Clark’s not at the Daily Planet the next morning.
“He just didn’t show,” Jimmy says when Richard asks. “He didn’t even call in sick or anything.”
Superman, apparently, is a no-show as well. Three robberies in the same morning, and not so much as a peep from the boy in blue. Everyone is talking and speculating, but there is a sour undercurrent of fear. What if this time he’s not coming back? What if inhaled kryptonite did what the solid stuff couldn’t?
Lois is frightened, and characteristically covers up her fear by preparing for battle.
“Why S.T.A.R.labs?” Richard asks as she prepares to leave for that morning's destination.
“Because they’re the only labs that have made a comprehensive study of kryptonite.” Lois talks as she throws pad, pen and tape recorder into her handbag. “They were the ones who discovered krypton all those years ago, and they know more about it’s properties than any human being. Dammit, where is my –”
Richard picks up the mobile phone hiding under a stack of paper and hands it to her.
“So you think they can help?” He says. “They weren’t sure what do last time Superman was in –”
“That was then, this is now!” Lois snaps, pulling her coat about her shoulders. “Maybe they’ve learnt something new. Maybe they have a better idea of what it’s effects will be. But it’s something.”
She glares at him, full of fire and fury, daring him to argue. Instead, he nods and says:
“I’ll come with you.”
Lois’ anger deflates and she looks relieved.
“Are you sure? We only need one –”
“Well, two reporters are more intimidating than one, even if one is Lois Lane. And besides.” He glances behind him at Perry’s office. “I don’t feel right just sitting here either.”
Lois stares at him for a second as if she’s seeing him for the first time, then leans in and kisses him.
“What was that for?” He asks.
“No reason. Come on.” She picks up her car keys. “Lets go.”
In the end, it’s not so hard to sneak past Perry. Richard kind of suspects Jimmy tripped and spilled that coffee on Kat Grant on purpose, but that’s neither here nor now. He and Lois slip into the elevator and ride it down to the basement, where they take her car.
S.T.A.R.labs is thirty minutes away, in good traffic, but the traffic is lousy and they’re stuck on a small street waiting for lights to change. Richard glances out the window and sees the street sign.
“Whitney Street,” he says. “This is where Clark lives.”
Lois gives him an irritated look.
“Pull over for a minute,” Richard says. “I want to check on Clark.”
A muscle in Lois’ cheek twitches and she looks like she’s about to argue, but the traffic isn’t going anywhere, so she sighs and parks the car.
“We’ll be really quick about this,” she says, unbuckling her seatbelt. “Promise?”
Richard unbuckles his seatbelt and opens the car door.
There’s no answer from Clark’s button, which worries Richard. Whilst Lois taps one high heeled shoe and looks pointedly at her watch, he tries the button above. He gets a woman who seems to like Clark (“You mean the nice young man who always carries my groceries?”) and buzzes them in.
The walls are a tacky green, and there’s a moldy smell as they trek up the stairs. Richard decides that first thing tomorrow – after finding Superman, curing him, and throwing all the kryptonite he can find into a gigantic furnace – he’s going to talk to one of his friends in real estate. Surely with a little effort they can find something better than this for Clark.
At number ten, Lois raps smartly on the door.
“Clark! Clark, you home?”
There’s no answer and she turns to Richard.
“See. He’s not here. Now can we – ”
Richard shushes her.
From inside the apartment is the sound of coughing. Not coughing like what you get from inhaling dust or chocking on your own spit, but the awful wheezing asthma that both of them are all too familiar with.
“Clark?” Richard calls. “Clark, are you okay?”
There is the sound of something breaking. Lois is looking worried now.
“Clark Kent, open this door right this minute!” She shouts. She rattles the doorknob and finds it locked. “Richard, can you – ?”
“Here, out the way.”
Richard tugs her out of the way and kicks the door in. It’s a heavy affair, but it’s not the first time he’s done this. The door flies open, slamming against the wall. Richard hopes he hasn’t broken anything, but doesn’t have time to dwell on that thought. A coffee table is lying on it’s side, as if someone knocked it over trying to reach the door, and a vase is lying in shards on the carpet. Clark is kneeling, shoulders hunched and head down. The wheezes he makes are terrible, as he fights for air.
Another person might have panicked. Not Richard or Lois. They had been in this exact same situation with Jason many times before, when his asthma flared up.
Lois pulls her phone out of her bag to call an ambulance. Richard goes to Clark. The man is groping feebly for his glasses. Richard is used to seeing them on Clark’s face, acting as a small shield he can retreat behind. They seem small and apologetic on their own, resting just out of their owner’s grasp. Richard feels a pang of remorse as he tugs Clark upright, forcing him away from that small defence.
“Clark, listen to me. You have to sit up. It will help clear your airways. Sit up.”
It is more of a struggle than he’d anticipated, manouvering Clark upright. It’s not like Clark is resisting him and Richard’s no a pushover, but the man is heavier than he looks. Richard braces Clark back against his own chest as he used to do with Jason, supporting his weight. He reaches around with one hand to rest it over Clark’s heart.
“Just relax,” he says. “Take deep, slow breaths. That’s it.”
He feels the tremendous effort it takes for Clark to follow his insturctions. His whole body shudders against Richard’s with each breath. Richard silently berates himself. He should have checked on Clark last night.
“It’s okay,” he says. “We’re taking you to a hospital. You’ll be fine.”
Clark struggles for air.
His efforts are cut short by another coughing fit. This time it’s a wet, hacking sound. Richard is unable to stop him doubling over. When he manages to get Clark sitting upright again, he is frozen by the sight of red flecks on the carpet. Clark is coughing up blood.
Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck.
“Clark, you’re going to the hospital,” he says, keeping his voice steady with an effort. “I don’t care if I have to carry you down those stairs, you’re going.”
He looks up and sees Lois is staring at Clark, expression transfixed. Her mobile is forgotten in one lax hand, number half-dialed. Richard wonders if she too has seen those telling red spots.
“Lois,” he says, not wanting her to draw Clark’s attention to the blood. “Ambulance.”
She shakes her head mutely, still staring.
Then Richard sees it. There are a set of glass doors leading out onto the balcony. They’re closed now, and all three people are reflected in the glass. The man he’s basically holding in his arms is dressed in Clark Kent’s clothes. If he wore glasses he’d be the spitting image of Clark Kent. But he’s not Clark Kent after all. Richard absorbs this information with a kind of detachment, apart from surprise. This man is not an intrepid reporter, bumbling spiller of coffees, and Richard White’s friend.
The blue eyes meet his in the glass. The expression in them is pleading.
With a kind of horror, Richard realizes he’s trying to speak. And he knows that if he hears that voice, if he has to hear the excuses or lies Superman will inevitably come up with, he’ll fall apart. He’ll yell or scream, or make wild accusations. He just can’t hear it right now.
“Shh,” he says, cutting Superman off. His hand about Superman’s chest keeps holding the man upright, enabling the passage of air through his tortured airways. “Don’t try to talk. Just breathe...”