Title: By This River
Word Count: 4263
Beta: radioreverie: so much love.
Characters: Clark, Lois.
Summary: Here we are, stuck by this river / you and I, underneath a sky / that's ever falling down — Brian Eno, "By This River". Clark and Lois after the end of the world.
Notes: A sequel to "Dead Flag Blues/4 Minute Warning".
By This River
The Sun fell down over the edge of the world that night, and Lois thought that was the last time she would see it. It fell down, like a man shot, like a broken bird, like a child: it fell. It was the Sun they had chased northwest into Canada; Lois had driven after the Sun without knowing why but knowing — somehow knowing that it was the thing to do.
They had left all remnant of civilisation behind them — the black Necropolis, the dust-filled bodies, the twisted metal — and drove forward into quiet, gentle desolation. Clark had sat beside her, eyes closed, holding his blood-stained hand over his ribs. Lois knew, from the rattling of his breath, that he was still alive.
They chased the Sun across the country; even after it fell down they chased it, through the night, and the cold.
When the truck broke down in a forest, Lois had laid a hand on Clark's face to wake him, printing his skin with black blood. Then she had thrown her jacket over him, and left him to look for shelter, or warmth, or death.
By the river, she found an old log cabin filled up with rot and dust. An hour later, she stumbled back in with Clark.
There was a first aid kit in the truck. She took water from the river and, peeling the stiff, bloody material back from the skin (he flinched), washed the wound out. The kryptonite was still there; she could feel it underneath his skin like a cancer, like shrapnel. But looking at the red stain of his side, and the uneven knitting-together of his flesh over the top, she thought that he could't take the blood loss if she tried to work it out then. Instead she dressed the wound, and laid him back on the bed and, pressing dry lips to his temple, whispered, "I will be back soon."
The sky was falling down over Canada. It settled on the trees, and the surface of the water. Lois thought then, looking at the sky, that she would never see the Sun again: it had fallen down behind black clouds. It had died. Its ashes had been scattered to the wind. It stung and burned in her eyes.
The water was cold against her skin. In the contrast, she felt the burning sky of Metropolis again, and shook with tears. Her mouth was bitter with the smog, with someone else's blood, with Clark's kiss. Now Clark was going to die too, and she would dig his grave, and there would be nobody left to dig hers, to cover her unseeing eyes or kiss her goodbye.
It would be better to sink to the bottom of the river now. There it was blue and dark and final; there would be no eyes left staring out over the empty Earth. Nothing.
- - -
In the dark of the cabin, Clark thought that the stars were singing to him.
- - -
Lois surfaced with a gasp. The air was cold and raw against her lungs. She was shaking.
- - -
The stars were singing to him.
He rowed out over black water, towards the stars. But as he rowed, he saw Lois.
Lois, on the dust-black beach, underneath an empty sky. Her mouth was moving, but there was no sound.
He stopped still, between the stars and Lois — between haunting music and soundlessness.
Her hand outstretched. Clark.
- - -
Lois gripped him with a cold, wet hand and shook. "Clark, please."
Her face swayed over him, as if from a great distance. He put his hand to her lips, and she pressed her eyes closed. "I thought you were dead," she said, her jaw trembling.
"I couldn't leave you," he said.
"Neither could I," she whispered.
Lois thought that she and Clark might be the only two people left alive in the cold, dead universe, and dug her fingernails into his shoulder. Clark thought that the sudden death of Krypton was better than the slow death of this new planet — but then that he might have died on Krypton and never known Lois or anything like her. He gripped her tight, and she pressed her hand over his heart.
The stars sang, and the Earth swung round on its axis, and the sky fell down around them in ash and soot.
- - -
The sky lightened the next morning. But if the Sun rose again, it was hidden behind the ever-falling silver clouds.
- - -
They fished by day, and gutted and cooked the silvery fish with staring, vacant eyes.
Clark cooked the fish. Lois burnt the fish. He smiled at her as she handed him another half-black piece over the fire.
"I'm a reporter," she said, catching the look in his eye. "Not a chef."
"But supposedly a survival expert," he pointed out.
"You can survive on this," she retorted. "Perhaps not in style, but you can survive. You can make yourself a salad if you want," she gestured to the surrounding forest, "there is plenty of it about."
"If I remember correctly," he said, thoughtfully, "you owe me a bear claw."
Lois smiled back at him, "I'll pick you one up the next time I stop by Starbucks."
He shrugged. "Or you could just, you know —"
"What?" She grinned. "Wrestle an actual bear?"
He shrugged. "It's just a thought."
She smiled, and then thought, but there are no bears left; there is no rustling in the night. Just a few sickly fish left dying in the river.
And she knew Clark was thinking the same thing.
- - -
Living there, by the river, in the forest, in the middle of nowhere, they could almost pretend that there were other people still left in the world; that they had chosen this life, this exile; that everyone they had known was not dead but somewhere else — and safe, and warm, and not dead.
That there was still art and music; that everything they had fought for had not been for nothing.
Their life was almost idyllic in its desolation, they said. They almost forgot why they came.
They almost pretended this, and Clark almost pretended that he hadn't noticed Lois losing weight, or that she was silent, and drawn, and tired. He kissed her more often: kissed her mouth, and her neck, and her fingers. He drew a map of her body in his mind; he drafted a map of her mind. He held her close to him as they lay tangled in the sheets at night, and memorised the pattern of her breath on his skin.
Don't leave me.
God, don't leave me here alone.
- - -
Clark's wound never fully healed, but he got stronger. Then one night, Lois heated a knife in the fire, and, pulling back the dressing, cut him open. Clark cried out in the night, and gripped her shoulder, and Lois gritted her teeth, working the kryptonite out.
It glinted against the darkness, like a spark, like green fire. Like death.
And she dipped her fingers in the ice cold of the water, and thought the blood which blossomed around them was a red flower; was life; was Clark.
- - -
Clark knew that Lois was sick, and Lois knew that he knew it. Neither of them said it. She grew weaker day by day; he grew stronger. She wondered if he ever stood out by the bank of the river as she had once and contemplated suicide. But he was too strong to suffocate now. She would die, and he would live — how long? He might live forever now that she had pulled the lethal arrow from his heel; he might be alone forever.
He left her, by nights, to look for any sign of life: any signal light. In the morning he would walk into the cabin like a vulture with his shoulders hunched over and his head under his wing, and Lois would run to hold him up.
"You have to try," she whispered to him, the nights he chose to stay with her. "What if there is someone, and you stopped looking?"
Always, always this last semblance of hope.
And sometimes he would get up then, and leave her; and sometimes he would just clutch her to him tighter; and either way he said nothing.
Clark said nothing, because in saying he might have to tell Lois what had become of her race: people driven half-mad with sickness and despair, still living in those broken tombstones of buildings. They were shiftless and pale against the blackness, like ghosts.
He had been attacked once, chased down by people who had already started gnawing on the bones of their friends who had died before them.
How could he tell her this?
How could he tell her that he had found Oliver and Dinah, stiff and cold and curled into each other, on the outskirts of Metropolis? He left them as they were; they looked content.
Like a vulture he wheeled in the sky, searching through the carrion; searching for something.
- - -
Then one night, listening out in the silence, he heard a quiet voice — and, focusing his hearing, a heartbeat, a rush of breath into lungs, and a soft, baleful moan. He flew back in the direction of the voice, and landed, covering the rest of the ground on foot. His heart was pounding: someone was still alive; maybe hurt, maybe sick, maybe mad with loneliness — but alive. He saw now in the gloom two figures on the ground, one slouched back against a rock, the other clutched tight to it.
It was a girl, eyes closed but heart beating — pale, but not death-white; healthy — and a woman, he supposed her mother, sprawled dead on the ground.
"Hello," he said gently. The girl looked quickly up at him, wide-eyed. Clark took a step forwards, and she shrank back. She put a hand out in front of her, fingers stretched out, and in a moment a silvery force field glimmered around her. Clark saw the edges of it as if were etched into space itself. Her face was pale in the darkness; she had black hair, and eyes so dark Clark thought he could see the end of time and planets in them. He crouched down, a few steps away from her, and she gripped the arm of the dead woman tighter. "My name is Clark," he said.
She said nothing, but watched him. He caught sight of a nametag sewn to the front of her coat. "Alinda?" he asked. But she said nothing.
"You can't talk?" he asked. But she just watched him. "Or," he said, on reflection, "won't?" She just watched him still. "OK," he said, holding his hand out to her — because maybe she was mad, but not like the others, not violent, not half-dead already. "Do you want to come with me?" he asked.
She shrank back then, into the cave of her mother's body.
Clark thought of his own mother, of her red hair like autumn; he thought of her for the first time, blown away on the wind like autumn leaves. He thought too of a woman he left digging her own grave in Metropolis, and of all the ghosts he had left hanging in the air around their own graves. "Please come with me," he said softly, "there's nothing left for you here but death."
She watched him, and he stretched his fingers out to her. "You can come and live by the river with me and my friend, Lois. She's nice," he said, thinking now about Lois, about Lois's dark, burning eyes and fingernails bitten down to the quick. He closed his eyes. "Her mother died when she was small," he said, "like you."
He opened his eyes again. Alinda didn't move — but the force field was gone. He went forward instead to pick her up; she didn't struggle, or move, but just let her mother's arm fall.
- - -
Lois blinked her eyes open.
"I found someone."
She sat up in the bed, and rubbed a hand down her face, then looked at Clark. He pulled Alinda forward.
"This is Alinda," he said. "Her mother died. She doesn't talk."
Lois looked at the girl, and Alinda looked at her; she seemed old, Lois thought — someone who had grown up in the blink of an eye, or someone who had always been grown up. Lois thought that she was like the Earth: once full of life, now full of dust: a space where life once was, like a sea shell, like all the buildings of Metropolis. Like Lois.
But she was human: another survivor, another soldier, another someone to share this emptiness with.
Even if she stared at Lois like that, like one of those vacant staring fish from the river.
- - -
"I have to go back to where I found her," Clark spoke softly, with a glance over at Alinda's sleeping form.
"You're going to bury her mother," Lois said, and Clark nodded.
"It's — the only thing I can do," he said, leaning forward against the window sill. He's going to cry, Lois thought, as soon as he is alone; he will fly up past the clouds and furl himself up, and he will cry. She put her arms around his shoulders, and leant up against his back.
"It's not your fault," she whispered in his ear, her breath warm against his skin. "It's not your fault."
- - -
Lois tried to make up a bed for Alinda after Clark left. She folded and refolded the sheets, and tried to stop her hand from shaking.
"Clark's off hoping to save the world right now," she said to the girl, "and that just leaves us here together. I wish you talked or something. I need to hear another voice and... I just..." Lois faltered. "I remember when I thought I could save the world. I really thought that I could make a dent. That my stories would help."
Alinda continued to stare, no expression on her face.
"I keep thinking that I should write this down," Lois whispered, "chronicle the end of the world." She swallowed. "But then I remember... There's nobody left to care. And nobody left to save."
She threw the last sheet on the bed, and then picked up their dirty clothes and took them out to wash in the river.
- - -
She walked barefoot up to the river and crouched at its edge. This, she thought, is where Lois Lane once went looking for death and fished out life. This river, this ocean; this mirror.
It had been 'Lois' for so long now. There were no days and no last names any more. They had all burned to death.
But there was a peace in that: a coming to terms in using the name her father had given her. He died too, she supposed, and she never thought of him. Lucy died, and Chloe died, and all the people Lois had ever loved died — except Clark. Lois clutched her arms tighter around her ribcage, her fingers digging into herself. She had tried to believe she would see them again; knowing she herself was dying, she had tried to believe that there was something left for her — she who once wanted death, who now gripped life with weakening fingers.
We tried so hard to make the world a better place, she thought. For who? Now that everyone is dead, now that all this happened anyway.
What did it matter now? She was Lois Lane, who had tried so hard, whose every achievement meant nothing, who was dying of cancer at the end of everything. There was no more Lois Lane.
"What am I doing?" she said, softly.
The air stirred softly behind her, and she closed her eyes. She felt Clark put his arms around her ribs, pulling her back into him. His heart beat against her back, and he kissed her hair. And she cried; she shook against him, and he held her tight in the cave of his arms.
"I want to show you something," he said, when she had finished, and closed her eyes. He gently picked her up.
"What?" she said, gripping the fabric of his shirt.
"It's a surprise."
- - -
"What is it?" she said, running her hand along smooth, cold metal. She looked over at him.
"I think," he said slowly, "it's a Kryptonian spaceship." He laid his hand next to hers. "It's been underground a long time," he said, "but it's still responsive."
"Why is it here?" she said.
Clark shrugged. "Break glass in case of emergency?"
Lois nodded. "And they didn't think of installing one on Krypton?"
"I think," he said thoughtfully, "Krypton thought it was above emergencies."
Lois nodded. "I think Earth did too," she said.
"Lois," Clark said seriously. "There's nothing left here on Earth. The three of us might be the only survivors. And Lois, the atmosphere, the radiation — something — is killing you, and it will kill Alinda too if we stay here —"
"You think we should leave," Lois said, softly. "Leave Earth." She frowned. He was right that she was dying, but the thought of leaving Earth, which had cradled her species from its birth to its grave, of leaving all the remnants of people or places she had ever known, all the whispers of their civilisation —
"There are other civilisations," he said, "or there were, or there might be, in other parts of the galaxy. Lois, we can't stay." He was almost desperate now, "There's nothing left here but death."
Don't you want to see the stars again?
"I would follow you anywhere," she said, eventually. "Chasing the Sun, on mechanical wings." She closed her eyes. "OK."
Do you remember that day at the edge of the world? she thought, when we fell into each other; when I was the one pulling you up from the dust and the blood and the bodies? I would fall back into my grave now if you left me.
"Alinda wasn't the only one I found," Clark said suddenly. "There were others." He avoided Lois's gaze. "But they —"
"They were insane," Lois said. "They were murderous, and suicidal, and insane." Clark looked right through her then, and she knew she was right. She closed her eyes. "I thought we were better than that," she said: an impression of something she had said then, when they had stood together, hand in hand at the edge of the world.
But there were no more survivors now. Clark had flown over the world again and again; he had watched their numbers dwindle and wished he could save them; he had failed. They were gone.
"You were," Clark said: just you, just Lois.
She said nothing.
- - -
Clark left Lois by days to fix the spaceship after that. He took Alinda sometimes; other times the girl stood by the river and stared out across the sky — like she could see the Sun, Lois thought sometimes, or, like she had been lobotomised.
Lois got used to talking at her: buck up; we'll be out of the trenches soon; we'll be going over the top. Alinda said nothing in return, but the glances she cast sometimes gave Lois some sense of shared purpose — that they were fighting for something together, for existence.
At times like that she thought of Lucy, and the chain of command their father had instituted, and how she would never be able to tell her sister it didn't matter; how she would never even find her grave (I missed your funeral, Luce. You know how it is.). Then once she had looked up, and Alinda had been watching her with that implacable gaze, and Lois hated that she had shown this weakness to a junior officer — hated that, when it finally did matter, Alinda was unsettlingly somehow closer to Lois in that moment than Lucy had ever been.
Then Alinda had looked away again, in the blink of an eye.
And did it matter what Alinda thought of Lois? Did it matter if they escaped Earth or died here?
Everybody was either dead or mad; and in the end they would be forgotten. But Lois had known she would be forgotten before the world ended; she had known that everyone she had tried to help would die eventually. But she hadn't done things because she thought they could be preserved forever; she had done them because, in that moment, they were significant. It meant something.
It means something that I am here at the end of the world, she thought; that I am here with Clark; that Alinda thinks I'm strong, or not.
It means something to me.
She went and stood by the river with Alinda then, and stared out across the sky with her.
The Sun was still there somewhere, past a veil of burnt-out, ashen sky. It wasn't the Sun which had fallen past the edge of the world; they, humans, were the ones who had fallen back into shadows — into madness, and death. But not Lois.
- - -
"The ship is nearly ready," Clark said to Lois that night.
"Then, we're leaving," she said. "We made our mess, and we're leaving." There was a silence between them, and Clark watched Lois through the fire. In the darkness, sparks traced golden paths through the air around her head like comets, or hung on the air like constellations. He wondered if they would drift through space forever, if he would have the will to do it if he were left with anyone but Lois.
"Everyone's gone," he said, after a pause. "They're all dead now."
Lois said nothing, but stirred the fire up with a stick. There was a long silence.
"What do you think will become of Earth?" Clark asked, eventually. "The humans are gone, but it's not a completely dead planet."
He saw the wry smile, and knew Lois was asking if it really mattered. "It won't ever be the same as it was," she said. Then, "Don't look so fatalistic," she said. "Your face will get stuck like that."
- - -
Alinda said nothing and made no indication of her feelings about leaving Earth.
Clark wondered how he would have felt if he had been Alinda's age when Krypton had been destroyed. He wondered how much of her home Alinda would remember when she was older, whether it would haunt her — he wondered who Alinda would have become if none of this had happened.
- - -
The night before they left, Clark and Lois sat up together by the river.
"Who would have thought," Lois said, resting her head on Clark's shoulder, "that we were this sentimental?"
Clark said nothing, but just stroked her hair. He thought about his home in Kansas — about his parents, about running through the golden corn under the Sun; about Metropolis — about the way the city had shone in the day. He shook, quietly, and Lois gripped his waist. There was so much he had wanted to do, to say: things he would never do or say now, things which had crumbled, or slipped through his fingers and flown away.
"Do you want me to see if I can find anything, to take?" he said eventually. "There might be —" but Lois shook her head, and closed her eyes.
"We have everything we need," she said. "Just stay here."
When the sky lightened in the morning, they woke Alinda. In those few moments after they woke her, Lois thought, she seemed almost like a normal child, waking early on the morning of a long road trip. But they, none of them, were normal — there was no 'normal' anymore.
As they walked away together from the cabin, Alinda stopped and stood a little apart from them. She closed her eyes, and held out her hand, and as Lois watched a faint silver field around the cabin shimmered into view, and then unravelled before her eyes. Watching Alinda work was like like watching a spider unpick its own web: Lois realised that the force field had been there all along; that it had protected her from death and madness; that Alinda had saved her from the fate of the rest of the world. As a new force field formed around them, and Clark lifted them both into his arms, Lois took Alinda's hand and held it close.
- - -
The ship loomed black against the sky above ground. Now that Clark had excavated it Lois could see the full size of it. Clark led them both by hand into it. Inside it was spacious — it looked like it could have housed whole armies, Lois thought — silver and metallic. It was filled with a cool blue light.
"How do you feel?" Clark asked Lois, looking intensely at her.
She knew what he was asking. When she had stepped onto the ship, it had felt like the Sun had run quick through her, burning down the golden filaments of her veins. "I feel better," she said: really better. He smiled.
"I think the ship will keep you, the two of you, alive and well indefinitely," he said.
Then you won't be alone, Lois thought. For the first time in months, she felt a strange sense of elation — of hope, as if in some way all they had suffered through had somehow been worth it. She was about to leave the dust of everything she had loved or known behind her; she might sail the ocean of sky forever in search of new land — and she was happy.
She saw the reflection of Alinda's smile in the window of the spaceship, and realised that she was smiling too.
Then, this is it. They watched together through the window as the ship took off, as the sky parted and the silver veil fell away.
Alinda pressed her face up against the pane. Behind them, she could see through the window the Earth: a silver sphere, not the blue and white swirl of space photographs. Before them, rising from the ashes, the Sun.