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myself refracted, flying

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The sound of someone crying in an alleyway catches Clark’s attention.

It’s an uncommon sight—both the action and the location. There aren’t many nooks and crannies in Metropolis (not like there are in Gotham), and its denizens tend to be happy, as a general rule.

Of course, even if neither of those things were true, he would still check in. But it’s already pinged on his mental radar as strange before he’s touching down on the ground.

It’s less of an alleyway, on closer inspection. It’s more of a… space between buildings, just shallow enough to house a bench before ending in a high brick wall. That’s more Metropolis, he thinks.

The source of the noise is a young adult huddled over themself on the bench, long brown hair falling in a sheet over their face. They’re not quite crying, as such—more just shaking and taking visible, heaving breaths. Not wanting to startle them, Clark takes a step back.

They look up at the sound, panic flashing in their reddened eyes for just a moment before being obscured.

“Easy,” he says, raising his hands. “I’m not here to hurt you.”

The person sniffs, then eyes him warily. Their jaw trembles. Clark feels a flash of sorrow for their being upset, but doesn’t let it show—he’s not sure how well-received pity would be in this situation. He goes for understanding, instead.

“Mind if I sit?” he asks, keeping his voice quiet, gesturing to the bench. The person has situated themself rather squarely in the middle of it, as most people not wanting company on their seating area do, but they regard him for a moment then shuffle over.

Clark smiles and takes a seat. He’s careful not to be intimidating—he knows how easily his body language as Superman can be misconstrued. It’s a fine line to walk between Man of Steel and a possible threat, especially to the more female-inclined of the population. That balance is something he’s worked hard to achieve, but it’s still a conscious effort to be read as safe without falling too far into being Clark Kent.

He arranges himself neatly: ramrod posture, hands loosely joined in his lap, looking politely out at the pavement—not far enough away to seem disinterested, but not straight at his conversational partner either. There’s a pressure to speak inherent in that held gaze that is wonderfully helpful in journalism, but not so much in more fraught situations such as this. Superman shouldn’t demand anything.

They sit in silence for a while; Clark following the movements of the birds and cars in the middle distance, the stranger sniffling quietly and looking down at their clasped hands.

“Surely you’ve got more important work to be doing,” they say finally, without making eye contact. They are picking at the seam of their jeans in an anxious tic that Clark tries to make a habit of when he’s in his civilian persona.

Clark looks up. He understands what they mean, but tilts his head anyway. Sounding genuinely confused—for there surely is no logic to an argument suggesting he has higher priorities than this—he says, “Pardon?“

The person meets his eyes for half a second, then glances away again.“Y’know,” they say, shrugging. “World-saving, and all. Evil villains. That kinda stuff.”

Clark considers that for a moment.

He is saving a world, if not the world. Everyone on the planet, spinning blue rock as it is, has enough memories and knowledge and feelings to fill several novels. No one person is more important than any other because everyone has the most beautiful rich internal life, and he wants this stranger to know that. You are a world, he wants to say. You are worth saving, too.

But that is a little too philosophical for a man famed for his biceps, not his brain, and a little too forward, besides.

So he does not say it. But he thinks it. He can only hope that the message comes across.

“No,” he answers simply, as if it is the most obvious thing in the world. He wants it to be. Superman is not there just for the capital-b Bad, he’s there for Metropolitans in the gentler times, too.

This earns him a frown. “What d’you mean, ‘no’?” the person says with a slight, awkward laugh.

“I mean just that,” Clark replies. He listens to the goings-on of the world for just a moment, just to be sure, then nods. “Nope, no apocalypses. Not right now, at least.”

The joke gets him an amused huff, but the person’s expression quickly returns to a frown. “But there’s… crime, right?”

“There’s always crime,” Clark says. “Even here. But the police can take care of that.”

“And the villains?” they press. Rao, but they are young. They have so much ahead of them. He wants them to experience it all. He does not know their name, but he can hear the ka-thunk ka-thunk of their heart and he wants them to be happy. He wants sunlight smeared on the wall and surprised laughter and a warm fire in the winter, he wants a clean kitchen and fresh fruit and a job that doesn’t just pay the bills. He wants a family and friends and a lover if the inclination strikes, and he wants easy, true intimacy. And he wants that for them. And he wants that for himself.

He smiles without voicing any of this. “I’m not the only member of the Justice League,” he reminds them. “Sure, there could be another wannabe world-ender setting up shop right now, but they can stop that on their own. They don’t need Superman.”

There is more to that sentiment, and the stranger seems to know that. “And?”

Clark gives the stranger a smile. Not a press smile, but something much closer to a real one. They’re certainly determined; that’s admirable. He says, gently as he can, “And I get the sense that you do.”

No response is forthcoming. The person bites their lip and looks down at their hands.

“Maybe,” they admit, their voice cracking. They swallow visibly.

Clark gives a small nod. “Good thing I’m here, then, hey?” he says, the softness of his voice unfamiliar even to his own ears.

The person just sniffs again instead of replying. Clark watches them for a moment.

He’s always been a touchy person. That was fine back home—he got it from his parents, after all, so it wouldn’t make any sense for them to be put off—but is a little harder to juggle among a team that includes Batman. The fellow radiates such an intense aura of touch aversion that he somehow makes it difficult to touch anyone else in his presence. Clark has tried to go for an instinctive shoulder pat or brief embrace to one League member or another, but Batman has such a knack for looming that the motions, without fail, become fumbling handshakes or thumbs ups.

As such, Clark has mostly trained himself out of casual touch. Mostly being the operative word, as he still can’t shake the itch to put a comforting hand on this stranger’s arm. Unwarranted touch is a no-go with civilians, though—especially ones who are already spooked—so he holds off.

Instead, he waits for the person to stare at the tiled ground long enough to work up the resolve the say, “I got outed.”

Clark knows what they mean, of course, but he still notices the lack of explanation. It feels pointed. A test, of sorts. If he objects to the phrase with all the intended meaning attached, then the person can pretend they mean something else. If he has to ask, then the conversation could go either way, and that could be bad.

If he knows what it means, no questions asked, then—maybe Superman gets it. Maybe he’s safe.

“I’m sorry,” he says quietly. “That’s terrible.”

The person sniffs again. “It wasn’t, like, on purpose, or anything. But it still—y’know. Happened.”

“Of course,” Clark says. He mulls over his next words for a moment, then adds, “Regardless of malice—or the absence of it—you still weren’t ready.”

“I don’t think I was ever gonna be ready,” the person whispers. They press the heels of their hands into their eyes; their breath shudders. “My, um. My family isn’t taking it well.”

Clark frowns unhappily, a yearning for justice stabbing sharp in his gut. “I’m sorry,” he says again, wishing he could do more for this stranger than empty platitudes. He wants to confront their family like he wishes he could do for his own—all the extended aunts and uncles who smothered him in performative affection at family gatherings yet couldn’t give a damn about anyone’s genuine happiness in such an overt manner that, even as a kid, Clark knew that they’d probably take the news of him being an alien better than that he wanted to kiss the school quarterback.

(They still do not know either of these things. He still does not think their reaction to each would be any different.)

Superman is not a violent man. Nor is Clark Kent. But there’s such a deep-rooted injustice in that kind of small-minded bigotry that it makes him want to fume. How dare you purport to understand another’s love better than they do? he wants to yell. How dare you? You have no right to claim such knowledge, you have no right to force your distaste onto another, you have no right.

But this is no place to raise his voice. Superman at this moment is not an avatar of justice, but a confidant to a Metropolitan in need, and there is only a victim here. So Clark bites back his righteous anger in favour of closely watching the person by his side as they inhale deeply, clearly trying to wrestle for some modicum of calm.

“Thanks,” they say, chin canted up, blinking against further tears. They close their eyes, then give a short sigh. “I don’t like it,” they decide. “It’s, like—I had it under control. It was my thing. My secret to keep. Fine. But then that got. I dunno. Taken from me.” They wince. “That sounds harsh. It wasn’t on purpose.”

“But it still happened,” Clark reminds them gently.

“Yeah,” they acquiesce. Their voice is remarkably small. “I don’t really know what to do, now.”

Clark nods. “I can only imagine.” It’s true. He’s never been ousted—not as Superman, and not as bisexual. The thought of it makes his stomach drop. He’s not sure he even wants to do either on his own terms, let alone someone else’s. Surely it is easier to let them assume: to let the journalists assume that Clark Kent goes home to his apartment and phones a lady and asks after her day and stares in a daze at the ceiling; to let the League assume that Superman is making eyes at Wonder Woman like the rest of them and that he makes a habit of rescuing damsels in distress so that he, all vapid muscle and patriotism, can subsequently woo them. To let the citizens assume that Superman lives in the Arctic, or whatever story they’re touting now, and to let the people of Smallville assume that the nervous fellow with the glasses who moved to the big city is scraping by a living as a writer, or whatever he was talking about.

Assumptions are a safety blanket that he hasn’t really considered before, but now he realises just how much he takes them for granted. He doesn’t know what he’d do in either situation, really.

He knows, logically, what course of action he should follow—damage control, checking in with people he’s close to, going about his life in the closest he can get to normal—but he doesn’t know how he’d feel. Can barely imagine what it would be like to have control wrested from him like that. Wonders if it would be better to do it himself, now, before he’s ready, just so there’s nothing anyone can use against him.

Knows that he shouldn’t do that.

Kind of wants to, regardless.

The stranger glances over at Clark, pulling him out of his reverie.“I’ve imagined doing it so many times,” they admit, “but this is. Final. I can’t change how it happened. I.” They make an upset sound. “I keep thinking that maybe if I’d done it sooner, if I’d been ready sooner, then this wouldn’t have happened. That it’d be okay if it was on my own terms.”

Clark very persistently does not cry. He swallows around the lump in his throat, then says—his voice slightly rough—“But you weren’t ready. You weren’t ready yet, and that’s okay.” He pauses, then says just as much to himself as to the stranger by his side, “You never have to be ready. That’s okay, too. Though I do hope that you find people who are ready to love you for who you are. Not who they want you to be.”

They blink once, twice. Their eyes are still glassy. Clark wants nothing more than to put an arm around this child’s shoulders—because they are a child, really, they’re so damn young. And he wants to hold them. And he wants to assure them over and over that it’s all okay, and maybe heal a piece of himself in doing so.

But this is Metropolis, and he’s Superman, and they’re strangers. He might never see them again; it’s more probable than not, really. It’s easy to lose people in the crowd, and in this city even more so. Yet Clark can’t help seeing himself in this scared child.

“You didn’t deserve to have this choice taken away,” Clark says quietly, trying not to think about the immutability that Superman will fly away from but this stranger will have to deal with forever. “And I’m sorry, and I wish that it hadn’t happened. And I hope that things will get better.”

The person tears their shocked stare away from Clark. A tear escapes their already red-rimmed eye and traces its way down their patchily flushed cheek.

“I hope so too,” they whisper, and it is a prayer. And it is a certainty, for those who are given the space to move find there is nowhere to go but up.