This ficlet is a birthday present for my best friend and graphic artist, Rizny. It takes place between Little Secrets and Heirs to the House of El, and is part of our canon for that 'verse. Ladies and gentlemen, for your reading entertainment, we give you...
"Do you really think this is a good idea?" Clark said, peering through the windshield. The day was clear and mild, a perfect day for a novice pilot to get a few hours' experience flying a rented Cessna … but to Clark, it didn't look like a good day to try landing a plane for the first time. Just thinking about it made him anxious.
He could feel his grip on the control yoke tightening nervously, and forced himself to relax. Richard had instructed him on the very first flight to hold the yoke 'like you'd hold Lois' hips: firm, but not too tight.' With a wicked grin, he'd added, 'the distance is about right, too.' Now Clark remembered that turn of phrase every time he took control of the plane.
That was probably better than remembering the statistics on amateur pilot deaths over the last ten years, or the incidence of thunderstorms for the entire eastern seaboard. Clark had to admit that Richard was a good teacher; he had patience, a sense of humor, and plenty of trust in his student.
"It's a great idea," Richard said lazily. He looked completely relaxed, but Clark knew the way he casually glanced around the cockpit instantly took in the readings from every single gauge, dial, and display. That should have reassured Clark, but it didn't.
The entire point of this exercise was to help Clark with his discomfort about flying. He had no issues with his own powers, of course, but once he was stuck in a jet, he had little say about the outcome of the flight. What would happen if a plane went down while he was on it? He'd have to out himself – it wouldn't be easy for him to get outside unnoticed, catch the falling jet, set it down, rescue the passengers, and then turn up in his Clark persona as one of the rescued. It was possible, but devilishly tricky, and he had no desire to try it, so he'd cultivated the idea that Clark Kent was afraid of flying.
Only that had backfired, because whenever he even thought about getting onto a plane, he started to get nervous. Clark realized that he'd played the role a little too well, developing a genuine fear of flying that was patently ridiculous. Superman's debut had included rescuing Air Force One, and his best-known and most extraordinary power was flight. If the public knew he'd grown to hate the idea of commercial flights, every stand-up comedian in the country would make a joke out of it. He'd never hear the end of it.
Richard had found out about that particular quirk when he'd asked Clark to go on a trip. 'Rest your cape, we'll take the seaplane,' he'd said, and the look on Clark's face must have been all too clear. They'd gotten into a discussion about it, and the younger man had concluded that Clark's actual fear wasn't planes, it was loss of control. 'A perfectly sensible thing to be afraid of, when you can juggle jumbo jets,' Richard had quipped.
And somehow, in laughing at the joke, Clark had wound up agreeing to flying lessons. Not in Richard's precious seaplane, not yet; they were starting in a basic two-seater. He certainly knew a great deal more about how to fly a plane now; he had the book-learning down pat, intentionally missing a few questions on his test so as not to score higher than every other novice pilot in history. Eidetic memory was sometimes more curse than blessing. But flying a plane wasn't something he could learn wholly from a book, or remember from one experience. Being a pilot was about judgment, about developing a feel for the aircraft and the flight conditions, and Clark was surprised to find that while he wasn't bad at it, it made him more nervous than he'd ever been since he'd asked Lois to marry him.
Clark had thirty hours of flight time, but until today, it had all been simply flying. Richard handled the takeoffs and landings, which soothed most of Clark's worries. The most dangerous part of the flight, he knew, was when the plane shivered between earth and sky, committed to neither. With some altitude, even an amateur's mistakes could be fixed by a seasoned pilot like Richard. So close to the ground, though, one overreaction could mean the difference between bumping the tarmac and wrecking the plane. And if that happened, how would he get himself and Richard out of the situation unharmed without exposing his secret identity? Wouldn't that be a great headline: Superman Exposed, Man of Steel Wrecks Plane, Kills Wife's Ex-Fiancé.
But Richard had decided that today was a great day to start teaching Clark how to handle those dangerous moments. The takeoff had gone well, and Clark had relaxed, thinking that would be the last challenging lesson for the day. And then Richard had told him he'd be landing the plane as well.
"I don't know," Clark worried aloud. "Richard, taking off is one thing, but landing – that's when most crashes happen."
"You won't crash. You've got me right here to keep an eye on you and make sure you don't make any mistakes. C'mon, Clark, don't you trust me?" Richard looked wounded, but the gleam of amusement in his eyes proved he was trying to manipulate Clark by making a claim on mutual trust.
"That's not fair," Clark replied. "I trust you with my wife, my kids, and my high school sweetheart. I just don't necessarily trust myself to land this plane without, I don't know, knocking a wheel off or something."
"Which is why we're flying a rental, and I got the extra insurance." As usual, Richard had planned for Clark's objections.
Clark sighed. There was no getting out of it now. Richard was often the comic relief in the family, playing pranks and using humor to point out the kinds of things Lana would lecture about. But when he wanted to be, he could be nearly as stubborn as Lois, so it was no use arguing further.
Deep down, Clark knew that Richard was more qualified to decide whether or not he was ready to land the plane. Left to his own devices, Clark might never make that leap. He was the one who'd had to lose control of a leap and fall through the barn roof before discovering he could fly, the one who'd had to jump off the barn swing for a month before learning to take off from the ground. Richard, however, had sought flight from his earliest memories: kites, model airplanes, birds of prey, and eventually he joined the Air Force so he could fly powerful fighter jets. His whole life had been striving toward the sky, and he had the experience and the objectivity to see past Clark's reluctance. If Richard was confident, Clark should take heart from that.
"All right," Clark said finally. "Let's get this over with."
Grinning, Richard replied, "Okay, first things first. Your airspeed's in the green, so look at your artificial horizon. You're flying level and steady, right?"
Clark had checked the instruments obsessively every few seconds when he first started flying the plane, but he had grown more sure of himself. He checked the instruments now, seeing that the wings on the attitude indicator were slightly above level with the horizon. Evidently he'd been gripping the yoke too tight, and put them into a slight climb.
Gently, he lowered the nose, careful not to overcorrect. Richard had warned him on their first flight that novice pilots tended to over-steer the plane, so his advice had been, 'Touch the yoke like you'd touch a woman'. After the first five minutes of Clark handling it feather-light, he'd amended, 'Touch it like a woman you really, really love, Clark. I know for a fact Lois likes it a little firmer than that.'
He smiled, remembering how that casual remark had flustered him – and how Richard had pointed out that he flew better when slightly distracted. Apparently Clark analyzed his actions a little too much. "We're level," he said.
"Good. Now call the tower and let them know we're coming in." Richard still seemed utterly calm, as if this was just another Sunday flight.
Clark picked up the microphone and spoke clearly. "Tower, this is flight November 1211 Foxtrot, requesting permission to land."
They were practicing at a small local airfield, but Richard insisted that all radio communications be kept absolutely professional. The controller that came back sounded much more relaxed, already knowing that this flight held a student pilot. "Flight November 1211 Foxtrot, this is the tower. You are cleared for landing on airstrip two. I'm not expecting anyone else 'til four o' clock, so take your time."
"Thank you, tower," Clark replied. Anticipating Richard's next instruction, he banked the plane gently, lifting the nose to keep it level as he turned to line them up with the chosen runway.
"Nicely done," Richard told him. "Now, I know you have that photographic memory, and you've seen me land this thing a few times. Run down the list of landing instructions for me, big guy."
"Throttle back just until the sound of the engine changes pitch, but keep the airspeed above 70 knots," Clark recited. "Drop the nose below the horizon. I don't have to worry about landing gear; it's not retractable in this plane. Extend the flaps to slow down without losing lift. Just before touchdown, flare the nose by no more than 7 degrees. Pull the throttle all the way back to idle, then push down on the rudder pedals to brake. Do that as fast as you can without skidding."
"Perfect," Richard said, and leaned back in his seat, closing his eyes. "So go on and do it. Wake me when we're stopped."
Clark was tempted to swear. He wanted Richard to watch his every move, carefully supervise every tiniest degree of movement in the controls. But the younger man had decided that Clark needed to face this alone. Early on, the first time he'd taken his hands of the co-pilot's yoke while Clark flew, he'd called it 'taking the training wheels off'. Now they were doing that for real – and Clark hoped that he was ready. Far more than a skinned knee awaited them if he lost his balance here.
Focusing entirely on his task, he brought them down toward the runway, constantly checking to make sure he was lined up correctly, that his airspeed didn't drop too far, and that he didn't overcorrect the yoke. At least it was a calm day with no sudden crosswind to worry about.
Clark raised the nose just before they touched down, and felt the main wheels hit the runway. Relief washed through him as he let the front wheel touch down too, and he started to brake. Perhaps a little too relieved, as he felt the wheels slide just a bit, and eased off, holding his breath. They didn't skid out, and in moments Clark had the little Cessna stopped.
Only then did he see that Richard was watching him, the pilot's hands hovering near his own yoke just in case Clark needed help. Clark had never noticed, too absorbed in the landing to see that his closed eyes were a ruse. Grinning, Richard offered Clark his hand. "Congratulations, Clark. You are officially a pilot. You can take off, maneuver, and land a plane."
Beaming in elation, Clark shook with him. It hadn't been anywhere near as difficult or frightening as he'd thought. In fact, that landing was much like his own swift landings, done much slower of course. The process of bleeding off speed without losing lift was familiar, as was the delicate rise before touching down neatly.
"Hey, I'm good at this," Clark realized suddenly.
Richard slapped his shoulder. "You are. Now taxi us over to the hangar and we'll go grab a celebratory beer."
As he did so, Clark joked, "I'll celebrate flying, and you'll celebrate surviving the attempt?"
"Nah," Richard teased right back. "I'll buy a round because I can now officially say I taught Superman how to fly."
Clark laughed at him; he was so very blessed to have friends who knew his secret. Before he could grow too amused, Richard added in a low voice, "In a week or so we'll start you landing in various wind conditions, and by the end of the month I'll show you how to put the seaplane down on the bay."