Clark had been working at the newspaper for a few weeks now. He was settling in, learning the ropes, starting to feel decidedly normal. There was something nice about being normal, about being just Clark. He went out after work with his colleagues, he did his best to report the news honestly, and he spent his paycheck on frivolous things like new shirts and cinema tickets. He was even saving to go on holiday. He was feeling comfortable and, dare he admit it, happy. At least, he thought this might be what happiness felt like. It was hard to tell with human emotions.
Anyway, there he was, sitting at his desk, writing up a story about an heroic lollipop lady waging a one-woman war on asshole drivers in big cars, when someone came up to the desk opposite him. This desk, he had been informed, belonged to someone called Louis, but Clark hadn’t met him yet, because Louis had been on assignment in Afghanistan since before Clark joined the paper. There was a tone about the office whenever Louis was mentioned, a reverential note came into people’s voices and all of their faces took on a wry, impressed expression. There were lots of stories told about Louis around the office, and Clark was no longer sure which ones to believe.
So, with a certain curiosity, Clark glanced over his computer screen at the new arrival and got his first glimpse of Louis Lane. Louis was tall, though he probably seemed taller because Clark was sitting down, and he had a mess of curly, dark hair that gleamed in the sunlight streaming through the window behind. He was wearing a beautiful, dark grey suit that perfectly set of his grey eyes. And it was at this moment, when Clark looked at the glory that was Louis’ preposterously handsome face that something very strange began to happen to him. Clark got flustered, and he felt himself blush, and his throat went dry, but worst of all, his mouth, which had been halfway opened with the grand intention of greeting this new arrival, got confused and decided instead to remain dangling halfway open. Then Clark’s hand seemed to come up of its own accord, upsetting his cup of lukewarm coffee, and giving Louis a limp, effete little wave that only made him blush even redder. All in all, an excellent first impression, no doubt.
But Louis seemed utterly unphased by this, and smiled back at him. Clark reasoned later that, being so ridiculously handsome, Louis must have been used to people making fools of themselves around him. Possibly, Louis even thought that this was just how people behaved, and he didn’t even realise that their behaviour was part of their reaction to the sight of his face.
“Hi there, “Louis reached over the two computers to shake Clark’s hand. Clark overcompensated for his weak-willed wave by squeezing that hand so hard he made Louis wince. “You must be the new guy,” Louis said, extracting his hand quickly.
“Clark Kent.” Clark allowed himself a silent cheer of victory that he had managed to get the words out in a sensible fashion.
“Louis Lane, good to meet you,” Louis smiled a devastatingly handsome smile and Clark hoped, more than he had ever hoped for anything in his life, that Louis meant what he had said.
And so the day passed. On the outside, Clark was calm; he wrote his article and did his reporter duties as well as he could. Hopefully no one else noticed the butterflies fluttering in his stomach or the dizzy feeling in his head. Louis was a talkative, friendly sort of guy, and every time his voice crossed the space between them, Clark perked up, struggling desperately to think of something funny or witty to say. Sometimes he succeeded, sometimes not so much. But Louis didn’t seem to mind, he just smiled and shook his head, or came back with some comment that saved the situation and stopped it from becoming awkward. By the end of the day, Clark decided that he was doing well. Of their thirteen interactions throughout the afternoon, he had made a mess of only five of them.
But there was a point when Louis was off in the editor’s office when Clark had time to examine his feelings. He couldn’t really understand what was happening; all he knew was that it had never happened to him before. He surreptitiously Googled his symptoms and returned a series of links about love and attraction and lust and dating and sex and all these things that he had heard about but never really considered relevant to his own life. Even when he had thought he was human he had never understood these feelings. And now that he knew what he was, or more accurately, knew what he wasn’t, it was even worse trying to make sense of all these things swirling around his head. Not for the first time, Clark wished he had never found out the truth about himself.
And there was another problem that had occurred to him. All of the pictures of love and lust and all these other things, they were of a man and a woman, or sometimes a man with two women. And that was a problem, because Louis was a man, a beautiful, glorious specimen of a man, and Clark was, to all intents and purposes, a man too. So all of these things that he was feeling, they were nothing but a waste of time. Because the chance that Louis was one of the ten per cent of homosexuals in the world was pretty slim. Clark tried to reason with himself, to argue that it was a one in ten chance, which wasn’t so bad really, but it wasn’t really good enough. No, it was time to put a stop to these thoughts, before someone noticed.
“Hey, are you coming out tonight?” Clark already knew his voice, a rich, baritone symphony of sound. Clark had never told anyone, but he didn’t quite hear like humans did; he heard music even in mundane sounds, and Louis’ voice sounded like a cello playing the minor scale.
“Tonight?” he asked, wondering if he had taken too long to respond.
“Sure,” Louis shrugged. “We’re going for celebratory ‘congratulations for not dying in Afghanistan drinks’ after work.”
“What was it like, Afghanistan?” Clark asked.
Louis winked at him, grinning wide. “Come tonight and I’ll tell you all about it.”
Clark nodded his head before he had time to think. It didn’t matter that Louis would never be interested in him, it didn’t matter that these new thoughts were scrambling up his brains, it didn’t matter that he felt both happy and sad at the same time and he didn’t really know why, because Louis had asked him out for drinks.
Pretty much the whole office went out to the pub after work. It was crowded and noisy and Clark was feeling intensely claustrophobic. He was cramped up against the wall, his elbows tucked in tight against his body, clutching a flat, lukewarm beer in an unenthused hand. He was jostled once, splattering beer across his shoes, then again a few moments later. The third time it happened, he gave up. He dumped the drink onto a table nearby and wriggled his way through the crowds, making for the exit with an almost childish desperation.
Bursting out into the beer garden he took several deep, soothing breaths before he was finally able to look around himself. The garden was mostly empty; there was a chill in the air and heavy clouds threatening rain above. There were tall, thick plants all around the walls, shutting out the rest of the city, and some of the benches were pushed so far back into the leaves that it was almost like the plants were reaching out to claim them. The chairs and tables were all grey, beaten wood, old and much used, scattered with eponymous drink stains and cigarette burns. Strung all around the walls were lines of fairy lights, sparkling like stars amid the thick, waxy leaves. Clark felt like he could breathe out here, like things couldn’t be nearly so bad as he had thought they were inside.
He sat down on one of the benches half-swallowed by plants, and ran his hands over his face. He had been sweating inside, and the cool air felt good against his skin. He just sat for a moment, not really thinking about anything, enjoying the gentle sound of the leaves rustling all around him.
“I didn’t take you for a party type.” His voice sounded from the doorway of the pub, and Clark recognised it, just like he always would, it was too beautiful to forget. He looked up and saw Louis watching him, leaning his long, thin frame against the doorjamb. Standing there in his waistcoat and shirtsleeves, his pale skin cast in silver by the little fairy lights, Clark thought he was almost too beautiful to be real. The thought made his insides turn to jelly.
“I don’t like crowds,” Clark admitted, hunching up his shoulders and looking down at the flagstones between his feet.
“Me neither,” Louis said, sauntering forward to come and sit next to him. “But they’re doing it for me, so I felt sort of obligated to show my face.”
“Why did you invite me tonight?” Clark asked the question before he really realised what he was asking. When he glanced up at Louis, he guessed that he was more surprised than Louis was that he had said it.
Louis raised his eyebrows and ran his long hands over and around each other, twisting an abstract, silver ring that he wore on the index finger of his left hand. “I don’t know,” he admitted eventually. “I guess you remind me of someone.”
Clark was about to ask him who that was when Louis shifted suddenly. He reached into his trouser pocket and pulled out a battered packet of cigarettes. Slowly, with something resembling reluctance, he took out one of the cigarettes, and twirled it idly in his fingers a few times, staring down at it. His eyes had such a faraway look in them that Clark felt loathe to interrupt.
“Do you want one?” Louis asked. He shook his head, as though he was clearing out some unpleasant thought, and when he turned back to Clark the smile was planted firmly back on his face.
“No,” Clark held up a hand and Louis shrugged, shoving the box back into his pocket. “You shouldn’t smoke, you know, it’s bad for your health.”
Louis, who had made no move to light the cigarette, smiled a strange, sad smile that made his face almost ethereally beautiful, but also tragic. Clark had to resist the urge to reach out and stroke that pale, perfect cheek, to try and smooth the sadness away.
“It’s bad for a lot of things,” Louis said softly, still twisting the cigarette in his fingers. He raised it up closer to his face and seemed to sniff the air for a moment, closing his eyes as though savouring the scent.
“So why do you do it?” Clark asked gently. A part of him considered just leaving it alone, but he wanted to do something, if not to take that sadness away, then maybe to share the burden, even just a little.
Louis leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees, his hands hanging down between his legs and his head hanging down between his shoulders. He glanced up at Clark from this hunched position, his eyes black and shadowed and his face unreadable. “It reminds me of someone.” He sighed a huge, heavy sigh and dropped his head back down once more. “Someone I knew. Someone I cared about.” He was almost mumbling to himself at this point, and Clark felt suddenly like an intruder, creeping up on someone else’s grief. Because there could be no doubt about it, this was grief that he was witnessing.
He reached out one of his big, clumsy hands, and rested it gently on Louis’ shoulder. Louis’ skin was warm beneath the material of his shirt and Clark could feel his heart beating deep inside his chest. “I’m sorry,” he said softly.
“No,” Louis sat up and Clark had to drop his hand, which he did, but with a certain regret. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be loading this on you. It’s not fair.”
“I’m a very good listener,” Clark said, a slight note of pride entering his voice as he said it. This was something that he had been told many times in high school, when girls came to him with their problems and he sat, for hour after hour, listening, sympathising, asking nothing of them but to share their troubles.
Louis smiled at that and sniffed hard. “I believe you are,” he said softly. “But you don’t want to hear this story.”
Clark shrugged and sat back on the bench. “So we don’t have to talk. Let’s just sit here, and enjoy the quiet for a little while.” He was worried that this might turn out to be a terribly dorky thing to say, but Louis just nodded and slumped back in his seat, looking at the cigarette still held loosely in his fingers.
They had been sitting for maybe twenty seconds when the first drop of rain landed. Clark saw it fall on the arm of the bench, darkening the wood, a big, wet droplet. But he didn’t move, he didn’t speak, and he found himself fervently hoping that Louis hadn’t noticed it. Then another drop fell, this one landing on his head, then another on his hand, and a fourth on his knee. Then it was raining, and he could hear the patter as the rain struck the leaves around them. And Clark still couldn’t bring himself to move, to speak, to bring this moment to a close. But neither, it seemed, could Louis. He sat, without moving, as the rain dropped all around him, patterning his suit and clumping his dark hair into wet strands. A couple of drops fell on his face, and dripped down his cheeks, silvered by the garden lights. He looked to Clark as though he was crying.
Finally, Clark managed to make himself move, to make himself speak. “Do you want to go inside?” he asked softly.
“No,” Louis whispered the word, barely loud enough to be heard, and Clark could see his chest rising heavily with pent up emotion. His beautiful grey eyes were almost overpowering in their grief and Clark couldn’t look away from them. Louis reached out to him and Clark gave him his hand, letting him hold it in his own. Clark never said anything, but he could feel Louis’ cold hand shaking in his own and he didn’t know what to say.