The Big Story
Chapter SixteenI lifted my eyes from Superman's chest, raising my gaze slowly to his face. His eyes were a hard shade of blue, and they glowed faintly, giving him a menacing appearance that was at odds with his usual public face. His fingers easily spanned my throat, a warning or a threat.
His thoughts were jumbled and hard to read, but I could catch a fractured memory of him flying over the Planet, peering through the walls to this closet and seeing... me. It was odd to see the way he did; he hadn't picked up my externalities, but his vision instead registered something amorphous and clearly inhuman. Why had he not seen through me before?
The question was shaken from my thoughts by the tightening of Superman's fingers. "Answer me."
I blinked at him and forced a confused expression onto my face. "You know who I am," I said. "John Jones."
His fingers flexed enough to hurt. "Don't lie to me. I can see you're not human."
I belatedly raised my hand to his wrist, realizing my failure to make this defensive move reinforced his deduction about my inhumanity. I clutched his wrist with a human level of strength. "My name is John Jones," I gritted out.
His grip did not tighten, but it didn't loosen either. "Why did you kill Bruce Wayne?"
It felt like a slap to the face. "I didn't-" His hand began to close, and so did mine. His eyes widened a little when he felt my grip, and I heard his mental surprise. He hesitated.
"I didn't kill Wayne," I stated, letting my anger come through. "If anyone did, you did."
I was startled to feel his mind reel with guilt. It had been a blind, angry verbal stab on my part. Superman could have saved him, had he been there. He hadn't been, but he was here now, his hand clenching tighter at my throat. "He knew. Damn him, he knew."
Superman wasn't fully himself, I realized, feeling the panic in his mind. He wasn't seeing me, not really. He was seeing his family and friends, imagining threats - remembering threats - that had come when people knew who he was. Superman could bend steel and deflect bullets, but his adoptive parents? His friends? Lois Lane?
He was lifting me from where I sat, barely conscious of his actions. He looked like he was ready to cry. "Luthor was in Keystone that night. I knew he was planning something, so I followed him. I should've realized - but I knew Wayne knew. I must've -" He cut himself off, his features hardening. "You know," he accused coldly.
He had me at arms length, my feet dangling, his fingers tightly enough around my throat to cut off my air. I tried to piece together what he was telling me, pulling from his thoughts, trying to guess how to reassure him. I wanted to reassure him, realizing he was carrying guilt he hadn't earned. He had been in Keystone, following Luthor, but in the time since the fire, he had convinced himself that he had ignored the clues that Wayne and I had put together. He believed he had kept himself away from Metropolis on purpose, had allowed the death of Bruce Wayne because he knew Bruce Wayne knew about the connection between Clark Kent and Superman.
What did he want from me? A confession of my own knowledge, I guessed, but there was no way to force words past the hand that closed my throat. I clutched Superman's wrist, dangled from his grasp, and decided to try to answer him telepathically. I projected directly into his mind, *I know.*
I recognized my mistake too late to undo it. I meant only a confirmation; he heard a threat. He knew I wasn't human, and he didn't know any aliens save himself. He had been raised on Earth, with the same fears of extraterrestrials as any human. Even more fears, as it happened; he believed aliens would be led to Earth by his presence.
When I spoke in his mind, he panicked. His hand tightened in shocked reaction, and a loud CRACK sounded as my neck broke.
I went limp, although not for the reason he believed, and he dropped me as if I had burned him. He backed himself against the wall, staring in horror as I fell to the ground. "No," he whimpered. "I didn't - I - oh god -"
*Relax,* I projected at him, bending my own rules enough to speak past his conscious thoughts. I didn't want him to flee. I had no idea what he might do in his present state of mind.
I deadened the pain of my body and carefully realigned my spine, restoring myself and untangling myself from the heap I had fallen in. I did not take my feet immediately, instead sitting on the floor and bracing my back against the boxes of paper I had been sitting on before. Superman remained pressed against the wall. "What are you?" he whispered, fear in his question.
I looked up at him and rubbed my neck. "My name is J'onn J'onzz," I said quietly. "I mean you no more harm than you mean me."
"I just killed you," he protested, shock and denial ruling his thoughts.
"I'm still alive," I pointed out. I patted the floor. "Sit down," I suggested. "We should talk."
He stared at me, his eyes so wide the whites were visible all around the dark blue of his irises. Despite the costume, he didn't look like Superman. He didn't look like Clark Kent, either. He looked like a scared boy.
"Please?" I implored.
He slowly slid down the wall, his legs folding under him until we were on the same level. Our knees brushed together, and I studied him as he continued his wide-eyed stare.
"Talk to me," I directed.
"Why are you still alive?"
Fair enough a question, even if he should have guessed the answer. "I am not human," I reminded him. "Not any more than you are."
He flinched at that. "But I broke-"
"Nothing that couldn't be mended. You can see that. The same way you saw that I wasn't human when you were checking to make sure this closet was safe to return to."
I touched my temple. "Telepathy," I explained, not willing to risk using it again unless I had to. It was clear enough that I didn't understand his mind with its mix of human prejudice and alien physiology.
"You read my mind?" Panic was creeping back in to override his shockiness.
"Only what you were projecting," I said hastily. "That's not how I know about you and Kent."
The mention of the Kent name focused him, and his eyes narrowed. For a second, he believed that he might be able to convince me that they were two separate people, denial replacing his fear. "Leave Kent out of this," he warned.
I shook my head. "It's too late for that," I said sadly, understanding too well how much he wanted to protect his loved ones. "You're better at this double life thing than most people, but-"
"Most people?" he interrupted. "Like you?"
I considered him for a moment, then willed my face to look like Lonnie Gray. Superman recoiled, drawing his body away from me with what might have been revulsion. "Not like me," I stated, continuing to change and letting my features blur into my true face.
Superman stayed rigidly uncertain as he stared at me.
"This me doesn't have a place on this world," I said, the words compressed and thinned by Martian vocal cords too weak to deal easily with the thick Earth air. I lowered my eyes to look at my own green flesh, every part of me aching. "No matter how much I might want one," I added.
Strangely, or perhaps not so strangely, my vulnerability reached him where nothing else had. "Where are you from?" he asked.
I glanced up, and his face was full of pity. "Mars, once. Now?" I shrugged. "A rathole in Uptown."
"Mars," he repeated. "Not like H.G. Wells wrote."
I didn't laugh or comment. I stayed silent, listening to his thoughts shift from raw fear to something more coherent.
"You aren't here for me," he finally said.
I shook my head. "I'm here because I can't go home."
"Everyone's dead." My heart broke a little to say it out loud, and I felt myself resuming the dimensions of John Jones. He was hard-boiled. I was just brittle.
Superman's hand touched my knee. "Like me," he said, and I caught a mental glimpse of an infant hurtling to Earth from an exploded planet.
I didn't say anything.
"My parents taught me to be careful with my powers," he began, and I knew he meant Ma and Pa Kent, the figures who had graced his memory when I had talked to him as Clark Kent. "They love me, and they thought if anyone saw, I would get taken away. That's what they told me, anyway, when I was a kid." He paused. "I was older when they had to explain to me that people would be afraid."
His memory was strong, and I could feel the confused hurt he had felt at the time. His hand was still on my knee, and I think he needed the contact. No, I knew he needed the contact. He was raised in a family where touch was a part of life, and I realized that this made the city unbearably lonely to him as Clark Kent. His touch reminded me how unbearably lonely I was.
"Other people have figured it out, about Clark Kent's powers," he revealed. "It happened a couple of times, when I was a teenager. And they told me what they would do if I didn't do what they wanted." There was anger at the memory.
"People use love," I stated, remembering my conversation with Lois Lane.
He laughed, short and bitter. "I know," he said. "And what happened to those people - they died. Not because of anything I did, but because of what I didn't do. And I was free of them." He paused again. "I thought that meant something. That there were forces that made sure bad guys were punished."
"I know that now."
We sat, digesting this together.
"Wayne never told Luthor," Superman said.
"He never told me," I added. "I only found out he knew in the last two days, and even then, I didn't know who you were until an hour ago."
Superman started and looked hard at me. "An hour ago?"
"Lane suspects-" I began, stopping when he suddenly stood up.
"No," he protested, fear again rising in his mind. "She can't-"
"Calm down," I ordered, not bothering to move. "She's not going to do anything about it. Maybe confront you, but only if she's sure. That's why she hired me."
He looked down at me in confusion. "Hired you?"
"I'm a private detective," I said heavily. "Whatever I was before, now I'm just another sorry stiff who makes a living chasing after other people's secrets."
"But why would Lois-"
I shook my head and braced myself on the floor, levering myself onto my feet. "Why don't you ask me the last case she hired me for?"
"I don't - that's private. Isn't it?"
I met Superman's eyes. "She hired me to find out what Lex Luthor was up to. Just like you followed him to make sure he wouldn't hurt her."
He gasped. "What - how-"
"It doesn't matter." I patted his shoulder, coming to a decision. "You should change. Maybe go talk to Lane. I'd suggest telling her the truth, and when you do, give her my best."
He was looking at me with a dumbfounded expression, but when I started to fade toward invisible, he said, "Wait."
I turned expectantly.
"You won't - you won't say anything to anyone? Or do anything to - you know?" He wanted to trust me, I sensed, but he was still afraid.
"Who am I going to tell?" I pointed out. "I don't need to use you. Your powers aren't going to get me anything I can't get myself."
He digested my words. "And that's it? You just... disappear?"
"I don't need much from life," I said, "and what I do need, this world hasn't seen fit to give me. So yes, I think disappearing is as good an option as any." I tried not to think about my promises to Gus Riordan, or the secrets I owed to Dick Grayson. I was lying to myself as much as to Superman, but I needed my lie.
"But-" he hesitated, and I realized his fear was shifting. His expression was serious, thoughtful. "Maybe I need you."
I wanted to laugh. I managed to smile indulgently. "You're Superman," I reminded him.
"I'm an alien," he shot right back.
"You're loved." There was enough bitterness in my voice to back him up, hurt flashing over his features. He was without words, so I filled the silence. "When you see Lois, tell her to keep what she owes me." I turned on heel. "I need a drink," I muttered, bending the light around me and flying invisibly out the air shaft window. I didn't even try to make sense of the tangled emotions I left behind.