Copyright November 2006
At a time when all my intentions were focused on other projects, this one came to me literally in a dream. Fully formed, in all its aspects and implications. It's not a fandom in which I've ever written before, or ever intended to. It's not a pair of characters about whom I ever thought I would have anything worth saying. Yet here it is.
He was outside her window again, hundreds of feet above the street. She could catch a glimpse of swirling red in the corner of her eye, hear his voice. Pleading, not demanding. He would never enter without her permission, and she couldn't give it. She wouldn't close the curtains, wouldn't lock herself into an interior room — that would be cowardice, and she wouldn't try to evade her just punishment here — but she couldn't let him in. She couldn't even look at him.
"Lois." His voice was pitched to carry through the window glass, no farther. He wasn't about to make a scene for the neighbors. He'd never been one to shut out the world, but this was between the two of them, only the two of them, and his awareness of the multitudes around them would make it impossible for him to shout even if his exacting personal code would allow such obstreperousness. No; this was the two of them, only the two of them.
She picked up the remote and clicked on the television. It was pre-set to FoxNews, and the images predictably leapt up, the same ones she'd been seeing, with additions and variations, for the past three days.
She didn't see him go, because she wasn't looking — couldn't look — out the window. But flowing red and vibrant blue (the same deep, intense blue as his eyes) vanished from her peripheral vision, and she was alone with news rehash and memory.
~ – ~ – ~
The city stretched out beneath him. He saw all of it, and none. This was the scene of his failure, a shame he would never outlive. The entire world was his, to range and to protect (pleasure and duty), but somehow it was this city he most loved. It had been the first to take him to its heart, and in so doing, taken his in return. He had vowed always to be worthy of its trust … and violated that trust, to a depth he would once have dismissed as impossible.
Impossible, also, to leave it. There were other cities that would welcome him, other worlds and other planes of reality. He could go anywhere, begin anew, even take a new name … except that all of those things, any of them, would be evasion of his just punishment. His penance was here, and — though larger necessities might take him elsewhere — he would always return to continue serving it out.
He did not know what his lifespan would be. He did know that eternity would not be time enough.
He wished she would let him speak to her. No wall on this planet could shut him out (except, perhaps, one constructed from material not of this planet), but he could not breach the walls of her home. He was not … entitled … to enter against her wishes. He would honor her autonomy, and abide by the rules he had placed upon himself. Even so, he would keep going to her, until she chose — was able to choose — to allow him in.
It could never be the same again between them.
But he had to try.
~ – ~ – ~
She loathed the right-wing mentality underlying FoxNews, but — much as she hated to admit it — they really did try, more than anyone else, to show both sides of an issue. They didn't deny their conservative bent: they admitted it, recognized it, refused to apologize for it, yet made a genuine (and largely successful) effort to remain "fair and balanced". So she watched the network, relied on it to the extent that she allowed herself to rely on anyone, and trusted its accuracy probably as much as she did that of her own employer. She just didn't have to like it.
On the television now, the President was calling for calm. He'd been doing that almost from the beginning … and, predictably, spokesmen for the opposing party were condemning him for not doing more, for mismanagement and detachment from reality. Just as predictably, some members of his own party were trying to use the opportunity to slam their political rivals for exploiting the tragedy, while others attempted to garner future capital by criticizing their own (official) leader.
It would all be a lot worse if not for him. Hard to disparage disaster relief efforts, when Earth's champion had been instantly at the scene of the disaster, providing relief that few others could have hoped to offer. Equally difficult to blame deficiencies in national security or law enforcement, when that same champion had stopped in front of the cloud of news cameras just long enough to say flatly, in a voice harsh with strain and emotion, "This was not a terrorist attack. This was not a military strike. This was not a criminal act. No human agency or individual is responsible for what happened here." An emphatic, unambiguous statement, and such was his prestige that none would have dared to question its truthfulness (though many, then and afterward, had wanted to know, Well, then, what was it?).
He had provided no answer, nor had an answer been found yet, but it was enough to slow what otherwise could have been a rush to judgment. (Fortunately. Without it, given the mood of the nation just now, and the nature of the disaster — Shepard Smith had been the first to call it "another 9/11", then hastily retracted those words after hearing the announcement from the single most trusted person on Earth — North Korea or Iran might have suddenly found themselves sprouting more craters than the moon.) Four sentences, delivered within ten seconds, had interjected much-needed reason into a shatteringly emotional moment.
As usual, he had done the right thing at the right time, and all who heard him accepted what he said. It was to her ears, and hers alone, that the words had carried a hidden, terrible meaning.
He hadn't lied. He never lied.
But he was wrong.
~ – ~ – ~
He had never before felt such loneliness as this, but he had long known its like. Since his teen years, when the weight of his gifts and his responsibilities began to press on him, he had always been aware of the central fact: he was alone. He might have the same form as those around him, might pass as one of them, but it was always and inescapably a masquerade.
Not because of his origins. This was the only home he had ever known, and he loved it with an immigrant's passion, the fierce and unflinching devotion of an adopted child. No; for all that he was born under another sun (or implanted, the exact details were fuzzy), this was his home, and these were his people, and he desired no other.
His essential solitude sprang from a related but separate fact: the sheer scope of the things that he could do.
He knew what was said about him, with venom or ridicule or amusement, by enemies and critics and even by some allies. The Big Blue Boy Scout, they called him. Uncompromisingly moral. Unrealistically idealistic. Answerable always to higher calls, and likewise always urging others to hear and heed those calls, but unaware of (or uncomfortable with) the unpleasant details of a messy, practical reality. Okay for him to take the high road, they said; nobody can stop him, nothing can hurt him, he can afford to always keep his hands clean. The rest of us have to deal with life as it really is.
The actual truth was a bit different. The extent of his power meant not that he could follow the rules, but that he had to. Who would hold him to the paths of righteousness, if he didn't hold himself? Who could even attempt to compel his obedience to any laws he was disinclined to recognize? (Hal could do it. J'onn or Diana, maybe. Bruce … well, Bruce would find a way if he had to, and only a fool would bet otherwise.) The list was frighteningly short, and he was ever watchful for anyone he might add to it, but he could never afford to put his trust in any such external check.
He was his own most pitiless judge, because there were so few who could enforce judgment upon him.
The judgment now: guilty.
~ – ~ – ~
It wasn't supposed to be like that.
It was supposed to be something else, light and fun — and maybe a little scary, because of what was attached to it — but no more than either of them could handle, they'd been moving toward that moment for a long time and both knew it …
It was supposed to be a date.
The awareness had always been there between them. Since that first interview, since they had first met, she had felt it and known it was there for him, too. They hadn't acted on it, not for a long time; he had his duties, she had her career, neither of them had wanted to leap into something that would clearly change everything. Also, there was a sense of … inevitability, about it. There was no need to rush, because it was going to happen, so just take it as it comes and enjoy the journey.
He had alit on her balcony as softly as a dandelion seed touching down, and she had gone out to greet him with habitual fearlessness and confidence. There would be verbal sparring, and some casual personal comments, one more incremental layer on something they had been building for years. She had her mouth open to launch her opening sally (she seldom ceded the initiative unless she had no choice), when he glanced in through the glass doors and observed, "You're packed."
She hadn't needed to follow his gaze; she'd left the bags out in plain view, and in fact had been about to call for a cab to the airport. "Summit in Caracas," she told him. "The official talks don't start for five more days, but there are a few people willing to do some behind-the-scenes chat before the big show kicks off." She gave him a raised eyebrow and a tilted smile. "I'm surprised you didn't know already. You seem to have my schedule committed to memory."
"I keep up with your movements," he confirmed, "but I don't watch you. You deserve as much privacy as anyone else." He quirked a smile of his own. "So, is there another Pulitzer in the works?"
"Not for this one," she said. "At least, probably not. On the other hand, if you're here because something's going to happen at the summit, and you wanted to warn me …?"
He hadn't risen to it. He never did, which was why she no longer tried to be subtle. "Actually," he said mildly, "I thought I might offer you a lift."
"To the airport?" She gestured toward the heaped bags. "The unions probably have some kind of rules about that —"
She looked back to him, and his eyes locked with hers. He had spoken as evenly as ever, but this was something new and he would know she was aware of it. Once again she was struck by the sheer force of his charisma; she knew many men who were just as good-looking (she worked alongside one who had the same basic bone structure, and a kind of cheerful corn-fed attractiveness), but none of them projected this crackling personal magnetism. It was like a living current between them … and … and he had said something …
Oh. Right. Caracas.
There had been plenty of reasons for her to decline the invitation. Independence. Customs problems. Accusations of special treatment. Questions about maintaining her journalistic objectivity.
"Sure," she said. "If you don't have anything better to do."
He gathered her easily in his arms (as if about to carry her across a threshold — no, don't go there), and she heard herself saying, "What about my bags …?"
"I'll make a second trip." His smile was suddenly sun-bright. "Since you'll be arriving early, I thought we could take time for lunch." And he rose into the air, wrapping his cape protectively around her.
She had flown with him before, usually during one rescue or another (including a number of times when she hadn't needed rescuing, thank you very much!). This was different. The personal element had always been there, but this time the situation itself was personal. He had come for her. He had taken a step. How she would respond from this point had yet to be determined, but the state of things between them had shifted. By choice.
The city shrank below her, extending in all directions, intricate as a circuit board. They rose through wisps of cloud, his breath warm on her cheek, and she clung to him not from fear of falling but because she was determined not to lose any part of this moment. If we went any higher, I'd need an oxygen mask, she thought dizzily … and she truly was feeling light-headed, but that probably wasn't the altitude.
And then the magic had been broken, as if by an iron hammer.
~ – ~ – ~
It had been an accident.
The first part, at least. He would excuse none of what came afterward, grant himself no smallest pardon for the consequences of his unforgivable failure, but the trigger for it all had been pure accident. Sickeningly improbable, a stroke of the most hideous bad fortune, so unlikely that it was horribly tempting to attribute it to deliberate action by some secret enemy … but coincidences happened. Submarines collided in the middle of the ocean, airplanes clipped one another in a thousand miles of clear sky, travelers blundered into the only sinkhole in an immensity of featureless desert.
He would have heard an airplane, felt the compression wave from a meteor or a missile. The sky was his domain, and there was little in it that could surprise him. This, however, was a sheet of shifted plasma, rotated ninety degrees from three-dimensional reality and moving at (barely) sub-light velocities. The instrumentation in the Watchtower had recorded a few occurrences of these things, though it still wasn't known what caused them or from whence they emanated. They seemed not to connect with normal matter at all, except for the faintest of boson trails, but subtle characteristics in the readings suggested that they might undergo a phase reaction if they came in contact with certain forms of biological energy … There had been no way to know it was coming. Even his senses couldn't detect something that technically didn't exist until the instant it intersected his flight-path.
It had been like being struck by a hammer. If the hammer was swung by Thor, at just under the speed of light.
He had been hit that hard before — his was an eventful life — but seldom taken so monstrously off-guard. The impact was more nervous than physical, but it tumbled him through the sky, stunned and bewildered, struggling to recover from something that had happened before his senses could begin to register it. He found his balance, righted himself, felt his mind begin to settle back into some kind of order …
His arms were empty.
He broke the sound barrier from a dead start, sweeping the sky below him with vision capable of registering individual molecules, only it seemed to be working not quite right, he was actually moving toward the sound of her cries, following his hearing. There, she was already at terminal velocity, less than a second from hitting the ground, he overhauled her easily, reached out —
— and found himself thwarted by the laws of physics.
His control over his abilities was near-absolute. Inertia had little effect on him, instant changes of speed and direction posed no problem, his limitations few and easily handled. She was merely human flesh, however; to catch her at this speed would have been like using a sieve to catch a soft-boiled egg (sans shell) dropped from the top of a skyscraper. He had a kind of personal aura that he could extend around others for travel at high velocities, but somehow he couldn't quite remember how to make it work, and there was no time to retrieve the information, he had to act immediately.
In slivers of time measured by hundredths of a second, he took hold of her as gently as he could, and began to steer her fall into a curve shallow enough that it wouldn't rip her to pieces to be wrenched so brutally from her course.
He could pluck bullets from the air without disturbing the rifling grooves, but now his body was a crude, blunt instrument, responding sluggishly to only the simplest commands; and his mind, the acceleration of thought that allowed such delicacy of control, it too was impaired, only a few times human speed. He did his best, joining his motion to hers and altering it, flattening it, frantic lest his clumsiness crush her, and they were moving horizontally now, only a foot or two above the ground, and those fleeting wisps were people, somehow he had to avoid them without killing her in the act of steering. Only a few paths were possible and he went for the most open, still slowing her as quickly as he dared.
A new obstacle loomed ahead of them, a massive building, and now the cruel demands of inertia could no longer be denied. There was no way to stop or even move around it without turning her into jelly in his arms, there was no room left and no time and he couldn't, couldn't let her die —
He slid around in front of her, curving himself about her like a shield, and the two of them slammed into the front of the structure at several hundred miles an hour.
And the walls came tumbling down.
~ – ~ – ~
In the classical Greek tragedies, and in the myths that formed their foundation, the fatal flaw that brought a person down always seemed to come back to some version of pride. Pride of position, or appearance, or special gifts …
By most standards of reckoning, no one had more reason to be proud — or less actual pride — than he did. This was a man who could easily have ruled the world, and had affected it to an incalculable degree by his decision to serve instead, yet his humility was real and bone-deep. The only thing about him that even approached hubris was his conviction that he should be able to save everyone. He knew better, he wasn't irrational, but in his deepest heart he felt responsible (always had) for everyone on this earth.
No, his flaw was not pride.
Hers? Different question entirely.
He was the nearest thing to an earthbound god, and he had been hers. Not in any way that an outside observer could mark, but it had been so nonetheless, and she had known and accepted it as her due. Pride in her accomplishments, in her professional abilities and success, even in the fact that she didn't need him, that she was a complete, fulfilled woman on her own terms … she had deserved him, been convinced of it, and proud of that, too.
Heroes and demigods had a way of coming to grief in the old myths. So did the women they loved, or who loved them.
~ – ~ – ~
There was an update on the news: another of the victims had died, a nine-year-old girl. That brought the total to two hundred and seventeen, of whom a hundred and eighty-three were children. Thirteen more were on the "extremely critical" list, half with only tenuous chances of survival. It was no wonder the first thought had been of a military attack, hostile action of some sort: from the type and extent of the damage, it was as if the building had been hit by a cruise missile.
Her sobs warred with the sounds from the television, but some words seeped through, familiar from endless repetition; it had been the same for days, with the only changes being in the tally of the dead. "…–ine Hospital, one of … nation's pre-eminent treatm– … range of childhood illnesses … –tire west face of the building collapsed, twenty-seven floors … –rst since the Twin Towers, or the Oklahoma City blast … –ediate and crucial rescue efforts by the Man of St–"
She shut it off. Her body was a solid mass of mottling bruises, the joints and ligaments wrenched to the edge of destruction by his efforts to save her. At any other time, she would have been in a hospital. Right now, though, she felt that if anyone tried to treat her as a victim — her, of all people — she'd have to dive headfirst from a thirtieth-floor ledge.
But then, she had already seen what that kind of thing could lead to.
He was outside her window again. She could hear him speaking her name. The drapes were closed at the balcony doors, but she wouldn't shut herself away from this window. It was almost more than she could bear, but she would bear it. Every word from him was a fresh condemnation, and she deserved it, deserved every aching terrible moment.
She shouldn't be alive. She should have died, instead of all those others. Since she hadn't, she would pay the full price for living.
The worst, the most awful part of it all, was that she knew without question that he blamed himself for this, for every part of it. She had known him for so long, talked with him so many times, she could practically see inside his head. I should have found a way, he'd be telling himself. With all my power, all my experience, all the things I've been through, I should have been able to avoid this. I should have reacted sooner, thought more quickly, chosen a different direction, something. There's always a way, and I should have found it.
There had been a way, all right, but he'd been unwilling to take it. At the worst possible moment, the world's greatest hero had put his determination to save her ahead of the duty he had always followed so faithfully.
He was still calling to her. He would never stop trying. She couldn't speak to him, couldn't look at him. He would know she didn't blame him, and he would be convinced she was wrong. She knew he didn't blame her, and she knew he was wrong.
That brilliant red moved again at the corner of her vision, blurring as she blinked away tears. He had always been like an angel, only now it was an accusing angel, tormenting her with his every appearance … and that was just as it should be.
"Lois." His voice carried through the closed window, the anguish in it crushing her heart. "Lois, please."
And, as she buried her face in her hands, she heard what could only be the sound of a demigod weeping.