(A/N) This is more than likely the only Man of Steel fic I will ever write. I found the movie super-duper serious, and I need a little humor with my tights and cape. Still, I left the theater thinking about how these two people would handle the day they'd just had, and this came out.
On the Way Home
There was a cold knot under Lois Lane's breastbone. She pressed the heel of one hand to the spot, but it refused to abate. It sat there like a ball of ice.
She filled her electric teakettle and plugged it in. The thought wisped across her mind that Kal-El - Clark Kent - whatever he was called - could probably glare at it and boil her water for her. As he wasn't available, she'd have to do it the old-fashioned way.
Her shower rattled and thudded, the old pipes protesting the volume of water being forced through them. They always did; her pipes were divas. At least she had water, Lois thought, retrieving her toast from the toaster. And electricity. There were a lot of people living closer to the center of Metropolis who had neither right now.
Those were the ones that were alive.
God, what a news cycle this would be.
The part of herself that had gone to Afghanistan and won a Pulitzer Prize and skipped merrily around on the Arctic ice to get pictures of an alien spacecraft thought, You have your next Pulitzer standing in your shower.
She forced it back. She'd promised, Lois lectured herself. There was more here than just - just? - a news story. Her eyes slid longingly toward her computer.
She made herself eat toast with peanut butter instead, and wondered if she had a box of instant mashed potatoes. Comfort food, the stuff her mom had fed her when she was sick or sad.
What was comfort food for him? She briefly entertained notions of strange alien concoctions, then remembered he'd been an Earth boy since babyhood. Kansas, specifically. Beefsteak and cornbread? Kansas had cows and things. Corn, that's what the Kent farm had grown. She remembered landing in a cornfield, his arms steely around her. She touched her ribs lightly and found them tender, although that could have been from any number of events today.
She rubbed the cold spot in her chest, then checked the teakettle. The water stayed stubbornly unboiled.
Suddenly her ears rang with shouts and screams. Her nose filled with smoke. The deck of the plane slid away under her feet and she was falling, falling . . .
She forced her eyes open and stared at the kettle. You are home. It's over. You're not downtown, you're not in the plane.
You are safe.
Her heartbeat slowed back to something approaching normal. She breathed in and scrubbed sweat away from her temples.
She made herself sit down at the table and jot down details. The smoke and the screams and the way she'd fallen. It would make good copy.
She gnawed at another piece of toast, spread thickly with peanut butter.
She rested her pen against the paper and thought of the men who'd died aboard the plane that had nose-dived into the . . . "world engine"? Was that what Zod had called it? She wrote that down too, with an underline and a question mark. She learned early on to grab at the scraps of detail that were apt to float away, and join them up later.
What had been the soldiers' names?
She'd written them down once, but her notebook had been a casualty of the chaos. She squeezed her eyes shut and thought of block letters stitched onto camos. Colonel Hardy. She knew that for sure. She'd spent enough time glaring at the hard-ass. The scientist - Hemingway? No. Hamilton. Yes. That was it. Hamilton.
The rest of the names were gone in a haze of smoke and fire, just like the soldiers themselves.
She rubbed her chest again.
She wrote, "Contact Army brass for names" because the Army would have them, even if they had to officially deny that they'd ever been on that plane. Although how could they? Hard to cover this up. Genie was out of the bottle for sure.
She licked peanut butter off one knuckle and contemplated the pad of paper.
Slowly, she wrote, "Why Smallville?"
The teakettle clicked off. She got up and filled the biggest mug she had, then dropped in a teabag. She picked it up and snugged it against her breastbone, watching the water change colors.
She knew why Smallville. Undoubtedly all of Smallville knew why Smallville. But if he wanted to keep his human self secret, then there would have to be a reason for the world, why Smallville. Because aliens usually don't go for middle-of-nowhere farm towns. They hit the big cities right away.
Maybe he could help with that. Kal. Clark.
She liked the names. They were both simple, straightforward, like him. You couldn't spin a nickname or a diminutive out of them. Clarky? Kallie? Nope. They were what they were, like him. The two pieces of him.
She took a slurp of underbrewed tea. It burned her tongue and throat, but she took another, trying to thaw that cold spot. It was stubborn.
The shower shut off.
She thought, You have a naked, beautiful alien, dripping in your bathroom.
She'd had her fair share of post-trauma sex. It was one of those things that helped put you back together, like showers and clean clothes and comfort food. She'd talked to a girlfriend of his, at that bar. She knew he was . . . capable. And oh, that kiss.
She shivered but thought, Down, girl. Not right now. You stink.
She dropped her head and sniffed at the green-grey fabric of the USAF-issue flight suit. Fuel, smoke, sweat, fear. She pulled her hair around to her nose and whiffed it. More stink. Not what she wanted him to associate with her.
She went back into her pantry and pulled out a new loaf of bread. Then jelly. Then Cheerios. Then crackers. Then spaghetti. Then she forced herself to stop.
Alien or not, apocalyptic battle or not, there wasn't a metabolism in the world that needed all this food.
She gave in and pulled out the box of instant mashed potatoes, too. She could make some after she got out of the shower. She stared at the rest of the boxes and wondered if she had time to put them away, but a light step in the hallway answered that question.
"Hey," she said.
"Hi," he said. He looked edible, scrubbed clean and hair curling damply at the base of his neck. He was still wearing his suit. She would have offered to lend him something else, but if anything she owned fit across those broad shoulders and those powerful thighs, she might have to kill herself.
In her cramped kitchen, he was huge. Too much hero for this small, everyday place, all shining alien fabric and steely blue eyes and dramatic cape next to her faded cabinets and the fossilized gunk on the stovetop.
"Your suit is clean. What did you, shower in it?"
"No. Heat vision. Sort of . . . burns off. The stuff." His elbow caught the glass jelly jar and sent it hurtling toward the floor. He dove for it, cape all aswirl, and the spaghetti almost came to grief.
She pretended not to notice that he was blushing. "Huh. Well, that's handy, I guess. Saves on laundry."
"I can't exactly do it with anything else," he said. "This material is, you know. Sturdy."
Okay. Interesting. He was very, very bad at small talk. Apparently he didn't know what to say when there wasn't some life-or-death situation he had to address.
She remembered what people had said when she went crawling through his past. Nice guy. Quiet. Awkward. Clumsy. A bumbler, a stutterer, a shy and self-effacing man.
She was pretty far gone if this only increased his hotness.
She was suddenly very aware of her own stink and the tangles in her hair. She said, "Did you leave any hot water?"
"I think so."
"Guess you could use heat vision on my water heater if you didn't."
"I-I've never tried but if you want - "
"What? No! It's okay. Don't worry about it." She could see the day where it would be incredibly entertaining to wind up his shy and earnest self, but right now she had to work out the boundaries of it.
To ease the awkwardness, she flapped a hand at her counter and her table, crowded with food. "Anything you like, okay? I've got to - " She edged past him, clamping her arms to her sides. Did he have super-smell as well as super-sight and super-hearing? The yellow pad was across the room or she would have noted it down. But showering was more important.
There was indeed hot water left, and she parboiled herself, watching the bruises bloom like flowers all over her body, sucking in her breath when scrapes and scratches made themselves known. Oh, boy, was that knee going to be sore. She would have to ice it. She scrubbed every inch, every crevice. She slathered conditioner in her hair and let it drip off the ends. She scraped soot and crud out from under her nails, the ones that hadn't broken. The ash of her wounded city went swirling down the drain.
But she did it as quietly as possible, because of his super-hearing.
She didn't know why she was being so shy about it. He had wept openly after killing General Zod, face pressed against her stomach, shoulders trembling like an earthquake. But she was.
The hot water finally did give out, long before the cold knot in her chest had thawed, and she was forced to get out.
She examined herself in the foggy mirror. She looked a little red about the eyes, but she looked a little red everywhere. She splashed her face with cool water anyway. She clipped her nails, worked out the tangles in her hair, sprayed Bactine on her wounds, hissed and swore while the stinging eased.
She contemplated lingerie, or the comfier option of tank and itty bitty pj shorts. She opted for her thickest flannel pajamas. She was so cold.
She found him at her table, devouring a stack of what looked like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. From the crumbs on his lips and the empty plastic bag at his elbow, he'd polished off the whole damn loaf.
He also looked human. He'd gotten real clothes from somewhere. From the way the shirt ("Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya") stretched over his shoulders and flapped around his lean waist, she would guess he'd purloined them from her potbellied downstairs neighbor, who always left his crap in the dryer, sometimes for days.
He looked different in the everyday clothes. Well done, Lane, that'll get you the front page. Man Changes Clothes, Looks Different. But he did. Softer, smaller. Shoulders only half a mile wide. His hair, dry now, curved around his ears and ruffled over his forehead, softening the chiseled angles of his face.
"Where's the suit, Superman?"
He made a face. "Don't. Please."
Shy and self effacing indeed. "Sorry, farmboy. It wasn't my idea. That's what everyone's calling you. Would you prefer Kal-El?"
He toyed with a crust. "Maybe."
"But you've got an S on your chest." She held up a hand. "Yes, I know. Hope. Family crest. Blah, blah. It says S to humans, and humans have named you Superman."
"The important people know to call me Kal," he said, peering into the peanut butter jar. It was scraped clean. "Or Clark."
Something in her went giddy. He thinks I'm important!
He got up abruptly, and she wondered if she'd offended him with the Superman business. Or the blah, blah business. He had lost every connection he had with Krypton today. Maybe he thought she was being flippant about that little piece of it.
But he just went to the stove and took the lid off a pot, releasing a gush of steam. He picked up the box on the counter and poured the whole thing in at once.
"Mashed potatoes," she breathed.
"I hope it's okay. You did say - "
"I know what I said." She edged closer, peering into the pot and watching the mix of dry flakes and water get stirred into a soft, thick mass.
He tasted it, wrinkled his nose.
"I didn't have any real potatoes," she said, hearing the apology in her voice. "Just the box. Real ones, I forget about them and they start sprouting those crazy white tentacles - "
"Farmboy," he said, pointing at himself. He added salt, butter, milk, and tasted again.
"Oh, yeah." She looked over his shoulder, or tried. She had to peer around to spot what else sat on the counter. "Garlic salt? Cheese?"
"I, um, was going to add them, but - " He moved to push them away.
"No! That's fine. That sounds really good."
He smiled at her. It was the same smile as when he wore the suit.
"What do I call you?" she asked while he grated cheese directly into the pot. "Clark? Kal? Su - "
"Not Superman," he said. "Either of the others is fine."
He twisted the spoon in his fingers, watching the warm mashed potatoes slide off and plop into the pot. His lashes lay against his cheekbones a moment. "Yes," he said.
She put away the food she'd taken out. The Cheerios box rattled emptily. She peered inside. He'd left her the prize. She shook it out into her hand. It was a eraser, the kind you stuck on top of your pencil in fourth grade. She kept it.
They ate mashed potatoes at the table. She scooped her portion into a regular cereal bowl. He poured the rest into a giant pasta bowl and was scraping at the china pattern before she was halfway done. He looked at her sideways, flushing. "It takes a lot of calories," he said. "What I do. The sun helps but I still . . . I'll buy you more food."
She thought of demurring politely, but she hated grocery shopping and her regular delivery service was headquartered downtown. She wasn't about to turn down a grocery run she didn't have to make. "Sure. Thanks."
She did, however, demur when he got up and started filling the sink. "I'll do that."
"I don't mind."
"You cooked. That's not fair."
He slid pots and plates and silverware into the steaming water. They disappeared under the soap bubbles. "I want to."
"But there's a dishwasher," she said.
The quiet request set her back a moment, and she considered him, the man who'd saved the planet, standing in front of her sink in sweatpants and a faded t-shirt.
She wanted to feel normal. Well, maybe he did, too. He'd grown up on a farm, then worked as a busboy and a cook and a deep-sea fisherman for years, simple and menial jobs that didn't have anything to do with life or death, or require anything beyond human capacity. Hard, dull, grinding jobs that, once done, needed to be done all over again the next day.
"Okay," she said.
She cleaned the table, bringing him dishes since he seemed so determined to wash them. He scrubbed with absent efficiency, setting them up to dry in precise rows.
She sat down at the table, feeling superfluous. She reached for her yellow pad and found that several more pages had been used. "Clark, was this you?"
He glanced over. "Um. Yes. It's something I do, I write it down to get it out of my head. I folded your notes over. Is that - "
"It's okay," she said. "Look, you're here, right? I told you, take anything. Use anything. I meant that."
He bit his lip and turned back to his dishes.
She ran her fingers down the thickly crowded letters. How long had she been in that shower, anyway? Or maybe he'd written at super-speed. There were times where she wrote like that, getting the words out of her head as fast as she could. "Can I read this?"
"Oh. Sure, I guess."
She cast him an amused glance. "You know, I am a reporter, and you are the biggest story of the year. You want to be careful about what you let me get my mitts on."
"But you asked."
"You also want to be careful about letting a girl know you can't tell her no."
"I could tell you no. I don't want to."
She looked up. He was looking at her sideways. When he saw her expression, his lips quirked up momentarily.
She ducked her head, feeling her face heat, and concentrated on what he'd written. After a few words, she didn't even have to force herself to focus.
He'd written about the spaceship, his father, Zod. He'd recorded the names of the Kryptonians, not as enemies but as worthy opponents. He'd recorded the names of the human soldiers who'd died in much the same way. He'd written about not having time to let people get to safety as he fought. About the buildings falling, about trying to aim at places where there wouldn't be people to suffer, and knowing that he hadn't always succeeded. About his own raw, clumsy fighting against Zod's honed skills.
He'd written about the choice he'd made, between a family of humans and his last link to the homeworld that he'd never seen.
Her voice, when she spoke, crackled like an old record. "Clark. This is good."
"Thank you," he said.
"No, I mean it. I'd run this."
He looked at her, astonished and shyly flattered. Aw, man. He shouldn't look at any woman like that; it put his virtue in serious danger. "You don't have to be nice."
"I'm not nice," she said. "I'm a hard hitting journalist who's judged way more than her fair share of Perry's stupid cub reporter scholarship entries." She flapped the pad at him. "Make no mistake, bucko, this could use a firm editorial hand. Adverbs are the herpes of good reporting. And it's got all the focus of Mr. Magoo. But there's good stuff here once you clear away the underbrush."
He looked at her a moment. "Do you want it?"
"Do I - ? Clark, think. You could publish this. That's what I'm saying."
"As Superman," he said. "No. I'd rather you did."
"I can't take this. I can't say I wrote this. I have ethics."
He cocked a brow in a way that a shy bumbler shouldn't be able to.
"I do," she grumped. "The game isn't as good if you don't."
He nodded. "An interview?" he offered.
"It's not exactly interview format." Plus, she had a host of questions that hadn't gotten answered.
"You're a hard-hitting journalist. I'm sure you can turn it into interview format."
She'd told herself that she wasn't going to capitalize on him. But if he asked her to . . . "Only if you let me do follow-ups."
She smiled, tore off the pages, and spread them out. She made notes on a clean sheet as she read it through a second time, and occasionally made marks on his words.
She was halfway done when she realized that the sounds of cleaning had stopped. She looked up. He was frozen in the middle of her kitchen, rag limp in his hand. The thousand-yard-stare.
"Clark," she said.
"Kal." She got to her feet, very carefully. She had a ceramic tooth from the time she'd gotten too close to a soldier frozen in the midst of a PTSD flashback. "Clark. Can you hear me? It's Lois. Show me that you hear me."
"Helicopters," he said.
"There aren't any helicopters - " She stopped. "Where are they?"
"Six miles away. Airlift. They're taking patients to Gotham." He lifted his head. "Five miles now."
The biggest hospital in the city had been right at the edge of the destruction zone. They might be functional, but definitely not in a state where they could treat the worst cases.
"Do they need you?"
"I should - "
"Do they? Is a comet about to hurtle from the sky, is there a slow fuel leak, is a bird going to fly into the rotors?"
He blinked. "No. They'll get there in time."
The helicopters buzzed over. The noise rose to deafening levels, then faded away.
She stood just out of range, chewing on her lip. "Clark. I'm going to touch you. Is that okay?"
He blinked again, focused. After a long moment, he said, "Yes."
She took a step, then another. This man could literally smash her into a fine pink paste.
She put her hands on his shoulders. They felt like stone under her palms. Superheated stone. She felt as if she might scorch away from the heat and the tension in them.
"What was that?" she asked.
"I lost focus for a moment," he said.
"You lost focus?" It seemed to her that you would have to zero in to hear a helicopter six miles away.
"I haven't done that since . . . I guess I'm tired."
She stroked her hands over his shoulders and down his arms. "You've had a big day."
He didn't say anything.
She dropped her forehead to rest on his chest, where the hope "S" would be on his suit. "Clark," she said. "This is not you. This is not your fault."
"He was after me." His arms hung at his sides.
"You've been here thirty-three years. He was here for twenty-four hours. You tell me, when did all this crap happen?"
His breath jerked and caught in his chest. "Lois," he said. "Those people. All those people."
"Even you can't save everyone."
"You can't. Okay?" She slid her hands up his neck to frame his face. "You need to understand that, if you're going to do this."
He looked at her with a well of pain in his eyes that went all the way down.
"I'm not asking you to be okay with it. I'm telling you, that's the way it's going to be, and even you can't change that. Even though you'll try."
"My dad used to tell me that."
"Jor-El?" She couldn't imagine the serious alien, with his morality like a suit of armor, saying any of the sort.
"Not my father. My dad."
"Oh. Jonathan Kent."
"He said I needed to hide myself. That people would fear me if they knew. Even if I'd helped them. He died. He wouldn't let me save him and he died."
She thought dark thoughts about the kind of coward who tried to protect his son by forcing him to be a lesser version of himself.
"That's not what I'm saying. I'm telling you that you will try to help. You should try to help. But you won't always save everyone. Just as many as you can."
He closed his eyes. She put her head against his chest again, and his arms lifted up and wrapped around her. He folded her into himself, as if she was the core holding him together. Fine tremors ran through his body.
"How can I do this?"
"You're asking me?" she said, voice muffled against his chest. "I don't know."
His heartbeat sounded so human. Maybe that was it. Genetically, he was Kryptonian, but his heart was a human one. He had to navigate a place between the two. Between saving everyone and saving no one, between being Superman and Clark and Kal.
She didn't envy him the task.
The tension seeped away from his muscles. He let out a sigh that cooled the damp patches in her hair. His hand stroked up her back and then down, and she burrowed herself deeper into his heat. She was finally warm.
She pressed her mouth to his collarbone, just above the neckline of his t-shirt, and his heart skipped a beat.
He caught her upper arms, lightly, and stepped back. She caught his shirt in her fists and hung on.
There was a flush of pink high on his cheekbones. It was oddly sweet.
"Your mother raised you to be a gentleman, didn't she?"
"Yes," he admitted, the flush spreading.
"My mother tried to raise me to be a lady. It didn't take." She cocked her head. "You said earlier that you could tell me no, you just didn't want to. Is that true?"
She leaned forward, letting the neckline of her pajama top gape so that if he looked, he'd get an eyeful. "Clark Kent, if you don't tell me no, I am gonna bang you like a screen door in a hurricane."
He looked. His eyes traveled back up to meet hers, and they were dilated. She raised a brow. "Well?"
He caught her around the waist, lifted her up. She was ready, her legs winding around his hips and her arms around his neck. Against her mouth, he groaned, "Yes."
When she woke, her bedroom was dim. She lay under the tumbled covers and watched him climb back into the Superman suit. She noted with interest the places where the different pieces hooked together with some kind of invisible fastenings, and wondered what was involved in unhooking them again. It felt like information that would be useful.
"Gonna leave a note, farmboy?"
He looked up from clipping his cape into place. "You've been awake for five minutes."
She sat up, enjoying the way the way he froze as the sheet slid down and pooled at her waist. Boobs short-circuited the Kryptonian brain too. Good to know. "Listening in on my heartbeat?"
"Breathing, actually," he managed. "Um - "
She took pity on him and wrapped the sheet around herself, sarong-style. "Better?"
He sighed. "No."
"I have to go home."
Her first thought was, I thought Krypton was gone. Then - "To Smallville?"
"There's a lot of work to do. A lot of rebuilding." He looked pained. "The IHOP alone will probably have to be demolished."
"God help us if we lose the IHOP."
"I think you underestimate the vital importance of a decent IHOP in the sociopolitical discourse of a small rural community."
It surprised a laugh out of her. "Okay. Go make sure the people of Smallville have their pancakes again. Then what? You're gonna be your own police scanner? Rescue cows that fell down a ravine? Maybe write a little bit for the Smallville Weekly Chronicle?" This vision of the future annoyed her, on behalf of both Kal and Clark. He could be so much more.
"It's called the Standard. And it's biweekly, actually." He sat down at the edge of the bed. "You really think my writing is good?"
"I think your writing has promise," she said, because he really had been profligate with those adverbs. But he had a decent grasp of who, what, when, where, and how.
He met her eyes. "Enough promise to get me an interview at the Daily Planet in a few months?"
She breathed in. "Is this supposed to be romantic?"
"No. Reporting, especially the way you do it - "
"Nobody does it the way I do it."
He ignored that. " - seems to be a free pass to all sorts of trouble. Nobody will question me being where Superman is needed if I'm reporting."
"And you'll also be writing about it," she clarified.
Perry would have a coronary if he had two trouble-seeking reporters. But circulation and web stats would go through the roof. Both thoughts filled her with unholy glee.
"Leave me your email. Write me articles about the rebuilding, and whatever other trouble you manage to find out there in the cornfields. I'll be your editor while you're raising barns, and then when I think you're ready, we'll see what Perry says. Deal?"
She let herself flop back on the pillows. "So, farmboy. Taking off now?"
"Well, then. Have a nice flight."
The silence made her look up, and she realized that she'd been fooled by the suit. It made him look confident and self-assured, as if you could bounce bullets off his ego. As if he would know that she was being flippant to guard herself, and wouldn't mind.
But the shy man was still there underneath the suit, and it was his eyes peering at her uncertainly now. It really was very unfair that vulnerability demanded vulnerability.
She bit her lip. "I'll miss you."
His eyes brightened, but he said, "You barely know me."
"You know what they say. Nothing like knowing a guy's secret identity to strengthen the relationship."
"I'm not sure that's what they do say."
She rolled her eyes. "Come here. No, here." This relationship was doing wonders for her inner domme.
He crawled over her, bracing himself on his arms. His cape draped around them. The material of his suit was dry and sleek, like snakeskin. His breath stirred her hair.
She touched his chin. "So tell me, how long a flight is it?"
"Nothing on a nice night, then?"
"Or even on a bad one."
She kissed him. "Don't forget my groceries, farmboy."