By Kaethel <Kaethel@wanadoo.fr>
Submitted July 2001
Summary: Left in a state of loneliness and despair after witnessing Clark being shot by Clyde Barrow, Lois goes home to try and cling onto reminiscences that are too quickly slipping out of her reach. But her steps and thoughts guide her into colliding with her drifting memories, challenging a dark future that she couldn't bring herself to face alone…
I'm going to blame Wendy for this one. ;) I was chatting to her on irc one night, and I innocuously told her that I was keen on doing a TOGOM rewrite someday — advice to all writers out there: *never ever*, under any pretext of any kind, tell Wendy that you want to do a TOGOM rewrite, or you'll have to stand up to what you said <vbg>. Anyway, I told her what kind of things I wanted the fanfic to involve, and she immediately suggested some ideas to run with…and guess what, the Muse came back right away! Next thing I know, I was jotting down some notes about the story, regardless of the late hour. ;) So here it is. Not sure it's what you had in mind at first, Wendy, but I hope you'll like it nonetheless. :)
Many thanks to my wonderful beta-readers LabRat and Wendy Richards, for the invaluable help and support they provided, as well as all the great suggestions without which this story couldn't have been completed. Also, special thanks to Tracey, who encouraged me to keep working on this fanfic, to Chiara Prato and Elena, who read this over when we met in Treviso last month, and nagged me to finish it, and to the people who helped me out a great deal by answering my vocabulary questions on the list and irc. And last, but certainly not least, thanks to all the boards readers who gave me more support than I could ever have dreamt of while I was posting this fanfic in sections, and to Jeanne, my archive GE, for all her help and editing. :)
All usual disclaimers apply. Lois, Clark, Superman, and all related characters belong to DC Comics and Warner Bros. The Sarah McLachlan song that has been inspiring the Muse during the writing process is for LabRat :) — I included a few lines below. No copyright infringement of any kind intended.
Feedback, public or private, is of course very welcome. :)
*"I feel just like I'm sinking
And I claw for solid ground
I'm pulled down by the undertow
I never thought I could feel so low
Oh darkness I feel like letting go"*
— Sarah McLachlan, "Full of Grace"
Lois reached for her keys with trembling fingers and opened the door to her apartment, blindly reaching for the switch and blinking a couple of times as the flood of cold light invaded the room. She stood there at the entrance, feeling the world gently sway around her. The warmth of the nearby heater was sending a soft glow of comfort that contrasted with the November wind outside, but was unable to break the ice forming around her heart, freezing shots of darkness entwining their way about her entire body with their paralysing tendrils. Another sob escaped her.
She forced her limbs to move, numbly walking to the centre of her living room, listening to the deafening silence around her, only troubled by a car passing on the street down below, oblivious to her grief and the chill coursing through her every time she heard one of the familiar noises that normally punctuated her life.
Normal. Nothing would be normal any more. How could it be, when the one steady element of her existence was gone for good, when she wouldn't ever see his smile again, when he wouldn't ease the tension from her shoulders with one of his miracle massages, when the heat of his gaze on her had turned to a cold, bleak expression of death.
She held back another sob and dropped her open purse to the floor, letting its contents scatter on the carpet at her feet. She closed her eyes, taking deep breaths and bringing a hand to her mouth to keep from screaming as the scene replayed in her mind, over and over. Each time she wished for another ending, and each time the outcome was the same, tearing apart the last remaining threads of hope within her and leaving her with only the image of her partner lying on the casino floor, unconscious…dead.
Clark was dead.
Tears flooded her eyes as she let out a small sound of denial, but it didn't change what she knew was the definitive truth. Never again would she wake up with a smile on her face at the thought of spending the working day with him, never again would she stay with him for a cosy evening of cuddling in front of a movie and nibbling at warmed-over pizza, just enjoying his company, never again would she get the chance to -
Her thoughts stopped abruptly as she got a hold on her feelings and, with a sudden, unexpected surge of energy, took off her coat and walked to the door to lock it safely for the night. Her hands were shaking as she put the chain in place and imagined that Clark might be there, on the other side of that door, as he'd been on the one time he'd insisted on staying the night with her, and she'd actually thrown him out.
She shook her head sadly. Right then, he'd already been willing to risk his life to protect her, and as she'd discovered on the next morning, he'd spent the entire night outside her apartment building, looking out for any danger that might come upon her. If it hadn't been for his quick reflexes when she'd screamed upon being attacked by Sebastian Finn, she would be dead right now; but Clark had been there, throwing himself into her apartment in spite of the possible jeopardy awaiting him, and he'd saved her life.
Clark would never be on either side of this door again. She wouldn't ever close her eyes and fall asleep with his boyish grin on her mind, or wake up to his smile and home-made breakfast when she let him crash at her place. For her safety, as he so often said, even though she knew he secretly enjoyed being with her — as she enjoyed being with him.
As she had enjoyed being with him.
It was so hard to think of him in the past tense, to take in awareness that these times in her life were over.
Today had been filled with the usual teasing banter that passed between them every time they worked together on a story, and which she knew both enjoyed so much. These past few months after the rebuilding of the Planet's premises had sealed their partnership even more deeply and firmly than it already was, and put a definitive end to her protests at having to be teamed with him on every important story Perry assigned them to.
Today had been a normal, cheerful day between them, with the certainty that tomorrow would come without a change to their happy routine. That everything would always remain the same. That life would follow its course and spare them like it always had. Until tonight had sneaked onto them and ripped their illusions, shattering them to pieces in the space of a second.
Today seemed so far away, now.
She shuddered as she turned around to face her empty apartment again, and she let her back slide along the cold wood of the door, sitting on the floor and hugging her knees to her chest, trying to enclose herself in a cocoon where she could be alone with her memories and still pretend, at least for a few more minutes, that tonight was a nightmare and none of it was real.
She couldn't close her eyes. Every time she tried, the image of Clark lying there became more vivid, and she could feel his still warm skin under her hands as she'd reached for him with a shriek upon realising the implications of what had happened, helplessly calling his name in some impossible hope that it might bring him back to life, almost feeling his heart still beating under her searching fingers, and yet knowing the pounding sound in her ears was that of her own blood shooting waves of pain through her.
Clark, on the other hand, could feel no more. His eyes had closed for the last time, and the light had left his gaze forever, glazing over with the bleakness of a violent death. The shot from Clyde Barrow's gun was still resonating through her ears, and she could see her partner stagger backwards, looking more surprised than in real pain, until he'd collapsed to the floor with one last breath. His last breath.
And, she remembered, her heart clenching at the memory, the last thing she'd seen reflected in his eyes had been fear. She wished he hadn't suffered, that the pain hadn't been too unbearable before he died, but she doubted it was the case. Just thinking about Clark's last moments made her feel sick inside, and as she'd reached for him, caressing his jaw in a tender, almost reassuring gesture, and clutching at him to prevent Capone's gang from taking him away from her, she knew the tears she was spilling onto him would be of little help.
She didn't even have the consolation of being able to grieve for him properly. His body hadn't been found yet, and she doubted it would ever be, despite it being only a few hours since it had been ruthlessly dragged out of the club. Capone and his men had probably dumped it into one of the city's sewers, where no-one would ever find it, and where it would stay till the end of time. The police wouldn't spend their precious time looking for a dead man when they should concentrate on finding the murderer. And despite the dull feeling of loss at the realisation that her best friend wouldn't even get a proper grave, she knew they were right, that Clark would have wanted her and everyone else to concentrate on finding the culprit and bringing him down.
But, despite her willingness to help in this goal, the three hours she'd just spent at the police station, being questioned over and over about the evening's events, had been very painful to her. Every single one of the inspector's questions had forced her to relive her partner's death, and she'd been on the edge of a nervous breakdown when Perry had finally stepped in and called a halt. She'd never been so grateful for his intervention, and even though she'd refused his offer to crash at his place, or even that he accompany her home, she'd let him know, with her looks and gestures, if not with her words, that she appreciated his help.
And he understood that she needed to be alone. Alone with her memories, with what was left of her life, now that Clark wouldn't be a part of it any more.
Her eyes fell on a small notebook that had escaped from her purse earlier, and she scrambled to her knees to grab it. Flipping through the pages of notes for their investigation, she ran into some comments that Clark had added to her remarks, and absently traced the outline of his neat handwriting, trying to grasp onto any connection with him. Her skin tingled from where it was brushing against the paper sheet's thin material, and a shiver spread its way through her hand, making her fingers tense until they started to ache.
The notepad slipped from her now numb fingers, sliding down her calves and to her feet, where it lay there, unnoticed, her thoughts having drifted in yet another direction. Her head was buzzing with memories, threads of life and concealed feelings, bitterness and mostly, guilt.
Clark had given his life to protect her. If she hadn't been foolish enough to drag him to that club despite his more reasonable recommendations, he would still be there to talk her out of her silliest and most dangerous ideas. Despite the way it generally irked her to hear him run down her plans because they were bound to throw her into trouble, she knew that he was right most of the time. Had been right. And she'd give anything to hear one of his lectures right now, to go back in time and just this once, listen to him and lead the investigation on his terms. Because tonight, her actions had not only taken her into the line of fire, but they had cost the life of her partner and best friend.
She should be the one dead right now. If Clark hadn't stepped in front of her to protect her from Dillinger's sickening touch, Barrow would never have shot him. She could easily have done one of her Tae Kwon Do moves to get free of Dillinger's grasp, and even though the man's nervous companion might have pulled the trigger anyway, Clark would have been safe…
Or he would be where she was right now, crying himself out and beating himself up over her death and how he'd failed to protect her, or even to convince her not to set foot in that club.
She didn't even have the strength to chuckle at the irony of the situation. All she could think about was that in one dreadful second they'd been separated forever. Did it matter whether he or she was the one still alive? In a way, it did, because now she would have to live with the guilt of having hauled Clark to a certain death, and she would never forgive herself. The sound of his last gasp would follow her through the endless days and haunt her nightmares until the day she died.
She dragged herself to her feet, wobbling a little on her high heels as she made her way through the apartment, until she came face to face with the cheval mirror in a corner of her bedroom, and took in her appearance. Her hair had suffered from the way her hands had repeatedly threaded through it and pulled at it in despair, her make-up was smudged, her eyes were puffy and her cheeks swollen by the path of too many tears, and her red dress was torn from where Dillinger had tried to grab her, only to have Clark roughly shove him away and put himself in line to be the nervous Clyde Barrow's easiest target.
She detoured her eyes from the painful image that the mirror was reflecting, and after having kicked off her uncomfortable shoes, she opened the top drawer of her dresser, needing to change into clothes that would put some distance between the evening and herself. But she stopped short and caught her breath as her gaze fell on the sweater neatly folded on top of her own outfits, and fresh tears sprang to her eyes, clouding her mind and making her head spin.
She grabbed at the dresser's frame, trying to regain some balance and shutting her eyes tight as she waited for the dizziness to fade, sighing when it left her with a cold sense of loss and loneliness. Her hand reached for the dark burgundy sweatshirt, her fingertips gliding over the letters and logo advertising the University of Kansas. She brought the piece of cloth to her face, letting the fabric caress her jaw as she breathed in the scent that was so familiar to her, yet that would progressively fade away, just like the rest.
She padded barefoot back into her living room, still clutching at the sweatshirt, pressing it against the bare skin of her neck. Her last connection to Clark. The soft fragrance that was typically him was still there, taking her back to a few days earlier, when they'd been working at his place and he'd loaned it to her so she didn't catch a cold on her way back home. He'd always been so attentive towards her, so caring, putting her well-being before his. And now, all she had left of his tenderness was this last piece of cloth, this last witness of how he'd been there for her every single time she'd needed him, with the most trivial care or the most important support.
She held the sweatshirt in front of her for inspection and smiled through her tears as the image of Clark floated through her mind and she imagined what it would be like to feel his strong arms embrace her, comfort her, reassure her that everything would be all right. Except that this time, no such thing would happen. Clark was gone for good, and nothing would bring him back to her.
She swallowed a renewed sob and put on the soft cloth over her dress in an attempt to distract herself from the bleakness of her thoughts, and to feel the warmth of the embrace she was aching for. Wearing Clark's sweatshirt seemed to have a soothing power over her, and she wiped at her eyes with the back of her hand, grimacing at the rough sensation of cheeks stiffened by too many dried tears.
Lois suddenly caught sight of the framed photograph standing on the coffee table, and a smile broke its way through her lips as she met Clark's cheerful grin. A grin she wouldn't see ever again. A grin she would miss for the rest of her life.
At first, she searched for something else to focus on, but every object in her apartment reminded her of a moment she'd spent with her best friend, bringing back reminiscences of little threads of her life since Clark had stepped into it: a word of encouragement when she was feeling down, a sweet, friendly caress on her back to release some of the tension accumulated by too much work and too little sleep, a teasing roll of his eyes when she went off on one of her tangents…
But every time her eyes alighted on something that reminded her of Clark, the memories seemed more distant, as if slipping through her fingers and out of her grasp, out of her drowsy mind. The moments she'd lived with him, so vibrant and close to her just a while ago, were getting fuzzy, his features, his voice, less vivid, sliding into a background where only his last seconds alive remained, and she needed to feel something more than the soft cotton of his sweatshirt on her skin to be comforted by what remained of his presence at her side.
The sound of the phone abruptly pulled her back to the reality of her empty apartment, but she let it ring until her answering machine switched on. The only person she would want to talk to right now was gone forever; and actually, she realised how much she'd been relying on him these past fifteen months. How much she'd been leaning on his shoulder when the weight of life was too much for her to bear. How she'd always turned to him when she needed a friend. How he'd been the only true friend she'd ever had. How hard it would be to go on without him.
Her machine's tape emitted a clicking sound, and Perry's hesitant voice came through the phone. "Lois, honey…look, I just wanted to ask you…to know if you were all right…well, as all right as the circums…I'm sorry, Lois," he stammered, and she heard her old editor's always steady voice start to break before the line went dead. She began to reach for the handset, but held back the urge to call him back as she realised he probably needed to be alone as much as she did. Talking about what couldn't be changed wouldn't help; it would just start the weeping she'd just managed to stop.
And it wouldn't bring him back.
Nothing would bring him back.
All she had to hang onto right now where these sparse memories she wished she could hold tighter, because she wanted to treasure and cherish them for the rest of her life.
Suddenly struck by an idea, she reached for the handset and let a trembling finger dial a number she knew by heart, aware that it was the very last time she would call him, and feeling a bittersweet sensation invade her at the thought. She held her breath as the line rang, expecting it to be picked up despite what she knew to be impossible.
But it didn't happen.
It still startled her to hear his voice on the answering machine, and she cried silently, biting her lips nervously, drinking his words and memorising his intonations. The strident beep announcing the end of his greeting message tore at her heart, and she dropped the phone receiver back onto its cradle. Panic assaulted her as she tried and failed to hear him in her head, and she realised that these little pieces of who her best friend had been were vanishing with him.
Unable to bear the chill of drifting reminiscences any longer, she blocked out her flood of thoughts for a moment to change into a pair of old, worn jeans and, still sporting the sweatshirt, headed out the door without a backward glance.
The fresh air did little to lift her spirits away from the dreary evening; it was as if life was continuing its path but she was left on the side, watching people and time pass by, none of them having any consideration for the pain coursing through her that paralysed her in this second where everything had changed.
Her steps guided her through the so familiar streets of Metropolis, streets she'd covered so many times, that had always been part of her surroundings, and yet which seemed so foreign to her tonight. Bright neon signs blinked on and off, advertising late night bars or clubs whose front doors were crowded with men and women laughing, enjoying themselves. Living.
And she was dying inside.
She spotted a couple strolling hand in hand on the sidewalk across from the avenue, saw the expression of happiness in their gestures and looks, felt the woman's heart warm when the man bent down to press a tender kiss onto her waiting lips, whereas a stream of cold blood shot through her veins, and fresh tears resurfaced as she imagined that she could have been that woman if she hadn't been dumb enough to shy away from the obviousness of her feelings for her partner and best friend. If only she hadn't been afraid to confront him with the strongest emotions she'd ever experienced for a man. If only she'd taken note of these earlier, much earlier. Before tonight. Before it was too late.
Clark had died without knowing that she loved him more than she could ever say. Now, it was too late for remorse, but despite this knowledge, regrets clawed at her soul, and images of them together scrolled through her mind, hazy and disordered, showing her how many times she could have taken that tiny step over the friendship threshold, illustrating all the times Clark had given her an opportunity to close the metaphorical distance between them. A look, a word, a touch that could have carried them over the famous line, erasing the tough time during which her almost-marriage had come close to setting a wedge between them, splitting them apart for good.
Death had succeeded where Lex Luthor had failed, she thought bitterly. After the ordeal they'd suffered during her engagement, she'd made herself a promise never to let anything separate them ever again; it had been close to a real commitment to him, she now reflected, but at that time, she'd rejected any idea that she could feel something stronger than friendship for him.
Oh, there had been that odd, almost awkward moment between them just as they'd learned about the Planet's rehabilitation. Hearing him tell her he couldn't give up on what mattered to him the most, and knowing he was talking about her, had been like a renewal of his declaration, and she'd braced herself for the big, scary step, convincing herself it might be time for her to acknowledge as much to herself as to him that she might want to try dating him. But then he'd pulled his 'I wasn't really in love with you' speech out of nowhere, cutting short any courage she had left, and settling them back into the undefined situation of their relationship.
For long weeks, she would lie awake at night, seeking restful sleep that wouldn't come, and replaying the scene in her mind over and over, searching for answers in Clark's gaze or the tone of his voice, needing to know which of his claims had been a lie, or rather, which had been the truth. But the clues had been there all along, and turning her back to them was futile when she was feeling the same way about him as he was about her. The only remaining obstacle between them had been the fear of ruining a beautiful friendship with the irreversible step into the unknown, and until this evening, it had looked like being a long time before either of them would get past their apprehension.
She chuckled bitterly and wiped another tear off her tired face when she realised that the 'long time' in question had extended into eternity, and being afraid of her ever growing feelings for Clark had only served to keep them apart when there had still been time to change. When he was alive, and at her side.
A gust of warm air blew through her clothes as she walked over a subway grate, and she hugged Clark's sweatshirt closer to her skin, absorbing the heat of this unexpected embrace, drawing the least comfort that the outside — suddenly very hostile — world could bring to her.
She now realised that she'd never felt so close to anyone than she had to Clark. Even Perry, who'd become some sort of surrogate father over the years she'd known him, allowing her to confide in him during some tough times before Clark had stepped into her life, hadn't ever reached the point where she wouldn't hesitate to unburden her heart to him, like she'd got used to doing with the best friend she'd found in her new partner.
Somehow, she'd trusted him right from the start, even letting him in on her darkest memory on their first assignment together, sharing with him the feelings of shame that she'd experienced after her ex-boyfriend and work-colleague Claude had betrayed her, letting him see a part of her that she'd long hidden from everyone else. And he'd proven himself worthy of her trust, never revealing any of her confidences to anyone, and always finding the right words to comfort her. Reassure her. Make her feel loved.
With him, she was complete. He'd been filling her existence with joy and optimism, always showing her the good in every person they encountered, turning the cynical woman in her into someone who was learning to open herself to others again, someone who was learning to embrace life as it came.
How would she cope now that he was gone? How would she deal with the harshness of the world without the sympathy and gentleness she'd so easily got used to, alongside him?
Wind whipped at her ears, cutting her frantic questions into stunned silence, making her mind sink deeper, refusing to confront the loneliness that this world had in store for her. When she tried to look to her future, she could only see darkness and a slow but inexorable descent into what she would have become without Clark's influence on her.
The image of herself that it mirrored prompted her to fight against the danger lurking for her if she kept walking on this path, and a small flame of hope flickered in her, bringing sudden clarity to her vision as her tears lessened in response, the watery trails of light that had been all she saw of the streetlamps as she passed them by sharpening into focus.
Clark would have wanted her to react, to resist to the pull of a life of grieving for something she'd never known. He'd have wanted her to be strong and continue the investigation for them both, bringing down whoever had had enough of a sick mind to resurrect these creatures from an ancient time and take his life, ripping all meaning from hers in their wake.
She bit her lower lip and swallowed back the last of her tears in resolution, determined to bring the culprit to justice as soon as possible. Burying herself into her work had always been the solution to every problem before, after all. Of course, when the problem in question and her work were so closely entwined, it wouldn't be that easy to relegate her grief to the back of her mind and remain the professional she'd always tried to be, but she would do her best, as much for herself as for Clark's memory.
A moment later, she regained consciousness of her surroundings and realised that her steps had led her to Clark's apartment. The alley reflected a quiet, soothing atmosphere, as if pretending nothing out of the ordinary had happened. The light on the front porch was even on, and Lois's heart started to beat faster as an irrational part of her mind prayed for her partner to be in his apartment, safe and sound, where he would greet her cheerfully as she walked over the threshold.
Her hand went to her pocket to retrieve the key he'd given her not so long ago, and the remembrance of how many arguments it had taken from him for her to accept it forced a smile on her lips. He'd had to insist a lot, but she'd been flattered by how much trust he put in her, and after an idle attempt at convincing him there was no need, she'd added the key to her own, needing no reassurance that he didn't expect her to reciprocate.
Clark had always been like that with her: giving without taking, never making her feel compelled to respond to everything he said or did. When he offered her something, it was always genuine; it had taken some getting used to, at first, and she'd been very cautious around this way too trusting man, until she'd realised it was how he was, and that no deceit was lurking behind his actions.
She let herself into the darkened apartment, walking down the steps to his living room and switching on the lamp sitting beside his couch, letting its light suffuse a soft glow through the room. Clark's home seemed so much more lived-in and welcoming than hers, especially tonight. Her eyes fell onto the morning's copy of the Daily Planet, neatly folded and resting on the arm of the sofa. A couple of bills were lying on the coffee table, probably where he'd left them before he'd gone to the office only hours earlier. Everywhere she looked, she found clues of Clark's presence. It was as though he was still there, just having popped out of his apartment for a moment. That he would turn up at the door any second, sporting his usual grin and with the teasing gleam in his eyes that she'd come to appreciate so much.
He would greet her, maybe envelop her in a hug and deposit a tender kiss on her forehead before taking her hand and leading her to the sofa, letting her cuddle against him and listening to her until she fell asleep in the safe haven of his arms.
She surveyed the living area, printing in her mind these last moments of normality before all of Clark's belongings disappeared, dispersed among relatives and old friends. Nothing. Nothing would remain of the part of his life that he'd spent in Metropolis. She could already hear the sounds of another person invading what was Clark's personal space, appropriating his apartment in complete ignorance of who had lived here before and how tragic a death he'd faced.
Something beyond her consciousness led her to Clark's bedroom, needing the intimacy that the room provided, feeling his presence in the soft scent of his cologne on his pillow. Laying her exhausted body on the bed, she buried herself under the quilt and curled up in a corner, letting the last of her tears rock her into an agitated sleep.
Clark landed softly on the terrace at the back of his apartment and made his way to the kitchen, sighing heavily as he looked around and took in the familiar surroundings of the home that had sheltered him for the past year and a half. He'd become so accustomed to the comfortably furnished rooms that it was hard for him to accept that he'd have to leave all of this behind.
He shook his head and poured himself a glass of milk that he sipped thoughtfully while he reviewed the past few hours in his head. He'd been so stupid to think he could protect Lois from Dillinger's dirty paws without getting himself shot. Of *course* Barrow hadn't hesitated to make use of his gun; just like everyone else, he knew the basic story of the 1930s gangster, and his easy pull on the trigger whenever someone was causing trouble. The guy had already killed many other men in his life, so what could have stopped him in front of Clark Kent?
He'd been really dumb to even try to interfere without thinking of a back-up plan in case Dillinger proved insistent. On the other hand, he knew he'd made the right choice, and he'd do it all over again if he ever found himself in the same situation. Protecting a human life was more important than protecting the duality of his identity, and even more so when it was Lois who was in danger. Killing off Clark Kent had been the best compromise, he supposed, generating enough agitation to drag the gangsters' attention off Lois without revealing who he really was.
He'd replayed the scene over and over in his mind without finding any other solution to getting Dillinger's hands off Lois. Even if it had provoked the man's anger and that of his companions. If he'd thrown himself and Lois to the floor when Barrow had fired his gun, someone else would have been shot. If he'd moved his body at the last moment so that the bullet wouldn't hit him in the chest, but in the arm, either the goons would have finished him off, or they'd have quickly realised that their victim wasn't bleeding.
At least faking his death had created such a turmoil in the club that no one had paid any attention to the lack of blood. And he'd also been careful to catch the bullet before it bounced off him; clutching at his supposed wound had also ensured the projectile he'd then held was reduced to ashes and wouldn't be found anywhere. It had turned out to be an even better solution when Capone had ordered the other gangsters to drag Clark's corpse out of the club and dump it where no one could incriminate them. It was how Clark had been thrown from their car and had landed on top of a garbage pile while his murderers had driven away, heedless of their victim's fate.
Clark's first reflex upon being dumped to this deserted area of Metropolis had been to fly back to the club and check on Lois. The whole gang had left along with him, which had reassured him regarding his partner's security, but he'd still preferred to make sure that she hadn't been threatened by anyone else. And he had needed to see her, too; when he'd let Barrow and Dillinger drag him out, Lois had been clutching at him as if she would never let go, and he'd been afraid that the gangsters would harm her if she got in their way. Much to his relief, she'd finally loosened her death grip on him, and the last thing he'd heard before Capone had closed the door behind them had been her desperate call of his name. He'd wished he could comfort her and help her out of the gambling club, but it had been essential — for her safety as well — that he played along and pretended to be dead.
When he'd returned to the crime scene, the place had been swarming with police officers. People were being manhandled into custody, their hands immobilised by handcuffs. Others were being questioned by several cops, while the area where the murder had taken place was being thoroughly inspected. And in the back of the large room, where slot machines kept twinkling despite the complete disinterest from the remaining guests of the club, he'd spotted a single figure sitting alone in a corner, her head buried in her hands as she cried silently, ignored by the rest of the world, a shadow of the vibrant woman whom Clark had known.
He'd almost flown into the room to take her in his arms and comfort her, forgetting that nothing he could say to her as Superman would help, when she was probably mourning the superhero's absence at the crucial moment; after all, Superman's friendship with the Planet reporter was known, and people could certainly wonder why he hadn't been there to save Clark. So she might have been reluctant to see him, and he could understand that. Besides, just as he'd been hovering over the club's roof and pondering his decision, Perry had burst in, and Clark knew that his editor-in-chief was the most reliable person to take care of Lois right then.
He'd flown to Smallville, swallowing down the guilt at leaving Lois in the hands of police officers. He knew she'd certainly be questioned about their presence in the gambling club and the circumstances of the shooting; she'd also be asked to describe the gangsters. And meanwhile, he needed to see his parents and reassure them that their son was all right, before the police called them to inform them of the dreadful news of his death. He didn't want to cause them any unnecessary worry, and besides, he'd very much needed their advice as to what to do next. Back in the casino, faking his death had seemed like his only way out, even though he could still feel Lois's trembling hands reaching for him, calling his name, pleading with him not to leave her. The sound of her anguished tears was too vivid for him to ignore, and it had taken all of his willpower to stay immobile and stiff when confronted by the force of her emotions.
But his main fear, back there, had been that he might be discovered. If it had just been him he wouldn't have hesitated to reveal himself as Superman and deal with the whole gang then and there. But his loved-ones' lives were at stake here, and with the world knowing that Superman was — or had once been — Clark Kent, there were those who wouldn't hesitate to put the people Clark cared for in danger, using them as bait to get to Superman. And he couldn't let that happen. It would make his parents, Lois, Perry, Jimmy, and just about anyone he'd already encountered, too easy targets for the first wacko who decided to take over the world.
His folks had been sympathetic, of course, but as unable to come up with a solution as he'd been. His days as Clark Kent were over. His normal life was over. Unless he crafted a new identity for himself, which was completely impossible for him to do when it was the *real* him who'd died. Not someone he could easily replace. Not the character he'd created when he'd first put on the tights. And now, the fantasy man was what remained, whereas the reality of whom he'd always been had been reduced to ashes in the space of a second.
At least Lois was safe. It was a small consolation prize, but it reassured him to know he'd managed to save her from Dillinger's vile attentions. Although she didn't look all right at all when it came to her state of mind, and he cursed himself for letting her hurt the way she was. He felt the need to comfort her, to tell her that it wasn't her fault, because he was certain she was already blaming herself for what had happened, replaying the scene in her head over and over, trying to find another way out and finding none. Exactly like him.
It would be hard to face her as Superman and not tell her the truth about Clark Kent's fate, but what would be the point in revealing his secret identity to her now? He'd spent the last three hours discussing the issue with his parents, only to come to the conclusion that it mattered very little whether Lois knew or not, now that Clark was gone for ever. And after all, it might be better left this way. Whatever the state of his relationship with Lois had been before tonight — and 'undefined' was really the first word that came to his mind — telling her now would only bring down more pain and responsibility on her shoulders.
He would do his best to look after her safety as Superman, but he'd keep their relationship to the minimum. Seeing her from time to time and maintaining the pretence would be hard enough; if he got any closer to her it would be impossible. And anyway, being intimate friends would endanger her just as much as being involved in a relationship with him. From now on, he would have to keep his distance and forget his dream that, someday, she might see him as more than her work-colleague.
Clark's despondent sigh turned into a yawn, and he tiredly rinsed his glass, surveying the living-room with a quick sweep of his gaze and noticing for the first time that the lamp sitting near the couch was switched on, although he couldn't remember doing it himself, but he was probably too exhausted to think about everything he had done since he'd gone home. He shrugged the thought away as unimportant and turned it off, reasoning through the muddle of his mind that it would do no good for a dead man to have his lights on.
He was emotionally drained, and all he needed now was a good night's sleep; not that the next morning would bring him a solution for taking care of his current situation, but at least he'd be more able to envisage his new life as Superman — and Superman only — with a few hours rest behind him.
He dragged himself to the bathroom, noticing that he hadn't changed back into his casual clothes; the spandex suit was clinging to his shoulders and the weight of the cape was getting uncomfortable. He would have to get used to it, though; Clark's clothes weren't exactly appropriate to perform rescues, and his superhero job would take up all of his time from now on. No more reporting, no more interviews…no more ballgames with Jimmy. He'd even miss Perry's daily references to Elvis.
He dumped the suit into the linen basket, trying to block out the thought that it would be his everyday clothes from now on. A faint glint caught his eye and he reached for the pair of spare glasses lying on the edge of the sink; they'd followed him through half of his high-school years and hadn't left him since; they were part of who he was, an essential element of his identity. And he would have to give them up.
His image in the bathroom mirror met him, and he quit the disillusioned expression he'd worn all night for the more decisive, stubborn stance for which Superman was known. Raking both hands through his tousled hair, he smoothed it back almost in the same way he wore it when in the suit, and he studied his reflection, searching for who he really was beyond the simple physical appearance.
Clark Kent. He'd always been Clark Kent before all, son of Kansas farmers, a quiet, unrebellious boy whose biggest dream was to fit in and lead a normal life. The Kryptonian part of himself had been present within him throughout the years, of course, if only in the strange and unexplainable powers he'd developed, but it had never prevailed over his human self.
On the other hand, he didn't know Kal El, nor understand the heritage which came with the mysterious name. Superman reminded him too much of his differences and of the alien lurking in him. Oh, of course his values were those his adoptive parents had taught him, but the incredible abilities he'd been gifted by his birth had nothing to do with who he was, deep down.
Giving up on his human side would only serve to remind him of how heavily this lack of normality and stability in his life lay on his shoulders, yet it was what he had to do now, regardless of his feelings about it. He couldn't pretend that the evening hadn't happened, or that Clark Kent had miraculously survived the shooting; not when a dozen people at least had been close enough to him to see the bullet whiz towards him at high speed and knock him to the floor. Nothing he could say or do would ever change what had taken place in that club.
Clark Kent was dead, and Superman would have to live with it.
Sighing heavily, he averted his gaze from the severe sentence epitomized by his reflection. He pulled on a pair of black sleeping shorts before padding into his darkened bedroom. The moon shed a soft glow through the large glass panels spanning the wall and provided enough light for him to reach the edge of the bed through half-closed eyes.
It vaguely registered in the back of his sleep fuddled mind that something was strange about the atmosphere reigning in the apartment; it held a strange sense of familiarity, unrelated to the belongings populating it. No…it was something else entirely, something he was longing for but that slid further away from his reach when he tried to concentrate on it. His enhanced senses perceived the faint reminder of a perfume that he recognised to be Lois's, and he smiled despite his weariness. Probably a faint trace of the last time she'd been here…had it only been yesterday? He could still hear her heartbeat, attuned that he was to her presence, and he reflected again how much he would miss her.
Ghosts of his past were haunting him, reminding him constantly of what he'd lost tonight, and unwilling to let melancholy pull him into useless regrets, he dismissed the stray thoughts perceived through the depths of his exhaustion, and lay down, drowsing into a deep sleep as soon as his body hit the mattress.
The shot rang through her ears, exploding in the silence enveloping the deserted gambling club, and she ran as fast as she could, knowing she needed to get there in time and push Clark out of the way. A fraction of second, a thread of life too late, and she'd never see him again.
She pushed her way through a crowd of bystanders which had got in her way, blocking her path and smirking at her as she kept on running, tears shadowing her vision and making her progression more and more difficult. On the far horizon, she could see her partner standing in front of the gun and not making a move to avoid the bullet, putting his body between the danger and a woman in red whom he was trying to protect, and she let out a soundless scream, her voice staying stuck in her throat.
Her eyes could only see the trigger being pressed, ever so slowly, and her heart was beating the rhythm of precious seconds that she knew she would miss. Too late, she would arrive too late to save him…
Another loud crack made itself heard, and this time she stopped short, unable to go further as she saw Clark clutch at his chest, doubling over in pain and collapsing to his knees. His gaze turned to her, and she watched, helpless, as the fear in his eyes turned to bleakness, glazing over as death ripped his soul, spreading a dark trail of ashes in its wake, until nothing remained but the lifeless and empty corpse of her partner.
All signs of life vanished around her, and she was standing alone in the club, Clark's body at her feet, and unable to move or talk…or think. She was tied to the moment, enclosed in the cycle of time and reliving his death over and over, and her struggle to set free was remaining idle despite her best efforts.
Her desperate fight against invisible bonds made her lose her balance and she felt herself fall. Her arms, suddenly freed, flailed around, reaching for anything to hold herself upright, and she screamed when her fingers met only empty space. An image of the trigger being pressed filled her mind yet again, and a lurching pain burst through her head like a rocket.
Pain subsided when two strong arms enveloped her in a warm embrace, and she stopped fighting against gravity as suddenly as she had started, letting the unexpected hug soothe her sore spirits. She shifted in the cocoon that was now protecting her and reached for her partner's neck, her hands recognising him as if she knew him by heart, and pulling him closer to her.
He was here, with her. He hadn't abandoned her, and he'd come back for her. She hugged him tight, her fingers threading themselves in his hair and her lips frantically searching for the familiarity of his beloved features. She instinctively knew it was him; opening her eyes was superfluous when all she needed was to feel his presence seep through her skin and fill her veins with life.
His lips finally found hers, first teasingly nibbling at hers in a kiss that quickly escalated to send them spinning out of control. A tingle of pure pleasure shocked through her, and she was whimpering his name over and over, until he deepened the encounter and silenced the turmoil of her words.
She felt him sigh against her lips and she grabbed at the life radiating from the strong body pressed so intimately to hers. Her hands slid down the length of his back, shivering against the taut muscles flexing under her touch until they found the hem of his shorts, and the tremor of her body transferred itself to his. A swift move brought him over her, his weight pressing her into the mattress, his mouth plundering hers with renewed energy.
His hands roamed down her sides, their warmth spreading through the sweatshirt she was still wearing, the cotton fabric brushing against her skin, a feather- like touch soothing the thunder of their mingling heartbeats.
He was alive.
He was still alive, and she wouldn't let go of him ever again. The dreadful evening became a distant memory as she let Clark's stroking pull her deeper into her fantasy, enthusiastically meeting his raging desire, letting him respond to the intense desperation present in each of her kisses.
She surrendered to the soft whisper of his fingers against her skin as they reached under her sweater and pushed their way up her spine, tracing a burning path of fire in their wake. Reality momentarily disappeared as she lost all conscious thoughts, her mind blanking out some truth it was afraid to understand. Her hand kept a firm grip on the piece of clothing even as her lover stripped it off her, holding onto it like a life preserver, as if her dream would fade if she let it go.
Even as his lips left hers to explore the soft curves he had just exposed, she kept her eyes tightly shut, concentrating on the feel of his mouth and the warmth of his hands as they worshiped her and shutting out the tugging of consciousness that pleaded with her to stop their course of actions.
She wanted Clark, wanted him with a passion and intensity she'd never experienced before, and she wouldn't let anything separate them again. She whimpered a protest against his hair and clawed at his shoulders when she felt him pull away, and he was there again, his arms tightly wrapped around her, reassuring her that he wouldn't leave her. His kisses became softer, appeasing her fears until she relaxed in his embrace.
He traced the outline of her jeans with a bare brush of his index-finger and found the snap, releasing a tension that had built itself in the pit of her stomach as he pressed a warm hand against her abdomen, rubbing it lightly against her then letting it trail around the curve of her hip.
She shivered under his touch, his name a sigh escaping her kiss-swollen lips, encouraging him to continue his thorough explorations, but as abruptly as their encounter had started, he pulled back with a startled gasp, and her fantasy shattered, leaving her with a bleak sense of loss. The warm pressure of his mouth on her skin, the soft caress of his hands, the strong feel of his arms around her were gone, and she found herself alone, shivery and vulnerable, left on her own to deal with a reality she didn't want to accept.
She curled up, hugging her knees to her chest and resting her head on the pillow, trembling no matter how much she willed herself to stop, shutting off the sound of her lover's raging breath that she knew was a trick of her imagination, a dream of something that would never happen because she'd been so dumb as to resist her attraction to him while he was with her. He was dead, now, and bitter regrets were all she had. Burying her sorrow in the cotton wool of the bedding, she cried faintly, silently praying that sleep would overcome her and free her from her torturous thoughts.
Reality crashed around Clark with the strength of a storm as he took in his surroundings and realised that his blissful dream had been born from a truth he hadn't been ready to face. A swift glance at his appearance and that of the woman huddled up near the bed head, hugging a pillow to her shivering form, only confirmed his worst fears. What had started off as a fantasy had turned out to be more than the product of his imagination, and he was horrified at what had been about to happen. If he hadn't regained his consciousness and distinguished reality from his dream, he couldn't dare think about where their course of action would have led them.
He blinked a couple of times, catching a fleeting memory. The previous evening's ordeal had emotionally exhausted him, and he only remembered falling asleep on the edge of his bed, without even bothering to pull the quilt over him. There had been something unusual about the calm surrounding his apartment, a surprising sensation, the origin of which he hadn't found the strength to determine. Sleep had shut out his mind, pulling him down into the floating darkness of a dream where nothing mattered any more, until he'd suddenly been troubled by a feverish agitation nearby. He had reached intuitively for the distressed soul lying beside him, knowing without waking that the restless form tossing, turning and sobbing beside him was Lois as he'd pulled her into a comforting embrace.
And then everything had evolved so fast that he hadn't found the strength or will to stop it. Their lips had met, and all the force of his feelings for her had resurfaced. The world had faded to black except for the sensations she evoked within him, the strong, increasing pulse in his throat, the sizzling electricity of her lips brushing a sensual caress against his, the warmth of her fingers seeking his pleasure.
And he hadn't thought. Hadn't been able to think, even when his mind had screamed for control. All he'd been aware of was that Lois was in his arms and they were drawing comfort from each other. He'd been too tired to fight his attraction to her, until her soft sigh of his name had brought him back to his senses and his surroundings had floated into focus again: the large windows through which a corner of rosy sky was announcing the sunrise, the moonlight gliding on the satin skin of his partner, the strong beating of her heart against his.
And he'd understood the significance of his actions. He had no right to push her to the edge of a relationship that had no future, to let her believe that he was still at her side and wouldn't leave her. His needs didn't matter at all when the trace of tears on Lois's cheeks attested to her sorrow.
Shaking himself out of his despondent musings, he reached a timid hand to her shoulder but drew it back before he touched her, afraid to wake her and face the guilt and regret on her face. Would it be better if it remained hidden in the crest of a desperate night, as the shameless secret of the one time when they'd let their souls overflow, forgotten as quickly as it had occurred?
He could see the advantage of such a possibility: it would avoid the awkwardness he dreaded, the sudden lack of trust in Lois's eyes, the weight of unspoken feelings declared by their actions but denied by their words. If he left his place without waking her, she might never know that he had been there at all.
His eyes fell on the burgundy sweatshirt lying at the foot of the bed, then moved back to Lois to caress an imaginary line on the pale skin of her back.
Her *bare* back.
He couldn't do that, couldn't let her come back to consciousness to see her discarded clothes on the floor and wonder how she'd come to this point. There was no way he'd run away from something he was entirely responsible for, and let her deal with the consequences of his own acts.
She moved imperceptibly and his thinking stopped abruptly; he held his breath, unsure whether to be scared or relieved that she was about to be brought out of her torpor. His attention focused on the shiver of her lashes as her eyelids fluttered open, and he finally met the dark eyes of his partner…best friend…*lover*. Unable to decipher or hold her insistent gaze any longer, he lowered his head and ran a quivering hand through his hair, remembering too well how Lois had threaded her fingers into the dark mass only minutes…*seconds* earlier. The softness of her touch was still imprinted on his skin, a painful reminder of the distance that had settled between them ever since he'd pulled away from their passionate embrace.
The whisper of the bed sheets brought him back to the present in time to see Lois advance her hand towards him and cover his arm in a tender gesture. It lingered there for a few seconds during which Clark didn't dare to move or breathe, then she pulled it back, her gaze lifting to his in a simple question. He bit at his cheek and swallowed hard, closing his eyes tight and wishing the earth would open up under his feet to put him out of his misery.
Seconds ticked, the erratic pounding of his heart punctuating their irreversible advance; the constricted air of his bedroom was buzzing in his ears and his perception was more sensitive than ever. He instinctively knew before Lois touched him that her fingers were hovering a hairs-breadth away from his neck, and he tensed when she shifted closer to him.
"Clark…" Her murmur of his name wasn't a question, and he opened his eyes to drown in the depth of her gaze.
Before he had time to react though, she was lurching forward and crying out his name in…was it delight he heard in her voice? It didn't matter when her arms were locked around his neck and she was sobbing into the hollow of his shoulder. He automatically hugged her back and sighed into her hair, reflecting again on how much he would miss her now that he couldn't share his joys and fears with her any more.
She drew back slightly, one of her hands still clasping at his nape while the other was brushing a stray tear off her face. And she smiled. She smiled in a way that made his heart flip, looking at him with the same blissful expression as she'd frequently used with Superman.
She seemed totally oblivious to her state of nakedness, but Clark wasn't, and if meeting her gaze was difficult for him, it remained the safest place to look, under the circumstances. He still felt the warmth of her curves where they'd been pressed to his chest, and the gentle rise and fall of her breasts as she breathed dangerously called for his attention. The memory of the few minutes he'd spent in her arms was getting clearer and clearer, and the sensations he'd experienced were still vividly burning on his skin, leaving him dizzy and disoriented.
"Clark…are you…are you really here?"
Lois's trembling voice cut through his troubled thoughts and he started, abruptly brought back to the reality of his situation. She didn't wait for his answer to reach him again, and he waited, paralysed by her touch as her fingers attempted to recognise his features in the darkness.
"You're alive…" Her words were a whisper probably addressed more to herself than to him. "Oh, Clark, you're alive!" Then, cocking her head to the side as an afterthought struck her, "How come you're alive?" She frowned, her grip on his shoulders intensifying, her nails clawing into him almost painfully as she shook her head, disbelieving.
A brief moment of panic ensued as Clark desperately looked for an escape route, although he was aware that there was none. Of course she wanted to know how he'd pulled through without a scratch, and there was no plausible explanation to offer except for the truth. A truth she probably wouldn't take that well, especially after he'd dragged her through the passion of his lived-out fantasy.
Facing her was unbearable when every detail of his bed obviously pointed to the fact that he'd got carried away to the point of undressing her. And kissing her. Remorse was eating at him, yet Lois didn't seem to hold any grudge against him yet, and her attitude was making him feel more uncomfortable and guilty by the minute.
Suddenly snapping to life, he moved away from her grasp and jumped to his feet, afraid of the effect she had on him. She looked startled by his actions, and he feared for a second that she wouldn't let him go, but she didn't make a move to restrain him, and it was with a sigh of relief that he turned away from her and leaned against the window seat.
The first rays of light piercing the barrier of clouds lying low on the horizon were filtering through the glass and spread their gentle glow over him, lifting the darkness which had been reigning over the bedroom until now and replacing it with a soothing beam that had little effect on Clark's sore state of mind, especially when his enhanced hearing warned him of Lois's discreet approach. He didn't want to talk to her right now, but she seemed determined to talk to him, and soon enough, he felt her presence at his side, so close to him that the smallest of her moves triggered a shudder in his spine.
She laid a warm hand on his bare shoulder and before he knew what was happening she was lowering her head and brushing her lips against his neck, trailing a slow path of kisses down his throat. First closing his eyes in surrender, he was unable to contain his discomfort any longer, and he shrugged away from her touch.
"Stop that, Lois," he said through gritted teeth.
He heard her sigh, but she complied, releasing him to stand a couple of feet away from him. As unfair as it was to her, he wished she would go away and leave him in peace; he needed to be alone and to think, which wasn't an easy task when the object of his obsessions was observing him and any look her way would award him a view that he wasn't ready to face.
And sure enough, she shifted and came into his range of vision, crossing her arms under her breasts and staring at him in a challenging manner. Settling more fully against the cushions of the window seat, he hugged his knees to his chest and turned his head away from her, facing the dawning sunrise and trying to forget what had taken place on his bed only minutes earlier.
She knew it was him. Him *Clark*. And she didn't look like someone who didn't know what they were doing; her tender gestures hadn't ceased since she'd completely woken, as if she'd been very much conscious during their heated session. But it wasn't what she wanted! It simply couldn't be. Lois was in love with Superman, and she considered Clark as a best friend, if anything. She'd reminded him way too many times that he was like a brother to her, as if afraid he would try again to step over the proverbial line between them.
He had done that, once, and the awkwardness which had resulted from his thoughtless declaration was enough to keep him from doing it again. Lois didn't have any romantic feelings for him. It had taken months for them to go back to the smooth, safe friendship they'd shared before her engagement to Lex Luthor, and he'd had to reassure her that he'd only told her he loved her to prevent her from going along with the businessman's proposal.
Lying to her about the real extent of his feelings had torn at his heart, especially when it looked like he'd been attempting to play with her affections so that she wouldn't marry Luthor, manipulating her, but it had been the only way to repair the damage he'd done with his confession.
And ever since she'd let down her guard around him again, accepting him as her confidant and friend just like she had before her fiasco of a marriage, he'd been as careful as possible not to let himself get carried away by the love he felt for her, unless she did encourage him, but as days had passed, it had looked less and less likely. She was still chasing after the inaccessible superhero and ignoring the ordinary reporter in him.
Tonight, the breathless words of love she'd murmured close to his ear had been addressed to *Clark*. There had been no cape, boots or superpowers raising between them, and she looked perfectly aware of that, behaving as if it didn't bother her any, which confused him completely, toppling over his every assumption about Lois's feelings — or lack, thereof — for him as Clark Kent.
And now that she seemed to see him as more than her best friend — maybe — it was too late to start a relationship with her, even if she wished for one, because the man she wanted to be with didn't exist any more but in his friends' memories.
"What is it, Clark?" he heard her ask after a few endless minutes of silence punctuated by his downhearted sighs. "I thought it meant something to you. Are you so disgusted by what we almost did that you have to avoid talking to me?"
The hurt in her voice was obvious as she questioned him, and he was tempted to pick things up where he'd left off and forget about the consequences. He didn't want her to believe that their kisses hadn't meant the world to him, but it wasn't fair to her to keep on pretending that he could offer her anything more than the reality of his actual condition.
Clark momentarily dropped his head into his hands before finding the courage to look up at her. "It's not *right*. It's not right, because I'm *not* Clark."
The words stung as he uttered them through gritted teeth, being too much a reminder of a painful truth he already refused to accept. He'd spent so much time trying to convince her that Clark was exactly who he was, so much time brooding over what she thought was love for Superman when Superman wasn't real, and now that she was finally appreciating the normal side of him, he was forced to give it all up, to forget that he'd ever been Clark, and start getting used to being treated as Superman only.
"Clark can't exist any more," he finished in a whisper after a few seconds, aware he was on his way to revealing the complete truth to her, but unable to stop himself.
He waited with bated breath as a stunned silence followed, and he felt Lois's stance turn stiff and remote. He knew he would have to come out with the rest of his secret, now — it wasn't fair to her to keep the mystery of Clark's death and disappearance to himself when she was visibly hurting and was feeling something for him, whether it was the result of the previous evening's emotions, or a real attraction she'd denied until now.
He'd been wishing for so long that she would see him, the real him; now that it was finally happening, he couldn't live and enjoy it fully. He already presumed that she would see his eager kisses as cheating, and understandably be convinced that he'd taken advantage of her when she was most vulnerable and lonely, and in need of a friend. In need of *Clark*, and not some counterfeit who had been her partner before he let himself get shot.
Wrapped in his own guilt and self-pity, he hadn't been aware of her distress up until now, and he deeply regretted his attitude, although he wasn't sure how to make it up to her, except by explaining to her why he'd been so engrossed in his own situation and too selfish to realise how much pain he'd left her in.
It wasn't her fault he was in such an inextricable situation, yet he was behaving as if she had her share of responsibility in his ordeal, with little consideration for what she'd gone through.
She had suffered from his death, and the past few hours had been just as painful for her as they had been for him. Why it had taken him so long to see that, *really* see that and measure the impact of his silence, he didn't know. But he felt so selfish now that he was confronted with the hurt displayed on Lois's face and heard in every one of the breaths she took.
Her silence was making him uncomfortable, and, giving in to the temptation to ignore the danger he'd been avoiding until now, he raised his head towards her, meeting the confusion in her gaze as she stared at him, as if discovering him for the first time. She stood there, immobile, her stance not letting any emotion filter through, nor any hint of her state of mind with regards to the bombshell his words had just dropped on her. No clue — except for the thunderous spark rising in her eyes.
Utter disorientation was ruling her mind, and Clark's physical and emotional withdrawal had only managed to amplify the feeling of loss that had been prevailing in her heart ever since she'd seen him die.
When he'd pulled away from her, steering her away from her unexpected but wonderful dream as well as showing her that she'd mingled her fantasies with reality, the bedroom had been wreathed in darkness, and she'd only been able to make out shadows and hazy shapes. She'd heard Clark's gentle voice, an island of reassurance anchoring her to sanity, until he'd shied away from her, denying first her affections and then his identity.
It was *his* voice — she'd recognise it anywhere. It was also his tender touch that she'd felt on her skin as she'd let him comfort her and kiss her, and it was his features that were outlined against the thin patches of light sifting through the vapours of dawn.
Something was pulling her towards him despite his rejection, and yet a part of her mind was tugging her the other way, as if warning her of some danger looming if she looked straight at the truth.
The truth of what, exactly? What kind of dreadful thing could she discover if she let herself think about Clark, about the mystery surrounding his unexpected presence at her side, and what the comfort they'd sought in each other's arms had led them to? Why was she scared of seeing who was hiding behind the man who'd kissed her so thoroughly, who'd murmured her name so lovingly, who had been able to stir these emotions within her?
When she'd first touched her lips to his, she'd immediately known it was him. She was sure that she couldn't have been mistaken, despite the hazy dream enveloping her memories of what had happened next. And she was well awake now, and very sure that the illusion hadn't been that much of one, or part of a nightmare following the trauma she'd suffered the previous evening. It had seemed so real. It had *been* so real. The weight of Clark's body on her, the warmth still present on her skin, wherever he'd touched her only minutes earlier, the taste of his lips on hers, and the calm, soothing sound of his regular heartbeat — everything screamed of reality to her.
And yet she knew it wasn't humanly possible, that Clark couldn't have survived the shot, that…that…
Her train of thoughts trailed and she frowned, reviewing what she'd just processed and linking it to Clark's denial that he was alive.
It wasn't *humanly* possible…
*Clark* couldn't have survived…
She blinked, finally focusing her attention on the man sitting a few feet away from her, and realising that her eyes had been fixed on him for some time — more time than she wanted to think about — without really seeing him…until this very second.
Despite the helpless and very human posture he'd adopted, huddled against the cold glass of his bedroom's large window, the broad shoulders and determined line of his jaw were amazingly familiar, yet not reminding her of Clark Kent at all.
Closing her eyes, she let her mind drift back to ancient memories. It had been months since he'd let her approach him, but her fingertips still tingled with the feel of the smooth, silky cloth she'd seen him wearing for as long as she'd known him. Nothing like the cotton shirts that her partner used to wear. She almost gave up on the thought, like an innocuous intrusion that was out of place and better forgotten, but something beyond her own understanding made the reminiscence linger, and she let it guide her until a well-known face came into focus, gazing down at her and making her heart beat faster at the tenderness and care she immediately detected in his eyes.
She'd loved him. For a long time, she had been convinced that he was the only man she could ever have such strong feelings for. The only one she could let herself trust. It had taken months for her to see past him and notice that Clark had the same qualities, the same innate goodness that she admired in the inaccessible superhero who'd been haunting her nights ever since he'd stepped into her life, until she'd stopped rejecting the — first unwelcome — attraction to her partner, and realised how much she'd come to rely on Clark since they'd become friends.
The image of both men floated in her mind, becoming fuzzy one after the other and merging into an entity that initially looked unknown, until she let the present invade her mind again. Fear squeezed at her heart, but she ignored the uncomfortable feeling, too preoccupied by the questions tumbling over in her mind and the unavoidable conclusion she got closer to with each of them.
Slowly, almost reluctantly, she opened her eyes, blinking through the shadows in the direction of the man who had taken refuge in the rectangle of weak light straining through the fading night, and whose expression was turning concerned, as if he was expecting a stormy reaction from her.
She knew him. She probably knew him better than she'd known anyone else before. Or she'd believed, maybe foolishly, that she did, until this very moment when he'd started to deny who she thought he was and spread uncertainty in her mind.
No wonder she'd felt a strange sense of familiarity when she'd begun kissing him, when his strong arms had enveloped her and lifted all gloom off her heart, despite what should have been something completely new for her and Clark.
No wonder her emotions had reached such a peak when he'd let his weight rest on hers and conveyed the strength of his love for her.
No wonder the man beside her was suddenly a complete stranger to her, when she'd just understood that he was a hybrid mix between her beloved and lost partner, and the man she'd been in love with ever since she'd first met him.
So alike, and yet so different from each other. Never seen together, yet the best of friends, according to either of them. Him. Whatever. Same physical presence, same strength of character, same gentleness, yet one was a mild- mannered, almost depressingly normal reporter, whereas the other leapt over tall buildings and stopped runaway trains, avoiding disasters on a daily basis.
One was a Kansas farmboy, and the other a Kryptonian alien.
And both were damned liars as far as she was concerned!
She was suddenly overcome with the violent need to punch something as hard as she could, but she resisted, fisting her hands and tightening her lips to keep from lashing out at him. Whirling away from him, she marched straight back to the bed and bent down to retrieve her sweatshirt from the floor, pulling it on to cover herself.
It was getting difficult to block out her discomfort at the thought of how willingly she'd let him divest her of it only minutes earlier, and how natural it had been for her to stay half-naked in front of him. Right now, she felt so exposed to him; at some level, she couldn't bring herself to admit that it was the same man who had kissed her so enthusiastically, and who was now so distant, so foreign to her. She'd let him into her heart, and it was too late to go back, even if she wanted to. Not that she regretted any of what had happened between them, but she was angry, so angry with him for keeping so much from her, and for so long. She'd shown more of her soul to him than any man in her life had ever seen before; she'd let him comfort her, careless for her weaknesses as long as he was beside her. She'd trusted him completely, only to discover that she'd never really known him at all.
A year and a half spent at his side, working with one part of him every single day, interviewing the other when she was lucky, and she'd managed to miss such an obvious thing as a cape and a pair of tights hidden by a damned pair of glasses and a colourful tie!
She turned around briskly to face him where he sat, unmoving, his hands numbly lying on either side of him, his eyes having followed her through the room almost probingly, yet showing only weariness, and, she could perceive, a plea for her to understand.
Understand? What was there to understand when he'd spent his entire time deceiving her, *twice* as much as any other man had ever lied to her? To think she'd been dumb enough to cry over the death of a man she thought was the only person she'd really come to depend on, and was discovering too late that he didn't deserve her trust any more than any of the other people she'd encountered in her young but already extremely betrayed life.
"So?" she asked expectantly, putting challenging hands on her hips, her words emerging cold and sarcastic. "Did you decide to come back from the dead? Or did you fake it all?"
His reaction was startled, and he immediately shifted his eyes from her inquisitive glare, shaking his head, and — she knew — shying away from her. Running away while he still could, she grunted inwardly, just like he'd always done each time things got a little too intimate and his identity was threatened.
"Come on, Clark," she snorted, bitterness taking over her need to yell at him. "You obviously hold all the answers, so please do explain. I'm *all* ears."
"I'm not Clark any more, Lois. Clark was shot in front of dozens of people, and there's no way he could have survived that."
"I *know* that!" she exclaimed, unable to keep her anger in check any longer. "Don't you think I've been replaying that scene over and over in my head for the past few hours? Not only because of all those questions they asked me back there, forcing me to relive my partner's death until I couldn't talk or even think any more, but also ever since I came home and had to face my life without you! Only to discover that all this time I hardly knew you at all! But that obviously didn't bother you too much, did it?"
"Lois, *you* are the person who knows me best. You even know things about me that I never told anyone else."
"Sure! Like how you spend half of your time wearing tights and a cape to save the world?"
She heard him sigh, a drained sound almost like a groan, but he didn't reply to her question. Not that any answer he could give her would be satisfying, she mused crossly.
"You're trying to deny the truth *now*?" she asked, her voice quivering with pent-up fury when he didn't make any attempt to confirm her accusation.
Her muscles were sore with tension, she was on her way to developing a headache, and she wasn't far from storming out of the apartment, but something was preventing her from doing what she knew would be an impulsive and foolish move. She'd almost lost him tonight, and his death had helped her realise that she couldn't envisage her life without him. She'd been remorseful that it had taken her this long to acknowledge how much he meant to her, and she'd even accepted the strength of her love for him, regretting the many times when she could have told him how much he meant to her.
Right now, he was there, he was real, very much alive, although visibly tired, and she struggled against the reflex that incited her to run away from him. Whatever made her want to walk out of his life, the pain she'd experienced the previous evening while torturing herself over unspoken feelings and wasted time reminded her that she needed to try and understand. Understand him. Understand what had pushed him to wait so long before letting her know that he wasn't the Clark Kent she'd fallen in love with. Or worse, why he'd let her think he'd died in such tragic circumstances.
"I'm not denying anything, Lois," he finally replied in a weak but determined voice. "There's no need to hide the truth from you any more."
"Which would imply there was a need for that before?"
"Yes…well, no…I don't know." He sighed and ran a hand on his tired face, rubbing at the bridge of his nose. "I was just waiting for the right time to tell you and —"
"We were seeing each other every single day!" she cut him off harshly, unwilling to hear the rest of his argument, which, she was sure, didn't hold water. The mere fact that he was trying to justify himself was driving her to the brink of rage. "You had plenty of opportunity to come clean!"
"It wasn't that simple…"
"Yeah. It was much easier to wait until you didn't have any other choice but to explain. Was that the famous chance you were waiting for? Why couldn't you tell me who you really were before tonight? We were working alongside each other, spending entire evenings together, and I'd even started to — " She stopped herself in time before she revealed her feelings for him. She couldn't tell him that now, not when the man she loved had never really existed but in her imagination. "Unless, of course, you didn't plan to tell me at all…" She let the thought trail and eyed him suspiciously, watching for his reaction.
"I did plan to tell you!" he retorted immediately. "I'd been planning to tell you for some time," he repeated weakly, heaving a sigh and lowering his head, visibly aware it held little value as an excuse.
"For *some* time? When, Clark? What were you waiting for?"
He got up abruptly, abandoning his defensive stance for a more determined expression. He approached her, his hands coming around her waist and pulling her to him. She offered little resistance, and he noticed the spark of barely hidden desire in her eyes before he spoke up again.
"This," he said simply, cupping her face and touching his lips to hers in a kiss conveying all of his love for her. "I was just waiting for this."
He released her, shivering when he heard her barely hidden moan of frustration as he broke off and resumed his earlier position on the window seat. "And I wanted to tell you. But I was afraid that you wouldn't give me another look once you knew."
"Excuse me?" she asked hoarsely, shaken by the intensity of his kiss.
Channelling her renewed desire for him into more revolt against his deceit, she glowered at him, determined not to let him get away with any lame reasoning, or worse, any more attempts to distract her from her point by sweet kisses and words. It might have worked with any other woman, but not with Lois Lane. She'd met enough smooth talkers in her life not to let herself be softened by any feeling she might have…at least, she hoped so, even if the warmth spreading through her body was still clouding her mind and making it extremely difficult to think clearly.
"You know perfectly well what I'm talking about, Lois. Superman visibly had some power over you that was missing in Clark."
She gasped, touched at the heart by his accusation. How dare he insinuate something so insulting, so outrageous, so…
She had shown her attraction to the superhero in a rather unequivocal manner, that was for sure. She'd thrown herself at him, and wouldn't have expressed too much reluctance if he'd encouraged her any. On the other hand, she'd started off by ignoring Clark, or worse, insulting him, never missing an occasion to express her contempt towards the 'hack from Nowheresville', as she'd meanly nicknamed him, giving their relationship a bumpy beginning.
"But I didn't know it was you!" she protested vehemently, refusing to let him get the last word. "How did you want me to see you when you were hiding from me? You never let me into who you really were, you never let me see the *real* you."
"You *were* seeing the real me, Lois. Clark was the real me. I've always been Clark Kent," he went on forcefully when she shook her head. "Ever since my parents found me in a field near our farm and decided to raise me as their son, I've been Clark Kent. When I arrived in Metropolis and applied for a job at the Planet, I was Clark Kent. When I saw you storm into Perry's office and felt this strong emotion that never left me since then, when I fell in love with you, I was Clark Kent. Superman, on the other hand, is just someone I created a year ago so as to keep some semblance of a private life, and keep those I loved out of any possible danger. He's not me."
His declaration had the effect of a bomb, and she gaped at him in stunned silence for a few seconds.
He'd been in love with her for as long as he'd known her…and she hadn't seen…or had refused to see what was happening. Her heart warmed up at the thought that their semi-conscious but heated encounter had not been born from a simple attraction on his part, but real, deep feelings that hadn't faded with time or discouragement. Clark had never given up on her, even after she'd mistreated him so badly. His love for her hadn't eroded, becoming stronger the more he got close to her.
She frowned, suddenly aware of his use of the past tense to talk about himself. "Was?" she enquired, raising her eyebrows and prompting him to explain.
"Was," he confirmed stubbornly. "Clark Kent is dead."
"So…if Superman isn't you, and Clark doesn't exist any more…who are you?" she enquired softly, edging herself closer to him.
He raised his head towards her, his gaze piercing the shadows and reaching through her soul. "No-one," he answered in a sigh, looking away as quickly as he'd turned towards her. "No-one at all."
There. Now she knew everything there was to know about him, and none of his awkwardness had disappeared. On the contrary, he felt naked and vulnerable under her harsh stare, and no sympathy was filtering through from her distant attitude. Not that he'd expected her to be ecstatic about the news he'd just landed on her, but he certainly didn't need her to slam more guilt onto him.
It sounded as though she was convinced he'd spent the past year and a half enjoying every minute of his deceit, laughing behind her back and revelling in some game of a double identity, whereas he'd been struggling with the problems it created in his life, and the hatred he sometimes felt for himself when he had to fool his closest friends to keep his Clark persona safe from the public attention received by his alter-ego. What did she think, that his life was a bundle of fun where he enjoyed the advantages of hiding behind two characters so that no-one could find out who Clark Kent really was?
Not that it mattered much any more, but he had hoped that she would react less strongly and consider things from his point of view instead of accusing him of betrayal right away.
He felt her presence at his side, and watched her sit a few feet away from him, though he noticed with a grimace that she stayed clear of all physical contact with him. Kissing her had probably been a wrong move that had scared her more than anything else. It had been impulsive, like a need he couldn't control. And she'd responded to the caress of his lips on hers, which didn't really help him in keeping a clear head about what was happening between them.
"You're still you," she ventured tentatively, and he noted with a flicker of hope that her anger seemed to have lessened, replaced by a comforting tone which responded to his earlier anguished confession. "Isn't that what should matter? Of course," she added when he didn't react, "it's gonna take some time and adjustment for me to get used to you being both Clark and Superman, and you didn't exactly make it easy for me."
"There's no need, Lois. You don't have to get used to something that's pointless."
He raised his hand, stopping her protest. "I'm dead, Lois. Officially, I was shot at point blank range, with no chance of surviving, especially without any immediate medical assistance. The police report says so, and unless you're planning to build a time machine — assuming such a thing would actually exist, and you'll forgive my extreme scepticism about the possibility — and change the past, Clark Kent won't ever sit again at his desk in the Daily Planet newsroom, if you get my drift," he finished, surprised at his own aggressiveness but unable to hold it back.
He was tired and confused, and her allegations weren't helping him. She didn't seem to be aware that it was useless to stay mad over something that wasn't an issue any more. He knew she had every right to be angry, and he wasn't denying that, but he wished she would postpone her irritation to a later time.
"Clark, I want you to tell me something." Lois's now calm voice interrupted his thoughts, and he watched, fascinated, as she scooted closer to him and rested her head against his hands where they were hugging his knees. "If what you claim is true," she continued in a murmur when he nodded encouragingly, "and none of this doesn't matter any more, why didn't you tell me right away that you weren't really dead?"
"I don't know. It just seemed like the right thing to do. I thought about telling you, but what was the point when I couldn't *share* my secret with you any more?"
"I thought I mattered to you," she replied faintly, her voice barely audible.
He swung his feet to the floor, adjusting his position so that he could wrap his arms around her and pull her to him. "But you do!" he said fiercely. "More than you'll ever know."
"Yeah?" she asked, somewhat unconvinced. "So much that you let me think you were dead? That I'd lost the only person who'd ever come to mean something to me, and to top it all, that you'd died protecting me?"
"I didn't plan it to happen that way. Barrow wasn't supposed to use his gun."
"Well, big news, Clark! Bad guys don't carry guns just to look scary. They generally plan to use them if needed."
"And what was I supposed to do? Watch that guy take you with him to God knows where, let you run such a risk? Why would I have done that, Lois, I *love* you! I can't bear the thought of losing you," he finished in a whisper.
She turned stiff in his embrace, and he opened his mouth to apologise, wondering if he'd scared her and wishing he'd never repeated the extent of his feelings for her, but she laid a finger on his lips, stopping him.
"Then why is it so difficult for you to understand what I've been going through since last night?" she asked softly, her quiet tone strangely devoid of any blame. "You wanted me to bear that particular thought, Clark. You let me think you were dead."
"What did you want me to say? Hi, Lois, hope you're all right, oh, and by the way, I'm not as dead as it looked?" he mimicked, exasperated. "There wasn't any other solution, and you know that. If I hadn't faked my death, my secret would have been out, and I hope you understand how dangerous it would be for my family. And for you, and just about any other person who ever approached Clark Kent. It had to remain a secret."
"I suppose it means that I would still be in the dark if last night hadn't happened?"
"I…I guess so," he stuttered, embarrassed by his confession.
She raised her eyebrows. "And you expect me to believe you when you say you'd been planning on telling me?"
"Then why didn't you tell me sooner, Clark? I understand the need for you to keep your Superman identity a secret, I'm not as stupid as you may think!"
"I never said that!" he protested vehemently.
"What did you think, that I would rush out of here and print the ultimate Superman story? The one that would warrant me the Pulitzer, as well as ruin your life?"
"Well, I —"
"You did! My God, Clark, look at me!" she exclaimed, appalled at how little trust he had in her. "You've known me for over a year, now. Did I ever give you the feeling that I would betray you?"
"That my career was all that mattered to me?"
He hesitated before answering, meeting her steady gaze with embarrassed darts of his eyes. "Well, when I first met you, you were kind of…*obsessed* with your work. And even more so since Superman stepped onto the public stage."
She faltered, shamefully remembering how her out-of-bounds enthusiasm had brought her to steal a story from Clark. He'd had his revenge and forgiven her almost right away, proving to her that he was worthy of her respect and showing more sympathy towards her than she would have expected from someone she'd treated so badly. She nodded slowly, lowering her eyes and blushing, aware that he did indeed remember where her obsession with the superhero had led her.
"But I wouldn't have revealed anything important to you," she said after a minute during which she did her best to compose herself. "I never told anyone about the kryptonite, for example. Not even you. I mean Clark. Oh my…" Her voice suddenly weakened and a trembling hand reached up to cover her mouth while the other lay on his shoulder. "*You* were shot with a kryptonite bullet."
He looked down at the hand resting on him, on the exact spot where, less than four months ago, his blood had boiled under the burning provoked by the presence of the lethal rock from his home planet. He saw the memory of that dreadful afternoon reflect in her eyes as she remembered how she'd had to remove the deadly projectile from his body, and how he'd clutched her fingers to bite off the cry of pain when the kryptonite had been pried out of his torn flesh.
His hand moved to cover hers in a tender gesture, and he locked his gaze with hers, nodding. "Yeah. It was me. And you saved my life, that day."
Her head was spinning with new revelations; it was too hard to reconcile events she'd lived with Superman and with Clark, separately, and consider them under the new light brought by what she now knew.
It was Clark who'd almost had to leave Metropolis when accused of being the cause of the mysterious heat wave that had hit the city the previous winter. It was Superman who'd suffered from amnesia when the Nightfall asteroid had been threatening Earth. It was Clark who'd saved her so many times from a certain death. It was Superman for whom she'd been convinced she didn't have any romantic feelings.
It was Clark whom she'd told she'd love him if he was an ordinary man without powers.
"I was really awful with you, wasn't I?" she whispered awkwardly, appalled by her deductions. She was grateful for his support as she leaned against his chest, and yet she was feeling suddenly uncomfortable around him. She was in the arms of someone who was both a stranger and the person she knew the most intimately. She snuggled up against his chest, listening to the strong beating of his heart against her jaw, reuniting what she knew of Superman and trying to make it fit in her best friend's life, figuring that it was the Clark she'd always known who was gently hugging her and running his hand through her hair in a tender caress.
"Never," he denied, the sound of his voice resonating through her and reaching for her heart. "You helped me so many times, and in more ways than you could imagine."
"By proving to you how I could love the ordinary man in you?" she asked bitterly. "I don't think so."
"Okay, so that one time, it didn't exactly help. But it's done and over with, Lois. And I wasn't really open with you that night, because the woman I was in love with considered me as her best friend, and nothing more."
She laughed bitterly and tightened the grip of her arms around his waist as another thought struck her. "So that was another lie?"
"That you weren't really in love with me," she murmured drowsily, stealing a small kiss on his chest.
"Yeah." He chuckled, nuzzling her hair and hugging her closer. "I guess I wasn't very good at keeping *that* a secret."
"You could say that."
He sighed into her hair, gently rocking their clasped bodies. "I'm sorry, Lois. I should have been less self-centred, and told you as soon as I could that I was alive and physically well," he murmured. "I hadn't imagined that you would…" He trailed off, realising how harsh he'd been with her.
"That I'd be so devastated by your death?" she completed with a hint of sarcasm in her voice. "Surprised I'm not the monster of egotism you thought I was, Kent?" She raised her head to meet his gaze. "Like it or not, Clark, I do care for you, much more than I ever thought I would. Like it or not, I ended up counting you as an important part of my life. Like it or not, I fell in love with you…"
She gasped, probably as surprised at having expressed her feelings for him as he was to finally hear them, and he closed his eyes, letting the power of her words invade his heart. "If you knew how long I've been waiting for this moment," he murmured a few seconds later, brushing his knuckles on her jaw. "Wished that you would see me, the *real* me, and love me just like I love you."
Lois started to lean in for another kiss, but he put a finger on her mouth, stopping her with a regretful shake of his head. "But it never happened."
"It's happening *now*," she protested, frowning in puzzlement. "Clark, I almost lost you tonight. I mean I thought I had lost you. And even if it still hurts to know you kept me in the dark for so long, I don't want to waste any more time."
"I know. And considering the way things turned out, I wish I had ignored your infatuation with Superman and told you anyway. But it's too late now."
She pulled away from him and stared directly into his eyes. "Too late? What do you mean, too late?"
"Lois, I'm *dead*. I don't exist any more."
"Well, you feel very much alive to me, for a dead man," she said with a chuckle, prodding his bare chest and letting a finger idly trace the path of an imaginary S symbol and linger there.
"Clark Kent is dead," he retorted, stubbornly ignoring the ticklish sensation provoked by her playful touch. "Even assuming you'd want a relationship with me, there's no way it could work. You couldn't be in love with a man who isn't supposed to be alive."
"Hang on a minute, buster," Lois said defensively, scrambling to her feet and glaring at him. "Let me get this straight." She started to pace in front of him, flailing her arms around as she animatedly recapitulated the evening's events that had led them to this situation. "You let me think you were dead — even for a short amount of time, it seemed like eternity to me. You end up telling me your biggest secret, even though I'm not sure that was in the plans at first, am I right? No, don't answer that. So you expect me to understand why you kept it from me for so long, and when I finally start to forget about how mad I'm supposed to be and come clean with my…my attraction to you, all you can think of saying is: 'It's too late, Lois'? What am I for you, Clark? Someone whose feelings you can play with?"
"Never!" Clark objected vigorously, interrupting her tirade. "But what kind of relationship would it be, Lois? Do you really think it could be fulfilling to either of us to have to hide? Constantly? Never being able to be together in front of the outside world? Can you imagine what kind of life we'd have?"
"A life together," she whispered, sitting on the edge of the bed, her fingers unconsciously playing with a corner of a pillowcase.
She'd surprised herself with her heartfelt plea; never would she have thought that she'd want Clark at any price. Certainly not for the price of giving up on everything and staying in hiding for the rest of her existence. But she cared too much for him to let him go now that he was back in her life.
Feeling his presence at her side, being connected to him the way she was now, it was something she'd wanted for so long. Even if the realisation of her love for him was fairly recent, it seemed to her as if she'd been subconsciously aware of it ever since he'd been her friend. Something she'd rejected at first, but that she couldn't imagine living without from now on.
Clark didn't respond except for a small sigh that made her ache for him. There was nothing she wished for more than to be held in his arms, but she felt as if he was emotionally drifting away from her.
Her eyes met his, and as if he'd read her thoughts, he abandoned his refuge on the windowsill to join her on the bed, at first tentatively putting an arm around her shoulders, then pulling her close when she leaned onto him. Letting his regular breathing soothe her for a few seconds, she looked up at him with a steady gaze. "Clark, we're going to work this out. Together," she said firmly.
He stared blandly at her for a moment. "How, Lois? How do you plan to make people believe that I'm not lying dead in some seedy part of Metropolis?" he asked dejectedly. "You know I wish we could find a way out of this. More than anything. But —"
"But we *can*, Clark," she insisted obstinately. "Even if we don't figure something out to bring you back officially, you're still here." She shifted to sit on his lap and noticed with a certain amount of satisfaction that he immediately adjusted the wrap of his arms around her. "With me. We can overcome this. We can stay together, you can hide at my place and we can —"
"Lois, we're not talking about a temporary situation, here," he interrupted. "We're talking about living in hiding. Forever."
"Never being able to spend time together outside."
"You can always fly us somewhere remote if we want to spend a night out," she replied, distracting herself — and him — by trailing her lips along his collarbone. She sensed a small shiver under her mouth, and, encouraged by the tremor she heard in Clark's voice as he kept on countering the reasons why it was a really bad idea, she intensified the caress, drowning in the sensations until his words became a jumbled mess on the borders of her mind.
"Always…always watching our back…for fear someone discovers I'm still alive…and you're hiding me," Clark added, fighting against the tug of his desire for her. "If it ever got out, you'd be in incredible danger, and so would my parents, and Perry and Jimmy and just about anyone. We can't take that risk," he finished, taking her by the shoulders and pulling her off him to stop the deliciously tempting path that her actions had been taking.
Lois showed him a frustrated face at the interruption, letting him in on her disapproval. "We'll be careful. *Extremely* careful."
"You'd have to lie on a daily basis, and —"
"Isn't that what you've been doing for the past year and a half?" she protested, revolted. "Lois, I'm really sorry I have to leave you here in the middle of this mess, but I *have* to return this video to the store or I'll be out of three dollars," she aped, reminding him of one of his favourite explanations to cover his disappearing acts. "Lois, you don't know how sorry I am, but I *completely* forgot to pick up my dry cleaning and I'd better run before the shop closes for the night. You used that one twice last week, Clark," she remarked. "Can't believe I didn't figure you out before," she muttered under her breath.
Clark squirmed uncomfortably. "Okay, so I wasn't any good at excuses. But I *hated* lying to you. When I had to leave to fix some disaster or catch some lowlife who thought he could mug some defenceless citizen with impunity, I always remembered how hurt you'd looked when I'd left you. I know guilt isn't enough of an apology for what I did, but I wasn't running away from you, Lois. You know that, now."
"You have to admit it darned well looked like it."
"Yeah," he nodded slowly. "I guess so. But it was never like that. It was always a case of bad timing. I never ran off because I was afraid of intimacy, or because I didn't want to fall in love." He chuckled bitterly, shaking his head as he remembered how dumb-struck he must have looked when Lois had barged into Perry's office and he'd been introduced to her, catching only her name through the muddle of his future editor's words. From the second she'd entered the room, he'd been on a cloud, lost in his fantasy that someday, she might see more than a Kansas hick and let him take her out on a date. "If I'd been afraid of that," he added, "I'd have had to flee as soon as I saw you."
The raw emotion she heard in his voice was enough to send her over the edge and she felt tears prickle at the corner of her eyes. She fought them, knowing she couldn't let him win this time; she couldn't face what he was saying, nor admit that it was too late for them. And she hated him for making her feel so guilty at the time they'd wasted, at the time *she* had made them waste.
"Would it have changed anything?"
"If we'd been together before this evening, if I hadn't been so stupid as to turn you down or stay blind to what was between us, would you be pushing me away right now?"
"I don't know. It's not a situation I'd envisaged and —"
"Would it?" she insisted stubbornly.
He sighed, taking his time to answer, pondering a hypothetical decision that couldn't possibly have any meaning now. What *would* have been different if he'd been involved in a romantic relationship with Lois? Would it have been best to stop everything, give up on what he shared with her? Deep down, he already knew the answer, and he couldn't lie to her. "I guess not…" he finally stuttered. "I don't think I'd have found the strength to —"
His words were swallowed in her kiss as she impetuously joined her lips to his, shoving him roughly against the headboard, and leaving him completely disoriented as she broke off the passionate and unexpected encounter. "Then what's different, now?" she breathed against his mouth. "Why don't you want to give us a chance?"
Thousands of sensations were coursing through him, her kiss having him left dizzy, making him want to throw caution and sensibility to the wind and just give in to how she made him feel. It was so new, so unexpected to be intimate with her, to feel the caress of her lips on his, know that he could claim it without worrying about being rejected. Lois loved him. It had taken so much time for them to get to that point, to get past the high barriers she'd erected between them, and be together. And now that it was happening…he had to turn her down…because it was the reasonable thing to do, even if it killed him to give up on her. "It's for the best, Lois."
"The best? The best for whom exactly?"
"Both of us."
"As if you knew what's best for me," she growled. "You've got to stop trying to control everything, Clark."
"Look at what happens when I don't control everything. Look at tonight. What's left of my life, now? Nothing! Nothing at all."
"*I* am still here," she said forcefully. "And we can get through this. Lying isn't so difficult — *you* should know." She ignored his outraged expression and went on. "We can do this, Clark. It'll take some adjusting, and we'll have to be careful, true. But in return —"
"You don't know what it is to have to hide constantly, Lois," Clark cut her off impatiently. "You don't know how it feels to have to lie to people you care for, to always fear for your secret, to be careful even around your closest friends. You wouldn't even be able to tell the truth to your parents; they couldn't know about me."
"I'm aware of all that, Clark. Do you really think I'm jumping into this unprepared?" She was exasperated with his countering all of the reasons why getting involved with her was impossible. He looked doubtful, but she raised her hand, disrupting any disbelieving remark. "All right, I know what you're thinking."
"That this is all very new to you," he argued. "An hour ago, you didn't know if I was even alive."
"Strike that, Clark. I was certain you were *dead*," she snorted. "And you don't have to rub it in."
"But right now, you're talking about hiding me and I'm not quite sure you realise what it would mean for us. You'd not only have to cope with my being Superman, but also with another secret. The secret of Clark Kent's existence."
"I'd have to cope with your secret even if we weren't in this situation."
He sighed but didn't reply, and let her rest her head on his shoulder. Her soft breathing was brushing against his neck, making his skin tingle and his decisiveness waver. Feeling her body pressed to his made him even more aware of his need for her, and he was tempted to give in and take the chance she was offering him.
The few minutes he'd spent in her arms, before he'd regained his consciousness and had worked up the courage to tell her the truth, or rather, before he'd been confronted with a situation where he didn't have any other way out that would be fair to her, were only making it worse. Now that they'd admitted their feelings for each other, it was even harder for him to make her understand that nothing was possible between them now that his human persona had officially died.
If things had gone in the way he'd always dreamt of, it would have been the beginning of a lifetime of love between them, promising only happiness in a blossoming relationship with Lois; they'd probably have dated a little, then moved in together, and maybe, someday, got married and have a family.
But now, the future held only darkness for him. How could she ever want to stay with him under such circumstances? How could she cope with the pressure of such a secret against the outside world? He'd been hiding his true self for most of his existence, until he'd managed to separate his two identities and concentrate his entire life in his Clark persona. Superman's nature compelled him to keep this entity remote, which meant he couldn't transfer his privacy to the public man he'd become when he'd started wearing the tights.
His life would be very empty now, because there would be nothing to share with anyone. His existence would be filled with disasters and rescues performed in the nick of time, as well as the occasions when things didn't turn out for the best and he couldn't save everyone. When it had happened in the past, it was only his real life, as Clark Kent, that had helped him ease back into normality and forget the nightmares troubling his sleep for weeks afterwards.
He knew Lois would have been just the right person to confide in, that she would have listened to him during the hardest moments of his life, and that she would understood without words, what he needed most. She was the only woman he'd ever wanted to share everything with, and as she snuggled close to him, he wished so much that she was right and they could overcome his human death.
"Would you plan to live with it?" he asked softly, shivering as Lois stirred her body against him.
"Hmm?" She sighed drowsily against him and raised her sleepy face towards him. Stray locks of hair were falling against her forehead and he tenderly brushed them away, feeling a surge of protectiveness towards her.
"When you say that my death isn't a problem," he explained. "Do you mean you'd live with it?"
"As long as we're together, yes." She shifted in his embrace and knelt on the rumpled sheets, wrapping her arms around his neck and looking into his eyes with a solemn expression.
"But we can't invent a new name and a new identity for me."
She sighed. "No. We can't."
"And you can't have an open relationship with Superman."
"And I don't want to, Clark. I love *you*, the real you. I mean, the whole you. Not just Superman. And I know he's just a little part of who you are; just a way for you to use your powers. But you can use them as Clark as well, can't you?" she asked, frowning as the thought struck her.
"Yes, the powers don't have anything to do with the suit. So I used them in my everyday life, before I became Superman."
"To do normal stuff?"
"Yeah," he replied with a low chuckle. "Sometimes I shouldn't. I can't tell you how many times I broke my alarm clock, or how I can make a disaster with eggs if my mind isn't on what I'm doing."
"You use your powers while cooking?" she enquired with an innocence that amused him.
"Sure. All the time!"
"Now I know why you're better at the culinary arts than I am; at least *I* don't cheat… Wait a minute…even at the office? Like when your coffee's too cold, one little burst of heat vision, and there you go, better than the micro-wave?"
"Uh…you could say that."
She shook her head and rolled her eyes. "Tell me how I never noticed," she muttered under her breath. "God, Clark, you were displaying your abilities right in front of my nose, and I didn't see anything!"
He squirmed uncomfortably, realising how awkward it was for her to realise he'd managed to fool a reporter for a year and a half. She was probably wondering how long it would have lasted until she figured it out, and he couldn't blame her for her annoyance at the thought.
"It was made for that purpose, Lois," he said softly, trying to put all the reassurance he could into his voice. "I didn't want anyone to discover the truth about me. Just like I wanted to be the one to tell you, when the time was right. And I'd been planning on telling you for almost as long as I knew you, because you were the woman I wanted to spend my life with."
She sighed downheartedly, but the pout on her mouth eased off a little at the sweetness of his words.
"And you know," he added as an afterthought, "I would never have thought about taking on a secret identity if it hadn't been for you."
"Oh geez, great! So, now, you're telling me I'm responsible for my own stupidity?"
"Not stupid! Never, Lois!" he exclaimed, appalled that she could even think that of herself. "Telling me to bring a change of clothes to the office was such a clever solution, and *I* was stupid never to have thought about it before. You created a very effective disguise, and the fact that no-one ever found me out proves how great your idea was."
"Don't try to make me feel better, it's useless."
"I'm not trying to ease the hurt; unfortunately, that's not something I can do, although I dearly wish I could. But it's the truth. When I arrived in Metropolis, after years of travel all over the world where my sole purpose for moving from one place to another was to run away from the suspicions I'd arisen around me, I knew I didn't want to leave again."
"And if you had a choice…you'd want to leave now?" she asked shyly.
"If I had a choice, Lois, not only would I stay, but I would also ask you to marry me and spend the rest of your life with me."
Clark was asking her to marry him. Or rather, he would be if he could still be Clark Kent and protect his private life like he had been ever since he'd taken on his Superman persona. But marriage… She didn't know if he was serious or if she should call his bluff, but he certainly didn't look like he was kidding, if she went by the spark of fear reflected in his eyes.
There had been earlier hints on his part that should have clued her in, too, when he'd talked about being in hiding forever, or declared that she was the one woman he wanted to spend his life with. But hearing him propose, *really* propose, was another thing entirely. It was a confirmation of his feelings for her, the pinnacle to an already emotional night. And also an unfortunate reminder that nothing was possible between them, considering the circumstances.
The image of Clark's death flashed through her mind for the umpteenth time that evening, and she automatically took her partner's hand in hers, needing to feel his warmth to reassure herself that he was really alive and lying beside her. As Clark twined his fingers with hers and brought their joined hands to his lips, peace returned in her soul, and she started inwardly at the change in her emotions, no longer held in the snare of the nightmare that had stalked her. She wasn't part of it any more…it was drifting away, like the memory of a bad dream that had never been real.
She reached for him, holding her breath in apprehension for fear he'd push her away, but he pulled her into his embrace without hesitation, and she rested her head on his chest. It had never happened. Clark had never really died, and she could relax serenely in his arms, rocked by his steady breathing and the soft murmur of his voice as it whispered sweet nothings and heartfelt regrets into her ear, a velvet caress.
She closed her eyes, revelling in the feel of his lips on her hair and the almost ticklish sensation of his fingers on her neck as they drew an idle path of tenderness on her skin. The arm encircling her waist tightened its hold on her, and she snuggled up against Clark, imagining what a lifetime with him would mean.
Lois had never been one to dream of marriage, other than in a fairy tale kind of way. She'd been convinced that true love was as much of a legend as Cinderella, and her little girl's fantasy had quickly faltered when faced with the experience of life. Love wasn't a reliable feeling…it came around unexpectedly, threw havoc into your existence and disappeared just as fast, leaving only ruins and a broken heart in its wake.
She'd fallen into the trap way too many times, and all of her relationships had ended in tears and regrets. She didn't want to go through that again, and knowing she was in love with Clark made her even more vulnerable. Hurting her was way easier when he meant so much to her…
…and yet. She couldn't envisage her life without him. Being separated from him, if just for a few hours, had seemed like a lifetime to her. Unbearable. She'd felt so lonely before her friendship with him, and she hadn't even consciously realised it. She'd spent many evenings curled up alone on the couch, drowning what she was sure was groundless melancholy in a tub of ice cream and sniffling in front of the latest fashionable soap opera. Her loneliness had become such a routine that she hadn't seen what she was missing, until Clark had come along and toppled over her forever-single state of mind.
Being friends with him had been safe…too safe, even. She'd revelled in the status quo, refusing to see the obvious depth of their relationship. Even after the ordeal of her almost-marriage with Lex, she'd found reassurance in Clark's withdrawal. He was just a friend to her, nothing more…
Right. Sure, Lois.
Why she'd been so blind kept puzzling her. She'd been wrong about a lot of things, starting with Clark's secret identity, but if there had been something she shouldn't have missed, right from the start, it was his love for her. All the signs had been there, from the tender, longing looks he regularly gave her when he thought she wasn't looking, to the more visible gestures attesting to their closeness, yet she hadn't noticed anything, or rather, she'd refused to read anything in the numerous signs of his strong feelings for her, and the way she reacted to him.
She did love him. Being in his arms and relaxing in his soothing embrace only confirmed what should have been obvious to her right from the first time she'd seen him. There was something about Clark Kent that made her implicitly trust him, despite what had looked like a betrayal on his part. And now that she'd had a few minutes to process the information, she understood his reasons for keeping it from her. It still stung that he hadn't told her earlier, but she knew her behaviour towards Superman hadn't made it easy for him either. She believed him when he said he would have told her if their relationship had evolved, too; after all, wasn't that what he'd done tonight? The circumstances had certainly been a bit extreme, but he'd cared enough for her not to find another one of his lame excuses.
Not that he'd had much choice, she reflected dismally, but his earnestness sure had soothed her concerns. Clark didn't enjoy lying to the world, and he did it only by necessity. The picture of what he would have to deal with, were his secret ever to come out, was too easy to imagine. He would have no private life; reporters would be door stepping him every day, rummaging through his trash cans in search for the least little fact about Superman's activities when he wasn't performing some feat; and anyone who'd been close to Clark Kent would be in great danger. She now understood the superhero's reluctance to show himself affectionate towards her; any closeness to him was a sign of weakness in his Kevlar armour that would be exploited to the full. Hadn't it been what Jason Trask had tried to do when he'd thrown her out of a plane, or tied Clark's parents in their barn before setting it afire?
Of course, she was no Jason Trask, and Clark should have known she would never have revealed any information that would cause him harm — at least, if she'd thought enough about it and considered every possible consequence of her actions. She supposed he'd had a right to doubt that back in the beginning of their relationship, when she'd have done anything to get a scoop about Superman. But he should have realised she wasn't as impulsive as she looked, despite what she'd told him on his first week at the Planet. Or if she had been, she had changed over the months she'd spent with him, his caution influencing her in more ways than she would have wished for.
Perry had been right to team them up; his experienced editor's eye had seen right away that their partnership was a matter of complementing the best in each of them. They hadn't destroyed each other, as she'd feared; on the contrary, their respective skills had been very useful, and they'd come to rely on each other in many situations…
…because they trusted each other.
Except for this one little fact of his life that Clark had hidden from her until tonight. She sighed against his chest, watching the goose bumps produced by her cool breath ripple on his skin. He was sensitive. So sensitive. Physically and emotionally. She didn't think she'd ever known him to be so vulnerable as he'd been tonight; his anguish was almost painful to see, and for the first time since she'd known him — *both* sides to him — she felt how heavily the weight of his secret was bearing on his shoulders. Everything he did was conditioned by who he appeared to be, and in the end, he didn't know himself who he really was.
Oh, he was certainly closer to the Clark Kent she'd known than to Superman; he'd grown up and lived most of his existence as the Kansas farmboy immersed in the big city. But there was more to him that he didn't let his colleagues and friends see. She'd been taken aback to learn how casually he used his powers, but it made her aware of a rift he was trying to fill whenever he was alone.
The images of both men were so foreign to each other that it was hard for her to reconcile them, and she supposed it wasn't easy for him either to cope with both identities on a daily basis. They shared many aspects, though, and she recognised Clark's influence in who Superman was. And vice versa. But up until tonight, they'd been two different entities, completely separate from each other. To many people, including her, Superman was the symbol of perfection. Mistakes were alien to him, and he had no right to mess up, especially when any fault on his part could result in someone's death. On the other hand, Clark Kent sometimes appeared clumsy, although intent on making up for his faults. He was normal. He was human. Who he really was, was a combination of Clark's country innocence and spontaneity, and Superman's incredible powers and responsibilities.
Clark had had to grow up while learning to appraise his differences and accept them, before he'd come to appreciate what good he could do thanks to them. Before she'd known his secret, Superman's abilities had seemed obvious to her, but now she could imagine how hard it must have been for him to discover that he was stronger and faster than any other kid. And while flying might look exhilarating to any human person, it probably reminded him even more that he hadn't been a normal child.
Normality. That was what Clark had been looking for all his life, and creating a separate identity for Superman lulled him into the belief that he could be like anyone else. Lois had to hold back a chuckle when she imagined the perfect little scheduled existence her partner probably dreamt of: get a stable job, go to some ballgames with friends every now and then, and most of all, meet someone, fall in love, get married and have a family.
Like everyone else.
She grew serious again, insecurity tugging at her heart. Was she able to give him what he needed? She'd never known stability in her life; her childhood had been split between her father's disinterest and her mother's alcoholism, and her relationships had always ended in disasters. Men had treated her like a possession whose feelings didn't matter, and if the idea of real commitment hadn't exactly appealed to her until very recently, it was partly due to the filthiness of her ex-lovers' attitude.
Clark, on the other hand, was willing to give her everything he had, and share with her everything he was. When he was talking about his feelings for her, she perceived their extent and trusted their reality.
Raising herself on her elbow, she turned her head to meet his gaze, struck by the honesty she saw there. He really did love her, and he was offering her forever if she would have him.
The answer was so easy, when the rhythm of her heart was mingling with his, when every one of his kisses was setting her afire, when his caress was burning her skin and clouding her mind.
"Did I hear that wrong, or did that sound awfully like a proposal?" she asked when she'd finally absorbed the meaning of his statement, smiling a little shakily and aware of the hardly hidden impatience showing on his face, among the insecurities and natural fear at having bared his soul to her. His expression was longing, and she held his gaze, knowing what she would say would determine her future. It was now or never, and she didn't want to waste any more time in prevarications. His hand shifted, leaving its hold on her waist to cup her cheek in a gesture conveying the solemnity of the moment, and she dropped a kiss on his wrist, encouraging him.
"I guess it did," he said self-consciously, lowering his eyes. "Or it would be if I could…ask that."
Lois's smile broadened, and she stretched her body against his, moulding herself to him and lowering her lips to his. "If you could?" she enquired innocently when she pulled away, denying him more attention as soon as she'd felt him respond to her soft touch. Her resolution not to let him give up was stronger than the events that seemed willing to keep them apart, and she was indomitable in convincing him to help her find a way to be with her, even if it meant having to use drastic measures.
She grinned, feeling suddenly playful at the implication of what any resistance on his part could lead to, and convinced that she would get her way in the end. Despite the apparent hopelessness of the situation, her confidence in the feelings they shared for each other were stronger than the rest, and she found herself more optimistic than she'd ever been. Clark wasn't really dead, which meant everything was possible.
His reaction to her half-teasing behaviour was immediate, a startled gasp escaping him at her taking-charge attitude, and she knew she'd won. The signs of his surrender were all here, and victory was within reach.
"If I could," he whispered weakly, his eyes pleading for mercy.
Faking nonchalance, she drew him into another kiss that left them both breathless, and as she released him, he whispered his love for her in a sigh against her mouth, leaving her trembling at the strength of the emotions assaulting her.
"I can't ask you that, Lois," he repeated stubbornly. "Sooner or later, our secret would be discovered, and you would be in incredible danger."
*Our* secret. He'd talked about it as if it wasn't just *his* secret any more, but something that belonged to both of them. Something they shared. A special bond between them.
"I'm used to being in incredible danger, Clark," she argued back. "And remember I'm a lot better at lying than you are. So if you managed to keep such an important part of your life a secret from everyone — and from *me* — for so long, I don't think it's such a difficult thing to do. Besides," she added when he frowned doubtfully, "think about it. If you become just Superman where will you go when you aren't performing rescues? You can't exactly keep Clark's apartment and live in it, unless you want to arouse suspicion."
"No, I can't," he conceded. "But I guess I would find some remote place where I could rest…"
She raised a doubtful eyebrow. "In Metropolis?"
"That's a point."
"And unless you're planning on broadening Superman's activities to the whole world, forgetting about petty mugging to only deal with what's broadcast on the news, you have to live here. Unless that superhearing of yours works with very long distances, too?"
"Well, I guess I could find some solution…" he replied hesitantly.
"And who would you talk to? How would you cope with being just Superman? I've seen what he faces on a daily basis, Clark, and I admire him…*you*, for being so strong when faced with evil, death and destruction."
"I have to," he murmured quietly, avoiding her gaze.
"Helping dig out the victims of a landslide in Chile, catching a mugger in the nick of time before things turn lethal for their victim, knowing the lives of so many people can depend on how fast you react, or what attitude you adopt, can't be easy," she continued. "And I don't want you to face that alone any more. If you stop having a life beside your rescues, I don't see how you'll be able to do it any more. Leading your life as Clark helps you put everything into perspective, and to forget, if just for an instant, that you're special, doesn't it?"
He nodded faintly, closing his eyes and breathing more heavily. She knew he was fighting long held-back sorrow. He wanted to show a brave face and not let anyone see how much it affected him.
Overcome with protectiveness towards him, she brushed her knuckles on his jaw, crashing the last barriers to his soul, and as the first of his tears surfaced, baring his vulnerability, she held him close to her, murmuring soothing words to him and letting him draw the strength he needed from her.
For a long time, he clung to her, remaining silent except for the occasional gasp as he quietly sobbed into her hair, and she murmured soothing words to him, encouraging him to let himself go. She couldn't help but wonder how long he'd swallowed down his distress, and for how long he'd hold his emotions under control if he went on with his plan to be just Superman and nothing more, and she involuntarily shivered as she imagined what he would have to face, with no possibility to find refuge in the more normal life he led as Clark.
When he drew back, looking miserable and apologetic at the same time, she bent down to take his lips in a loving kiss, and his tense grasp on her loosened a little, becoming less desperate and more tender, like the aftermath of a storm.
"I'm sorry," he whispered against her mouth before turning away to wipe a self- conscious hand across his face.
"Don't be," she replied, her heart melting at his defencelessness. "I think we both needed this."
He nodded, smiling gratefully at her, and she responded in kind. "I should have known right away that you'd understand Superman better than I do, Lois."
"Yeah? About time you realised that," she replied, playfully poking his ribs in a feeble attempt to ease the strain she could still feel in Clark's attitude. "So…no more talk about letting go of this?" she asked, suggestively brushing her lips on his.
He shook his head ruefully. "I guess we could find a place where it would be secure enough for us to live. But you'll have to promise me that the second it gets too difficult, you'll tell me."
"Clark — " she started to protest, but cut herself off with a resigned sigh. "I guess it's a no-compromise situation?" she asked, faking annoyance, but realising that it was yet more proof that Clark was putting her well-being before his.
"Uh huh," he confirmed her suspicion. "Believe me, Lois," he added, growing serious again. "It won't be that easy."
"I know. I'm ready to take the chance," she replied vehemently. "If only I hadn't been so keen on pursuing this investigation regardless of the risks…"
"No, Lois. Stop beating yourself over it. You couldn't have known. If there's one person responsible for this, it should be Emil Hamilton."
"Yeah. I'll teach him to play with DNA," she snarled dangerously. "Couldn't let Barrow and Capone stay dead, he had to resurrect them. Makes you wonder if the guy has brains."
"Well, look at the bright side of things, honey. Thanks to him, you're here. With me."
She grinned coyly, thrilled by his endearment and what it implied. "You're right. What matters is that we're together, now. I *need* you, Clark. I might have been blind about this for a long time, but enough is enough. And I don't want to pay the price for the rest of my life because I was too scared to tell you that I love you."
He smiled despite his weariness and drew her into another kiss, showing her without words that he needed her just as much.
"You know…I'll never tire of…that," she giggled between playful tugs of his lips on hers.
He pulled away, letting his forehead rest against hers and sighing heavily. "I love you, Lois." The steadiness of his gaze as he whispered those three meaningful words would remain emblazoned in her memory for the rest of her life. She held back a sob, suddenly hit by what this man was offering her.
She sniffled, laughing through tears of relief and happiness, and she closed her eyes, letting the sensation of his fingers wash over her as they tenderly brushed her cheeks. This time, there was no deception lurking under his declaration. This time, there was no apprehension in her commitment to him, and her usual fear of being hurt was replaced with a quiet sense of belonging and well being when she was in his arms.
She raised her head to meet his gaze, looking at him solemnly. "Make love to me, Clark," she sighed out in a tremulous voice.
Uncertainty spread on his face, and for a second, her old fear of rejection reappeared, but Clark didn't let it settle in. "I just wondered if it wasn't too soon," he explained softly, the warmth of his words melting the last of her insecurities.
She made a face, frowning down at him and letting out a reproving groan. "You know, Clark, when I suggested we live together, I didn't imply I'd buy a second bed," she hinted, amused at his embarrassment. "Better get used to sharing the quilt right now. What side do you prefer?"
He swiftly rolled her over, silencing her surprised cry with a deep kiss, as he settled his body hard atop hers. "This side," he growled before joining his mouth to hers again.
His lips moved to her earlobe, his hot breath sending shocks of pleasure rippling through her. His soft nibbling intensified and his fingers found the hem of the sweatshirt she'd pulled back on earlier — a move she deeply regretted, now. Clark's hands worked their way up her back, their ticklish caress leaving her weak and shivering.
Her body surrendered to his soft touch, her need to become one with him growing with each of his kisses and whispered words of love, and she muffled her whimpers against his shoulder.
Their lovemaking was not half-conscious, this time. The dreamlike atmosphere that had surrounded the first kisses they'd shared had left behind a complete certainty that they were reaching for something they'd both been longing for. It was no trick of her overactive imagination that was bound to fade out, no illusion that would disappear when she woke up.
She suddenly felt her lover slide the tip of a finger down her spine, and she arched her back, the motion pressing her even more closely to him. His startled intake of breath was more than she could bear, and her eagerness got the better of her. "Hang on…" she gasped, tearing her lips away from the dangerous path they'd been taking.
She gently pushed him aside, struggling out of his embrace and ignoring his moan of protest as she sat up, and she divested herself of her sweatshirt in one swift move before lowering herself back onto him. The electricity passing between them at the first contact of her bare skin against his shocked them both, and she blindly groped for his hand, grasping it tightly in her own as she let control slip away from her.
Her consciousness melted as she relaxed against him, and her breathless pleas became more frantic with each of his kisses, her body melding itself against his and growing limp in his embrace as passion overcame her, making her dizzy with desire. He seemed completely attuned to her reactions, responding to her needs before she was even aware of them.
Her free hand slid down the side of his chest, shifting its course to reach between their entwined bodies and flattening over his stomach until her fingertips disappeared under the elastic waist of his boxers. She felt his entire body tense in anticipation, and as she looked up at his face, he caught his lower lip between his teeth, holding back the breath coming in raging gasps and keeping his eyes tightly shut.
Squeezing the hand she was still holding in a reassuring gesture, she stopped the torturous path of her fingers to let her mouth trail down the length of his chest, alternating tiny strokes of her tongue and feather-like brushes of lips against his skin, careful to let her hair sweep a lazy path across his throat.
He moved restlessly under her, his fingers tangling in her hair and drawing her head back to his. His breath mingled with hers, filling her with life, and she drowned the last of the desperation she'd endured the entire night through in their kiss. The feeling of loss that she'd experienced for most of the previous evening faded away as she was reminded again that Clark was still very much alive. It wasn't even the resurrection that had brought back Capone and his gang, since her partner and now boyfriend had never died at all.
Her train of thought screeched to a halt, and she stilled, suddenly blanking out her lover's tender attentions.
"Hamilton!" she exclaimed, brutally pulling away from Clark and scrambling to her feet.
A quick glance at him informed her that her sudden outburst had confused him completely. "Hamilton," she repeated, unable to stay calm at the sudden course of her thoughts and the plan whose outlines she was already working out in her mind.
Clark raised himself on his elbows and eyed her suspiciously. "What, Hamilton?"
"Hamilton played with DNA!"
"I know that. He should have found another hobby."
"No! Clark, you don't understand!"
She reached for her sweatshirt and started to pull it over her head, but Clark caught the piece of clothing, frowning in disapproval and tugging her back towards him. "What I understand is that you were thinking of some scientist while I was kissing you," he growled with a hint of annoyance creeping into his tone.
"Wait, you're gonna love it in a minute." She laughed, unable to hold back her excitement any longer. "If Hamilton was able to resurrect Capone, Barrow, Dillinger and everyone, why couldn't he help Clark Kent, too?"
He frowned, and she watched his visage change as he processed the information and worked out the gist of her brilliant idea. She grinned broadly at him, proud of her discovery and squealed in delight when he jumped out of the bed and enfolded her in a hug, effortlessly lifting her off the floor and demonstrating his joy in every possible way.
"C'mon," she said when the exhilaration of the moment had passed. Getting somewhat decent in a few seconds, she marched decisively through the apartment, stopping in front of his closet. She frowned when faced with nothing more than his casual suits, but he reached a hand over her shoulder, throwing her a teasing look when she started at the clicking sound that followed his move.
The panel at the back of the closet slid open, and she reached for one of the suits hung there tidily. "So that's where you hid them, huh? Guess it's a safe enough place," she snorted, thrusting the costume at him. "Put it on," she instructed when he showed no intention to take the initiative.
"Yes, now. We're going to the Planet, but you can't get there as Clark until Superman finds Hamilton's files and makes up for the mess he made with my life. *Our* lives."
"We're going to the Planet?"
"Clark…you seem a little out of it here."
He brushed a hand through his hair and shook his head in dismay, winking teasingly at her. "You gotta admit that's a major change of plans. What happened to getting used to sharing the bed?"
She cupped his cheeks and kissed him hard. "It's only postponed. We have a lifetime to do that." She released him before he could join his lips to hers again, and she patted his chest, reminding him of the task at hand.
"I guess we do," he acknowledged before spinning into the suit. He grinned when she gaped at him, and she shook herself, putting the mystery of his technique to the back of her mind while promising to herself that she'd ask him how he did that later. She was certain that their life together would hold no routine, and that she would be happy with him for the rest of her existence.
Taking his hand in hers, she pulled him towards the door, turning to him one last time. "Oh, and by the way, Clark…" She winked conspiratorially, drawing him close to whisper in his ear the words she'd been itching to say for endless minutes…or maybe for as long as she'd known him. "The answer is yes!"