By Raconteur27 <Raconteur27@yahoo.com>
Submitted: July 2002
Summary: In a single moment, a hero is destroyed, a friendship is torn apart, and a partnership is broken. Clark has to struggle with the burdens that defeated a Superman and Lois learns that there's no way to save someone unless they want to be saved.
All comments, good or bad, welcome. I don't own any of the recognizable characters in this story, but you already knew that.
The idea for this story was planted in my head thanks to a debate on Zoomway's old boards regarding whether or not Superman could ever kill a person. (You can read the debate here: http://www.zoomway.com/boards/ubbhtml/Forum1/HTML/000624.ht ml ) The story deals with issues that might make some readers uncomfortable or squeamish, but for those who stick around to read it, I hope you enjoy it.
Trask removed his sidearm from its holster, holding it up as he paced around Clark's crumpled form. Exhausted from the effort of destroying the Kryptonite, Clark lacked the strength to defend himself.
"Now, let's see. Who should go first? You, or the human traitors who have sheltered you all these years?" Trask smirked down at his victim before turning toward the shed.
Suddenly his weakened state became immaterial. No force on earth would keep him pinned to the ground while Trask threatened his parents. Summoning up the strength possessed by all creatures when facing certain death at the hands of a merciless predator, Clark lunged at the man, preparing for the impact of the metal slug that would no doubt come speeding out of the barrel of Trask's handgun. Instead, the only contact he felt was his own body colliding with Trask's. The older man was sent tumbling to the ground, but Clark was still in far worse shape.
Trask picked himself up while Clark remained in a formless heap on the ground, struggling to breathe. Knowing that far more than his own life was at stake, Clark staggered to get back to his feet.
"You're right, Superman, I don't need a gun," Trask said with that same arrogant smile on his face. Clark had no idea what happened next. He felt several blows compound the pain that was already coursing through his body, and once again, he was sprawled on the ground. He desperately clawed at Trask, dragging the other man to the ground with him. They locked up in a grappling hold but Trask got the better of him, slamming him against the wall of the shed. Clark felt the shed window behind him shatter before he staggered forward. He managed to land a few punches before Trask found a weapon: a shovel. Trask hit him once with the spade of the shovel and then again with its wooden handle. Trask knocked the wind out of Clark before he managed to wrestle it away from Trask. He shoved Trask hard, causing him to stumble. Clark looked at the shovel in his hands in disgust and dropped it to the ground. He advanced on Trask and landed a solid punch before grabbing Trask. They tumbled into the pond, breaking through the wooden railing on the dock, still struggling.
The cold water was a shock to his body, but it barely had the chance to register; his muscles were in so much pain that the cramping up due to the cold wasn't likely to have a noticeable impact. He gasped for breath as he tried to keep Trask from holding him under water. Finally, he landed a left hook to Trask's solar plexus. As Trask doubled over, Clark, summoning up all his strength, hit Trask with a devastating upper cut, causing the older man to fall backward, up against a large rock. Clark gripped Trask's shirt tightly as he raised his fist.
The older man looked up at him, his eyes cold and emotionless. "Go ahead, kill me, I would have killed you, Superman," he spat, clearly resigned to his fate.
Clark angrily shook his head and threw Trask back into the water. How little this man understood him. "That's not how I work," he growled. He slowly slogged his way through the waist deep water and out of the pond, his body cold and aching.
A police car pulled to a halt fifty feet in front of him. He felt his foot kick something loose on the ground and he looked downward. He looked up again to see the squad car door open and Lois jump out of the car. Her smile was suddenly replaced by a look of terror.
"Clark!" she cried out.
Time slowed as he looked over his shoulder. He saw Trask, a small pistol in his hand. Lois's cry was still ringing in his ears as Trask turned and moved his gun, which had been trained on him to aim at Lois instead. A cruel smile spread across his face. "It only seems fitting that I kill her first," he announced loudly.
An eternity seemed to pass in the span of a heartbeat. He saw Lois's face, pale with terror. He wanted to cry out, but couldn't. Something wouldn't let him. He heard the deafening click as Trask cocked the hammer of the miniature pistol. He looked down again and lunged at the object he'd kicked moments ago: Trask's other gun.
The sound of the shot firing hurt his ears. It echoed endlessly in the still air. He watched open mouthed and numb and still on his knees as Trask gripped at his throat. Clark heard the older man gasp for air as he dropped his little revolver and sunk into the pond.
Moments passed in which Clark was still too shaken to even draw a breath. He heard sirens in the distance, but the sound was muted by the ringing in his ears: the sound of that shot. He looked down at the implement of death in his hand: Trask's handgun. His fingers trembling, he dropped the gun on the ground, backing away from the horrible thing and wiping his palms on his jeans, as though the act could get rid of the blood that was clearly on his hands. He stared at Trask's motionless body in the pond and scrambled to get to his feet.
"Oh Clark," he heard Lois gasp. She started toward him, but he could only stare at Trask. Stumbling, he ran into the pond, toward Trask's body. It took only a moment for him to confirm that Trask was dead. He stepped away from the dead man's body, nearly falling as he did.
The other squad car came to a screeching halt as he did. He waded out of the water as if in a trance, oblivious to Rachel Harris, jumping out of her squad car with her gun drawn, his mother and father rushing toward him, and Lois, standing, watching him. Her face was pallid and drawn. He heard her whisper his name but he did not acknowledge her. He drew in and let out a shaky breath as his knees started to buckle underneath him.
He would never be able to remember what happened in those next few moments. He would never remember that it was Lois who was immediately by his side, helping him stand as his beaten and battered body protested against the effort. He would never remember Lois and his father helping him into the house and up the stairs. He would never remember that after his father helped him undress and get into the shower, Lois had waited outside his bedroom door, desperately wanting to ensure that he was okay. He would never remember her tears or her apologies or her thanks.
All he would remember was the sound of that shot ringing in his ears and the image of Jason Trask, clutching at his wound and sinking into the water as he breathed his last.
Lois sat at the kitchen table, her hands wrapped around a mug of tea. She stared unblinkingly across the table at nothing in particular.
"Lois, honey?" Martha asked as she placed a gentle hand on Lois's shoulder.
Lois nearly jumped out of her skin at the simple contact. "Huh?" she asked, disoriented. "I'm sorry, Martha, I guess I'm just a little shaken up still."
"It's all right, we all are," Martha said as she took a seat next to her.
"Clark saved my life," Lois whispered almost inaudibly. She turned to the older woman. "Did you see his face when it happened?" She had no idea how to explain what had happened or how it was that she felt something in Clark die as he pulled that trigger. She didn't need to see the look in his eyes, or his pale and pained expression. She felt the tears prick at her eyes again. She could see him rushing to see if Trask was still alive, could see him wading out of the pond, his face blank. He hadn't responded to her or anyone else.
Clark had saved her life by taking someone else's. He couldn't compromise on right and wrong, she knew that. Her partner's sense of ethics was too strongly developed for that. She hoped that she'd read him wrong; she hoped that that dull, listless look in his eyes was just the shock and not something worse. She was afraid. She was afraid that something wonderful inside her partner had died. She was afraid that she had killed it.
Clark pulled a T-shirt over his head and leaned against his dresser. "I killed a man, Dad," he whispered hoarsely.
Jonathan stood in the doorway, a pensive expression on his face. "He had his gun trained on you, son, he would have killed you and Lois and then gone after us, if you hadn't."
"I didn't even think about it, I didn't think about anything. I just fired; I didn't stop to aim or to think about trying to disarm him. I didn't care where I hit him. I didn't care if I killed him or not." He wanted to feel something, anything, but he didn't. He was numb.
"You didn't have time to think; you just reacted and because you did, we're all still here," his father said quietly as he came stand next to Clark.
"If Lois hadn't yelled out…" Clark shook his head.
"You've been through an awful lot. You should rest, son."
Clark merely nodded and tried not to flinch as his father pulled him into a hug. "I'm so glad you're all right," his father said.
Lois heard heavy footfalls on the steps. The slow thud of each deliberate step echoed in the otherwise quiet house. She looked up to see Clark, his eyes still dull and emotionless, walking down the stairs. She was surprised to see him down here. It had been hours, but she hadn't expected him to come back down at all tonight. Sheriff Harris had left a while ago, having taken statements from everyone except Clark. Jimmy was also at the police station, getting information and phoning it in to Perry. Clark shuffled into the kitchen, apparently oblivious to his parents and Lois, who had been sitting there for the past few hours.
"We told Sheriff Harris that you'd go see her later," Jonathan explained. He leaned against the counter and sipped his tea slowly.
Clark merely nodded. "Are they going to press charges?" he asked flatly.
Lois couldn't help but gasp.
"Clark, honey, of course not!" his mother exclaimed.
"You did nothing wrong, son," his father said calmly.
Clark turned to face them. The look in his eyes frightened Lois. She'd never seen that look on Clark's face before. She cast her gaze downward, suddenly afraid of making eye contact with him.
"Dad, I killed a man," he said sharply. His words cut her. Clark had killed someone to save her life. She tried to swallow around the painful mass in her throat.
"In self defense," his mother protested.
"That man was going to kill you, Lois, your mother, Wayne Irig and me, son. I know it will take some time to accept it, but you only did what you had to." Absently, Lois realized that Clark's normally calm demeanor must have been the result of Jonathan's influence. "You should be resting now, we can talk about this a little later, when we've all had a chance to calm down."
"This is going to be the same tomorrow as it is now. I killed another person. I didn't think about it, I just did it." His voice, like his eyes, was dull, betraying no emotion.
"You did the only thing you could do, Rachel knows that, we know that. You did what any person in your position would do," Martha said quietly.
"I can't just hold myself to the rules that everyone else follows, you know that!" he exclaimed. Lois was confused. Sure, Clark had a pretty rigid set of ethics, but what did he mean by that?
"Clark," Jonathan began. Father and son exchanged a cryptic look.
"I have to hold myself to a higher standard, or I'm no more than what Trask said that I am."
"Honey," Martha started. "You know that's not true."
"But it is," he replied gravely. "I want people to trust Superman. If he doesn't hold himself to higher standards, then he's nothing but a vigilante. Superman is not judge, jury, and executioner."
Lois had been quiet until this point, but she was completely lost now. Why was he talking about Superman? "Clark, what do you mean?" she asked.
"Jason Trask isn't the only person who died when I pulled that trigger. I killed Superman, too."
Lois was more confused now than before. What was Clark talking about?
"Clark!" his mother began.
"I was Superman," he said flatly as though it was a perfectly normal thing to say. "Now do you get it? I mean I'm sure you're disappointed. What do you think of your hero now, Lois, now that he's a killer, now that he's just me?" He shot her a cruel look and stormed out of the kitchen. She felt her heart stop. His words and his anger had tore straight through her and it hurt. God did it ever hurt. He hadn't tried to hide the accusations. They were written plainly on his face. She'd destroyed Superman.
She tried to say something but was too stunned. She stood up and watched him walk away. "Clark!" she cried out after him, but he didn't acknowledge her. The front door slammed as he made his retreat. She felt Martha's hand on her shoulder and she turned, mouth agape, to look at the older woman now standing beside her. Martha gave her a sympathetic look, but she couldn't hide the apprehension in her eyes. "Oh my god," Lois murmured.
Clark was Superman? Superman was Clark?
Clark was Superman.
Superman was Clark.
Clark had saved her when she was thrown out of the plane.
Clark had swallowed the bomb on the shuttle.
Clark had lifted that same shuttle into space.
Superman was the 'hack from Nowheresville' who'd been foisted on her at work.
Superman was the one she'd told about Claude.
She'd stolen Superman's story, about Superman.
Her thoughts were quickly spiraling off into absurdity. She'd gone square dancing with Superman and had bid her life savings on Clark Kent at a charity auction. Superman had won her a teddy bear at the Corn Festival and had jumped at a silly paper cut.
Paper cut? Wait a minute, Superman didn't get paper cuts.
"But he can't be," she murmured aloud. "I saw him get a paper cut yesterday. Superman doesn't get paper cuts." Clearly, Clark was delusional. That was it; Trask must have hit him quite hard. He wasn't thinking straight, that was all.
"It was that damn meteor," Jonathan said acerbically. "It made him vulnerable, took away his powers."
"What?" she asked incredulously. "Do you mean Trask was right about the meteor?" She looked at the Kents in disbelief. Surely they weren't serious.
"Yes," Martha said simply. "Clark is Superman, and that rock Trask had nearly killed him."
Lois fumbled with the back of her chair before she was able to pull it away from the table. "I think I need to…" she began before collapsing into her chair. "Sit down." She stared straight ahead at absolutely nothing. This couldn't be happening. Clark and Superman couldn't have been the same person. 'Yeah, sure, Clark's the before, Superman's the way, way after,' the irritatingly little voice inside her head taunted her. Clark was the strongest man in the world and Trask had almost killed, him, would have killed him and all the rest of them, if Clark hadn't shot him first. Superman, her hero, the one perfect being in the universe, had done something she never thought he would do. He had killed a man.
And he'd done it to save her life.
She buried her face in her hands; this was just too much to deal with now.
"I'm going to make sure Clark's okay," Jonathan said softly. She didn't look up, but she could hear his footsteps as he left the kitchen.
Clark stood outside the shed, surveying the area. The sun had set and it was cold. He felt himself shiver. The police department had cleaned up pretty quickly; the only reminders of his fight with Trask were a broken window, a splintered wooden railing on the dock and a few busted bales of hay. They'd poured a neutralizer in the pond and had taken away the body.
The evidence of death was gone. He supposed the presence of Hank, Rachel's deputy, along with the known fact that Trask was trying to kill them all, had quickly dispelled any notions of needing to investigate this as a possible homicide.
But it didn't matter how you spun it or what semantic rabbits you pulled out of a magic hat. Any way you sliced it, he'd killed a man today. He'd taken a human life. In a split second, he'd snatched away another's existence. Trask no longer existed because of him. He had extinguished a human life. It didn't matter that Trask had been an evil maniacal man; it hadn't been Clark's right to kill him.
He had taken a life in his hands and snuffed it out, just like that. No thought required. Staring out at the now calm glassy surface of the pond, Clark could still Trask, clutching his throat; there had been a lot of blood—on his neck, on his hands, in the water —too much blood. It didn't matter that it was gone now. To his eyes, the pond was still tainted with Trask's blood.
Tainted with the blood that he'd spilt.
Clark looked down at his hands. The hands of a murderer.
He never thought he'd use his hands to destroy life. It certainly had not occurred to him when he'd created Superman that he would one day use these hands to take a life. It was funny; they didn't look any different now than they had before.
But that brought up another unwelcome thought. Superman. There was no question in Clark's mind. He could no longer be Superman. It didn't matter whether or not he wanted to continue being the Man of Steel. He could no more be Superman than he could bring Trask back from the dead.
Clark stood outside the shed, surveying the area, with nothing but the faint reminder of burnt gasoline in the air and the echoes of a gunshot only he could hear.
He heard footsteps behind him and reluctantly turned around; it was his father.
"Clark? Come on inside, son," his dad said gently, placing a hand on his shoulder. Clark didn't turn to look at him. "It's getting cold and you need to rest and get your strength back." He was relieved but not surprised that his father didn't insult him with questions about whether or not he was okay.
"Is she all right, Dad? Is Lois all right?" Clark turned to face his father. He needed to know that she was okay. He'd almost lost her today. It wasn't the first time he'd saved her life, but it was the first time when he was without his powers and not in control of the situation and it had scared him. He'd never been so afraid before.
"She's shaken up pretty badly," Jonathan replied. "Confused about all the stuff you said, too."
Clark nodded miserably. "I shouldn't have done that, I know," he admitted. She was probably furious with him— angry about his deception, but probably a lot more upset over the fact that he'd so thoroughly destroyed the hero she'd created. She didn't realize it, but he wouldn't have had a clue how a super hero should behave if it weren't for her. It was her image of what Superman should be that he strove to measure up to. Superman was a paragon of virtue, even if he was taking his cues from a certain intrepid reporter.
Clark had figured out the rescuing and crime fighting stuff on his own, but he'd been unprepared to have his creation be made into a celebrity and a role model. For that, he'd needed Lois's vision of what Superman was supposed to be. Superman had taken on a life of his own, with his own ethics — a mix of Clark's beliefs plus Lois's projections.
The result was simple to explain yet tough to uphold. Superman was incorruptible; he'd never lie or cheat, and he certainly would never kill, under any circumstance. His morals were absolutes. It was black and white; there was no room for gray in the middle when you were the most powerful being in the universe. Superman had to live by moral absolutes because people had to be sure they could trust him. He couldn't expect people's trust if they questioned his ethics. He had to prove to them that he posed no danger to them, that his own morals were constraint enough over his powers.
He'd shattered that trust today by proving that Superman's morals were not absolute. They were relative and situational and there was a whole lot of gray between the black and the white. He'd destroyed the hero and the monster that had been raised in his place was nothing more than a vigilante. The world did not need to be terrorized by an omnipotent, jack-booted thug who took the law into his own hands.
He'd killed Lois's hero twice. First, by exposing him as nothing more than a simple man and second, by showing her the flaws in that man.
"Come on," his father said again, intruding on his dismal thoughts. Wordlessly, Clark turned around and followed Jonathan back into the farmhouse. He wondered if he could make it through the door and into his room without seeing Lois. He couldn't face her now, couldn't face the anger and the hurt he knew he'd see in her eyes.
Lois sat awake in the Kents' living room, unable to sleep. It was nearly three in the morning and she had to leave for the airport at seven. Clark was not going with her. She had already talked to Perry about what had happened. He'd spoken to Jimmy earlier that evening, so the news was no surprise to him, but she figured he would need confirmation from her. He'd also taken her off the story, claiming she was too close to it.
For the first time in her career, she hadn't had the heart to protest. Instead, she'd called Eduardo as Perry had instructed and told him the details of what had happened, leaving out everything about Clark being Superman, of course.
She had felt that painful lump in her throat come back with a vengeance, first when she told Perry about the shooting, and again when she'd described it to Eduardo. Neither man had been able to believe it. She finished giving Eduardo the details and gave him the number for the Smallville Police so he could get the information from the officers and the police reports, and hung up the phone.
In the interceding seven hours, she hadn't been able to do much of anything. Martha and Jonathan had tried very hard to help her make sense of an extremely confusing situation. She knew that they'd been through a horrible ordeal, too, but their patience and support seemed ceaseless. She'd done nothing wrong, they insisted, and she'd saved their boy's life, they pointed out gratefully. As much as she wanted to believe them when they said that Clark wasn't angry with her, but instead with his own powerlessness in that situation, she knew better.
Nonetheless, she was grateful for their kindness. Lois had insisted to Martha that she'd take the couch, giving Clark the space and quiet he needed. When Martha and Jonathan went off to bed, she remained downstairs. She couldn't concentrate on anything-the television, a book, the newspaper-for more than a few minutes. She was tired, but restless and anxious. She couldn't sleep; she couldn't even close her eyes.
Her stomach was churning painfully. All she could think about was Clark.
She was pretty certain that the shock of realizing that Clark was Superman had definitely not set in. She was still having a tough time reconciling the two very disparate images and personalities into just one man. Under any other circumstances, she would have had so many questions. Who was he really? Where did he come from? Why was he here? She'd never suspected that Superman had a secret identity, and now that she knew, she couldn't even tell which had been the secret identity-both personas had been so real to her. But that point was rather moot. Superman was dead. Clark had said it himself. There weren't two men anymore, just one. She'd annihilated one man, and whether the other would recover from the wounds she'd inflicted remained to be seen. Clark hadn't said it aloud, but she hadn't just killed Superman, she'd obviously wronged him severely as well.
She looked up at the ceiling, wondering if he was asleep. She doubted it. Lois had seen the tortured look in his eyes. He wouldn't be sleeping tonight either.
Clark sat at the base of the stairway, his head in his hands. He sighed and looked up; Lois lay on the couch, tossing and turning fitfully. He felt an ache deep inside, gnawing at him. Clark watched her shift restlessly. It was almost dawn and he hadn't even tried to sleep. He watched her, knowing it would be the last time he would see her in a while. He wasn't planning on being there in the morning when she left.
He could see the pained expression on her face. "Clark," she murmured, still asleep. She called his name again and again. He stood up, unable to see her in pain. Clark wanted to go to her, to do something, anything, but he knew there was nothing he could do. He took a step forward, more out of instinct than intent. He stopped. If she woke and saw him there, well, he didn't want to think about the ramifications. Clark knew that she wouldn't want to have anything to do with him.
He'd almost lost her today—almost lost her in a situation that was all his fault. He'd brought the people he cared about into danger. He was so grateful that she was still alive, but he knew that she wouldn't be able to forgive him for destroying Superman. He grimaced at the irony of the situation; he'd told her everything, had told her who Superman really was, and now she'd probably never know how much she meant to him. But none of that mattered. She wouldn't want anything to do with him, knowing that her once perfect hero was really nothing more than a bumbling, green reporter from Kansas.
He was angry, not at her, but at having failed her so colossally. She would never look at him the same way again, as Clark or as Superman. She might have treated the two very differently, but she was starting to trust Clark as well, he'd seen it in these last few days. That trust was gone, though. She had set such impossibly high standards for Superman. She'd thought him to be perfect and he was nothing of the sort. But if he wasn't perfectly good, he couldn't be trusted, not with his powers.
He'd been cruel to her earlier and he'd had no right to behave like that. She'd done nothing wrong. She wasn't at fault for his destruction of Superman; he'd done it all himself. But at that moment, he'd been incapable of sparing her from his own self-loathing. Somewhere, deep inside, he was angry with her, but through no fault of her own. She'd called out, distracting Trask and causing the madman to turn his gun on her instead. If only she hadn't seen Trask, if only she hadn't yelled out, Trask would have killed him instead. Hank was already there and Rachel was on her way; he told himself that they could have disarmed Trask and taken him into custody. If only Trask had shot him instead.
Lois had saved his life but hadn't been able to save her hero.
But if Trask had shot him, Superman would be dead anyway, he'd reminded himself. Dead in body, yes, but not in spirit. Superman would have died, virtue intact. He wondered if his parents would have told Lois the truth then. At some point, she would have figured it out herself, she was too smart not to. He wondered, if he had died, would she remember him fondly? Would she miss him at all? Would she still be angry with him, angry with him for making her believe that her hero was a demigod and not some lowly guy from Kansas?
He needed to derail his own macabre train of thought. He could ponder these same morbid ideas all he wanted and it would accomplish nothing. The sun was coming up and Lois would probably be awake soon. He'd told his father to say goodbye to her for him. As quietly as possible, he slipped out through the front door. He didn't want to be around when she left.
Lois sat on the plane, fighting the tears that threatened to spill. She'd said her goodbyes to Martha and Jonathan. "Tell Clark…tell Clark, I'm sorry," she had asked them.
"He wanted to come and say goodbye to you…" Jonathan began, clearly not intending to finish the platitude.
She had merely nodded. She had been up early, having dozed off sometime in the hours before dawn, and Clark had been gone.
Now, as she sat on the jet as it rumbled down the runway at Wichita Airport, she wondered for the thousandth time if he'd be okay, if he'd be able to get past what she'd done to him. Lois would be in Metropolis by noon and Perry had warned her against coming in, but where else was she going to go?
"Lois, I thought I told you not to come in here!" Perry exclaimed as soon as she stepped off the elevator.
She sighed. "I've got work to do, Perry," she explained, exasperated. Lois walked into the bullpen, silently noticing that everyone was giving her an even wider berth than usual. Ralph, the Planet's own slimeball in chief, caught sight of her and surprisingly looked down instead of giving her his trademarked sneer. The usually chatty research assistants, gathered around the coffee machine, were suddenly very quiet. Eduardo merely gave her a sympathetic looking half smile, while Cat raised an eyebrow at her and shot her a knowing look. What exactly it was that Cat knew, no one else, including Lois, seemed privy to that information.
Aware that just about every pair of eyes was on her, Lois made her way to her desk. She paused for a moment before sitting down, glancing at Clark's empty desk. Lois booted up her computer and pretended that she didn't notice that the normal din and hum of the newsroom was absent. Were they planning on going back to work soon, or were her colleagues going to spend the rest of the afternoon gaping? Jimmy shuffled over to her desk minus his usual enthusiasm.
"Hey Lois, is CK all right?" he asked.
"I don't know, Jimmy," she answered, knowing that the young man had grown quite fond of Clark. Clark had always treated him like a friend and an equal and in return Jimmy had admired and respected and genuinely liked Clark.
"Lois!" She looked up at the gruff sound of Perry's voice. "My office. Now."
Her shoulders sagged slightly. Perry sounded ticked and she wasn't sure she could talk to him at the moment. But it wouldn't do to keep him waiting. She walked into the editor's office, like a prisoner marching to her execution.
"Close the door," Perry barked as soon as she entered his office. She complied; knowing that behind that door was a newsroom of disappointed gossipmongers. Reporters had an innate need to know everything and took office gossip to a higher level than most other professionals.
Perry stood behind his desk, frowning. "What's up, Perry?" she asked, trying to sound calm and collected.
"Have a seat, Lois," he said, gesturing toward the beat up old couch in the corner. He sat next to her on the sofa. "Are you all right, Lois?" he asked earnestly.
"I'm fine, Perry," she said with a shrug.
"Huh. Well, I uh, I know you're probably mad at me for taking you off the story, but…" he started to explain.
"I was too close to the story," she finished for him. "I know. It was the right thing to do."
"It was?" he asked, surprised. "I mean I'm glad you can see that." He nodded slowly but said nothing more.
"Was there something else?" she asked.
"Oh, well, I spoke to Clark today," he began. "He's gonna stay in Smallville, at least for a while. I told him to take his time and put him on medical leave."
"Oh," was all she could say.
"I know I don't have to tell you that he was pretty shaken up," Perry continued. "But I think he'll be back soon and I told him his job would be waiting for him."
"Okay," she said softly, feeling a sudden sense of loss. It was as if the possibility of losing her partnership with Clark was only now dawning on her. She'd never needed a partner and she hadn't wanted one, but then she'd been assigned to work with a rookie reporter who had just fallen off the turnip truck as far as she was concerned, and suddenly, having a partner wasn't so bad, as long as that partner was Clark. She'd fought it at first, but she'd grudgingly had to admit that their writing styles complemented each other. He was smart and hard working, and most importantly, he wasn't intimidated by her.
He was the perfect partner for her because he could put up with her, he respected her, and intellectually, he was her equal. Sure, he was inexperienced and she thought, a bit na‹ve, but he was dedicated to his work and he had talent, real talent.
And now she knew that Clark Kent was so much more than what he appeared to be. Clark Kent had saved hundreds of people's lives. He'd saved her life, several times already. He was a hero and an icon, a larger than life personification of everything good in the world. He was hope.
Or at least he had been.
And then she'd destroyed him. She was so sorry. She had destroyed the one thing in the world that gave people hope. Clark Kent, the hack from Nowheresville, as she'd put it once, showing her prejudice and snobbishness, used to be Superman.
He also used to be her partner. Surely he wouldn't want to continue that, not after what she'd put him through. Their partnership was over, and she realized that she was losing more than just her hero.
She cleared her throat. "There are some leads I want to look into," she said. "Something I was working on before Clark and I…before we left for Smallville. I should get back to work."
Perry nodded in understanding. "Lois, if you need to take any time off…" he started.
She merely shook her head. "I need to work, Perry. I'll be fine." She left the editor's office and returned to her desk. Lois needed to work; she could always bury her troubles in her work. Whenever her personal life was in turmoil, she'd simply concentrate on her work. She'd been doing that quite a bit for the last few years.
Over the next few days, things at the Planet went back to… well, not normal, exactly, but back into a routine of sorts. The old Lois Lane was back: single-minded and completely focused on her work. But it wasn't the same as before. Before, her colleagues mainly ignored her and talked about her behind her back when they thought she was too engrossed in work to notice. Now, instead of indifference, she got looks of sympathy from some and looks of contempt from the rest. The newsroom seemed suddenly divided in half over some issue revolving around her and she wasn't happy about it in the least.
"Hi Lois," Cat said, gushing with sympathy, as she passed Lois's desk.
Lois merely sneered at her colleague. "What, no insult, no petty barb, today, Cat?" she shot back. Cat looked confused at Lois's retort. "What's with everyone?" Lois demanded. "Half the newsroom is treating me like I killed the class hamster, and then there's you, and all this, this niceness, why are you being nice to me, Cat? Why are you treating me like, like…" Lois's face fell. "Like I just lost my best friend," she finished flatly, slumping in her chair.
The sympathetic smile was back on Cat's face. "He'll be back," she said. "Give him a few days, he'll be back."
Clark spent the days after Trask's death wandering around the farm. He'd gone in to talk to Rachel at the police station. Trask's death had been ruled a justifiable homicide and the case had been firmly closed. Rachel had been forced to focus much of her energies on placating the Feds who had taken over the larger investigation into what exactly Trask was doing in Smallville. Rachel had told him in passing that everyone regarded Trask as certifiable and that the investigation was focused mainly on how a psychotic like him could get as far as he had before being stopped. There was little chance of anyone discovering anything concrete on the meteorite or Trask's theories.
Of course Lois knew, but there was nothing he could do about that now. He wasn't certain what she would do about it. His mother had told him that she and Lois had a fairly long conversation after he'd stormed out of the house. He hoped that despite his compounded stupidity, Lois would have realized the importance of keeping the secret; not for his sake, he couldn't have cared less what became of him, but because of his parents. Their lives would be destroyed if everyone knew.
Of course, it would put to rest questions of what had become of Superman, but he wondered which end was more fitting for the hero — having people think he'd simply abandoned Earth, or letting them know that their hero was a killer. If the truth came out, he'd probably be chased away, perhaps people would demand that he leave Earth entirely. He'd go, of course, he wouldn't try to defend himself, but he worried about what would become of his parents in that scenario. Would they be blamed for his actions, would they be seen the way Trask had painted them, as human traitors, harboring the greatest threat to humanity?
His parents. They'd been sympathetic, had given him space, and had let him know that they were there if he needed to talk to them, but he didn't know how to make them understand. They kept telling him that he'd done the right thing and that he'd had no choice. Clark wanted to believe them, but how could he? They were worried about him, he knew that, but he couldn't just turn off the guilt and the anger, not even for them.
He tried to work around the farm, to help out any way he could, but he just couldn't stay busy enough. His mind was always free to contemplate the exact moment when everything had gone wrong. When he'd destroyed his own plans and the hopes of an entire world. He remembered angrily confessing to Lois that he'd destroyed the hero she'd helped to build. He could only wonder how she was taking it, but he knew that had to be hard on her. He'd made a mess of everything, and every day he was being tortured for it.
As bad as the days were, the nights were worse. He hated the nighttime. Nightmares plagued his sleep. It was always the same horrible dream, over and over again. He was standing by the pond, facing Lois, his back to Trask. Sometimes his mind played it out exactly as it happened. The sound of Lois's voice calling his name, Trask's menacing expression as he retrained his gun on Lois, the pounding of his own heart, the deafening sound of that gun, the bullet finding its target, Trask sinking into the water, his eyes open, his mouth agape, his hand covering the quickly draining wound on his throat, the blood in the pond, clouding up the water; his mind's eye conjured up every detail.
Sometimes it was different. Sometimes he missed or Trask fired first and he'd find himself rushing to Lois's side to catch her as she collapsed to the ground. She would never say anything. She'd just look at him, as if questioning why-why had he failed her?
Sometimes it was her blood on his hands instead of Trask's.
Those dreams never went any further than that. The excruciating pain of watching Lois die in his dreams, holding her in his arms, watching her suffer, unable to do a damn thing about it, was enough to startle him awake. Those nights, it was hard to fight the tears. The thought of letting Lois die was enough to send him tumbling into blind panic and to give him a glimpse of a living hell he'd never before imagined.
And sometimes, when he shot Trask, the older man didn't die right away. Instead, Clark would rush into the pond, just like he had that day, to find Trask glaring at him. With his dying breath he would curse Clark. "I've exposed you for what you are, alien. Others will rise up and take my place to protect Earth from you and your kind. I haven't died in vain." His words were always venomous.
And the Trask who haunted his nightmares was right.
He had exposed Clark for what he was.
Not the front man for an alien invasion, but a powerful menace no less. Clark had arrogantly thought that his absolute power would not corrupt him, that his sense of right and wrong was too solid. But he'd fallen, like so many others before him. Although he was without his powers at the time, he'd proved that he was not above killing.
Superman had shattered his own indestructible code of ethics. His moral absolutes proved to be less than absolute and that meant one thing.
Superman had killed the most important thing that he stood for and so Superman had killed himself.
Clark couldn't have continued being Superman if he wanted to. Everything he thought he stood for, everything he hoped to do, it all meant nothing, if he was unable to uphold and abide by his own moral code. If Superman proved himself to be no more immune from human flaws and failings as the average person, he had no place holding the kind of power that he did.
In one moment, he'd turned a great force for good into a force of destruction. He'd taken a human life. He'd crossed an ethical Rubicon he'd never intended to go near and there was no turning back now. The hero was dead and all that stood in his place was one horribly flawed man who seemed doomed to forever be haunted by those dreams.
For some reason, there would never be any mercy in those dreams. No matter what, Trask would never just kill him. It would have been the only way for him to escape the situation without blood on his hands. If Trask had just killed him, he wouldn't have needed to go after Lois or his parents. Trask would have gotten what he wanted and he, Clark, could have been relieved of his guilt. But even in his dreams Clark was forced to endure the burdens of a heavy conscience. Even in dreams there was no refuge from his guilt, only new and old ways to experience it, over and over again.
He desperately wanted to stay away from Metropolis, to simply close the book on that chapter of his life and move on as if it had never happened, but he knew better than that. He could never forget about Lois, about working at the Planet, about those few weeks when it seemed as those his dreams for a simple, but fulfilling life were on the verge of coming true. He'd even started to wonder if Lois was *the* one. It would never happen now. He'd irrevocably destroyed that possibility, but he still had to go back to Metropolis, to at least work out two week's notice, get rid of his apartment, tie up all the loose ends and then move on.
"Lois, have you got me any leads on where in Sam Hill Superman's gone to?" Perry barked across the newsroom from his office.
"Not yet, Chief," Lois called back. She knew full well that neither Perry nor anyone else would ever get the elusive story on Superman's disappearance, but she was in no position to tell him why. She got up from her desk and started toward the elevators.
"I sure as hell hope you're going to get me that Superman story," Perry yelled, appearing in his doorway.
Lois let out an exaggerated sigh. "Mayor's press conference," she announced. "You remember, the assessment on the city's rescue services is being released today."
Perry grunted, seemingly less than satisfied. Was she responsible for the fact that it was a slow news day and that the one front that Perry and every other editor in Metropolis wanted the exclusive on was a dead end? Well, she had to plead innocent on the first count, and on the second…she knew that if it hadn't been for her, Superman would be in the skies where he belonged, doing good deeds and making headlines.
She turned back toward the elevator and before she could press the 'down' button to summon the car, the doors slid open. She took a step backward, nearly tripping, and found herself suddenly unable to speak as her grim-faced partner, (or was it ex partner, already?) stepped out of the elevator. She stepped aside, waiting and hoping for him to acknowledge her. He looked up, as though only now realizing that she was there. The serious expression was gone for a moment. She looked into his eyes, their dark, soulful depths betraying a sense of loss and agony and shame. She knew that she couldn't begin to understand the depth of his pain, but there was no mistaking the haunted look on his face. It was like she could see right inside him and it was clear that something important, something sacred, something deep inside of him, something that made him who he was, had been ripped away.
"Lois." She heard him breathe her name, almost as if he hadn't meant to do it. A tiny muscle in his jaw ticked as he concentrated on regaining his serious and controlled visage, but at the same time, his eyes searched hers, seeking something, and when he turned away, looking at the floor, it was clear that hadn't found it. She had taken something away from him, it made sense that he wanted her to give it back, but how could she? How could she undo the past?
She felt her breath escape her in a ragged sigh. "Clark." Her voice wavered on that single, simple word. She wanted to say something to him, but there was nothing she could say. She knew that he'd heard her, but he did nothing to acknowledge the fact. His shoulders sagging, his posture screaming defeat and at the same time, a quiet resignation to that defeat, he walked away from her.
She felt an ache deep in her chest, a pain she swore she would never feel again. She felt her heart break, a heart that she thought she'd trained to grow cold. It was only now, when it was shattering, that she realized how cold she had grown. She tried to suppress a shiver and rushed into the waiting elevator.
Clark walked to his desk, aware of the dozens of pairs of eyes focused on him. He responded to the sympathetic smiles and the 'hellos' with a softly spoken 'hi' or a nod of acknowledgement of his own. He booted up his computer and made his way to the coffee machine to pour himself a cup. Clark looked around the newsroom. The setting had become so familiar over these last few months. He'd grown to feel at home here, as if this newsroom was exactly where he belonged. But now, it was as if the high, vaulted ceiling of the newsroom was collapsing on him and the walls of the expansive, open design were closing in. The bullpen was suddenly a restrictive enclosure and the confines of the fifth floor of the Daily Planet building, home to some of the finest reporters in the country, were too much to bear. He needed out of this place and away from all the familiar elements that were slowly suffocating him. He needed away from these people whom he called friends, this office where he felt so comfortable, this job that he enjoyed so much and that desk, just across from his, belonging to a woman he'd spend the rest of his life trying to forget.
Clark wandered back to his desk, knowing full well that all of his stories had been reassigned. He'd been gone two weeks and anything he'd been working on before then had been finished up by someone else. The news wouldn't sit around and wait for him indefinitely. Now, with an empty story load, he'd be waiting for Perry to assign him something. He desperately hoped that it wouldn't be some puff piece. Clark was pretty sure that Perry would lob him a softball, or a 'confidence booster' as the Chief would call them, something that wouldn't require any real effort or concentration on his part and nothing that would cause him any stress.
"Clark, can I see you in here?" Perry asked from his office doorway, as if on cue.
"Sure, Chief," Clark called from his desk. He unenthusiastically made his way to Perry's office.
"I'm glad to see you back here, son," Perry began as soon as Clark closed the door. Clark took a seat in front of Perry's desk and the older straightened in his chair.
"I can't say that I know what you went through, but I know it wasn't something you can just walk away from and be okay. I want you to take your time, you don't need to rush back into this and if you need to talk to someone, like a professional, the Planet will take care of everything," Perry explained sympathetically.
"Thanks, Perry," Clark said. "I appreciate it, but I just don't think this is where I should be now."
"If you need more time, Clark, you've got it," Perry replied quickly.
"I need to get away from this place, this city," Clark continued. "I need to get out of Metropolis."
"I know it hasn't been very long, son, so I'm hoping you'll reconsider that and think about what I said about taking some personal time before you make any rushed decisions."
Clark shook his head. "I can't stay here," he said firmly.
"I hope you're not doing this to avoid dealing with something, son. Let me tell you right now that you can't run away from trouble. You understand? There ain't no place that far."
In the deepest corner of his mind, Clark knew that Perry was right. It didn't matter where he went, he'd be haunted by the events of that day. But he was still determined to bury Superman and the remains of the life that he'd started to build here. He couldn't even pretend to go on living unless he laid them to rest. He nodded reluctantly. "I know, Perry. There are just some things I need to think about and figure out and I know I can't do that here. I'll work out my two weeks' notice, though."
"Hell, son, you've proved to be one of the best damn chances I've taken as editor of the Daily Planet. You're a good reporter and one the Planet doesn't want to lose. You know that we've got bureaus all over the world; maybe I can find something for you somewhere else. Would you be willing to take a transfer?"
Clark nodded slightly. "Maybe, yeah, I think so." He was conflicted. He wanted to make a clean break from everything that could possibly remind him of this failed experiment in having a real life, but at the same time, he loved this job. He wasn't concerned about whether he burned these bridges because he wasn't planning on ever crossing them again, but the Daily Planet was an incredible organization to work for and taking an assignment abroad meant that he could get as far away from Metropolis as possible without having to look for another job.
"All right, son, if this is what you want, I'll start making calls. It'll probably take a few weeks to arrange it. We could use you around here until then, but if you need to leave now…" Perry said somewhat reluctantly.
Clark shook his head. "No, I'll keep working until then," he said.
"Okay son, I'm not happy to see you go, but if this is what you need to do, then I hope everything works out all right."
"Thanks Perry, for everything," Clark said as he stood from his seat.
"It's like I told you before, son. I back my reporters up, one thousand per cent." Perry gave him a halfhearted smile.
"Your partner's down at City Hall covering the press conference," Perry said absently, his attention now turned to the copy in front of him on his desk.
"Is it something major?" Clark asked. He had no idea what had been going on in Metropolis in the last two weeks. If it were breaking news, he'd have no choice but to go.
"Not really," Perry replied without looking up. "I'm not sure if you've heard, but Superman's been gone these last few weeks and no one knows where he is. A lot of folks had been saying that the city's rescue services were getting too dependent on him. The annual rescue services assessment comes out today and the Mayor's holding a press conference."
"Do you think Lois needs me down there? I mean, I'm sure she can handle it," Clark spoke hesitantly. He'd seen Lois for a few seconds when he'd stepped off the elevator and that in itself had been sheer agony. He didn't know if he could endure working with her, seeing the anger and disappointment he knew he would find in her eyes. If he were honest with himself, he'd know that he deserved it and so much more. That dull ache that haunted him day and night and left him feeling cold and sick and empty inside had been nothing compared to the sharp, excruciating pain that threatened to tear him apart every time he saw her or heard her voice. Everything about her reminded him of what it was that he'd destroyed. Being near her made him want to die.
Perry looked up from his desk, frowning. "If you want to work, son, I need to know that I can count on you to work on the stories I need you to cover," Perry said somberly.
Clark fought back a sigh. "I'm on my way, Chief."
Perry nodded curtly and turned back to his paperwork. Clark left the editor's office and made his way to the elevator, hoping that he might be able to make it through the press conference without running into Lois there. Maybe if he hid in the back and didn't ask any questions he'd get lucky. He sighed again, wondering if it would be possible to avoid Lois entirely for the next few weeks.
Perry heard a knocking on the door behind him. "You wanted to see me, Perry?" He recognized Lois's voice and spun his chair around to face her.
"I wanted to tell you that Clark's leaving," he said. He watched the color drain from her face. She took a step backward, bumping into the doorframe.
"No," she whispered, shaking her head slowly. "No, Perry, you can't let him!" she exclaimed emotionally. He wasn't expecting this. He thought that she'd probably take it hard, but her emotional response surprised him. "Reassign us, end our partnership, transfer me to another division, Perry, do whatever he wants, just don't let him go."
Transfer? Had he heard her correctly? Lois was the top reporter on the city beat and she took no small amount of pride in that fact. Was she asking him to transfer her out for Clark's benefit? And why would she think that that would keep Clark at the Planet? Did she think that she was the reason why he was leaving? He frowned, come to think of it, Clark had seemed quite reluctant to go when he'd told him to join her at the press conference. Had Clark hidden his real reasons for wanting to go? Was Clark leaving because he couldn't work with Lois? Perry had read the police reports and had heard the whole story from Jimmy and from both Lois and Clark and as far as he could tell, his reporters had saved each other's lives. What else had happened to them over those three days in Smallville? What was destroying his best reporting team and making his top reporters miserable?
Perry looked up at Lois again. Her expression was full of guilt and shame; it was the same expression that Clark had worn when he'd come in here a few hours earlier. He shook his head. "Clark said that he needs to get away from Metropolis," Perry explained, knowing he wouldn't be able to get at why Lois thought she was responsible for this. "I offered him a position abroad in one of our international bureaus, and I think he's going to take it, but it'll take a few weeks to arrange. I was actually hoping that you might be able to convince him not to go." Perry was already fairly certain of how she would respond.
Lois shook her head again. "I don't think there's anything I could do to make him stay," she said softly and Perry suddenly realized just how tough this was going to be on Lois. He'd known from day one that pairing the two of them up would be good for both of them. Clark would quickly learn the ropes partnered with Lois. He'd shown initiative and his writing was impressive, and if he were tough enough to work with Lois, he'd have a bright future as an investigative reporter.
And Lois, well, he knew that Lois would be unhappy with partnership, but while she was without peer as an investigator, Perry felt that she was holding something back when she wrote. She'd been cynical and sometimes unable to see the human side of the stories she worked on. Her work was superb, award-winning even, but he'd thought that pairing her hard edge with a softer touch would improve even her work.
Perry had never been more right about anything in his life.
In a few short months, they'd turned out some of the best work he'd seen as an editor. The partnership had succeeded even better than he'd expected and it had changed not only his best reporter's work, it had seemingly changed his best reporter, herself. The changes had been subtle, but real. Now Lois, who had fought tooth and nail against being assigned a partner, was suddenly placing the well being of that partner above her own career.
"Well, I ah…" Perry began, dragging a hand through his thinning hair. "So you don't think that you and Clark will be able to work together for the next few weeks?"
"I guess that's up to him," she said softly.
"Lois, what happened?" Perry asked.
Lois shook her head slightly. She stood up and walked to the door and turned back to face him. "He killed a man in order to save my life, Perry, and he hates me for it." She walked out of his office.
It hadn't been easy to avoid Lois at the press conference. He'd hid in the back and refrained from asking questions when he thought of several things he really wanted to ask about for the story. He was thankful when Lois asked them herself. He quietly took notes while she grilled the Mayor about the readiness of Metropolis's emergency crews. Clark felt a pang of guilt; if it hadn't been for Superman's disappearance Metropolis wouldn't be facing a public safety crisis. Metropolis had done okay without Superman, he tried to tell himself, the city would adjust and return to normal in his absence, and soon Superman would be even less than a vague and distant memory.
He'd taken a cab back to the Planet after the conference was over to find that Lois had beaten him back. She was already typing at her computer when he entered the newsroom. He didn't go over to her desk the way he would have before. There was no doubt in his mind that she would blame him for this problem, and rightfully so, but there was nothing he could do about it. Superman was dead. Nothing could change that. Clark sat down at his computer and started to collect his notes. They could work independently and simply put everything together at the end. It wasn't their usual style of collaboration, but under the circumstances, it was the best possible way to handle the situation.
At one point, Perry called Lois into his office. When she came out several minutes later, she was visibly upset about something, but she immediately returned to her desk and to her work. She stopped typing a while later, and simply sat at her desk, staring at a blank terminal. After a long while, she stood up and walked to his desk. Her eyes were red, but she held up her chin.
It hurt to look at her.
It hurt to be anywhere near her, knowing how much she hated him. He tried to focus on his own computer terminal but she stood next to his desk, as if challenging him to continue ignoring her. He forced himself to make eye contact. It was all he could do to keep from crying out and throwing himself at her feet and begging her forgiveness.
"We need to put together the piece on the press conference," she said evenly.
He merely nodded. When he did, he could see a flash of what must have been anger flit across her expression. They spoke perhaps a dozen more words to each other as they put the story together. Lois stood stiffly besides his desk while they put the main article together. Normally, he would have been hovering around her workstation, sitting on the corner of her desk or standing behind her chair, his arm across the back of it, while they worked. The awkwardness that settled between them was palpable.
Eventually, they finished the article. Clark skimmed it for the last time, knowing that the editors would have more work than usual with this one. The transitions weren't as smooth as they normally were, and there were probably places where the whole thing could have been tightened. It was an okay piece of journalism, but nothing like some of the stuff they'd done before. He tried to tell himself that this wasn't necessarily a bad thing. Now that he knew that there partnership wasn't working anymore, he knew that telling Perry he wanted to leave was the right thing to do, for everyone concerned.
"Perry's going to want a sidebar on the impact of Superman's disappearance," she said at last.
"Would you…" he began, somewhat pathetically. She nodded briefly and turned to go back to her own desk. He owed her a great deal for keeping his secret. Since returning that morning, Clark had skimmed the papers from the last few weeks. Lois's work had always reflected a certain professional air toward the super hero's disappearance that was absent from the work of just about all other journalists. She never denounced Superman for 'running away,' or used her space in the paper's columns to make public pleas for his return.
He'd even seen a few pieces on the Op-Ed page that he thought were her work, advocating the 'Man of Steel' for the work he'd done and declaring that given Superman's record of helping others, that he probably had a very good reason for staying away. Of course, he could never be certain about the authorship of those columns and they were often the voice of a lone wolf amongst a very large pack of others who seemed to want their pound of flesh.
He needed to get away from all this. A new city, a new job, and no icon in the red and blue suit to have to measure up to were exactly what he needed. He knew that Perry was right, he couldn't run away from his problems, but maybe he could put distance between himself and the sources of his problems. Maybe then he'd have the space he needed to deal with them. Maybe, everything would get better when he left this place.
And maybe he was the king of self-delusion.
Late that night, Clark sat in front of his closet in his apartment on Clinton Street. He stared at the red and blue suit in his hands. He was really starting to like this place. The suit he was holding was one of the copies of the original that his mother had made. He tightening his grip on the spandex and tore the suit to ribbons, letting the tattered fragments fall to the ground. He took out all the other suits and did the same to them. The pile of fabric at his feet grew. He reached into the closet a final time and pulled out the last one. He bunched up the material in his fists, but couldn't tear it apart like the others. It was the original suit. The one his mother had designed. The shield on it was the one that they'd found with him in the ship. This suit was a part of him, and as much as he wanted to, he couldn't bring himself to destroy it. Instead, he threw it a trunk of his old stuff and shoved it to the back of his closet.
Clark walked around his apartment. It was a great apartment, big and open and he'd been able to fix it up the way he wanted. It wasn't in the best part of town, but that meant the rent was low. Besides, it wasn't like he'd had a lot to worry about. Clark had tried to tell himself that the fact the proximity to Carter Avenue in a much better neighborhood had nothing to do with his decision to rent this apartment, but even then, Lois had been paramount in his mind. He shook his head; he'd been setting himself up for heartache right from the beginning, but he couldn't have helped it.
In a few weeks, he'd leave this apartment and this city and that woman behind forever. He'd been happy here, but there was no way he could stay. He'd already gone over all the reasons and the explanations and he knew that it was the right thing to do, but that didn't make it any easier. Clark sighed again. He didn't want to think about this anymore, it hurt too much.
Lois sat at her desk, typing. It would be a few hours before she'd be able to start making phone calls. She may not have limited herself to normal business hours but it seemed that all the people she needed to interview did. The newsroom was quiet; Perry wasn't even in yet. She sighed in frustration. Lois hated guilt. Whatever she was feeling, she could ignore it by doing more work, whether she was hurt or angry she could always simply set aside her feelings and focus on her job. But guilt didn't work that way. There was no way to ignore guilt. No amount of work, no extreme use of her abilities to focus on one thing at the detriment of all others, was enough to make the guilt go away. Instead, she spent an awful lot of time thinking about what had happened.
Lois had started to put the pieces together slowly, trying to figure out how it was that Clark Kent had fooled everyone. More importantly, she was putting the pieces together and realizing that there had been a real man in that red and blue suit. Superman hadn't been some stoic Spock-like alien, flawless and omnipotent. He may have been physically invulnerable, but he was as emotionally vulnerable as anyone else, probably more so than most, given how gentle and caring Clark was. He'd been hurt badly, so very badly, and it was her fault. And it didn't look like there was anything she could do to put back together what she'd torn asunder.
He was leaving the Planet because of her. She knew how much this job meant to him, and he was going to give it all up because he couldn't stand being around her. She'd destroyed his life as Clark Kent as well as his role as Superman.
How could she have done so much to hurt the nicest, most caring person she'd ever met?
She hadn't been able to sleep the night before. Lois had simply lain awake all night. She'd wept bitterly despite all of her previous resolutions to never cry over a man again. This time, the tears were shed for the pain that she'd caused someone else. She didn't know if this was irony or just poetic justice. Her whole life, she'd probably been too self-centered to ever feel such guilt and remorse. Would she have ever cried for someone else before? In the small hours of the morning she had wandered around her apartment miserably. She had been too tired to sleep or to think, or to do anything except feel guilty.
Lois had to get out of her apartment. She would do nothing except drive herself insane there. She showered and dressed, applying more makeup than usual to hide the dark circles under her eyes. The first cold gray rays of light were filtering into her apartment as she had left.
Now, she was at the Planet, trying in vain to work in the quiet confines of the bullpen. The workday may not have started for anyone else on the regular daytime shift at the paper, but being here at least gave her some distraction from the thoughts plaguing her mind.
She got up from her desk to fetch her third (or was it fourth?) cup of coffee of the morning. The elevator chimed softly and the doors quietly slid open. It was probably Perry, she thought to herself. She looked up to see a man exit the elevator. It wasn't Perry, it was Clark.
Lois watched him slink out of the elevator and into the dimly lit newsroom. He had his hands in his pockets and his posture declared utter defeat. He looked like a man who didn't even know who he was anymore. She looked down at the floor, avoiding eye contact. Maybe if she turned around nonchalantly, she could pretend that she hadn't seen him and didn't know that he was there.
It was worth a shot, she thought as she turned back to her desk, pretending to be engrossed in the notes in her hand. She took a sip of her coffee and grimaced. She'd been so distracted by his sudden appearance that she'd forgotten the milk and sweetener. Oh well, this was a cup of coffee she'd have to drink black.
Lois sat back down at her desk and tried to work, but it was infinitely more difficult with Clark in the room. He'd avoided her entirely, giving her a rather wide berth, probably in hopes that the newsroom was big enough for both of them to work quietly and not have to interact with each other or even acknowledge each other's presence. They'd made eye contact once, by accident, and that was it. She'd looked across at him briefly and had caught his eye. He'd turned away quickly, but it had taken her a little longer to do the same. The sadness in his eyes was overwhelming. Never before had she felt such pain at seeing someone else's suffering. She now felt a perverse desire to look over at him from time to time, as if to remind herself of what exactly, she'd done to him. Every time she'd surreptitiously glance over at him and to see the melancholy look on his face and the way his shoulders sagged, she was reminded anew of the pain she'd caused him.
Once or twice, she'd seen him look over at her from the corner of her eye. She couldn't read his expression from that angle and she didn't want to turn and face him, but she had no doubt that his mind was also on her crimes. She knew that if she turned to look, she'd see an anger and a resentment that were totally foreign to the old Clark she once knew.
The Clark she'd destroyed.
She sighed. Yesterday had been difficult, but at least they'd been talking, well, sort of. Now, he was completely ignoring and avoiding her. With the exception of the night editor, who had made herself busy elsewhere, newsroom was empty; there was no one here to maintain a pretence for, Lois reminded herself. Despite his every right to hate her, he hadn't been outwardly cold to her yesterday, his sadness had been apparent, most likely to everyone in the newsroom, but he hadn't singled her out to be especially cold toward her. It just wasn't in him to isolate her from all of her colleagues by suddenly giving her the brush off, even if she deserved it. She almost wished that he had. If he'd been cold and resentful toward her yesterday, it would have settled it once and for all for the gossipmongers. They would have realized that she was directly responsible for what had happened to Clark and then that half of the newsroom that still showed her pity and sympathy would have turned the way they should have.
With the newsroom empty, there was no need to maintain the appearance of a cordial working relationship, and he wasn't doing anything to hide the fact that he didn't want to be around her. She would have rather that he yelled at her, blamed her, whatever; anything would have been better than the silence. Now, he simply looked like he didn't even care enough to get mad. Lois didn't believe that she'd been capable of destroying Clark's innate compassion and concern, not even she could do that. Nonetheless, he seemed miserable here. Her presence was causing him misery.
She'd replayed the incident a hundred times in her mind, but had been unable to figure out what she could have done differently. Perhaps Clark had had a plan. Maybe he'd known about Trask's gun and her presence had forced his hand before he'd been prepared to. But then, he'd seemed totally surprised by the whole turn of events. All she knew was that Trask had pulled a gun on her partner when Clark's back was turned and she'd reacted. She'd been certain that Trask was going to shoot Clark. She'd had to warn him, she'd had no choice. Somehow, that didn't change things. Clark was too gentle to hurt a fly and she had realized how strong his ethical code was. Morals were absolutes to him. Killing, no matter why, was wrong. There was no justification for it. And yet he'd done it. He'd violated an ideal that he lived by, that he'd worked to uphold as Superman, and he'd done it to save her life.
She'd had a long time to think about it, and she'd realized why Clark was Superman. The more she thought about her partner, the more obvious it became that he couldn't not help if he were able. He needed to do good, it was part of who he was. With the incredible powers he had, it was only a matter of time before he'd find a way to use them to help. Apparently, he'd found that way when he moved to Metropolis.
It had taken her a while to figure it out, which was the real man and which the secret identity, but she had approached it the way she approached all her investigations. She asked herself every question imaginable, approaching the subject from every possible angle, and struggled to find the answers. Clark had to be the real person; it was the only way the evidence made any sense. She'd seen enough proof to know that he grew up and lived in Kansas, that he considered the Kents his parents and that his life as Clark was very important to him. Lois also knew that Superman had only appeared a few months earlier. Superman didn't have close friends or people he obviously cared about, he didn't appear to have any hobbies, and no one knew what he was doing when he wasn't out saving the day. He was distant and reserved despite his eagerness to help, and she finally knew why. Superman was a disguise for Clark. Of course, he was much more than that; he was an outlet that allowed Clark to use his powers for good, but he probably maintained that distance, that aloofness, to keep people from wondering too much about who the man inside the suit really was.
And while she'd recognized that Clark was more man than super, what he'd lost, what he'd been forced to give up as Superman, was devastating. She could only begin to guess at what being Superman had meant to him. Lois could see in her former partner a burning need to do good. He was driven to help people the way she was driven to be a reporter. She imagined that having Superman taken away had hurt him as much as it would hurt her to have journalism taken away from her, probably even more so. Journalism was her personal passion. Sure, her work often had beneficial results for society, but for the most part, the world would keep turning just the same. If she were forced to give it up, someone else could take her place and expose the truth. But Clark's passion was an altruistic one. What he did, first and foremost, was help others, and he did it in a way that no one else ever could. How many people were alive because of him? How many tragedies had he averted? How many families had he saved from the grief of losing a loved one?
She hadn't meant to do it, but she'd taken that away from Clark, and she'd taken Superman away from the world. And even though her actions weren't intentional, how could he do anything but resent her? He'd saved her life, and she was grateful, but that didn't mean that he had to be happy about it. Whether he regretted it or not, saving her life had cost him and the world something that neither should have been forced to give up.
Was her one little life worth that?
She gasped at the realization that it wasn't.
Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed Clark turn to look at her, and she tried to hide the sudden shock that had overcome her. She turned back to the stack of research on her desk and attempted to look busy. In the background she heard the 'ping' that signaled the arrival of the elevator. She heard Perry and Jimmy's voices along with several other people who stepped out of the car, and sighed with relief. The newsroom would soon be full and there would be enough to distract her from Clark and the guilty feelings that would overwhelm her every time she saw him.
Or so she hoped.
Clark sat at his desk in the darkness. It was late and the newsroom was deserted. He'd been back at the Planet for a week now and it wasn't getting any easier. He stared down at the letter on his desk from Takuo Kazami, Bureau Chief, of the International Daily Times, Asia Headquarters. It was a welcome letter to the Bureau's newest editor. Him.
Perry had arranged the transfer. The International Daily Times was an international English language newspaper published by the London Times and the Daily Planet and read worldwide. After the home offices of the Daily Planet and the London Times, the Asia Headquarters in Tokyo was the largest bureau, and it was his soon to be place of employment.
The Asia Headquarters had a handful of full time reporters and researchers working for Mr. Kazami, along with an editor, who was generally an American and English expatriate. The last editor was about to finish his stint in Tokyo and Clark would be taking over his job. He was being sent more for his English and grammar skills than for his reporting abilities, but did that matter now? He was getting away from Metropolis and he'd have a steady job. That was enough.
He spoke only enough Japanese to get by as a tourist, but he was certain that he could pick up the language quickly. He had two more weeks in Metropolis and at the Daily Planet. As far as he was concerned, he couldn't get away from this city quickly enough. He was tired of hearing the speculation about what had happened to Superman. He was tired of the looks of concern and sympathy he got from his coworkers. He was tired of being near Lois and knowing how much she must despise him.
In the last few days, the quality of their work had fallen into a downward spiral. Perry had rebuked them and informed them of his surprise and disappointment at the increased amount of work they'd left for their editors. Clark wished that he could care more, but he just didn't. He knew that he and Lois had very complementary writing styles and that with a little effort on their part, they could achieve just the right balance of razor sharpness and empathetic softness in their pieces; but now, their differing styles merely clashed as they couldn't handle the necessary cooperation to interweave their writings. They were working together less and less these days, and even when they cooperated on a large story, they generally divided up the work and worked separately.
His work had crumbled to mediocrity and it didn't matter. He didn't want to be this apathetic, but he simply couldn't make himself care. Clark was merely killing time after closing the book on this chapter of his life. He was done with Metropolis and he was done with this job, and he wished more than anything, that he could be done with the constant thinking about Lois Lane, but he doubted that he was that lucky. He was tired and he was sick and he was ready to consider all of this history.
He sighed as he looked at the letterhead again, in both English letters and Japanese characters. He should probably buy a couple of Japanese textbooks and learn as much as he could before leaving. Clark almost wished that he'd spent more than a week in Japan during his travels after college. The trip to Okinawa had really been nothing more than a side trip during his much longer trip to China. Then again, having to learn a new language would be a decent distraction for him. It would keep him occupied for at least a little while. Surely having something to work on would help keep him from thinking about all the things he was trying to escape.
The thought startled him.
He was running away. Clark had sworn to Perry that he wasn't simply tucking tail and running off, but that was exactly what he was doing. He'd found a problem he couldn't solve, so he was ignoring it and burying his head in the sand. He admitted that he was probably a coward, but what difference did it make? It wasn't like he could stay and fight through this, there was no way to fix this and there was nothing left for him here. He could stay and put himself through hell for no reason, or he could start over somewhere else. That was the only logical thing to do. It was settled; this was the right thing to do now. He belonged in Tokyo, not Metropolis, and if he could help it, he'd never come back here. Clark stood up and tucked the letter into his jacket pocket. In a few weeks, he'd be leaving this newsroom for good and taking with him nothing but a few memories and a lifetime's worth of regrets.
It was the same dream again. The one he had every night. He could hear his heart thundering in his ears. Trask was behind him, Lois in front of him. Her voice echoed through the otherwise still air. He could taste the bitter fear in his mouth. Trask cocked the hammer of his pistol. Clark dove to the ground, grabbing Trask's other gun, rolling and firing from a kneeling position. He didn't aim. He hadn't had a chance to aim that day when he'd killed Trask, and it was the same in his dreams. He squeezed the trigger, without a thought in his head.
He landed on the bed with a crash, his heart still pounding in his chest. Every night it was the same. He had fired that gun at Trask without really knowing what he was doing. He didn't have the time to aim and even if he had, it probably wouldn't have helped much. Clark wasn't expecting the massive kick of Trask's oversized automatic weapon. He'd never fired a weapon before and never wanted to again. His previous experience with weapons involved only disarming and destroying them. Clark despised guns and he'd never expected to use one. That his use of a gun had resulted in the ending of someone else's life haunted him day and night.
He got out of bed and wandered out to his kitchen. Maybe a warm glass of milk would help him calm down. He was having a tough time sleeping through the night. Without his regular patrols to occupy the hours, there was simply too much time on his hands. He couldn't sleep, even if he wanted to. And despite the long nights spent wide-awake, he'd never become tired enough to require more than a few fitful hours of sleep. Too many nights resulted in him sitting on his couch in front of the television screen blaring inane infomercials.
He sat down at his kitchen table with a glass of milk, trying, as always, to get the images out of his head.
There had been two gunshots that day. Rachel had informed him of that a few days after it had happened. He didn't remember hearing the second shot, but the forensic reports had confirmed it. Trask had discharged a round from his little pistol. The police had found the bullet lodged in a tree a hundred feet away.
That bullet had been meant for Lois.
Trask had had his finger on the trigger. Clark could only wonder what would have happened if he had missed, if he'd hesitated. Had Clark's shot been what caused Trask to squeeze that trigger? Or was Trask in the process of doing it himself?
That gun had been pointed at Lois. And when Clark had shot Trask, Trask's arm had flown upward, the bullet finding a far more innocuous target.
Day and night, he'd think about that second shot—the shot that had been drowned out by the echoes of his own shot. As time passed, that shot monopolized more and more of his thoughts. His dreams, once blurry, had started to focus on that one moment and that bullet. The exact replay dreams still dominated, but more and more frequently, he'd find himself obsessing over that split second. He hated the fact that he'd killed a man, but wouldn't it have been far worse if he'd missed or if he'd waited a moment longer? Could he have stopped Trask another way? Could he have bargained with the madman? He would never know.
And that made him feel powerless.
He'd never felt so helpless, so impotent. He was used to being in control, to having the strength to defuse any situation. This time, he'd been weak and disoriented and he hadn't had time to think. Clark had been afraid— incredibly afraid—and he'd reacted. What else could he have done?
But the anger and the frustration remained, and he was learning just how hard it was to live with it. These nights would continue to haunt him, regardless of where he was. He wasn't going to be able to escape his own thoughts.
"You got a minute, Lois?" Perry called from his doorway.
Lois looked up from her desk. She was just about to call it a night. Everyone except Perry had already left for the evening and the night editor would be in soon. "Sure," she replied, turning off her computer.
Perry walked over to Clark's desk just across from hers, his hands in his pockets. "It's about Clark," he began. "I found him an editor position in the Asia bureau. The job opens up in about a couple of weeks."
"So that's it; he's really leaving," she said softly. Perry merely nodded. "It just isn't fair," she whispered.
"You're pretty upset over this," Perry commented, leaning against the front of Clark's desk.
"He's my partner!" she exclaimed. "Or at least he was," she added sadly. "And he saved my life. I owe him a lot."
"I know," Perry added gruffly. "That boy sure will be missed around here." He picked up Clark's nameplate and studied it for a moment before replacing it.
She resisted the urge to pound on her desk with her fist. It wasn't right. Clark didn't deserve this. He was leaving a job that she knew he loved and he was being forced to give up being Superman, all because of her. After all that he'd done for her, for the whole world, this was how he was repaid. At the same time, she knew that he was miserable here. "Isn't there another way, Perry?" she pleaded, already knowing the answer.
Perry shook his head. "Clark was pretty adamant about getting away from Metropolis. He's just not happy here anymore." Lois sighed. "Besides, I was hoping you had a suggestion," Perry continued. "I know you two haven't been able to work together recently, but hell, I don't know…" Perry ran a hand through his hair. "He's always respected you, Lois, looked up to you as a reporter, I don't suppose there's anything you could say to him…"
"If there was, I already would have by now, Chief," she replied.
"I know. I ah, guess I was just grasping at straws." Neither one said anything for a long moment. "He doesn't hate you," Perry said finally.
Lois looked up somewhat startled, wondering where that comment came from. "Huh?" was all she could say.
"That boy could never hate you, Lois. He said he needed to get away from Metropolis, not you."
"Then why can't he work with me, or talk to me, Perry? I want to believe that, but I just can't."
Perry sighed. "I don't know what happened between you two, but my gut tells me that you're both blaming yourselves for an awful lot. I know you don't want to talk to me about it, but you two should try to talk to each other, even if he still leaves, at least then you'll have the truth. It's getting late, you should get out of here, get some rest," her editor drawled.
Lois nodded quietly and finished packing up her briefcase. Perry made his way up the ramp and held the elevator for her.
Over the next week, the weather grew colder and everything seemed bleaker, if that were at all possible. Metropolis was in for a long and miserable winter, it seemed. Superman was becoming a distantly fading memory and hope of his return was all but extinguished. Crime rates had inched back up in his absence. Superman was already gone and Lois was only a week away from losing her partner as well.
The world around her was changing. She supposed that it was going back to normal, back to the way it was before either Clark or Superman showed up.
And she hated it.
She could hardly deny that the city, that her world, was a better place after the arrival of both of them. Now everyday at work she saw him, saw how miserable he was. Part of her wanted him to stay, and part of her acknowledged that he'd be happier once there was adequate space between them. He needed to get away from her and it was selfish of her not to recognize that. Lois found herself in the unusual position of believing that what she wanted didn't matter, at least not compared to what Clark wanted and needed.
Today was no different from the day before, or the day before that one. They hadn't worked together at all recently. Her attempt the night before to finally land an interview with Lex Luthor had failed miserably. Again, the billionaire had sidestepped the entire issue of an interview and had turned his attention to trying to charm her. She wasn't sure what he wanted, whether it was good PR through some puff piece or if he was trying to get her into bed, but she wasn't interested in either prospect.
Perhaps in another time or under other circumstances, the attention of a handsome, intelligent, and powerful philanthropist such as Lex would have been flattering and exciting, but now it was merely annoying. She had neither the time nor the inclination to respond to Lex's attempts at courting her. Her thoughts were generally occupied by issues of greater weight —like the myriad ways in which everything around her had gotten worse because of her.
She was wallowing. She hated wallowers, but there she was, wallowing. But what else could she do? She couldn't exactly put the past behind her and move on, not after something like this. It wasn't her pain and suffering to bury. It was Clark's and as long as he suffered, she deserved far worse.
Lois looked over at his desk. His brow was knitted and he was frowning in concentration as he stared at his computer screen. She sighed for the umpteenth time that day. If only she could go back and change the past. She wasn't even sure how she would do it, but this couldn't have been the way it was supposed to be, could it?
But there was no fate. The situation she found herself in was the result of a bunch of random events and her own actions. There was no guaranteed fairy tale ending to this story. The hero hadn't won. And as much as she wanted to, she couldn't go back and rewrite the past to her liking. She couldn't cry 'not fair' and change reality to better align it with the ideal.
It was a hard lesson to learn: finding out that you have to live with the consequences of your actions, no matter how awful they might be, but she only wished that she was the only one who had to deal with those consequences.
'But what else could I have done?' she would often ask herself angrily, after delving deep into a state of regret and self-recrimination. She and everyone else were living with the consequences of her actions, but what choice had she had? What else could she have done in that situation? She couldn't have simply done nothing; she had had to warn Clark. Yet despite her best intentions, she'd set off a chain reaction of events that had led to Clark killing Trask.
Life simply wasn't fair. That was the other lesson she'd learned.
Clark tried to focus on his work, he really did. But what was the point? This was the last story he'd ever work on— a piece about the rate hikes at Metropolis Gas and Electric-and his heart just wasn't in it. He reread the story for the third time. It wasn't a hard-hitting piece of investigative journalism, but it was passable. It would get buried in the thick of the City Section, a rather pathetic swan song for his career as a Daily Planet reporter. Beginning in a few days he'd be Clark Kent, resident thesaurus, dictionary, grammar primer and spell checker. He sighed and sent the story to Perry.
His colleagues didn't know he was leaving, though he doubted that they'd be surprised. He'd asked Perry not to disclose the details of his sudden departure and the editor had grudgingly complied, though he'd explained to Clark that he was going to tell Lois, given that she had been his partner, it was information she needed to know, Perry argued.
He sighed. She filled his mind, day and night. Seeing her at work was torture, seeing her in his dreams at night was worse. He could run away from Metropolis but he couldn't run away from her. But surely nothing could be as bad as having to see her everyday, to have to be reminded by her presence, of what had happened. He wouldn't be able to forget, but maybe he could just put the thoughts away, a little at a time. Maybe after a great long while, he wouldn't think about those things any more. They'd always be there, in the background, but maybe he'd be able to keep them there, tucked away in the darkness.
"Clark." The sound of Perry's voice startled him. The editor was standing in the doorway of his office. He gestured for Clark to 'come over here,' and Clark obliged.
"Son, I'm awful sad to see you go," Perry began as soon as Clark closed the door behind himself. "The newsroom won't be the same without you." The editor leaned against the front of his desk.
"Thanks Perry," Clark replied. He stood in front of Perry with his hands in his pockets.
"I know it's a bit early, but your story's in so you can head out now if you want, I'm sure you have things you need to do."
Clark nodded. "I guess I do," he replied.
"Son, talk to Lois, before you go," Perry said.
"Chief, I uh…" Clark stammered, surprised.
"I mean it, Clark. Lois thinks you hate her. Whatever happened between the two of you, she needs to know the truth."
Clark stifled a gasp. How could Lois possibly think that? She was the one who had every right to hate him. Perry must have been mistaken. He didn't think their editor knew much about what had happened that day, no more than what everyone else knew, anyway. Maybe Perry had read Lois wrong. But then again, maybe Perry was right. Maybe Lois did think that he hated her. He ran an agitated hand through his hair. "It's not that easy, Perry," he began.
"It never is, son," Perry replied. "Now, if you ever need anything, call me, and I want to hear from you as soon as you get settled in. Let me know how the job is working out, how you're liking Japan and all that."
"Sure, Chief," Clark replied.
Perry stepped forward and shook Clark's hand. "Good luck, Clark," he said with a slight smile.
"Thank you, sir," Clark said.
He sat in his apartment, killing time on his last evening in Metropolis. His stuff was all boxed up and most of it had been taken to Kansas to be stored at his parents' home until he settled into his new apartment in Tokyo. His apartment looked a lot bigger when it was empty. He looked at his watch again. It felt late, but it was barely nine o'clock. Clark walked to his window and stared out at the rain pounding the asphalt below. He wondered where Lois was. Was she at home? What was she doing? Was there any small chance that she was thinking of him, or had she forgotten him already? He sighed and ran a hand through his hair. He needed to get out of his apartment. Maybe he needed to go for a walk. Forgoing the umbrella, which he didn't need and which was packed anyway, he left the apartment.
It was inevitable that he'd end up outside Lois's apartment building a few minutes later. He hadn't thought about where he was going at all, but there he was, looking up at her building. He pushed the rain soaked locks of hair out of his face as he stared at her window. Her lights were on; she was home.
Maybe Perry was right. Maybe he should talk to her. He was halfway up the stairs before he realized what he was doing, but he didn't stop. He just kept going. Clark found himself standing outside her door, unsure what to do. Should he knock or should he simply turn around and walk away? He lifted his hand and knocked softly on the door. Immediately, he heard the locks begin to turn and the door opened.
"Clark!" Lois exclaimed, sounding surprised. Her eyes looked red and puffy. "Come in, please." She sounded almost desperate.
He walked into the apartment silently, stopping just inside the entry; he was still unsure of what he was doing there. Clark tried to think of something to say. She hadn't slammed the door in his face, which was probably a good thing, he thought, but how was he supposed to begin?
She drew in a shaky breath. "Perry told me that I should talk to you, but I was sure that you wouldn't listen."
He searched her expression for the hatred, the anger that should have been there. It wasn't. Instead, all he saw was an incredible sadness. He didn't understand it. Why wasn't she angry to see him, and why was she sad?
"You can't go, Clark; there has to be another way. You shouldn't give up everything you've worked so hard for!"
He started to really listen to what she was saying. It didn't make sense; she didn't want him to go? She in fact, was making it quite clear that she wanted him to stay. He tried to block the thoughts out. If anyone could convince him to stay, it was her. Then again, there was practically nothing he wouldn't do for Lois.
Actually, there was absolutely nothing he wouldn't do for her. He already knew that.
"I thought I would be the last person you'd want to see," she continued. He just kept staring dumbly, caught completely off guard. "I haven't been able to stop thinking about you, about what happened. I can't imagine what you're going through, and I hate that I'm the reason for it. I don't know what I should say to convince you to stay, but you can't leave like this."
Why was she making this so difficult? Why couldn't she just hate him? Why couldn't she want him to leave? How was he supposed to deny her? This was wrong; he shouldn't have come here—not because Perry had been mistaken, but because he'd been right. Was this Perry's trump card? Was this his editor's last ditch effort to keep Clark from throwing away his life in Metropolis?
"I'm sorry, this was a mistake," he began as he started to back away. He wasn't ready to deal with this. He hadn't even considered the possibility that she'd actually want to talk to him, let alone that she'd try to convince him to stay. Dammit, he couldn't stay. He needed to leave and she was making it impossible. He knew that it would hurt to see her, knowing it would be for the last time; he'd never even thought about how much it would hurt to hear her ask him not to go.
"Clark, wait, we need to talk," she pleaded with him.
"There's nothing to talk about!" he snapped, turning toward the door. He needed to make her hate him. He needed her to realize that she ought to despise him. He deserved no better.
"Please," she cried out. He could hear the emotion in her voice. She was near tears. He hardened his heart to her pleas and walked away.
The rain was cascading down sheets and he didn't care. It pounded loudly on the concrete and asphalt and the distant rumble of thunder added to the deafening cacophony. The drops on his glasses obscured his vision. He took the glasses off and snapped them in half effortlessly. Clark tossed the broken halves out into the darkness, not caring where they landed. He heard them clatter somewhere in the distance.
Frustrated, he ran his hand through his dripping wet hair and screamed out loud, sobbing. The click of the door behind him startled him. Clark silently prayed that she would just go away and leave him alone. He didn't want to have to see her right now.
"Clark, please, look at me," she said quietly.
He slowly turned around, anger burning in his gaze, his expression grim and unrelenting. He saw her shiver and had to stop himself from moving toward her. If she wanted to stand out in the rain, so be it. He wasn't forcing her to stand around out here in this insane weather until she caught pneumonia. If she got sick it would be her own damn fault. "What is it?" he asked coldly, trying as hard as he could to convey a sense of annoyance at her presence. Why couldn't she just leave him alone?
"I wanted to tell you I'm sorry," she said between sobs. She looked at him with those big brown eyes that made him want to hate her and at the same time, reminded him that he never could.
"You have nothing to be sorry for," he replied, turning away from her again. Maybe she would get the message and leave him alone.
"Yes I do. I hate myself for what I've done to you, Clark. I destroyed the best person I could ever hope to meet, and I'll never be able to forgive myself."
He squared his shoulders, resolved not to turn around and grant her that victory. It didn't matter that her very words made his heart ache even more.
"I'm responsible for a lot more than destroying Superman. Because of me, the best man I've ever known can't even look himself in the mirror anymore."
"You didn't do anything to me," he snapped, his back still turned to her.
"You're not the only one who regrets saving my life that day. If my dying would have prevented this, I wish you had let Trask shoot me."
"Lois," he snarled angrily.
"My life isn't worth it. I wasn't worth it, I'm sorry. Oh god, I'm so sorry." He heard her sniff, as though fighting back tears.
"Never say that," he shouted over the sound of the rain. She sobbed quietly.
"I don't blame you for hating me," she whispered.
"Dammit, Lois, stop saying that!" he demanded loudly. He grimaced, the tears starting to form in his eyes. "I don't hate you. I could never hate you. I hate myself. I hate myself for destroying Superman, for proving Trask right. You called out; you saved my life. If it hadn't been for you, Trask would have killed me. Instead, I killed him. It's over, it's done with and it's time for me to move on."
"The price you paid was too high. I made you give up part of who you are," she murmured.
Clark turned around, and glared at her, his eyes narrowed. He growled through gritted teeth. "I'd sell my soul to save you!"
"That's what you did, isn't it?" She shook her head and bit her lip. "You gave up the best part of yourself."
He stepped toward her, backing her against the door. He covered her lips with his and kissed her fiercely. It wasn't a gentle kiss or a loving kiss or even a passionate kiss. It was a demanding, angry kiss. He felt her gasp and he backed away.
He stared at her, his eyes narrowed. She opened her mouth as if to say something, but he turned away and walked off into the darkness, not willing or ready to hear whatever it was that she wanted to say to him. He forced himself to keep going and not to turn around, even when he heard her cry his name, even as she sobbed and pleaded with him not to go.
Lois watched him storm off, still stunned by what he'd said and what he'd done. She crumpled to the cold, wet, ground and shivered as she sobbed. She hated herself now more than ever. The rain pounded down on her mercilessly and she didn't care. For the first time in her life, she knew what it meant to care about someone more than you cared about yourself, and she learned just how painful that could be. Lois would have given anything, suffered anything, to make Clark whole again.
He walked quickly through the rain and was soon jogging and then running. His feet pounded on the concrete without rhythm or cadence. Clark bit his lip and grimaced, fighting the tears and the urge to simply fall to the ground and give up. He ran, not using superspeed, but he ran all the way home.
But it wasn't home anymore. In a few short hours, the apartment wouldn't be his any longer. He unlocked the door and entered the darkened apartment. He closed the door behind him and rubbed savagely at his eyes, which were welling up with tears. Clark crossed the desolate and darkened room to the phone in the corner, still plugged into the jack. Maybe he should call her and apologize, he did owe her that.
He picked up the phone and began to dial her number, but stopped suddenly. It wouldn't do any good. He couldn't fix what he'd destroyed. The image of her face, the tears in her eyes, the pleading tone of her voice as she begged his forgiveness stung him. How could she ask his forgiveness? She'd done nothing wrong. Besides, who was he to offer forgiveness? He couldn't call her. Not now, probably not again ever. Hearing her voice would be far too painful, besides, there was nothing to say. She claimed not to hate him, but that didn't make him any less deserving of her hatred.
He could still see the gentle, plaintive expression on Lois's face; he'd felt her reaching out to him, and he'd desperately wanted to reach back, to cling to her and beg her forgiveness and ask her to make all the nightmares and the haunted thoughts disappear. Instead, he'd pushed her away and shut himself off from her. Well, he'd exposed his own wounded soul first, but in the end, he'd had to reject her offer of comfort and salvation. No matter how much he wanted her to, Lois couldn't save him from himself.
Frustrated, angry, and powerless, he slammed the phone back onto the cradle, crushing both into splinters. He dropped the mess of plastic and electronics in his hands and sunk to the floor, his back against the corner. He felt his breath catch in his throat as his lip quivered. A single tear rolled down his face, but he didn't have the energy to fight it. Clark's body shuddered with a sob. His head hanging down in shame, he cried without restraint. He gave up, unable to check the tears any longer. For weeks, he'd fought them off, but he couldn't do it anymore. Clark cried for everything he'd lost and everything he'd destroyed. He cried until he was exhausted, until there were no tears left to cry.
A knocking at his door woke him. He opened his eyes and stretched himself out of the pitiful ball he'd curled up into and walked to the door. Light was filtering into the room through the windows. He'd slept until morning. Out of habit, he X rayed the door before opening it.
It was his parents.
With no small amount of trepidation, he opened the door. He'd been avoiding his parents for weeks now and he had no doubt that they were worried about him and disappointed in him; but he simply didn't know how to deal with them, how to tell them what was going on in his life.
"Clark, honey, I know you told us not to come, but we had to," his mother exclaimed as soon as she saw him. He stepped aside and nodded mutely as she walked into the apartment and hugged him. He managed to hug her back, hoping she wouldn't notice what a physical and mental wreck he was.
"Hi, Mom," he said somewhat pitifully. His father entered the apartment right behind Martha. She stepped back and Jonathan placed a reassuring hand on his son's shoulder.
"Hello, son," his father said gently.
"Don't be mad at us," Martha urged.
"I'm not," Clark managed weakly. He scrubbed a hand through his disheveled hair. He was still wearing the same clothing from the night before. It had pretty much dried since then, but he was still a mess. "Give me a second to get cleaned up, okay?" he asked before retreating to the bathroom.
He returned a bare few minutes later, having showered, shaved and dressed. He hoped that he'd managed to scrub away most of the outward signs of his misery, though he doubted that he could hide it from his parents. His mother was opening all of the cabinets in his kitchen, only to find them empty.
"Goodness, you don't even have any coffee left," she said as he walked into the kitchen.
He mumbled an unintelligible response, but she continued as if she hadn't heard anything. "I'll go out and get some coffee and bagels," she announced.
"Mom, I can go, it'll be quicker," he protested, but she raised a hand, gesturing him to stay put.
"Nonsense, I'll be back soon," she said. Martha grabbed her coat and was out the door before he could say anything more.
Clark sighed and leaned against the countertop. His parents' unexpected visit had surprised him and his equilibrium was already so badly shot that he couldn't adjust to this seemingly innocuous change in circumstances.
"Are you all right, son?" his father asked.
Clark shrugged. "I'm fine, Dad," he said.
Jonathan leaned against the counter across from his son. "It may seem like the right thing to do now, but you know that you can't run forever, right?"
"Dad," Clark protested. "It's a lot more complicated than that, you don't understand…"
"I understand better than you think," his father countered softly. Clark merely gave him a quizzical look. "I was never called to go to war," Jonathan continued. "But both of my older brothers were. I've told you about your Uncle Joseph. He was the first Kent to ever go to college. He was something. Everyone respected him. I looked up to him, wanted to be like him. He became an officer in the Marine Corps when the war in Korea broke out. Your Uncle Russell enlisted a few days later. They left together and that was the last time I saw my oldest brother." Jonathan swallowed roughly. "Russell came home two years later; he'd been wounded badly. He was just twenty-one years old. You probably want to know what this has to do with you, right?" Jonathan asked with a sad smile.
Clark nodded slightly.
"You'd probably find it hard to believe, but Russell was a practical joker. He'd been the class clown his whole life. He was always smiling; always had a great story, and he never took a damn thing seriously. He and Joseph couldn't have been more different."
Clark struggled to remember his Uncle Russell, a man he'd always regarded as brooding and serious. He vaguely recalled being little and asking his father why he didn't keep a hunting rifle around like the other kids' dads, and not understanding when his father explained that he didn't keep a gun because they bothered Uncle Russell.
"The man who came back from that war wasn't my brother. From the day he came home, to the day he died, I never saw Russell smile, not really anyway, not the way he used to before the war. He was a nervous wreck when he came back. Couldn't hold down a job, couldn't concentrate on anything. He drifted away from his family and his friends and turned his back on the woman he loved, and who loved him." His father looked downward and sighed.
"Russell didn't mean to do it, but he destroyed her life as well his own. He spent years fighting a losing battle against that war and what it did to him. He died of cancer twenty years later, angry and bitter and alone. Laura never got over losing him. She died a few years after he did. That war destroyed all three of their lives and it took away both of my brothers," Jonathan said sadly, tears welling up in his eyes. "And we had to watch. We had to sit there and watch Russell die slowly, a day at a time, and there wasn't a damn thing we could do about it. Laura tried to help him, but he shut her out just like the rest of us, and we lost him. And now, well, it feels like I'm losing you, too." His father frowned as he struggled to maintain his stoic mask
"Dad," Clark began in earnest. He'd never seen his father this emotional. When Clark's grandmother had died, his father had been sullen and despondent, but quiet in his grief. It wasn't like his father at all to be so openly emotional. "This isn't like that…"
"I know that you think it's different," his father replied. "But all the nights you can't sleep, all the time you spend thinking about what happened, the nightmares, the anger, the guilt, shutting out your mother and me, not talking to your friends, you know what I'm talking about, right?" Clark said nothing: a silent admission.
"It's textbook Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Clark, and I can see it written across your face just the way it was with Russell."
"You think this is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder?" Clark demanded. "You think I'm suffering from some, some kind of psychological problem?"
"No, Dad. This isn't shell shock. It wasn't war," Clark said angrily as he began to pace in the narrow confines of the kitchen. "I killed a man, how do you think I should feel?" He sighed and ran an agitated hand through his hair. "I just don't know. I don't know what to do, Dad," he admitted plaintively. "I feel like, I feel like I don't even know who I am anymore. All I know is that I can't stay here, I don't belong here and I need to move on. I'm sorry this has been so hard on you and Mom, I just don't know what I'm doing anymore," he confessed mournfully.
He watched his father step toward him. Jonathan embraced him in a fierce hug and Clark hugged back, as if clinging on for dear life. He closed his eyes and tried to shut out the self loathing and the guilt and the anger and tried to go back to a time when he was a little boy and a hug from his mother or father was enough to reassure him that all was right with the world.
His father stepped back and looked at him, grim faced. "Are you sure you don't want to come back home?" he asked.
Clark nodded. "I need some space, some time to think," he said.
"Don't be a stranger," Jonathan replied. "You know your mother worries about you."
"I know," Clark admitted. As if on cue, there was a knock at the door—it was his mother. He pasted on a fake smile and tried to beat back the stirred up feelings of anxiety as he opened the door.
"Breakfast," she announced as Clark took the tray of Styrofoam coffee cups from her. She produced bagels and donuts from the paper bags she was carrying and spread them out on the kitchen counter.
The conversation remained light while they ate. His mother asked him what his new job would be like and what he thought of moving to Tokyo. She asked him if he was sure that this was the right thing to do and he assured her that it was. He didn't mind his parents' concern; not really, it was comforting to know that they cared. Or at least it should have been. He didn't really want anyone else's concern. He didn't want them to worry about him. Clark almost wished that he could cut himself adrift, but he knew that he couldn't. He could never do something that would hurt his parents like that. He didn't want sympathy, but he wasn't going to upset them.
They finished eating and his parents wished him a safe journey and reminded him to call and visit often. His parents said goodbye to him, giving him time to turn his keys over to the landlord and get to the airport. They left his apartment to spend the day in Metropolis before flying back to Kansas. Alone again, he reminded himself that he was doing the right thing—that he'd made the right decision.
If he'd thought that life had been miserable before, he was now discovering how much worse it could get. Clark sat on a plane bound for Tokyo, shifting uncomfortably in his seat. He hated flying like this. He hated it with a passion. His parents' unexpected visit had taken his mind off Lois, at least for a while, but now, he couldn't stop thinking about her. Clark felt ill. The guilt was tearing him apart from the inside out. He supposed that some good had come of last night; at least he'd told Lois that she wasn't to blame, that he didn't hate her, although given the other things he'd done and said, he wondered if that message had been lost. She might not have hated him before, but after last night, he was positive that she did now. Perhaps it was all for the best. He needed to burn down every bridge, sever every tie. The siren call of Metropolis was too seductive, too tempting; he needed every possible reason to never return there. Believing that Lois hated him served as vital leverage.
The plane began to bounce as they hit a patch of turbulence. Clark sighed uneasily. He was seated in the middle section of a crowded 747 with no legroom and away from the aisles and the windows. The passengers around him had all been asleep; though the jostling of the plane had awoken a few of them. They were somewhere over the Pacific, still a few hours away from Honolulu and his last connection.
Clark was in hell.
Lois sat on her sofa, her legs tucked underneath her and a cup of tea in her hands. She sipped the warm liquid as she stared out the window at the rain. She'd taken the day off. Perry had been understanding, but she was certain that he'd been surprised, too. He'd have to tell everyone today that Clark was gone. Clark had really done it. He'd left.
She couldn't help but relive last night over and over again. Clark had told her that he didn't hate her, he'd told her angrily that she wasn't to blame, and she could tell somehow, she could see it in his eyes that he was telling her the truth. Lois couldn't forget that raw, pained look in his eyes when he'd said that he'd sell his soul to save her. She'd been taken aback by that declarative statement and yet that was nothing to the shock she'd suffered when he'd kissed her. She'd kissed Clark before; he was a great kisser, she thought absently, gentle but with a latent hint of passion burning beneath; that day on Trask's plane had proved that beyond a shadow of a doubt. But yesterday, his kiss had been fierce and devoid of passion. It wasn't cold, exactly. It was far too emotional. She'd been able to almost feel what he was feeling: confusion, anger, frustration, and tension.
And sadness. Incredible sadness.
As he'd backed away from her, he'd stared at her with those deep, troubled eyes of his. He was the ghost of Clark Kent, haunting her, day and night. She'd watched a single tear fall from his eye and roll down his cheek. It was soon obscured by the falling rain, but she knew what she'd seen, and the image was burned into her mind.
Clark truly was the best person she'd ever met. Lois had never known anyone that selfless, that kind. To know how much he was suffering was quietly tearing her apart. He didn't hate her. But how could he possibly hate himself? How was it that he couldn't see how special he was?
'Gee, Lois, and you were the one putting him down a few months ago,' her conscience snapped irritably at her. How could she have been so blind? How could she have missed the connection between Clark and Superman? How could she not see that all the wonderful things that made her fall in love with Superman were embodied in her partner as well?
Perhaps she was simply too shallow and too much of a slave to her own stereotypes to admit that an ordinary man could truly be as extraordinary as Clark. She saw what she expected to see in him and nothing more. And now, she was learning just how much more there was to that Kansas farm boy.
She felt a tear slip down her face; Lois had been crying a lot lately. The relief that came from learning that Clark didn't hate her had been short-lived. He was half a world away now, most likely suffering quietly and alone. But if he didn't hate her, why couldn't he stay? Why couldn't he keep being her partner? Why was he making himself go through this alone?
Clark sat at his desk, editing the copy on his computer screen. His brow furrowed as he tried to make sense of a colloquialism that he wasn't familiar with and that clearly hadn't translated well into English. He reread the sentence several times before the meaning of the phrase finally dawned on him and he quickly replaced it with something that would make more sense to the many English- speaking readers who got their news from the International Daily Times.
He looked up, staring out the high-rise office window at the crowded and impressive Tokyo skyline. Tokyo was a city like many others, loud, busy, crowded, and exciting. Unlike many other major cities, though, Clark couldn't hide here. He stuck out in a land where according to a popular proverb, it was the nail that stuck out that got hit with the hammer.
Tokyo was unique in many ways, unlike anywhere else he'd ever been, but it held no allure for him. The bright lights that put Times Square and Piccadilly Circus to shame, the crowded streets, and fast paced lifestyle should have been intriguing, but he found himself overcome with apathy toward his surroundings and just about everything else. The easy access to some of the world's greatest fish markets and exotic cuisine was something he hadn't taken advantage of, mainly because he rarely ate. He'd been in the city for almost a month, and despite the fact that Beethoven's Ninth Symphony was performed every single night of the year somewhere in Tokyo and that he really liked that particular work, he hadn't even bothered considering going to see it.
Clark had down just about everything possible to avoid drawing attention to himself. He went to work in the morning, taking the subway from his small apartment to the office building that was home to the International Daily Times as well as the regional bureaus of Agence France, the Associated Press, and other major international news services. The International Daily Times Asia Headquarters was larger than a typical regional bureau. The paper was the standard bearer for English language international news and so its regional offices were more than simply sorting locations for newswire and syndicated articles. Its staff consisted of two full time reporters, a part time stringer, an intern, the bureau chief, his secretary, the night editor, the regional correspondent, and Clark. The business of the office was conducted in English, but his Japanese was near perfect already, though there were still plenty of slang and informal expressions with which he wasn't yet familiar.
Clark didn't fit in here. He was, at best, a very polite houseguest in Japan. He'd learned the language, taken pains not to rock the boat or breach any of the important traditions or social mores, and had done his best to remain unobtrusive, but this wasn't a life. Trying to be a ghost didn't change the fact that he was a stranger in a strange land and a lonely one at that.
Being alone had done little to calm his nerves; it had in fact exacerbated his agitated state. Loud noises, like cars backfiring, caused him to jump, his heart rate spiking in response and his mind and body both going into immediate panic mode. Mercifully, there were far fewer gun crimes in Tokyo than there had been in Metropolis. The sound of gunfire was enough to make him go rigid with tension and fear. He still couldn't sleep, and now suffered from daytime flashbacks instead of simple nightmares. The smells of gasoline and smoke were enough to trigger the flashback attacks. The vaguest reminders of that day were enough to send him back to that afternoon. He'd relive every detail: the sounds of the gunshots, the smell of smoke in the crisp autumn air, the cold, wet clothing that clung to his skin, the burning pain in his lungs from the kryptonite, the dizziness and the nausea, the taste of bile in his throat.
He'd been home a few times since coming to Japan. Clark knew his parents worried and it wasn't too much to ask of him to go home occasionally to see them. Nevertheless, each trip home would only cause him greater psychological exhaustion. The farm, too, would often trigger the flashbacks; the smell of the air, the sounds, they were no longer comforting symbols of home. He couldn't even venture out to the duck pond anymore-the memories it evoked were so intense as to totally incapacitate him. It was a terrifying experience, to be captive to waking nightmares like that. It was as though he'd been evicted from the driver's seat in his own mind. He'd been shanghaied by specters and paranoia. His life had turned into a runaway train heading for the end of the track and he was a hapless passenger, waiting to be obliterated in a spectacular crash. The lack of control was totally foreign to him; the feeling of impotence filled him with fury and at the same time caused him to cower like a child.
And sometimes, it was like he'd stepped outside himself, and was watching the entire tragicomedy of errors happen to someone else. As much as he wanted to muster up some sympathy for the poor bastard fumbling for some measly control over his own existence, he couldn't. When he wasn't gripped by fear, he was overwhelmed by nihilistic morbidity and ennui that were equally foreign to him.
The battle between his fear and his apathy raged within him. There were nights he had to fight back the tears for fear that if he started crying, he wouldn't be able to stop. The sounds of sirens and calls for help were driving him insane. More frightening, there were times when he just couldn't make himself care about anything at all. He couldn't see the point to anything, and he couldn't have cared less what happened to himself or the world around him for that matter. He felt no desire to interact with his coworkers, to visit his parents, or keep in touch with his friends. All he wanted was to be left alone.
His colleagues at the office seemed perfectly content to give him a wide berth and paid him little mind. Mr. Kazami was a hands off editor who allowed his staff to work independently and he interfered as little as possible. He generally had his hands full coordinating with the other bureau chiefs of the paper, anyway. The two full time reporters on staff were both bachelors in their early thirties and typical workaholics. Being reporters, though, they gossiped like little old ladies and so had known all about Clark well before he'd started working in the office. They exchanged formal pleasantries with him, but no more. They probably thought that he was well out of earshot when they spoke about him. Koichi Yoshiro, the senior reporter, had remarked on occasion that Clark may have been an American, but the only thing loud and obnoxious about him were his ties. The two men speculated a bit as to whether or not Clark had always been so aloof and so unlike the stereotypical American, or if it had been the incident that had driven him from his old job that had made him so distant.
Clark mentally shook himself and turned around to face the source of the voice calling his name. Setsuko Igarashi, the other full time reporter, was standing behind his desk. Clark hadn't heard him approach, so lost had he been in his own musings.
"Will you need a rewrite on that story?" Setsuko asked him.
"Huh? Oh, no, it's all right," Clark replied absently. He looked back down at the copy, there wasn't much left that he needed to do with it. He'd have it done on time to be sent out on the wire. Being an editor was far less interesting than being a reporter, more so because the only stories in Japan that the International Daily Times readers cared about were the impending trade wars between this country and the US and the end of the dominant political party's forty five year control over the Diet, neither of which were particularly exciting to him.
While the work wasn't very interesting, it should have required only a minimal effort on his part. He knew the arcane grammar rules of written English inside and out and was able to proofread far more quickly than a typical editor. As it was, he could barely force himself to concentrate on his work. He managed to make a full time job out of what should have taken him far less time, but he got his work done by deadline and so he was generally left alone.
He finished up the work on the article and sent it via the office network to Mr. Kazami, before shutting off his computer. He grabbed his overcoat, another day gone, just like the one before it. He left the office unnoticed and headed toward the subway. Even in a crowd of similarly dressed business people, all quickly walking with their heads down, Clark stuck out—too tall, too Western looking, too content to walk at a slower pace than the people racing around him—as though everything about him screamed 'I don't belong here.'
Lois sat at her desk, rubbing her temples. The glow of the monitor she'd been staring at for hours was making her eyes hurt. Her investigation of Lex Luthor was going exactly nowhere. A week after Clark had left, the entire newsroom had been sprayed by a pheromone compound. The entire Daily Planet staff spent the next forty-eight hours pursuing amorous adventures—well, almost the entire staff. While Cat dug her claws into the copy repairman and Jimmy and Perry nearly got themselves sued for sexual harassment, Lois had been investigating the source of the Planet's lovesickness. She'd been sprayed like everyone else, but seemed entirely unaffected by the compound, leaving her still in control of her faculties and able to trace the pheromone back to a chemist named Miranda who'd been on Lex Luthor's payroll.
Lois had had dinner with Lex that night; she'd still been attempting to secure that exclusive interview and didn't want to arouse any suspicion by backing out of it, despite her misgivings. Lex had behaved quite oddly; he'd come onto her in rather crude fashion, given his generally urbane demeanor. She'd deduced rather quickly that Lex, too, had been sprayed with the pheromone, which meant that he was still in contact with Miranda, though it seemed unlikely that he was complicit in whatever her plan was.
Her suspicions, however, had not been allayed. Lex had clearly bankrolled the project to create the pheromone and while it didn't seem as though he would possibly benefit from Miranda's plot to spray all of Metropolis with the 100% solution of the pheromone, she remained skeptical of his motives. Something about Lex struck her as odd, and disingenuous. She no longer viewed him as Metropolis's principal benefactor, but instead as a potentially dangerous misanthrope. Lois lacked the proof necessary to tie him to any criminal activity; all she had so far were several tenuous links to rather unsavory and suspicious business dealings, but nothing more than one would expect to find in connection with one of the richest men in the world.
Miranda's attempt to expose all of Metropolis to her compound had been narrowly averted. The chemist had attempted to lure Lois to an unpleasant end, but Lois's immediate response had been to tip off the Special Crimes Unit of the Metropolis Police Department. A few months ago, she would have most likely walked right in to the trap without so much as a moment's pause. Since that time, she'd realized how many times she'd escaped an untimely demise thanks to fate and not a little divine intervention in the form of a certain caped hero.
Too many times, she'd relied to Superman-Clark-to rescue her from the dangerous situations she'd gotten herself into. The knowledge of what had happened the last time he'd had to save her was enough to force her to reevaluate her behavior. She couldn't count on someone else to constantly save her and if she hoped to survive to see twenty-seven, she'd have to learn to be more careful. That didn't mean that she no longer took risks, it simply meant that she was a lot quicker to tip off the police or to at least let Perry know when she was going to chase a dangerous lead. Ninety-nine per cent of the time, she could take care of herself, but having been kidnapped on multiple occasions in the past, she'd finally learned that getting rescued was less complicated when someone knew where you were supposed to be.
She'd bagged an exclusive and the Metropolis Police Department had arrested Miranda before her plans had gotten off the ground, literally. She supposed she'd been lucky to have been completely unaffected by the pheromone; if she'd spent two days completely incapacitated and otherwise *indisposed* she would never have been able to track down Miranda in time. Cat had loudly proclaimed that Lois's immunity to the pheromone proved that she wasn't merely frigid, but completely asexual. Cat's attitude toward Lois had obviously changed significantly in the past several weeks. All vestiges of sympathy and basic humanity had been duly jettisoned and Cat was back to her prowling self.
Lois supposed that in another time and place, Cat's comments would have elicited a contemptuous response and not so subtle retorts regarding Cat's own proclivities. Now, however, she simply lacked the energy to respond. She did wonder, albeit fleetingly, as to why the pheromone seemed to have no effect on her. The simplest and most logical answer was the dearth of men in her age group at work. Well, there a few, okay more than a few, but they were all jerks. There was no way she was even the slightest bit attracted to any of them and she'd learned that pheromones only reduce inhibitions, they wouldn't cause one to fall desperately in lust with anyone to whom they weren't already attracted.
So she supposed it was a good thing that she worked with a bunch of louts, although for two days she'd felt like the only sane person in the loony bin. She really could have used Clark's help then.
He was never far from her thoughts. Lois missed him terribly. In the interceding weeks, the sadness had waned significantly. The guilt, too, was gone. There was no way she could legitimately hold herself responsible for what had happened. She was angry now-angry with a dead man who'd managed to destroy Clark in a way he could have never imagined. If she and Hank hadn't arrived when they had, Trask would have killed Clark and then most likely, gone after Clark's parents. Lois had done the only thing she could have done in that situation. She'd warned Clark. Even if she could have foreseen that Trask would turn his aim toward her, forcing Clark to kill him, what else could she have done? She damn well wasn't about to let Clark die. She only wished there had been another way. Instead, Clark, whose stubbornness rivaled her own, was now half way around the world and she was still trying to adjust to life without her partner, and she had to admit, her friend.
She was angry with him, too. Angry with him for running away, for not letting anyone help him, for being too proud and obstinate, and too full of self-hatred to realize that he didn't have to go through this alone.
She mentally shook herself. This was no time for bitter ruminations on a past she couldn't change. She had an investigation to conduct and though she'd amassed exactly nothing so far, Lois knew she was onto something. She felt it in her gut, that feeling that only great reporters got when despite all the evidence to the contrary, something on a visceral level just didn't add up right. It was a hunch, a jump of death, hang by your fingernails leap of logic that would require her to pull clues out of the air and find evidence where none existed. It was one of those rare investigations that made great journalists, she was sure of it. On an intuitive level, she was more certain that she was right about Luthor than she was of anything else in the world. Now she just needed the corroborative evidence. Lois turned back to the financial records she was researching. If only these great cases weren't 90% drudgery, 10% fear for your life terror. She was growing tired of the former.
Clark bolted upright in bed yet again. He tilted his head slightly to one side and listened to the sounds of another cry for help. He fell back and buried his head in his pillow, trying to cover his ears to muffle the sound. His body tensed as he tried and failed miserably to block out the haunting sound of someone else in desperate need of help. Clark screamed aloud in frustration. Every instinct he possessed railed against his conscious mind, demanding that he get up, go, and help; do what only he had the ability to do.
He got out of bed and stood beside his window, staring out into the dark night. A heavy blanket of clouds shrouded the sky. The lights of the densely crowded city twinkled serenely all around him. In the distance, he could see the immense Tokyo Tower, spiking upward, a singular red and white aberration among the more typical looking edifices all around it. The cramped buildings assembled in Tokyo's jagged skyline encircled his little apartment complex, closing in on him, creating the stifling sense of discomfort and stirring in him an odd, unsettled feeling of claustrophobia. It was a city without a square inch of open space; every usable little bit had been appropriated to accommodate a bourgeoning megalopolis with a teeming population; a shrine to progress, modern engineering and impersonal, utilitarian architecture.
To a typical person whose senses had been handicapped by the limitations of humanity, the view from his window would have been a serene one of a quiet night in a prodigious city where, for just a fleeting moment in time, everything was still, and the vast city slumbered peacefully. Not for the first time, he wanted bitterly to have his senses stopped up like that, to have a giant mute placed over the city, filtering out the sounds of night in urban center.
He heard the cry again and stepped forward, as though he were going to leap out his window clad only in his boxer shorts. He stilled.
And something inside him snapped.
Clark couldn't do this anymore. He couldn't allow his selfish self-loathing cost someone else their life. And yet he couldn't resurrect Superman. Clark had no right to pretend to be the paragon of virtue any longer. He couldn't live with the hypocrisy of it.
Clark spun and when he stopped, he was dressed in all black with a black overcoat. He took off under the cover of darkness and headed toward the sounds of the haunting pleas for assistance.
He careened through the cold night air, high above the city, protected from sight by the dense fog. From above the city streets, he zeroed in on the band of thugs apparently attacking a young couple. Tuning in the senses that he'd cursed not a minute earlier, he noted that the man was lying on the ground, under the light of a sickly yellow street lamp, unconscious, but not injured too badly. The woman, whose cries he'd heard, was yet physically unharmed but in no small degree of peril. The attackers were three in number and it appeared that they were armed with knives.
Clark judged his approach as he drew closer. He didn't have the benefit of Superman's public presence any more. As much as he wanted to do this the right way, there were things that were more important than following the procedures. He slowed, but did not stop. Instead, he dove toward the three attackers, grabbing all three from behind and pulling them away from their intended victims.
He tossed all three roughly into the dark alley just behind him, careful not to actually injure them. In the cover of near total darkness, he faced the attack from his three disoriented and confused opponents. He knew that they couldn't really see him, and by moving quickly he was fairly certain that they'd never be able to guess how many of him there were. He dodged the wildly thrown punches and swipes of his attackers with ease. When they overcompensated to keep themselves from falling down after connecting with nothing but air, he'd put them in one of many well practiced holds, either throwing them to the ground or returning with a carefully judged punch of his own, always careful to avoid using anything more than human strength. It wasn't long before he'd disarmed and tied up all three of them with nothing more than a handful of scrapes, bruises, and sore spots among the lot of them.
He took off into the sky once again, drifting about high overhead as he monitored the situation and waited for the police to arrive. When he was satisfied that everything was under control. He took off toward his apartment but was soon detoured by another call for help.
He blinked his eyes open as he rolled over to stare at his digital alarm clock. He didn't remember shutting it off, but he clearly had less than fifteen minutes to get to work. Clark groaned as he threw back the bedclothes, swung his legs over and sat up, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. He padded barefoot to the bathroom, thinking about the odd dream he'd had that night. He nearly stumbled over a pile of laundry and looked down.
The clothes were all black.
He hadn't been dreaming.
He sighed as he scrubbed a hand through his hair. So he really had spent all night out playing vigilante. He closed his eyes and tried to clear his mind, but there was nothing he could do about it now, he had to get to work. He zipped into the bathroom and showered and dressed quickly. Clark didn't have time to ponder what had happened and what he was planning on doing about it. He had to get to work.
"Lois!" Perry's voice boomed across the newsroom. "What have you got for me?" the gruff editor-in-chief exclaimed.
"Perry, it's my day off!" Lois snapped back. She looked up from her computer terminal, dressed in jeans and a Metropolis U. sweatshirt. She'd come in around ten that morning, telling herself that it was just a quick stop at the Planet, and after returning a few phone calls, and checking on the research she'd asked Jimmy to gather for her, she found herself at her computer, her notes spread out before her, it was just like any other day of the week, except she was ignoring the dress code.
"Oh, right," Perry grumbled. "Then what are you doing here?"
"Research!" she shouted back.
Perry grunted in response and retreated back into his office.
Lois turned back to the thick files on her desk. She had a few stories on the back burner, but she was here working on her own time on a project the Planet wasn't paying her for, and if Legal knew about it, they'd probably have her hide for it. "Jimmy!" she shouted without looking up.
"Yes, Lois," a voice replied from directly behind her and she realized that the young man had been standing not four feet away. She spun around in her chair.
"Jimmy, I need you to do some digging for me. I need a list of all the major crimes committed in Metropolis, unsolved and solved ones, from the last six months that would have cost over a hundred grand to pull off."
"Is that all?" Jimmy joked.
"No," Lois replied flatly. "I need a list of every significant corporation and executive implicated in these crimes as well as a complete listing of every company and corporation that Lex Corps owns or in which Lex Luthor himself has a controlling interest. And I need it as soon as possible."
"Big story, Lois?" Jimmy quipped.
"Not yet. And do not tell anyone about this, got it?"
Jimmy held his hands up defensively. "Hey, I'm not saying a word to anyone. It might take a couple of days, though."
"Just get it to me as soon as you can. Thanks, Jimmy, I owe you one." She replied as she stuffed her notes in her attach‚ case and shut off her computer.
"Leaving already?" Jimmy asked, looking at his watch.
It was just after six pm. "It's my day off," Lois explained as she rushed toward the elevators, leaving Jimmy alone to mumble to himself something about actually not coming to work on one's day off.
She jabbed the button for the basement, instead of the lobby and waited while the doors slid closed and the elevator slowly descended. The doors opened again on the first subterranean level — the mailroom. The sorting room was locked up. The whole floor was deserted and dimly lit, the mailroom staff having already left for the day. Lois dug around in her bag and pulled out a business-sized envelope. She held it tightly in her hands for a moment, still deliberating over whether or not to send it. She could drop it in the inter-bureau post box or it could join its dozen predecessors in a junk drawer in her bedroom, never again to see the light of day, even though they'd been spared the incinerator. Lois sighed and dropped the letter in the mail slot. She heard the soft sound of the nondescript white envelope falling onto the pile of mail to be sorted and delivered. She held up the metal flap on the mail slot and looked down at the letter. It was literally out of her hands now. Not certain if she'd done the right thing, she found herself wishing the little letter good luck anyway.
He made it to work on time, but just barely. Sitting down at his desk, he sorted through his mail and turned on his computer. He checked his schedule for the day before getting up to get himself a cup of tea. Clark sat back down at his desk, intent on beginning his work, but he found himself incapable of focusing. His mind began to wander to the events of the early hours of the morning. He escaped into the familiar world of self-castigation and recriminations and felt the first spark of frustration start to grow inside him. He nursed it like a tiny fire, holding on to the feeling, feeding it and letting it grow inside him, because feeling anything, even guilt and frustration, was better than being numb.
What was he doing? What had he been thinking? He could have been discovered!
But he hadn't been.
That didn't matter, he told himself. It wasn't as if he could carry on like this. Someone was bound to get hurt because of his behavior.
People would have gotten hurt if he hadn't acted. And people had been getting hurt night after night because of his inaction, his mind countered.
He was torn, conflicted and had no idea what to do. He wanted to scream aloud.
"Huh?" he exclaimed as he nearly leapt out of his chair. His arm tensed and he spilled the scalding tea all over his lap.
"I'm so sorry!" the voice behind him exclaimed. "Are you all right? Did you burn yourself?"
He turned around to assure Noriko that he was fine. With a wan smile he excused himself to go get cleaned up.
Clark did the best he could to clean up the tea in the men's room. He could have used heat vision to dry it, but realized he'd probably ruin his slacks if he did. He started back toward the newsroom but stopped when he heard his colleagues' voices. He heard his name. They were talking about him.
"The tea was still scalding, he must have burned himself terribly," Noriko said regretfully. "But he didn't react at all, it was like he didn't even notice. He was so tense, I didn't mean to startle him."
"He's been like that since he arrived," Setsuko added.
"Well, I'm certain you would be too, if you were him," Koichi replied pointedly.
"What do you mean?" Noriko demanded.
"You have been out in the field too long, haven't you, dear?" Koichi asked. Clark could hear the faint note of condescension in his voice. "Don't you remember, a few months ago there was a story about the two Planet reporters who were almost killed by some military agent out in the middle of nowhere in America? One of those reporters was the one who first interviewed Superman, Lois Lane. Her partner killed a man to save her life."
"It wasn't…" Noriko began.
"Clark Kent, of course," Koichi continued.
"I don't believe it." Noriko's voice was tinged with incredulity.
"That's because you've never seen Lois Lane," Koichi grunted. "He shot a man for her and look what it's done to the poor fool. I hope she was at least grateful."
Clark had heard enough. His feet felt as though they were cemented to the ground but he managed to walk back to the newsroom. The three stopped talking as he entered the room; Noriko and Setsuko guiltily avoided eye contact with him. Koichi, however, simply nodded slightly in his direction.
"I'm very sorry, Clark," Noriko apologized again.
"It's fine, don't worry about it," Clark replied, more curtly than he'd intended. He crossed the small newsroom to his desk and sat down, hoping his work would distract him. It didn't. Every few minutes he glanced up to see what the three of them were doing. He wasn't sure what had made him angrier: his colleagues' discussion, or the fact that he couldn't deny any of it. They all thought he'd been driven insane.
Well, had he?
Where did that thought come from? They were wrong, he mused angrily to himself. That wasn't it at all. They didn't understand, how could they? How could they know what it was like to have that kind of responsibility? To have that sort of weight on your shoulders and fail miserably? They didn't know what it was like, they couldn't know. One thing bothered him more than the rest. He wasn't simply besotted with a beautiful woman, and in a lust induced haze, led to kill. He had been and still was, completely in love with Lois. She wasn't just his partner and friend, and a gorgeous woman to whom he was extremely attracted. She was everything that mattered to him and he would have done anything for her, regardless of the cost to himself.
If he wasn't already insane, all this thinking about a woman he could never have and a life he could never get back were quickly going to drive him there.
He turned the letter over carefully again, as if flipping it around again would give him the courage to open it. The reverse was blank, just as it had been before. He dropped the letter on his coffee table and began to pace. It had arrived a few days ago and he'd immediately begun referring to it as 'it.'
'It' had just appeared one day on his desk, an innocuous looking letter at first blush, but of course, it wasn't that simple. He'd noticed the Daily Planet Logo in the upper left hand corner, along with the Metropolis address. A bright red 'Inter Bureau Post' stamp was pressed across it. It was addressed to him in fine cursive script. The rich blue ink had bled deeply into the pores of the crisp white envelope.
He recognized the handwriting immediately. It wasn't her typical scribbled out scratches—the barely legible ones she scrawled across her many beaten up notebooks. It was unusually neat, deliberate, as though she'd taken great care in merely addressing the envelope. If she'd put that much effort in the clean, even pen strokes that made up his name and department, he wasn't sure he wanted to see what was on the inside.
In a way, he was safer not knowing; opening the envelope would require reconnecting with a past that he was slowly trying to convince himself had only been a dream.
At the same time, he wanted to know. He needed to know. Clark was certain that if he could just open it and read what she'd written there that he'd somehow… that he'd be able to see her face again, that he'd hear her voice saying the words aloud, that if he could see her handwriting, he'd be able to imagine her sitting at her desk, pen in her graceful, delicate, perfect hand as she wrote. He could imagine her frowning slightly, biting her lip the way she always did when she was concentrating. He wanted to know what she'd written here to him. Even if she'd written to tell him how angry she was with him. Even if she never wanted to have anything to do with him ever again, he needed to know.
But not yet. He stared down at the envelope on the coffee table and picked it up again. Clark floated up to the ceiling, letter in hand, and began to pace again. He began to X ray the envelope just slightly, trying to get a peek at what was inside. He sighed in frustration. This was ridiculous. It was his letter, for crying out loud. He could open it and read it if he wanted to! And dammit, that was exactly what he was going to do!
Without a second thought, he tore the envelope open and removed the letter. He unfolded the several pages and began to read.
I don't know how to start this, although I've tried plenty of times already, so I'm just going to go ahead and say what I want to say. I miss you.
I hope you're doing well and that everything is all right. I hope that whatever you're looking for, you've found. And I hope that the peace of mind that had escaped you here is finally yours. I hope you've forgiven yourself, and that you're happy. I hope for all of these things because you deserve them. More than anyone I've ever met, you deserve to be happy.
I never really said it properly, but thank you. You saved my life, not once, but on many occasions. I don't know if you'll ever want to speak to me again, and if you don't, I'll understand, but I needed to tell you how very grateful I am.
I'm not certain whether you'll ever be able to look back on your time in Metropolis and remember it fondly, but I always will. No matter what you've convinced yourself as of late, your coming here made the world a better place. Superman made the world a better place, because he gave each and every one of us hope. I hope you'll remember that. And that Clark Kent made my world a better place by being my friend. Even if I can never get that back, I hope that you won't hold it against me if I continue to hold onto those memories.
Sometimes the memories are so vivid it's hard to distinguish them from reality, like a waking dream. Like those mornings when I reach for the cup of coffee that you'd always place on my desk, only to realize that it isn't there, and to wonder just how long you'd been doing that and how exactly you'd known just how I liked it-with skim milk and one of those little artificial sugar packets. Or those times when I'm working on an investigation and I've hit a dead end and I look over at your desk, and I wonder why you're not there to brainstorm ideas with me. And sometimes, I look back, fully expecting you to be standing over my shoulder, editing my copy. I always hated that-until the day I looked back and for the first time realized that you weren't there any more and that you never would be again.
I never thought I'd enjoy having a partner. I never thought I'd miss having someone to work with. And I don't miss having just someone to work with; I miss having you to work with. You're the only partner I could ever stand, you know that? Sometimes I wonder if one day, I'll see you again. I want you to be happy, but I'd be lying if I said that I don't hold on to the hope that one day, you'll come back. You know, Clark, you're as stubborn as I am, but sometimes I swear I'm not leaving here until you return.
It isn't fair, you know. You were only here a few months, and yet you managed to turn my whole world upside down. You came into my life and everything changed for the better. I came into yours and I'm afraid everything changed for the worse. You're the best friend I ever had. I only wish I could have been the same kind of friend to you. I learned to trust you, so easily, so quickly, I didn't even realize that it had happened. I knew implicitly, that I could turn to you, but I never offered you the same support, did I? I couldn't be your confidante, the person you could be vulnerable around without ever feeling weak.
Painful memories are supposed to fade with time and distance, but these just won't go away. I can't banish these demons, and I don't even know if I'm supposed to. There's more than enough guilt lying between us for a lifetime; there's no need to relive it here. I'm not even sure if you care anymore, but I had to write to you. I had to let you know. I hope that when you get this letter, you'll write me back or better, call me-I miss the sound of your voice-but I'll understand if you don't. Whatever you do, be happy, don't deny yourself that.
He looked up from the letter and realized that at some point he'd stopped pacing on the ceiling and was now sitting on the couch. Clark read the letter again, this time more slowly, trying to divine the true meaning of each word, guessing and second guessing at what she'd been thinking when she'd written each sentence.
She was asking him to get on with his life, to find happiness again and to forgive himself. He sighed despondently. He would do anything for Lois Lane.
Walk on water?
Fly to the dark side of the moon?
In a heartbeat.
Move a mountain?
Stop the sun in the sky?
Pull the stars out of the heavens?
He didn't have to be asked twice.
But this? He didn't even know *how* to do this.
"Hey Lois, I'm running down to the deli, you want anything?" Jimmy called from across the newsroom.
Lois looked up, having heard her name. "What was that, Jimmy?" she asked.
"Lunch, you want a sandwich or something?" the young man reiterated.
"Huh? Oh, sure, pastrami on rye," she replied, looking back down at her notes.
"Pastrami on rye it is," Jimmy responded.
"Thanks, Jimmy," she said belatedly, but looked up to find that he had already left. She sighed and turned back to her work. Thick folders were stacked all around her desk, creating a protective shield between her and the newsroom. Buried in work, she could practically hide behind the considerable piles, oblivious to the goings on of the rest of the newsroom. She stopped working and peered over the barricade for the fifth time in half an hour. Where was the mail clerk? He was late, she mused. Lois looked at her watch. Seven minutes late. She heard the 'ping' of the elevator and spun around. The doors slid open and Eduardo and Cat stepped out. Lois scowled and turned back to her latest story.
Unfortunately, the piece she was currently working on had nothing to do with the tall stacks of research perched on every square inch of her desk. No, her investigation into Lex Luthor had taken a back seat to an investigation of campaign finance irregularities in the election of the junior senator from the great state of New Troy. She pored over page after page of insipid convoluted statutes from the Senate Rules Committee as well as the latest laughable attempt at campaign finance reform enacted a few years prior.
The tenth rereading of a senseless paragraph that was more accurately one big long chain of dependent clauses, qualifiers and exceptions on some subject she could no longer remember caused her eyes to glaze over. Frustrated, she dropped the statute on her desk unceremoniously and fought the urge to launch into a string of insults and unpleasant names for the bombastic idiots who wrote this stuff. She turned mournfully to the other documents for the investigation-the Senator's expenditures reports-and wondered how much she'd have to bribe someone in accounting to get help making sense of them.
Lois pointedly reminded herself that investigating Luthor would no doubt require an even greater commitment to searching through financial records and similar boring documents. That was different, though, her mind countered. If it meant knocking the third richest man in the world off his pedestal, she'd put up with an awful lot.
The elevator chimed again and she found herself turning around quickly to see if the mail had finally arrived. The sight of Jimmy standing there with several large brown paper bags instead of the mail clerk with the mail cart full of correspondence was rather disappointing. The rest of the newsroom, however, was more enthusiastic about his arrival. A chaotic mob of hungry reporters descended on the young photographer, who was left trying to figure out who ordered what. When, at last, he came over to deliver her sandwich, she mumbled her thanks and turned back to her work.
It was a while before she remembered the sandwich on her desk and absently took a bite of it. She grimaced-it was ice cold. Lois looked at her watch again impatiently and with a frustrated sigh, pushed the sandwich to a tiny, uncovered corner of her desk and focused again on her work.
She snapped up at the sound of her name, startled and prepared to tear the head off whoever had crept up on her and surprised her. That thought instantly gave way to a far more pleasant feeling as she realized that the person who'd done the startling was Phil, the mail clerk.
"Hi Phil, what have you got for me?" she replied pleasantly.
"Just this," he responded with a knowing grin as he handed her a thick stack of mail. "Have a good one," he said as he pushed the mail cart away from her desk and across the bullpen floor.
"You too," she replied as she flipped through the stack of mail—reimbursement check from the accounting department, the National Organization of Women Journalists monthly newsletter, death threat from psychotic megalomaniacal criminal she and Clark had put in jail and who was currently serving twelve back to back life sentences, about a dozen or so plain looking envelopes from addresses she didn't recognize-a combination of fan mail and hate mail, no doubt, as a reporter she generally got about four times as much hate mail as fan mail, but she'd grown used to it, surveillance equipment bills, a priority envelope from Senator Michlin's office-she set that one aside with a self-satisfied smile-a bill from the Press Club, and…
She flipped through the mail one more time. She hadn't missed anything. Nothing again.
It had been three weeks since she'd sent that letter.
And no response yet.
The Planet tracked its inter-bureau post. It had arrived at the Asia Headquarters fifteen days ago. It wasn't that she was expecting a response, really, given how mad Clark had been when he'd left, and how they hadn't spoken since then. She was simply hoping for one. It was a stupid, idle wish; she knew that, on one level anyway. Yet she couldn't help holding out hope that one of these days, there'd be a letter waiting for her. Everyday she experienced the same nervous anticipation when the mail arrived and everyday, she was dealt the exact same disappointment. It didn't matter that she expected the disappointment, it hurt anyway.
She sighed as she leaned back in her chair. Lois found herself completely apathetic to the notion of getting any more work done.
"Lois! My office, now!" Perry barked from across the newsroom. She dragged herself out of her chair, unsure what her editor wanted, and headed for his office.
"Yeah?" she said indifferently from his doorway.
"Come on in and close the door," he said from behind his desk. She did as he asked and took a seat in front of his desk.
"I want you to go home," Perry said flatly.
"What?!" Lois exclaimed, leaning forward in her chair almost as though she were going to leap out of it.
"You're here before I am, you won't leave until I practically throw you out of the newsroom, and I know that some nights you come back. You come in here on your days off. If you won't go voluntarily, I'll have you tossed out of the newsroom, got it?"
"Perry, be reasonable!"
"I will not!" Perry exclaimed loudly. "This is not a request or an invitation. This is an order. I'm still your boss, I run this paper and I'm telling you that I don't want to see you in this newsroom any time during the rest of the day or tomorrow for that matter."
"But, Perry…" she began as she jumped out of her chair and began to pace.
"Whatever it is, I don't want to hear it!" Perry replied standing up as well. "Lois, you've been working too hard, you need to take a break, rest, try to relax, maybe even have fun. You are my best reporter, but you're no use to me if you burn yourself out," he continued more gently.
"I am not burned out," she replied defensively.
"You're on a collision course with bad news, darlin', and it's time to jump this calamity train."
She didn't even bother trying to mentally unpack Perry's idiosyncratic metaphor, instead going straight to the offensive. "Like you're one to talk, Perry, you never take a vacation, why are you trying to make me take one? And don't give me any of this 'I've got your best interests at heart' nonsense, I'm an adult, I can take care of myself."
"Lois, I know you don't need someone to look after you, but think about the last few months. You've been working yourself into the ground. Your work is still first rate, but there's this pessimistic edge to it that wasn't there before. I know Clark's leaving was rough on you…"
"This isn't about him, don't try to make it about him," she snapped angrily.
"Then what is it about?" Perry demanded. He paused for a moment as though expecting an answer, before continuing. "Admitting that you care about someone doesn't make you weak. Clark is a wonderful person, and I wish there was something I could have done for him. He doesn't deserve what he's going through."
"I don't understand him," she confessed. "I don't know why he thought that leaving would spare me his problems, like he doesn't realize how much it kills me to know what he's going through." She sat down on Perry's couch, looking down at the floor.
Perry leaned against his desk. "That's the way it is with someone you love," he said softly. Lois looked up. "You can't be happy unless they are."
"I'm not in love with Clark," Lois replied stonily.
Perry grunted in response.
"He was my partner, and my friend, and I miss him," she admitted. They sat in uncomfortable silence for a long moment. "He's so stupid and stubborn and he makes me so angry because he blames himself for everything and he doesn't understand…" her voice broke.
"How much it hurts for you to see him hurting," Perry finished for her.
Lois nodded miserably. She hadn't dared to utter those sentiments aloud before. Now the floodgates were open and she couldn't hold back any longer. Perry sat down beside her on the couch and she buried her face against his shoulder. She felt him place an arm around her.
"I've never felt about anyone the way I feel about him," she confessed quietly. "And it hurts so much."
"I know," he replied.
"How come you knew I was in love with Clark before I did?" she asked.
"That's the one good thing about being old, honey. You learn a lot about everything, even love. Most people's problem with love is that they think the easy part is the hard part and the hard part is the easy part. You know you love someone when their happiness means more to you than your own. That's the easy part."
"I just want him to be okay again," she whispered. "I can't help but feel like it's all my fault."
Perry squeezed her shoulder. "It's not, darlin', it's not your fault. You're mad at Clark because he blames himself, you shouldn't do the same. It wasn't your fault, you know that."
"I'm afraid he'll never speak to me again. He must hate me." She felt the familiar sting in her eyes, but stubbornly refused to cry.
"Lois, it doesn't take an investigative journalist to see how much you mean to that boy. He thinks the sun rises and sets in your eyes."
"If that were true he wouldn't have left," she replied stubbornly. She looked Perry in the eye, almost challenging him for a response.
"Clark didn't go because he thought leaving would make him happy. I think he left because he didn't know how to solve his problems and he figured he could leave them behind. I think he left because he didn't think that he deserved to be happy."
"It's not fair, Perry," she said plaintively.
"I know it isn't."
"So what do I do now?" she asked.
"Loving someone is the easy part," Perry replied. "Making it work is the challenge we face every day. That's the hard part."
The sharp wind that swirled around and between the skyscrapers had no effect on him. He stood quietly in the shadows atop one of those buildings, vaguely recalling a time when on a night like this, his long cape would have billowed in the wind behind him. He supposed that it had created an impressive effect. It certainly hadn't been added to the costume for aerodynamic reasons. His mother had always liked it. She said she liked the way it looked when he was flying. Now his goal was to remain invisible while flying. The bold colors were gone; black was far more utilitarian.
It was quiet tonight. He'd flown a patrol high overhead, ensuring that he wouldn't be seen and staying away from flight paths. The city had been unusually peaceful, and while that made him glad, he was still uneasy, restless. The last few weeks had tested him like nothing before. His time as Superman had only whetted his need to help, and now he had to find ways to do it surreptitiously. As before, he couldn't afford to be caught, but now he couldn't simply disappear if he slipped up.
Criminals often found themselves tripping over nothing while fleeing the police, suffering from flat tires, or having nearby fire alarms go off when they were attempting to break and enter. Muggers would regain consciousness to find themselves tied up and the police laughing at them, without remembering how they'd gotten wherever they were. People escaped from fires that had oddly burned themselves out before anyone had been hurt.
Being able to help again was a balm to his wounded soul, but the pain festered and flared whenever something happened and he couldn't help. The cries for help he couldn't answer and the disasters he couldn't avert ravaged his conscience and he had yet to find a salve for those particular hurts.
It was never enough. But it was all he could do.
He stepped all the way to the edge and calmly stepped off the building. Clark immediately began his dizzying descent to the ground. His eyes closed, he willed his body to relax as he hurtled to the ground. 'See?' he thought to himself. 'You're not afraid of this. Nope, not afraid of falling. Nothing scary about it at all.' The wind whipped past him, whistling shrilly in his ears, as the pavement raced toward him.
He took a deep breath and allowed himself to fall, pretending to be helpless against the force of gravity. Just like the nightmares. He fell, but couldn't duplicate the feeling of panic, the rush to his stomach. And it was silent, unlike the dreams. There were no twisted and distorted voices calling out to him, none of the cries that he couldn't understand, no matter how hard he tried. And there were no hands reaching out to him, grabbing at him as he tumbled downward. In his nightmares he'd put up his hands to defend himself against the scratching and the clawing, but here, the only thing he felt was the cold night air racing past him.
He slowed suddenly and sharply altered his course, flying around the building and back up into the night's sky. Clark flew further and further upward, breaking through the cloud cover, before slowing to halt. He floated effortlessly as he stared up at the onyx black sky with countless stars strewn across it.
Clark hated the dream—almost as much as he'd hated the ones he'd had about Trask and the farm and that gunshot. It stirred in him a horrifying feeling of helplessness and paralysis. He would just fall and fall with no end in sight. Some nights it felt like he was spending a lifetime just falling into oblivion. There was nothing to grab onto and nothing to break the fall. He would simply tumble downward forever.
With a heavenward sigh, he changed course and headed back to his apartment. It was late, and he'd pretty much avoided another night of sleep.
He landed on his balcony with a soft 'thud,' and quietly entered the apartment. He changed clothes and flopped down on the couch. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed the stationery on the coffee table. Clark picked up the small stack of paper and shuffled through it-a half dozen letters started and never finished.
They all began.
"…I'm sorry for causing you pain…"
"…I miss you so much it hurts…"
"…I don't think I ever told you how much you mean to me…"
"…I'm so sorry…"
"…I can't begin to tell you how sorry I am…"
"…I only wish things could have been different…"
"I regret having never had the courage to tell you that I…"
He dropped the pages back on the coffee table and stood up, beginning to pace around the room restlessly. Hoping that a cup of tea would calm his nerves, he made his way to the kitchen. A few minutes later, he sat back down on the couch, this time with a cup of hot oolong tea in his hands. He sipped it quietly in the darkened sitting room.
He set the empty cup down on a coaster, regretful that the tea had not had the desired effect. As he did, the pen on the coffee table caught his eye. He picked it up. It was the fountain pen his mother had given him upon his graduation from college. He'd drained the ink cartridge on it more than once in his many aborted attempts at writing Lois back.
Grabbing several blank pieces of paper, he began to write again, without stopping to think or allowing his conscious mind to form the words. He simply wrote and wrote, without editing himself.
I love you. I always have, and now I know that I always will, because knowing that I can never be with you has done nothing to change the way I feel about you. It's been months since I've seen you, or heard your voice, and yet they couldn't be clearer in my memory. I think about you every waking moment of my life and at night, you haunt my dreams. I love you so much it scares me. I feel so lost, so out of control, so confused. But the only thing that is constant, that never changes, is the way I feel about you.
I spend too much of my life wondering what could have been, wondering if you could have ever loved me. It doesn't matter that I'll never know, and it doesn't matter that I know now that I don't deserve your love. It doesn't stop me from wondering. I like to think that I could have made you happy, could have loved you the way you deserve to be loved-completely and unconditionally. I've been living my life in the past and in a future that will never be. Even though I know I shouldn't, I can't help it. My life— my life without you— is no life at all.
A heart doesn't have to heal before it can be broken again. The pain of leaving, of letting you down is still fresh, and on top of it is the pain of realizing that I'll never see you again. And then there's the pain that your letter brought. The pain of forgiveness. I really do wish that I could do as you asked. I want to believe that I could forgive myself, take back my old life as if nothing had happened, but I can't. Sometimes I wish you would hate me, then it would be easier to convince myself that staying away is the right thing to do. You believed in me as Superman. You taught me what it meant to be him, and in your eyes, he could do no wrong. And I destroyed that. I let you down once; I can't bear to think about ever doing it again.
I wish I'd had the courage to tell you this—to tell you how much I love you-instead of writing it in another letter I'll never send. Lois, I wish you all the happiness in the world, you deserve it. I will never forget you and everything you've done for me, and I'll never stop loving you.
He looked down at the pages he'd scribbled on furiously, holding them tightly in his hands. They began to crumple in his grip and angrily, he wadded them up into a little ball and tossed it across the room. It landed in a corner somewhere and he didn't bother to go looking for it to throw it away properly. Wherever it was at the moment was where it was going to stay.
Lois turned off the television with a frustrated sigh. There was nothing on TV worth watching, and she'd found herself gravitating back to LNN every few minutes. She was trying to keep her mind off work, she really was. She'd spent the morning cleaning her apartment and most of the afternoon reading one of those extremely predictable yet mildly entertaining legal thrillers before tossing it aside. It was evening now and as she stood beside her large picture window looking out at a cloudless, cobalt blue sky, she couldn't help but wonder where Clark was and what he was doing.
This morning while she'd been cleaning, she'd opened the drawer with those letters in it. Her first reaction was to close the drawer without bothering to go through its contents. But she was of course, Lois Lane, and rarely did an idea ever enter Lois Lane's mind without being immediately exploited. She thought about those letters and as though she had no volition of her own, she found herself looking at them against her own will and wrapping herself up in maudlin and wistful thoughts of what had gone wrong.
She'd struggled through many drafts, trying to figure out what to say and how to say it. With hindsight being perfect, she could now read between the lines she'd written only a few weeks earlier. Why had she been so blind? Why did Perry know before she did? Lois Lane was in love.
And love was a punishment.
She only wished she knew what she was being punished for. Lois had been burned before in life. She'd been disabused of any childish notions of happily ever after. Knowing Clark meant that she no longer put good men in the same category as fairy godmothers and dragons-they did exist, but now she knew that that didn't guarantee that they were going to stay any more than the creeps had.
But unlike the creeps, she missed Clark terribly.
He'd been gone for months, but the feelings didn't seem to fade. Now that she knew that she was in love with him, the feelings were clearer, more focused and less confusing, but no less intense. Maybe if there had been no reciprocity, they would have faded with time, but she couldn't help but think that whatever she felt for Clark, he felt for her, too. The time and distance allowed her to look back on the last few weeks before he left, and all the things that he'd done that hadn't made sense before, didn't seem quite so senseless now. Knowing that he'd never hated her, she'd had to search for different motivations for his actions. But it wasn't possible that he left because he couldn't stand being around someone he cared about, was it?
Maybe she was wrong. Maybe it was just wishful thinking. If he really cared, he would have written her back, wouldn't he? She didn't know. But it didn't really matter. Even if he did love her, what did that change? Life was no fairy tale, and it seemed like there were things that love couldn't fix.
She groaned inwardly. She was well into wallowing territory. Lois had turned into a slack jawed, teary-eyed wallower. She hated wallowers.
Clark smiled wanly at Noriko as she turned over the empty teacup on his desk to fill it with tea. In the background, he could hear Koichi grumbling ungratefully that his tea was too hot again. Any time Noriko was in the bureau, she would always stop what she was doing at the same time every day and make the afternoon tea. It didn't matter how busy she was or how idle everyone else was. It appeared as though it was expected of her.
She finished filling his cup and took the teapot back to the break area. Clark found himself standing to follow her. He walked over to where she was washing out the teapot and putting everything back into its proper place.
"Can I ask you something?" he began.
"Certainly, Clark," she replied without looking up.
"Why do you do this everyday? I mean, why doesn't everyone take turns? It's not like you're an office go-fer, or something…"
"It's expected," she replied simply. "In our culture, women serve the afternoon tea, station is irrelevant."
"So it doesn't matter that you're an award winning foreign correspondent in a field totally dominated by men, you still have to serve everyone's tea?"
Noriko nodded matter-of-factly.
"But they don't even say thank you," he continued, perplexed.
She smiled mercurially at him. "Why does it bother you so much, Clark?"
He shrugged. "I don't know; it just doesn't seem right. You've worked hard to get where you are, and every day you have to do this to remind you that you're still not seen as equal to your coworkers."
Noriko laughed softly. "It's funny to hear you of all people explaining why we shouldn't do as we're expected." She paused a second and her expression grew more thoughtful. "I mean no offense, Clark. It is simply that you come here, every day, and do exactly what is expected. You do not socialize, or idly waste time. You come to the office, you work, then you leave. Have you always been this serious?"
"I guess not," he replied.
"Well then, you'd better be careful, you're about to single handedly destroy the reputation that Americans have for being loud and lazy."
Clark replied with a slight smile.
"There's an American expression for someone like you, but I think I'm going to get it wrong," she continued. "You are someone who carries the weight of the world on his shoulder, right?"
Clark laughed. "Yes, that is the expression."
"And it has always been like that?"
"Actually, the world seems a lot heavier now than it used to," he responded thoughtfully.
"May I ask you a question?" she asked.
"Sure," Clark replied, trying to hide his wariness of discussing certain topics.
"Is it true that you came here because of what happened with that Trask person?"
Clark felt his heart sink. An almost horrified expression came over Noriko's face. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have asked that," she retracted.
"No, it's all right," Clark replied. "I know that's what everyone in the office has been saying, and I can't exactly deny it."
She regarded him thoughtfully for a moment before speaking. "I was in China the summer after I graduated from the University. I was there to carry equipment for real reporters, follow them around, perhaps learn a thing or two about the business. I certainly did not expect to find what we did at Tianamen Square. It was the worst thing I'd ever seen. I was no older than some of the young people protesting and dying, being killed by their own government. I couldn't sleep for weeks after that and I couldn't stop thinking about it. I wasn't certain I could become a journalist after that."
"But you didn't run off to a desk job, did you?"
"When I returned to Tokyo, I was given a desk assignment for an entire year. I believed that my disposition was too weak for the type of work I had intended to do. It took me a long time to get over that, to face what it was that was making me afraid. It still isn't easy to see the horrible things that go on in the world, but I tell myself that by doing my job, perhaps I can make those things just a little bit better."
"I've seen some pretty terrible things," Clark replied quietly. "And no, I'll never get used to them, but there's a difference between seeing something terrible, and causing it."
"Lois, are you ready to go on that story?" Perry bellowed from his office doorway in typical fashion.
"Perry, how much room above the fold have you got for me?" she called back triumphantly.
"Ha ha!" Perry grinned in exultation. "Did you hear that, Jimmy? Go get me the mockups, we're gonna have to rework that front page. You've got twenty minutes to get that story on my desk, Lois!"
"It's already on its way," she replied as she clicked on the send button with her mouse. In the week since her involuntary vacation, she'd cracked the case on the Michlin scandal. Lois had about her the usual air of confidence and victory, but she didn't feel nearly as satisfied as she pretended. Instead, she felt a bittersweet mix of emotions. The story she'd just sent Perry would topple a Senator and expose a ring of corporate corruption the likes of which hadn't been seen in New Troy in years.
But that wasn't all it would do; it would bring into the light of day a shocking scandal of theft from one of the city's most vulnerable targets. Among those implicated in the fiasco were the heads of Metropolis's largest nursing homes and assisted living centers who had stolen from the people they were supposed to help. A good portion of that money had gone to lining the pockets of the good Senator as well as local politicians who had turned a blind eye to the crime.
In order to get to the bottom of the story, she'd had to get access to Clark's old files. Despite her own misgivings and reluctance, she'd had no options. On numerous occasions, Perry had reminded her that the work Clark had done, including the research into the nursing home scandal was the property of the Daily Planet and that by executive fiat he could reassign all of that work. Perry was, of course, more than willing to go along with her suggestion to add Clark's name to the byline.
She should have been thrilled, but she wasn't. This was a Pyrrhic victory at best, and although the story was guaranteed to earn her the accolades of her colleagues, she would trade any and all of it for one more chance to actually work with her partner.
"I feel sorry for her," a familiar voice intruded upon his thoughts and reminded him that he was daydreaming at work.
"Huh? Who?" he replied inarticulately.
"The woman you are thinking about; if she misses you half as much as you seem to miss her, she's driving herself mad, and if she doesn't she's a fool, and I pity her anyway," Noriko explained with a slight smile.
Clark frowned. "What makes you think I was thinking about a woman?"
"It doesn't matter how deep or brooding a man is, he'll only sigh like that for one of two reasons, his baseball team is performing poorly, or he cannot be with the one he loves. Since you've shown absolutely no interest whatsoever in the Tokyo Giants, I suspected it was the latter."
Clark grunted noncommittally.
"I'm sorry, I really should mind my own business," Noriko apologized, the humorous note now absent from her voice. She began to retreat quietly from his desk as Clark turned back to his computer monitor.
"How did you know?" Clark asked without looking up. "Really?"
"I'm a reporter, Clark; it's our job to see things, remember?"
"Right," he replied with a nod and a tight-lipped expression. He focused again on his computer screen and Perry's email. A Lane and Kent byline would, for the first time in months, grace the cover of the Daily Planet tomorrow morning.
It was generous of Perry and Lois to give him a shared byline. Sure, his research was being used in the story, but Lois had obviously done most of the work. He wondered if he should email Perry back and tell him that giving him a writing credit for the story wasn't necessary, but decided against it. It was probably too late now to change the typeset and beyond that, it would seem churlish of him. He figured it was best not to worry too much about it; his coworkers would no doubt notice and it would most likely pique their curiosities, but he could live with that.
Clark entered his apartment and tossed his keys on the table near the doorway. He noticed the flashing red light on his answering machine and crossed the small living room to check his messages. Clark pushed the playback button as he began flipping through his mail. He slid off his shoes as he walked toward the couch.
"You have one new message," the computerized voice informed him in monotone Japanese.
"Hi Clark, it's me, Lois." The bills in his hands slipped to the ground as he froze. He turned to stare at his answering machine in disbelief. "I'm sure Perry's already contacted you, but I just wanted to call you and, well, say thank you. All the people behind the nursing home scandal are being arrested; Henderson sends his thanks. Perry gave us a joint byline, and I hope that's okay with you. Anyway, I hope everything's going well. I miss you, Clark and I uh, well, take care of yourself. Bye."
The little beep informed him that the message had ended and the tape rewound. He mentally shook himself, trying to break his mesmerized state. The sound of her voice could still make his heart ache. It was nearly six in the evening in Tokyo, which meant it was about four in the morning in Metropolis. It would still be dark there; Lois would be asleep. The thought brought a slight, wistful smile to his face. His skin tingled with the urge to dart out his window and fly to Metropolis, to hover silently, high above her apartment building and just watch her sleep.
Clark walked over to his window and stared out at the bright lights of Tokyo in the evening. It was early spring and still cold out, but the days were quietly and slowly stretching longer. It was a beautiful dusk. The setting sun cast golden outlines on the clouds. To the east, the sky was already dark, but in the opposite direction, the sky was a fiery orange, with a bright, thin line of yellow light tracing the horizon where the sun had set not too long ago. He could be in Metropolis in a minute, he thought to himself, but he quickly dismissed the idea. The siren call of the city Lois called home was a powerful one, but he couldn't help but feel that it was subtly luring him to a miserable end of being dashed against the rocks. He would simply have to turn a deaf ear to the sound of Metropolis calling him home.
'When had Metropolis become home?' he wondered idly. 'About two seconds after you saw Lois Lane burst through Perry's door during your interview,' his brain reminded him. Fighting a new wave of homesickness he retreated into the interior of the apartment in a vain attempt to relax.
"This should not be seen as an admission of guilt, I maintain that I knew nothing of any of the wrongdoing that occurred," Senator Michlin hemmed and hawed. "But I've decided that I need to spend this time with my family and in order to protect them from the media's intrusion, I've decided to resign. I will be cooperating fully with the police to resolve these issues. I want to thank the great state of New Troy for all of your support. God bless you and God bless America!" the Senator finished with a weak smile.
Lois tried to hide her bitter amusement at a crook who swindled money from the elderly, in his supplications to the almighty to bestow the country with blessings. Leave it to a dirty politician to try to curry favor by hiding behind his supposed piety. Her colleagues were busy shouting questions at the ex-Senator, who was clearly not interested in answering any of them. It didn't really matter. She had what she needed for her follow-up. It was time to get back to the Planet and start writing this final chapter in a drama that had unfolded in large part because of the work that she'd done.
Lois got in her Jeep and fought the mid-day traffic around Government Center, which was being severely exacerbated by the crowds from the press conference. She turned the radio off and drove back to the Planet in silence. In the week since the story broke, it had been business as usual. Lois Lane, back on the beat, nabbing the bad guys and writing the stories. Life was almost normal again—whatever that meant-and the unrequited love business wasn't as hard to deal with when she was able to ignore her personal life by getting engrossed in work.
She'd made the first move in the attempt to rebuild her friendship with Clark. She'd waited, and then made the second move as well. He again failed to respond. If he didn't want anything to do with her, she had to respect that. She still worried about him, but it didn't seem like her attempts to talk with him were helping at all. She just wanted to make sure he was okay. As she pulled into the Planet parking structure, Lois decided to give the Kents a call that evening. Until then, she had work to do.
"Hello?" a pleasant voice on the other end inquired. 'This is where the caller replies with the salutation in kind, identifies him or herself and his or her business,' some distant rational part of her brain tried to tell her.
"Hello?" the person on the other end asked again.
'You might want to try replying now,' her brain prodded her. "Hello, Martha? It's Lois," she said at last.
"Lois, it's so good to hear from you!" Martha replied enthusiastically. "How are you?"
"Fine, thanks, how are you?" Lois replied. Martha's warmth and friendliness assuaged Lois's fears that the conversation would be awkward. They exchanged pleasantries; Lois asked about Jonathan and the farm, the older woman inquired about Lois's work and about Senator Michlin and the latest news in the unfolding scandal. Martha mentioned that she'd found out about Clark's shared byline from a neighbor who'd been keeping up with the Daily Planet.
"I called him the day before the piece ran," Lois explained. "I left a message, but never got to talk to him about it. I haven't talked to Clark since he left. I was wondering how he's doing, if he's okay…" She trailed off.
Martha sighed on the other end. "He insists that he's fine," she replied. "But he's so different. He almost never comes to visit, and when we talk to him, we have to twist his arm to get him to say more than two words about anything."
"I'm so worried about him," Lois confessed.
"We are, too, honey," Martha replied. "Jonathan's afraid that Clark's suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder."
Lois thought about that for a moment. She didn't know much about the condition, but from what she'd heard about soldiers who'd been in intense combat situations and its effects on them, it made sense. "But how can he get through this if he won't talk to anyone about it?" she asked in earnest. "I wish he would talk to me, or someone, anyone…I miss him so much."
"I know," Martha replied. "But Lois, how are you doing? Are you all right?"
"I'm fine, Martha," Lois replied. "I just want him to be all right."
"You know, Clark thinks the world of you. I don't think he ever realized how this would hurt you."
Lois swallowed hard to suppress the quiver in her throat. "Martha, I…I'm in love with him and I'm afraid he'll never speak to me again."
"Oh Lois, Clark cares about you more than you can imagine," the older woman responded, her voice wavering slightly. "He's putting this distance between himself and the people he loves, and I just wish I knew what we could do to help him, but we have to keep letting him know that we care."
The dream woke Clark again.
He had been falling, just falling for what seemed like forever.
But this time, there was a clarity to the dream that had previously been absent. The voices that had been calling to him had been those of his parents, his friends, Lois. The hands hadn't been clawing at him; they'd been reaching for him. Instead of holding his hands up to defend himself, he found himself reaching back. But he couldn't reach them. He couldn't take the hands outstretched toward him.
He mused over what had brought about the change.
Earlier that evening, he'd been waiting for the subway, as usual. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed several boys playing around the platform. He watched in horror as one of the boys tripped and stumbled, falling onto the tracks. Clark ran immediately to the edge of the platform. Somehow, the boy had luckily avoided the third rail, but he was injured, and in the distance, Clark could hear the train approaching. A crowd began to gather as soon as it became clear what had happened. The other boys were frightened and shouting. Clark jumped down into the train well without a second's hesitation.
The ground under him rumbled as the train approached the subway station. He immediately picked the boy up, trying to avoid injuring him further. Clark deduced that he'd most likely sprained his wrist and ankle in the fall but wasn't suffering from anything more serious than that. He managed to lift the boy back onto the platform, where several other people immediately came to the boy's aid. Glancing over his shoulder, Clark could see the lights of the oncoming train. The train's horn blasted as it drew nearer. Grabbing the edge of the platform just overhead, he lifted himself out of the train well a few seconds before the train screeched to a stop, right past where he'd been standing.
Clark began to dust himself off as he watched the scene unfold in front of him. The little boy's mother raced toward her son in hysterics, crying and scolding him at the same time. The boy held his right wrist in his left hand, looking very frightened and shaken up. The other boys stood by sullenly. Other people on the platform stood in clusters, speaking in hushed tones about what had just happened. The train had stopped and the doors had opened, but no one had made a move to get on. Instead, they all simply stared at the boy and at Clark.
The little boy's mother finally reassured herself that her son was okay and turned toward Clark, who'd been standing mutely watching everything as though he were on the other side of a two way mirror. Several people had asked him if he was all right, but he'd brushed off their concern cursorily, assuring them that he was fine. The boy's mother began thanking Clark profusely. He could see the overwhelming relief spread across her face, though the signs of her fear and panic were still evident. She'd calmed down considerably, but her tears had smudged her eye makeup and Clark could hear her heart still racing.
She kept thanking him for saving her son's life and he thought about the countless times people had reacted the same way toward him as Superman. He'd seen this exact same expression of relief and gratitude on so many faces before and he tried to remember how it had made him feel. It had made him feel good, he was sure. It had felt good to help people, to know that he'd made a difference. Clark knew what he was thinking; he was glad that he'd been able to save the boy, and he knew what he was supposed to feel, but he didn't really feel anything. It was as if the whole thing was happening to someone else and he was far, far away, watching it.
Someone had called the paramedics and they'd arrived and had begun to check the boy's injuries. He gave the woman a polite 'you're welcome,' and, satisfied that the little boy would be okay, Clark quietly left the platform. He made his way past the crowds, moving more and more quickly until he got outside. He stopped and took a deep breath of the fresh air before realizing how claustrophobic he'd felt in the station. He looked upward and the skyscrapers all around him seemed to spin around, making him feel dizzy. He stood perfectly still for a moment, closed his eyes and took another deep breath. The vertigo passed and he began walking toward his apartment.
On the long walk home, he relived in his mind the many rescues he'd made as Superman and he tried to recreate the way he'd felt. He thought about flying, about his parents, his friends, Lois, everything he loved and everything that made him happy. Nothing. He thought about everything that had ever made him feel sad, scared, alone, angry, and again, nothing.
He knew that he loved his parents, but he couldn't remember what it felt like to hug them after having not seen them in a long time. He knew that when he helped someone, it made him feel good inside; it connected him with humanity. He knew that he was in love with Lois, that he had always loved her so much that it hurt. He knew that, but he couldn't feel it. He couldn't feel anything. He just felt numb. Clark couldn't even describe for himself what those feelings were supposed to feel like. It was like trying to describe a color to blind man.
He was afraid. Or at least, he thought he was afraid. He knew that he should be afraid. Clark thought back to all the rescues he'd made recently. They'd helped to chase the demons away. Helping had kept him from falling apart, but it didn't feel the same. It kept him busy, it kept him from hurting, but he couldn't remember the last time it made him feel good. He had to do it; he had to help and he would keep doing it, but that feeling that being Superman had given him was gone. Had he been separated from humanity for so long that he'd forgotten how to feel? He'd been feeling this way for at least the last week. It had been less painful, but everything else had been blunted along with the pain.
As he had lain in bed that night, he thought about everything he'd lost and how he knew in his mind how much he missed it all and how much he missed that feeling of connectedness, of being a part of this immense, messy, complicated, and wonderful world. So why couldn't he feel it?
Noriko walked across the office floor. The receptionist had left for lunch and everyone else in the office was duly ignoring the ringing of the phone on her. "International Daily Times, Asia Headquarters, how may I direct your call?" Noriko spoke into the phone in her perfect, clipped English, her slight accent belying her British education.
"May I speak to Clark Kent, please," responded the woman on the other end, her voice wavering slightly.
Noriko scanned the office and spotted Clark at his desk, typing away at his computer. "May I ask who's calling?" she inquired.
"Lois Lane," the woman replied. Noriko's brow arched; she was surprised at the identity of the caller.
"One moment," Noriko replied. She placed the phone on hold. "Clark, Lois Lane is on the phone for you, do you want to take the call?" She noticed the color drain from Clark's face and he shook his head.
Noriko took the phone off hold. "I'm afraid Mr. Kent is indisposed, Ms. Lane, can I take a message?"
Lois sighed on the other end. "I'm sorry, I didn't get your name…"
"Ms. Mayamura, do you work with Clark?" Lois asked.
"I know he doesn't want to speak to me, but I just need to know, is he okay, is he doing all right?" Lois asked plaintively.
"I believe so," Noriko replied deliberately. Clark was still watching her, a conflicted expression on his face.
"Thank you," Lois replied before hanging up.
Noriko hung up the phone and walked across the office. She stopped in front of Clark's desk. He looked up at her and opened his mouth as if to speak, but she cut him off. "I know this is none of my business, but you are a good person, Clark, don't let your heart grow hard toward the people who love you."
The days after the breaking of the Michlin scandal stretched into weeks. The story had since moved out of the realm of investigative journalism and into the hands of those reporters who specialized in politics and law. Lois was back on the beat, just as good as her next story.
She sat at her desk, returning phone calls and seeing to other housekeeping tasks during a lull in her afternoon. She began sifting through her mail when Perry's office door opened. "Lois, my office, now."
Lois walked into Perry's office and closed the door. "What's up, Chief?"
"Congratulations. You and Clark have been nominated for a Merriwether."
Lois stretched out on her couch, noting to herself that the darn thing really was quite uncomfortable. She frowned as she read through the police report again. Everything was far too neat. A major white collar crime involving millions of dollars all traced back to the chairman of a local limited liability partnership who confessed to everything and who was currently serving seven years in Middlebury Minimum Security Prison.
Lois knew enough about these massive financial scandals to know that those who were involved would 'dirty up' those around them in order to prevent whistle blowing. It was never just one guy. The executive board, the upper management, the senior accountants, the lawyers, they were always in on it together; there was no other way to funnel out that much money. Someone would get suspicious immediately and ensure that the operation was stillborn.
Yet with this case, she was supposed to believe that all clues pointed to just one man. All the loose ends were neatly tied together and all tied to him. From a source within the now defunct corporation, she'd learned that the entity with a controlling interest in the corporation had been slowly selling off its stock during the months before the breaking of the case. That controlling entity was Lex Corp. Lex Corp suffered a substantial loss last year when the investigation broke, but that figure was significantly lower than the amount that had been stolen and never recovered. To give the story a twisted little happy ending, the remains of the defunct company were purchased and sold off piece by piece for a tidy little profit by a vulture corporation: Luthor Acquisitions.
Perhaps it was that sort of temerity that made everyone think that Lex Luthor was a shrewd and ruthless businessman. It made Lois certain that he was filthier than the Metropolis Sewer Reclamation Facility. She'd been poking about into the official federal investigation of the whole sordid mess and it left her scratching her head. The official reports had plot holes the size of Cleveland in them. Only two explanations made any sense: total ineptitude on the part of the feds or dirty agents placed very high up in the official bureaucracy. Neither of the two alternatives seemed very appealing.
She stuck all of her notes and documents for the case back in the folder and placed it on the ever-growing pile of major crimes she knew in her gut that Lex was behind. Lois sighed as she looked at the thick stack of research she still had to go over. All those months ago when she'd asked Jimmy for the research into Metropolis's largest white collar crimes, he'd really pulled through for her; it was unfortunate that she was just now getting to it.
The more she read, the more concerned she became. She couldn't think of a pie that Luthor didn't have his fingers in. If Lois were a betting woman, she'd take ten to one odds that organized crime in Metropolis only existed at Lex's pleasure. Drugs, guns, prostitution, racketeering, money laundering, real estate schemes, he seemed to be behind all of it. From illegal narco-trafficking with the Asian Triads to running two-bit protection rackets in Hobbs Bay, there didn't seem to be any illegal activity shows in town for which Lex wasn't the puppeteer.
Lois decided to take a break from her journey into the seamy underbelly of Metropolis's darkest corners and turned to a more personal research matter. After talking to Martha on the phone a few weeks ago, she'd paid a visit to the Psych. Department at Metro U. She had talked to several professors and obtained numerous works on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and had been reading through them ever since.
She'd been relieved to find that, from what she could gather from Clark's parents and from his behavior before he'd left, that he seemed to be suffering moderate PTSD, and not a more severe form. Chronic PTSD was only common in people who were exposed to long periods of extreme stress, abuse, or anxiety, like victims of domestic abuse and war veterans. The prognosis for PTSD was often disappointing, but for moderate forms of the condition, there was every reason to be hopeful, assuming the person put a real effort into dealing with his condition.
It seemed that for sufferers of moderate PTSD, the most effective therapy was learning to talk about what had happened. Many patients found organized group therapy to be helpful, but the important thing was finding someone who could understand and empathize with the person. Sufferers of PTSD needed to find someone with whom they felt completely comfortable—someone they felt like they could talk to about anything.
The most substantial obstacle to recovery was the tendency of sufferers of PTSD to isolate themselves from loved ones. Distance and emotional numbness were defense mechanisms adopted to keep from having to deal with what would otherwise be very intense emotions. She thought of how distant Clark had been during his last few weeks at the Planet and how he avoided friends and loved ones. His behavior now seemed to make a lot more sense. According to all the textbooks, the distancing was a strategy that was necessary for short-term survival during and immediately following a traumatic experience, but in the long run, it was extremely counterproductive. If the individual didn't learn to deal with the emotional trauma, he or she ran the risk of permanently disrupting normal emotional response in every aspect of life: he or she could become permanently numb.
The thought of Clark, someone who was so kind and selfless, losing the ability to feel or care, made her heart ache. He was too good a person to be destroyed like this. She would do anything to help him, but she couldn't take the first step for him, no one could. Clark had to want to take control of his life again.
The Merriwether Awards were in a week's time. She held out some small amount of hope that he'd be there, but knew that it wasn't likely.
Clark floated above the city. If anyone had been there to see him, they wouldn't have been able to miss the look of consternation on his face. Clark had been pushing the limits of helping surreptitiously. He'd grown bolder and bolder as time had gone by and people were starting to notice. Asahi Shimbun, Japan's most prominent paper, had recently published a series of pieces on the drop in crime in Tokyo in recent months. To the average reader, the articles took no discernable position on the cause of the drop, but to a reporter, who'd learned to read between the lines, it was clear that the authors believed there was a very deliberate and targeted cause to the drop in crime, even if they didn't know what it was.
He supposed that he could move on, but the paper would probably fire him. He'd been in Japan less than six months, after transferring from Metropolis, having been there for only a few months. Clark didn't feel particularly attached to Tokyo, but the idea of starting over again in a new place with a new job and a new set of people to wonder about their new colleague was emotionally exhausting. Lately, he'd found himself overcome with the desire to simply be left alone.
It was late and there was no reason for him to be up here. Clark turned toward his apartment and flew home. He landed in the apartment with a soft thud and spun changed into a pair of sweatpants and a T-shirt. He sat down on his couch, the letter from Perry White lay on the coffee table, seemingly taunting him. It seemed like the harder he tried to stay away from Metropolis, the more that blasted city tried to lure him back. He was tired of fighting it.
The last few weeks had been as confusing as any period in his life. He'd realized that the general sense of apathy that he'd felt ever since the incident was stronger than he had wanted to admit. He was growing numb and it frightened him. Clark knew, deep down, that he didn't want to stop caring. He didn't want to grow cold.
His father's words from many months earlier came back to him. What if his dad had been right? Clark tried hard to remember his Uncle Russell, a man who'd been an enigma to Clark, brooding and distant. His father had been almost angry with his brother Russell. He'd claimed that he had pushed away everyone who cared about him and had allowed his life to slip out of his control. Clark had seen a sadness in his father's eyes that was completely foreign to him. His father was a strong man, he couldn't begin to imagine how much it must have hurt him to have to watch his brother give up on life and just slip away.
'And what exactly do you think you're doing?' his over- active conscience demanded. 'Do you think that what you're doing isn't breaking your parents' hearts? You never call, you never visit, you've completely shut them out of your life, that is, if you can call this a life.' He groaned in frustration.
He was arguing with himself.
And he was losing.
He wasn't suffering from a psychological condition, was he? Clark had to admit that he didn't know anything about post traumatic stress disorder other than it was something that rescue workers and Vietnam vets were diagnosed with. But this wasn't the same thing, was it? And even if it was, it wasn't as if he could talk to a shrink about it. He closed his eyes and rubbed his temples. He really didn't want to think about this right now.
She spotted him standing alone outside the entrance to the hall. She managed to catch his eye as she made her way toward him. He smiled and waved to her.
"You nervous?" Jimmy asked with a grin. He offered her his arm in a stately manner and with a smile she looped her hand through his arm.
"Lois Lane does not get nervous," she replied confidently.
"You look great," Jimmy said almost shyly. Lois had bought a new black gown for the awards ceremony. It was a strictly black-tie affair and she hoped that it would prove to be worth the afternoon wasted getting her hair and nails done when she could have spent the time focusing on her investigation of Lex Luthor.
"Thanks," she replied. "So do you." Lois wished that Clark were there, but she'd known that he wouldn't come back to Metropolis for the award ceremony. She certainly hadn't wanted to go sifting through her Rolodex to find a date to this thing, and so had been happy to ask Jimmy to come along as her guest.
Jimmy beamed at the compliment and held the door open for her, following her into the ceremony hall.
The evening progressed very slowly as far as Lois was concerned. The award for best work of investigative journalism was the final presentation. Why did they always have to put the award you were waiting for at the end of these programs? You really only wanted to know about best picture award, but you first had to sit through best costume design and film editing to get to the good part of the show.
While the evening seemed to drag a little bit, it had been nice to get all dressed up and sit together with the large Planet contingent at the event. The paper had won more than its share of awards this year and everyone was in a good mood. Everyone, that is, except Jimmy. Lois looked over at her 'date.' The poor kid looked like he was about to fall asleep. He stifled a yawn before excusing himself. She smiled to herself as he tried to make his way to the back of the hall without disturbing anyone.
Jimmy stuck his hands under the stream of water from the faucet and splashed cold water onto his face. He shouldn't have let Perry talk him into spending the previous evening cleaning out his office. They'd been there until two in the morning and he'd spent most of that time trying to convince Perry to get rid of the electronic putting system that he never used and the life sized cut out of some woman named Elvira, Mistress of the Dark.
He mentally shook himself, trying to wake up, before exiting the men's room. He wasn't paying enough attention and so carelessly bumped into someone else, coming into the bathroom.
"Sorry," he mumbled to the guy wearing the exact same monkey suit as every other guy in this place. Jimmy looked up and stopped dead. He felt his jaw drop and he couldn't stop staring. "Omigod," he croaked. "What are you doing here?"
"Jimmy, you can't tell anyone you saw me here, understand? Especially not Lois."
"CK, wait a minute, Perry said you weren't coming," the younger man continued, confused.
"Look, Jimmy, it's really good to see you, but please don't tell anyone I was here," Clark asked earnestly.
"Okay," Jimmy replied, not really knowing why Clark would come all this way and then not want to see anyone. Of course nothing that Clark had done in the last six months had made any sense at all to Jimmy. He opened the men's room door again and turned back toward his friend. "It's good to see you too," he said over his shoulder before walking out the door and back to his seat.
Clark stood in the very back of the hall, watching the ceremony. It was almost time for the presentation of the award for best investigative work. He'd spent most of the evening wondering what he was doing here, and most of the day before, on a plane back to Metropolis, wondering the exact same thing. The last twenty-four hours had provided him with lots of time to think, but he hadn't been able to come up with any answers.
Whatever had impelled him to come back, here he was. He stuffed his hands in his pockets and scanned the room. The Northeast's best reporters were all here for the awards. He recognized many faces in the crowd, but there was really only one person he needed to see.
He spotted her sitting with a large group from the Planet. The moment he saw her, his heart stopped. Time might well have stopped, he wasn't exactly sure.
She was even more beautiful than he remembered her, more beautiful than she was in his thoughts and dreams. The question of whether or not he could bring himself to ever really feel again had been answered. No amount of time or distance or pain could ever diminish his love for her. His soul stirred. His heart ached, full of love to the point of bursting. Dimly in the background, he heard the emcee announce the final category. He listened as he and Lois were named among the nominees.
"And the winner of the Merriwether Award for Best Work of Investigative Journalism goes to…" The announcer took no small pleasure in his dramatic pause. "Lois Lane and Clark Kent of the Daily Planet!" The room burst into applause as Lois made her way to the podium. She looked absolutely breathtaking in the black dress she wore and she moved so gracefully, she could have taught him how to float. He watched, mesmerized, as she walked to the front of the room and accepted the award from the presenter. The applause died down and she began to speak.
"Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. I can't begin to tell you what an honor this is," she began. "I'm very sorry to say that my partner, Clark Kent, couldn't be here tonight, and I'm sure all of you are sorry to hear that. Clark is definitely the more affable of the two of us and if only one of us were to be here, I'm certain that all of you would rather it were Clark than I." The audience laughed heartily at Lois's bit of self-deprecation, but her words stung him. Even after everything he'd done to push her away, still she would not turn on him.
"But on behalf of both of us, I'd like to thank the Merriwether selection committee, all of the outstanding journalists who were nominated with us, and of course our wonderful friends and colleagues at the Daily Planet, thank you." With a brilliant smile, she stepped away from the podium and the audience stood and applauded warmly.
Clark watched from the back of the room as the Planet staff congratulated Lois. His heart swelled with pride and love. It would hurt so much to get on that plane late tonight and leave here, but for this one moment, he was going to enjoy being able to watch her, consequences be damned. He smiled wistfully to himself as she graciously accepted the congratulations of her colleagues. She looked around the room, as if searching for someone. Some part of his mind told him it might be a good time to make his exit, to ensure that she didn't see him, but he couldn't bring himself to move. 'Just a few more minutes,' he told himself. 'I'll just watch her for a few more minutes.'
Suddenly, a look of shock spread over her face. She'd made eye contact with him. She stopped, stunned, and he panicked. The world seemed to close in on him and it was unbearably hot in the room. Everything began to spin and Clark immediately made his way out of the room.
"Clark," she whispered breathlessly. The large group of friends and colleagues suddenly disappeared and all she could see was his retreating form.
"Lois? What's wrong?" Perry asked.
"Clark, Clark was here," she said.
"Oh Lois," Perry began.
"She's right, Chief," Jimmy jumped in. "Clark was here. I saw him earlier."
"What?" she exclaimed. "You knew he was here? Why didn't you tell me?"
"He made me promise not to," Jimmy replied anxiously. "I wanted to tell you, but he practically begged me not to say anything."
"I've got to go find him," Lois replied resolutely. She thrust the award into Jimmy's hands and started for the door.
"Lois, wait!" Perry called after her.
She turned around, a look of determination, fear, and hope on her face. "Perry, I've got to find him," she replied.
Lois sat in front of her apartment building in her Jeep, near tears. She'd tried his old apartment building and the Planet, but didn't know where else to look. She'd left a message on his machine in Tokyo and tried his parents' home as well, but no luck. What was the point? He could go anywhere in a second. He was probably long gone. Clark was probably back in Japan by now.
Wait a minute.
Clark had flown to Japan the first time by plane. And a few weeks ago, Perry had told her that the Planet would pay for Clark's flight back if he wanted to attend the ceremony. What if he'd flown by plane to Metropolis?
He might be flying back to Japan the same way.
Lois didn't know if Clark was using his powers regularly. Martha had said that he rarely came back to Kansas to visit. She'd just assumed that he went there under his own power. The idea was a long shot, but it was the only chance she had. Turning the engine, she put the Jeep in drive and left a patch of molten rubber on the asphalt as she headed toward Metropolis International.
"Yes, I had a reservation change from tomorrow morning's flight to tonight's flight to Tokyo."
"All right, Mr. Kent, you're all set, you're booked through Los Angeles, and Honolulu to Tokyo. Flight 879 will depart from Gate A37. Boarding will begin in about an hour."
"Thank you," Clark replied to the young man behind the ticket counter. He picked up his garment bag and headed to the gate area. He hated flying like this. He remembered humorlessly how Mr. Kazami had shoved the ticket into his hands a few days ago, saying that he'd taken the liberty in booking Clark a flight to Metropolis for the awards. His boss hadn't even bothered to ask if Clark was planning on attending the ceremony.
Why exactly had he flown by plane? Perhaps it was because if he'd flown under his own power, he'd remember just how easy it was to come back here. If he'd just zipped by on his own, he'd remember how he could be in Metropolis in a moment and he'd be tempted to repeat the act. It was better, he thought, to continue associating Metropolis with the agonizing flight that everyone else had to make to get here from Tokyo.
He walked through the security checkpoint, feeling both happy and incredibly depressed. He laughed humorlessly to himself. He'd gone from being entirely numb to feeling about eight million conflicting emotions all at once, but in the end, no matter how much it hurt, seeing Lois had been worth it.
The airport was practically deserted. It was after midnight, and the only other people around were those who were also flying red eyes. The bar by his gate was still open, but there was no one in it, save the bartender. Having nothing better to do for the hour before boarding, he decided to have a beer. All of this flying the old fashioned way made him wish that he could relax his nerves with alcohol and now, he also felt the desire to drown his sorrows, but he knew that no amount of beer would accomplish either of those goals.
He sat down at the bar and ordered a beer and nursed it slowly. The TV screen overhead was showing the late night sports recap of the Metropolis Monarchs baseball game. He watched with mild interest as the announcers engaged in early season speculation of the Monarchs' chance for the pennant this year. The bartender didn't attempt to engage him in conversation and for that, he was thankful. He just didn't feel like talking to anyone right now.
Well, maybe there was one person he wanted to talk to.
'Don't even go there, Kent,' he thought to himself.
He took another sip of his beer and tried to banish thoughts of her from his mind.
Lois ran through the doors of the terminal and ran to the Pacific Airlines ticket counter. She'd already tried three other airlines that flew from Metropolis to Japan, but none of them had a flight leaving any time tonight. "Is there a flight to Tokyo tonight?" she demanded.
The young man behind the counter regarded her curiously. Okay, so she was out of breath and sprinting through the airport in a formal gown, like it was the weirdest thing he'd ever seen. "Yeah," he replied. "Gate A37, leaves in thirty minutes, but I can't book you a ticket now."
"Thanks, but I don't need one," she replied as she ran off in the direction of the gate.
Lois ran to the gate area and scanned the area. There was no sign of Clark. Her heart sank. What was she going to do now? She sat down in one of the chairs by the gate and closed her eyes. This couldn't be happening. She had to find him! Lois collected her thoughts and took a deep breath. She was an investigative journalist. She could handle this. All she had to do was try to think like Clark. If she were him, where would she go? Yeah, like that was going to work. For the last six months, she hadn't had a clue what was going on in his head; it wasn't likely that she was going to turn clairvoyant now. She stared straight ahead at the deserted lounge.
Scratch that, almost deserted lounge.
Her breath caught in her throat as she stared at the lone figure at the bar. He'd changed into a button down shirt and slacks since she'd seen him last, but there was no mistaking it. There he was. She watched as he stood up from his barstool and dropped a few bills on the counter. He picked up his garment bag and walked out of the bar. He kept his head down and walked straight toward the gate, not noticing her. She stood up, and started after him, her heart thundering in her chest.
"Clark," she called out after him, her voice wavering.
He stopped dead. After a long pause, he slowly began to turn around.
She felt a knot form in her stomach and tears well up in her eyes as she ran toward him. "Clark," she called out breathlessly again.
"Lois," he whispered. He stiffened, his posture cold and uninviting. "What are you doing here?" he asked quietly.
"What do you mean, what am I doing here? What about you? You've been ignoring me for months, and without telling anyone, you come back, but you still won't talk to me. Please Clark, don't you know how much I've missed you? Please, don't go, not yet. We need to talk."
"Lois, there's nothing to say. I need to get going. Congratulations on the Merriwether."
"Would you forget about the stupid award? Why, why are you shutting me out like this?" she cried. "I miss you. I want my partner back."
"I'm not him," Clark protested. "I can't be any more."
She stepped toward him and boldly took his face in her hands. She stared into his eyes unblinking. She frowned and narrowed her eyes. "Liar," she whispered.
He stepped back and looked away. "Lois, I can't do this. I would do almost anything for you, but I can't do this. Please, just let me be, please, I beg you." He looked at her pleadingly.
She drew in a shaky breath. She could feel the tears welling up in her eyes. She wanted desperately to help him. She wanted, needed him to let her in so they could heal together. "You can shut me out of your life," she said softly. "But you can't make me stop caring about you."
"Goodbye, Lois," he replied. He turned around and began walking toward the gate again.
"I love you," she whispered almost silently, knowing that he could hear her. He tensed slightly, but didn't turn around or even stop. Fighting back the tears, she turned around and walked away quickly, her heart breaking.
Clark sat slumped in a chair in the gate area, feeling like he'd been kicked in the stomach.
"This is the final boarding call for all passengers on Flight 879 with service to Los Angeles. All ticketed and confirmed passengers should now be aboard the plane. Once again, this is the final boarding call," a pleasant sounding voice announced over the PA system.
Clark stood up and picked up his bag. This was it. Time to prove that he could leave Metropolis for a second time.
Lois looked at her reflection in the mirror over her sink. She thought she'd finally scrubbed away the last of the makeup and tears. She dried her hands and face with a small towel and walked out to her living room. Lois had changed out of the formal gown and into a tank top and sweat pants soon after returning home. She sat down now on the couch, tired, but too miserable to sleep.
She curled up on the couch and turned on the television. Some particularly misanthropic force of fate must have been following her around that night because the TV was set to the classic movie channel and the screen filled with the image of Humphrey Bogart entreating Ingrid Bergman to get on the plane and never return. The mere image was enough to make her want to cry again and she turned the TV off, choosing instead to sit in silence.
A knock on the door intruded upon her private misery.
Trying to compose herself, Lois made her way to the door, wondering who on Earth would be knocking at this time of night. She wondered if she should get a weapon, but a quick glance around the room yielded nothing that would be effective. She looked through the peephole and let out a tremulous sigh.
It was Clark.
He was here.
She undid all the locks to door and opened it. "You came back," she murmured in disbelief.
"You wanted to see me," he said flatly.
"Yeah, come in," she said. He followed her into her living room. "I needed, well, I have some things I wanted to tell you." She turned to look at him. His face gave away nothing.
He wasn't making this any easier, she thought. She sighed. "I miss you, Clark. I can't bear the thought of you walking out of here and never coming back. You were the best thing in my life. I think I'd give anything to get back what we had. I've been telling myself that neither of us is really to blame for what happened, but it hurts so much to know that saving my life did this to you," she confessed mournfully.
He stuffed his hands in his pockets and hardened his expression. "You didn't do this to me."
She turned away from him, trying to hide the tears in her eyes.
"I never regretted saving your life, Lois," he said quietly.
"But that doesn't change things. Saving my life destroyed yours."
"And if I had to do it again, I would. In a heartbeat. What I'm ashamed of is making you think I regretted saving you. If you had died, Lois, it would have killed me. It would have been so much worse than dying."
She looked at him again. His eyes were unusually bright. They revealed so much pain and anguish that he'd been trying so hard to disguise. "Then why? If you couldn't have done things differently, why?"
"I've relived it thousands of times now," he said, shaking his head. "If there was another way, I still don't know what it was. I killed Trask because I had to, because letting him kill you would have been far worse than this or any hell I could dream up for myself. But this is the consequence of that action, and I'm ready to live with it. I can't be Superman anymore because Superman proved that not even he has absolute morals."
He started to pace around her living room. "It's so damn difficult trying to be him. He's perfect and I'm not. He always knows what to do and I don't. And if the criminal element realized just how imperfect he is, how he can be driven to kill, then they'll find a way to do it again. They'll use it to control him. Superman was an ideal; he died when the ideal died. And I can't be Clark Kent anymore because I don't even know who that is."
She stepped toward him. "I know exactly who you are. You are Clark Kent and you're the best man I know. Everything good there is about Superman, his kindness, his purity, his gentleness, is there because it's part of you." She closed the distance between them. "I know who you are. You're the man I love." She held his face in her hands and kissed him, gently. He tensed as her lips met his. For a long moment, it was as though he was completely frozen. In the end, his response was a mere tremor; a simple quiver of his lip that intimated no real reaction on his part.
"Lois," he said, pleading with her. She knew that he was begging her to stop. By his logic, he could never be with her and the last thing he needed was her teasing him. So she'd simply have to disabuse him of his logic.
"I love your honesty, and your compassion, and your courage. It's your heart, not just your powers that make you a hero."
"I'm not a hero," he said, retreating from her. "A hero would never kill."
"Not if he had a choice, no. But what choice did you have?"
He shook his head. "I don't know, Lois. I don't know." His voice was low and quiet
"As much as you want to blame yourself for this, it's not your fault," she told him. "You didn't have your powers, your life, mine, your parents', were all at risk. There was no other choice."
"I don't know anyone else who would give up everything they are for someone else the way you did. You knew what saving my life would cost you, but you did it anyway. Do you know what you taught me? You taught me what it feels like to love someone more than yourself, to value their happiness more than your own and right now, it's killing me to see what this has done to you." She felt a tear slip down her cheek. "I love you so much and it hurts so much to see you like this." She sobbed quietly. "I love you," she whispered.
He shook his head. "You loved who you thought I was."
"I love you," she repeated.
"Please," he whispered harshly.
"I love you," she said again. "Don't push me away, please." She reached out tentatively and took his hand in both of hers.
"It's only going to cause us both pain," he said more forcefully than before, as if he were trying to convince himself of the truth of his statement.
"Seeing you suffer this alone is what's causing me pain," she replied. She lifted a hand to his face; turning his chin and making him face her. "And I'm going to keep saying it until you believe me, I love you."
"Don't make this harder than it already is," he said, his voice taking on a plaintive tone. "Don't make it any harder for me to leave."
"Then don't leave."
"You know this can't happen."
"Why not?" she challenged him. "If you don't love me, if you don't want me, I'll leave you alone, but if you love me, don't push me away."
"I thought that I could be the hero everyone expected me to be, but I can't. I don't even know how. I'm not who I pretended to be. I'm not the hero you needed me to be." His voice was a whisper.
"Then I don't need a hero, I just need you," she whispered tearfully. "You are what I have faith in."
He pulled his hand away from hers. She lowered her head and began to back away from him. But she felt him suddenly reach out to caress her cheek and thread his fingers through her hair. He closed the distance between them and kissed her fiercely.
She felt a jolt surge through her at the contact and she responded to the wonderful pressure of his lips against hers. Her lips parted to allow access to his insistent tongue. His kiss was passionate and desperate, driven by hunger, need, and desire. Lois felt like she was drunk on the taste of him. She couldn't get enough of him. She was addicted to the feeling of his mouth against hers. He groaned and she felt a shiver tingle through her body, increasing in force until it felt like all her nerve endings were on the point of bursting. She brought her hands up to run through his thick, dark hair. She kissed his cheek, and left a trail of kisses down the line of his jaw and up to his ear.
"Do you love me?" she whispered.
"Yes," he groaned. "God, Lois, I love you so much."
She caught his earlobe between her lips. She heard him gasp. She brought her hands up between them and began undoing the buttons on his shirt. "Do you trust me?" she asked.
"More than anyone," he hissed.
"Good," she said as her lips began to trace the line of skin exposed by the unbuttoning of his shirt.
He groaned again. "Lois, we shouldn't…"
She straightened back up. "Shut up and kiss me, Clark," she murmured against his lips.
He obliged eagerly despite his previous protestations. She grasped his shirttails and pulled them free from his slacks. She felt his hands on her waist and they slipped under the hem of her shirt. 'Good boy,' she thought wickedly, 'now he's getting it.' She felt his warm hands against the skin of her stomach and couldn't stifle a gasp. She felt like she was on fire everywhere he touched her.
She wrapped her arms around his waist under his shirttails and trailed her hands up and down the warm skin of his back. She felt his muscles tighten under her questing fingers. She brought her hands up between them and slid her hands over the muscles of his abdomen and his chest and up to his shoulders. She pulled his shirt down his arms. He was tangled in the fabric for a brief moment, but he quickly freed himself of it. The shirt fell to the ground and given the path his hands were now following, she was pretty confident that her shirt would soon join it.
She began backing up toward the bedroom and he followed her. He kicked off his shoes and divested her of the tank top, letting it drop to the ground. He trailed kisses down her throat, his fingers moved in tantalizing patterns over her stomach and her sides, causing her to shiver at his touch. His lips left a line of kisses along her shoulder, and with one hand he pushed aside her bra strap.
He looked at her, breathing heavily and flushed with desire. "Are you sure you want to do this?" he asked.
"I've never been more sure of anything in my whole life," she whispered, her voice thick with desire, as she hooked her fingers through his belt loops and pulled him up against her so she could resume her quest of determining just how sensitive that little spot under his ear was. "I love you," she whispered.
"I love you," he murmured.
She smiled as she found his lips again. She backed up toward the bedroom door but suddenly found herself in Clark's arms as he carried her through the doorway. He held her close to his bare chest and she allowed her hands to roam over the muscled planes of his body as she trailed kisses down the line of his jaw. He laid her down on the bed but seemed to hesitate for a moment.
In the darkness, she could only make out his silhouette in front of her. "Make love with me, Clark," she said. He leaned down to kiss her. Without breaking off the kiss, he began to levitate until he was floating prone above her, maintaining contact, but without putting much of his weight on her. She wrapped her arms around his waist and pulled him down toward her.
He managed to get rid of the rest of their clothing without his lips ever leaving hers. She smiled against his mouth. "Showoff," she murmured, holding his large body close to her. She felt him laugh, the deep sonorous sound rumbling through his powerful body. It felt incredible.
His eyes met hers and she could see in their dark depths the intensity and the warmth of his emotions. He lifted a hand to caress her cheek. "You are so beautiful," he whispered.
He was falling again.
He couldn't slow down or stop. The voices calling out his name echoed in his mind, but he couldn't answer. He reached out toward the hands extended to him, but the effort was in vain. He couldn't hold on to anyone, or anything. Everything simply slipped away, no matter how hard he tried to hold on. The sick feeling in his stomach took hold of him and he was afraid.
He screwed his eyes shut and suddenly, he wasn't falling anymore. He was lying perfectly still. The cold was gone. Instead he felt as though he was wrapped up in warmth and security. There were no voices. It was silent save for the soothing sounds of deep breathing and slow steady heartbeats. And there were no hands reaching out to him, no hands he couldn't manage to grasp onto. There was just a pair of slender arms wrapped around him in a strong embrace. In that one quiet moment, he was safe-safer than he'd ever felt before.
Half asleep, he shifted still closer to her. Finding in her embrace a safe harbor from the tempest of his emotions, Clark drifted back to sleep.
It was still dark out and hours before dawn. They lay together in a tangle of limbs; her head pillowed on his shoulder. His arm was looped around her slender waist, his fingers tracing absent patterns on the soft, smooth skin of her stomach. It felt so good to simply lie there with his eyes closed, holding her in his arms while she slept.
She began to stir and he realized that she was awake. "Please, stay here, come back to the Planet. Come back to me."
"I'm afraid," he admitted quietly. "I've been running away so long I don't know how to stop."
"But I need you," she replied. He could hear the tears in her voice.
"I'm the one who needs you, Lois. You've never needed anyone," he whispered against her hair.
"I thought I didn't," she explained. "And then you came along, and it was like seeing what my life could be for the first time and I can't go back to the way I was before. God, I've tried, Clark, I've really tried, but I need you in my life. You went away and I couldn't stop thinking about you, ever. It felt like something in me died the day you left." A single tear and then another slipped down her cheek. "Don't make me go through that again, because I swear I won't survive losing you again."
He looked at her tear-filled eyes and felt an ache deep down inside. He kissed away her tears. "Oh, Lois," he murmured. "I want to be with you," he confessed. "More than anything. But I don't know how to make things right again."
"You would have died for me, wouldn't you?" she asked. Clark nodded quietly. "I know what I'm asking of you is a lot tougher, but you need to go on living. I need you to live, to not let this destroy you. You need to realize for yourself that you did nothing wrong. You saved all of our lives. It's not in you to stand by when people need you. You were put in a position no one should have to be in, but you did the only thing you could do."
Clark shook his head. "I should have found another way…" he began.
"Don't you get it?" She looked at him expectantly, but he said nothing. "That's what makes you a hero-the fact that you put the needs of others before your own. You were right, Superman can't kill, it would destroy who he is, but that's because Superman always has another option. His powers are what make his morals absolute. You didn't have that luxury. You did what you had to do to save the lives of people you care about. How much longer are you going to feel guilty about something you couldn't control?"
He looked away. "It's not that simple, I can't just turn it off and stop feeling the way I feel."
"But you can start by admitting this burden isn't yours to bear. Trask was responsible for his own actions; he tried to kill you and your family. If anyone was a threat to humanity, it was him."
"I wish I could believe you," he said softly.
"You're going to have to," she replied frankly. "Because if you don't, this guilt you're carrying around is going to destroy your life."
"It already has," he said, staring blankly at the ceiling. "It drove me away from you."
"What's happened to us?" she asked.
"It doesn't matter. Things can't go back to the way they were," he said wearily.
She sat up. "I thought you loved me," she said, her tone accusatory.
He turned away to avoid her gaze. "I do. I love you more than anything in the world. But that won't change the past," he replied stubbornly.
"Look at me," she demanded. He turned his head slowly. It didn't help that she was naked; that fact was very distracting.
"I love you," she said. "And I don't plan on letting anything, not even your own thickheadedness, tear us apart again."
"Clark, I'm tired of just sitting back and watching the man I love self destruct. You don't deserve this hell that you're putting yourself through. You think that you're not the same person that you were, but I know you are."
He shook his head. "If you were right, I wouldn't have let you think that I hated you. I wouldn't have put you through that. I wouldn't have made you think that you were the reason why I was leaving. I wouldn't have let you assume any of the blame for this." He dragged a hand through his hair.
"I know what it's like to push people away because you're angry," she said softly. "And anything I should have held against you, I forgave you for, a long time ago."
Clark closed his eyes tightly. He wanted so desperately to reach out and accept the salvation she was offering. He wanted to rid himself of the weight that had been sitting heavily on his shoulders these last few months, threatening to crush him. Lois was the only person who could ease the burden of his conscience, he knew that, and she was offering it to him-a salve for his wounded soul. "I'm sorry," he sobbed. He felt his whole body shake.
Her arms were around him instantly as he allowed her to pull him into a fierce embrace. "Shhh, it's okay," she whispered. "It's all right."
"I'm sorry, god, I'm so sorry," he murmured, holding her tightly.
Lois stroked his hair, cradling his head against her chest. "It's all right, Clark, it's all right," she crooned soothingly.
In the small circle of her arms he felt safe and protected. It had been so long since he'd allowed anyone to comfort him; he'd rebuffed his parents' support these last few months, closing in on himself, instead. Now, as he staggered and fell, he was allowing Lois to be the one to pick him up. He'd finally admitted that his life had shattered to bits and that he couldn't gather up the pieces alone. She held him while the illusions he'd built around himself came crashing down. Eventually, the sobs abated. Soothed by the sound of her breathing and the gentle rhythm of her heartbeat, he fell into a peaceful sleep for the first time in months.
The first rays of light were filtering into the room when he woke at last, feeling more at peace than he had in ages. Lois was still holding him, running her fingers through his hair, the sound of her heartbeat reassuring him. He lifted his head to look at her. She smiled at him.
"Hey," she whispered quietly.
"Hey," he replied. Clark realized that he was partially lying on top of her and probably placing far too much of his weight on her. He rolled onto his side and propped himself up on his elbow. She was so achingly beautiful. It was the only way he could describe it. He loved her so much it hurt inside. He took her hand in his and raised it to his lips, kissing the tips of all of her fingers before dropping a kiss in the palm of her hand. "Thank you," he whispered.
She caressed his cheek and smiled tremulously at him.
"I love you," he whispered, drawing her into his arms.
"I love you, too," she replied.
He held her tightly, finding solace in her embrace. Her presence soothed his raging soul and chased away the specters that had haunted him for months now. He felt at peace; it had been so long that he'd forgotten what it was like to not be held captive by his grief and anger and fear. He'd begun to doubt the ability to ever be whole again. An emptiness had grown inside him, a dark and endless void that had consumed any hope he'd ever had. It ate away at his soul. It was an abyss that he thought nothing could ever fill. Lois had proved him wrong; she filled that void completely, giving him something he'd determined himself unworthy of.
She was a spark of hope, a single little light to guide him out of the darkness he'd created. He felt alive again because of her. In her arms, he'd found a reason to keep going, and the strength he knew he'd need to fight the battles yet to come. The shadows weren't gone, not quite yet, but a ray of light had broken through, the storm would pass, he realized for the first time.
Lois smiled as she snuggled up in her lover's arms, content to lie quietly with him. The last twelve hours had been emotionally exhausting; well, they'd been pretty physically exhausting, too, she thought with a wry smile. Clark made love with equal parts passion, tenderness, and reverence, and above all that, with pure, indescribable love. Their physical intimacy seemed to have shattered the last of the barriers to their emotional intimacy. Everything they'd gone through last night served as a release for the fears and worries of the months before. And now, they lay quietly together, enjoying a reprieve from the intense emotional catharsis they'd undergone together.
He had cried, and it had broken her heart. Silently, she'd wept with him. She had tried to check her emotions, worried that her reaction might cause him more anxiety, which he certainly hadn't needed. Lois had bitten her lip, but the tears had fallen silently nonetheless. His head against her breast, she had held him tightly as his large body shook with sobs. Eventually, the trembling had abated, and he had fallen asleep. He had such a look of perfect peace on his face; she'd spent hours just watching him.
When he had woken up at last, they'd talked. Clark had confided in her, in low tones confessing his fears and his nightmares. He'd told her how paralyzed he'd felt and how isolated. "You make me feel like I'm not alone anymore," he had whispered. She had assured him that he wasn't alone, that he never would be, that she would always be there for him.
Now, they both lay awake, content just to be together, to share a soft kiss or a gentle touch. There were still difficult times ahead, she knew that, but at that moment, there wasn't anywhere else in the world that she'd rather have been.
She noticed him watching her, his eyes full of love. She smiled at him and kissed him gently. "It's a good thing neither of us has to work today, because I don't think I can move," she said, her lips inches from his, before kissing him again. She tucked her head under his chin against the warm, smooth skin of his chest as he hugged her tightly.
"Mm, me neither," he replied.
Lois began to doze off in his arms. He dropped a kiss on the top of her head, before slipping out of her embrace and out of the bed.
He found his boxers on the floor where he'd discarded their clothing earlier and put them on. Clark sat down on the chair across the room. In her dimly lit bedroom he watched her sleep, a look of peace and contentment on her face. She was naked and vulnerable and innocent in her sleep.
And positively breathtaking.
There was no denying the fact that he was completely in love with her. He sat with his head in his hands, wondering how he was supposed to go back after last night. No amount of time away from her would ever be enough for him to forget her, but now, being away from her was unfathomable.
She'd told him, again and again, that she loved him, that she needed him, that she wanted him. Lois had done everything possible to exorcise his belief that she was angry or disappointed with him. But even if she could forgive him, how could he forgive himself?
His thoughts were still a jumbled mess. He wanted to come back, to step back into his life without missing a beat, as if the last six months hadn't happened. He wanted to believe that she was right, but there were still a million questions in his mind that he didn't have the answers to. Life had gone from being so simple, from being so black and white to this horribly muddled gray and he didn't know what to make of it. He didn't know how to make sense of it anymore. How had everything changed so abruptly on him?
Clark had been running away from his problems; that much was clear. He'd lied to himself, pretending that the change was what he'd needed to take control of his life again. He had been purposefully avoiding controlling his life and everything had spiraled well out of his control. Perry had been right, he thought to himself. He couldn't run away from his problems; there wasn't any place far enough away.
That left only one option: dealing with them. He just wasn't really sure how to do that.
Clark watched as Lois curled up toward the empty space he'd occupied a few minutes before. She opened her eyes, a startled look on her face. She spotted him quickly though, and smiled sleepily at him. God, when she smiled at him like that, he felt like he could die a happy man.
"What are you doing over there?" she asked him softly.
"Watching you sleep. Thinking about how much I love you," he replied. He was in love with her. She was in love with him. That changed everything.
Except one thing.
He'd killed a man.
No matter how good his reasons were, no matter what Lois or his parents had told him, he'd done something that he had never been prepared to do. One night of lovemaking, no matter how incredible, couldn't change that fact.
"You're the best thing that's ever happened to me," she whispered, her voice low and thick with emotion.
'How can you have so much faith in me?' he wondered. 'What could I have possibly done to deserve being loved by someone as incredible as you?' He had no idea what the answers were, but he was determined to try to be the man that she deserved, even if that meant facing emotions and fears that he'd been trying to bury for months.
"Come back to bed," she whispered.
He stood up wordlessly and slipped back into bed beside her.
Lois smiled as she stepped out of the bathroom, tightening her bathrobe. She could hear Clark opening the cabinets in the kitchen. She meant to return to her bedroom to get dressed, but found herself in the kitchen somehow.
She stood back, and watched him; he stood in the middle of her kitchen wearing only his shorts, with his hands on his hips. He didn't seem to notice her presence and so she took no small pleasure in watching him. He frowned slightly.
Her unsuspecting lover couldn't have realized that she could spend hours just watching him. Lois crept up behind him and wrapped her arms around his waist, hugging him tightly and placing her cheek against the warm, bare skin of his back.
"Hey, beautiful," he said. She could hear the smile in his voice and felt the words rumble in his chest. He placed his hands on top of hers before turning around. There was the slightest hint of sadness in his soulful, brown eyes. But he smiled at her and it made her heart ache. He placed his hands on her shoulders and kissed her gently. The kiss started off innocently enough, but as her hands roamed over the vast expanse of bare skin of his torso, his hands slipped down the edges of her robe to the belt knotted at her waist.
He groaned as he deepened the kiss and she felt herself melt. On some intuitive level, she was surprised that she was still able to stand, considering the incredible things that Clark was doing to her. How was it that, just by kissing her, he could overload all of her senses, making it impossible for her to stand up, let alone think straight?
She moaned as he broke off the kiss. "You never use this kitchen, do you?" he asked with a lopsided smile. "Because if even I can't find anything in your cabinets, I can't see how anyone could." He caught her hand as she attempted to smack him playfully for his offense. He raised her hand to his lips. "I'm going to take a shower, and then I'll go get us something to eat."
He began to walk toward the bathroom but stopped and turned around. "Lois," he began. "Thank you, for everything."
She smiled at him.
Lois heard a knock at the door just as the water in the shower began running. She certainly wasn't expecting anyone. Looking through the peephole, she could see her editor standing in the hallway, a troubled look on his face. She unbolted and then opened the door part way.
"Lois, honey, I tried calling your cell phone last night and I left a couple of messages on your machine. Are you okay? Is everything all right?" Perry stepped into the entryway of her apartment.
"Everything's fine, Perry," she replied, nervously tucking a strand of still dripping wet hair behind her ear. She glanced around the room surreptitiously. What were the chances that Perry wouldn't notice the garment bag right by the door, or the men's and women's clothing that led from the living room to her bedroom like a very incriminating trail of breadcrumbs? 'Just stay in the bathroom, Clark' she thought. This was awkward enough as it was. She realized just then that the water wasn't running anymore. Did Clark take ten second showers?
It didn't matter which of the many clues Perry picked up on. His slightly embarrassed frown and arched brow were clear enough. "I'm sorry to just barge in on you," he apologized. "I just wanted to make sure that you were okay…"
"Lois, I…" Clark walked into the room, wearing nothing except a towel. He saw Perry and stopped suddenly, backing up and hitting the doorframe. The look on his face was a combination of 'caught sneaking in after curfew' and 'busted by the principal, smoking in the boys' room.'
The you-know-what had hit the proverbial fan.
Clark's reaction almost made the sheer mortification she felt worthwhile. She bit her lip, certain she was turning red with embarrassment. This probably looked even worse than it actually was. She had clearly just stepped out of the shower, as had Clark. Could two 'normal' people shower consecutively that fast? Barring that conclusion, what would Perry think of the fact that the two of them had gone from not having spoken to each other in half a year to the point where Clark was comfortable enough walking around in Lois's apartment wearing nothing but a towel in just twelve hours?
"I'm glad you made it back for the awards last night, Clark," Perry said. He was clearly trying hard to ignore the extraordinary awkwardness of the situation. "Congratulations on the Merriwether."
"Uh, thanks, Chief," Clark replied, apparently having only now regained the power of speech. He held his towel tightly at his waist with one hand.
"I should be going," Perry replied as he backed toward the door. "Go ahead and take tomorrow off," he told Lois as he opened the door.
Perry White stepped back out into the hallway and the apartment door closed behind him. He smiled as he shook his head. He should have known. Twenty-four hours ago, he'd been uncertain if his two favorite reporters would ever recover from the ordeal they'd been through. And now, well, they certainly seemed to be on their way. As he walked down the corridor, he heard two voices dissolve into a fit of giggles.
Clark wrapped his arms around Lois as they both shook with laughter. Lois laughed until her sides hurt and she had tears in her eyes. It felt so good to hear Clark laugh aloud. It was like a balm to her soul. Perhaps she was a bit biased in this regard, but it was definitely the most wonderful sound in the world.
"It's so good to hear you laugh again," she murmured, voicing her thoughts aloud.
Clark relaxed his embrace and smiled wistfully at her. "It's been a long time since I've had anything to laugh about," he admitted. "I can't believe the look on Perry's face," he said with a chuckle.
"Perry's face? You should have seen the look on *your* face," she replied.
"He caught me by surprise!" Clark exclaimed in his own defense.
"No kidding," Lois replied. "But I think we surprised him, too. He came over here probably expecting to find me crying my eyes out and instead he finds the two of us pretty much naked."
Clark caressed her cheek, a sad expression on his face. "I'm sorry for every time I made you cry," he whispered.
Lois wrapped her arms around him tightly and placed her head against his chest. "You're forgiven," she said softly.
That afternoon they sat together on the couch in a comfortable tangle of arms and legs and lazily read the Sunday paper. The ringing of the phone forced Lois to give up her very nice seat, using Clark as a backrest, in order to scramble for the phone on the end table.
"Hi Lois, it's Martha," came the pleasant and familiar voice on the other end.
"Martha!" Lois responded. She glanced at Clark and saw a look of surprise that probably mirrored her own expression.
"We heard about you winning the award, and I just wanted to call and congratulate you. Jonathan and I read that series of articles, it was wonderful work."
"Thanks," Lois replied.
"And it was very generous of you and Perry to share the credit with Clark…"
"Well, I wouldn't have been able to write the articles without the investigation Clark had done into that nursing home scandal," Lois interrupted.
"I know he appreciates it, even though he hasn't said anything about it," Martha continued.
"Well…" Lois began, but Martha cut her off.
"I just wish I could talk some sense into my boy."
Lois saw Clark's arched brow and knew that he'd heard that last comment. She frowned at him; that's what he got for eavesdropping. He motioned for the phone. "It might be easier than you think, Martha. Hold on just a second," she said into the phone and handed the receiver to Clark.
"Mom?" Clark began. Lois gestured toward the kitchen and left the living room to make some coffee and give Clark some privacy. Some minutes later, Clark entered the kitchen, rubbing absently at his neck. She handed him a cup of coffee.
"Are you free for dinner?" he asked. "My parents want us to visit tonight."
"I'd love to," she replied with a smile. At her response, Clark finally allowed himself to smile.
Flying with Clark was much different from flying with Superman. It was somehow even more incredible now that she wasn't blinded by hero worship. Or maybe it was because Clark held her closer than Superman ever had, now that he didn't have any reason to hide his feelings. Whatever the reason for the change, it made her hope that she'd have more opportunities in the future to fly with him. She hoped that Clark knew that she wanted him to become a regular fixture in her life again.
Far too soon, she felt him begin to descend. Before long, they were landing in a secluded part of the Kent farm. Clark gently placed her on her feet and they began to walk toward the house. It was twilight and the spring air was unseasonably warm.
Lois walked beside Clark, wondering what he'd told his mother about their relationship and whether she'd have to pretend to merely be his friend. She doubted that she'd be able to fool Martha and hoped that she wouldn't have to try. As if to assuage her unspoken concerns, Clark took her hand and interlaced their fingers as they approached the farmhouse. He looked at her and smiled and she squeezed his hand a little tighter in response.
They walked up the porch steps and Clark knocked on the front door. Mere seconds passed before it was opened by Jonathan, who cheerfully welcomed Lois and his son with warm hugs. "It's good to see both of you back here," he said with a smile. They'd no sooner stepped into the entryway when Martha entered the house behind them.
"I thought I saw you two out in the field," she said as she hugged first Lois and then Clark. "Come on in," she urged them. "Tonight is Jonathan's turn to cook," she explained. "So I hope you like your chili spicy, Lois."
Lois smiled as she wondered how the Kents could make her feel so at home.
Jonathan turned to Clark after they'd finished clearing the table after dinner, "Son, I think Princess will be ready to deliver in a few weeks; I want you to come take a look at her."
"Sure thing," Clark replied as he followed his father out of the house.
Jonathan began to walk in the exact opposite direction of the barn. Clark stopped, puzzled and called after his father, who continued walking. "Aren't we going to the barn?"
"Nope," Jonathan replied.
"But I thought you said you wanted to go take a look at the cow."
Jonathan stopped and turned around. "Princess isn't with calf this year."
Clark shook his head and ran to catch up with his father. "The old divide and conquer tactic, huh?"
"Can't a father just spend some time with his son who hasn't called or visited in over a month?"
"Touch‚," Clark replied. He stuck his hands in his pockets and walked quietly with his father beside the fence that marked the border between their property and Schuster's Field. After a long while, Clark spoke again. "I know that I've done some things that you and Mom didn't approve of, and I've done a lot of things that I'm not proud of. I shouldn't have run away from my problems, and I shouldn't have pushed you away when you tried to help me. And I shouldn't have shut Lois out of my life."
"You have the opportunity to change all of that," his father reminded him.
"I know. I don't deserve another chance, but I have one, and I don't want to mess it up," Clark confessed. He kicked a stray pebble in his path, causing it to skitter off into the dirt.
"Well, your mother and I weren't prepared to stop loving you just because you were being stubborn," Jonathan replied with a slight smile to ease the tension.
"I know, Dad…" A sharp crack startled him and caused him to stop dead. He grabbed his father's arm as his entire body tensed.
"Clark? Are you all right?" He thought he heard his father say, but it sounded as if his voice was coming from a million miles away. He was back there—with the smell of gasoline and gunpowder and the freezing cold water. He exhaled shakily as he tried to expunge the vivid images from his mind.
"Son? Clark? Son, are you okay?" He could feel his father's hand on his arm and as if waking from a nightmare, he shook the unpleasant thoughts from his memory and everything was exactly as before.
"I'm sorry, flashback," he mumbled.
"Wayne must be blasting that stump on his property," Jonathan mused aloud. "Are you sure you're okay?"
"Yeah, yeah, I'm fine, Dad."
They walked quietly for a while before Jonathan spoke. "How often do you have the flashbacks?"
Clark shrugged. "Maybe a few times a week."
"What about the nightmares?"
Clark didn't want to tell his father that they still occurred just about every single night. He didn't want to tell him that last night was the first good night of sleep he'd had in months. "Less often than before," he answered.
"But still pretty regularly?"
Clark merely shrugged.
"Are you talking to anyone about it?"
Clark shrugged again. "Lois and I talked about it last night."
"I'm glad," Jonathan replied. "That poor young woman was really worried about you."
Clark stopped and gave his father a questioning look.
"Your mother and I have been talking to Lois fairly regularly. She was afraid you'd never speak to her again. So what changed in the last week?"
"I don't know. I went to the Merriwether ceremony last night. I didn't want her to see me there, but it was a big night for her. I wanted to be there. Anyway, she saw me, and I ran away again. She found me at the airport. She told me that she loved me and I just walked away from her." Clark noticed his father hide a cringe at that. "I couldn't leave, though. I went back to see her, and I don't know why, but she forgave me. After all the terrible things I put her through, how could she forgive me like that?"
"Lois is probably as stubborn as you are, right?" his father asked.
"Then she was bound to wait you out. Patience is just stubbornness with good cause, at least, that's what your mother always says," Jonathan replied with a wink. He continued, with a more serious tone. "Do you love Lois?"
"More than anything," Clark replied without hesitation.
"Does she know that?"
"Yes. At least, I hope so."
"It's not enough to just tell her. For both of your sakes she has to be there for you, and you have to let her. If there was something this big bothering her, and she pushed you away, and wouldn't talk to you about it, how would it make you feel?"
"Pretty awful," Clark admitted.
"So you should know that shutting her out would do the same to her. If you love her as much as you say you do, you have to talk to her, even when you don't want to. Lois can't solve your problems for you, but you don't have to face them alone, either. I know that she loves you and wants you to feel like you can turn to her. The three of us are all here, you just have to let us in."
Lois looked out the window, from her seat on the couch in the living room; it was completely dark out now. Jonathan and Clark had been gone some time, but that had given her and Martha a chance to talk. She'd suspected that they hadn't really left to go check on a pregnant cow, but she was grateful for the opportunity to talk to Martha.
"But how are you doing with all of this?" Martha asked.
"Now that Clark's talking to me again, much better," Lois replied as she raised her cup of coffee to her lips.
"I know you love him," Martha began. "But being in a relationship with him now won't be easy."
"I know that what he's going through now is going to make it hard for both of us," Lois replied. "I don't know where we're going to end up, but I do know that I love him more than I've ever loved anyone before and I've seen what not having him in my life is like and I don't want to go back to that."
"I just don't want you to try to take too much on. In the end, it has to be Clark who decides to set things right, all we can do is help."
"I know," Lois admitted. "I just hope that I'll be able to be the person he needs me to be. I want to be there for him."
"You've already done so much for him," Martha continued. "Tonight was the first time I saw my boy smile in months. Jonathan and I are grateful for that." Martha reached out and took Lois's hand. Lois felt connected to the entire Kent family. Whatever lay ahead, the four of them would face it together.
Clark held Lois tightly as he flew across the darkened sky back to Metropolis. The visit to Smallville had done a great deal to ease the guilt he'd been feeling over his self-imposed isolation. It felt so good to see his parents again, and to talk to them. He'd assumed that they couldn't possibly understand what was going on in his life, but they did, perfectly. It had been stupid of him to push them away, but they had never turned their backs on him. He was so lucky to have such wonderful parents and he knew that.
Having Lois with him made it even better. He couldn't begin to describe the profound impact her love and support had on him. He doubted that any of this would be possible without her. There were so many things he could never do alone, but with her, it felt like anything was possible.
They began to descend onto a quiet, empty street not far from her apartment. He set her gently on her feet and she took his hand as they walked the few blocks toward Carter Avenue. They entered her building and when they reached her door, she looked up at him somewhat hesitantly and whispered. "Stay the night." It wasn't a question, but it certainly wasn't spoken with Lois Lane's trademarked assertive tone either.
He nodded as he tilted her chin up and kissed her softly.
Lois curled up beside him, her head on his shoulder and his arm around her. She smiled in her sleep and he hoped her dreams were pleasant ones. Their lovemaking that night wasn't as frantic or urgent as the previous night's. They weren't two souls desperately clinging to the gossamer threads of a dream that they were afraid of waking from. They made love unhurriedly but with intense passion. Clark had explored every soft curve, warm hollow and smooth plane of Lois's body, paying homage to every inch, in hopes that he could make her feel as loved as he felt. She had quickly discovered every sensitive spot on his supposedly invulnerable body and had driven him insane with desire.
He dropped a kiss on the top of her head. "Love you, Clark," she murmured
"I love you, too," he whispered, his heart welling up with sheer joy.
Clark left reluctantly the following afternoon. The past few days had been the most incredible in his life. Lois had made him feel alive again. Over the last few months, he'd grown numb to avoid the pain. And now, for the first time in a long time, he'd truly felt something. And that something had been pure, indescribable love. He smiled as he flew through the cloud layer over the Pacific. He executed a barrel roll with a huge grin on his face. There were still so many things to sort out, but for one brief moment, he wanted to simply enjoy what he was feeling.
The elevator doors slid open and a stranger entered the office. At least he looked like a complete stranger to Noriko. The Clark Kent that stepped off that elevator was not the same man who had left the office a few days ago. He smiled genuinely and Noriko had to admit that it was a gorgeous smile.
"Good morning," he said cheerfully as he walked over toward the break area where she was standing and brewing tea.
"You certainly don't look like a fellow who has just spent twenty hours on an aeroplane," she replied with a bemused smile as she raised her cup of tea to her lips.
"Huh?" he replied, looking somewhat confused.
"It must have been a rather amazing weekend, because you're positively glowing, Clark."
The glow quickly became a blush and he ran a hand through his hair sheepishly. "Yeah, I guess it was."
"Congratulations on the Merriwether."
Clark looked confused again for a moment, but apparently shook the mental cobwebs quickly. If Noriko hadn't been a journalist, she might have missed his initial reaction. "Oh, thank you," he replied.
"I take it that it was nice to go home and visit old friends," she inquired.
"One in particular," he admitted. He focused intently on preparing his own cup of tea, probably to avoid making eye contact she mused.
"That's good to hear," she replied.
"Noriko, I have to thank you," he said after a long pause. "If it hadn't been for you constantly pointing out how stupid I was being, I might not have gone back."
Noriko shook her head. "Sooner or later, you would have gone back. You love her too much not to."
"It's that obvious, huh?" he asked.
She merely nodded. "Be good to her."
"I will." Clark nodded. "I think you'd like her. She's a lot like you."
Noriko smiled. "So you have good taste." She elbowed him jokingly in the side.
"Now I just have to figure out how to get back to Metropolis," he said wistfully.
"Lois, I thought I told you to take the day off!" Perry yelled as soon as she stepped off the elevator.
"But I took most of the day off!" she exclaimed. "It's almost three o'clock."
Perry merely grunted in response and went back to yelling at a copy boy.
She saw Jimmy run across the newsroom toward the stairwell, a manila folder in his hand. "Hey, Lois," he yelled over his shoulder as he disappeared in a blur.
Lois made her way to her desk and started going through all the stuff that had accumulated there over the last three days. Ten minutes later, Jimmy returned to the newsroom and perched himself on the corner of her desk.
"Hey, Lois, what's up?"
"Hey, Jimmy," she said with a smile.
"Congrats on the Merriwether."
"Thanks," she replied.
"I wish CK had stuck around."
"Yeah," she replied absently.
"Jimmy! Eduardo needs a photographer down on Seventh and Main pronto!" Perry yelled from his office door.
"I'm on it, Chief," Jimmy replied enthusiastically as he took off. "Bye, Lois," he yelled as he darted off again.
"Lois, can I see you in my office?" Perry asked.
Lois grabbed her coffee mug from her desk and followed Perry into his office. "What's up, Chief?" she asked as she sipped her coffee.
"It's about Clark," he said.
Startled, Lois gulped her nearly scalding coffee. "Oh?" she managed.
"The suits upstairs are already demanding to know why I've got a Merriwether winner working as an editor half way around the world. You're the only person in the office he's talked to since leaving; do you think he'd be willing to come back?" Perry made no reference whatsoever to the previous morning and for it, Lois was glad.
"I think so," she replied slowly. Inside, the idea of Clark returning to Metropolis thrilled her. He'd left early that afternoon and they'd avoided talking about the fact that they were going to be half a world apart again.
"How's he doing?" Perry asked, his gruff, all business fa‡ade disappearing for a brief moment as his concern became apparent.
"Better," Lois replied. "I'm still worried about him, but I think he's doing better."
"Good," Perry responded. "If you talk to him, well, tell him we all, uh, hope he's doin' well."
"Of course," Lois said.
For several weeks, she and Perry didn't discuss the issue at all. Work kept her busy, too busy to continue her investigation into Lex Luthor. She had never realized how difficult it would be to hide her personal life from her friends and colleagues. With the exception of Perry, no one in the office knew that she was even speaking to Clark. She had to continue to play the role of best friend and partner spurned. Everyone had expected her to become more miserable after the Merriwethers once it got around the office rumor mill that Clark had been there but that he'd run off once she saw him. Jimmy tried so hard to never mention Clark in her presence these days and she really wanted to tell him the truth, but knew that she couldn't.
Clark would stop by most nights for a brief visit. It was clear that he needed those visits to keep him going as much as she did. He'd stayed with her the previous weekend and confessed that he still didn't sleep well when he wasn't with her. He admitted that he would often fly to Metropolis when it was night in Tokyo. Floating high above the Daily Planet, he'd watch her at work. It broke Lois's heart to know that he was still suffering. She knew that his problems wouldn't magically dissolve away just because they were together.
The process had been slow, but she could see the gradual change in him. He was less guarded when he was around her, more willing to open up. She wished that he could talk to a therapist about what was going on in his life, but given who he was, it wasn't possible. He had his parents and he had her. It wasn't an ideal situation, but they were learning to cope and Clark was learning to let them in.
Last weekend, she and Clark had talked practically through the night. Clark had been unable to sleep and she assumed it was the nightmares again. They had talked about little things of no consequence for a while before she'd asked him about coming back to Metropolis. She'd previously been hesitant to raise the issue with him. They'd been taking everything one day at a time and she'd been afraid of pressuring him. She had been relieved when he'd told her that he wanted nothing more. Unfortunately that wasn't the end of the problem; the Asia Headquarters had been busier than usual, he said, and terribly understaffed and he had no idea whether he'd be able to transfer back.
"I'm going to find some way to come back, I swear it," he'd told her.
"What about Superman?" she'd asked.
"I don't know," he'd responded, shaking his head. "I don't think being Superman again would feel right." She hoped that he would change his mind, but she knew it would take time. Time, at least, was less of an issue now that things seemed to be getting better.
"Clark, my office, please." Mr. Kazami stood in the doorway to his office. Clark nodded and stood up from his desk and followed his boss into his office.
"Clark, despite the fact that we're understaffed in this office, I've received a request from Mr. White for your transfer back to Metropolis. He would like you back there as soon as possible, if you are willing. Shall I assume that you'll be accepting Mr. White's offer?"
Clark was stunned. He'd asked Mr. Kazami weeks ago about the length of his appointment in Tokyo, which had initially been left open. He'd made it clear that he'd hoped to return to Metropolis as soon as possible and had been informed that no transfer would be possible until a replacement could be found. Suddenly, he was getting exactly what he wanted. "Uh, yes," he replied at last.
"Well, I suspected as much. It's been a pleasure having you work here, Clark, and I wish you all the best. Another editor will be able to fill the position in this office starting in two weeks. I hope you'll be willing to stay that long."
"Of course, sir," Clark replied. He had to suppress a grin as the enthusiasm welled up inside him. He was going home.
Lois opened her eyes, startled. She'd been halfway between sleep and waking when a familiar, warm voice had interrupted the stillness.
"Clark?" she asked as she sat up, a smile slowly creeping across her face. She'd taken to leaving the window open for him, since it was the easiest way for him to get in without anyone spotting Clark Kent in Metropolis when he was supposed to be in Tokyo. He was standing by the window; the sunlight streaming in through the blinds fell over him. His hands were buried in his pockets and he gave her a half smile. He walked slowly over to the bed, that lock of hair falling over his forehead, making him look adorable. He sat down beside her and kissed her softly.
"I'm coming home," he whispered with a smile as their lips parted.
She pulled back slightly and gave him a questioning look, wondering if she'd heard him right. He merely nodded. She launched herself at him, throwing her arms around his neck with delight. He fell back against the bed with Lois pressed against him. She kissed him and he held her tighter. She smiled against his lips as she began to laugh. "I love you," she whispered.
"I love you, too," he replied. "It'll be a couple of weeks, but Perry's asked me to come back." He smiled.
She kissed him again, but he stilled. "What's wrong?" she asked.
"Your neighbor's radio." Clark stood up and walked toward the living room.
"Clark?" Lois asked as she followed him. A million thoughts raced through her mind as she wondered what horrible catastrophe was cutting short their reunion. Clark turned on the television to LNN and she knew soon enough.
"…And EPRAD scientists have confirmed that an asteroid has been spotted less than a million miles away and heading toward the Earth's orbital path…" They watched in stunned silence as the anchorman delivered the news. Clark silently took her hand.
The phone rang and Lois grabbed it immediately. "Hello?"
Perry's voice came through on the other end. "Lois, I need you down here now."
"I know, Perry, I'm on my way." She hung up the phone and turned to Clark. "I've got to go," she said.
He merely nodded.
Lois kissed him fiercely. "I'll call you later," she said. With that, she turned back to the bedroom to get dressed. She tried not to think about the obvious:
There was a giant asteroid, and it was heading toward the Earth.
Clark floated a couple of miles above the EPRAD press conference, eavesdropping on what the scientific community had to say about the asteroid. He was no astrophysicist, but he'd understood what he needed to. There was a meteor on a collision course with the Earth. It was really big, moving really fast and everything on the planet would be dead if something didn't prevent impact.
'Not something; you, buddy. The whole planet will be in a lot of trouble if you don't do something about it,' his mind told him. The irritating voice was right. He was the only one who could do anything about it, but that would require resurrecting Superman. There was no way he'd be able to accomplish this mission alone. Even with the help of scientists, it wasn't a sure bet. He'd never been in space as long as it would take to get rid of the asteroid. It would certainly take longer than the twenty minutes he could hold his breath. Besides, he had never moved anything as large as the asteroid before; he wasn't sure what he would do with it. Would he just try to shatter it? Would it be better to try to nudge it off course?
And how exactly was he supposed to bring Superman back from the dead? Even if he did, how would people react? What would he tell them? And then what would he do after the asteroid was gone, assuming he managed to destroy it and there was an 'after' to worry about? The questions whirling through his mind were giving him a headache. He could feel his heart pounding in his chest and it felt as if he couldn't breathe. He took a few deep breaths and closed his eyes, trying to will himself calm. After a few long moments, his pulse slowed.
He sighed. He had no idea what to do.
"Nukes, Perry! They want to fire enough nuclear weapons to obliterate Texas at this thing and hope it goes away!" Lois exclaimed as she paced in the editor's office.
"The well of ideas seems kinda dry, darlin'," Perry drawled. "I mean if Superman were still around, maybe he'd be able to do something about this asteroid. Shoot, the way he lifted that space shuttle into orbit, I'm sure it'd be no sweat for him, but without him, the nukes seem to be the best bet we've got."
More than once during the press conference she'd cursed Trask for what he did to Clark and wished that Superman were still around. She'd have to talk to Clark about this. He was probably in agony over this, but she knew he wasn't ready to be Superman yet. This blasted world couldn't make anything easy for him, could it? The more she thought about it though, the more it frightened her to think about Superman going up against the asteroid. Back when Superman had been clearly invulnerable, maybe she wouldn't have been as concerned, but now that she knew that Clark was neither physically nor emotionally invulnerable, the thought of him flying out into space to take on this monster of a space rock terrified her. Would he even be able to destroy the asteroid? Would he get hurt? Her fears grew as she paced more quickly in Perry's office.
"I've got to call STAR Labs," she announced. "I'll call them, and then I'll start working on the follow up." She'd finished the initial story for the afternoon edition within an hour of returning from the press conference. With something of a plan now in her mind, she left Perry's office to start working.
"Dad, I have to do this!" Clark exclaimed. "I'm the only person who can." He looked across the kitchen table at his father, who wore his typical stoical expression.
"I know, son," his father replied, calmly. "But you're going to need help and this isn't exactly something your mother and I can help you with."
"Clark, are you sure you'll be able to destroy the asteroid?" his mother asked.
"I don't know, Mom. I'm not sure whether I should just go after it head on, or push it out of the way or plant explosives on it or what…" he admitted. He ran an agitated hand through his hair.
"Your father is right, you can't do this alone," his mother replied. She placed a hand on top of his in a reassuring gesture.
Clark stood up from the kitchen table and began pacing. "What am I supposed to do, Mom? Go to EPRAD and tell them that Clark Kent can solve all their problems if they just tell him what to do?"
"We all know that this is something Superman has to do; there just isn't any way around it," his father said.
"Superman is dead," Clark replied stonily. "He's been dead for half a year, he can't just show up again."
"He's going to have to, son," Jonathan said.
"I can't be him anymore!" Clark replied in frustration.
"Son, you knew what we were going to tell you when you came here. If you weren't ready to hear it, you wouldn't have come. You have to trust yourself. You are ready and the world needs you. You know what you have to do," Jonathan said soberly.
Clark sighed. He knew that on one level, his father was right. He knew what his parents were going to say, he just needed them to say it. That didn't change the facts, though. But whether he was ready to or not, he had to stop running away now. The world literally depended upon it.
He opened the duffel bag he'd brought with him and removed the Suit. He held it up and stared at it. It was the only one left, the original Suit that his mother had made him so long ago. It had been so difficult to pull the Suit from the bottom of the trunk in which it had remained for these last six months. He had hoped that he would never have to look at the thing again, let alone ever put it on.
Clark put it on slowly and stared at his reflection in the mirror in Lois's bedroom. It was funny; he didn't look like Superman. Clark felt like an imposter. He had been so preoccupied with wondering how he was going to pull this off that he didn't notice Lois sneak up behind him and wrap her arms around him, burying her face against his neck.
"I love you," she whispered.
"I love you, too," he replied as he turned around and enveloped her in his arms.
After a long while, Lois stepped back. "You can do this," she said as she smoothed an imaginary crease from his cape.
Clark nodded grimly. "I can do it," he agreed, hoping she wouldn't hear the doubt in his voice, but knowing that she would. He stilled her hands and kissed her softly.
He sighed as he turned toward the window. He could do this, he reminded himself. This was only the very first step in what would no doubt be a long and difficult process. She took his hand and walked the short distance with him. As he turned to say goodbye, her hand slid around the back of his neck and she pulled his head down and kissed him hard.
After a long moment, he pulled away reluctantly. "I'll be back soon," he promised as he floated up and flew out the window.
"There's no way to know what's going to happen. The schematics are based on pure theory, we've never detonated a nuclear device in a vacuum before, there's no way to account for all the possible results…to be honest, I don't think it's going to work. The best shot we have is to try to knock the asteroid off its current course, destroying it would be far too difficult and too dangerous…"
"Difficult, we've got enough nukes to destroy the planet!" the hotshot Pentagon General on the other end barked.
"Yes, we do have enough nukes, we've got enough nukes to blow up half the planets in the solar system…"
"Then what's the problem?" the General demanded.
"The problem is delivering them. We don't have a method to deliver the number of bombs we'd need to destroy something of this size. Besides, can you imagine the fallout? We'd have a radioactive meteor shower of flaming projectiles the size of Volkswagens. I've got to get back to the test program. I'll call you in a few hours, sir," The balding scientist hung up the phone wearily and rubbed his eyes. He hadn't slept in goodness knew how long but what difference did that make when the world was about to end?
"Excuse me, are you Dr. Klein?"
He didn't bother to turn around. "Unless you can magically stop a giant space rock from smashing into the planet, I'm not buying any, pal."
"Well I wouldn't call it magic, exactly."
Dr. Klein turned around. "Superman!" he exclaimed, stunned beyond belief. The brightly colored superhero was standing in his laboratory, arms crossed in a typical Superman pose. Dr. Klein nearly tripped over himself as he made his way across the lab to shake the superhero's hand vigorously. "I can't tell you how glad I am to see you! Where have you been all this time?"
"I'll be happy to explain later, Dr. Klein, but for now, I think we've got more important things to discuss, such as how I can be of help. I couldn't avoid hearing your conversation; I take it things aren't going very well."
Superman was, of course, correct. As much as he was dying to know where Superman had been for the last six months, preventing the total destruction of the Earth was clearly a priority. "I'm afraid you're right, but I think that's all about to change. I've got an idea and I'd like you to come take a look at this." Dr. Klein gestured for Superman to come over to the holographic model that the scientists at STAR Labs had been working from. A hundred different ideas that had previously been closed off to them were suddenly no longer outside the realm of possibility. With Superman's help, they actually stood a fighting chance.
"The word from our inside sources at the Pentagon is not good, ladies and gentlemen. An unnamed official has stated that the current plan to prevent the collision with the asteroid has a slim chance of working. Numerous technical limitations have been cited as the reasons for the poor odds of success…"
Someone turned the television in the newsroom off. The world had just received its death sentence and Lois still hadn't heard anything from Clark. She looked at her watch. He'd gone to STAR Labs hours ago. She hoped that he and Dr. Klein would be able to think of something. All around her, the staff was in a state of shell shock; the report had not sunk in yet.
"This can't be it," Jimmy said quietly. He looked around frantically, as though trying to find support. "We've still got a chance, whatever the odds are," he exclaimed.
All around the room, she could see disbelief melt into despair. One by one, she watched as everyone gave up hope.
Lois unlocked the door to her apartment and found Clark sitting on the couch, a pensive look on his face. He looked up as she walked into the apartment.
"How did things go?" she asked hesitantly as she sat down beside him.
"Dr. Klein and I came up with an idea. I think it might work," he said soberly. He took her hand in his. He explained briefly what he was planning to do.
"It sounds dangerous," she said when he'd finished.
"I've never done anything like it before," he admitted.
"When do you have to leave?" she asked. Inside her chest, her heart was pounding. She was so desperately afraid for him. Lois wished there were some other way. Why was he the one who was always asked to do the impossible? Why did he always have to carry such a heavy burden? Why did Clark have to be Superman? Why did he have to be the one to risk his life? Why did this blasted asteroid have to show up now instead of a year from now, when Clark would be ready to face it? It wasn't fair, but then, Lois knew that life and fairness often had nothing to do with each other.
"Dr. Klein is making some final preparations. He said we'd be ready to go by tomorrow morning. I worked a couple of double shifts last week so I don't have to go to work, otherwise I'd have to be back in Tokyo in a few hours."
Lois swallowed around the painful mass in her throat. "Promise me you'll come back," she whispered, the tears welling up in her eyes. She trusted that Clark wouldn't lie to her. If he promised, she'd believe him.
Clark squeezed her hand. He closed his eyes and said nothing.
"Clark?" she pleaded. A single tear rolled unchecked down her cheek.
He looked at her, his eyes bright. "I will do everything in my power to come back to you," he whispered, his voice thick with emotion. Clark pulled her into his arms and she clung to him tightly, wishing that she'd never have to let him go.
"Stay here with me tonight," she whispered.
He dropped a kiss on the top of her head and held her tightly. The room was still mostly dark, but the first pre-dawn rays of light began to filter through the blinds.
What if this was the last time he would be able to hold her? He had finally begun to put the pieces of his life back together. But as much as he wanted to hold onto this moment and everything that mattered to him, there would be nothing to hold on to if he didn't go in the morning.
On one level, he was terrified; on another, he knew exactly what he needed to do and nothing was going to stop him. This was his penance, an act of contrition. He didn't know if it would be enough, if he could completely atone for the past with this one act, but he had to try. All questions about whether or not he could ever be Superman again were pushed aside. What did his personal concerns matter when the world was at stake?
Clark was being dealt a generous dose of perspective and his entire outlook had changed virtually overnight. He looked down at Lois. She looked so peaceful in her sleep. She was at once his greatest strength and his greatest weakness. It was only because of her that he had the strength to do this. At the same time, how could he imagine leaving her to fly off into space, knowing he might never return?
Lois opened her eyes and looked up at him. In that moment, all the answers were clear. If it took his death to protect her and this world, he'd gladly go in a heartbeat. "What time is it?" she asked nervously. He could hear her pulse quicken.
"It's early, we still have time," he assured her.
She reached up to touch his face and kissed him gently. "I love you," she whispered.
"I love you more than anything," he replied. The ache deep down in his chest flared up, but he knew that being with Lois gave him the strength he needed to conquer anything, even his own fears.
Morning came too quickly.
Part of him wanted to slip out of Lois's apartment quietly without waking her. He could never stand to see her in pain and if she was feeling a tenth of what he was going through, seeing it was going to break his heart. But what if this was it? What if this was the last time he'd ever see her? There were so many things he needed to tell her, and he knew that she'd never forgive him if he left without saying goodbye. How could he have that on his conscience?
He slipped out of bed and spun into the Suit. "Lois," he said softly as he touched her bare shoulder. She blinked her eyes open and he could see the fear in her expression.
"It's time," he whispered.
She was immediately in his arms, hugging him tightly. She tucked her head under his chin. He wrapped his cape around her to protect her from the cold morning air and the slight breeze entering through the open window.
"Be careful," she whispered, her voice thick with emotion.
"I will," he promised. He held her for a long moment, not ready to let her go. "Thank you," he said breathlessly.
She looked up at him, puzzled. "For what?"
"For believing in me, for being strong enough for both of us," Clark replied. He kissed her gently, trying to memorize every detail of the moment-the way she felt in his arms, the smell of her skin, the sound of her heartbeat, the way her breath caught in her throat as he kissed her, the feel of her lips against his. "Remember that I will love you forever," he said as he caressed her cheek and stepped backward. She bit her lip as he floated up and disappeared in a colorful blur.
"I love you," he heard her whisper through tears as he flew off. He closed his eyes and focused on what he needed to do.
Lois pulled her bathrobe on, holding the lapels together with her hand. She stared out the window at a cloudless blue sky. "Come back to me, Clark," she murmured almost inaudibly. She felt the tears well up in her eyes again. Lois was terrified; she'd spent months thinking she'd lost Clark forever because he was half a world away. Now, knowing that he was risking death, she knew what it would really mean to lose him.
Her heart ached as she thought about him flying off into space, alone. She wiped away an errant tear that made its way down her cheek. Clark was strong; she knew that he would do what he had to do, and then do everything in his power to come home to her.
The world was waking up around her, oblivious to the fact that Clark was on his way now to destroy the asteroid that was threatening to make this one of the last mornings anyone would ever see. Clark told her that no one except the President had been informed of what he was going to do. A press conference had been called at STAR Labs for later in the morning, after Clark's departure. She'd be expected to be there. The press and the world at large would finally be told about the mission and Superman's return.
"The transmitter will provide you with an audiolink to me here in STAR Labs," Dr. Klein explained as he handed Superman a flight mask and helmet that looked like modified fighter pilot equipment. "There's a camera in the helmet that will allow me to see what you see and this oxygen tank will provide you with an hour's worth of air. We're going to experience radio blackout when you circle around the moon and the helmet and tank will likely be destroyed upon impact with the asteroid. By your own estimates of how long you can hold your breath, that will give you twenty minutes to get back into the atmosphere."
"All right," Superman nodded grimly.
"Now, you're going to slingshot around the moon, using its gravity to accelerate your approach. You should be able to achieve a maximum velocity much faster than your own top speed," Dr. Klein explained as he walked over toward a large diagram.
"You have to hit the asteroid in precisely the right quadrant and at the right angle of approach." He pointed to the correct area on the large, gridded, diagram of the asteroid and the charted trajectory path on another map. "With the tracking equipment and the audiolink, I'll be able to guide you into the correct position. This is going to be like a giant game of billiards, Superman. You've got to hit the eight ball with the right amount of force and at the right angle in order to sink it. The transmitting equipment is all set; we're ready to go when you are."
"Then let's go, Dr. Klein," Superman replied. He put on his helmet and quickly went through the diagnostic tests. It would take him less than twenty minutes to fly around the moon and catch up with the asteroid from behind, but he didn't want to take any unnecessary chances. Had they decided to fly straight at the asteroid, it would have taken him less than ten minutes to reach the target, but a head on collision provided too many uncontrollable variables. Merely pushing the asteroid off course was also infeasible — Dr. Klein had told him that given the asteroid's current proximity pushing it far enough off course would require greater force than Superman would be able to apply from a slow approach.
With the tests completed, he took off. He barreled through the atmosphere, breaking the sound barrier almost immediately and hurtling toward the moon.
"All right, Superman, it looks like all systems are functioning, we have good audio and video feed and we're tracking you steadily." Clark heard Dr. Klein's voice in his helmet.
"Copy that, Dr. Klein," Clark replied. He continued his flight toward the moon. The space around him was so quiet and empty. He thought about his parents. Clark had gone to see them right after he met with Dr. Klein the day before. He'd downplayed his own concerns trying to prevent them from worrying. They'd been completely supportive, but their own fears were apparent. He hated making his parents worry, but then he remembered what his father had said to him before he'd left.
Jonathan had placed his hand on his son's shoulder. "We're so proud of the man you've become, son."
Clark felt the slight gravitational pull of the moon and began to adjust his course. He flew over its surface, looking down at the barren, rocky, landscape below him. He felt himself accelerate as everything grew darker.
"Prepare for radio blackout, Superman," Dr. Klein informed him.
The radio connection died a few moments later. 'So this is what it's like to be completely alone,' Clark thought to himself as he flew across the dark side of the moon. Using the moon's gravity, he managed another burst of speed.
The Air Force Colonel stood at a podium outside the main building at the EPRAD facility. A bank of a dozen microphones was set up in front her. Reporters from every major news organization in the world had gathered in front of the podium for the announcement. None of them had any idea what was going to be discussed. None except one, that was. The rest of the reporters had spent the last ten minutes gossiping amongst themselves, debating whether or not the Pentagon would announce some new top secret mission or whether this was the government's way of informing everyone that it was a lost cause.
The Colonel began to speak and the reporters grew quiet. "Fifteen minutes ago, Superman left STAR Labs on a mission to divert the asteroid and prevent its collision with the Earth. His ETA to target is a few minutes, in which time, we will know whether or not he has succeeded. STAR Labs finest scientists are working with Superman to help him complete this task. I will now take your questions."
"When did Superman become involved in the mission?" a correspondent from Agence France asked.
"I don't have any details regarding that matter," the Colonel replied unhelpfully.
"Where has Superman been all of this time?" Diane Wardlow from LNN asked.
"Your guess is as good as mine," the Colonel replied almost flippantly.
"Why has this mission been kept secret for so long?" another reporter asked.
"Top Pentagon officials were only briefed about this mission this morning. I'm afraid that's all the time that I have at this moment. When more information is available, we will brief you," the Colonel promised as she stepped away from the microphones.
Lois played at taking notes on the press conference, but there was nothing presented that she didn't know already. She thought about Clark and where he was and what he must have been thinking at that moment. She closed her eyes and silently wished him luck. "I love you, Clark," she whispered inaudibly. She steeled herself to check her emotions. There was nothing to do but wait these last agonizing few minutes until Clark reached the asteroid.
Clark looked up to see the Earth rising over the horizon and he felt his breath catch in his throat. It was so beautiful. A moment later, he'd cleared the moon and Dr. Klein was on the line again.
"We're back, Superman."
"I can hear you loud and clear, Doctor," Clark replied. The asteroid suddenly came into view. It grew in size quickly as he approached it. Soon, there was little he could see other than the large, silent monster dominating the space in front of him. "I have visual contact," he reported.
"Good, Superman, I'm seeing what you see right now. You need to bear a bit to the right." Clark did as instructed.
"You're right on target," Dr. Klein responded and Clark steadied his course. "The impact site is right in front of you," Dr. Klein continued. Clark focused on the large mass of stone and ice in front of him. "Impact in one minute."
Clark's mind filled with thoughts of Lois. He could see her smile, could hear her voice. It was almost as though he could feel her with him at that moment.
"Thirty seconds until impact, Superman."
Clark held his arms out stiff in front of him, bracing himself. He remembered the first time he saw Lois, when she'd stormed into Perry's office during his interview. It was also that moment when he fell in love with her. He remembered working with her at the Planet, just being with her everyday. He remembered the night a few weeks before, when they first made love. And he remembered Smallville.
He remembered the few days they'd spent together, when Lois finally started treating him like a friend—like someone she truly cared about. And he remembered that day, behind the house. Clark remembered Lois, calling out to him, saving his life. But there was more. For the first time, he remembered what happened after that. He remembered Lois racing to his side, supporting him when he thought he would collapse. He remembered how she had been there, waiting to see if he was all right.
Through everything, Lois had been there for him. For months, she had done everything possible to make him realize that. She'd loved him through everything; she gave him the strength to do what he thought was impossible. He wasn't strong enough to do this alone, but with her, there was no way he could fail.
He focused on the impact zone. He could hear her voice, whispering 'I love you.' The target approached quickly.
He closed his eyes. 'I love you, Lois, I always will,' he thought silently.
Clark hit the asteroid at full speed; rock and ice exploded soundlessly all around him. The world turned into a flash of bright, blinding light and his head began to spin and then everything went black.
"Ladies and gentlemen," the Colonel began again a few minutes later. "Superman has successfully diverted the asteroid."
A cheer rose up from the press corps. Lois, alone, remained silent, sending up silent thanks. For several minutes the reporters applauded and hugged each other. Some broke down into tears.
"Is there any word from Superman?" a reporter near the back shouted out.
"No," the Colonel replied. "Superman's communication system was most likely destroyed at impact with asteroid. Impact occurred several minutes ago, when we hear from Superman you'll know."
The reporters were suddenly all business again, racing off to the pay phones to call in their stories or rushing to their cameramen to report back to their audiences. Within moments, the whole world would hear the good news. The world had been saved and catastrophe had been averted.
But all Lois could think about was Clark. She stood still despite the jubilant chaos all around her. "Come back to me," she murmured.
Clark opened his eyes but everything was still black. Oh god, he'd gone blind! No wait, he was in space, and everything was black, because, well, space was mostly black. The little pinpricks of light that were probably stars looked awfully blurry, though. He tried to get his eyes to focus, but they stubbornly refused. It was terribly cold he realized, and suddenly wondered why he could feel the cold. His head felt like it had been split open and he figured it was probably from slamming it into solid rock at a speed of over a thousand miles per second. The helmet hadn't done much to soften the blow. It and the oxygen tank were gone now, destroyed on impact as Dr. Klein had speculated, he assumed.
He looked around and tried to make sense of where he was, but he was too confused to string together a coherent sentence, let alone try to navigate by using celestial bodies. He probably had a concussion, he mused. Clark tried to figure out how long he'd been out cold. Several minutes at least, he judged. The collision with the asteroid had left him weak and he knew that he was going to need air soon. He had to find his way back to Earth.
Turning around, he searched frantically for something familiar. He needed to get back. He hadn't won a game of interstellar chicken with a giant space rock only to die out here. Clark had to get back to Lois. He tried to shake the cobwebs from his brain but was rewarded with a stabbing pain in his skull. Dammit, he was too turned about to think straight. He started to feel a slight burning in his lungs. He didn't have much time.
Clark could feel his heart pounding. He had promised Lois that he would move heaven and earth to go home to her. He had no intention of breaking that promise now. He turned around again and despite the headache, focused hard. Finally, he saw it. Its blue glow was a beacon. Clark took off; flying as fast as his battered body would go. 'I'm coming home,' he thought.
The Earth grew larger as he got closer. He could make out the green landmasses. He sped up, his lungs on fire. His head was pounding. Only a little bit further. Clark tried to gasp for air, but there was nothing to draw into his aching lungs. He could see North America now and aimed toward the Eastern seaboard. His body throbbed, every fiber of his being screaming in pain. He couldn't make his eyes focused and everything started to go black again.
Clark gritted his teeth and pushed himself harder. He could see Metropolis now; he was almost there. His skin started to warm up; he could feel the friction as he hit the stratosphere. He gasped for air, but there was still nothing there.
For the second time, Clark passed out.
This time, it was cold water that woke him up. His eyes opened with a start. He was deep under murky water. Summoning up the very last of his strength, he swam upward quickly and finally burst through the surface, gasping. His lungs drew in the sweet, life-sustaining air. Clark floated on his back and closed his eyes. As his heart rate slowed and his breathing returned to normal, he noticed the pungent, briny smell that pervaded the area-the familiar smell of Hobbs Bay. He wanted to move, but found himself unable. His whole body protested against the notion.
Several minutes passed before he could summon the strength to move. Clark looked around and realized that he was in a rather secluded area of the bay. He swam slowly toward the shore. He dragged himself onto the rocky beach near the pier. He sat in the sun, drawing strength from its rays. He'd made it back. After a few long moments, he felt strong enough to stand. On somewhat wobbly legs, he began walking.
His strength was slowly returning to him, but he knew that he couldn't yet fly. Apparently he'd found the limits to his own powers. Getting knocked out by flying headfirst into an asteroid and then blacking out from a lack of oxygen had taken more than a bit out of him. Clark looked down and for the first time noticed that his suit was pretty much ruined. It was covered in soot and dirt and singed in places. His cape had mostly burned away and the soles of his boots had melted, probably upon reentry.
Clark shivered; the cold of space seemed to have leeched into his bones. He needed to get back to Lois's.
Lois sat at her desk, her entire body tense. It had been almost an hour since Clark had diverted the asteroid and there was still no word from him. She'd left the EPRAD center and returned straight to the Planet. A few minutes ago, she'd sent Perry the lead-in story. Since then, she'd been completely on edge, waiting for any news. She was frustrated; reporters were not supposed to sit around and wait for news in general. And she wasn't just waiting for some story; she was waiting to hear about the fate of the man she loved.
"I'm sure he'll be okay," Jimmy said as he bounded toward her desk. "I mean, he's Superman, he's invincible."
Lois wished she shared Jimmy's na‹ve optimism. She stood up suddenly and grabbed her briefcase.
"Where are you going?" Jimmy asked
"I can't just stay here and wait," she replied. "You have my pager number; if you hear anything about him, page me."
"You got it," Jimmy said as Lois made her way to the elevators. Lois called the car up and after waiting a few seconds impatiently for it to arrive, gave up and headed toward the stairwell.
Lois drove home on autopilot, unsure of how to begin her search for Clark. She had called STAR Labs and left a message for Dr. Klein, but did not expect a response. How could she explain that she wasn't just another reporter waiting for news? She would devise a strategy from her apartment and then begin her search. Lois decided to call his parents. She parked the Jeep and continued brainstorming as she headed up the stairs to her building.
She froze at the sound of his voice. She'd know that voice anywhere. Lois turned around quickly, scanning the area. From the shadows of the alley beside her apartment building a figure appeared. Her heart stopped. She opened her mouth to say something, but couldn't form the words. She raced toward him.
Lois threw her arms around him. "Clark," she whispered. "You came back."
"Nothing was going to stop me from coming home to you," he replied, hugging her tightly.
Lois stepped back and touched his cheek. She looked at him, making sure that he was all right. His suit was destroyed and he was a mess, but he seemed fine. "Are you okay?" she asked.
"I'm fine," he replied. "I hit my head pretty hard and I can't fly yet, but I'm fine," he assured her with a slight smile. He took her hands in his. His grin faded after a few moments. "What happened? Did I knock the asteroid far enough off course?"
Lois felt tears of joy well up in her eyes. "You did it," she replied. "We're going to be fine. Everything is going to be fine." She wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him, all of her fears and worries melting away in his arms. She felt weightless, like she was floating, and the whole world disappeared at that moment. There was only Clark.
After a long while, she pulled away, breathless, and smiled through her tears. "I love you," she whispered.
"I love you, too," he replied, tucking an errant lock of her hair behind her ear. "Always."
She walked into her apartment building with a disheveled Superman in tow. Everyone in the building, on Carter Avenue, in Metropolis, and the world over was too busy celebrating the averting of the end of the world to notice.
Though he'd wanted nothing more than to spend time with Lois, he'd been exhausted when he returned. He ended up sleeping for hours. His match up with the asteroid, his return to Earth, and finally, his trek back to Lois's apartment had left him entirely drained.
When his powers had returned, Clark had flown over to STAR Labs to check in with Dr. Klein. He'd showered and put on the freshly washed and nearly tattered Suit before leaving; it was the only one he had left. After a quick debriefing, he promised that he'd hold a press conference the next morning. At that moment, he had more important things on his mind and he assumed that everyone else the world over did, too.
As he flew back to Lois's, he could hardly believe what had happened. It seemed like an eternity ago when he said goodbye to her that morning. He entered the open window to her apartment and was immediately met by her welcoming smile. She was in his arms an instant later. He simply held her for a long while. They'd come too close to losing everything again and he needed to prove to himself that this was real, that it wasn't a dream.
He held her face between his hands and kissed her. He needed to breathe her in, taste her. She set his skin on fire everywhere she touched him. She moaned into his mouth and a shiver ran up and down his spine. Lois kissed her way to his jaw line, down his neck and back up to his ear. He groaned and felt as though his legs would give out underneath him. "Oh, Lois," he murmured as he touched his forehead to hers.
"Tell me about it," she said softly. "What happened up there? What was it like?"
Clark sighed. "Cold," he began. "Quiet. Dark. It was so immense. I've never felt so small before."
Lois reached up to touch his face. "Were you afraid?"
He nodded. "I was scared that I wouldn't be able to do what I needed to do, that I'd let everyone down," he admitted softly.
"But you didn't," she replied. "You saved all of us, and you came back to me."
"I almost didn't make it," he said. He didn't want to frighten her, but he'd decided that he wasn't going to hide things from Lois, even when he thought that it would protect her. "Hitting the asteroid knocked me out."
He saw her bite her lip. "When I came to, I didn't know where I was and I was almost out of air, but I had to get back to you. I finally figured out how to get back. I passed out when I hit the atmosphere and landed in Hobbs Bay."
Her eyes were unusually bright. She smoothed a lock of hair out of his face and kissed him gently. "Sometimes I can't believe how strong you are, here," she said as she placed her hand over his heart. "With or without your powers, you are the strongest, bravest, and kindest person I know. I've never met anyone as selfless as you and I don't know what I did to deserve to be loved by you."
"Everything good you see in me…I couldn't be any of those things, if it weren't for you," he said softly. "You make me a better man."
Clark walked up behind Lois and wrapped his arms around her waist. He placed his head on her shoulder and breathed in the smell of her hair. She placed her hands on top of his and continued looking out the window.
Lois shivered slightly and Clark pulled the lapels of her terry cloth robe closer together. "Cold?" he asked as he hugged her tighter. Her slender body was almost completely engulfed in his embrace.
She leaned back against him and sighed. "Not anymore," she replied quietly.
He kissed her temple. He couldn't remember how many times they'd made love last night. Exhausted, they'd fallen asleep in each other's arms a few hours ago. He'd been surprised to wake up alone, but saw her standing by the window.
"It's beautiful," she whispered reverently.
"Mmm hmm," he agreed. She certainly was breathtakingly beautiful. Lois turned to look at him. His eyes were fixed on her. She rolled her eyes and turned his head so that he was looking out the window.
"Over there," she said. The sun was rising over the city, the first rays reflecting on the mirrored surfaces of the city's skyscrapers. The sky was a cloudless mix of deep purples, reds, and oranges. The world was quiet except for a chorus of birds signaling the coming of a new day.
"This morning, this sunrise, and every one that comes after it, they're a gift. This is your gift to the world," she said, her voice thick with emotion. "How do we thank you for something like this?"
He shook his head. "I have everything I need, right here," he whispered softly before he kissed her.
The sun climbed higher in the sky and the city began to wake again after a long night full of festivities, but for Lois and Clark, time was standing still.
Two weeks later…
"Welcome back, son," Perry laughed loudly as he clapped Clark on the back. Work in the newsroom had momentarily ground to a halt as the reporters and editors welcomed back an old friend who had been absent from the newsroom for far too long.
"Yeah, CK, it's good to have you back," Jimmy chimed in.
"It's good to be back," Clark replied with a grin. He never realized how much he missed the newsroom-the constant buzz of activity, the reporters all rushing about under the stress of a deadline, the smell of linotype and coffee. Being here just felt right.
"Where's Lois?" Perry asked as he scanned the bullpen.
"Right here," a voice came from behind the group. They all turned to see Lois standing behind them, a bright smile on her face. "This is still a newspaper, right?" she asked. "Because I hate to cut this party short, but we've got a lead to follow," she said as she grabbed Clark by the arm. Clark allowed himself to be dragged away, good-naturedly.
"Hey, Lois, what kind of welcome back is that?" Jimmy asked, grinning.
Lois stopped, bringing Clark to a halt with her. She slid her hand around the back of his neck and pulled his head down, kissing him fiercely and thoroughly. The newsroom erupted in cheers. She pulled away at long last, breathlessly and turned to Jimmy. "How was that?" Without waiting for an answer, she turned back toward the elevators, Clark following closely behind her, grinning.
"Way to go, CK!" Jimmy yelled after him.
As the elevator doors closed behind them Clark turned to Lois, still smiling. "So where are we going?" he asked.
"You remember Lex Luthor?" she asked.
He arched a brow. How could he forget the billionaire so- called philanthropist who was probably the most evil man in the world?
"I'm pretty sure he's dirty and you and I are going to bring him down," she replied with a triumphant smile. She took his hand in hers. "I'm so glad you came back," she said softly.
"So am I," he replied. Clark kissed her gently. "So am I."
Clark floated through the window, staying a few inches off the ground. Lois was curled up on the couch, fast asleep. He smiled. He didn't want to wake her, but imagined that if she stayed on that cramped sofa of hers all night she'd wake up with a stiff neck and back.
A mugging had torn him away from dinner with Lois that evening. It had been a simple situation to defuse, but as always, he was glad to be able to help. In the weeks following the diversion of the asteroid, Superman had gradually taken to the skies over Metropolis again. He'd been back in Metropolis for a few months now and had been surprised to see how readily people had welcomed him back. Superman's cryptic explanation that he'd been called away and was unable to return until that moment probably wasn't the most satisfying reason he could have given, but most people seemed thankful to have him back.
Being Superman again served to show him how much he had missed it. Helping covertly had proved an important outlet for him, but he'd been so limited in what he could do. He had realized that he needed to be Superman; he had tried to punish himself by denying that part of who he was, but rejecting Superman hadn't done anyone any good. He still had his doubts and uncertainties, but Superman was a part of his life he was glad to have back.
The nightmares had become more infrequent. But, as Superman, he'd been forced to deal with new situations in which he couldn't save everyone, in which all the strength and speed and abilities he possessed were not enough. Those times seemed to eat away at him and they taught him a harsh lesson-he wasn't a god; there were things he would not be able to fix. It was a fact of life he'd gotten a taste of thanks to Jason Trask many months ago, but it was a lesson he was still learning.
There were times when it was so difficult, when he would second-guess himself constantly, but then there were those times when he was able to help. There were the times when he could see in someone's face the relief and gratitude for what he did as Superman and it reminded him of something Lois had once told him: whatever he could do, that was enough. He had to remind himself of it from time to time, but he wasn't going to give up. Every day was a little easier than the one before and he was thankful for the chance he'd been given to come back and make things right.
As Superman, he was asked to do things no one should have been asked to do; he was forced to make decisions in a split second, knowing that people's lives depended on him making the right choice. He couldn't be everywhere he was needed and he had to decide which calls for help to answer and which not to. Clark had to shoulder a responsibility that few others could even imagine; that was his curse. But knowing, everyday, that his life had a purpose, that he could help improve the lives of others and make things in the world just a little bit better, that was a gift that outweighed any costs associated with being Superman.
He'd been on his way back to the restaurant after the mugging when he'd picked up on a serious car accident. In the end, he'd been gone for hours, having left Lois alone at the restaurant and derailing his plans for the evening. Given the good he'd been able to accomplish, he knew it was a minor setback and one he could live with, though he hated thinking that he was forcing Lois to live with it as well. She'd been nothing but supportive of him as he took on the duties of Superman again. Sure, he could tell that there were times when she was frustrated by the seemingly incessant interruptions, but she had never made him feel guilty about having to leave to be Superman.
After it seemed that Superman was no longer needed, he decided to fly by her apartment to look in on her. It had become something of a routine of his. Whenever he was out flying patrols or had just finished a rescue, he would drift by her apartment for a brief moment before flying home to his own apartment. If it was late, he would just float outside her window and look in, unwilling to wake her. Just watching her sleep brought him so much pleasure.
He sheepishly recalled getting caught once about a month ago. He'd expected her to be annoyed, after all, she was a grown up and perfectly capable of taking care of herself, it wasn't as if she needed him to play big strong protector-man guarding the shelter. If she had in fact, found it irritating, she made no mention of it to him; instead, she'd always left a window open for him. Clark realized that she knew it was something he did for his own peace of mind, and not because he thought she needed a body guard on constant watch.
It was late and Clark had hoped to fly by her apartment quickly this evening to make sure she'd gotten home all right. Finding her on the couch, he realized that she'd been waiting up for him as she sometimes did. She shivered slightly and Clark turned to close the window behind him. He floated toward the couch, landing softly beside it without a sound.
Clark frowned slightly; there was no way he'd be able to get her off the couch and into bed without waking her. He touched her shoulder lightly and smiled as she slowly opened her eyes. Lois smiled sleepily at him. "I was hoping you'd come," she said, stifling a yawn as she sat up. She patted the space on the couch next to her. Clark spun back into his 'Clark' clothes and sat down. She immediately snuggled up next to him.
"I'm sorry I had to cut our date short," he said, putting his arm around her.
"Is everything okay?" she asked, looking up at him with a concerned expression on her face.
"Everything's fine," he assured her, dropping a kiss on the top of her head.
"So are you going to tell me what it was that you had planned for tonight?" she asked.
Ah yes, this evening. He'd planned everything perfectly and had refused to tell her about it. Lois hated surprises and had tried to pry the details from him ever since he'd asked her to keep the evening open. He'd made reservations at her favorite restaurant but had left to attend to Superman duties right after they'd ordered. "Well, after dinner, I thought we would go to that little Italian coffee shop in the East End so we could talk over a cup of coffee."
"Well, we have coffee here," Lois replied, matter of factly.
"But it's late, and I should go so you can go to sleep," Clark said.
"I'm awake, and I'd rather spend the time with you."
Clark smiled. He knew when to lose an argument. "At least let me make the coffee," he replied as he got off the couch and headed for the kitchen.
He buried his hands in his pockets as he waited for the coffee to brew. He sighed, unsure what to do next. The evening had been planned to the last detail. Over and over again, he'd practiced what he was going to say. In his mind, he'd visualized it. When the evening had been derailed, he'd scrapped all of his plans. Now, here in Lois's apartment, the chance was presenting itself to him. Should he take it? Was this the right time, or should he wait? He sighed again. He could sit around and wait for the perfect time and the perfect place or he could admit that he was nervous as heck and go ahead anyway.
The coffee had finished brewing while he'd been musing silently to himself. He poured two cups and fixed them to his and Lois's respective tastes. He smiled as he poured his whole milk and sugar into his cup of coffee. She'd started stocking up on things like whole milk and Ding Dongs for him a while ago. It was such a little thing, but for some reason, it meant everything.
He carried the coffee back to the living room and handed Lois her cup. She thanked him as she took a cautious sip of the steaming coffee and smiled approvingly. Clark took his seat beside her again and looped his arm around her shoulders. They sipped their coffee and talked about little things and nothing at all.
Lois placed her coffee mug on the table and let her head rest on Clark's shoulder. "So what were we going to do after that?" she inquired.
"Then, I thought we'd go for a walk," he said. "The coffee shop isn't too far from Centennial Park and they still have that big band playing in the gazebo in the evenings." Clark extricated himself from his rather comfy space on the couch and walked over to the entertainment system. "I figured I'd slip the bandleader twenty bucks to play this," he said as he placed a CD in the player. He walked back over to the couch as the soft strains of 'Fly Me to the Moon,' began to play. "Then, I'd ask you to dance," he said, his hand outstretched.
Lois smiled and slipped her hand in his as she stood up. Clark pulled her into his arms and they swayed in time with the music. "But since no one's around," he whispered mischievously. "I can do this." He began to float with Lois in his arms and she gasped. "Now this is dancing," he said with a grin before kissing her.
Lois moaned softly and smiled against his lips and he nearly fell back to the ground. Clark chuckled softly. "Do you have any idea what you do to me?" he asked. Lois kissed him tenderly in response.
She sighed as she placed her head against his shoulder. The music began to fade away. "This was a perfect date," she murmured.
"It's not over yet," Clark replied. Lois looked up at him questioningly. "After dancing, I thought we'd go for a walk in the park," he continued. He floated them back down to the ground. "It's still warm out, and quiet at night, and you can see so many stars." Holding her hand, he walked over to the large, picture window and looked out into the night sky, filled with brilliant little stars.
He turned toward Lois, who was lost in stargazing, and caressed her cheek, turning her head slightly so she was facing him. He leaned toward her; they were mere inches apart. "And then," he whispered. "I'd tell you how much I love you. And then…"
She closed her eyes. "And then?" she murmured. Clark remained silent and after a brief moment, she opened her eyes. The look of confusion on her face was immediately replaced with one of surprise. He guessed that she hadn't expected to find him on bended knee.
"I'd look up at you, and ask…" Clark took her hand in his larger one. "Lois, will you marry me?" he asked, his heart in his throat.
Lois nodded and gave him a tremulous smile. "Yes," she whispered, her eyes bright. She fell to her knees beside him and kissed him. The kiss started out gentle but quickly deepened into something far more passionate. Clark was hooked on the feel of her lips against his, the taste of her. She whimpered into his mouth and he thought he could die a happy man. He could never get enough of the feel of her body pressed against his. He buried his hand in the dark silk of her hair, breathing in the wonderful smell of her perfume and her skin as she wrapped her arms around him.
Eventually, she pulled away from him slightly. She reached out a hand to touch his face and he turned into her touch to kiss the palm of her hand. He reached into the pocket of his slacks to find that little box that had been occupying his thoughts since he'd acquired it two weeks earlier. He opened the box and slipped the ring inside on her finger.
She looked down at her hand and he could see the tears welling up in her eyes again. "It's beautiful," she whispered breathlessly.
"It's just a ring," he replied, raising her hand to his lips. "But when you wear it, it's beautiful." He held her hand against his heart.
"I love you, Clark Kent," she whispered.
"I love you, Lois Lane," he replied. He kissed her. It was a long, slow, gentle kiss, full of love, and hope, and a promise of forever.