By C. Leuch <email@example.com>
Submitted: May, 2004
Summary: In this alt-world take on the episode "Bolt From the Blue," plain old Kevin Jones is involved in an incident which helps to inspire the creation of our favourite superhero.
This is an alt-world take on Bolt From the Blue. I won't say much more, for fear of giving the story away, but I hope you enjoy. Thanks to my beta reader, LauraBF, for all her help and support.
The characters of Lois, Clark, Lana, and any other recognizable characters are the property of DC Comics and Warner Brothers. All original characters are my exclusive property.
In the corridor of the dormitory, doors seemed to stretch into infinity, most of them tightly closed, but some cracked open ever so slightly, sending slivers of soft yellow incandescent glow into the sterile fluorescent light of the drab hallway. One of those doors was open more than most, an old habit borne from the inviting personality of the room's occupant. Normally he didn't have any reason to hide behind closed doors, but as a sigh escaped his lips, he wondered if now might not be a good time to change that policy. To the casual observer, such a sound would normally be lost amongst the din of televisions and casual conversation, but the sigh echoed off the concrete walls and into infinity, its almost supernatural staying power carrying its despair to ears it wasn't meant for. In fact, it wasn't meant to be uttered at all, but sometimes even the gentlest of souls couldn't help but get frustrated. Inside the room sat a handsome, dark-haired young man, a phone clutched to his ear and a defeated look on his face. His lips curled down into a frown as his fingers absently played with the phone cord, the silence on the other end of the line telling him that his friend had heard the sigh, too.
No, she wasn't just his friend, he amended, she was his girlfriend, and she had been for some time. But there were moments when he just didn't know what to think about her. Now was one of those times, and as the silence stretched on for several seconds, he found himself wondering just what it was that he had seen between them. She could be so stubborn sometimes, so selfish. Surely she hadn't always been that way, had she?
"Lana," he said, his voice rising somewhat, framing the word so that it was almost a question.
"Clark, I told you. You can't," she said, her tone almost harsh. Lana had never been one to overwhelm him with concern and understanding, but at least she had always been kind. He realized that it probably took an infinite amount of patience to be involved in a relationship with him, but he didn't expect Lana, his oldest and best friend, to lose hers so quickly.
"I just want to fly out and visit for the weekend. What's so wrong with that? It HAS been three months since I've seen you." He glanced over toward his desk, and the framed photograph of his blonde-haired beauty that seemed to be staring at him no matter where he was in the room. Her smile in that picture was sweet, her eyes soft. That picture was more than three years old, but he still saw her that way in his mind's eye. The only real time he'd spent with her in the ensuing years had been weekends here and there, mostly during the summers. He knew she had cut her hair, and he knew that some of the girlishness had gone from her face, but it was so hard to remember when he never was able to see her. They talked on the phone, sure, but it wasn't the same. Nothing compared to seeing her in person, to touching her, feeling her, just being in her presence. The frustration of knowing that it was physically possible for him to be at her side in a matter of seconds made the separation that much more painful.
"You might get caught, Clark, and THEN what would happen to you? We'd see a lot less of each other if they locked you in a lab someplace. Just save up some money and visit me the real way, the honest way." The words seemed so straightforward, but then again they always did. It was an argument that they'd had at least once a month for years, and it was one that she always won with the help of some well-placed and entirely sensible warnings. He just wished they seemed more sincere.
"Yeah, I suppose," he said, his voice sounding flat even to him. It took a great amount of willpower to stifle another sigh, but somehow he managed. The thought occurred to him that maybe he should just fly out there anyway, just to see if there was a reason she didn't want him around, but he pushed it away, mentally belittling himself for being so negative.
"I'm glad you understand," Lana said. "I'm sure you'll have a good weekend anyway. I love you," she said, and for a moment, Clark let himself embrace that. Maybe she did really love him, and maybe she did only want the best for him. Whether she did or not, she was all he had, and that was really what mattered in the end.
"Yeah, same here. Bye," he said. Slowly, he pulled the phone away from his ear, looking at it for a moment before finally placing it back in its cradle. Why did Metropolis have to be so far away, he wondered as he flopped back onto his couch. If it were even in the same time zone, he could visit her and nobody would raise an eyebrow. But trips of over a thousand miles could hardly be accomplished by the average cash-strapped college student who had to be back in class on Monday. Of course, Metropolis was the type of place he could visit and be completely anonymous, blending into the crowds. Nobody but Lana would even have to know he was there, but she'd have none of that, and it was frustrating.
When they had graduated high school, he had been certain that he and Lana would get married someday, and he knew back then that they would've been happy in their life together. But for whatever reason, as graduation neared, she had decided to enroll at Metropolis University, even after telling him that she would follow him and a large number of their classmates to Midwestern State. It would be a better opportunity, she had said, and he couldn't argue with that. If given the choice between a high profile school out east and a public Midwestern university, he would probably take the one out east, too. But he hadn't been given that choice; it hadn't even occurred to him that it WAS a choice, because they had plans, a future.
It would've been easy to become bitter right then and there, but he didn't let himself. When life hands you lemons, you have to make lemonade. That's what his mother always used to say, but it had taken a long time for him to acknowledge that she had a point. Knitting his eyebrows together, Clark reached into the back pocket of his jeans, pulling out his wallet and flipping it open. The worn photograph that stared out at him showed the smiling faces of his parents. They almost seemed to exude love right through that piece of photographic paper, and for a moment it filled him with warmth. It had taken a long time for him to be able to look at their picture with anything other than sadness. For years after their deaths, it had been hard to go on. Silver linings to dark clouds seemed to be impossible to find, not that he had been looking, but then one day he had sought the confidence of Lana Lang, and everything seemed okay.
She had been his friend ever since he could remember, and as she got older, there was just something about her that seemed to call to him. They had grown closer as friends, and she had coaxed him to open up, to share his pain with her so that he didn't feel so alone. During one of those sessions, he had looked at her and felt something that he hadn't before that moment. The way she sat there, her eyebrows raised in anticipation of the answer to her latest question, her blond hair bobbing ever so slightly, her pink cheeks giving her creamy skin a welcoming warmth; it had all sought to mesmerize him, stirring something deep down inside that made him do something more impulsive than anything he'd done in his life to that point. Without a second thought, he had leaned in toward her, ever so gently seeking out her lips with his own. What had started out as a gentle kiss rapidly degraded into something deeper, hotter, with the power to take away all conscious thought and just make him feel needed.
From that point on, she was his world, his companion, his lover, and his confidant. After a while, he even summoned the courage to tell her everything, to show her all the things that he could do. The risks in sharing that with anyone were many, and he knew that all too well, but he thought she would love him regardless of what he was and where he was really from. But that gift of infinite understanding that she had didn't seem to extend to this one thing, and as he told her the whole truth, he saw her eyes widen and her mouth curl up into a smile that looked about as real as the Jackelope hanging on the wall of Maisie's Cafe. Maybe it had been a shock, he told himself. Maybe she just needed time to absorb it, but something about her eyes after that night told him that there was something deeper going on. It probably wasn't a coincidence that she made her announcement about Metropolis University shortly after that, but back then, he had chosen not see the correlation.
It was quite a bit harder to ignore it now, though, especially after another phone call filled with quiet disapproval. Sometimes he couldn't help but feel that Lana wished he couldn't do all the things he could, and sometimes he couldn't help but agree. Being normal would be a wonderful thing, especially if it meant the respect and true love of the women he considered the love of his life, and he was sure trying his best to make it so. But being different meant many wonderful things, too, and that couldn't just be ignored.
The picture of his parents stared back at him from the wallet, offering all the support that a picture possibly could. "What do you think, Mom? Dad?" he asked it, waiting for an answer that he knew would never come. His parents had known who and what he was, and they had never thought less of him because of that. They had never discouraged that side of him from blossoming, but they had also died long before most of what he could do had manifested itself. A thousand times he had asked this picture the same question, and a thousand times he just got smiles in response. 'Don't be anything less than what you are, son,' he could hear his dad say. His mom gave smiling consent. Never did they say, 'to heck with Lana Lang,' although he had expected it more than once.
With a slight smile and a nod of thanks, Clark closed the wallet and tossed it onto his desk. If his parents approved of Lana, then he supposed he should just stick with it. They would both be graduating this year, so maybe there was hope for them yet. In the meantime, he had a sudden thirst for lemonade. His smile deepening Clark looked over toward the Midwestern State football poster on the wall. Some of his earliest, happiest memories were of warm winter days spent on his father's lap watching football, and Clark couldn't help but think that maybe a game would be the perfect thing to chase away his dark mood.
The booming of a stereo began to echo down the hallway and through his open door, the heavy techno beat being accompanied by the groans of those who had rooms closer to the noise. With a grin, Clark got up and pushed the door closed, sealing his sanctuary off. His new, happy mood called for celebration, and what better way to celebrate than to crack open some cream soda and watch movies all night on cable? Sometimes it really was good to be a bachelor.
The sky above the stadium had been steadily growing darker throughout the afternoon. On the field, the players paid no heed to the weather, but the once capacity crowds had quietly left, frightened away by the increasing rumble of thunder in the distance. Even the students, the hardest of the football crowd to scare off, had trickled out. Now only the die-hards, the true fans, or the truly crazy remained. Clark, never one to be frightened off by mere weather, looked appreciatively up at the sky as a ribbon of light jumped from cloud to cloud. Lightning was one of the more beautiful things in nature, its inherent danger and power making it that much more hypnotic. Of course, he was allowed a certain vantage point of lightning that few were able to see, from deep inside the clouds and from high in the stratosphere, and he was able to look upon the storm now and dream of ways he could get closer, to feel that prickly sensation on his skin when a bolt was about to strike. Nobody else felt this need, though, and as he looked around, it became readily apparent that everyone else had long since taken refuge at someplace safer. In fact, there was only one other person left in the upper level, and that was the security guard dutifully keeping watch over the section. He suspected that the guard wasn't exactly thrilled to have such a close-up view of the clouds, his body language conveying as much as he looked nervously back and forth between the sky and the game.
A pained smile formed on Clark's face even as a stab of pity sliced through him. The only reason the guard was there was because of him. He certainly wasn't willing to endanger anyone else for nothing more than his personal pleasure, even if the actual odds of getting struck by lightning were astronomical. Quickly, Clark rose from his seat and made his way down the steps and toward the exit. As he reached the front of the balcony, he clutched the steel handrail a foot or two away from where the guard was leaning against it. The most apologetic smile he could muster quickly flashed on Clark's face as he looked toward the guard and opened his mouth to speak. He wanted to say something to the effect that they should both probably stake a claim in an area that would be a little drier once the rains came, but the hairs on his arms began to stand on end, and a slight shiver ran through his body. He looked up toward the sky to try and find that telltale sign of an impending strike just as a white bolt of heat shot from the clouds. In less time than it took to blink, electricity arced toward and through him, grounding itself in the concrete at his feet. The force of the bolt threw him backward through the air and onto the empty bleachers. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see a streak of safety orange flying in the opposite direction, and a sickening feeling began to form in the pit of his stomach.
Another flash brightened the sky as he laid on his back, suddenly feeling slightly short of breath. He'd probably been struck by lightning half a dozen times, and none of those had resulted in any type of adverse reaction in him before. Then again, he had never been grounded before, either, but it was odd to feel so drained. Now wasn't the time to dwell on that, though, and slowly he forced himself to a sitting position, remembering the security guard who had apparently also been hit. As his eyes scanned the area around him, he could see the limp body of the other man slumped against the railing, his chest moving up and down ever so slightly.
"Oh my God," Clark said, grimacing as he pushed himself off the bleacher and stumbled toward the other man. The rows of bleachers that separated them proved to be somewhat hazardous to someone who was a little lightheaded, but with each step Clark felt his strength return a little more, and he made it to the other man in due time.
"Hey," Clark said as he took him by the shoulders and shook him ever so slightly. The security guard's head flopped from side to side limply before he seemed to catch himself, his eyes opening ever so slightly. Clark let out a relieved laugh as he met the guard's eyes with his own.
"What the heck happened?" the guard asked. He seemed confused for a brief moment, but gradually recognition came, and he looked around, finally clutching at himself frantically.
"You got struck by -" Clark started.
"Lightning. Oh, wow," the guard said, cutting him off. Clark looked down at the man's raincoat, alarmed to see a small amount of smoke raising from the now somewhat melted fibers.
"How do you feel?" Clark asked, backing away. Behind him, the flurry of footsteps ascending the stairs to the balcony told him that the paramedics would be there shortly.
The security guard stilled his movements, looking down at his smoking jacket, and then back to Clark. "Fine," he said, his eyes narrowing once again. "Great, actually. It's weird." He looked toward where he had been standing once the lightning hit, then back at Clark. "What about you?" he asked slowly.
Clark smiled as wide and reassuringly as he could. "It missed me," he said, lying. Most people, when flying through the air, don't have the presence of mind to stop and look around, and Clark was pretty sure that the other man would take what he said at face value. It wasn't that he thought the guard would get suspicious to see Clark in as good of shape as he was, it was just that if any officials learned that he had been struck, he'd be dragged to the emergency room for sure. His secret would be out then, and all of his worst nightmares would come true. The security guard seemed to buy it, though, nodding slightly as he kept his eyes locked into Clark's.
As if on cue, the paramedics arrived at that moment, rescuing Clark from further questioning. One man asked Clark what had happened, and if he had been struck, but Clark dutifully told him the only truth that he would let anyone know, and the group turned all of its attention to the security guard. Quietly, Clark slipped away, down the stairs, to a nice secluded spot on the other side of the stadium, UNDER the balcony. As the rain began to come down, the game continued on, the good guys pulling away from their opponents, and gradually, Clark forced himself to forget his most recent brush with mother nature.
"I really don't need to go to the hospital." The sentence brought strange stares from the men and women attending to him, but it only seemed to deter them for a moment. A stretcher clattered its way up the stairs, giving him his cue to move to a standing position. "I feel great, really."
"Sir, we just need to get you checked out," one of them said. The general demeanor of the man, combined with his immaculate buzz cut, made his patient think that maybe he was a ROTC in his off hours. Guys like that didn't often take no for an answer, but this was going to be the exception to the rule.
"Tell you what," the security guard said as he stood up. "If I start feeling anything weird, I'll motor over to the emergency room. Until then, I'm good." The various medical personnel surrounding him looked at each other, then collectively shrugged and backed away, gathering their equipment together and filing one by one down the stairs.
"For your own sake, I hope that you do at least stop by the ER later," Buzz Cut said, drawing a smile and a thumbs up from the security guard. After a long look, he, too, took off down the stairs, leaving him alone at last in the balcony, just as the cold, fat raindrops began to fall.
What a dreary capper to an eventful afternoon, he thought with a sigh as he followed the procession down the stairs. Getting struck by lightning was one of those things that didn't happen to very many people, so it was nice in a way to be unique in that respect. Maybe he should ride his luck and buy a lotto ticket, he thought with a grin.
The acrid smell of something burning brought his attention back to the here and now. Taking a deep breath, he inhaled the aroma and followed his nose, turning his head from side to side before finally looking down. On the right side of his security uniform, underneath the orange plastic rain poncho, he could see a twisted hunk of plastic letting off the occasional wisp of smoke. Now on the concourse and out of the rain, he slid the poncho off, revealing what was left of his plastic nametag. On their own, his hands reached out for the deformed lump, and he was surprised that it wasn't as hot as he thought. It might not be hot now, he thought, but it was hot enough to melt earlier. Lightning was annoying that way—it tended to burn and scorch and destroy. Lucky for him, his nametag bore the brunt of destruction on this particular day. He had the sudden urge to find some salt to throw over his shoulder, but he refrained, reminding himself of all the times he had proven to have been born under a good sign.
"Kevin," he heard, and turned. His boss was striding toward him, rain still dripping off of his bright orange security rain poncho. Normally the boss wasn't one for niceties, but between calling him Kevin as opposed to the usual 'Mr. Jones' and the look of concern etched on his face, it sure looked like this was one of those rare times. "What happened to you? I heard you got hit by lightning."
"I guess I did," Kevin replied, looking at the nametag that was now sitting in his hand. His boss looked down at the almost indistinguishable piece of plastic, his mouth forming in an "o" in surprise, before looking up again.
"I'd say so," the boss said, reaching out for the object. "Why don't you head home. I think we can handle the rest of the game fine," he said, his face turned toward the former nametag that he was now turning over in his hand. Kevin looked out through the torrential downpour toward what was left of the crowd, and decided that was the understatement of the year. Before too much longer, the security force would outnumber the spectators.
"Thanks, chief," Kevin said as he turned away from the monsoon outside, drawing an absent nod from the boss. With that, he took off toward the gate, again marveling at how altogether wonderful he truly did feel. Sure, he was a security guard, but nobody had ever described Kevin Jones as the athletic type. Bookish, yes, kind of nerdy, yes. Weird, definitely, but even the weird could do security at football games. His couch potato lifestyle never left him with a whole lot of strength, but right now he felt like he could punch a hole through a concrete wall, or leap over the campus bell tower in a single stride. As he neared the exit, he jumped up into the air, his hand outstretched toward the seating section marker, intending to hit it, but not really expecting to. Almost by magic, he seemed to jump higher than he ever had before, hanging in the air and defying gravity for a second before arcing back to earth. As his feet hit the ground, he looked around with wide eyes, wondering if anyone had seen what he had just done. There was nobody, though—even his boss had moved on to other places. Maybe he hadn't really done what he thought he had done at all. Lightning tended to fry peoples nerves, didn't it? It was quite possible that he had just imagined that. But then again, what if he hadn't? It was just…odd.
His energy to perform daring athletic feats now gone, he walked meekly out of the stadium gates, through the rain, and back toward his apartment. Maybe he did need some rest, after all.
Kevin grunted as he rolled over, the rustle of paper causing his eyes to open. The sun streaming in through the partially closed blinds bathed his messy apartment in light, causing his hands to fly up and shield his eyes. The pleasant haze of sleep remained in place as he allowed his eyes to adjust, his mind wandering back to some of the dreams that he had had over the course of the night. He knew that in one of them he had been a gangster, well dressed yet tough, hanging out with guys named Vito and Vinnie. In another, he had been a millionaire, living the high life in his fabulous 100 room mansion with a very blonde wife. There seemed to be a recurring theme among these dreams, he thought, wondering when the last time he had dreamt about his own life was. It wasn't a cause for concern—the two or three psych classes he had taken told him that mental illness generally involved more than dreams of another life. If anything, it was the American way. Imagine what his dreams would be like when he got out into the real, monotonous world of the 8-5 working stiff. He'd probably dream he was a different member of the royal family every night, that's what. And that wasn't an entirely unpleasant prospect.
Satisfied that his eyes were properly adjusted, Kevin removed his hand from in front of his face, looking around to see what it was that had awoken him. It only took a second to locate the small stack of comic books lying on the floor next to the couch, the top few of which were open and overturned. A hazy memory from the night before popped into his mind, and he realized that he fell asleep on the couch reading comics. The exploits of Spider-Man and the X- Men had lulled him right into a state of security and, finally, to sleep. It was no wonder, he thought as he reached over to straighten up the pile, the characters in those books felt like family. Whenever something bad happened, they were always there for him. Some men turned to girlfriends, he had his Super friends. Which was probably why he didn't have a girlfriend.
Once he was sure that the stack was in good shape, he flopped back onto the couch, grabbing at the remote control as he did. Flipping the TV on, he decided that he wasn't in any hurry to get up. He absently scrolled through the channels, frowning as something seemed to not be right. Yes, it was Sunday, and yes, there were an over abundance of pro football pregame shows on at the moment, but that wasn't it. Settling on a station at last, he wrinkled his eyebrows together, the odd feeling growing stronger. It was strange, he thought, but the picture seemed unusually jumbled today. The crispness that he always enjoyed was gone. It almost seemed as if the picture was pixilated somehow… His eyebrows raised in surprise as he realized that what he was seeing were the individual colors, the blue, yellow, and cyan that made up all color television screens. A quick glance toward the end table told him that he didn't have his glasses on, either. Personal experience told him that he should just barely be able to make out shapes on that screen as far away as it was, but he was apparently seeing things in such fine detail that it was distracting.
His eyes going wide, Kevin suddenly sat up on the couch, turning his gaze toward the large container of comic books in the corner of the room. This was very familiar. Deliberately, he turned his gaze toward his arms, his hand dutifully pulling the short arms of his t-shirt to his shoulder, revealing a very nice bicep underneath that hadn't been there the day before.
"I'm Peter Parker," he whispered, a million thoughts running through his head. Slowly, deliberately, he got up and walked toward the window, feeling like nothing so much as a coiled spring ready to pop at any moment. Looking out at the street, he could see the people outside, just as clear as could be. Changing his focus, he looked up above the roofs of the buildings across from his apartment to the tall dorms on the edge of campus. He could see things that he never could before, he realized. If he concentrated, he could see through the window and into the room—he could even tell what people were watching on television. That had to be half a mile away, but as incredible as it was, he could see it. Taking a quick step to the side of the window, he looked at the wall, and then down at his hands. Being bitten by a radioactive spider gave Peter Parker the powers of a spider. Kevin had been struck by lightning, and now…
It all fit. Inexplicably, he had felt great after that bolt hit him, and even now he felt healthier than he could remember. Somehow that lightning had done something to him, he just had to figure out what it was. Going on the standard superhero model, that you are what you get mutated from, whatever powers he had probably had something to do with lightning. So what could lightning do? Apparently it had very good eyesight, he thought with a chuckle and a shake of the head. It also must work out, he thought as he flexed his newly acquired muscles. Who knew that lightning was in such great health? Kevin snorted once, hysterical laughter threatening to burst through his normally steely exterior. He didn't know if the laughter was because of the somewhat amusing thoughts he was having, the enormity of what had probably happened to him, or a combination of both. Either way, he needed to get it under control. Maybe he needed to be more analytical about the whole situation. Yeah, he thought, the hysterical tide ebbing, analytical. Logical. Straightforward. Focused.
Okay, lightning was always supposed to be fast. The phrase 'done in a flash' didn't come from just anywhere, after all. The world's fastest comic book superhero, The Flash, used lightning as his symbol, so it was probably safe to assume that Kevin would likely be fast, too. That was the first possibility. Looking around the room, he bit his lip and wondered how he could try and be fast inside his somewhat cramped apartment. It was probably better left for the out of doors, especially considering how clumsy he had a tendency to be. The corners of his mouth turned down slightly at the thought of having to wait to use one of his newly acquired toys, but the sensible part of him told him it was for the best.
Okay, speed was the obvious first choice, but what else might he be able to do? Lightning was hot, just ask his poor nametag. Maybe he could make stuff hot, too. But how? Staring sightlessly toward the floor, his mind began to put forth all sorts of possibilities. Maybe he just had to touch something, or maybe it was a frictional thing, or maybe all he had to do was…think… The thought no sooner popped into his mind when a wisp of smoke began to rise from the very spot he was looking at, a dark circle forming around it as a flame began to grow. With a yelp, he stomped it out, cursing under his breath as he pondered the loss in deposit that would cause. The heat thing definitely worked, he thought as he took some deep breaths, calming himself. And to think, he didn't even have to go out of the house to find that out. He might want to wait until he was someplace safer to fine tune it, though.
That new power now out in the open, Kevin began to get giddy as he pondered the possibility of having even more lightning related powers. Since lightning came from clouds, maybe he could cause rain showers, or maybe he could float. Or maybe he was prone to static charge, and if he rubbed his feet on the carpet long enough, he could get little lightning bolts to shoot out of his fingers like that guy in the bad sci-fi movie he watched last weekend. His mind wandering back to the burnt spot in the carpet under his foot, images of a flooded kitchen and lightning scorched furniture filled his mind, and he realized that this might be a good time to get cleaned up so that he could do some more pondering in a safer place. It would be hard to keep his mind from wandering, especially since it was all just so exciting. For years he had read the comics and dreamt of doing what they could do, knowing full well that it was all fiction, but now he could conceivably live that life. How wonderful that would be, and how frustrating to have to wait to find out what exactly it was that he could do.
Watching the run rise over the Kansas wheat field was an incredibly calming and spiritual thing, Clark thought. The dew from the grass dampened his shoes, soaking through to his socks and tickling his skin, but he hardly paid any attention to it. In the crisp morning, the sweet smells of the hay and the yellowed wheat reached his nose, making him recall similar times spent during his childhood so very long ago. Back then, he had only been allowed a few moments to watch the birth of the morning before having to resume his chores, but even then the sight had touched him. Back then, unlike now, he had at least had someone at his side, someone who he knew would provide him with all the help that he needed. Now he had just the memories of that loving support, but sometimes that was enough.
He pulled his jacket tighter across his chest, his eyes wandering away from the ball of yellow fire in the eastern sky and toward the lonely farm house that stood in the distance. At one time, the paint had been kept immaculate, the porch covered with potted flowers and handmade wooden furniture. The barn across the yard had stood proud, its red paint somewhat faded, but not overly so. The fences in the surrounding fields had been taut, lovingly maintained by a man who had had a passion for doing what he did, maintaining the land. That had been a long time ago, though, and times had changed. A new family lived in the house where Clark had passed so many happy days, but it wasn't hard to tell that the pride they felt for their home wasn't as strong. The barn leaned dangerously to one side; the house had begun to gray and was badly in need of a fresh coat of paint. Weeds sprouted up in the lawn, growing tall and proud as if they didn't know that they weren't supposed to be there.
With a sigh, Clark forced himself to look away. Immaculate or not, this farm was that family's home, and he envied them for that. Just being near it was as close to heaven as he could get with his feet still on the ground. In the small thicket where he stood, far out of sight of the inhabitants of the house, he could find some peace, make everything right with the world. As his gaze turned toward the swaying expanse of crops, he let his mind open up.
Yesterday had not been the release that he had expected. Something about watching the violence of football always let him channel his anger and fear away, but that healing time had been cut short, and it could've resulted in tragedy. In normal circumstances, Clark could outrun a bolt of lightning—he should know, he'd done it before. But that security guard just happened to be there at that very moment in time, and Clark's inability to get himself and the guard away from the oncoming danger had resulted in the strike.
Shaking his head, Clark amended his previous thought. It wasn't that he was unable to get them out of the way, it was that he couldn't do so without unmasking himself and the secret he held. Fortunately the other man hadn't been injured, but there had been other times where his inaction had caused harm to come to others. Accidents on the road that he had seen happen, accidents that had seemed to take an eternity, even though he knew it had only been a fraction of a second. When the twisted and battered bodies were pulled out of the wreckage, he always felt physically ill with guilt. He had seen fires hold victims in their midst and had done nothing; he had seen terrible violence between men and just watched as they injured themselves and those around them. Every time he saw something that he knew he could prevent if given a choice, a part of his heart shattered.
Looking back at the house, Clark felt the shadow of a tear begin to form in the corner of his eye. His parents didn't raise him to be passive, they taught him to care for his fellow man. If someone was in trouble, he needed to give them all the help he could, and whenever possible, he did that. At the same time, though, they had known what would happen if someone ever found out about him. By doing what was right, he would be sacrificing his whole life, and in the end, he just couldn't do that. All the powers he had, all the things he could do, they all served to torture him, and he was sure there was a small place in hell for someone so selfish as he.
Harshly wiping the moisture away, Clark tore his gaze away from the house and back toward the sun. If there were just some way to help out, he would do it in a second. But he didn't know what that way could possibly be. All the times he had come back here to the comfort of this small patch of Kansas countryside and sought solace in his memories, he had still yet to find his solution. Sometimes it felt as if no answer would ever come, but the optimist deep inside of him told him that some day, somehow, he would see his destiny. If only the wait weren't so frustrating.
With a sigh, Clark began to lift off the ground, slowly at first, then with increasing speed. No answer had come today, but there would be other days. Until then, he had homework to get back to.
The area deep inside Memorial Park, once consisting of several acres of pristine forest crawling with happy woodland creatures, now looked like a scene from a disaster movie. The smoke still rose from some of the shattered trees, while others just sat forlornly on top of the trampled undergrowth. A circular area the size of a baseball diamond was now completely devoid of any forms of life, leaving only a patch of dirt and the remnants of a pair of shoes. Kevin Jones leaned against a tree stump at the edge of the decimated area, staring wide-eyed at the destruction he had caused.
It had been established that, like lightning, he moved very fast. It had also been confirmed that he could set things on fire by looking at them, and that he was impervious to harm. His day of discovery had started as he ran through the forest at ever increasing speeds, the trees flying by at an alarming pace. When he inexplicably found out that he could see right through things, he forgot to pay attention to the objects he was seeing through and managed to mow trees down in astonishing numbers. From that point on, the forest was doomed. Before too long, he decided that it might be better to try and confine his destruction to one place, just to try and minimize the damage. The park was fairly secluded, but he suspected the campers and hikers that frequented it would stumble across his handiwork and get suspicious. With any luck, none of them would be around today, but on a Sunday during the fall, he wouldn't hold his breath. The smaller the area he confined himself to, the less likely he'd be to have unwanted visitors, and the more freely he could play.
It was certainly true that most of the damage had been accidental, but Kevin had to claim responsibility for the bare circle. The lush undergrowth of the forest floor had met its demise as he had tested for static charge. Either rubbing his feet against dirt and plants just didn't work as well as using carpet, or he really couldn't build up a charge and shoot lightning bolts from his fingers. Either way, the underbrush and his shoes had paid the ultimate price for that experiment, although one positive did come from it. While unleashing his frustrations, he had discovered the power of flight, and suddenly the rest of his discoveries didn't seem as important.
Hovering in the air, his bare feet dangling inches off the ground, he had finally decided that, while certainly fun, maybe these powers he had served some larger purpose. Maybe he had some sort of greater calling in store for him. Heat vision was neat, being able to run really fast was the dream of every procrastinator on Earth, but flying, THAT was truly something special. That was the thing that dreams were made of, the thing that comic illustrators used to inspire brilliant images. But no real, non-fictional man could fly on his own, at least not until today. It had to be a sign, he had decided as he lifted gently into the air, willing himself high enough to see above the remaining leafy canopy. Just playing with his powers wouldn't be enough. He needed to follow the examples set by his fictional heroes—he needed to BE a hero.
The thought had caused him to land at the edge of the clearing and lean against the rugged stump, his mind churning. Kevin Jones, a superhero? He'd read enough about them that he probably knew what to do. Zip in, put his hands on his hips and look stern and disinterested as bad guys shoot all manner of weaponry at him without any luck. How hard could that be? Of course, to be a true superhero, he needed a colorful spandex outfit and equally colorful and awe-inspiring name. No hero worth his salt would go out without a secret identity, although, he thought as he squirmed ever so slightly, secret identities always seemed to come with their own sets of problems. But what else could he do? If his family saw him on TV doing daring feats, there was no saying what would happen, but whatever it was, it wouldn't be pretty. The two or three friends he did have would go crazy, and when the campus found out that one of their own was that guy flying around fighting crime, well, it would be mass hysteria. The media and groupies and bad guys would be following him everywhere, chaos would ensue, and…Kevin Jones would no longer be.
So, okay, a secret identity it was. But what would he call himself? And what would he look like? He'd always had a great fear of spandex, but that was before he got his new physique. Still, even the most respectable pro wrestlers wouldn't be caught dead in bright spandex suits anymore. It's not like he could just go to the store and get one, either, and there was no way he was going to pick up a needle and thread to make his own. The world would certainly forgive him if he went for something a little more mundane, and the more he thought about it, the more a certain costume idea began to appeal to him. Something that would let everyone know that he held the awesome power of the lightning bolt within him.
At that thought, his head snapped up and a wide grin broke out on his face. As he stared at the blue sky, the newspaper headlines began to flash through his mind, proclaiming the glorious exploits of the world's first and only real live superhero, a man who would simply call himself Bolt. And that sky would be his home, at least it would be between classes until he got bored with the whole hero scene. With one last look around the clearing, Kevin willed himself up into the air ever so slightly, then shot through the sky faster than anyone could see. All he needed was to buy his costume, then watch out world. Bolt would soon be on the job.
Clark shuffled into his dorm room, emotionally tired even though the day was still young. Smallville might be the place he went to try and gain some answers, but inevitably when he returned, so did most of his problems. He knew better than to believe that a simple trip to his boyhood home would resolve anything, but at least it gave him some perspective on everything. Still, he thought as he tossed his coat on a chair and flopped down on the couch, at least he had the better part of the day to recover. He reached for the remote and turned the TV on, hoping to get his mind off the turmoil in his life and onto better things. The channel that first appeared had a commercial on, so he set about running through the channel selections at almost superhuman speed, taking only a fraction of a second to absorb the content of one before moving on to the next. As his thumb quickly pressed the channel arrow on his remote, he noticed that a lot of stations that normally didn't carry news seemed to have some sort of reporter on them, often framed is some sort of comically skewed camera angle. At times when he was trying to relax, normally the news was the last thing he wanted to watch, but as the reporters appeared channel after channel, he found that his curiosity was piqued, and he stopped to see what the big story was.
The man that greeted him was tall and handsome, and apparently meticulously coiffed at one point in time. But that time had long since passed, and now his hair was sticking out at several odd angles, and his face was shiny with perspiration. The top button of his shirt was open behind his loosened tie, and his hands nervously flew up to grab the knot and pull it down even further as he talked. "We're standing in the heart of downtown Metropolis," the man on the television said, his eyes wide and his breathing rather rapid. Looking over his shoulder, his hand moved from the tie to the hair, patting it down somewhat as he searched the sky. Around him stood many other reporters, all equally disheveled and excited, all looking up into the air for something, but Clark couldn't imagine what. "A throng of reporters and ordinary citizens have all converged on this area after a police officer reported that he had been assisted by a man who flew down from the heavens. Security camera footage from surrounding buildings has corroborated the incredible story. Since the initial report, this flying man has been spotted at least twice more in a three block area. With any luck, he will show up again so that the whole world can see him for themselves."
Clark immediately sat up, the remote nearly falling out of his hand. He knew his mouth was hanging wide open, but he couldn't believe what he was hearing. The person they were describing apparently could FLY, but as far as he knew, nobody but himself possessed that particular ability. Certainly there wasn't anyone out there like him, was there? His parents had never said anything about it, but they really hadn't had the chance to tell him all that much about his heritage. What if this person was some sort of relative? What if they were here to find him? As the questions shot through his mind, the camera began to pan around the area, showing nothing but a crowded city street in what was a relatively normal looking area. A police cruiser sat in the middle of the scene, its occupants walking around and guiding the masses out of the streets to allow for traffic.
As the camera continued to scan the cloudless sky, a dark speck appeared in the distance, weaving back and forth in the air between the buildings. Larger and larger it grew as the crowd in the area became deathly quiet and everyone stared in blind awe. Clark found himself scooting anxiously along the couch, closer and closer to the television. The man on the television came into focus as he landed in the center of the mob, immediately drawing the attention of the reporters.
The man's figure wasn't overly impressive. He was roughly as tall as the surrounding crowd and wearing a worn pair of tennis shoes, jeans, and a loose-fitting San Diego Chargers football jersey over a white t-shirt. His eyes were covered with a pair of dark wraparound sunglasses, and some brown hair poked out from beneath a silver helmet. His face wasn't particularly memorable, although he looked somewhat familiar to Clark. He appeared to be college aged, no older than 30 or so, although when he smiled he looked like he could almost be half that old. As the roar of the surrounding crowd began to build again, he just smiled and grasped his hands behind his back, rocking from heel to toe until the noise began to abate once again.
The noisy silence went on for several minutes before the new hero held up his hand and cocked an eyebrow, holding the pose until, finally, the voices muted. "My friends," he said in a loud voice, eliciting the memory of memories inside of Clark. Whoever this was, Clark was sure that he'd met him before, but the details of just when and where held themselves just beyond his grasp. "I come here to do my part for the betterment of society. I would like nothing more than to assist the police in any way I can, and make the streets of Metropolis and other cities throughout the country and the world safe for everyday citizens." Turning slowly, he looked back and forth at the members of the crowd, making sure to regard each reporter separately. "Please do not fear what I can do. Rather, please embrace my talents as I have, as a special gift that was presented upon me so that I can help you. Questions?"
All at once, a roar erupted around him as the reporters shot questions at the stranger and addressed their audiences anew. The man reporting on Clark's station opened his mouth to speak, but before he could offer his expert view of the situation, the phone in Clark's room rang. It was the distinctive double ring that only came from calls from one source. Cringing, Clark got off the couch, looking at the phone once before finally picking up the receiver.
"I didn't do it," he said, hoping to preempt the tide that was most certainly coming. The other end of the line remained silent for a blessed moment before a string of words erupted from the mouthpiece, drowning out the TV and the further insight into the stranger who somehow seemed to hold Clark's powers, as well. As the litany progressed, Clark uttered the occasional grunt to let Lana know that he was still there, but there was no way he could possibly fit any whole words into the one-sided conversation. He pulled the receiver away from his ear ever so slightly, trying to hear the juicy details about the new superhero, but failing miserably. He wanted to do nothing more than to go out to Metropolis right then and there and confront this man, but… Somehow he imagined that when the press was done with this guy, the skies wouldn't be safe for him for a very long time. And Lana would most certainly not want him anywhere near this other guy, for fear of giving away something that she wasn't ready to have him give away. It was too bad, too, because it might be fun, or at least insightful, to meet someone like him.
Dragging the phone to the couch, Clark sat down again, feeling suddenly dejected. Today could be monumental, it could be scary, it could be many things to many people, but whatever it was going to end up being for that man on the screen would have consequences for Clark, as well. He just wished he didn't feel so… hemmed in. Looking down at the receiver, he sighed audibly, knowing that Lana wouldn't hear it above her ranting. Watching the crowd on the television give its undivided attention to this new hero, Clark could only imagine himself in the same position, and that finally brought a smile to his face. He didn't think he'd be one for all that attention, but at least it was all positive. Nobody was standing there in lab coats, nobody was cowering in fear of this guy. All he saw was interest and gratitude, the stray awe-filled stares and oddly appraising looks, but nothing that he would think anyone could fear.
Eventually the hero flew off into the sky, and the crowd watched him leave, then turned toward the camera again to finish their broadcasts. As the man on Clark's channel began to talk again, Clark saw something that made his hand go limp and the phone receiver slip away from his ear. There, in the eyes of that reporter, was the most remarkable thing: hope. The words he spoke, which Clark could now hear, were accentuated with a spark of positive energy and an enthusiasm that Clark almost never saw from reporters. And that man, whoever he was, had given him that. If that wasn't a sign, Clark didn't know what was.
Grasping the phone tightly and bringing it up to his ear, he said Lana's name until she finally quieted. "I need to go," he said simply.
"Hey, wait a minute," Lana started, but Clark just hung up the phone. That might come back to haunt him later, but for right now, he couldn't just sit there. He had to get out there and talk to this guy, and then, well, then he had a lot of thinking to do. In one short moment, the insight he couldn't find in Smallville presented itself, and he couldn't allow himself to pass such a momentous thing by.
Rows of cars filled the streets as far as the eye could see, lining up in the spaces between the massive skyscrapers, their colors creating an interesting mosaic as they reflected off of the glass around them. In the back of one of those cars, the passenger growled and watched as pedestrians, many of whom were carrying video cameras, streamed toward her destination while she sat stuck in traffic. Digging around in her purse, she found a ten dollar bill and thrust it toward the cab driver. Grasping the handle of the door, she tensed and prepared to join the running mass of people ever before her fare was accepted.
"I'm getting out. Keep the change," she said. As soon as the money was taken from her hand, she was out the door, going as fast as her dress shoes would take her. Leave it to the biggest story in Metropolis in decades to happen while she was in the middle of a project presentation, wearing a dress for the first and last time that year. Her backpack flopped against her body as she ran, the books inside threatening to knock her off balance more than once. The run seemed interminable, but eventually she could see the flashing lights of a cop car signaling the location she had been looking for. At that moment, the crowd turned a corner, and suddenly, in front of her, she could see a stagnant mob, all looking up at the sky, all quiet as quiet could be. She immediately stopped and followed their collective gaze, and saw what appeared to be a man, flying though the air. In a matter of seconds he came down from the sky, landing only a few feet from where she was.
It was all true, she thought as the crowd began to roar around her. She had heard rumors of the flying man's existence earlier in the day, but had chalked it up to tabloid speculation. Upon hearing evidence of surveillance camera corroboration and the growing horde of media gathering at the scene of the confirmed sighting, she had high tailed it over there. She considered herself a journalist before anything else, and she did mean anything. If it meant missing class to get the big story, then so be it. If the scoop was big enough, she had been known to leave in the middle of tests or presentations without so much as batting an eye. She had even been known to leave a cousin's wedding to get in on a relatively important development in an investigation she had been a part of. There were those who said that going to such lengths for the sake of a relatively unknown college newspaper was probably foolish at best and downright crazy at worse, but her philosophy was that any paper she worked for, be it the Daily Planet, the Metropolis University Daily, or the advertiser they give out for free at the grocery store, would be the best because she was there. Someday she would make the big time, but until then she would do the best with what she had. And what she had, right now, was a front row seat to the story that every journalist in America was covering.
The flying man waiting patiently for the crowd to calm down. From her close perspective, she could see the slight beads of sweat at his temples, giving away an inner nervousness that was very well disguised by his stoic exterior. Once, as he rocked back and forth, he looked at her and gave a hint of a smile, causing a hot flash of excitement to shoot through her. All too soon, though, his attentions were elsewhere, and as he began to speak, he looked at everyone around her individually, although she was pleased to note that no other spectator got the near smile that she had received. Fortunately she had the presence of mind to activate the tape recorder she kept in her coat pocket at all times, capturing his simple yet powerful words. As he finished, he asked for questions, and that was when she finally spoke up, even as the rest of the crowd did, too.
"Lois Lane, Metropolis University Daily. What should we call you?" she yelled, her voice barely audible to even her above the din. If he needed a name, she could certainly provide him with one, no problem. Someone who did what he did could be nothing short of a Superman, a name which, she had to admit, was pretty catchy.
She didn't actually expect to have her question answered, if only because most of the other reporters yelling questions of their own around her were far more well-known and respected than she was, but to her surprise, the mysterious man turned to her and smiled again, this time without any hesitation. "My name is Bolt," he said, almost as if he were talking only to her. She smiled back, noting for the first time that the shirt he wore had lightning bolts on it. Cheesy, she thought, but not beat- you-over-the-head cheesy.
More questions were asked and answered, and her tape recorder caught it all, but she found her mind wandering to the finer attributes of this man who stood in front of her. In the no-nonsense world of Lois Lane, the idea of attraction was an academic one. Sure she had had the occasional tingle of the spine when seeing a handsome man from afar, but that wasn't love. That was lust, a dangerous thing for someone who was trying to go far in the world. Lust, that blind attraction toward men, could only get in the way of her dreams and aspirations. Unchecked, who knew where it would lead? That wasn't to say it was a bad thing, but it wasn't THE thing as far as she was concerned. The important thing was to find someone who she could trust, who had enough respect for her to let her go her own way, but without being a doormat. Ideally, her perfect partner would probably be a lot like the man in front of her appeared to be—not the prototypical knight in shining armor that every little girl wanted to grow up to marry, but someone who she could respect. And if there was anything she felt for this man she had only met a couple of minutes ago, it was respect. She respected the fact that he had saved people, she respected the fact that he had the courage to come out in front of all these people, and most of all she respected the way he handled himself under the pressure. That made it okay for her to search for the lustful side of herself that she would've normally ignored, so look she did, and she had to admit that what she saw wasn't bad at all. He was very endearing when he smiled, and seemed so young and innocent. At the same time, she thought as her eyes wandered down to his biceps, he was very well built. He had other physical assets that a girl could go for—namely, the whole flying thing, and his strength. And he obviously had an innate goodness. She found herself smiling as she pondered the possibilities. Normally she wasn't one to go chasing after men, but he DID smile at her, a flirt if she ever saw one.
It was hard to say whether she was truly attracted to the man in front of her or if she merely built up the shadow of attraction based on the idea of him. She eyed him in a new light as he continued to talk, but all too soon he smiled again, then took off into the air, casting another glance at her as he moved further and further away. A squeak escaped her lips as he grew into a speck in the sky, and she began to realize that whatever private flirtation they'd had obviously didn't mean anything. He was a national celebrity now, the first one she'd ever really seen up close, and it would be more likely than not that she'd never see him again. Suddenly realizing that she was still holding her tape recorder in the air in front of her, she yanked her arm down and looked around. All the rest of the media was packing up, some were already leaving, and here she was, watching her fantasy boyfriend leave without so much as a goodbye. Her cheeks began to burn in acute embarrassment, and she decided that it was time for her to leave, too. Her feet, assaulted on the run over, were now on fire, burning with every step. She longed to find a cab, but unfortunately, traffic was still at a standstill. Traffic wouldn't be going anywhere for quite a while, and if she wanted to get out of the city and back toward campus, it was walk there or don't get there at all.
She went on as long as she could, passing block after block of gridlocked traffic and wary drivers, before she decided that she couldn't take anymore. The rest of the pedestrian traffic had long since gone its separate ways, leaving her relatively alone on the sidewalk. There was plenty of room to sit down, but as she looked at the ground, littered with grime and bubblegum wads, she decided that it might be safer to find someplace a little more…sanitary to rest. Fortunately, there was an alley nearby, and what looked to be a well-swept set of steps leading into a door. Turning to the corner into the shadowy alley, she maneuvered over toward the steps and sat down with an audible sigh. Sitting down had never felt so good, she thought as she wrenched one of she shoes off and rubbed her feet. Surely dress shoes were an invention of some sadistic sicko who didn't have to wear them. If she ever saw her apartment again, this pair would certainly be relegated to some dark and dusty corner, never to be seen for a long, long time.
Lois closed her eyes and leaned against the door, the adrenaline high of earlier finally wearing down for good. Getting up might be a very hard thing to do. But just as she let herself begin to slip away into a pseudo nap, she sensed some movement. Her eyes popped open just in time to see something fall from the air to a spot beside her. The sound of a gunshot followed, and she turned with a yelp toward the sound, her heart racing in anticipation of what she might see. Standing there in the alley was the most handsome man she had ever laid eyes on, bent over one of the filthiest men she had ever seen. A gun was clutched in the hobo's hand, but there was no blood anywhere.
She could only stare at the strange sight in front of her, her breaths coming in ragged gulps. The handsome stranger looked up at her, an intensely determined expression on his face, his chocolate colored eyes slowly locking into hers. Hotness knifed through her, filling her with the type of raw awareness of him that she thought was only a fable. It made all the innocent crushes that she had felt in her life before that moment seem downright insignificant. Even her brief flirtation with the city's new superhero absolutely paled to this. The academic in her screamed words of warning, but she knew she had nothing to worry about. She knew a knight in shining armor when she saw one, and she was certainly looking at him at the moment.
They stared at each other for what seemed like forever, before some sort of fear or embarrassment seemed to come over him, and he looked away. Flustered, he stood up straighter and looked out into the neighboring street. He made a move to straighten out his somewhat rumpled shirt, but his hand was in a fist, holding something that he didn't seem to anxious to get rid of at that moment. Looking at his closed hand for a second with wide eyes, he quickly thrust it into his jeans, then cleared his throat and began to stride into the depths of the alley.
"Hey!" Lois called out with enough power to mask the terrible shaking that was beginning to take over her entire body. He stopped abruptly, but only turned about halfway back toward her. "What happened, just now?" she asked, looking toward the unconscious man a couple feet from her. She knew, of course, the gist of what had happened. Gunshots tended to be very telling. But for whatever reason, she needed to hear his voice; she needed to have him say something, anything.
His eyes met hers again, and she felt at once comforted as his gaze ever so subtly soothed away her fear.
He gave a tentative smile. "I was passing by and noticed this man," he said, pointing to the hobo, his voice soft and calming. "Lucky for you, I was able to get to him before he got to you."
Anticipation lingered on his face, and she nodded ever so gently, hypnotized by his words. There was probably more to the story than that, but the details weren't important at the moment. Looking back up at him, she smiled back, bringing him noticeable relief. "I'd like to thank you for saving my life," she said, pondering how easy it would be to get lost in those eyes. The smile he gave in response was absolutely stunning, and she found her heart beating rapidly again, but this time not through fear.
"I couldn't imagine doing otherwise," he answered, the beautiful smile on his face reflected in his voice. For a moment, Lois let herself forget about the world, all the problems it held and stories that were just crying out to be written. It was a humbling thing to have faced death, to know that she owed her life to the bravery and generosity of another. There were so many things she could say to him, so many questions she could ask, but she wouldn't. In reality, though, there was only one thing she wanted to know.
"What's your name?" she asked, hoping that THIS hero would leave her with some way to find him again. His smile faded abruptly at the question, though, and she knew right away that she wouldn't get her wish.
"It's not important," he answered, the earlier radiance gone from his voice. "I'm glad you're okay." With that, he gave her a nod and disappeared onto the sidewalk. Lois squeaked and tried to get up to follow him, but she found her body unwilling to comply. With a groan, she managed to fight past the aches and pains and stand up, but by the time she reached the entrance to the alley, he had already disappeared into the city.
Her hands balled into fists and she pounded the side of the building in frustration. Two heroes, two disappointments. She supposed she could forgive Bolt for being less than forthcoming—he WAS a major celebrity, and in his position, she would probably have flown off, too. There really hadn't been anything between her and him anyway, just the idea of a romance. What she had seen as flirtation had probably been nothing more than basic friendliness, something she had apparently been oblivious to. But this man, he was different. That deep and all- consuming attraction she felt for him had most definitely been mirrored in his eyes. His voice, too, had been so gentle, his words so flattering. But then, abruptly, he had left when she asked his name. He was a mysterious hero who seemed for all the world like a normal, average Joe, but apparently there was more to it than that. A normal person wouldn't have any reason to hide.
Questions, she thought as she looked up into the sky, there were suddenly so many questions. She knew that something had fallen from the sky right before he showed up. She also knew that a gun had been fired, but, she thought as she scanned the alley, there was no sign of a bullet impacting anything. What if… The idea was almost too ridiculous to comprehend, but in a world where flying men were known to exist, it wasn't beyond the realm of possibility. There could be more than one superhero, couldn't there?
Lois shifted her gaze back to the cityscape beyond her alley sanctuary, a knowing smile creeping across her face. What a story THAT would be, if she could prove it. It would be something that no other network or newspaper would have. Lois Lane could finally claim the ultimate scoop, and maybe, just maybe, she could meet the man of her dreams again in the process.
Flying above Metropolis once again, Clark was finding it very hard to catch his breath. It had nothing to do with the altitude, or his recent exertion. He told himself that it was adrenaline and the fact that his secret could've possibly been found out, but deep inside, he knew it was her. The most stunning creature on the face of the planet was back in that alley, probably still searching the street for him, and he would never be able to get her face out of his mind. Those eyes, that hair, the way she kept her poise even in the face of what she undoubtedly knew was a near death experience. All combined to give the picture of someone he wished with all his might he'd met under more normal circumstances. As it was, he hadn't even gotten her name, which was just as well since he could never see her again.
It had started out innocently enough. His quest to find the new hero of Metropolis had brought him to the city, a place much larger than he remembered. The few times that he had traveled there before, it had always been by conventional means, being led by people much more familiar with the city. He'd always gone to predetermined places at predetermined times to see people who knew him. When looking for one stranger among several million in a location that he knew largely from reputation alone, however, the place took on a much less cozy character. The sky had been searched first, but then his eyes had turned downward, toward the throngs of people that made their way along the endless miles of sidewalks, undoubtedly bound for somewhere important. He scanned each of them at first, his mind processing the faces and clothing of each person individually before rapidly moving onto the next. As the minutes ticked by and the streets flashed underneath him, he stopped trying to take in everything, instead looking for anything seemingly out of place. Even then, the new hero was nowhere to be found. He didn't know exactly how much time had passed or how many streets he had seen before he finally decided to give up and head back, but as he was about to leave, something caught his eye, and suddenly home was the furthest thing from his mind.
Clark's progress through the air had immediately come to a halt as he stared at the scene below him, mesmerized. A woman sat in a dark and lonely alleyway, her eyes closed, her demeanor relaxed. There was no doubt she was unaware of the man that was making his way silently toward her, the gun in his hand pointed at her head. It was an ambush of the worst sort, and Clark didn't have to be an expert to know that there wouldn't be a happy ending for that poor woman in the alley. Under normal circumstances he would've probably turned away, resigned to her fate and the fact that he couldn't help her if he wanted to keep his secret. But for whatever reason, those well-coached warnings never came, and without even another thought, he was descending to Earth. In a flash he was on the ground, clutching the barrel of the gun even as it was shot into his hand.
The hot whisper of exploding gunpowder licked at his skin and the bullet deformed as it hit his hand. Clark knew that he was invulnerable to most things, but getting shot was a new experience. Normally he'd be too cautious to try and test his limits—he wouldn't run into a fire just to see if he could get burned any more than he'd get shot just to make sure he was bulletproof. Fate seemed to want him to know that fact on this day, though, and for a moment Clark found himself pondering the implications of the new discovery, his gaze locked on the twisted piece of lead now crushed against his palm, the eyes of the criminal he now held by the shirt following his own. Out of the corner of his eye, Clark could see the other man's eyes go wide with shock, then a shudder wracked the man's body and he went limp. Clark dropped him to the ground and stepped back, not knowing what to feel. Years of holding back, of seeing the worst things happen while he stood silently by, were over. Deep down, he knew he had been meant to help, and now he had finally allowed himself to do so. He had expected to feel scared when that moment finally arrived, apprehensive at the very least, but he didn't. There was only an overwhelming feeling of rightness, almost as if he had found his destiny. Far from being afraid, he almost felt giddy, excited at the idea that he had changed fate, righted what would've turned out to be a great wrong. In retrospect it might have been a really stupid thing to do, considering there were two potential eyewitnesses right there, but did it matter, really?
The sound of quick ragged breaths caught his attention, and he realized that while he'd been staring at the man, he'd been completely ignoring the woman whose life he'd saved. Turning to her, his eyes found hers and suddenly the rest of the world just fell away. The cacophony of thoughts and feelings that had been swirling in his head seemed almost deafeningly silent as he drank in the depths of her eyes, replaced by a new and exciting surge of emotions that he couldn't pinpoint at first. It was love, he realized with a start, the fabled love at first sight, the holy grail of all emotions. Whatever it was that he had felt toward Lana couldn't compare to the almost paralyzing intensity of the feeling that ran through him. Never had he even dreamed that another woman would elicit such a response in him, although now that he had been allowed to experience it, he couldn't fathom how he could've contemplated committing to a life that held no such feeling. The concept of love at first sight was something he really hadn't believed in before that moment, something he thought only existed in the world of soap operas and romance novels, yet here it was, and he seemed helpless to stop it. All at once he felt hot and cold, completely safe, completely at home with who he was.
But who was he, he wondered, slamming home the reality of the situation. As far as she knew, he was some normal guy off the street who came to her rescue, which was just as well, but it wasn't true. If she knew who and what he really was, she certainly wouldn't be looking at him the way she was. For her sake as well as his own, he couldn't let this go any further. Might as well spare them both the heartache that would come when she found out his true nature, he thought, recalling the way Lana's perception had changed when she was let in on the truth. Straightening up, he pulled his eyes away from her and started walking toward the street.
Her voice had called him back, and he stopped, the mental connection that lingered between them not allowing him to leave. She wanted to know what happened, she wanted to know his name. His heart was heavy as he turned away from her, knowing that he couldn't reveal his identity to her. It was for the best, he had told himself over and over again, but even as he flew back across the country and toward his home, he longed for her. The beauty of the countryside, the vastness of the blue sky in front of him, things that usually calmed his thoughts and soothed away hard feelings, seemed to hold no sway over him anymore. All he could see was her face in his vision, something that had an adverse affect on his ability to fly in a path resembling a straight line. In fact, he had been mere inches away from putting the local news affiliate off the air, the bright red and white stripes of the tower getting lost in the mental filters erected through his wallowing. That more than anything drove his mind back to the present, and he continued his flight in silent concentration, his mind forcibly turned away from the encounter in Metropolis.
He was almost back to campus when he saw something that caused him to do a double take. There, in front of him, was a man in the sky, flying rather slowly, his hands thrust awkwardly in front of him, his path a little less than steady. Clark hung back from the man, observing. This was undoubtedly the new hero that he had heard about, and from this angle, his outfit sure seemed to match what Clark had seen on TV. It was kind of odd that the hero would be in this part of the country, but as someone who'd been on a joy flight more than once, Clark could certainly understand that he might want to take an excursion across the fruited plains. Still, as Clark followed, the man headed toward Kansas, right to the town his college was located in, and landed on the roof of an apartment building. Clark hovered in the air for a moment, puzzled, suddenly curious as to why it was he had looked so familiar on TV. As the man walked into the stairwell and disappeared into the depths of the building, it finally hit Clark that this new hero, whoever he was, was a fellow student at Midwestern State. What were the odds that another superpowered being would just happen to be at this college at the same time as Clark? Maybe more spaceships had landed in Kansas, maybe there was a whole underground society of people like him, maybe…
Maybe he was just struck by lightning, his subconscious finished, and Clark instantly remembered the incident the day before. Of course! THAT was where they'd met before. But why would being struck by lightning suddenly mean that this man had the same powers that Clark did? The desire to fly down and follow the man through the apartment building was incredibly strong, but the shy side of Clark asserted itself, cautioning him against such a confrontation. Maybe someday they would talk, but he didn't know what he could possibly say right now without giving away something he'd rather not give away. He supposed he hadn't thought that through before leaving on his quest to begin with, but he honestly didn't expect to run into someone from Midwestern. This could hit very close to home. It was much better to be smart about the whole thing. His mind made up, Clark slowly turned and made his way home, knowing that he wouldn't be able to concentrate on anything for the remainder of the day.
The sharp buzzing of the alarm clock rudely pulled Kevin away from his dreams and into the world of the living. Normally, the solace of dreams was a place he much preferred to real life, but he found himself smiling as his eyes popped open, the promise of a new day filling him with excitement. Every minute of every day held at least the possibility of excitement, and when the inevitable moment came, rest assured that Bolt would be there. He almost felt downright giddy at the prospect of getting out into the world this fine morning.
The smile faded from his face as he heard a rhythmic thumping from his ceiling. Almost unconsciously, his eyes focused through the floor and into the bedroom of the apartment above him, giving him a good look at something he had absolutely no interest in seeing. Slapping his hand over his eyes, he groaned, trying desperately to shove the mental image away.
"I knew it, but yet I didn't WANT to know it," he muttered, silently cursing his carelessness. Through the course of many long nights, he had laid awake in bed, unable to slip into dreamland thanks to a sound very much like that one. During those nights he had found himself wondering just what it was they were doing up there, then imagining not so subtle ways to convey his displeasure at the situation. Now of all times, after a perfectly happy night of sleep, he finally got his wish, and it was everything that he had subconsciously known it would be. That was definitely not the way to start a Monday, he thought as he rolled out of bed.
After throwing on some clothes, he trudged to the bathroom. His teeth may be invulnerable, but mouth fuzzies apparently didn't care. As he stood in front of the mirror, his toothbrush sticking awkwardly out of his mouth, he noticed a bit of a shadow across his face. Normally he wasn't the type who had to shave every day if he didn't want to, but this was a little more stubble than he wanted to deal with, he thought, running his free hand across his chin. After brushing his teeth, he pulled out his razor and shaving cream, lathering up well. As the blade met his skin and was gently pulled along his jaw line, he could hear the usual rough scratching sound, but there was something else, something grittier that he couldn't quite put his finger on. The first patch of skin began to be cleared away, revealing the rough looking stubble that was supposed to have been shaved off.
Kevin pulled the blade away and looked down at it, noticing with horror that rough grooves roughly the depth of his facial hair had been worn into the metal. Cursing under his breath, he stared into the mirror, lost in thought. This was a disaster of the worst sort. It had never occurred to him that being invulnerable meant that he was destined to grow a beard and never cut his hair again. Just the thought of him being transformed into a creature straight out of the 60's counter culture was enough to seriously offend his more conservative values. He LIKED being clean-shaven, darn it. There had to be some way to do it. But for now there was no time. He cleaned the shaving cream off his face and dried himself off, shuffling dejectedly into the kitchen. So much for the happy promise of a new day. At least he could still take solace in the joys of eating cherry pop tarts for breakfast.
As he settled down on the couch with his bounty of sugary breakfast, he turned on the TV, tuning into all the morning shows. In every one of them, he was the top story, something that raised his spirits significantly. He'd never even come close to being on TV before, except maybe as a faceless member of a large sporting crowd. All the conventional wisdom said that the camera put on pounds, but he thought that he looked pretty good. At the very least, he looked to be free of facial hair, something that wouldn't be true for a long, long time to come, given his current predicament. He even managed to look like he knew what he was doing, which had probably been the toughest thing that he could ever remember doing. The press seemed suitably impressed, which was good. Deep down he had been scared that somehow people would see through his disguise, that going public would do nothing more than feed the tabloids and conspiracy theorists and earning the fear of the average citizen. Good thing for him that he tended to be more of an optimist, though, and his nagging, doubtful voices had been ignored.
Satisfied, full, and relatively happy again, Kevin grabbed his backpack and left the apartment, bound for his first morning class. Leaving the building, he began to have the funny feeling like he was being watched. It was absurd, he told himself. He was just paranoid after yesterday. There was no way that anyone could possibly know who he was; HE wouldn't have been able to know that the person he saw on TV was him if he hadn't actually been there. Still, the creepy feeling persisted, much to his annoyance. After his first class, he decided to use his free time to take a look around the country by air. As he left the ground, the creepy feeling just went away. Maybe it was some inner struggle with dual identities manifesting itself and he just felt safer in the air. Or maybe he'd just taken too many psychology classes. Whatever it was, it definitely was weird, but gone for now, thankfully.
Cigar smoke hung low from the ceiling of the dank room, clouding the smell of mildew and paper, creating a fog that diffused the low wattage light coming from the single fixture above. Amidst the haze sat five men who, from outward appearances, were ordinary enough. Indeed, each of them held an ordinary job, each was a respected member of the community. But when the night came and their ordinary families huddled around the television sets, they came here, to be among people who shared like-minded interests. They were the first to admit that their beliefs were far from politically correct. In fact, most were pretty sure that their families would have them locked away if they knew what exactly did go on in this room night after night. But just because the outside world would laugh at them for their beliefs didn't make them wrong. Events of the world day in and day out made it plain, at least to them, that the opposite was true. Their group was right, and sooner or later the rest of the world would see that, too.
"Gentlemen," one of the men said, slapping a newspaper down onto the table. The world's finest daily newspapers covered the surface, a tablecloth with 40 point headlines. 'Hero,' one paper screamed. 'The Hope of the World,' said another. All carried pretty much the same message, and all gave the smiling face that none of them would ever forget anytime soon.
The rest of the men around the table lowered their papers, drawing their eyes toward the speaker. Taking a long drag on his cigar then gently letting it out, he fixed a grave expression on his face and continued. "I don't think I need to tell you that we have a problem on our hands. What do you make of this man—is he one of ours?"
The rustle of newspaper filled the room as the men folded their papers and discarded them in the pile on the table. "He's not anyone I'm familiar with," a second man said, bringing a chorus of grunts.
"If we were familiar with him, I wouldn't be asking the question," the first man answered, throwing a disappointed look toward his colleague. "Most of the ones we track don't have discernable faces, anyway, aside from the obvious."
"And obviously," a third man continued, a smile on his face, "this guy's eyes are a little small and his skin lacks the greenish tint of our usuals."
"Thanks, Ted," the first man said, shaking his head ever so slightly. "Have anything else to add?"
"Actually, I do," Ted replied as he stood. Silence once again overtook the room as he made his way to what they liked to call the archives. One whole wall was lined with metal filing cabinets and vertical files. On top of the cabinets, tarps hid items that they had collected throughout the years, items that they knew full well the government would like nothing better than to get their hands on. Opening one of the drawers, it only took a moment for Ted to locate the file he was looking for.
"Stories of flying men are not exactly common, but they aren't as unusual as you might think," he said. "Especially over the last five or so years, sporadic reports have come in from across the country and the world about a man who flies." He opened the file and rifled through it until he reached the page he was looking for. "This one, here, in Kansas City, Missouri. A lady was out for a walk when she thought she saw what looked like a man lifting off into the sky from a nearby alley." He flipped the clipping over, moving on to the next story. "Metropolis, New Troy. A kid says he was saved from falling off a bridge by a strange man."
Ted circled back to his seat, closing the file and placing in onto the table. "Of course, nobody saw the man's face well enough to be able to identify him. About the only thing everyone agreed on was the fact that he was male and had a dark complexion."
"Sounds fairly harmless," a fourth man chipped in, bringing nods from most of the other members.
"They all seem harmless at first," the second man said, his voice steely. "But what happens when it all starts to go wrong? What happens when the press isn't quite so sweet on this guy? What happens when the crime bosses in that stinking town get a hold of him and demand his cooperation?"
"You act as if this happens every day," Ted answered, the smile on his face morphing into a mocking one. "Last time I checked, our guys don't usually go public."
"Nobody's even saying he's one of ours," the first man said, giving a sharp glance to the second man. "Not that I hear aliens talk every day, but from the way he talks, the words he uses, and the way he carries himself, he seems every bit as terrestrial as you or me."
"Not many Americans can fly under their own power," the final man chipped in, again drawing nods from the rest of the assembled.
"So what do we do about this one?" the fourth man asked as he picked a new newspaper out of the pile to read. The first man seemed lost in thought for a moment, but only a moment.
"We watch him carefully, just to make sure. And," he said, looking at the second man, "we prepare for the worst. Who's to say there aren't more out there? And who's to say what kind of damage this man could cause if he got the wrong ideas into his head. Yes, we'll be ready for anything."
A chorus of grunts again erupted, signaling the end of the discussions. The men leaned back and settled in to read their papers once more. None of them had any doubt that they would be prepared when they had to be. And none doubted that in the end the world would be oblivious to the alien dangers they had been saved from. They had their secret weapons, that was for sure, and when the time came, the aliens would wish they'd found a different planet to pick on.
Clark felt a little dirty as he filed into the classroom and took a seat at his customary desk. Covertly sneaking around and spying on the guy who was the world's one and only superhero just felt…wrong somehow. He didn't know what he'd expected to see, but so far, all he'd gotten was an eyeful of normal student life. The guy walked to class, a backpack slung over his shoulder, adorned in jeans and a t-shirt. His face was covered with rough stubble that made him seem less boyish than he had looked the day before, brilliantly adding an air of scruffiness that was sure to silence anyone who thought he even remotely resembled the new hero. Every now and then he slowed down to greet another student, but for the most part he blended into the crowd, an ordinary college kid who was utterly unremarkable in every respect. Rather than watching him sit through his class, Clark had passed the time in the periodicals section of the library, soaking up all the news of the day that he could possibly find, from every newspaper that the university subscribed to. It had been hard to do, but it was interesting to see the range of responses that the fantastic Bolt, as he called himself, got from the press. All too soon, Clark had to get to class, all but ending his spying for the morning. There would be more time to take up his quest again in the afternoon, but he didn't know how badly he wanted to continue on this path. Maybe it was better to stop being so covert and just talk to the guy. That would be the more mature and responsible thing to do, certainly, but that protectiveness so deeply ingrained into him just wouldn't allow that.
Clark took his usual seat in the classroom and settled down, letting his mind wander. It was a new world that he was living in now, one in which it was okay for a man to fly in public, and when such a man did a good deed, he was heralded and embraced as a popular icon. It was strange that after years of having conversations with himself about the value of heroism versus the reactions of the public, he could finally see what the real answer was without really putting himself at risk. The whole thing was wonderful and terrifying at the same time, but as he let himself mentally delve into the subject further, the professor stepped into the room, dropping an armful of materials on the table at the front of the lecture hall. After arranging things for a moment, the professor looked up and smiled, and the steady chatter in the room quickly trailed off. Clark roughly pushed aside his thoughts, grateful that he would finally have a distraction from the subject that had been tormenting him for the last day.
"Good morning," the professor started. "As most of you know, I like to take the time every now and then to dissect current events, to take a look at the news of the day and try to find the story beneath the story. Unless you live in a cave, today's subject should be fairly obvious."
It was then that Clark noticed that most of the materials that had been brought into the room were various newspapers. Internally groaning, he watched as the professor held the front page of each up one by one, reading the headlines that were now very familiar. Hero, savior, icon—each paper put its own sensationalist spin on the man who mysteriously appeared in Metropolis the day before.
"Who, what, when, where, how. These are the facts that every journalist is taught to report on. All these cover those basics, and some try to delve into the why, although with a story like this one, that's a lot harder to come by. But what fascinates me is the way that none of these try to uncover the truly interesting aspects of this. Yes, the cover story itself is fascinating, the type of human interest story that every editor dreams of finding. But what makes it such an interesting story to begin with, the reason that people snatch up the newspaper and read every agonizing detail, is the IDEA of what a hero is. It's always implied, but nobody seems to be bold enough to step up and ask why this Bolt is considered a hero."
Clark leaned back into his seat, letting the pencil fall out of his hands. Of all the topics in all the world to be brought up in his classes, why did it have to be this one? He felt a part of himself wanting nothing more than to stand up and walk out of class, to not have to be subjected to this issue that had become his own personal torture device. At the same time, though, there was that same fascination at seeing where the professor was going with this. It couldn't just be about reading the headlines or gushing over Bolt, there had to be more to it than that. In any case, the curiosity that had driven Clark to Metropolis last night and to the library that morning was more than enough to keep him where he was for the time being.
The professor turned toward the chalkboard, writing the word 'hero' in large block letters. "So what is a hero?" he asked, looking expectantly into the audience. A few hands went up, but he waved them off as he picked up a set of note cards. "To some it's a sandwich. To history, Hero is a Greek scientist skilled in geometry, among other things. In mythology, Hero is a priestess. But if you go out on the street and ask the average child what a hero is, he'll probably conjure up an image of Michael Jordan or some other sports personality and tell you that a hero is someone who is good at something that you want to be good at, too."
The professor leaned against the table and crossed his legs, a philosophical look on his face. "Modern times have distorted the meaning of that word, hero. To be heroic is to run fast or be able to dunk a basketball. Or, sometimes, it means the ability to get someone to do what you want. While it is true that one synonym of the word is celebrity, that isn't the WHOLE meaning. The dictionary I keep at home says that a hero is 'a person noted for feats of courage or nobility of purpose, especially one who has risked or sacrificed his life.'"
Turning toward the stack of papers, the professor rooted around and found one with a large picture of Bolt on the front, holding it up for his audience to see. "When you look at this man, what do you see? You see a man who can fly, a man who apparently is very strong and very fast, but underneath it all seems ordinary enough. In that way he qualifies as someone who is capable of awesome feats, a hero by the most widely accepted definition. But do you see someone who is in danger, someone who has sacrificed something?" He stopped and looked at the picture, the classroom so quiet that even the slightest sound could be heard.
"You'll be dissected like a frog, Clark," he heard his father say from across the years, the words as clear now as they had been then. Oh yes, if there was one thing Clark was very much aware of, it was the danger that loomed out there for someone like himself or Bolt.
"On one hand it looks like this man has gained a lot of notoriety overnight—he's a world celebrity now, his face adorns the cover of most every newspaper published. Many people would like nothing more than to see their names in the paper just once. So celebrity can be counted as a benefit, even if there are some that might see it as anything but. But that's a whole different argument.
"On the other hand, by publicly stopping crime, he's made himself an enemy of criminals everywhere. He put a big target on his back, and depending on how serious his enemies are, he put all his friends and loved ones in the line of fire, too. No doubt he's aware of this, if his unconventional attire says anything. Nobody's stepped up to say that they went to high school with the guy or knew him back when he was just a little Bolt, which means his disguise must've worked. Still, imagine what would happen if the criminal element were to find out who he is. How many of you out there would be brave enough to put yourself in danger like that?"
The professor looked appraisingly at his audience, challenging them in a way. Clark found himself looking away, suddenly ashamed. Deep down he had known it, but he'd never allowed himself to admit it. Courage. Bravery. A strong sense of justice. If he'd ever possessed any of those, he probably would've been out in the world doing the same thing a long time ago. As it was, the words of fear and caution lodged in his brain long ago by Lana and his parents had taken away all of those. No wonder he felt empty sometimes, he thought. A new resolve began to build inside of him as he contemplated the path he would take from here on out. No longer would Clark Kent be a doormat. No longer would Clark Kent deny himself the use of the powers that had been given to him for the betterment of the world.
"They say that a man has to crawl before he can walk," the professor continued. "What would it have been like to discover the ability to fly? What types of things would you have to be subjected to before you found out that you were impervious to harm? Here, you have the very picture of a seemingly innocent young man, but given what he must've gone through just to discover who and what he was, just the fact that he was willing to embrace that rather than hide from it means that he has more inner strength than most people I know. That fear of the unknown, the unforeseen reaction of the general mob, that is the greatest danger. But this young man overcame that, and he earned the label of hero."
Clark wanted to cry. He wanted to shout with sorrow and anger and joy. But, ultimately, he could only stare at the floor, a light mist in his eyes. It was a ringing endorsement for a man that the professor had never met. The respect of the press and the love of the general public was truly overwhelming, and it stirred jealous feelings within Clark. This could've been his, but that fear had held him back. But the new Clark Kent, the brave and bold Clark Kent, didn't have any need to worry about the unknown anymore.
The lecture continued on, but he wasn't paying attention anymore. As soon as he got home, he had to talk to Lana and tell her what he had decided. He needed to plan and analyze. His life was about to change forever, and he wanted to make sure that he knew exactly what he was getting into. Most importantly, though, he needed to find Bolt, and soon. There would be no more running away from the truth, and there would be no more covert spying.
Lana Lang sighed as she took a seat in the large lecture hall. Next to her, folded up neatly and draped over the arm of the well-used chair, sat a copy of that day's campus newspaper. It was there waiting for her every day, a gift from an unknown benefactor who apparently never paid much attention to the lecture before hers. Normally she would snatch it up and read through the stories, more than happy to distract herself from the mundane and tired conversation around her. Yes, the articles were a little crude, and yes, the news tended to be a bit sensational, but she enjoyed it nonetheless. Usually.
Today was far from being normal, though, a fact she was acutely aware of as her hand lingered over the paper. She knew what the headline would be, that was a given. Just the thought of reading about that individual who called himself a hero made her stomach clench up, but she couldn't avoid the news forever. Anyway, she thought as she picked the paper up at last, there was always the crossword puzzle. Surely THAT wouldn't be about Bolt. Actively trying to avoid the headline, she kept the bottom of the front page toward her as she brought the paper in front of her. Lesser headlines stared back at her, mostly related to campus reaction to the new hero. She started to open the paper in disgust when one headline caught her eye. It was quite small, buried in the lower corner of the page, but there, clear as day, was a headline that proclaimed that Bolt was not alone.
Lana involuntarily shivered as her mouth went dry and her palms became damp. The page was shaking as she read the story, written by someone named Lois Lane. Apparently, shortly after Bolt left the night before, this woman was nearly killed in a dark alley, saved by a man who seemed to appear out of nowhere. She described his appearance, noting the differences he had with Bolt, but all Lana could see were the similarities to Clark. Dark hair, brown eyes, a quiet demeanor…the fact that he apparently flew into the alley and stopped a bullet with his bare hands meant that it couldn't be anyone else. There was something else, too, hidden in the way the article was written. Lana had certainly read enough Harlequin romances to spot that tone, the flowery words and reverence toward the subject that very subtly conveyed something deeper. Something…romantic?
Without another thought, Lana angrily balled the newspaper up and flung it to the ground, letting out a growl as she did so. She sneered at it as it laid there, mentally uttering curses at Clark and thinking of all manner of ways to get back at him and this homewrecking reporter. In the back of her throat, a growl began to grow ever so slightly, growing louder and louder until suddenly it drew her away from her thoughts. Only then did she become aware of the spectacle that she was making of herself. With an embarrassed grimace, she pushed herself as far down into the chair as she could, making herself as small as she felt at the moment. Small, yet still full of anger. Who did Clark think he was, anyway?
Earlier that morning, she had thought about calling him and giving him a piece of her mind for hanging up on her the previous day. At the time, she had almost been willing to concede that it must've been a trying day for him, but even that was a flimsy excuse for treating her so badly. Now, though, all concessions were gone. Apparently he had flown to Metropolis, completely against her wishes and all common sense, and publicly used his powers. As if the insubordination wasn't enough, he had also apparently seduced this woman. Did he think she wouldn't find out? Did he think he'd get off scot free?
Lana clenched her teeth in anger, trying to avoid making another scene. The gesture was almost soothing, and as she pondered the situation more, her anger started to be displaced by sadness and resignation. Once upon a time, she thought she had loved Clark. He was by far the most handsome man to ever walk the streets of Smallville, and if she could've spent eternity with him, she would've been deliriously happy. At least, that's how she felt until he told her everything about himself. It had repulsed her to think that she had spent time at Lookout Hill making out with ET, so much so that she had become physically ill. She tried to hide these things from Clark, because it wasn't his fault what he was. But the thoughts of a future together, of sharing life with her knight in shining armor, just never came back. He could do things, freakish things, and after the revelations, that's all she could see. The handsome boy she knew had been replaced with…a thing.
Maybe it had been unfair to string him along after they went to college. Maybe, in the back of her mind, she thought that all those things about him would go away. And even if she didn't, COULDN'T, love him anymore, he still loved her, and that counted for something. But she had kept him at arm's length, and it probably was only a matter of time before he saw through her, and started looking elsewhere for love and acceptance. If they were essentially through before, they were officially through now. And if Clark was too chicken to make the declaration himself, then she'd take the steps and do it for him. At least this news won't end up on the front page.
Her mind made up, Lana let out a sigh and opened her notebook. The lecture was beginning, and so, in a way, was a new life for her.
Thick, black smoke filled the air around Bolt, turning the world utterly dark. Around him, he could hear the subtle sounds of a fire—the popping and the groaning of the materials burning, the inward rush of air that fueled the flames. And somewhere underneath all that was something else, a sound so subtle it would be easy to believe that it wasn't there at all. He'd been honing in on it for a few moments now, acutely aware that the sound he was hearing was that of a human heart. The fact that anything survived inside this inferno was amazing in and of itself, but he needed to act quickly to make sure that whatever it was lived to see tomorrow. Swiftly, he floated toward the sound, crashing through walls as he did, using every bit of his enhanced senses to guide him. There, at last, he saw a man lying prone on the floor.
Faster than the eye could see, Bolt picked up the man and flew him outside, mentally willing his charge to breathe just a few more breaths. Superhero or not, Bolt did have his limits, and without the help of a trained medic, this man certainly wouldn't make it much longer. It only took him a moment to locate an ambulance once he had cleared the smoke, and before any of the EMTs knew what was happening, the man was in a gurney beside them. Startled, they turned, gave him a surprised look, then quickly got to work. All Bolt could do was stand back and watch as they struggled to keep the man alive, whisking him into the ambulance and finally driving away.
It was odd, he thought as he focused his attention back to the scene around him. He had never thought through the more human ramifications of being a superhero. He had thought it would be all fun and glitz, with the occasional marquee battle with some hypothetical bad guy. Overall, he should have a high sense of self-esteem, a certainty that he was doing right for the world. But somehow, as he watched the firemen spray water on the fire without much success and heard the sounds of suffering from the ambulances scattered around the area, he couldn't help but feel a little hollow inside. He had rescued several people from the flames, all told, but there were others that he hadn't found soon enough. That last man, thankfully, still clung to life, but his prognosis was grim. If Bolt had been a better hero, maybe he could've found him sooner. Maybe he could've found a way to keep the fire from spreading. As it was, though, he just felt…grimy.
Looking down at himself, it was clear that that feeling wasn't unfounded. He was covered from head to toe in black soot, the sort of thing that the landlord would see on his clothes and thereby prohibit him from going anywhere near one of the building's washing machines. Not that he'd blame her for that. All the Tide in the world probably wouldn't help get that out, but… He sighed. Before too long, he'd have to start trekking across the country in search of San Diego Chargers jerseys, because his college town in the middle of Kansas wouldn't support nights like these for very long.
"Uh, excuse me," someone said behind him, startling him. Quickly, Bolt whipped around, pushing down the negative emotions and plastering his public smile on his face.
"Yes, what can I do for you?" Bolt asked. Evading emotion had never been one of his strong suits, but even he was impressed at how…non-depressed his words sounded. He sounded like a hero, actually. That thought brought a genuine smile.
"I'm Joe Gibb from the mayor's office," the man said, extending his hand. Bolt reached out and shook it gladly, noting the look of alarm that crossed the other man's face as a substantial amount of black grime rubbed off on him in the process. "I, uh," the man stammered as he wiped his hand on his pants. "I was brought here to invite you to a ceremony of sorts," he finished, his face revealing that he was a skilled politician.
"Oh?" Bolt asked.
"Yes. The mayor thinks that your contributions to the city so far can't be underscored," he said, gesturing around him. "He would like nothing more than to honor you for that. We were thinking maybe this Friday evening?"
Bolt arched his soot-covered eyebrows. This was definitely interesting. While it was every superhero's duty to accept the ceremonial keys to the city he or she guarded, it was also in their best interests to stay far, far away from the political arena. Besides, he thought as he looked past Mr. Gibb, he didn't think his contributions had been all that impressive. Stopping petty crimes had pretty much been the extent of his heroic activities when he wasn't garnering publicity for himself. Today had been his first foray into the more serious hero duties, and he was well aware of his shortcomings in that area. Still, he thought as his eyes caught a reporting crew, their cameras trained on him, he could see how maybe the public and their elected officials thought he was worthy of such an honor. It was all the media had talked about since he had showed up on the scene, and apparently it had finally worked.
Looking back at the politician, Bolt mentally reviewed his calendar. His new powers had made it possible to finish homework assignments faster than a speeding bullet. Unfortunately, all the time this freed was not filled by a busy social calendar. While his fellow students would probably be out on dates Friday night, he'd probably be watching reruns on cable. Under the circumstances, anything looked good.
"That works for me," Bolt replied, a good-natured smile on his face.
"Excellent!" Mr. Gibb replied. A nicely printed card was shoved into Bolt's hand outlining the ceremony time, location, and attire. "You do have a dress outfit?" he asked, appraising Bolt.
The hero's smile didn't falter in the least. "I could wear my church jeans and dress black helmet," he replied, waiting for a reaction from the man across from him, but getting none. "Maybe clip a bow tie onto the jersey?" The politician's face looked awkwardly vacant still.
"Well," he said, giving Bolt a slight nod. "We look forward to seeing you there." With that, he walked away, angling toward the press, most likely to inform them of the good news. With a shake of his head, Bolt jumped up into the air and took off toward home. He had a class to get to in a few minutes and a long shower to take between then and now. No matter how much of a hero he thought he was, being a college student definitely had to come first for Kevin. Lord knew that a backup career in lowbrow comedy probably wasn't going to happen for him, if today was any indication, and the hero gig definitely wasn't helping his financial situation. At least he finally found a way to use that clip-on bow tie his mom had gotten him for high school graduation.
Clark stood in the rather shabby hallway of a Metropolis apartment building. The carpet, a thick brown shag that had probably been magnificent in the early 70's, was now threadbare, exposing the padding underneath at the most well-worn spots. The paint on the walls was once beige, but now seemed almost brown with age and grime. Bright colored doors interrupted the dirty beige walls, each reflecting the fluorescent light of the halls in a blinding, tacky orange glow. He supposed this building was the type of place that was uniquely Metropolis—well-used, worn, old-fashioned, and unkempt. He often got the feeling that a lot of people that lived in the city just didn't have much pride about where they lived, a concept that was entirely foreign to a well-raised Midwesterner like himself. What, through his eyes, was a ragged-looking building was probably considered quite high class to the person from Metropolis. The fact that his midwest born and bred girlfriend lived in a place like this and often raved to him about how lucky she was to have it made him wonder if he would even know her when she opened the door.
He raised his fist, intending to knock on the door in front of him, but hesitated. When she had called him up the other night, he had expected the worst. Everything he had ever experienced from Lana in the past few years had told him to batten down the emotional hatches and prepare for hurricane Lana to unleash her verbal storm on him, but for once he was wrong. Calmly she had spoken, telling him that she was sorry he had to leave the other day, and that she wanted him to come to Metropolis so that they could talk, just the two of them, face-to-face. Her voice hadn't been happy or sad, hopeful or angry, just very straightforward and matter-of-fact. His first instinct had been to shout for joy about the fact that finally, after pushing him away for so long, she wanted to see him. But as time had passed and he had allowed himself to review the call, something began to strike him as fishy. If Lana was anything, she was emotional. She could watch grass growing and be able to give a voluminous account of how it was affecting her. Given that, her lack of emotion was very troubling. He should probably be extremely worried about would happen once that door finally opened, but he found himself oddly calm as the moment approached.
With a sigh and a shake of his head, Clark finally got the courage to knock on the door. He steeled himself from whatever emotions would unleash themselves at the sight of her, not knowing what to expect once he finally had to see her again, face to face. He could hear movement on the other side of the door, and after a moment the handle began to turn, almost in slow motion. At last, the door was opened, and there stood someone that he could only assume was Lana. She glanced up at him, her face revealing the soft features that he had always remembered, although there was an edge to her expression that he couldn't quite put his finger on. Almost before he could even blink, though, she quickly turned away, yelling something at her roommate. "Come on," she said as she turned back to him, grabbing him by the arm and pulling him down the hallway.
"Uhm," Clark stammered, caught completely off guard. He had the strength to move mountains, but inexplicably he found himself being manhandled by his girlfriend and dragged through the hallway that had been fashionable back when people actually LIKED to listen to the BeeGees. And, for whatever reason, all he could think of was how strange her hair looked. He should probably be thinking about the coolness he had seen in her glance toward him, or maybe her lack of any kind of even token courtesy or manners as she had greeted him. He should even be feeling some surge of long forgotten tenderness at seeing her again after so many months, but his eyes were strangely drawn to her head. The long, flowing, golden locks that he remembered had been chopped short and dyed a reddish color, the type that made it patently obvious to anyone who saw it that it was fake. It was just this side of pink, in fact, and formed into dozens of sloppy-looking spikes that pointed in every direction.
He was vaguely aware that they were descending a flight of stairs as his eyes wandered down her diminutive form. Once upon a time, Lana had been what he considered a very classy dresser, not unlike himself. In high school, he remembered, she had been fashionable, but always modest. Whatever it was that she had on now was neither. The top was a loud pastel, frilly and too tight. And, he thought as he stifled a gasp, too thin. It certainly didn't take x-ray vision to make out the flowery pattern of her bra underneath. Her jeans rode low on her hips—too low, he thought as his eyes narrowed. Plumbers would be embarrassed to bend over in those jeans, and that was saying something. In retrospect, it was probably a wonder he even recognized her at all, although he supposed there was no mistaking her smell, or the sound of her heart that was uniquely hers. At least that was still the same.
Eventually he found himself stopped in front of what he still recognized as her car. The death lock that her hand had held on his arm had finally loosened as she dug through her purse for keys. He opened his mouth to say something, but words just didn't seem to want to come. He didn't know if he wanted to say something about her new look, or maybe engage in meaningless chitchat, or inquire about the reason for her asking him there. The words fought with each other, but in the end she was the one who spoke.
"Come on, get in," she commanded as she glanced up at him and gestured toward the passenger door. Obediently, he complied, silently hopping into the car. They rode in silence for a while, his mind still utterly blank, Lana ignoring him. Finally, as the tall buildings flashed by around him, something clicked inside his mind, and the unreality of the situation began to fade. This was LANA, for goodness sakes, no matter how she looked. He knew her, right? Surely he could start up a conversation with his girlfriend, the woman he spent a great amount of time talking on the phone to.
"So where are we going?" he asked, his voice sounding stiff and forced. She gave him a sideways glance, annoyance etched on her face.
"A nice place I know where we can sit and talk," she said. As he gave her one of his patented smiles, she wrinkled her brow, steeling herself from his charms and ultimately signaling for him that there was no sense in continuing any conversation. Yup, he thought as he began to feel dread for the first time that night, it was going to be a long one. Very long.
Lois Lane paced back and forth in the crowded restaurant waiting area, dodging children and the legs of patrons sitting on the surrounding benches, occasionally shooting a nasty look toward the hostess. Nobody ever said that she was a patient person, but as her stomach growled audibly at the scent of food in the air, she wondered how long a wait would be considered cruel and unusual punishment. She was only looking for a table for one, after all. Back and forth she walked, drawing disgusted stares from those around her. With a sigh, she pulled her coat tight around herself and decided that maybe it would be best for her to take her pacing outside, where the smell of food wasn't as great and there were no toes to step on. She checked to make sure that the pager the hostess had giver her was securely in place, and then strode toward the door. She had her hands on the polished brass handle and was beginning to push the door open when she just happened to look out the square window in front of her. There, walking toward her with an almost trashy-looking woman at his side, was her mythical anonymous hero, the magnificently handsome man who had saved her life earlier in the week.
She found herself frozen momentarily as she watched him move, his every motion so fluid and graceful. Her eyes wandered up to his face, and she was stunned to see an expression there that she hadn't seen before, a weariness that seemed to make him look much older than he had the other day. The urge was strong to just stay and watch this man, to observe him with this other woman, to maybe make her presence known, but at the thought of that, she had a sudden flash of what would happen. This man had valued his privacy so much that the mere thought of saying his name had scared him to death. He'd probably have a panic attack if he knew that she saw him here with an acquaintance, looking very mortal, very human, and most certainly not like a hero. Not that Lois had never induced such a reaction in anyone else before—she recalled a professor or two turning interesting shades of purple when she confronted them as part of a big story, but this man was someone she CARED about. Little details like the fact that she had more or less exposed him in the newspaper shouldn't obscure the fact that there had been a weird mutual attraction between them. Anyway, the mischievous part of her thought, it might be more fun to do a little bit of covert spying. Okay, maybe more snooping than spying, but that kind of thing was her forte. Good reporters were merely average without a healthy appetite for snooping, after all.
With a twitch of her mouth muscles and a sudden desire for her table to not come free for some time, she darted away from the door and pulled the collar of her jacket up. The door was just swinging open as she wedged herself into a spot on a nearby bench. Her gaze locked onto the ground in an attempt to be as inconspicuous and unrecognizable as possible, and she watched as a worn pair of sneakers walked by, followed by an immaculately pedicured pair of feet with cranberry painted toenails wearing flimsy sandals. As she was bringing her head around to follow their movement, the pager began to vibrate, causing her to jump. Darn it, anyway!
Lois carefully maneuvered her way out of the waiting area and toward the hostess, giving her another dirty look. This one was for the service being too fast, a contradiction from her earlier dirty look, she realized, but she had been in the middle of something important. The hostess, apparently used to abuse, just smiled and led her to a table in the middle of a long row of two-person booths. As she tried to formulate a new plan of action for the night, she noticed that the table she was being led to was right behind another one that looked like it had recently been vacated. This held possibilities, she thought, suddenly willing the hostess to go grab the only other party of two that she had noticed in that lobby—her hero and his trashy friend.
Her appetite back and her juices flowing, Lois situated herself with her back to the neighboring empty table and prepared for a very good supper.
Clark looked around as he and Lana were led through the restaurant to their table. When Lana had said that she wanted to go somewhere to talk, he had kind of envisioned someplace a little more private, but in retrospect, this made sense. Even though he was sure that his abilities were at the root of what they were going to talk about, a conversation here would mean that they would need to be ignored, pushed away, which he supposed is what she had always done. Ignored them. Pushed them away. If they infringed on the fiction that their relationship had become, she forbade him from using them, ostensibly remedying the problem, but in reality just delaying it and causing it to fester. In the process, she had largely ignored him, pushed him away, and made him feel ashamed to be who and what he was. It wouldn't take much to feel resentful because of that, but anger and resentment were just things that he couldn't allow himself to feel toward someone who had also, at times, been very tender and accepting of him as well. Maybe it wasn't the deep and all- consuming love that he now knew was out there waiting for him, maybe it was something more sisterly. In any case, she had stuck by him, even if deep down she resented him, and he couldn't begrudge her that. But she was making it hard, he thought as they were lead further toward the busy heart of the restaurant. Somehow, leaving things with less than the full truth just seemed wrong, but apparently that's what she wanted.
Their table was small, in between two other tables and situated along a six foot high divider that was covered with colorful metal signs and other gimmicky restaurant memorabilia. The tables on either side of it were occupied, in both cases by lone individuals. Clark sighed as he sat down and gathered up the menu, mentally trying to figure out how to frame the impending conversation. Only after the order had been placed and the drinks had been set in front of them did he notice Lana staring at him. It was more of a physical feeling of her eyes on him, really, the type of feeling that would make a lesser man shudder. But Clark had seen that look before, and he sat back in his seat and folded his arms across his chest, waiting for her to make the first move. He didn't have to wait long.
"How long has it been, Clark?" she asked, a smile almost trying to form on her face. She shifted in her seat and began to stare at the stained glass light hanging low above their table. If he didn't know any better, he could swear there was some faraway sentiment in her gaze. The optimist in him would always be there to tell him that there was, but with Lana he just didn't know anymore. Or, maybe, he just didn't care all that much. It was a sad testament to what their relationship had become, but it was true.
"Boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, have a great time. Share special moments together that would make their parents blush. Boy and girl prepare for college, boy tells girl his biggest secret… Girl runs away." She sighed and looked at him, and he knew for sure the sentiment was real. She searched his face for a moment and then continued. "It seemed like a long time ago. It seemed like two different people. You know, for a long time I thought that if I thought hard enough about it, if I wished on every star and let myself believe that certain things could magically go away, then it would all be okay again. I'd wake up one day and it would be that summer again, and instead of you telling me far-fetched stories about distant planets and unbelievable powers, you'd sweep me away to my parents' barn and we'd talk about our futures together as normal, everyday people."
Clark looked at her and felt a twinge of sadness. Sometimes he'd wished the same thing, probably staring up at the same night sky that she had. "We can't change who we are, though. Would you rather have not known? About me, I mean?"
She shook her head and looked down at the table. "A relationship built on half truths isn't any better than one where one of us wishes the other were someone they weren't."
"So the last four years…did you ever believe that there would be a future between us?" Curiosity was a strong emotion indeed. Maybe HE needed to know that the years of denying himself his true heritage weren't for nothing. Or maybe he was just a glutton for punishment.
Lana shrugged and started playing with her shirt. "Maybe. I mean, you cared enough for me to stick around. That's more than I could say for…" she trailed off and her eyes got wide. She had never dated anyone but him in Smallville. He shouldn't be surprised that she looked around in college, but still, the words felt a bit like a slap in the face.
"So what changed? Why this?" he asked, gesturing at the restaurant around them.
Lana's eyes sparkled with something that almost seemed sad. "Because you made the papers, Clark. Just like I have always said would happen. I bet nobody else in the entire world knew it was you, but I did. And it hurt."
"I'm sorry," he stammered, slightly dumbfounded. The papers? How would HE make the papers? A shadow of the newly vanquished fear of discovery that he had always carried around inside reared its ugly head, but Clark suppressed it once again. There was nothing to be scared of. Nothing. Not after the reaction that Bolt had received. He took a few deep breaths and regarded Lana again, seeing her famous anger lurking behind the seemingly calm exterior. "I'm sorry," he repeated, more forcefully this time. "But I had to see. I had to know. I didn't want to hurt you, you have to know that, but…"
"But you couldn't stop yourself," Lana completed. She sighed and looked away, obviously not wanting to look him in the eye. "And I realized that all those half baked notions I had held onto over the years, the idea that maybe we could still be together, were built around the idea that you would be NORMAL, or at least as normal as possible. But you're just not."
Clark felt something inside of him snap. All the reminiscing, all the tender talk of the deeply held secrets and longings built into their relationship, suddenly felt old and stale and shallow in a way that would've been unfathomable even a week ago. They wanted to be a normal couple, but at what cost? For years she had wanted him to restrain himself, and he had obediently complied. In the ensuing train wrecks, floods, and fires, how many people had died? And how many could he have saved if he wasn't so busy feeling sorry for himself? And where had all the appeasement gotten them? The illusion of normalcy had been just that, an illusion. Deep down inside, both of them had known that no amount of hiding and pretending could change who he was, and their relationship had festered. And innocent people had died.
"No, I'm not. But so what?" he said, the edge in his voice causing her to look back toward him in alarm. Leaning in toward her, he lowered his voice. "The things that make me different are the things that make me who I AM, Lana," he hissed. "Something about seeing the innocence of the world from above makes it easy for me to believe in the inherent goodness of humanity. Sometimes that's all you have to hold onto, especially when terrible things are happening around you all the time, things that are entirely within your power to stop, but for whatever silly, selfish, dumb reason you don't. It's easy to be cynical, I should know, but you have to believe that a God that created a world that is so beautiful in every way would never do anything to hurt it. And maybe, just maybe, I was made different in order to help out when bad things do happen."
Clark leaned back again, taking a few deep breaths. The passion in those few sentences was more than he'd shown Lana in years. "And all those differences just aren't going to go away, you know that," he continued, subdued. "Everything that's happened in the last week should tell you that there's no reason to hide in the shadows anymore. Or pretend."
Her eyes were wide with surprise, and silence fell over the table. It was then that the waitress delivered their food, and they ate without saying a word. Neither of them needed to say that their relationship was over—they both knew. When they were finished and the bill was presented, Lana left the table to visit the restroom. Whatever cloud had hung over the table seemed to go with her, and Clark had to blink a few times as he began to feel like himself again. It was strange to think that Lana represented the worst in him, in his past, but that's what it felt like now.
The air had been cleared for only a few seconds when the person at the table in front of him began to stir. It was odd how he never gave more than a cursory glance toward the people around him, even while he was engaging in one of the more intimate and revealing conversations he had ever had. He supposed that he had just assumed that they had been engaging in conversations of their own, or at the very least they were too polite to listen in. Or maybe some deep, dark, ostrich-like center of his brain thought that if he didn't really see them, then they didn't exist. But now this person turned around, and that feeling of normalcy vanished even before it had a chance to fully realize itself. There, staring at him with a broad, knowing smile, was the woman he had rescued in the alleyway. A squeak escaped his mouth as she slid around the booth divider and took a seat across from him.
"Eat here much?" she asked, and he knew that what had already been a long evening was, in fact, just beginning.
Lois smiled. Here was what she would call a classic moment, a moment where she had her subject exactly where she wanted him. He seemed too flustered to run away, but he didn't seem entirely displeased to see her, either. She had a feeling that if she had wanted, she could've dived into his meal and he would've just watched in quiet confusion. Too bad he was already finished.
"I said to myself, I could really go for a steak tonight," she said, plunging ahead. "Being a college student, normally I'd just try to cremate one myself, but I usually want to enjoy what I eat, so I figured that maybe me cooking it wasn't the right thing. So here I am. Imagine my luck when the hostess just happened to give me this table."
She paused, basking in the moment. He was still just looking at her, mouth slightly open, eyes wide. This was just too delicious. Not unlike her steak.
"Oh, I'm sorry, I should introduce myself," she said, moving the pawn on her mental chess board and sticking her hand out toward him. "Lois Lane. You know, from the alley."
He looked at her hand a moment, then toward her. With a slight shrug, he grasped her outstretched hand. "I'm Clark," he said, still somewhat guarded, surprising her. He wasn't supposed to play along with her quite yet. Darn. She had secretly planned how she would torturously draw his name from him, reveling in the little discomforts she would cause him along the way, but he had to go and spoil the fun. Better say something fast, she thought, trying to figure a way to back herself out of the corner she had stepped into. It only took a moment for a new plan to present itself.
"So I heard," she said, her voice sounding more saccharine than planned. Subtle, Lois, very subtle. How about just telling him that you heard practically every word he said with absolute clarity? She had always been a little too…blunt to be coy, at least when she had to think on the fly. As his eyes narrowed, she quickly tried to steer the conversation back on course. "You know, with your girlfriend's voice, it kind of just cut through everything when she said it."
A smile. Finally. That was worth the price of admission, she thought, basking in the moment and silently congratulating herself. It almost wasn't sporting, pointing out one of the more apparent character flaws in his now ex- girlfriend, but she didn't regret the reward that little joke at what's-her-face's expense had brought her. His smile was enough to make her forget her own name. Time seemed to slow down as she lost herself in his gorgeous face, hazily wondering how it was that a man could be so devastatingly handsome. But the sensation only lasted a moment, and she wrestled her consciousness back to reality, vowing that she would never watch another soap opera again if she didn't somehow succeed in her plan tonight. And to do that, it was evidently up to her to say something, anything, to keep the conversation rolling. He seemed more than content to just sit there and let her ask the questions and do most of the talking.
"Well, Clark, up until a second ago, I got the impression that you weren't exactly happy to see me," she said, hoping to maybe coax something from him, even if it were nothing more than a blush.
His eyebrows raised slightly, his face showing no signs of redness. "I've already been Shanghaied once today, so in that respect I could definitely have gone without any more surprises. But in retrospect I should probably be thanking you," he said, catching her off guard. She had expected some weak platitudes or maybe a long-winded tirade about what a rotten night, what a rotten WEEK it had been, because that would probably have been what she'd have said, but he didn't seem to play by the same rules.
"Me, why?" she asked, still too surprised to be entirely aware that he had skillfully managed to put her on the defensive.
All of a sudden, his smile became very wry. "You were the only person I saw in Metropolis last time I was here, aside from that mugger, and he passed out so quickly that I doubt he even knew what happened. And since my exploits apparently ended up in the paper, I can only assume that you were the source."
"You're thanking me for writing that article?" she asked, confused.
He leaned back, surprisingly at ease now. "Yes." With a small flick of the wrist, he gestured toward the restrooms, where his dinner companion was at the moment. "Thanks to you, my girlfriend is now my ex-girlfriend." His smile was almost triumphant.
"The steakhouse breakup. Brutal," she said, amazed. His mistrust of her in that alley had been well-founded—she DID write about him, she DID reveal his existence, even it if was vague. It affected his personal life, ruined his relationship with his significant other, maybe even compromised his identity, but he couldn't be happier. It somehow took the fun out of it all to have him so happy about how everything had turned out.
"It's not exactly what I had in mind," he said, looking around, his eyes ultimately landing on her. "But I got some good food out of the deal, and I've found that, contrary to what I've always thought, it feels great to be free from the old ball and chain, so to speak, so thank you."
Lois blushed this time. This man was truly an enigma. She'd love to spend some time getting into his head, and maybe some other places while she was at it. Maybe it was the steak, but she certainly felt sustained, comfortable, and, darn it, she was staring. But so was he.
Their staring contest was interrupted by the sound of someone clearing their throat immediately beside her. Startled, they both jerked their heads toward the sound, and saw the very impatient form of his ex-girlfriend. Her eyes were locked on Lois, her expression deadly. Clark calmly sat up and looked toward Lois, his gaze calming and almost protective. "Lois, I'd like you to meet Lana Lang,"
"Nice to meet you," Lois said, extending her hand toward the scantily clad woman. Lana just stared at her hand, then turned her wrath toward Clark.
"Clark, I didn't know that you had any friends here in Metropolis," she said, her voice revealing a barely controlled rage.
"Oh, sure, Lois and I met a while ago. Journalism conference." He smiled at Lana, and they probably exchanged some more unpleasantries, but Lois found herself staring at him, mouth somewhat open. Why would he be at a journalism conference? And why would she buy that excuse, unless… Well, that was certainly an unexpected development.
"Lois?" She heard her name and snapped out of her thoughts.
"Hmm?" she asked, trying to act nonchalant.
"Your check," he said, pointing to the waiter standing expectantly at her table.
"Oh, right," she said, giving him a smile, then slipping around the divider to her table. Behind her, she heard nothing but silence as Lana slid into the seat Lois had just vacated. After a few moments, the annoying sound of a flip flop regularly smacking against Lana's foot began to become apparent, causing Lois to grit her teeth and clench her hands into fists. It was all she could do to keep herself from turning around and shaking this woman who had no manners and no class, even if she did have enough taste to have dated Clark, at least for a little while. Eventually Lois's bill was paid, and she stood to leave, wondering how she could somehow extend her time with Clark. The last thing she wanted was to leave now, after things had just begun to get a little juicy. His impassioned speech to his girlfriend alluded to things that could be positively fascinating if put in the right context, and she wanted to make sure that she was clear on just what that context was. There was something else, too, a strong, steamy attraction that she wouldn't mind exploring a little. If it meant finding some large, dark pit to throw his companion into, all the better.
"Lois, wait," she heard Clark say as she took a tentative step away from the table. Did he want to continue their conversation, too? If so, it would certainly save her from having to come up with some excuse to stick around him, which was good, because she didn't feel much like having to fake some sort of terrible illness in her favorite restaurant just to gain his attention. She tried hard not to appear too sly as she looked over her shoulder, throwing him her best 'who me?' look. It was all for not, though, as he had scrunched over the table, whispering something to his now ex-girlfriend. The pink spikes atop the woman's head stood straight and tall as she nodded a few times, every now and then casting a nasty glare toward Lois.
"Well, goodbye, Clark. Have a nice life," she said, almost too loudly, offering him a hand to shake, which he gladly took. Some relationship, Lois thought, suppressing a grunt. The two of them part ways, possibly seeing each other for the last time ever, and all this woman could offer was a handshake. No kiss, not even a gentle pat on the arm or some sunny words of regret over the love lost. Not that Lois was big on affection herself, but she had a hard time believing that anyone could not have regrets over losing a man who was even a fraction of the man that Lois imagined this Clark was.
Lana didn't even look back as she stood, molding her face into an entirely neutral expression and straightening out her too tight shirt. She brushed past Lois and headed toward the exit, her hips swinging seductively, tugging down the edges of her jeans, which left almost nothing to the imagination as it was. Lois had to fight an involuntary shudder as she turned her attention away from the woman and back toward Clark, who was now looking at her anxiously.
Clark gestured toward the empty seat across from him, and Lois gladly sat down, dropping her coat and purse on the seat next to her as she gave Clark a questioning stare. "I was thinking about getting some dessert," he said, grabbing the dessert menu from behind the ketchup bottles and salt shakers. "Would you care to join me?" He opened it up and immediately smiled wickedly. Dropping the menu to the table, he pointed to a dessert named Mount Mud, a mountain of double chocolate chunk ice cream over a chocolate brownie, topped with hot chocolate.
Lois immediately smiled goofily as her chocolate reflex kicked in, and she had to wipe her hand across her mouth, afraid that involuntary drool would soon come dripping out. "You've discovered my ultimate weakness," she said, her attention firmly locked on the picture. "Let me share that with you and I'll be your new best friend." With a start, her eyes grew large, her vision focusing through the menu as she tried desperately not to look up toward him. She'd actually said those words out loud? Lois Lane never admitted to any weakness, and she certainly didn't throw around platitudes to strange men offering her chocolate, no matter how handsome and mysterious they were. But, she thought, forcing herself to calm down, she didn't have any reason not to trust him. And, considering the knowledge that she held about him, the sharing of one little dessert wouldn't obligate her to him in any way. In fact, he would probably be obligated to her when it was all said and done, and that was just fine by her.
She looked up and was somewhat surprised to find that Clark was chuckling softly, his eyes sparkling even as his gaze held the shadow of affection, maybe an inkling of something deeper, more serious. Involuntarily, she found her worries about decorum and appearances fading away, and a smile spreading across her face at the sound of his laughter and the pure innocence that it held. Her eyes locked into his again, and she was struck with how familiar and comfortable she felt with him, even if she really didn't know anything about who he was. Sure, she could make a pretty good guess at what he was, or at the very least what he could do, but that didn't tell her thing one about who he truly was. What kinds of things did he like to do for fun? What were his political leanings? What was his favorite movie or book? Did he have friends? Family? She felt a twinge of conscience as she considered just what it was that she was there to accomplish. Why was it such a big deal to somehow expose him for what he was? What would it prove to get him to admit to all the things he could do? And what did she intend to do with that confession when she got it?
Lois let the warmth of his gaze wash over her, her smile fading somewhat as she pondered those questions. One of the things that she had gleaned from the overheard conversation between Clark and his ex-girlfriend was that there had been tension, maybe even shame or fear or any number of other negative emotions, over the fact that he was what he was. Distant planets, unbelievable powers, abnormalities, all these things had been mentioned, and in such a way that Lois was sure that those, applied to Clark, were at the root of whatever problems had been between the two of them. Lana had wanted a normal boyfriend, and maybe somewhere deep down inside, Clark had wanted to be normal, too. If he really could do all the things that Lois imagined he could do—the flying, the invulnerability and the heat vision and whatever other talents that were also apparently held by Bolt—then she really couldn't blame Clark for keeping them hidden away. She could also understand why, all of a sudden, after the emergence and acceptance of Bolt, he wouldn't feel so skittish about them. And so maybe it had been curiosity or newfound confidence that had led him to be a hero to her in that alley, and his girlfriend had been resentful.
It was all speculation, of course, but Lois felt almost heartbroken at what he must have endured in the name of saving a relationship with that woman. To appease her, and to appease himself and whatever fear he held inside, he had hidden away, ashamed, until that day. But what did he have to be ashamed of? And why try to appease a woman who obviously didn't love him for who he was? No wonder he had been anxious in that alley, no wonder he tried to hide what he could do and who he was, especially after feeling that spark of mutual attraction. Maybe he thought nobody was capable of loving him once they found out the whole story about him. It was kind of odd, Lois thought, noticing that they were silently staring at each other again. She knew what he was, and she wasn't afraid or ashamed or disgusted. She knew what he was and all she wanted was to know more, because powers or no, she knew he cared enough about her well-being to risk exposure and save her life. That made him someone worth knowing more about, someone worth getting closer to, and maybe someone worth…well, she'd think about that later.
So why try to pry his secrets out of him? Well, to confirm that she was right, for one. But more importantly, she wanted him to know that she accepted that part of him, and she couldn't do that unless he opened up to her. Besides, Lois Lane always liked a challenge, and getting someone who had been guarded his whole life to tell her his deepest, darkest secrets was a challenge if she ever saw one. Besides, they had a mountain of chocolate waiting for them and all night to eat it in, and she had every intention of prying all those things out of him in that time.
"So," she said, breaking the silence, dragging a rogue strand of hair behind her ear and getting down to the business at hand. "Am I to guess that you're in journalism? You mentioned seeing me at some fictional conference and your ex seemed to buy it."
His eyebrows rose questioningly, but he didn't appear to be too flustered, which she supposed was to be expected. He wouldn't have made that excuse if he had intended to hide the tidbit of information about him that it revealed. He leaned back and appraised her, folding his arms across his chest. "I write some articles every now and then, and with any luck I'll be making a living off that soon enough," he said. "Somehow it's a lot more fun writing about the news than finding out that you ARE news, though." He gave her a little smile and a challenging look, and Lois found herself blushing. "I can't imagine what you'd want to write about me."
Yeah, right, Lois thought, although she had to give him points for boldness. He seemed to have controlled the conversation all night, framing things such that he was in charge of the conversation, like a good journalist usually did. As much as she could respect and admire that, she had to turn things around, and soon. "I think having your life saved by a mysterious stranger is newsworthy," she said. "Besides, you have to admit that the whole situation was, well, a little weird."
He seemed amused at that comment, but before he got a chance to elaborate, the waiter came and took their order. Once the waiter was safely out of the way, Clark leaned forward, his eyes twinkling. "Weird how? You were asleep in the alley and I stopped a guy from mugging you."
So much for putting him on the defensive. "You just seemed to appear out of thin air," she said, mentally playing her first card, the weakest argument that she had. He didn't need to know that she had peripherally seen him drop from the sky.
"The last thing you want to do when trying to stop someone is to let them know that you're there. As far as you were concerned, that mugger came out of nowhere, too," he said, and she nodded in agreement. All perfectly valid arguments to a perfectly vague observation.
"So what happened to the bullet the guy fired from that gun? There weren't any marks in the alley, no trace of it after it was discharged." She smiled at him, mentally throwing down her second card. This one wasn't quite as much of a softball as the previous question, but it was close.
His answer was about what she expected. "I hit his hand and the bullet went up in the air," he said. "It's probably lodged in an air conditioner on top of one of the nearby skyscrapers."
Or stuffed into the pocket of his jeans, Lois thought. Maybe he kept it as a souvenir, or maybe it had become a resident of the local dump in wherever town it was he came from. In any case, one of the very clear recollections that she had from that experience was his conspicuously balled up fist, and what appeared to be powder burns around it. But she let his answer slide, knowing full well that it was perfectly reasonable, given the circumstances. "So why did the mugger pass out? And why did you run away so quickly?" she continued, asking the last of the obvious questions.
His eyes were still twinkling, his smile was still easy. He was enjoying this, she realized. Making up excuses for her observations was giving him a kick. Did that mean he enjoyed lying to her? It was enough to make Lois almost feel resentful, but she realized that he had no reason to open up to her. She was a reporter, even if she was attractive, and therefore she was dangerous to him. Maybe it was time to stop being subtle and just come right out and say everything.
"I couldn't tell you why the guy passed out, and as for me, well, the only thing I was thinking about was facing the wrath of Lana if she ever found out I was there," he said, pointing his thumb toward the door as he said his ex-girlfriend's name. "Why, did you think I was like that Bolt guy or something?"
In retrospect, that might have been a really stupid thing to ask, Clark thought, telling himself for the umpteenth time what an idiot he was. He didn't know if it was the location, or the company, or the fact that his breakup with Lana had left him in such good spirits, but ever since Lois Lane had appeared in front of him, he hadn't been himself. The real Clark was very cautious, especially when discussing items that might expose him and the talents that he kept hidden. True, he had decided to turn over a new leaf, but it had never been part of his plan to advertise that Clark Kent had powers. He should be worried about what she was saying. He should be doubly worried about the fact that she's a reporter who has already written one article about him. But he really wasn't concerned, or at least he hadn't been up until a second ago.
Clark supposed that he was generally personable. He had plenty of friends and got along with almost everyone, but being personable and being laid back were two entirely separate things, and Clark had to admit that even under the best of circumstances, he was a little high strung. So why not tonight? Why oh why couldn't he have played it safe before digging a hole for himself? And why did he have to go and be so cocky? One look across the table and he thought he knew why.
Lana had been Clark's girlfriend almost since he had discovered what it was that made girls special. He hadn't had to woo her, or fight for her, since they had always been friends as long as either of them could remember. But he also hadn't really been in love with her, and Clark wondered if maybe it was infatuation that was causing him to act this way. That incredible feeling of rightness that had been present when he had seen her in that alley had come back in full force once they had started talking, and it had brought out that inner confidence that had been pushed away for so long. With her, he wanted to play around a little. With her, he felt sly and confident and, best of all, happy, even though all the circumstances around him told him that he shouldn't be. And maybe he had gotten caught up in that, and that's why he had asked that question, that incredibly stupid question.
"Well, yeah," Lois said in answer to his question, giving him a sly smile that even the most cunning rogue could appreciate. The party was over, he thought, his smile slipping away, even though he was valiantly trying to keep up appearances for her. The confidence that had held him in its clutches was now definitely gone, and he felt the sudden need to panic. She knew all about him, she had to. Watching her eyes only reinforced that belief, but it also brought that strange feeling, the zap of something that held him in his seat even though he should be fleeing out the door right now. She couldn't know, he told himself, as he drank in every detail of her face. She could suspect, but the bottom line was that she couldn't have anything firm, that much he knew. Besides, wouldn't it be interesting to know what she thought of him even if she did suspect he had fantastic powers? Would she be disgusted with him, as Lana had, or was she truly someone special, someone who embraced those things? And wouldn't it be worth it to stick around and find out?
"You definitely have a great imagination," he said, recovering quickly. No sense changing the official line right now. He would continue to be plain old Clark, regular guy and good citizen, with no special talents to speak of.
Lois raised her eyebrows and appraised him, then shrugged and looked down toward the menu and the various confections that it held. "Well, it's possible that all the hype about the new superhero got under my skin. I was returning from Bolt's press conference when you found me."
"Really?" Clark asked, seizing the opportunity to turn the conversation away from himself for a while. "Did you get to see him up close, or did you have to observe from afar?"
Lois shrugged, although her face lit up. Reporters liked to talk shop. If he had learned nothing about the business, he had learned that. And just being there with Bolt had probably been a major coup for a reporter who worked for a lowly campus newspaper. "He landed right in front of me. For a moment I thought he was flirting with me. He even answered one of my questions."
Clark was impressed, although he felt a pang of jealousy at the thought of Bolt flirting with Lois. Blinking, Clark forced that thought away. Another opportunity had presented itself, and the question needed to be asked, even if he wasn't sure that he wanted to hear the answer. "So what did you think of him?" he asked.
Lois looked at him questioningly, a hint of suspicion in her eyes. "What do you mean?"
Clark opened his mouth, then closed it, looked at his hands, and tried to frame the question. "He can do some pretty weird stuff. It's not every day that you see a guy who can fly, after all. Some people even say that he could be from outer space."
Lois smiled and exhaled quickly, shaking her head. "I couldn't tell you where he was from, but he didn't look any more like an alien than you do."
Clark raised his eyebrows, wondering how to take that comment. Lois didn't seem to notice, however. "And all that stuff he can do, I think it's pretty neat. How many people wouldn't want to be able to fly? How many people wouldn't want to be impervious to harm? Let me tell you, in a city like Metropolis, that would definitely come in handy."
A smile was spreading across Clark's face. She seemed so nonchalant about the whole situation. It was refreshing. He almost hated to keep prodding. "I think some people might be scared of doing that stuff, or of someone, a possible alien no less, who could," Clark continued, trying not to color his words with old emotions gained from experience.
"I don't know why," she said, leaning back in her seat. "Even if the guy is an alien, so what? He's probably more human than a lot of the people I've met. He goes out of his way to fight crime and rescue people, to look out for the average person in the city. How many people can you say that about? Everything he can do is a talent, and I would definitely say he should be someone who is considered special rather than creepy." She looked up at him again, curiosity etched on her face. "Why? What do you think?"
I think you're absolutely terrific, Clark thought, his heart beating heavily. Aware that he was staring at her, he shrugged, noticing that the waiter was coming their way with dessert. "Oh, you know. What you said," he answered.
As soon as the treat was set down in front of them, they dug in, not saying anything for a few moments. He caught himself looking at Lois, appraising her, wondering. What if she went to school at Midwestern State instead of Metropolis University? What if they really had met at some conference, two random colleagues among a crowd, what then? Would they have had that instant attraction? He was a single man now, no attachments, and he was very temped to ask her out, but what could come from a relationship with her, really? They couldn't see each other regularly, not unless he kept from her every vital piece of information about himself, and that wouldn't be fair to her. And he wasn't going to reveal himself to her, no matter how favorably she looked upon the things he could do. It wasn't to be, he told himself, trying to fight off the wave of depression that thought brought with it. He just needed to enjoy this night, and make the most of their time together.
The sound of Lois's voice drew him out of his thoughts. "You know, I had it all planned out at that press conference," she said, a slightly far away tone in her voice. "I, Lois Lane, of the Metropolis University Daily, would be the one to supply the world's first superhero with a name."
"So Bolt wouldn't have been your first choice?" he asked, and she shook her head.
"No, I wanted to call him Superman," she said, and Clark raised his eyebrows in surprise.
"Superman?" he asked, chewing the name over in his mind. It definitely had a dramatic flare, although, he thought, it did seem a little presumptuous. It was akin to calling him Fantastic Dude or Incredible Guy, but Clark supposed that such a name coming from a complete stranger should be a compliment for anyone. And it would be a lot to live up to. But still, there was something about that name. "I think I like that," he said, and the smile returned to Lois's face.
"Yeah?" she asked, and he nodded. They continued to eat, the conversation moving away from superheroes and fantastic powers, both of them laughing on more than one occasion. As they finished up and the waiter came with the bill, he found himself stalling, not really wanting the evening to end. But the end must come at some time, he told himself, and people were still waiting to be seated. He put his money on the table, paying cash as he always did when he was out of town, and rose, Lois joining him as they walked out of the restaurant. He let her take the lead, following her to a car in the parking lot.
"Do you need a ride anywhere? It looks like your girlfriend is long gone," Lois asked, digging the keys out of her purse. Clark shrugged and shook his head.
"I think I can manage to find my own way home," he said, bringing that sly smile to her face once again. Her key, which had been close to being inserted into the door lock, dropped to her side, and she leaned against the car, cocking her head to the side, regarding him.
"So, Clark, do you have a last name? A phone number? I just might want to find a way to contact you again."
Clark looked at her, wondering what to say. If he told her his full name she would be able to look him up. If he gave her a phone number, she would be able to know where he was from. And if he said nothing, well, he wasn't sure if he could live with himself. "Kent. Clark Kent," he said, giving her a little smile. "And I could give you a phone number, but maybe I want to see what kind of research skills a budding reporter such as yourself has." He knew he was smiling too wide, and he knew that she would find him eventually. It would be fun to see how long that would take.
Watching her, though, he noted the knowing look on her face beneath her increasingly seductive grin. "A challenge, oh good," she said, taking a step toward him. "While I'm working on that, maybe you can start formulating your next excuse."
"Excuse?" Clark asked, a part of him sending out an alarm as he noticed her slyness increase with his confusion.
"Sure," she said, leaning in toward him. "You can think of a way to explain away the fact that you were in a city of millions of people last week, but somehow I was the only one to see you." Her finger came up and traced the area behind his ear as she planted a kiss on his cheek. "A girl could almost think that you could fly," she rasped. Clark found himself unable to move as she straightened up and turned back toward her car, giving him a smile over her shoulder as she climbed in and started it up.
She knew, dear lord she knew, and she had known throughout their whole conversation. All the questions she had asked, all the things she had said, all had been done knowing full well what it was he could do. He didn't know whether he should be terrified or delighted. What would she do with that knowledge? Would she write about him again? No, he thought as his finger went up and touched the spot on his cheek where she had kissed him. Surely she wouldn't expose him, couldn't expose him, because all she had for evidence were moments in an alley and snippets of private conversation. It would be easy to be paranoid, to follow her around for the rest of the night and obsess about that, but something deep inside told him to trust her. That same something had held back the anxiety all night, had reveled in what he saw in her gaze and what it made him feel.
In the end, he just watched as she drove away, a growing feeling of satisfaction deep inside of him. When the time came and his phone rang, it would be interesting to see how things would turn out. In the meantime, it would feel great to dream about that moment, and to seize the destiny that was coming.
Kevin landed lightly on the roof of his apartment building, taking off his sunglasses and shiny silver helmet and making his way toward one of the air conditioning units. While it was true that the building was only four stories tall, it was the closest thing that his small Midwestern college town had to a skyscraper, and right now he wanted to be as close to the stars as possible while still having both feet planted solidly on terra firma. With a sigh, he reclined, placing his arms behind his head as his eyes turned skyward, soaking in the sight of the universe above him. It felt good to be back here where the world was relatively quiet, where he was just Kevin Jones, an average college kid with average problems and a stack of homework. Because being a celebrity sure got old very fast, and the big ceremony tonight drove that home.
For a while earlier in the evening, Kevin wasn't entirely sure that he'd be able to make it to his own party. It was a big deal, receiving the key to the City of Metropolis, but he had bigger problems at the time, namely the fact that, with each passing day, he looked more and more like Grizzly Adams. He'd stopped going out on rescues a few days earlier because of that, afraid that the media might notice his new facial hair and start making a big deal about it. And even though Kevin didn't have a ton of friends, certainly one of them would be able to see that and get the connection, so in he had stayed. It had almost driven him crazy, too. Now that he could finish assignments in seconds, it left for a lot of free time, and a lot of thumb twiddling and television watching. Fortunately, there hadn't been any big disasters in that time, either, but he was seriously beginning to wonder if he'd ever be able to be clean-shaven again.
His salvation had come in the form of a temper tantrum. Frustrated, and only an hour before the gala in Metropolis was slated to begin, he had taken the battery out of the smoke alarm and started playing target practice with his heat vision. Old papers, candles, bits of scrap metal had all felt his pain, and after a while, tiring of the whole thing, he had gotten an idea. What would happen if he zapped himself? Could he theoretically give himself some sort of heat vision tattoo? Would any damage be permanent or temporary, or would there even be any damage at all, considering that he had yet to find anything that even could hurt him since the bolt of lightning struck? The curiosity overrode any worries about potential deformities, so with a firm sense of resolve and a bottle of hydrogen peroxide handy just in case, he gave himself a little zap on the wrist, under where he normally wore his watch. To his amazement, the hairs on his arm scorched off. The skin also turned red and began to hurt after a moment, but after turning off the heat and allowing the area to heal for a second, the skin was okay. And the hair was still gone.
Kevin almost burst through the ceiling, his joy was so great. Shooting off the couch, he was in the bathroom in a matter of seconds, bouncing a ray of heat vision off of the mirror and vaporizing his hairy problem. "There you are, you handsome thing, you," he had said, slapping on some aftershave and greeting himself with a smile. He had then quickly donned the football jersey and helmet, being sure to bring the clip-on bow tie, and headed toward Metropolis.
It was strange, but before being instilled with the power of lightning, Kevin had never really traveled much. He was from the midwest, and for much of his pre-college life, his travels had been limited to states with little or no topography, but plenty of cows, pigs, and corn. The rescue a week or so earlier had actually been his first trip to the east coast, or to anyplace really that lacked the large expanses of green that he was used to seeing. Since then, he'd hung around the city a little bit, but not enough to really be familiar or comfortable with the place. He could pick out the landmarks well enough, but tonight he needed to find some club in the business district, and that could prove to be a problem. During the flight over, he wondered if maybe it wouldn't be worthwhile to land someplace nondescript and catch a cab, but it turned out that he didn't need to. The press coverage and giant marquee proclaiming that it was BOLT APPRECIATION NIGHT gave the location away.
Landing on the red carpet in front of the club, Bolt took out his clip-on tie and situated it at the bottom of the V in the jersey. Cameras snapped as he sauntered toward the door, the microphones shoved in his face, questions flying from all around him. With each snap of the camera, and each shouted question, he found himself cringing.
"Who's your tailor?" someone shouted.
"Bolt, do you have a girlfriend?" another one yelled, and he found himself wondering how these people came up with these questions.
Posing for the press and dropping a few juicy quotes during his big coming out press conference had been bearable, but he had been in charge of the situation. And the questions had been relevant. He had also obviously been peddling to a completely different bunch of reporters and photographers. It was certainly more comfortable pandering to the news media, and not just because their questions were more predictable. He had known from the very second he had flown into Metropolis that he would, in fact, be news. It was practically a given, and he should know, because he had read all the comic book coming out issues. Hero does something heroic, shocks the world, becomes news and ends up with some sort of oddly incestuous relationship with a newspaper. So being a major headline was practically predestined, and the questions that the media would ask him to get those headlines and the subsequent copy had all been asked before, floating in text bubbles over the heads of fictional reporters of comic books past. But tonight had nothing to do with the real news. Tonight was either political or social, and either way it was filler for the society pages and entertainment magazines, things that he was decidedly less familiar with. These photographers and anchors were the same ones that gathered at the end of every special occasion and assessed who was the best and worst dressed, who had the best hairdos and whatever other superficial things they could think of to judge a person on. It just felt downright creepy having people who made their livings on style and gossip fawning over Kevin Jones, a scruffy everyman who was even now standing in front of them, on a red carpet, in jeans and a t-shirt. A shiny helmet might make for a nice disguise, but somehow he got the feeling that it wouldn't be looked upon as a great moment in fashion.
Quickly, Bolt made for the doors, figuring that it would be calmer on the inside. It didn't take long to find out that he had been wrong on that account. Almost immediately upon entering the club, someone latched onto him, offering him a smile while shoving a drink into his hand. This person—his handler, apparently—brought him on the rounds, introducing him to politicians and celebrities, all of whom were dressed in identical tuxedoes, their dates all perfectly lovely and perfectly transparent in every way. Almost without exception, he found that the questions launched at him in these one-on- one meetings were almost as devoid of intelligence or common sense as those hurtled at him outside, and he found himself giving dumb answers in response, just for the entertainment value.
"So, Bolt, the sun's gone down and it's dark in here. Why wear the sunglasses?" one man asked before taking a sip from a martini glass.
"I wear my sunglasses at night, so I can so I can see," he answered, offering a smile. The other man looked at him with confusion, one of his eyebrows arched as if waiting for a punch line, apparently not realizing that he had just missed it. As he moved on to another conversation with another fancy-dressed dignitary, Bolt concluded yet again that lowbrow comedy probably wasn't his calling.
"Been a Chargers fan long? And could we maybe persuade you to wear a Metropolis Lions jersey from here on out?" another man asked. Bolt thought he looked somewhat familiar, concluding that he was probably in the football business.
"As soon as I get powers of a lion, I might think about it," he answered, making a swiping motion with his left hand as he did. The football guy just shrugged and turned his attention back to his date. The types of people who attend functions like this just didn't have a sense of humor.
The next person he talked to was introduced as Perry White, a staff writer for the Daily Planet, the famous, well-respected Metropolis newspaper. Bolt caught himself smiling as he talked to White, glad to be answering his questions about rescues and other matters of actual importance. After all, Bolt liked to think that those were the things that had led to the award he was receiving tonight, although he kept expecting someone to pop out from behind one of the large potted trees situated around the club and tell him that he was on Candid Camera. The feeling only grew as certain answers to White were followed by Elvis parables, most of which didn't really have much of a point and tended to ramble on. Bolt had to bite his tongue as moments in the life of Elvis seemed to beg for a humorous quip, one that would surely make the Candid Camera faithful laugh. If there wasn't a television audience, though, such quips would just end up being rude, or would fall flat, and would certainly make the morning edition of the Planet, right below a headline that read, "Bolt: Weirdo." Given such incentive, it was easy to play it straight with White. Besides, talking about Elvis was better in his mind than talking about Bolt.
After a while, everyone was summoned to their seats, and Bolt was ushered up to the front of the room and situated at the head table, right next to a podium. The mayor stood up, gave a rousing, heartfelt, politically phony speech, then started to recount all that Bolt had done since showing up on the scene. The patrons applauded appropriately in all the right places, and after a few minutes, the official presentation was made. Bolt stood, and an oversized golden key dangling from a thick red ribbon was hung around his neck. He waved and smiled, then approached the podium, pulling a white note card out of the back pocket of his jeans as he did. The crowd went deathly quiet.
"I just flew into Metropolis, and boy are my arms tired," he said, drawing a chorus of chuckles from the crowd. Hundreds of sets of eyes sparkled as they looked up at him, awaiting the next zinger, but as he looked toward White and the rest of the media members assembled at a table toward the back of the room, the headline flashed through his mind again, followed by the imagined response from media pundits and murmurs of the average guy on the street. He could be known as witty and funny, but if even one joke went bad or offended the wrong person, he could be thought of as Bolt the Dolt. Looking back toward the note card covered with scribbled one-liners, he wondered if maybe it wouldn't be better to preserve some dignity, even if it meant wasting perfectly good jokes. While he pondered that issue, the silence dragged on, and Kevin could feel his smile fading somewhat and his heart rate speeding up. He remembered an old saying that stated that, when nervous under the spotlight, imagining the audience naked would invariably relax you. He found himself instantly becoming more at ease as he tried that, but after a moment, he began to furrow his brow, wondering why the images all seemed so real. With a start, he remembered that it was, in fact, possible for him to see through the clothing of those in front of him, and he realized that he wasn't just imagining. Horror passed over him even as his eyes finally came to rest on a man toward the middle of the room, wearing frilly things over his slightly flabby midsection underneath the tuxedo. He couldn't stop the cringe from coming, and a shudder worked its way down his spine as the exterior clothing popped back into place. Sufficiently scandalized and in no mood to joke any more, he decided to just forge on ahead sans witty banter.
"I must say, receiving this key is an unexpected honor, but one I'll gladly accept," he continued. "It's unfortunate that it takes crime and tragedy for someone like me to make a difference for this city, and believe me when I say that I'll continue to do my best to make sure that Metropolis stays as safe as possible." There was some clapping after that remark, and Bolt waited for it to pass before finishing up his speech. "I'd like to thank you all, and especially the esteemed mayor and city council, for this honor. With this key, I won't have to worry about being locked out," he concluded, holding the key up in the air and bowing ever so slightly. The applause was thunderous, and a few random people even stood. As he worked his way back to his seat, he shook the hands of all those at the head table, inwardly congratulating himself for keeping it short and sweet.
The formal ceremony quickly finished and the night progressed on, the social aspect of the party back in full swing again. Bolt found himself growing tired of answering the same questions and listening to the same hollow comments over and over again. He also grew tired of the superhero façade, of the phony smile and the outgoing personality that he had to slip into while in costume that was so completely opposite to who he really was. Kevin Jones didn't especially care for parties; he wasn't much for conversation, usually content to hang in the background and observe. It wasn't all that surprising, then, that Kevin Jones never, ever, got any unsolicited dates. Girls generally ignored him, and on the rare occasion when he was able to ask one out on a date, he struck out more often than not. Bolt, on the other hand, had been propositioned several times that night by extremely attractive women. It was so very tempting to take them up on it, too, but every time he allowed himself to ponder doing so, reality crashed in on him. None of these women were really interested in him. They were interested in the idea of him, in the hero, in an image. If he did get together with one of them, it would surely be for one night of mutual satisfaction, and then they would both be off. It was the type of hollow relationship that every man dreamt about, and that his conservative side ultimately found extremely distasteful. So he had said no, mentally kicking himself, but knowing that it was the right thing to do.
Finally, after the crowd started filtering out, he took it as his cue to leave. Some of the press had lingered outside the door, and as he exited, he slowly took off into the air from right in the middle of the red carpet, giving them ample opportunity to take photos. Then, faster than the human eyes could see, he had made a bee line for home, wanting nothing more than to just be by himself for a little while. Now, staring up at the sky, Kevin sighed, compiling a list of excuses to be used to avoid ever having to attend anything like that again.
An airplane flew overhead, and Kevin followed it, his ears picking up the dull roar of the jet engines. Somehow, watching the stars from up in the air, above the flight paths of the airlines, just wasn't the same. He sighed and smiled, sitting up. It was time to go inside and get back to his dull and boring life. With a grunt, he pulled the key over his head and took off the football jersey, shoving both into the helmet and making his way discretely back to his apartment.
Once inside, Kevin turned on his television en route to his couch and the stack of reading material that awaited him there. The local news provided the background noise as he cracked open his comics, a genuine smile forming on his face as he slipped into his favorite fictional worlds. It was easy to ignore the television in favor of his reading, but after a few minutes, the urgency of the voice coming from the speaker was so great, he had to turn his attention back toward the real world. What he saw shocked him.
In full color, on the screen in front of him, was a scene of devastation. In some small Oklahoma town, a reporter stood, panning the camera across what used to be frame houses and majestic oaks. Now it looked like a war zone, with piles of rubble and lumber strewn everywhere, the trees stripped of their leaves and reaching up toward the sky with gangly, naked, scarred branches. But something was odd about the picture.
"To repeat, an F5 tornado struck tonight outside of Oklahoma City," the man on the screen said. Behind him, a group of people stood, not helping, not mugging to the camera, just staring off into the distance. "Hundreds of people here were initially reported lost or missing, but one by one, they are being found again."
Even the rescue crews in the background were just standing there, agape. Kevin dropped the comic and stood up, moving closer to the television. As he did, the camera panned toward what used to be a brick house. The spotlight on the camera strained through the darkness, but it was clear that a large section of roof appeared to be suspended in mid air, with no cranes anywhere nearby. There was just the form of a man underneath. "Rescue efforts have been led by this man, who has thus far been too preoccupied to grant any interviews." The camera cut away, and footage taken earlier, in the waning daylight hours, began to roll. The images clearly showed a man flying from spot to spot, lifting boulders and cars, clearing away piles of rubble faster than the eye could see. Every now and then he could be seen cradling a body, lifting gently into the air before shooting across the sky. The image froze and the screen split, with a picture of Bolt, taken at his first press conference, appearing alongside that of the flying man, suspended in midair. "It was initially believed that these heroic efforts were the work of Bolt, but clearly this is another person, a new superhero."
"Can that be?" Kevin muttered, dropping to his knees in front of the television. The picture cut back to the live feed, and the roof that had previously been in the air was now being tossed aside. The man bent over, and a moment later stood, a furry form in his arms. He walked forward, clearing the rubble, then rubbed the animal in his arms and set it down. The animal, a dog, then bounded toward the gathered mob, the man following behind. The crowd began to roar as the man approached. The reporter made a motion to the camera, and the picture became shaky as the two made their way toward the man.
"Sir!" the reported called, the jerkiness becoming more pronounced as the pair appeared to be running now. After a moment, the movement stopped, and the man materialized on screen, his form clearly in focus now. The new hero had black hair, slicked back onto his head, and a handsome face. He wore a royal blue shirt, a strange five- sided symbol containing an "S" printed prominently on the chest. Kevin felt goose bumps form on his arms as he realized that he knew that man, whoever he was.
"Who are you? Do you know Bolt?" the reporter asked breathlessly, shoving the microphone in the man's face. The hero folded his arms across his chest, his eyes shifting back and forth between the reporter and the camera. The light on the man had grown brighter as more reporters had gathered around.
"My name is Superman," the hero finally said. "And, if you'll excuse me, I have more work to do." With that, he was gone. And so was Kevin.
Lois Lane sat cross-legged on her living room floor, stacks of newspapers surrounding her on all sides. In front of her, the television blared, locked onto the local network affiliate and playing a rerun of some bad drama or another, but Lois wasn't really paying attention. For the past several hours, all her concentration had been locked onto the task at hand, sorting through copies of college newspapers from around the country printed within the last school year. The articles weren't important, and neither were the ads or the pictures or the editorial pages or anything else except the names of the authors of the stories. Clark Kent, her mysterious and gifted new friend, had said that he occasionally wrote for newspapers, and that he hoped to be making a living on that very soon. Either that meant he was soon to be graduating from college, or that he was trying to break into the profession some other way. He looked to be about the same age as her, and his apparel, while not exactly screaming "college student," didn't exactly mark him as a professional of any kind, either. So she had started with the college papers, which the Metropolis University Daily got on subscription just in case they wanted to lift articles or editorials and republish them. So far, Lois hadn't found so much as a mention of Clark Kent. All that she knew for sure was that he didn't write for any of the large universities on the west coast or in the Rocky Mountain states. It wasn't looking like he resided in the plains states, either, but she still had a long way to go before should reach that conclusion definitively.
It occurred to Lois that there was an easier way to go about finding the school of residence for her hero. The woman he had been with obviously went to Metropolis University, and Lois even had a name in case she wanted to contact her. She'd gone so far as to pull out the campus directory, flipping it open to the L's, before convincing herself that the last thing that she wanted to do was talk to this Lana person. She was rude, she was trashy, and she certainly had no love lost for Lois. Besides, as bad as the woman was, there was no guaranteeing that she would be willing to surrender any information about her former boyfriend. Of course, there was always the breaking and entering option, and the thought of sifting through this woman's belongings, maybe finding a few pictures of Clark to bring home, brought a smile to her face. But breaking the law probably wasn't the best course of action, especially since it was darn hard to get any research done in jail, so now it was on to plan C. Getting up close and personal with her living room carpet wasn't her idea of a fun-filled Saturday night, but she supposed that she didn't really have anything better to do. The cause was most certainly noble, and if she accomplished her mission, the chances of another dull Saturday night at home were slim to none. Still, there was only so much newsprint a person could take, and thoughts of escaping the apartment were beginning to creep into her subconscious.
She sighed as she pulled another newspaper off the pile, taking a look at the heading. The most recent bunch had been from the Kansas schools—Kansas University, Kansas State, Wichita State, Emporia State. This one was Midwestern State, another podunk university in the middle of a wheat field. Somehow, she thought as she scanned the front page, she couldn't really see Clark as coming from some place like that. He just seemed too…exotic to be from someplace as completely white bread as Kansas. Flipping through the paper, she came up dry, then chucked it into another pile and grabbed the next edition. Maybe she could go out to the ceremony for Bolt, she thought as she scanned the front page above the fold, then turned it over. Or maybe she could find her roommate and see what she was up to. Or…maybe… Her eyes went wide and all planning for the night ceased as she gaped at the paper in front of her. "New Dean Chosen for the College of Agriculture," the headline read, and the author was listed as one Clark Kent.
Okay, maybe she could see him coming from the Midwest, she thought, her head spinning. The innocence and wholesomeness and moral virtue, yeah, that could definitely be a by-product of a fine Kansas upbringing. And Midwestern boys had a reputation for being very…hearty. Curious, she scanned the article, trying to get a handle on his style, and found herself nodding appreciatively, even if the article was on a subject that she had no interest in whatsoever. Whoever he was while in her presence, his writing style was that of a professional, better than most that she saw in the campus newspapers of America. He was good, she realized, grabbing for the next edition. "Campus Security Holes Exposed" the top headline said, again written by Clark Kent. This article wasn't just good, it was downright impressive. It had been well-researched, was hard-hitting, and had served to affect some actual change on his campus. So he wasn't just her hero, Lois thought with a smile, wondering how many muggings this one article alone had prevented. They did have muggings in Kansas, didn't they?
Blinking, Lois shook her head and stood up, making a bee-line for the phone. The next step was to get the phone number for Midwestern State campus information, and then Clark Kent was hers. It had only been a day since they had seen each other, but she had plenty that she wanted to say. She was still grinning as she dialed the phone, the television in the background switching to the late local news.
"Breaking news out of Oklahoma tonight," the reporter said. Lois turned toward the television with mild interest. "A deadly tornado struck a suburb of Oklahoma City, bringing destruction and devastation, but also bringing hope in the form of a new hero."
Her curiosity now piqued, Lois's fingers hovered in midair above the phone, the number now forgotten. The pictures on the television were the standard pictures of death and destruction that always seemed to accompany killer tornado stories, but as the tape rolled, there was something else. In the distance, a man was doing things that no man could do, no man except Bolt. But it wasn't Bolt.
The scene switched to the face of a haggard looking woman, wrapped in a blanket. "My sister was at home when the tornado hit," the woman said. "We came here as soon as we could, and the house was a total loss. We started yelling her name, and we thought that maybe we could hear a weak scream, but it was coming from deep within the rubble. That's when he came." The woman smiled, her face turning skyward. "He just dropped right out of the sky and hovered above the rubble, pulling things away so quickly that it all just looked like a blur. But then, when the movement stopped, he was cradling my sister in his arms. The ambulances were overwhelmed, but he floated over to us, let us know where he was going with her, and just took off into the sky again."
"Was it Bolt?" a man's voice asked, drawing the woman's eyes back toward the ground, to someone standing beside the camera.
"I don't think so, no," the woman said. "He wasn't wearing the outfit, and he just looked…different. But whoever he is, I want to thank him for everything."
"Clark," Lois whispered, transfixed. The picture switched again, this time to a live feed in the darkened town. The mystery man now came into focus some distance away from the camera, surrounded by a mob of microphone- wielding reporters.
"Our Rod Lambert is live at the scene with this breaking news," the reporters in the studio said. The image on screen became sharper as the camera zoomed into the new hero. The phone started to beep rapidly in Lois's ear, and she absently dropped it into its cradle, never taking her eyes off the screen. There, larger than life, was Clark, unmistakably Clark. His hair looked like it was greased up and plastered to his head. His face, now devoid of glasses, was more devastatingly handsome than it had been before, if that was possible. His wardrobe consisted of a tight blue shirt, possibly made of some sort of spandex material, stretched across his broad expanse of chest, highlighting every ripple and better defining his muscles. On the shirt was printed a strange symbol, an S possibly. He didn't appear to be flustered, like he had been in the alley. Neither was he cocky or distressed or smug or any other emotion that she had seen from him. He almost seemed solemn, authoritative. The image that he projected was one that was quintessentially that of a hero, and all at once she could believe that everything she had ever thought about him was true. In fact, it was hard to believe that he would ever have any doubts, that he would ever be timid or shy.
"Who are you? Do you know Bolt?" a reporter asked, and Clark stood there, looking between the reporter and him camera.
"My name…" he started, and Lois started to smile.
"Say it," she muttered, her heart pounding heavily.
"…is Superman," he finished. Lois threw her hands up in the air and danced an awkward dance, before running up to the television and bending down, every bone in her body willing her to kiss the screen. But she didn't.
"He loves me," she whispered at the pixilated face of the reporter in front of her, giggling at the thought. Standing up, she looked back toward the phone, a large grin spreading across her face. So she couldn't call him tonight, she thought, but there was always tomorrow. And boy, tomorrow couldn't come fast enough. Until then, she would bask in the warmness that she was feeling right now, and have dreams about the next time they met.
Clark's heart was thumping rapidly in his chest as he strode away from the reporters. The glare from the bright lights atop their cameras still engulfed him as he jumped up into the air, shooting off across town and into the relative darkness to finish the work that he had started. He didn't know what had possessed him to go to them, to clearly broadcast his face over however many hundreds of news stations that were broadcasting off of a live feed from that very spot, and to reveal the name that Lois had suggested. He had told himself that he was going to take it slow, that he was going to be discrete at the outset, but that particular plan of action was now just a distant memory.
His coming out had actually been planned ever since watching Lois's taillights heading off toward some nameless destination down a busy Metropolis street the night before. Just being with her, talking to her, feeling that something special within her and feeding on the optimism and acceptance that she offered had changed him, acting as the catalyst to what had just been a nugget of an idea before he had flown into Metropolis. It had already been decided that he wanted to help, yes, but he'd never had a clear concept of what that meant until afterwards. Then it had all fallen into place, the feeling so strong that he couldn't believe that he'd never experienced it before that night. Hiding in the shadows and denying all his God given talents just wasn't an option anymore, and he needed to get out there and start making a difference as quickly as possible.
The first step in living up to his new role as a hero would be to get some sort of costume. Lana was right in one respect: if he were to go out in public and perform incredible feats that no normal person should perform, he would be an instant focus of attention. Bolt had proven that beyond the shadow of a doubt. But Bolt had also shown that a little careful image management could make a world of difference. Certain members of the press had wondered just who it was underneath that silver helmet, but nobody had been able to figure out the new hero's other identity. Credit Bolt with being canny enough to hide anything that could differentiate him from any other college age kid. He showed no birthmarks, no scars, no distinguishing features whatsoever. And even though Bolt's other identity lived in the same town as Clark, there were no television crews mobbing him, no reporters interviewing his friends and neighbors and no bad guys aiming terrible weapons at him. He led a life that was as normal and ordinary as anyone else's. Deep down, Clark was envious of what Bolt had, but he knew that he could've had the same thing, if only he had been willing to take the first step. And now he was ready. He just needed the disguise.
As he had caught his own reflection in the mirror later that night, he had realized that, in a way, he already had a disguise. His stylish frames and non- corrective lenses had been a camouflage of sorts that he had worn ever since his parents passed away. The original pair had been a prop, used as part of a Halloween costume one year or another, shoved into a drawer of his nightstand and forgotten until after the accident. The loss of his parents had been such a shock that it hadn't seemed entirely real, at least not until they had made him go back to the darkened, empty farm house, one that had once been so full of life and warmth, and clear out his possessions. His aunt had taken him there, and as she had gathered up his parent's belongings, he had sat meekly in his room, crying quietly as he emptied all that he owned into small cardboard boxes. Eventually he had come across the glasses, regarding them curiously as he heard his aunt walk toward the room to hurry him along. Ten-year-old boys weren't supposed to cry, he had told himself even as the tears streamed down his cheeks. Boys were supposed to be tough and carefree, but he certainly hadn't felt like either. Rather than letting his aunt see his pain, he had slipped the glasses on and scrubbed his cheeks dry, hoping that the darkness of the frames and glare of the light off the lenses would help her not see the red in his eyes. And it had worked. Throughout the ensuing days and weeks, he found himself waking up from dreams of happier days, dreams that made the life that he had settled into almost unbearable by comparison. And so the tears had come again, usually when nobody was looking, often on the way to school. The glasses hid his suffering, and upheld the image of normalcy that he was desperately trying to preserve. They had also had a subtle effect on his behavior, steering him toward the quiet crowd, the geeky crowd, and away from the bullies and jocks, which had turned out to be a blessing once he had started developing his powers. After the tears had dried up and his grief had become a memory, he had kept the glasses without really questioning why. Perhaps he only felt comfortable when he was wearing them; perhaps he only felt like himself when he was hiding part of himself away from the world. But today was a new day.
He had been wearing glasses so long that he hardly noticed them anymore, but none of his college friends and very few of his high school pals had ever really seen him without them on. So removing them would certainly be a change, but would it be enough for people to not recognize him? Not by itself, he decided as he took them off and placed them on the counter. He supposed he could wear a hat or ball cap to cover his hair, but his experiences of flying with hats were never what he would call satisfactory. More likely than not, the hat would get caught in the breeze and would end up being ripped from his head, usually floating to the ground while he was still streaking across the sky. Finding it again was probably worse than trying to find a needle in a haystack, at least for someone with x-ray vision, and so unless he wanted to spend a small fortune replacing hats, that option was out. Actually, he thought as he brought his hand to his hair, it was always best when he had the least wind resistance. The going was certainly a lot easier when his hair was short, or wet, or otherwise kept close to his head. His normal style was something with body, and his hair had a bit of a natural curl to it, so it usually stood up or stuck out at least a little bit. His normal style also served to give his face a more oval shape, but as he pulled his hair down and turned his head he realized that his face seemed much rounder. It was striking. So that would definitely be part of his image change. The next question was, what would he wear? What kind of symbol or image would he like to be associated with?
That answer was easy. A beat-up old trunk now residing at the foot of his bed had been with him ever since before the accident. Inside it were the few things that his parents had left with him, mementos of a better time, of the last time he had truly felt at peace with himself. What was in the chest was what made him Clark, and he knew that his secret identity was lurking inside. And it was. There, buried beneath the old photos and baby books, was a blue blanket, the fabric otherworldly, the symbol attached to it holding some special meaning that he did not know. He remembered his mother saying once that this was the blanket they found him in. And so, in a way, it was the link to both his past lives, to wherever it was up in the heavens that he came from, and to the parents he had loved so much. That would be the symbol he would wear, but he didn't want to deface the old blanket, his only memento from a world long ago lost. Instead, he had to duplicate it somehow.
Not wanting to worry about any overly elaborate costume, and knowing full well the very limited ability he had when it came to handling a needle and thread, he had gone to the store and found a blue lycra t-shirt, one that fit him snugly. Experience had shown that tighter clothing was somehow impervious from harm, almost as if it was within an extension of his invulnerability. The next stop had been to the campus arts center, where there was screen- printing equipment available. He had adjourned to a private booth with his new purchase, cut the stencils, and used some red and yellow paint to silkscreen the symbol he had seen on the blanket onto the shirt. Before going home, he stopped at the drug store, buying some hair care products.
Once back in his dorm room, he'd put the whole package together. With the tight shirt, tight jeans, and plenty of goop in his hair, he certainly looked different. But removing his glasses, the final step, truly completed the disguise, just as he thought it would. He had placed his hands on his hips and looked at himself in the mirror, trying several expressions out as he attempted to look as heroic as possible. Satisfied, he had plopped down on the couch and turned on the television. And waited.
The cable news networks droned on endlessly, replaying what passed for news every hour, but throughout the afternoon and into the evening there was nothing pressing—no disasters, no urgent crimes, nothing. And crime never seemed to happen in his relatively small college town, or anywhere else within the immediate range of his hearing, and this day was no exception. It left a lot of time to think, and become anxious, and question the decision he had made that had felt so right the night before. It was scary to think about going out into public without any pretense. To go out there and be who he really was, to go out there and do all that he was truly capable of had been a fear of his for so long that it still nagged at him, even on the eve of his debut. Add to that the fact that his disguise was basically to have no disguise, and it left him feeling decidedly naked, exposed, and nervous. He knew it was the right thing to do, and he truly wanted to do it so badly that it almost hurt to wait. But at the same time, it meant the beginning of something new, of a change in himself, and he wasn't entirely sure he was ready.
Finally, as the sun hung low in the sky and his stomach began to remind him that suppertime was approaching, it had come. A tornado, in all of its awesome fury, had struck out and leveled a town in Oklahoma. The destruction was overwhelming, the rescue crews were hampered by the total devastation of the area. If ever a situation cried out for a hero, this one did. It was the opportunity he had been looking for, just waiting to be seized, and Bolt was nowhere in sight. Shoving his fears into the back of his mind, he had raced onto the scene, immersing himself in work. He never once felt self- conscious as he cleared away rubble and hoisted twisted metal and broken houses, as he freed grateful victims and flew them off for medical treatment. Every now and then, when he encountered rescue workers or medical personnel, he could see a look in their eyes that made him flinch ever so slightly, a look of unveiled awe or curiosity that brought back the ghost of the long-held fears within him. But for every person who viewed him as a curiosity, there were many more who regarded him with nothing but gratitude for all he was doing. Softly spoken words of thanks were more than enough of a reward for him, and he fed off the positive emotions, driving himself, forcing himself on even when his emotions threatened to get the better of him. It wasn't always easy. He had freed many people, yes, but others hadn't been so fortunate. He did run across twisted bodies among the rubble, and it was hard to see scattered possessions and ruined photographs and not think of all the lives that had been forever changed by the fury of nature. But he kept going, trying his best to look past the destruction and concentrate on each task as it came.
After a while, the television crews began to trickle into the small Oklahoma town. He knew that they had originally come to cover the aftermath of the tornado, but was well aware of the quiet whispers among the townsfolk that worked their way toward the media, creating a buzz among them that Clark actively tried to ignore. Giving all his attention to the press would do nothing to help the task at hand, would do nothing to help save the lives of those still trapped in the rubble. So they had stayed in the background, a potential distraction meriting no attention, at least, not until he had finished.
The dog he had freed was the last creature that remained trapped. The camera crews had lurked on the street beside the home, and Clark had approached them without any thought, peripherally aware that it was now time for the late news, and that the eyes of the world were now on that very spot. The cameras had swarmed, but he hadn't been afraid, and as they started to question him, all he could think of was the possibility that Lois was out there somewhere, her eyes twinkling as she watched the television, her mouth set in an encouraging smile. She was the impetus for all this, after all, so he had given himself the name that she had suggested, and then left. It was only then that he realized what he had just done, that he knew that he had taken the mystery out of his existence once and for all.
Clark cringed slightly as he flew through the air, telling himself that what was done was done, and that it had probably been for the best, anyway. All he could do now was forget about them, forget about the gossip and the headlines that were sure to come the next day, and keep going like he had before. Unfortunately, the tasks that remained were few, and soon enough he'd have to go back home and face the reality of what he had done and the instant fame of the hero he had created. Concentrate, he told himself once again. Submerse yourself in work. So what was there left to do, exactly? Well, he thought, relaxing as the press became a distant memory once again, he could clear the roads, or try and stabilize damaged buildings, or do what he could to restore essential services. Nodding, he set to work, busily performing the tasks he had listed, this time out of the watchful eyes of the media.
He was hoisting a collapsed section of wall off of a side street in the vacant business district when he became aware of someone standing next to him, someone who hadn't been there mere moments earlier. The wall slipped ever so slightly in his grasp as he turned toward the new arrival in surprise, but before he had a chance to blink, his companion was beside him, helping with the task. The wall was sufficiently moved seconds later, and Clark was able to give his full attention to his new visitor, who was now wiping his hands against each other to remove the dust.
Bolt, the legendary hero who had been absent earlier in the night, was now standing beside Clark in all his glory, his shiny helmet showing a contorted reflection of downtown that seemed very fitting. Clark had followed Bolt's other identity around campus once or twice out of pure curiosity, but always at a distance, and never close enough for the other man to even know he was there. They had never talked, never so much as stood next to one another since that day at the stadium, and Clark had wondered what it would be like when the time finally did happen. Academically, he had known that it would probably be just like meeting any other college student, that Bolt really wasn't any different than he was. But somewhere deep inside was the small amount of awe that had been instilled in him by the media, who had unanimously declared Bolt a hero and glorified everything that he did. It was hard not to get caught up in that hero worship, especially when Bolt had managed to do so much to change Clark's life, to lay the groundwork so that he was willing to come out on a night like tonight. So a small part of him had expected Bolt to cut an impressive figure in person, to somehow be larger than life, but as Clark regarded the world's first superhero, he found himself somewhat disappointed. Granted, Bolt had just flown onto the scene, super sped to Clark's side, and used incredible strength to help with the wall, but close up, Bolt really did just look like any other person his own age, indistinguishable in a crowd if not for the helmet and the sunglasses. Clark briefly wondered how he looked in the eyes of the other man, if maybe there wasn't some similar sentiment. Was he disappointed that his successor wore jeans and tennis shoes, just like he did? They were probably more alike than he had realized, Clark thought as he regarded Bolt, who was now appraising the situation in the immediate area.
"Thanks," Clark said, patting the dust out of his jeans and looking away from the other hero and out toward the rest of the town.
"Don't mention it. I didn't mean to startle you just now," Bolt said, scratching awkwardly behind his ear and following Clark's gaze. "I guess I just let my curiosity get the better of me."
"I can understand that," Clark said, shifting his weight back and forth, feeling suddenly uncomfortable.
Bolt smiled somewhat shyly, turning back toward Clark. "Yeah, I image you can." He gestured toward the street, his hand sweeping in a broad arc. "So, do you need any help with anything else?"
Clark shrugged. "I was just trying to clean things up a little, maybe get some stuff off the street to make it easier to get around. I guess it's not all that important, but it beats going home."
Bolt nodded, assessing the situation. The silence was somewhat awkward, and Clark glanced back toward Bolt, noticing that he had pinched his lower lip between his thumb and first finger. "Would you be interested in going someplace a little more private and having a conversation?" Bolt asked after a moment, his words measured, his face serious. They looked at each other for a moment, Bolt anticipating, Clark appraising, before Bolt seemed to relax, a small smile working its way onto his face. "I mean, it's not every day that you meet someone else who can…" He held out one of his arms, making a comical flying motion. His eyebrows were now arched above the sunglasses, and Clark couldn't help but smile in response.
"That's for sure," Clark answered, wondering if Bolt realized that they actually had met before. "Where were you thinking of going?"
"How about back to where this all started?" Bolt asked, his voice quiet, any earlier levity now completely gone.
Clark blushed slightly, chiding himself for underestimating the other man. Nodding slightly, he turned back toward the town, taking a deep breath. "I would like to get the major streets cleared first, and if you would like to help, be my guest. Then…"
Bolt nodded. "See you there," he said, and then was gone. Clark blinked, a feeling of displacement washing over him as he wondered if this was how Lana felt the few times he had sped away from her like that. It was very strange to be on the other side of things now, a situation that would've been unfathomable up until recently. With a shake of the head, he was off, quickly finishing the job he had started and streaking back toward Kansas and the stadium where the fateful bolt of lightning had struck.
Bolt had settled into the balcony of the Midwestern State Stadium, looking out over the darkened field. The stadium lights loomed above, darkened, the only illumination provided by the half moon hanging high overhead. The painted logos on the field looked black under the faint silver light, the maroon and gold seats varying shades of gray. Bolt slid off his sunglasses and helmet, not caring that without those essential elements of his disguise, he would be just lowly Kevin Jones, student and part time stadium usher. He supposed that he didn't have anything to fear from revealing himself to the new hero, a man whose compassion had clearly been evident in the work that he had done that evening. Besides, Superman had seen him before, and was certainly able to literally see through the disguise even if he hadn't. Either way, Kevin wanted to get to know this guy, maybe team up with him, certainly talk some shop about the trials and tribulations of lightning powers, and hopefully become his friend. And friends didn't have secrets.
But enough about that, he thought, closing his eyes as he let the sounds of a college town on a Saturday night permeate his consciousness, feeling all the tension drain out of his muscles as he did. The bars over in campustown were busy, the steady beat of loud music very evident to his sensitive ears. Televisions blared in homes across the town, but a fair number of individuals could also be heard sawing logs, apparently anticipating an early Sunday. Bolt smiled as he opened his eyes again, savoring the intimate connection with the town that his new abilities allowed him. In some strange way, being able to reach out and experience the hustle and bustle of life with all his being made him feel alive in a way that he never had before. His smile only grew as he noticed an object streaking across the sky in the distance, making a beeline for the very spot he occupied. A few seconds later, Superman was standing next to him, looking around the stadium before finally taking a seat.
Bolt looked at him, appraised him for a second, then held out his hand. "Kevin Jones. Nice to meet you," he said.
Superman looked at the hand for a moment then looked at Kevin, apparently trying to decide if he wanted to reveal himself. Although, Kevin thought with a smirk, maybe 'reveal' was the wrong word. Superman couldn't be any more out in the open, his disguise clearly one of misdirection rather than of covering himself up. The first time they had met, this man had been wearing glasses, much like Kevin. Apparently the lightning bolt did wonders for his sight, too, because now the glasses were gone. His hair also looked different, and his wardrobe could now definitely be considered tight fitting.
"Clark Kent," he replied after a moment, taking the offered hand in his and shaking it once. His voice was different than what Kevin had heard on television earlier. Another part of the disguise, he realized with an appreciative grin.
"I seem to recall that the last time I saw you, I was smoldering from just being hit by a million volts of electricity that by all rights should have killed me, and you were telling me that the lightning missed you," Kevin said, his smile teasing.
Clark shrugged, leaning back so that his elbows were on the next row of bleachers behind them. He seemed calm, but Kevin could tell that there was a hint of embarrassment behind his exterior. "I figured you had bigger things to worry about than whether or not I got hit."
It struck Kevin as a little odd that this man would take such a cavalier attitude about his own safety, but he let it slide, remembering how great he had felt immediately after the strike. If his nametag hadn't still been smoldering, he probably would've done the same thing. "You're probably right," Kevin said, turning his gaze upward, his mind almost expecting to see those dark clouds gathered up there still.
His smile began to fade, heavy seriousness settling over him as he thought about the man sitting next to him, the man that shared the same talents as him, and possibly the same feeling of isolation. Up until a few hours ago, Kevin had thought his experiences had been unique, that everything he had gone through could never be understood by anyone else. It had been a scary thought, even for a loner such as himself, and it was comforting to know now that he wasn't alone. Before he had figured out how to "shave" himself, before he had gotten a real grip on the hearing and the vision and the flying, he had wanted so badly to tell it all to someone, anyone, and locking himself up in his apartment and hiding his furry face from the world hadn't helped. He had needed a moment like this, a moment with someone who understood, so very badly. There was just so much he wanted to share, so much he wanted to ask…so much he wanted to hear. Maybe hearing someone else's stories of how they got through all the problems would put it all in perspective, and maybe he would be able to look back at it all and laugh.
Kevin sighed softly and turned toward the moon, his vision acute enough now to pick up the speck of blue and red propped up above the dust of the lunar surface, small indentations in the powder the lasting remnants of man's will to discover, to reach out for the unknown. When you grew up in a relatively small town in a small state that's part of a country that inhabits a small corner of the big spinning globe called Earth, it was easy to feel insignificant, and it was easy to discount that wandering spirit within yourself. Who are you, anyway? What makes you think you can go out in that big world and do something great? What makes you think you can walk on the moon? Kevin had always ignored his wanderlust, asking himself all those questions and never having any real answers. He had never known who he was, what had made him special, and he certainly hadn't thought himself capable of great things, not until the strike. The changes that lightning brought were profound, but so was whatever it was that he had found within himself.
"That lightning bolt was the best thing that ever happened to me," he said quietly, opening the conversation with the one statement that encapsulated all his thoughts. "Before it happened, I spent a lot of time wondering just where my place in the world was. I never thought myself capable of anything worthwhile, you know? I would've never found out otherwise if not for the intervention of Mother Nature."
Clark nodded, his gaze also turning toward the heavens. Fluffy clouds had begun to roll in, dotting the night sky. "That lightning certainly changed my life, too," he answered softly, his voice heavy. Overhead, a shooting star raced across the horizon. "I always felt, I don't know, outside of society somehow, because no matter what I did, I couldn't be what I wanted for who I wanted. But I think now that maybe I didn't want what I thought I did."
Kevin nodded, appreciating the sentiment. What teenager hadn't felt like they were on the outside looking in at some point in time? "Well, I always wanted to be a superhero," he said, drawing a chuckle from Clark. "I just never had the means to be one before."
Clark seemed about to say something, but whatever it was died as soon as he opened his mouth. They both watched the stars wordlessly for a moment, neither particularly uncomfortable in the silence. "What's it been like? The whole hero thing?" Clark finally asked. Kevin drew his eyes away from the heavens and looked curiously at his new companion. There was something in the question, a twinge of sadness, possibly regret. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that it had taken Superman a whole week to finally arrive on the scene, Kevin thought, a small frown forming on his face. Where had Clark been during that time? Had he hidden himself away from the world, too ashamed or afraid to get out there and help? As bad as it was hiding away out of a sense of embarrassment or for the sake of image preservation, it had to be a thousand times worse to do so out of fear. Or shame. But Clark had no reason to bow to either anymore, not since seeing for himself what it means to be a hero.
Kevin's eyes became far away as random images of rescues and disasters, crimes and social events flashed in his vision. "Name an emotion and it's been that," he answered, and it was true. Joy, fear, love, hate, frustration, elation. Everything that he had ever felt, he had also felt while in the guise of the hero. "Save someone and you're on top of the world. Lose someone and you feel worthless. Soar through the air and feel all the joy that comes with being completely free. Use your strength too zealously and know what it's like to be afraid of who you are. It's almost indescribable. Sometimes it's almost unbearable. But I wouldn't trade a nanosecond of it for anything."
Clark smiled a pained smile. He understood, Kevin thought. There had probably been some things in that small Oklahoma town that would haunt his nightmares, but surely there had been the moments of elation, too, moments when lives had been saved thanks to him. And the powers had to develop at some point, giving Clark all the fear and ecstasy that came from discovering that you could do things that, by rights, no human being should be able to do. "I want you to know that I have a ton of respect for you," Clark said, catching Kevin off guard.
"Why?" he asked, curious. Plenty of people admired and respected him, complete strangers who knew only an image and had no idea of just who the man behind it was. As far as the world was concerned, he was some flawless, benevolent being whose sole reason for being was to help, and he was fine with that, really, especially since there were plenty of worse images to project. But surely Clark, someone who had walked down the same roads and been through the same trials and tribulations, someone who had been a hero in his own right, could see through that. And surely he should have no reason to be overly impressed. If anything, Clark should see him as a peer of some sort, on equal footing in every way.
"For having the courage to go out there and experience all that," Clark replied, adamant. "For not being afraid to put up with all the negatives for the sake of the positives. A lesser man would've said to heck with all that and not even bothered."
Kevin squinted somewhat, noticing the pain that was behind the words. It was as if Clark had suffered through whatever it was that held him back until tonight for far longer than a week. "To have all these gifts and not put them to use would be a crime," he answered. "But I admit that some of the negative experiences—MOST of the negative experiences, actually—have been worse than I ever could've imagined. If you've never seen death before, how do you know how to prepare for it? If you've never seen destruction close up or experienced violence, how do you know how to respond to it? And don't get me started on the media."
"Do you read what's written about you?" Clark asked, folding his arms behind his head and levitating himself slightly off of the bleachers.
Kevin shrugged. "I did, then I stopped. The things they pull out of the air and print about me are unbelievable. Apparently the going rumor now is that I'm an alien. Me! That would shock the heck out of the folks back in Dubuque."
"Iowa? That's your hometown?" Clark asked, and Kevin nodded. He hadn't actually talked to his parents since Bolt made his debut, and he wondered every now and then if they noticed that it was their son doing all those incredible things they saw on the nightly news. If they did, he reasoned, they would probably be on the phone in a heartbeat. As it was, apparently they didn't, and he didn't know if he should be delighted that his costume was so convincing or peeved that they couldn't even recognize their own son. In the end, it was best just not to think about it.
"Don't tell me you're an alien?" Kevin asked, trying to bring a little humor into the situation. Next to him, Clark had a sharp intake of breath, then coughed and let out a humorless chuckle. Even fellow superheroes didn't appreciate a joke, Kevin thought with a sigh.
"No, no, I'm from Smallville," he said, and Kevin grunted in response, recognizing the name of the town. "But I'm sure tomorrow, I'll be branded an alien, too. UFO conspiracy theorists will probably have a field day."
"I could tell the press that I have a summer home at Area 51," Kevin said absently, wondering if that might be a worthwhile gag to pull on dense, unsuspecting journalists like the ones who had lined the red carpet earlier that night. After a second, he shook his head and regarded Clark again, this time with a smile on his face. Enough with the heavy subjects, he thought. It was time to get down to business. "Hey, I was wondering…now that you've officially been initiated into the superhero club, you want to team up?" Kevin asked, his grin expectant.
"Team up? How?" Clark asked, curious.
"We could tag team disasters," Kevin said, listing from memory the types of things that fictional superheroes always seemed to do. "Maybe we could institute a patrol and each of us could fly over different cities on rotation. If our hero duties infringe with our personal lives, we could run interference with each other's friends and, voila, have instant alibis. And if all that leaves any free time at all, we could hang out in a secret fortress somewhere and come up with the official superhero club theme song and hand shake," Kevin continued, finally coaxing a smile out of Clark.
"If you ask me to sing, you're asking for a world of pain," Clark said, and Kevin laughed. Maybe his new friend wasn't as serious as he had let on at first.
"Then you can be in charge of coming up with the sacred oath," Kevin said, his eyes twinkling. This was fun, he thought, thoroughly enjoying himself now. The conversation continued on, lapsing into talk about items that weren't even remotely hero related, things that friends would talk about. And he supposed they could be considered friends now. Share a few deep thoughts with someone and you would hope that they'd at least take enough pity on you to hang out with you for a while.
After another half hour of chatting, they exchanged phone numbers and class schedules and parted company for the night. The next disaster would be Bolt's, they agreed, and they would take it from there. Tomorrow, after doing homework and taking care of whatever else they needed to do, they would take to the skies, initiating a patrol of U.S. cities that would start with Bolt in Metropolis and Superman in Chicago, and would move every couple of hours to other designated cities. The world would know that Bolt and Superman were there to help, that they were there to stay, and that bad guys best beware. And Kevin couldn't wait.
Clark sat at his cluttered desk, his head propped in his hand, his eyes staring sightlessly though the paperback lying open in front of him. The unread words told the tale of Romulus and Remus and the founding of Rome by the banks of the Tiber River, a story that he was sure he'd find very interesting during normal circumstances, even if it was required reading for a history class. But, intellectually stimulating story or not, he found his mind wandering to matters very far removed from his class work. Reading that should've taken him a minute or two tops was now stretching into its second hour, with no end in sight. With a sigh, Clark ran his hand through his hair, his hearing picking up the football game showing on the television in the next room. Maybe it was time to admit that all the patience in the world wasn't going to make him concentrate, and that it was probably time to give up on the homework for a while.
Only one day under his belt as a bona fide superhero and already the class work was beginning to slip, he thought gloomily as he stood up and wandered over to the window. Mother nature apparently concurred, if the gathering dark clouds on the horizon were any indication. His mind was a jumbled mess, and the things that had always been of utmost importance to him, namely his impending graduation and his ongoing work at the campus newspaper, just didn't seem to matter at all anymore. All he could think about now was his heroic alter ego—what he had done, what he had seen, and what he would do. Brushing his teeth that morning, he had fantasized about saving an airplane. Dreams of flying into space and manhandling renegade spy satellites had manifested themselves over corn flakes. And when he should've been concentrating on Romulus and Remus, he had instead thought about mudslides and volcanoes. And Lois. Interspersed with all the heroic daydreams was the thought of her out there, silently encouraging him, always wearing a smile.
As good as it was to give some attention to his imagination for once, reality always seemed to come back and put it all in perspective. Catching up with the guys earlier that day had resulted in a conversation about superheroes, one that had made Clark feel extremely self- conscious. Where did they go when they weren't flying around? Where had they come from? Would one over step foot in a sleepy college town like theirs without some disaster drawing them there? Clark had faded into the background during that conversation, laughing at the right times, acting clueless when questioned. Eventually the conversation had moved on to other things, and Clark had excused himself, heading back to his room, where a whole other set of problems confronted him.
Turning on the television, hoping to catch some pregame shows or some news of the survivors of the tornado, he had seen nothing but coverage of Superman. Even though he had only posed for the camera once, and for a very brief time at that, there seemed to be no end to the pictures of him that kept appearing on the news shows. He saw himself hoisting a shed, or flying through the air with a victim in his arms, or just standing there, surveying the scene. The speculation of the reporters really hadn't been much deeper than that of Clark's college aged pals, but it seemed to drag on a lot longer. He had changed the channel often hoping to get away from the exploits of Superman and the sideways mentions of Bolt, but he couldn't. So the television had been turned off and the homework cracked open, and all that a long hour of work had gotten him was a bit of a headache and a healthy dose of frustration.
As he stared out across the town and toward the increasingly dark sky, the shadow of an idea began to form. Maybe if he just went out there in his other guise and allowed himself to fulfill some of his daydreams, then maybe his mind would settle down and he could come home and finish his required reading in ten seconds flat. Flying had always had a calming effect on him before, and stopping some crime and making the world a safer place would certainly make the worthlessness he was feeling go away. What could it hurt, he wondered as chain lightning split the looming darkness to the west. The twenty four hours that he had left to do his required reading were an eternity for someone who had once gone down to the local library and read the entire encyclopedia in the span of about five minutes. It was settled, then. Get ready world, he thought with a smile, Superman was about to take to the skies.
Just as he was letting go of the curtains and heading to the closet to retrieve his shirt and hair goop, the phone began to ring. He froze, looking at the phone curiously, then turned his head toward the outside wall. Bolt, Kevin, had said that he wanted to do some patrolling today, too. Was that him? And how freaky was it that he'd call at the exact moment that Clark had decided to go out for a while? It was enough to make him wonder if maybe there was some sort of weird psychic connection between them. Clark went wide-eyed for a moment, then chuckled and shook his head. He no more knew what Bolt was thinking than he knew how to crochet. Anyway, there was no assuring that it actually was Bolt. It could also be the other call he was expecting, a thought that brought a smile to his face. Was a day and a half enough time for her to find him, though? There was only one way to find out.
Feeling a twinge of excitement, he grabbed for the phone. "Hello?" he said into the mouthpiece, waiting for a second before the voice on the other end replied.
"So have you thought of an excuse yet?" came Lois's voice, and Clark's grin grew so that it was almost painfully wide.
"Well, I was kind of expecting to have a few more days to think it over," he said playfully, fantasies of heroic deeds and anxiety over the news coverage of his appearance now completely forgotten. It was strange how her voice always seemed to make whatever petty fears he had slink into the background and bring out his better side.
"I told you I'm good," she said, her smile evident even through the miles of phone line between them. "So come on, let's have it."
Clark chucked, then shifted the phone to the other hand and plopped onto the couch. "Well," he said, his mind churning up a response. "I didn't see anyone else in Metropolis because everywhere I looked, I could only see you. Then there's always my exclusive zoomway through the hidden parts of the city that nobody else knows about. That's my story and I'm sticking to it."
"Uh huh," Lois said, her voice outwardly skeptical, but he could tell that she was stifling a laugh. "So, I suppose you have an alibi for last night, too."
"I think I was studying in my room all night," Clark answered, but then cringed.
"On a Saturday night?" Lois asked, almost as if she could see his reaction. Clark might have a bookish side to him, but he'd never been one to even think about cracking a book open on a Saturday. No other college student with even half a social life would conceive of studying on a Saturday night, either.
"I was watching a movie?" he said meekly, blindly grabbing for the next available vague alibi. Lois chuckled.
"I suppose I could buy that," she answered. "And I'm not just saying that because it's what I usually do on Saturday nights."
"A beautiful girl like you? I thought for sure you'd be out with a date or something on a Saturday," he said, the words coming without a second thought. How a woman as truly wonderful in every way as her could possibly not have men falling all over her was a mystery to him. But a sharp intake of breath on the other end of the line told him that he had been wrong to assume such a thing, and instantly his smile began to fade. Maybe he had hit on a sore subject, he realized too late, mentally kicking himself for bringing it up. "I, I'm sorry," he started, but was cut off.
"Don't be sorry," Lois said softly, heavily. "I think that's the first time anyone's ever called me beautiful."
It felt as if the room had gotten suddenly warmer. "I have a hard time believing that," he answered steadily, intensely, wishing that she were beside him all of a sudden. He closed his eyes, summoning her image, and mentally reached out to her. How could she not see her own beauty? More to the point, how could anyone else not see it either?
Lois let out a shot of breath, and Clark imagined a spontaneous smile flashing onto her face. There was silence over the line for a moment, but only a moment. When she spoke again, all hint of emotion was gone from her voice, and she was once again just Lois Lane, his new pal from Metropolis who took great joy in teasing him with the knowledge that she held. "So, Superman, huh?" she said, the previous exchange all but forgotten.
"I told you that I liked that name," he said, almost glad to be back to safer conversation. Teasing he was fine with. It was the emotional stuff that he'd not been so lucky with in the past.
"I'm not going to hear tomorrow from some anonymous source that you were quoted as saying that it just came to you, am I?" she asked.
"It did just come to me," he said, laughing lightly. "But I'm not giving any interviews, whether it's to an anonymous source or some big shot reporter. If Barbara Walters herself came running up to me on the scene of some disaster, I'd still say no." He raised his eyebrows as he pictured that, wondering what the chances were of something like that actually happening. With a slight shudder, the thought was pushed away. To some people, such a thing might be the opportunity of a lifetime, but to him it was one of his worst nightmares. If he never appeared on television again, it would be too soon, although realistically he was sure that his face would be up on screen sooner rather than later.
"Come on, you big hero, you," she said, pouring on enough phony charm to make his grin widen again. "No exclusives? What if I told you that I know a great reporter at a major university who was just dying to tell the world all the scintillating details of Superman?" Her tone was playful, the words probably somewhat exaggerated, but all of a sudden his smile started to fade as coldness worked its way down his spine. Lois might be beautiful, Lois might be intriguing and fun and any of a number of other wonderful things, but lest he forget, she was also a budding reporter. She also knew his deepest, darkest secrets, and she knew just who he was and where he could be found. It would be enough to make any man go cold with fear, and certainly the prospect would've terrified him had he considered it before taking the plunge and creating his other persona. But he still couldn't bring himself to distrust her, no matter how much he knew he should.
"Gosh, I hope I'm not just a story to you," he said, only partially teasing. Too late, he realized that the tenor of his voice had betrayed him, and that the words had come out in such a way that she could easily mistake them for an accusation. He couldn't help but wince as he wondered how she would take that, if she would realize that he hadn't meant to offend.
"Is that all you think you are to me? A story?" Lois asked, her tone more hurt than angry.
He sighed, wrapping the phone cord around his finger. "That's certainly what I am to the rest of the world," he said, almost dejectedly. "You're a journalist, one that knows something that thousands of your peers throughout the nation and the world would give anything for. You could put all the intimate details of my life in your paper and instantly make a name for yourself, probably win some award or another for your efforts. I mean, I'm a journalist, too, so I can appreciate the situation, and honestly I wouldn't blame you for wanting that. But I'd be lying if I didn't tell you that the thought of my secret being out terrifies me." The last words were barely more than a whisper, laced with all the long-held anxieties that he had never voiced to anyone before. Only his iron grip on the phone was keeping his hands from shaking as he waited for her response. He knew his eyebrows were drawn together in anticipation, and he knew he should be scared of what her reaction would be. But even as he waited, fear was the last thing he felt.
"I could never do that to you, Clark," Lois answered gently, the hurt gone from her voice. Instantly, Clark relaxed his grip on the phone and took a deep breath, not realizing before that moment that he'd been holding it. "Besides, I'd get laughed at if I tried to publish such a thing. Who would believe that Superman was some college kid from Kansas? What kind of evidence would I use to back my story? All I have is hearsay and some well thought-out personal observations."
"Hearsay?" Clark asked, a half smile forming on his face once again. It was amazing how she could take his fears and skillfully soothe them away. She'd done it on more than one occasion now, and he found himself smiling as he though of what she meant to him. Incredible.
"Yeah, um," Lois started, and she could hear some shuffling at the other end of the line. "I kind of overheard your entire conversation with your ex-girlfriend at the steakhouse."
Clark's eyebrows raised in surprise. "The whole thing?" he asked.
"Every last word," Lois answered modestly, then cleared her throat and continued on again, her tone more brash. "I mean, you had your most intimate conversation in a steakhouse. Honestly, did you think someone wouldn't overhear?"
"Hey, it wasn't my idea, although if anyone else had overheard, I doubt they would've gotten anything from it." He shifted on the couch, placing his elbow on the padded arm and pulling a throw pillow toward himself. "But you… You not only overheard, but you put two and two together and came up with-"
"Five," Lois said, cutting him off. "But fortunately in this situation, that kind of new math turned out to be right. Who knew my total ineptitude with numbers would turn out to be a good thing?" She laughed, and Clark shook his head, not knowing how to respond to that. He supposed that it would take someone with a unique view of the world to take her limited experience with him and a somewhat vague conversation and squeeze out all the facts. If it wasn't for the existence of Bolt, maybe she wouldn't have found out at all, because otherwise, who would possibly believe in a man who flies? In the end, it didn't matter how she found out or why, the fact was that she knew, and he decided that he wouldn't have it any other way.
"I'm glad you overhead," he said after a moment, a little too much wistfulness in his voice. Sappy or not, though, the statement was entirely sincere, and he thought that it was about time that he told her as much.
"Yeah?" she asked shyly.
Clark shrugged, forgetting for a moment that she couldn't observe the gesture. He opened his mouth, hesitating for a moment before finally deciding that he wanted her to see inside his soul. She knew so much about him, but so little at the same time, and something inside of him needed for her to see the complete person. "I spent most of my life trying to hide everything about myself, not able to talk to anyone, afraid of what would happen if I did. When I did take that step and finally told someone everything, my worst fears were confirmed, and I was looked at with the type of fear and revulsion that you never want to see in anyone's eyes. So given the choice, I would've held onto my secret forever and never told another living soul. But here you come, muscling your way in on the big secret and acting like it's no big deal."
There was an intake of breath at the other end, and Clark wondered briefly if maybe he'd said too much, revealed too much of himself to someone who he had only met twice for about a grand total of an hour. "Because it isn't a big deal, Clark," she answered candidly. "Ask any of the people you saved last night if they were repulsed. Ask the headline writers or morning show panelists if the things you can do are anything less than amazing. Ask any of the people you passed on campus during the last week if they even recognized you, given everything that you can do. It's no big deal because, in spite of everything, the powers and the flying and the heroics and the headlines, I know that you're just a normal person. I've read your articles, I've shared your chocolate and met the woman you made the mistake of giving your heart to. All those things led me to the picture of someone who really isn't any different than anyone else. And then there's the fact that you live in Kansas."
Clark had been listening with undivided attention, his heart soaring with every word. But as she spoke her last sentence, he was caught so off guard that he almost choked. After a moment, though, a laugh came out, and the spell was broken. "What's wrong with Kansas?" he asked.
"Bo-ring," she said, and he only laughed harder. After a moment, she joined him, and he realized that he was happy, completely and totally happy. It wasn't a feeling that he was used to; certainly it wasn't something that he had experienced too often, especially since losing his parents. And it was all thanks to Lois Lane.
"Can I ask you something?" Clark asked, resolve building within him. Lois had proven herself to be kind, compassionate, fiery, trustworthy…beautiful. She also knew that he could be there in mere seconds, and was willing to be his confidant and friend despite of everything she knew about him. He couldn't possibly let her get away, nor could he imagine just letting her go and not trying to explore some sort of deeper relationship.
"Certainly," she answered.
"Would it be okay for me to come up there next Friday and take you someplace nice? We could tell each other all our darkest little secrets and you could show a small town boy what the big city is all about."
"Is that a date?" she asked, her voice bemused.
"Only if you want it to be," he answered. There was a slight pause, but after a moment, he could practically hear her smile.
"I want it to be," she answered. "But with one condition."
An excited tingle went through his body, raising goose bumps on his arms at her acceptance, but he couldn't imagine what she would possibly want in return. "What?" he asked, puzzled.
"That you let me have some input into your costume," she answered.
He pulled the phone away from his ear ever so slightly and turned to look at it. After a moment, he brought it back. "You didn't like it?" he asked, the words coming out suspiciously like a pout. He thought his outfit was pretty imaginative.
"No, I'm not saying that," she answered hastily. "It was effective, I suppose, but…I just think you need something, I don't know. Flashier. Jeans, a t-shirt, and tennis shoes just don't inspire awe."
Clark nodded slowly. She did have a point, although he was afraid to think about what exactly she had in mind to spruce him up. "Okay," he said.
"Well, I'm sure I must be keeping you from some homework or something," she said, and he knew the conversation was wrapping up.
"It's definitely something," he said with a smile. He could almost see her cock an eyebrow at the other end. "Keep your eyes on the news out of Chicago tonight."
"Ooooh," she answered with a spark of excitement. They exchanged a few more pleasantries, and she gave him directions to their apartment, and the date was set. As Clark hung up the phone, he looked longingly over toward his calendar, practically begging for next Friday to come. It would be a long week, to be sure, probably filled with plenty of fantasies and daydreams, although he was pretty sure that these fantasies would be centered around Lois rather than hypothetical disasters. He was almost grateful for his alter ego now, and the opportunity it allowed him to get his mind off it all, if only for a little while. He had a sinking feeling that maybe his homework would suffer for a little while longer, but he would pull through somehow.
With a whistle and a spring in his step, he changed into his outfit and zipped out of the building, bound for the Windy City.
The long shadows from the setting sun were beginning to blanket Metropolis in darkness as a dozen men crowded around a round table inside a windowless room. The filing cabinets lining the walls provided the only decoration against the painted cinderblock walls, and a single light bulb provided the only illumination. The light had burned steadily morning, afternoon, and night for the last week, the various members of the group all working, absorbing, and planning. All the stories of Bolt that had permeated the media for the past week had been read, processed, and discussed thoroughly. Each of them knew that the San Diego charges had the most in demand uniform among the NFL teams, that silver helmets were now collector's items fetching large sums of money, and that Bolt was the most popular name for male babies born throughout the country in the last week. Bolt's every movement had been tracked and charted, his actions noted and logged, mundane or not. All the methodical surveillance had shown someone who seemed in every way to be the hero that the press made him out to be, but none of them could escape one single fact that had emerged during the analysis. With every positive article written, with every testimonial from someone rescued, with every key to the city received, Bolt wormed his way further into society, gaining a foothold of power. Each of those things made him even more invulnerable to scrutiny than he already was, and more dangerous. The time would come, they were all certain, when the façade would fall away, when he would begin to embark upon his true mission, and the people would certainly still embrace him. As he took control of the country, the populace would cheer. As he asserted his will on the government and his power became absolute, the masses would be grateful, believing in his rightness because he had saved them once. And those that did not embrace him would dare not publicly oppose him, because they would all know his God-like powers and the destruction that he could exact upon humanity if he so wished. Only the persistent efforts of the men in that room stood between Bolt and the ruin of Earth, and each of them would gladly give their lives for their cause. Until that time came, they would bide their time and plan, getting to know their enemy and his weaknesses. But now there was a new urgency to their cause, a new wrinkle in their defensive strategy, and each man bore an expression of concern as they gathered that evening, each well aware of the news from the night before.
With that tornado in Oklahoma came the emergence of another flying man who possessed incredible strength and unbelievable powers. One such man could almost be written off as a lone megalomaniac; two was an invasion. Two was a planned, concerted strike force. Therefore, two was a problem, and they all had known it immediately. The television reports, of course, had praised the man and his heroics, just as they had all expected. The newspapers marveled and gushed, never questioning, never making the seemingly obvious observation. If there were two, couldn't there certainly be three? Or four? Or a hundred?
A fist hit upon the table, drawing the attention of those gathered around it to the man standing before them, the cigar clenched in his teeth exaggerating the sneer on his face. "We must act, and soon," he said, reaching for the Daily Planet and holding it up for them to see. "Superman," the headline read in bold letters, a color picture below showing the young hero. "If we do not, there will be more, by God. We cannot wait until there are a dozen flying men in our skies. We cannot wait until the clueless masses begin to see the threat for what we all know it is. By then it will be too late, and Earth will be nothing more than a colony under the control of these aliens."
The men grumbled and nodded, but then the fist hit the table again, and they were at attention. "Plan K. Let's hear it," the man said, and all eyes turned to a smaller man against the sparse back wall. The vague smell of smoke seemed to emanate from him, and dark ashes seemed permanently rubbed into his clothing.
"Control," he said, slowly pacing from side to side. "The bottom line is that we must control them before they control us." His arms gestured, and his pace began to slow, his path guiding him toward the filing cabinets. "The first step is to get their attention. To that end, we have decided to strike a strategic target."
"The Daily Planet," another man said, standing from his chair. His area of expertise was well known to the assembled men, his name legendary among those in the demolition industry. It was said that nobody in the world knew the nature of explosives better than this man, although, for all the authorities knew, he would never use his knowledge for anything other than purely innocent and legitimate business dealings. Several of the other members began to smile at the thought of what the plan must entail. The Daily Planet was the world's preeminent newspaper, it was highly supportive of Bolt and Superman, and it was staffed around the clock with reporters who would certainly end up martyrs for their cause.
"News of the explosion will quickly pass to other media establishments—television, radio, both of which are in close proximity to the Planet's location—and the rest of the nation will know of it within a matter of minutes. Bolt and Superman will certainly arrive shortly thereafter." The second man's eyes twinkled as he said the words, his grin telling all that he relished the thought of what his handiwork would accomplish.
"Step two is to capture the aliens," the ash-covered man said. "Our plants inside the fire department will take the opportunity to find them, to talk to them, and to expose them." He stopped and turned toward the filing cabinets, which were now directly beside him. On top sat several boxes, gently set aside from the other artifacts and covered with a tarp. The tarp was quickly pulled away, and the men around the table began to murmur again as the boxes were opened and vague hues of green and red were reflected on the ceiling. "These rocks represent the greatest collection of meteorites in the world, surpassing that of even the United States government. The properties of each has been tested, and they have been sorted according to their predicted usefulness. Some," he said, gesturing to a box that still remained covered, "are nothing more than minerals. Harmless. Useless. The rest are truly unique." The box was lifted and set upon the table, and all the assembled men rose gently from their seats, craning their necks to get a better view.
"These rocks all emit very strong radiation, the likes of which nobody has ever seen before. While this radiation is not believed to be harmful to humans in any way, it is our hypothesis that it will have an effect on the aliens."
"When the time is right, our men will expose the aliens to these rocks and we'll try our luck," the third man said, reaching into the box and pulling out a green, glowing rock. He held the crystal in front of his face, cocking his head as he turned the rock from side to side, inspecting it, admiring it.
"And if we're not lucky?" the man with the cigar asked, breaking the spell. His brushy eyebrows were raised in anticipation, his sneer still evident. The third man drew his eyes away from the stone and gave a smile, one that spoke of the righteous evil that lurked deep inside his soul.
"There are plenty of newspapers throughout this city," he answered. The men started laughing, a sound that would surely terrify any passerby who heard it. The plan set, the men hunched over the table again, gathering assignments and setting the framework. By this time next week, these two superpowered individuals would no longer be a threat to society.
The week leading up to his date with Lois had been like slow torture for Clark, even though he had been quite busy. Juggling schoolwork and hero duties hadn't been as hard or all-consuming as he had first feared. Patrolling cities had actually been very calming, and he had found his mind able to concentrate on the tasks it needed to much more readily after returning from fighting crime. Because his position as a reporter at the school newspaper required him to follow the news, he couldn't avoid hearing the reports of his exploits. All of the major networks and newspapers had given considerable coverage to the adventures of Superman and Bolt, their writers going to great efforts to get the deeper side of stories. Foiled muggings and rescued accident victims all seemed to have some other tragic background to them, details that Clark would never have even fathomed at the time he had intervened. After a while he found himself almost enjoying the stories, a large part of himself heartened at the amount of good that he had been able to bring to the world. Lives had been changed because of him; lives that would've otherwise been tragically cut short had been saved due to his efforts. No matter what the sacrifice for him, the end result was certainly worth it.
Between the studying, reporting, and rescuing, he had even managed to visit with Bolt a couple of times. Kevin had spent his week patrolling the eastern seaboard, in Boston and Philadelphia and Metropolis, and had been very busy as a result. Crime ran rampant in the inner parts of those cities, and it seemed that all his time had been occupied with cleaning out the drugs, the gangs, and the guns. He had truly seen the seedy underbelly of society, had spent large amounts of time in areas that most of America actively tried to ignore. Clark was surprised that, no matter how bad the crime scene or how disheartening the continual struggle was despite his efforts, Kevin always seemed to wear a smile, always seemed to be genuinely happy to play the part of the Superhero. To him, the powers were far from a burden, the job far from tedious, and any change for the better, no matter how small, was a step in the right direction. He truly viewed the powers as a source of joy, a tool that he used to spread hope to the rest of the world. It was an attitude that was infectious. It was amazing what an effect a little change in perspective had on Clark, what a shot of enthusiasm seemed to do to spark his own love of life. Between the positive influence of Kevin's attitude, the heart-warming news coverage, and the ever-present thoughts of Lois and their impending date, Clark found himself smiling more than he had in a long time.
The arrival of Friday brought an almost unbearable amount of excitement, which had served to make every one of his classes seem infinitely long. His mind had churned as the professors had lectured, his hand scribbling absently in his notebook as he had pondered everything that would happen that night. By the time 4 o'clock came, he was off, his better judgment telling him that he should take his time and not superspeed immediately to Lois, even as his more impatient side did just that. In a matter of seconds, he found himself in Metropolis, landing gently in the deserted alley next to her apartment building. Quickly he walked into the building and to her door, his hands fidgeting nervously with each other, betraying an inner nervousness that he was valiantly trying not to acknowledge. He knocked lightly, fighting the urge to peek through the door. When she opened the door to greet him, he was almost surprised to see that she was even more ravishing than he remembered, more stunning than even his daydreams could muster. She was clad in a black dress, simple, yet elegant, and certainly the compliment to his shirt and tie, which he had feared would be too formal. Her shoulder-length brown hair was pulled up, revealing her radiant face.
"Hello," she said, blushing slightly, a shy grin appearing on her face as she studied him for a moment.
Impulsively, he reached for her hand, drawing it up toward his mouth and planting a light kiss upon it. "You look ravishing this evening, my lady," he replied. Her cheeks reddened further as she nervously reached for a phantom strand of her hair. She was beautiful when she was embarrassed, he decided, taking pity upon her after a moment. Releasing her hand and straightening up, he gestured down the hallway. "Would you care to escort this naïve midwesterner around your city?" he asked, and that finally brought a full-fledged grin from her.
"A man who is not afraid to let his date do the driving. I never thought I'd see it," she said, a sparkle in her eyes, before sauntering down the hallway. He watched appreciatively for moment, then followed behind. The conversation had started shortly thereafter. As they drove across town, she told him of her father, a career military man who had been strict and commanding, and who had raised his daughters to be driven, no matter what the costs. She talked about growing up on army bases around the world, before finally landing in Metropolis and settling there to finish high school and go to college. Clark had listened and interjected, not especially wanting to mention his own tragic childhood, but being coaxed into it anyway. Suppertime had found them at a burger joint, neither of them feeling particularly out of place slurping milkshakes while donning semi-formal clothing. Clark couldn't remember what they discussed over cheeseburgers and French fries, but he remembered laughing through most of it. And she had laughed, too, genuine interest and happiness written on her face as she gave him her undivided attention.
After the meal, Lois had shown him the sights of the city. The famous theaters and landmarks, the financial district, the great Centennial Park. They had paid their admission to go up to the observation deck of the tallest building in town. The view was impressive, he had to admit, but as Lois had excitedly pointed out everywhere they had been that evening, he had leaned against the railing and smiled, wondering if he should show her the city as he saw it. As they made their way back toward the elevators, he made note of the darkened corners of the observation area, noticing that the crowd was beginning to become sparse due to the late hour. With a sly grin, he changed paths, heading toward one of those dark corners, his hand on Lois's arm guiding her along with him.
"What are you doing?" she asked, looking around, confusion etched on her face.
"Do you trust me?" Clark asked, drawing her attention back to him. They were now standing in a recess of the central part of the building, the spire of the antenna and lightning rod stretching up against them. The lights, spaced to illuminate the area near the high railings at the edges of the observation deck, left their position draped in dark shadows.
"You know I do," she said with a nod. Clark smiled, then stepped close enough to her that they were practically nose to nose.
"Then let me show you something," he said softly, then gathered her into his arms and shot into the air. She yelped as they left the ground, but quickly regained her composure. They came to a stop several thousand feet above the building they had just been atop, higher than anywhere in the city, but not high enough to be in the flight path of any approaching aircraft. Lois breathed heavily, her eyes transfixed on the ground below them. The lights of the city stretched out almost as far as the eye could see in either direction, the headlights of the cars making the highways seem like ribbons of light.
"The city as seen from the top of the Trade Towers might be beautiful, but to get the truly great view, you have to go the extra mile…straight up," he said with a smile.
Lois chuckled lightly. "If you're trying to show off," she started, her expression momentarily stern, but her mouth quickly pulling into a smile, "you're succeeding admirably. I am most definitely impressed." Her arms pulled tighter around his neck, her eyes diverting back to the view below. A gust of wind carried them north and west, toward the shopping districts and over the more swanky part of town.
"Say the word and we can be over Paris in a second," he said, entirely serious. "If you want to take a walk in the clouds or see any of the seven wonders of the world, I can take you there, too. The whole world can be yours, and all you have to do is say yes."
Lois looked back toward him, surprised, but a shake of the head told him that she wasn't interested. "I told myself that I wouldn't dream of Paris until at least the second date," she joked. Her eyes locked into his, the hint of something more there, but she quickly looked away, her attention drawn toward the thin clouds off in the distance. "Besides, if I'm with you, it doesn't matter where we are. On a cloud, in the shadow of the pyramids…it's all about the company."
Clark looked away, embarrassed. He'd been so caught up in the fact that she seemed to be enjoying the benefits of his powers, he'd gotten carried away. She was right, of course. If they were sitting in a dark cave, it'd be enjoyable because she was there. "So, if some weekend I brought you out to show you all the sights of Kansas…" he said, and Lois smiled.
"I do have my limits," she said, and they both laughed. "I think I can see it from here, actually, if I squint really hard," she continued, and Clark followed her gaze.
"It's right next to Atlantis, over there," he said, pointing off toward the western horizon. Lois gave him a sideways look and chuckled.
"Thanks for bringing me up here, Clark," she said after a moment, her voice soft. "I appreciate the fact that, even though you're surely one of the most powerful people on the Earth, you feel you need to show off to little old me. It's kind of cute, I guess."
"Cute?" he asked, his eyebrows raised and his lips pulled back into a grimace.
Lois freed one of her hands and ruffled his hair. "It's a compliment, Clark."
He pouted. "Cute is just not impressive, that's all. 'Magnificent,' maybe, or 'remarkable, ' would work."
"I'm sure you guys all stand around the lockers in the gym and tell great stories of how cute your girlfriends think you are," she said.
"I think an alarm goes off if we say that word in there, actually," Clark quipped, bringing a smirk from Lois.
"Speaking of how cute and utterly remarkable you are," she said after a short silence, her expression quickly turning saccharine. "About your outfit…"
Clark rolled his eyes and began to float back toward the trade towers. She regaled him with her grand ideas for his costume, even going so far as to offer her meager services in making it, and Clark had to admit that he listened with some eagerness, even if the idea of spandex and a cape didn't strike him as the best in the world. There was definitely something to be said for fighting crime in something flashier than what a normal person would wear, something that would further separate him from his other identity.
After a few minutes, they slipped out of the sky and back into the shadows that they had taken off from, their conversation switching to more mundane things as they rode the elevators back down to the ground floor and made their way back to the car. Their date continued on as if the brief respite in the clouds had never happened, as if he hadn't just held her in his arms and exhibited his incredible ability to her. It was so strange and wonderful at the same time. Lana would've never let him forget even if he had used his powers for something mundane; Lois was definitely not Lana, and he couldn't help but smile at the thought.
The final stop of the evening was another park, this one rather small, situated at the tip of New Troy. The trees near the park entrance crowded the road and reached out overhead, blocking the view as they pulled into the small asphalt parking lot. Getting out of the car and walking a few hundred feet, though, revealed a different view, and Clark suddenly realized why it was that Lois had brought them there. There, in front of them, stretched a vast expanse of dark water, the shoreline of the mainline stretching to the west, infinite darkness to the east. The newly risen moon dominated the sky as it hung low over the Atlantic Ocean, its deep orange hue making it seem almost as if it were on fire. Stars sparkled in the darkness above, straining to stand out against the glare from the city lights. All in all, it was a view that lacked a certain perspective and majesty when seen from above, one that seemed so much more intimate when viewed from the ground. A cool breeze blew in off the water, flavoring the air with the salty scent of the sea, covering up the other city smells that were prominent outside of the park. Water lapped gently against the sea wall, the waves setting a hypnotic rhythm that was as comforting as it was exotic to a man who had never really spent any time away from the wheat fields of Kansas.
They walked slowly toward the water and settled into a bench, the bushes sheltering them off from the rest of the world. At that moment, it was just the two of them and nature, alone at last in the city that was home to millions. But, as much as the wonders of the natural surroundings should be commanding his attention, Clark found his senses drawn elsewhere. All he could hear was the gentle, methodical beat of the heart of the woman beside him. Her scent dominated the ocean air, her face was more radiant than the moon on the horizon or any of the stars or planets dotting the sky above. Her very touch brought the hot sizzle of electricity, a zap of excitement that he just couldn't ignore, especially as her hand found its way into his. He found himself indulging in those deeper feelings for the first time, wondering if it might not be time to take that next step.
"I would really like to kiss you," Clark whispered, breaking the silence and drawing her attention away from the ocean. His eyes locked into hers, and he was surprised to see that they held the same need that had overtaken him. After talking with each other, after getting to know each other and just being around each other, there was just need. The need to know whether her lips were as soft as he imagined they were, the need to know if whatever was between them was as deep as he thought it was.
Lois smiled sweetly and nodded. "I would really like you to kiss me, too," she answered, her voice deep with longing. Immediately, he closed his eyes and leaned in toward her, their lips gently touching at first. As they pulled gently apart, he felt her hand on his jaw, her fingers wrapping around and touching a sensitive spot behind his ear. His mouth opened up as they came together again, his hand working its way behind her head and into her silky hair. As they kissed, he marveled in how very right it felt, in how he wanted nothing more than to be there in her arms. He felt something inside of him stir as it continued, and he forced himself to pull away as he realized just how deeply he was being affected. His eyes fluttered open and he could see disappointment on her face, but as he shifted gently, her eyes turned downward, and a blush began to rise on her cheeks as a sly smile worked its way onto her face. His sensitive ears picked up the rapid pace of her heart, and he smiled as he saw that she had been as deeply affected as he had.
For a few moments, they just looked at each other, smiling, longing to be together again but knowing that they shouldn't, not here, not now, no matter how seemingly isolated their location. It was amazing how different that kiss had been from any other he had experienced. With Lana, they had been tender, sweet, but had never possessed the intensity that he had just experienced. There had never been the feeling that somehow their souls were intertwined, that somehow their kiss was meant to be. But kissing Lois just felt right in a way that he had never thought possible. He wanted to tell her that so badly, but even for someone who hoped to make a living off of words, he couldn't find the way to express everything he was feeling at that moment. He supposed, deep down, he wanted to tell her that he loved her, but he just couldn't bring himself to say those words. It wasn't that he wasn't sure of their truth, because if there was one thing he was absolutely sure of, it was how he felt about Lois. But to say them, that was something that was fraught with peril. Everyone that he had ever professed love to had left—his parents, Lana… It was a thought that he didn't even want to contemplate.
"Have you thought about where you're going to apply for a job once you graduate?" Lois asked, and Clark had to blink in order to orient himself with the world again. He looked at Lois questioningly, and noticed that she was smoothing out her dress, looking away from him.
He smiled, noticing the distancing technique for what it was. As he was about to answer, though, the sound of a large bang seemed to reverberate throughout the city. Clark turned his head toward the sound, all his senses zeroing in on its source. "The Daily Planet," he said, his hearing picking up the preliminary dispatch from 911.
"Me too," Lois said brightly, and Clark turned toward her again, confused. After a moment, he realized that he had unintentionally answered her question. Under normal circumstances, it might almost be a humorous situation, but he couldn't bring himself to smile. Even as he shook his head, the muffled sound of screams reached his ears, sending chills down his spine.
"No, that sound. Couldn't you hear it?" he asked as he quickly rose from the bench. "It was an explosion at the Daily Planet."
"Oh no," she whispered, her face quickly morphing into an expression of horror. She stood and followed his gaze, looking intently back toward the city, seeing the first wisps of smoke above the skyline.
"I have to go. People are hurt," he said, then took a large stride away from her.
"I'm going too," Lois said, taking a step toward him, but stopping as Clark continued on without her.
"I'll see you there," he said over his shoulder, his path taking him into the darkness of the trees deeper into the park. He stopped briefly and turned toward her, a sparkle in his eye. "Maybe you can get that exclusive you were looking for, after all," he continued, then disappeared into the darkness. Within moments, he was shooting across the sky, quickly arriving at the Daily Planet building and immersing himself in the business of being Superman.
Bolt rolled over onto his side as he floated in the air over Boise, propping his head onto his hand as if lying on an imaginary surface. The streets below were quiet, a nice change from the crime and desperation that he had encountered in the ghettos out east. It was nice to be bored for once, he thought as he floated toward the dome of the Idaho capital building. It gave him a chance to actually get to look around, to get the full benefits of the view from the air. It also gave him the chance to do a little sightseeing. All the times that he had told someone that he was from Iowa and they had asked him if that was where potatoes came from, he had wished fervently that he could at least have a little knowledge of what Idaho was really like, so that he could better joke about the situation. And now he knew, he thought with a grin, his path taking him toward the mountains in the distance.
The hour was still fairly early, the families who stayed home on Fridays had just settled into their living rooms. He let himself listen to the sounds that drifted up from below, the sitcoms and the news channels and radios all blending together, yet all still individually discernable to his sensitive ears. Some canned laugher made its way through his mental filters as he turned onto his stomach, folding his arms underneath his chin. Next came the strains of some song or another followed by a news report of…
Bolt stopped where he was, zeroing in on the report. After a few moments, he didn't have to strain any longer, because all the televisions and radios had all begun to broadcast the same thing. His arms fell away as the announcer told of breaking news from Metropolis. By the time the word "bomb" had been mentioned, he was already streaking toward the east as fast as he could go, the land flashing by underneath him at an almost disorienting pace. In a matter of seconds, the skyline of Metropolis was within sight, the cloud of smoke clearly visible above it. With an extra burst of speed, he approached the building, stopping in midair above it and surveying the situation.
The building was one that was immediately recognizable to anyone who had ever watched the news, the large globe that usually stood atop it proudly proclaiming it as the home of the Daily Planet, the most famous newspaper in the world. That globe, one of the landmarks of Metropolis, was now lying unceremoniously on the roof, one of the countless victims of the bomb that had been detonated inside the building below. The blast had also blown a hole in the front of the building, hurtling brick and glass and remnants of office furnishings onto the street and exposing twisted steel columns and girders. Thick smoke and dust clouded the whole scene in an eerie fog, one that seemed alive with the activity of the emergency workers and fleeing office workers and reporters.
Ambulances and fire trucks lined the streets for several blocks in each direction, despite the debris that littered the scene. In the air above him, Bolt could hear the steady roar of helicopters circling around the site, camera crews inside them undoubtedly capturing the scene from above. Below, the police were directing non-emergency personnel away from the scene, a steady stream of people scurrying away from the Daily Planet. Only the firemen headed in the opposite direction, their crews looking for the injured and trapped inside the now ruined building. The muffled screams and pleas for help from below told Bolt that the firemen would definitely need some assistance with that task. As he was about to fly down to help, a flash of blue streaked from the sky and into the gaping hole, just as quickly exiting again. It was Superman, Bolt realized, somewhat surprised to see his friend on the scene after hearing in no uncertain terms from Clark that Superman absolutely would be out of commission that night. Clark could never have anticipated something like this happening, though, and whatever it was that had originally been planned that night, it obviously was less important than the lives of those people trapped inside the building.
With a mental shake, Bolt willed himself to get down to work, immediately swooping into the building and tending to the injured and trapped. He crossed paths with Superman several times, although neither acknowledged the other with more than just a glance and a nod of the head. The sheer volume of work barred any further exchanges. Because the blast happened past the normal working hours, the casualties weren't as numerous as they could've been, but since the Daily Planet housed journalists that worked around the clock, there was still a fairly large volume of victims. As hard as it was to see the injured, it was even worse to behold those that hadn't survived, some mangled beyond recognition. Bolt had to steel himself away from the truly gruesome sights, turn off his sensitive nose from the smell of burning that was evident everywhere. There was no time to stop and ponder the sheer horror of the scene, to question who could've possibly done such a thing, to wonder what consequences it would have on the future of Metropolis and the great newspaper. Bolt just went, clearing the scene as fast as he could, the minutes passing like hours, until there were no more people to be rescued.
He had no clue how late it was when he perched himself on top of the building across the street, finally slowing down for the first time that night. Superman was inside the building, clearing away the smoke and freeing the paths for the rescue workers and investigators to reach the upper floors of the building and access the blast site. Bolt sighed as he gave the building another once over, checking for anyone that he might have missed. The subbasement and tunnel structure underneath the Planet building was impressive, linking it to several surrounding buildings, but the passages were bare, devoid of even the critters that usually frequented such areas. Smoke still loomed heavily in the parking garage, bits of the ceiling and walls now resting on the floors, but no victims were present. The lobby and lower floors of the building were still teeming with emergency workers, the upper floors still partially blocked. Above the blast site, all the remaining workers had long ago been cleared away. The building now sat like a ghost, a relic to the majesty of a storied newspaper.
A dull thud drew Bolt's attention away from the disaster scene. Superman was now standing next to him, his costume dusty and bloodied. "That building's not safe," Superman muttered, shaking his head slightly and frowning at the gathered mob at its base. Bolt nodded, his eyes drawn toward the brickwork that remained, some of it held in place by seemingly nothing at all.
"Those bricks could kill someone," Bolt said, taking a step toward the edge of the building with the intent of taking care of the problem. His progress was stopped, though, as Superman held out his arm, planting his hand on Bolt's chest.
"Look deeper," Superman said intensely, his other hand pointing toward the gaping hole. "It's a wonder that the building itself is still standing. Bolts in the structure are sheered off, the steel members are cracked and warped. That whole thing could come down at any time."
Bolt looked at him in surprise, then turned toward the building, this time looking below the surface and seeing all the things that Superman pointed out. "We can fix it," Kevin said, his voice making it clear that that was just what he intended to do.
Superman only nodded in response. A second later, he was gone, back into the belly of the beast, the task of welding together damaged steel underway. Bolt stuck close to him, and they worked off each other, one bracing while the other fused the steel. The emergency workers stayed away for the most part, leaving them alone in their task.
"I thought you were taking the night off," Bolt said after a while, his hands supporting a cross member below the blast site.
Superman shot a beam of heat vision at the connection with the column, and then along a crack in the flange of the beam. "I couldn't ignore something like this. Besides, I was in town," he replied, moving toward the other end of the beam.
"Taking in the social scene?" Bolt asked, surreptitiously zapping a gap in the floor joist above him.
"You could say that," Superman said, finishing with the other end and moving on to the next member. This time, he held and Bolt did the welding.
"So, what, you went out to see a show? Or sightseeing?" Bolt asked, a small, teasing smile breaking onto his face. He reached up and grasped the beam, reshaping it so that it would fit properly in place.
"Let's just say that I was visiting a friend," Superman answered. Bolt looked curiously toward his friend, who was now looking outside, away from the crowd, a small smile on his face.
"Really?" Bolt asked, more curious than ever now. "In town? This friend doesn't know about…?" he asked, pointing his thumb at Superman's chest. Superman just raised his eyebrows and smiled, his cheeks flushing ever so slightly.
Bolt had a hard time welding a straight, steady line in the steel. He wasn't exactly sure what to think about that particular revelation, although he found himself somewhat nervous about the prospect of half of the biggest secret in the world being out there. He almost felt…exposed, as odd as that seemed.
"She's outside right now," Superman answered, shifting his weight.
"Great," Bolt said under his breath, moving toward the other end of the beam, suddenly feeling the need to move the conversation to other things. But how could he do that gently? He began to ponder that as they moved on to the next beam, but was spared from having to as the stairwell door to the floor banged open, and several emergency workers started making their way toward the heroes. Bolt and Superman continued their work in silence as the men remained within earshot, although Bolt couldn't stop himself from taking several curious glances at Superman. After a while, the firemen made their way toward where the two heroes were.
"How's it going?" one of them asked, tipping his helmet forward ever so slightly.
"It's slow," Superman said with a sigh. "We think we've gotten the worst of the damage repaired, though. It should be safe for the rest of your men to come in."
"Thanks, Superman," the other firefighter said. No sooner were the words out of his mouth than there was a bang, and the room suddenly filled with smoke. Bolt tensed, momentarily caught off guard. It only took a second for his eyes to adjust, his vision perfectly able to see through the thick smoke, and what he saw was a canister sitting on the floor in front of them, the hand of one of the firefighters pulling back from it as he reached toward his jacket.
"What…?" Bolt asked, but was stopped by a searing pain that surged through his whole body. He dropped to his knees, grimacing in agony, even as the air seemed to glow green with an eerie light. Beside him, Superman let out an anguished cry, and dropped to the ground with a loud thud. Bolt turned to look at his friend, but he quickly realized that he couldn't see through the smoke anymore. In fact, all he could see was darkness, punctuated by a sickly green grow.
"Get them," one of the firefighters said, and hands began to reach out for him. Fighting through the pain in his muscles, Bolt swatted the hands away and rose awkwardly to his feet, stumbling toward where he knew the stairway was. He tore off his sunglasses as he got further from the smoke bomb, trying desperately to see anything. Luckily, enough ambient light from the city was able to come in through the windows to illuminate the hallway, and eventually he found the stairwell. He was coughing as he pushed open the door, his actions as quick as he could make them, expecting one of the men to come after him.
He clutched onto the handrail and raced down the steps as fast as his rubbery legs would take him, the pain in his body fading with every step he took away from the firemen. After descending two floors, he came to a stop, aware for the first time that he was winded. But he didn't get winded, at least not since being struck by lightning. With a start, he looked at the sunglasses still clutched in his hand, then toward the wall. He willed the wall to dissolve and show him the outside, but it didn't. He squinted at it, hoping to blast it with some heat, but no heat came. Panic began to seep into his consciousness as he willed himself up into the air, only to find his feet still firmly planted on the steps.
"No," he whispered under his breath, his panic morphing into cold fear. All his new powers, the essence of what Bolt was, were gone, stripped, and he was just Kevin now. What had those firemen done to him? And what about Clark? He looked back up the stairwell, determined to go back for Clark, but stopped. What could he do against three or four large men? Before the lightning hit, he was never strong, and he didn't possess anything more than rudimentary self defense skills. He couldn't take those men, he thought, hanging his head. He needed help if he were to do anything. But where would he get anyone to help him? Kevin Jones was nobody here, he didn't know anyone here, and Bolt was effectively dead. He could go out there and start telling tales of Superman being kidnapped, but who would believe him?
"She's outside right now," Superman said from the not-so-distant past, and suddenly Kevin's head snapped up, new hope building within him. Whoever this mystery woman was, she was someone who knew about Clark and who apparently cared enough about him to wait around. If anyone was going to help him, it was her. He had to go out there and find this woman, but he also had to get out of the building without anyone knowing. Bolt couldn't be seen limping away from the scene, and Kevin Jones couldn't be seen emerging from a building hundreds of miles from where he was last seen a couple of hours earlier.
The tunnels. He'd use the tunnels he'd found, he thought, continuing down the stairs, desperately hoping not to run into any more rescue workers. The building was clear, though, and as he reached the main level, he descended another three floors, finally emerging in the darkened subbasement area. He had to rely on memory to guide him, as the darkness in the tunnels was absolute. His hands felt along the wall, his shoulders and hips bumping into pipes and doors and whatever else lurked in the dark. Eventually, he found a long corridor and followed it, reaching a door at the other end which led to a staircase. He ascended the stairs in the dark, finally exiting the stairwell into the lobby of another building. The dull light of the city guided him toward the front, through the doors, and outside. Kevin removed the helmet and the jersey, clutching them behind him and out of sight as he finally emerged out onto the street, the Daily Planet building now next door to where he was. The street was practically deserted in this area, the emergency workers all concentrating on the blast site, the civilians all having been cleared out long ago.
He wished he knew exactly who he was looking for, he thought, his gaze sweeping past the storefronts and into the nearby darkened alleys. He stumbled forward, intent on returning to the Daily Planet area, but he stopped, his eyes finding a lone pale face staring out from an alley. The face looked feminine, her hair and dark outfit blending into the shadows and giving the illusion of a specter of some sort, but as Kevin watched, she took a step forward, emerging from the shadows, her eyes locked into his.
Kevin stood, transfixed, as she took several more steps toward him. After a moment, though, he started coughing again, the after-effects of the smoke bomb still lingering. As he doubled over slightly, his hand slid from behind his back, the shiny helmet becoming evident to his observer, her eyes going wide at the sight. It only took a moment before she was beside him, looking at him, waiting for him to finish.
"You're Bolt, aren't you?" she asked as he straightened up again. Kevin looked into her eyes, not really sure what to say. After a moment, she reached out to him, grabbing his shirt, her eyes wide with fear. "Where's Superman?" she asked, and he took a deep breath, shaking his head ever so slightly. Her grip only tightened as she pulled him in toward her. "Where's Clark?" she hissed, and Kevin knew for sure. This was his mysterious friend, the one that had been waiting.
"He needs our help," Kevin answered, and they both turned toward the Daily Planet building.
Lois had been standing in a secluded alley near the Daily Planet building for the better part of two hours, conflicting emotions coursing through her as she watched the activity around what used to be the home of the greatest newspaper in the world. She felt tears well up in her eyes when she looked at the broken building, its majestic landmark globe collapsed on the roof. That building, more than anything else, was the symbol of so many things that were dear to her and to other aspiring reporters throughout the world, and now it sat battered and broken, a shell, a phoenix waiting to rise again from the ashes. Inside it had been reporters, editors, and others that had been simply doing their jobs when the bomb had detonated. What had happened to them? How many of them had either lost their lives or had them forever changed due to the actions of some madman? This institution that usually reported the news now was the news, but somehow she imagined that the Planet would continue on despite the devastation. When the sun rose again, there would be a morning edition sitting in front of the collective stoops of Metropolis, its very words proclaiming to all who read it that the rumors of its demise had been greatly exaggerated. Now more than ever, she wanted to become part of a newspaper that had the strength to fight on, no matter how bad the blow.
Warring with her sadness, though, was a sense of nervousness and anxiety. At the heart of the action, in the middle of the danger, was Clark, her date for the evening. Time and time again, he flew in and out of the building, gently transporting the injured to local hospitals and carrying out the trapped. She knew of his powers, of course, and had even flown with him momentarily, but seeing him in action was completely different. Things viewed on television could be taken with a grain of salt, the viewers long since accustomed to seeing fantastic things on the screens in front of them. But seeing the speed and the strength, the caring and compassion exhibited by Clark up close was truly amazing. Sometimes it was hard to observe all that was going on, especially from afar, but there was no mistaking the characteristic swoosh of air in the wake of the superheroes, and there were no mistaking the tales told by those that had benefited from the work of Superman and Bolt. In the times between the action, though, when the collected emergency personnel anxiously watched the battered building and waited for the next victim to emerge, she sometimes swore that she could almost feel the emotion coming off of Clark, as silly as that seemed. With every wave of phantom concern and every distant feeling of horror, her heart clinched, her eyes closed and she tried to probe the source of those feelings, reaching out, but never really feeling anything tangible. Somewhere deep inside, she imagined that maybe he could feel her out here, and that maybe her presence was what he was holding onto to get him through the chaos of the night. So long as he needed her,she would stay, although it wasn't easy to stick around when the assembled police force made it their priority to clear the area out. Fortunately, the shadows were long at this time of night, the darkness in the alleys between buildings hiding her, making it possible for her to stay.
About an hour and a half after she had arrived on the scene, flying in and out of the building had ceased, the rescues apparently complete. Bolt had perched himself atop the building across the street, studying the Planet for a few moments before being joined by Clark. They exchanged words, the conversation short, and then flew back into the battered building, off to whatever task that needed to be done next. If Lois looked closely at the gaping hole in the side of the building, she could see them doing something to the structural steel, piecing it together, bending it and welding it. Making the building safe, no doubt. Not exactly interesting, but certainly important. The passage of time had slowed considerably after they moved their work inside, and Lois almost found herself anxious for something else to happen. A couple of minutes later, she had gotten her wish.
The pain had been sudden and all encompassing, a ball of fire that had engulfed her body and then, almost as suddenly as it had come, disappeared. For a few moments she gasped for breath, afraid to move, afraid that the pain might come back, but it didn't. Her eyes snapped toward the Daily Planet building, a voice deep inside of her telling her that something must be terribly wrong, but everything looked the same as it had only moments earlier. The firemen loitered on the sidewalk in front of the building, their jobs largely done. The cops huddled in groups, discussing something or another. Nobody seemed worried, nobody sprung into action. It could just be her imagination, she told herself, but all the comforting words she could muster couldn't make the sense of dread that hung over her head go away. She shifted her weight back and forth nervously, wondering if she shouldn't go and see what was really happening, but she restrained herself, hoping that a clue would present itself that would make everything clear. And it did.
Out of the corner of her eye, she had noticed movement. Across the street, the Metropolis Mercantile Building, long since evacuated, now showed signs of life. As she turned to look, a man walked out the front doors, his eyes sweeping across the streetscape in front of him before finally turning toward the devastation at the Planet. He was wearing a plain white t-shirt and jeans, his face was grungy, even from afar. He'd been in the middle of the devastation, she could tell right away, although why he was now on the street in front of her was not immediately clear. He took a wobbly step forward, but stopped, his head turning toward her and his eyes locking into hers. She was aware that she had taken a step toward him, aware that he was possibly the clue she was looking for. But the spell was broken as he broke down in a fit of coughing, causing him to double over slightly, and one of his arms, which had been firmly pressed behind his back, came free. There, clearly clutched in his hand, was a bright silver helmet. Instantly, she was running toward him, studying him. He didn't have the sunglasses on, didn't wear the trademark jersey or helmet, and he looked remarkably unremarkable in every way. His face wasn't particularly memorable, his height just a shade taller than average, and his haircut conservative. But she recognized him all the same. All she had to do was look at his chin, at his nose, and she could see the resemblance. The helmet clutched in his hand and the blue material stuffed inside it only confirmed her suspicion. This was Bolt, undisguised, and a little worse for the wear.
As she reached him, she asked him to confirm his identity, the foreboding that she had been feeling asserting itself. What was he doing out here, out of costume, away from scrutiny? And why the coughing fit? He was invulnerable…wasn't he? Her eyes went wide as she grabbed him and asked him where Superman was, cold fear beginning to course though her for the first time, the memory of the pain she had felt more than enough for her to expect the worst. Recognition seemed to be in his eyes all at once, and he shook his head. But he still didn't say anything.
"Where's Clark?" she finally asked, her patience gone. Clark hadn't implicitly told her that Bolt knew his real identity, but he had said enough to lead her to the conclusion that the two were friends, and friends would certainly share such a thing. Bolt's reaction showed that she was correct to assume such a thing.
"He needs our help," he said finally, his eyes turning toward the Daily Planet.
"Our help?" she asked quietly, following his gaze. "Surely you can…?" But she knew right away that he couldn't, not anymore. That's why he was trying to be incognito, trying to hide away his other identity.
"No, I can't," he answered, his voice hoarse. Lois's hands relaxed, allowing him to pull away from her as his tee shirt finally came free. "If I could, believe me I would."
"But how?" she asked. "What happened?"
He shook his head again, rubbing absently at what looked to be a future bruise on his arm. He didn't look directly at her as he spoke, his eyes finding their way back toward the assembled mob and the darkened husk of the Daily Planet. "I don't know, exactly. Some firefighters came in and set off a smoke bomb, and then there was a green glow of some sort, followed by the most intense pain I've ever felt." Lois felt goose bumps rise on her arms, her eyes growing wide as he continued on. "Just like that, the powers were gone, all of them, and hands were grabbing at me. I was running for my life, down the stairs and through the dark, just trying to get away, certain that they were behind me, but they never came." He frowned, the fist in his free hand clenching and unclenching. "I wish I knew what they wanted, and why they came after us. All we were doing was trying to make the building structurally sound. Neither of us has even so much as hurt a fly." His gaze returned to her, and his eyes went slightly wide, almost as if he forgot himself for a moment. The barest of smiles formed on his face, obviously a gesture to try and comfort her, although she could see right away that there was no reassurance in his eyes. There was only shame, and Lois could understand where that emotion was coming from. Minutes ago, he was the most powerful man on Earth, then these men did something, and he was not only a mere mortal, he was running away, leaving his friend behind to whatever fate awaited him. But if he hadn't gotten away, the world probably would wake up tomorrow to find both of the superheroes missing, gone without a word, and nobody would've known why.
"Madmen don't need a reason," Lois said, trying to smile back, but aware that she, too, was far too worried to form anything other than a grimace. "At least they didn't get you, too."
"Yeah," he said, his eyes softening somewhat. His gaze finally broke away from hers, and he looked down at the helmet in his hand. "I was looking for you," he continued after a moment.
"Me? Why?" Lois asked, wondering how he would possibly know about her, unless…
"He told me you were out here, and I knew you were the only chance I had to get him away from them." Bolt set his jaw and looked up again, the spark of resolve in his eyes making her tingle. Seeing him so defeated a moment ago, it was easy to forget that this was the same Bolt who had spent the last week cleaning out the inner cities and observing all the worst in humanity. But she could see it now, certainly, and she didn't doubt that he truly would do all he could for Clark, because that's who he was.
"Well, you were right about that," Lois answered. She crossed her arms across her chest and turned back toward the Daily Planet, her mind spinning. Where did they start? They obviously couldn't just barge in there and start looking around. In the first place, they wouldn't get very far thanks to the emergency personnel around. Secondly, who knew how long it had been since the men had attacked? For all she knew, they had already carted him out of the building and taken off for points unknown. If they had, well, she didn't want to think about what that would mean.
Lois reached into the purse that was slung over her shoulder and grabbed the notebook and pen that were kept there on a permanent basis. She took a few steps toward the corner of the Mercantile Bank, trying to get a little closer to the scene. "Did you get a good look at the men who did this?" she asked as her eyes swept across the crowd.
She heard him walk up behind her and sigh heavily. "They looked just like any other firefighters. Helmets, big coats, the whole nine yards."
Lois took one more step forward, her pen tapping gently against the notebook. Firefighters were everywhere, one practically indistinguishable from the other. The heavy coats and helmets made it hard to see faces. It was the perfect disguise, Lois thought with a frown. "If they wanted Clark for something, they'd have to get him out of there. There are just too many people around here to do anything to him on site. Besides, there were enough injured people around that nobody would question another one being pulled from the building."
"Were," Bolt answered. "We cleared all of them out of that place a long time ago. I x-rayed the building twice, just to make sure."
"But that's hardly common knowledge," Lois said, although she was as aware as anyone else on the site that there hadn't been any flights into or out of that building for the better part of an hour. "You got out of there the unconventional way. What if they did that, too?" She looked at Bolt, her eyebrows raised.
He shrugged. "It's possible, although I'm not sure how well-known those tunnels are. The cobwebs were pretty thick. Besides, if they came in the front door, why not go out that way, too?"
"It sounds like they're pretty bold," Lois said with a nod, her attention turned back toward the crowd.
"It won't be easy, though. People will notice if someone just drags Superman out of the front door," Bolt said. "I, at least, can take my costume off. And I'm not unconscious. Clark isn't as lucky on either count."
"He might not be able to take his disguise off, but what if someone put one on him instead?" Lois asked, her interest suddenly piqued. Her head snapped toward the front entrance of the building, and the group of firefighters that was exiting the building. "There," she whispered, pointing them out to Bolt, who crowded over her shoulder. The group consisted of five men, all of them wearing the standard issue coats, although not all had the helmets. One man seemed to be in bad shape, his arms draped over the shoulders of two other men, who were struggling under his weight. His head was pitched forward, the helmet positioned atop it so as to make it virtually impossible to see his face. Other policemen and paramedics at the site rushed to the aid of the men, but all were shooed away, no matter how persistent their efforts. If the fireman was injured, surely he would need medical assistance, wouldn't he? Lois's eyes wandered down to the feet of the unconscious man, and between the members of the crowd, she could see a swath of blue denim above the worn sneakers.
"Bingo," she said, excitement coursing through her at their discovery. There was no way that she was going to let them get away, she thought, hedging away from their sanctuary and toward the group of men in the distance. She only took one step before a hand reached out and grasped her shoulder, halting her progress. She tried to shake free, but the grip was firm. Angrily, she turned back toward him. "Let go," she said.
"So you can do, what, exactly?" Bolt asked.
Lois held out a hand toward the group of firemen. "Help Clark," she said, an exasperated tone in her voice. Bolt raised an eyebrow in response.
"How?" he asked, his expression challenging.
Lois looked at him, dumbfounded. She gestured toward the group again and opened her mouth, but closed it again quickly, her brow knitting together. "I guess I hadn't thought of that. I just figured we could, you know, grab him."
"If they did what they did to him and to me, what are they going to do to you?" Bolt asked, his voice not condescending, just straightforward, almost comforting.
"We can at least try," she said, every part of her being wanting to rush to Clark, no matter how sensible Bolt's words were and no matter what the possible consequences were to her. "Do something, ANYTHING, but we can't just let them take him." She wished she could make Bolt feel her desperation, that it would somehow spur him to act, but his expression was sad, pained, and she knew that he wouldn't help her.
"Whatever that green stuff is that they have, all they have to do is unleash it again, and who knows, maybe I'll pass out this time. If they're willing to incapacitate and kidnap superheroes, imagine what they'd do to someone who had the gall to get in their way. I can't let you put yourself in danger like that. Clark wouldn't want me to."
Lois had to stop herself from saying the hurtful words that were just waiting to come out. How on Earth did he know what Clark would want? What kind of friend was he to Clark, anyway, if he was willing to let these men just take him away without even challenging them? She wanted to cry because of the helplessness she felt, but also because she realized that Bolt was right, no matter how little she wanted to admit it. She'd let her emotions overtake her, which seemed to happen all the time where Clark was concerned, and it could've led to bad things if not for Bolt. His hand was still perched on her shoulder, his grip still solid enough, but the feeling of confinement that it brought was beginning to ease away, and as she relaxed ever so slightly, she could feel his tension drain away, as well. He almost smiled as she finally acquiesced, and together, they slinked back behind the corner of the building and watched the scene play out without exchanging any more words.
They had to be smart about this, they had to make a plan, catch these men off guard somehow. And they probably had to get more help. She flipped open her notebook and began to scribble on the lined paper, her hand moving furiously, her eyes not looking down. She recorded license plate numbers, descriptions of all the men in the group, pertinent information from the scene, anything that could be useful for a future investigation or story. After a moment, the group of firemen reached an official looking vehicle, a large red four by four with the words "Fire Marshall" painted in large gold letters on the side, a rack of red and white emergency lights perched atop the roof. Clark was carefully loaded into the back seat, his coat held together and his hat kept firmly atop his head, with all men lending a hand to make sure the scene looked as natural as possible. One by one they joined Clark inside, and after the last man climbed in, the engine turned over and the truck roared to life. It slowly pulled away from the curb, heading directly toward where Lois and Bolt were standing.
Without a second thought, Lois stuffed her notebook and pen in her purse. She reached back and grabbed Bolt's arm, pulling him into the darkness of the alley and beyond, not bothering to stop and watch the truck go by. Her feet pounded against the pavement as she continued down the alley and out into the next street. Behind her, Bolt was breathing heavily as he labored to keep going, his hand gripped in hers helping to pull him along. As they exited onto the street, she took a quick right, then cut up another alley, finally reaching her car as she emerged out onto the next block.
She dug in her purse and pulled out the keys, unlocking the door and gesturing for Bolt to climb in. As soon as he sat down, she started the engine and took off, tires screeching as she flew down the mostly empty streets, trying to find her way toward the truck and Clark. They cut back up toward the street that the truck had been headed down, then turned, weaving in and out of the sparse traffic as she went along, drawing glares from those around her. As they crossed another street, she heard Bolt gasp. "There," he said, pointing down the street they had just crossed. In the distance, the red and white lights of the truck stood out prominently above the taxis and cars on the street.
"I see it," she answered, continuing to the next street, then whipping the car in the direction that the truck had been heading, cutting over a block at the next green light. Her foot hit the accelerator and they raced along, gaining ground, until finally they were practically on top of the truck. Only then did she allow herself to slow down and hang back a little.
Once they settled in at a comfortable distance behind the truck, she finally became aware of the fact that it was excruciatingly quiet in the car. She had turned the radio off when Clark had been sitting where Bolt was now, the music a distraction from conversations that were much more interesting. But there hadn't been any conversation since this strange hero had taken his place inside her car, and she was beginning to feel a bit uncomfortable. He fidgeted discreetly, making it plain that he was uncomfortable, as well. Surely they could talk about the weather, the news, something.
"It occurs to me that I never learned your name," Bolt said, mercifully breaking the silence. Lois glanced over at him, then turned back toward the road.
"I could say the same thing," she responded with a coy grin. Next to her, he smiled, far from annoyed at her little game.
"I'm Bolt," he answered, his voice serious, although there was a certain twinkle in his eyes as he said it. She knew that a mischievous side of him lurked beneath the sunglasses and helmet, although she hadn't seen it tonight, and she didn't need to ask why. Something like what happened at the Planet left little room for laughter. But a little humor helped to cure a lot of ills, and maybe he was letting a little of his playful side show now to try and chase away some of the darker emotions which surely must be almost overwhelming. Lois welcomed the distraction.
A corner of her mouth pulled up, and she glanced down at the helmet on the seat beside him. "Not at the moment, pal," she said, her eyes moving back toward him before returning again to the road.
"I guess not," he said, picking up the helmet and tossing it into the backseat. "I'm Kevin," he said, extending his right hand toward her.
"Lois," she answered, " although we've met before."
"Have we?" he asked, raising an eyebrow and withdrawing his hand from hers. He tilted his head to the side and regarded her for a moment.
"Well, last time I was standing out in a crowded street with a recorder in my hand, just about this close to you," she said, causing him to squint his eyes.
"Ohhhh," he said, wagging a finger at her. "Yeah, I remember you. Man, that seems like eons ago."
Lois let out a quick shot of breath. "Tell me about it."
He squinted at her again, trying valiantly not to sound too serious. "So you're a reporter, huh?" he asked, a fluctuation in his voice giving away the worry behind the question.
"I'm a college student," Lois answered quickly. "And, yeah, I work for the campus paper, but I'm a friend first." She turned toward him and met his eyes with hers for a long moment, hoping that her sincerity got through to him, before giving her attention to the road once again.
"So even though you write the news and have the inside scoop on two of the best stories that are out there right now, I shouldn't be worried," he continued, the statement framed like a question.
Lois shook her head and sighed. He had no way of knowing that she and Clark had already covered this ground, but she didn't feel the need to repeat the conversation, either. It was possibly worth pointing out that she would've already acted on what she knew if that was indeed what she intended, but she decided that there was a simpler explanation to it all. "Clark trusts me," she said softly. "I can tell you guys work together, that you talk about things. You know each other, you trust your identities to each other, because you both have a problem if your names get out. Well, now I have a stake in that, too." She smiled and shifted her hands on the wheel. "I want to be with him, I want to get to know him, I want to explore the connection that we have, but I'll never be able to do that if the world knows who he is. So trust me when I say that your secret is safe."
Beside her, Bolt smiled, his reddened cheeks telling her that maybe she'd said too much, but she couldn't regret it. Every word had been true, although a dark part of her wondered if she would be able to do all the things that she'd hoped. What if they failed tonight? What if they succeeded but Clark was somehow incapacitated by whatever those men were doing to him? She shook her head as she willed the negative thoughts to leave. They would succeed. Clark would come back to her, and he would be okay.
Bolt's eyes lingered on her for a moment, the silence settling over the car becoming uncomfortable yet again. Lois quickly turned on the radio, letting the soft tunes fill in the void and soothe away the tension. Bolt reached down and untied one of his shoes, wrenching it off and pulling something out from inside. She glanced over in time to see him slip what looked like a wallet into the back pocket of his jeans, then begin to put his footwear back on.
"So do you have someone waiting for you back in…?" she asked, trying to steer the conversation toward him.
"Kansas," he said, his eyebrow arching in surprise at the question.
"Kansas? You, too?" Lois asked, equally surprised. Who knew the Midwest would be the breeding ground for so many superheroes?
"Well, yeah, Clark and I got struck by the same bolt of lightning. Didn't he tell you that?" Bolt asked. Lois shook her head, although she was taken aback. She was under the impression that Clark was, well, not from around here. Judging from his conversation with Lana, he had possessed his powers for a long time, and they were the result of his alien heritage. Not that he looked alien. In fact, he seemed to be more of a man than most homosapien males that she knew. But Bolt… He hadn't given any real interviews yet, and he had never said where his powers came from, but given the name, it made sense that he thought they came from a bolt of lightning. But surely he knew that lightning, by itself, tended to kill people, not infuse them with powers. Maybe she'd have to ask Clark what had really happened.
Bolt shrugged. "Anyway, nobody back there even knows I'm here."
"No girlfriend?" Lois asked, trying to lighten up the atmosphere again.
Bolt let out a snort. "As much as I hate to admit it, even though Bolt the big famous hero seems to be fawned over, his alter ego is a big flop with the ladies."
"Really?" Lois asked, wondering how that could be. He wasn't bad looking, she supposed. And although she hardly knew him, he seemed personable, kind of funny, intelligent. Women went for that kind of man, didn't they?
"Yeah really. Until I got struck by lightning, I was a lot scrawnier. I'm not big into the social scene, and I much prefer a nice quiet evening at home to a wild night out. I also have this unhealthy comic book obsession that tends to make them run screaming." His smile was self- effacing, somewhat charming. She felt a pang of sympathy for him as she though about all the times before Clark came around that she had sworn she would've given anything to meet just one nice man. Not perfect, not even necessarily handsome, just nice. They were in short supply in Metropolis, that was for sure. Maybe in Kansas, though, there was more competition on the nice guy circuit.
"Well, now you're living the comic book superhero life. Maybe some day you'll find your Mary Jane Watson," she said, bringing an appreciative nod from him. Who knew her meager comic book knowledge would ever come in handy? The thought brought a smile to her face.
Lois's smile faded as she saw the fire marshall's truck pull next to the curb in front of them and stop in front of what looked to be a vacant storefront. Quickly, she went on past them, then pulled into a space further down the block. As the car came to a stop, she and Kevin both rose to their knees and strained to look out the back window. Clark was now being dragged out of the vehicle, carried as he was earlier toward the storefront and inside the building. One of the firefighters accompanying him held what looked to be a crystal, the mineral coloring the storefront in a green glow. Beside Lois, Bolt winced and rubbed at his muscles, the rock appearing to have an affect on him, even from half a block away.
"Are you okay?" Lois asked, looking between Bolt and the fireman.
"Just achy," Bolt replied. "It's that rock. It's the same color as what I saw in the Daily Planet building."
"And you won't be able to help me until we do something with it," Lois answered. After a moment, all the men had entered the building. The neighborhood they were in was somewhat rundown, certainly past its prime. In the preceding decades, it probably was a retail district of some sort, with small shops lining the streets and apartments in the buildings above. Now the buildings were falling into disrepair, the shops that were still open sporting thick black bars over the windows. Nobody who was smart would be caught in that neighborhood alone after dark. And that gave Lois an idea.
"We need to get some help," she said, then lowered herself into the driver's seat and started the car once again.
"Wait, you're not leaving him there?" Bolt asked, gesturing to the storefront as Lois pulled the car back onto the street.
"We'll be back. But we can't do this alone, and I know just who to turn to for help." Lois just hoped that their source of help still cared enough for Clark to agree.
When the darkness and searing pain began to fade away, Clark found himself standing in the middle of a vast, open field, the wheat that surrounded him to infinity in each direction rustling gently in the wind. Above him, the sky was a pristine, almost supernatural blue, the bright sun shining its warm golden rays onto the countryside. Clark closed his eyes and took a breath, smiling as the sweet smell of grain tickled his nose, bringing back old, happy memories. As he opened his eyes again, the scene seemed to change, and now a farmhouse sat out on the horizon, a house that was achingly familiar.
In a flash, he zipped through the fields of grain, coming to a stop as his feet met the gravel road leading into the farmstead. The house seemed to have been freshly painted, the fences pulled tight, the barn once again standing tall. The grass was a healthy green, almost too green, without a weed to be seen. Above it all stood a majestic tree, casting the whole yard into a moving shadow, one that danced with the wind. He almost couldn't believe the transformation that had taken place to this farm, the same one that had been so well worn when he had wallowed over it only a few weeks earlier.
It was hard to know what to feel as he drank in the details of the farmstead. He knew that this was no longer his home, but the sadness that inevitably welled up every time he visited this place from afar seemed far away today. In fact, a part of him was nudging him on, telling him to walk right up to the porch and into the door. But surely he couldn't do that. There was another family that lived there now, probably another kid sleeping in the same room that he had as a boy, another kid who was climbing the same trees and running barefoot over the same patches of grass. But as he watched, the door of the house swung open, and it wasn't another family that he saw emerging from the house. Instead, he saw his mother, clad in a cotton dress, a dirty apron slung over the front.
"Mom," he whispered, the word barely audible to even his sensitive ears. Several hundred feet away, his mother's face turned toward him at the sound, and she raised her arm in greeting, a smile forming on her face right away.
He raised his arm in return, then began to walk toward the house. His steps were slow and steady at first, then picked up speed until finally he was running, the world becoming a blur around him. When he came to a stop, he was at the foot of the wooden stairs leading onto the porch, his mother only an arm's length away. "Mom, is that really you?" he asked, his voice choked with emotion.
"Why wouldn't it be, honey?" she asked, her smile the same as he remembered. Clark opened his mouth, wanting to tell her that she had passed away, of course, but as he looked around, he wondered if maybe that wasn't some sort of distant nightmare. If she was here, she couldn't be dead, could she?
Clark shook his head and smiled, then walked up the stairs, stopping in front of her and gathering her into a hug, one that was gladly returned. "I don't know, Mom. It's just, I have the strangest feeling…"
"Shhh," his mother said, her hand coming up to cradle the back of his head, just as it always had when he had been upset in the past. He closed his eyes and let himself enjoy the feel of her in his arms, the scent of her perfume, the warmth of her embrace. The smell of granny smiths and cinnamon seemed to drift by on the breeze at that moment, causing his eyes to snap open. "Mom, is that…?"
"Apple pie. Made fresh this afternoon. Would you like a slice?"
Clark straightened up and nodded vehemently, his stomach rumbling at the thought. His mother laughed and led him into the house. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust as he entered the interior, but what he saw was a home that was exactly the same as he remembered it, down to the well- worn recliner and old console television set. The pictures on the wall, snapshots of barely known relatives and still- life paintings bought at the furniture store in town, hadn't changed a bit, although their colors seemed oddly distorted, the reds too red and the blues too blue, as if they were trapped in a mal-adjusted color television. The floorboards creaked under their feet, making sounds in all the same places that he had remembered.
As they entered the kitchen, Clark could see his father sitting at one of the chairs, a newspaper lying on the table in front of him. "Hello, boy," Jonathan said, looking up from the paper and regarding Clark with a smile. "We weren't expecting you today."
"You weren't?" Clark said, settling into a kitchen chair and looking toward his father, who was exactly as he remembered. He had the same strong, loving arms, the same rough farmer's hands, the same smile, the same mischievous twinkle in his eyes.
"You're not supposed to be here until years from now," Martha said, reaching into a cupboard for a plate. When she turned toward him, there was concern on her face. Clark looked back toward his father and saw the same concern on his face, as well.
"But I'm home, aren't I?" he asked, giving them both a smile, suddenly eager.
Jonathan's grin was sad, and as his hand reached out to clap Clark's arm, he got the feeling that something was wrong, that something here was not as it seemed.
"Yes, son, you're home. But you have so much to do for the world before you can stay," he said.
Clark looked back toward his mother, who was dishing up the pie. "I don't understand," he said as the pastry was set on the table in front of him. His mother gave him a sympathetic glance, then went to retrieve something from the counter. When she returned, a small hand mirror was placed on the table in front of him. Confused, Clark picked it up, and was shocked as he saw the face of an old man looking back at him. The hair was white, the skin no longer taut, although the eyes were his eyes, the same eyes that had always looked back at him.
"You're going to bring hope to the world, Clark," Jonathan continued, his hand still firmly clasped onto Clark's arm. "The people you save will go on to do wonderful things, their lives dedicated to living up to the second chances that they have been given. Yours will be a legacy of true heroism, of goodness and strength of character, and ultimately of love. The children you bring into the world will carry that legacy to future generations. You will do many things before you can come home. But you have barely just begun."
Clark looked between his parents as the mirror slowly dropped to the table with a dull thud, his father's words weighing heavily on him. How could he do all these things? He was just a 21-year-old college student, someone who had yet to truly establish himself in the world, someone who certainly couldn't be everything that his father had said. Yet, he had saved lives. Or, more precisely, Superman had. Was that what this was about?
"Yes, in part," his mother said in answer to his thoughts. His head snapped toward her, and his jaw fell. "Superman can do many of those things, but he would be nothing without the man behind the hero. Superman is who he is because of you, Clark."
"But he could've been more," Clark said, dropping his eyes back toward the table. "If it wasn't for Bolt, he might not have been at all."
His parents both smiled at him, their gazes filled with love, and with pride. "You can't dwell on what could've been. You only have control over what is, and what will be," Martha said. Clark avoided her eyes, picking up his fork and taking a bite of the pie. "But none of it will be, unless you go back."
Clark savored the sweet taste unleashed in his mouth, thinking that it was even better than he could remember. As he swallowed, he closed his eyes tightly, his hand clenching into a fist around the fork. "I've missed you both so much," he said, his throat tight with emotion. "I spent so many years feeling unwanted and unloved. All I wanted was to be able to come back, to have a slice of pie and talk, and to remember just what it felt like to be loved, to be accepted. Now I have that, and I don't know if I can give it up again."
His mother's hand softly cupped his shoulder, her voice now coming from behind him. "You don't need us, honey. There's someone else out there who loves you and accepts you, too."
His eyes popped open. "Lois?" he said, her face materializing in his vision. It was strange, but he had completely forgotten about her until that very moment. He smiled at the thought of her and the brief time that they had spent together.
"She needs you, Clark," his father said, and Clark's vision began to swim as the tears sprang to his eyes. If staying here meant never seeing Lois again, then he wasn't sure he could do that. He brought his eyes up and looked out the window, toward the yard outside and the fields beyond. He was home, but it was the home of his past. Somewhere out there, his future waited for him. It wasn't fair to either Lois or himself to dwell on the past, to hold onto something that was long gone, something that couldn't be anymore. The hand left his shoulder as his decision was made, and he was aware of the smiles from his parents, who were content to watch him and make small talk while he finished his pie.
The sun still hung high in the sky as he exited the farmhouse and set out across the fields, making his way toward a distant ridge, away from civilization, away from his past. He closed his eyes and turned his face toward the sky, his arms extending to either side. The face of Lois rose in his vision, and he smiled, letting it all slip away, until he was enveloped in darkness once again.
The sweet nothingness of sleep still embraced Lana as she became aware of a persistent knocking sound. At first it seemed far away, but as she pulled further out of her sleep, it grew louder and more demanding. She could distinctly hear the catch of the door rattling against the frame, the pictures on her apartment wall starting to clatter in rhythm. A moan escaped her lips as she slipped out of bed and grabbed her robe, shuffling out of her room and toward the door. The fog of sleep still clung to her as she wandered down the hall in the darkness, wondering vaguely why someone would be knocking on the door at…what time was it, exactly? She squinted as she passed the kitchen, just making out the time displayed on the microwave. It was one in the morning. The thought chased some of the cobwebs away, and her newly active mind began to think of plans of revenge for whoever it was that dragged her out of her sleep.
She finally flipped on the light switch as she reached the apartment door, her eyes involuntarily squeezing tightly shut at the sudden brightness. She blinked a few times and let them adjust before leaning in toward the eyehole, trying to see who was tormenting her from the hallway. Between her tired eyes and the poorly installed peep hole, all she could see were the blurry upper torsos of two people crowded rather closely toward the door. Her hand came up and rubbed at her eyes, hoping to clear up the scene a little, but not having much success. "Who is it?" she finally asked as she straightened up, the words coming out as a rasp. Her hand hovered over the deadbolt as she waited for a response.
"Lana? Please, let us in," said the person on the other side. The voice seemed oddly familiar, although her still half-asleep brain was having trouble putting a face with the voice.
"But who ARE you?" she asked. There was a pause on the other side, and Lana leaned over and looked through the eyehole again. Now the person on the other side had taken a step away from the door, causing her whole form to come into focus. Lana's eyes went wide all of a sudden as she remembered who this woman was.
"It's Lois Lane. Lana, please, you have to let me in. Clark's in trouble."
Lana snorted and took a step away from the door. All the haze of sleep was instantly gone as anger began to course through her entire being. Lois Lane, yes, the reporter at the campus paper. She was the one who had driven the final wedge between Lana and Clark, the woman who had encouraged him to become that…that…superhero. Because of this Lane woman, Clark was now exploiting himself to the news media, flaunting his powers to anyone who could see. She didn't even recognize him anymore, thanks to Lane. And now she had the gall to come here and tell some tale about Clark being in trouble? "Clark can take care of himself," Lana said, taking one more step back.
"No, he can't," answered the Lane woman. Lana shook her head, incredulous. "Please, open the door. I don't want to talk about this in the hallway," Lois continued.
Lana looked at the door, took one step toward her room, then stopped herself. If she ignored Lois and this other person, they would just keep pestering her. On the other hand, this gave her a golden opportunity to give Lois a piece of her mind, something she'd wanted to do since that night in the restaurant, and then tell her to leave in no uncertain terms. Impulsively, she reached out and undid the deadbolt, then slid the chain off and cracked open the door. The light from the hallway had no sooner cast its pale glow across the carpeting before there was a sudden burst of pressure against the door, and Lana was stumbling backward, relinquishing her grasp. The door instantly swung all the way open without any resistance, banging loudly against the wall and then hanging loosely on its hinges. Staggering into the apartment in the wake was Lois Lane, with a strange young man closely behind. Lana regained her balance and lunged back, grabbing hold of the door and trying to force it closed, but the two were already too far inside. After a moment, she stopped, knowing it was a lost cause. What had been harmless anger before had morphed into full-blown rage, and the room seemed tinted red as she locked eyes with the intruders.
"Just what do you think you're doing? And why are you here?" Lana asked through clenched teeth. This Lane woman was dressed up like a cat burglar, with black pants and a black shirt, and her hair gathered back into a ponytail. Lana half expected her to take out a burlap sack and start loading up the knick knacks and electronics. The man next to her was clad in a tight white t-shirt, showing off a rather impressive chest and shoulder region. His jaw was clenched shut defiantly, although his eyes seemed drawn toward Lana's newly dyed hair.
"I told you, Clark's in trouble. We need your help," Lois said, her face straight, even though it had to be a joke.
Lana moved infinitesimally toward the phone, mentally reviewing which speed dial button would connect her with the Metropolis Police Department. She didn't know what Lois was planning to do, what her real motivation for being there that night was, but the fact was that she was standing in her living room, dressed like a criminal, and it couldn't be because she was wanting to sell her magazine subscriptions. The two of them, Lois and the hired muscle, were up to something, possibly involving abduction, certainly involving humiliation, and Lana would not give them the satisfaction of succeeding. There was nothing Lois could say that would sway Lana, and if the block of muscle next to her so much as tried to lay a hand on her, well, the scream would be heard in the next borough. "And I told you, Clark can take care of himself," Lana answered.
"Not this time," Lois said. "Something happened tonight, at the Planet."
Lana held out her hands and shrugged, playing along, biding her time. The fact that Lois mentioned the Planet, presumably the Daily Planet, almost made her want to snicker. Of course Clark would be at the Daily Planet—he had always fantasized about working there, hadn't he? Nice try.
"What, do you live in a cave?" Lois mumbled, the words barely intelligible.
"Excuse me?" Lana said, taking a step toward Lois, barely resisting the urge to reach out and grab that black shirt, knowing that the man would probably wrench her away and inflict pain at the first contact.
"There was a bomb blast tonight at the Daily Planet. Surely you heard about it," Lois said, one eyebrow arching.
"A buh… What?" Lana said, suddenly not so sure that this was a set-up. It was pretty hard to fake a bomb blast, especially in Metropolis. Of course, she hadn't heard of it, but she'd also gone to bed early and actively tried to avoid most news reports since the christening of Superman.
"Not a buh, a bomb," the man chimed in, one finger in the air. Lois snorted and smiled tightly, turning toward him and giving him some look or another before turning back toward Lana again, her lips pulled tightly, apparently trying to resist the urge to laugh. This did not endear either of them to Lana.
"There was an explosion this evening at the Daily Planet. Clark went there to help. Do you understand?" Lois asked, and Lana nodded cautiously while walking over to the television and turning it on. There, on the screen, was a scene of devastation where the Daily Planet had been the day before. Lois was telling the truth, then. Clark, the big, pompous superhero had responded, and he had gotten his comeuppance. "Something happened," Lois continued. "Clark was kidnapped. We followed the kidnappers to where they took him, and we need your help to get him back."
Lana nodded, then realized that they were talking about Clark in superhero terms in front of this strange, albeit strangely familiar, man. If he wasn't hired muscle for some sort of prank, then Lana couldn't even fathom why he was there or what he knew about the situation. But it occurred to her that he probably had something to do with it. "But how could anyone kidnap Clark? And who is HE?" she asked, pointing to the man.
"This is Kevin, and he and Clark work together," Lois said slowly, both eyebrows now arched, apparently waiting for Lana to get her cryptic clue. Okay, they work together. But how? Clark didn't have a job a couple of weeks ago. And he couldn't have gotten one since, because he seemed to spend all his time flying around with…
Lana's eyes got wide as she stared at the man once again. "Oh, my God. You're…you're…" she pointed at him again, stammering, then dropped her arm and stared daggers at him.
"Bolt," Lois continued with a nod. "And he saw Clark become incapacitated by a green rock."
Lana gaped at Lois. A green rock? Who gets hurt by a green rock, unless it's somehow bashed over their head? That was the cheesiest thing she'd ever heard, and suddenly the feeling was back that this was somehow all a hoax. But as she looked at the man who purported to be Bolt, she realized that she could see the resemblance. It was vague, yes, especially since he was out of costume, and she probably wouldn't have noticed it if they hadn't told her. But the mouth was the same, and so was the way he carried himself. Her eyes narrowed as she realized once and for all that he was finally within her grasp, the man that she had wanted to vent to for about two weeks now. "I have a bone to pick with you, mister," she said to him, fully expecting to launch into a rant, but before she could say another word, she was being interrupted.
"Save it for some other time," Lois said, folding her arms across her chest. "Every minute we stand here arguing is one we could be spending rescuing Clark."
That was possibly the first time that Lana could remember being cut off before she ever got a chance to say a word. Her narrowed eyes shifted toward Lois, who appeared to be awfully smug for someone who was trying to coerce Lana's help. Not only had this woman who lead the exploitation of Clark Kent barged into her apartment, she was accompanied by the man who started the whole Superhero craze, and she was presuming to give orders. For that alone Lana should go tell them both to take a long walk off a short pier.
"He's a big shot hero. Why can't he go rescue Clark?" Lana said, nodding toward Bolt.
"Because that stuff affects me, too," Bolt, or Kevin, or whatever he called himself, said.
"What if I said that I didn't believe you?" Lana asked, the combativeness that she had been carefully controlling now creeping into her voice.
Lois moved forward, stopping mere inches from Lana, her eyes burning. "You can go to town testing how completely vulnerable and un-super he is, or we can do something to save Clark. It's entirely up to you. But please, if you ever cared for him at all, then come with us. If not, we'll leave you alone forever and get someone else to help, someone who may not be familiar with who and what he is, at least not until we tell them on the way."
Steady puffs of hot breath licked at Lana's face as their eyes locked together. Beneath all the consternation and harsh words, Lois was silently pleading with her. It was hard to tell what to make of the situation, although Lana had no doubt that Lois would follow through on her words, that she would drag some complete stranger into the equation to help with the rescue and tell him everything about Clark, whether to be spiteful or just to explain his attire. A part of her said that maybe that's what Clark got for becoming Superman, but somewhere deep down inside was a spark of that old protectiveness, and of the feelings that she held for him once upon a time.
Moments dragged into minutes as neither Lois nor Lana said anything. Finally, Lois pulled away, her eye contact breaking so rapidly that Lana had to blink to reorient herself with her new view. "Let's go. This was obviously a waste of time," Lois said, gesturing toward Bolt and heading toward the door.
"Wait," Lana said, spinning around, halting Lois as her hand landed on the doorknob. "Is he really hurt somewhere? I mean, this isn't a hoax of some sort, is it?" she asked weakly. But she needed to hear the truth, presented as plainly and straightforward as possible.
Bolt approached her, and for the first time, she noticed the grime standing out against his white shirt. Most of it, the dust and the smudges and occasional drop of blood, was laid out in a regular pattern, as if filtered through a porous fabric, like a hockey jersey. Yes, he was who he said he was. But there were fresh bruises on his arms, small scratches on his hands, the types of marks that could only be found on someone lacking the invulnerability that Bolt possessed. "Yes, he is. And we're asking you to trust us on this, but believe me when I say that we sincerely need you. Clark needs you." His hand cupped the terrycloth robe draped over her shoulder, the gesture comforting. His eyes were soft, honest. You just didn't see honesty like that around Metropolis.
"Okay," she said without realizing it, the spell she was under magically fading away as he removed his hand. She stared at him for a moment in surprise, then glanced at Lois before shuffling to her room to change. Clark might be willful, Clark might be alien, but that didn't mean that she ever wanted to see him experience all the things that she had always known he'd experience if anyone ever found out about him. Nobody deserved that. But she would be sure to let him know how he could avoid situations like that in the future. And, boy, would he owe her big.
The great confrontation now over with and their interim mission accomplished, Kevin found himself back in the front seat of Lois's car, the cityscape rapidly passing by the windows as they raced toward Clark. He knew he should be thinking strategy, he knew he should be mentally practicing the self defense moves he'd learned at stadium usher training, but he found himself distracted. Green hair. Lois had said that this Lana person had once been Clark's girlfriend, and that she was a little on the weird side when it came to fashion. Kevin had envisioned many things at that statement, mostly containing various combinations of polyester clothing, but green hair had never even entered into his mind. People just didn't do that where he was from. And Clark, a Kansas native and seemingly conservative person, had dated her. Kevin had always envisioned him as having better taste than that.
Kevin still hadn't seen enough of the big city to determine if something like green hair was the norm in a place like this. Somehow, though, he imagined that people didn't generally look twice when someone like her walked down the street. He had taken a tour of duty through the inner cities, he had been through a place that resembled a war zone, he had hobnobbed with the elite in the city, and he still couldn't figure this place out, couldn't get a grasp on it. Just when he thought he had, someone would come with a glowing rock and try to abduct him, or he'd get a glimpse of something that was truly strange, at least by normal standards, and be told that there was nothing strange about it. It all made him want to leave Metropolis as quickly as possible and go back to his corner of the world, where a cigar was still a cigar and people still made sense. But home was a very, very long way from this place, especially for a normal, earthbound human being with all of six dollars in his wallet. Just the thought of what was next, what happened after they got Clark safely away from the firemen, was scary. Could he call home and bum some money off of his parents? If he did, what would he tell them he was in Metropolis for?
Kevin sighed, his eyes turning skyward, toward the orange-tinted darkness above the buildings. There were no stars visible from the middle of the city. If he rolled down the windows and stilled, there would be no soft chirping of crickets, no hums of the locusts, probably only the sounds of traffic and humanity. From high above, though, he was sure that the stars would begin to stand out as the brightness of the city was left far below. Up there, there would be no sounds except for the wind rushing against him, his loose clothing fluttering gently in the breeze. As he leaned his head against the window and blinked at the passing streetlights, he realized that he missed it already. The flying, the freedom, the way his senses could reach out and let him experience the world even from high above. The thought of a lifetime without it was downright depressing. With the powers, he was a complete person. Without them, he just didn't know who he was anymore, ironic for someone who would be giving up having dual identities.
"Okay, gang, let's go over the plan," Lois said, drawing his eyes away from the heavens. His head still leaned against the glass as he diverted his gaze toward Lois. They had stopped at her apartment before picking up Lana, mostly because she needed to locate the ex- girlfriend's address, but they had used the occasion to gather some things together. Lois had quickly rooted through her closets, tossing items onto the carpet, gesturing for Kevin to gather them together. He didn't need to ask what most of them were for, because most only really had one possible use on a night like tonight. She had changed while he had lugged the items down to her car, unceremoniously dumping them into the trunk.
"Oh, you do have a plan, then," Lana said from the back seat, her tone dripping with sarcasm. Kevin caught Lois's eyes narrowing, and a small smile crept onto his face as he watched the interplay between the past and present girlfriends of the second most famous superhero in America.
Lois continued without responding to the jab. "The first thing we need to do is get rid of the green rock, because those men have nothing to subdue either Clark or Kevin without it. But since Kevin can't go near that stuff, it's up to us girls to take care of it."
Kevin sat up in his seat. "What do you plan to do with it? Is that what the safe is for?" he asked.
Lois nodded. "I figure that it could be affecting you in one of two ways. It's either giving off some sort of noxious fumes or radiation. Whatever it is, it didn't seem to affect the firemen, and that means only you guys respond to it. So I brought a ziplock bag and my lead-lined fireproof safe that we can put it into."
"So, what, they're just going to give it to us, then?" Lana asked, causing Lois to emit a sigh that sounded suspiciously like a hiss.
"No, see, this is where the plan comes in," Lois responded, her tone that of an adult speaking to a small child. Kevin perked up a little more as the war of words seemed to pick up. He didn't know whether to be entertained, worried, or both. Either way, Lois made no attempt to look toward the back seat as she continued, her eyes moving between the road and Kevin, seemingly talking to him alone. "What we need to do is draw the men away from Clark and the rock. You're going to need to create a distraction outside and then take care of them while we do our jobs."
"What kind of distraction?" Kevin asked. Lois's smile was mischievous, and suddenly it was very clear to him what Clark saw in this woman.
"The neighborhood doesn't look like the safest one in Metropolis, at least judging by the bars on the windows. We scope the building for security devices or cameras, then wave at them while bashing in the windows of their truck with the aluminum bat in the trunk." Lois raised her eyebrows and met his eyes with her own, and he couldn't help but smile in response. Even if he was a superhero in his past life and dedicated himself to serving and protecting and upholding truth and justice and all that stuff, a little bit of mischief for a good cause was something that he could definitely do with some gusto.
In the back seat, Lana scoffed audibly. "Vandalism?" she said. "Do we have to resort to that?"
"It'll definitely draw them out," Kevin answered with a nod. "I don't know what else we can do without getting overly elaborate."
"Won't it just make them mad?" Lana asked, and Kevin had to admit she had a point. But the simple fact that they were trying to take Clark back to begin with would make them mad.
"They're already mad," Lois muttered, then flexed her hands on the steering wheel before continuing in a normal voice. "Anyway, while he's wrecking their car, Lana and I will position ourselves at the doors so we can take them out as they exit the building to stop him. If they don't want to come out right away, we go in." Lois reached into the pocket of her pants and pulled out what looked like a nail file. She was going to pick the lock, Kevin thought, giving Lois an appreciative nod. "I've got plenty of rope to tie them up with, too. Once they're all subdued, we get the rock, root around for something incriminating, call the cops, and get out of there before anyone asks any questions."
"Something incriminating?" Lana asked, the smugness now gone. "We're sneaking Clark out of there so that nobody knows that he was ever there to begin with. As far as the world knows, Superman wasn't kidnapped, so you can't exactly go with the obvious."
"No, we can't," Lois answered matter-of-factly. "But chances are that this isn't the first thing they've done outside the law. The criminal mastermind hardly starts with kidnapping a superhero. So we see what we can find, talk to our hosts if we have to, but believe me, I don't intend to let these guys get off."
"What if they have weapons?" Kevin asked, trying to block out the mental image of a gun being pointed at Lois. That would certainly put a crimp in things, although he doubted it would stop her in her mission.
Lois shrugged in response. Any hint of a smile fell from her face, and a shadow seemed to come across her eyes. He had caught a glimpse of her humorous side, had seen her focused, angry, and driven. But now she was something else, her intensity almost scary. "We either get Clark out of there, or we don't get him back at all," she said, her voice soft yet forceful, the words full of fierce conviction. "If we fail, God only knows what they'll do to him, and even if I have to stare down the barrel of a gun, I'm not going to leave without him. If they have weapons, then they have weapons, but we have the power of conviction on our side, and the knowledge that we're doing what is right. This may be a world where sometimes the bad guy wins, but not tonight, not if I can help it."
The whole car grew quiet, nobody really needing to say anything after such a statement. Even Lana, the green- haired and possibly green-eyed ex-girlfriend, wouldn't dare say anything negative in response. Kevin was relatively certain that Lois would wrench Clark away from the bad guys or die trying, either conviction or love or both driving her to that mindset. It was humbling to think that there were people out there still willing to do something like that. Would he be willing to go that far? He didn't know, but he supposed, when the time came, he would find out.
The rest of the ride passed in silence, Kevin's eyes firmly focused on the road ahead, his thoughts now far away from the sky and the stars and the sweet simplicity of life in middle America. Issues of identity and of abilities lost were also a distant memory, and there was only pure conviction now. They would get Clark out of there, no matter what, and they would do it because none of them in the car, not even the bristly ex, were willing to give up on their friend. By the end of the night, this would be a car full of heroes.
Ted chomped on his cigar as he leaned against the large round table. Closing his eyes, he took a long, deep breath, savoring the rich aroma of the smoke before slowly, deliberately exhaling. As he opened his eyes, his gaze landed on their visitor, slouched into one of the nearby chairs, his form now clouded in a smoky haze, his face bathed in the sickly green glow of the meteorite. The man's skin had grown extremely pale since arriving almost an hour earlier, his ashen complexion now ironically the same hue as was generally used to describe aliens by the uninformed masses of the world. If only they knew, Ted thought with a smile, propping himself up and sauntering slowly toward the man who had referred to himself as Superman.
The mission that night had been accomplished with stunning and very pleasing results. The Daily Planet, champion of the aliens, had been their intended target, the blast gutting the building and, with it, the newspaper and all its self-righteous arrogance. Several reporters had fallen victim to the bomb, some of which were prominent in covering the so-called heroes, although others were mere sacrifices to the cause. Of course, the aliens had arrived immediately, both working in concert to try and undo what had been done so effectively, the sheep-like masses looking on in adoration the whole time. Blending into the crowd of paramedics and firefighters, all left with almost nothing to do, all with their eyes seemingly affixed to the sky, had been amazingly easy. And when the time had come to enter the ruined husk of the building and subdue the invaders, the rock had worked just as predicted. Unfortunately, one of the pair was able to escape, but none of them had been concerned. The one who escaped had been injured, and he wouldn't be able to get very far. Either the teeming masses who adored him so much would stop him from leaving the scene, or he would hide somewhere until he was able to escape safely without notice. In either case, he wouldn't be able to stop them from carting away the other one, and from doing with him whatever they pleased. So far, that had amounted to mere observation, but the time would come, and soon, that it would be so much more than that.
This so-called Superman had been anything but as he conveniently passed out immediately upon being exposed to the poisonous rock, staying unconscious while in its presence. The pallor of his skin had gradually turned more and more sickly, his breathing growing shallow, a thin layer of sweat forming over his whole body, all while bathed in the green glow, all while under Ted's watchful eye. He was dying, slowly but surely, the rock taking his life away from him in a way that was truly impressive to behold. One of the most powerful men in the world was now at the mercy of a mere mortal, his strength reduced to a distant memory, his life very much on the line. With a few more minutes of exposure, Superman would only ever be mentioned in the past tense, his legacy nothing but a few headlines, spectacular but quickly forgotten. That wouldn't necessarily be an unacceptable conclusion to the operation, Ted supposed, but he had hoped that they would at least be able to talk to him first. How many more were there? What were his ultimate plans? Seeing this man awake and aware of what was happening, the terror in his eyes as he realized that he no longer controlled his own fate, that would truly be worth all the work.
Ted leaned over and picked up the green rock, examining it, thinking. "Ron," he said, his eyes never leaving the green crystal in his hand. It looked for all the world like some sort of movie prop, the perfect facets a rich, clear green. But it wasn't a prop, it wasn't some piece of carnival glass or some perfectly formed emerald. Careful analysis had shown this rock came from somewhere else, some other planet that possessed minerals and elements completely different from those found on Earth. Most objects that descended from the heavens, ones that had withstood the barrage of debris in deep space and the friction of reentry, had the smooth, oblong shape of a potato. Not this remarkable mineral. He could imagine the flames licking at the squared off edges as it hurtled through the stratosphere, mother nature trying its best to beat it into conformity, but the crystal staunchly refusing. In his mind's eye, he could also see a small metallic ship hurtling through space behind the crystal, the same ship that occupied a shelf above the filing cabinets, the symbol on its front the same as that on the shirt this Superman now wore.
"Yes, sir?" a voice said, drawing Ted's eyes away from the rock. In front of him was one of the men, one they had recruited from the ranks of the Metropolis Police Department for just such a mission as tonight. Ted smiled, placing the rock into his pocket. Away from the effects of the radiation, the alien would gradually come back to consciousness, weakened but aware. And he would be greeted with the most delicious type of horror, with pain, and with the cold feeling of steel on flesh.
"I think it's time that we commence our physical examination of the specimen. It's obvious that he won't be saying anything for quite some time."
The other man nodded, a half smile working its way onto his face. Without a word, he turned on his heel, heading toward one of the cabinets to retrieve the necessary supplies.
Ted turned back toward their guest, then walked slowly behind him, taking another long drag from his cigar. He came to a stop after completing the circle and leaned in, putting his hand on the man's forehead and gently tilting his head backward. Even up close, all the facial features were that of a man. The feel of his skin, although now somewhat clammy, was no different than that of a human. Ted's hand disengaged from the hero's face, and he reached down and grasped one of the hands lying limply in the man's lap. There were five fingers, jointed normally, each with a neatly cut fingernail. On the reverse side, the skin was contoured in lines and swirls, making a distinctive fingerprint pattern; unique, no doubt, but not readily discernable as being from someone not of Earth. This alien could probably blend in with any crowd, probably lived in a normal city somewhere, his neighbors totally unaware of his true nature.
A tray of instruments was now being set on the table, their cold, polished steel reflecting the dull light from the single bulb clinging to the ceiling above. Ted dropped the hand and reached for a large, empty syringe that lay prominently on the tray. He regarded it for a moment, then turned, intending to jab it into the crook of the alien's arm and draw a blood sample, but his action was halted by a loud crashing sound from outside.
Ted muttered an expletive as he looked toward the wall of the room, taking the cigar from his mouth and clutching it absently in his hand. Instantly, the other two members of the team were by his side, the group all staring intently toward the same location. Another loud sound came, this time the dull thwack of metal on metal.
"Some bastard neighborhood kid, I bet," one of the men muttered, shaking his head.
"Take care of it," Ted said, the impatience clear in his voice. "We don't need this kind of interruption."
The man nodded once, then stalked toward the side door, grabbing his firemen's axe as he exited. Ted turned back toward his specimen, confident that there would be no further interruptions, but again stopped, this time at the sound of a yelp and the clatter of metal on concrete. The remaining two men looked at each other, then rushed toward the door, each grabbing a blunt object on his way out.
Ted debated returning to his work, but when the men didn't immediately return, he deposited his cigar in an oversized ashtray and sauntered over toward another filing cabinet, opening the top drawer slowly and drawing out the handgun from inside. When they had first moved into this office, the riffraff of the neighborhood had been a problem, always harassing the men as they came to work, always vandalizing personal property and the office itself. The doors were thick enough that nobody had been able to break in, thankfully, but Ted had decided back then not to take his chances. As soon as he started brandishing a weapon and making it clear to the neighborhood punks that he wasn't afraid to use it, they had been left alone, at least until now. It seemed as if it were time for some reeducation. He slid open the chamber of the gun, confirming that there was a bullet present, then unlocked the safety and walked slowly toward the door.
The dark shadows concealed the landscape of the alley. Memory told him where the dumpster was, where the walls jutted out unexpectedly, and where the concrete pavement had popped out and formed ankle-twisting potholes. Beyond the alley, the streetlights cast an orange glow on the street, and as he angled away from the building, Ted could clearly see the truck they arrived in, now missing a window, craters formed in several places along the metal exterior. Standing next to the automobile, proudly admiring his work, was a punk kid with a baseball bat slung over his shoulder. Calmly, Ted raised the gun, squeezing shut one eye as he looked down the barrel, setting his aim. As his finger tensed over the trigger, there was movement from the darkness beside him.
The shot was deafening, the vandal on the street falling to the ground with a grunt, the bat clattering out of his hands and onto the ground. At the same time, Ted found himself stumbling sideways, the gun knocked from his hand. Someone had struck him in the upper body, and as he recovered his wits, another blow came, this one taking out his legs. As he fell, he had just enough time to remember the door behind him, the one that even now stood wide open, revealing his prize specimen to the unwanted guests. But his thoughts ceased as his head struck the pavement, his whole world falling into blackness.
Lois was panting heavily as she leaned over the man who had just collapsed onto the pavement, his head hitting the alley floor with a sickening thud. The gray steel of the gun glinted from the ground beside him, no longer a threat, although that hadn't been the case mere moments earlier. The first three men out the door had been relatively easy to subdue, the dark alley nicely concealing Lois and Lana until they had the opportunity to strike. Lois was well-versed in self defense, and never doubted her own ability to take out these men, all of whom were much larger than she was. She had wondered if Lana would be much help in that department, but had been pleasantly surprised to see that there had been some power to her blows. Between the two of them, none of the men had so much as flinched before being knocked out, Kevin happily continuing his car bashing as they went about their work. Lois knew that there was still one more man waiting for them, but she had sent Lana to tie up the other men in the shadows further down the alley while she patiently hid within sight of the door, waiting, anticipating. But in all her anticipation, she had never imagined that the final man would come out armed with a gun.
Axes and baseball bats, the weapons of choice for the other men, required proximity to be effective. None had gotten close enough to their target to use their weapons, and that was part of the plan. At first, the fourth man had appeared unarmed, but as his arm was raised and the steel caught the reflection of the streetlights, Lois had grown cold with fear. Then she had reacted, fueled by pure adrenaline. All her carefully coached control was gone as she lunged at him, hoping she would be able to prevent what would be certain disaster, but it had been a split second too late. Kevin had collapsed on the street outside even while Lois delivered the knockout blows, the sound of the gunshot still echoing off the high brick walls, barely masking the heavy thud of her heart in her chest. After a few moments, all was still again, and the man lay unconscious in front of her, subdued for the time being, but what had the price been for doing so too late? She straightened up and backed away from the man, intending to head toward the street and her wounded companion. But her movement was stilled as her eyes caught sight of the open door, and the crumpled form of Clark inside, alone, bathed in a hazy incandescent glow.
A whimper escaped her lips as she stared at him, unable to move. He looked like death warmed over, his skin a sickly pale, his normally carefully coiffed hair disheveled and matted. But even through the obvious distress that his body was broadcasting, his face looked oddly at peace, his features still as soft and angelic as she remembered, his lips curling up slightly as if set into a small, private smile. Her heart screamed out at her to run to him, to ease away all his pain, but her better judgment kept her where she was. First things first, Lois told herself, closing her eyes, clenching and unclenching her fists rapidly, trying to squelch the conflicting desires that she was feeling. Kevin was out in the street, the victim of a gunshot wound, his condition possibly critical. Clark wasn't in any danger at the moment, not anymore, not with those men out of the way. His shallow breathing said that he was alive.
She pushed the lingering image of Clark out of her mind as she turned away from the building and opened her eyes again. The first thing she saw as she refocused on the scene before her was Lana, who had finished hog-tying the first three men from the building, approaching the man who had fired the gun. As Lana knelt down beside him, her gaze seemed to find the gun lying beside him. With one eyebrow cocked and a curious expression on her face, she gingerly reached out for it.
"Wait!" Lois said, causing Lana's arm to still, her fingers mere inches from the glistening steel. Lana turned toward Lois, a question written on her face. "That gun has his fingerprints on it. He fired it off outside, and I'm sure half the neighborhood heard. That should catch the interest of the police."
Lana nodded, then pulled her arm back. Lois breathed a sigh of relief, but it occurred to her that maybe it was a good idea to at least get the gun out of reach of the man, should he regain his senses before they were able to tie him up. Lana got to work with the last remaining length of rope, and Lois reached into her pocket, pulling out a tissue. Carefully, she reset the gun's safety, then used the tissue to pick it up and set it inside the door, out of sight and out of mind, at least until they positioned it for maximum effect after they called the police.
"What about the rock? Do you see it?" Lana asked as she secured the man's hands behind his back. Lois straightened up and looked back toward the world inside the building, looking for the first time at the room itself. Her eyes drank in all the details as they swept across the room, stopping on Clark again for a long moment before continuing on. Anger began to course through her as she saw the tray of instruments on the table, their purpose patently obvious. The lack of any blood told her that they hadn't accomplished what they had wanted, that they had probably arrived just in time. But as her eyes continued around the room, there was no sign of any rock.
"Son of a…" she heard from down the alley. Kevin was now sitting up, grasping at his shoulder. A red stain was forming on his white shirt, spreading in a splotchy circle from where his hand clutched his shirt. Lois gave a long, sad glance back toward the helpless form of Clark and ran quickly out of the alley, toward Kevin.
"Are you okay?" she asked. He winced as he looked up toward her, obviously in pain, although his face still seemed to reflect some of the good humor that she knew he held.
"I think I definitely preferred being invulnerable," he said. "Plus, you know, a hole in the shoulder is going to be a heck of a lot harder to explain away to the folks back home than the occasional soot-covered t-shirt."
Lois felt her mouth twitch upward as she bent over, touching his hand and gently pulling it away from the wound. He didn't object as she exposed the bloody hole in his shirt, the damage hard to ascertain beneath the sticky wetness. "It's a flesh wound, really," he said, but she shook her head. She might not be a nurse, but flesh wounds didn't bleed like this, did they?
"We need to do something about this," she said, releasing his hand and standing, pondering what she could use as a tourniquet. Maybe they could use his shirt, she thought, or maybe there was something in the trunk. She took a step away from him and toward the car, intending to see what she had available, but his free hand clasped weakly onto her arm, stopping her.
"Get the rock first. He has it, I could feel it when he came out," Kevin said, and Lois looked at him in surprise. He didn't notice her gaze as he sighed and slumped over, releasing her arm and rubbing at the wound. Lois turned toward Lana, who had apparently heard the conversation. Lana locked eyes with her, her gaze clearly indicating her understanding, then quickly got to work patting all over the man's body, searching for the rock. After a moment, her hands stopped over his pants pocket. She reached inside and pulled out a large rock, one that was everything that Kevin had said it would be. The alleyway was suddenly illuminated in a green glow, details that Lois hadn't noticed before suddenly obvious in the light. Beside her, Kevin moaned lightly.
"I'll get the safe," Lois said, running quickly toward her car. Her mind was very focused on the task at hand, but she couldn't help but notice how dead the neighborhood seemed. Granted, the hour was late, but Metropolis was a city that generally never slept. Even given that, though, there was no traffic on the streets or sidewalks, no lights on inside the windows rising up around her. In a neighborhood that should've surely been awoken by the gunshot, there was nothing but darkness. It was eerie, but she tried to push the thought away as she ran back toward the scene, the heaviness of the safe taking some of the quickness from her steps. She continued past Kevin, finally stopping in front of Lana and dropping the safe loudly to the ground. After a couple quick spins of the dial, the door came open, revealing a small stack of papers and a plastic bag.
Lana quickly shoved the rock into the bag and sealed it, setting it into the dark cavity, and Lois closed the door, spinning the lock. Almost immediately, a sense of relief washed over her, an audible sigh coming from both Kevin on the street out front and Clark inside the building. Lana seemed to notice the open door at that moment, her eyes going wide as she finally took a look inside.
"Clark!" she said, immediately standing and running toward him. Lois watched her for a moment, then looked away. Maybe Lana had been in love with him once, and maybe beneath all the bluster and the green hair, she still held some sort of affection for him. It was something Lois could certainly understand, especially after seeing his pale, vulnerable form a few minutes ago. It would take a monster to see him like that, those instruments on the table plainly showing the intention of the kidnappers, and not feel horror and compassion. The jealous part of Lois was somewhat irked that Lana would be the one to touch him first, that her face might be the first thing he saw when he awoke, but the rest of her wasn't worried. Lana was an old friend, after all, and Lois knew exactly what he felt toward her, what he felt toward both of them. And in any case, there were still things to attend to before they could get Clark out of there.
With a sigh, Lois rose from the ground and approached Kevin, leaving the safe on the ground where it was. The whole side of his shirt was red now, although there wasn't enough blood to start puddling on the sidewalk. "You think you can survive long enough to help me with a little information gathering before we get out of here?" she asked, drawing his attention. His eyes still seemed clear, his complexion still seemed rosy enough. Apparently his blood loss wasn't too severe yet, although she wondered if they might not need to eventually take him to the hospital.
"I told you, it's not that bad," he said. "In fact, I'm feeling better already." With a grunt, he gingerly reached down and grasped at his shirt, slowly pulling it up and over his head. Once it was off, he used it to mop the blood off his side, working his way up until he was finally cleaning off the wound. Lois kneeled next to him, getting her first good look at it. She had expected to see a large hole in his shoulder, something truly gruesome, but what she saw was a small half-moon shaped chunk out of his upper arm, near the shoulder joint.
"Whatever rabbit's foot you've been rubbing, it's definitely doing the trick," Lois said, poking around the perimeter of the wound. He winced slightly under her touch, but didn't protest.
"No kidding," he said, pulling away from her gently as he wiped his hands on the now-ruined shirt. "How's Clark?"
"Come see for yourself," Lois said, standing, offering her hand to him. He smiled gratefully as he grasped it, and together they pulled him to a standing position. The wadded up t-shirt was brought up and pressed tightly to his still-bleeding wound, the only cover on an upper body that was now completely bare. Lois's eyes were drawn to his broad, sculpted shoulders and back as she allowed him to fall in a step or two ahead of her, looking but not gawking, appreciative but not desirous. She had a hard time believing that he had been a scrawny comic book geek before he had become a famous hero, that he was truly anti-social even though he had attended gala parties with the political elites of Metropolis. In a way he was an enigma, but he also couldn't be any more straightforward. He was kind, funny, polite, loyal, and always upbeat, even when he was confronting an uncertain future, even when he was plunging ahead with the task at hand with a badly injured shoulder. In so many ways he was very similar to Clark, but in so many other ways he was strikingly different. Lois doubted that he knew how he had changed Clark's life, how he had been integral to the creation of Superman, how he had ultimately been the one to bring Clark into her life. She wanted to thank him, needed to thank him, but this was not the time or place. There was too much work to be done to be exchanging platitudes here and now.
As they reached the door and entered the building, he stopped abruptly, a frown forming on his face, replacing the light smile that had been there earlier. "My God, what were they going to do to him?" he asked, then shook his head. He slowly continued toward the center of the room, drawing the attention of Lana, who was now kneeling at Clark's side.
"They were going to dissect him, I bet," Lana answered, sad conviction in her voice. "Dissect him like a frog in a high school biology class. I told him that was what would happen if he went public with all the things he could do. If I said it once, I said it a thousand times."
Lois closed the door as she entered behind Kevin. No wonder Clark had felt so liberated when he had finally been free of that woman. How many years had they been together? How many times had he heard her tell him all the terrible things that would happen to him if he dared to be himself, if he dared to follow his heart and put all his wonderful gifts to work and make the world a better place? Lois wanted nothing more than to tell her to get away from Clark and stop poisoning his soul, to tell her that all her forecasts of certain doom had been just wrong. But in the end she didn't say anything, because the simple truth was that all the paranoia had turned out to be well founded. For whatever reason, the people who had kidnapped Clark didn't care about the fact that the world considered him a hero, to them he was just a menace, even in spite of the obvious good that he had done for the world. And so they had taken him, they had poisoned him, and they had deigned to use him as some sort of sick experiment. Why they had found it necessary to do such a thing she didn't know, at least not yet, but she would find out. Somewhere in that room, in the scores of filing cabinets that lined the walls, was the answer she was looking for, and she wouldn't leave until she found it.
"Now look at him," Lana continued, reaching up and brushing a stray strand of dark hair away from his forehead. "Years of careful hiding, years of being prudent and cautious, all thrown away. Will he ever recover? Was the reward worth the sacrifice?"
Lois sighed, then gently punched the cabinet. If Lana had to ask that question, then she was even more clueless than Lois suspected.
"I think all the people that he saved in this last week could answer that," Lois said as she turned around, her eyes narrowing as Lana looked at her with surprise. "Were their lives worth the exposure to that rock, were their lives worth nearly sacrificing his own? A true hero doesn't stop because of possible consequences to themselves. A true hero puts that aside and goes on, because they ultimately believe that bringing hope to the world is worth any personal sacrifice." The room grew quiet, and Lois turned toward Clark, still unconscious, still oblivious, but still the very vision of a hero. "If you can't understand that, then I pity you," Lois said as she looked pointedly at Lana, then turned back to the task at hand.
There was no more talking as Lois started to work, rooting quickly though the assorted files. Kevin soon joined her, using his free hand to slowly leaf through the folders, pulling out the relevant ones and setting them aside. Lana remained slouched on the floor, defeated, refusing to help. After a long while, Lois found herself taking a seat at the large, round table at the center of the room and leafing through the papers and files that had been gathered. The picture began to come together fairly quickly as she read the information in front of her, the story it told causing a shiver to work its way down her spine.
The people that operated this office, that had kidnapped Clark, were a highly devoted group of lunatics who believed some sort of conspiracy theory about aliens trying to take over the Earth. It was a theory with no basis in fact or sanity, but it had been manically pursued, with the ultimate aim of using any means necessary to stop the aliens from achieving. The men had gone about their mission with zeal, personally tracking down all possible UFO sightings, no lead going untraced. The files documented cases from around the world, on every continent, in most every country. The names of the locations by and large held no significance to Lois, although she could recall mentions of a few of the larger sightings in the tabloid rags. But one particular case file stood out above all the others, drawing her undivided attention.
The dark typewritten text on the tab of the plain manila folder announced that this sighting had taken place in the town of Smallville, Kansas, in 1965. A meteor had shot across the sky around dusk, landing somewhere in the fields outside of town. When the men had arrived, they had found a small ship, opened, empty, bearing an insignia that was scribbled roughly amongst the neatly typed text, one that matched exactly the symbol on the shirt that Clark wore. Scattered in small craters around the ship were chunks of green rock, unlike anything any of them had even seen before. The ship and the rocks had been gathered together, but the men hadn't been satisfied. They wanted to know what was inside that ship. To that end, they had discreetly hung around town, looking for anything that was unusual, but without success. The case was never closed, never forgotten, and periodically, when sightings of the strange or unusual were discovered, the men would migrate toward Kansas. But they hadn't found Clark, not until Superman showed up. After that it was all a matter of waiting, of planning, and of acting.
In another bank of filing cabinets, Kevin had found a file detailing some of the measures that they had hoped to take to avert a full-blown alien invasion. Scenarios of varying degrees of ridiculousness were all spelled out in painstaking detail. If innocent people had to be sacrificed to carry though with the plans, then so be it. It was evident through reading the text that they knew how to assemble a bomb, that they had the means to plant a bomb, and that they weren't afraid to use one if they had to. The last entry in the file, the one with the most recent date, was also the most specific of all of them. A bomb, carefully planted in a center of mass media, would surely draw the aliens who were masquerading as heroes. With both in one place, it was just a matter of subduing them.
Her teeth ground together painfully and her hands crumpled the corners of the folder as she finally grasped the full extent of what had occurred that night. It wasn't just a matter of these men taking Clark. They had sacrificed the Daily Planet, and the lives of dozens of reporters and the welfare of hundreds of other people in their attempt to relieve the world of a threat that didn't exist anywhere but in their own twisted minds. How could anyone even conceive of doing such a thing? Evil existed in the real world, yes, and Lois had always thought that she knew its face, that she could spot it when she saw it. But these people, they were firefighters, policemen, teachers, lawyers, engineers. They were generally upright members of society, someone's father or brother or neighbor, probably perfectly pleasant when in polite company. And they were all monsters. Maybe it was fortunate that this was a world that had heroes, people who believed in the goodness of society and dedicated their lives to putting away criminals like these, because it would be hard to sleep at night if there weren't.
Kevin took a seat beside Lois somewhere along the line, leaning over and propping his chin on his arm as he leafed through files, taking in the information, every now and then looking toward Clark, a strange look on his face. By the time he finally spoke again, she had a pretty good idea of what he was going to say. She wasn't disappointed.
"These men, they were targeting aliens," he said as he leaned back in his chair, his eyes drawn toward the ceiling. "I know when I debuted, people said that about me, that I was from outer space or something, and I just laughed and shrugged it off. Kevin Jones? An alien? I'm just some shmuck from Dubuque who got struck by lightning and woke up the next morning with the ability to fly. I'm as American as baseball and apple pie, and surely anyone could see that." He closed his eyes and sighed, then turned his gaze toward Clark. "Clark had been there when I got hit. I had just figured that the lightning did the same thing to him, because I'm a big moron. Or maybe I'm just blind to the obvious. But after reading about the saga of Smallville, it's kind of hard to deny it any longer. Clark's not from Earth, is he?"
Lana, who had silently stared at Kevin while he spoke, let out a sob, a stray tear working its way down her cheek as she looked at Clark for a long moment. "It hardly seems fair," she said, drawing the attention of both Kevin and Lois. "We were going to get married, we both knew it, but then he told me that he was…he was…" Lana gulped and wiped a tear off her cheek. Her lip curled up slightly as she looked toward Kevin. "He was an alien. He was from outer space. He could do all these things, these freakish thinks, and he showed them all to me. I knew something like this would happen if he ever made himself public, if he ever told anyone else, and I knew because I could understand why someone might want to." Her voice, filled with pity and woe, grew hard with those last words. Both Lois and Kevin looked at her with wide eyes, agape, as she continued.
"I'd known Clark all my life, but suddenly he was just a thing, not human. The first reaction was to be afraid, and then repulsed. You wish it weren't true, you go on pretending it's not true, but the pretending only hides the obvious." Lana looked at Lois now, her eyes burning with conviction, although her face was lifeless, limp. "If it had been anyone other than Clark, any anonymous being walking the street, then that fear and revulsion might've been more, might've led to more. People fear the unknown, people fear those who are more powerful than themselves. Given my first reaction, it didn't take much imagination to figure out how strangers might see him, and fear him, and want to do something about it."
Lois felt herself go cold as Lana talked. The words were so hard, so unemotional, but they were also honest, and that was what scared her the most. Even knowing who Clark really was deep down inside, what his thoughts and fears and desires were, hadn't stopped Lana from looking at him with revulsion when he finally told her his deepest, darkest secret. For whatever reason, she carried some deeply held notion of what an alien was, and she couldn't get past that. It was probably the same for these men, who only wanted to see the alien, who only wanted to see the strange and the unusual, and the dangerous. Even though what Superman did couldn't be any more representative of the sweet, kind person that Clark was, it didn't matter to them. And it hadn't mattered to Lana.
Lana looked up at Clark again, her eyes suddenly going soft, the emotion returning to her face. Her touch was gentle as she rose to her knees, reached up, and stroked his cheek. "I'm not a bad person," she continued, her voice barely audible now. "I can't help the way that I feel. But I'd never let anyone hurt him. He might be alien, but he doesn't deserve this."
Beside Lois, Kevin slowly rose from his chair and walked over to Lana. As he went, the hand holding the wadded up t-shirt against the bullet wound fell away, and she could see that it had stopped bleeding, that it had scabbed up nicely. His other hand gently reached down and touched Lana's back, drawing her out of her spell. She looked questioningly at Kevin, but he just smiled at her, coaxing one in return. "He'll be okay," Kevin said, and Lana just nodded. Kevin looked back toward Lois, gave her a nod, then returned his gaze to Lana, his eyes meeting in with hers. "Come on," he continued, his voice gentle. "Let's get things squared away so we can all go home."
Lana nodded once, seemingly mesmerized, and rose to her feet. Kevin stuffed the bloodied shirt into his back pocket and led her outside, toward the men who were tied up and still unconscious. Kevin was right, Lois thought as they exited the room. It was definitely time to get out of here. She went to work arranging the folders on the table, opening them, making it obvious to anyone who might enter the room what had transpired that night, but stilled for a moment as she realized that she was alone in the room now. Alone with Clark.
Lois walked toward him, her brow knit together, and stopped, her eyes focused on his face. Slowly, she bent over, placing her hand on his forehead and brushing the hair away, trying to straighten it out somewhat. "You're safe now," she said with a small smile, then bent down and lightly kissed his lips. It was hard to tell, but she could almost swear that his small smile deepened somewhat at the gesture. He would be okay, she told herself again, straightening up. At that moment, Kevin and Lana returned to the room, dragging the first of the men behind them. Back to business, she thought, looking for a phone. It only took a moment to locate one, off in the corner, sitting on top of one of the filing cabinets. As Kevin and Lana dragged the remaining men into the room, she dialed 911, and reported the gunshot. It would only be a matter of time now. The police would come, they would see the true extent of what these men had done, and the world would be safe. And maybe, just maybe, she would get a story out of the whole deal. With that, she joined Kevin and Lana, and grabbed the safe with the rock and the baseball bat as they gathered up Clark, and together, they all took off for the car, and for home.
Kevin sighed and closed his eyes as the hot water from the shower washed over him, relaxing him, cleansing him. It was nice to be at peace at last, although he knew that once he emerged from the warm shower, he would be confronted with the reality of the situation, and the calm that he was feeling now would simply disappear like so much steam. But none of that now, he told himself as he leaned further into the stream of water, letting it cleanse the grime from his face.
He reached for the bar of soap and lathered up, rubbing the suds over his arms and his abdomen, then over the small pit below his shoulder that had gone mercifully numb. Through all the chaos and the pain and the terror that he had experienced that night, he had learned a lot about himself. After he had been struck by lightning, after he had created Bolt, he had always just figured that it was the powers that had given him strength and the will to be a hero. And maybe that was the case at first. But deep down, there was something that transcended the powers, something that not even a green glowing meteorite could take away, and that part had shone through for the first time tonight. He had never figured himself for someone who would step into harm's way for the good of a friend, but that's what he had done tonight. And when faced with the blood and the pain, instead of moping or running away, he had shrugged it off and moved on, doing what needed to be done. Maybe there was more to Kevin Jones than a nerdy college kid, and maybe Bolt was more than some caricature of the heroes he'd read about in the glossy Technicolor pages of the comics.
Turning around, Kevin leaned back and let the water work its way into his hair. He opened his eyes long enough to locate the bottle of shampoo, squirting a glob of it into the palm of his hand before closing his eyes again. He supposed he wasn't the only person he'd learned about in the course of the night. Lois, Clark's mysterious girlfriend whose shower he was even now dirtying up, was quite a remarkable woman. Maybe she was a little pushy, a little intense, but she also was a woman of conviction and infinite understanding. She obviously cared for a Clark a great deal, too, and would go to any lengths for him.
And speaking of Clark… It was hard to fathom what life had been like for him. To know that he's not human, but to still have to somehow make a life within society must have been incredibly hard. His girlfriend reviled him, his powers set him apart from everyone else, and ultimately, Kevin supposed, he had lived in fear. Maybe he thought that the look of revulsion that wasn't too far behind Lana's gaze would be mirrored in the eyes of everyone else around him. If he had been discovered, then even the illusion of normalcy would've been taken away from him. But then that bolt of lightning had struck.
Kevin smiled as he rinsed his hair. He'd have to ask Clark to be sure, but something told him that his own starry dreams of being a hero, and the general good will that he was received with, probably did something to help Clark accept who he was, and to use his talents for the betterment of others. It felt good to think that he made a real difference in someone's life, and it didn't come from the powers or from pretending to be a hero. It simply came from him being himself, and following his heart. His smile faded, though, as he thought of the consequences that had come from him acting to fulfill his fantasy. Dozens of Daily Planet employees dead, dozens more injured, the paper destroyed. All because some idiots had decided that he and Clark were dangerous and needed to be stopped.
No, that wasn't exactly true, Kevin thought as he shut off the water and slid back the shower curtain. Maybe indirectly he was somehow to blame for the actions of those men, but in the end, they had done what they wanted to do, on their own volition, and they were the only ones to blame for what happened. Maybe they wouldn't have done it if Bolt or Superman hadn't existed, but maybe they would've found some other threat somewhere else, and blown up some other building to satisfy their own delusions. But even if he wasn't responsible, Kevin figured he should do something to make it up to those people whose lives he couldn't save, the people who were sacrificed for some fanatical crusade.
Kevin stilled his thoughts as he toweled off and slipped on a pair of shorts. He placed his hand on the doorknob and slowly opened the door, revealing the interior of Lois's apartment, his home away from home for that night. A quick glance across the hallway and into Lois's room showed Clark, peaceful and still unconscious, lying motionless on her bed. In the living room, he could hear the muffled sound of the television, no doubt being watched by Lois. Silently, he padded down the hallway, coming to a stop as the hallway gave way to the living room. The couch had been made into a bed of sorts, with a sheet stretched across the cushions, a blanket placed at one end, and a pillow at the other. At some point during the ride over, after they had dropped off Lana and before they had arrived at Lois's apartment, they had discussed what the future held—what they would do if Clark didn't wake up in the next day, how Kevin would get back to Kansas. Lois volunteered her apartment for the night, stating that her roommate was out of town for the weekend. All the other questions could wait until later, they had decided, although Kevin wondered if they both weren't afraid of what the answers might be. There were other details to work out, including obtaining a new set of clothing for both him and Clark, but the late hour made it impossible to resolve any of those issues, which was fine. After a long day and even longer night, maybe a little sleep would go a long way toward resolving things.
Lois sat in a recliner at the end of the room, a magazine in her lap, her eyelids droopy. She seemed to sense his presence, though, and she quickly brought her gaze up and met his eyes with hers, giving him a smile as she did.
"Hey there. Feel better now?" she asked, and Kevin couldn't help but smile back.
"Much, thank you," he replied.
"How's your shoulder?" she asked as she got up off the chair and approached him. She squinted as she looked at the thick, tender scab, then continued on down the hall, disappearing into the bathroom he had so recently emerged from. In a moment, she returned, a square of gauze and some medical tape in her hand. She gestured for him to follow her toward the couch, and he did, sitting gingerly on the neatly placed sheet.
"This should protect it overnight," she said, taking a seat next to him. She didn't say anything further as she went to work applying the patch. Kevin looked toward the bedroom, wondering if Clark would be jealous if he knew that her touch wasn't entirely unwelcome. No, Kevin thought, clenching his jaw together, those thoughts were best not indulged. Lois was a kind woman, and she was taken, and that was all there was to it. He forced his gaze toward the television, and the late night reruns that were being shown, ignoring the light touch of Lois's fingers on his arm. Slowly but surely, the diversion worked, and he found himself relaxing. When Lois spoke again, it caught him off guard.
"I was just wondering," she said, drawing his attention back toward her. "If that rock that those men had was only supposed to work on aliens, then why did it work on you?" She placed a fresh strip of tape over the bandage and looked at him, one eyebrow cocked. It was a question that he had asked himself when he found out the truth about those men and the rock, although the answer hadn't been hard for him to fathom.
"Whatever happened when that lightning struck, it managed to give me a part of Clark. These muscles," he said, gesturing toward his upper chest, "were never there before. And the powers, well, I couldn't tell you how they work, but I do know that they kind of ingrained themselves into me. I can see things I couldn't see before, I can think faster than I ever could before. Maybe a part of me became alien, I don't know. But I can't begrudge that part, because it sure was fun while it lasted."
Kevin smiled as he finished, the good times flashing past his vision. Even if he had become something that wasn't wholly human, he found that maybe he didn't mind. Lois just nodded with understanding, a comforting smile forming on her face. "Do you think any of it will come back?" she asked.
"No," he answered quickly, trying not to let the sadness that the word brought seep into his voice. It seemed so final, saying it out loud like that, but he couldn't see how the powers could return. He turned his head to face her, needing to say something that he couldn't bring himself to say earlier, when the green-haired monster had been around. "Before I forget, I just wanted to let you know that you were right."
Her hand stilled on his shoulder as her head cocked sideways. "About what? I mean, I'm right about so many things…" Her half smile made him chuckle softly.
"What you said tonight about whether the sacrifice that comes from being a hero is worth the reward." He twisted away from her and settled into the couch. "If I died this very second, I'd have no regrets, because I know that I've done my best to make the world a better place, and I've lived my dream in the process. No other accomplishment can ever measure up to that, and honestly, it makes me wonder what I'm going to do with the rest of my life."
"I bet it will be kind of hard to top being a superhero," Lois responded, but then shrugged. "But there are plenty of ways to help people if that's what you want to do. Maybe they won't involve creative disguises or the adulation of the press, but you can still be a hero to people."
"Yeah," he said, and they just smiled at each other for a long moment, the soft chatter of the television filling up the emptiness.
"Well," Lois finally said, "it's getting late, and I think we both need our beauty rest."
Kevin nodded, glancing briefly toward the large window on the far side of the room, and the sky that was already beginning to lighten with the dawn beyond it. Suddenly, he yawned, bringing a slight chuckle from Lois as she rose from the couch. "Good night," she said, switching off the light.
"Good night," he answered. He watched her retreating form for a moment, then reached for the blanket and stretched out on the couch, snuggling in. He fluffed the pillow before laying his head on it, then unfolded the blanket, drawing it over him, instantly warming him. There were no further thoughts as he slipped instantly into a heavy, blissful sleep.
He was flying, Clark thought with a smile as a patchwork quilt of greens and golds materialized beneath him, tree-filled gullies cutting odd angles across the regular grid of rural townships and ranges. It was so peaceful and so familiar, a landscape sculpted by man yet still controlled by the whims of nature, by the rains and the sunshine and the soil. Around him was the pristine blue sky, dotted with fluffy white clouds that grew and pulsated, morphing into shapes that his imagination gave definition to, a game that was just as calming from the air as it was lying in a patch of grass on the ground. Beside him, a duck kept pace with his movements, its wings flapping vigorously, then stilling as it glided gracefully on the wind. Soon he was joined by a few more feathered companions, falling into formation around him, making Clark the apex of a large V shape. He let out a whoop as he dove down and away, letting the birds go on about their travels without him. He turned his head, looking in front of himself for the first time, and saw the tall buildings that made up the Metropolis skyline, still very distant, but imposing nonetheless. As he looked down again, the landscape began to change, the open country gradually giving way to the bustling metropolis. The gray and black of concrete filled the scenery, with buildings lining the web of streets, the green now completely gone from the color palate below him. The world was a vastly different place here than it was back home, a more exciting place, a busier place. He wanted to stop and observe, to watch the hustle and bustle of life in the big city, but he couldn't, because he had a date.
Yes, a date with Lois, he thought, a frown working its ways onto his face. It was strange, but suddenly he got the feeling that he had been in this situation before. He tried to shake it off as he landed in a darkened alley in the heart of the city, the campus of Metropolis University only a few blocks away, but he found himself preoccupied. So preoccupied, in fact, that he didn't really notice the man waiting for him at the opening of the alley, his face covered in shadows, his form indistinct. As Clark approached the street, though, he couldn't help but notice, and he involuntarily paused, a chill running down his spine. It was strange how, even under the bright glow of the remaining daylight, the man seemed only to be bathed in shades of gray, almost as if he were an apparition, something not really part of this world. Although Clark couldn't see his eyes, he knew that they were trained on him, watching his every move. He told himself to ignore the feeling of dread that the man brought, to move on, and after a moment he did. But before he could even take another step, the alley seemed to be bathed in a supernatural green glow. Clark screamed at the pain that the light seemed to bring, dropping to his knees as the shadowy man approached him, menace exuding from his featureless form, his hand slowly emerging from his pocket. In it was a crystal, one that seemed to pulsate with energy, one that caused the unimaginable pain to grow the closer it came. Clark's vision began to shrink, the darkness closing in on him, until finally he could stand it no more. He pressed his eyes closed, begged for the pain to stop, but there was no relief.
With a sharp intake of breath, his eyes popped open, and suddenly it was all over. There was no alley, no rock, no man hidden in shadow. His chest heaved up and down and his heart raced, and he realized that it was just a dream, a horrible dream. Slowly, he willed himself to relax, his eyes closing as he focused on being calm. His breathing had almost returned to normal when something tickled the back of his mind, causing his eyes to pop open again. He was laying on his back, he realized, the soft envelope of bedding surrounding him. The ceiling above was speckled, though, wholly unlike the formed concrete of his dorm room ceiling. His eyebrows knitted together, and he noticed that the ceiling wasn't the only thing different about where he was. The ambient noise level in the room was fairly loud with the roar of traffic and the muted sound of conversation on the street outside the room. And, to top it all off, there was the heavy sound of someone else breathing right beside him.
With a start, Clark turned his head sideways, and he saw a peacefully sleeping female form right next to him. She was covered by a sheet and lying on her side, facing away from him, her chest gently rising and falling with each breath. Who…? And did they…? He'd remember something like that, wouldn't he? His head quickly snapped back into an upright position, his mind spinning as he tried to remember what had happened. Yesterday, he had flown to Metropolis to go on a date with Lois. And he had gone on that date, and it had been wonderful. It had been perfect, in fact, culminating in the most spectacular of kisses. But then there had been an explosion, and he had had to leave her.
He remembered saving people from the ruined Daily Planet Building, although the memories were vague, more like flashes, their contents something that he was sure he had tried to forget. Then, after everyone was free, he had gone to work with Bolt, piecing the building back together. Then… Uh, then something happened, although he wasn't quite sure what, and that's all he could remember. As Clark slowly turned his head toward the sleeping form next to him again, he could see now that it was indeed Lois. A blush filled his cheeks as he thought of himself with her, but he still didn't know how that could be. Still, how else would he have ended up in the same bed as her? The more he tried to contemplate the hole in his memory, the more frustrated he became, until finally he decided to stop worrying about it and just embrace the situation he found himself in. And Lois.
His muscles protested as he rolled over, positioning himself such that he was right next to Lois, his nose buried in her dark hair, his arm wrapped around her from behind. He sighed and closed his eyes, wishing that he could summon up thoughts of her, using his imagination when none were forthcoming. Lois sighed in his embrace, snuggling into him. They lay blissfully together for a few moments, until her breath caught in her throat, signaling that she was awake. Instantly, she was sitting upright, twisting to look at him with wide eyes.
"Clark!" she said, almost as if she was surprised to see him. He smiled weakly, more confused than ever.
"That's me," he answered, bringing his hand up to his head and running it through his strangely disheveled hair. As the covers slipped down at the gesture, he noticed for the first time that he was still wearing his Superman t- shirt and jeans. Odd attire for someone who had done what he assumed he had done.
"You're awake!" she said, a wide smile forming on her face as she lunged toward him, wrapping him in a hug. He hugged back on instinct, although he was still confused. He'd never seen anyone so happy before about the simple fact that he was awake.
"I am," he said, deadpan. Lois pulled back some and planted a big, wet kiss on his lips, which he gladly returned. He found himself smiling crookedly as she sat up again. She looked at him for a few moments, as if waiting for him to say something, then sighed and shook her head.
"You aren't a little confused about why you're waking up here, in my bed?" she asked, a light note in her voice. Clark shifted his eyes around the room, and then found her again.
"Well, yeah, I guess," he answered. "I just kind of assumed…"
Lois laughed at that, then reached down and ruffled his hair. "In your dreams, Kent," she said, then sprung out of bed. "No, it's nothing that fun, and I'll tell you all about it over a nice, big breakfast." She glanced toward the clock at that moment, then turned back toward Clark. "Or lunch."
Clark furrowed his brow and looked at the clock, noting with shock that it was now well after noon. Growing up on a farm as a kid had taught him to rise with the chickens, and it had been a habit, one that he still practiced even though that had been half a lifetime ago. He usually had trouble sleeping until 8 AM, 9 was a stretch, and 10 was unheard of. Whatever it was that had led him to this place, somehow he felt that it was probably a good thing that he didn't remember it. Granted, oversleeping was hardly an indicator of disaster for most people, but that coupled with the disturbing hole in his memory and vague whispers of terrible feelings from some point in the recent past, made him wonder. And worry.
Lois scurried out of the room, throwing on a robe as she did. Clark groaned lightly as he sat up, his body stiff and achy. Another bit of evidence, he thought wearily. It had been a long, long time since he'd felt physical pain or its after-effects, almost ten years. Since then, nothing had been able to hurt him, or at least not anything that he'd encountered, although he had to admit that there were things in the world that he didn't care to ever find out how they affected him. Invulnerable or not, he had no intention of walking into a nuclear explosion, for instance. But what if, hypothetically, someone had stumbled on something that could hurt him back there at the Daily Planet? What if the missing part of his life was connected to that? Something certainly happened to him to cause the ghost of pain that still lingered throughout his body. He winced as he pulled himself out of bed, stretching as he stood, trying to work the kinks out of his muscles. As he turned, his arms fully stretched to his side, his hand hit against the corner of the nearby chest of drawers, causing a piercing pain to shoot up his arm.
"Ow," he said, quickly pulling his injured hand in toward himself. With a start, he noticed that the skin had been broken in several places, although not deeply enough to cause bleeding. He stared at his injured hand for a moment, dumbfounded, before the full enormity of the situation began to descend upon him. He wasn't invulnerable anymore. Aches and pains in his muscles could be several things, bad things, maybe, but not catastrophic. But broken skin could only mean a loss of his protective shield, and probably the rest of his powers as well. No heat vision, no super senses…no flying. Although he was fully clothed, he felt naked at that instant, naked and utterly helpless, stuck in a strange place and missing a large part of what made him who he was.
Clark wanted to cry out, hit something, do anything to vent his frustrations, but he stopped himself. He wasn't alone, he told himself. Maybe something awful had happened, maybe he had lost the powers that had filled his life to that point with both agony and joy, but he hadn't lost Lois. Somehow, through it all, he had ended up here with her. She had looked out for him, brought him to her home and her bed, and kept him by her side until he found his way back from the darkness. Then she had greeted him with a smile and a kiss. She was definitely a keeper, he thought with a wry smile, his gaze turning toward the door. Either he could stand here and wallow in pity, or he could go out there and be with her. Given the choices, he couldn't help but head toward the bedroom door, a smile finally working its way onto his face as he contemplated breakfast, make that lunch, with Lois.
He had to stifle a groan as he entered the hallway outside of Lois's bedroom, the bright light of the midday sun reflecting off the glossy white hallway walls from the living room and inundating the spot where he now stood in an almost painfully blinding glow. Or maybe it was just a relative thing, he thought as his eyes adjusted and the light didn't seem quite so intense anymore. In fact, it was somewhat comforting, warming, soothing. Certainly it was nothing to be afraid of, he told himself, forcing his legs to move again. Beyond the hallway, out past the living area of the apartment, he could hear movement, the gentle bustle of someone working in the kitchen, every now and then banging pots together or slamming a cupboard door. That was Lois, he thought, his smile broadening, his strides lengthening.
Entering the living room area, he stopped, enjoying the feeling of the sunlight on his skin. Briefly, he closed his eyes, feeling his muscles relax the longer he stood there. As his eyes gently opened again, he had to do a double take as he noticed a man sleeping on the sofa. The man, whoever he was, was bathed in light, one arm draped across his eyes shielding him from the sun. A crumpled blanket was draped awkwardly over the couch backrest, leaving the man almost completely bare. A pair of baggy plaid boxer shorts was the exception, along with a large, rectangular bandage covering his left shoulder.
"He had a rough night. Best to just let him sleep," Lois said from very close. Startled, Clark turned toward her, and noticed that she was now directly beside him, her gaze locked on the half-naked man, a look of innocent compassion on her face. He turned back toward the sofa, looking more closely at the man lying there. He did look familiar, in a vague sort of way. Who else would he know in Metropolis? Who else had been around last night? Instantly, he recognized the sleeping form on the couch.
"Is that…?" he asked, pointing a thumb in the direction of the living room.
Lois nodded. "Kevin," she answered, and Clark arched his eyebrows. He wasn't the only one here who was a little worse for the wear. He was suddenly more curious than ever to know what had happened the night before. What could cause one hero to black out and another to require bandaging? And, the sixty four million dollar question, how had Kevin found Lois and why?
"What happened to his shoulder?" he asked, hoping to at least get a tidbit of what had transpired the night before.
Lois's smile was somewhat sad as she gestured toward a chair in front a well-used dinette set. "It's all part of that long story that I was going to tell you over a good, home-flipped batch of pancakes," she said.
Clark looked back toward the living room again before continuing on toward the kitchen. He had to admit, he was positively starved, and some pancakes would really hit the spot. And it was nice to be a part of this domestic slice of the life of one Lois Lane, but he couldn't help but be filled with a sense of dread over what she was going to tell him. Granted, whatever had happened was in the past, but what if it wasn't resolved? What if there was more waiting for him as soon as he set foot outside of her apartment?
Wearing the biggest smile he could muster, Clark settled into the nearest chair and listened as the tale of last night began.
The first thing that Kevin became aware of as he emerged from the shadowy remnants of his dreams was an incredible feeling of comfort and happiness. He felt like he was…glowing, if that made any sense. His whole body was awash with warmth, recharging him, fueling the good feelings. In the distance were voices, one male and one female, their volume rather soft, their words generally indistinct. Hanging in the air was the rich aroma of fresh pancakes, making his mouth water and bringing a smile to his face. As nice as it would be to bask in the glow, it might be best to get up and grab some food, he thought, his stomach seconding him.
Slowly, Kevin raised the arm that lay across his eyes and let the sunlight tint his eyelids a bright red. He moved his hand blindly, positioning it so that shadow rested across his face, then opened his eyes and let them adjust to the room around him. From the initial yellow glow, the forms of Lois and Clark sitting at a table in the kitchen emerged. On the table between them sat a large plate full of pancakes, enough for a large family to partake in. He licked his lips, imagining the whole stack on a plate in front of him, heaped with butter and syrup, but before he could bolt off the couch and claim his breakfast, Kevin had to pause, noting curiously the body language of his two friends.
The two were sitting across from each other, locked in a conversation that he couldn't quite overhear, each with a plate of food in front of them, although the food seemed to almost be an afterthought. Clark was leaning in toward Lois, his eyes watching her intently, his hand fiddling with a fork that, at the moment, held no food. Lois was half turned away from him, her posture shy, her hand idly playing with her hair. A blind man could see that there was something going on between those two, Kevin mused, wondering how long he could watch the non verbal interaction before feeling like he was intruding on a private moment. Not long, he realized as Lois laughed lightly and Clark gave her a crooked smile.
It was at that moment that he shifted his weight ever so slightly, causing the springs of the couch to squeak loudly. Instantly, both Lois and Clark were looking at him, the magic of whatever moment they had been caught in now gone.
"Look who's rejoined the world of the living," Lois said with a smile.
Kevin smiled as he contemplated whether she was referring to Clark or himself. "Well, the world of the un- dead is just not as fun," Kevin said, pushing himself up into a sitting position.
"I can second that," Clark said, and Kevin smiled. After having seen Clark in that building, at the mercy of the green rock and the murderous thugs, it was nice to have him come out of it with his sense of humor intact.
"So how are you feeling?" Kevin asked Clark.
Clark shrugged, looked at Lois, then back toward Kevin. "I've been better, I guess, but all things considered, I suppose it could've been worse. I mean, I woke up in bed with a beautiful woman sleeping beside me, and that's okay any day." Lois reached across the table and pushed him in the shoulder, her expression outwardly shocked, although the blush in her cheeks gave away her true feelings. "How about you?" Clark asked, pointing toward the bandage on Kevin's shoulder.
"Oh, that? I can hardly tell it's there," Kevin answered, attempting to downplay the injury that he'd received while saving his friend, but after a moment he realized that the statement was true. It was odd, but there was absolutely no pain coming from his shoulder. Moving his arm around experimentally, he found that there was no stiffness or numbness, either. In fact, he felt great, better than he had in a long time, better than he had since…
Kevin jumped off the couch, causing Lois and Clark to give him similarly curious glances. Aware that he was possibly overreacting to a farfetched and completely unreasonable possibility, Kevin forced himself to relax and smile. "Excuse me. I, uh, need to visit the little superhero's room," he said, gesturing toward the bathroom. "As you were." Without a second thought, he walked casually toward the bathroom, gently closing the door behind him and turning on the light. It took all his will to not test for the full range of powers right then and there. Slowly, deliberately, he approached the mirror and regarded the bandage, finally bringing up his hand and tearing it off. As the white gauze pulled away and the light illuminated the area underneath, he could see…nothing. Not a scab, not a bruise, not even the slightest indication on his skin that there had ever been any injury there at all, although a smudge of red on the underside of the bandage gave very clear evidence that there had been a wound, all right.
He began to tingle as the truth of the situation began to hit him. The reflection in the mirror showed his wide eyes, and his wicked smile. Just to be sure, he looked at the last bit of tape that still clung to his skin, squinted, and willed a burst of heat toward it. The tape disengaged from his arm with a wisp of smoke, proving once and for all that it was not just a dumb, wishful idea. He was back. Bolt would fly again.
"Yes," he said with clenched teeth, tossing the bandage into the wastebasket. He wanted to float out of the room and reveal his new find to the others, but he told himself to calm down. What was the hurry, anyway? Yeah, he needed to get home eventually, but it was a Saturday, and he was in Metropolis with his friends, the people who knew him best, and it might be fun to stick around. Enjoy life a little. Revel in just being Kevin Jones. When the time was right, after the new had worn off the day but before they let themselves agonize over how he and Clark would get home, then he'd tell them. There were a lot of questions that needed to be answered, like how and why the powers came back in the first place, but that could be pondered later. For now, it would be his secret.
Carefree, a spring decidedly present in his step, Kevin went about his business in the bathroom, then reemerged into the sunny world of the living room and had a seat at the table with Lois and Clark, partaking in a late breakfast and enjoying the company of friends. Clark was going to be okay, the bad guys were vanquished, a copy of the morning edition of the Planet sat defiantly on the table, and the sun was shining. Yes sir, everything was now right with the world.
Clark emerged from Lois's bedroom and into the living room, a smirk on his face, his hands absently tugging on the spandex outfit. All in all, smirk aside, he cut a magnificent figure in the new outfit, one that would be awe-inspiring to anyone, criminal or not. The spandex, its slightly shiny hue reflecting the light coming in through the window, clung tightly to his body, accentuating his physique, the reflected light making his already impressive build seem that much…bigger. A red cape fell across his shoulders and hung behind him, rippling in the air as he walked.
"I feel silly," he said, looking up at her, his eyes pleading. Lois smiled at him and shook her head as she rose from the couch and approached him.
"Well, you look magnificent," she answered, circling around him as he stood in the center of the room. It had been four weeks since the explosion at the Daily Planet, four weeks that had seen the arrest of the four men that Lois, Lana, and Kevin had captured, the investigation of the group that they belonged to, and the arrest of dozens of group members throughout Metropolis as accessories to murder. The investigations had revealed to the public the group's ultimate objective to capture two certain superheroes, although nobody outside of the four men that had been there that night had any idea that the attempt had been successful. None of the men would be brought up on kidnapping charges, but neither Lois nor Clark minded too much. After all, if the district attorney was successful, the men would spend the rest of their lives in prison for the murders of those people at the Planet. That, at least, was justice served.
Physically, Clark didn't show any lingering effects from his capture that night. His powers had taken longer than Kevin's to come back, probably because he had been exposed to the poisonous rock longer. By the end of the first week after the explosion, though, Superman was back patrolling the skies. The press had been curious about where he had been during the time that Clark had been recovering, but the questions quickly died down once Superman was back. Psychologically, though, Lois wondered if the experience at the Planet didn't linger in the back of Clark's mind. When he rescued someone, did he look over his shoulder for strangers with lead-lined boxes and green rocks? Were there certain places he didn't go or certain people he didn't help out of fear of capture? She watched the coverage on the news, looking for any signs of nervousness, but it was hard to see in the short segments that were generally shown.
With the return of his powers came a return visit to Metropolis, partially to thank Lana in person for the help that she'd given in rescuing him, but mainly to visit Lois. Lois had the suspicion that his trip to see Lana was also the final goodbye to a portion of his life now past, but she could see that he was relieved to finally part with her in good standing. After that, he belonged exclusively to Lois, her Friday night date as long as she would have him. It was during one of the ensuing Friday nights that she had suggested that they start to formulate a new costume for him in earnest, and he hadn't resisted, although he hadn't been bridled with enthusiasm, either.
At the end of that date, she'd taken his measurements, her handling of the tape measure leading her to make contact with him in places that caused both of them to blush. She had borrowed her mother's sewing machine and explained to her roommate that the reason for the brightly colored spandex outfit she was putting together was the impending Halloween holiday. It had taken more than a week to finish the outfit, and when she had finally revealed it to Clark as their most recent Friday date had wound down, he had found it to be quite funny, surely a joke pulled at his expense. And then, upon realizing that she was serious, that the blue spandex and red cape were the costume that they had discussed, he had been almost comically horrified. Maybe it was out of pity, Lois wasn't entirely sure, but he had agreed to come back on the next day, a Saturday, to try it out. But, since he would suffer an indignity at her hands, she would have to agree to do the same, and come see his home state of Kansas. They had both laughed at the proposal, agreed that it was fair, and shook hands before engaging in a kiss and parting for the evening.
And so, here they were. Indignity, nothing, Lois thought as she continued to stare at Clark. Showing off his fantastic physique could never be considered an indignity, although she had to chuckle as she saw him clutch the edge of the cape and draw in closer around his backside.
"You're gawking, aren't you?" he asked, his cheeks turning red and the cape drawing closed in front of him.
"I'm your girlfriend, aren't I? I think I'm allowed to gawk," she answered, although it was hard to keep the lightness out of her voice. What was it about his discomfort that was so darned cute?
Clark cocked his head and regarded her for a second, opening his mouth and then closing it again. His cheeks were beginning to reach the color of his cape.
"Is that why you feel silly? It's not the cape or the S, it's the…tightness?" Lois asked as she approached him and arranged the pleats in his cape, her hands lightly brushing his spandex-covered skin, causing light ripples of electricity.
"The S is a work of art," Clark, said, looking down at his chest, then at Lois. "It's just like the one on my blanket. And the cape, well, it's okay. A little dramatic, maybe, but it can be kind of cool, I guess. I just feel…a little exposed. I keep thinking that if I go out in public like this, a cop is going to ticket me. Little old ladies will run away as soon as I open up the cape," he said, his hands, still clutched to the cape, suddenly sweeping out to his sides, like a flasher revealing the surprise under the coat.
Lois raised her eyebrows at the image, and this time she was the one blushing at the mental image it brought. "The subject, so to speak, is covered, Clark," she said, gesturing toward him. "There are two layers of protection down there. Guys swimming at the Olympics wear much, MUCH less in public. Plus they shave every inch of their body, and that's just embarrassing."
"Heaven forbid it should get cold out," Clark muttered, and Lois couldn't help but laugh. She felt bad as a pout began to form on his face, but she couldn't help it.
"Tell you what," she said, pressing up against him and snaking an arm around his shoulders. "Why don't we go on about the city for a little while, fight some crime, and see if any old ladies faint."
The cape bounced once or twice behind him as his hands released it and worked their way behind her back. "The first time someone's gaze goes down there instead of making eye contact with me, I'm out," he said, his eyebrows raised, his voice seemingly serious.
"You're overreacting," Lois said.
"Well, you…" he started, but was cut off as Lois leaned in and kissed him thoroughly. He gladly returned the kiss, devouring her mouth, pulling her tightly into him.
As Lois pulled away, she tilted her head back and smiled. "I'm biased," she said, bringing a smile to his lips. "Come on, you'll be fine." The arms that had been behind his back dropped, and she twisted in his arms, grabbing one of his hands with hers and slowly tried to nudge him toward the window.
"So, wait a second, since when do 'we' fight crime?" he asked, smiling, resisting her motion. "And I don't mean 'we' in the royal sense."
"Since someone got cold feet, that's when," Lois answered, still gently tugging him toward the window. "Besides, I want to see how the new suit goes over."
"It could be dangerous," Clark said, his smile fading away and his voice completely serious.
Lois stilled and regarded him. She knew, academically, that much of what he did involved rescues or helping at the scene of an accident or disaster, but he also stepped in front of bullets and tangoed with criminals that potentially were quite dangerous to a mere mortal. If something were to happen to her out there while she was at his side, he would never forgive himself, his eyes told her that. But something inside of her, be it pigheadedness or sheer faith, told her not to worry, because it would be okay. "I trust you to keep me safe," she said, gently squeezing the hand that she held in her own.
The words seemed to chase away the last of his worries, and, with one last awkward look downward, he approached her window, removed the screen, and stepped up. Before she knew what was happening, he had gathered her into his arms and, together, they were shooting across the Metropolis skyline. As soon as she caught her breath, she turned her gaze downward, sweeping across the city below, drinking in the vastness of it all.
Their first stop was an armed robbery in a seedier part of town. Clark set her down atop the building across the street before foiling the robbery, quickly dropping the criminal off at the nearest police precinct. She had to strain to see any of the action at all, but when Clark returned, he didn't seem embarrassed or shy. In fact, he was smiling ever so slightly, although his hands still fidgeted with the cape.
"So?" Lois asked as he picked her up and they shot into the sky.
"There was a kid waiting in the lobby of the police station that thought my outfit was gnarly. His exact words."
Lois beamed. The next stop was a mugging, and again Lois found herself observing from afar, but she didn't mind. It was just exciting to be with him, to share in this little nugget of his life. As they continued on to other minor crimes, he gave a running dialogue of what was happening below, of the drug deals and the prostitution and the white-collar crime that he could see but couldn't stop, at least not as a superhero. But as a reporter, maybe someday he could write stories to put a stop to those things, too. Fighting crime via typewriter was a prospect that Lois actively looked forward to, and she wondered what it would be like to have Clark at her side as she did, part of a writing duo that could bring real change to the city.
The last stop that they made was at a crash on one of the river bridges. This time she watched from the floodwall as Clark cleared away the wrecked cars and tended to the injured, under the glare of the assembled media for the first time that night. Even with the eyes of the world on him, Clark didn't flinch, didn't shyly tug at his cape or try to hide the tightness of the outfit. If anything, he almost seemed to carry himself with more authority, standing tall amidst the flood of curious people. When the traffic was moving again and the crash sufficiently cleaned up, he returned to her, gathered her up, and took off into the sky again, this time headed west.
As Metropolis faded away behind them, Lois lightly kissed his cheek and told him how proud she was of him, her very own hero. He had the good grace to seem embarrassed, although Lois was acutely aware that the accolades and the adulation made him somewhat uncomfortable, even when they came from her. It was nothing special, he insisted, even though the situation seemed to bizarrely say just the opposite. Here they were, suspended in mid air, traveling faster than the speed of sound, and still he didn't see himself as anything to get excited over. But rather than try and argue the point with him, Lois simply reminded him that his spandex-covered form was now preserved on tape for all time, torturing the faint of heart and fashion conservatives everywhere, and that surely it took some bravery to have to face that from here on out. She laughed as she seemed to catch him off guard for a moment, but the laughs turned to screams a split second later as they were diving toward the ground, then turning barrel rolls as they shot back into the air. He smiled smugly while she caught her breath and held on for dear life, although she was laughing again soon enough.
It was certainly different flying with him across the countryside, Lois thought as they fell into a steady altitude again and chased the sun westward. She'd been in an airplane before, probably flying over the very same locations that she was now, but it wasn't the same. No crowded coach section, no roar of the jet engines, no screaming babies behind her…not really any sound at all, except for the soft fluttering of Clark's cape. They had to be several miles in the air, but she wasn't cold, wasn't short of breath. It was just her and Clark, alone with the clouds in the thin air, his arms the only thing keeping her from plummeting to Earth, but somehow she felt absolutely safe.
Flying along, he pointed out the landmarks, the Great Lakes, the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, the large cities of the Midwest and some of the smaller ones, too, many of which she'd never heard of before. The green lushness of the east began to fade into gold and brown as they headed west, the towns gradually spacing out, the rolling hills flattening out until there was virtually no topography at all. Finally, as they passed the last of the Ozarks, south and west of Kansas City, they began to descend, coming to a stop several thousand feet above a small town, one that seemed utterly unremarkable in every way. But she thought she knew where they were, all the same.
"This is Smallville," Clark said, his eyes locked onto the land below. "Kind of a clichéd name, I know, but it's my hometown." He pointed out the main features of town, the courthouse and the movie theater and the churches, buildings so small that Lois had a hard time resolving them from their vantage point. Finally, one of his hands loosened its grip on her and pointed out away from town a couple miles, toward a small white house sitting in a green oasis along a lonely stretch of gravel road. "That's where my folks lived," he said, his even voice hiding any hurt he felt at saying the words.
"Show me," Lois said, genuinely interested in seeing this slice of his past. Slowly they drifted toward the house, then past it, finally coming to earth in a small stand of trees well away from humanity, a large, grassy field separating it from the farmstead that had once been Clark's home.
Clark set her on the ground and sighed, looking toward the house, then quickly away, his hand coming up and pinching the bridge of his nose. Something was wrong.
"We don't have to stay if it's too painful, I just wanted to see…" Lois said, laying her hand on his shoulder. Clark smiled and shook his head, then took a deep breath before taking a step forward, out of her grasp.
"It's not that," he answered, looking back toward the house. "As odd as it sounds, coming back here could never be painful for me." He shook his head. "Sure, I miss it, and I miss my folks, but I have too many happy memories from this place to be sad."
Lois regarded him, wondering. There were so many things that made Clark unique, so many little personality quirks that she doubted anyone else possessed. She was sure that, in his place, she would find it hard to come back to a place where she was once happy without feeling twinges of those memories, and feeling a great deal of emptiness knowing that those happy times could never be anymore. But Clark seemed to be more optimistic, seemed to view life from a more positive perspective, and that was part of what she loved about him.
"So what is it? What's wrong?" Lois asked, still curious about his initial reaction.
He grinned slightly and turned toward her. "I just remembered a dream I had."
"A dream?" Lois asked. She wandered over to a nearby tree and leaned against its massive trunk. He stayed rooted where he was and crossed his arms over his chest, his cape twisting gently in the slight breeze.
Clark nodded. "From when I was knocked out. I can remember every detail clearly, like it wasn't a dream so much as an event I actually experienced." He took one step forward, looked at the farmhouse, then turned back toward Lois. "I dreamt that I came back here, but the place looked like I never left. And my parents were both there, alive, serving up some nice, warm apple pie." He smiled and looked away again, his eyes distant. "I remembered that I just wanted to stay, to never leave, but they wouldn't have any of that. They said that I had a destiny to fulfill, that I had to bring hope to the world."
Lois felt goosebumps rise on her arms as he continued, his voice soft. "Somewhere out there are probably more green rocks that have the ability to knock me out cold, maybe even kill me. But I tell you, that doesn't scare me half as much as the prospect that I'm going to be some sort of defining symbol of humanity, that I'm going to change the world. Who am I? I'm just some dumb college kid who can fly. I'm nobody to look up to."
"Sure you are," Lois answered, drawing his attention. "You went though hell because you wanted to help people. But even though you walked right up to the brink of death, you didn't let it scare you off. As soon as you could, you were out there again, helping. That's an example that everyone should look up to, if you ask me."
"Maybe," Clark said, looking away. "Anyway, there's no saying that the dream meant anything. I mean, it felt so real, and it still does, and I can't help but think that maybe my folks were trying to tell me something. But at the same time, there is no such thing as ESP or psychic ability. It was probably just a figment of my imagination."
Lois looked at him wide-eyed, suddenly remembering something from that night. "Don't discount the whole psychic ability thing," she said after a moment, drawing a startled glance from him. "I know it sounds weird, but when you passed out that night, when I was waiting out in that alley half a block away, I could feel it. There was a stab of incredible pain for just a split second, then it was gone. A couple minutes later, Kevin was coming out the door, and the rest is history."
He arched his eyebrows, a ghost of a smile forming on his lips. "Could've been indigestion," he said, his smile broadening.
"I have a stomach of steel," she answered, only partially joking. "And do you even know what it's like to have indigestion?"
He walked toward her, his hands dropping to his side. "I ate dorm food without the benefit of invulnerability a couple of weeks ago. Trust me, I know." The twinkle was back in his eyes, offsetting his crooked smile. The seriousness had passed, Lois knew, happy to get back to the witty banter that she loved so much.
"And, see, I knew you knew, because we're psychically connected," she answered. "I just wanted to hear you say it."
"Right," he answered, putting his hand out and leaning against the tree next to her. "So, how about you tell me what I'm thinking now?"
Lois tilted her head and looked at him, trying not to smile. "You're thinking about how much you want to kiss me," she said. He brought his hand up under his chin, making a thinking pose, then shrugged and leaned in to her, meeting her lips with his. As he pulled away, she ran her tongue across her lips, savoring the lingering tingle that he always seemed to bring. "And now you're thinking, enough of the trip down memory lane. Time to show Lois some of the more exciting sights in swinging Kansas."
"Ha, some psychic you are," he said, gathering her up in his arms. "As I'm sure you're aware, there are no exciting sights in Kansas. No, I was thinking, time to whisk Lois away because that guy coming out the house might see something."
Startled, Lois looked back toward the farm and, sure enough, a man had just stepped onto the porch. As they lifted quickly into the air, she could see the man look back toward where they had just been standing and scratch his head, not sure of what he saw. Lois couldn't help but chuckle at the sight, a part of her thoroughly enjoying this side of being in on his secret, enjoying the private joke that only the two of them could share.
It only took a few seconds before they were landing again, this time on top of what looked like an apartment building, although it was hardly impressive by the standards she was used to. From the roof where they stood, she could see a modestly sized town, and a green patch of grass crisscrossed by sidewalks and surrounded by stately looking buildings in the distance representing the college. "Is this Casa Kent?" she asked, glancing at Clark before heading toward the door that stood in the distance.
"Casa Kent is one of those dorm rooms small enough that you'd need a shoehorn to fit two people in," he answered, and Lois smiled. "Not that the prospect of being close scares me, but I'm just afraid that if I take you to my humble abode, you might find out some deep, dark secret about me. I don't know if I could take that." Behind her, a whooshing sound could distinctly be heard above her laughter, and as she pulled open the door and turned around to hold it open for Clark, she was startled to see him standing there clad in normal street clothes, glasses and all. It wasn't surprising, she supposed, considering that they were back in the real world now, just Lois Lane and Clark Kent, out for a good time in a quiet Midwestern town. But every now and then the speed at which he could do things caught her off guard.
"I told Kevin that we'd pick him up when we got into town. The poor guy would sit at home all night and read comic books if we didn't," Clark continued, following her in the door and down the stairs. She let him lead the way as they got further into the building, and they continued on in silence until reaching an ordinary looking door in an ordinary looking hallway. They didn't even need to knock before it was pulled open in front of them, and eager looking Kevin Jones waiting on the other side.
"Hey guys," he said, quickly exiting the apartment and locking the door behind him. "It's okay that I tag along, right? I mean, I don't want to intrude on anything."
"You're half of my favorite dynamic duo," Lois said, returning his eager grin. No, this certainly wasn't a pity date, she thought, genuinely happy to have him around. After that night in Metropolis, he had become a good friend, too. And good friends needed healthy doses of teasing. "And, might I add, you're my favorite third wheel."
"Lois!" Clark said, startled, although Kevin laughed.
"Yeah yeah, I need a date, don't get me started," he answered, the trio falling into step as they walked down the hallway. "A double date would certainly be a lot less awkward." As silence settled over the group, Kevin looked quizzically toward Lois, then smiled. "You wouldn't happen to have a sister, would you?"
Lois smirked. "As a matter of fact…"
They all laughed for the first of many times that evening, the sound echoing down the stairwell and following them along, never very far away.
Nobody could say that the bullpen of the Daily Planet was quiet. The constant bustle of people and low conversation gave the area a distinctive soundtrack, one that could be grating to those who had never experienced it before. But to Clark, the steady noise was a soothing thing, a part of the Planet that was as defining as the large globe now standing over the entrance of the building. In a way, it was also a reflection of Metropolis, the city he now called home, a place that never slept, never slowed down, never lacked for a dull moment; a place that was strikingly different from where he called home for the first two decades of his life, but that he could never imagine living outside of, not anymore. But even above the conversation, the ringing of telephones, and the gentle clatter of keyboards, it was hard to miss a hard, heavy sigh, one that spoke of frustration, one that originated from the desk of Lois Lane, his wife of the last four years.
Clark looked up from the story he was working on and glanced toward Lois, the very sight of her bringing a smile to his face. Lois was leaning back in her chair, her eyes locked onto the ceiling high above, her hands clasped together behind her head. On the desk in front of her, papers were scattered randomly, sitting oddly atop stacks of folders, coffee mugs, writing utensils, and other random objects. Only her computer, a plant tinted brown from years of abuse and malnourishment, and a framed photograph of a handsome, dark-haired young boy stuck out above the mess. After a moment, Lois breathed deeply and leaned forward again, glancing toward the photograph before shifting her eyes toward Clark, her frown quickly disappearing.
It was the arms smuggling story, Clark thought as he rose from his chair and took the few short strides toward her desk. For months, the Metropolis Police Department had been noting the steady increase of guns available on the streets of Metropolis. Clark, too, had noticed how the city seemed to be getting steadily more violent. Gunshots rang out across the city often, and lately it had taken more and more of his time to tend to the consequences. He'd covertly tried to do what he could to get the guns off the street, smuggling gun stockpiles away and destroying them. Lois had taken it upon herself to look into why the problem had come about, and who was profiting from the illegal sales and from the deaths of those caught in the crossfire. Daily Planet editor Perry White had been more than happy to let her devote her time to the story, knowing full well that a Lane investigation always had a large, front-page payoff.
Clark offered to do what he could to help her, but this was one investigation that she wanted for herself, and he could certainly respect that. This story would be her way of bringing about real change to the world, something that he did on a daily basis in his other guise, and something that he knew he tended to take for granted. The story required some minor undercover work and heavy reliance on some rather shady sources to get into the meat of the investigation, and although he had promised to let her do whatever she needed to do, Clark had discreetly kept an eye on her. Lois had a nose for trouble, and Clark had long since lost count of the number of times that he had saved her from one dangerous situation or another, although that hadn't been the case recently. Lois had come to her senses, aware for the first time that there were a wealth of reasons for her to keep herself safe, and it was all because someone had come into their lives and caused both of them to examine what their priorities were.
Clark circled behind Lois and rested his hand on her shoulder, his eyes wandering toward the photograph rising above the papers on her desk. Jonathan, their miracle, the child that they never thought they could have, was the reason that Lois Lane had finally slowed down. Neither of them was well versed in biology, but it only stood to reason that a human shouldn't be able to procreate with someone or something outside their own species. After they had married, the subject of children had come up a few times, and they had discussed the matter in rational terms, always deciding that maybe it was for the best that they could never have a baby. But, rationality aside, he knew that the idea that she would never be a mother saddened her more than she would ever let him know, and he sometimes caught himself wondering what it would be like to have a little person around who would carry all the best of Lois and himself. Then, one day, it had happened. Lois became pregnant. Maybe, underneath all the differences that separated him from the average person, underneath the flying and the invulnerability, he was just the same, a human after all. He teased Lois that the kid would probably look just like the mailman, but now, a year later, it was hard to deny the resemblance to his childhood photographs. Jonathan was their ultimate symbol of love, and he was also the anchor of their family. Lois, the formerly daring intrepid reporter, looked at life differently after he came along, no longer risking everything for the big headline, no longer willing to expose herself to possible death. Superman, too, had scaled back his work, only responding to major events and patrolling infrequently. For both of them, the thrill that their work had represented no longer seemed all that important when compared to the thrill that one word or one step from their son could bring.
"It's a foreign source, I know it," Lois said, waving her hand in the air above the desk. "I tracked down the ship that my source fingered and found that it was owned by a Dutch company, although the cargo aboard largely originated from the Congo."
News from that area of the world seemed to be mentioned in one international publication or another on almost a daily basis. "Aren't they fighting a civil war in that part of Africa?" Clark asked, leaning over the desk, quickly scanning the papers.
"Yes, a very expensive one," Lois replied, reaching for one sheet that was partially buried. She had apparently read the same articles he had, and probed a little further into the particulars of what was going on over there if the sheet of paper was any indication. A dictator, installed by a foreign government interested in obtaining preferential treatment and mineral rights, had become unpopular and violent. The wealthy landowners persecuted by the government banded with the common citizen whose rights had been taken away to form a revolutionary army, one with the ultimate objective of putting one of their members in power. Both the resistance movement and the dictator had wealthy backers, and both would go to any lengths to secure victory. "Guns, while necessary for war, also fetch a lot of money on the black market," Lois continued. "If some shady representative of the resistance movement, say, steals a bunch from the government, he can keep what he needs and sell the rest to fund his activities."
"But you don't have any proof of that, do you?" Clark asked, although he could see from the assembled information that she didn't. It wasn't a bad theory, though, and certainly it wouldn't take much imagination to conclude such a thing from the items that she did have.
Lois shook her head and sighed again, then looked up toward him. "The impetuous Lois Lane of old would run over there, put on army fatigues and just fade into the jungle, mingling with the natives, interviewing the freedom fighters. Anything to ferret out the story. Because whatever the origin of these weapons is, it's not going to be found here in Metropolis." Her eyes gradually shifted away from Clark and focused off into the distance, her mind probably playing out that scenario. Tamed down or not, Lois still longed for adventure, he knew. His hand gave a light squeeze to her shoulder, drawing her gaze back up to him.
"Do you want me to run over there sometime and take a look? I can take a few pictures and get some nice quotes, and you can pull the whole anonymous source thing to explain their origins. And I won't contribute a word to the copy or so much as look at the story until after it's been splashed across the front page and received hearty accolades for its brilliance." It was something that, in the past, would've surely insulted her. To suggest that she couldn't or shouldn't go over to the Congo, even if it was in the middle of a war, would've surely brought her wrath. She didn't need protecting, she didn't need to have superpowers to get to the bottom of the story. Even offering her the headline, with no mention of his contribution, wouldn't have been enough to soften the blow in the past, but this was a new Lois. There was no anger in her eyes as she gave him a sad smile and nodded.
"I feel bad having to rely on your alter ego for the scoop on this one," she said, but Clark would hear none of it. He bent over and kissed her gently, then straightened himself up.
"My alter ego doesn't mind. You stay safe and get the story at the same time, and I get the joy of swatting mosquitoes and meeting Jurassic-era jungle insects. It's a fair trade, I think."
Lois laughed lightly, laying a hand on his. "Well, as long as you aren't complaining about it." She turned again toward the papers in front of her, then raised her eyebrows. "So, when can I expect my anonymous source to get me this information?"
Clark mentally reviewed his calendar, smiling to himself about the fact that Lois wasn't going to let him forget that, in this instance as in many others, she was the boss. "Barring any unforeseen disasters, maybe late Friday night or Saturday morning," he said. Scraping together free time was a feat that even he didn't have the power to accomplish.
Lois looked at him, amusement on her face, not responding for a moment. As his expression morphed into one of confusion, she finally gave him a wry smile. "You forgot, didn't you?" she asked.
Clark squinted and shrugged slightly. "Forgot what?" he asked, suddenly not entirely certain that he wasn't forgetting their wedding anniversary, or her birthday, or any of the other dates that he should know well by now.
"What this weekend is." Clark drew a blank as he stared at her, and she laughed lightly, rising out of the chair. "You're only going to be the best man."
Clark's eyes went wide as his memory was finally jogged. "Oh, right. I've only been looking forward to this Saturday every day since Kevin first butted in on one of our dates," he said, shaking his head, remembering all the times that he and Lois had to restrain themselves on a Friday night because their friend was present.
This weekend, the shoe would finally be on the other foot. Kevin Jones, a middle school teacher and volunteer firefighter in one of the Kansas City suburbs, known as "Uncle Kevin" to the youngest Kent, was finally going to walk down the aisle. The lucky lady was intelligent and sweet, could tell a joke better than anyone Clark had ever met, and had a fine appreciation for the geekier parts of life, namely comic books. She'd first met Kevin, or more precisely, his alter ego, at the site of a terrible accident. During a freak snowstorm, I-35 through northern Kansas had been turned into a skating rink, and one small rear-end accident had snowballed, so to speak, due to the bad weather, turning into a fiery multi-car crash. She had been traveling with her family at the time, just another motorist caught in the melee and rescued by Bolt. During the flight to safety, she'd let it slip that she was a fan of his, and then compared him to an obscure comic book character that he swore nobody else except his local comic book shop proprietor knew about. It had been instant love. Of course, Bolt tried to stay above the earthly matters of affection and relationships, and after he had delivered her to a safe place, he had said goodbye just as he would to any normal charge. But Kevin was smitten, and he wasn't about to just let her go. As the paramedics at site tended to her and the police took her statement, he hovered in the air, surreptitiously observing, jotting down the pertinent information that would lead him to her again. Only after he got what he wanted did he finally leave to continue with his work.
A few days later, at a mall in Lincoln, Nebraska, Kevin Jones finally met Sarah, the woman that Bolt had met on an icy interstate, sans silver helmet and football jersey. It took the better part of the day to work up the courage to finally drop from the sky and confront her, but when the moment was right he did, and they had hit it off immediately. They'd walked around and spoken until the mall closed down, and then wandered the town and the countryside well into the night, just getting to know each other. He couldn't bring himself to lie about where he was from or what he did for a living, because those things played so prominently into who he was. But when she asked why he was in Lincoln, he was caught off guard, finally saying that he was there for a seminar at the University. The idea that he was just in town for the weekend gave him an excuse to see her the next day for a real date, which went better than he could've imagined. In the ensuing months, he visited her often, making up one excuse or another to explain his presence in Nebraska, although he suspected that she knew he was only there for her. She never seemed all that suspicious that he never arrived in a car, that he always ended up meeting her somewhere. Then, one day he came home from work and there she was, sitting on the front stoop of his home, wearing a San Diego Chargers jersey. In that one moment, she showed him that she knew his secret, then told him that she loved him more because of it. They got engaged that night. In Paris.
Not too long after that, Clark had been surprised to find Bolt at a rather routine traffic accident in Metropolis, which was generally Superman's exclusive stomping ground. After it was cleaned up, Kevin stopped by to see Lois and Clark, and gave them the good news. Clark was delighted that his friend had finally found someone to complement him, and he had to admit that Kevin looked happier than Clark could ever remember seeing him. But in the course of conversation, it came up that Sarah didn't know about Superman, that Kevin had concealed his identity from her, even though she had asked, because it really wasn't his secret to give. It was an action that rendered Clark speechless for a moment, although Lois gladly picked up the conversation, giving Kevin a squeeze of the hand and thanking him for the gesture. Kevin replied that it was no big deal, but he had to know how much it meant to Clark. In any case, he'd suddenly smiled and invited them out to Kansas City to meet her, a double date, finally, after all these years. Even though Lois was eight months pregnant at the time, she had accepted the invitation before Clark even had a chance to process the thought.
The date was made for that weekend, at a nice restaurant in a crowded part of town, where there were plenty of dark alleys and no nearby parking. Kevin and Sarah were already waiting when they arrived, and Lois, who tended to not get along well with other women, was soon chatting with Sarah as if she was an old friend. Throughout the meal, the conversation flowed, the laughter came often, but there was no mention of superheroes, no talk of where Lois and Clark were from or what they did for a living. Clark caught Sarah looking at him from time to time, a sparkle in her eye and an odd smile on her face, but he really didn't think much of it. Not until, a couple of days later, Superman made an appearance in Kansas City to help Bolt tame a vicious fire in a historic section of town. Once the situation was handled, Bolt had asked Superman to follow him to a quiet spot nearby, where Sarah waited anxiously, giving her fiancée a kiss upon arrival. Bolt had then formally introduced Sarah to Superman, and as she smiled and reached for Clark's hand, she asked him how Lois was doing, and all he could do was smile. Kevin swore that he didn't let the cat out of the bag, although Clark didn't mind her knowing.
And now they were getting married, and Clark had somehow managed to forget, he thought, still shaking his head. He had looked forward to paying Kevin back for the bachelor party thrown for Clark at his wedding. He had looked forward to getting back to the Midwest for a few days and hanging out with some of his old college buddies. He had looked forward to a nice, uninterrupted weekend with his family, proudly showing off his wife and son to acquaintances that he hadn't seen in years. And now he wanted to ruin all that by pulling off this trip to the Congo?
"I know I was supposed to look after Jonathan tonight while you take that tai-kwan-do class, but do you think you can drop him off at your sister's place instead?" he asked, suddenly wanting to get the story wrapped up as soon as possible. After all, it wasn't fair to Lois to have this story hanging over her during their weekend away, either.
Lois raised her eyebrows. "You want to go over there tonight?" she asked, skepticism in her voice.
Clark shrugged. "Sure, why not? It might be nice to get this over with. Leaves me more time to plan the bachelor party."
Lois smiled, then looked down at the mess on her desk. "You need to read…?" she asked, pointing toward the papers, then looking expectantly toward Clark. He just gave her a mischievous smile, one that secretly told her that he already had, at super speed, of course, and that she shouldn't need to ask. Lois quickly closed the gap between them and wrapped her arm around his waist, laying her hand on his chest. "Well then, bag me an exclusive," she said, discreetly reaching up for his tie.
Clark put his hand over hers, stilling her movement, then leaned over to give her a tender kiss. When he pulled back he glanced toward his desk. "Tell Perry I'll get him that piece on President Heston first thing in the morning. And if Lucy asks, tell her that I'm really a superhero, out saving the world from something, and that's why she has to babysit again."
Lois laughed. "Well, I've used that one before, but something tells me that she won't believe it this time either," Lois said. She reached up and gave him another quick peck on the cheek, then sat down again, her eyes locking into his. "Be safe," she said. At his nod, she turned back to her work, quickly arranging the papers and picking up a pencil, getting her notes together.
Clark watched her for a moment, then sighed and started toward the stairwell, grabbing at the knot in his tie as he walked. He never enjoyed leaving her for trouble on the other side of the world, but he knew that, no matter what it took, he would always find his way back. And given the choice, he would rather be the one leaving than the one sitting there, telling her to be safe as she took off toward danger. If he ever lost her, he would surely lose the best part of himself, and he would do anything, ANYTHING, to make sure that didn't happen.
Finding the stairwell empty, he lazily spun into the Suit and sped toward the roof and off into the air, thoughts of Lois still running through his mind. A chance bolt from the blue had led him to Metropolis, to her. What if he hadn't been struck by lightning that day? What if Bolt hadn't been there to give him the courage and inspiration to follow his destiny? Would he still be with Lana right now, trying to convince himself that she was right for him, that she loved him? Would Lois have survived the dangers and risks that she took for the sake of a story without a superhero around to watch over her? As Metropolis fell away behind him, Clark closed is eyes and drove those thoughts away. It didn't do any good to dwell on what could've been, or how different the world would be if not for one chance occurrence. The fact was that the world was what it was, and he certainly couldn't complain about the way things had worked out. He was happy, content, glad that fortune had seen clear to give him the life that he had. He could only smile as he opened his eyes again, pushed his arms out to his side, and enjoyed the wind in his hair and the beauty of the ocean below.
As a streak of blue and red made its way through the skies above Metropolis, a man emerged in a puff of smoke from a dark alley. The crack of thunder caused him to look up into the cloudless sky, easily spotting the form of the city's famous protector. He frowned as his eyes came back to the street around him. People bustled on the sidewalks around him, making their way toward unknown destinations, none overly concerned with the loud rumble that still reverberated through the streets and alleys. Toward the end of the block, he spotted a newsstand, and quickly made his way toward it.
Prominent among the stacks of newspapers at the small stand was the Daily Planet, the front page telling of a political scandal in Washington. The proprietor of the stand seemed somewhat concerned as the man picked up the paper and began to leaf through it, his frown deepening as he scanned the stories contained within. Bolt, helping at a train derailment in Texas, Superman containing oil spilled from a grounded tanker in Alaska. Other headlines, written under the heading of Lois Lane and Clark Kent, the two star reporters of the revitalized Daily Planet.
"No, this won't do," the man muttered, sloppily folding the paper and placing it back on the pile. Somehow, there were two super beings in this world, two people who would have to be defeated if he were to succeed with his plan. Lane and Kent seemed to be almost more formidable here than in other places he had visited, their accomplishments listed in the Planet advertising impressive indeed. No, this definitely wouldn't do, he thought, making his way back toward the alley he had first emerged from.
As he turned the corner and began to fade into the shadows cast by the neighboring buildings, two young men shot out of the darkness, each making contact with him on their way by.
"Cretins," the man said, watching them for a moment, pondering what he would do if he could lay his hands on them. In the end, though, he sighed and continued into the depths of the alley, vanishing a few moments later in a puff of smoke, bound for a different world. Somewhere, he knew, he would find a world without Superman. He would just need to keep looking.