By Wendy Richards <Wendy@lcfanfic.com> & Kaethel <Kaethel@wanadoo.fr>
Submitted August 2002
Summary: Devastated by Lois's rejection of his human self in the episode "Barbarians at the Planet," Clark decides to put his feelings at risk and give Lois the one and only thing that can still prevent her from marrying Lex Luthor…
Wendy: This story came about because both Kaethel and I wanted to write something as a special birthday present for the wonderful (yes, she is! <g>) Anne Ciotola, webhost of the nfic archive and much more. I'd also wanted for some time to write something with Kaethel, as I love her stories. :) The idea for this story was sparked by a discussion on the fanfic list about BatP/HoL following thoughtful reviews of both by Hazel, and in which Kaethel and I took part. We had both wondered just what Lois's reaction would have been if Superman's response to her in BatP had been different… and that's how this story was born. It was a fantastic experience writing with Kaethel, seeing where she went with some… interesting <g> cliffhangers I left her on. And it was so much fun that we did it again — look out for Rapture in Metropolis, heading to an Archive near you in the next few weeks. Thanks, Kaethel! :)
Kaethel: And thanks to you, Wendy. :) I was thrilled and very flattered when Wendy asked me to work with her on this premise, and our collaboration turned out to be a wonderful experience. :) I was of course excited about writing something with one of my favourite authors, and the fanfic list discussion about Barbarians at the Planet had aroused my curiosity about that particular plot. What kind of chaos could ensue to Clark using his one emotional weapon to prevent Lois from marrying Lex? Letting the scenario unfold as we wrote scene after scene was fascinating for me… not to mention a lot of fun when Wendy and I teased each other with evil cliffhangers (hey, but hers were much worse than mine! <bg>) whose main victims were our poor characters… as well as the readers on the boards, since they had to bear with our scene breaks. ;) Seriously, I had a blast working on this story, and I hope you'll all enjoy the result. :)
We'd both like to thank LabRat for being such a wonderful beta-reader. She gave us many great suggestions to make this story better, and we added a lot of things thanks to her very helpful comments. Many thanks also go to the readers on the boards for their unflagging support. :)
Feedback is very welcome at Wendy@lcfanfic.com and Kaethel@wanadoo.fr.
"There've been a lot of changes going on in my life and I'm trying to make the right decisions, but I can't until I know… how you feel."
Clark stood, frozen, listening to Lois, his worst fears about this meeting all being realised. She was considering accepting Lex Luthor's proposal.
She was going to *marry* Lex Luthor. The one man in the world Clark knew that he hated. The greatest criminal in existence, as far as Clark was aware… and Lois wanted to marry him.
Why had he even bothered to respond to her request to see him? What was the point? What was he *doing* here? What did she want from him? His permission to marry Luthor? His promise that they'd still be friends? As with Clark, she wanted to have her cake and eat it too, he thought cynically. Even knowing how Clark felt about Luthor — and how Clark felt about *her* — she still thought that she could have his friendship.
And now, she wanted guarantees that Superman would remain her friend too, he thought.
Well, he wasn't sure that he could give her that promise.
Her next words, though, left him stunned.
"Superman, is there any hope for us? You and me? I'm so completely in love with you, I can't do anything else without knowing." Her voice was softly pleading; her expression desperate with longing.
Clark had thought that he'd suffered the worst pain imaginable earlier that day, when Lois had rejected his declaration of love. Now, though, he knew that what he'd felt then was a pale imitation of the worst which could happen to him. Her words reverberated in his mind over and over, until he wanted to seize his head with both hands and scream at it to be quiet.
His heart shattered, icicles splintering inside him, he stared at her in agonised disbelief.
She'd rejected Clark. She was considering marrying Lex Luthor… but only if Superman said that there was no future for them.
She'd rejected Clark… but was prepared to consider Superman.
But of course she was. After all, Clark wasn't a Super- hero. Clark couldn't sweep her off her feet in so spectacular a fashion as could Superman. Clark couldn't leap tall buildings in a single bound; he wasn't faster than a speeding bullet; he wasn't stronger than… than even the cyborgs her father had built. He couldn't take her flying, high over the roofs of Metropolis and up into the clouds.
He was just Clark, the ordinary guy who loved her.
Eventually, he managed to swallow his bitterness sufficiently, and drag together enough coherency, to answer her. Somehow feeling the need to be honest, he said, almost curtly, "Lois, I do care for you. But there are things about me that you don't know, that you may never know."
"But it doesn't matter," she protested. "I know you. I don't mean you the celebrity or you the Super-hero. If you had no powers at all, if you were just an ordinary man, living an ordinary life, I would love you just the same. Can't you believe that?"
The icicles shifted again, and Clark felt frozen within. How could she say that? How could she possibly lie through her teeth about loving him as an ordinary man?
She'd *rejected* that ordinary man only a few short hours earlier!
Furious, heartbroken, he wanted to yell at her. To castigate her, rip her to shreds in the way he, as Superman, only ever did to hardened criminals who'd somehow thought they could evade him and use people as weapons against him. He wanted to point out to her just how fallacious her statement was; that he didn't believe a word she said — and, worse, that he despised her for saying it and for thinking that he would believe it.
After all, his heart had been torn to shreds and replaced with cold, shattered fragments of ice. Why shouldn't Lois suffer the same torment?
The harshness of his thoughts cut through his conscience, triggering as much pain and disbelief as Lois's words had. He hated himself for harbouring such a sudden and strong surge of loathing directed at a woman who'd come to mean so much to him over the past few months, but the disgust was there, enveloping his heart with tendrils of darkness that he couldn't shake off.
How dare she… how dare she claim to love him and trample on his heart without the smallest fraction of regret? How dare she make it unbearable for him to sustain her gaze? How dare she sound so sincere when he couldn't believe she was?
He swallowed and looked away, contemplating taking the easy way out and simply flying off, never to darken her window again. She didn't deserve an answer from him, and his departure would signal his contempt and disbelief as clearly as if he'd said it. Wouldn't it?
And yet, part of him *wanted* to say those harsh, cruel words. He wanted to flay her with his tongue, and see her quail under the lashing. He wanted to see her face blanch when he told her that he didn't believe her. He needed to see her shaking, clutching at the sofa-back for support, when he told her that he didn't love her and didn't want her to be part of his life.
And more, he could tell her that she disgusted him; that her behaviour in making it clear that it was a straight choice between him and Lex Luthor was sickening. How could she compare Luthor to him? How could she contemplate marrying Luthor in any case? The implication that she needed to know whether there was a future for her with Superman before she could give Luthor an answer… he had no words to express his contempt.
If she really loved him, Superman, then she wouldn't even be thinking of being with someone else. She would never have dated Luthor in the first place. She certainly wouldn't have entertained his proposal — she'd have said an immediate no.
He flinched imperceptibly, struck again by the rage driving him and his inability to hold it back. His fists clenched and unclenched, his nails clawing into his palms. His mind was boiling with incoherent flashes of pure anger that poured through him faster with each of the breaths she took as she waited expectantly, eager for his reply, her eyes hopeful.
So how could he possibly believe that she loved Superman, even apart from the fact that she'd already turned down the 'ordinary man'? Even if he could forgive her for rejecting him as Clark; even if he accepted that she really was so blind, so unobservant that she'd failed to realise who Superman really was, how could he accept that she loved Superman when Luthor was so obviously important to her?
Lois was watching him still, her expression becoming tense; he saw her bite her lip and begin to turn away. Clearly, she'd come up with her own interpretation of his continuing silence. She'd assumed that he didn't love her. She'd assumed that she'd failed.
And so, he acknowledged silently, his raging fury deserting him as suddenly as it had invaded his heart, she would probably marry Lex Luthor.
He — Clark — would have lost her for ever.
There was no way that he could keep in contact with her once she married Lex Luthor, even if he could forgive her for tonight. He'd have to leave Metropolis; after all, there was nothing here for him now.
It was all over. He'd lost Lois.
He took a deep, shuddering breath, intending to bring this to an end now. He'd tell her that his answer was no. No, he didn't believe her. And no, there was no hope for them.
And then he'd leave.
His lips parted. The words formed themselves, and managed to escape past his dry mouth and near-frozen lips.
"Yes. There… is hope… for us. I… love you."
Oh… god. Had he really said… did he really mean…? Oh, dear god…
Lois stared at the man standing a few feet away from her, his expression stiff and emotionless, contrasting with the sweet words he'd finally spoken. She'd waited for this moment for so long, hoping against all odds that Superman would notice her and fall in love with her, and now…
Now he had. She should be soaring with joy, throwing herself into his arms and melting under the passion of his kisses, a possibility that elicited an inward whimper from her, but she remained rooted in place, discomfort rising in her as endless seconds ticked away.
She was taken with a desperate need to turn away, to *wave* him away, and her feelings confused her.
This was what she'd been longing for. So… why wasn't she ecstatic about what Superman's words implied? Or slightly enthusiastic at least?
<He loves me. Superman is in love with me.>
But the answer to her feeble attempt at processing that revelation was simple: she was scared. Terrified of what lay ahead, of the usual lack of luck she experienced in relationships.
It had been just fine when she was lusting after a Super- hero who wouldn't give her a second glance, but now… now feelings were involved. Not just hers, but his, too. He loved her… and she loved him… and he was probably anticipating a passionate relationship with her. One with desire and expectations and the load of disappointments that generally trawled along the way. A relationship. And this one seemed to be stuck in the starting blocks, if she went by the manner in which her… boyfriend was shuffling his feet and keeping his eyes fixed on the floor.
Her boyfriend. She prodded the term cautiously, tasting its meaning and swallowing the bitter tang that usually accompanied the concept. Superman loved her. Dear god, he *loved* her. She shook off the shiver that ran along her spine as his words ran around her mind and hung onto the rational part of her thoughts. Or what was left of it. He loved her. He wouldn't use her. He wouldn't betray her. She wouldn't wake up one morning with regrets, because he wasn't like any of the men she'd known in her past.
He was different. Completely different.
Right. Which was why she didn't have to think through her every word and action. She could be herself and still be sure that he would love her, couldn't she?
So what would the normal, reasoned Lois Lane do in such a situation? Not that she was used to having Superman stick around for more than one or two minutes when he flew by her apartment, of course. It wasn't as if he dropped by for social calls. Of course, he'd made it much more difficult by initiating a relationship with her with his completely unexpected declaration of love, and now… now she had no idea what to do with him.
Was she supposed to walk up to him, wrap her arms around his neck and kiss him? Much as the possibility might have thrilled her a few hours earlier, its reality made her terrified to take the first step. She couldn't jump on him like this, not before they both came to terms with the drastic changes in their relationship.
Oh god… they were having a relationship…
Something… she needed to do something. Standing here in the middle of her living room, looking lost, wasn't going to make Superman feel any more at ease. It wouldn't encourage him to get into the habit of dropping by on a whim to spend some time with her, cuddling on the couch and watching a rented movie, sharing a romantic dinner, or just for coffee…
Coffee! Now that was a brilliant idea. Coffee she knew how to make; it was a relatively safe and easy task, one that would occupy her mind for a few minutes — quite enough time for her to get a grip.
"I… um… would you like some coffee?" She forced the words out of her mouth, now very eager to break a silence that was growing increasingly awkward.
He raised his head sharply and stared at her blankly, unaware of the mental squirming going on in her mind.
"I must have some left from earlier that I can heat in the microwave, it'll just be a matter of seconds, unless you're okay with using your vision thingy to do it — can you actually do that? I mean, do you use your powers for anything other than blowing cool breath on cats and saving nuclear power plants in distress? Mind you, it'd be much better if I made some fresh coffee, I don't know why I didn't think about it before I offered. I'm such a terrible host," she babbled on as she set about her task, opening and closing cupboards without paying any attention to their contents. She snuck a glance at her guest, pasting an awkward smile on her lips, but stopped short when she met his gaze.
He was smiling. No, he was *laughing*. *Superman* was laughing at her. Lois winced as her fears bubbled up to the surface, triggering old wounds she'd been trying to forget. She wanted to glare, to shoot back an angry scowl at him and maybe add a couple of scornful words on top, but no sound came out of her mouth. She was paralysed, terrified of his judgment, of what he'd think of her if she retorted the way she usually did around…
… around people she felt comfortable with.
She didn't feel at ease with Superman. At all. In fact, she felt very self-conscious at the moment and couldn't bring herself to act normally as she'd silently promised she would. The weight of his gaze resting on her was too much to bear, and her continual determination to attract his attention over the past year was catching up to her. Had she offered him an image of herself that she wouldn't be able to stick to? Would he be disappointed after a few weeks of a closer relationship? Would *she* be disappointed?
No. It couldn't happen. She couldn't *let* it happen. They would always manage to work around their differences and have a steady relationship. A *loving* relationship. Where they would trust each other implicitly, where he would come back to her apartment every evening, watching the late news with her and eventually flying to the rescue if he was needed. He loved her. They'd be fine. Even if he was still chuckling, visibly doing his best to keep a straight face and doing a very bad job of it.
"Glad to see he's not fazed by my embarrassment," she muttered balefully as she set herself to her task in the kitchen.
The laughter stopped immediately and Superman's expression turned contrite. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to embarrass you," he said, his tone genuinely apologetic.
Astonishment must have shown on her face, for Superman tapped his ear in explanation. Of course. Superhearing. "This is going to take a lot of getting used to," she replied with a disbelieving shake of her head.
"Yeah." His voice sounded forlorn as he spoke the single word of agreement, and Lois frowned, confused by his sudden change of attitude. He was holding himself stiff, keeping at a safe distance from her and looking anything but comfortable. Apart from his short show of amusement at her stumbling offer of coffee, he'd seemed a lot tenser this evening than she'd ever remembered him being.
But had she had many opportunities to see him in various moods? She had to admit that her encounters with Superman were rather seldom and never under the best of circumstances. He'd occasionally dropped by her apartment, but his visits always had a purpose and couldn't ever fall under the 'social call' category. She didn't even know if he -
"Do you drink coffee, actually?" She voiced her question aloud, feeling self-conscious not to have considered her lack of knowledge of his tastes earlier.
The single worded answer made her squirm with unease. He obviously wasn't in the mood to talk… or in the mood to do anything, for that matter. Maybe he was as afraid as she was. Maybe she ought to share her fears with him, tell him that she wasn't as brave as she appeared, that -
"Lois, anything will be fine," he said more gently, cutting through her running thoughts.
She managed a smile at his visible effort to ease the atmosphere and turned her attention back to the task at hand. Where were those dratted filters? She couldn't offer instant coffee to Superman, for heaven's sake!
He was smiling encouragingly at her… did it seem forced? No, she was just reading too much into his facial expression. He was fine. They were fine. Everything was just… fine.
Except the disappearance of the blasted coffee filters.
"Do you need any help?"
"No," she replied absently as she peered into every drawer and cupboard in her kitchen. You'd think that there wouldn't be too many possibilities in such a small search perimeter. "Think I can manage."
He didn't seem to hear her, though — or maybe he chose not to listen — because he was leaning over her and reaching inside one of her cupboards to retrieve the mugs and sugar, acting as if her kitchen held no secrets whatsoever to him.
She frowned, momentarily pushing the filters issue aside. "How… how did you know where to look?"
"I… um… well…" He cleared his throat and shrugged, but if he thought she'd let him get away without an explanation, then he was in for a major disappointment.
Lois started to cross her arms with the firm intention of glaring at him until he spilled the beans, but she stopped short when her gaze caught the bright colours of his suit. Superman. He was Superman. She was about to scowl at Superman, show him a stubborn side of her he might not appreciate and -
Arrgh! Why should she care? It wasn't as if he was perf -
<Well, as a matter of fact…>
Don't! Don't say it, she coolly advised her inner voice. All right, it was hard to find flaws in the selfless help he provided to the people of Metropolis. It was impossible to find a glitch of imperfection in the deep brown eyes, in the taut body barely hidden by spandex that left very little to the imagination and -
She grasped the edge of the kitchen counter for support when he took a few tentative steps towards her, and her musings eluded her again. Would he… would he want to kiss her? Was he about to *kiss* her? Oh… god… where were those stupid breath mints when you needed them? Not that she *needed* them but maybe it would reassure her if she could escape for a second and -
The thought died before it had time to form entirely as Superman stopped a few inches from her and took her hands in his. She was sure her palms were sweating — how embarrassing! — and she was probably trembling. Internally, she was a mess. Get a grip, Lois! It wasn't as if he was kissing her for the first time! They'd had plenty of romantic encounters before… well, maybe not plenty, but at least one or two. And he loved her.
"Lois." His voice was deep, and low, and very, very sensual. Her mouth was dry, and she swallowed a couple of times as she made herself raise her gaze to his. His eyes were very dark as they returned her questioning look.
Her lips parted and she swayed towards him, anticipating the first touch of his mouth on hers. Would he kiss her as he once had, under the influence of the pheromone: passionate and hard and sensual, taking her breath away? Or would he kiss her slowly, longingly, sweet kisses to seduce her with tenderness?
"Lois, we need to talk." The words, spoken quietly but firmly, jolted her completely out of her fantasy, in which Superman's lips were already caressing hers, and Lois felt herself flush with embarrassment. Had he guessed what she was thinking? Oh, how humiliating if he knew that she was expecting his kiss, when that hadn't been remotely close to his intentions!
"Umm…" she said incoherently.
"Why don't you sit down," he suggested, gently pushing her in the direction of the living-room. "I'll finish making the coffee. Oh, and…" He gestured in the direction of his eyes. "X-ray vision. It's kind of useful if I ever need to find things inside cupboards," he added with a wink.
"Oh," was all Lois could say. "Umm… okay, I… uh, I'll just…"
She turned and fled towards the living-room before she could manage to humiliate herself any further.
Clark sighed silently in disbelief once Lois was sitting down.
What had he said?
And, more importantly, what had he *done*?!
He'd intended to tell her that he wasn't interested. And then he should have left. Instead of which, he'd told her that he loved her! And, to make matters worse, he'd almost kissed her right there in her kitchen.
Was he out of his mind?
He couldn't understand what had led him to tell her that they could have a relationship. It had to have been a moment of pure madness. He'd seen how shocked she was, too — no matter what Lois had said to him about wanting to be with him, she obviously hadn't been expecting the response she got. She hadn't known what to do with him!
Her reaction had really come as a surprise, though. He'd thought she'd jump on the opportunity he offered her, and instead she'd seemed uncomfortable and awkward, as if she wished he were anywhere but here. Had she not wanted Superman to love her beyond the chaste longing he was sure was visible in his eyes and that he sometimes couldn't suppress when he looked at her? It didn't make any sense. Lois claimed to love him and she still hadn't made a move to acknowledge the huge alteration in their relationship. In fact, she was avoiding his gaze, hiding behind the curtain of her hair but unable to conceal the pink flush of her cheeks.
He'd expected her to throw herself at him shamelessly — in the same way as she had at Clark when she'd been under the influence of pheromones a few months earlier, he mused wryly. A sigh escaped his lips as he remembered her apparent lack of interest in Superman during that short time — and in truth, scornful inward comments had been ready to be triggered if she did. But instead, she wasn't looking remotely interested in getting closer to him and claiming ownership of his body.
She was stalling for time…
… and he didn't know whether to be relieved or disappointed. Objectively, he should be glad that he'd managed to destabilise her and nip in the bud the awestruck-teenager attitude that she usually adopted around him, but deep down… deep down, he was still longing for the feel of her arms around him, for the softness of her lips brushing against his.
He shook his head, severely scolding himself for his train of thought. Daydreaming about kissing Lois would *not* lead him anywhere, and certainly not when he had a jumbled mess to sort out.
That had helped, though; at least her confusion had allowed him to break the tension between them with a little humour. She was so obviously doing her best to distract herself from his confession — and making such a poor job of it — that his confidence had regained some strength. When she'd only managed to blurt out a couple of stuttered words, helplessly babbling on as panic visibly bubbled in her, it was her former partner who had taken over and teased her.
And for a short moment, he'd forgotten he wasn't here as Clark. His attitude had relaxed, leaving the remote stance he adopted as Superman. For a short moment, he'd almost let himself believe that Lois loved him, really loved him. Him, Clark.
He'd observed the emotions passing on her face as he laughed, hope welling up in him when she began to open her mouth on what would be no doubt a scornful comment. But she'd obviously thought better of it. He'd seen her gaze stop on the bright S adorning his chest, and she'd switched gears immediately.
Was it going to be this way from now on? Would she behave like a submissive woman around him? The stubborn and pig- headed Lois he loved stepping aside in favour of a character he didn't know and didn't lo…
No. He loved Lois. And she was Lois. He hadn't lied to her when he'd confessed his feelings, neither in the park earlier this afternoon, nor tonight, in here. She just needed a bit of time to get used to dating Superman, that was all. Nothing to worry about. Maybe she was just impressed with the suit; even though he felt embarrassed that people could feel awe at him, it was a part of his second identity that he'd had to get used to. Lois, of course, didn't follow convention where he was concerned; she'd always behaved differently with Superman than the way she did with anyone else.
Apart from that small glimpse of her real self she'd let him into when she'd almost lashed out at him for… well, he supposed she'd have accused him of smirking. Anyway, the point was, she'd nearly quit the awe-struck attitude for a moment, until…
Until he'd come too close to her and that irresistible attraction which Lois only ever seemed to feel when he was in the Suit had taken over. He'd almost kissed her. She'd been ready for him to kiss her. And now the tension was back again, just as bad as before.
No, wait. What was he thinking? He couldn't possibly go through with this. What had he been thinking? Was he crazy? Dating her as Superman could never work!
They needed to talk. He had to tell her that he'd made a mistake. They couldn't possibly be together — apart from the obvious reason, how could Superman have a girlfriend? Lois had to understand that it was too dangerous for her to be associated with him in any way. The only alternative would be a secret affair, the thought of which repelled him.
And anyway, what was he even thinking? How could he possibly play the lover as Superman to the woman who'd rejected his true self only a few hours earlier?
<But if she could be Superman's girlfriend, she wouldn't even consider marrying Luthor, would she?>
The perfect plan. He could play the jealous, possessive boyfriend, and she'd dump Luthor like the slimy rat he was.
<She didn't like it when Clark got jealous…>
But she wasn't in love with *Clark*, he reminded himself. It was Superman she wanted. And it was Superman she could have… as long as she agreed to his conditions. That way, he could get her away from Luthor.
He could worry about what exactly he was going to do about this 'relationship' later…
But his conscience began to prick at him even as he prepared his speech for Lois. Was he really thinking of using her in that way? Playing with her feelings; pretending to be in love with her, while all the time he never intended their relationship to be real? Wasn't that just manipulative? And cruel?
Yes, it was, he recognised with an inward grimace. But, on the other hand, wasn't it better than seeing her marry Lex Luthor? How could he possibly allow her to marry that criminal? And, after all, he'd tried everything else he could possibly think of. He'd tried talking to her, tried convincing her that Luthor was untrustworthy; and she'd not only ignored his warnings, but had actually accused him of jealousy. As if that was the only reason for his intervention — as if he wasn't trying to save her from making the greatest mistake of her life!
He couldn't think of any other option. Not now. And after all, it wasn't as if he intended to hurt her. He'd be very careful to ensure that he didn't actually promise anything he wasn't intending to deliver. And if he could get her to agree quickly to stop seeing Luthor, then he could make sure that this farce didn't have to go on for too long. And anyway, it wasn't as if he didn't love her. Of course he loved her, and if circumstances were different they really could be together. If she hadn't rejected Clark…
He glanced over at Lois; she was sitting on one of her love-seats, watching him and biting her lip. She was nervous, he realised — well, that made two of them! She also looked cold, and he gazed down at the filmy nightdress she was still wearing. The one which left little to the imagination. The one which made her look even more beautiful than usual…
…the one he'd been trying not to look at ever since he'd arrived.
Clark gritted his teeth and, leaving the coffee to finish brewing, headed straight for Lois's bedroom to find a robe. The thickest one he could lay his hands on, preferably.
If only he could cover up his form-fitting Suit the same way…
Lois felt something warm being draped around her shoulders, and looked up to see Superman wrapping her robe around her. "You looked cold," he explained. "Coffee's just coming."
She'd almost forgotten that she was only wearing that *very* thin nightgown. How carelessly she'd made the decision earlier to wear it, hoping that Superman might get to see it! Okay, she'd offered to get a robe as soon as he'd arrived, but even that remark had, she admitted, been designed to draw his attention to her attire.
She'd intended to try to seduce him. Hadn't she?
And, now that such seduction seemed like a definite possibility, she was scared stiff.
Just who was going to be doing the seducing here?
And, although Superman *appeared* to have all the parts of a man — and he certainly kissed better than any man she'd ever known — was he really like a human male in every respect? What if Kryptonians had different… courtship rituals? What exactly would he expect from her in bed? Would he -
"Here you go, Lois." Superman's voice, from right beside her, jolted her out of her thoughts, and she gave him a startled look.
"Are you okay?" he asked, concerned, as he took a seat opposite her. Not beside her, she noticed, with something approaching relief.
"Yes! Yes, of course I am," she protested. "I'm fine. I… was just… thinking, that's all."
"I guess there's a lot to think about," he said calmly, his brown eyes regarding her steadily. "I'd speculate that you expected me to turn you down."
Was she really that transparent? Lois ducked her head. "I… uh… yeah, I guess I did. But… I hoped…"
Gently, he said, "I meant it, Lois. I do love you. I… thought you might have figured that out already. I know I haven't always been very good at hiding it."
Looking up at him again, she smiled, relieved. This was the Superman she knew, the Superman she'd come to think of, in private moments, as her friend. "I've loved you since the day we met," she told him a little shyly. "But I never imagined that you'd look twice at me. I mean, you're… you're Superman! You could have anyone you want… supermodels, Hollywood stars, even CEOs if you'd prefer someone with a bit of intelligence…"
"None of them is you," he answered, smiling a little wistfully, she thought. "But, Lois, we need to talk about this. I mean, it's not going to be easy. It's not as if we're a normal couple, is it?"
"I guess not," she said uncertainly. "So, what do you think we should do?"
His expression altered; suddenly he was looking quite fierce, an expression which she could only remember seeing him use with criminals. It actually made her shiver inwardly.
"Lois, I know you've been seeing Lex Luthor," he said harshly. "I hear he's asked you to marry him."
"Uh… yes, he has," she confirmed. "But of course I'll tell him no."
"You haven't so far," he pointed out, his tone still cool.
"I… well, I wasn't sure what to do. And I needed to talk to you first…"
"Holding him in reserve in case I turned you down?" Superman suggested scornfully. Lois flinched at the change in his tone and his manner.
Well, he was right, wasn't he? her conscience demanded just as she was about to protest at the accusation. She'd been contemplating accepting Lex's proposal. But she'd wanted to know, first, whether there was any possibility that Superman could see her as more than a friend. So did that mean that she'd been treating Lex as a fallback? That wasn't very complimentary to Lex — and nor, she realised with a shock, was it a compliment to Superman. Effectively, she'd been telling him that she had a choice: him or Lex. Which meant that he could either say that he wanted her, or see her go to someone else.
Biting her lip, she said awkwardly, "I guess I was. And that wasn't very fair of me."
Superman shrugged. "That's okay. But I want to make one thing very clear."
"Just this," he said coolly and, it seemed, very deliberately. "If we're going to have a relationship, you and I, you have to stop seeing Lex Luthor. I don't care whether it's dates or just seeing him as a friend — I don't want you spending any time with him."
"I… excuse me?"
"It's the one and only condition, Lois. You'll have me if you stop seeing him. For good."
He was kidding, right? Surely he was. He couldn't possibly ask — *demand* she dropped all contact with Lex just because he was… jealous? Could he be jealous? Superman was *jealous* of Lex Luthor?
<Isn't it just adorable?>
No, no it wasn't! It was sick! It was awful! Very offensive! Totally despicable! Downright outrageous and bordering on pathetic and… and it was so… so unhoped- for…
She resisted the urge to sigh wistfully. It was *not* right at all. Not cute, not adorable, nothing of the kind. And she should say something, do something about it. Like tell him to take a flying leap; that was appropriate. Or better still, to take a long walk off a short pier. Basically, take a hike. That sounded good. Uh-huh.
But you didn't talk like that to Superman… You didn't rebel against him when he was offering himself to you and -
<How the heck is that relevant, Lois?>
"What gives you the right to demand I stop seeing Lex?" she finally asked waspishly.
Superman's eyes widened in surprise at her outburst, and Lois resisted the urge to let out a satisfied snort of victory. She'd visibly scored a point here.
"If we're dating, I don't think it's too much to ask that we're committed to each other, is it?"
Was it her, or did he sound slightly aggressive? She'd never heard Superman sounding annoyed, but here he gave all the signs of someone who wouldn't compromise in the demands he made. If she was cynical, she would accuse him of treating her like a mistrusted villain.
In fact, he gave her precisely that feeling. And it ticked her off mightily. And it made her sad. And disappointed. And he was being unfair. And whatever gave him the right to *demand* anything from her? It wasn't as if he could barge into her life and reorganise it the way he wanted! Being her boyfriend — oh god, he was her boyfriend — didn't mean he could patronise her and get away with it. Who did he think he was anyway?
Which she would tell him. Right away.
She would tell Superman that she was mad at him, that he was behaving like a piece of macho slime and that she'd never accept that kind of attitude from someone who claimed to love her.
She'd tell Superman to… to…
How could she tell him that? Maybe he had his reasons. Maybe he felt insecure. Maybe he was just a bit jealous because he thought she was interested in Lex. It wasn't that bad, was it? It was cute, in fact. And quite flattering. And…
Whatever was happening to her? She couldn't agree to his every demand; it was the best way to ruin a relationship. Look at all the heroines of her favourite romance novels: the submissive ones got cheated on, and their beloved man usually ran off with the strong, pig-headed beauty who crossed their path. She didn't want to play the part of the maudlin girl crying over a lost love.
So she would protest. If just mildly. At least, she'd make her discontent known to him.
"And your point about me not even being his friend?"
He let out a humourless chuckle, and Lois frowned at his suddenly uncomfortable attitude. He was shifting from one foot to the other, literally squirming as if waiting for the first occasion to fly out the window. Her gaze immediately turned to the rectangle of darkness and she mentally calculated if her reflexes would be quick enough to keep him with her, until she remembered there was no point in even trying. If he really wanted to leave, she wouldn't have time to blink an eye before he was on the other side of the earth.
"Lois, do you trust me?"
What kind of question was that? Of course she trusted him. He was probably the only man she could ever bring herself to confide in… well, except Clark.
No, not Clark. She shouldn't be thinking about Clark right now. Make that never thinking about Clark ever again. He'd betrayed her trust, lulled her into an easy friendship under false pretences so that he could get her to lower her defences and strike at the last minute with his confession.
<Now you're being unfair…>
Who cared if she was being unfair or not? The point was that Clark, her best friend Clark, had suddenly decided their friendship wasn't enough. He knew what a mess her life currently was, but had he even thought for a second how much of a shock his declaration would be to her? No!
She cared for Clark, she really did, but she couldn't help but feel cheated as to the basis of their relationship. Even if she'd sort of suspected that he might be attracted to her, that he'd fallen in *love* with her was certainly very far from anything she'd expected to hear. It wasn't supposed to happen. It wasn't right. He'd ruined everything, reducing their friendship to a pile of ashes for the sake of a couple of stupid words.
Couldn't he figure out for himself that she wasn't remotely interested in him in a romantic way?
Honestly, even if Lex hadn't confused her with his totally unexpected proposal, she'd still never made any secret of it to Clark or anyone else that she was very much attracted to Superman. How could her partner even think he stood a chance against both the men in her life?
<Right, Lois,> her inner voice snorted, reminding her of how badly she'd treated him when Perry had first hired him. <Clark's 'way out of your league'. Isn't he?>
<Good thing Superman doesn't think *you* are out of *his* league…>
Well…it wasn't the same. Was it? And it was his choice, too. Not the same at all. If she'd chosen to be with Clark, it would be different. Alas, she'd chosen Superman, and since their attraction was very much mutual, she shouldn't be feeling guilty for turning down her best friend. And she wasn't feeling guilty. At all. Uh-uh.
"I'm sorry if my question made you uncomfortable, but if we're to have a relationship then I guess —"
"I do trust you, Superman."
He nodded, acknowledging her reply almost absently, as if lost in his thoughts. Was it regret that shone in his eyes? Her faith in him didn't look like it had reassured him at all, and she was taken aback by the discrepancy with the reaction she'd normally expect from anyone who'd been told they were trusted.
Since he seemed slow to speak, she reverted to her curiosity about his earlier demand. "Superman, why don't you want me to have anything to do with Lex? Is it… are you jealous?"
Superman looked even more awkward at that question. Then he sighed and said, "Lois, I won't lie to you. Yes, I am a little jealous. But that's only part of it — and a tiny part of it, too. I don't like Lex Luthor because I don't trust him."
Lois frowned. Why would Superman not trust Lex? Come to think of it, she wasn't even aware that they'd ever had much to do with each other.
"Why not?" she demanded, realising that she sounded abrupt, but she was beginning to feel as if there was some sort of great conspiracy that everyone was involved in except her. What was the big deal about Lex? Why did Clark hint darkly about him from time to time? Why had Perry's reaction to Lex buying the Planet so quickly become unenthusiastic? Just what was the big secret here?
"It's a long story, Lois," Superman told her. "Will you just accept for now that I think he's a criminal and a murderer?"
His voice had an edge to it that took Lois aback. What had happened to the cosy conversation she'd expected to have? What had happened to the kisses she'd been absolutely sure would happen once their mutual feelings were in the open? Wasn't Superman *interested* in… in… well, in taking advantage of her in that way?
But then his final words sank in, and she sat up straight. "What… Wait just a second there, Superman! What do you mean? Murderer? You *are* kidding?"
To her dismay, he shook his head. "No. I'm sorry, Lois, but I'm very serious. I can't prove it, but I hold him responsible for the deaths of Commander Latterman, Antoinette Baines, Samuel Platt and many more. And that's before we get into attempted murder, extortion, gun-running and probably some white-collar crime as well."
Lois slumped back on the sofa, slack-jawed. This was *crazy*! Lex couldn't possibly be guilty of any of this stuff. How could he be? She'd know, wouldn't she? She was the best reporter in Metropolis, after all! Three top Kerth awards in three years — she *was* the best! There was no way that Lex Luthor could have been up to any of that without her at least suspecting.
Superman had to be wrong.
But Superman was… well, he was *Superman*! Before today, before this moment, she'd have had no difficulty in believing anything he said to her. He wouldn't lie to her; she knew that. And she *did* trust him.
Maybe… Well, maybe he'd misunderstood. Or something. Maybe it wasn't really Lex, but one of his underlings, and Lex didn't know anything about it.
But that would make sense if Superman had been talking about a couple of isolated incidents. This sounded like a long, well-planned campaign of crime.
*Lex*? A *murderer*?
The thought occurred to her, out of the blue, that that might explain why Clark had been so against her relationship with Lex… always assuming that Clark shared Superman's suspicions.
But that was ridiculous! she insisted immediately. Clark was jealous; that was all. And he had absolutely no *right* to be jealous! And what would he know about any of this stuff?
Uncertainty made her turn back to Superman. "Have you told Clark any of this?"
He seemed to tense, she thought. "Clark knows what I know," he said shortly. "So, now do you see why I want to get you away from Luthor?"
"What?" Distracted from her stunned reaction over the allegations, Lois stared at him, appalled and hurt. "You mean… that's the only reason you said… the only reason you told me you love me?"
Was it all a lie? Didn't he really love her after all?
That would explain why he hadn't so much as touched her. Why he'd continually put distance between them. Why he hadn't showed any interest at all in kissing her, let alone… well, anything else.
Jumping to her feet, Lois stood with her hands on her hips, glaring at her companion — the man she'd hoped would be her lover.
"You lied, didn't you? You don't love me. You only said it to make me listen to you — to make me more inclined to believe you! You… I can't believe that you'd do that to me! I —"
"Lois, listen —"
"No, *you* listen to *me*, Superman!" Furious, and more distressed than she could ever imagine, Lois interrupted him.
"Where do you think you get off, making that sort of demand? You may be my boyfriend — although that's a matter of opinion, and something I might be changing my mind about after this conversation — but that does *not* give you the right to choose who my friends are! And nor does the fact that you fly around and dispense justice give you the right to brand someone a villain when they can't even respond and exonerate themselves!"
If anyone had asked her before this evening whether she could ever imagine ripping up at Superman like that, Lois would have denied it vehemently. But somehow, everything was different suddenly. Superman might have been sitting in front of her, but he wasn't the distant, noble and entirely admirable Super-hero she'd known. This was a very different man; a man she'd believed could never lie or manipulate anyone in any way.
This Superman had lied to her. He'd pretended that he loved her. He'd actually told her that he wanted a relationship with her. And all the time it had been a farce, a travesty of the truth. He didn't want a relationship with her. He probably didn't even love her. All he'd wanted was to bribe her into agreeing to break off her relationship with Lex.
He wasn't Superman any more. He was just like any other man she'd ever known; he was a liar and a deceiver. And, with that realisation, she saw that she'd lost something very precious tonight; she'd lost the image of Superman as the one man she could look up to and hold up as the personification of the perfect man.
"Lois!" Suddenly, Superman was standing too, his hands gripping her shoulders. "Lois, listen to me! I did *not* lie to you! I love you! But I also didn't want you to make a mistake —"
"So you told me that you loved me," she finished woodenly. "You'd never have done that if it wasn't that I was dating Lex, would you?"
Would he? Clark stared back at Lois, knowing that he'd somehow managed to lose control of this conversation — and sure that he'd suffer for it.
Sighing, he decided that his only option was to tell the truth — well, one version of the truth, at any rate. Oh, he'd have happily told her — even as Superman — that he loved her if she hadn't rejected him as Clark so definitively. But then, he hadn't declared his feelings as Clark until after Luthor had proposed to her.
Shaking his head, he admitted, "No, I wouldn't. But… well, there are other reasons for that…"
"That's irrelevant," she interrupted. "You only told me because you knew how I felt about you. And how I'd react to you telling me that you loved me. You manipulated me, Superman! And you lied to me! I bet you didn't even plan to follow through on a relationship! And I…" Her voice faltered. "I'm not sure how to deal with that. I… I think I want you to leave," she finished in little more than a whisper.
Stricken, Clark could only continue to stare at her.
She was right: he had been manipulating her. And any examination of his intentions wouldn't give him much comfort: he might have told her that he loved her, but he hadn't really intended to pursue a relationship with her. Not that he'd known how he was going to get out of it… but having any kind of romantic or sexual relationship with Lois as Superman was out of the question.
But could he let her know that?
Could he hurt her by letting her believe that he wasn't sufficiently attracted to her — or that he thought so little of her — that he'd treat her so badly?
Not when he'd hurt her so deeply. Not when guilt and shame were flooding through him at the recognition of what he'd done, and tried to do. Her words had flayed him, though he deserved it all. She was right; he'd treated her appallingly. And now, she didn't even believe that he loved her.
There was no way that he could leave allowing her to think that he'd lied about his feelings for her.
There was only one thing for it. Lois was still standing in front of him, passive in his arms. He freed one hand, tilted her chin up, and lowered his head.
The instant his lips touched hers, guilt and remorse shot through him, but both unpleasant feelings were immediately drowned in his intoxicating need for her. It was one of his deepest fantasies playing out, finally coming true and giving him what he'd always wished for. But the pliant body of his partner pressed close to him and returning his kiss with more enthusiasm than he'd ever hoped for, felt very wrong.
He should stop this, pull away from her, tell her it had been a mistake and could they just forget about it and…
Lois's hands trailed up his spandex-covered chest and hooked around his neck, pulling him closer as if in some kind of sardonic response to his struggle. Her fingers threaded in his hair, her tongue teased his lips apart, and he was doomed, left at her mercy, weak and vulnerable. His fight was pointless. He melted in her arms, surrendering to her touch and silently begging for more.
Spandex. This was what felt wrong, what should make him stop them before they got carried away and reached the point of no return. He didn't want to be with her as Superman. Even if it kept her from marrying Luthor, it shouldn't go beyond the three words he'd spoken in truth earlier; it shouldn't follow with actions, at least not until she knew who she was kis… dealing with.
She moaned, the sound of her breathless sighs of pleasure dissolving his musings into a dark jumble at the back of his mind. He pulled her closer, pressing her curves to his chest, trailing his hands down the length of her spine, and losing himself in her kiss.
Oh god… she was kissing Superman… she was in his arms, and she was kissing him, and it felt wonderful, and -
<Actually, *he* is kissing you>
Did it matter, when the feel of his lips on hers sent shocks of pure pleasure rippling through her body, when the feather-like touch of his hands on the small of her back sent shivers of ecstasy up her spine?
Oh… goodness… how had she ever let herself enjoy kisses by other men when… oh… he was so… so skilled? And expert…
A sudden rush of jealousy flowed through her veins, and she instinctively wrapped her arms tighter around him, reassuring herself with the knowledge that he was here. That he was hers. Hopefully forever. And his kiss was a blissful heaven.
And despite the screams of warning that her mind kept sending, she let him take their embrace further as seconds ticked past, eagerly responding to his gentle kiss and exploring the broad expanse of his back. Her fingers fiddled with the zipper hidden under his cape, senseless need pushing her to rush ahead heedless of the consequences. She didn't want to wait, she didn't want to be careful and think up sensible plans for the future and…
All coherent thought fled from her when his hands ran down the length of her spine and pulled her closer. Her back arched under his touch, her breathless moans of pleasure punctuating the restless caress of his lips on hers… oh god…
The protests of her inner voice, muted until now by the soaring feeling of being kissed by Superman, suddenly intensified, as if pointing accusingly to the gasps of brazen arousal escaping her mouth and blatantly begging him for more.
She'd wanted to be in his arms for so long; she'd fantasised about this moment so many nights… and as he kept kissing her, taking his time to explore her in lazy, languid caresses… and, boy, was it hard to think about ending a moment that was… ooooh… no… she couldn't possibly stop him, tell him she didn't want to take this as far as he wanted, spend the night in his arms…
… but she wasn't about to let Superman get away with what she suddenly realised was yet another act of manipulation, even if it involved the achievement of her wildest dreams. She'd be strong. Right. One more kiss. Just one more. He'd obviously only kissed her to stop her flood of anger, and the first touch of his lips on hers had been a blissful moment…
… but she wouldn't let him control the situation. Not this time.
She couldn't let him manipulate her this way. No-one had that right, not even Superman. With a reluctance she refused to acknowledge any more than was strictly necessary, she pulled away, opened her eyes and struggled to get her erratic breathing under control. She shrugged from his embrace, eager to lose a contact that was making her decisiveness waver.
"No," she whispered with as much restraint as she could muster.
She held up a hand. "No. Maybe this kind of trick works with others, but not with me. Never with me, Superman."
"With others? There are no others, there's never been anyone but —"
"Don't you make this worse," she warned, her scowl hardening. "I think I asked you to leave."
She walked to her bedroom without a backward glance at him, holding her breath and waiting for the familiar whoosh that would testify to his departure. She needed some time alone to think this through, to cope with the shame of having practically forced a declaration out of the man she loved.
What was she supposed to believe anyway? The one man she'd ever truly trusted had turned out to be a liar, just like the rest of the male species. He was no better than any of them, all manipulative bastards that they were. She wiped angrily at the tears surging to her eyes; she wouldn't cry. Not for him. He wasn't worth it. He'd never been worth it.
Her heart clenched with a feeling of loss as she mentally crushed all the fantasies she'd ever let herself believe in. There would be no happily-ever-after love for Lois Lane and Superman, and the more disappointments she faced, the more any chance of a happily-ever-after situation for Lois Lane, period, looked unlikely.
There was still no sound coming from behind her, no gust of wind announcing his departure and releasing the tension building in the pit of her stomach. Nothing. But she wouldn't give in; she wouldn't let him see how his behaviour affected her, how his deceit was crumbling the last of her faith. He wouldn't be so lucky.
The warmth of his hands resting on her shoulders startled her, and she swivelled around, violently shrugging out of his touch and putting distance between them. Anger flared within her as she prepared to launch into full-rant mode, but the gentleness of his gaze on her cut her short. He couldn't possibly hold such power over her… she wasn't one to fall for the puppy dog eyes. Even if he started grovelling, she wouldn't grant him her forgiveness just yet. Right?
"Please, Lois, we need to talk this through."
Not the pleading tone. Please, not the pleading tone…
"I am so sorry. I never wanted to hurt you."
He sounded sincere.
<No! He's just playing you for a fool again!>
But he did really sound sincere nonetheless… even if she shouldn't — *wouldn't* — believe him. "But you did," she said softly, fighting her desire to forgive him. How could she think of listening to his arguments, or even his apology, assuming he had one in store for her? Her being in love with him didn't give him the right to play with her feelings like this, to use her vulnerability to his advantage just because he'd developed a hatred for the man who'd asked her to marry him.
"Even if you don't want to talk to me any more, I want you to think about what I said. About Luthor. I might have handled this poorly, Lois, but I'm not lying when I say he has a lot to answer for."
Handled this poorly… talk about understatements! "At least I know what I mean to you, Superman."
"Lois, don't —"
"Don't what?" she exploded, her eyes shooting darts of unrestrained fury at his patronising tone. "Jump to conclusions? Overreact maybe? Sometimes you're just as bad as Clark!"
<Sometimes you're just as bad as Clark!>
That, of course, was because he *was* Clark.
Not that he was going to tell her that, of course. Not now. Maybe not ever, the way this was going.
But she was right in another way, too. He'd manipulated her and hurt her, and it was hardly surprising that she was lashing out at him.
And he ought to be glad — grateful to her — that she'd taken control of the situation and let her passion turn to anger. If she hadn't… well, he hadn't been showing much restraint, had he? And if things had gone much further, then he'd have had a major problem on his hands.
<Because your libido took over, didn't it?> he castigated himself silently. <So much for believing that you were completely in control and that you knew what you were doing!>
It was time that he tried to mend his fences, assuming that it was possible. Assuming that he hadn't antagonised Lois so much that she rushed off and accepted Luthor's proposal…
"Lois, I really am sorry," he said contritely. "You're right: I was trying to manipulate you — at least, a little. But I never lied to you — nothing I said to you tonight was a lie. I do love you. You're the only woman I've ever loved. But you're right about something else, too: I never would have told you that if you hadn't been considering marrying Lex Luthor."
She was watching him, an expression of disbelief on her face. But, as he finished speaking, he noticed something which made his heart turn over.
A tear was rolling silently down her cheek.
Not caring whether she rejected him again, Clark went straight to her and took her in his arms. The one thing he could never bear to see was Lois crying.
And she was crying. As his arms folded around her, he heard a tiny sob, immediately followed by a choking sound which told him that she was trying to disguise her distress. That was his Lois, all right: too proud to let anyone see her pain.
But he'd seen it. It was too late for her to hide it now.
Scooping her up in his arms, he walked back to the sofa and sat with her on his lap, cradling her head against his shoulder. She didn't struggle or try to pull away from him, which told him even more clearly that, for now at least, the fight had gone out of her.
That was the measure of how he'd hurt her.
"I'm sorry, Lois," he murmured, voice thickened with emotion. "I never meant to hurt you. I'm not even sure how… I mean, I know I shouldn't have tried to manipulate you, but I *do* love you."
She stirred in his arms at last. "You don't know? You have no idea of what you did to hurt me?" Now she sounded both hurt and angry, and Clark winced.
He tightened his arms around her, though, when she tried to scramble off his lap. "Tell me, please, Lois. I want to know. I want to… make up for it, if I can."
Despite his contrition, she didn't seem ready to give up her anger and hurt yet. Insisting silently that he release her, she slid to the floor and walked to the window, where she stood with her arms folded, glowering at him. "You used me," she muttered.
"Used you?" He wouldn't do that… what did she mean?
"You only said you loved me to stop me saying yes to Lex. You don't really want me," she said. The misery in her voice cut him to the quick.
A lump in his throat, Clark said, "I do love you, Lois. And I want you — so much! But… but we can't be together. Not really. It's too dangerous. That's why I never said anything before. And why I wouldn't have said anything if it hadn't been for the fact that I can't bear the thought of you marrying Lex Luthor."
She was silent for several moments, her head dipped and her expression hooded. Clark hoped that she was taking in his words and accepting the truth in what he'd said.
But then she looked up at him, a glint of something he wasn't sure that he trusted in her eyes. "Clark told me he loved me earlier today. What if I'd started dating him, Superman? Would you still have come to me and told me you loved me?"
He hadn't come to her, Clark pointed out silently. She'd asked him to come to her. And she was the one who'd told him that she loved him first, and asked him whether he had feelings for her. But he decided that it would be tactful not to remind her.
"No, Lois, I wouldn't," he told her quietly. "Clark's not a criminal. And I think you and he would make a great couple. I'd be happy for you if you were dating him."
<Unfair, Clark,> his conscience pointed out. But it was the truth… well, at least a version of the truth. Of *course* he'd be delighted if Lois had agreed to date Clark. It was what he wanted more than anything.
Instead, he'd managed to get himself into the complicated position where Lois thought that *Superman* was crazy about her…
Yet he'd had to do it; he hadn't been able to see any alternative, and he still couldn't. He simply couldn't let her marry Lex Luthor, and if dating her as Superman was the only thing that would stop her, then he'd decided to do it.
But if she ever found out that he was Clark… his life wouldn't be worth living.
So, if he went ahead with his plan, he would just have to take very great care that she didn't find out. Even if it wrecked any possibility of him having a relationship with her as *Clark* at any point in the future. But then, like that was ever going to happen! She'd turned him down flat earlier that day. She wasn't interested in him, and probably never would be — and certainly not while she believed that a flying Super-hero was hers for the asking.
Grimacing, he pushed aside his remembered hurt at Lois's rejection. That wasn't important right now. Lois was looking at him curiously.
"So, even though you love me, you'd be happy to see me with someone else?" she asked incredulously.
He sighed. Now how did he get out of that one?
"Clark's a friend," he said at last. "And…" He thought for a moment, and then came up with what he thought would be the clincher, the explanation which should get him out of this impossible situation — as long as she agreed to dump Lex.
"Lois, the problem is that, no matter what my feelings for you, any real relationship between us is impossible because of who I am. That is, unless you're willing to put up with a secret affair? A liaison that can only happen at night and behind closed doors, and that no-one, not even your closest friend, can know about? A sleazy, clandestine affair?"
"If you really loved me, would you need to ask?"
The question took him by surprise, and he staggered for a reply. How could he make her see what kind of existence she'd lead if she hooked up with Superman? No-one should be asked to keep their entire private life a secret from their family and friends. Even love couldn't justify such a sacrifice.
"Think about it, Lois," he started carefully, knowing it'd be best to tiptoe out of this conversation but unable to let her believe he wasn't sincere. "If anyone discovered that you and I… that we were… together, you'd be instantly in danger. All the villains in Metropolis would use you as bait to get Superman to do whatever they wanted him to do. It's already happened, but it would be far worse if you and I were officially linked. And I can't let that happen."
She stared at him in stony silence for a long time, and he held his breath, hoping his arguments were slowly sinking and hitting home.
"I'm a big girl; I can take care of myself, Superman. I was fine until you came along and I'll be fine if we have a relationship."
Darn, no such luck. She certainly didn't sound like she'd accepted his point of view or even understood how much an affair with him would affect her entire life.
"Villains won't stop attacking you because you're single or not related to anyone," she continued, oblivious to his thoughts. "They won't stop using other people as bait either. Whether they use me or anyone else doesn't really matter in the grand scheme of things, does it? You'll still risk your life to save them."
He sighed, but she did have a point. One of Superman's main weaknesses was his inability to stand back while others were hurting or in danger, and everyone had already figured this out. The crooks in Metropolis didn't need him to have a girlfriend to use this Achilles' heel against him.
"And I can keep a secret, you know? I'd be able to hold back and act professionally around you."
She looked completely taken aback by his admission. "You… you couldn't?"
"Lois, it's hard enough acting all business when we're in public. It's been a living hell for me not to tell you what you mean to me in private, and I'm not sure…" Clark sighed and raked a frustrated hand through his hair. This conversation was *not* under his control any more, and Lois had somehow managed to turn the tables and show him the flaws in his perfectly thought-out reasons why a relationship with her as Superman was a very bad idea. "What about not telling anyone, even your family? Even your friends?"
"My mother's had no idea about what happened in my life since 1985."
"When I left home." An absent look crossed her face, but she shook it off before he could determine if it'd been sadness or regret. "As for my friends, I can't say I have many, apart from you… and Clark. And you do trust Clark, don't you?"
"Well… I —"
"You said he was your friend."
"He is, but —"
"Then we both know he wouldn't betray us. We could trust him with the secret of our relationship. Heck, I could even vent to him if we had fights," she added with an amused grin.
But Clark wasn't laughing. The web he'd thrown himself into was getting more tangled around his feet by the minute, and he was literally tied to an impossible choice. He had no idea how Lois had managed to do it, but she'd destroyed every single one of his arguments in the space of an instant, and if it wasn't for that tiny little detail that he *was* Clark Kent, he could almost let her convince him.
Alas, though, she had no idea she was talking about venting to her boyfriend about himself, and Clark didn't dare get to thinking about how awkward such a situation could get. And he didn't want to find out either.
A sudden decisiveness filling his mind, he rose from the couch and darted a careful look at the still-open window. Staying here and talking was not only pointless, but also very dangerous.
The disappointment in her voice was obvious, and his decision wavered. How could he leave her after what he'd made her go through this evening? Nothing was solved, and postponing their talk to a later date wouldn't make it any easier.
"Did you hear a cry for help?"
"Yes." His conscience frowned severely at his shameless use of his Superman persona to run away like a coward. "No. Look, Lois —"
"You don't want to have that relationship with me. You never wanted it." The words were uttered dejectedly, and Clark squirmed in discomfort.
"There's nothing I'd like more than to tell you we can work it out. Being with you… it would be like a dream come true."
"But it's not possible. Not with me as Superman." The second the words were out of his mouth, he knew they were a mistake. He'd never got as close to revealing the truth about himself as now, and, he reminded himself sternly, telling Lois about Clark Kent was out of the question, at least for the time being.
"Not with you as Superman," she repeated slowly. Ominously.
Fear gripped his throat and his whole body tensed. He couldn't tell her. He couldn't possibly tell her. Not when she was only attracted to Superman, not when she wouldn't give Clark the time of the day, not when Superman had just told her he loved her… He just couldn't tell her.
"What if… what if you used another identity? Someone perfectly ordinary who could have a… well… normal life? Who could have a girlfriend."
No. No, he couldn't. She'd been hurt enough that he'd blatantly manipulated her to prevent her from marrying Lex, and if he told her that he was Clark now… no. He refused to consider the pain it would put her through, the humiliation she'd feel. God, there was no chance she'd ever talk to him again if he went as far as coming to her as Superman after being rejected as Clark, even if technically, *she'd* been the one initiating this whole relationship thing with the Super-hero.
"Superman?" Lois called his name softly, looking concerned as she reached for his hand. He hadn't realised he was trembling until her fingers closed over his and stopped the quivering. "Is everything all right?"
<No! No, it's not!>
Oh god, how he wanted to be able to confide in her right now! To take her in his arms and confess everything: his deception, his need for her, the fact that sometimes it felt like his life was only worth living when she was around. The jealousy and hurt he'd felt when she'd come on to Superman while dismissing Clark. The pain when she'd turned Clark down, only to tell Superman that she loved him. The longing that he felt for her, every single minute of every single day.
The fact that she was the only woman he'd ever loved — *would* ever love. Even though he sometimes came close to hating her, he loved her desperately.
The fact that he was Clark *and* Superman, and that if she wanted one, she'd have to take both.
But what would that achieve? he asked himself miserably. First, Lois would be hurt and angry at his manipulation of her tonight — a manipulation which went a lot further than she knew. And then, what next? Would she still declare her undying love for him? And if so, who would she be saying she loved? Clark… or Superman?
For that was the stark, cold truth. It wasn't Clark Kent she wanted. It was the flashy, unattainable Super-hero with the amazing powers.
<If you had no powers at all, if you were just an ordinary man, living an ordinary life, I would love you just the same.>
No, he couldn't believe that any more now than he had earlier.
She didn't love the ordinary man.
"Superman?" Lois's hand tightened over his. "What is it? Talk to me!"
"I… can't…" The words were torn from him.
He glanced over towards the window, his means of escape. Somehow, he had to get out of here before he made an even greater fool of himself than he already had.
"What is it?" she persisted. "Did I say something wrong?" He saw her frown, as if thinking back over her words to figure out what she'd said. Then her eyes widened and she stared at him.
"I said, what if you had another identity…" she repeated thoughtfully. "But *you* said, not as Superman…"
Clark waited, his heart in his mouth. Was she going to make the connection? He *knew* he'd said too much!
Then she caught her breath in a little choke. "You already have a secret identity, don't you?" When he didn't reply, she persisted. "Don't you, Superman?"
Lois stared up at Superman — the man she thought she'd known, the man she'd claimed earlier that she knew everything she needed to know about. And she now realised that she hadn't known him at all.
Oh, she'd known that he was hiding some things from her, and he'd admitted as much himself. But this… *this* was something else again. Something… huge.
He had a secret identity. One he assumed when he wasn't being the Super-hero and saving the world.
He had… he pretended to be an ordinary man, leading an ordinary life…
And at that realisation, her breath caught again. He was — at least some of the time — that ordinary man she'd said she'd love. And he'd said he didn't believe her claim. Why was that?
Because… With a shock, the answer occurred to her. Because she already knew that ordinary man? Because she'd already rejected that ordinary man?
It couldn't be…
But, gazing up at the face of the man whose hands she was holding, seeing the so familiar features, she knew the truth.
Oh god… how could she have been so shallow? So *stupidly* blind as not to have seen through the charade? So… so *cruel*, as well, to the man she'd claimed was her best friend?
And why hadn't he *told* her?
The perfect image of Superman shattered, and Lois found herself at a loss. The image he projected was so different from the truth, which, in fact, he'd kept hidden from everyone — from *her* — all along. He'd lied, deceived, betrayed…
Tears welled up in her eyes but she valiantly fought them. Reality was hitting her hard, but it was probably better than what she'd believed for the past year. What *Clark* had let her, *encouraged* her to believe, she corrected, anger slowly filling her veins.
And… and he'd manipulated her. *Was* manipulating her still! Telling her that he loved her, taking advantage of her attraction to him just so he could get her into b…
In fact, he hadn't shown any real intention to take things further than his confession of love… except for that kiss.
<And you responded to it very willingly>
All right, maybe she had, but it wasn't the *same*! She wasn't lying to Clark, taking advantage of his attraction to her to… oh god…
<To love the ordinary man beneath the Suit?>
She winced as the meaning of her words to him was thrown back at her. Telling Superman that she loved him only hours after she'd rejected Clark must have hurt him very badly. Was he getting back at her for what she'd made him go through? Could he have told her he loved her just so he could mock her for being so blind and shallow?
Somehow, she couldn't bring herself to believe that he was that cruel. Clark, her Clark, might have lied about his true identity, but he'd never been good at hiding his feelings. She'd realised long before today that he was attracted to her, and she'd puzzled over Superman's reluctance to have a relationship with her when she was displaying such obvious signs of her willingness to be with him.
Now, all was clear. And her own part in Superman's — Clark's — reluctance was also clear. Why would he have even wanted to be *friends* with someone who'd treated him as badly as she had?
And yet he had. He'd been her friend… and more. He'd been her support, her mainstay over the past year. He was a very, very special part of her life — he was in his own unique way more than a friend, though she'd always refused to clarify even in her own mind just what he meant to her. And he'd told her that he loved her. And she'd rejected him. Even though she'd done it as kindly as she knew how, it had still been rejection; the hurt, stricken look on Clark's face had haunted her for an hour or so afterwards, even though she'd done her level best to convince herself that she couldn't have handled it any other way. How did you tell your best friend, the last person in the world that you'd want to hurt, that you didn't love him back? Without hurting his feelings?
She'd still hurt him. And then added insult to injury by telling him, in his other guise, that she was in love with him. Sure, she'd had no way of knowing that they were the same man — and actually, since she hadn't known, she'd been justified in turning Clark down despite her conflicted feelings for him. After all, how could she possibly have encouraged one man while being in love with another?
Wanting to speak, and yet not knowing what to say, how to express her confusion and shame, and yet still carrying remnants of anger over his manipulation of her, she was taken by surprise when his hands tightened around hers. "Lois…" His voice was husky. "I… I can't lie to you. Not any more. But… first… I have to do this…"
Uncertain. Vulnerable. So completely unsure of himself and of her likely reaction… she stared at him, barely able to believe that the man standing so close to her was the invulnerable, powerful, confident Super-hero she thought she'd known so well.
Now it all made sense. He'd wanted her to love Clark, the ordinary man, when all she'd been able to see was the extraordinary powers and the flashy Suit.
Her initial rage subsided as she took that in. And that explained so much — including his manipulative behaviour earlier. He'd behaved like any man she'd ever known… but that was because he *was* just an ordinary guy, with fears and vulnerabilities just like anyone else. Just like her. It didn't completely excuse what he'd done, but it did explain it, at least in part. Yes, Superman had feet of clay; but then, he was just a man, after all.
"What?" she asked in a soft whisper.
"This…" One hand freed itself and came up to cup her chin lightly. "Because once I tell you the truth, you're never going to let me anywhere near you again…"
He was scared. He was terrified of what her reaction might be to the disclosure of his identity! Incredulous, Lois stared up at him.
Okay, she might well still be angry that he'd deceived her. He had, after all, pretended to be two different men for the past year, weaving his way into her life and her affections as both of them. Making her care about *both* Clark and Superman. On the other hand, she knew without a shadow of a doubt, what choice had he had? If he'd told her right at the start, wouldn't she have seen it as the story of the century? And if he'd told her later…
Oh, she understood all right. Now his words to her earlier made perfect sense. If he'd told her later, wouldn't she have been delighted? After all, she'd been making it clear that she was romantically interested in Superman. And Superman, in the shape of Clark, would have been there for the taking.
And it was obvious, from what he'd said to her earlier and from his skittishness in the past half-hour, that he wanted her to love him as Clark. Not as Superman.
And he loved her. He'd told her so, in both guises, even though it had almost killed him to do so.
And now he was afraid that she was going to reject him. And why wouldn't he think that? She'd given him no reason to believe anything else.
Quickly, before caution could get the better of her, she brought her hands up to slide over the smooth planes of his face. "Kiss me, Clark," she whispered.
<Kiss me, Clark>
She'd said, <Kiss me, *Clark*>
Oh… god. She knew. Oh dear god, she knew. How… when had she found out about… no, maybe it was just a slip of the tongue and… could she have thought about Clark while talking to Superman and -
She did know. There was no way around it; she knew Superman was Clark Kent.
Clark searched for any sign of anger in her eyes, and much to his surprise, found none. She looked calm and encouraging, raising her face towards him in invitation — a very tempting invitation…
How could he deny her what she was asking for and which he longed to give her? But at the same time, how could he not? She was still lost amidst the emotional turmoil of her changing relationship with Superman, and discovering — *somehow* — that the man she'd thought she was in love with was also the partner she'd turned down a few hours earlier couldn't possibly make any sense to her. In any case, it didn't make any sense to *him*.
"Lois, don't you think that —"
"Don't think, Clark," she cut him off abruptly. "Don't talk. Just kiss me."
His eyebrows rose and he blinked, still taken aback by her unexpected demand. "But —"
"It was what you were about to do, wasn't it?"
He nodded hesitantly, embarrassment colouring his cheeks… unless it was the burning sensation of her palms holding him, her hands pulling him towards her, her lips so close to his, beckoning him… "Well… I… yeah. But I think that maybe —"
"You think way too much."
Before he had time to protest, she'd closed the distance between them and was devouring his lips in a kiss that rivalled any of their previous encounters. The intensity swept away all coherent thought, and for a few seconds there was nothing but the woman in his arms, her warm curves pressed against his chest, her lips teasing and nibbling and tantalising, her hands buried in his hair and pulling him closer.
His heart beat a wild rhythm in his chest, and the warning signs he'd normally listen to were absorbed in the sudden freedom brought by her knowledge of his secret. She knew… she knew, and she was kissing him with a passion that outdid any of the embraces she'd initiated with Superman in the past. Even the kiss they'd shared — and that time he hadn't exactly held back, his conscience pointed out accusingly — while he'd pretended to be under the influence of the pheromone compound paled in comparison with the shivers running up his spine and tingling his nerve ends right now. Even the encounter of a few minutes earlier meant nothing next to the soaring sensation he was experiencing with each brush of her lips on his.
His hands trailed down the sides of her ribcage and searched for the fastening of her robe. A tremor of pleasure rippled through him as his fingers encountered the silken fabric of her nightgown, and Lois's little whimpers of contentment encouraged his first shy explorations into more assured strokes upon the soft material.
"Clark… oh, Clark…"
The whisper of his name broke through his foggy thoughts and brought his awareness back online. He was wearing the Suit, felt his skin burn under the fabric as her hands trailed down his chest and around his waist… and she was calling him Clark.
The moment was over. The mood was broken.
She was kissing *Clark* now, but only because she knew that he was Superman. Only a few hours earlier, she'd listened to his heartfelt declaration of love, and rejected him. The knowledge of his identity, as he'd always suspected it would, had made all the difference.
And, much as he wanted her, he couldn't accept what she was now offering on those terms.
He reluctantly pulled away and did his best to ignore the pink flush of her cheeks and reddened tint of her lips. Her still-erratic breathing was enough of a reminder of what had just happened between them. He self-consciously removed his hands from where they were hidden inside her robe and holding the warm curves of her hips, and he looked down at the floor.
"Wow…" she sighed, and her hands rested on his shoulders, as if seeking support.
No, not wow. Definitely not wow. Don't let her encourage him, not now, not when he needed some distance and time to think about this sudden turn of events. You couldn't base a relationship on a kiss, as good, as toe-curling as it had been. As breathless as it had left him.
She still hadn't commented on his secret identity, as if it was the most natural thing in the world. She couldn't have known all along, though. It didn't make any sense; it was completely crazy! If she'd been aware that Clark and Superman were one and the same, she'd have jumped at the chance of a relationship with him when he'd confessed his love for her, and she wouldn't have waited for her dream- like Super-hero to show up at her window…
… or she'd have had his head, maybe. Although her current attitude regarding his secret seemed to contradict the possibility of such a reaction, as surprising as it was. She should be yelling, screaming, hitting, throwing… but she'd chosen the kissing approach.
Feeling increasingly uncomfortable with her soft touch and so tempting closeness, he stepped away from her, wincing at the small sound of protest she emitted, and sat on the couch, suddenly unsure his shaking legs would support him much longer. Whatever had happened to trigger that revelation — though whether it was a revelation for her or for him, he had no idea — it wasn't something he could dismiss with a flourish of his cape and a promise to stop by later.
"So… you know." He stated the obvious, feeling utterly dumb as she nodded and sat beside him. He was grateful to her tact when she didn't try to initiate any kind of contact between them; he needed to keep a clear head.
"I thought you'd be a little more enthusiastic. That I know."
"Well… I'm glad you know, Lois, but I'm just…"
"That's it, really. You turn Clark down, you tell Superman you love him, and you ask Clark to…"
He nodded and swallowed, chasing away the images her words evoked. "I think I have a right to be confused. And lost. And I don't know what to think." He sighed, feeling more and more frustrated at her calm reaction. She was handling this as if nothing special had happened; it just didn't make any sense! Was she taking advantage of his double identity to live out her fantasy with Superman? Would she use him this way, careless for his feelings? Could she be that selfish and cruel?
But hadn't *he* been cruel and manipulative? Even his anger at what she'd just done didn't excuse the trick he'd pulled on her tonight. So why was he jumping to conclusions that sentenced her as the guilty party and presented him as entirely the victim? Guilt flooded his veins and he winced, reminded of the scornful words he'd spat at her just out of revenge for the way she'd rejected Clark.
Was it really fair to Lois that Superman react in relation to something that was strictly between Lois and Clark? Not that he didn't have the right to be upset, especially at her claim to love the ordinary man and not the powers, but… but her asking for *Clark* to kiss her had thrown the veil of confusion over his previously perfect reasoning.
He couldn't accuse her of taking his real identity in her stride just for the purpose of living out her Superman fantasy. The woman he loved wasn't that shallow and malicious.
"If anyone has a right to be confused here, Clark, it's me," she said, cutting through his ashamed thoughts, and for the first time since she'd called him by his name, her voice rose a pitch, announcing an imminent rant. "You've handled this whole thing for twenty-seven years and I've only had three minutes to get used to the idea. You can't expect me to take this lightly and say, 'fine, you're Clark, let's kiss it off'!"
"It's sort of what you did, though. Which is not what I expected, I'll give you that," he added, raising his hands in defence against her thunderous glare.
"Well, I didn't exactly expect you to be Clark, so we're even."
"I mean, really! 'You and Clark would make a great couple'? 'I'd be happy if you two were dating'?" she exploded, mimicking his earlier contrite tone when he'd pushed her yet again towards his human self. "What kind of game are you playing, exactly?"
He hid a wince at the words she threw back at him. It did sound very manipulative, and he'd probably have been better off not saying anything. There had been enough deceit in his attitude as it was, but… "I did mean it."
She gave him a blank look.
"I did mean it," he repeated stubbornly. "I wanted us to date, Lois. You and me. You and *Clark*."
Her glare softened, shadows of guilt seeming to sober her anger, he fancied. He turned to her and automatically reached for her hands despite the kicks his conscience was giving him. There was one thing he needed to know, one thing on which the future of their whole relationship depended, assuming they could still have one. Taking a deep breath and squeezing her hands to give himself courage, he asked, "Lois, why did you kiss Clark?"
Why had she kissed Clark? Or, perhaps, why had she told him that she knew who he was and then kissed him?
That was a good question, actually, Lois acknowledged, ducking her head down to look at their joined hands. Why had she done it?
She knew why he was asking. It had been written all over his face, in his confused expression and in the lost, almost hurt look in his eyes.
Clark, the ordinary man she'd known for almost a year, had told her he loved her earlier that day. She'd turned him down flat — as gently as she could, but she'd still hurt him. And, even worse, given what she now knew, she'd as good as told him that her attitude to Superman would be different.
And then she'd not only told Superman that she loved him, but had added insult to injury by telling him — the 'ordinary' man she'd rejected only mere hours earlier — that she'd love him even if he was an ordinary man.
Could she blame him if he thought that it was only his powers which attracted her? That, in his eyes, her changed attitude to the partner she'd tolerated was entirely explainable by her discovery of the *real* Clark Kent?
No, she couldn't. Because she really had been that shallow; she'd worked with Clark, accepted his friendship, demanded his unconditional loyalty and caring, but she'd never really tried to get to know him. She'd taken him, and his presence in her life, utterly for granted. And she'd never tried to look beyond the exterior; the decent, gentle and humorous man who was always there for her when she needed him.
And under that gentle — which she'd thought equated to soft, even a little wimpish — exterior had been hidden the strong, resolute and awe-inspiring Super-hero.
No, she couldn't blame Clark if he believed that she was welcoming his attentions now because of who he really was; that the reason she'd overcome any desire she might have had to be angry with him was entirely because she wanted the Super-hero at any cost.
Oh, she was angry at his blatant manipulation of her feelings. He'd used his two identities and it had won him the woman because he'd been clever enough to lie and use her clueless blindness to his advantage. But if she was honest with herself, she couldn't accuse him of acting out of complete selfishness — not any more than she had anyway. She knew Clark, despite what he probably thought, and she couldn't see him do anything just to feed his ego. And overall, it was the remorse of having cruelly rejected the man she loved, not knowing who he was, that won hands down when it came to the worst mistake.
His shocking, hurtful behaviour tonight as Superman suddenly made sense, driven as it was by the anger and hurt of a man who'd been deeply wounded, who'd seen the woman he loved turn him down and then throw herself at him in the space of a few hours.
And she'd claimed she'd love him if he had no powers at all. If he were an ordinary man. If he were…
Who looked the most manipulative between the two of them? She'd been driven by the fantasy of a man who — she'd thought — was the incarnation of perfection, inside and out, whereas Clark's actions, she now accepted, had been nurtured by his pain and disappointment in what she could only recognise was her own blindness.
Biting her lip, she glanced warily up at her partner. He was watching her, and the long silence was clearly troubling him, judging by the wounded, disappointed expression in his eyes. A lump welled up in her throat as she realised just what she'd thrown away by rejecting Clark — and just what she was losing now due to her own stupidity.
For she loved the man who stood in front of her. She'd come to love him as Superman, that was true — and that was why she couldn't tell Clark honestly that she wanted him, the man she'd called Clark, and not just for his powers. She *had* meant it when she said she'd love Superman even without his powers. But she'd had no idea that he had a whole other life as an 'ordinary' man — how could she have?
How could she explain to him that her discovery that he was really Clark was almost a relief? That the fact that she now knew that, in Superman, she'd be getting both the man she'd adored for the past year *and* her best friend, the man she'd realised over the past few days that she just couldn't bear to lose from her life, had caused her such a sense of relief that any anger she might have felt at his deception had been completely swept from her mind?
Because, even if he believed her, that again would tell him that it was the man in the costume she wanted, not the man she'd worked beside and known for the past year — and who, he'd told her, had been in love with her for most of that time. It would be another rejection, on top of the one she'd dealt him earlier that day.
She'd blown it.
And that, above all, was why she'd kissed Clark, she realised suddenly. Because she'd known that she'd lost her chance with him, and in kissing him she'd been seizing one last opportunity to find out what she'd lost… and saying goodbye to her hopes and dreams.
<Oh, Clark…> she cried silently.
He dropped her hands suddenly, making her look up at him again. Misery welled up inside her as she recognised that he was clearly about to go, to fly away as she'd told him to only a few minutes earlier. He stepped back from her, and she ducked her head again, unwilling to see him leave.
But a strange sound compelled her to look up again. It was the sound of rushing wind, but yet not what she associated with one of Superman's departures. It was… a kind of rustling, a whispery sound, accompanied by a sensation of breeziness, right in her living room.
A blur had materialised in front of her, right where Superman had stood less than a second earlier. And that blur was a multi-coloured whirlwind, which dazzled and stunned her at the same moment.
And then it slowed… and in front of her stood Clark Kent, dressed in the same black shirt he'd been wearing when she'd seen him earlier that day… when she'd rejected his declaration of love.
The determined, yet wounded, expression on his face told her why he'd done it. He wanted to confront her with hard, visible evidence that the man in front of her, the man she'd declared undying love to, the man she'd kissed with such passion, was *Clark*. Her partner. That the Super-hero really was just a figment, a disguise; that the reality was the quiet reporter in the glasses that she'd said she didn't love.
And now, his eyes said to her, what are you going to say?
"Clark…" She faltered. "Clark, I'm so sorry…"
"What for?" His voice was tense, and as she watched, his hands clenched at his sides.
"For… for never really seeing you… for hurting you… and for being so shallow that I never saw what was right under my nose," she jerked out, the lump in her throat threatening to expand with every word.
She saw him swallow. "I… I knew you didn't really love me," he said in a low voice. He didn't sound angry. Just weary and sad. And it broke her heart to see the shadows of a pain he couldn't conceal shining in his dark eyes, caused, of course, by the hurt she'd triggered in the man she claimed to love. "It was always the glamour of the powers and the image, wasn't it, Lois? That's why I couldn't believe you earlier when you said you'd love me if I was an ordinary man."
"And because I threw away what that same ordinary man offered," Lois finished for him.
"That too," Clark agreed, his expression bleak. "Lois, I've always loved you. I can't lie to you about that. I'd give anything to know that you love me back — *me*, the man, the ordinary guy called Clark Kent who worked at the Planet and wears outrageous ties and has a terrible line in bad puns, not the hero from another planet who can fly and save lives and who swept you off your feet."
He grimaced, a muscle twitching in his jaw. "But, Lois, I know you don't love me. You… you were dazzled, infatuated with an image that's just not real. And now you know the truth. It's over. I… Lois, just please don't marry Lex Luthor, that's all."
"Clark? What are you saying?" Lois stared at him, horrified. Of course she loved him! Now that she knew Clark was Superman, the two were inseparable, weren't they? If she loved Superman, then she loved Clark too. And in a way, maybe she'd always loved Clark, hadn't she?
"I'm leaving, Lois," he said quietly, sadness redolent in his tone. "I have to — there's nothing for me here any more. Look after yourself, Lois — even if we never see each other again, it matters to me that you're okay."
As he spoke, he was turning away and walking towards the window. And then she realised that he meant it; he wasn't just leaving her apartment. He was walking out of her life. Permanently.
She'd lost Clark for ever. Because he didn't — *couldn't* — believe that she loved him.
And why was that? she asked herself miserably. It was all her own fault. Oh, sure, he'd made mistakes too; but she was the one who'd continually rejected him, ignored him, compared him unfavourably to his alter ego. And, ultimately, she'd offended him by claiming something which he knew beyond a doubt to be untrue: how could he believe that she'd love Superman as an ordinary man when she'd already rejected him?
The whooshing sound of his departure barely registered as she collapsed onto the couch and gave in to long held-back tears.
Clark blanked out the sounds of Lois's sobs as he sped away from her apartment, eager to put as much distance between them as he could. The pain in his heart intensified, but he resisted the pull of her voice, knowing another encounter would make it even harder to leave. For he had no choice. The rest of his hopes had shattered with her lack of response, and staying would only have prolonged a moment that was painful to them both.
She'd only kissed Clark because of the Super-hero she'd been lusting after, and despite his love for her, he felt disgusted at her sick manipulation of him. Had she really thought he'd comply with her desires and let her enjoy some fake setting of a bad bodice ripper? She wanted to be with Superman, and if she had to bear with Clark to reach her goal, she would.
Well, he wouldn't let her use him this way. She'd trampled on his feelings enough and it was time he put an end to her strategy. Love wasn't supposed to be about planning, sneaking, hiding and faking. It was about opening up, sharing everything with the person you'd chosen. He loved Lois, but she'd never really understood what the feeling implied.
He felt a pang of guilt at his condemnation of her, and part of him wanted to acknowledge his own manipulation of her feelings, but he shut it off immediately. Anger and sadness were driving him now, and if he was overreacting, then so be it. It didn't really matter any more. Lois had had enough chances with him and she'd blown them all. He hadn't felt any satisfaction at seeing her discomfited expression upon discovering him in his casual clothes; hurting her would never bring anything but more pain.
But it wasn't what he regretted the most. In fact, he wished he'd ignored Lois's demand that afternoon and never shown up at her apartment as Superman. Or that he'd found the strength to turn her down. Whatever had possessed him to let her hope for a relationship with his alter-ego anyway? Thinking back about it, and about the way things had turned out during the course of the evening, he couldn't blame anyone but himself for the outcome.
Even if he'd rejected her, though, would he just have kept up a pretence that Lois would fall in love with the real man some day? A bitter chuckle escaped him as he realised how unrealistic it sounded. Lois Lane would never give Clark Kent the time of the day. Not when she could have a Super-hero with amazing powers or, by way of second choice, a businessman offering her the key to many doors that remained closed for the average citizen. She wanted adventure, mystery and power, none of which Clark could offer.
Well then… it was time he withdrew from her entire life. It was pointless to stick around and watch her drift away from him, pointless to keep hoping that some day she might see more in him than a best friend who was convenient to have around. He didn't want to be a convenience. He would never accept such an unsatisfying — and even humiliating — compromise.
Leaving Metropolis, though… He sighed and looked down at the city below, its lights and buildings beckoning him, pulling him back to a place he'd come to consider as home over the course of a year. So much of his life was linked to it; how could he put everything behind and forget he'd ever been here?
The dark mass of the rubble where the Daily Planet used to stand proudly seemed to send back a sarcastic reply to his question. The blue-tinged light of the famous globe adorning the front door had been snuffed out a couple of weeks earlier when the newspaper had crumbled under the force of the explosion rocking its premises. Clark should have known right then that nothing would ever be the same again, that part of him was dying in the ruins of the newsroom. He'd always thought that Lois was far more attached to the paper than he'd ever be, but she'd seemed almost eager to move on and get on with her new and much more exciting life.
It was easier, of course, when you had something to move on to. It was easier when you didn't fear separation from someone who meant so much to you that you couldn't consider living without them.
Yes, she might lose her best friend, but what was it compared to losing your love?
<You're being unfair>
Was he, really? Or was he just voicing a truth he'd concealed from even himself all those days?
Not that it mattered much any more. And if blaming Lois for the failure of their relationship made his burden easier to carry, there wasn't much wrong in letting his hurt guide his thoughts. At least his memories of her would contain less longing if they were tainted with bitterness.
Unable to sustain the sight of a beloved city he'd leave in such a short time, Clark shot through the clouds and drifted onto his back to stare at the starlit sky above. Flying as Clark wasn't something he did very often, but tonight he didn't have the heart to be Superman. The name, the Suit, and the character he'd created along with it held too many reminders of what he'd just lost.
So he let the draughts and winds carry him freely, careless of his direction and only concentrating on emptying his mind from his dreadful last conversation with Lois.
It wasn't until much later that he returned to Metropolis. He landed on his balcony and entered his apartment without bothering to switch on the lights, but a movement in the darkness made him freeze.
"You didn't think I'd let you just fly out of my life like a coward, did you?"
Lois approached Clark's immobile form, her decision set firmer than ever. Crying herself out on her couch after his departure had only lasted for a time before she'd sat up straight and wiped off her totally unproductive tears. Weeping over the mistakes she'd made wasn't helping when there was no time to waste.
Clark wasn't the kind to proffer threats for the sake of some petty emotional blackmail. It just wasn't his style. And if he said goodbye, then it meant he saw no outcome but his leaving. But she'd show him he was wrong; she'd show him that there was hurt and deceit on both sides, that they'd both acted according to what the expected of the other instead of taking the sensible path. There was an almost ironic streak to her defending reasonable reactions against passionate ones, but she didn't care. All that mattered was to find Clark before he did something drastic and stepped out of her life for good.
Getting dressed faster than she'd ever thought she could, she'd been driven by one certainty: she couldn't let him go. She couldn't let him think that her feelings for him weren't real; she couldn't let him hurt over her callous treatment of his human side; but mostly, she couldn't let him go.
She'd thought she'd find him in his apartment, and when he hadn't answered the door she'd picked the lock, ready to launch herself into a tirade over his stubbornness as soon as she came face to face with him again. But everything was quiet and dark as she'd stepped into his living room, and she'd feared for an instant that she was too late. That Clark had already gone for good.
The presence of numerous signs of life had only slightly reassured her, but it wasn't until she'd heard him land a few minutes later that she'd been able to breathe in relief.
She stopped a few feet away from him, her body trembling with a mixture of fear and anger. Somehow her first words to him had been lashed out more violently than she'd planned, and as the firm setting of his jaw indicated, that detail hadn't been missed on him.
"Look, Lois, if you came all the way down here to fight, then —"
"I didn't come here to fight."
"Then what do you want?" There was a definite hostility in his voice, and she flinched, knowing she was responsible for the raw pain shining in his eyes.
"I want you to trust me the way I trust you. I want you to believe me when I say I love you," she continued intensely, her gaze locking with his and searching for a forgiveness she couldn't find. "I want you to love me and let me love you. I want you in my life, Clark."
He froze. "You want Superman, Lois. And I can't be him for you. Not all the time."
She'd expected that, or something like it. She'd also expected him to be angry as he said it, but he wasn't. Instead his voice was full of pain and weariness, as if he couldn't bear this situation — her — any longer and just wanted her to go.
And that, she knew, was a poignant reminder of how much she'd hurt him — her partner, her best friend, the man she loved.
She'd spent some time thinking this through while she'd cried; did she love Superman or Clark? Or both of them? Did it really matter which one of them she loved?
And, as a year's worth of memories had flooded through her, she'd known without any doubt who she loved.
Clark as he'd shaken her hand the first time they'd met — his friendly, open smile. Her rudeness in response to him. His teasing of her when she'd been doing her utmost to put him in his place. His sympathetic understanding when they'd been tied up together waiting to die and she'd confessed painful secrets to him.
And later, those heartwarming, soul-comforting hugs he always gave, pretty much on demand. The way he would just listen to her and be supportive whenever she needed him; the way he always seemed to know just how to make her feel better.
The way she felt when she was in his arms, being hugged by him… as if nothing in the entire world could harm her. As if he would protect her from anything and everything which might cause her pain. His protective nature which, strangely enough, she'd stopped resenting long ago; although she'd never told him, she secretly loved it when Clark appointed himself her protector.
His killer smiles and his soft, infectious laughter, both of which helped her relax the tension even in the midst of a tough investigation, often in spite of herself. The way he had of looking at her sometimes, as if she was the only person in the world who mattered — and, given what he'd told her today, that was probably the truth.
She loved Clark. Not Superman, not the powers — the man she'd worked beside every day, who'd become her best friend and confidant, who was quite simply essential to her life.
She didn't want a relationship with the Super-hero; she wanted the man. The ordinary, yet *extra*ordinary, man she now knew was as essential to her life as breathing.
And, somehow, she had to convince Clark of that. Somehow, in the next few minutes, she had to persuade him that she was telling the truth. Because, if she didn't, she'd have lost him for ever. She'd hurt him too much for him to risk more of the same; his body language was making it plain that he was very reluctant even to listen to her, let alone accept what she might say to him.
He was displaying all the signs of someone whose faith had suddenly shattered, who couldn't let himself be guided by trust and gentleness because something had stabbed him in the heart.
Not something, but someone.
And what she'd done to him over the year that they'd known each other far outweighed the hurt caused by Clark's behaviour earlier. That, at least, had the virtue of being the result of deep pain and had probably been a moment's impulse; she, on the other hand, had deliberately and carelessly snubbed Clark over a long period, culminating in her dismissal of his concerns for her as jealousy, and in her unthinking rejection of his declaration of love, followed immediately by a declaration — to his face! — of her intentions towards his alter ego.
She tried to let anger towards his deceit bubble up, but her remorse at her own attitude was stronger and the fight was useless. She was already losing him, and throwing in accusations would only make them drift apart and possibly end their friendship entirely.
In fact, maybe she'd already lost him, and the fear of contemplating her life without him was worse than the damage to her pride. Right now she needed to save their relationship — the rest could be dealt with later.
"I love you, Clark," she began, speaking clearly in her determination to make him believe her, and watching him intently as she did so. "*You*. The man I knew before tonight… and the man you showed me you were an hour ago. I always loved you. I just never recognised it — or maybe didn't admit it to myself. I love you — and I'm going to do what I have to do to convince you of that. I swear it."
He sighed, looking away. "Lois, how can you expect me to believe that? I told you how I felt about you earlier today. And you said you didn't feel that way about me."
"I thought I didn't," she admitted sadly. "Clark, I… well, it's all been so crazy lately. Actually, the last year has been pretty crazy, in many ways. But there's been one constant in my life over the last year — and, you know, when you said earlier today that you could cope with losing everything you held dear as long as you still had me, I knew that was true for me too. The one thing in my life I can't do without is you. You, *Clark Kent*. Not Superman. And if you leave…" She broke off, unable to contemplate finishing the thought.
He stood, still some feet away from her, his hands shoved deep in his trouser pockets. Now his expression was unreadable; his glasses, which she now knew were only a disguise, in the same way as the flashy Spandex suit was, seemed at the moment to serve the sole purpose of shielding his thoughts from her.
His lips contorted, but again the gesture seemed driven by a bleak misery rather than anger. "That's because you want me as your friend. That's what I've been to you, Lois. You never wanted me as any more than that." He sighed, then added, "And I guess you could say I should have been content with that. I would have been… but then everything changed. And… after tonight, I can't go back to being good old Clark, your best friend. Not any more."
He was turning away, seeming not to be able to look at her any more. But Lois hurried forward and gripped his arm. "Clark, no! That's not what I want any more either. I want *you*. I love you."
"So you say," he murmured after a pause. "Lois, how can I know that you're not saying that because you know I'm Superman?"
"Because when I got Superman, I wasn't sure that I wanted him any more," she said instantly, now recognising her earlier hesitation for what it had truly been. "Remember how awkward I was? How I kept looking for something — anything! — to do that meant I didn't have to confront what you'd said?"
He stilled, and she knew that he'd remembered. "You looked like you were terrified," he said softly. "You looked… I knew that if I said the wrong thing, or made any fast movement towards you, you'd run. Like a wild animal, terrified at the sight of a human being…
"… except that I'm not human," he finished, so quietly that Lois barely heard him.
"I was scared, Clark. Because I didn't know what I wanted any more. I should have been ecstatic! I'd just got what I thought was my heart's desire… and all I could think of was how I was going to get through this and what I was going to do with a Superman who said he was in love with me. I didn't feel comfortable with him — with you. I couldn't remotely figure out what I was supposed to do, or what you were going to do… When I figured out that you were Clark, apart from not knowing how I was going to make it up to you for what I did to you, all I felt was relief — that it was *you*. Clark, you wanted to know why I kissed you. I kissed you because I wanted to know whether what I was feeling was real. Feeling for *you*! Not anyone else — you, my best friend."
Lois sighed, not sure that she was getting through to him at all. He was standing so still, although he'd made no attempt to shake off her hand from his arm.
"You know," she added sadly, "if you'd only kissed me this afternoon, it would have saved us both so much misery and confusion!"
He met her gaze then. "Lois, if I'd kissed you this afternoon, you'd have pulled away and either slapped my face or told me that you didn't want that from me."
She shook her head, convinced beyond any doubt that she was right. "If you'd kissed me this afternoon, we'd have been on our first date tonight, Clark. I know it."
He didn't believe her, she could see. She was understanding her own feelings too late to convince Clark of them. "That's always my problem," she muttered under her breath, turning away from him. "I never know what I want until it's too late…"
Coming to a decision, she stepped away from Clark, ducking her head. "It's not fair that you have to leave. Metropolis needs Superman, Clark! I can move somewhere else… LA, New York, Washington…"
And she'd start a new life, without Clark… without the man she now knew she loved. And the emptiness in her life from now on would be all her own fault. Not that that would make it any easier to bear…
Without even conscious thought on his part, the word escaped Clark's lips.
Lois stilled, but she didn't raise her head to look at him. "No… what?"
"I don't want you to go, Lois."
"I don't want *you* to go, either," she replied immediately. "So, since you can't bear to be around me any more, where does that leave us?"
"At an impasse?" he suggested, a tinge of humour in his voice which surprised himself.
An impasse indeed. He couldn't allow her to leave — and the thought of Lois packing up and leaving town chilled him almost as badly as the thought of her marrying Lex Luthor had.
<But what's the difference between that and you leaving?> his inner voice asked him.
Not a lot, he silently conceded. No; the truth of the matter was that locations didn't matter. What did matter was not losing Lois's presence from his life.
Which meant… that he wanted her in his life, in any way he could have her. Whether or not it was Superman she really thought she loved.
The possibility she offered was tempting. She was ready to give him what he'd wished for if he'd let her… but was it worth the price he had to pay for her affections? She expected him to take her declaration of love at face value, without doubts or questions, and he just couldn't do that.
He wanted to believe her so much, but if any question as to the reality of her feelings for him lingered between them, any relationship they might start tonight wouldn't last. He supposed they could give it a try, but a protective streak was holding him back. Being with Lois, spending time with her outside work, as her boyfriend, was something he doubted he'd ever let go willingly. There was no need to risk heartbreak. No need to destroy the remnants of their friendship.
"I know you won't believe me," she murmured, the regret evident in her voice. "I know you have every reason to hate me now."
"I could never hate you."
And it was true. No matter how much she'd hurt him tonight, he still loved her every bit as much as before. Nothing could change that.
Despite his difficulty in believing her when she claimed to love him — her sudden interest in Clark Kent made it hard for him to come to terms with what was true and what wasn't — he was aware that he could equally be accused of insincerity.
Now that his hurt and anger was slowly subsiding, soothed by Lois's determination to make amends, he could see the other side of the coin more clearly and his responsibility in leading them to their present situation was starting to filter through the layers of blame he'd repeatedly thrown at her over the course of the evening. It was almost as if Lois's recognition of his real identity, and his reaction to that, had made both of them forget just what he'd done to her earlier, and the pain his behaviour had caused.
Maybe it was time for him to take a step, extend a hand towards her and begin to repair a bridge that seemed to be crumbling inexorably. But as he opened his mouth, determined to apologise for what certainly looked like heartless manipulation on his part, she moved away from him, sighing deeply as she sat on the couch, and the words stayed stuck in his throat.
Her gaze seemed lost in the darkness ahead of her as she avoided looking at him. "Clark, I made a lot of mistakes in my life. I lost a lot of friendships over careless words that I didn't even mean but that were intended to hurt, and reached their goal all right."
"Lois, you won't lose my friendsh —"
"Please." She turned towards him, her eyes suspiciously bright, and he nodded silently. "I need to say this. Because if this is the last time we talk, I want you to know…"
Her voice broke, and he felt the urge to close the distance between them and pull her into his arms. This time, though, he resisted. He knew that he could never let her go, and he badly wanted to tell her so, as well as apologising for his own part in everything that had happened. But something was telling him that Lois needed to be allowed to say this.
"I'm not very good at dealing with the touchy-feely stuff; it's something I've been trying to avoid, because it was easier… and safer," she told him haltingly. "Just pretend it doesn't exist and it'll go away. Do you know what happened the last time I told a man I loved him? I mean… besides you?"
Clark shook his head.
"Claude." She spat out the name with a touch of scorn. "I know I told you about him."
His mouth formed a 'oh' of understanding. How could he forget the pain he'd felt when she'd first hinted at how much the French reporter had hurt her? If he hadn't had to pretend he was securely tied to a pole, he would have hugged her and comforted her, wiping away her tears and reassuring her that it wouldn't happen to her again if he could prevent it.
"After that… thing that happened between me and him, I decided that I wouldn't let another man into my life. You know, the kind of decision you take after a messy break-up. I wouldn't fall in love again, because it hurt too much. And… and then came Superman."
Clark flinched imperceptibly at the awe tainting her voice as she mentioned his alter ego.
"He was… handsome and caring and honest. Literally out of this world. Out of *my* world, where men could only cheat and lie and deceive. I took the time to look at him, to listen to him, to give him a chance I denied anyone else. And once I was infatuated with him, it got even easier to ignore…"
"Clark," he completed softly. "Lois, would you have loved Clark if you'd given him — *me* a chance?"
She remained silent for a few moments, as if pondering his question. "I know it will be hard to believe after everything I did to you, but… yeah. In fact, I've fought against my feelings for you for a long time."
"I didn't want to love you. I had feelings for someone else, and I was certain — at least until you came into my apartment this evening — that he wouldn't even look at me. Where was the risk? I'd love him from a distance, knowing he'd never ask anything from me that I couldn't give.
"But then his reaction was not what I expected, and it meant a lot more than I'd bargained for. I expected rejection, and I got a man who told me he loved me and was standing in my apartment, waiting for me to do something about it. And I didn't know what to do. Or say. Was I supposed to act like his girlfriend? Like the silly, love- struck admirers who ran after him at every rescue he performed? Like the remote, professional reporter he knew me to be?" She'd become more animated as she countered the questions raised by his confession, but suddenly her agitated gestures stopped. "I was scared, Clark."
"There was no reason for you to be scared of me," he said gently, giving in to his earlier instinct and sitting beside her. He grasped her hands, enveloping them in his larger ones and longing for a more intimate contact despite his earlier resolve to end his relationship with her.
"I made a lot of mistakes, but I don't want to lose you," she whispered, so low that he had to strain to catch her words.
"We both did. I can't claim that I was honest with you either, Lois." She glanced up at him, fear glistening in her eyes, and he hurried on to reassure her. "Oh, not about loving you. That was never a lie. I don't think I could ever stop loving you even if I tried, but… but I shouldn't have encouraged you as Superman, especially this evening. Especially with the sole purpose of preventing you from marrying Luthor. I know how much that hurt you, and I'm ashamed of what I did," he told her softly.
"You did it because you love me, didn't you?"
Her understanding stunned him, and his hold on her hands tightened. "I did. I swear to you that I did it out of love. The action was flawed but the intent was sincere."
"I know." A half-hearted smile played about her lips. "I know you, Clark. Despite what you think, I believe I know you pretty well, and I know I can trust you not to try manipulating me again."
"I won't." His promise was fierce and he hoped it wouldn't leave any lingering doubt in her. "I wanted to protect you, to spare you from the hurt and deceit that I knew were lurking around the corner if you got too close to Luthor. But I ended up hurting you even more in the process."
"So… where do we go from here? Can you pretend this evening never happened? That we're still… friends? The way we used to be?"
He shook his head sadly, wishing he could forget about the day's events but knowing he couldn't. Everything had changed now; there was no going back.
"I don't really know how we can be friends any more… and I know it's too late — we can never be more," she added in an anguished whisper.
"I don't know, Lois. I just don't know what to do," Clark answered, knowing that his pain mirrored hers. He wanted to reassure her that he would always be her friend, regardless of what had happened today — and he would, but right now that wasn't as important as the possibility, however faint, that they might become everything to each other. He wanted that so badly… but could either of them get past the hurt and disillusionment they'd experienced at each other's hands? Could either of them open their hearts to trust as well as love? "If there was *any* way I could go back, turn back the clocks and let things happen the way they should have, then maybe —"
"Then maybe I'd have accepted Lex's proposal," she completed quietly. "Would you have taken the chance? Would you have stood aside, letting me ruin my life with a man I didn't love and who might be… a criminal?"
"I don't think I could have watched you marry him, no." That would be impossible; it would have broken his heart completely. He'd either have left Metropolis… or done whatever was in his power to prevent the wedding. Anything. Even… yes, even begging Lois to love Superman instead, if he'd needed to. Just as he'd done tonight, but not as part of any manipulative process. With a shock, he realised that if it had been the only way, he'd have suppressed Clark and become her lover as Superman. Even though it would have torn him apart inside.
"Remember the pheromones? Miranda?"
The non-sequitur surprised him, and it took him a few seconds to reply. "I… well… uh, yes." He'd had a hard enough time keeping his impulses in check when Lois had thrown herself at him and practically begged him to… well, do things that could have had some interesting consequences for their relationship.
"I was attracted to *Clark*. Not Lex, not Superman."
This was true. She'd been lusting after him, following him to his apartment and dancing quite suggestively, sheathed in an outfit that left little to the imagination. Could it mean that her subconscious had been trying to tell her where her affections lay? The pheromones lowered a person's inhibition. They didn't create feelings that weren't there in the first place, but…
"You were attracted to me, but —"
"But were feelings involved?" she completed his question, and he nodded. "Clark, I've been in denial about that time ever since. You know, if you hadn't kept insisting that the reason you weren't affected by the pheromone was that you weren't attracted to me… well, maybe it would've been easier to admit what I was feeling for you. Well, at least to myself."
"So you're saying it's my fault?" He raised an eyebrow at her as he spoke, his voice wry rather than irritated. "That we wouldn't be where we are right now if I'd pushed you towards something you didn't seem to be remotely interested in?"
"Of course not!" Her eyes widened as she looked at him, shocked. "But… well, you of all people know how hard it is for me to admit that I care about anyone. And I swore after Claude that I'd never again tell a man how I felt about him unless he'd told me how he felt first. You should know how hard I fought not to give in when I was around you. You *Clark*."
"Remember the kisses we shared? Not with you as Superman, but with you as Clark," she clarified, lowering her eyes and blushing in embarrassment.
"They were always pretence," he pointed out softly. "Misdirection, keeping our cover from being blown."
"Were they really?" she enquired wryly, her gaze meeting his and making it impossible for him to lie.
"Not for me. Never."
"And why do you think it was so hard not to respond to your kisses? Why did I kiss you back that day we were staying at the Lexor?"
Clark sighed. "That just tells me that there's physical attraction between us." He shrugged. "Physical attraction's great… but it's not love."
"I've been a lousy friend, really, haven't I?" Now Lois sounded almost defeated. "I can't even point to a single instance where I behaved like a real friend to you, much less showed you I love you. It's no wonder you don't believe me." Shaking her head, she added, "You, now… you show me every day how much you care. All the time — the little things you do for me, the way you always seem to know when I'm down and need a little pick-me-up, the way you're always there for me. The way you're still holding my hands right now, despite everything I did to you. And what's so terrible is that I just take it for granted. I take *you* for granted. You probably think I don't deserve you, Clark. But all the same, I still love you."
"That's not true," Clark said slowly, touched to the heart by her words and the tiny crack in her voice as she'd spoken. She sounded so sincere, so remorseful for the way she'd treated him, and the guilt of his own attitude was increasingly striking at his conscience, making it difficult for him to hold onto any hurt at her behaviour. "When I lost my memory… Lois, you were there for me; you really cared about me. In a time when everyone else was running around trying to do something to save themselves or make the most of the little time they had left, you spent your time with a helpless idiot who didn't even know his own name. And it was because of you that I remembered who I was — not just Clark, but Superman too. You saved me then, Lois."
"Yeah. Because I told you I loved you like a brother. How's that for hurtful and inconsiderate?"
"I didn't expect any more from you. I never did." She gave him a doubtful stare, so he amended, "Okay, maybe I did. But I knew you didn't feel the same way about me as I did — do — about you."
"See? I was horrible to you! You were in love with me all along, and I… I loved you like a brother." She snorted in disgust. "Jeez! How could you ever put up with me?"
Lois was getting upset again, and it was bringing out all his dratted protective instincts again. How on earth could he talk about leaving her, ending their friendship, if seeing her in that state made him like this? Not that he was going to leave, or stop being her friend — ten minutes in her company had already wrung that concession from him.
"You were never horrible to me. And you were the only person who ever treated Superman as a human being, or at least a real person, and not some sort of circus freak. I'd have liked to say you behaved like a lovesick groupie, because it would have been easier for me to turn you down tonight the way you'd rejected me earlier. But I can't. Because it was never true. I was upset… I was *hurt*, and selfishly, I wanted you to feel the same. But it wasn't fair of me to behave around you as if you were just another awe-struck groupie, because you always treated him — me, in the Suit — as if I was real — a person, and not just a symbol."
He ran a hand through his hair and pulled a face wryly at himself. <Admit it, Clark> he told himself. <You love her; you're always going to love her. And she loves at least part of you — isn't that better than nothing?>
But could he let her love him? He'd trusted her with his secret, so why not with his heart?
Who knew? In time, she might love Clark every bit as much as she'd sworn earlier that she loved Superman. And wasn't friendship — the kind of close, loving friendship they'd shared for so long — the best basis for love?
But, if he accepted that, was he just settling for what she was offering? He wished so much that he could be sure of her feelings the way he was certain of his.
What it came down to was… could he trust Lois?
But was that a fair question anyway, given the way he'd treated her? Didn't he owe her more than this reluctance to give her the benefit of the doubt?
<I want you to trust me the way I trust you>
Her pleading words rang in his mind, and he wondered yet again whether he was being unfair. Was he demanding too much of her? Were his standards too high? Was he really saying that he didn't trust her?
Images flooded through his mind suddenly. One image in particular — Lois hugging him after Trask had shot at him. Her fear of losing him hadn't been faked then, and for a few short moments, as she'd held him fiercely and as if she'd never let go, he could almost have believed that she felt more for him that she was letting on.
Would she have hugged another friend like that? Jimmy? Perry? Even Lex Luthor?
Somehow he had a hard time imagining her being close to Luthor, and not just because he hated the man. He'd only seen them interact a couple of times, but she'd never looked as comfortable around the businessman as she did around… Clark.
And in those few short moments while they'd been in each other's arms… they'd almost kissed. They would have kissed if he hadn't pulled away. *She* had come close to closing that gap between them… *she* had initiated that hug. And she'd stuck close to him that whole evening, seeming unwilling to let him out of her sight. Of course, emotions did tend to run pretty high when someone had almost been killed… but Lois had been in tight situations before in her life, and had seen working colleagues killed. He'd bet she'd never behaved like that with anyone she'd worked with in the past.
Could she… could she really feel something for Clark? Something deeper than the friendship he'd been unable to be content with? She'd told him that she'd been in denial for most of the year about her feelings for him. But that, along with the time when he'd lost his memory — and, of course, the pheromone incident — could have been times when her true feelings had come to the fore.
Earlier, when he'd been flying around trying to put off the evil moment when he'd have to pack his bags, he'd taunted himself with the thought that what Lois would miss most after his departure was the Super-hero. The rare moments he'd permitted her — and himself — alone with him; the very occasional flight over the city. Now, though, he knew that he was completely and utterly wrong. If he left — and he now knew that he wouldn't — what she'd miss most was what she'd already told him: the man she worked with and spent most of every day with. The best friend and constant companion. The man she leaned on, laughed with and loved.
His gaze rested on their still-joined hands and he noticed with a start that she'd laced her fingers with his. He tightened his fingers around hers momentarily, as if testing the sensation, and was surprised to hear a faint choking sound from Lois.
Looking up, he saw a solitary tear running down her cheek.
"Lois?" <Oh, god, please don't cry, Lois…>
She shrugged, avoiding his gaze. "I don't blame you for not believing me, Clark. I wouldn't believe me either," she added bitterly. "All that's happened between us — the strain on our friendship, all the fights we've been having lately, all the hurt you've suffered because of me — it's all my fault. I should hate you for manipulating me the way you did, for lying to me all this time…"
He shook his head, fighting his own tears as he once again took in his own mistakes and how much pain he'd made her go through. "I'm sorry. God, I'm so sorry, Lois," he whispered fiercely, his gaze searching for hers and begging her to forgive him.
"But I can't even bring myself to blame you as much as I blame myself, much as I'd like to," she continued, heedless of his murmured apology. "Because if I'd behaved reasonably, you wouldn't have been so hurt that you'd felt the need to lie to me tonight. I was too stupid to see what was under my nose the whole time. That Lex isn't what he seems — and, yes, I believe you about that. That you love me… that I love you too." She gave a gulping sob. "Call myself an investigative reporter…"
Instantly, Clark released her hands in order to wrap one arm around her shoulders, pulling her to him. With his free hand, he tilted her chin up so that she had no choice but to look at him. "I think a lot of it was my fault too, you know, even before my stupidity tonight. I could've just *told* you what I knew about Luthor, instead of glowering around the place like a sulky, jealous teenager."
Lois's mouth turned down at the corners. "Bet I would've been too stupid to listen to you."
"Hey, don't you call the woman I love and admire stupid!" he teased. "Lois, we've both made mistakes with each other over the past year," he added soberly. "I think my biggest mistake, besides my… unforgivable behaviour this evening," he added with a grimace, "has been expecting you to choose between two alternatives that don't really exist."
Her eyes widened. "You and Superman?"
"Yeah. Well, I'm not really either of them. And yet I'm both. How could I expect you to take one without the other?"
She sniffled faintly, but a shy smile appeared on her lips, and the dark cloud of sadness in her gaze lifted. "I can't blame you either. You'd been Clark all your life, and Superman is just your creation. You never thought of him as yourself."
"Whereas you could never see him as less than a real man. Just as real as Clark."
God, he'd been so wrong about Lois. Too focused on his own pain, he hadn't taken the time to study the situation from her point of view. He'd completely missed how difficult it was for anyone who didn't know his secret to consider Superman as a two-dimensional character. Lois had really loved the Super-hero, not just the idea of him, and he had no right to accuse her of being shallow and blind.
Especially not with what she'd gone through. He'd expected her to love one part of him, the part *he* had chosen himself, quite arbitrarily, he supposed, from Lois's perspective, and behaved like a jealousy-stricken man who wanted to control their relationship rather than let her love him the way she wanted. It didn't matter whether she loved Clark or Superman. It didn't matter what side of him had first attracted her to him. Both men were him anyway, and she'd proven on several occasions that it was the real person she saw beneath either disguise that she loved, not just the flashy suit and the extraordinary powers.
She raised her gaze towards him, tears shimmering in her eyes and breaking his heart. "Yeah?"
"I'm sorry. I realise…" He let out a sigh, his frustration welling up as he felt unable to make amends for his own mistakes. "I realise I was so focused on my wounded pride that I didn't take the time to understand you. I wanted you to give up on the Superman fantasy and love Clark, just because to me Superman didn't exist. But if I'd thought about it from your point of view, I'd have seen that he was real, too."
"Clark, you're the most human person I know. Being hurt… well, it's something I have some experience with," she said with a wry smile. "And I suppose I'd have reacted just the way you did if our positions have been reversed. Maybe not with the lying part, though," she added with a warning frown.
He looked at her for a long moment, taking in her words, marvelling at how easily she understood him, at how much she trusted him despite his jealous and angry reactions. If one of them didn't deserve the other, maybe it wasn't Lois he should point his finger at.
She trusted him. She trusted him to tell her the truth, to treat her fairly and love her with all his heart. How could he not return her trust?
The answer was simple, and it escaped his lips in a sigh. "I love you."
His eyes briefly closed as relief settled over him. When he opened them again, his gaze locked with hers and his hold on her instinctively tightened in a silent apology. He lifted a hand to tangle his fingers in her hair, brushing a light caress across the silky mass and curving at the base of her neck, pulling her head to his.
Their lips met in a kiss that held none of the passion which had devoured them earlier, but that was sweet and tender, sealing a mutual forgiveness. The hand resting on his chest trailed up, whispered a feather-like path across the skin of his neck, buried itself in his hair, and pulled him closer.
And he knew. He knew that Lois wasn't lying, that the electricity sparking between them as they kissed couldn't be faked, that her response to his kiss was as real and solid as his feelings for her.
When he broke off, breathless and light-headed from the experience, his hand cupped her cheek, and his next words were said with an intensity matching the sensations triggered by their kiss.
"Love me, Lois."