"Hey, Big Blue! Or, er…Clark!"
The two broad shoulders turned to face him, though they looked a little less intimidating when they were sheathed in ratted tweed gathered from their thrift store refuge, rather than electric Lycra. Superman was running his fingers through his hair, shaking them in a practiced motion that erased the spit curl from his forehead. He grinned crookedly; he already looked more relaxed than usual. "Hey, Flash," he said, his voice softer around the edges and suddenly full of amusement. "What is it?"
"Um. Actually, it's Wally." Wally had thrown on a old t-shirt and jeans, trying to impress his friends who now, he realized, seemed so much older than him. "So, what is it you do? I mean, when you're not, you know, the big guy?"
Superman turned to a rack of secondhand reading glasses and spun it around thoughtfully. "I'm a reporter," he said as he selected and slid on a hideous pair of horn-rimmed spectacles. "I work for the Daily Planet in Metropolis."
Superman then turned back around to face Wally. He suddenly seemed shorter and more slight, still broad but no longer obvious. The thick glasses made his eyes appear wider and a less brilliant blue. He looked less like the cool older brother Wally usually saw, and more like a really boring distant cousin.
Wally eyed this new man - Clark - with confusion. "You're a writer?"
Clark now pulled a necktie off an errant rack and started to tie it; it was approximately the color of strained peas. He smiled warmly. "Not what you imagined?"
"Well," said Wally, embarrassed to caught, "I never really imagined you off the clock at all." He paused to think. "I guess if someone had asked, I would have guessed…a cop." He laughed. "Wow, that's stupid."
Clark smiled good-naturedly. "No, it means I'm doing something right."
"Did you pick it so you'd always know if there was trouble?" Wally asked, looking down at the toes of his ill-fitting sneakers. "Reporting, I mean."
Clark sat down in an old wicker chair and looked at Wally over the rims of his glasses, his eyes returning to the blue that Wally knew well. "I guess that was part of it, in the beginning. But I love the Planet, and I love revealing the truth, whatever it takes. I like knowing I can help people, even without the cape." He leaned back in the chair and clasped his hands behind his head. "What about you, Wally? What's your day job?"
Wally sat down on an ottoman and rested one ankle on his other knee. "I'm a scientist for the CCPD."
Clark raised his eyebrows and smiled knowingly. "Ah. See? I should have known. You always want to help people."
Wally tried not to blush. "Or maybe I was just deciding to be a biochem major when CSI premiered."
Clark laughed, which was another thing Wally had never imaged Superman doing. "I think you know which one," he said.
Wally offered a small smile, remembering again exactly who he was talking to. There was so much he wanted to ask Superman, now that the secret identity floodgates had opened. Did he have a wife or kids? Did he live in a dingy apartment or a nice house? What were his parents like, and his hometown? Did he keep his costumes in the back of his closet or in some Kryptonian storage orb that he hid in the Fortress of Solitude?
"It's time to go." Batman's gravelly voice was always a killjoy, but now it was coming from the surprisingly youthful and handsome face of Bruce Wayne, and Wally didn't know what to think.
He stood up with a sigh and ran a hand through his bright red hair. "Hey, Clark? This might be kind of weird, considering I feel like I just met you, but do you want to maybe…hang out sometime?" He laughed self-consciously. "I mean, in our civvies."
Clark grinned and pushed the glasses up his nose with his middle finger in a movement that seemed both extremely natural and completely foreign. "I'd love to, Wally," he said. "In fact, I know a great diner, a little hole-in-the-wall in my neighborhood in Metropolis. Best milkshakes on the east coast. Think you could hop over on your lunch break sometime, after all this blows over?"
Milkshakes, Wally thought. Of course he likes milkshakes. "Assuming we don't get blasted to bits by the hawk people first, you mean."
Clark smiled serenely. "We won't be," he said. "Let's book our lunch for next Thursday."
Even with the Thanagarian crisis taking up most of his time, Wally had time to look up Clark Kent on Wikipedia in the week before their planned lunch. Clark was (supposedly) born and raised in a small town in Kansas that was notable only for a mythical "super-boy" that had apparently been sighted all over the Midwest, though its existence was never proven. He left Smallville for Metropolis University and after hen graduated, he spent three years doing something that was left blank in the biography. After that, he moved back to Metropolis to work for the Planet just as Superman first appeared in the city. He had been an investigative reporter there for almost twelve years, and in that time had won three Kerths, a Pulitzer, and his partner, Lois Lane. He had gained a reputation for in-depth Superman and Justice League coverage, second to only his wife's, and also held a focus on Intergang and other organized crime. Clark and Lois would be married for six years in May.
After the League meeting that Monday night - they were using the Batcave as their temporary headquarters - Superman handed Wally a folded Post-it note which read, at the top, "From the desk of Lois Lane-Kent." Somebody with rushed, slender handwriting had then scrawled an address and a time. Wally tucked it beneath the neck of his cowl for the run home, to make sure he didn't lose it in the wind.
He clutched it in his hand now, at 12:58 on that Thursday afternoon. Clark had given him the address to a modest, but quaint, brownstone on Sullivan Place, just three blocks over from the Avenue of Tomorrow. From the doorstep, Wally could see the Daily Planet globe turning serenely above the rest of the city. He pressed the button by the nameplate - "LANE & KENT" - and smoothed his windswept sweater, wondering for the millionth time what one wore to milkshakes with Superman. The door buzzed, and he raced up the stairs, not bothering with normal speed.
On the second knock, a raven-haired woman answered the door. She was petite, but gave no indication that she was at all easy to knock over. She smiled with thin, red lips up at Wally, and he noticed she was beautiful.
"You must be Wally," she said. "Come on in." She opened the door wider for him to step into the small, cozy room. "Can I get you some coffee or a soda or something? Clark'll be right back; he had to step out for a minute-" She stopped short and looked at him, exhaling with relief. "I mean, there's a fire downtown and he just heard about it. Sorry, the lie's a reflex, you understand." She ducked into the adjoining kitchen and, though he hadn't answered her question, poured black coffee into a Daily Planet mug.
He accepted the steaming mug and stammered, "Um, thanks." She motioned for him to sit, so he chose a love seat and carefully sat down. "So, um, you know then?" he asked, ducking his head.
"You mean about the 'super' thing?" She scoffed. "Sure, he told me when we got engaged." She sipped from her own mug and eyed him curiously. "Why, does your wife not know?"
Wally was taken aback. "No, I'm not married," he said quickly.
"Oh, right!" Lois said triumphantly. "I remember now - you're the bachelor. Clark mentioned the van, but it slipped my mind."
Wally was shocked and mortified at the thought of Superman and his tiny, intimidating wife discussing the Shaggin' Wagon.
Lois glanced quickly over her shoulder, where the TV, on mute, was showing live footage of Superman in Hob's Bay. Having rescued the people in the apartment, he was using his super breath to blow out the fire. Wally shook his head in wonder as she turned back around. "He's really good at that," he said, voice brimming with barely-concealed admiration.
Lois sighed, letting slip signs of herself more than a decade before, when she was just another awed spectator. "He really is," she said with a smile, and Wally saw for the first time how much Lois loved her husband. She took another sip of coffee and sat on the couch opposite Wally. "I'm so glad he's making friends in the League, real friends. Two years ago, I said to him, 'Clark, the club of people you're completely honest with cannot just consist of your parents, me, and Batman.' Lord knows I love Bruce, but the most stable man in the world he's not."
A sudden wind rattled the French doors that led to the intimate terrace, and through the glass, Wally could see Superman landing gracefully among the iron deck furniture. He opened the doors delicately and strode into the room, patting the last bit of ash from his costume.
He grinned wide upon seeing Wally. "Hey, you're here!" he said, and Wally saw again the cool older brother. He bent to give Lois a quick peck on the lips and then said to Wally, "Just give me a second to change, and then we'll head out."
Superman vanished - Wally's super-fast eyes saw him disappear into an adjacent door that he assumed was the bedroom - and as Lois rose to return her empty mug to the kitchen, Clark appeared, wearing a Daily Planet softball team shirt beneath a Smallville High letterman's jacket, jeans, and tennis shoes. His hair was as expertly ruffled as it had been on that night at the thrift shop. The second hand horn-rimmed glasses were replaced with Coke-bottle glasses that were slightly better-kept but no less ugly.
Wally was again startled by the transformation - even without the benefit of a cowl, Clark and Superman somehow seemed like two different people. The less-commanding version of Superman's voice was coming out of Clark's mouth. It said, "Well, shall we?"
Wally stood and glanced again at the French doors. "Are we running, or…?"
Clark laughed and grabbed a hat from the rack by the door. "We can if you want, but I'm in no rush. Are you?"
Wally didn't usually discriminate between being in a rush and just being normal, but then again, he had super-speed, and he wasn't from the Midwest. "I guess not."
Clark opened the front door as Lois sat back down on the couch with her MacBook. He turned back to his wife to ask, "Did you want to come with us, Lois? We're just going to Flo's."
Lois looked up; she was in the process of putting on black reading glasses that put Wally in mind of the sexy librarians he'd fanaticized about in college. She smiled at Wally, so he looked away. "No, that's okay," she said. "You boys have fun."
Clark rolled his eyes with a smile and gestured for Wally to step out of the apartment.
One thing that had always amazed Wally about Superman was that he was impossible not to like. It was annoying sometimes, when Wally wanted to quip about how Big Blue was late to a League meeting, but before he could open his mouth, Superman would say something like, "I'm awfully sorry I'm late, guys, but I had save a little girl and a kitten from certain death." Of course he did - he's Superman. Wally often ascribed this inherent likeability to a subconscious reaction to the costume. Superman had done a good job in making the S-shield mean something to everyone, and Wally figured that unless he committed a felony, that crest was going to be hard to frown upon.
So he was somewhat confounded and disappointed to find out that people liked Clark Kent every bit as much as they did Superman. As soon as they walked into the diner, followed by the chipper dinging of the door's bell, faces turned and beamed up at Clark. But it wasn't admiration, like Wally and millions of others looked at Superman, but openness and friendship. They were all happy to see him. He was just that kind of guy.
A large woman in an apron approached them from behind the counter and pulled out a pad and pen. "What'll it be today, hon'? Vanilla or strawberry?"
Clark smiled, and Wally couldn't see Superman anywhere. "I think it'll be strawberry today, Flo. And one for my friend here." He clapped Wally on the arm, and Wally felt - for a brief second - the coiled strength in Clark's fingers. Clark motioned for them to slide into a booth, and Wally followed suit.
"I can't believe you found a place like this in a city like Metropolis," Wally said in an almost hushed tone. "It's like it's straight out of-"
"-Kansas?" Clark shrugged and started to leaf through one of the laminated menus on the table. "Part of the upbringing, I guess. Did I tell you that I was raised on a farm? Well, I was. In a town called Smallville." He pushed his glasses up his nose. "Lois likes to say that you can take the boy off the farm but… well, you can guess the rest."
Wally smirked. "Don't tell me you were a boy scout, too. It would explain so much."
Clark laughed heartily, letting his formidable chest rumble beneath his ratted t-shirt. "Actually, no, I wasn't allowed. But my pa was an Eagle Scout. He gave me his pen knife when I was twelve, and it only took me two minutes to break it."
Wally had only seen Superman break things on purpose; he never imagined him out of control. He leaned forward. "Jeez, what did you do to it?"
"I tried to pick my teeth with it," Clark muttered conspiratorially, "and it broke off in my hand."
Wally barely registered the image before he started laughing. It was such a normal mistake - so human - and yet tinged with the otherworldly absurdity that Wally had come to associate with Superman. Wally calmed down just enough to lean in and whisper, "The first time I got to third base with a girl, I got so hyped up that I vibrated through the bed."
Clark started to laugh again and Wally joined in. He didn't even care that Flo and all of the too-quaint-to-be-real patrons of the diner were glaring at them - two otherwise-inconspicuous men guffawing in their booth over something no one else could possibly understand.
Clark lifted up his glasses to wipe his eye and Wally glanced around, wondering if anyone else caught a glimpse of the man that Clark Kent hid behind decades-old clothes and Coke-bottle spectacles. That was the man, the legend, that Wally knew, though he was beginning to suspect that Superman was as much a façade as those hideous glasses were.
Flo came with their milkshakes - complete with whipped cream and cherries - and Clark grabbed a spoon and dug in.
"So you come here a lot?" Wally asked as he unwrapped his straw. "It seems like they really know you here."
Clark scooped a heaping spoonful into his mouth, but he missed and was left with a slight strawberry mustache. "I guess so," he said. "It really depends how busy I am. This is actually my first milkshake in a month or so."
"The Thanagarian crisis?" Wally could sympathize. The hawkpeople had really taken a chunk out of his social life as well.
"Well, yeah," Clark said, "but then before that, Lois and I were working on a big Lexcorp exposé, and before that, Livewire and Toyman broke out of Belle Reve. Come to think of it, I haven't had real free time since before I joined the Smallville High football team."
Wally took a thoughtful slurp. "And how does the little lady feel about that?"
Clark smiled. "Oh, Lois is used to it. She knows why I have to do what I do. I actually think she knows me better than I do." He pointed his spoon at Wally. "And don't let her hear you call her 'little lady' unless you want to endanger your future children."
Wally laughed, but he wasn't sure it was a joke. Superman never really joked. "So how did you two meet? Through the Planet?"
Clark polished off his cherry. "Yeah, Perry made us partners almost as soon as he hired me. Of course, I had just debuted the costume, and she was too enamored with Superman to notice Clark at all."
Wally smiled lopsidedly. "Love at first sight then?"
"You're getting confused," Clark said. "Superman isn't real. I mean, he is, but he's like…a cardboard cut-out of the real me." He stirred his milkshake thoughtfully. "Lois fell in love with a persona that I created. But that's not me. It took her years to fall in love with Clark, though she'll try to tell you otherwise."
"Then who have I been hanging out with for the past two years?" Wally asked, indignant. "Was that a cardboard cut-out?"
"No, no, not at all." Clark shook his head emphatically, clearly embarrassed. "You're my friend, Wally. You're all my friends. You have been since way before you learned my real name." He sighed. "When I wear the costume, it's only a version of me. Maybe it's the tightness of the Lycra, but I don't know - I can't totally relax in the suit." He adjusted his glasses. "Clark is my opportunity to completely be myself, without having to put on a show or meet anyone's expectations but Lois' and my own. Don't you feel that way about the Flash?"
Wally thought for a moment, fingering the gold ring he wore, a present from his Uncle Barry. Finally, he said, "I guess. I mean, when I'm wearing the costume? That's me in there. That's my duty and my legacy. Wally is what I do when I'm not the Flash. But, at the same time, the Flash is bigger than me. It's bigger than Jay, Barry, Bart, and me put together. I have to up my game in the cowl. But it's never not me."
"Well, Superman's never not me, either," Clark said, slowly eating another scoop of milkshake. "But it's like you said. It's the boy scout in me. It's a part of my that I have to bring out. But I'm not always a boy scout, you know."
Wally raised his eyebrows incredulously. "Really."
"Well," Clark conceded, adjusting his glasses, "I'm no Lex Luthor, or even a Bruce Wayne. But, I mean, I cuss. I watch R-rated movies. I even stole two candles from Fordman's Hardware when I was fifteen."
Wally choked on his milkshake.
"Needless to say, even though I got away with it, I was so wracked with guilt that I left an envelope on Mr. Fordman's desk two days later with the money for the candles and a profuse, anonymous letter of apology." Clark watched Wally recover with a small, triumphant smile. "But still! I went through with it!" He leaned in and looked at Wally over the top of his glasses. "But don't tell my folks about it, okay? They still don't know, and it would break their hearts."
Wally smirked. "But why did you steal two candles?"
"Well, ah," Clark stuttered, running his hand through his hair, "I was practicing the, uh, you know-" he pulled his glasses down the bridge of his nose, and then quickly pushed them back up - "and I didn't want to ruin Ma's antique candle collection."
Wally sipped his milkshake smugly, enjoying this stuttering side of Clark Kent. "Wow, you were right. You are a bad-ass."
Clark laughed. "Very funny."
They settled into an awkward silence that was broken when Flo sauntered over, holding two mugs in own hand and a pitcher in the other.
"Coffee, dears?" she asked, her east coast accent grating on Wally's ears.
"Thanks, Flo," Clark said, and Flo set the mugs down and deftly filled them both. Clark handed Wally the sugar with a grin.
As Wally sweetened his coffee (his usual dosage, five packets of sugar and a Sweet'N Low for flavor), he watched Clark lean forward for a packet of creamer. And he was rewarded: as the t-shirt shifted, he caught a glimpse of brilliant blue beneath it. Seeing the costume comforted him, reminded him that this laid-back reporter bore more than a passing resemblance to the Man of Steel. He knew that he should feel more comfortable in street clothes, sharing a perfectly normal cup of coffee with a perfectly abnormal guy, but capes were what he knew.
Clark's head was cocked slightly, and Wally couldn't figure out why until he, too, heard the sirens that careened past the diner's windows, heading in the direction of Suicide Slums. Clark glanced at Wally, the humor gone from his eyes, and Wally nodded.
"Need any help out there?" Wally asked, more out of courtesy than anything else. This was Superman; if it was anything short of Darkseid, Doomsday, or kryptonite, he could handle it blindfolded and with both hands tied behind his back.
Clark was fishing around in his pocket for money for the bill. "Thank, Wally, but you can head on back to work. It's just a bank robbery, and the police don't think it's meta." He tapped his ear as an answer to the unasked question about where the information came from.
Wally stopped Clark from wriggling out of the booth, suddenly embarrassed. "Hey, look, Clark, I had a great time today. At least let me cover the check."
Clark smiled his farm boy smile again as another police car sped past. "Don't be silly, Wally. And we'll do this again. But now…" He clutched at his t-shirt urgently.
"See you at the next meeting?"
"You bet," Clark said, and only Wally saw him disappear.
Wally sat alone in the booth when Flo came to pick up the bill. She frowned. "Where's Clark?"
Wally looked up. The lie was practiced for him, too. "Urgent business. At the Planet."
Flo nodded like she'd heard it before. A waitress behind the counter flipped on a TV. A reporter was interviewing Superman - he had already stopped the robbery. Even through the decades-old television, Wally could see the brilliant blue of Superman's eyes. He towered over the reporter with confident posture, his cape fluttering in the breeze, the 'S' on his chest seeming to reflect the sunlight.
Flo turned back from the TV to Wally. She pointed over her shoulder with her pen to a man that Wally saw differently now. "Heck of a guy, huh?" she said. She spoke in the adoring voice of all Metropolitans, when they talked about Superman.
Wally nodded while sliding out of the booth. "Heck of a guy." The chipper bell on the door rang behind him as he stepped out into the street. The police cars were coming back from the bank now, sirens turned off. Suddenly, a red form streaked across the sky, and someone pointed and called triumphantly.
Wally just looked up, fleetingly, and took off for home.