Title: Dead Flag Blues/4 Minute Warning
Characters: Clark, Lois.
Summary: The sun has fallen down / And the billboards are all leering / And the flags are all dead at the top of their poles — Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Clark and Lois at the end of the world.
Notes: For Melissa, for having the best fic ideas and refusing to write them, for having intimidatingly good taste, for being all-around awesome. I hope you like it.
Dead Flag Blues/4 Minute Warning
In the end, there will be no more stars and planets.
Take them all, and throw them away. There is no star where Krypton used to be.
And here one spark had flared up in the dark — just one spark — and then a Fibonacci series of sparks, and Metropolis was a pyre of twisted bones and burning flesh. Clark couldn't breathe.
The sky was all smeared red and black — and up his arms, and under his fingernails.
I could never help anyone.
The city was black shapes projected against the sky, twisted and contorted like the shadows of figures in a medieval dance of death: swaying to the frenetic beat of running footsteps, and the hollow screech of twisting metal. Metropolis was filled to the brim with these noises which could have been music. Clark could hear that better than most.
- - -
Lois heard sirens. The noise ebbed and flowed from a great height, lapping at her toes. They echoed in her skull: sirens, singing you across the river — you, and all of Metropolis.
But not your mother.
There were no sirens the night Lois's mother had died, no ambulance. There had been a skeleton in her bed for weeks, covered in old newspaper-print skin, with a cancer which had spread to her brain and made her deaf. She heard no sirens.
Lois felt herself choke on the thought.
But if she got up — what if? All her friends might be gone by now. Lying here, she could pretend they were fine; in the act of getting up she might scatter their ashes to the wind. And maybe this is my punishment: Lois Lane, turned to stone — defeatist, fatalistic. And in this quiet desolation, there is nobody to pretend to be strong for.
Because Lois had been thinking of Clark, before all this. Thinking of him, thinking about why she might think of him: vague, inconsequential thoughts which she kept at the very back of her mind — because Clark had never been important, or worth thinking about, not at all, not to her, and especially not now that she held his life in her hands.
The whole world was burning to death, and Lois was thinking in silence about all the things Clark would never be.
I am not my mother.
Her hand slipped against the floor as she tried to push herself up, smearing blood all down it. Her closed eyes twitched, and she breathed in — she'd been beat up worse before. That was recent, too, and for a lesser cause than this, back when those lesser causes had seemed so important to her. It felt so long ago. Maybe it was only a few hours.
Then she was up, and her head was throbbing in blue and red all around her. Someone had been bleeding in this room: she could see the evidence of it. There was no blood on her clothes. It wasn't hers.
"Hello?" she said, and tried to blink the haze out of her eyes.
- - -
Clark's blood stagnated. It made his thoughts heavy, dead, so that he seemed to drag them behind him, so that they never seemed to catch up. He saw without understanding the fire which blossomed all around him: red and black creepers which grew up and over the lonely bodies of people he would never know.
This was the desolation which he had cultivated year after year, finally come to flower. It was dust-filled beauty; it was horrifying. And he had to keep moving through it, because if he stopped his thoughts may collide with him — all those dense, heavy thoughts — with a momentum that might crush him.
He had passed a woman picking through a pile of rocks and ash, scraping her hands, coughing against the dust, bleeding all down her arms, and tried to pull her away — "Let me help you, let me help," — but she had just struggled against him and moaned that they were at the edge of time anyway. When he saw the look in her eyes, he had let her go, and tried to imagine that she would turn up someone to put her arms around and wait with for the end.
Somehow, he was still breathing.
- - -
The wind blew cold and dank across the roof of the Daily Planet. At some point, in some time, this place had meant something to Lois, or to the person Lois thought she used to be. Here, now, all she could do was stare out across what used to be her city with a dark emptiness of thought.
Metropolis was a probability wave, collapsed under its own weight. All its possibilities, all its potential, was crumbling in on itself.
There was a time when Lois had thought she lacked potential, and briefly a time when she thought she might have been wrong. All she knew now was that she was watching all potential turn to fire and smoke and more things she didn't need to understand.
Buildings lurched along the haze of sky like old tombstones, overgrown with those red and orange flowers. The city was curling in on itself like burning paper, closing itself tight like a fist.
This wasn't like her. Lois hated herself for this weakness: she couldn't stop now.
Already there was blood on her hands.
Maybe something was salvageable out of this — if she found her way out of Metropolis, if they all did. And maybe, maybe she would find —
She had to believe it, or act as if she did. She had to believe it, because what if it was true and she had given up? This was the paradox of Lois's being. This was the closest thing she had to hope, and she placed it on the coal fire of her heart. It had to be enough to keep her going; it was all she had left.
- - -
This is just a nightmare.
The thought rattled around inside him. Or was that —?
This was an old and familiar dream. Clark, surrounded by by bodies, haunted by the wind: a scene of forsakenness. Desolation. Désolé. I'm sorry.
He never saw their faces. So many of them were charred to dust anyway. They lay where they fell: faceless, empty bodies.
This is just a nightmare.
It was only a matter of time until Lois slammed her hand down next to his head on the desk and brought him round. Maybe he was asleep against his keyboard at the Daily Planet — and maybe she would just lay her hand on his shoulder and put the cup of coffee down by him, and tell him with quiet concern that rookies shouldn't work so hard. It had happened before.
No, but he was collapsing onto the floor, and sobbing, and shaking, because it wasn't true. Here was the Daily Planet, and Lois was dead. Lois was dead, and her face had blown away on the wind, and what was there left? He wrapped his arms around his head and cried into them. It didn't matter how many people he pulled from the ashes and burning; he had pushed them in, just by being, and now he was all alone.
There's nobody left to forgive this.
The crime of his being would linger in the air until the end of the universe. And, maybe, he would linger with it: weakening, asymptotically approaching death. With nobody to forgive him, how would he know when or if he had reached atonement? Could he ever?
Can you all forgive me, for the punishment I brought with me from Krypton? I didn't know.
But the end result is just the same.
He thought someone put their fingers through his, and stroked his hair back from his face, and tried to pull him up — but that was just a nightmare: a trick of memory. He was shaking his head, and pulling back, pulling one more shadow back into the dust with him. "No," he said, "no," as she pleaded with him: "Come on, come on."
"Clark, please." Her fingers were pressed against his eyelids now, trying to make him look at her. "Don't do this to me."
Involuntarily, he felt his hands tighten around hers. Was she really —?
He didn't know how to believe it, except that they were breathing each other's air, she was so close to him. He didn't want to believe it. In nightmares people die over and over. He had seen her fall so many times in his dreams.
"Don't do this," she said, her voice desperate. "Please."
There was blood and soot all down her neck: the imprint of a hand which had grabbed for help at her, slid down her skin. He knew she had grabbed back, and that the hand had been sweaty and slippery, and that its owner had fallen away from her. He knew, because when he touched his hand to the stain, she told him with her eyes.
"Tell me," he wanted to say, "tell me where it was and I can help." But he couldn't, and it was his fault, and so all that came out was a choked "I'm sorry."
Lois turned her face away and swallowed. Clark was a dying star, and she couldn't bear to look right at him or she would break. She couldn't break. Wouldn't. Not now there was someone to pretend to be strong for.
- - -
It all started and finished with kryptonite.
It was kryptonite which had flared up in the dark and put the whole world out: the same kryptonite which Clark had brought with him, the same kryptonite which was choking him to death. It had filled the sky with rust; it had killed all the flags on their poles.
"It's not just Metropolis," he said.
"We should go," Lois said. "There has to be somewhere."
Every once in a while, she could hear the footsteps of other survivors as they scrambled to get out of the city. They echoed inside her, whispering that she should leave too.
But all she wanted was to stay here, with Clark — to put her arms around him, to close her eyes and fall asleep. He had come to find her, she knew: he had come as far as the Daily Planet, and now what? Everyone else might be dead, or lost.
They should try to be strong.
"There's nowhere," Clark said, and she could hear the break in his voice.
"There's somewhere." She said it with quiet determination, with the determination of knowing that if there was nowhere left, then all they had accomplished so far — all those lesser causes they had stood up for — was meaningless.
Lois had been meaningless too often in her life.
But Clark was thinking about the woman he had left moving stones with her hands. He was thinking about all the faceless, unmoving bodies outside the Daily Planet. He was thinking about the nameless somebody Lois had been unable to save.
He was thinking of how long his wait for the end would be. And his hands were shaking, he was falling to his knees.
Lois's arms were around him again. He felt himself sobbing into her shoulder, his fingers twisting into her clothes. She said nothing, but just held him. She held him until he stopped shaking, until he stopped crying, until there was no reason for her to hold him anymore and she kept holding him anyway.
"If I kiss you," she whispered to herself, "it will be the end of everything."
There was nothing in the sky but black and smoke.
Clark's fingers were in her hair, pushing it behind her ears. He was leaning back, and looking at her, the tears on his face still shining in the half-light.
"Lois," he said, his voice low and even, "this is the end."
The world would break apart, and Lois would be gone.
And Clark was in love with the dim burning in her eyes, and the soot in her hair. He was in love with her mouth, which would taste bitter with smog, and her dry, sticky hands.
They were nothing now, at the edge of the world: not journalists, not anything but what was left now stripped to the bone. So before the world broke apart, and before they were gone, Clark wanted to kiss her, and taste the smog in her mouth and the blood on her lips.
"What if it's not?" she said, and now it was her voice breaking. "What if it's not, and we're acting like it is?" She shook her head. Anything she did now was an admission that there was nothing left. "We shouldn't give up."
"Shouldn't," Clark repeated. What if it's not the end of the world? What if it's just a nightmare?
There was a terrible part of him which didn't want to believe this moment between them might never have happened: clinging to Lois, surrounded by dust and dead bodies, underneath the burning sky. It was the most beautiful nightmare he had ever had.
Lois put her hand over his heart, where his shirt was stained with blood, where the kryptonite had lodged itself in his flesh and wouldn't come out. "Won't," she said, but her voice was barely a whisper.
There was a pause, and Lois looked away.
"Why couldn't we stop this?" she said, almost to herself.
We didn't know, he wanted to say. But the end result was the same.
"I thought we were better than this," she said, shaking her head, and Clark realised she wasn't talking about just the two of them. You are, he wanted to say. You all are. It was me. But there was no time to explain to her, and no need, and no point.
She would only disagree.
And if he started to talk, he would choke on the ash and the guilt, and Lois had dried enough of his tears already.
She took his hand and rubbed it between hers, raising it to her lips. "You're beautiful," she said, as if she needed him to know she thought it because she knew he disagreed. He just breathed out, a long shuddering breath, and shook his head. Lois didn't care. "You're beautiful," she repeated, and pressed her lips to his cheek, pulling him into her.
It was an admission, but Lois didn't care: she didn't care, because Clark needed it, and Lois needed Clark. This was the end, or something like it — so before they went running through the streets, before she heard the rattle in his chest, before they realised there was nowhere for them to go and burnt up and threw themselves away, she was going to take something for herself.
This is just a nightmare.