PART IV: SUPERWOMAN
Louis grit his teeth, his grip on his desk phone turning his knuckles white. Around him, the other denizens of the Daily Planet bullpen gave his desk a wide berth, recognizing the signs of Mad Dog Lane on the warpath. "But Henderson, there were contusions on Platt's head!"
"He could have gotten those last week," Henderson's voice came through the phone. "I'm sorry, Lane. The autopsy report is going to read 'suicide.'"
Louis slammed the phone down to give vent to his frustration. Henderson wouldn't mind. They were well used to each other at this point.
Clara came out of one of the conference rooms, a slip of paper in her hand. She eyed Louis with concern, even going so far as to look at him over her glasses like she could see right through him. "You okay? Your blood pressure is up. Maybe you should try paava leaves."
Louis blinked. Clara Kent really was weird.
"There's a tribe in New Guinea…" Clara was prattling on.
Louis shook his head, interrupting. "What have we got?" He held out his hand for the paper.
"I called Mrs. Platt. She called back and said she'd come here to talk to us. She should be here any minute."
Right on cue, an older woman with red hair came into the newsroom, followed by a little girl in a wheelchair.
Louis interviewed Mrs. Platt, while Clara kept the girl, Amy, entertained. As Louis watched, Clara retrieved a stack of printer paper and showed Amy how to fold various paper animals. Maybe she'd learned origami at the same time she was learning to read Chinese… Or was that a Japanese thing? Louis wasn't sure.
"All I know is that Sam knew Prometheus was being sabotaged," Mrs. Platt said, capturing Louis' full attention. "And that knowledge got him killed. Please, you have to help me. Don't let his daughter grow up thinking her father committed suicide. You have to clear his name."
Clara was tucking a small menagerie of paper animals around Amy's legs. Most of them seemed to be cranes.
"I'll do everything I can, Mrs. Platt," Louis promised.
They put in a hard day's work trying to prove Platt's theories, even going so far as to get Jimmy to call in a favor at STAR Labs.
STAR Labs recreated the failed launch and examined Dr. Platt's report. Their conclusion was that Platt was right, and that the Messenger had been sabotaged. The hologram generated model they created of the Messenger blew up during a simulation run. In the rush of victory, Clara threw herself into Louis' arms, and he found himself bouncing up and down with her in the center of the newsroom. Her grin was infectious.
"Now we can write the story!"
"You mean I can write the story," Louis corrected.
Clara playfully pushed his chest, forcing Louis back a step. She was stronger than she looked.
He laughed. "Fine. We can write the story. But just this once, Kent. Don't expect to ride my coattails forever."
Clara's face fell a little, and Louis felt like a brute, but it was better this way.
"We should have dinner to celebrate!" Clara perked up.
"I don't know…"
"Come on, Lou," Clara hung on one of his arms, looking up at him with a sweet little pout that he doubted she even realized was on her face, her ridiculous glasses sliding down her nose. "We deserve it. And I still need to thank you for letting me stay with you."
Well, if she put it that way. "Okay. Dinner."
"Great!" Clara rushed to her desk, grabbing up her coat and her monster purse. "Stay out of the apartment til around seven, okay? I'll have everything ready by then!"
"Clara, what – "
And she was gone.
"I see it, but I don't believe it."
Louis looked over his shoulder to see Cat standing there, wearing some kind of strappy black thing with diamond shaped cutouts. "What, Cat?"
"Louis Lane, henpecked boyfriend."
Louis rolled his eyes. "She's not my girlfriend, Cat."
"Keep telling yourself that, Lou. She's already got you wrapped around her little finger, just like that sister of yours."
Just like his sister… Well of course! He should have seen it before. That's all that was between him and Clara. She reminded him of Lucy.
"Louis, Cat. My name is Louis."
"Hey, Louis?" Jimmy called, popping his head around the corner. "If you're not dating Clara, you mind if I take a shot at her?"
Louis scowled. "Take a shot at her? She's not a deer, Jimmy." Even if she did have doe eyes.
"Aw, come on Louis. You know what I mean. Did you see her at the ball? Man she's pretty, even with those glasses, but you can really see her eyes better without them, and her legs, whoa, right? I mean, I was standing by the buffet when she dropped her little purse thing, and she bent over to get it, and let me just say – "
"That's enough, Jimmy!" Louis snapped.
Cat's laughter followed him all the way to the elevator.
At precisely ten to seven (just to show he didn't follow orders), Louis Lane entered his apartment.
His spotless apartment.
His spotless apartment that was filled with the enticing aroma of well prepared food.
Louis threw his coat and briefcase down on the sofa, then glanced around the tidy room and thought better of it. He retrieved his coat and hung it in the closet and put his briefcase on the coffee table. Satisfied, he edged toward the kitchen, feeling a bit like he was approaching the den of some sort of jungle beast.
Clara was there, busy stirring and grilling and other cooking verbs that Louis didn't know, and she was actually wearing an apron.
Some deeply buried caveman part of Louis made sounds like a contented grizzly bear. Woman pretty. Woman clean cave. Woman cook good. Good woman. Keep woman.
But the more present, dominant part wanted to tell Cave Louis to shut up and run screaming from this scene of domesticity. Something like this created expectations, expectations Louis knew he couldn't possibly live up to.
Lucy was sitting at the bar. She noticed Louis first. "Louie, you're home!"
Grabbing his hand, she eagerly dragged him over to the dining area. "Look, I set the table!"
She was so excited. Had she ever had reason to set a table before? Had anyone ever bothered to show her how? Louis couldn't remember.
"Clara even showed me how to fold the napkins into different shapes. Look!"
Louis made the appropriate noises of admiration at Lucy's new found napkin folding skills, but his mind was elsewhere, spinning in circles as he tried to figure out what this meant. When Clara had said they'd have dinner, he didn't think she'd cook. What did she think this was? Were she and Lucy already planning a wedding and naming the children? If he had come home earlier, would he have caught them wearing pillow cases on their heads and humming 'Here comes the bride'?
Clara carried three plates of steak, potatoes, and some kind of asparagus dish to the dining area with the expertise of someone who had at some point waited tables, and directed Louis to pour the wine she'd chilled. Louis poured for himself and Clara, but went to the fridge to get a soft drink for Lucy. It figured that Lucy would have neglected to tell Clara that she wasn't twenty-one yet.
When he opened the fridge, he found all the take out boxes had been thrown out, the shelves scrubbed, and the fridge stocked with groceries. He raised a brow at the number of different kinds of snack cakes, but years of practically raising his sister had taught him not to comment on the amount of sweets a woman consumed.
For any reason.
He fetched a soda and went back to the table.
Dinner passed with quiet conversation and much laughter. Clara asked Lucy how her day was, and Lucy babbled on about classes and papers and the cute boy who sat next to her in biology. Louis ate his (extremely delicious, one of the best he'd ever had, even) steak, and occasionally threw in a comment when the ladies quieted down long enough for him to get a word in edgewise.
It occurred to him that this was how family dinners were supposed to be. No icy stares and shouted insults. No Dad stomping to the door and Mom shattering a wineglass against the wall, and Lucy whispering, "Louie, I'm scared."
No, Clara had brought a warmth to his apartment that had nothing to do with the food. It was just like having another sister, an older one that Lucy could look up to. It was nice.
If you liked that sort of thing.
Something made a dinging sound.
"What was that?"
"The oven timer," Clara answered, getting up.
"I have an oven timer?"
"I know, right?" Lucy said. "Who knew?"
Clara came back with a fresh apple pie.
"…but Platt was probably murdered. Is that what you're telling me?" Perry finished his rant, giving Louis and Clara his patented Evil Eye. He wasn't going to run the Messenger story. All they had was conjecture based on the word of a discredited scientist.
"Chief," Louis started.
"Hard facts!" Perry bellowed. "Hard facts! That's the name of the game, boys and girls. Now go out there and get me some!"
Dejected, Clara and Louis trudged from Perry's office.
"That's it then. We're not getting any farther without proof."
Louis nodded. "We need pictures, or better yet, a piece of the Messenger. Maybe files from Baine's office that show she read Platt's report." Thinking quickly, he turned to Clara. "You go call EPRAD, see if they'll agree to an outside investigation of the Messenger wreckage by STAR Labs. I'll follow up on another lead."
Just as Louis had hoped, Clara smiled and ran off to do as he suggested. Good. Clara might be naïve enough to think that EPRAD would allow an outside investigator to look at the Messenger, but Louis wasn't. But if he'd told Clara what he was planning, she'd have wanted to come along, and Louis wouldn't drag a sweet country girl like her into this kind of danger.
Grabbing his coat and pulling his recorder out of his desk drawer, he hurried toward the stairs before Clara could come back and see him leaving.
"Hey, where you going?" Jimmy asked.
The elevator doors opened. "Nowhere."
Jimmy dashed into the elevator. "I'm coming too!"
Louis shrugged. Jimmy could handle himself, and he was good at picking locks.
Clara leaned back in her chair, casually watching the conference room door. She hadn't seen Louis and Jimmy since her phone call to EPRAD.
"Looking for lover boy?" Cat teased.
"It's not like that, Cat."
"But you wish it was."
Clara winced. "Am I that obvious?"
Cat gave her a reassuring grin. "To me and Perry? Yes. To Louis and Jimmy? No."
Clara let out a breath she hadn't known she was holding. Lou had made it pretty clear he wasn't interested in a long term relationship, and Clara just wasn't a casual fling kind of girl. She'd hate for her feelings to ruin what she was starting to feel could be a great friendship.
Besides, she'd probably get over it soon.
Perry came in and sat at the head of the table. "Alright, let's get this show on the road. Wait… Clara, where's Lane and Jimmy?"
"Don't know, Chief. I haven't seen them in a while."
"Well, alright. We'll get started without them. Now, Myerson…"
Clara tried to pay attention to the meeting, but she couldn't focus. There was something tickling the back of her mind, telling her that she was needed somewhere else. Expanding her hearing, she tried to find a snatch of Louis' voice in the building, to no avail. Either he wasn't speaking, or he wasn't there. She hadn't been around him long enough yet to recognize his heartbeat, so that was out.
She got up and headed for the door.
"Kent, where are you going?"
"It's not like Lou and Jimmy to miss a meeting, sir. I'm going to go call around, see if I can find them."
Perry motioned her out the door. "Hell of a way to run a railroad."
Clara left the conference room and headed directly to the roof. She spared only a moment to gaze across the city before taking to the air.
By the time Clara thought to fly over EPRAD, the sun was setting, painting the horizon a red that reminded her of blood. It was funny, how different the world could seem from moment to moment. Usually Clara loved the sunset, but with her friends missing…
She hovered above the Planet building and x-rayed it to see that Lou and Jimmy still weren't back, and then zoomed her way to EPRAD – just in time to find two thugs tying Louis up in one of the storage buildings behind EPRAD's hangar, Jimmy lying unconscious a few feet away.
Antoinette Baines was there. Lou was right about her being involved. As Clara watched, Baines pulled a gun and leveled it at Lou's head.
Without thinking, just knowing that she had to provide a distraction before Lou was shot, Clara landed and crashed through the door of the storage building. "Let him go!"
The two thugs jumped at the sound of the doors flying open, but Antoinette Baines barely flicked an eyelid. "Or you'll… what?"
Clara opened her mouth, a threat on the tip of her tongue before her brain caught up with her. Everyone in this room thought she was a normal woman from Kansas who needed glasses.
"I've already called the police," Clara said as convincingly as possible.
Baines barked a laugh. "Why don't I believe you?" She ordered the thugs to tie Clara up, back to back against the same pole as Lou, and Clara had no choice but to let them unless she wanted everyone to know how different she was. They forced her to her knees and wrapped a chain around her.
She wanted to scream.
No. What she really wanted to do was grab Lou and Jimmy, and fly away.
But screaming would have been good too.
Baines said something about an explosion, and set two volatile chemicals leaking from vats across the storage room. When the two substances met, the resulting reaction would blow the building sky high.
Clara barely paid attention. She was too busy berating herself, imagining the ways she could have done this better. Maybe if she was going to fly around in disguise, she should take some kind of police course? Did they offer like… police camp or something to civilians?
She'd ask Mom about it.
"Good going, Farm Girl. Please tell me you actually did call the police," Lou was snarking when Clara tuned back in. Baines and her goons were gone.
"Would it make you feel better if I lied to you?" Clara snapped grumpily. She was already beating herself up enough, she didn't need Lou on her case too.
"Yes. Yes, it would."
Lou's deadpan tone almost made Clara smile. Almost.
"Then yes, I really did call the police. They're sending a SWAT team."
Lou fell silent, and Clara started working against her chains, trying to find a way to break them that wouldn't look too out of the ordinary.
"Why the hell did you come bursting in here anyway?" Lou erupted. "Who do you think you are, She-Ra?! Well, you're not! You should have just quietly snuck away and got help. Then we'd all be fine. But nooo, you have to go and make some grand gesture, some kind of Romeo and Juliet thing because you've been reading too many trashy romance novels, and now all you've accomplished is getting yourself blown up too!"
He stopped, breathing hard.
"You done?" Clara asked, annoyed but trying not to show it. Lou thought he was going to die. That made some people nasty. Clara had seen it before.
There was a pause, like Lou was considering the question.
"Yeah, I'm done."
"Romeo and Juliet thing? Is that all you think women think about? Romance?"
"In my experience women want the fairy tale, and when you can't deliver that, when they're forced to see that life just plain isn't like that, suddenly you're the bad guy, one of your stories is missing, and everyone in the office is either scowling at you or snickering by the water cooler."
Clara felt an odd sensation rush through her, an awareness of the delicacy of the moment that made her ears buzz and her face heat. "You're talking about Claudia, aren't you?"
A bitter laugh. "That was fast. Who told you? Cat?"
"Why don't you tell me what really happened?" Clara held her breath.
"What's it matter? You've heard Claudia's version of events. That's what everyone believes. Hell, half the time I even believe it."
"I want to hear it from you, Lou. I'll believe you. I promise, I'll always believe you when you tell me something important."
Long minutes passed. Clara quietly bent one of the links in the chain securing them to the pole, freezing it with her breath so that the weakened metal would shatter under pressure.
"Claudia was… this bright light. Beautiful, with this cute accent. I wanted her. What can I say? I'm a man. But I never wanted more than that. I never wanted a relationship. I'd just started my career, I knew I'd be out at all hours chasing leads, and probably rude and distracted when I was home. That wasn't the kind of life to offer someone. And I thought Claudia understood that. She said she did, that she wanted the same thing. She came to my apartment one night, and we, well… I don't need to draw you a diagram."
Clara leaned back against the pole, intent on Lou. She could hear his heart hammering, and she focused on the sound, memorizing it. Somehow she had a feeling she'd need to know it in the future.
"The next day," Lou tentatively resumed the story when Clara said nothing. Maybe he'd expected her to condemn him for sleeping with Claudia?
"The next day, Claudia called me a pig and stormed out with a file of notes for my latest story. And when I got into work, the story was submitted under her byline, and she'd told everyone that I lured her to my bed and broke her heart once I got what I wanted. I'm still not sure if that's what she really believed, or if she just told everyone that so it would look bad if I ever confronted her about stealing my story. She won an award for it, you know. The story."
"Oh, Lou," Clara sighed. "I'm sorry."
"Don't be," Lou sounded surprised. "I drove her to it. It's my fault. I figure the story thing makes us even."
"No, it's not," Clara calmly refuted. "Or not just your fault. Maybe you broke her heart and were a little insensitive, but you didn't mean to. Even if you did, she'd misled you about her feelings. And it doesn't justify her taking your story."
Lou shook his head. "It's my fault," he repeated.
Clara grunted in frustration. "Fine. It's your fault. Claudia was just a poor little woman and she had absolutely no choice in anything she did and wasn't capable of making up her own mind at all."
There as a significant silence.
Showed you! Clara thought, pursing her lips. Seemed what Mom always said was right. When a man was down, what he needed even more than a shoulder to cry on was a woman to talk some sense into him.
"Lou, there's a rusty link in my side of the chain. If we pull hard enough, it might break."
"Okay," Lou said, sounding more like his commanding self. "Okay. On three. One, two – "
They pulled. The link Clara had spent their conversation weakening gave way, the ends convincingly fragmented.
Clara stepped away from the pole, the loose chain falling around her feet with a clank. "Get the door!" She told Lou. "I'll get Jimmy!" She headed for the copy boy's unconscious body.
"What are you thinking, Clara?" Lou demanded. "You'll never be able to lift him. I'll get him, you get the door!"
Clara froze for a millisecond, processing what Lou had said, and then ruefully changed direction to open the doors. Behind her, Lou grunted as he hefted Jimmy into a fireman's carry. "The chemicals are getting close! Run!"
Clara waited for Lou to pass her, falling into step behind him so that she could protect him and Jimmy from the worst of the blast. Lou didn't have the breath to argue. He was a muscular guy, but he was carrying a hundred and eighty pounds of dead weight at a run.
They cleared the building just as an explosion shook the air, temporarily deafening Clara and making her ears ring with a high pitched whine. She could feel the heat of fire at her back, but it didn't bother her. Letting her feet skim the ground, she took flight, wrapping her arms around Lou's waist and carrying all three of them forward to land in a muddy wallow twenty yards from the building.
Jimmy landed on his back in the water, Lou on top of him, and Clara sprawled on top of Lou. Quickly she rolled, putting her back in the water of the puddle before Lou could notice her blouse was on fire. She'd be hard put to explain the lack of burns.
Another explosion tore through the night, and Clara looked up, focusing on a point in the darkness. It was a helicopter, or the remains of one, crashing back down to Earth. Baines…?
Clara looked in the direction of the voice and saw Jimmy and Lou lying in the puddle together like they were lovers, Jimmy giving Lou a wary look. Clara couldn't help it. She burst out laughing.
That just seemed to make Jimmy more nervous.
"Is there a reason I can't remember how I wound up laying in a puddle under Louis?"
"It's simple, Jimmy," Clara explained. "Lou saved your life."
"Oh." Jimmy sounded dazed. "My hero."
Clara burst out laughing again.
The newsroom erupted in applause. Louis smiled, holding up that day's paper and tracing his fingers over the headline in satisfaction. This one might get him a Kerth.
Of course, he thought, looking at the byline, I'd have to share it.
The paper read 'MESSENGER SABOTAGED. SABATEUR DIES IN FIERY EXPLOSION' by Louis Lane and Clara Kent with special contributions from James Olsen.'
"Kent," Perry was saying. "Thought I'd let you know – I just got off the phone with EPRAD. The colonist launch vehicle's been fixed, and Mrs. Platt and her daughter are back on board."
"Thanks, Chief." Clara's face softened. "I'm glad they'll get to go."
Louis nodded to himself in satisfaction as he turned away from the celebration, (you were only as good as your next story, after all). He was glad Amy Platt would get her chance at a cure.
Tucking the newspaper into his briefcase so that he could clip the front page article later, he sat down to check his voicemail. He had three messages from Lex Luthor's personal assistant.
They were all for Clara.
Louis snorted, but he returned the calls.
"You have reached the office of Lex Luthor. This is Mrs. Cox speaking. How may I direct your call?"
"This is Louis Lane. Mr. Luthor was trying to reach my… partner through me. I want you to pass on a message."
"That Luthor isn't getting anywhere near Clara Kent until he grants me a one on one interview," Louis smiled.
It wasn't underhanded. Not at all. He and Clara had already agreed that she'd help him get the interview, and in return he'd credit her when he wrote the piece up. It was totally ethical. It was fine.
"… I'll pass that on to Mr. Luthor."
"See that you do."
Louis hung up.
"Who was that?"
Louis nearly jumped out of his skin, whirling in his desk chair to face Clara. Somehow he had a feeling that she knew exactly what he was up to, but he shook it off. That was impossible, unless she had ears like a dog, or read minds or something.
"Just setting up an interview," Louis hedged. "Anyway, I'll see you back at the apartment later." He picked up his coat. "I've got somewhere to be."
And he did. He'd bribed a few guards and one diplomat, and was now in possession of the identification materials and uniform of a colonist scheduled to go up on the shuttle launch. A colonist who resembled Louis, and had fallen ill.
Louis was going to take the sick colonist's place and write a firsthand account of space travel. If that didn't win him a Pulitzer, he wasn't sure what would.
Of course, he'd be away for three months, at a minimum. That was when the first transport was scheduled for supplies to be brought to Prometheus. Louis was hoping he'd be able to catch a ride back on it.
Just before heading up the ramp to the elevator, he turned back and looked at Clara. "Hey, Farm Girl… Keep an eye on Lucy for me."
She gave him a weird look, but said, "Of course, Lou."
"I don't know about this costume idea, Clara," Jonathan said as Clara and her mother spread bolts of leftover fabric all over the Kent family dining room table. Martha was setting up the sewing machine, and Clara trying to coordinate colors.
"It'll work, Daddy," Clara assured her father. "It just has to. I can't stand by when people need me. Not anymore."
Jonathan sighed. "You're a good girl. Always have been."
Clara hugged her father, rocking back on her heels so that she lifted him up off the ground. "And you'll always been my favorite teddy bear, Dad."
They all laughed at the old joke, and then Martha shooed Jonathan out of the kitchen.
"Now, since you mentioned this, honey, I've been giving it some thought. I think we should use one of your old dance leotards as the base, and then we'll just dress it up some with accents, and maybe a cape."
"A leotard, Mom?" Clara said doubtfully. "Isn't that a bit skimpy for, I don't know… fighting fires and stopping runaway trains and things like that?"
Mom laughed. "Well it's not like you need the protection! And I thought part of the point was to keep people from recognizing you. Who would think Clara Kent was the one running around in a leotard? And besides that, we want the base to be something that will fit under most of your clothes. It'll be suspicious if you're still wearing long sleeves and pants in the summer."
As much as she didn't like the idea of parading around practically naked, Clara recalled Cat's comments about leopard print dresses and people underestimating her. And she couldn't refute her mother's logic.
So they went to her room and dug through her closet until they found a dark blue leotard with sturdy shoulder straps. "I remember this." Clara fingered the silky fabric. "You made this for me to wear to dance practice because the ones in the store in town were so expensive."
Mom nodded. "I never could figure out what they were doing charging as much as they did for all your dance outfits. It's not like there's a lot of material involved! It was always cheaper just to make them all myself. And besides, it gave us some lovely memories, didn't it honey?"
"Like the time I was so excited about my new tutu that I kept staring while you made it and accidentally set it on fire?"
They burst into a fit of laughter, tiny lines crinkling around Martha's eyes. "You wanted to wear that thing so bad, and then the tulle melted and I had to start over!"
Clara put the leotard on. Her bosom was bigger since the last time she'd worn it, but the fabric stretched, and while it was very tight, it still managed not to be indecent. They went back downstairs to experiment with adding things to it to make it look less like a leotard and more like a uniform.
"We'll add a skirt. A short one will fit under most of your clothes, but give you some coverage for your tush."
"Gee, thanks Mom."
They decided on a skirt the same color as the leotard, so that it would look like all one piece. Martha pinned it in place, and added gold trim along the edges where the skirt joined the leotard.
"It's still pretty skimpy."
"Hmm. How about some long gloves and tall boots? That will cover you, but they'll be easy to take on and off, so you won't have to worry about hiding them under your regular clothes."
Another dive into Clara's old dance costumes resulted in a pair of bright red elbow length gloves and a pair of red toe shoes – the kind worn for en pointe. Clara had worn them for a show at the Smallville Little Theatre, a ballet production of The Wizard of Oz in which she'd played The Wicked Witch of the East.
They still fit.
"The ballet shoes will be fine for now. I've got some red fabric here, and I'll make you some leggings that lace up the back and make the shoes look like boots. Oh, and I bet you'll be so pretty, floating in the air with your toes pointed! And you could land on one toe… You have to let me take your picture!"
Clara couldn't help but smile at her mother's enthusiasm, even as something inside her positively quivered with the fear that the disguise wouldn't work. That she'd be found out.
"I'll have to add a new section to photo album where I keep all your dance pictures," Martha was saying. "Oh, I won't show anyone of course, but it'll make me happy to be able to look at it."
Once a dance mom, always a dance mom, Clara watched her mother flutter around the kitchen with fondness.
Finishing the costume was the work of minutes. Martha marked out the patterns and pinned things in place, and then Clara cut and sewed at super speed. They'd made many a Halloween costume for the neighborhood kids this way, and worked well together.
"Now the cape!"
"It'll be great when you're flying! And I thought you were worried about the outfit being too skimpy."
"Fine," Clara said with a sigh.
They made it red, to match the ballet boots and gloves.
"Now take your hair down."
"But it blows in my face when I fly."
"Yes, but Clara Kent always wears her hair up. It'll add to the illusion if you take it down when you're disguised. And so long as you keep wearing it up when you're dressed normally, no one will realize that your hair is just as long as the miraculous flying woman's."
"Mom, how'd you get so good at this?"
"I read a lot of spy novels, dear."
Clara took her hair down. It fell in thick waves around her face, a splash of black against the red of her cape. Mom ran her fingers through it, arranging it around Clara's shoulders.
"You have such lovely hair."
Clara pouted. "It still gets in my face when I fly."
"Maybe a headband? Or better yet, a mask."
"A mask?" Clara was doubtful. "Won't that make people suspicious of me? Think that I have something to hide?"
"Well, Clara, you goose, you do have something to hide! Or did you think that just taking off your glasses would make you look different enough? Especially as I'm betting you didn't wear your glasses to that ball you attended last week."
Clara hadn't thought of that.
"Mom, really. How did you get so good at this?"
Rather than the teasing like she had before, Martha's expression turned thoughtful. Cupping Clara's cheeks in her hands, she looked her in the eye. "Clara Josephina Kent, I have been preparing for this moment since you were eight years old and used your super speed to keep a cat from getting hit by a car. I've always known that you would never be able to sit by and do nothing when there are people out there who need you. I've just been waiting for you to decide you were ready."
Tears in her eyes, Clara hugged her mother.
"I'm so proud of you," Martha whispered.
They stayed that way for several long minutes, and then Martha straightened with a no nonsense sniffle. "Come on. I've got some sheets of metal and my blowtorch out in the barn, for my art class. Let's go make you a mask."
They used an old Halloween half mask as a guide, tracing the shape onto a sheet of golden-bronze metal. Then, under Martha's direction, Clara cut and welded with precision blasts of her heat vision, and used her strength to bend the mask into shape. The nose piece came to a point, and the side pieces flared around her face in the shape of wings, in order to keep her hair pushed back. When she put it on, she felt like a warrior. A valkyrie.
A hero out of legend.
Valkyrie. Maybe that's what she'd call herself. Her new persona needed a name, she supposed. After all, she couldn't just go around introducing herself as Clara.
They went back in the house and Clara stood before the full length mirror in her parents' bedroom, peering at the person reflected there. Trying to figure out who she was.
The mask really did help. It made her look forbidding. Serious.
She straightened up, folding her arms across her chest.
Valkyrie. That's who she would be when she donned the Suit. Helpful, but distant. Kind, but unknowable. Openly not human.
Openly not human.
If she was capable of sweating, that thought would have made her do it.
"You look good, honey," Mom said from the doorway. "It just needs a couple more things."
"What's that, Mom?"
Martha handed Clara a red lipstick, a few shades darker than the color she'd worn to Lex Luthor's ball. Clara put it on and observed the effect in the mirror. Yes, with the mask and the lipstick, the lower half of her face looked strange even to her.
"What's the other thing?"
Mom smiled and held out a roll of fabric, letting it fall open it to reveal a red 'S' on a gold field. There was something familiar about it. Clara trailed her fingers over the letter, a hazy memory of the same letter in white dancing before her eyes. But no, surely that was just a dream…
"We found it with you, that night your ship crashed in the field," Mom said quietly, joining Clara in tracing the symbol. "I've been saving it for the day you decided to let everyone see how special you are. We thought maybe it was some kind of crest of your people…"
"My people," Clara murmured. Then she smiled. "Did Daddy know you had all this planned?"
Mom laughed. "He knew. He hoped this day would never come. He's afraid for you. But he knew, same as I did."
They stitched the symbol onto the front of Clara's Suit, over her heart.
She had a people. She wore their symbol. She only hoped that she would wear it well. Would make them, whoever they were, as proud of her as her human parents were.
She didn't have time to worry over it long. No sooner had they put the finishing touches on the Suit than Clara heard them say on the television that the colonist transport, set to launch back in Metropolis, was in trouble.
She was gone so fast that fabric scraps blew all over the kitchen, automatically flying high to avoid being seen.
And then she remembered that it didn't matter if anyone saw her.
She'd been able to fly for years, but this was the first time she felt free.
Louis easily got through EPRAD's security checkpoints and boarded the colonist transport. In fact, it was almost too easy, and he made a mental note for a potential article on lax security measures. He could write it when he got back from space.
Got back from space.
Louis had always been ambitious, both by nature and as something he was pushed into by his father. Sam Lane's son always had to be first, the best, a mirror that reflected glory back on the father. Louis had become a junior kickboxing champion in his teens, was the youngest journalist in history to win a Kerth Award, let alone two, and now he was going to be the first journalist in outer space.
Louis smiled to himself, finding an empty section of the ship and strapping himself in. It wouldn't do for the Platts to see and recognize him in the main area where the other colonists were. Not until it was too late for him to be ejected from the shuttle.
A man in black walked through the hallway, passing by the open door hatch. Louis blinked. The man wasn't wearing the uniform of a colonist, and he didn't look like a lab tech or engineer. So who was he, and what was he doing?
Unbuckling himself, Louis went to the door, standing back and at an angle so that he wouldn't be readily visible.
The man in black was fiddling with a bunch of wires and affixing some kind of display to the wall. A last minute repair, maybe? A security camera?
The man in black picked up his bag and left. Louis let him go, more interested in what the man had done than the man himself.
He approached the bank of wires and examined the display screen. As he watched, numbers appeared on the read out.
And started counting down.
"A bomb," Louis gasped, his voice coming out in a hiss. "It's a bomb!"
There was no one else around. There was no obvious way to call for help that he could see. The counter was set for five minutes, not long enough for him to run and get anyone…
Louis started pulling wires out of the wire bank, heedless of possible electrocution. If he could damage the ship enough, maybe it would send someone out to see what was wrong. It wasn't much of a plan, but it was all he had. He wasn't about to try cutting the wires of the bomb. He wasn't even sure if the bomb had wires. Or which one to cut if it did.
Okay, if the counter got down to thirty seconds, he would see if the bomb had wires, and cut one of them.
Cut it with what, his teeth?
He felt for his pocket, cursed when he realized he was wearing a colonist uniform and his pocket knife wasn't where he usually kept it, and dashed back to the room where he'd first buckled himself in and got his knife from his bag. Then he went back to the Bomb Room – because it was the Bomb Room now, and it would forever be the Bomb Room in his mind – and, for lack of anything better to do, glared at the bomb, trying to figure out if it had wires.
Clara landed in front of the colonist transport, a sonic boom heralding her arrival. Already, being in the ballet shoes was starting to bring back old habits. She stood tall, shoulders back, limbs arranged gracefully.
Thump-thump. Thump-thump. Thump-thump.
Clara cocked her head, listening. No, it couldn't be. It absolutely could not be. But it was. She had memorized that heartbeat just yesterday, feeling that she would need to be able to recognize it in the future.
Lou was on the colonist transport.
Wasting no more time, Clara headed straight for Lou. If there was trouble on the shuttle, Lou would be right in the middle of it, of that she was sure.
When she stepped into the room, Lou didn't even notice her. He was busy staring at the wall, muttering to himself about wires. Clara could see the problem. There was a bomb.
She had to get it away from the shuttle. But there wasn't time. She had no idea when it would go off, no idea if she'd be fast enough.
There was only one thing for it. She'd dived on plenty of grenades in some of the war torn regions she'd traveled. She'd just have to hope that her insides were as invulnerable as her outsides.
Ignoring Lou's protests, Clara pulled the bomb from the wall.
And swallowed it.
Squeezing her eyes shut, she waited for the boom. Waited for the pain. But there was nothing. A feeling of pressure…
And then she hiccupped.
"Pardon me," she said to Lou, remembering to stand straight. Valkyrie! Think Valkyrie!
"What?" Lou gaped, his eyes nearly bugging from his head. "Who are you?"
Pitching her voice lower than usual and striving for a combination of capable and reassuring, Clara answered, "A friend."
Oh God, this was stupid. She sounded stupid. Suddenly, she couldn't bring herself to tell Lou to call her Valkyrie. Claiming a name from legend? It was so pretentious! Lou wasn't speaking. Did he recognize her? He probably thought she was a freak. He was probably afraid of her. He was probably hoping the army would be there soon, to cart her away and dissect her like a frog.
"Wow," Lou said.
The other colonists crowded into the room. Clara had been so intent on Lou's heartbeat that she didn't hear them coming.
"What's going on here?" one of them demanded.
"There was a bomb," Lou said. He never took his eyes off of Clara. "She…uh… ate it."
Amy Platt rolled forward in her wheelchair, dressed in the brown coveralls of the colonist uniform. There was a paper crane in her hand. It wasn't one of the ones Clara had folded. Amy must have been practicing. Where had she gotten paper on the shuttle?
"Hello," Amy said.
Clara knelt so that her face was on the same level as Amy's. The girl reached out and ran one finger down the bridge of Clara's mask. "I like your costume."
Clara smiled before she could remind herself that her Valkyrie persona was supposed to be distant and decidedly inhuman. "Thank you. My mother made it for me."
"What's your name?" Amy asked. Again, Clara couldn't bring herself to say 'Valkyrie.' Instead, she touched a fingertip to the paper crane Amy held.
"What's that?" Clara asked.
"A paper crane. This lady I know, Ms. Kent, told me that if I fold one thousand I'll get a wish."
Clara fell silent, her hearing picking up mutterings among the adults that the shuttle wouldn't be able to launch because it had burned its fuel in the first aborted attempt to take off, and Mission Control was discussing the crew's inability to refuel before the launch window closed.
"What do you mean to wish for, Amy?" Clara asked, trying to phrase her speech more formally than she usually would.
Amy clutched the little paper crane. "To fly."
Clara looked the girl in the eye. "Then I will make you fly."
She held out her hand, and Amy gave her the crane.
After depositing Lou in Mission Control – he was still too shocked to protest much – Clara lifted the rocket into space.
Louis stared at the paper crane in his hands. The woman – whoever she was – had asked him to hold it for her. She said it would burn up on reentry.
It would burn up on reentry.
The paper crane would burn up on reentry into the atmosphere, but she, the flying-rocket-lifting-bomb-eating woman, would not.
Louis guarded that paper crane with his life. Wild horses could not have dragged him away. He clutched it to his chest, glancing at it every few seconds to see that it was still there.
It was proof that it had happened. That the woman in the golden mask that made him think of a Roman gladiator really existed. And it was more.
It was a guarantee that she was coming back.
She, the most beautiful, strongest woman in the world, was coming back. Louis would see her again.
She was gorgeous. Angelic. Powerful. A goddess. Everything about her spoke of a quiet nobility. Was she a queen where she came from? Because she had to have come from somewhere, and Louis would bet that somewhere wasn't Earth.
Regal. Kind. Gentle and impossibly strong all at once. She'd eaten a bomb. It seemed like nothing could hurt her.
Nothing could hurt her.
I can't hurt her.
Louis checked that the paper crane was still there, and went back to watching the sky.
When Clara returned to EPRAD to get Lou, she expected to be positively pelted with questions. It was with dread that she made her way to Mission Control. It took an extreme act of will to school her expression, to maintain the persona she'd discovered as soon as she put on the mask.
But Lou didn't speak. He looked her up and down, his gaze lingering on her legs and rushing past her breasts, his cheeks reddening. He held out the paper crane.
"Thank you," Clara said gravely, carefully flattening the crane and then trying to figure out where to put it. She eventually slid it into the top of her left boot.
Lou stared some more, totally awestruck. It was the look of a man seeing the face of God.
It made Clara uncomfortable.
"You have done me a service," Clara said, calling upon her years of reading Shakespeare and Bronte. "So allow me to do a service for you."
She felt ridiculous, but it would help keep the identities separate, right? Right.
It couldn't be any worse than the cape, anyway.
"Service?" Lou got out.
Clara nodded. Moving slowly, so that she wouldn't startle Lou, she wrapped an arm around his waist. "Put your arm around my shoulders," she instructed him. "I shall fly you wherever it is you make your home."
She could easily pick Lou up and carry him, but that seemed like it might embarrass him. She'd scoop up men she had to rescue, but for Lou she would make an exception.
It was funny, just a few days ago she'd wondered if he'd like to fly.
Lou wrapped his arm around Clara's shoulders. Clara pulled him close to her side and took off.
A shiver went through Lou's body, and Clara glanced at him, worried that he was going to be air sick, or that he was afraid.
But Lou was laughing. He was laughing so hard that he wasn't making any sound at all, tears streaming down his cheeks.
"Turn that thing off, Jimmy!" Perry ordered, flinging a hand toward the television. "It's all a hoax. Who could possibly believe that some girl in a cheerleading costume lifted a rocket into space, and then flew off? We'll be seeing a thousand different segments debunking this by tomorrow afternoon, you mark my – "
Perry turned around.
The woman from the news was gently pushing open one of the bullpen windows.
The bullpen wasn't on the first floor.
As Perry watched, she glided in, no wires or cables visible, and landed gently on one toe, like a ballerina. Then she lowered herself onto both feet, and Perry belatedly noticed that she had Louis with her, clamped to her side.
Great Shades of Elvis, was it too late to stop the presses?
The woman in the golden mask with the red 'S' emblazoned on her chest left the same way she came.
Out the window.
Perry hadn't believed in magic in a long time. He hadn't even believed in the magic of the everyday – those moments where time stops and you know you'll remember it forever – in a long time. But this was quite possibly one of the most magical moments of his life.
"Wayta go, Louis!" he dimly heard Jimmy say. "Man, she has got to be the hottest babe on the planet!"
"What's the 'S' stand for?" That was Cat.
"Super…" Lane sounded out of breath. He'd been wowed, alright, and that was a hard thing to do to Louis Lane.
"Superwoman!" Louis exclaimed.
"Supergirl sounds better," Perry butted in then, already composing the new front page in his mind. Maybe he'd run a special midmorning edition. "Rolls off the tongue easier. Fewer syllables."
"Chief," Louis was making what Perry privately thought of as the Mad Dog Face. "Do you really want to see how a woman who is strong enough to lift a rocket into orbit reacts to being called a girl?"
"He has a point, Chief," a new voice piped up.
Perry jumped, putting a hand over his heart. "Kent! I didn't see you standing there." He returned his attention to Louis. "Alright, Superwoman it is. Now get writing!"