doors close that they open again, somewhere near the top floor. Luthor is standing before the grand windows of his office with his back to them. Posing. Making a statement. He always was better at doing body language than Clark.
Clark can’t help thinking about how less than two months ago he’d come in those windows as Superman to accuse Luthor of sabotaging the shuttle launch and Luthor had laughed at him.
“Lane and Kent,” Luthor says. He hasn’t turned around. “I don’t recall inviting you, Miss Lane.”
“It seemed like a two-person job. One of us could interview you, and the other one could interview your ego,” Lois replies. Clark winces.
“My ego appreciates the consideration,” Luthor says, and finally turns. Clark can feel his heartbeat quicken. Lex didn’t recognize him as Superman, but that was before he’d seen Clark all grown up. Will his disguise… will this… can it hold? “You must be Mr. Kent. Miss Lane and I are already acquainted.”
Already-? “Hello, Lex. It’s been a while.”
Lex raises his eyebrows slightly, lips barely twisting in a disdainful frown. “A lifetime, I believe. We haven’t met in person, have we?”
“Smallville?” Clark tries. “Around nine years ago?”
“I’ve never heard of Smallville, Mr. Kent, though I must admire your consistency in making false conjectures about my life.”
“First, your story on the warehouse explosion. You insinuated that I would, for some unfathomable reason, damage my own property and risk the lives of my employees. You didn’t even manage to come up with a motive for my alleged actions.”
“And then you implied that I somehow caused the missile misfire earlier this month, despite having nothing to do with the equipment involved.” Lex walks up to his desk, taps a few keys on a panel. “I’m not angry, though. Just frustrated that you would waste time slandering me when such a big story has quite literally dropped from the sky. It seems... irresponsible.”
“Lois is the one who writes the Superman stories,” Clark says. He’s surprised that Lex actually lets him finish the sentence. He also has no idea why Lex is pretending not to know him. He heard Lex’s heart rate, saw the thousand indescribable things in his electrical field that indicate when people are lying. Lex knows Clark. Remembers him. He’s just pretending not to. Clark doesn’t try to call Lex on it. He also does not say ‘it’s not slander if it’s true,’ because his sense of self-preservation has apparently finally kicked in.
“The Daily Planet is a big paper, Lex. We can cover Superman and your questionable business practices at the same time,” Lois adds, because Lois doesn’t let things like ‘self-preservation’ stop her from saying what’s on her mind. Clark could lay roses at her feet and swear fealty to her right now.
“Your ‘coverage’ of Superman is sadly lacking,” Lex says. “Allow me to enlighten you.”
He presses a button, and the room spins away around them. Images, holograms, replace it, as Lex talks about astrobiology and life on other worlds. Clark remembers the basics, the driving curiosity and belief, from conversations that he and Lex had back in Smallville. But the rest… the technologies that LexCorp, that Lex has created, those are new. Amazing, really. Clark would be enjoying the show a whole lot more if he didn’t have a creeping suspicion about where it’s going.
Lois interrupts Lex’s monologue, asks what this has to do with the Planet and Superman. Lex presses another button.
It’s him. Clark. Clark-as-Superman. Looping images, video feeds, of him flying, using heat vision, lifting rubble and debris. Clark recognizes several scenes as being from when he first responded to the warehouse explosion, and a few high-quality videos from when he diverted the missile. Clark feels his hairs raise, phantom chills prickling along his skin. Could this be what it was about? Had Lex blown up one of his own warehouses and sent a missile off-course to… to gather data on Superman?
“Superman displays a far greater range of powers than any of the other metahumans who have emerged in the past decade,” Lex says. “It’s not simply that he is an enhanced human. He is more than that. He is fundamentally, biologically alien. And this-” Lex presses another button, “-is his home.”
Clark has to remind himself to breathe. To keep his face neutral. This is… it’s…
Not a perfect replica of Krypton. But close, so close to the images he’s seen in the ship’s databanks. The red sun, especially. Lex is right.
That’s his home.
Lex is still talking. Clark tries to refocus, catches the word ‘proof.’ What kind of proof? How could Lex… was Clark wrong? Did Lex figure him out after all? Of course, arrogant, shortsighted to think that he could stand in front of Lex and go unrecognized. That’s what this is all about. The interview requests were just to draw Clark out, get him into Lex’s office. And now Lex is going to reveal him. To Lois, and probably the world.
“And why should it matter if he is an alien?” Lois asks.
For the second time in under a minute, Clark is so disoriented that he forgets the rhythm of inhale, exhale and has to consciously force himself to keep breathing.
Lois is a champion of human rights. Between her life experiences and her sterling morals, of course she is. But he - Superman - isn’t human. And… that doesn’t change anything, for her? Her heart rate picked up a little, but he’s not sensing any kind of fear or revulsion, just some frustration and curiosity. Standard Lois feelings, really.
“It’s simple, Miss Lane,” Lex says, yanking Clark away from the happy discovery that Lois is somehow an even better person than he’d thought. “Superman is an alien, so what is he doing on this miserable, backwater planet? He’s travelled unfathomable distances to - what? Dress in primary colors and help firefighters? That can’t be his main goal. He wants our trust, and I intend to find out why.”
Clark can’t take this… this mood whiplash. “What proof do you have?” he demands. “If you can prove Superman’s an alien, prove it.”
“In time. For now, think of what this means. We are not alone in the universe - and there’s so much to learn.”
Luthor presses a third button.
It’s Superman again. Laid out on a medical table. Being vivisected.
Clark would scream if he wasn’t frozen with shock. But all he can do is watch as one of the holographic doctors pulls a length of intestine out of Superman’s abdomen. Raises a scalpel.
“We’re leaving,” Lois snaps, and grabs Clark’s wrist. He stumbles along behind her, an uncoordinated, discombobulated balloon in a gale-force wind, tethered to the ground only by the points where her skin touches his. She yanks him into the elevator, and it slides easily down to the ground floor. Then Lois guides him, gentler this time, out to the parking lot and her car.
“What the fuck,” Lois says. “What the fuck was that, the absolute fucking… Agh!”
Clark can’t respond. Can’t move. Can’t hardly breathe.
Lex wants to cut him up.
He had thought, before, about telling Lex where he came from. About the spaceship, and about the powers that were still just starting to develop. About how Lex was right, humans were not alone in the universe. Clark thought Lex’s quest for alien life was about him wanting people to relate to, people who would understand not fitting in with humanity. But had… all this time, had he just been looking for something new to stick in specimen jars, to cube and dice and scan and disassemble? If Clark had told Lex, back in Smallville, would Clark have been stuck in a laboratory like his parents feared?
“Kent. Hey. You with me?” Lois asks.
Clark can’t answer. His cheeks feel wet. Is he crying?
“Come on, let’s get you in the car. We’ll go to lunch, okay?”
It’s too early for lunch. But Clark bends, moves, folds himself into the seat under Lois’s guidance, lets her strap the seatbelt around him. Stares out the window as Lois pulls out of the parking lot and drives, going and going, office buildings and cars and pedestrians bending around them in a meaningless smear of color and sound.
He can’t even be sure if Lex recognized him or not. Would Lex have let him get away if he knew Clark was Superman? Is Lex just toying with him?
Clark doesn’t know. He doesn’t know anything.
So now it's time for Lois's thoughts on this whole mess, which, as usual, can be succinctly summarized as "What the fuck."
Chapter one has trigger warnings for brief depictions of medical abuse. This chapter has trigger warnings for discussion of planet death (aka the destruction of Krypton). Chapter three has trigger warnings for graphic depictions of kryptonite poisoning, semi-graphic depictions of near-drowning, brief mention of vomiting, xenophobia, and brief mention of medical abuse. As always, we are happy to summarize if you're not into that.
Also, in case it's not clear, at the beginning of the fic Clark is nonverbal and is using his phone to communicate.
“I don’t like it either, but we have to run this story,” Lois says, toying with her napkin. It’s early for lunch, but eating generally makes things better. Especially for Kent. He has some serious blood sugar issues, judging by the amount of snacks he goes through during a day at the Planet. “Otherwise Luthor’s going to hand this info to someone else.”
Kent types out a sentence on his phone, texts it to Lois. Her phone pings.
That afraid of getting scooped, Miss Lane?
She snorts. “Very funny. It’s not just that I never want anyone to run a story I heard of first, it’s that we don’t know what kind of story other people will make with this information. Someone could take ‘Superman’s an alien’ and spin it into ‘Superman’s the harbinger of an invasion force.’ That’s not how we want people to be introduced to this idea.”
Do you think he’s a harbinger?
“Of men having way higher standards to live up to, sure. Of an invasion force? Not a chance.” Lois shakes her head. “He’s been spending his time helping out. Not even just big things, either. Small stuff. He got somebody’s damn escaped pet lion to a wildcat sanctuary last week. What’s the point of that, if he’s here on behalf of a bunch of alien colonists?”
To gain our trust?
“Kent, the man can bend steel beams in his hands. If the rest of his people are like that, they don’t need our trust to invade. They could just show up and take over.” Lois eyes Kent speculatively. “You don’t think he’s here on behalf of a bigger force, do you?” I expected better of you, she doesn’t say, because she’s not going to rush to conclusions. Experience has taught her that rushing to conclusions with Clark Kent just ends with her feeling ridiculous.
Kent shrugs, typing away. Her phone pings.
No. But I see why people could go there.
“The only reason people have to ‘go there’ is small-mindedness, xenophobia, and lingering colonialist guilt.” Kent chokes on his water, muffles coughs into his elbow. Lois continues, “If a bunch of aliens really were looking for a new planet, it’d be much easier to find one that wasn’t already inhabited. People just assume that they’d want to take over a planet that’s already got life on it because of how much of Earth’s history has been shaped by a bunch of foreign jackasses waltzing into other people’s homes like they own the place.” Kent is still coughing. She reaches across the table, pats him on the shoulder. “You need a minute?”
Kent shakes his head, coughs a few more times, then starts drawing in unsteady breaths.
“Good. I’d hate to have to tell Perry I killed you.”
Good to know.
“What I really want,” Lois continues, “is to be able to talk to Superman about it. All Lex showed us is a bunch of smoke and mirrors, and I’d hate to base a story entirely on that. Superman could tell us how much of what Luthor’s selling we should be buying.”
You trust him to be honest?
Lois shrugs. “As much as I trust anyone. He hasn’t given me cause to doubt him.”
Kent smiles, a tiny, lopsided little grin. It’s charming, in a nerdy way.
Lois sighs, rests her chin in the palm of her hand. “But who knows if I’ll actually get to talk to him before we have to write this story. Short of being in mortal peril and screaming ‘Superman, help,’ I have no idea how to get him to show up.”
They say he can hear everything in Metropolis. Maybe try yelling “Superman, I want an exclusive”?
Lois laughs. “Oh, yeah, because that’ll get his attention in a sea of people who actually do need his help.”
I think it could work. He likes you.
“What makes you say that?” Lois asks. “Did he say something to you?” She wants to beat her head against the table as soon as the words leave her mouth. Can she get a little more desperate sounding, maybe?
Well, he’s never given -me- an exclusive.
“Not everyone who gives me exclusives likes me, Kent.” Thank God. She’d need a lot more restraining orders if they did, and then how would she get her stories? She taps a finger against her lower lip. “It might be worth a try, though.”
She’s leaning half-out her window (since Superman is apparently averse to using doors, she stopped putting the screen back on after the second time he dropped by her apartment), trying to muster up the nerve to say something. How loud should she be? She wants him to hear her, but she also doesn’t want her neighbors to hear her. They give her enough weird looks as it is.
“Hey, Superman,” she tries, at a volume barely louder than her usual speaking voice. That probably won’t do. She clears her throat, tries again. “Hey Superman! I…” She’s definitely not going to use Clark’s exact words. “I want to talk to you! About something!”
There’s a noise, Lois has learned, a very distinctive hum, that occurs when the air distorts around a humanoid figure flying at seventy miles an hour. That’s not something she really ever expected to learn. The Flash, after all, spends most of his time in Keystone City.
But now she’s got her very own superhero. Metropolis has its very own superhero. Same thing.
“You rang?” Superman says. He’s smiling, that handsome smile that’s sold a thousand newspapers.
“Yeah. Come in. I wanted to ask you a few questions.” She steps aside, and Superman floats in through the window.
For all Lex Luthor’s flaws, she has to appreciate the fondness for giant windows that has manifested in the majority of Metropolis’s structures. It certainly makes her life easier. Although, the mental image of Superman trying to fit his broad shoulders through a small window is pretty entertaining.
“I always have time for you, Lois,” Superman says.
Her heart does not flutter when he says that.
God. She needs to get laid.
“I spoke with Lex Luthor today,” she says, and notes the upset flicker that crosses Superman’s face. Good to know the dislike is mutual. “He seems to be under the impression that you’re not of this world. I thought I’d hear what you have to say about that before I wrote it up.”
Superman sighs. “I am from this world. And… I’m not. It’s complicated.”
“Give me the Cliffs Notes,” Lois says. She picks up her notepad and pencil, rearranges her phone so it’s in the best position possible to record Superman’s voice. He has a nice voice. Deep without being frightening, with even, measured tones.
“I wasn’t born on Earth.” Jackpot. “I was born on the planet Krypton. It was much bigger than Earth, and orbited a red sun called Rao.”
Was? Had? She gives him a questioning look.
Superman’s fingers brush along the sides of his gold belt. “Krypton… suffered a series of natural disasters that tore it apart. My parents sent me to Earth because it was my only chance for survival. As far as I know, I’m the only Kryptonian left.”
Lois’s pencil stills. While she certainly hadn’t thought Superman was here to take over, she hadn’t expected… “I’m sorry,” she says. Horribly inadequate. But all she can think to say.
Superman offers her a tight smile. He looks… haunted, in a way she’s never seen. “I’ve spent a lot of time on Earth,” he says. “I consider it as much my home as Krypton was.”
“Well, we’re lucky to have you,” Lois says. Now this, she knows how to respond to. She’s spent a lot of her life feeling out of place. She still does, sometimes. One of the reasons she likes Metropolis is because of how many people here are willing to let her make it her home, how many people make her feel welcome and wanted. The least she can do is make sure Superman feels the same way.
“I appreciate that,” he says, and his smile looks a little less strained this time. “I… didn’t really want to talk about where I came from, at first. I know not everyone would be comfortable knowing this. But I don’t want to hide where I’m from. I can be both a son of Krypton and a son of Earth.”
Son of Krypton. It has a nice ring to it. Lois writes that down, circles it a few times. “Thank you for telling me,” she says. “Believe me when I say I understand your reservations about sharing this.”
Superman lifts his shoulders in a motion half-shrug, half-shy ducking away. “I wouldn’t have worried as much if more people were like you.”
Lois feels her ears burn. She’s lucky that she hardly ever blushes, that her embarrassment can remain at least semi-private rather than being broadcasted to the world. “Well. If more people were like me, I think there would be plenty of other problems to contend with.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure,” Superman says.
He winks at her.
Lois is going to die.
And then he’s gone, back out the window, zooming into the night.
Lois is going to watch some awful television to calm down, and then she’s going to write her article.
While Lois was chatting up Superman, Kent went to STAR Labs with Luthor’s conjectures. The piece is an excellent blend of scientific theory and human interest. Lois is almost happy to share the by-line. Kent’s got a knack for translating science-speak into colloquial English, and makes the talk of differing solar radiation and the effects of gravitational fields and how all of that could tie into Superman’s powers seem something close to exciting.
But despite their excellent efforts, not even Lane and Kent can stop people from being people.
‘Superman: Alien Menace’ headlines spring up in the wake of their articles, and Lois winds up running a couple of pieces on the near-disasters that result from bystander reluctance to help Superman when he performs rescues. But she’s still certain that it would have been worse if someone else had gotten the story first. She’d been able to spin Superman’s origins both as a noble backstory - he lost his planet, and now he’s helping ours - and a great discovery - the answer to the question of whether humankind is the only sapient species in the universe.
‘Sapient’ is Kent’s word. He had a whole rant prepared about the difference between sapience and sentience.
He’d probably have to worry about getting shoved into a locker if he weren’t so goddamn huge.
She’s typing up a her notes on an interview with the mayor about the work being done on the city’s waterways when she catches a desperate glance from Kent. It doesn’t take her long to locate the source of his distress. Jimmy, bearing down from the northeast.
“Did you catch the game last night, C.K.?” Jimmy asks.
“Uh. I missed it,” Kent says. “Fill me in?”
“Okay, so it started off-” And there he goes.
Lois’s best theory on this phenomenon so far is that Jimmy disregarded all indications of Kent being a grade-A dork and assumed anyone with Kent’s build must be a sports aficionado. And now Jimmy’s just thinking with his libido and imagining Kent dressed up like a quarterback instead of catching onto the obvious cues that Kent knows absolutely nothing about sports.
Lois, for her part, is pretty sure Kent’s muscles come from doing pushups while listening to books on tape. And she’s not sure how Jimmy managed to live through her epic break-up with Cat and still think workplace romance is a good idea, but it’s not like she was never a desperate baby gay.
It’s not like she’s not still a semi-desperate, older, bitter gay.
What she means is that she gets it, sort of.
Kent’s frantic attempts to seem like he knows a single damn thing about sports have been a part of her morning entertainment for the past few weeks, but now it’s starting to get sad. For both him and Jimmy. Lois has it on good authority that the only thing that appeals to Jimmy about sports is the overwhelming homoeroticism, and that he’s been doing extra research to try to get in good with Kent. Kent, meanwhile, has been fumbling to keep up with Jimmy, but is apparently being thwarted by his total lack of interest in athletics.
She just wants to smash their heads together and tell them to talk about Star Wars or some other thing that they both actually like.
When Perry calls Jimmy away to do his job and stop harassing the reporters, Lois leaves her desk. Kent looks dazed. Hurricane Jimmy will do that to people. “You have to tell Jimmy you don’t know what he’s talking about,” Lois tells him. “Watching you struggle to follow him ranting about hockey is depressing, and it ruins my day.”
“I think that was baseball,” Kent says. “Maybe soccer?”
“You don’t even know what sport he was just talking to you about?” Lois says.
Kent shrugs. “There’s teams, and they score points, and all the referees or umpires or whoever are terrible at making calls. There’s not a big difference.”
“See, this is exactly why you need to tell Jimmy. Because I don’t even like sports, and that was painful to listen to.”
“But he’s so enthusiastic!” Kent protests. “I like hearing him talk about stuff he likes. That part’s cool. I just wish he didn’t expect me to talk back.”
“Have you,” Lois says very slowly, as if she was explaining a new concept to a very young child, or possibly a puppy, “considered telling him that?”
“I don’t want to hurt his feelings or make him think I want him to stop talking to me.”
“You can tell him that part, too,” Lois says. “You should tell him that part.”
“But what if he doesn’t believe me?”
“That’s his problem. Just say something about it, Kent, you’ll make life easier for all of us.” Kent puts his head down on his desk. Lois tosses her hands in the air. “Or don’t. Your sports-related funeral.”
And now for a chapter best described as "Great googly moogly, it's all gone to shit."
Chapter one has trigger warnings for brief depictions of medical abuse. Chapter two has trigger warnings for discussion of planet death (aka the destruction of Krypton). this chapter has trigger warnings for graphic depictions of kryptonite poisoning, semi-graphic depictions of near-drowning, brief mention of vomiting, xenophobia, and brief mention of medical abuse. As always, we are happy to summarize if you're not into that.
Clark’s sitting at home when he hears it, the sound of a distant explosion and the chaos that follows. He’s getting better at changing into his costume at super-speed, and doesn’t even rip his normal clothes getting out of them and folding them up. It takes him twenty-five seconds to make it out the window - a new personal best.
Tracking disasters is getting easier, too. The more practice he gets at filtering through all the many and varied sounds of Metropolis, the better he is at pinpointing the location of a specific noise. And the noises of disasters tend to be very specific.
It’s a bridge on the outskirts of the city. Something - probably a bomb, judging by the timbre of the explosion - blew up near the suspension cables and snapped them. Clark grabs on to the frayed edges, tries to hold the bridge steady long enough that people can evacuate. Tries to ignore the buzz of voices, people crying out not just in fear of the bridge collapsing, but in fear of him. Just focus. Hold onto the cables. Hold it together.
Another bomb goes off - no, no, should have checked for that, should have scanned - and the cables he’s holding onto tear free of his hands. He grabs for them and misses.
And then he’s falling.
How? The blast shouldn’t have knocked him off-course like that, and no matter how hard Clark tries, he can’t gain altitude. He’s going to hit the bridge, he’s going to-
The asphalt crumbles underneath him, denting, forming a crater. He feels wrong. He can’t fly. The impact hurt, in a way that it shouldn’t have. He feels something dripping down his chin, something warm, and raises his fingers to it automatically.
Clark’s ears are still ringing from the second explosion, but under the droning roar, he hears someone calling for help. He pushes himself to his feet, stumbles. His muscles are screaming. His vision’s blurring, his head is pounding. He feels nauseated.
He staggers towards the person calling for help. He doesn’t know whether it was the second explosion or him hitting the bridge, but something knocked them over the side. They’re hanging on, but they can’t pull themselves up. He staggers towards them, sees them go white. “Don’t hurt me!” they scream.
“... won’t…” he croaks. His throat feels tight. His mouth is dry. His legs give out underneath him, and he crawls to the edge of the bridge. “Grab… my arm. I’ll pull you up.” He can do it. He’s lifted much heavier things. He can do this. The person grabs onto his bicep. “Keep going… you’ve got it…”
“Are you hurt?” they ask. “What’s wrong?”
Clark grunts and manages to get his hand underneath one of their shoes. “Not sure,” he says, and boosts them up. The person makes it back onto the bridge, but the equal and opposite reaction of them kicking off from Clark’s hand is that now Clark is slipping over the edge. He can’t move fast enough. He’s falling again, down towards the river.
Clark barely manages to twist himself so his neck won’t snap on impact. It still hurts to hit the water, stings and aches and burns in ways he can’t describe and can barely process. He has to swim. Get back to the surface. He can hold his breath for twenty minutes under ideal circumstances, but these are far from ideal circumstances, and his lungs are already starting to feel sore. He tries to swim for the surface, but the current catches him by the foot and drags him deeper, down the river and away from the bridge.
Clark was already scared. Now he’s terrified. Every movement is agonizing, he can’t see right, his insides feel like they’re being liquefied, and he’s going to die here.
Luthor will probably dissect his corpse.
The rush of fear brought on by that thought makes him thrash, struggle and kick, and he manages to break free from the current and swim for the surface. His head breaks through the water and he’s drawing a breath before his mouth is even fully out of the river, gasping and choking and spitting and coughing. He tries to tread water, but starts sinking again, buffeted by the waves and the wind. So instead he tries to marshall his screaming muscles and swim for the shore. It’s slow going, and he keeps slipping beneath the surface and swallowing more water.
After what feels like an eternity, he manages to catch a current that pulls him towards land without pulling him underwater, and he makes it to the shallows, crawls towards the bank on his hands and knees. Then he collapses, panting. His head is spinning. His stomach’s lurching, and he has to swallow several times to stave off the urge to vomit. It’s probably not good to keep all that water in - who knows what kind of toxins and microorganisms live in the river - but the way the past few minutes have gone, he’ll probably aspirate it and choke to death.
He has to stay conscious. Try to get help - but what kind of help can he get? His parents are in Kansas. He’s never been to a doctor. Lois… but what would she do? She’d blame herself if he called her and he… he…
Clark barely manages to push himself back onto all fours before he retches into the mud. His whole body is shaking. He rolls onto his side, too exhausted to move any further.
He closes his eyes.
He’s in… a car. Strapped in with a seatbelt. His head feels… fuzzy, but he feels somehow less awful than he did earlier.
Still not good, though. Very far from good.
There are trees blurring by outside. His forehead is resting against the window, and there’s a fogged-up imprint where he’s been exhaling against the glass.
“Mom, I think he’s awake!”
A different voice. He thinks he recognizes it. The voice from earlier, the shouting voice, seemed familiar too.
“Superman?” Someone with very small hands touches Clark’s shoulder. He turns his head, and it takes him a second to properly focus his vision. Everything’s… swimmy.
It’s Brianna. President of the Metropolis and… Metropolis and Outlying Suburbs Chapter of the Girl’s Super Club. That’s the name.
“Hi, Ms. President,” he says. His voice sounds funny. Raspy. Weak. Actually, that’s about how he’s feeling right now, so at least he’s consistent.
“He’s awake!” Brianna yells.
“Don’t shout in closed spaces,” Mrs. Fields - it must be Mrs. Fields - says.
“You were shouting earlier,” Brianna says. “When we hit that bump.”
“You’re right. I wasn’t thinking and I made a bad choice, and I’m sorry,” Mrs. Fields says. “Hi, Superman. Sorry for scooping you up like this, but we couldn’t just leave you there.”
Clark feels very confused. He’s not sure if it’s some lingering aftereffect of… whatever’s happened to him or if this is just genuinely perplexing and weird. But before he questions anything about his current situation, he needs to know something else. “The bridge,” he says. “Did it…”
“Emergency responders got there before it collapsed,” Mrs. Fields says. “News said there were injuries, but no casualties as far as we know yet.”
Clark sags back against the seat, murmurs a short, improvised prayer of thanks. No one died because of his failure. “How did you find me?” he says.
“We borrowed my aunt’s boat and drove up the river looking for you,” Brianna says. Then, with all the candor of an eleven-year-old, she says “When I saw you fall in, I thought you were dead.”
Clark swallows. “Thank you for looking for me,” he says. “I think you might have saved my life.”
Brianna gives him a solemn look. “I did what anyone should’ve done,” she says very seriously. “You save a whole bunch of people’s lives, all the time.”
“What she said,” Mrs. Fields says.
“Where are we going?” he asks. The trees are becoming less dense, but he still doesn’t recognize the area.
“Gotta give the boat back to my sister-in-law,” Mrs. Fields says. “She’s not going to believe we found you. I thought there’d be a hundred rescue workers out for you and they’d get there first.”
Clark swallows again. “I’m not… really a popular person at the moment.” Not that he should be. Not that he ever really wanted to be. But it still hurts, how people have turned their backs on Superman.
Not everyone has, though. Not Brianna and her mom. Not Lois.
Lois. What’s she thinking right now? If his fall was on the news, she must have seen it. Must be frantic. She really does seem to like him, in both his identities.
“Can you fly anymore?” Brianna asks. “Did you lose your powers ‘cause you told us where you’re from? Or ‘cause not enough people believed in you?”
“Brianna,” Mrs. Fields says sharply.
Clark closes his eyes and leans against the window. The glass feels cool against his forehead. He thinks he might have a fever, strange as that is. “I don’t know,” he says. The last time, the only other time he ever felt like this, his powers were weakened, but not gone. Not like this time, when he lost everything. The flight, the x-ray vision, the strength, the invulnerability...
He takes a deep breath. Tries to move his index finger - just his index finger - at superspeed.
It takes a moment, but then it buzzes, vibrates as fast as he’s trying to move it. His powers aren’t gone. He didn’t realize how much that was scaring him until this moment.
“Cool!” Brianna says. “You’re like a blender!”
Clark snorts. “I hadn’t thought of that.”
“You should make jam with your finger,” Brianna says. “Or scramble eggs.”
“So you’ve still got your powers?” Mrs. Fields asks.
“I think. I didn’t earlier.” He needs to figure out why that happened, as soon as possible. He already has some suspicions.
“You wanna fly off to wherever it is you go when you’re not saving the day?” Mrs. Fields asks. Brianna starts to make a protesting noise, and Mrs. Fields interrupts, “Honey, we can’t kidnap Superman. That’d make us bad guys.” Brianna mumbles unhappily. “I don’t think it’s a good idea, mind. You seem pretty rough. But I’m not going to tell you what to do.”
Clark struggles with the decision for a moment, then sighs. “I’m sorry, Brianna. But I want to check on the bridge. See if anyone’s missing and I can help find them. Let the other people who were worried about me know I’m not dead, thanks to you.” Oh. That’s something he should probably ask about. “Um… if someone asks what happened, should I mention you? I’m really grateful for everything that you’ve done, and if there’s anything I can do to repay you I want you to let me know, but I also know that you probably don’t want the media descending on you.”
“Tell them we’re good Samaritans,” Brianna says primly. “No names.”
“I agree,” says Mrs. Fields. “But I am going to tell my sister-in-law. She can keep a secret, and considering she helped out with the boat, I think she deserves to know. Your Aunt Faina’s going to start breathing fire when she hears she missed meeting Superman because she had to go to work,” Mrs. Fields tells Brianna.
“Thank you both, really,” Clark says. “And tell Aunt Faina I said thanks, too.”
Mrs. Fields pulls over to the side of the road and unlocks the doors. “Don’t mention it,” she says. “It’s the least we could do.”
“It’s a lot more than that,” Clark says. He takes off his seatbelt, steps out of the car, and tries, hesitantly, to fly.
It works. His feet drift off the ground, and he shoots into the air, cape trailing behind him.
He has work to do.
He was just happy to have Lex.
Lex built a massive laboratory onto the side of the Luthor’s house, and Clark helped. Lex ran experiments, tests on meteorite fragments and prototype miniature reactors and tardigrades, and Clark helped. Lex got detentions for talking back to the teachers and getting in fights, and Clark helped. He was caught in orbit around Lex Luthor, and he thought it was stable, that they couldn’t be separated.
“I want to show you something,” Lex said.
Clark entered the lab. Watched Lex open a series of hatches, disengaging security measures as he talked about harmless radiation and alien energy sources.
It hit him, like nothing ever had before. Waves of nausea, his muscles turning to jelly, feeling like he was being incinerated and flash-frozen all at once. Sick. He felt sick, worse than he ever had in his life. He opened his mouth to tell Lex to close the hatches, seal the meteorite back up under all the radiation shielding, but he was too slow. All Lex saw was Clark’s face, the fear and terror and nausea. A look not unlike the looks Clark and Lex had been getting all their lives, from people who didn’t know what to make of them.
“Get out!” Lex screamed. “You’re just like everyone else!”
Lex shoved him. Clark stumbled, ran. Outside the lab, on the other side of the lead-lined walls. He collapsed not far from the house, passed out.
When he woke up, the Luthor house was burning.
When he woke up, Lex had run away.
“C.K., did you see that kickoff last night? Man!”
“Yup,” Clark says. “That sure was some sports ball.”
Jimmy looks at him.
Clark looks at Jimmy.
Jimmy bursts into laughter. “Shit, C.K.!”
Clark smiles and shrugs. “Sorry, Jimmy. Sports isn’t really my thing, but you can keep talking to me about it, if you want. I just like hanging out with you.”
Jimmy’s heart speeds up. “Oh. That’s cool. I can talk about a lot of other stuff besides, you know, sports ball.” He giggles through the last two words. “What is your thing? Stuff. That you like to talk about.”
“Dinosaurs are pretty neat,” Clark says. “Genetics. Star Wars. You know, nerd stuff.”
“My man, you have been holding out on me! We should have been talking about Star Wars this whole time!”
“Jimmy, where’s that picture I asked you for?” Perry yells.
Jimmy winces. “We will talk more after I do what the boss man wants.”
Clark waves as Jimmy runs back to Perry’s office. Lois gives him a thumbs up. “I told you you should tell him,” she says.
“Yeah, yeah, I know. You’re always right,” he says.
“I know,” she says. “Hey, you feeling better today? You look better.”
“I am. Thanks for asking,” Clark says.
When he got back to the bridge, whatever had made his powers cut out was gone. Small mercies. He was able to help with the search and rescue efforts without fear of dropping into the river again. But the pains, the sickness, had lingered. He’d taken his temperature when he got home. A hundred and twenty degrees. Definitely not good. And it had taken two days for those symptoms to fade.
At least Clark’s pretty sure, now, after a trip back to Smallville and a series of conversations with his parents, that he knows what happened. Knowing is half the battle, right?
Luthor kept the meteorite that he’d dug up in Smallville. Or found a new one. The bridge explosion was another of his traps, his efforts to gather data. And now he knows he has a way to hurt Superman.
This is going to change things.
Someone is yelling. Clark tilts his head, focuses in on it. Sounds like a mugging. He stands, makes for the hallway.
“Bathroom,” he says when Lois gives him a questioning look.
It takes him twenty-four seconds to change into his costume.
Then again, it’s not going to change everything.