Author's Note: At the end of Superman II, I sometimes wonder about what it would've been like to just allow Lois her heartbreak. This story is about that alternative scenario, but takes place within the Returns universe. It started out intended as a short one-shot but, as is the way of things, has kind of taken on a life of its own. I hope you enjoy it.
Disclaimer: No comic book characters were financially exploited during the making of this story.
Franz Kafka's Girlfriend
The Present Day.
'-added to the practice squad as soon as contract negotiations have ended. And now, over to Rita with the Five Day Forecast.'
'...two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort, and one of 'em says'
'I ain't gettin' on no plane!'
With her good arm aimed at the set, Lois Lane flicked through television channels employing the well-practised, metronomic technique of one who is bored easily. She pressed another five or six more times in rhythmic succession before arriving on a news station. A reflex response to a red-and-blue blur dashing across the screen caused her finger to halt over the plus button. She tuned her ears to the commentary;
'...where a twenty-thousand ton oil tanker had capsized. This video, sent in by eyewitnesses yesterday evening, shows the Man of Steel apparently freezing the slick with what Superman experts term 'Super-breath'...'
The amateur footage cut away back to the studio, and a stock photograph of Superman's face appeared behind the shoulder of the news anchor as she continued the report. The photograph was old. From before. Lois allowed herself the small pleasure of lingering on the image, and justified it by telling herself it was for medicinal purposes only.
'The causes of the...'
She let her arm flop to the bed and the screen crackled into silence.
In her head, she imitated the report; '...what Superman experts term 'Super-breath'.
It remained a source of fascination to her, the way other people talked about him. Were forced to talk about him. That desire to name his behavior, to codify his abilities, to deconstruct some of his more complicated acts of rescue the way pundits might review a particularly significant sports play. All in an effort, she supposed, to offer up some kind of understanding, however superficial, of who this man was, and why he did the things he did; to contextualize the impossibility of what one was seeing with one's own eyes, to contextualize the impossibility of his very existence.
When news items used terms like 'X Ray vision', and 'Heat vision', and 'Superspeed', it amused her because she thought it often made his extraordinary abilities sound like they had been categorised only after some kind of rigorous medical process; that their etymology was probably rooted in the standardised testing procedures of the Scientific community. The truth was far more prosaic- almost all the Superman terminology in general usage could be attributed back to her.
Well, not just her. One evening, early on, back when she didn't know, they decided it would be hilarious to try and come up with the most ridiculous-sounding names for his powers that they thought they could get away with in print. 'Superbreath'. She remembered that he'd begged, begged her to call it; 'Special Spittle'. 'Superman Saves Day With Special Spittle!' The man must have been drunk. She told him that was a disgusting turn of phrase, that it was a good job he didn't have to write headlines for a living, and that as the professional, it would probably be prudent for her to have final say on all nomenclature pertaining to him.
And she also remembered adding that in future he could keep his Special Spittle to himself. Then they'd let the innuendo wash over and around them, and just revelled in the highly charged after-moment of mutual attraction.
That was a lifetime ago. She sighed deeply. Her ribcage ached.
Deciding to call an end to a pretty shitty day, she reached to switch off her overhead lamp. The movement of her arm caused her to knock the television remote to the floor where it bounced and clattered against the hard surface; the force of impact clacking the screen back into life. She was so tired, for a second she considered just laying back and drifting off to sleep, leaving the television on as background noise.
'...go to Channel Ten News dot com. Coming up next, you've joined us right in time for our late-night adult movie premiere; 'Orgy on Precinct 13.'
Or maybe not.
Carefully, she manoeuvred to the edge of the bed and then lowered herself so she ended up dangling over the side.
The offending item lay about an arm's length away, right underneath her, so she shifted further forward. The cumulative effect of the effort to hold herself in this position, acting in combination with the force of gravity, caused her loose-fitting pyjama top to ride, in a most improper fashion, incrementally up her back, and the hair from her bun to fall across her face. Blowing wayward tendrils of fringe back out of her eyes, she reached for the remote.
Even from this improved angle, she still couldn't quite make the distance so she leaned further and gained the last two inches by outstretching her fingers. Having managed to get a decent enough grip on the awkward slab of plastic, and thus achieved a memorable victory, she was retracting her arm when movement out of the corner of her eye made her stop short.
Two upside down shoes had appeared in the doorway.
She brought her hand back from where it was suspended- holding the controller mid-air under the bed, and levered herself into a normal, upright position. The shoes, and the rest of the body belonging to them, were now the correct way up.
Sitting back in the messed up sheets, she could feel wisps of hair settling back at odd angles on her head, and a slight draft against the bare skin of her stomach told her that the pyjama top had not successfully ridden all the way back down. It was so typical of him to show up at the most inopportune of moments.
Painfully aware of the sound of her own heavy breathing, but with as much nonchalance as she could muster, she shifted her shoulders to try and untuck the unfortunately-hitched fold of pyjama so that she at least was no longer flashing her entire midriff at him. Demurely, she tucked an escaping curl of hair behind her ear. The curl popped straight back over her face, and she left it, as if that was precisely what she had intended it to do all along. Still, it all rather undermined the sense of poise she had at that moment wanted to convey. He didn't move.
'Uh, uh, uh, oh yeah, baby...oh yeah! Harder! Uh, uh, uh!'
Oh God; the television. Blushing violently, she fumbled with the remote, all clammy fingers and thumbs. This time, as the set crackled off, she felt the static electricity raise the small hairs on the back of her neck. The room settled into silence, but the air between them felt loaded with the unspoken words and conversations they'd spent so long running away from.
She resisted a powerful urge to say something that let him know how good it was to see him, how much she missed him, how much better she felt right now, purely for the fact that they were sharing the same room-space. She wanted to cry out, just to try and vocalise what the nearness of him did to her heart. And she also wanted him to know how angry she still was at him, despite all the time that had passed since they had last seen each other.
But experience told her she should settle for something else, something safe. She kept her voice light,
"Well, this is highly embarrassing. The one time I leave the house without any mascara on."
Obscured by shadow, she couldn't yet make out his face, but she knew his eyes were all over her body, she felt them, taking in everything, every detail; the bandage on her right wrist, the set of butterfly stitches running across her hairline, the tips of the toes on her left foot- only just visible, peeking out of a cast. The fact that she was lying before him in a hospital bed at all. Probably, she supposed, no, she knew; his worst nightmare. Her instinct, crazily, was to try and offer comfort to him, even though she was the one on a cocktail of painkillers.
She squinted at him, "It's not as bad as it looks."
He finally moved forward into the light and as he did so, he removed his glasses. In and of itself, this was a perfectly harmless action. The trouble was, and no matter how many times she had seen him do it, it was a gesture that had always tended to illicit an involuntary shiver of pleasure right down her spine.
The intervening time apart had not dulled this response, and she found that her body's reaction to him was only exacerbated by the overall effect of his appearance. He was wearing a tuxedo, and his bow tie hung, rakish and undone, under an open collar. He looked dashing, like James Bond, and it irritated Lois beyond belief because the sight made her pulse quicken and only served to demonstrate that it was still all too easy for him to reduce her to a swooning school girl- by doing nothing more than stand there.
There was almost no recent, good, footage of him available anywhere, so, up this close, she scrutinised his face; wanting to see what was different, what was the same. Whether her memory held up to reality. His hair was a little longer, and although she knew he didn't tan easily, she could swear a climate of sunshine had left faint lines where he wore his glasses. And was it her imagination, or were those freckles?
He looked more tired than she ever remembered, but she certainly recognised the particular expression that now darkened his face. Intense, concerned, eyes burning with repressed emotion; the one reserved for just one person. God, he was hot when he looked slightly pissed with her.
"I thought I told you to be more careful?"
His voice was deep and measured and he began moving toward her but he checked his step before reaching the empty bedside chair. For a long moment he looked at it and seemed unsure what to do next. He wavered before evidently coming to some kind of internal decision. Pulling the back of the chair level to where he had stopped, he delicately folded himself into it, keeping his distance from the bed. From her.
Clearing her throat, she looked at her knees. "How did you know?"
She nodded, almost imperceptibly, and there was warmth in her voice, "I must've hit my head harder than I thought," she frowned in mock puzzlement; "I'm pretty sure I asked him not to tell anyone."
He responded softly, "You mean you asked him not to tell me?"
She looked off to one side with a half-smile, "Man; a car accident. If I'd known that was all it was going to take to get you back here," her eyes flicked back to him and she feigned an air of wistfulness, "I would've got my Audi totalled two years ago."
He fixed her with that familiar look of recrimination, "This isn't funny, Lois."
Although it officially annoyed her that he still obviously felt he had the nerve or the right to be angry at her over anything, even as she could feel the heat of indignation welling inside, somewhere, in a deep recess of the brain, something noted how much she had missed that look.
He was shaking his head at her, "You scared the hell out of me."
Looking him straight in the eye, she defiantly matched the seriousness of his expression before pointedly raising her eyes to the top of his head and then lowering them back to fix them on his face again,
In a cool tone, she told him levelly, "I'm fine. And you need a haircut."