Save Me, Superman

By Lynn M. <mccreadie67@hotmail.com>

Rated: PG

Submitted: September 2003

Summary: Beginning with the premise put forth in the Lois and Clark episode "That Old Gang of Mine," this story presumes that Clark Kent was not found by Superman and revived. Instead, Lois and his friends believe that his death was real, and Lois deals with her subsequent emotions. Two weeks after the fateful night, in a desperate need to see Clark one more time, Lois turns to a videotape where she discovers some important truths.

I believe the proper disclaimer is that all characters from "Lois and Clark" are the property of Warner Brothers and DC Comics. The story idea is mine, and no infringement on anyone's copyrights is intended.

***

*Hush now, don't you cry

Wipe away the teardrop from your eye

You're lying safe in bed

It was all a bad dream

Spinning in your head

Your mind tricked you to feel the pain

Of someone close to you leaving the game of life

So here it is, another chance

Wide awake you face the day

Your dream is over…or has it just begun?*

Lyrics from Silent Lucidity, Written by Chris DeGarmo, Queensryche (c) 1990

***

Lois perched on the edge of her sofa, staring blankly at the video cassette sitting in the dead center of her coffee table. It looked harmless enough, yet she was terrified to touch it. Just gathering the strength to remove it from the box that Perry had thrust into her reluctant hands nearly two weeks ago had drained her. Now, feeling as leaden inside as the gray sweatshirt she'd not bothered to change in three days, she sighed. Making the decision to collect it from the box was one thing. Actually going through with viewing it was another.

The tape called to her, beckoning with the promise of a reprieve from reality. Like a cocaine addict licking the microscopic residue from an empty plastic bag, she had willed herself from her bed and stumbled through her darkened apartment searching for a fix, the need to see his face so powerful that it ripped through the haze clouding her mind. Perhaps for a few minutes, she could forget that he was gone and never again would she see his eyes or smile save the few snapshots she possessed, none of which came close to doing him justice. Like images of the Grand Canyon, a brilliant sunset, or the sparkling turquoise Caribbean, Kodak was incapable of capturing the very essence of the man she had known. She needed to see him move, to see him breathe and speak.

The black plastic casing felt as heavy as a brick when she lifted it and inserted it into the VCR. The sucking sound the machine made as it pulled the cassette into its recesses echoed through the silent apartment, sucking the despair from her heart in palpable waves. A brilliant blue screen lit up the dim room, shooting pain through her light-deprived eyes. Then, there it was. In full, living Technicolor. The end of her life, taped for her viewing pleasure.

When Perry informed her that the tape had been added to the box of items Jimmy had culled from Clark's desk, she had recoiled physically, nearly losing the little bit of food she'd managed to keep down that morning. He told her, with a sad smile that gave his weathered hangdog face a forlorn expression worthy of a Bassett hound, that in time, she might feel up to watching it. Clark's story had been written, but the tape contained a wealth of future stories if she were willing to look. After all, somewhere below the layers of numbed nerves and piercing grief still beat the heart of a top- notch investigative reporter. Wordlessly, she accepted the box. His intentions were good, but Perry knew nothing. If he did, he would know that, when Clark had fallen, her heart had ceased to beat at all.

Lois sank down slowly on the edge of her couch, watching as the blue flickered and was replaced by the grainy low-quality image of a camera angled high above rows of slot machines and roulette wheels. Placed above the main entrance, all who entered and left the place were scrutinized by the electronic device and the bouncer on the other end of the video feed. Apparently, Georgie Hairdo felt that in the event that his illegal gambling club was ever robbed, the evidence provided by a state-of- the-art surveillance camera might prove useful. Or maybe it was just his way of insuring that none of the politicians that frequented the underground casino would ever attempt to rid Metropolis of such a fine establishment as his. For whatever reason, Mr. Hairdo's security measures offered her the objective third-person view of an event that when experienced by her in the flesh could only be considered the greatest tragedy of her life.

She clutched a damp, shredded tissue in her hand, her fingernails pressing so hard that she could feel the crescent indentations cutting into her palm. With building dread, she watched as the minutes stretched and only anonymous people moved about the club, smiling as if it were simply nothing more than another night. When a familiar crimson dress rose above the screen's southern border like a screaming alarm, she felt the lump that had taken up permanent residence in her stomach move upward to lodge in her throat. This was it. No turning back now.

That dress had once been one of her favorites, one that made her feel pretty and sexy. A frothy mixture of silk and sequins, the matching wrap an accessory with multitudes of uses. The perfect dress to wear when she needed an extra jolt of confidence. Or wanted to impress someone, even if that intent was ordered to remain strictly in her subconscious. He had offered a low, appreciative whistle when she exited the Cherokee, eyeing the length of her exposed legs with a broad smile and a lift of his dark eyebrows. While the night hid her heated face and, inwardly, she felt a smile of satisfaction, she playfully slapped his shoulder in a half-hearted attempt at self- deprecation.

Now the slip of red silk and spaghetti straps lay crumpled in a pile, tossed to the back of her closet where dwelt shoes of three seasons ago and not less than half a dozen ruined pantyhose thrown there in a fit of irritation on a morning when such inconveniences were not appreciated. She would never wear the dress again, of course. But neither would she ever throw it away. Someday, in the distant future, she would pull out the slippery mass, curious when her hand happened across it while searching for something of more immediate importance, and then she would remember. She could only pray that by then the pain that would stab her heart would only have the intensity of one sharp knife rather than the thousands of blades it now bore.

The happy, smiling Lois that waltzed into the middle of the casino, her head held high as she scanned the room for the infamous Georgie Hairdo, bore no resemblance at all to the woman who watched herself from the perspective of an entire life lived in less than two weeks. The woman on the screen had hope, and her lilting laughter cut through the constant drone of the crowd to reach the camera's small microphone. Lois blinked at the sound, her own voice strange to her ears not because of any normal distortion experienced when hearing one's own voice spoken from outside one's own head, but because she truly thought it impossible that she had ever been able to laugh. Had her chest ever contained something other than the heavy weight that pulled her down? Had her thoughts ever been so unfettered by regrets that the simple joy of a joke could reach it and bring forth laughter?

Suddenly, moving upward from the black edge of the camera's limited range, he came into view. Lois gasped, her hand jerking upward to cover her mouth and suppress the cry that erupted from her soul at the sight of his familiar form. Like Novocain, the joy at seeing him again, even this sad two-dimensional version, spread through her nervous system providing a temporary numbness that dulled the constant pain.

Her eyes darted over his body rapidly, greedily drinking up the sight of him and trying to etch every minute detail into her permanent memory. His broad, invulnerable back walked away from her, the dark hair trimmed neatly across his neck in a way that Lois had seen a million times but had never noticed before that moment. The dark brown suit hugged his wide shoulders, perfectly tailored for his muscular physique. Had he looked so good in all of his suits? How many other things had she failed to notice?

She held her breath, watching as he turned in slow motion even as the people around him went about their night, unaware of the importance of that moment. And there it was. The reason that she had mustered up the courage and broke through the pressing darkness to get out of her bed and rummage through the box to find the videotape. She had needed so much to see him that she was willing to live through anything just to get a glimpse of his face one more time. Even sitting through a replay of the moments she wanted to forget more than anything. The reward for her effort was hard purchased, but the price was small for the brief moment of respite it offered. Smiling down at the laughing, happy copy of herself was Clark.

As if she watched the birth of an angel, she studied his face with a bittersweet joy that sent tears cascading down her cheeks. Although hazy, the image presented by the camera jolted her to the core. His face, as familiar to her as the one that stared at her from the mirror every day, was more handsome than she had ever realized. His jaw and chin took on a new strength, the slightly-too-wide nose suddenly more perfect than she would have created in a dream. Dark hair fell in careless locks over his forehead, brushing the top of his glasses like a caress. How many times had she resisted the urge to impatiently push the errant strands from his forehead and offer him the name of her stylist in the same breath. She laughed weakly at her stupid self now. Why had she ever thought that she would want anything about him to be different? Why had she never really seen him when she had the chance?

Desperately, she focused on Clark's eyes. Above all else, she missed his dark, bottomless eyes. Whoever had said that the eyes were the window to the soul had been speaking of Clark Kent, for it was the chocolate brown depths that pulled her in and wrapped her in a warmth that promised of sleepy summer nights and cozy winter fires. In one moment sincere and laughing the next, they held the glitter of unconditional acceptance and sheer joy of living that she had discovered only since Clark had entered her life. As she peered at the screen, squinting to force the image into sharper focus, Lois choked on a sob. The glare of the club lights reflected in his glasses, giving them an opacity that was impossible to penetrate. Instead of the beautiful brown depths, she saw only twinkling white light. His eyes were lost to her. Even the pale representation afforded to her by the camera was taken from her.

His lips moved and the former Lois listened, responding with a shake of her head and a pointed finger. The new and vastly deteriorated Lois leaned forward, frantically hitting the volume button on the remote in an effort to send his words through the speakers on the set and into her own ears. Only the steady din of the patrons in the casino grew louder, and she quickly hit the mute button, the noise shredding her tightened nerves to a new level. Digging into the memories that she had shut off, she tried to recall what they had discussed, desperate now to remember every word he uttered. She was going to the slot machines. He doubted that they would find Georgie Hairdo there. She had insisted. Finally, he had agreed, reluctantly, to go with her. She had said that she was fine on her own, that she didn't need an escort. He had insisted. He had insisted.

As the confident woman in the red cocktail dress and the dashing man in the well-tailored brown suit walked toward the left and off the screen, Lois sank back against the cushions of the couch, no longer containing the energy to hold herself upright. For what had to be the thousandth time in two weeks, she wished fervently that she could go back in time. Back to that night. To that very moment.

At first her wishes had been grandiose. They contained the desire to relive that whole evening. Instead of trailing the gangsters to Georgie Hairdo's, she would have, for the first time in their relationship, actually consented to Clark's appeal that they avoid the dangerous place. They would have gone to dinner instead, someplace equal to their elegant attire and high energy level. After dining on fine wine and good conversation, Clark would have walked her home, her arm tucked safely in the crook of his solid arm. With a grin that would have lit up his face, he would have said goodnight and left her at her door with a contented smile, happy in the knowledge that the next day would bring them together again. For once, the story would have taken the back seat.

Her wishes were quickly bargained down to more realistic levels. She pacted with whatever powers capable of responding to her desperate pleas, offering years of her life to change one of the many steps that had placed them in such a wrong place at such a wrong time. Clark's lucky guess at the password to the private club would have been as truly off the wall as it had sounded at the time, denying them access to the tragedy that awaited them. Or maybe, if they had to go so far as to actually enter the casino, what would she have to sacrifice to get back the chance to leave before returning for the handful of nickels she'd lost? That one moment of childish greed had cost her more than every penny she had or would ever earn.

Finally, as the days passed one after the other, leading her forward in time instead of back to the critical moments of the past, she conceded everything down to one wish. Inwardly, she pleaded that all she really wanted, all she really needed, was just another chance to see Clark and to talk to him. To say just a few of the millions of words she had left unsaid, assuming as all mortals do that tomorrow would always come. That there was always time. Until, of course, there wasn't.

Her tear-filled eyes no longer recognized distinct people in the club, and when a blurry form moved back on to the screen in an agonizingly familiar gait, she grabbed for the remote. If she were to watch a thousand men move across a room with a bag hiding their features from her, she would still be able to pick him out correctly every time. Rewinding as she reached for another tissue to wipe her eyes, she watched again, her breath held as Clark crossed alone, looking around him with a reporter's habit she knew well. Feeling confident that she was safe feeding nickels into the machine with single minded focus, Clark had left her to go to the bar, anxious to obtain some information and go home. His hands were stuffed in his pant pockets, a casualness affected to present confidence and belonging. How different this man was from the one who had entered Perry's office nearly a year and a half ago.

Gone was the naive farmboy, wide-eyed in the big city and untouched by the harsh realities quickly witnessed in their line of work. In short time, he learned that life could be cruel and unfair. He learned that you had to be tough and aggressive. Things that she herself had learned the hard way and felt obliged to pass on to him. But despite the very evil that he had come in contact with first hand and the lessons he had learned by his own experience, he remained unchanged in every way that counted. Instead of tough, he was tender to a fault. Instead of aggressive, he was reasonably determined. And instead of jaded, bitter by life's disappointments, he remained eternally optimistic, a trait that she once found annoying but now knew was the one trait she most admired.

Suddenly, on the screen, Clark glanced upward in a swinging arc. She gasped, for in doing so, he must have discovered the camera's existence. As if in a dream, he looked directly at her, the camera's eye her own as it recorded his face in a permanent magnetic code. The glare of the lights was absent, and through the frames she could see the eyes that haunted the few hours of sleep she managed each night. As sweet as the richest chocolate and more precious to her than anything on earth, the brown orbs stared back at her, lingering for the briefest pause. Then, a slow grin lifted the corners of his mouth, the sensuous lips parting to reveal a smile that lifted her for the smallest second out of the depth of her anguish and back into the light. Her heart pounded so painfully that she clutched her chest. As quickly as it happened, he looked downward again, turned and strode off the screen. The sunlight vanished, hidden once again by storm clouds heavy with salty raindrops.

Lois cried out, an emptiness so vast that she couldn't grasp its depth filling her completely. Not since she had watched them drag his body from the club had she felt so completely alone. Known with absolute certainty that she would always be alone.

In an effort to stave off the grief that threatened to consume her, she had not let herself admit why Clark's death had been so utterly devastating to her. Sure, she had lost a great partner. The only person she could ever work with. She had also lost her best friend. She felt overwhelming guilt that Clark had only been there because of her. He had only put himself in danger to protect her. But none of that compared to the real reason that opening her eyes to discover she had lived to see another day caused such agony. Now, as the tape continued to play, she stopped hiding the truth from herself. She loved Clark.

She loved him completely and irrevocably. It was as impossible for her to imagine her life without Clark as it was to imagine her life without her arms and legs, so much had he become a part of her. When she met Clark, the puzzle piece that made her whole had dropped silently into place, fitting so smoothly and precisely that until it was ripped away to leave a gaping hole in the picture of who Lois Lane was, she hadn't even realized it was missing in the first place. Without Clark, she realized, there was no Lois Lane. The woman who wore the red dress had ceased to exist except in a grainy, poorly lit video. She would get up every day and get dressed. She would go the Daily Planet and write her stories. She would see friends and, eventually, laugh again. But she would never truly live. She would never feel real joy that came from deep in her heart. And she would never feel real love again. Because, until Clark came into her life, she didn't even know what the word meant.

As the sobs poured out, the video played on. Through her anguish, she was aware of time as it moved inescapably forward. Gasping for air, she had to stop what she knew was soon to happen, as if pressing the red button on the remote would prevent it in reality. She grasped blindly for the slim black box of salvation, cursing when it slipped through her fingers to land on the floor. It didn't occur to her to reach across the space and hit the power button on the TV itself, so conditioned like those of her generation that the remote control equaled power absolute. The rough fibers of the rug scraped her bare knees painfully, a comforting pain that mirrored the abrasions stinging her insides. When the hard plastic made contact with her palm, she grasped it hungrily, sitting up and aiming it toward the scene that living through once had imprinted on her mind like a movie loop running infinitely.

Her eyes remained riveted, the image on the screen paralyzing her. In crystal clarity and perfect enunciation, an off-screen Dillinger made his observation and moved to act upon it. Clark stepped forward and was rebuffed, swatted away like an annoying fly. A hardness she had never noticed crossed his features, a fearless foolishness propelling him forward as she grasped his arm pathetically. Then the three shots, the unmistakable crack of death leaving the chamber in search of its target. The impact pushed him back, and for a moment, surprise creased his brow. He glanced about, searching for a way to believe that this couldn't be happening, that there had to be a way out of it. She knew the second he accepted the truth, when he embraced his fate and allowed it to take him where it willed. Almost balletic in its grace, he collapsed onto the floor. And there she was, again disbelieving that this presence so gigantic in her life had been toppled. Clutching at him and screaming his name, as if it were simply that he failed to hear her. "Clark!"

Lois watched herself in the blossoming awareness of irreplaceable loss, vaguely removed as if she studied someone else. So this was how people react when someone they love is killed right before their eyes? With little respect to any pain it might have caused him should by some miracle he remain alive, nor caring about the very gruesomeness of the act, the panicked Lois clutched at Clark's chest, seeking out the holes that allowed his vibrancy to pour from his massive chest. She sobbed, screaming when the two men moved forward as commanded. They lifted his body with no small effort, dragging him unceremoniously off the screen while she remained, curled on the ground in the dress that now held no more life than it did on her closet floor, the body filling it as empty and formless as the air.

Georgie Hairdo's security system had a conscience after all, for soon after Clark disappeared forever, the lines of warning scrambled across the screen just before it returned to blue. Lois remained on the floor in front of the TV, consciously pulling air into her lungs and pushing it out again as she tried to remember how to breathe. If she didn't accept it before, she couldn't deny it now. Everyone knew that, if it existed on TV, it had to exist in real life. Clark was dead. He was dead and she would never see him again. Bullets had ripped through his body and without any remorse, stolen one of the Earth's kindest and gentlest souls. It was amazing, really, that one combination of cells and muscle and bone and blood could be mixed so perfectly that a person like Clark resulted, only to be taken away without any mess or trouble.

Lois stiffened suddenly. No mess. As if it were on fire, she dropped the remote and lifted her hands, turning them slowly to gape at her palms and fingertips. She blinked when, instead of blood, she saw only her own skin, a sickly blue in the dim glow of her fish tank. Why weren't her hands covered in blood? In Clark's blood? She had touched his chest, searched futilely for a way to magically pull the bullets out and send them back into the gun. That meant that Clark himself had been on her hands. A part of him imbedded into her skin, passing through the pores until it found her own bloodstream. As she searched frantically, that morbid thought driving her to find a mere droplet even after two week of hand washings and a few necessary showers, she flashed through the horror of that night. Why couldn't she remember any blood on her hands?

Her heart pounded, a new desperation sending her scrambling forward as she tried to gain her feet. Her toe caught on the leg of the coffee table, wrenching it painfully and sending her sprawling to the floor once again. Heedless of the pain, she half crawled half ran toward her bedroom. Toward the closet where it lay not yet forgotten. The stuffy darkness of the small space was scented with the mixture of perfume and plastic dry cleaning bags. Digging frantically, she threw shoes and scarves out of her way, searching blindly for the silky red fabric. When it brushed her fingers, she clutched it and backed out of the closet on all fours, staring at it with wide, fearful eyes. Taking it to her bed, she turned on the bedside lamp and sat down gingerly.

With a combination of dread that she would find it and dread that she wouldn't, she carefully uncrumpled the red ball, maneuvering the complex straps and fabric until the dress righted itself into its recognizable form. Holding each shoulder strap between a finger and thumb, she forced herself to look in the center, knowing that, despite its red hue, the dress would not hide Clark's blood from her. It would appear in streaks and fingerprints, the life force it had contained so powerful that she almost expected it to glow.

Instead, the lying dress refused to show her what she wanted, needed to find. Some real piece of Clark, something that not only touched him but was part of him. There was no body. Nothing that she could see and say goodbye to. Nothing that she could keep forever. This dress and the blood upon it had to act as stand in, the poorest substitute anyone could wish for, but at this stage, she grasped at anything. Pulling the garment closer to her eyes and bending down toward the light, she searched carefully, sure that the evidence was simply lost among the sheer silk and subtle design crafted by the sequins. Still, it refused to appear. The dress remained supple, unsoiled by human life spilled from a reluctant victim to stain it and dry, leaving it as cold and stiff as the body left behind.

Lois slid off the bed on to the floor, confusion twisting through the disappointment. Where was the blood? Why wasn't there any blood on her dress? She didn't remember any on her hands, but that wasn't completely unexpected. She very well could have wiped them on her dress or washed them at the police station. Not much after they removed Clark from the room was very clear in her mind. But surely, somewhere, some traces had to remain. Her need for something of Clark's was replaced by an odd sensation that raised the fine hairs on the back of her neck.

Perhaps Perry knew her better than she thought. Years of practice kicked in subconsciously, and a force not under her control sent her back into the living room, the dress clutched tightly in her hand and the same question pounding a staccato in her ears that matched the pounding of her heart. Where was the blood? Where was the blood? Where was the blood?

She grimaced at the thought of watching it again, but this time it was a different objective that drove her. The need for complete recollection of all elements pertaining to his death. She knew the what, when, where, why, and all too painfully, the who. But it was the how that eluded her now. If the memories possessed by the old Lois couldn't answer the question, the new Lois had to create them for herself. It was simply a matter of watching the blood move from Clark's chest to her fingertips, and the nightmare would be complete.

The whirring rewind stopped at her command, and with only the slightest hesitation, she pushed the green play button, sending Clark out once again to receive the bullets. As before, he moved forward, the bullets impacted, and he fell. She leaned over him, her hand touching his chest, his face, then moving backward. Lois squinted at the screen, willing herself to remain detached as she peered at the blurry stubs that were her own video-taped fingers. No dark crimson stain, only the undefined peach of flesh. As she focused on herself, the thugs lifted Clark and moved him out, then the tape ended.

Rewinding it again, Lois watched, her entire being focused on the details of the image before her. Once again, Clark died. One again, her fingers remained clean of blood.

The next time through, she moved her attention away from herself and back to Clark, deciding that the blood had simply not soaked through his shirt when she had touched him. But as his shoulders were hefted a full minute or more after the bullets pierced his skin, the dark brown jacket gaped to reveal the broad expanse of his pristine white shirt. Pristine. No blood. She rewound again, moving so close to the screen that the very pixels of the image were revealed to her. But the dots of red, green and blue light failed to mix together in the correct combination to show her the blood that she knew had to exist.

Lois reeled backward, falling against the couch. Clark had been shot in the chest, near his heart. Blood would have appeared almost instantly. Yet there was no blood. Her brain screamed. THERE WAS NO BLOOD! She looked around the room, wondering if she had screamed the words out loud. The only response to her frantic observation was the humming of the filter in the fish tank as the fish swam around, oblivious to the medical miracle playing out in 27 vertical inches right in front of them.

Taking a deep breath, she forced herself to calm down. It just had to be a mistake. Something she was missing in the throes of her grief. She watched the tape again. And again. And again. After the twenty seventh viewing, she hit eject and watched the cassette slide out of the VCR like a black tongue, mocking her. Daring her to question yet again and receive the answer that magnetic tape presented in cold, hard fact.

It wasn't a mistake of her mind. There had been no blood. Clark had been shot at point blank range, in the chest, yet there had been no blood. She started pacing, raking her hands through the tangles of hair she hadn't combed in two days. It didn't make sense. She'd seen some pretty strange things in her life, but never had she met a person who didn't bleed. Well, that wasn't entirely true, she admitted wryly. Superman didn't bleed, of course. Unless he was struck by a kryptonite bullet. But normal bullets wouldn't harm him, even if shot at close range like Clark had been…

She stopped, an icy cold tremor ripping through her veins as she repeated the observation to herself. Superman didn't bleed. There had been no blood. Over and over again, the two facts twisted, reaching for each other across a gap that was quickly narrowing. Superman didn't bleed. There had been no blood. Clark hadn't bled. There had been no blood, and Superman didn't bleed.

Shaking her head, she refused to take it to the next step, letting every permutation of words pass through her brain except the obvious one. It simply wasn't possible. This was just a stupid trick played by her own mind to give her a reason to keep living. Somewhere, somehow, there was another explanation. Another reason why there was no blood. She looked around her apartment, searching for the neon sign that would point her to the answer, blinking when it didn't appear before her.

Running to the kitchen counter, she snatched up the box that Perry had given her. She had found the tape in that box, so surely, the answer had to be there. Instead of granting her wish, she was simply being forced to work for it. It couldn't be so ridiculously simple.

Deliberately slowing her pace, she walked back to the sofa, taking the time to turn on every light in the room. This had to be done right, because if she got even one thing wrong, the magic wouldn't work. The hallucination forming in her brain would disappear, and she would be faced with the real reason that Clark had failed to bleed after being shot.

The box contained the physical remnants of Clark's existence at the Daily Planet, taken from a desk that would soon house the personal affects of another green reporter, unaware of whose shoes he or she would be vainly trying to fill. Her breath came in shallow pants as she set the box in the middle of the coffee table where less than an hour before a little black video cassette had unknowingly held her life in its innards. She took the time to notice that the box had once housed Styrofoam coffee cups, the twelve ounce size, 84 count to the gross. The magic was working. Only such a box could contain Clark's belongings, a fitting tribute to the man who lived to bring her the perfect cup of coffee.

Peering over the edge, she looked at the artifacts that represented Clark's professional life. The largest pieces came out easily. A photo of his parents, the constant reminder of the lifelong approval and encouragement that made him such a good person. Another picture, this one of Clark and herself taken after Clark had received his first Kerth Award. His coffee mug, a useful yet impersonal gift chosen by a Secret Santa who knew him only well enough to know he would appreciate the Daily Planet logo in faux gold guilt on the cobalt blue ceramic. There was the dictionary and thesaurus set, required tools of any reporter. These had been a graduation gift from his parents she noted with a smile as she read the inscription on the interior of the leather jacket. A twinge of guilt at looking through Clark's personal things gave her pause. Shaking her head, she dismissed it, knowing that no matter what she found, the ends surely justified the means.

When she extracted the heavy desk plaque that bore his name, she paused, taking the time to trace her finger over the engraved letters. C- L-A-R-K K-E-N-T. She remembered the day the office manager had placed it on his desk, his initiation to the Planet successfully completed, his position secure. She had teased, none too gently, that even the lowest copy boy had a name plaque. The only thing it meant was that she'd be sure to spell his name correctly if ever she needed to. He'd told her with a grin that that was all he could ask for.

As item after item moved from the brown corrugate cage to the smooth surface of her coffee table, the answer remained undiscovered, and she started to despair as the box became emptier. The normal contents of any office desk drawer littered the bottom of the box, minus the Advil and Tums that she kept in great supply. Clark never suffered physical manifestations of stress. She blinked, forcing herself to skim over nearly a year and a half of work days with the man. Had he ever been sick? Ever complained of a headache? She couldn't recall specifically, and at that moment, another small candle was lit in the darkened cathedral that was her hope. Still, she searched on, looking for the monumental sign that would confirm her belief in a benevolent God.

A couple of nice pens and a spare key to his apartment rolled around the bottom of the box and she placed them all on the coffee table. The last item, tucked neatly to the side, was an extra tie, carefully rolled so that it would not wrinkle. Lovingly, Lois lifted the malleable ball out of the box, remembering when he had bought it. After lunch, as they strolled leisurely back to the office. It had been the first real spring day, full of promise and the smell of green things. She had spotted it in the window, admired it, and teased when he bought it.

As the silky fabric slipped through her fingers, slowly unrolling, a weight tugged on the thick end. With a frown, she heard a clatter as the tie released its contents, and she looked at the coffee table. Clark's extra pair of glasses. How many spares did this guy have, she wondered…

It happened at that moment. The neon sign appeared in brilliant rainbow colors of light, pointing to the simple combination of wood frames and glass. The connection was confirmed, and like electricity meeting with metal, the energy created jolted her to her core. She allowed the words to meet, consummate and procreate. There was no blood. Superman didn't bleed. There was no blood because Superman didn't bleed. Clark hadn't bled. Clark hadn't bled because Clark was Superman. Clark was Superman. And if Clark was Superman, Clark couldn't be killed by mere bullets. Clark couldn't be dead. Clark was alive.

The wave of shock made the room spin, and she swayed, trying desperately to ward of the sensation that she was going to faint. She grasped vainly at the air, trying to find something to hold on to as her world turned upside down again. With legs only barely able to hold her weight, she staggered to the bathroom and, leaning over the toilet, vomited in convulsive waves into the cool porcelain bowl.

After several minutes, the nausea passed and she splashed her face with cold water. Clark was alive. Clark was alive. She repeated it like a mantra as she returned to the sofa, letting the joyous spark that the words shot through her heart soothe her like a drumbeat. Clark was alive. Clark was alive.

Fearful that if she moved even to take a deep breath the spell would be broken, she sat immobile for an hour, repeating the words until her brain accepted what her heart had discovered. Clark was Superman. And Clark was alive. Somewhere, Clark was alive.

But as the intellect regained control of her mind, drowning out the overflowing of her heart, she stared at the cold, hard facts. Clark was Superman. For nearly two years, the two men who had become the most important people in her life were in fact the same person. The enormity of that realization was enough to lay any mere mortal low. Taken in combination with the fact that the man she loved and believed to be dead was in reality alive and, hopefully, well, she couldn't wrap her brain around either concept with any real clarity. Emotions warred within her chest until she didn't know if she should feel joy or anger or unmitigated fear.

Ok, she calmed herself. She simply had to apply a professional approach to this situation, unraveling the clues and facts until the knots came untangled and made a clear picture. Just like any story, this one had a beginning, a middle, and an end. It was simply a matter of asking the right questions and finding the right answers.

The beginning. Who? Clark Kent, farmboy from Smallville, Kansas. What? Arrived in Metropolis. When? Roughly around the time as the first appearance of Superman. Where? Smallville itself, location of the presumably insane theories of one Jason Trask who searched in vain for clues to the origins of Superman.

God! She didn't need to even ask the questions that took her through the middle and the now obvious end. How had she been so stupid! She, Lois Lane, award winning investigative journalist had not had the slightest suspicion even when the facts were written in mile high letters right in front of her.

Rising from the couch, Lois paced the length of the room, wringing her hands. It simply was beyond the realm of belief that, for a year and a half, she had been fooled by a pair of glasses. Had she ever seen Clark without them? Not that she could recall. She took a mental inventory of Clark and Superman's features, laying them side by side. Hair: black. Eyes: brown. Jaw: firm. Height: less than a head higher than she was. Body: well defined. Smile: brilliant. It was undeniable. Mild-mannered Clark, with a simple change of clothes and the removal of a pair of glasses, became superhero extraordinaire. Yes, she had been that stupid.

As the first reaction of disbelief that she, of all people, could have been so dense made way for the next, it was one of extreme mortification. She had been fooled. And in being fooled, she had acted the fool. Pouring her feelings about Superman out to her best friend, Clark, who listened with feigned innocence, all the time laughing at her. The thought was nearly enough to send her back to the bathroom, her stomach churning painfully at the memory of every conversation and longing look she had shared with the very man who inspired such feelings.

The mortification was replaced by a heated anger that ignited quickly to a full blown rage. Why hadn't he told her? Was he so eager to have her play the groupie that he felt no compulsion to stop her fawning, so happy to have his ego stroked that he allowed her to play the part of fool? She had believed him to be her friend, and instead, he turned out to be a liar. A liar who cared so little for her feelings that he allowed her to humiliate herself repeatedly, then to leave her to mourn him, believing that she lost a love so rare and special that it could never again be duplicated.

That fact itself, the thought that Clark had left her to wallow in her grief when he had the power to relieve her of the pain, was so upsetting that she started to shake. For two weeks, she'd lain in her bed, dreading each new day without him. And all this time, he'd been somewhere, alive. He had cared so little about her, his best friend, that he had let her suffer rather than reveal the truth.

She strode angrily to the VCR, yanked the cassette from its slot and threw it across the room. The shattering glass as it impacted with a picture hung on the wall mirrored the sound of her heart, splintering into fragments. How could it be that in the matter of five minutes, she had traveled from the lowest depths up to an elation higher than anything she had ever known, back down to a despair even deeper than she could have imagined. She'd lost him, found him, then lost him again. The first loss had been the physical reality of Clark. The second one far more valuable. She'd lost the dream that had been Clark.

How long she lay curled on her couch she didn't know. Sob after sob racked through her until she felt completely drained, her eyes no longer able to produce tears. It was if now, finally, she was saying good-bye. She was letting him go. The irony was almost laughable. She'd tried to hold on to him when she thought him dead, but now that she knew he was alive, she was ready to let him go.

She crawled across the floor, searching for the tape. She gasped when her hand was nicked by a sliver of the glass still on the floor, and she quickly lifted it to her mouth, sucking the droplets of blood that appeared. Careful not to disturb any more glass, she picked up the case, inspecting it to see if it had sustained permanent damage.

With a gentle push, it went back into the VCR. She tapped the play button, ready to see him one last time. After all, he deserved his due respect, his acting abilities culminating in this final display that convinced everyone that Clark Kent had died cruelly. She owed him that salute, and she owed herself the closure of watching him leave her life one last time, the assurance that he had made a choice.

Despite the fury raging through her, the same stab penetrated her heart when he turned to smile at the camera. His face still had the power to stir her to her core. She forced herself to concentrate on the glasses, trying to imagine the face without them. Once she knew to look for it, the resemblance was absolute. The glasses were as useless in disguising the truth as painting his fingernails would have been.

No longer focusing on the details, she looked at the broad picture. Clark telling Dillinger to leave her alone. Clark stepping in front of her to receive the bullets. Clark going down. Of course, it wasn't really Clark, she reasoned. When he stepped in front of her, he knew that he was invulnerable, that the bullets wouldn't hurt him. Even without the suit, he was still the Man of Steel. Superman wouldn't have fallen to the floor, though. She wondered why he'd bothered. Of course, it would have meant that everyone would have known who he was. Wouldn't she have felt bad if she discovered the truth while standing in that crowded room, learning along with at least fifty others the truth about Clark Kent?

It made sense, of course. His dual identity. She often wondered where Superman lived and what he did with his time when he wasn't saving the world. It was only reasonable that he would want a semblance of normalcy, and the only way to achieve that would be anonymity. Even in her current state of confusion, she could see how hard it would be to leave it all behind unless he had a place to escape to, somewhere that he could be shielded from the constant needs pressed upon him and his abilities. Her laugh was dry, echoing through the empty apartment to return to her. She was Superman's escape. His safe place.

With sudden clarity, she saw why he had done it. Why he had fallen. He couldn't let all of those people know who he was. If he'd done that, his cover would have been blown. He would never find peace, and all chances of living any kind of normal life would have been gone. Whether Clark himself took the bullets or Superman dressed as Clark took them, Clark Kent would still be dead.

But Clark hadn't worried about that when he stepped up to protect her. He could have backed down, held on to his identity and continued to live his life. Instead of jumping out of the way, protecting his own secret, he had allowed himself to die, if not literally, figuratively, which was for all intents and purposes the same thing. It was Clark that had stepped in front of her. Not Superman. Clark had given up his own life to protect her.

The anger left her instantly. Not ready to let it go, she reached inward, trying to find a small ember of fury so that she could grab onto it, the solidness of the strong emotion more comforting than the elusive confusion that now filled her. She couldn't hate him. Even if he'd allowed her to think him dead, he'd given up everything for her.

But why hadn't he told her who he was in the first place? How had he kept such an important thing, the only thing that really mattered, a secret from her? He hadn't been able to keep his attraction to her a secret, and in her whole life, she had never known anyone as incapable of maliciously lying as Clark Kent. Even now, as she rolled the truth over and over in her mind, she saw that it wasn't the sin of lying that wrenched her gut, making her question how he really felt about her. His was the sin of distrust. He didn't trust her.

He distrusted her so much that he couldn't even come to her to tell her his secret after she had thought him dead. Did he not know how she would take his death? Did he truly think that he meant so little to her that she would not be devastated to lose him? Her rational side fought its way through her reeling emotions to scold her.

<Why would he believe you cared?>

All she had ever shown Clark was how much she cared for Superman. She even threw his love, offered to her with an open heart, back at him, only to turn around and profess love to Superman that would continue if he were no more than a normal man. Why would Clark have believed that his death would cause her pain?

Whether he knew it or not, his death had caused her pain. A pain so great that even the discovery of his distrust was nothing. Whatever his reasons were, she would rather hear them than contemplate the prospect of letting him go forever. She'd lived with that reality for two weeks. She thought of her wishes made in the darkest hours, and somehow, someway, somebody had granted her the thing she never thought she would ever have. A second chance.

Lois stood, pacing once again. There was no way she would ever understand, no way that she would be able to make sense of this with so many questions unanswered. She needed to talk to him, and soon.

She had no idea how to get a hold of him. As far as anyone was concerned, Clark Kent was dead. She could hardly leave a message for him on his answering machine. She laughed out loud, the image of Superman listening to an answering machine ludicrous in her mind. Then she frowned, thinking absently that Superman had been noticeably absent in the past two weeks. Of course, she barely left her bed so she was a little out of touch.

Summoning him should be no trouble, she reasoned. He always seemed to hang around when she and Clark were about…the absurdity of that situation struck her. Why had she never questioned Superman's uncanny knowledge of her whereabouts, of why he always, always seemed to know when she needed him? It was because he walked beside her, day after day, ready to be there. He'd been standing next to her that night, ready to protect her even as it meant giving up his own life.

She knew at that moment that she didn't want to tell Superman that she knew he was Clark Kent. She wanted to talk to Clark, to ask him the questions that coursed through her mind. She glanced around the room, thinking. Her eyes landed on the photo of Martha and Jonathan Kent. Of course. She moved quickly to the phone, picking up the handset to summon information. Smallville. Kansas. Kents.

The phone rang once, and she quickly replaced the receiver onto the cradle. What was she going to say? It was four in the morning, and she was about to call the parents of a man who was supposed to be dead to do what? To tell them that she believed that their son was Superman and that he was only pretending to be dead? It sounded crazy, even to her.

Lois pursed her lips, thinking. Deciding. Then she moved to the small desk where she kept her personal stationary. Pulling several sheets of the crisp paper out of the drawer, she sat down and began to write. All of her professional life she had written for a living. She had written to bring down drug rings and to bring corrupt politicians to justice. She had written to expose criminals and to inform people of the things they needed to know as they made decisions that affected their very lives. But all of that paled in comparison to the importance of the words she put down on the paper now. She pushed aside her anger and confusion, the questions that plagued her. Instead, she focused on the overwhelming joy when she realized that he still lived, and it was with that thought filling her heart, she started to write. With each stroke of her pen, more of her soul spilled out on the cream- colored paper like the blood that should have stained Clark's pure white shirt.

Finally, as the sun turned the velvety sky golden, she finished. She sealed the pages into an envelope and picked up the phone once again. This time, when the phone rang, she waited patiently. On the other end lie her whole life. She would wait forever if she had to.

Martha Kent's voice crossed the miles between them. "Hello?"

"Hello, Martha?" Lois spoke quietly, her voice rasping from emotion and exhaustion. "It's Lois."

"Lois! It's so good to hear your voice." Martha responded kindly, her voice full of a concern that touched Lois and threatened to release the tears that now welled up in her eyes. "How are you, dear?"

"I'm better. Listen, Martha, I'm going to send you something. It…it…belongs to Clark. I'm going to send it FedEx, so you'll get it tomorrow. Then, if it's all right with you, I'd like to come out there. Is that all right…" She waited, holding her breath.

Martha paused for just a second. A heartbeat. "Of course. We would love to see you…"

***

Clark landed with a soft thud on the front porch, changing as he passed through the door and down the hallway that led to the kitchen. By the time he reached the room warm with the smell of baking bread, he wore a pair of faded jeans and red button down shirt, so well worn that the cotton touched his skin like a whisper. He'd been gone for nearly two days, and he was exhausted. He wanted nothing more than to eat some of the warm bread cooling on the stove then collapse into his bed until the next morning. For the first time in two weeks, he thought he might not be plagued with the dreams that haunted him, finally exhausted enough get some rest.

Jonathan Kent turned from the stove where he stirred a steaming pot of what Clark guessed to be beef stew. It was always accompanied by fresh bread, and like peanut butter and jelly, it was a staple pairing in the Kent house. Clark pulled out a chair and sat down wearily, rubbing the bridge of his nose with his index finger and thumb. As he did so, he realized he wasn't wearing his glasses. How quickly he had done away with that habit, he acknowledged wryly.

"We've been expecting you," Jonathan remarked as he placed a bowl of stew in front of his son. "Heard on the morning news that the earthquake was a bad one but they seemed hopeful that the casualties are low, thanks to you."

Clark nodded absently. It had been bad. But seeing the families whose homes were now nothing more than crumbling tangles of stone dust and shattered wood, some of their loved ones missing amongst the piles of rubble, put his own problems into perspective. He was miserable, but it was a misery of his own creation, not thrust on him by some vengeful force of nature.

Martha Kent entered the room from her studio, formerly the spare bedroom. Her nose was smudged with red clay, the white apron covering her bearing the evidence of the pots she had thrown on her wheel. "Hello, honey. Glad you made it home in time for lunch."

She went to the sink to remove the clay from her hands, thankfully not expecting a response. Clark was glad. Normally, he found it so easy to talk to his parents. But as the days passed and the realization of what his life now held sank in, he became withdrawn, unable to express to them the emptiness that consumed him. He smiled at her in apology when she sat across from him, glancing at his father who joined them with two more bowls of stew.

They ate in silence, Martha sending Jonathan looks across the table that Clark interpreted as a mixture of concern and pity. They were respectful enough of him not to push, but he knew that soon he was going to be expected to tell them of his plans. He couldn't stay there forever. The problem was, he had no plan. He had no future, and what was worse, he no longer cared.

Pushing his half empty bowl away from him, he made ready to leave the table. "Clark, wait." His mother stopped him and he sank back into his chair. He prayed silently that she wouldn't start asking him questions now. He was too tired, both physically and emotionally, and he didn't want to hurt her feelings.

"Something came for you yesterday morning. After you'd already left to deal with the earthquake." She left the table and moved to the desk where the farm's administrative duties were handled. Sliding up the flexible roll top, she extracted a red, white and blue envelope that represented urgency to any professional who had done business in the past ten years.

"For me?" While receiving FedEx on the farm wasn't unusual anymore, he blinked in stunned surprise that the envelope could be for him. No one knew he was there. They all believed him dead, and dead men didn't usually receive mail, even if it was marked urgent and sent via next day express.

Martha nodded solemnly as she handed the envelope across the table, resisting slightly before letting it go as if the slim package contained something that could hurt him. He glanced at the label, his pulse quickening when he saw the Metropolis address. "It's from Lois," she admitted softly. "She called to tell us it would be coming…"

"Lois called here?!" he exclaimed. "Is she all right? How is she doing? Why didn't you tell me?" The questions tumbled out, momentarily distracting him from the envelope.

"I didn't want to upset you," his mother gestured at his agitated state pointedly. "Besides, there wasn't much to tell. She called to say she was sending something that belonged to you. I assumed it was some sort of paperwork from the Planet about insurance or something."

Clark felt his heart drop, the simple explanation crushing something inside of him that he couldn't define. Of course that would be it. Insurance paperwork. What else would she be sending to the parents of a dead man? As he tried to fend off the wave of depression bearing down on him, he heard his mother speaking. "…and she wants to come out."

Clark leapt out of his seat, clutching the envelope so tightly that the thin cardboard crumpled like a dry leaf. Glancing down at it, he released his grip immediately. "Lois is coming to Smallville? When?"

"She didn't say. She just said she wanted to come out." Martha tried to calm him, but he could barely hear her through the pounding in his ears. Lois was coming to Smallville. He would be able to see her again. If not face to face, at least from a distance.

Since the night he'd been shot, he'd resisted every cell in his body that cried out for him to go to her. Once he'd assured himself that she'd made it from Georgie Hairdo's club safely, as Superman he had been busy apprehending the gangsters. That had taken most of that first night, and by morning, the news about his murder had been reported in not only the Planet and the Metropolis Star, but on LNN as well. Any hopes he'd had of explaining his miraculous survival in a way that would be reasonably accepted by the masses had been dashed. He watched with growing despair as his entire life was laid to rest even as his body remained unrecovered and very much alive.

His first instinct had been to go to Lois and tell her everything, hoping that he would receive forgiveness and understanding for his year and a half long deception. But as he watched any chance for a future for Clark Kent disappear, the reasons for telling her became more and more inconsequential. He envisioned his life as Superman, always holding her at arm's length until finally her superficial love for her hero was redirected toward another. Even as Clark he had recognized the possibility that, one day, Lois might fall in love with someone other than him. It was a prospect that he rarely let himself look at too closely, the fierce stab in his heart at the thought of her in another man's arms too painful to allow more than fleetingly. He'd seen it once before, and the image still haunted him. But, at least as Clark, he'd been assured he would always hold a place in her life that was based on feelings deeper than mere hero worship. He'd been her partner and her best friend. Now, he was simply dead.

Martha and Jonathan kindly offered thin comfort, attempting to soothe his grieving heart with gentle reminders that Superman could always visit his friends and remain a part of their lives. With growing frustration, he tried to explain that it wasn't Superman's life that he wanted. It was Clark's. His own. Like an actor playing a part who suddenly discovered the real world had disappeared, leaving him forever to live on a stage, the real Clark Kent was now left with nothing more than a costume and a cape. Superman was two-dimensional, but Clark had existed in all three dimensions. It was that third dimension that counted most.

From the safety of high altitude, he'd watched his own memorial service, the surreal experience something so unbelievable it only existed on soap operas and made-for-TV movies. The need for closure in the fast-paced world around them inspired speed, the lack of a body permitting quick planning of the simple yet sincere service that formally ended his life. On a sunny morning a mere three days after being brutally murdered, Clark Kent was remembered fondly by his friends and colleagues. His parents had pleaded overwhelming grief as a reason to avoid the event, not willing to go so far as to mourn their undead son in such a public fashion. He agreed with their decision wholeheartedly, the thought of them sitting in the church adding an element of finality that his heart wouldn't allow.

He felt bittersweet appreciation for the crowd that turned out, noting with a sad smile that you never knew how many friends you truly had until it was too late. Watching Perry and Jimmy had been heartbreaking, the younger man weeping openly while Perry attempted to maintain the expected stiff upper lip. It had been Perry who had spoken his eulogy, and with genuine gratitude, Clark noted that he resisted the urge to throw a single Elvis reference into the ten minute speech. Instead he spoke of Clark's integrity and innate goodness, how he had been a friend to all and the model of a dedicated reporter. He would be missed, and no one would ever be able to replace him.

Lois's appearance all but did him in. Attired in a black suit, her face was so pale that he worried she might fall over at any minute in a dead faint. Her lifeless brown eyes were huge in her ghostly white face, staring ahead unseeing as she was propelled by various escorts into the service and out again, as if she had no ability to move herself from place to place without external propulsion. She acknowledged no one who approached her, only nodding slightly when Perry came to whisper in her ear something that even Superman couldn't bear to hear. The depth of her grief was palpable, and a new fear rocked Clark to the core. Lois had cared for him, he knew that. But had it been possible that her feelings ran deeper than either one of them had realized? Had he lost even more than he could have ever imagined?

It had been agonizing, knowing that within seconds, he could be next to her, offering her comfort and holding her in his arms. But it would be torture, something he couldn't bear and wouldn't inflict on her. Lois believed that Clark was dead, and unless he was willing to tell her everything, nothing else would change that fact. Even if he were willing, they would never be able to have the life he would want unless she was willing to give up everything. He would never ask that of her. He had to let her go.

God, how he missed her. He missed everything, even the things that most people regarded as faults. From the beginning he'd known that Lois was a special person, and even her blatant attempts to distance him hadn't done much to cool his growing admiration. It wasn't just that she was beautiful and intelligent. He'd traveled in more countries that most people could name, and beautiful and smart women could be found in all sizes, colors and creeds. Lois had something more.

At first he'd thought it was her take-no- prisoners approach to life. The way she charged ahead, consequences be damned. After pulling her out of one fiasco after another, he'd wondered for a long while how she'd managed to make it to her mid twenties without him. She must have had a lucky angel sitting on her shoulder, anxious to pass the baton to him when he was ready to don the cape of a superhero. It had been imperative for his stomach to toughen up to a level on par with his invulnerable body, because time and again she tested his ability to yank her from the edge of certain destruction without losing his lunch on the sidewalk, sick with the fear that he had almost just lost her.

After he, and Superman, became used to her penchant for finding trouble, Clark had decided it must be her independence. Despite availing him of his superpowers on a regular basis, Lois was one woman who could take care of herself. He found that both appealing and challenging. Having decided to save the world one catastrophe at a time, Clark saw that the woman in his life would need to be pretty self- sufficient. He couldn't guarantee that he'd always be around to take out the garbage. Neither could he imagine himself with someone who needed to be coddled or felt inferior next to him. Lois made her own successes, and the achievements of the man she would finally love would be no more to her than icing on the cake that she had baked.

But as he found her pushing him away, trying to convince him that she was a paragon of self sufficiency who needed no one, he felt an overwhelming need to break through the wall to the woman inside. The woman who felt real pain from her father's rejection of her and had made a family out of her coworkers at the Planet. She reminded him of a little girl, all dressed up in her mother's clothes, shoes and makeup. On the outside, she seemed to be confident and so in control, but underneath it all, she had the heart of a little girl wanting nothing more than a loving hug. The moments when Lois had permanently adhered herself to his heart were the ones when she came to him and needed him. Not Superman and his superpowers. Just plain old Clark.

It was ironic that, over the last two weeks, he, the strongest being on Earth, had needed her more than ever. When at first he had struggled to find a way out of the horrible situation, he'd needed her creativity and quick thinking. If anyone could find a way to keep him from being dead, it was Lois. She had more crazy ideas in her head than an insane asylum. If she could bring down drug rings and terrorist cells, surely she had the power to resurrect someone.

After he'd resigned himself to the fact that Clark Kent was dead and buried, he'd needed her to tell him that it didn't matter. That he could still have a normal life, hang around her place and zip out now and again to rescue as needed. She'd bring home stories about her exploits at the Planet and he could live vicariously through her. Hell, maybe Superman could get his own column, something along the lines of "Super Advice from a Superman." They'd order a lot of carryout and rent a ton of movies, but it'd still be fun, wouldn't it?

In the darkest moments, he needed her to just help him believe that he wasn't really dead. If Lois Lane believed that Clark Kent lived, he didn't care what anyone else thought. If he existed for her, he existed for himself. The problem was, the only way to tell her that he lived was to tell her that he was Superman. And by doing that, she would never look at him the same way again. He would never know for sure how she felt about him. If she cared for him because he was Superman, accepting the hanger- on that was Clark, or if she saw that it was Superman that was the faŘade. Whatever she would offer him, it would never be pure.

Clark hadn't died, but he had discovered what hell was. Hell wasn't brimstone and fire. It wasn't icy cold nothingness. Hell was seeing the people you loved, the woman you loved, and knowing that she could no longer see you. It was watching from behind a one way mirror as Lois fell apart, picked herself back up, and moved on. Without him. Without even the memories of him that he would want her to have. In his nearly thirty years of living, Clark had formulated for himself what he imagined or at least hoped heaven might be like. Now after experiencing death, he knew for certain. Heaven would be obliviousness. So he avoided Metropolis. He spent his days as far from the city as geographically practical, thinking about the few options left open to him. It was simple enough to start over in new city, repeating the efforts he'd gone through a mere year and a half earlier to create a new life, make new friends, start all over. But he lacked all desire to do so, the thought of replacing everything he'd lost draining him completely. It was a task that even Superman would never be able to accomplish, he realized with a growing emptiness. Some things couldn't be replaced, and he wouldn't even try.

"Clark, maybe you'd better see what's in the envelope," Jonathan suggested, breaking Clark from the magnetic hold that kept his eyes riveted on the address label.

His parents watched him intently as he pulled the plastic string that slit the cardboard cleanly. He peered inside, blinking at a second smaller envelope thick with its own contents. Pulling it out, he frowned in confusion when he read the script. *For Clark*. Insurance papers would have been in a longer envelope, most likely addressed with a computer label to Martha and Jonathan. Why would Lois be sending his parents something she had originally intended for him? Perhaps it was something she had meant to give him but hadn't, thinking now that his parents might want it.

"What is it, Clark?" Martha asked, leaning forward only slightly so as not to appear nosey.

"I don't know." He stared at the cream envelope. Silently, he turned from the expectant gaze of his parents and left the room, heading back outside to the front porch. Whatever was in that envelope, it was something that he wasn't ready to share.

He sat in the wide swing, nudging the wooden floor with his toe to send the contraption swaying gently in a habit familiar to anyone with a front porch and a warm summer day. His hands trembled as he turned the envelope over, fitting a long finger under the flap and gently lifting, trying not to rip the thin paper. For some reason, he felt the need to preserve everything about this, realizing that it might be his last connection with Lois.

The two sheets of linen stock slipped out of the envelope with a whisper, and he unfolded them, admiring the strong slant of her elegant script. It was so rare that anyone wrote longhand anymore, he briefly wondered if they even taught it in school.

*My Dearest Clark,

You're gone, and all I can think is how sorry I am…*

He read the first line with a shock, lowering the pages quickly as his breath caught in his throat. This wasn't something that Lois had forgotten about, sent as an after thought to his grieving parents thinking that they might want it as a remembrance. This was a letter to him, written after he had been shot. Written by a woman who believed him to be dead.

But he wasn't dead. He felt the flash of guilt that always pained him when Lois confided something to him about Superman, the knowledge that she was revealing feelings to her friend under the assumption of confidentiality. If he read these words, he would be reading something that she had written in her grief, believing that he would never really see the words. It felt like reading someone's diary, their innermost thoughts revealed in the safety of absolute privacy.

As he hesitated to pick the pages back up, he remembered that Lois had sent this to his parents, assuming that they would read what was written on them. If Lois felt comfortable letting his parents read it, he could assume that the letter would contain nothing more than she would readily admit to them. His conscience eased slightly, he picked up the pages, beginning again. As he read, the sounds around him receded and her voice lifted up, coming to him clearly as if she sat across from him.

*My Dearest Clark,

You're gone, and all I can think is how sorry I am…

Sorrier than I ever thought I could be. Sorry because I foolishly ignored the truth that stared me in the face. Sorry because now it's too late. Too late to say the words out loud. Too late to scream them at the top of my lungs and to whisper them into your ear. Too late to make sure that you know how I feel, without any doubts or hesitancies.

Clark, I love you. Completely. Irrevocably. Endlessly.

You'll have to forgive me for not knowing this sooner, but I was fooled. You see, falling in love with you wasn't like I expected falling in love to be. I always thought that it would be a noisy affair, introduced by music and fireworks, flashing lights and blaring sirens. Instead, I learned that falling in love is quiet and gentle. It's warm and enveloping, a pair of deep brown eyes pulling you in so softly that before you are even aware, it's wrapped you in a tight hug. Falling in love isn't falling at all. It's floating. It's flying. And only after you've been lifted so high that the Earth is but a distant blue memory do you realize how easy it was.

You entered my life, and in such a short time, you became so many things to me. My partner. My friend. My love. You are the other half of me. What I lacked, you completed. What my weaknesses were, you shored up with your strengths. Without you, I am half a person, the dark without the light and the sorrow without the joy. As I contemplate my life without you, I realize with sudden clarity that there is no life without you.

Every day, every minute, I miss you. I look for you everywhere, hoping that, by some miracle, I'll see you just once again. I miss your voice and your smile. I miss your laughter and your quiet strength. I miss you when I'm awake and when I sleep. I miss you in the way that a prisoner misses freedom. I miss you so much that I know I will never fill the void that exists where my heart once beat.

Instead I will wake every day and walk through this black and white world, searching every face I see and listening to every voice that speaks, searching for you. The questions I have will remain unanswered, the story of my future untold. It is only when I'm with you again that I will find peace. Until then, I can only hope that wherever you are now, you can hear my heart calling to you.

Save me, Superman. Save me.

Yours eternally, Lois*

The force of her words had propelled him to his feet, but as he reread them through the blurry lens of tears, the man of steel fell to his knees, too weak to remain standing. Tears coursed down his cheeks as he tipped his head back, letting his hand fall to his side, the crisp sheets clutched in his grip. His chest constricted so tightly that he wondered if it was truly possible for his heart to explode.

It wasn't insurance papers. It wasn't a letter written to comfort his bereaved parents. It was a message to his soul. Every word was a kiss, every sentence a song soaring through his heart. Lois loved him. She knew who he was, and she was calling him home. **Save me, Superman. Save me.**

How had she done it? Admittedly, in the beginning he'd had his doubts as to his ability to carry off such a simple disguise, but it had worked. Why, now, had she been able to see past the glasses and the cape to the one man beneath it all? With a laugh, he realized he didn't care. He didn't care at all how she'd done it. No more hiding the truth. No more lame excuses or unexplainable absences. No more hiding the truth from the one person with whom he wanted to share every single detail of himself. Lois knew the secret that was his greatest burden, yet still she had told him that she loved him.

Pausing only long enough to spin into the suit, Clark launched himself into the air, his heart lifting with every inch of altitude he gained. Within minutes, he landed in front of her apartment, the stone stairs a sight as beautiful to him as his parents' farm. He entered the foyer and, checking that he was alone, returned himself into the jeans and red shirt. It wasn't Superman that knocked softly on her door. It was Clark.

His heart pounded as he waited, a sudden doubt flitting across his mind. What if he'd been wrong? What if he'd misread her words, and she didn't know? What would she say if she opened the door and saw him standing there, alive and well? As the seconds stretched and Lois didn't answer, his doubt increased until he nearly convinced himself that his interpretation of her letter had been the desperate attempt of his mind to ease the agony surrounding his heart.

He stepped back, afraid to knock again. Afraid to see her face and watch it react with stunned horror as she saw what had to be a ghost. And when she came to see that it was no ghost but real flesh and blood that stood before her, would that horror turn to anger? Would the love she had professed turn to hatred? It was conceivable that she would hate him for putting her through the process of grieving. He knew how bad he'd felt when he'd only almost lost her. Actually losing her, believing that he couldn't see her again, ever, was incomprehensible. He didn't even think on it because it was beyond the unthinkable. Even now that he was dead, he could still float by, watch her from a distance and know that she was safe and happy. But Lois had been forced to confront the unthinkable. She might be just a bit put out that he'd been alive all this time but hadn't thought to inform her of that insignificant detail.

Using his x-ray vision, he scanned Lois's living room, deciding that he needed to know if she was even home before getting himself so worked up. It only took a minute for him to determine that she wasn't in her apartment. He tried to remember what day it was, the time blending into indiscriminate days since he'd been in Smallville. It was Wednesday. She could be at the Planet.

He left the apartment, ready to fly straight to the Planet offices. As he prepared to return to his suit, he stopped, thinking about what he was about to do. If he walked into the bull pen as Superman, was he prepared to see her? How would she react to seeing him? What if she screamed at him, or cried? It wasn't like he could rush to her and pull her into his arms, nor could she show in any way that she knew who he was. Lois would have to put on the performance of her life, acting as if Superman simply popped by the Planet for a quick hello, all the while suppressing what he hoped to be her elation that Clark stood before her, alive and kicking.

So this was what it would be like, if he came back? The two of them always performing. He would always be the hero, she would always be the groupie. They wouldn't be able to date. Of course, he would probably be able to score reservations at all the best restaurants, he noted with a small smile. And what if they moved past dating? What kind of life would they have? What kind of life could they offer a family?

It wasn't even worth going into the danger that Lois would be in should her relationship with Superman ever become public knowledge. Every crook and evil-doer would line up at her door, waiting for their turn to use her as bait. Forget about saving the world. He would become her full time bodyguard, and as much as the thought of being with Lois 24/7 appealed to him at that particular moment, even he could see that soon that much togetherness would wear thin.

The amazing joy he had felt a scant ten minutes earlier began to deflate like a helium balloon, losing all lift to slowly drop to the ground where it withered and faded. What did it matter if Lois loved him as Clark? He couldn't love her back as Clark. Any relationship they had would be based on the deceptions started a year and half ago and culminating at Georgie Hairdo's club. It had been painful enough telling the half truths and lies just to secure his dual identity. Now he would be bringing Lois into his pain, forcing her to cover for him and hide her feelings much as he'd tried to keep his own from her.

For a year and a half, Clark Kent had sought Lois's love, competing with himself in a love triangle too bizarre to be explained. Now, finally she had made her choice, but it was the loser of the battle that remained to collect the spoils. She'd loved them both but had chosen Clark, yet he couldn't claim that which was rightfully his.

After her letter, he at least owed her an explanation. She deserved to hear his story from him, and he deserved a chance to ask for her forgiveness and hopefully receive it. They might not have a future together, but for both of their sakes, he felt that they needed to put a lid on their past. A formal memorial service for the relationship that never was.

He'd go home and bide his time until that evening, when she'd be at home and he could take all night to explain to her what he'd done and why. They'd have a chance to say good-bye, and then she could pick up her life and move on while he tried to find a life at all.

As he headed west, flying more slowly, he picked up the high pitched wails of sirens on the outskirts of St. Louis. He was tempted to fly past, ignoring the bright red flames and plume of smoke from a fire so large that it penetrated the sky high enough to catch his notice. With a sigh, he dipped down, focusing on the location of the five alarm blaze, an entire block of heavily populated apartments. For now, he had to put Clark on hold. Superman was needed.

***

Lois turned down the gravel drive, glancing again at the mailbox to make sure she had the right place. How anyone managed to find their way around the countryside was anyone's guess. Every county road looked the same as another, and the corn grew so high that you couldn't see anything out of either window but row upon row of green stalks. She'd double checked her directions at the diner in Smallville, but the landmarks the helpful waitress named Maisey had supplied did little good. As far as she was concerned, the Henry farm and the Thomson place looked exactly the same.

Satisfied with the KENT painted carefully on the bright yellow mailbox, she drove slowly the last fifty yards, pulling off to the side of the house where she remembered Clark had parked when they'd been in Smallville over a year earlier. She laughed out loud, realizing that if only she had been a little bit more observant, she might have figured everything out then and saved them all a whole lot of trouble now. What was that old saying, a stitch in time saves nine? Something like that certainly applied.

She took a deep breath as she faced the screened door, reminding herself that once she knocked, there was no going back. If he answered the door himself, she thought there was a very real possibility that she would either drop on the wooden planks in a dead faint or turn and bolt back to the car and never look back. Of course, it could be Martha or Jonathan that answered, but that would only delay the inevitable. Unless Clark's parents emphatically denounced her theory and could give her a reasonable explanation of why their son had failed to bleed after being shot, Lois was not leaving Kansas until she saw Clark for herself, living and breathing.

Her knock on the wooden door frame echoed across the porch and down into the yard, so loud that she was certain they heard it in town. She stepped back nervously, fighting the urge to run. With a shake of her head, she scolded herself. She was a brave, strong woman who could handle anything. Had handled anything. What could be so bad about confronting a man who was pretending to be dead? The fact that she loved him had nothing to do with it.

Faster that she expected, the cornflower blue front door swung open, the cheerful eucalyptus wreath swaying slightly with the movement. Lois braced herself as the form moved from the shadow of the house to peer at her through the safety of the thin metal screen. She almost gasped with relief when she saw Martha Kent's dainty person looking at her with no small surprise on her delicately aging face. To the woman's credit, she quickly recovered and offered Lois a wide smile full of warmth that instantly made Lois feel more relaxed.

"Lois!" Martha exclaimed as she pushed open the screen door. "You said you were coming out, but I didn't realize it'd be so soon."

"I'm sorry," Lois apologized, suddenly feeling awkward. "I hope it's not too much of an inconvenience."

"Nonsense. We're glad you're here. Come in, come in." She stepped back slightly, making room so that Lois could move past her.

Lois glanced around, smiling as she took in the comfortable house. Her mother's taste had always been on the highly stylized end of the decorating spectrum, with the perfect piece of art placed at the perfect angle on the perfect table. The Kent home, on the other hand, was a cozy blend of the useful, whimsical and sentimental pieces that invited you to pull up a chair and stay a while. Although clean and tidy, the mixture of country fabrics and worn upholstery, framed photos of Clark at various stages of growth, and knick knacks picked up from years of vacations and antiquing, created a patchwork quilt that told the story of the family that lived there. Once again, Lois could see why Clark was the way he was. He'd been brought up surrounded by a warmth and softness that couldn't help but make you feel good every time you walked through the front door.

"Would you like some coffee?" Martha was asking, and Lois tore her gaze away from the photos lining the entry hall.

"Uh…yeah. Thanks. That would be nice," she stammered. Martha continued down the hall to disappear into the kitchen, but Lois lingered, walking slowly as she took in the history of Clark pre Daily Planet, pre Lois.

He'd been a football player, for more than a couple of seasons, it appeared from the various uniforms. Little League, too. And there was his prom picture, the date with Sheriff Rachel. A very small Clark posing with a very large cow, holding a blue ribbon and wearing a gap-toothed grin. A smile pulled at the corners of her mouth at the thought of the now urban man participating in such a rural tradition as 4H or the county fair. His senior portrait, air brushed so that the rugged hardness of his face was softened to an almost unnatural glow.

As she reached the end of the display, she stopped, a final image holding her. It was Clark, standing next to her after winning the Kerth Award. It was the same picture he'd had on his desk that found its way to her apartment via the infamous coffee cup box. That night she'd tossed it aside with barely a thought. Now, she looked at it carefully. In it, Clark beamed proudly, his crystal trophy clutched in his right hand while she hung onto his left arm. They both wore black, he a tux and she an elegant gown. She'd visited her stylist who'd swept her dark hair back in a chignon, a look a little too severe, she noted critically. But what caught her attention most was how happy the two people staring back at her seemed. He smiled at the camera while she looked at him slightly, for the first time in their professional lives together the spotlight shining away from her.

Was that when it happened, she wondered? Was that the moment when she fell in love with Clark? It had happened so gradually, so unexpectedly that she felt compelled to know the precise moment when her feelings had changed. True, she hadn't been aware that they had changed until two weeks ago, but once she opened up her eyes and her heart, she saw that she'd felt it for so much longer. Her heart had loved Clark for a long time even if her head hadn't known it.

She was half way into the kitchen before she remembered that there was a very real possibility that Clark could be standing in it. With a start, she glanced around anxiously. "Where's…Jonathan?" she faltered, hoping that she didn't sound as nervous as she felt.

"He's down the road a ways, helping Bob Richards with a problem tractor." Martha moved around the kitchen, putting the paper filter into the coffee maker and pulling mugs from the cabinet. "You know, I thought that once we got older, we'd slow down. But I think we're busier now than we've ever been. If it's not something on our farm it's something on somebody else's. I guess it's the blessing and the curse of a small town. There's always someone around to help you out and always someone around that needs help."

"Sounds kind of nice," Lois remarked, "knowing that there are people around in case you need them."

"Hmmm, yeah. I wouldn't have it any other way." Martha turned with a smile.

Lois studied her face, looking for signs of lingering grief, the despair of a mother who'd lost her one and only beloved son. While obviously a wonderful mother, Martha Kent was no actress. She fairly glowed with good health and a relatively peaceful mind. Any lingering doubt that Lois felt about her suspicion was completely erased, and now she only wondered how far Clark's parents were willing to go to perpetuate the myth of his death.

They'd declined the invitation to the memorial service, but at the time, Lois had thought nothing of it. She'd been too wrapped up in her own grief to care much what anyone else did, and when a few insensitive coworkers had remarked on their absence, she'd assumed that they had simply lacked the ability to pull themselves off the floor and put themselves on a plane. She remembered wondering if their pain was as sharp as her own, guessing that it couldn't be much worse. If it was, she wouldn't have blamed them for locking themselves in their house and setting it afire.

Now, as she watched Martha open a cookie jar shaped like a fish and move chocolate chip cookies to a plate, she tried to decide how to broach the subject. Once she'd made up her mind to come to Smallville, she'd given little thought as to what she would actually say to Martha and Jonathan if Clark didn't easily give himself up. Even on the two hour flight that morning, she'd decided that it would all come to her on the spot and tried to focus on her magazine and the highly informative article about Madonna and her next world tour. The talented pop star would be appearing in Chicago and Houston, with a planned stop at the Metropolis Metrodome sometime next fall. No mention of how much she'd be wearing during the show.

"Sit down, honey. It's a long trip. You must be tired." Martha set the plate of cookies in the center of the table and gestured to the chair. Lois pulled it out and sat, inhaling the scent of the coffee as the steam wafted upward. "I'm sorry that we didn't know when you were coming. Jonathan could've picked you up at the airport and saved you the drive…"

"Martha," Lois stopped her. "I'm guessing you're wondering why I'm here?"

"You don't need a reason to come see us, Lois," Martha protested almost a little too vehemently.

"Even now that Clark's…gone?" Lois pressed, feeling a sudden, unkind need to punish Martha for her role in Lois's pain. If Clark hadn't been willing to come to her, what had kept his parents from picking up the phone? Even though she knew that their loyalties lay with their son and it wasn't their place to divulge his secrets, she still felt a pang of resentment. While she'd been wallowing in her misery, they'd been enjoying his company.

Martha shifted uncomfortably. "We've always considered you part of the family. With or without Clark, you'd always be welcome."

Lois felt instantly contrite. Martha and Jonathan had always been kind to her, and she knew they would never intentionally hurt her. "Thank you. That means a lot to me."

"Lois, how are you doing?" Martha reached across the table and took Lois's hand in her own. "I know these past weeks have been hard."

She nodded, tears gathering at this outward display of concern. She'd received daily calls from Perry, and her own mother had tried to offer her some brand of comfort. But one of the worst things about the past weeks was that she'd had no one to turn to. The one person she most often looked to for comfort and support was the very person who had brought her to such a low state.

With a hard swallow, she tried to keep her voice from wavering. "It's been very hard. I never knew how much Clark meant to me until he was gone. And then it was too late."

Martha frowned. "Too late?"

Lois rose out of the chair, walking to the sink where a crisp breeze flowing through the open window ruffled the lace-edged curtains. She looked out over the vast stretch of golden topped corn that rolled away from her, trying to muster up the courage that had gotten her this far. Admitting her feelings to herself was one thing. The prospect of saying them out loud was terrifying. "Clark and I were such good friends. He meant so much to me. I'd never had a best friend until I met him. When I watched him fall to the ground, it was like part of me died that night. A part that I never even knew I had until I met Clark." She turned back to Martha, tears trickling in a steady stream. "It was the best part of me."

The older woman stood, walking to Lois and wrapping her arms around her in a tight hug. The gesture broke the last threads of her control, and Lois felt the sobs rising from her core. She let them out, allowing Martha to give her the comfort she'd needed for so long.

For a long time they stood like that until Lois felt her strength returning. With big gulps of air, she pulled back, smiling weakly at Martha. To her surprise, Martha had tears running down her cheeks as well, and it almost sent Lois back to sobbing.

She wiped at her tears with the back of her hand, laughing slightly when Martha reached for a box of tissues and handed it to her, pulling a few out for herself. Both women returned to the table. Lois waited while Martha added hot coffee to their cups, using the minute to collect herself. It was time, she knew. She had to tell her.

"Martha, when I said that it was too late, I meant that I thought it was too late for me to tell Clark how I feel about him." She cleared her throat, willing herself to go on. "But I've discovered something that makes me think that maybe it's not too late. That there's a chance I can let him know how much he means to me."

"Lois, I…" Martha stammered, her soft eyes widening with a mixture of fear and panic.

Lois rushed on, sparing the woman the torture. "I have a reason to believe that Clark didn't die the night he was shot. I think that he's still alive. Here. In Smallville."

The color drained from Martha's face, and for a terrifyingly long minute, Lois felt sick, wondering if she'd made the biggest mistake in her life. Then the ghostly white skin turned a bright red, as if Martha had been caught in the most elaborate hoax ever perpetrated by man. "What makes you think that Clark is alive?" she croaked.

"I had a chance to watch the surveillance tape that was made the night Clark was shot." Martha blanched and Lois nodded. "It was awful. I can't even tell you how bad…anyway, I noticed that after he was shot, Clark didn't bleed. There was no blood. At all. I couldn't understand how that was possible. I tried to think of every reason that a normal man might not bleed after being shot. But I kept coming back to the same thing. It wasn't possible. Only Superman could have taken those bullets and not bled. I put two and two together and…"

"You figured that Clark must be Superman." Martha finished softly. What had taken Lois hours to compile, sum, and total, Martha had computed in mere seconds.

"Martha, please," Lois leaned forward, the center of her world moving to exist only at that specific place and moment. "Tell me. Am I right? Is Clark Superman?"

Martha didn't answer. She looked at Lois, holding her gaze with an unblinking stare. When at last Martha pulled her eyes away to look past Lois, the silence was weighted with all of the answers to the questions she hadn't even asked yet. Somehow, Martha had managed to remain true to her son without lying for him.

Exhaling with a weak whistle, Lois sat back in the chair. It was true. Since her mind had made the giant leap into the truth three nights ago, she'd lived alone with her theory, always aware that she could be wrong. Now that another human being confirmed it, she let the last little bit of hope she'd kept buried dig its way to the surface.

She resisted the urge to pelt Martha with the myriad questions that she wanted to ask, knowing that the woman would neither welcome them nor answer them. One thing she had to know, because it made the difference of whether or not she would remain in the Kent house for another minute or get up immediately, jump in her rental car and back down the driveway. "I need to know. Did he let me think him dead because he wanted to end all contact with Metropolis?" she asked, then blushed. "I mean, did he want to end all contact with me and this was just an unexpected convenience."

"Oh, heavens, no!" Martha exclaimed. "Lois, you have to believe me. I would never speak for Clark or try to explain why he's done the things he's done. But I do know that he loves you. He would never knowingly or willingly hurt you."

Lois nodded, allowing Clark's mother to believe that she accepted that. Anything remaining was between her and Clark. "Where is he? He has been staying here, hasn't he?"

"I'm not sure where he is," Martha admitted. "The last I saw him was at lunch. He'd been gone for nearly two days taking care of an earthquake in Mexico, so I'd just given him your package. He took it on the porch to open, and when I went out to check on him, he was gone."

She frowned, staring at her half empty cup. It was possible that he'd gone to find her in Metropolis, assuming he'd understood her letter. When he hadn't shown up yesterday, after her tracking effort confirmed that the FedEx envelope had been delivered, she wondered if he missed her pointed call. For a while she even thought that maybe he'd read the letter and really didn't care, choosing to ignore it all together. The thought stung, but not as bad as the gaping wound that she'd received the night she'd thought he died. Determined to put an end to this story one way or the other, she'd boarded the plane headed west. Now that Martha offered him an acceptable alibi, she hoped that he had gone to her place. If that was the case, he'd find that she'd left and eventually turn up back in Smallville.

"Lois, I'm sorry if what Clark's done has hurt you." Martha started, offering apologies on her son's behalf. "I know how I'd feel if I really believed that he'd died. If it's any consolation to you, he's been hurting pretty bad, too. I can say in all of his life, I've never seen him brought so low as he has been thinking that his life in Metropolis is gone. And it's not his job or his friends that's got him so broken up. It was knowing that he'd lost you."

Lois nodded again. It did help a little, knowing that Clark missed her and felt terrible about what had happened. Still, she needed to hear his explanation, his reasoning for keeping his secret even after everything that had happened.

Suddenly, she felt drained. Two weeks of little sleep topped off with three days of virtually no sleep had finally caught up with her. The relief of seeing Martha acted almost as a sleeping pill, relaxing her enough to allow her body's own system to kick into overdrive. She stood, stretching her arms in an effort to increase the blood flow. "Would it be OK if I took a little walk? I need to stretch," she explained. "And think."

Martha stood as well. "Of course! You can't get lost. There's a fence around the property, and if you stay out of the corn fields, you'll always be within sight of the house."

Lois moved around the table and in a gesture foreign to a woman raised in a fairly undemonstrative family, she reached for Martha, giving her another tight hug. "Thank you, Martha. No matter what happens, seeing you has been a big help."

She walked back down the hall, past the photographic representation of Clark's life and out the screen door. Heading to her left, she meandered to the edge of the vast yard, where a fence punctuated the end of the neatly trimmed grass and the beginning of the corn field. She took a right and followed the fence, walking slowly. The clean air felt wonderful, cool enough that she was glad to have her sweater. She took in deep breaths, letting the sweet smells fill her nose. It was amazing, she observed, how in just three days, the colors of the world had returned.

After that long night, for the first time since Clark's non- death, she had left her apartment of her own volition. She'd taken a long shower and changed into clean clothes, scrounged around for her car keys and driven the familiar route to the Planet. She slipped in quietly, avoiding all eye contact with curious people who stared at her like she was some sort of tragic widow. After availing the more than willing mail clerk of his services to send her letter via FedEx, she'd taken the back stairs up to Perry's office. He'd been so glad to see her up and about and was quick to grant her request for some additional time off, assuring her that after years of missed vacations, she more than had it coming to her. She hadn't told him where she was going or why, just mentioning that she felt that she needed to get a way for a little while.

Even without hard evidence, the simple idea that Clark was still alive had lifted an incredible weight off her. Knowing that somewhere, he walked and talked and breathed and laughed gave her a reason to get up and make plans. She'd spent the two days before her flight to Smallville cleaning her apartment, throwing open the windows to let fresh air blow away the stale smells of depression. Still feeling incredibly fragile, she didn't tax her mind or emotions too much, renting a couple of light Marx Brothers movies, reading People magazine and ordering chicken soup from the deli down the street. She had bided her time, counting the hours until she would arrive at the Kent farm.

The nights had still been long, the images of Clark's crumpling body sending her upright in her bed, drenched in a cold sweat every time she would reach a relaxed state. She imagined that even after she saw him for herself, it would be a long time before that nightmare would become a distant, painless memory.

As she trailed along the fence, she thought about what she would say when she saw him. Now that she knew the truth, what did she expect to happen? For the last two weeks, she'd wanted only to see him and touch him and tell him how she felt. She'd accomplished the last goal. It was clear that he'd read her letter, and she could let go of that regret, knowing that she'd been honest about her feelings for him.

The need that had driven her to view the video in the first place was still there. She still wanted to see him and touch him and hear him speak. But the urgency, the desperation she had felt had lessened. It was the difference between knowing that you could have something at some point versus believing that you could never have it again. She'd never been a smoker, but she now understood why going cold turkey might be pretty unappealing.

The pain of losing Clark had diminished now that she knew he was alive, but it had been replaced by a dull hurt. She loved Clark, and no matter what, that wouldn't change. But she needed to know if she would be able to forgive him. She wanted to understand why he'd done what he'd done so that she could let all of the hurt go. She needed to know if they had a future, or if, like Clark Kent's life, their relationship had been destroyed that night two weeks ago before it even had a chance to bloom.

With a start, she saw that she'd come to a massive red barn. The large doors were opened a crack, and she pushed them wide to allow light to flood into the massive space. As her eyes adjusted to the lower light, she noticed the hodgepodge of farm equipment, none of it offering any clue as to what its intended use might be and all of it looking incredibly dangerous. She moved down the center of the barn, toward a ladder that led somewhere. Glancing upward, she saw a wooden railing overlooking the floor below. She had an image in her mind, maybe from a movie or a lemonade commercial, of a loft where she would find a rope swing.

By the time she reached the top of the ladder, her arms felt like limp noodles. How disgusting it was that missing her workouts for just two weeks would make her so wimpy. Slightly disappointed that there was no rope swing, she surmised that the loft must be used to store hay, most of the floor covered with tightly bound bales piled three to four high. A couple of the bales had been unbound and lay in prickly piles, the Kansas version of the leaves she and Lucy had used to jump in when they were children.

It was warmer at that higher level, and she wondered if the hay was soft or as prickly as it looked. Kicking at it with her booted toe, she fluffed up a pile and added more to it before turning and cautiously lowering herself into the yellow straw. It was surprisingly soft, not at all prickly. She leaned back, enjoying the way the hay conformed to her body to create a cradle. Lazy dustmites and bits of straw floated through the beams of light coming from the open window above the great barn doors, and their slow dance relaxed her like the spinning of a hypnotist's pocket watch.

She closed her eyes, and for the first time in over two weeks, she was able to see only darkness behind her eyelids instead of images of Clark falling to the floor.

***

Clark had a flash of d,j. vu when he landed on the front porch, whirled his way into comfortable clothes and made his way to the kitchen. Had it only been that morning that he'd returned from the earthquake, so tired that he wanted nothing more than to go to bed? As much energy as he'd expended helping during the quake, the mental and emotional exertion of the past hours had been harder. This time, though, he knew that despite the overwhelming exhaustion, sleep would never come. He wondered absently if he'd ever sleep again, and if Superman was invulnerable, could he actually be killed by lack of sleep?

As he'd flown over the farm, he'd noticed the strange car parked at the end of the long, gravel drive. But he'd been so preoccupied with thoughts of Lois that he didn't give it much thought, assigning the vehicle to one of his parents' friends. His quick scan assured him that no stranger was in the kitchen, ready to be shocked by Clark's appearance from the world of the dead, so he entered the room. His mother sat at the round table, a cup of coffee wrapped in her hands. That alone should have alerted him, because in all of his nearly thirty years, he'd only seen Martha Kent sitting still a half a dozen times. And none of those incidents had meant anything good. His eyes darted to a second mug, the chair of its owner empty. Suddenly, it dawned on him.

"She's here," he stated, not a question but a confirmation. He could feel her presence, as if she sent out a glow that acted like a beacon drawing him in.

Martha nodded. "She arrived about an hour ago. Said she caught the earliest flight out of Metropolis that she could get."

Clark licked his lips, his mouth suddenly dry. "Where is she now?" He glanced down the hall leading to the downstairs powder room, the thought that she could be as near as the closed door making his heart beat quicker.

"She took a walk. Down by the northern fence, I think, out past the barn." Martha looked at her son, her eyes full of concern and love. "Clark, she knows."

"I know," he said softly. "Is she very angry?"

His mother studied the remaining coffee in her cup for a long moment before answering. "I think mostly she's just grateful that you're alive. But she is hurt."

"That's much worse," he sighed. Anger was a thunderstorm, raging, loud and flashing. But it moved on, leaving behind a cleansing rain. Hurt was like hail, cold and stinging, leaving behind damage, bruises and wounds that scarred.

"Yep, I'm afraid so," Martha agreed. "Clark, go to her. See her and talk to her. No matter what happens, she deserves to know the truth."

He left the house, walking in the direction that Lois had taken. Part of him wanted to run, to find her as quickly as possible so that not one single minute more could pass before seeing her. The other part of him, the part that was stronger at this point, pulled his steps back, aware that the impact on his life after seeing Lois would probably be more profound than being shot and killed. As long as they never spoke, they would remain frozen at the perfect moment where he could believe that she loved him as he wanted her to. While speaking to her was his heart's burning desire, his mind understood the danger and tried to protect the parts of him unwilling to face the truth that Lois's feelings were most likely much more complex than unconditional love and adoration.

Clark didn't go any farther than the barn, the sound of her heartbeat calling to him from within its moist darkness. He entered, crossing to the steep ladder leading to the hayloft above. As a young boy and then a teen, the hayloft had offered him escape. First from the problems only monumental to a child, then from the overwhelming confusion and fear generated by his burgeoning powers. Among the bales of sweet hay he could find refuge, pretending for a while that the world outside the barn doors didn't exist. Even as an adult, the fragrance of hay still gave him an odd comfort.

She lay in a deep golden pile, sound asleep. The sight of her was like an arrow, piercing through him. Her dark lashes fanned across her cheeks, which were still unnaturally pale but less so than when he'd last seen her at the memorial service. His eyes traced the familiar curve of her face, the sensuous line of her mouth, relaxed in sleep so that her lips parted just slightly. From where he stood, he could smell the fragrance of her hair, the subtle scent heady to his finely attuned senses. She wore a chocolate brown sweater that he knew exactly matched the color of her eyes. Every image he had brought forth during the past two weeks was a pale comparison to the reality of Lois, alive and real right before him.

He resisted the urge to go to her and gather her into his arms. He wanted to feel her heart beating next to his, to let the warmth of her melt the icy rock that resided in his stomach since the three shots had ended life as he knew it. He wanted to shower her face with kisses so tender that they would erase any pain her heart had ever felt. Mostly, he wanted to hold her so tight that she fused with him, insuring that never again would they be apart.

But he stood away from her, watching her chest as it gently rose and fell. When first she saw him, she needed to be fully alert and prepared, ready for battle. She deserved the chance to be angry, and he would not deny her that by waking her in his arms, confused and groggy. Clark turned, ready to climb down the ladder where he would wait for her, outside in the cooling air while he tried to regain control of his broiling emotions.

As his foot hit the first rung, her voice stopped him cold. "Aren't you going to save me, Superman?"

The sound paralyzed him, and it took every bit of his strength to turn around. The brown eyes he'd missed so desperately were now wide open, glittering with something he couldn't discern. Was it anger or unshed tears? Hatred or joy? He couldn't look away, the power they held over him stronger than any kryptonite. He couldn't speak, terrified that any choice of words would be the wrong one. He knew umpteen languages, yet not a single tongue spoken on the Earth contained the words he needed to make sure she would love him forever.

She stood, bits of hay clinging to her silky hair in a way that he found both amusing and arousing. He'd thought that he remembered how beautiful she was, but now he saw how faulty and frail the human memory could be. Her sooty lashes fringed her almond shaped eyes, so dark that they looked almost black. Her creamy skin looked as soft as velvet, and he wanted to run his fingers along the delicate curve of her jaw. Although she seemed thinner, her sweater hanging a little too loosely off her shoulders, every inch of her was exquisite.

As she walked toward him, he tensed, ready to feel her fists pummeling him and her words biting. He would take it. He would take it all and anything else she would give to him. Hatred or love, anger or joy. It only mattered that she was here.

It seemed to take an eternity for her to cross the loft to stand in front of him, only inches between his chest and hers. The heat from her body spanned the space and burned him. She scanned his face, taking in his features as if checking to make sure they were all there as she had left them. She lifted her hand, and he winced inwardly, almost expecting a slap. Instead, she reached up to brush a lock of hair off his forehead. Her touch was like a jolt of electricity. When her palm moved down to caress the plain of his cheek, he could barely stand the exquisite sensation of her fingers on his skin, and he grasped her wrist gently, holding it still.

Her finely arched eyebrows lifted and came together poignantly as if she dared not believe what she saw standing before her. Her eyes glistened brighter, and a tear escaped to slide down her perfectly shaped cheek. His heart tore at the naked vulnerability in her eyes, and he moaned, desperate to take the pain away. With a strangled cry, she reached up, placing her free hand behind his neck and pulling him downward. He offered no resistance, and as she lifted her face up to meet him, his lips found hers.

A tidal wave of tenderness and love washed over him, and he was drowning in the sweetness of her. Releasing her wrist, his hands moved to cup her face, holding it gently as he tried to tell her with his whole heart how much he loved her. He felt her sigh raggedly, a sob shudder through her slender body. His lips left hers to kiss her eyes and her cheeks, every inch of her beloved face while she alternated between sobs and laughter. The salty taste of her tears was like the finest champagne.

"You're alive. You're alive!" she breathed, seeking out his lips again, more hungrily. "I thought I'd lost you forever. Before I ever even had you, I lost you."

"You never lost me," he murmured, his own tears mingling with hers as he pulled her into a tight embrace. "I've always been yours. I'll always be yours."

He pulled back, looking once again into the dark depths of her eyes that shone so brightly with life and tears. He'd felt it since the moment he'd met her. He'd even confessed it to her in an attempt to keep her from marrying Luthor. But now, it was imperative that she know how much he meant it. "I love you, Lois. I love you completely. Irrevocably. Endlessly."

She laughed, crying harder as he repeated her own words back to her. "Taken from an excellent source!"

His own laughter joined hers, the sound of her gentle teasing something he had despaired of ever hearing again. "I'll memorize every word and repeat them back to you every hour. Every minute."

He reached for her, encircling his arms around her as tightly as he dared, wanting to draw her inside his chest. How had he ever believed he could live without her? He inhaled deeply, the smell of her skin and hair intoxicating. They stood like that, reveling in the solidness of the real after trying for so long to grasp the elusiveness of dreams.

He felt her palms against his chest, pushing him back and he released her slightly, reluctantly. Afraid that, like a butterfly, she'd be gone if he looked away but for a second.

Instead of fleeing, she gazed up at him, again scanning his face with an odd expression, one of wonder and disbelief. He remembered with a start that he wore no glasses. For the first time, she was seeing the union of Clark Kent and Superman into the one face that represented the true man. The feeling of vulnerability rocked him. He didn't shy away from it, ready to place himself before her, his heart and soul laid completely open. It was a defining moment, he knew, when she would either accept him for what he was or walk away.

Her voice dropped to a whisper, hoarse with emotion and something else. "I don't know how I didn't see it. Your eyes and your smile. They're the same. They've always been there, but I never saw it. I guess I never looked close enough." She offered him a weak smile, an apology that he started to protest, but she placed her fingers on his lips, stilling him. "Clark, why didn't you tell me?"

It was the question he'd been waiting for. The one question that was both the easiest and the hardest to answer. "I always wanted to tell you. Many times, I even started to tell you. But always something came up that stopped me. First, it was me. I wanted a chance to live a normal life. I wanted to make friends and prove myself, not as Superman, but as Clark. I needed to know that even without my powers, I had something that I could offer the world."

She listened, her expression a mixture of expectation and acceptance of his reasoning. Encouraged by the fact that she seemed to understand so far, he took a deep breath and pushed forward. "Then my reasons changed. I found myself falling in love with you, and when I thought of telling you, I got scared. I was afraid that you would see me as some sort of freak. An alien trying to pretend that he was human."

"How could you ever think that?" she exclaimed, a pained look flitting across her eyes. "You know how much I cared for Superman…"

"You accepted Superman as Superman," he conceded. "But how would you have felt if you knew that he was living another life, trying to be normal? I mean, why would anyone with super powers want to live an ordinary life, going to work every day and trying to make everyone think he was just an average guy? "

At her confused look, he continued, trying to make her understand. "Your very admiration for Superman gave me another reason to keep my secret. I loved you, and I wanted you to love me. But I wanted you to love Clark, as I am without any special abilities. If I told you who I was, I would never know if your feelings for me were only the reflection of those for Superman."

"Clark, it's not Superman's powers that I loved," she protested. "It was his…your…goodness and integrity. Your bravery. Things that I finally realized weren't the result of superpowers but of something deeper. Things that you…Clark…had."

"Lois, you told me yourself that you felt for me only feelings of friendship. Then in almost the same breath, you professed your love to Superman. It killed me to know that only dressed in the suit could I inspire your love. It's why I rejected you that night, telling you that I saw no future for us. What you claimed to love was only a small part of the person that I am. I needed you to love the whole of me."

Lois stepped back and turned, returning to the pile of hay. His heart wrenched, not knowing if she understood him or not. Her shoulders shook slightly, and he heard the muffled sob. When she spoke, she kept her back to him. "I feel so ashamed for the way I treated you. I told Superman…you…that I would love him even if he had no special powers, if he was just an ordinary man. I professed all of that after so cruelly telling you that I had no feelings for you in that way. What must you have thought of me, standing there listening and knowing that what I said was a lie."

"You didn't intentionally lie, Lois," he said, trying to assuage her guilt. It wasn't his intention to make her feel bad about loving Superman. "You believed what you told me that night. That if I came to you as Superman without his powers, you would love him just the same. How were you to know that you already knew that man? I don't blame you. In fact, I feel terrible that I put you in that situation."

Clark walked to her and placed his hands on her shoulders, turning her to face him. He couldn't bear talking to her without looking at her, the need to read her eyes crucial as he asked her the question that had haunted him since reading her letter. "Lois, I have to know. When did you write that letter? Was it before or…after…you figured out who I was?" Her answer would color his view of every interaction they had ever had or might ever have, and he held his breath, waiting for his life sentence.

"I've loved you for a long time, Clark. I just didn't see it until I thought you were gone. The pain of thinking of life without you…it was…" She choked, unable to finish. With a small shake, she forced herself to continue. "I realized that without you, I had no life. That I loved you. Was in love with you. I didn't figure out who you were until three nights ago, and by that time, it didn't matter if you were Superman or the Pope or…"

He cut her off, bending down to capture her lips as her words penetrated his brain. Lois had loved him before she knew he was Superman. Her feelings were based on the real man, not the superhero. Although neither one had really believed it when she said it, she had been right. She would love him, even if he turned out to be an ordinary man. She had set him free of the doubts that he feared would always taint any relationship they might ever have.

She returned his kiss with a tenderness that made him ache, but soon she pulled away, putting distance between them. He steeled himself, recognizing the stiffness in her posture that always meant she was upset. "Clark, I have so many questions. For the last two days, I've done nothing but try to understand why you didn't come to me. Why you didn't tell me who you were." Lois shook her head when he started to interrupt. "No, let me finish. At first, I was so angry. And hurt. I couldn't believe you didn't trust me enough to tell me. But after a while, I started to understand…or at least…I tried to understand why you'd be cautious. What I never could figure out was why you didn't come to me after I thought you'd died. Clark, it really hurt. That you let me think you were dead. Do you know what that did to me?"

He winced, remembering the woman he had watched at his memorial service. Lois had been an empty shell, walking through a living nightmare. But even then, he hadn't imagined that her pain would be more than temporary. That within a reasonable amount of time she'd have moved beyond it, of course always retaining loving memories of her good friend, Clark Kent. "God, Lois. I'm so sorry. If I'd ever imagined you had these feelings for me, I'd never have stayed away. I thought that I was the only one hurting."

"Did you really believe me so cold that I wouldn't mourn your death?" Her voice took on a hard edge and he saw the unmistakable flash of anger in her eyes.

"I knew you'd be sad. We were partners. And friends," he added quickly at her frown. "But I thought you'd get over it. Move on and be happy. I didn't know that you had stronger feelings for me. Hell, Lois, you didn't even know it yourself.

"And even if we had known it, as far as everyone thinks, I'm dead. What could I offer you? What kind of relationship could we have? Even as Superman, I wouldn't have the same kind of life as I have…had…as Clark. What would we have done? Left Metropolis to start over where no one knows us? I couldn't expect that from you."

"Didn't I deserve the chance to decide? Clark, I love you. I may not have known it until just recently, but all the same, I do. For two weeks, I thought I'd lost you." She started to pace. "You can't imagine what I went through. I couldn't get out of bed. Every day, I would wake up and remember that I wouldn't see you. I wouldn't get to talk to you or share things with you. I wanted to die, too."

She stopped pacing, turning to glare at him. Finally, the anger he'd expected. Her beautiful face was flushed, her eyes snapped. "Do you want to know how I figured out you were Superman?"

"I've been wondering…" he started, but she interrupted.

"I found out you were Superman because, three nights ago, I was so desperate to see your face again and hear your voice that I resorted to watching the surveillance tape from Georgie Hairdo's club. I watched the most horrible night of my life play out in front of me just so I could see you again." Her voice shook, and Clark stared at her, stunned by her admission. "Don't you see, I was willing to go through hell just to see your face one more time! So don't tell me that you couldn't ask anything of me."

His legs started shaking and he felt the need to sit down. Regret, like an acid, washed through him, eating him up painfully. How could he have been so cruel? How would he ever make it up to her? "Lois, I can't tell you how sorry I am. I didn't know…"

"You didn't know because you didn't give me a chance!" she cried, and even without any super eyesight, he could see her trembling with the force of her fury.

Although he'd prepared himself mentally for it, the effect of her hurt and anger on his emotions was devastating. He had to physically restrain himself from approaching her, torn between the urge to pull her close and hold her still until the fury had drained out of her and the need to subject himself to the punishment he felt he deserved. Only a thread-thin sliver of pride kept him from throwing himself at her feet and begging for forgiveness.

If Lois had any idea how her words were affecting him, she didn't let it stop her torrent. "If I hadn't watched that tape and noticed that for some strange, freakish reason Clark Kent had no blood on his shirt even after being shot by three bullets at point blank range, I would still think you were dead. I would have stayed in bed for God knows how long, until Perry or Jimmy came to haul me back to work. Then I would have spent the rest of my life hating myself because I made you go into that club and because I never had a chance to tell you how I felt about you!"

Her words cut through his heart like a laser, the knowledge that he himself had caused her such pain worse than thinking he'd never see her again. At least before, he'd believed that she would move past the grief to find happiness, and her happiness was some consolation for the loss of his own. As she spoke, he could feel her despair at losing someone so cherished. If it was one tenth the magnitude of what he had felt, he could never forgive himself. ""I've hurt you so much. How you must still hate me," he choked, his eyes stinging with unshed tears.

"That's the problem, Clark. I couldn't hate you. Believe me, I tried," she nearly spat. "But it only lasted about twenty minutes. Then I remembered what you did to protect me and what it meant for you. As much as I lost, you lost more when you stepped in front of those bullets."

A sudden burst of anger tore through him. It was the first time the emotion had been directed at someone other than himself or the dismal luck fate had thrown at him. "Are you telling me that your feelings for me are some bizarre expression of…of…gratitude?" He struggled to find the word. "I'm Superman, remember? I don't expect any payment. Just a 'thank you' would be fine!"

"That's not fair, Clark. Of course I'm thankful to you. What you did for me could never be repaid," she threw back at him, not willing to swallow his sarcasm and allow him to use her words against her. "But that's not why I'm here. I didn't pull myself out of my bed and fly hundreds of miles just to say 'Thank You' and 'Oh, by the way, I know who you are, you big jerk!'"

"Then why are you here, Lois?" He suddenly felt more tired than he'd ever felt before, alive or dead. Every super muscle and super nerve was depleted. "I've misled you. I've kept secrets from you. I've hurt you. Why would you even want to see me?"

"I was hurt. I still hurt. And at first, I was glad to be rid of you," she admitted angrily. "But then I remembered how much more it hurt to be without you. I realized that if I was willing to watch you get shot over and over just so I could see you, I would do anything if I had the chance to be with you again. When I figured out you were Superman, it took me while, but I saw that I had been given a second chance. No matter how angry I was or how hurt, nothing could be worse than losing you. That's when I sat down and wrote that letter."

The outburst had deflated her anger, and her voice was quieter. "Clark, there's a lot I still don't understand, and it's going to take a lot of time and talking before I'm over all of this. But no matter what it takes, it's worth it. If I get to see you every day and talk to you, it's worth it. My love for you is stronger than the hurt."

Her words hung in the air, a tangible rope pulling them together and binding them with knots no death could ever untie. Lois's hurt had been debilitating, but she'd overcome it enough to find him because she loved him. He knew in that instant that she possessed a power greater than all of his super abilities combined.

"You know that I'd do anything for you, don't you?" he whispered, trying to comprehend what he'd ever done to deserve this woman. "I'd die for you."

"You did die for me. Clark Kent died to protect me." She closed the distance between them, her voice dropping to a near plea. "But that's not what I want. I want you to **live** for me. That's why I'm here."

He put his hands on her upper arms, pulling her so that her forehead rested against his chin, his lips brushing the spot where her hair met her silky skin. The answer was so clear, he couldn't believe he had considered any other option. Being with her was more important than anything else. If he had to live locked in a cage, released for only a minute each day, he would do it if it meant they would be together. "I'll come back to Metropolis as Superman. It won't be the same, but we'll find a way to make it work…"

She shook her head, pulling back slightly to look up at him. Her eyes were shiny, but with the glow of acceptance and love instead of the fire of fury. "I don't want Superman." She laughed a little when he raised one brow, confused by her confession. "Well, I want Superman some of the time. But I want Clark all of the time. I want my partner back. But this time, with more…"

"Lois, a hundred people saw me die. It was in the papers." He felt his frustration growing again. "They even had a memorial service, for crying out loud."

She looked at him as if he'd just admitted that he didn't want to go back to Metropolis because he had an unpaid parking ticket. "Is that all that's keeping you away?"

"Is that all?" he echoed, incredulous. Maybe all of her grief had pushed her over the edge. "I don't see how…"

She placed her fingers on his lips, silencing him. "There was no body, Clark. In a world where the miracle of Superman exists, surely there's room for another miracle that would bring Clark Kent back from death. Together, we make a pretty good team. We'll think of something."

For the second time that day, he felt a surge of joy and hope that threatened to fill his heart to bursting. Her confidence wiped away any doubt, and he knew that with her help, he'd get his life back. Not a new life, but his old life. All three dimensions of it. He cupped her face in his hands, looking into her eyes where he saw his future.

"Lois, I love you." He lowered his head, touching her lips with his. As she responded to his gentle massage, in her warmth he felt acceptance. He had a long way to go to help her erase the hurt, but he would do it because she would let him. Standing in that hayloft, he finally felt as if he'd come home.

"I love you, Clark," she whispered against him. His heart rate quickened and he felt hers increase as well. Together the sound joined to create one rhythm.

"Completely?" he whispered, pausing only a split second to ask before resuming his assault on her lips. Drinking her in.

"Irrevocably," she replied, becoming breathless as the intensity of their kiss deepened.

"Endlessly," he agreed, abandoning all speech to lose himself in the promise that was Lois Lane.

THE END