Rating: Adult. If you're under eighteen, please go elsewhere now.
Disclaimer: These characters belong to the CW and DC Comics, not to me.
Sequel to What's Left of Me.
If the world should ever fall apart around you,
And if you're lost and barely breathing,
I will find you
And carry you back home
I won't forsake the only love I've ever known,
When you're out there on your own.
-Nick Lachey, "On Your Own"
Powered Down, Part 3
The last time she'd found her husband in an alley, he'd been scruffy, grimy, and homeless. This was an improvement, she thought, but only barely. Because he didn't belong here, in this alley in Metropolis.
"Hey," she said softly.
He gave a very faint jerk of surprise. There had been a time when he could have heard her coming from miles away, when she couldn't possibly have snuck up on him. But that time was six months in the past.
He turned his head and looked over his shoulder at her. He looked as dark as the night that surrounded them. He wore a black domino mask, as well as an onyx, skintight suit that clung to his solid frame, displaying every powerfully honed bulge of muscle. The solid black made him look dangerous, almost deadly. He'd let his hair grow out recently, and it tumbled, wild and wavy, around his face, falling almost to his broad shoulders.
She liked the way long hair looked on him. But despite the mask, she could see there was something wild in his eyes, too, something almost feral.
That worried her.
His voice was soft, but oddly ominous. "What are you doing here?"
"Bruce told me you'd left."
He stared at her for a moment longer, then turned his head away. "I missed Metropolis," he said softly. "I wanted to come home."
"I missed Metropolis, too," she answered steadily. "It's okay to come back for a visit. But when I went back to the hotel in Gotham, it looked like you'd taken all your stuff, like you were planning to come back here for good. Running away on me again, Clark?"
She'd known him enough years that she didn't fail to notice the sudden tension in his shoulders. "I'm ready to come back," he said softly. "It's my city, Chloe. Mine. It's my responsibility to protect it. And I'm ready, damn it."
"Bruce doesn't agree with you."
He turned his head back and regarded her, one of his eyebrows quirked over the mask. "Did Bruce tell you I knocked him on his ass yesterday?"
She couldn't help grinning. "If you really think Bruce would admit something like that, you don't know Bruce as well as you think you do."
He gave a faint smile. "Yeah, I don't suppose he'd tell you. But I did. I took him down."
She was impressed despite herself. Clark was a big guy, but Bruce was just as big, with years of training and experience in fighting behind him. After only six months of training, for Clark to be able to take down the world's most dangerous mortal-- well, that said something about Clark's determination and ability, for sure.
"So I'm ready," he said, his green eyes earnest. "If I can take Bruce down, I'm ready."
"He doesn't agree. Maybe he thinks you can't take him down on a regular basis yet. Or maybe it's something else."
"I don't know." She studied him thoughtfully. He'd been training hard since he lost his superpowers, and if anything, he was bigger and more powerful looking than before, every muscle clearly defined beneath the midnight material. But the costume made him look dangerous. Scary.
And that wasn't like Clark.
"Why black?" she said at last.
He tilted his head in a typical Clark gesture. "What do you mean?"
"When you were Superman," she said slowly, trying to explain her thoughts, "you wore bright colors. It made you look kind of dorky, but you told me you were trying to make sure people saw you as a friend, a helper. But with the black costume-- it looks almost like you're trying to scare people."
She frowned. "Why?"
He blew out a breath. "Things have changed, Chlo. When I was Superman, I was the strongest man in the world. If I wasn't careful to present myself as a friend and helper, if I came across as a vigilante, people were going to be scared to death of me. They were scared of me anyway, to a certain degree, and there was the occasional article in the Inquisitor about me being an advance scout for an alien armada or whatever. But I honestly think the costume helped. It's hard to be really terrified by a guy wearing his underwear on the outside."
She lifted her eyebrows. "But now?"
"But now I don't have superpowers. I have to intimidate criminals, so I can't go around in primary colors. If I look like a box of crayons, they'll laugh at me, right before they wipe the pavement with my ass."
"I can understand that," she said softly. "It's just that..."
He frowned at her long pause. "What, Chlo?"
"It just looks kind of like you're trying to emulate Bruce," she said at last, reluctantly. "And I don't think you want to emulate his methods, Clark. You and he have always had different styles."
He scowled, looking decidedly dangerous. "My style has to change, Chlo. I can't do any good if I keep pretending I have powers. Because I don't."
She sighed. She knew other superheroes besides Bruce wore black. Nightwing, who'd also been Bruce's protégé, wore a black and blue costume, and there were others as well. If a hero was going to do a lot of work at night, a black costume made sense. But the drastic change from his heroic crimson, blue, and gold costume disturbed her. To her eyes, he looked a lot less like a hero, and a lot more like a vigilante.
He finally turned toward her, and for the first time she saw his costume wasn't entirely black. There were charcoal gray symbols on his chest where he'd once wore the sigil of the House of El. She studied the marks, seeing three vertical, parallel lines, the middle one thicker than the two that flanked it. Next to the lines was a small dot. They looked familiar, but she couldn't quite remember where she'd seen them before. She frowned.
"What are the symbols, Clark?"
He glanced down, then shrugged. "It's just one letter, actually. It corresponds roughly to the letter O in the Kryptonian alphabet."
Struck by a sudden desire to laugh, she covered her mouth to suppress it. "O for OrdinaryMan?"
He nodded gravely, although she could see the little smile playing at the corners of his mouth.
She couldn't prevent herself from giggling. Clark was a serious guy, who'd become even more serious since he lost his powers, but he possessed a wry sense of humor that tended to pop out at odd times. He'd been threatening to call himself OrdinaryMan since he lost his powers, and the idea that he'd actually put an O on the front of his costume, even if no one else would recognize it as such, amused the hell out of her.
"Great," he grumbled, although she could see humor glinting in his eyes beneath the mask. "I get rid of the red underwear, and still people laugh at me."
She managed to get herself under control. "It's a nice costume, Clark. I think it makes you look terribly intimidating." She looked at him more seriously. "I just wonder if you're sure that's what you really want."
He lifted his chin. "If I intend to do any good at all," he said, "I'm going to have to intimidate criminals."
She studied his dark, ominous, and downright lethal-looking form, and for some reason she didn't fully understand, her heart sank.
"I think you'll be able to manage that," she said softly.
"You sound disappointed."
She sighed. "Not disappointed, exactly. I just wonder if maybe you've been hanging around with Bruce too long. Maybe he's taught you a little too much."
"Look," he said, sounding irritable, "this whole thing was your idea. You're the one who suggested I train with Bruce in the first place."
"Training with Bruce doesn't mean you have to turn into a copy of him. Look at Nightwing. He was with Bruce from the time he was just a kid, but he's still basically a nice guy. Decent. Kind. Compassionate."
"And intimidating as hell."
"True," she admitted. "There's nothing wrong with a little intimidation. I'm just saying I think there's a balance there, somewhere." She took a step closer to him, unable to prevent a little shiver from running through her. It was chilly tonight, but the cold wasn't the reason for her shiver. Clark had always been a sexy, gorgeous guy, but in black... well, he was way beyond sexy and right on into heartstopping. She hated to see his striking features covered, though. "And you're wearing a mask. What's with the mask?"
"Most heroes wear a mask. Ollie, Bruce, Dick..."
"But you always said wearing a mask would make people think you had something to hide. You said that going without a mask was the only way to get people to trust you."
"I'm not going for trust here, Chloe. I told you that already. I'm going for scaring the hell out of the criminal element. They could use some fear put into them. Since I've been gone, things have been getting worse here. A lot worse."
She knew that was true, because she still wrote for the Daily Planet, and followed Metropolis news religiously. Even though Nightwing and Wonder Woman and the Green Arrow had agreed to patrol the city while Clark couldn't, Superman's absence had left a big gap that couldn't be filled entirely.
"Anyway," he said, more softly. "If I take off the mask, people are going to recognize me as Superman. They're going to know Superman has lost his powers. Every bad guy in the city will come after me, just so they can be the one to have the prestige of killing Superman. And besides... I don't know what effect it might have on everyone to know for certain that Superman has no powers. Right now, people are still holding out hope Superman's coming back. I don't want people to lose hope."
"But you are coming back," she pointed out.
He bowed his head, avoiding her gaze. "I'm not Superman, Chlo. Not anymore."
She swallowed at the terrible sorrow in his voice. "Okay," she answered. "I guess I understand. You figure if you wear a mask..."
"With the mask on, and the longer hair, I'm just another dark-haired guy in a costume. No one will recognize me."
She frowned. She understood his reasoning, but she still couldn't quite reconcile her gentle, trustworthy Boy Scout with the dangerous-looking guy standing in front of her.
He stared at the pavement a moment longer, then turned back around, giving her a view of broad shoulders and nothing else. "Look," he said, "I'm not going back to Gotham. You can tell Bruce I said I'm done with my training."
"I told you, he doesn't agree."
"So let him know I said that if he doesn't agree, he can come down here and try to drag my ass back. But he'll wind up sprawled on the pavement if he tries it."
His shoulders were squared aggressively, and his voice was lower than usual, almost like a growl. She had a feeling he meant the threatening words quite literally. She sighed. Usually Clark was pretty easy to get along with, but when he decided to be stubborn, he could be totally impossible.
"Okay," she said, stepping toward him and putting a hand on his upper arm. "If you really want to stay here, if you really think you're ready, then we'll stay."
He was silent for a long moment. At last he spoke, his voice gruff.
"I have to say, though, I'm not real happy you designed this costume on your own, without any input from me, and just walked off without talking to me about it. What happened to letting your wife in on the important things going on in your life? Huh?"
His shoulders stiffened again, and he spoke in a clipped, terse voice. "I figured you'd just argue about it. You usually do."
"Oh, that's nice. So you decided to keep me out of the loop, huh?" She squeezed his bicep gently. "I don't appreciate being left out of big decisions, Clark."
His voice lowered ominously. "It was my decision to make, Chlo. Not yours."
"Last I heard, we made decisions together. I've hardly seen you for the past few weeks, and I knew you were up to something. I just didn't realize you'd actually decide to leave me and come to Metropolis."
He lowered his head, looking chastened. "I wasn't leaving you, Chlo. I'd never leave you."
"Sure feels that way to me."
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean it to come across that way." He sounded genuinely apologetic. "I just wanted to do this without a lot of argument, you know?"
"I know." She let her hand trail down his arm, her fingers tracing his muscles in a seductive, gentle motion. "But you've been avoiding me. I hate that."
Her fingers slipped down his forearm, and he looked back at her, his eyes narrowing suspiciously behind the mask. "Hey," he said. "I'm trying to work here, Chlo. I was on patrol when you found me."
She smiled up at him sweetly. "I just wanted a few moments of your time. I've hardly seen you at all recently, and I thought maybe now..."
"What is it with you and alleys?"
The last time she'd found him in an alley, they'd had sex. And it had been great. Six months later, she still remembered it like it was yesterday. She stepped a little closer, pressed against his back, and reached around him, running her fingers down his chest. "I like alleys."
She could feel his muscles suddenly tense beneath her hand. Her hand slid down across his abs, then lower. To her surprise, he was already hard and pulsing, and she wrapped her fingers around his erection and caressed him through the fabric of his costume.
"Chlo." His head arched back, and she realized that even though he'd been trying to avoid her, he'd missed her as much as she'd missed him. "We haven't... oh, God. It's been a while."
"Yeah." She moved her hand up and down very slowly. "Like I said, you were avoiding me."
His hips moved, thrusting the thick ridge of his erection against her palm. "I... not really, Chlo. I've just had all this... all this stuff on my mind, and I..."
"Please. Don't make excuses. You've been trying to keep me in the dark."
"Chlo." Her fingers traced his contours with careful thoroughness, and he shuddered convulsively and made a little sobbing noise. "I love you, Chlo. I love you like crazy. I've just been... busy."
"Don't ever get that busy again," she said softly, stroking him. "Okay?"
"Okay." His voice was hoarse. "Jesus."
She slid her hand up and down, a little faster, feeling his erection spasm under her fingers. He felt hot despite the coolness of the night, and she could feel his big body quiver against hers. He arched his head back harder, in a familiar gesture she'd seen many times before, and she knew he was only seconds from coming.
"Chloe. My new costume..."
Understanding the problem, she fumbled at the fly of his pants. Superhero costumes weren't quite like jeans, but since superheroes had to pee too, they were typically designed with a fly that could be opened easily. She managed to unfasten it, pushed down his briefs-- Clark preferred boxers, but they tended to bunch up under a spandex costume-- and took his hot, throbbing cock into her hand.
Heedless of the fact that they were in public, albeit in a fairly private alley in the dark, he sobbed and thrust violently against her palm. She slid her hand over the head of his cock, wetting her hand with his precome, then wrapped her slick fingers around him and started to pump in the hard, fast motion that she knew he liked.
He gave a deep groan of pleasure and surrendered to her touch almost instantly, jerking in her hand, sobbing and crying out as come spurted from him like long white ribbons in the darkness of the alley.
Afterward he leaned forward, his arms crossed on the brick wall in front of him, his head resting against his arms, as he breathed in long, unsteady gasps. She fastened his pants, careful not to zip up anything she shouldn't, since Clark wasn't invulnerable any longer. Then she wrapped her arms around him and pressed her face against the warm expanse of his back.
"Chloe." His voice was low. "I'm sorry I've been shutting you out. Really."
She squeezed him a little harder. "Just don't do it again. I hate it when you do that, OrdinaryMan."
She felt the slight movement of his ribs under her arms as he laughed softly at the name. "I'm sorry. I'm a jerk and an asshole, Chlo."
"True," she said lightly. "But I'm keeping you anyway."
"Thank God for that," he answered, and there was nothing light whatsoever in his tone. He sounded totally serious, so serious that tears suddenly prickled against her eyelids.
Suddenly there was a scream, some distance away, and he lifted his head. "Hey. Did you hear that?"
"Yeah." She didn't bother to remind him that he couldn't hear any better than she could now. He didn't really need to be reminded of his loss of powers. She released him, and he went out of the alley like a shot. Maybe he couldn't superspeed any more, but he'd been running sprints as part of his training, and it showed. She knew she couldn't keep up with him, any more than she could keep pace with an Indy car.
She jogged after him, following the sound of his footsteps, as well as the noise of angry masculine shouts and a woman crying for help. She turned a corner and saw a dark-haired, middle-aged woman huddled on the sidewalk, cringing against a wall. She looked scared, but physically okay. Chloe glanced over the rest of the scene with a reporter's eye, noting that there were two guys involved. One of them was already on the ground. As she watched, Clark pulled back an arm and let his big fist fly, and the second guy went flying backward and collapsed to the sidewalk in a heap.
Wow, she thought. Clark might not be Superman any more, but he wasn't ordinary, either. He'd taken out the two big guys without breaking a sweat. No wonder he thought he was ready. He really was.
Physically, at least.
He turned toward the woman, who was still huddled against a brick wall, and knelt in front of her. "Hey," he said gently. Chloe had heard him use that voice countless times before as Superman, to comfort the hurt and the frightened. "Are you all right?"
The woman cringed away from him. "Don't hurt me!"
She saw Clark's startled reaction, the way his head jerked to the side a little, as if the woman had slapped him. "I won't hurt you," he said, his tone even more gentle than before. "I'm here to help."
"No!" The woman struggled to her feet. Clark stood up too, and she stumbled backward, looking terrified. Chloe could hardly blame her. In his black and gray costume, his kind eyes and amiable features obscured by a mask, Clark looked like six foot three inches of sudden death. The woman's voice rose to a shriek. "Get away from me!"
She spun around and ran. Clark let her go. Chloe watched him standing there, staring after the woman, his whole attitude one of shock and surprise. She knew that when he'd been Superman, he'd rarely had anyone react to him with fear or panic.
She walked over to him, ignoring the guys on the sidewalk, who were still out cold. "Hey," she said gently. "I'm going to call the cops. And we should get lost before they get here."
It was good advice, since superheroes ordinarily tried to avoid getting involved with the police as much as possible. She called the cops, then led Clark back down an alley. He followed her without speaking, looking like he was lost in thought.
"Are you all right?" she said at last, worried by his long silence.
He turned his head and looked at her, his eyes blank.
"She was scared of me," he said.
She tried to phrase her response so it didn't sound too much like I told you so. "You do look pretty scary, the way you're dressed," she said gently. "But you said that was the point."
He closed his eyes. "I wanted to intimidate criminals, Chlo. But I guess I forgot that it's not all about criminals."
She nodded. "I can understand needing to scare the bad guys," she responded. "But maybe you can come up with some way to do that without scaring the hell out of other people at the same time."
"Yeah." He swallowed, then opened his eyes and stared at her. "This is my city, Chlo. These are my people. I don't want them to be scared of me."
"So maybe you need to think about this all just a little more."
He nodded, still looking into her eyes. "Bruce was right," he said, his voice very soft. "I'm not quite ready yet."
"Okay. So let's go back to Gotham."
He looked up at the tall buildings silhouetted against the gray night sky. "Not tonight," he whispered. "Please, Chlo. I just want to be here one night."
The clear homesickness in his tone caught at her heart. "Okay," she agreed. "We can stay a few days, if you like. Maybe even a week."
He looked away from the skyscrapers and smiled wryly in her direction. "Bruce won't like it."
She grinned. "So what? You can kick his ass now."
He stared at her for a moment, then laughed. It was a nice, deep, honest sound, a sound she hadn't heard in too long a time. She hoped she'd be hearing it more often now.
"You're right," he said. "Okay, let's stay here for a few days. I can figure things out here as well as I can in Gotham. And I miss Metropolis, Chlo. I miss it an awful lot."
"Me too." She stepped forward and put an arm around him. "Gotham's not a bad city, but we belong here."
He looked down into her eyes, then tilted his head back, looking up at the buildings again. She saw the smile on his face widen. For the first time in a long while, he looked genuinely happy.
"Yeah," he agreed. "This is where we belong."
Read the sequel, The World Around You.