Disclaimer: These characters belong to the CW and DC Comics, not to me.
"You need to get back out there, Clark."
Clark Kent had been listlessly stirring his Cheerios, but at his wife's words he lifted his head and met her gaze. "I told you," he said. "I'm retired."
"Look at the paper." Chloe Sullivan Kent nodded toward the Daily Planet, spread out on the table. A big headline read, IS SUPERMAN DEAD? "It's been a whole year. People are worried. They're afraid you don't care any more. People think maybe you've abandoned Metropolis."
"I guess I have, in a way." He picked up his spoon again and began stirring the cereal. "I'm not going to start hero work again, Chlo. Ever."
"Clark." She sat down on the opposite side of the table, reached out, and put her hand on top of his. Her palm felt warm and soft, and he had to struggle not to turn his hand over and clutch hers tightly. He wanted to hold her hand, but he didn't dare, because sympathy still made tears rise to his eyes. "What happened wasn't your fault. If it was anyone's fault, it was mine."
"Don't blame yourself." He spoke gruffly. "I should have been there."
"Even you can't guard a child every second of every day," she said gently. "And you got there as fast as you could."
He pulled his hand away, rejecting the comfort she offered. "It just wasn't fast enough."
"Clark..." She sighed. "You didn't know she was superpowered. Neither of us knew."
"We should have guessed."
"We couldn't possibly have guessed she'd start flying at five, or that she'd start flying before she developed invulnerability!" Her voice was shrill. "You didn't start flying until you were twenty, and you'd been invulnerable for years before that. There was no possible way we could have guessed!"
He heard the pain in her voice, and he wanted to comfort her, but he couldn't. He vividly remembered his daughter's face-- a pert, uptilted nose covered in freckles, a head of golden curls, a big, wide smile that was just like Chloe's. They'd named her Mara, a combination of the names of Clark's adoptive mother and birth mother, and she'd been the light of their lives for five years. And then...
He didn't like to think about what had happened, but he couldn't stop the thoughts. One summer afternoon, a year ago today, Chloe had picked Mara up from school, and the two of them had stopped by a park to play for a few minutes. Clark had been on the other side of Metropolis, in his costume, rescuing people from an old warehouse that had somehow caught fire. Mara had been doing typical kid stuff, according to Chloe, just running around, sliding down the slide, swinging on the swings. And then she'd looked up at the sky, smiled... and lifted into the air.
Chloe had tried to catch her, but she'd shot upward. She'd gone up about fifty feet, then apparently realized she was in midair, looked down at the ground, and panicked. And fallen.
Chloe had screamed his name then. He could always hear Chloe saying his name, wherever he was in the world, and he'd reacted to the sheer terror in her voice and come like a shot, so fast he caused a sonic boom.
But he'd been too late.
He'd found his daughter crumpled on the ground, her neck broken, and Chloe huddled on the ground next to her, sobbing her eyes out.
That day he'd hung up his costume, and he didn't intend to wear it ever again. Because of that costume and what it represented, he'd been somewhere else when his family had needed him most. His goddamn savior complex had resulted in Mara's death. He should have been there for her, and instead he'd been too busy saving someone else.
If he couldn't save his own daughter, what was the point of saving anyone?
"It wasn't your fault," he said, sighing. "I guess it wasn't mine, either. Not really. But I just... I can't go back out there, Chlo. I can't."
She tilted her head and considered him for a long moment. "Have you read page 3 yet?"
"No. I was just glancing over the headlines."
He'd once been a reporter for the Daily Planet, just as she was, but after Mara's death he'd taken some time off to write a book. It helped him work through his problems, and to his surprise he discovered he liked writing fiction. Maybe it was just an escape, a way of checking out of reality. But whatever the reason, he didn't peruse the paper as carefully as he once had. What happened in the world was no concern of his.
"Read page 3," she said. "There's an article I've been working on for a while."
He opened the paper and found the headline, with her byline beneath it: CHILDREN ABDUCTED FROM SUICIDE SLUM.
He read through the first paragraph, looked at the picture of a smiling three-year-old girl who was missing, and looked up, frowning a little. "Who's taking all these kids, Chlo?"
"I don't know," she said. "I've been doing research and interviews for weeks, and I haven't been able to figure it out. The cops don't know, either." She hesitated. "I was thinking maybe Superman might be able to figure it out."
"I told you, Superman is retired."
"Damn it, Clark!" She slammed a hand down on the table. "I know you're hurting. I'm hurting too. But don't you realize how many people are out there who need you? People are dying because Superman isn't out there, patrolling the city. Kids are being abducted for God only knows what reason. All sorts of bad stuff happens, every single day. Even if you ignore it, it's still happening."
He stirred his cereal uncomfortably, trying to avoid her eyes. She sighed. "Clark, just because you didn't save Mara doesn't mean you can't save anyone else."
At their daughter's name, he jerked his head up and glared at her. "Maybe I don't want to save anyone else."
"And don't you think that's terribly selfish of you?" She stood up, her hands flat on the table, and glared back, straight into his eyes. "All those kids that are being abducted from Suicide Slum-- they're someone's children, too. Someone loves those kids just as much as we loved Mara. Think about that while you sit on your ass and grieve, Clark. Those kids have just as much to offer the world as Mara did. They have just as much right to live as Mara did. And if you won't save them, who the hell will?"
She spun on her heel and stalked from the apartment. The door slammed behind her, and Clark stared after her for a long moment.
At last he stood up, his cereal forgotten, and reached into his pocket, pulling out his wallet. He flipped it open to a picture of Mara. He looked at his daughter for a long moment, seeing her brilliant, happy smile, seeing the curls that Chloe had never managed to tame.
And then he looked down at the newspaper, seeing a photo of a little girl he didn't know, but whose smile was just as bright and happy as Mara's had been. According to Chloe's article, ten other kids had been abducted from Suicide Slum in the past month, and no one knew why.
Somewhere in Metropolis, eleven other fathers were grieving, too.
If you won't save them, who will?
It was too late to save Mara... but those kids might still be alive. There might yet be hope for them. At the least, he could try.
He flipped his wallet shut, shoved it into his jeans pocket, and headed for the closet at superspeed.
Chloe Sullivan Kent walked down the crowded sidewalk toward the Daily Planet, grumbling under her breath, growling every word she could think of to describe her husband. Stupid, hardheaded, moronic, idiotic...
The guy in front of her suddenly slid to a halt, so abruptly she almost ran into him. She opened her mouth, intending to snap at him, to tell him to watch what the hell he was doing. But then she realized that everyone around her had come to a stunned halt. The dozens of people around her stared upward, their mouths open, their eyes wide.
On a busy Wednesday morning in Metropolis, when people were scrambling frantically to get to their workplaces on time, everyone had just... stopped.
She saw hope and gratitude and awe on the upturned faces, heard voices saying, "He's back!" in everything from a reverent whisper to a joyful whoop. She hardly dared to look upward, but at last she tilted her head back and looked up into the bright morning sky.
Far overhead, a figure flew toward Suicide Slum, a crimson cape rippling behind him.
She watched the figure until he disappeared. Then she pulled out her cell phone to call in the story.
"Perry," she said to her editor, a smile in her voice. "He's back."