By CC Aiken <AikFree@aol.com>
Submitted: November 2004
Summary: Still learning to live as the exposed Superman in the altUniverse, Clark Kent meets his world's Lois Lane. She is newly returned from the Congo. He is married to Lana Lang. How late is too late?
Thank you so much to good friends and BRs LynnM and StopQuitDont for tackling this epic and being so helpful in their remarks. And to the readers of the L&C Fanfic Mbs, whose comments were so smart and thought provoking, they made this a better story.
I have made quite a few changes from what was originally posted, so I owe added thanks to Avia, Jen, Yvonne, Ray, Sherry, Ethnica, and TEEJ, whose feedback triggered altered and additional scenes. And to Liz for helping me wrestle with the ending.
I owe the biggest debt of gratitude to LabRat, who, in addition to BRing this exhaustively, provided me with the single, most valuable suggestion I desperately needed, and the hook on which to hang the entire thing. It's not overstating to say I could not have written this without her. (More on this in the end note.)
I hope you enjoy. I'm open to criticisms. All feedback most welcome.
"You're late," she stated tonelessly. "Again."
"I know." He moved towards her, reaching for her hand. "It was crazy out there today, honey. I'm sorr—"
"Don't." She cut him off, pulling her hand from his and moving away. "Don't bother, ok?"
"Have you eaten yet?" He tried a different tack.
"Let's have dinner," he said. "We've barely had any time together lately. I could cook. And I won't respond to any calls unless—"
The look on her face stopped him cold.
"I could change," he offered quickly. "I know the Suit bothers you, sweetheart."
Had it been his imagination, or had she actually flinched on the 'sweetheart?'
"We have an opening to attend tonight," she told him. The mask once more coming over her features, erasing the look he'd seen as if by magic. "You've forgotten."
"Which is this again?" he asked apologetically, moving to the closet to study his shirts and ties. She was right. He was losing track of things. The things they did together. The real things. "Do I need the tux?"
"Not you, Clark," she replied. "Superman."
God, why didn't she just cut him in half?
"I am me," he told her not turning around, daring his voice to keep the emotion from it. "I am Clark Kent," he repeated firmly. "I am not two people. If they asked for Superman, they asked for me." He began sorting through the clothes vigorously, not noticing he had torn more than a few buttons from his freshly laundered shirts. "Now, do I need the tux?" he demanded softly.
"It's the New Center for Women and Children. It opens tonight, thanks to Superman's influence. They just want to see…the Suit. The cape, the emblem. You know."
She had moved towards him and was stroking his back soothingly now. An unspoken apology for her earlier comment. Touching him through the spandex. He couldn't remember the last time she had done that, if she ever had. "The kids will love it, Clark."
Nail in the coffin. Argument won. He bowed his head.
"You had to have known," she couldn't resist adding. He knew she couldn't. The thousandth version of 'I told you so.' "When you took this on, you had to have known no one would want…Clark Kent again."
"What about you?" he questioned slowly, and dangerously, he knew that, too.. His eyes stayed riveted on his collection of ties. "Do you still want Clark Kent?"
"I'm not doing this." She glided away, snapping her purse closed, as resolutely as she had snapped the conversation closed. "Let's just go. You're dressed and I'm ready."
He turned towards her then.
"You look beautiful," he offered. An olive branch. "Maybe when we get home…?"
"Not tonight. I'm already doing my duty as Superman's wife. I don't want…anything else."
He looked over her shoulder, as had become his habit. Through the wall just behind her. Outside. Into the sky. Where he suddenly so desperately wished to be.
"Lana," he said after a time. "I know this whole thing takes some getting used to. I know you're frustrated with all of this. You have every right to be. But underneath it all," he gestured to the cape, the boots. "I'm still me. The boy you grew up with."
"The boy I grew up with," she returned, "was the orphaned son of farmers whose life's dream, or so I thought, was to escape the small town and write stories. Not…this." She pointed to the spare capes hanging next to his work clothes, to the window through which he came and went more than the front door. She hated that especially, he knew.
"Not some costumed character who sells magazines," she continued quietly. "Superman. You know, for a guy who I remember as mostly humble, that's quite a nickname you've given yourself. How desperate for acceptance do you have to be? To wear …tights! To try to right all the wrongs on the planet!" She was warmed up now, and he'd asked for it. "Do you know, do you really know what it's like for me? The kinds of questions I get just trying to go to the grocery store?"
"This is old ground," he told her, suddenly too tired to argue. Suddenly very, very sorry he'd even broached the topic. Hadn't just followed her cue and left it alone. "I know it isn't easy, Lana, for either of us. For you. But Superman isn't about acceptance—"
"I wasn't enough for you."
The words were spoken without bitterness, devoid of all anger. And they surprised him into speechlessness. Again, and for just an instant, her well-worn mask slipped. Underneath, for the first time in months, he saw the girl he'd known. Heard her in Lana's voice.
"I loved you enough to accepted you as you were. Married you. But with the understanding that you'd be careful, so my life wouldn't be…a circus."
He felt a twist in his gut…past tense.
She was right. So right. Her life, their life, was no life at all, really. Not any more. Not since Superman has been created, and then just as quickly exposed as Clark Kent. They had been married little more than a year before he'd changed everything…
And for the most part, when it got complicated, he flew away. Literally put himself above it. After six months, in the center of the world's eye as Superman, he still hadn't worked out all the implications for himself. But Lana didn't have the same luxury of flight. She had to live on the ground, live with being the wife of an alien, a superhero. Which at its mildest made her a simple object of curiosity; at its worst it endangered her. A squadron of federal bodyguards tailed her every step out of the house. For her own good.
She was as famous as he was. More vulnerable than he was. And he had done that to her.
She hadn't signed up for any of this when they'd said their vows. No where in "for better or for worse" was the concept 'if your husband becomes world famous as a strange visitor from another planet.' He knew that. She wouldn't have said yes to that.
"Lana," he tried again, though he had absolutely no idea what he could possibly say. Just that he needed to keep trying, he reminded himself sternly, for both of their sakes. "I'm sorry." These were words he had offered her hundreds of times, but he spoke them with a full heart. "Really, so much. For all of it. If there was any other way—"
"There was another way up until six months ago," she returned. "Where is she, Clark? You have never answered that. She came, turned everything upside down, thrust you into the spotlight, and now… where is she? Is she coming back?"
They were back here. To the root of it. Lois Lane. Another strange visitor from a different universe. The third party in this room. The third party in this marriage…
And the kick he had needed. The push he hadn't known he'd longed for, until Lois had come and given it to him. The push to be who he really was, no more darting around, scared out of his mind that someone was going to put two and two together. Or worse, that something horrible was going to happen right in front of him, and due to circumstances, due to the fear of being found out, he'd be forced to just watch.
"You're getting that look again," Lana informed him levelly. And sadly, too. He knew her well enough to hear that. He smoothed his features, not sure what she'd seen, not wanting to know, really.
Lana knew him too well. It was so unfair. To them both. But mostly to her. He was acutely aware of that. And he hated himself for it. Lois Lane hadn't just been his motivator. She had been…something else. It was just as well she hadn't stayed. Her leaving had been a relief. If she was still here…?
He didn't let his thoughts rest on that possibility for even a second.
Lois hadn't intended for him to be exposed. She had felt horrible about it. But she had needed to get home, back to her own life and…other things. And despite the fact that he had asked her to stay, been ready to, maybe, change things in his personal life if she had, the truth was he had really needed for her to go.
So he could learn how to be Superman in his own way, not just as an imitation of someone else. And so he could be Lana's faithful husband. Free from any sort of…temptation. Anything less than that was not acceptable. He and Lana had a lifetime together. He and Lois had had a weekend.
It had been one hell of a weekend.
"She isn't coming back," he told her again, turning to avoid her eyes. He moved briskly to the window and opened it. "Can I fly you there?"
Suddenly the idea of being surrounded by perfect strangers, perfectly adoring strangers, seemed really good.
"My hair," Lana replied in shorthand. Same answer as always. "I'll take the car."
He should drive in with her. It was the least he could do. They could have a few sane moments before the insanity started.
"I'll meet you," he whispered, ashamed of himself. He launched himself up and out, grateful, so grateful for the welcoming night sky.
The night's function had lasted until the early morning hours, and even Lana seemed to have enjoyed herself. This was the upside to his new life, his new career as Superman. All the money that was raised, all the good that was possible, simply because he would stand in a room with some people, have his picture taken with them, even sign some autographs. Something that was starting to feel less excruciatingly embarrassing and more normal.
Not that normal wasn't a purely relative term. But for the first morning in too many to count, he had started the day feeling hopeful. Hopeful that the newness of his celebrity was wearing off. That he would stop being an object of fascination and go back to being a person. That the good he was doing might win over the doubters, or those who were afraid. That Lana could go to more functions like that one, get a chance to see that it didn't have to be hell on earth, being Mrs. Superman. That the two of them might reach some sort of normal they could both be happy with.
He sat at his desk in his remote corner of the bullpen and told himself it was all possible. It would just take time. Progress was being made on all fronts. He was here at work. He had left Lana in a less than foul mood. Given enough time, it could all be…fine.
Then the elevator doors slid open and Lois Lane stepped out.
Lois Lane did not just step off the elevator. That was ridiculous. That was just…stupid.
<And not wishful thinking right, Kent?> he growled inwardly.
Not every woman with dark hair and dark eyes has to be Lois…
<She's left him. The other Clark. Maybe it didn't work out. Maybe she's come back to…>
He closed his eyes. Opened them again.
She was still there. But she wasn't Lois. Whoever she was, she just…moved with the same sort of…
He stood up slowly.
The dark eyes, the dark hair, the take no prisoners stride…that face…
She hit the ramp and entered the bullpen.
He put one foot in front of the other carefully, as if he might fall, as if the drastic shift, away from that normal he'd just been wishing for, might literally throw him off his feet, cause the ground to quake beneath him.
He watched for just a half a second more before he swept down on her. One thought forming above all the others currently buzzing to connect in his brain: he had needed more time. More time to gather up the threads of his life. To sew them into something good and whole. Something to wrap around him, to protect him from…the very sight of her. So he wouldn't be tempted, again, to cast it all aside, to beg her to…
Anyway, more time. More time would have been nice.
"Hey." He placed his hand on her elbow and turned her gently towards him. "Are you looking for me? What's happened?" It couldn't be good. He knew just enough to know that. If she was standing here and not in her own dimension, then something somewhere had gone horribly wrong.
She frowned at him. "I…no…" she finally said. "Perry White?"
"Perry's here, meeting with James. Are you sure you don't need me?"
"Just…what?" She turned towards him fully now, and he immediately released her elbow, acutely aware that touching her sometimes led to other things. Or rather, thoughts of other…
Her face was completely blank. Amnesia? Time-travel mental something? A trauma of some kind, surely…
"Lois," he spoke to her gently. "It's me. Your friend, Clark."
She raised an eyebrow at this. "No kidding," she said finally, but her tone said something else all together. She was humoring him.
"Tempus?" he whispered. "Wells? Ring a bell?"
"This is code, isn't it?" she whispered back, not hiding her amusement, but looking intrigued. She studied his face, making no move to step away from him. "You've got me mixed up with someone else."
The words hit him like an anvil from the sky. He had her mixed up with someone else. Mixed up…with someone else.
He did. This was not Lois. This was…
"Lois?" he croaked. "Lois Lane of…" Of what? Of this dimension? Of this cosmic address? "Of…some time ago?" he finally settled on.
Her face lit up in a smile that was…well, it was all right. "Yes!" She patted him on the arm, and he resisted the urge to leap away, to run for the safety of his desk, for the isolation of his Fortress of Solitude, which was still just a blueprint in his mind, but one day he'd really build it. Today might be good, actually.
"And Perry's in here?" She gestured over her shoulder. "I haven't seen him in ages. Haven't seen this building, this city, this many people…" She was a fount of happy words. They sprang out, bubbled over everywhere.
Of course the eyes of the work force were on them. It was a Monday morning; people needed something to look at. Generally, it was him. He was an interesting subject, even when he wasn't doing anything more than using the copier. But this woman — her energy — was captivating, completely different, and not just to him.
"Let me take you," he offered. "Perry will be surprised—" He paused on her laugh. Joyous and excited. "And I don't want him to—"
"Keel over? Go to be with Elvis? Turn toes up in Graceland?" she filled in, the merry sparkle in her eyes all but sucking the breath from him. Maybe when he knew her better, he could ask her not to do that. Or to do that all the time, he'd need to give it some thought.
She beat him to the door, though it was a close, polite race. She threw it open, threw herself into the Mayor's arms, nearly knocking the paper's owner, and now self-assigned rookie editor, from his feet.
"Sorry." She smiled at James, who, after blinking rapidly a few times, smiled back readily.
"Absolutely no problem," he assured her. "A beautiful woman wants to fly in here, I won't complain. However," he teased, "you grabbed the wrong guy. He's married."
"So, Alice hasn't come to her senses, yet?" She pulled Perry's face down for a fast kiss. "And you look great, just the same. So much else has changed, but I knew this wouldn't."
Perry hadn't spoken. He was looking to Clark with a million questions on his face. The same ones that had been on his, no doubt. Perry knew the whole story. The complete, unbelievable epic of how Clark Kent went from truly mild-mannered reporter to Superman in a weekend. And how one woman, who they had initially mistaken for the woman currently around his neck, had made all the difference.
"I thought I knew her," he said to Perry carefully. "Turns out, I had her mixed up with someone else."
"I have one of those faces," she proposed. And she certainly did. That was some face.
The change in Perry was immediate. His arms, which had been hovering uncertainly, closed around her tightly. "Oh, great shades," he stammered. "Oh, honey."
"That's more like it." Lois beamed.
"My turn?" asked James. "For an introduction, I mean."
James didn't remember.
The night Clark had confessed all to Perry, he had wondered aloud what he needed to say to James Olsen to explain away Lois Lane's absence. She'd come, been hired, and disappeared in just a couple of days. There needed to be a reason, a feasible explanation, and he'd rather not open the can with all the time-travel worms in it, if it could be avoided.
"James won't remember," Perry had assured him gruffly. "If you asked him, he'd remember she was pretty. He might even remember what color her suit was. But I'll lay you odds that if we don't mention her, he won't either."
Clark hadn't believed him. And had decided on his own that the story was Lois had gone home to attend a wedding, and once there had made the decision to stay. It was true, even, which was helpful. He'd kept that excuse ready and waiting on the tip of tongue. But in the wake of Perry's election, the whole Flying Man From Outer Space thing, and James turning his attention to running the paper, one woman's short stay in their universe had been almost completely forgotten. Almost.
If it weren't for Lana, and her constant reminders, he might well have thought he'd imagined her, too. Imagined their amazing time together. Dreamed her. Because he hadn't exactly been happy in the box that was the life he had shut himself inside. And Lois Lane had pried the lid open and demanded he come out.
And he had, readily. Maybe too readily. Six months later he was still trying to figure out how he could have been so impulsive. How he could have changed his life so dramatically, with very little thought for what it would mean — to his life, to his marriage. For the first time in his very careful thirty years, he hadn't really thought at all. He'd just acted.
The chance to be Superman, to help. That's all he had wanted. It had all seemed so simple. Lois had made it seem so simple. And now, here she was again, only not…
"Where have you been?" Perry's choked voice broke into his thoughts. "We thought you were dead!"
"Dead?" echoed James, and Clark thought he detected a note of recognition, of de ja vu. He watched him closely, waiting for the memory to surface, and wondering what the hell they should do when it did.
Lois laughed again, another thing he was either going to have to ask her to stop all together, or just keep doing from now on. Releasing Perry she moved to the sofa and sank into it. "Taking a sabbatical from writing for the world's greatest newspaper isn't the same as dead, Chief," she replied with a grin. "Though I can see how you'd get the two confused."
"Where…have you been, Lois?" Clark spoke for the first time.
"You knew my name out there." She eyed him speculatively.
"You were a big deal around here," he returned. Again, perfectly true. "New hires would know you, or they should."
He could tell that was just the right thing.
"And you are?"
Perry found his voice again, moving to take James's chair, he boomed out, "Lois Lane, meet Clark Kent."
"Hello," she said simply.
"Hi," he answered.
"James Olsen," volunteered their forgotten boss. "You worked here, I take it?"
"Up until a few years ago. I went to the Congo, chasing a story…" The room shrank a little, or they all moved closer. Clark couldn't tell which. "And I…met someone."
"What?" That had come out of his mouth and he immediately regretted how it sounded. A bit…judgmental.
Her chin came up, her eyes flashed briefly, before a self-deprecating smile settled over her lips. "I know," she said wryly. "I'll need to get used to that. It's a bit out of character, and I'm going to have to get good at explaining."
"Practice on us," James offered smoothly with a wink. Why hadn't Clark noticed before how badly his well-oiled young boss grated on his nerves? Funny, he would have sworn before today that he genuinely liked him.
"His name was Marvin," she began with a dreamy, far away look. "He was studying the local flora. Really amazing stuff, you have no idea. I'll never look at a florist shop the same way again. Prison." She shuddered. "Death row for stores of life…Anyway, he'd set up a very impressive base camp deep in the jungle. Right out of Tarzan…hey…I guess I was Jane!" she finished gleefully, not seeming to notice her thunderstruck audience.
"Lois, my ears have turned funny or something," Perry finally spoke for the group. "Are you telling me that all this time…you've been living in the…jungle…with a botanist?"
"In a tree house," she confirmed. "I know it sounds a little strange. Born and raised in the city, never far from the concrete or skyscrapers. And those first few months, well, I thought the bugs alone would kill me. But his passion, his dedication…" The dreamy look was definitely back, Clark noted. And this was definitely not the Lois Lane he'd known.
Not the Lois Lane he had known. He felt himself relax a little. So, this didn't have to be a problem. This could be…fine.
"We thought you were dead, honey," Perry persisted. "There's a graveyard in this city with your name carved in stone. I sent team after team searching for you. Wanted to go myself, but the danger—"
"It was dangerous," Lois avowed. "I'm glad you didn't come. I figured it out fairly quickly. And that our tip was nothing but a dodge."
"What…" Clark finally ventured, "did you do all that time…in the tree house with…Marvin?" He regretted his question the instant he voiced it, the eyebrow she quirked up at him, the glint in her eye.
"I wrote," she answered him in a teasing tone. "What'd you think? Two novels. Once the first one was done, the second practically fell out. Unpublished, of course, but I'll get to that. The quiet, the solitude…it was perfect."
"Now hold on just a gosh darn second, Lois," Perry thundered. "Are you telling me that you had time to write two novels, but you couldn't even send me an email letting me know you were ok?"
"I didn't have a computer," she answered in surprise. "I wrote longhand. I told you that, Perry, in my letter, that there would probably be no way to contact me, but that I would keep in touch…wait…what do you mean there's a graveyard with…what!"
"You were thought dead, Lois," Clark inserted gently. "And not in the metaphorical sense, but literally…dead."
The change in her was immediate. "Oh, good Lord…" Her voice trailed away. "My letters?" She turned pleading eyes to Perry.
"Never made it, hon," he answered her sorrowfully.
"My…parents?" she began again, timidly.
Clark moved towards her unconsciously. If he'd thought about it he never would have done it. It seemed completely right to sit next to her, to hold her hand.
The force with which she squeezed it seemed to indicate she didn't think his actions over the line. "What have I done?" she finally said in voice stripped of all the happiness and spark she had brought with her into the room. "How selfish can one person be?"
She seemed to be asking that of him. She had opened her eyes, and was studying him closely. As if he was the one in a position to weigh her actions.
"You didn't know," Clark answered firmly. "You wrote; that's all you could do."
"I knew that Lester Lyle the letter carrier was always just a bit too cheerful for his own good!" she exclaimed.
"Never trust a guy with that much alliteration in his name," offered James. "Sorry," he added quickly at the looks that came his way.
"He had a chartered plane. Ran wealthy tourists in and out."
"Some set up for a letter carrier," interrupted Perry.
"He wasn't a real letter carrier," Lois clarified. "He just volunteered to take mine for me. He would turn up with a plane full of people, to show them how charming and civilized our set — up was. We didn't mind. I got some news of the rest of world. Marvin got some influential backers for his research. I gave Lester my letters."
"Which he threw into the sea." Again, James looked contrite. "Sorry. I'll just…be quiet now."
"Always telling me the rates had been raised. That postage was getting more expensive…Dammit, I was so stupid. If I ever see that little weasel again, I'm going to pull every gold tooth out of his head, have it melted down, made into a charm…of a…weasel!"
She leapt to her feet. "I have to go, Perry. I have to…call my parents, and I don't know what else…but I have to go."
"Can I come with you?" Clark rose with her. "I can help, maybe…or wait—" He sat just as quickly as he'd stood. "— you'll want to have…Marvin with you. Introduce him." He stopped there, feeling ridiculously, monstrously foolish.
"Thank you, though, Clark," she answered warmly before turning towards the door. "I'll be back, Perry, I'll be in touch…about a job."
"Lois, you should know—" Perry began painfully, "—I'm not running the show anymore. It wouldn't be my say."
"It's mine and you're hired, Ms Lane," James filled in smoothly. "I want a series of Sunday features on your story. Your years in a lush paradise, the escape from the big city. Leaving it all behind for the man of your dreams. It'll kill," he exclaimed, sounding closer to his real age all at once. "The adventure travelers, the romantics, the…botanists. They'll eat it up."
She flashed a dazzling smile. "You're on. I'll be back on…?"
"Monday, week." James nodded. "And we'll get to work on the legal entanglements. Bring you back from the dead."
"Monday," Lois repeated a tad tremulously. "Thank you. I'll see you all…then." She included Clark in her gaze, patting him absently on the shoulder as she went.
Lois Lane back from the dead. Back in Metropolis. Back at the Daily Planet. With Marvin.
And that attempt at a fragile normal? All shot to hell.
"Did she seem really familiar to you?" James interrupted his thoughts.
"Kind of," he hedged.
"Lois Lane is one of a kind," Perry voiced, his eyes meeting Clark's, telling him to keep quiet. "Unmistakable."
"Yeah, but the Congo? Missing all this time…?" James voiced, almost to himself.
"She's beautiful, too," Perry offered.
"Oh, yeah…" James smiled, his features smoothed as his thoughts obviously slid in a different direction.
"And involved," Clark snapped, maybe a bit too quickly.
"Right. Well. Anything else?" James asked. "What do you have going on for today, big guy?"
"If you don't mind," Clark answered heavily. "I might just go home. I need to…see my wife."
"Sure," Jimmy dismissed him, moving back towards his desk.
Perry's eyes followed him out the door. "Tell Lana hello for me," he said grimly.
He nodded. He would tell her. He'd just put that on the list of things he needed to tell her
He flew home slowly.
This didn't have to be bad. It didn't.
He would just tell Lana, just say, "Lois Lane came to work today." And then carefully explain that while there were certain physical similarities, she was not the woman Lana had been…speaking of…ever since the last Lois. So, there was really no problem.
He landed in their back garden. The usual assortments of reporters were there. "Nothing happening today," he offered as he strolled across the lawn. "How's everyone?"
They barely looked up from their reading, or card playing, or phone conversations. "Good," one of them replied absently.
He slipped in the backdoor and stood still for a minute. "Lois Lane came to work today," he rehearsed under his breath. "Only it isn't the same Lois, so…"
"You're home," Lana greeted him, catching him off guard. That shouldn't happen. It wasn't as if he couldn't hear her coming.
She looked happier. Relaxed. He'd been right about last night, about things settling down and reaching a place that was comfortable for both of them. So, that was good. No real reason that had to change…
He walked over to her, taking the coffee mug from her hands and linking his fingers through hers. "Let's…sit," he started, steering her towards the couch, looking to be sure that the shades were drawn. They were. They always were. Though he felt he and those camped out in the back had reached an understanding about not photographing into the house, still it paid to be careful. He knew not to give them too much of the benefit of the doubt. And for that matter, not to tempt them overly much.
He extended his hearing, just to be sure. Still no bugs. It hadn't been beneath the tabloids to try, and try repeatedly, but they seemed to be getting the message: that there wasn't any such thing as a silent transmitter to him.
Lana was tense beside him. He ran his arm along the back of her shoulders, lightly massaging her neck through the flannel of her robe.
"Lois Lane—" he said.
"What does she want now?" She shot to her feet immediately, throwing his hand off her. "She's back, isn't she?"
"Come here," he said softly. "I want you to listen to this."
"She didn't change things enough last time, did she?" Lana continued, forgetting to keep her voice down, forgetting the eager audience of listeners just outside the door.
"Let's go upstairs," he offered. He hadn't soundproofed the downstairs, not yet. He'd get to that soon. He'd been letting it go. They spent so little time together in the den and the kitchen; it just hadn't been a priority.
No, in his first week as the newly created, subsequently outed Superman, he had sound proofed their entire upstairs, starting with their bedroom. A desperate attempt to keep some sort of privacy for them. To exert some control over an uncontrollable situation. To create a safe place for him and Lana. Away from the media storm and curious on-lookers, unethical reporters and plotting criminals.
Their bedroom was as secure as he could make it. And still, they didn't really…use it.
"She's back for what?" Lana persisted, as he led her up the stairs. "For you?" She stopped cold on the landing. Her eyes meeting his for the first time since her greeting.
"No. No. It isn't like that. She…isn't the Lois Lane we met. She doesn't know me, or Superman, or you."
"Once upon a time," she said after a minute, "I understood the words that came out of your mouth. I miss those days. Deeply."
"I can't fault you for that. I'm a little nostalgic for them, too." He pulled her towards the bedroom, pushed her gently to sit on the bed. "Tell me…when you're ready to hear the rest."
"How long do you plan on living?"
"Lana. I want you to hear this — and from me. And to know, this doesn't change…anything."
"You mean it doesn't get any weirder? You don't transform yourself yet again? Take on another name, a personality. Captain Glorious, maybe?"
"I'm still me."
"I've known you for years, and you're not."
"Do you want to hear about Lois, or cover this ground again?"
"Tell me." She looked nervous. Scared. She rarely showed that to him. Rarely showed him anything any more.
Even as kids, Lana had kept her emotions close. One afternoon early in their high school years, out of nowhere, she had blurted that she was going to marry him someday. She had clearly been as shocked as he had by her statement, and had turned and run inside her house, slamming the door on any reply he might haven given. Leaving him alone, mouth agape, on her front porch.
It had been a month before she spoke to him again. A month more before he worked up the nerve to kiss her — to tell her that he liked what she had planned for them.
And he had. Orphaned, strange, alone. In Lana's sudden declaration of intent, he had seen a direction for his life. A meaning. Lana Lang had anchored him — nothing and no one would ever change that fact. Or his gratitude for it.
"She was living in the Congo with…her fiancé, I guess." He moved to her, stilling her nervous hands with his steady ones. "She met someone and didn't want to come home." He tried to pour every bit of reassurance into those words as possible. So she would understand — this was different. Entirely different.
"So she's involved, this Lois." The flatness had gone out of her tone.
"Very much so. Like I am," he hastened to add, daring to pull her close. She didn't resist. Didn't stiffen, or worse, hold still for an almost audible count of ten before moving away. "And she'll be back at the Planet. James hired her. She is not the Lois we have known. She is completely different."
That was true. Lois wasn't anyone he knew. She was in love. She was back in town. So, they would cross paths at work, and that was it. One Lois Lane for one Clark Kent wasn't the universal rule. Clearly it wasn't. If it was, she would have been in Metropolis when he moved here, like the other Lois had been for the other Clark. And he wouldn't have gone home to Smallville after he'd arrived to get Lana, for company, for comfort.
He wouldn't be married. And Marvin would be an unknown, unsung botanist forever in the Congo.
The Lois he had known had been sure of her feelings for the Clark Kent of her time and place. But this was not that time and place. And he was sure of that. Just as he was sure the right woman of his time and his place was the one he was holding.
Lana, as if listening to his thoughts, tilted her face towards his. He saw the invitation and didn't hesitate. He didn't think of Lois, either. Not the first one and not the current one. He undressed his wife with great care, and remembered how alone he would be without her. He poured his reassurance and his gratitude into her. For them. For their years together. For that long ago afternoon in Smallville, when she had claimed him — and in so doing, given him a home. The only home he'd known since his parents had died.
That was love.
Work at the Planet was uneventful. He had told Lana it would be. And he had been right.
Lois was there, but they rarely crossed paths. She had commandeered a desk right in the middle of the bullpen and made herself at home. Their methods were pretty opposite. He had noticed that right away. She made great use of those sitting around her — whether they especially liked it or not. All day her voice, the loudest in the room, called for fact checks, for another look at those pictures, for a ham and pastrami on rye…
He worked quietly. As close to invisible as possible for him. He did all of his own research, not that the subjects were difficult. But he didn't impose on anyone. And since James was still learning, by mutual agreement, he did most of his own editing…
Lois seemed so fully in her element, so completely at home and in charge, it was hard to imagine her anywhere else. In the Congo. In the jungle. Writing novels.With Marvin.
Clark shook his head to clear it, and drew his eyes off her. It was hard not to look — but only because she was so animated, all of that barely contained energy on simmer, ready to spill out, boil over at any minute. She changed the atmosphere, charged it…
James adored her for it, and why shouldn't he? In just a few weeks she had managed some interesting headlines, and had brought circulation up more than any other reporter. He didn't include himself in those numbers. It wasn't fair, and not anything that he could help, that some people subscribed to the paper just because Superman wrote for it. That would wear off eventually. For now, at least, those who were reading for the celebrity factor were getting their money's worth with what Lois brought in.
James called her into his office often. Through the open blinds it was clear that Lois was becoming more than an employee to him. Her easy laughter, mingled with his, was audible without superhearing. James clearly liked her, and if it hadn't been for Marvin, Clark imagined…well, it wasn't for him to imagine. Or to pry. Though he had a little.
Initially, he had eavesdropped on their conversations. Finding it hard to trust Perry's hypothesis that James wasn't going to remember the other Lois Lane. If James did, and if he said, "So, where've you been since the last time you returned from the dead…?" then things were going to get…complicated.
As things stood now, they weren't complicated; they weren't even all that interesting. Lana had stopped asking about work, the monotony of his answers apparently giving her the assurance she needed that nothing had really changed. She was once again lapsing into quiet when he returned home.
Some days he didn't do much at all at the paper. Sat at his desk, organized his files, wrote up occasional Superman rescues and mundane bits and pieces. He still wanted to contribute, but not in the capacity of celebrity columnist, as James had first suggested. He just wanted…something normal. Something for Clark Kent. A place to go when he wasn't saving someone and when he wasn't at home…trying to save what was between him and Lana.
Not that it needed saving, exactly. Just that it needed…something. Something he currently had no idea how to go about getting…
Listening in on those early meeting had proven there was no danger in James remembering. And also, had tipped him off to Lois's plan to investigate some mysterious middle of the night deliveries at the docks. He had worried a little at that idea.
He knew those docks well. He made a point of flying over often, of being seen, making his presence known. The well-established fact that he could x-ray anything seemed to have slowed traffic down in some areas of the dock. The police were really appreciative. And without violating anyone's rights, even the criminals's, that was about all he could do. Sometimes he landed, walked around. He was learning the names of those who were paid so well to be up at all hours when certain shipments came in.
For the most part, they were good people. Hard working. Just trying to get by. But there was someone with money, a lot of money, behind the scenes. And not everything was on the up and up, that was clear.
Still, Lois's interest in those docks, those deliveries, couldn't be good. She was just one person, after all. And she'd been in the Congo so long she wouldn't know, but it was an extremely dangerous part of town. He was glad to be bulletproof when he was visiting, and in fact, one or two times — before he had gotten the hang of being the unflappable superhero — he had nearly ducked when the shots had started flying, fast and furious. Nearly. He hadn't. Thank God. But the very human impulse had been there.
It wasn't any more. That impulse. After six months in the cape, it was very clear to him that he was in no way human. He told himself that was as it should be. To be an effective Superman, he needed to remember that. He was different. Free of the trappings of human vulnerability.
And that was fine, really.
"I need a word with you, Kent." Lois had exited the editor's office, and was moving towards him with a glimmer of…something not good in her eyes. He stilled and waited. She hadn't singled him out before. They hadn't exchanged so much as 'hello' and 'nice day' since the morning she had come back to town.
He had heard just enough office gossip to know that her reentry into her life in Metropolis hadn't been without its bumps. She'd complained to all listeners over the increased price of rent, the difficulty in getting her things out of storage, having herself legally recognized as being among the living.
She had been less forthcoming about her family's cool welcome of her. Perry had told him that. They hadn't exactly greeted her with open arms once they realized she had stayed away for a man. Her protests about lost letters were met with heavy skepticism as well. Evidently, the Lanes weren't a close group. From what he gathered, though, they were a vocal group, if you went by Lois as an example.
She arrived at his desk, hands on her hips, face set in a barely controlled snarl. "Why are you butting into my business?"
For a minute he just stared at her, completely at a loss. He'd been so discreet, listening in only once in a while, talking to Perry only when he happened to run into him…How could she know…?
"James just warned me off the dock story," she spat.
He breathed a sigh of relief. Not that he'd been doing anything wrong — listening and watching. He just had his own interests to protect.
"Oh, that. I was only giving James my perspective." He defended himself gently. "You're new here, Lois. Or, well, new again, so you don't know. But those guys you were talking about? The docks?" He waited until she nodded, since she was drumming her fingers over his desk now, pretending she wasn't reading his papers upside down. "It's really dangerous there. Even during the day light hours. But especially after dark. Especially if something's up. I've been there more than a few times, so I know."
He had explained himself reasonably, and he felt certain she would see his point. Though she seemed a bit…quiet.
But that was good; she must be considering his words.
"I get it. You're…some kind of…big deal. I looked you up. I imagine you're used to getting your way…"
"Getting my way?" he echoed, raising his eyebrows, suddenly wishing desperately she would lower her voice. He hadn't noticed at what point it had gotten loud. "I hardly think commenting to James about the risks—"
"And being a big deal, you're used to being treated…differently," she overrode him in a voice just short of a shout, waving her hand over him dismissively. The gesture was kind of interesting, because he'd seen her do that same thing when she'd found the curdled creamer on her coffee break.
"Now, I don't know you that well, but…" She leaned in, eyes narrowed, palms flat on his desk. That human impulse. The bit about ducking when the bullets flew. It came right back to him.
This was strange, the other Lois, she had been so…sweet.
But this Lois' voice had trailed away, just a bit uncertainly. She had noticed their audience, he saw, and he guessed she might be reconsidering the direct approach. So he leaned in to meet her.
"You don't know me that well, but…?" he prompted, perversely enjoying her quick look of temper. She had almost had it under control, but that was all it had taken. Interesting.
The distain was back on her face, and it said so clearly that she thought very little of him. Well, he'd known that Lois Lane for Clark Kent rule was different here, but who would have thought it was this different?
She didn't like him.
For some reason that relaxed him immeasurably. She just didn't like him. To think he had worried there might be…something between them that was…Anyway, she didn't like him. And he didn't think it was in that conspiracy theorist "he's come to take over the world" way of disliking him, either.
"You haven't known me that long, so…?" he repeated, hoping she wouldn't just lose interest and walk away.
Clark Kent's desk was an island, or it might as well have been. That's how often he was approached. Surrounded by a moat, snapping crocodiles, respectful silence. It was all the same. The very people who fawned over Superman in public seemed horribly uncomfortable with him in a coat and tie. He didn't bother with the glasses anymore. They were beyond pointless. But Lois Lane had traipsed across the divide effortlessly. Seeming not to even notice it, or the cold space that was his, so close and yet so far from the heart of the bullpen, where the non-superheroes lived.
"I don't need you interfering." Her lowered voice indicated she had noted the interested stares. "Am I violating some sort of protocol here?" she asked quickly.
"Yes," he confirmed. "Please, keep going."
She seemed a bit flustered, but didn't stay that way for long. "This is a job for a reporter, not a…a…"
Again he waited, glad she was still talking, intrigued by what she might say next. After a time, when he saw that her attention had landed once again on their audience, he dared prompt again. "An alien?" he whispered conspiratorially to her. He had to know. If her distaste was centered on who he was, fundamentally, he needed to know straight out. No layering of euphemisms, no slow uncovering of the truth in asides. He respected her. And he needed to know.
"Don't be stupid," she snapped at him, then seemed to really register his words. "Do people…wait…has anyone…?" She floundered, and for a moment he thought he caught something close to sympathy in her voice, but he didn't want that there. He liked her rudeness so much better.
"You don't read the tabloids?" he responded with a note of sarcasm.
She shifted gears abruptly. "What I'm saying is, I don't need a…hero. Some guy with a lot of muscle. Just…stay out of it, are we clear?"
"Very much so," he answered with a smile she couldn't understand. Because she couldn't know how utterly refreshing she was. "So is that what I am? Muscle?" He leaned back in his chair feeling a ridiculous temptation to flex.
"From the stories I've heard, that's what I gather. You're strong," she managed to make the word sound vaguely insulting. "And good for you," she amended, obviously having heard it herself. "But this story needs intelligence. Not someone who has dolls made in their likeness—"
"Action figures!" he corrected her with false outrage. "Not dolls. And I'm too dumb to offer my point of view?" He fought to keep the delighted grin from his face.
"Yes," she said, looking him briefly in the eyes. "Stop that," she admonished with a half-smile.
"Stop what?" he asked in all innocence.
"You're laughing," she accused, her own smile growing despite her obvious effort to control it.
"I never laugh," he managed. "That would mean I get the joke, and I'm too dense for that."
"Just…stay out of my way, Clark Kent," she threatened again, trying to add the same tone of menace as before, but failing miserably. "I know what I'm doing."
"Big dumb ox out of your way," he affirmed.
"Good." She tossed him a satisfied smile and returned to her desk in the hub, the middle of everything, where the normal people worked and lived.
It was a foreshadowing. He hadn't realized it then. But after that conversation she could only get into trouble sooner rather than later. Sooner came in the dark hours of the morning. Of all the cries in the city night, hers was the one he heard above all others.
It was the quality of the scream that grabbed him first. It wasn't pain, it wasn't exactly fear, it wasn't anger. It was surprise and then…something else. He wasn't sure what, but on hearing it, the note in it, he was out of the bed and through the window in under a second. He went straight up and hovered. Waiting, hoping to hear it again. It had been cut-off and that was a worry. It killed him sometimes. Those kinds of screams. The next day he might read of some tragedy in the paper, and he'd wonder, had that been what he'd heard, the last fragment of some poor soul's misery?
What if he'd been able to pin it down, zero in?
Clark forced himself to hold still. The city, for the more part was quiet, making concentrating easier. He had heard it in his sleep — not a restful sleep, but nevertheless he had been dozing. So, the scream's owner couldn't be too far away. He started to circle, small and tight, then longer and loopier. He kept his eyes trained, filtering out normal sights, looking for frantic movement or complete stillness, both fairly easy to see from his vantage point.
The scream didn't repeat. Maybe he'd imagined the alarm in it, the danger. Maybe it had just been an argument, or a drunk. He thought about returning to bed. Lana complained about his numerous absences. Said she was tired of sleeping without him. Ironic, when you considered she could hardly stand for him to touch her. He just had to be there, that was part of the deal, part of what he owed her. Yet another way he was failing her…
He didn't go home. He went lower. Call it a hunch or an instinct, but he knew he was needed, desperately needed, and he didn't want to turn on the news or pick up the paper in the morning and see the name and face that had called — and not lived to call again.
The second cry came at last. Unmistakably the same voice, only this time it was definitely angry and scared. He could hear that, too.
In a blink he was floating alongside a boat anchored in the middle of the harbor. For just an instant he felt pure confusion. This couldn't be right. How on earth could he have heard a call from here? This far away from his bed? Maybe if he'd been out on patrol…
It was Lois.
Recognizing her drained the questions from his mind in a heartbeat. He didn't think any more, didn't think at all. He simply burst through the ceiling and grabbed her, tugging her and the chair she was tied to up, up, up. Just ahead of the explosion.
He felt the heat of it on his back and thighs. His cape went up in smoke. The dazzling orange glow made him see spots in the night sky. He wrapped himself around her, forcing her head down under his chin not as gently as he could have, but she seemed to be trying to get a glimpse of the wreckage, and there was no telling what debris might be flying. Nothing that would put a mark on him — but on her…
He brought her to the closest building and landed them on top. It took him an extra minute to remember to set her down, to untie her. It took him another moment to realize that he was, uncharacteristically, breathing rather heavily. And in fact, his labored breaths were the only sound between them. For her part, Lois was very, very quiet.
"Are you hurt?" he asked her, after he had found his voice.
"No," she answered shakily, standing from the chair, but keeping her grip on his chest, on the red S. "Give me a minute?"
He stood perfectly still, fighting against a crazy, unwelcome urge to hold her close, to stroke her back and hair and tell her it was ok, he'd come in time, thank God.
"Was there anyone else on the boat?" he whispered, not wanting to interrupt her, but suddenly struck with the horrifying thought that he hadn't checked. He hadn't seen anything, really. Just Lois, and at the very last second, the bomb.
She only shook her head no, still holding on to him, eyes firmly screwed shut.
He watched in wonder as she pulled herself together. Eyes closed and knuckles white, Lois breathed slow, deliberate breaths in and out. Her trembling stopped. Her grip loosened. She opened her eyes and looked at him, once more the Planet's most intrepid reporter.
"Thank you," she stated gravely. "Thank you so much."
He felt weak in the knees, suddenly. It had been such a close call. She, by all rights, should be a weeping, screaming wreck. But here she was, just moments from absolute disaster, cool and composed. It scared him. Scared the hell out of him.
"Lois," he began with more passion that he intended. "You almost *died*."
"I know." She surprised him with her easy agreement. Her hands left his chest and she moved away, closer to the edge of the roof, examining the lights of the city.
He fought a horrible, blistering urge to haul her back to him. To take to the skies and show her how the city lights really looked from up high. To keep her close…protected.
He moved away instead, trying to make it look casual, shaken to the core. He didn't know her. She was an acquaintance, nothing more.
"I'm trying to prove myself," she volunteered conversationally. "I'm out of practice, and after…well…after giving it all up for romance, I have this fear of being too soft, too…timid. So when I got a tip that a deal was going down tonight, I went along. Walked right into a trap."
"You should have called someone to back you up," he ground out. "And you have nothing to prove. You are the most respected reporter in the building."
She turned towards him with a start. Looking him over, up and down. "I almost forgot," she blurted. "That it was…you."
"The guy at the desk," he returned, not sure why he felt so hurt all of a sudden.
It shouldn't matter. It didn't matter.
"You're…different this way." She ran her eyes from the tips of his boots up to his slicked back hair. "Not the same person at all."
"But I am," he answered. "I am…the same person."
Their eyes held for one long moment. He watched the expressions flicker across her face wishing that he knew what they meant. "I hadn't really thought about…how lonely… that could make a person…feel," Lois finally said softly, carefully. Her voice trailed away as her study of him sharpened, changed.
He tore his eyes away, returned them back to the sky, to the stars, to the quiet nothingness that was out there. Suddenly he felt like crying. He didn't cry. Never cried. Hadn't since that day in Smallville.
"I have to go," he said abruptly. "I'll take you down. Go to the police, tell then what happened." Part of him wanted to offer to stay with her until she did, but that wasn't in Superman's job description. He rescued. He didn't stick around for the paperwork.
"You go on," she prompted, gesturing towards the door on the roof. "I'll jog down. And I'll…see you tomorrow."
He lifted off, somewhat self-conscious in front of her. Unless he was in the costume, he never flew in front of people. Even though everyone in the world knew he could. It was too weird. But now, even here, safe inside the blue spandex, it felt…strangely intimate to do so while she was watching. He wished she would turn away.
"That must be nice," she pronounced with envy, not only not turning away, but moving closer, as if looking for the wires that held him up. "All the places I would go. All the things I could see. Hey…could you…fly to Mars?" she finished eagerly.
"No!" His bark of laughter startled him. "I'm not an astronaut, Lois."
"Bummer," she sighed. "I mean, what you can do is great, don't get me wrong, I've read every back issue about you…but Mars? That would really be something."
"You checked up on me?" he asked with a grin he couldn't hide.
"Sure. You were probably the century's biggest story and I missed the whole thing."
Right. He was a story. He knew that. Yet, just twelve hours before at work, she had yelled at him, treated him like…a person…well, that wouldn't happen again, would it? She knew now.
"Go on," he ordered her gruffly. "And when you get home, lock your doors. And…call, if you need…help."
"Goodnight, Clark." With a wave she was gone from his sight. Her heels echoing a rapid staccato down the stairwell.
He hovered long enough to see her exit the building and hail the nearest cab. Then he pulled the blanket of sky around him and drifted.
The morning came too early. He still felt like an open sore — none of his usual coping mechanisms had served him well enough to let him sleep, to even let him close his eyes without seeing Lois, the bomb, the chair…the ticking clock.
Seconds, mere seconds, maybe not even a full second was how close he had come to this day being completely different. A hushed and somber newsroom, an article in the works about the demise of the one of their own…
Instead, everything was as it always was. James was cheerful, focused, intent. The Daily Planet was awake and running, grease on the wheels, all things in motion. Except for him. He sat in James's office, a festering cog in the works. He wasn't up to sitting at his desk just yet. He had come in early enough that he hadn't had to walk past anyone, wish any 'good mornings,' steel himself for the inevitable discomfort his presence brought with it. Or the things he might hear.
You would think that as aware of him as they were, of his abilities, that they would be more careful what they said…how they said it…
No matter. He was camped out in James's office, easing himself into the day. And waiting for her. He hadn't flown past her apartment, though he knew where it was now. He had made a point of knowing, of looking it up afterwards, just in case she had called, had needed him, or rather, his help. He knew that Marvin was there, anyway. No doubt had met her at the station, held her hand during her interview, taken her home and…
"What?" James asked him.
"What?" he returned blankly.
"The heavy sigh? What's up?" James had been studying the morning edition, devoting himself to learning the ins and outs of the business with the same intensity that had made him a software mogul at a ridiculously early age.
"I didn't know I did that," Clark replied. "Sorry to disturb you."
"Something bad last night, I'm guessing." James put the paper down. "I've searched the headlines, ours and everyone else's, and whatever it was, it isn't here yet. And you are under no obligation to report everything that happens to us, especially if another paper is right there, but…do you want to talk about it?'
"Yes." That's why he was here, wasn't it? He took a deep breath. "But it isn't what you think. It wasn't a…Superman rescue. Well, it was, but it was more…um…well, I knew the person and I almost didn't—"
"Good morning!" She breezed in, right on cue, showing none of the frayed edges that he was so tightly cloaked in this morning. With a flourish she presented a mug of coffee to him. It was steaming, frothy; he thought he smelled cinnamon, chocolate sprinkles…
"For last night," she said with a broad wink, thrusting the whole concoction at him and collapsing onto the sofa next to him. "Drink it while it's hot."
James Olsen's eyes had narrowed perceptively. "Last night…?"
"I…helped Lois out," he fumbled in his hurry to right whatever conclusion his boss was drawing.
"You run into some trouble?" The speculation died in James's eyes as he immediately turned a concerned frown onto Lois.
"That's what I was trying to tell—" Clark started.
"A flat tire," Lois stated quickly. "And me without a spare." She stepped on his foot.
"Lois," he muttered darkly, a protest.
"So, you were in the neighborhood, Clark? Good." James nodded curtly, his attention already back on the papers in front of him. "Wouldn't want to risk the Planet's best reporter."
The brightness of Lois' answering smile dimmed somewhat under the weight of Clark's long, measuring look. "Lois," he repeated. "Why don't you —'
"I forgot to ask you!" She stood up in a rush, taking hold of his arm and pulling him towards the door. "Just how did you know where I had…broken down? You were there so fast."
"Part of my job. Lots of practice," he returned in shorthand, his super reflexes working to keep his cup from spilling as they walked — no, jogged — into the conference room.
He made a show of watching the sloshing liquid carefully, even as she released him and shut the door behind them. He didn't want to look up yet.
He didn't want her to know. Didn't want her to guess. That he had no idea how he'd found her. That by all rights he shouldn't have. He'd never saved someone that way — asleep one minute and pulling them out of an explosion the next. She could have died. She should have died. He didn't know why she hadn't.
He pinched the bridge of his nose, a nervous gesture he hadn't lost even after giving up the glasses. She was watching him. The very picture of innocence.
"You didn't go to the police, did you?" He was proud of how calm his voice sounded. How unperturbed. "You just…went home? Didn't tell anyone you were strapped to a bomb and nearly splattered all over the harbor?" Ok, so his voice had risen on that last, but no one could fault him for that.
"I'm making progress," she answered quietly. Her eyes pleaded with him, asking him for what he couldn't give. His blessing to her recklessness.
He sank into the nearest chair, closing his eyes. "No," he said.
"Hear me out—"
"Lois, we are going to the police. Today. Right now. There is no way I am letting you—"
"Letting you," he pronounced, opening his eyes, meeting her hard stare with his own. His had never failed him, even before Superman.
"If I'd reported it," she explained patiently, "it would have scared them off."
"You really had them scared last night, didn't you, Lois?"
"Bad timing." She dismissed him, moving past him to pick through the stale pastries left over from the previous morning's conference. "Bad luck." This with her mouth full.
"Bad luck I found you? Bad luck you didn't get to fulfill your obvious death wish?"
It was over the top and over the line, but he didn't care. He rose to his feet pacing angrily. "When I left you last night you were on your way to the police. You lied to me."
"I never said I was going," she returned matter-of-factly. "You said that. And I don't lie, Clark. Ever."
"What does Marvin say?" he exploded in exasperation. "What was his reaction when you got home last night? Or did you just trot home and get into bed and say, 'Sorry I'm late, honey?'"
Again, way, way over the top, over the line. He should shut up, he really should.
"What Marvin might have said is none of your business!" she retorted, heat staining her cheeks. "And believe me when I get into bed with him, we're not…talking!"
He flinched. Stung. For no good reason. No reason at all. He had asked for it.
"I…I…just thought he would be…concerned. Have a right to know what…almost happened."
And what had been haunting him ever since. The reason he couldn't bear the quiet, all the 'what ifs' that floated to the surface.
"Marvin is fine." The fight had left her voice, too. Just as it had his. "Are you?" she asked gently.
Caught off guard, he sat back down with a thud. "Yeah…it was just…really close, Lois. Really, so very close…and I almost didn't…" He couldn't finished, couldn't meet her eyes. "Almost," he repeated dumbly.
"But you did," she soothed, moving towards him. He heard her coming and had just enough time to brace himself for the onslaught to his senses he knew her nearness would bring, almost like the first Lois, but so much worse… He shook the thought off. Didn't want it. "And I'm fine. And closer than ever to the heart of this. And they think I'm dead!" She patted him on the back as if this was a great thing. "So that takes care of worrying they'll get me."
"Of course," he mocked. "Good plan, Lois."
"You want in?"
"One time offer. You helped me out, I'll pay you back. And you can…lend a hand with things, how's that?"
That was perfect. That was…more than perfect.
"Yes," he said immediately despite every cell in his body telling him differently. <Not smart. Not smart.> "I want in."
"Stake-out tonight," she called over her shoulder, moving on towards her desk, towards the rest of the day.
He stayed where he was a good long time. His coffee cooled and he had to reheat it several times.
What had he done? No. Scratch that. He knew what he'd done.
He also knew he didn't care.
"Lois Lane is alive and well this morning."
"I don't know where you get your information, but I watched the whole thing from the dock, saw the explosion. No way she could have gotten out of it."
"You must have missed it, then, because she did."
"The knots she was tied with were impossible. The bay was deserted. The timer was short—"
"Did you see Superman?"
"No — nothing. Wait…maybe. I don't know, now that you mention it, but I swear everything went off as planned."
"And I'm telling you, she's up and walking around today. That wasn't the plan."
"Then…you've seen her."
"That would be my point, yes."
"Uh…won't happen again."
"No. Because we need to back-off for a bit. You go away. I'll lay low. She's going to dig now, which isn't good. Have the place emptied so she won't find anything."
"I can just start distribution a little earlier, I guess."
"Carefully. If it was Superman who grabbed her, we might have some trouble."
"A distraction might be nice. Give him something to do today. Maybe even something she could report. Otherwise, I don't think she's the type to get bored and move on, you know?"
"Good point. Do it. No fatalities. And don't call until I get in touch with you."
"You're the boss."
"What is it?" she asked him as he stood up from his desk.
"What is what?" He threw her an absent look.
"What…is…it?" she repeated more slowly, moving towards him, the coffee cup she had just refilled titling dangerously.
"I'm hearing sirens," he whispered. No reason to whisper, just…he did. "A lot of them. I have to—"
"I'll follow you." She didn't give him a chance to answer. She dumped everything, including the coffee onto her desk, and returned with her car keys. "Unless you want to fly me?" she said when he eyed them.
"I…usually write up this sort of thing," he stammered, moving towards the stairwell now, the pitch of the sirens almost unbearable. "That's how I earn my keep." He sped up, hoping to shake her off.
"Well, the actual rescue stuff, sure," she agreed easily, heading through the door just a step before he did. How had she…? "But you can't be everywhere at once, right? I might see something you miss."
"Something I miss?" He halted. "I have x-ray vision…superhearing…I don't…miss anything." And God help him, he often wished he could.
"Hey," she patted him on the arm and fixed him with a bright smile. "I'm not criticizing. It's just that you and I agreed…we're working together."
"On the docks," he corrected her, jerking the knot loose in his tie and jogging up. Maybe she wasn't going to leave, but he had to.
Her eyes followed his hands avidly. "Are you — do you — where's the Suit?"
He stopped again. She was right on his heels, and he wasn't stripping in front of her that was for sure. This was his…private stairwell. Maybe no one had told her that, but once who he was had been exposed and his repeated trips here noted, everyone had stopped using it.
"I think whatever it is, it's happening at Eleventh and Huntsford," he offered a bit desperately.
She reversed course immediately, heading down at a speed almost matching his. "See you there!"
Well, he might have been wrong. It was hard to say from inside, the acoustics sometimes confused things. He'd learned that the hard way. It was probably closer to Fifty-first and Huntsford. He'd just go and check it out.
"Interesting, Kent," she sang out as she exited the elevator an hour later. "Eleventh and Huntsford was just a bevy of activity. You missed it…"
She leaned over his shoulder, eyeing his notes. "Oh, but I see you found something to occupy your time, too." She said it sweetly, though it was hard to miss that she was breathing down his neck.
"I'm still new at this." He shrugged. "I might have been off on those street numbers… by a tad."
"Or by miles, but who's counting?"
"Are we…still on for tonight?" he asked softly, holding his breath.
When she didn't answer, he stopped typing. She was perched on the edge of his desk like she'd always been there…like she belonged there. Her face was completely unreadable, though he had the uncomfortable feeling she was reading him, a bit too well.
"I'm sorry," she offered, throwing him.
He swallowed. This Lois, again, not what he expected. "No. I'm sorry, Lois. You had a point—"
"I didn't make it well," she interrupted. "And probably made you feel…weird."
"I don't do a lot here. So when something comes up, I'm just used to…covering it, myself."
"And no one else goes with you? An entire room full of reporters? When you get that look on your face?"
"I guess they're just…doing me the professional courtesy," he suggested, though he had never though of it that way before. He went where the news was, and yet, no one ever asked to go along, or even asked him details afterwards. Maybe that was a little…"
"Crazy," Lois muttered under her breath.
"I hear stuff like that," he told her without thinking.
She stiffened, then relaxed. "Of course you do. Man, what I wouldn't give…"
"So…" He cleared his throat, "About the docks…?"
"Yeah. I'll pick you up after work. Don't be late." She stood and threw at glare at those around them, many of whom had stopped typing, walking, breathing at her entrance, enthralled by the show. It worked. The silence, which he hadn't noted, was immediately filled with sounds of activity.
"And we should work something out," Lois said. "If you want a reporter with you when you're working your…other job. Think about it."
He nodded mutely. He'd think about it…later.
Right now, he needed to get home, needed to see Lana. He'd call. Maybe she'd like him to bring something special for lunch. They could…talk. He would tell her about tonight, the stake-out. It was all very professional. Two colleagues watching a warehouse. No big deal.
The spot where Lois had been, the corner of his desk, felt unusually empty.
But that was ridiculous. A ridiculous thought. He just wasn't used to company at work. He was just…lonely. Missing Lana. He wouldn't wait until lunch, then. He'd send this to James and go home now.
Maybe for the rest of the day. Soak up as much of his wife as he could — until tonight.
"I can't believe how much I used to love this. The cramped confines, the never changing scenery. The hours of boredom in exchange for fifteen minutes of stark terror. And that's if I was lucky."
They were parked a respectable distance from the warehouse she had received the tip about. It hadn't even been an hour, and he could tell she was losing patience.
Over lunch, he had told Lana carefully that he'd be working tonight. Her 'What's new about that?' had been so resigned, as if she simply lacked the energy to complain about his absences anymore…
He shifted in his seat, fiddling with the seatbelt he still wore. Years of habits, of human habits, took a while to break.
He had informed Lana this was different. He was working on something for the paper. She had immediately known…something. He could tell. And despite his earlier resolve, he hadn't offered more. Hadn't come right out and said 'Lois.'
And she hadn't asked.
Or tried to stop him.
If she had…?
But she hadn't. And Lois needed back-up. Who was more qualified for that than he was? Besides, this was just work. He wanted to contribute to the paper that still employed him, despite the difficulties that came with that. And Lois had provided him with a way to do it. It felt good to be useful. Useful as Clark Kent. He'd gone to journalism school. He'd been a writer. He still was. Just not like Lois, or anyone else at the Planet for that matter.
He was forgetting. Forgetting Clark Kent and the life he used to lead. And that scared him, scared the hell out of him.
"So…you haven't done this in a while, I take it?" he ventured, eager to direct his thoughts away from the direction they had taken.
"Not in ages," she sighed. "It feels like a different lifetime ago."
"A big change…" he started, then hesitated. Too personal, maybe, for work colleagues.
"From sitting in the jungle writing romance novels?" She grinned at him. "Are you always so polite, Clark?" She didn't wait for his answer. "And I have to ask — we've been sitting here for ages, have you…you know?"
He frowned. He'd come along to help, but the investigative side of journalism was new to him. He'd had very little time to work his way into his job at the Planet before he had found himself world famous for another one entirely. Maybe he was supposed to be following a procedure? Maybe there was certain way this was done? He felt very green all of a sudden. Very green and very off balance.
"I…I don't know…what?" he faltered, reddening beneath her gaze, grateful it was dark enough to hide it.
"Taken a peek? Listened in?" She had the grace to blush a bit herself. "I just figured…"
Something cold settled in his gut. A disappointment so weighted he had some trouble speaking around it. "You just figured…you'd use me…my abilities…?" He stopped, swallowing hard. It was stupid to be offended, really stupid. Lois was simply being smart. He was a great instrument for spying. Lord knew that had been discussed and debated from the inside out when he'd first started helping the police.
"I can't," he continued heavily. "It isn't ethical. Or legal. And believe me, many a defense attorney has used that argument to get their crooked client off the hook. 'Brought in by Superman, unfairly trapped…'"
She moved her hand to cover his, and the rest of what might have been a bitter diatribe died on his lips. "Holy hell!" she swore hotly. "Really? How dare they? If you caught them in the act…no matter how you did it…guilty is guilty!"
"You'd think." He sat very still, staring straight ahead. Trying not to feel. "I imagine you're disappointed, that when you invited me along…"
"Well, you got me there," she laughed, removing her hand and running it through her hair. She tossed him an apologetic smile. "I kind of thought, when you agreed to work with me, that…you know…"
"It'd be easy?"
"Let's just say I didn't set my VCR and there's a really good show on tonight," she conceded.
"Figured we'd have this all wrapped up?" He felt the tension leave him, the coldness inside melt. He leaned his head against the head rest, a small smile answering hers.
"You'd do the wrapping. I'd tie it up with a shiny bow."
"Sorry to disappoint you, Lois."
"I didn't say I was disappointed. Just consider me…informed. You learn something new everyday. And no wonder you stick to a desk job. If you can't be out and reporting without raising everyone's suspicions…it's galling, really. They trust you with their lives, but if you wanted to write about them…learn about them, instead of just…" She flapped her hand in a gesture he took to convey his Superman activities. Its very casualness intrigued him, and for the first time, he shifted in his seat to face her. "I guess the rules are you can save them, just don't…notice them. How do you stand that?"
"It will wear off," he told her automatically, the mantra he'd been using for half a year now.
She was quiet then. It was all the more noticeable because she hadn't stopped talking since she'd picked him up in the Planet's parking deck. "I hope so, Clark," she said softly.
He turned and faced the warehouse again. Quickly. Because she had looked at him with something in her eyes, and he had wanted to…fall into it, whatever it was.
"So, about that boring part…?"
"When does that start?"
"You mean you aren't bored yet?" He quirked an eyebrow at her.
And he wasn't. And that wasn't good, he knew that much.
"I think we're being watched."
"Is everything tied down, then?"
"You don't sound surprised."
"I didn't get where I am by being surprised. Answer the question."
"Yes. The place is scrubbed. They can watch all night, but they won't find anything."
"They? There's more than one?"
"Two that I can see. Does that surprise you, boss?"
"A little. But…just a little. We might have trouble. When you say scrubbed, how well?"
"Him again? Look, you're getting paranoid. He flies over, sometimes comes down. But he doesn't linger. And the next shipment is a week away."
"Is it en route?"
"It leaves tonight."
"Tell it not to, not until I give the go."
"We're going to have a lot of disappointed customers. You really think—"
"I do. And you'd do well to remember that. I do the thinking. Not you. Time for you to disappear."
"I just got back. The plane has to be serviced, gassed up…"
"Do it and get lost."
"And then my mom said, 'Lois, didn't you learn anything from my example? Giving up your career for a man! How could you?'"
"But it isn't like you gave it up," he protested, pouring himself another cup of the dreadful coffee Lois had brought along and earning himself a brilliant smile in the process. "You just took a hiatus. And here you are, back on the job, no harm for having been gone."
"My parents certainly don't see it that way," she grumbled, accepting a cup from him and averting her face towards her window. He watched her reflection, and even in the dark he could see the hurt in her eyes. "You would think," she continued softly, "that they would have been…overjoyed. Is that unrealistic?"
"No," he said firmly. "That's right on target." He waited until she looked at him, wanting her to really hear him. "You were gone for three years and everyone thought the worst. You coming back, healthy and whole, that's a gift to them. To everyone."
She shrugged. "I put them through a lot, you know. Even before I went missing. I was a hard kid, a bit…rebellious."
"No kidding?" He grinned.
"Maybe it's because I wasn't easy to raise, maybe that's why they aren't able to…welcome me back gladly." Her voice wavered only the smallest amount on that last word. If he hadn't been super, he suspected he wouldn't have caught it at all. Or the quick catch of the breath that went with it.
If she cried, he didn't know what he would do.
No. That was stupid. He would do what any person would do. Hold out his arms, offer comfort. A warm embrace and some reassurance. Part of him wanted to take the liberty, make the friendly gesture, maybe ease some of her pain. But a far larger part of him wanted to run. For his life. Not exactly a superhero thought, was it? Lois Lane cries and Superman abandons her, in the dark in a bad part of town…at superspeed.
He needn't have worried. She was tougher than that. Or at least very good at pretending to be.
"I lost my parents when I was young," he told her, not wanting to let the matter drop, despite the risks. "If they turned up now, after all this time, and said, 'It was just a misunderstanding. We were never dead, just…'" He tilted his head, tried to think of an alternative.
"Vacationing in Tibet?" Lois offered. "And we fell in love with the place and forgot to write."
"Yes!" he pronounced. "Sorry if you thought you were orphaned, son, but Tibet was so great we couldn't pull ourselves away."
"And then what?" Lois asked, her smile warming her face and his heart all at once.
"I'd throw myself into their arms. I'd ask for my souvenirs. I'd be…the happiest guy on the planet."
"Not bitter? Not mad because they made you suffer needlessly?" she pushed.
"That, too," he answered truthfully. "But compared to how glad I would be to see them again, that would be a small thing, Lois. An afterthought. And you're their kid; they shouldn't put conditions on their love."
She sat back and nodded once. "Yeah."
"They should be ashamed if they've done that," he said bluntly.
"Thank you," she whispered. Nobody's ever…I mean, I can't believe I just told you all that. I was gone for three years, and except for Perry, no one really opened their arms to me."
"Their loss," he told her with an ache in his chest, in his empty arms, that he didn't want to examine too closely. "And now you've got Marvin."
"May I speak to Clark Kent, please?"
"He isn't here. I could connect you to his voice mail?"
"No. That's fine…James?"
"Yes. Sorry…is this Lana?"
"It is. I hoped he was there. He said something about working at the Planet tonight."
"He did? Oh…well…he might have been here and gotten called away. That happens a lot."
"Tell me about it. So, you're not…working with him? He mentioned…he was on an assignment…?"
"No. I…um…just haven't figured out how to get out of here before two a.m. Still learning, you know. Clark said he was on an assignment?"
"I thought he might be working with you. Have you…put him with anyone? A partner, maybe?"
"His hours make him a bit too…unpredictable for that. I've thought about it, but whoever I put him with would end up with a lot in their lap, probably at the very last second. Not that I'd blame Clark…no way. Just…he's hard to assign, you know? Are you sure you heard him right?"
"I might not have. It seems like I didn't."
"If I see him before you do, I'll tell him you called. Everything ok?" he asked belatedly. "I know why I'm up in the middle of the night…" He let that trail off.
"It's fine. I just didn't expect him to be gone so long."
"Check the news, Lana," he assured her. "I bet he's detained half-way round the world, you know? All in a days work. And you guys should get a system, a pager, something. Otherwise I can see how you'd lose track of each other all together."
"Right. Well, goodnight James, and sorry to have bothered you."
"No bother, Lana. Nice to have a little company. Sleep well."
James hung up the phone and moved to stand by the window, studying the darkened city. From where he stood it was clear that most everyone was home, their day long since over…
Well, he was learning, and wasn't wasting a minute, wasn't wasting his time sleeping. Computers, politics, and now the running of a major metropolitan paper…
He wouldn't call the Daily Planet the world's greatest. That had been Perry's boast, and while he had been at the helm it had probably been true…
Though he was inexperienced at running a paper, he knew people. Knowing people, their needs and their wants, was part of what had brought him so far in such short time.
Lana was worried. Scared, maybe?
James leaned his head against the glass, searching the sky for signs of Superman. It sounded like Clark had…lied to his wife. There was no assignment. He had no partner. He did whatever he could, and James let him. Welcomed him. Having Superman on staff was a great asset, despite his limitations as a reporter. After Clark had been revealed, and after he had decided to stay on, circulation had quadrupled. The trick was keeping all those readers now…
So, where was Clark? What was he investigating? And with whom? Lana had seemed sure he was working with someone, but what if it wasn't work…?
He had a flash, fleeting, of Lois and Clark together in the conference room, sharing coffee and some conversation…
No. He dismissed that thought, smiling at his own stupidity. It was late and his imagination was running wild. There was nobody more honest than Superman. And Lois wouldn't…She was with Marvin and she'd made it clear that her heart was spoken for.
Which was just as well. Because there was something about her…
Something that would definitely…complicate things. He was her boss, and you didn't run a successful operation that way, no matter how tempting. And he had made sure he could count her as a friend, so…
Lana and Clark had simply gotten their wires crossed. Superman was just busy. Superman was always busy.
He sighed, returning to his desk to shut down his computer. He would go home. Morning would come too early as it was, and no doubt bring with it more problems that he had no idea how to fix.
Perry had made this part look easy.
"He was nothing like my type. But then my type had always been a major wash. So, when he expressed an interest in this shy, offhand, sort of way, I found myself…listening. Which I have to admit I never did a lot of before."
"Oh, come on, Lois. You're a reporter; you interview people for a living. You listen—"
"For what I'm looking for," she cut him off with a dismissive wave. "For the angle. What's underneath and between the lines. But the words themselves? Hardly."
"So, you listened to…Marvin?"
"With both ears." She smiled fondly, looking into the distance and seeing something he couldn't.
"And what did he say that was so convincing?"
"That he liked me," she answered easily, then laughed at the expression he hadn't even tried to hide. "What? You were looking for something else?"
"Well, maybe a bit more…deep," he confessed. "I mean, 'I like you.' Doesn't that stop working in the fifth grade?"
"No one ever just liked me before," she returned. She said that with no sorrow, no self-pity, just a shrug of her shoulders. "I was told I was smart, good at what I did…beautiful," she added a bit self-consciously.
He stopped himself from nodding too emphatically.
"But liked? Just for me? No. Marvin was my…first. In a lot of ways." The dreamy smile was back. He didn't dare go near that tantalizing last statement. Thankfully, he didn't have to.
"What about you?" She shifted abruptly, turning towards him in the confines of the front seat.
"What?" he asked too quickly, more than a little disconcerted by the frankness of her stare.
"I've been spilling all my secrets. It's your turn now. You're married. What about you and…?"
"Lana," he supplied, hating the way the name sounded in the car, intruded. Hating himself more for hating it.
"How long have you been married?" She yawned and stretched, toeing off her shoes.
"Two years," he stated. No longer conversing with her profile he felt…oddly exposed. If she could see through him… Not that there was anything to see. He was talking with a colleague on the job. After tonight, a friend.
"Newlyweds, then," she commented lazily.
"Childhood sweethearts," he made himself say. That's what they always said. It was their thing. One hand moved of its own volition to the door handle. Before she could respond, he had the door open, welcoming the stench of Hobbs Bay.
"How about I get us something?" he stammered. "We haven't eaten and it's been…" He glanced at his watch and froze in shock. "It's four a.m."
"You're kidding!" She gaped at him. "Good grief, I talked your ear off!"
"No wonder I need more coffee," he teased.
He pulled himself out of the car, and the growing space between them eased his mind considerably.
"What's your favorite, Lois?" He wanted to know. He wanted to know her. Wanted to know everything. "Too early for breakfast?"
He noted the way she ran her fingers through her hair, thinking.
"I'd kill for a big slab of bacon, or maybe a ham and cheese omelet," she pronounced. "Marvin's a vegetarian."
"Coming up." He winked. "And we won't tell Marvin."
"You know, we've been here all night and nothing's happened. Maybe we should just…call it a day? It's just a few hours until sunrise, anyway."
"Is that what you want?" he asked her. "Forget breakfast? You probably need the sleep anyway."
"Is that a challenge, Kent?" Her voice had taken on a rather dangerous tone.
"You don't have to keep up with me, Lois," he said nicely. "I'm here to help, remember?"
"I take my coffee with a splash of non-fat-non-dairy creamer, and an artificial, all chemical, sweetener. Absolutely no natural ingredients whatsoever, right?"
"How did you…?"
"I'll be back in two minutes," he overrode her. "Try not to get in trouble." He shut the door, muffling her reply. It was…colorful.
He moved away at something faster than average human speed, but nowhere close to superspeed. He rounded the building, out of her sight, taking the time to get a final look around — just in case.
When he was sure there were no threats in the offing, when he saw that she wasn't looking his way, he spun and shot into the sky.
There wasn't any reason he couldn't have done that in front of her. But he'd just had his first real conversation with someone since his Superman career began. If she saw things might change. She might change. And he liked the way things were now.
He liked working with Lois Lane.
Lois worked the shiny new Jeep through a small hole in traffic, timing it perfectly. She allowed herself a tight, satisfied smile as the opposing driver's horn blared in protest.
She hadn't forgotten how this was done. Three years surrounded by nothing but bird calls and tree frog song, all dampened by a carpet of moss and lush vegetation that Marvin crooned to each morning…and she still knew how to handle herself.
A screech of tires pulled her back to her surroundings. A different jungle all together. One she loved. And as much as Marvin just could not understand it, it was the one she preferred. She had taken a three year break from the frenetic pace and the concrete madness, and she was grateful for every minute of it.
But she was home now. And despite her fears that her time away, her utter contentment, might have softened her drive, honed the edges off her instincts, she was exactly where she wanted to be.
Back at the Planet. Neck deep in an investigation after only a month. Partnered with…well…kind of a partner. It was all very unofficial. Early stages and all. But working with Clark on this…however casually… wasn't all that bad.
She swerved to avoid a slow moving vehicle. It wasn't her fault if other drivers lacked her quick reflexes. She had places to be. Things to pursue. She had a job. Deadlines. People at work who…were nice to work with.
And something more. The best thing in the world.
"A hot lead," she sang to the driver who was currently shaking his fist at her. He couldn't hear her, so she just waved.
She was in such a good mood she let all the pedestrians in the crosswalk get to safety before taking off again.
Maybe a hot lead was overstating a bit, but the warehouse was where it was happening. Every cell in her body told her so. And Lois Lane and her…partner were going to get to the bottom of it.
It was big, whatever it was. She just knew it. The same way she knew there were seven safe ways to cook fern, but the eighth way was deadly. Practice, pure and simple.
She hadn't lost her touch.
"Page one stuff," she sang again, because there was no one to hear, and she couldn't keep the broad grin off her face.
With precision timing and a quick u-turn she beat a smaller sedan to a really great parking space.
She hopped from the Jeep, stopping once to admire it, pretending to miss the would-be parker's single fingered salute. Not everyone had such a great job to wake up to, so that explained a lot of the general crabbiness in the mornings. She'd overlook it.
"Better manners among the primates in the jungle, though" she cooed to the silvery paint job, giving it a fond pat. Maybe the vanity plate had been a little much. But she'd been unable to resist. Marvin would just…faint at the sight of it.
"Because it runs on gasoline and not daisies," she sighed as she headed towards the familiar globe in front of the building.
And she and Clark wouldn't be able to use it for stakeouts. Too obvious. They would have to rent something, borrow something…
And they should probably do another one of those soon. Even though stakeouts were often tedious and always time consuming, they were important. Helpful. Even if nothing seemed to happen. A good reporter had to be in position. Had to keep trying. Because you never knew when the break would come, and you had to be around when it did.
"Maybe he'll bring Chinese," she muttered to herself as she darted into the elevator, avoiding a long line of slower moving riders.
She beamed at everyone in the tight space, meeting their sour faces with a touch of pity. Obviously not everyone had had such a smooth commute to work.
When the doors opened on the bullpen, he was there. She wouldn't have said that her eyes went to him first thing, exactly. Just that he was kind of…hard to miss.
His broad shoulders were turned away from her, and he was pouring two mugs of coffee. Since the first morning they had shared coffee together, the morning of their first stakeout, he did that for her. And he seemed to have an uncanny knack for timing. As if he knew exactly when she was arriving.
She could get used to that. The whole partner business, even if it was a silent one, wasn't so bad. Really. Who would have thought?
She brought her good mood with her, hitting him with a grateful smile as she took the cup from him. On impulse she gave him a noisy kiss on the cheek. "In love with the world today," she apologized as she wiped her lipstick from his face. He held really still as she did so.
"Oh, go back to work, people," she scolded in no particular direction. "No wonder you're all so easy to scoop, all you do is stand around."
"Sorry about that," she muttered to him, dumping her things on her desk. His hand moved in a blur to stop her coffee from landing at her feet.
"No problem." Clark sounded a little flustered, even breathless. But he worked hard, so that stood to reason.
"Got a minute?" she asked him before he could retreat back to his private alcove.
"Would it matter?" He stopped and raised an eyebrow.
"No." She lowered her voice. "Because I have this really great idea."
"Oh, god." He blanched, nearly spilling his own coffee.
"Can you meet me?" she pressed on, ignoring him. "Late tonight, the usual spot. I've got to get a few things ready first."
She watched the struggle on his face and thought she understood it.
"Only if Superman's not busy," she assured him. "Otherwise, I'll do fine on my own, don't worry."
"Oh…god," he said very faintly. "I'll…be there."
"Great. See you!" She plopped into her chair and pulled up her list of dock workers and ship owners. It was slow going, but she'd find something.
It was working out to be that kind of day.
"Tell me what I want to hear."
"We got the stuff in place, just like you wanted."
"You're sure. Exactly how I told you?"
"Exactly. I gotta say it's a pretty shade of green, but I don't see how it works."
"It doesn't matter. As long as it's there."
"And it will…do the job?"
"You sure you aren't…overreacting a bit, Boss? Things have been so smooth…"
"Better too careful than too sorry."
"Right. Need anything else?"
"Now that you mention it. Head to the warehouse. Pick up the lockbox. It's not safe there anymore."
"I'm telling you it's perfectly safe—"
"Just do it. I'll get it from you later."
"Right. Whatever you say."
"And don't ever forget it."
Clark was there before Lois was, circling overhead in his civilian clothes, so as not to call attention to himself. He was tempted to fly further and see where she was, what might be keeping her.
"No telling," he mumbled on his sixth pass.
Just when he'd decided she must have changed her mind, a car pulled up. It was different from the one they'd used last time, and had definitely seen better days. But there was no mistaking its driver.
He dove silently, landing just behind the dumpster she was parked next to. He straightened his wind-blown tie somewhat nervously as he approached.
He had barely knocked on the passenger window before she threw the door open.
"No one saw you, did they?" she asked as she tossed a paper sack into his lap. She didn't give him a chance to answer. "I didn't have a lot of time to put these together, but they ought to be just the thing. Get us closer."
He was suddenly very afraid to look, and it must have showed. "What?" She frowned at him slightly. "It's just a disguise."
"A disguise?" he asked her doubtfully. "We're just watching the place, right, so I don't see how…"
"Look, it's a lousy part of town. That's why the hideously banged up car, that's why the rotting food and beer cans in the back. We're blending in. Otherwise, you know what we'll look like?"
"Give me a hint," he prompted.
"Lois Lane and Superman on a stake-out." She had shimmied over the backseat and pulled open her own bag. "So, get dressed," she ordered, as she started on her buttons.
He faced front quickly, opening the bag she had thrust at him with some trepidation. "What did I get?" he asked a bit too loudly. "Oh…Lois…good grief."
"Shut up and get dressed," she answered, her nylons falling across his shoulder.
He swallowed. Blew a bit of cooling breath in the car, just to…frost up the windows. He'd defrost it later, but the whole world didn't have to see…whatever the show was behind him.
He took off his tie and unbuttoned his shirt, resolutely ignoring the rustling in the back seat. The zipper being zipped, the whisper of…dammit. <Resolutely ignoring,> he reminded himself. When his shirt came off, he thought he detected a low, muttered exclamation from behind him. "You ok?" he asked carefully. <Zipper stuck? Can I…? Shut up, Clark!> his inner voice screamed. <Shut up and get dressed and get this over with…and don't…turn…around.>
<<I am not even thinking of turning around,>>he answered that voice indignantly, scowling fiercely.
"Why are you just sitting there?" Lois asked in a somewhat strangled voice.
"Sorry," he muttered. "Just…<wrestling my inner demons, indulging in some fantasies, beating my libido into a pile of mush with a rusty tire iron … finding my shirt," he finished on a sigh.
He pulled it on, along with the shoes she had picked and a pair of glasses with the largest frames he'd ever seen. He wouldn't ask. It was so much easier if he just didn't.
"A pocket protector?" He wasn't asking, he had just noticed. "And…one, two, three…eleven pens? Who am I in this charade?" he wondered aloud, again, not asking. He pulled the rear-view mirror in his direction for a look at himself, but as its angle changed, he caught a searing glance of the backseat, of creamy…dewy…nothing. He saw nothing. "I'm…a geek," he guessed with resignation.
"Exactly." One long, impossibly long, fish-net stocking covered leg was thrown over the seat. "Do me a favor?" Lois asked a bit breathlessly. "Look the other way, this skirt is almost against the law."
If he had swiveled his head with more force it would have flown off his shoulders. He had a brief vision of it sailing through the window, shattering the glass, and rolling to a stop in the littered parking lot, where it could be used as a kickball by the poor kids who lived in this part of town. That, he decided, might be better than this.
"Ok," she said demurely, and he braced himself to turn around.
<Leather!> was the first thing his brain said. <Leather, something laced up, lacy, a laced-up something lacy,> it shouted next. <And legs, good god, legs and legs…>
Lois had pulled the mirror back towards her, leaning forward to make quick work of adding about a hundred layers of make-up to her perfect face. No. To her face…not her perfect face, it was just a face. And lipstick to her full, glistening, pouty…
These shoes were really comfortable. She'd known his size. And you didn't really see this kind outside of bowling alleys or the 1950s, so that was interesting. Wait…she probably just stole them from a bowling alley. Some poor guy with size elevens bowling in his socks…He threw a glare at her. <Mistake! Abort the glare!> She was…adjusting her…well the lacy thing maybe wasn't comfortable, so she was…but these shoes were, and the colors, well…they matched the shirt and some of the pens in his pocket…so he was nicely put together.
He took a deep breath. Good. It had probably been ten minutes since he'd done that at all.
"We blend in," Lois was saying. Actually, she hadn't stopped talking the entire time. "If anyone sees us, I am obviously your…date…for the evening." She grinned wickedly at him.
"And if anyone needs anything written down or calculated or to go bowling," he returned weakly, "I'm their guy."
She looked him over for a minute. He tried not to squirm. "You sure don't look like Superman," she said with satisfaction. "Now…could you do something about the windows? I can't see out and it's freezing in here." She was rubbing her hands on her bare arms, the lacy thing obviously not a practical garment.
"Where did you get…that outfit?" he heard himself ask as he slowly heated up the car, watching the frost evaporate under his careful stare.
"You know…just something I had." She seemed a touch embarrassed.
Marvin. Maybe Marvin liked her dressed this way. Marvin, wherever you are, he thought viciously, I hate you. And…you're my hero.
"Halloween," she was saying.
Relief flooded through him immediately. Ok, maybe Marvin didn't dress her like a tart. Good. In a nun's habit, that would be nice. Or a huge, fluffy robe with a belt…with a lock on it.
He lost himself in layering Lois in clothes, mental images of covering every inch of her. Mittens, those socks with a niche for every toe. He hated those. Earmuffs. Well, she would have to keep her apartment pretty cold to be walking around in all of that…
Marvin, if I ever lay eyes on you, I owe you an enormous apology, he thought. Right after I punch your lights out.
"Whatcha thinkin', Pocket Boy?" she teased him.
"That's Pocket Man," he scolded her.
"Right, Pocket Man." She turned her attention from him, examining the building and reaching for her binoculars. "See anything? Let's hope this isn't all for nothing."
Oh, it wasn't for nothing. From where he was sitting, the evening had already paid for itself.
"Answer me this," he said after a time. "Why are we still here, Lois? We've stared at this warehouse for weeks and nothing — absolutely nothing has happened. I fly over every night and it's always deserted."
"Precisely." She turned a smug grin on him. "That's weird, don't you think? These other warehouses at the very least have dock workers standing around outside. We see maintenance crews, delivery trucks. But here — nothing. Ever."
"You aren't convinced. Stick with me, Kent, you'll learn a little something about reporting."
The words weren't out of her mouth when a car pulled up.
"Duck," she hissed, pushing him down below the dash as best she could.
"Lois," he protested, his eyes level with her chest. He shut them tightly, but not before he'd learned the stitch count on the lacy thing. "I am perfectly capable of ducking."
She wasn't listening. She was peering over the steering wheel, staring intently through a pair of binoculars.
He rose up slowly, lowering the glasses she had picked for him.
"That shirt is too loud to be sneaking around in," he said. "And those sandals…This guy missed a turn somewhere."
"That beard," Lois choked beside him. "That…hair."
"Apparently he hasn't seen a barber or a razor in years…looks likes he's been marooned somewhere, or lost in—"
"The jungle," she finished for him. "In the jungle…dammit!" She was reaching for the door handle.
"Wait, wait, wait!" He grabbed her by the arm, pulling her back towards him, still trying to keep them out of sight. "This is what we've been waiting for. You can't get out and march over there and—"
"Kill him with my bare hands?" Her breath was coming fast and shallow, her cheeks flushed with anger.
"Who is it?" he asked her, loosening his grip, but not daring to let her go. The sound of her hammering heart increasing his own sense of anxiety. And again, that urge…to stroke her hair, to comfort that look off her face.
"Lester Lyle." Tears of fury welled in her eyes, but were blinked away even as he noted them.
For a minute the name meant nothing. He stared down at her trying to fathom the reason for her obvious distress. And then it hit him. "The…letter carrier? The guy who never delivered—"
"James was right. Never trust a guy with that much alliteration in his name," she repeated bitterly.
"He's back," Clark informed her, pushing her lower still as the car slid past their dumpster. "He's leaving."
"That was fast." She had one hand on his chest, attempting to move him as he watched Lester's car roll slowly down the dock. He noted the plate number, make, and model. "We're going in."
"Wait, Lois…" He sat up now, suddenly aware of their position, the feeling of her pressed against him. "We're…observing. We should get back to the Planet, run him through the computer, find out all we can—"
She had the door open. He was talking to her retreating back.
Superman couldn't break and enter. But maybe Lester had left it unlocked.?
The place was completely empty. That, in and of itself, was odd. No dust, no discarded boxes, no dirt. None of the usual forgotten things left behind.
"There's a stairwell in the back," he told her, but she was already headed in that direction.
"Can you see in?" she called over her shoulder, not bothering to cover the sound, the place was silent as a crypt.
"Lead," he answered.
"What?" She stopped, waiting for him to catch up. He hadn't been watching her walk away, though, he'd just been…thinking.
"I can't see through lead," he explained.
He shrugged. "I don't know why," he answered her unspoken question.
"You're interesting, you know that? Let's go up."
The doors were locked and he hesitated.
"You're strong enough to, or wait, can you not push through lead, either?"
"No, I can, but…"
"This is against the law. Right now we're just trespassing…er…looking around. But if I break this lock and we go in…"
"Maybe we find out what's going on?"
"I'm Superman. I have an agreement with the city. I made promises. I make them nervous, you know, like Big Brother is always around watching them, and if he ever decided to become judge and jury there really isn't anything they could do to stop him. So, I go out of my way to just…stick to the stuff that's fairly cut and dried. No shades of gray. In the first few months there was a bit of trouble…Well, I've mentioned the lawsuits…they never came to much, but…"
He was still talking when she finished picking the lock. The ping of the pin coming loose sounded loud in the cavernous room.
"Ok," she said. "That was me, not you. I'll testify to that. Now, you want to stay here? Or wait in the car, Superman?"
"I…no." With some effort he shut his gaping mouth, ignored her sweetly sarcastic smile, and followed her up. After a bit of a climb he moved around her. "Mind if I go first?"
"In case trouble comes around the corner?"
<So I'm not watching your nearly illegal skirt up three more flights of stairs.>
"Yes," he said.
They found a hallway with a series of doors.
"Empty," he said of each room as they walked quickly past.
They rounded the corner and found what had to be the office. The hum of machinery coming from under the door. At last a room that had been occupied.
"It's locked," he told her.
She fished inside the lacy thing for whatever she had used earlier. He sighed, in for a penny, grabbed the knob and turned it with a touch of force.
"Why, Superman," she cooed when the door swung open. "What would the authorities think?"
"That you've corrupted me completely." He smiled at her in the darkness, watching with some amazement as she pulled a tiny flashlight and a small camera out of the same place the lock pick had been. "That's…an interesting…system you have there," he heard himself say.
She grinned. "You have no idea." With an exaggerated sashay of her hips, she pushed around him and got to work. "You take the filing cabinet, I've got the desk. Let's find out what Lester Lyle is doing out of the Congo and in Metropolis."
She had to tell him twice, but he got the idea after that.
"Shipping inventories," she said after a time. "You?"
"I don't know what's important, so I'm just photographing all of it, we'll sort it out later. You'll remember what you saw, right? You can…do that?"
"Pretty much." He didn't look up from the files.
"I could get used to working with you, partner."
He did turn then, with a smile in his eyes she didn't think she'd seen before. Her fingers fumbled with her camera, and she felt…warmed by his gaze.
Or maybe a bit of heat vision went with that smile? Kind of a double-whammy. Give a girl that look, then bathe her in…
While she watched, though, the smile dissolved rapidly, to be replaced by…
"Someone's coming," he gasped. "Come here."
Before she could move a muscle he had the drawers shut, her flashlight off, and she found herself pressed hard against the wall…no wait…ceiling. She peered over his shoulder down into the inky darkness. "My camera," she spoke into his ear. He shuddered, shifted her weight to one side, then dove back down and up just as the door swung open.
The lights blazed into the room and she felt as conspicuous as one of those giant balloons in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, the ones it took an army of people to hold down. He floated them slowly, silently across the ceiling. She screwed her eyes shut, hoping to aid him in making them invisible. In a flash they were out in the hall, a whoosh of wind scattering the papers on the desk they had been searching, and eliciting a started "hey" from the security guard.
"Close one," he said tightly; setting her down once they were around the corner.
"Yeah," she gasped. For a few seconds they just stood in the darkened corridor regrouping.
"I didn't hear him until the last minute," he offered apologetically.
"I didn't hear him at all, don't worry." She gave him a friendly shove on the arm. "Let's get out of here, ok?"
"It's just that, I always hear everything," he told her as they started a slow jog towards the stairwell.
"Well, you were looking through those files, probably pretty focused?" she guessed. "And you heard in time, we're fine."
"I'm supposed to be watching out for you—"
"Hey," she cut him off sharply, skidding to a halt. "*You* are my *partner*, not my watchdog! We are working together! No one is watching out for anyone. If anything it should be the other way around, you're new at this—"
"The other way around? Oh, come on, Lois, how do you figure that? You and I had barely gotten acquainted before I found you tied to a bomb. If my timing had been off by half a second…"
"I don't need any favors from you, Superman," she spat. "I cut you in to be nice. Don't make me regret it, or I won't make that mistake again!"
"You want to keep it down a little?" he scolded her as they entered the stairwell. "I mean, did we sneak out only to yell at each other and get caught?"
His serious expression forced a smile from her. She stopped two steps below him. "Say it," she threatened.
"Say it, or I'm not moving."
"Like that's a problem." He sighed wearily, rolling his eyes at her. "Say what?"
"That we're partners. That you need me as much as I…might, well…"
"Yes?" He raised an eyebrow at her, grinning broadly now, "do finish that, partner."
"You need me," she repeated, her chin coming up, her eyes daring him to laugh. "Say it."
"As much as you need me," he agreed in a low rumble. It sounded like so much more when he said it that way.
"Right." She blew out a breath, suddenly feeling a bit winded. She leaned back, in what she hoped was a casual way, against the wall. "So, the point is—"
She felt him against her then, all at once. His hands on either side of her head, not touching her, but planted into the wall just above her ears. He closed in, something glittering in his eyes, so fleeting she only had a glimpse.
"Wha…?" she managed.
"Sorry, Lois." His arms came around her waist and he brought his lips to hers. That's all it was. It wasn't really, really kissing. He was just…apparently…holding her pretty closely…pressing her gently into the cinder block wall behind her. She shivered…but only because the wall was cold. In that second, he pulled her closer, running his hands up and down her back…warming her. And his lips…though still on hers…weren't really…moving. It was more like…they were…caressing…? No. That was stupid. Too many romance novels. It was more like…more like…She gave up. It was like something, though. She'd come back to this later and pin the right word on it. Otherwise, it would drive her crazy.
She could ask, she thought hazily. As in, "Hey, partner, what are you…what are your…are we kissing?" They shouldn't be. She knew that much, though the exact reasons they shouldn't had sort of escaped her.
<Undercover. In danger of being caught. Not exactly the time and place…>
Yeah. Those were all good reason to stop.
The doors crashed open, from above their landing and below. All at once their quiet stairwell was well lit and very crowded.
Clark jerked his mouth off hers, turning quickly, a blush rising on his cheeks. "You told me this building was deserted," he wailed to her plaintively. "I want my money back."
"Dream on!" she snapped after just a few seconds pause, getting into the swing of things. She tossed her hair back, staring at him in contempt. That blush was amazing, how on earth could he do that on command? Super-something? "The stairwell was your sick fantasy, sport. Whether or not you go through with it, a…deal…is…a…deal." She punctuated each word with a jab to his chest. He shrank back accordingly.
"Too bad, buddy," one of the massive security guards chuckled.
"You have no idea," Clark said to him, shaking his head, adjusting his glasses nervously. "She is a lot of woman."
"I can see that," another guard volunteered.
"You're just not enough man," she taunted, sauntering past them all casually. Funny how all four of them, Clark included, seemed to take that extra moment to watch her walk away. Men.
"You coming?" she said to him dismissively. "Or you want your new friends to drive you home?"
"Any of you guys…?" Clark asked hopefully.
"Sorry, man." The burliest of the lot was pulling out his walkie-talkie. "A couple of… trespassers, that's all." He spoke back to the questioning squawk. "In the stairwell. Nothing serious."
"I thought this place was empty," Clark said by way of apology. "Believe me, if I'd known we might get caught…"
"Keep away," voiced another guard, as if remembering what was in his actual job description. "This place is protected. You have no idea—"
"Hey!" One of them, apparently smarter than the rest put together, cut him off. "Get out now and you won't have any trouble." He glowered at them. "Everybody else back to work."
"Thanks, officer," Clark said nicely. "And if you don't mind not telling anyone…I mean, it's embarrassing. I wouldn't want Mom to know that I even knew her…much less was trying…you know…"
He kept up a steady barrage of harmless babble as she linked her elbow with his, pulling him down the remaining steps. "Just shut up, Pocket Boy," she snarled.
"You know I don't like that," he protested. "It's Pocket Man!"
"Goodnight, fellas," she called with a smile and a wave.
Dumbly, they all waved back.
When they rounded the corner out of the men's sight, he had his arms around her and their feet off the floor. "Duck," he ordered. She did, keeping her head under his chin as he burst through the double doors and up into the night sky.
She laughed the entire way.
"You find that funny?" he demanded, fighting a smile of his own. "We're caught by a pack of…of…goons, and that's fun for you?"
"Maybe just a little," she admitted with a grin. "It goes with the job, anyway. Hey, want to hear something ridiculous?"
He nodded, pulling her a bit closer as they picked up speed.
"For just a second there, I thought you were really just…kissing me." She laughed again, vaguely surprised that he didn't join in. "I mean…how stupid is that? We're fighting in the stairwell, and I just assume you're suddenly overwhelmed with passion."
"I shouldn't have." His eyes, his voice, his face. Everything about him turned serious all at once.
"Oh, Clark, look. It's ok—"
"No. It isn't," he said. "And I'm sorry, Lois. I just…didn't know what else—"
"You did the exact right thing," she assured him. "It worked, didn't it?"
"Yeah. It did."
If his reply was somewhat half-hearted, she chalked that up to his embarrassment. There was still a lot of the small town left in the world famous man.
"We had a break-in."
"What? Who? Did you catch them?"
"Oh, we caught them, but they were harmless. One of the dock ladies and a customer. We ran them off."
"Did you get the lock box? Everything still inside? The piece?"
"It's taken care of. We're in good shape, don't worry. Just thought you should know."
"I don't like it. Keep the men available, just in case."
"That might be a little tricky. They're getting a little restless. Just sitting across the street staring at nothing, eating and drinking a lot on our dime."
"On whose dime?"
"Ok, ok, on your dime. Still, I don't think we need them."
"We need them. Feed them and keep them happy and out of sight, ok? And call me if anything…unusual happens."
They landed on the roof of the Daily Planet, and all the way down the stairwell Lois 'instructed' him on what they were going to do next.
"First, we get those pictures developed. I know an all night place, so that's no trouble. You type up everything you read in those files — no matter how unimportant it seems. And then, maybe, you can fly back and get the car? I'll call Bill, ask him to run a check —
"Lois, wait—" He stopped her in mid-stride as she moved down the ramp.
"My coat." He plucked it from the coat rack, grateful to have found it where he left it hours ago. At her puzzled look, he faltered, "I thought you might, you know, want to cover up?"
"I'm fine." She shook her head, marching towards her desk. "It's not cold in here."
"Um…but—" He gestured to her outfit.
"Oh." She looked down in dawning comprehension. "Oh. I see what you mean. I can just see the geeks at the photo lab now," she laughed. "Don't let me forget to put it on before I go, ok?"
"Maybe you should just…put it on now?" He held it up for her, trying to will her into it, giving her arms a gentle mental shove into the sleeves.
"There's no one to see. I'm ok." She waved him off impatiently.
He guessed he was no one, then.
"James is here," he told her hurriedly. He could see their boss in his office, bent over the late edition like always…if he came out… He gritted his teeth at the thought. James already looked at Lois like she was the whipped topping on a very large sundae. It wasn't his place to notice or to mind; and. if it didn't bother Lois, then it certainly didn't bother him. Still, no sense tempting the poor guy…
"He's here?" She stopped rummaging for her purse and picked up her notes instead.
"He's here," he confirmed, and then stepped closer to her, trying that mental shove again, this time not so gently.
"Perfect." She beamed, spun on one heel, and stepped around him. "You coming? We've got a lot to tell him."
He caught her at the door and as casually as possible, as if he dressed nearly naked, strikingly beautiful co-workers everyday, he tossed his coat over her shoulders.
She moved her arms into the sleeves at long last. "That is better, thanks," she said absently as she threw the door open without knocking.
He sagged against the doorframe and took just a moment to let the small victory wash over him.
"So, you've got something." James sat back slowly. "And you've been working on this for a while, I take it?"
"Only a few weeks," Lois said. "And I didn't tell you sooner because I wasn't completely positive it was anything."
"But now you know that it is," James stated, shoving himself away from his desk and giving her his full attention. "What happened?"
"Lester Lyle happened," she said.
"The letter carrier?"
She saw Clark's start of surprise and hid a smile. James, for all his inexperience and sometimes vague grasp of details, had remembered the name before her partner had. "Yes, he's the one at the warehouse I had the tip on about illegal weapons trafficking. The one that flew the plane—"
"— out of the Congo," James finished, the disbelief in his voice evident. "He owes you a lot of postage, doesn't he?" he joked weakly. And then, "You're sure, Lois? Sure that of all people…?"
"Yes," she said.
And James was smart. He didn't argue.
What he did was get very quiet. Shift a bit uncomfortably, needlessly arrange and rearrange the pens in his coffee mug. She looked to Clark in amusement, but her smile died when she realized that he was doing it, too. Studying the cracked plaster on the walls as if the patterns they formed might be on a test later.
"What?" she demanded. "I mean, I know it's a surprise, and kind of crazy, but I saw him with my own two eyes and—"
"Have you considered…" James began quietly, and she didn't miss the look he and Clark were sharing. "I mean… did you think that maybe…since this whole thing seems tied to Lester Lyle, that…?"
He didn't finish. But he didn't have to. She felt Clark tense beside her, and without looking, she knew that he was wondering the same thing.
"Marvin has nothing to do with this." She concentrated on keeping her voice firm, civil. "He would never—" She drew a deep breath in. "— ever…"
"Ok," Clark said immediately, moving a hand to her shoulder and squeezing. She missed it when it just as quickly dropped away.
James wasn't quite as easy. "It's just that it seems like a really big coincidence. The guy who loses your letters, who flies in and out of your camp, is the same guy at the warehouse? What are the odds, Lois?"
He had asked it gently, but she felt it all the same.
Clark hand returned, but by his continued silence, she knew he harbored the very same questions. She turned on him.
"Marvin—" she repeated, this time not trying to stay friendly, "— has *nothing* to do with this. He loved me…loves me," she corrected herself hastily, though not hastily enough to miss a flare of something behind Clark's eyes. "He wouldn't. He isn't…involved."
Her eyes stayed locked on his. She couldn't break from his sympathetic gaze for anything.
James's pained voice intruded. "It just…bears asking. Thinking about. Nobody's accusing…"
"Aren't you?" she railed. Again, at Clark. He hadn't said a word. She knew that. There was no reason to be so angry with him. "Aren't you both?"
She did move away from him, then. Wrenching herself from the look in his eyes. "You don't know him, but I do."
"Ok," Clark said again, this time much more firmly. "Subject closed. So, start with Lyle and follow the trail from there."
"Right," James echoed contritely. "Absolutely. And this is all yours. Whatever it is. You guys take it and run with it. But keep me informed. I want to learn, step by step, how this is done."
She nodded curtly, not really up to saying more, and headed for the door.
"I can't do this," Clark said, stopping her cold. "I have to…leave this to the two of you."
"You think it's Marvin, don't you?" She whirled around, ready to fight. A fight would be welcome. "You think I was lured to the Congo and seduced by a criminal botanist, don't you!"
"No, Lois." His quiet voice pulled her back from the edge. And even though he wasn't touching her, even from the other side the room, she felt the support he imparted, the kindness. Whatever Kryptonian mind trick he was using, it worked.
She held still and listened. He couldn't know how few people she did that for.
Now that he had her attention, he knew he needed to state his case quickly.
"Having me on this story is too risky," he said. "Up to now it's been fine because we had nothing to go on but a hunch. Now that it looks like there's something to this, something that could be big, we can't risk using me. I'm a liability."
"I know you can't break and enter, can't seem to be trapping the bad guys, no spying, no watching through the walls," Lois said dismissively. "You've been playing by the rules."
At his look, she shrugged. "Well…mostly."
"But if anyone gets wind that I'm the other reporter on this, whatever we get, Lois, whatever we dig up will be put under the microscope. You put our by-line in the paper and some lawyers in this town will be begging to represent the accused."
"You sure you need to step back, Kent?" James seemed much more comfortable now that they had gotten down to logistics. "Because there are ways around this. Mayor White could help us out. Talk to a judge, or I could get someone in Legal to—"
"No!" he and Lois spoke as one.
"Nobody knows anything and that's the way we'd like to keep it," Lois stated.
"The more people we bring in, the more—" Clark said at the same time.
"Leaks. I get it," James sighed, leaned back in his chair. "Rookie mistake, guys. Perry wouldn't have done that. I'm striking out all over the place tonight."
"Perry has a bit more…life experience than you," Lois offered, her gentleness a surprise. As angry as she'd been, she seemed to have forgiven James fairly quickly. Clark guessed that was…good.
"But I think your initial point was really excellent, James." She turned towards Clark. "There are ways around this."
She said it with such assurance; he felt a moment's panic.
"A pen name," she continued. "Simple as that. You and I work together on this, but you stay behind the scenes. Anything that gets written up goes under our shared by-line, Lane and — we'll think of something. I'll do any interviews, leg work that gets done in public…"
"No one else outside of this room has to know." James picked up her train of thought. "That frees you up. Anyone starts asking about the new hire — you know — we just…tap dance, a little. Say we want our investigative reporters to be faceless."
"A secret identity," Clark said slowly.
"Exactly!" Lois beamed. "So, who are you? What's your dream name? Your fantasy name? Your If-I-Were-Famous-name?"
He grinned at her. "You mean, more famous that I currently am, Lois? Gee, is that even possible?"
"Come on," she prompted. "You must have considered it, as a kid, maybe, looking to live a different life—"
She stopped at once. He hadn't been quick enough to cover the pain, then. Or she had just been quicker.
A different life. After his parents died, he'd thought about it all the time…
Lois's eyes stayed on him, full of silent apology. It rattled him a bit. That she would know, that she would see…
"Reds Fielding," James said dreamily, cutting through the tension unaware. "My famous baseball player name. 'Now batting — Reds Fielding!'"
"Jonathan," he said softly, his eyes on hers. "Jonathan Hudson." His dad's name. His mother's family name. A name he had toyed with adopting, after the name Clark Kent had become synonymous with Superman. Along with the brief idea of moving to a remote country, changing his appearance, reestablishing a private life, telling no one…
But Lana, of course. She'd come too.
It hadn't worked that way. He'd never moved on that. Hadn't even tried. But this…a pen name. The chance to write real stories, to be…anonymous. Unknown. Dear God, what could he want more?
His eyes returned to Lois's dancing ones. She knew. She knew what she had just given him. The thin sheen of tears she blinked to hide told him so. But if he took this, agreed to this, where did it stop? He wasn't really Jonathan Hudson. That would just be a name in the paper, most people wouldn't even bother to read it.
But if he took this, for him, would he want…more?
No. He drew his eyes off hers. No. He had his work as Superman, which he wouldn't trade. And he had…his wife. And now this. This was better than he'd ever imagined or hoped. And it would be enough. It would be…perfect.
"Let's do it," he said, trying to sound nonchalant.
"I feel like we should break a bottle of champagne over you!" Lois cried. "Newly christened reporter Jonathan Hudson…"
"Not on my rug," James declared with a grin. "Instead, why doesn't the Planet's newest team get to work, Hudson and Lane —"
"A-hem," Lois coughed loudly.
"Lane and Hudson," Clark said. "Though technically I've been here longer…what? I have!"
"Technically, you've been here all of three seconds. And besides, if you count the time before I left—"
"To go live in a tree and write romance novels? Yeah, I'm thinking that doesn't count, Lane," he retorted with no heat. He just got a kick out of it. The way her face…
"I've changed my mind. I want Ralph," she said flatly, though there was a twinkle in her eye. "Is it all right if I just pull Ralph in on this, James?"
Their boss answered with an elaborate shrug. "You want Ralph instead of Hudson? Sorry, Jonathan." He headed to his door. "Good thing we didn't use that champagne. I'll just yell for Ralph, then? Tell him his ship has come in."
The three of them took a moment to study the object of their conversation through the open blinds of James's office. The day had just started and the bullpen was filling with co-workers. Ralph sat at his desk; feet propped up, jelly-filled doughnut dripping down his own shirt, as he steadfastly tried to look down the shirt of the female co-worker unfortunate enough to be partnered with him.
"Ah. Um," Lois said.
"I think that's fair," Clark volunteered quickly. "I mean, I'm busy as Superman anyway, so you just tell me how it turns out, ok, Lois?"
"You'll sit next to me," she said quickly. "No one's using that desk over there." She pointed. "We'll pull it alongside mine."
"I thought you could move to the alcove," he answered. "There's a lot more room…"
"Too far from the coffee," she scowled, opening the door and heading towards her target. "Maybe you don't mind being the last one to the doughnuts in the morning…"
"I have a bit of a speed advantage," he whispered to her, moving to catch up.
"But you never use it! I've seen you. You hang back, let everyone pick their own, and then you come and sigh over what's left. What is that about?" she demanded, swinging around to face him.
They had that audience now. He could feel it. He didn't have to look to confirm it.
"Good manners?" At her scathing look, he shrugged. "Need me to define that in words that are easier to understand?"
But she was already lugging the desk she had indicated over towards hers. The unbearable shrieking of its metal legs on the floor had him helping before he intended to. He still thought he had a legitimate argument for the alcove.
"Let me," he said grimly, ignoring the eyes now fixed avidly on him, waiting for him to do something really super. Balance the desk on his pinkie, maybe. Or juggle it with a few others. Maybe juggle Lois as well. He disappointed them, he knew, when he simply lifted it and placed it across from hers.
"I'll get my notes," he said into the silence.
His face burning, he retreated at a carefully calculated speed back to his corner. Not too fast, no papers flying. But definitely not slow enough to get a good look at his co-workers. As was his custom, he started to hum softly under his breath — making it harder to hear them. Sometimes he had to be pretty loud, and it was a shame he was tone-deaf, but still, it seemed nicer than just standing up and saying, "I can hear you! You know that, right?"
He took his time gathering his things, checking every file in his drawer.
When he finally turned Lois was studying him, her every thought marked vividly on her face. Of all of them, it was pity that stood out the most. It nearly buckled his knees.
<No, Lois. No.>
She would stop being rude, now. Stop pushing him around. Stop complaining to him, yelling at him across the room, sending him to get her coffee when she was in the middle of a good paragraph. She would…be careful. Mindful of who he was. She knew now. She understood.
He stood rooted to his spot, watching the pity linger on her face, until it finally, blessedly, became something else…which looked like…
"I haven't got all day," she snapped. "Bring what you've got and let's go."
He could kiss her.
Well, no, he couldn't…kiss her. At the moment he just loved…no, he just…really liked her.
"Hold your horses, woman." He smiled and moved to join her, right in the center of it all, in the heart of the bullpen where the normal people worked.
James called him into his office during the lunch hour.
"Problems?" Clark asked him as soon as he saw the look on his boss's face. "For Jonathan Hudson?"
"I hope not." James gestured to the chair across from his.
"The paperwork is going to be too hard, isn't it?" he asked, trying to hide the swift sting of disappointment. Too good to be true. And maybe that was only right, because it wasn't true. During the morning hours, the euphoria had worn off, and he had been wrestling with the ethics of the pen name. Finding it difficult to believe it could really bring back any of his anonymity. Or that he could ask James and Lois to participate in an on-going lie for him. That he could lie, himself.
And yet, the other Clark Kent did it daily. He had created and nurtured a lie that allowed him to maintain a life that was his own, in addition to the one in the spotlight. Maybe this was no different, just more after the fact.
He had turned it over and looked at it from every angle and he still didn't know.
"Don't worry," he assured James. "If you're uncomfortable with the things you're going to have to do and say to support Jonathan Hudson, I won't hold you to it. No hard feelings."
James moved awkwardly behind his desk, sorting and resorting the pens in his mug once more. "It's personal, Clark," he finally blurted. "And I'm…man…I'm overstepping my role here."
He waited until James lifted his eyes to his. "Tell me."
"A couple of weeks ago, I was here in the office, spending the night, working late…"
"I thought you did that every night," Clark teased, trying to set his obviously nervous boss at ease. "There's an office pool going. At what point do you just give up your house and move in full time?"
"Is it that obvious?" James relaxed a bit, sank back in his chair with a sheepish smile and a weary shake of the head. "What's your pick?"
He hadn't picked, of course. Hadn't been invited to. But Lois had signed on for a date. And Clark half suspected that as determined as she was to win at all cost, she might rig things a bit. Set fire to James's house on the day in question, for example. Disable his car to prevent him from leaving. Drug him and tie him to his office chair. He had made a mental note to watch after James a bit more closely on that particular day.
"Don't worry," he told James, instead. "I think it's great you're so dedicated."
"And clueless," his boss muttered.
"Anyway," Clark said, "you were saying…"
The look of discomfort, even embarrassment, on James's face returned immediately.
"You said it was personal," Clark prompted gently.
"Lana called." James said slowly, looking everywhere but directly at him
"Lana called a couple of weeks ago," Clark clarified.
"Yes. She was looking for you. Said you had indicated to her you were working with a partner…"
"Oh." Clark straightened. "We weren't acting behind your back deliberately. Lois had a hunch and I went along to…well…keep an eye on things, and once we found out we were on to something we told you. Until them it was all very…unofficial. You shouldn't think that reflects on what we think of you as a boss, that you aren't up for this or that—"
"Is working closely with Lois going to be a problem for you?" James's question stopped him cold. "For your…marriage?"
He opened his mouth, closed it again. And this time he was the one who looked away.
"You and Lois are just…partners, right, Clark?" James asked in strangled whisper. "I mean. I've seen…something. A kind of…something when you're together. And while I love the idea of you teaming up and giving the Planet, and me, a boost it desperately needs, I don't want you to risk…anything."
"She's a friend," Clark finally replied, as evenly as he was able. "She's…great to work with."
"Amazing to work with," James murmured under his breath, and Clark stilled. Maybe this little talk was about more than Clark's relationship with Lois and his marriage to Lana. Maybe it had to do with James's designs on…
"She is." He cleared his throat roughly, pushing aside an inexplicable, inexcusable surge of jealously. James was unattached. A really nice guy. Really nice. "And I'm sure Marvin thinks so, too," he added, ashamed of himself even as he did so.
"Right," James agreed. "Right. Ok." He stood and moved towards the door. "And I'm sorry. Maybe I'm just projecting my own…Anyway, I just want this to be ok. To be great, honestly. I want Kerths and Pulitzers and speeches that start with 'It's all thanks to our editor.'"
Clark nodded. "It'll be fine, James. Don't worry. I appreciate it that you care enough to…Anyway, we'll make you proud, you'll see."
"I'm going to call a meeting and get this thing rolling tomorrow morning." James's confidence returned as they moved back on easier ground. "You just concentrate on bringing in the story."
Clark escaped back to his desk. As he moved across from Lois she glanced up briefly. "Something up?" It was an absent query. She was completely absorbed in what was in front of her, and if he didn't answer, he knew she wouldn't even notice.
"Just business," he told her softly.
She didn't answer. And the call for help he heard at that moment was a welcome sound to his ears.
"We're seeing a lot of Superman in the sky, night and day. He's looking for something."
"Working with some reporters at the Daily Planet, as a matter of fact."
"It's in my interest to know. What have you done?"
"Ordered more lead, started fitting the ship…the usual."
"He's bound by law not to look unless he has just cause, and even then, he's required to contact the DA, the police…"
"No kidding! I never heard that."
"It's kept pretty quiet, not good for the criminal element to know the big Boy Scout is mired in red tape."
"So, he does have a weakness…"
"More than one."
"Care to fill me in?"
"Get the lead in place. And…you might take another try at Lane. She's the brains. If she's out of the way…"
"You're giving me the all clear, then? I can move on her?"
"Choose your time wisely. She's hardly alone. And she's…special to Superman."
"How…special? And how do you know this?"
"It doesn't matter. If you get caught, same rule applies."
"I don't talk, and you get me out of it."
"There's something extra for you if you can get Lane tonight."
"I've already got something in mind."
"I look forward to reading her obit."
The third time he cleared his throat that day, she didn't even look up. "Go ahead," she said. "And fill me in if it's juicy."
"Convenience store robbery," he answered as he stood.
"Boring," she returned, tasting the dregs of her coffee and wincing. "But give 'em hell."
His soft chuckle was the last thing she heard before the stairwell door swung closed and the sonic boom sounded overhead.
The phone on his desk rang.
"Clark Kent's desk," she answered briskly.
"This is Lois Lane." She thought she heard a very startled, very feminine gasp. She set her mug down slowly, and lifted her eyes off the page in front of her. "Clark's not here, can I…take a message?"
"No one has ever answered Clark's phone, except Clark," the voice replied. It wasn't necessarily frosty, just…a bit chilly.
"Well, I happened to be right here."
She didn't say any more. She knew. She knew who the voice belonged to. She reached for the single frame that adorned Clark's otherwise utilitarian workspace. A beautiful woman smiled at her from beneath the glass. She looked…young. Really young. Good grief, how old was Clark's wife? Maybe she was wrong. The face in the picture didn't match the world-weary voice on the phone.
She white-knuckled the receiver, then injected as much warmth into her tone as possible. "This…is Lana?"
"It is." And then silence.
Lois pushed on, after the pause grew hard to stand. "Clark mentioned a…robbery, I think. But that wouldn't take him long, if you want to hold?"
"He mentioned a robbery?"
"Yes." Again with the white knuckles. She shifted the phone from her right hand to her left. "I wasn't really listening," she confessed hurriedly. "But I think a convenience store. Not anything that would make the news…"
"But he told you…where he was going."
"Well…" She shifted the phone again, and stretched to reach her top drawer, where the chocolate lived. For emergencies. "Yes," she finally settled on. "Since we've been on this story, he lets me know — just so I'll have an idea if my…" She stopped, the word 'partner' nearly falling from her lips before, for some reason, she thought better of it. "…co-worker," she continued smoothly, or she hoped it was smooth. She ripped the bar open and took a bite small enough to talk around. "…will be back anytime soon or if I'm pretty much…on my own."
That was it. It was Lana's turn. She'd said hers and no matter how quiet the line stayed, no matter how long the pause, she wasn't going again. She gulped down the next three bites — listening to the soft breathing on the other end. Oh god. She froze, the last bit stuck in her throat. Was that crying?
"Hey," she broke her own pledge of silence, "are you all right, Lana? Do you need him?" The wife of Superman. She must have a crisis every other day, some criminal with a brilliant idea and her well-known address were all it would take. "What do you do for security?" she demanded at once.
"Federal Marshals," Lana replied in a low voice. "By orders of the President. They don't live in, but…they blend with the reporters outside…"
The reporters outside. Lois closed her eyes, started to debate another chocolate bar.
"That's…that's…" She had no idea what that was. But for some reason she felt the sting of tears in her own eyes. "Lana, can I help you?" This time she didn't have to fake any sincerity, any warmth. It was just there.
"Send him home when you see him?" Lana asked.
"Of course!" She sat up and took a closer look at Clark's notes scattered on his desk. He had been trying to track down Lester Lyle's rental car. Trying to find any records of Lyle entering the country. It didn't look like he'd come up with much. With quick movements she shuffled the lot of it over onto her side.
<Day's over, Hudson,> she thought grimly. <Time to be Clark Kent.>
"Thanks, Lois. And…welcome back. We hadn't expected to see you…again."
Well, that was oddly put.
"Being thought dead kind of does that, doesn't it?" And there she went, she felt herself going, even as she tried to stop herself. The nervous babble. Something Marvin had noted in her right away, and eventually helped break her of, much to her enormous relief. "I'm sure Clark told you. I was chasing a lead to the Congo. I found nothing. Well…not nothing. A man. A really, really nice man. Marvin. I…stayed with him. We even had a marriage ceremony, according to local customs…not legal, by any means, just to show our commitment to one another? And well…it was great. We lived in this elaborate…you could call it a treehouse, and you wouldn't be far off. A campsite. And I was a real…woman of nature, you know? Maybe you do, you're from a farming community, but I was born and raised in the big city, so…it was an adventure. Anyway, I wrote and just…enjoyed the time…no idea, mind you, that no one was getting my letters, and that for all intents and purposes I was thought dead! Still haven't been by to see the tombstone that Perry had erected for me…such a nice gesture. I wonder…how much would that run? I ought to find out…reimburse him…why didn't I think of that sooner…?"
"Lois?" The gentle voice breaking her from the stream of words, which threatened to wash both her and her listener away, didn't come from Lana.
Clark loomed over her, his hand on her shoulder, his eyes full of…trepidation? No. That didn't seem right. Though a full-on ramble might be cause for it. He just looked confused as to why she was practically sprawled over his desk, dripping syllables and chocolate.
"It's for you!" she said immediately, handing the phone over.
He took it from her slowly. "I thought you were…giving an interview," he said carefully.
"Right, well…" She kind of was. But that was just…not important. "I'm off to lunch," she declared. Never mind that'd she'd had lunch already, that he had been the one to bring it to her. She was hungry, dammit, and she ate when she wanted to. She hit the ramp at a run, and she didn't look back.
Only when the elevator doors opened on the parking deck did she realize she was without her purse, her keys. Everything but the candy wrapper clutched in her fist.
She wasn't going back up to get them, either. She stood for a time, debating hot-wiring her own car, just going home. Maybe the super could let her in? Then she could just…lie down and…
The sonic boom solved the matter nicely. He was gone again. Hopefully going home to his wife. She stopped on that thought for just an instant, then pushed the button to summon the elevator.
"Clark is going home to his wife," she said aloud, because there was no one to hear and well, she wanted to hear how that sounded.
She went back up and retrieved her things. He had straightened their desks and left her a note. 'Have a good lunch. See you later, Clark.'
She held it in her hands, rereading it several times, as if it held important insights.
No. She wouldn't see him later, she decided. Not today. She'd hit a wall with Lester Lyle anyway, so what she needed was some distance…from the case. Some time to just…not think about things. That's when the solutions came. When you weren't grasping for them.
She took another long look at Lana's picture. Clark had returned it to its rightful place, had wiped her chocolate fingerprints from the frame.
She closed her eyes. She would stay and work. If she went home, she might…go crazy there. James was in his office. He was good company, and she hadn't updated him on their progress, or lack there of. Gathering her resolve and her notes, she marched towards him, knowing he would welcome her, knowing he was always glad to see her. For some reason, that mattered a bit more today.
Clark let the currents carry him towards home. The wind was brisk and he got there a little faster than he'd intended, but that was ok. The time for organizing his thoughts, for figuring out the best way to explain the origin of Jonathan Hudson was long since over. All the maneuvering necessary to flesh out Lois and James's idea of a pen name for Clark Kent had been done. The only thing left was telling his wife.
Everything else had fallen into place easily.
At his first opportunity, James had explained to the staff that Lois was to be partnered with a reporter who was deep undercover. He wouldn't be seen at the Planet, and there would be consequences to pay if Jonathan Hudson's cover was leaked, or even hinted at.
The only one truly interested in such news had been Ralph, this information putting the death knell on his own campaign to be paired with Lois Lane. Something Clark was pretty sure would have eventually culminated in Ralph's screams for Superman's help.
That Clark sat across from Lois now, sharing files and hushed and not so hushed conversations, had opened them up to speculation. It varied as to the theories, and mostly he pretended not to hear them.
Lois had helped the most popular one along by challenging him, rather loudly, and during peak hours, to make himself useful. "When you're not out saving things," she had added somewhat condescendingly, eliciting a few gasps, some startled exclamations and a novel thing for him — the commiserating glance.
The first time he'd caught that particular look, he had almost failed to recognize it. Lois had shoved a pile of seemingly unrelated papers onto him as soon as he'd returned from a flood in the Midwest — his socks not even dry — and demanded he find the pattern she was certain was contained within.
Ralph's partner, who had probably done some hoping of her own that he would be hooked up with Lois, had shot Clark a pointed grin, a wry lifting of the eyebrows, rolled eyes. All behind Lois's back.
It had taken him just an extra second to return that look, and then he had done so with relish.
The rumor mill buzzed. Lois was using him. Lois was pushing him around. Lois was in love with him. Lois hated him and was trying to run him off. Lois was hazing him.
The common element in the variety of stories was essentially true, though. Lois Lane was a force of nature. Even to Superman.
Especially to Superman.
One obstacle that had worried him had turned out to be the easiest. All the paperwork necessary for Jonathan Hudson to exist as an employee of the Daily Planet, including the paychecks he would never collect. He'd brought his concerns to James, who had answered them with a wink and a knowing laugh.
"I think I can handle that, Clark," his boss had said. "You're in my playground now. I know a thing or two about computers."
He hadn't asked for any more details. He'd been afraid to. Rules were being bent. And not just by Lois and James…
Superman had made promises to the city, to its citizens. He had kept them all, not overstepping any carefully set boundaries, not infringing on the rights of others. He had worked hard to assure those around him he could be trusted. He had observed every last restriction. Until now.
Of course, those weren't the only promises he'd made. As neatly as all the pieces of Jonathan Hudson's professional life were coming together, there was one glaring exception.
He'd been waiting to break it to her. Waiting for the right time. Waiting, first, to see if it was even possible to pull this off, to fool a newsroom of reporters. If he couldn't, then there was no sense in explaining. No sense in broaching a subject that could be so easily misunderstood. Especially if the subject was closed, rendered moot by the discovery of Jonathan Hudson's true identity. He'd learned the hard way that the secret identity ruse was risky, at best.
But the days had passed without a sign that anything was out of place. And given Lana's phone call this afternoon, her conversation with Lois.Well, it was possible he'd left this last thing undone a bit too long.
He landed in the garden, for once not bothering to greet the various faces around his back door. They really ought to find something more worthwhile to do with their time.
"Welcome home, Jonathan," she called to him from the kitchen when he entered.
So it was going to be bad. But at least he wasn't going to have to wait for it. He turned the corner and found her seated at the table, the phone at her elbow, the morning edition of the Daily Planet spread before her.
He took the chair across from her, lowering himself slowly, half-expecting her to jump up and move away.
"Jonathan Hudson," she said, pointing to his by-line sharply. "And Lois Lane…"
"It wasn't a secret," he began, his hand reaching for hers. She pulled back, and he didn't try again. "I should have told you sooner."
"That would have been nice," she said airily, her casual tone a marked contrast to her tight fists. "It's getting hard to keep up. How many names does this make now?"
"It's not the name, Lana, it's—"
"Shut up," she said, so low and so soft that he did. Completely. "Just…shut up, Clark Kent. That is who you are now, right? Clark Kent? Out there when you're saving the world, that's Superman. And evidently at the Daily Planet, with Lois —" she pronounced the name again, very carefully. "— it's Jonathan Hudson. You can see how a wife could get confused."
He opened his mouth, but at a look at her, he thought better of it. She was talking. She did so little of that these days.
"Do you know how stupid I am?" she asked with a laugh. "I must have read this by-line a half-dozen times never dreaming…How did I miss that? Your dad's name? Your grandmother's? You weren't subtle. If you didn't want to be found out, you should have picked something far less obvious."
"It wasn't a secret," he repeated quietly.
"And you know, I was relieved," she continued like she hadn't heard him, and maybe she hadn't. "I was relieved that our Lois Lane, this world's Lois Lane, mind you — not to confuse her with time-traveling Lois Lane — had a lover, and apparently a work partner. And neither one of them happened to be my husband. I felt…glad. Did you count on my stupidity, Clark? This set-up doesn't work if I'm smart. If I hadn't phoned you today, if Lois hadn't answered, mentioned your story, I still wouldn't know."
He fought to stay calm, in control. He had to be able to reach her, if this got away from them…
"I needed the name," he told her. "You know why. I can't be a writer under my own."
"Which one is your own?" she countered. "Do you even know any more?"
"You know which one is mine, the only one that is mine." Despite every effort not to, he couldn't hide the frustration in his voice. It didn't matter, though. She had had her say, and had gone cold. He leaned towards her until he could feel her breath on his face, forcing her to look at him. "I'm Clark Kent," he said. "I have only ever been Clark Kent. One person. The one you've always known—"
"This speech is tired, Clark." She stood up and moved away from him, like he'd known she would. She exited the kitchen, headed towards the stairs. "After all the times you've given it, I don't even think you hear it any more."
That was meant to be her parting shot, but rather than beating his usual retreat, he followed her up. Obviously letting her shut down, shut him out, wasn't doing them any good, wasn't serving their marriage in the slightest. In a burst of superspeed he caught her, stepping in front of their bedroom door just as she barreled into him.
"Not fair," she hissed.
"It's a by-line." He brought hands he was careful to keep gentle to her shoulders. "Listen to me, Lana. A by-line. A pen name. Not a real name, not a real person…"
"So, Jonathan Hudson isn't having an affair?"
He dropped his hands at once. "What?" he faltered. "Lana…no. No!"
"You didn't adopt Jonathan Hudson so you could be close to Lois, work with her, be her partner and..?"
"Yes." His voice was grim. "But not in that sense. I get to work. To be the reporter I wanted to be."
"Then I'm way off here? Nowhere close to the truth?" She pushed around him, and he didn't stand in her way. She opened the door and stopped on the threshold. "Look at me, Clark."
He couldn't have looked anywhere else if he tried.
"You have never lied to me. You've said things I've hated, made decisions I couldn't stand, but you've never, ever lied to me. So, please, answer me honestly."
"I am not having an affair, Lana," he said very slowly. "That isn't what this is about."
"Maybe I should get one of those new identities," she said quietly. "Maybe I should split myself up into different personalities. It sounds crazy, but maybe crazy is just…easier than sane. Easier than this. Easier than being Mrs Lana Lang-Kent-Superman- Hudson. You've got three names, a couple of different jobs, and I've got…this."
Her gestured encompassed the room, the window that was his, the two of them.
"We could…find something for you, Lana. Something for you to do that—"
"Maybe I should just take that job at the Superman Foundation? Sit behind the desk and let those who come in gawk at me? I wonder how much that pays? Aside from my own dignity."
"What is this about?" he asked heavily. "Is this about my by-line, my working with Lois, or…you?"
"It's all the same." She stepped into the room. "And you just don't get it."
"Lana…" He hesitated on the threshold. "Help me, then. I want to understand. You're my wife. If you want me to quit…"
"Quit what? Superman? The Planet? What would you quit for me?"
The answer stuck in his throat. It was an easy choice, in fact, it wasn't even a choice. He couldn't quit Superman. He was born to that job, made for it. But…he wanted…Jonathan Hudson. Wanted the Daily Planet…the chance to work with…just the chance to work…
"What can we do?" He leaned against the doorframe, weakened all at once. "What, how do we…get back on track?"
"We lost sight of the track a long time ago." She placed a hand on his chest and pressed him slowly backwards.
"Dinner?" he asked. It sounded lame even to him, but he didn't know what else to do. "We'll fly somewhere, someplace nice. Just the two of us, and I won't listen to—"
"— any calls," she filled in. "It will just be you and me? You say that in your sleep, you know."
"Please, Lana." He brought his hand up to cover hers, even as she pushed him away. "Let's try."
"There's no such thing as just the two of us any more," she whispered as she shut the door in his face.
For a time he simply stood in the darkened hallway. Wanting to respect her privacy, give her whatever she needed. But her sobs, which she was obviously trying to muffle, sliced through him. He couldn't get his feet to move until she grew silent and a fast check confirmed that she was sleeping.
He walked down the stairs, went into the kitchen, and cooked her dinner. He fixed her favorites, taking his time, turning a deaf ear to the cries outside the door. He couldn't do everything, be everywhere. And some cries were just more important than others…
The time to eat came and went, and she didn't come down. He put out the lights. Their bedroom door wasn't locked. Climbing into the bed next to her, he slid a tentative hand towards hers. He was surprised, shamed, rewarded, when her fingers laced with his, squeezing his tight. He pulled her close to him and they slept.
Clark was late for work that next day, but that wasn't unusual. She'd heard about the stand-off at the bank. Ralph and the poor woman who his new partner had rushed past her in the lobby, Ralph crowing, "Was the extra sleep worth it, Lois? We've got a hot one."
She'd been tempted to give chase, her competitive juices set to boil at his smug look.
But she'd let him go. Fair and square, he was here first, she'd reminded herself through gritted teeth, forcing herself onto the elevator.
Clark came in much later.
One of the bank guards had been shot. Reports of a would-be robber getting off a round before the Man of Steel arrived had come over the wire, along with speculation as to what had taken Superman so long to get to the scene.
Probably the poor guy was just trying to eat his breakfast…trying to take a shower…or, heaven forbid, watch some television…
This time she brought the coffee to him, pushing it across her desk towards his.
"Thank you," he said faintly, before turning his attention back to his screen. Which, she noted, he hadn't powered up.
"And thank you," she returned smoothly. "For looking after millions of perfect strangers as if they were your own family."
He looked up at her then, a sad smile playing on his lips. A brief flicker of something in his eyes that hurt her to look at.
"Just thought somebody should mention it," she said with a shrug.
"You're welcome," he said in a low voice.
"If it were me…" She rose briskly from her seat, pulling a thick file from her bag hanging from the post behind her. "I would only rescue whenever it was convenient. And only those people I truly liked…" She flipped the file open, spilling its contents over her desk and his. "And if they didn't seem properly grateful, I would…" She stopped, studying him, thinking it over.
He was hanging on her every word. His hands playing nervously with the papers she'd tossed down.
"You would…?" he prompted.
"Throw them into the sun? Or melt something they really liked. Or give their budding garden a blast of freezing breath… You know." She tipped her head to the side. "Something like that."
"Makes me kind of glad it's me and not you with the superpowers," he chuckled.
"Are you glad?" she asked him. "That it's you with the superpowers?"
"Just not today."
"Just not today," he echoed.
She sat back down, moving her hand over his, the one that was twisting her work into a knot. It stilled. "You are a great guy, Clark Kent."
His head ducked down, but not before she noted the eight shades of red coloring his face. He pulled his hand away.
Yeah. He was a really great guy, wasn't he?
So great that he'd let a man get shot because he'd been out of the country, in a remote village in Greece, standing in a local market looking for the perfect bouquet of daisies and poppies. The right arrangement that said, "Sorry I didn't tell you I was working under another name. Sorry I made myself into Superman even though I knew full well you would hate it. Sorry you live in the white-hot spotlight. Sorry that the woman I work with is…'
Anyway, he'd been looking for those sorts of flowers…
Cries of 'Where were you?' had greeted him on his return. Only they hadn't come from Lana; they'd come from a group of terribly frightened bank customers, and man with a bullet wound.
And after all of it, he'd left the flowers behind. Discarded on some roof top, maybe. Or dumped into the bay. Wherever he'd been when he heard the gunshots. He couldn't remember now.
And his wife was back at home, having woken up alone, again. While he was here, letting Lois comfort him.
A really, really great guy. A super man.
She watched him stare through the papers in his hands for a number of minutes. And she ached to say the thing that would make it better.
But that wasn't her job. And she had no idea what the thing was, the thing that propped up Superman.
Surreptitiously, she studied Lana's picture on Clark's desk again. Maybe she knew. She hoped she did. She hoped that at the end of the day, Clark went home to Lana and found what he needed.
For her, it had always been work. The harder the story, the more elusive, the better to take her mind off…
"I think we've gotten everything from the warehouse we can get," she said a bit too loudly.
"And that is…?" He reply was half-hearted, but it was something.
She stabbed at the photos of the invoices covering their desks. He'd been looking, she knew, but he hadn't been seeing. "Nothing."
"There was nothing in these invoices? Nothing in the shipping schedules? Nothing having to do with Lester Lyle? The Congo?"
He was back now. His brows furrowed as he picked up the closest copy and stared at it, hard.
"You sound like me." She smiled wanly. "Only keep it up for another twenty minutes and try asking all that at three times the volume. It's all very legitimate. Everything checks out. Supposedly that warehouse is owned by a reputable shipping company who uses this port only occasionally."
"So, if that's the case, why security guards who come out of nowhere evidently protecting nothing?" He frowned, lowering his voice. "And why is that warehouse shiny to perfection? I mean, there are no fingerprints anywhere, Lois. That is just…weird."
"Something was there," she asserted.
"Something that Lyle took," he returned promptly.
"I want to go back, have another look around. Are you up for it?" she blurted.
This time, when she saw the hesitation on his face, she knew what the real cause was. Up to now, he'd always come along, always joined in, albeit somewhat reluctantly. Sometimes he'd have to leave, Superman being needed. Sometimes he'd drop down out of nowhere, slide into the car with something great to eat, questions about what was happening, demands that she not try anything when he wasn't around…just in case.
And always, always the easy conversation. The friendly give and take.
He was Superman, though. And a married man. The covers of his life were barely big enough to make the bed with. Pulling off on one corner, only to be tucked again and pulled off from the other side. And now she was pulling as well. Demanding his time.
The one thing Clark Kent really did not have.
"What are you thinking?" his low voice interrupted her brooding.
"That you're…busy," she returned. "To say the least. That I don't have any right to just…assume you can…drop everything and come along with me every time I have an idea."
He smiled. She thought it was a sad smile. But maybe just tired. "I'm your partner," he said. "We are in this…together."
"My silent partner who wasn't going to have to do any of the public leg work, remember?"
"But this isn't in public. This is sitting in a parked car staring at an empty building for hours."
When he said it like that, put it that way…
She rose to her feet and started to pace around their tiny work space.
She'd been calling these stakeouts, even though they had exhausted the warehouse as a lead. Obviously they needed to dig up a trail elsewhere. Stop hoping that somehow their timing would be perfect, that Lester Lyle would dance in with a stash of illegal weapons and hang a sign out front: 'Open for Business…'
She knew that. She'd known that for a while. And still, she kept insisting they go back.
He was watching her silently. She liked that about him. He let her think. He didn't probe. He was…good company.
She swallowed hard. Let that nugget of information filter into her thoughts and stay there. Seeing it for what it was.
All the dinners. All the hours in the car together. She was just…enjoying his company.
She closed her eyes. "The warehouse is out," she declared flatly.
"I couldn't see the actual wheels turning," he said. "But I knew you were reaching a conclusion."
"Yes," she said. And it was true. An important one. "I'm hung up on the warehouse…and that means I'm missing something else, something big. Our stakeout days are over."
Did he look disappointed? Relieved, probably.
They would still work together. Just here, under everyone's nose. Like regular partners. Because that's what they were.
"It's all starting to look familiar." Lois yawned and stood up from her desk.
It was late and despite repeated exits for a traffic jam, a broken water main, and a runaway school bus, he and Lois had made some in-roads in their investigation. Absolutely nothing they could prove. But man, just flying by — and asking the dock workers wasn't it nice weather they'd been having — had set a lot of hearts to pounding…
Lois wasn't ranting and gnashing her teeth, which indicated to him she was feeling better about things, too.
"I never told you what the lead was, the one I chased to the Congo three years ago," Lois said as she worked to stretch aching muscles that hadn't moved in hours. Everyone else had long since gone home. "But this looks very much like that. It was—"
"Gunrunners," he filled-in, not looking up from the flight schedules in his hand.
"How did you know that?" She had stopped in mid-stretch and was staring at him. "I just said I never told you."
He looked at her blankly before it came together. Perry had told him. When Lois Lane had come.
The other Lois.
Amazing. He shook his head in disbelief. He had nearly forgotten her. Almost completely.
The other Lois was the one who had changed everything, or rather had gotten him to change everything by introducing him to the concept of Superman. For months after she'd returned to her world, her presence had lingered all over the place. In his early attempts at being a superhero, as he tried to sew his own spare suits, dealt with the fall-out of his exposure in public and at home.
He had thought he'd carry the ghost of that Lois Lane with him forever. But he'd been…wrong.
He ran his fingers through his hair, thinking. A gesture at which her eyes narrowed, her study of him grew more intense. He noticed her noticing and stopped immediately.
This was a conversation they hadn't had. For no reason. They just hadn't.
No one else had known enough about it, save himself, Perry, and Lana, to make it an issue that needed addressing. James should have, but his focus on getting Perry elected, and then becoming the new editor of the paper seemed to have blocked out everything else. And whoever else the other Lois might have run into during her brief weekend in a different universe hadn't known her before. And therefore it was unlikely anyone would ever pull this Lois aside and say…anything close to the truth.
He hadn't been hiding it. He just hadn't told her.
It had seemed pointless, and beyond believable and…far too intimate.
Somewhere, in a world that he couldn't see, that he couldn't prove existed, Lois Lane and Clark Kent were probably doing what he and Lois were doing right now. Staying late at the Planet, pouring over shipping contracts or whatever they might be investigating at the moment. Working side by side. But afterwards, they went home… together. Had a late supper…got into bed…turned out the lights.
He pushed away from his desk, taking her coffee mug from hers. With some space between them, with his back to her as he poured for them both, he could just tell her. 'There's a parallel dimension. There's another you. I met her and…'
"Perry told me," he said quietly, instead. And it was true.
"You did seem to know about me when I first arrived," she said slowly. There was a question in her voice. More than a perfect opening.
"Yes," he said. <Now or never.>
At one point he had thought it would be never. When she had worked across the room, while he had stayed in his silent corner. When he would go home and tell Lana every night, with a clear conscious, exactly what he had done at work. When he could do that, because there was nothing to tell…
"Lois…" He turned and offered her mug. "There's something —"
"You guys still here?" James bounded off the elevator. "What gives?"
"Still following the papertrail." Lois turned to meet him.
"Anything new? I'm dying here. Thought you guys left hours ago."
"What brings you by so late?" Clark found his voice.
"Ah well…Perry's coming over. Going to tutor me a little," James admitted sheepishly. "But this information doesn't leave this room, ok? So, what's up?"
"Lester Lyle," Lois said. "He's what's up."
"Any luck with the charter plane?"
"None," Clark said heavily.
"Well, if anyone can find it, you guys can. Now, why don't you both get the hell out of here for the night? You—" He gestured to Lois with a grin. "— go save the world. You—" He nodded to Clark. "— go home, recharge." When they might have protested, he squirmed a bit. "I don't really want any witnesses to my late night sessions with the Chief, you know?"
"I agree," Lois spoke up. "I'm sick of this, can't look at it for another minute. Let's just leave it for the night." She cast a despairing look at their desks, littered with papers and take-out containers. "I'll be back early to tackle it."
"If you're sure." Clark said. "I mean, I can clean it up…quick."
She smiled at him. "You've never offered me any super services before."
"Outside of saving your life?" he teased.
"Leave it, if you like," James offered. "I'll make sure it isn't messed with by the nightshift. Believe me; I'll still be here when they leave."
They moved to the elevator.
"Tell me," Lois said as soon as the doors had closed. "How does someone sneak up on you? That's twice now. Once in the warehouse office, and again here, tonight. I saw your face. You had no idea James was coming."
He hedged. "I was…focused on something else."
"So, when something has your complete attention, that sort of shuts down your…radar?"
"We were in the middle of a conversation." The doors slid open on the lobby. "Can I give you a lift? You can tell me on the way?"
He sighed. "Ok, it's crazy though—"
The rest of his reply was cut off by gunshots somewhere on the street, audible even to her.
"Stay here," he ordered her tersely. He took a fast look around before spinning. There was no one else to see.
"Nice trick," she said with ill-concealed envy. "What I wouldn't give. I could set my alarm for, like, three seconds before the morning conference. Wake up and twirl-thingy, and still have time to boil an egg…I think. Never really been good at that—"
"Stay here," he repeated, cutting her off with a meaningful stare.
"Sure," she agreed offhandedly. "And Clark…?" He was in the air. "Be careful."
That gave him a half seconds pause. "If you do leave, get someone to walk you to your car." At her expression, he pushed on. "Humor me. And I'll…see you tomorrow."
It wasn't that long, though. It was just a few hours later when he saw her again. She was falling off a building.
Lois had fallen about ten stories by the time he caught her. Plummeting through the air nearly soundlessly. He guessed she hadn't found her voice yet, or she would have screamed for him, certainly. He felt in their time together she'd understood that clearly. All she had to do was call.
Actually, as it turned out, she hadn't even had to do that. She had fallen. And he had somehow known. And here he was.
She was holding him tightly, and he was doing his best to keep his professional face on. To stop himself from…To just do his job. Do the rescue and find out what happened, because obviously her evening hadn't gone according to plan. Or, well, this was Lois, so maybe it had. Maybe everything was working exactly as she wanted it to.
Only one way to find out.
He landed them in a deserted back alley. Put her down. Took his hands off her with great care. And stepped away.
She ran her fingers through her wind-blown hair. Huffed a few deep breaths, bent at the waist and bobbed up and down a bit, flexing her knees. Like she was getting ready for a jog. A bit of brisk exercise.
"When I left you," he started slowly. "You were in the lobby headed for home…"
She nodded. "I know. And I know what you're thinking. I wasn't reckless, and I really can take care of myself."
His brows crept into his hairline. "You fly, then?" he said roughly. "Because you never mentioned—"
"I went upstairs to get James to walk me to my car, like *you* wanted," she snapped. "Anyway, we got to talking — what made you decide to do it, Clark? Become Superman? Save the world? He didn't really know. And in all the coverage I've read, you never mentioned your motivation. You said you wanted to help, that you were a friend, but you never said what made you—"
"Give up my life?" he returned, tasting the bitterness in the words.
"Did you?" she asked, no longer bouncing on her heels. "Give up your life?"
"Is this an interview?" he asked darkly.
"Did you?" she persisted.
"Yes. No. I don't know. But you aren't changing the subject here, Lois. And the subject sure isn't me," he ground out. "Not after…what almost…" He couldn't continue.
"You're not going to let that go, are you?"
"Lois, you better damn well tell me what happened. You better start talking now, or I'm going to take you back up and throw you off that building myself!"
It would have been ok if she had just done as he asked. Acknowledged that he had a legitimate point, a right to be a little shaken. He had left her in relative safety not so long ago, only to find her falling to her death, and he needed, at the very least, to see something from her besides utter calm.
She didn't do as he asked, though. She was Lois.
"Just because you caught me—" She closed in on him, toe to toe, speaking to him as if he were an ill-behaved child. "— doesn't give you the right to talk to me like—"
She was just warming up, he knew, but he shut her words from his mind. One of them needed to be sane, but God help him, God help him, she wasn't scared. Strapped to a bomb or pushed off a building, and so completely cool. She would have hit the cement with the same unperturbed look on her face if he hadn't come along. He was sure of it. It was…maddening.
Well, he was scared. Scared enough for them both. And he wanted to shake some sense into her, or if that proved impossible, just shake her until her teeth rattled. The thought was enough. His had his hands around her before he could debate any further. He seized her and took her with him, straight up, stopping only when they breached the clouds.
Lois had gone white and rigid in his grasp, and he immediately regretted the impulse that had driven him. He had her now, but what was he going to do with her? Kidnap her? Tie her up? Maybe if he ever got around to building that Fortress of Solitude he could leave her there — food and water to last a lifetime, and no more worries about the fate of Lois Lane. He wasn't used to this.
Lana just never…ever…pushed him past his limits this way.
"You have my attention," she announced in formal tones, her angry rant silenced. "You were saying…?"
"You…are… killing…me," he pronounced slowly. "Killing…me…Lois. This is twice. I'm…I'm going to develop a…nervous twitch! Live on pins and needles, always ask myself, 'What is Lois doing right about now? Taking a walk? Watching television…soaking in the tub? Or, shaking her fist in the face of Death? Gee, maybe I should just go check in case it's that last one!'"
She started to tremble beneath his grip. A slight tremor that spread through her frame, vibrating under his hands. She gasped, choked, and leaned against him. He pulled her in close, knowing he shouldn't and not caring to listen to the jury sitting inside his head telling him not to.
"Sorry," he offered after a minute. "I was trying to…I don't know…that was…stupid."
Her shaking only increased and he pulled her closer still, feeling what it was like to hold her against the full length of his body. How they fit perfectly. He closed his eyes, concentrated on shutting up the damn jury, whose members were currently waving red flags and blowing shrill whistles.
A sob broke out. And then another. And then…something that wasn't quite sob-like…but it sounded…emotional. A fast intake of breath…a…a snort, maybe? Just not…not…what it sounded like…
She was scared. He had frightened her out of her wits. Rescued her, only to grab her and carry her away at fierce speeds, to yell at her in the middle of the sky…he'd threatened to throw her off a building, for crying out loud. How would a person react to that?
No. She wasn't laughing, so much as…laughing hysterically.
"Oh, god, I should drop you," he sighed, surprised to hear the smile in his voice. This wasn't funny, and one of them had to have a level head, and that was clearly going to have to be him. Entirely unbidden, a low chuckle of his own forced its way out. Which was a mistake, as it only served to encourage her insanity. She collapsed into giggles, no longer trying to hide it, wiping at her face and abandoning several attempts at what he guessed were meant to be speech.
They were hanging in the night sky, surrounded by millions of stars. He was holding her and they were laughing. Suddenly, none of the rest of it mattered. All the stuff happening on the ground seemed far, far away. And from their vantage point very small. The problems of ants.
He loved her.
It could have hit him like an avalanche. But it didn't.
While the thought didn't send him into an actual freefall, inside him something deeply embedded, something that had been in place for a long, long time, tore free and fell away. And he started to bleed. To bleed internally from what was, from what couldn't be. From love.
"We came up here to fight." His voice was completely steady, but he put some space between them by floating himself back several crucial inches. "To settle this."
"Right," Lois agreed, suddenly seeming as sober as he was. But her eyes were everywhere but on him. She was craning her neck this way and that, taking in the view avidly. "Settle this," she parroted, patting him on the arm for good measure. "We could…go that way, maybe?" She pointed towards a cluster of lights in the distance. The aurora borealis, brilliant from the ground, but glorious from above.
"Hold my hand," he whispered, already decided. They'd fight later. He laced his fingers in hers. "Now, I'm going to let go of you—"
"You're going to what!" She clung to him, her arms winding around his neck, one leg entwining with his.
He took a deep, steadying breath, forcing down a stab of longing as painful as a punch to the gut.
"Trust me," he said in a voice that might have cracked a bit, but was pretty good considering their proximity, considering what he now knew.
He pushed her gently away, keeping their hands clasped and assuring her with his eyes that she was safe.
As their bodies lost contact, he found he could breathe again, could look her in face. And he wouldn't have missed her expression for anything. The awe. The wonder. The joy.
She bathed him in a gorgeous smile, out shining every star.
"We're just touching palms," she marveled.
"And you're fine, see?" he coached, unable to hide his own enthusiasm. Whether or not they should be doing this didn't matter. He wanted this. If this all it would ever be, he could live off this. They flew towards the lights, and he couldn't remember ever being so glad to be who he was — Clark Kent Superman.
He took her home that night.
"Where's Marvin?" he asked immediately. He wanted to see him, had hopes all of a sudden that the mild-mannered botanist was built like a mack truck with a mean streak and a martial arts black belt. That he would take care of Lois. That he understood full well that being with Lois required nerves of steel — and some muscle couldn't hurt, either.
"Not here," she answered unnecessarily, as he had already taken in every detail of the small apartment.
"Where—" he began, then stopped just as quickly. None of his business. "You'll call the police. Say you will, or I'm not leaving."
She walked to the phone and dialed. "Satisfied?"
"Almost," he said, relaxing a bit. "These were the same guys? You're sure?"
"They smelled the same," she replied calmly. "The same mix of beer, sweat, and cheap perfume. Obviously they made a night of it before they came for me."
"Why didn't you yell, Lois?" He'd asked her that already, but again the question was torn from him.
"I was gagged," she repeated patiently. "Yes, I'll hold," she told the operator. "And by the time they untied me and took the blindfold off, I was pushed. It happened all at once. I was still…putting it together when you came."
"Marvin will be home later? You won't be alone?" He moved to the windowsill, but he couldn't get his feet to move any further. "And your door is locked?"
"Lois Lane," she spoke into the receiver. "I need Inspector Henderson. Yes…hi, Bill…Off a building this time…no, not a scratch…" She winked at him. "Well, I guess I wouldn't mind the company if you want to come by?"
She gestured to her door, and when he took in the number of locks on it, he had to smile. The tightness in his chest eased. "Go home," she mouthed to him.
He nodded. "Goodnight," he said softly.
With no description to go on, he didn't know who to look for. He made several passes over the docks, over the bar district, the pubs and poolrooms. Nothing unusual. When he ran out of leads, ran out of ideas, he flew home. Slowly.
He went in through the door, like she liked. Took the stairs at human speed, like she liked. He climbed into the bed as quietly as he was able, careful to respect the space that she liked between them.
"I'm home," he whispered when she stirred.
She didn't answer. He didn't sleep.
The Planet's fundraiser was James's idea. A yearly drive to raise money for the legal defense of Planet reporters. That they be free to do their jobs without fear of reprisal. Since he had provoked the most lawsuits, Clark knew he had to be there. He wasn't easy to employee, he knew that. And he was grateful to James for his support. And to Perry, whose influence continued to hold sway over the suits upstairs who might have wished for Superman's retirement from their paper on more than one occasion.
So, here he stood, in a tux, trying to look like any other party-goer. Trying to relax and fit-in. Trying not to look as if he was searching the crowd for Lois.
She wasn't here yet. He knew at a glance. Before that, even. He just didn't want to think about how or why he knew she wasn't in the room. Because despite the crowd, despite the attendance of the few friends he had, and his wife, the place felt…empty.
Maybe she wasn't coming. She'd said more than once this type of event wasn't her thing. She had nothing to wear. Didn't want to make nice with the money guys and the lawyers. But James had been pretty insistent that his best reporter turn on the charm for the sake of the Planet.
"What makes him think I have any charm to turn on?" she had demanded of Clark after they had retreated to their desks.
He had opened his mouth to answer, and then closed it again, giving a weak shrug. If he got the list started, he might not stop. "The way you breathe, Lois…" And it would degenerate from there.
He was making polite, strained small talk with Perry and Alice, ignoring the gawking on-lookers as well as he was able, and appreciative of the Mayor and his wife's ability to do the same, when the room changed.
She was coming.
With Marvin, he reminded himself forcefully. She was probably late because they'd been… Well, Marvin was here. And he would meet him face to face. See the man who Lois went home to night after night. Who had won her over with a simple 'I like you.' Who was the reason she had stayed away. The man Lois loved.
He readied himself to turn around, regretting that Lana had slipped off and was moving towards the buffet with Perry and Alice. He watched her go. She looked beautiful tonight, and almost happy. And that was as it should be. There was no reason for her not to enjoy herself. This was just a party. It wasn't anything else. Simply an occasion to meet his partner's…partner. And a chance for Lois to do the same. They were all here. All four of them. Together.
He considered joining his friends and his wife in the buffet line, but he was helpless to follow them. Rooted to his spot. He turned. Lois was getting closer. And this was fine. He could do this. He could do this alone, get it over with. Then go find his wife and his friends and see what was on the menu for dinner. Easy.
Lois wasn't in the room yet, but he granted himself the small gift of an unhurried look. To any observer, he would just appear to be staring off into space. But he was marking her progress — the entry way, the coat check…
Luminous. No, too obvious. Radiant. That, too, lacking. Just…Lois.
He stopped his thoughts there, raised a shaky hand to take a liberal gulp of wine, and waited. He wouldn't walk over. He would just stand here, smile at the ready, handshake to offer. "Nice to meet you, Marvin," he rehearsed mentally. Hoping like hell he would sound like he meant it. "I've heard a lot about you. And Lois, come meet Lana…my wife."
How had this happened? How did he get to this place?
He should leave.
The thought hit him with resounding clarity. Why was he still here? He had come as James wanted. He'd put in an appearance, talked with everyone his boss asked him to. And now…he should go. This was crazy. This was…ridiculous. A trainwreck waiting to happen. It didn't have to happen if he didn't let it.
"That's a serious face for a party," Lois called to him, her face alight with…hello.
"Hello," he managed.
"You dress up nice." She flashed him another smile. "Everyone turned out, I see. Who have you met? Who's a bore? Who's had plastic surgery, gained weight, is here with an obvious trophy spouse? In short, what'd I miss?"
"Where's Marvin?" he blurted. "I've been waiting for…a chance to meet the man at last. Is he…?" He took a fast glance around, but it was just for show. He'd watched her the entire minute before she'd entered, and she had definitely been alone. "…at the bar?" he finished lamely.
Lois flushed, casting her eyes in every direction but directly at him. "Well," she coughed after an uncomfortable minute.
He kept her pinned under his gaze, recognizing the Lois shuffle when he saw it now. He braced himself. For what exactly, he had no idea.
"No one ever came right out and asked…"
Did she look embarrassed? She looked a little…uncomfortable.
"And I didn't lie. I just…never came right out and said…but Marvin and I…we…"
"What?" he prompted, rudely he knew, nearly crushing the delicate wine glass in his hand as he did so. "You and Marvin…what?" Again, he couldn't say why, but his heart started to pound.
"He never the left the Congo." She lifted her chin, returning his stare evenly. "We decided, or rather I did, that I was ready to come home. I'd had my adventure, written all the romantic prose I wanted, and wanted to get back to running water, air conditioning, you know…Real life. But Marvin already was home, doing what he loved. His life was there. I was just on an extended vacation, so…" She let that trail off, accepting a glass of champagne from a circulating waiter. "Needless to say," she continued after a long sip, "we can't all marry our high school sweethearts."
Marvin was in the Congo. Had never left the Congo. There was no Marvin. Not any more.
"You're single." He hadn't layered it in any sympathetic noises or even polite interest.
"Completely," she replied with equal bluntness. "Know anyone?" she teased with a wink.
He did. He knew someone.
But he was too late. Years too late. An entire universe too late.
The words forced themselves to the front of his mind — he didn't call them there — hitting him squarely between the eyes.
She'd been out there involved with someone. He'd been with Lana. And the four of them had all been…so wrong.
For an insane moment he was angry with her. Lois had turned and was taking in the room, oblivious to the bombshell she had just tossed. And he wanted nothing more than to grab her, force her to face him, to demand her reasons for taking so long. For staying in the Congo when she did. For not being in Metropolis when he'd needed her to be. For being delayed when it had been so important.
His hand hovered an inch from her bare shoulder before he saw it, reversed its direction. He settled for an incredibly awkward pat on her arm, not trusting himself to open his mouth.
She frowned at his expression. "Don't worry about me, Clark. You're a good friend. The best one I have. You didn't know it, but you kept me sane these past few months. Kept me company. Heard me out about my parents. With you around, I haven't been…lonely."
His only answer was a hollow laugh. An unbidden voice, an unsavory memory he had worked hard to suppress whispered spitefully in his mind, 'God, how I love irony…'
"So, here's Lois!" a voice behind him sang out, too bright, too false. "How nice."
His wife took the hand that had touched Lois and moved it firmly around her shoulders. He would have done that himself. Would have welcomed her under his arm, in his space, He needed her there.
"Chilly in here," she trilled, pulling him closer to her than he'd been in weeks. "Lana Lang-Kent." She offered her own hand, the hand with the wedding ring. An awkward hand shake at best. "Nice to meet the voice on the phone."
"Lois Lane." Lois smiled sweetly, and used the lines he had been saving for Marvin. "Nice to finally meet you. I've heard a lot about you."
She hadn't. She was lying nicely, or maybe she just didn't realize it. She hadn't heard anything about Lana Lang-Kent. He had never talked about her. Not to her.
Hell. He was in hell. Or he was going to hell. Whichever it was, the quicker he got there the better, because this — this was unbearable.
He did something he'd never done before. Something he would never have imagined himself capable of. He faked it. With the two women looking on, he made himself go tense, look pensive, tilted his head to the side, just in case they weren't getting it.
Lois stopped talking first. Lana's voice carried over a moment longer. It should have been the other way around, shouldn't it? His wife should have recognized…
"What is it?" Lois asked softly.
"Dammit, Clark, no," Lana swore.
"I'm sorry," he said to them both. And he meant it. He was sorry, so very sorry. A sorry excuse for a crime fighting superhero. A sorry excuse for a husband. Unable to stand in the same room with his wife and his…with Lois. "I have to take this," he finished lamely — as it someone had just tapped his shoulder and told him he had a phone call.
"How do I get home?" Lana demanded.
"I'll take you," Lois said quickly. "Go on, Clark, don't worry."
He hesitated. He should just say that whatever it was seemed fine now. That he'd just caught a police dispatcher's call and the suspect was in custody, the fire had been put out, the cat was down from the tree…
"Well, at least I finally get to meet Marvin," Lana sighed.
He left in a blur.
"I imagine this sort of thing happens a lot," Lois ventured into the silence.
"I usually take my own car. Stupid not to," Lana sighed. "But Clark wanted to fly."
"Of course." Who wouldn't? She had a vivid flash of memory, one that came to her more and more. The night she'd been pushed off the building…
She smiled inwardly. How many people had good memories that started that way?
Gliding along under the stars. As alone as it was possible for two people to be. Flying. She had been flying. In every sense.
But he and Lana probably did that every night. She knew she would. No matter how late he might come home, she'd end every day with a trip under the stars, with the chance to do something extraordinary…with him.
Her stomach hurt suddenly. Bad salmon, maybe.
"Yes," Lana was still talking. "He thinks we should take advantage of what we can. No walking past the paparazzi, easy in and out. He'd like to fly us everywhere. I don't usually go along with it. And this why."
"He looked really sorry to go."
"He always does. An apology and a gust of wind — that's my husband."
"I guess you get used to it. He mentioned you grew up together."
"Did he? I didn't grow up with Superman. I inherited him many years later."
"But…you knew, right? That he—"
"— was abnormal?"
"Was gifted," she corrected, more forcefully that she had a right to. This was Clark's wife, after all. Who knew him better? Still, she tightened her hands on the steering wheel.
"Yes. Clark needed someone to tell. Someone to show. And I guess that was me."
"I bet that was… a challenge…to take it all in."
"It was. It still is. It changed so many things; I just didn't fully appreciate it at the time. Clark was always…Clark. And I had these ideas — about who he was, and how we would be together." She laughed a bit, a sad laugh, shaking her head. "When I was a girl, I wanted to be a farmer's wife. Boring, I know. But that's all I saw, and it looked like a good life. Then, he sprang the 'move to Metropolis and become a writer' dream on me. And I followed. A writer's wife? The big city? My parents had long since moved here with my father's business, so it seemed reasonable enough. But this…"
"Well, the Superman stuff, I can see how that would be a huge adjustment. He's been Superman not quite a year, right? But who he is — and what he can do — that hasn't really changed."
"That's Clark's argument, too." Lana studied her closely under the passing street lights. "You sound like him."
The silence wasn't necessarily awkward, but Lois fought the urge to roll down the window and let the cold night air in, let it blow away the unspoken between them.
Did Lana know? She seemed to. Seemed to realize that what was between her and Clark wasn't…simply business.
<It's friendship,>she reminded herself through gritted teeth. < A close friendship, a working partnership. He's never, ever indicated there was anything else. >
But hadn't he?
No. Yes. Maybe. Not with words. Never. But with his eyes? The smile he couldn't seem to help?
Or maybe she wasn't reading him right. Maybe Kryptonians were hard to read. If she had trouble reading men from her own planet, it didn't make sense that she could so easily see into the one man who was from outside the galaxy…
Or maybe it made perfect sense.
Still, there was a reason that, in all their time together, she hadn't corrected his assumption that she was living with Marvin. Initially, she hadn't been ready to talk about the break-up. But later, after they were partnered, after they were friends…after…It just seemed better for him not to know. Safer. For him. And for her, if she was being honest.
He was married — she stole a glance over at Lana — to a beautiful woman he had known all his life. He was not available for anything more than friendship, a work relationship. And having Marvin — or just the idea of Marvin — between them, had served to make things easier. She had no doubts Clark wouldn't have been nearly as open with her, as comfortable with her, if he'd known she wasn't involved. In love. Like he was. He would have steered clear once he felt…whatever it is he might have felt. If he did feel anything.
So, she'd kept up the deception.
<Those were the facts. That he had his love life and I had mine. Only, the facts were just half true.>
He knew now. She had told him tonight. She hadn't seen any way around it, other than lying to his face. And that hadn't been an option. Not when he had come right out and asked, looking at her like. He needed to know. And maybe she needed him to know.
The time for pretending there was a Marvin, a love life all her own, ended right there before the main course. Not that it mattered. Not that any of it mattered. Not that it made any difference whatsoever.
It didn't. It couldn't…
<Stop it, Lois,> she told herself bitterly. <Just…stop —>
"— stop here," Lana repeated loudly.
"Huh?" Her face flushed hot in the dark interior of the car, the dark interior of her mind. For just an instant she'd been afraid Lana had seen inside.
"Is this it?" she faltered, scanning the street for a place to park.
"No. It's three doors down, but if you don't want to be photographed, have your license plate traced…"
"Oh." She hit the brakes and squinted into the darkness. "Are you sure, Lana? I don't see anyone. And if you and Clark have problems with security, with trespassers, you should let the police know."
"The police can't live here, Lois, unlike the press."
Searching for something to say, Lois studied the house. "It looks like a nice place."
"It's a prison," Lana responded flatly. "Clark tried to fortify it the best he could, to make it ours, make it safe. No one can get it, see in, listen in. But that works both ways."
"I never thought of that."
"You would do well to think of that, Lois." Lana held her eyes in a frank stare. "Right now you're just his partner. And nobody knows that. But if it gets out, if…anything… gets out, you'll be fascinating. Maybe not to the extent that I am. You know the only person more interesting than Superman is Superman's wife, right? But I imagine someone who is close to him in other ways would be worth some notice."
"I'm sorry," Lois said. Because it was all so horrible, and she couldn't think of anything else to say. There wasn't anything.
"That's what he says." Lana gathered her coat and bag, taking an extra moment, Lois recognized, to steady herself. "Take care that you don't get caught up in this. He'll pull you in and he'll be really sorry, but once it's done, it can't be undone." Her warning sat heavy in the small space between them. Lois wondered again how much Clark's wife knew or suspected…something.
"Goodnight, Lois," Lana offered not unkindly, pushing the door open with quiet resignation.
For about a minute Lois thought Lana had exaggerated the whole thing. She watched as Lana walked in complete darkness for several paces. Then, voices were raised. Lights switched on. She couldn't stifle her gasp when she got her first real look at them, the number of them. A gabble of questions sang out into the night. Demands to know where Mrs Superman had been. What she was wearing. Why she was alone…
Lana never stopped walking. "At the Daily Planet," Lois heard her call out. "Just a business function. And this isn't anything fancy. You've seen it. He likes it…"
She couldn't watch anymore. She put the Jeep in gear. With her headlights off, she pulled away — watching it all play out in her rearview mirror until it shrank and disappeared from view.
She didn't want any part of that.
Why did that thought make her want to cry?
"Marvin isn't in Metropolis," Lana told him when he came to bed that night. "Lois said he didn't want to follow her here. Not like I followed you. Even though I didn't really want to."
"Yes." He slipped beneath the covers.
"Why didn't you tell me about Lois and Marvin?"
"I didn't know." He feigned a yawn, but his exhaustion was real. "It's been a long day."
"So, you didn't know they had broken-up?" she persisted. When her hand came to rest on his chest, he stilled himself against an insane urge to move away.
She hadn't strayed to his side of the bed in ages. Why now? And why couldn't he welcome her?
<Welcome her. She's scared.>
"I didn't know, Lana. I promise." He closed his eyes. He couldn't look at her, or have her look at him.
"Strange that she let everyone believe he was here, don't you think?"
"I guess it was hard for her to talk about it." Another yawn.
"Even to you?"
<Especially to me. Me, most of all.> "Apparently," he answered.
Her hand moved in gentle, caressing circles against the t-shirt he wore to bed, every night now. He wasn't sure when he'd started doing that, wearing pajamas. He just had at some point.
"Are you very tired?" she asked timidly.
<She's trying. Do your part…>
"Long day," he repeated lamely instead, risking a quick brush of lips over her forehead. "Goodnight, Lana."
He listened for what felt like an eternity before her breathing changed; settling into a steady, deep pattern signaling that she slept.
He studied her in the darkness. His wife. He had known her for more years than he could count. And he owed her so much. So much of who he was, was wrapped up in her. His past, his parents, all his memories of Smallville, of home. Lana Lang was etched over every one.
But here, now…
He swallowed hard and roundly cursed himself for the thoughts he was having, but he couldn't deny them, couldn't lie to himself anymore. Somewhere along the way, he had veered off-course, taken the wrong road, missed something really vital. And until Lois — the Lois of the other dimension arrived — maybe he had been dimly aware of it. Aware that he wasn't exactly…happy. Content, mostly. And there was nothing wrong with content. There had been years when he wasn't even close to that. Foster care, developing superpowers…
Before the other Lois had come, he was as content as he ever had been. He didn't take that lightly. It was hard earned. And it was due to Lana in so many ways.
It had simply never occurred to him to ever expect…more than that. To ever want…more… than that. He had never really wanted anything before, just…to belong somewhere.
But once the first Lois had come and gone, once Superman had come to stay, once Lois, the real Lois, had stepped off the elevator…
There was no excuse for what he was thinking.
Shame filled him, circling his mind, pressing him into the mattress. That was good, as it should be. He would stay in the bed; tune out the world for the night. Because if he listened, if he heard any calls, if he flew out that window which beckoned, bright and alluring, he knew very well where he would go. Where he must never go.
Marvin wasn't there. She was alone.
It was a four-alarm fire that woke him. He stood at the window in the suit, listening. Hoping to hear that things were under control. The building uninhabited. No firefighters in any danger.
"What?" came Lana's sleep-filled voice from the darkness.
"A fire," he told her heavily.
"Well, what's keeping you?" she sighed a bit impatiently.
"Just…kind of hoping I won't be needed."
She sat up then. "Why? You love this part."
"I'm gone too often. I leave you alone too much." He couldn't keep the emotion from his voice. And the last thing he wanted was a conversation. "Go back to sleep," he told her. "I'll deal with it and…"
But she had turned the light on. "I thought fires were easy."
"If they aren't too big." He turned back towards the window to hide his face.
"Won't this one just get bigger the longer you delay?"
It was perfectly logical. She was right.
<Don't send me out, Lana. Don't give me permission to go.>
An affair for Superman would be so easy. He heard things she couldn't. Saw things she wasn't able to. He could leave at any time, no questions asked, ever.
He was shaking. He placed his hands on the windowsill, trying to hold himself steady. Just because Marvin wasn't there, just because there was no Marvin, didn't mean that Lois kept her own window open. Didn't mean anything had changed.
<She isn't with him. She isn't…taken.>
Was that what had stopped him all this time? Marvin? And not his own wife?
Dear God, it was.
No, he corrected himself, his fingers nearly splintering the wood that framed the window. That wasn't right. That could not be right. He was married. He loved his wife. Things between them were just…difficult now.
<Not just now. They've always been difficult. She's always resented your differences…>
No. That wasn't right either. It had taken a while for Lana to grow used to them, but it was only now, now that he was Superman, that she couldn't seem to get past them, to forgive him for them.
And that was his fault. Superman's fault. Nothing to do with Lois…or Marvin.
He was just tired tonight. Confused.
"Put the radio on?" he asked her, trying to keep the strain from his voice and failing utterly. "Maybe it's an abandoned building."
The bulletin filled the room. 'Caused by a faulty furnace, an old apartment building long since condemned. City officials promised in the last election to tear it down. No one thought to be inside, but it's well known that transients use it for shelter during cold nights. Like this one.'
"Go on, Clark," she told him. "Whatever is stopping you, don't let it. You'll hate yourself if something happens."
He hated himself now. But he had to go. She was right.
With quick steps he marched over to her, taking her into his arms, kissing her fiercely. Something he should have done earlier tonight in answer to her unspoken and extremely rare invitation. He ran his hands under her nightgown for just a moment, touching her. He had her memorized anyway, but he wanted to take the warm feel of his wife out there with him. So he would do his job and…come home.
Her surprised moan prodded him to get moving.
"Back soon," he told her.
"Hurry," she replied.
He took to the sky, his heart thundering in his ears. Eventually the smell of the smoke and the sounds of sirens made their way into his senses.
He went to work.
On his way he flew over her apartment. It was for less than a second. She slept soundly, curled up in her bed.
It was a one time thing. And it was enough. Just that glimpse. It had to be.
Multi-car pile-ups were routine by now. When he broke away from the fire, he headed straight there, no stops in between. Rush hour was underway, and by the time he arrived emergency workers were on the scene, cutting some people out of their cars, extinguishing flare-ups, treating those most seriously injured.
He helped like he always did, ripping the doors or the roofs off the cars that couldn't be opened without the Jaws of Life. His ability to do so was critical when time was of the essence. Though he hated to see people in such pain, broken and bruised, or worse, this was a part of the job he really liked. The difference he made was immediate. He could fly those who were in good enough shape straight to the hospital. He could hustle others onto a waiting stretcher. And when the victims were conscious and had been stuck in twisted metal for a long time, he loved the way their faces lit up when they saw him coming their way.
It was worth it. Being Superman. Being who he was meant to be. It had just taken him awhile to figure out his life's purpose. Days like this confirmed it.
He studied the car in front of him from every angle before picking the best one. There was a child in the backseat watching him, a look of horror in his eyes. His parents sat motionless in the front. In shock, probably, as they were making no attempt to talk to their son, to comfort him. Maybe they were badly injured, didn't want him to worry…
He hovered over the roof, prying up a corner. "Hey," he said as gently as he could. "Hey, little guy. I'll have you out in no time, ok?"
The screaming started then. Pure terror. Raw and primal, a sound only a child could make.
Again, he tried to reassure him, hurrying to peel the roof back. He reached a hand in to touch his shoulder. "I'm here. Let's undo your seatbelt. I'll get your parents out…"
The screams continued. The boy's parents sat like statues. "Are you both ok?" he addressed them in a low voice as he tore the seatbelt from their son. He did a fast x-ray of the front seat, he'd done it once already, but he did it again, afraid he'd missed something. He saw nothing, nothing to explain their non-reaction, to their entrapment, to their boy's distress, to anything.
"Come here, buddy," he said, feeling shaken, not knowing why. At his signal paramedics were moving towards them. And following them, as usual, was a fast moving television reporter and a cameraman.
"I think he's a bit traumatized," he called out so they would hurry.
"Don't touch me!" the boy cried. "Don't touch me! Don't touch me! Don't touch me!"
He loosened his grip automatically, pulling back. "It's ok," he soothed, holding both palms up. "I'm just lifting you out…"
"You're an alien!" the child screamed. "Get away!"
Clark smelled the gourmet coffee before she hit the ramp.
Lois knew, then. She must have seen the coverage on the morning news shows. He hadn't been able to make himself watch it.
And she was bringing him her best cure for life's ailments. And not just the office kind, but the serious stuff from the cart downstairs.
Just like their first morning together, after he had flown her away from the bomb. The worse the incident, the more sprinkles he got, the heavier the cream.
Inside the conference room where he had taken refuge, he felt some of the tension leave him for the first time since he'd handed that poor, hysterical child over to his empty-eyed, not nearly grateful parents. So disgusted that he had touched their son.
He took a deep breath. Lois was coming. And her take on things was bound to be…unique.
<And what you need.>
Yes. He had resisted the urge to fly straight to her, to throw himself through her window and put his head in her lap and just…cry.
He shook his head wryly at the thought. Some superhero.
He'd gone home, instead. Lana had seen the coverage, too. And she hadn't been unkind or unsupportive. She just hadn't been surprised that he might provoke fear in someone so young, that he might be perceived as the boogeyman…
"What did you expect?" she'd asked him tonelessly. And he hadn't known how to answer.
It was something he'd never considered, having relegated all the conspiracy theorists to the ranks of paranoid adults. No amount of work for the good was going to change their minds about him, so he just let them slip from his mind. He had to. He couldn't dwell on it.
But a child? Not even seven, he guessed. Looking at him like that…
This was another one of these things it would have been nice to have had some coaching on. From Wells, from the visiting Lois. Stuff like this. That caught him completely flat-footed, that made him feel so far on the outside of normal. Normal people, every day lives, and him in the ridiculous costume.
The door swung open and Lois was already talking. She had come. And right on time.
"Maybe it's because I don't have a maternal bone in my body," she announced, moving towards him, handing him the steaming cup. "Careful, it's hot," she said absently, which made him smile. Never mind the fiery explosion he'd pulled her from. Coffee…now that was hot…
"— but that kid was a serious menace. Has serious personality issues, is probably going to send his parents to the poorhouse with the therapy bills, and then, just when they think they've got him all patched together, he'll join a fraternity, drink too much, get kicked out of college, end up living in their basement —"
"Lois," he said quietly, drawing her attention back to him, drawing her back to his side of the room. "It wasn't the kid. It was his parents. They had…sort of…prejudiced him against me."
He studied his cup of coffee, just to see how bad she thought the situation was. Bad. Really bad. She'd gotten him the extra-large and he couldn't even see the coffee for all the foam, the chocolate sprinkles. In fact, looking closely he could see the trails of her finger prints indicating where she had scooped some of them out…
"Why?" she demanded. "Why would they do that?"
"Because I'm…an alien," he tried to say carelessly. "Not everyone…is ok with that. And…I can seem…scary. If you think about the things I can do, what would happen if I just decided I was in charge, you know…?"
"Have they also taught him to be afraid of the police? Of firefighters? Lifeguards? Other people who might save his life? Have they?" She was waving her fist around under his nose. "That just makes me want to…want to…" She didn't finish, but settled on waving her fist some more.
His folded his hand over hers, his palm swallowing her fist easily. "Don't go beating up little kids for Superman, Lois," he teased her gently. "Wouldn't look good."
"How about their ignorant and idiotic, too stupid to reproduce parents?" she pleaded, her fist loosening, but staying in his grip.
"Not even them," he said with a smile, trying to lighten the moment, because he felt lighter all ready. Whatever she was doing, it was working.
"Don't let them hurt you, Clark," she whispered fiercely. "Don't let them. Don't hand them your heart. Don't let yourself care for one minute what they think of you. You know exactly who you are. The people who know you know. I know."
"Ok," he said, releasing her hand and stepping back a pace or two. He had to. It was that or wrap himself around her and never let go.
"Don't just say 'ok,'" she persisted. "I want you to mean it."
"I mean it," he answered heartily.
She was studying him through narrowed, cynical eyes when the conference room doors swung open, and all around them Daily Plant staffers moved into the room to take their seats for the morning conference. A few were watching them with barely concealed interest, but the others looked appropriately bored for the early hour.
Progress, he thought. He'd taken a major blow to the ego today, but that his presence among his colleagues in the room hadn't brought things to a screeching halt, hadn't started the whispers. That was a step forward.
Clark moved towards his seat. He couldn't remember how or when he had started attending these things. He had held back for so long, eavesdropping from his alcove, telling himself that it was easier on everyone if he didn't go in there, didn't distract people from the business at hand. But at some point Lois had started saving him a seat. Had started dictating notes to him, things she wanted to remember to mention to James in the meetings. And he had just started coming along.
"Thanks, Lois," he murmured as she lowered herself into the chair next to him.
"Call me if I get to hit someone," she answered under her breath. "It would make my day."
Just the picture of her there, at the scene, in the midst of the wreckage, punching out an all-American family…
Maybe next time he'd take her with him.
"New stories," James began.
"Illegal trafficking," Lois rapped out, the first off the mark as usual.
"Anything new?" James rejoined quickly. "Anything we can prove? Won't get us sued?"
"We don't have to name names…" Lois began.
"Or warehouse numbers," Ralph volunteered with a yawn, earning himself a scathing look from Clark's partner.
"We could just make a blanket statement that hints that we know something is happening, maybe that way we flush someone out—"
"Lois," James interrupted carefully. "There's always something happening at the docks. Let's wait. Find something concrete."
Clark threw her a commiserating glance as she lapsed back into frustrated silence.
"Other ideas?" James pushed on, though he was sweating a little.
"The Superman Rescue this morning," Ralph's new partner said a bit timidly.
"What?" Lois straightened, as did he.
"It's news," the woman whose name he hadn't learned yet continued. He admired her calm veneer, her nerve. He could hear her heart racing, pounding along with his.
She angled her body away from him slightly, to face James fully. Probably easier to discuss him when he wasn't right there in her line of sight.
He studied his notes in front of him. He had been going to suggest he cover the Little League World Championship. Superman was throwing out the first pitch, and since he'd already be there…
"That little boy sure didn't want to be rescued," noted Ralph. The smirk on his face died a quick death at one look at Lois's face. For his part, Clark was going for detached, nonchalant. He couldn't help but notice, that of the two of them, his partner was failing at that completely.
"No," she said.
"Lois," he hissed softly, lifting his head to face his colleagues directly. "That's right," he said evenly. "He was scared to death of me. He tried to run. Evidently…" He faltered a tad, his hands turned his pencil to sawdust beneath the table. "His parents had…"
"Poisoned his mind," Lois filled-in flatly. Her hand moved under the table to cover his, squeezing hard.
When she would have drawn it away, he caught it and held on. Despite who might see, despite how it might look, he needed that hand in his. Her hand…in his.
"They'd taught him to fear Superman," she continued smoothly, though there was the slightest catch in her voice. "So, instead of welcoming his rescuer when his life was in danger, he tried to get away."
"Damn," said James softly. "Man, Clark…"
"Yeah," he answered with a bit of difficulty. He couldn't help but notice those at the table seemed to be looking at him differently. Kindly, even.
"Can I interview Superman, I mean…you?" Ralph's partner blurted. "Will you talk about it? This sort of thing needs to be known, so it can be nipped in the bud. If it were my kid, I'd want him taught to look to you as…one of us. The good guys," she finished in a rush. It was the most she had said in her few months at the Planet. She flushed a bit, but kept her eyes on his.
Murmurs of agreement around the table washed over him, rendering him unable to answer momentarily.
"Sure," he finally said, clearing his throat. "I'm sorry. I don't know your name…?"
She extended her hand across the table, and Lois released his so he could take it. "Margaret Freeman," she said. "Nice to meet you."
"Clark Kent," he answered. "You let me know when you're ready."
"Whenever is convenient for you," she said with a smile. "Of the two of us, I'm guessing your work load is a bit heavier."
"Great," James practically crowed. "Great angle. It'll kill. Next item?"
Clark sat back in his chair, looking around the table as everyone else moved on with their business. He struggled to identify what he was feeling, it had been so long, or maybe it had never been. But he felt like…one of them.
No one was looking at him, watching him. No one except Lois.
He met her eyes, blinking once in surprise at what he saw there. It was for less than a handful of seconds. It might have been his imagination. It probably was…
But before she turned her face back down towards her notes, before she verbally spanked Ralph for his story suggestion, he saw something. Something amazing. Something…for him.
Not pity or sympathy, he knew those looks. And not curiosity, that one he'd come to hate in particular. It was friendly and understanding, and they'd shared those looks before. As partners they often seemed to operate on the same wave-length…
But this…whatever it was, it pulled at him, asking him things, or maybe telling him. He didn't know which. And before he could decide, it was gone.
Gone before he could even confirm it had been there. Before he could look again and conclude that he was making outlandish assumptions, or that he was…right.
She'd given him a glimpse. And just as quickly, she shut it away.
He didn't hear anything else that was said. For the rest of the meeting he in no way contributed to the discussion, forgetting, even, to bring up the Little League championship.
He just sat. Next to her. Fighting the urge to take her hand again. Thinking all the things he would like to say.
You feel it, too, Lois? Do you? Do you see?
From the look she'd given him, he thought maybe she did.
And if so…what the hell did they do now?
The meeting adjourned, reporters darted off in different directions. He pulled himself up slowly from the table and followed Lois back to their desks. She didn't speak, and neither did he.
When a call for help reached his ears, it was hard to go.
Margaret Freeman approached his desk as soon as he returned.
"I wondered," she said with a shy smile. "If now would be ok?"
"In the conference room?" he asked her with a smile of his own, trying to set her at ease, though he hardly felt that way himself.
"Thank you for this," she told him as soon as he closed the doors behind them. "For agreeing to this. I know, I mean, I imagine, this isn't the easiest thing and, oh god, I'm so nervous."
"That's two of us, then," he agreed. "Let's see if we can survive this. My money's on me cracking first."
"How much money are we talking about?" Margaret moved to sit across from him, opening her notebook. "I'm a single mom. I've got a child to feed, day care to pay for. So maybe we should make this interesting?"
He shook his head. "Nice try. But if you're going for the sympathy angle, I've got you beat."
"I wasn't finished," she said with a grin. "I work with Ralph. Closely. Day in and day out."
"Ok." He nodded his head to acknowledge her point. "I admit that's bad. But get your pen ready because I'm going to top you."
"There is no way you are going to top being partnered with Ralph." She had tried to mutter that darkly, but the laughter in her face gave her away. "I'm ready. I know shorthand," she prompted.
"I'm an outed alien," he began, forcing himself to say the word that had been screamed at him only hours before. "I live among people who are either scared to death of me, or who treat me as if they have no idea what to say to me or how to be around me."
He paused, momentarily shocked that he had revealed so much, and so easily. And he knew too well the look his colleague was giving him. "No," he shook his head at her. "Don't. It's ok. And I'm sorry. I wasn't trying to…"
"Win the pathetic sweepstakes?" she offered softly.
"Right. But, you brought up Ralph, so you left me with no choice."
"Is that what it's like?" Margaret capped her pen and shut her notebook. "Off the record. We'll decide later what you want printed. Is that what it feels like to be…you…in the middle of all of it? I remember when you hit the news. I wasn't here yet, but I was home watching. I was just…flabbergasted, for lack of a more original word. And as the coverage went on and on…"
"And on and on," he added ruefully.
"I found myself glad that you weren't alone. They said you were married. I've seen footage of your wife many times. I was glad you weren't…Elvis."
"Glad I wasn't Elvis?" He leaned forward, resting his elbows on the table. "As in Blue Suede Shoes? That Elvis?"
"Elvis was alone with his celebrity. But the Beatles had each other. Is it like that for you and Lana? Like…Paul and Ringo?" The color rose in her face. "That sounded really stupid," she laughed. "Nice question, newbie," she added in a perfect imitation of Ralph's nasal whine.
It wasn't stupid, but it was an intensely personal question. And Margaret Freeman was either a brilliant interviewer of reluctant subjects, or she simply didn't realize how close to the truth her remarks had landed.
"My wife hates it," he told her honestly. "She's the one who is alone with it."
"She has you," Margaret offered. "I'm sure she'd say it was a fair trade. Not easy, certainly, but worth it."
She wouldn't though. He kept his face as impassive as possible as he let Margaret's words stretch out between them. Lana would in no way say it was a fair trade. And he had, indeed, traded. He had traded in their anonymity, their life together, in exchange for Superman.
And just this morning before he had approached that kid in the car, he had been thinking that despite all the difficulties that decision had brought with it, Superman was worth it. He was the job he'd been born to. What he was meant to do. Who he was.
But if Superman was who he was now, could Clark Kent still be the man who had married Lana? She had told him repeatedly that he wasn't. That their marriage was no longer just the two of them.
And maybe she was right. And maybe the third party in their marriage wasn't who he feared it was. Wasn't Lois, or rather his feelings for Lois. Because before she had even arrived, he had sold out his marriage… to Superman.
Not knowingly. He had never meant to live the way they did now. He had hoped to stay in the shadows, had hoped to stay Clark Kent. But the fact was — he hadn't.
"You want to go back on record?" Margaret tossed him a line, interrupted the uncomfortable workings of his mind. "I can write about your desire to still be a part of normal life. About your desire to work for the paper, to work in a capacity other than as Superman? Is that about right?"
He nodded. "Yes. That's why I'm still here. I still want to be…who I was. Who I am, still."
But was he? That issue just seemed to grow cloudier over time.
"And then we mention the incident this morning. Reemphasize that you're the good guy. That in many ways, other than being exceptionally gifted, you are just a man."
"Do you think that?" he blurted. "That I'm just…a man?"
"Don't you?" she returned. "Your life isn't all about Superman, right? You don't spend your days and nights swooping to the rescue. You're here. You go home. You have a wife. You're Lois's errand boy."
That last bit had him laughing. "That's off the record!" he declared in mock outrage. "Don't you dare humanize me to that extent!"
"But I will humanize you," Margaret said seriously. "I promise."
"Thank you," he told her, wishing it was as simple for him as it was for her.
She'd had that dream. Exactly like the others, in that it was so real. So frustratingly real. And it had left her awake, longing and aching, and wishing for the impossible. Again.
Lois adjusted the shower head, turning the water on full force, hoping it would wash away the images in her mind's eye of another night, another dream of …him.
The dreams were the same each time. He would fly through her window and find her sleeping. He never spoke, nor did she. It was so much better that way. And probably why, she decided, he was so quiet in those dreams. No talking. No 'Lois, you know this can't really happen,' or 'You know we shouldn't/mustn't/ won't…'
None of that.
He would just look at her, letting all of his feelings show in his face, in his eyes. And she would hold still, afraid to move, afraid to speak, as if a shifting wind or the wrong syllable would send him back into the night sky out of reach.
He would move in slow motion towards the bed, towards her, giving in, at last, to the magnetic pull between them. She would hold her breath, and she'd remember, in a vaguely conscious way, that she had woken at this point on more than one occasion, and cursed the motorist, the honking horn, the alarm clock, whatever noise had pulled her from the place she shared with him in her mind.
If she didn't wake and if he didn't freeze and get that far away 'something's happening' look in his eyes, he would simply pull back the covers, come to lie beside her.
Sometimes they would just lie side by side, facing each other, for the longest time not touching. And she would just know that he was there because he needed her, because even though he'd never let himself speak it, she had something he couldn't find anywhere else. That he needed comforting, touching, loving.
He would move first. Roll towards her, or reach out and stroke her hair, or curl an arm around her and pull her towards him, into the curve of his body, against his hard chest. He would be so warm. His hands so gentle, yet insistent. And he would never speak, not in words. But in every other way. In wonderful ways. In his ragged breath in her ear, in his attention to every inch of her, in his hoarse cries that matched and encouraged her own.
And then she would wake to the day. To the reality. That it was only a dream and it would never be anything else. And that was hard, and proving harder every day, to live with.
As much as she knew that, she wasn't able to pull back from him. Sitting across from his desk, watching him race off to one rescue after the other, always telling herself that the next time he came back, maybe it wouldn't be there. The attraction. The tug. Maybe he would walk in and her nerve endings would stay inside her body, not protrude through her skin, not charge to life at the sight of him.
Maybe. Maybe he would take that thing, whatever it was, the link that was between them, and just lose it somewhere. Drop it into one of the fires he was always putting out or leave it above the clouds. Whatever it was, maybe he'd come back without it, and she would be able to see him for what he was. For what she knew he was. Her partner. Her work partner. Her very-married work partner…
Lois closed her eyes under the stream, exhausted. Three a.m. This was crazy. She was crazy. She needed to get a hold of herself, of these run away thoughts. She needed to stop dreaming. To just sleep. To forget what her mind was teaching her, what her body was aching to remember. How it felt to be loved by him. Because she could have sworn that she knew, that she really, truly knew.
"Oh, Clark," she whispered, letting herself say his name out loud, hating the longing in her voice and in her heart. With no around to hear, though, there was no real harm in it. No real harm in pretending that things were different. "Why aren't you here?"
He shouldn't be here.
That was the thing he knew above all else. He had no right. He had no excuse. He had no reason — aside from the hundreds burning inside him — to be here. To be listening to Lois. To want so badly to answer her.
Clark flipped over onto his back, wrapping himself in the dark sky, grateful for the coverage it gave. He closed his eyes and he knew. He had to leave. He had to. But he didn't know of any force in the universe that could pull him away.
"I'm right here, Lois," he answered her silently instead.
He had been all over the city tonight trying to distract himself from thoughts of her. After hours of pretending he wasn't going to, he had given in and flown over, telling himself that he was just checking on her. A quick look and he'd go home…to his wife. Get ready to face another day with Lois. Another day of being her friend.
Her heartbeat had lured him like a siren's song. Only before he had gotten there, its rhythm had changed from steady sleep to something else.
The sounds of the shower running had greeted his ears, and he had grown concerned. What had gotten Lois up at such an hour? Suspecting the worst, that she was headed to the docks, he had stuck around. He'd just hover over her building, wait for her to leave, and follow. She might try to call him, anyway, so it was good that he was here…
After a time, though, it had become apparent that Lois was in no hurry to go anywhere. That she wasn't experiencing anything more dangerous than insomnia.
Something he could relate to.
And then she had said his name. His name. As if she had known he was there. As if…she wanted him to be.
He had wondered sometimes. Maybe he'd even wished, though he wouldn't have let himself call it that, it was selfish and impossible, but he had…imagined, when he hadn't been able to help it, what it would be like to fly over and be welcomed in her apartment. As more than a friend, more than a co-worker.
Much, much more.
The loneliness in her voice, in her question, had nearly ripped him from the sky and plummeted him through her ceiling. Quickly righting himself, he had moved to flee. To fly in every direction at once. Back to his house. To the Arctic circle. Mars, maybe. Just…some…place…else.
Not here. Not…here.
And yet here he was. Learning what he had no business learning.
"I have a wife," he ground out, studying the stars above him, willing himself to disappear into them. "I made promises," he groaned. "Lois has a right to her privacy." It was getting a bit harder to concentrate through the longing so sharp he could taste it. And the sound from below…the water hitting her body…
She wanted him.
That look in the conference room earlier, as much as he'd tried to convince himself otherwise, hadn't been his imagination. He hadn't been wrong. She wanted him…to fly through her window, walk into her bathroom…pull back the curtain…
He was in her apartment before he really knew it.
Oh, he knew it. But he hadn't really been going down there. He had just been imagining it a bit too…accurately. He hit the floor with a thump loud enough to wake the neighbors. It sure woke him, from the heated daze he'd been lost in, from the fantasy that was woven thick as a blanket around him.
He spun on his heel ready to shoot out of the room.
"Hey," a soft voice greeted him. And it wasn't just the voice. It was the very scent of her wafting from the bathroom, the steam, the perfume of her soap, the knowledge that she had been thinking of him.
He turned to face her.
He would never have thought he would. At any other time he wouldn't have. He really believed that. He really needed to believe that this was just a moment out of time. A moment of insanity — or maybe of perfect sanity. But a moment when his self-control, his discipline, so firmly in place from years of practice just…left. Spilled from him like water down a drain.
"I see that I'm too late," he heard himself say. Again, not something he would ever say. Just something he would torture himself with later, for weeks, for years, wishing that he could have said. Wondering what might have happened if he'd had the nerve to say it.
But he would never, ever…
"You aren't," she answered him softly. Surprised, yes, but also…something else.
"Then I…interrupted you," he said, filling his eyes with her. If he was going to hell, it was going to be worth it. Her wet hair spread across her neck, beads of water dripped slowly down to her shoulders, disappearing under the robe she wore loosely belted. She hadn't dried herself, so the thin material clung, leaving just enough to the imagination, but not a scant bit more.
"I've dreamed this," she finally spoke again.
"I'm dreaming it now," he moaned, forcing himself to shut his eyes. To stop looking. To stop…needing.
"You're going to leave," Lois replied. "Aren't you?"
"I have to." He turned from her, trying to break the connection that felt like a living thing between them. "This just…"
"…can't happen," she finished for him.
The thin silk of that robe would hit the floor in a whisper. He just had to reach out. To ask, 'Can I?' Then he could loosen that knot…
"Go ahead, then," Lois challenged quietly.
He didn't go.
He didn't move, didn't look up. Didn't breathe. He should be saying something right now, he thought frantically. But just precisely what that would be, he had no clue. Goodnight, Lois, maybe? He tried that on. It didn't feel right. Nothing did. Nothing besides, "Let me hold you. Let me touch you…let me…please, just let me…"
"There's a statue of Superman in my living room," she teased gently, stepping around him, into his field of vision, which he kept riveted on her feet.
"I have to go," he answered finally.
"Somebody need saving?"
"Me," he choked.
"I should push you out the window, then, shouldn't I?"
He let out a slow, unsteady breath.
"Shall I push you on three?" She hadn't moved any closer.
"One." He knew if she did — if she touched him — he was an absolute goner.
"Two." She was giving him a choice. He had a choice. He was still a rational, thinking being, not ruled by his…
"I love you," he blurted as he moved towards her. "You need to know that. Whatever happens…this is…love."
"I know," she spoke into the side of his neck, pressing her soft, damp curves into his chest as he lifted her in his arms in one smooth movement, heading back towards the steam. "I know if it wasn't, you wouldn't be here."
"And I'm…married," he told her breathlessly as he fiddled with the shower knobs, testing the spray. "You don't know everything you should about me. Being with Superman is hard…terrible. You couldn't know."
He raised trembling hands to her shoulders, feeling the silky material under his palms. Asking, with his eyes, for permission to do what he couldn't even bring himself to voice. She nodded, her gaze holding his tightly.
The belt gave way without his even touching it. His fingers skimmed over her, helping the robe's descent. Laying it open to reveal her neck, then her shoulders, her upper arms, a freckle he hadn't known was there…all of her. When it slipped over her wrists, off her hands, he gave up trying to talk, to explain, to do anything but simply…look.
"You're you," she said in answer to words he'd forgotten he'd said. "That's all that matters right here, tonight."
He lifted her into the spray, was on the verge of spinning, out of the suit into her arms. He could do it faster than she could blink.
He reached behind his neck for the zipper. Lowered it slowly. His eyes locked with hers.
"I meant it when I said I love you," he repeated. It was important. The zipper halted half-way. He halted. "There are so many things we should…get straight."
She stepped around him and moved his cape aside, her fingers completing the task his had grown too clumsy for.
"You can tell me later."
"One day, I swear it, Lois," he vowed. "One day we'll have to…talk…figure this out."
"I'll remind you," she said, as he pulled the top of his suit down. She found the harness underneath. "Show me how this works?"
He fumbled with the hooks. His cape fell to the floor between them, covering the robe and her feet. He studied the red, a brilliant puddle against the bare white tiles. For a minute he couldn't believe where he was, couldn't believe where that cape was, what its presence there meant.
"Am I…ruining Superman for you?" he couldn't stop himself from asking. "Showing you the man underneath. That it's just the matter of a zipper and I'm not…a hero?"
It sounded crazy and wasn't sexy, but it was true. If he took off the suit and did this. If he heeded the cry of his body above all else, then it was just a matter of being a zipper away from being a hero. If he could do this…if he could… then, who was he?
He was no super man, that was for sure. He was simply a man. A man who desperately loved and wanted a woman. A man who was only strong on the outside.
Lois moved back in front of him. She was perfectly naked, but seemed so much more comfortable in her skin than he did in just the tights and red briefs.
"Let's not do this," she said, her brown eyes searching his face. "Let's not…you're going to hate yourself."
She reached for the taps, turning the water off.
"I'll make coffee and we'll talk," she continued. "Two friends with insomnia keeping each other company."
He stopped her, touching her for the first time since he'd set her down in the shower. He ran one hand lovingly along her jaw line, and with the other turned the water back on.
"No, Lois." His agonized voice echoed in the stall. "I can't…sit and have coffee with you and…not touch you. It would kill me."
Actually it would kill them both, but he didn't have to know that. Not if he was already feeling guilty about something he hadn't done yet. Not if he had the idea this would be a character assassination of Superman.
This was precisely why they never talked in her dreams. This was why she really, really liked those dreams. No words. No thinking. Just feeling.
Life wasn't so simple.
"Hand me a towel," she said.
He found the nearest one that was dry and held it up for her. She stepped into it, letting him enfold her in its warmth and in his embrace.
"I want to kiss you," he breathed into her damp hair. "I want to…but if I do, Lois…"
"You have to go," she answered, her eyes tightly closed, her face buried against the skin of his bare neck. She inhaled deeply. "I should have given you that push."
"I shouldn't have come down when I heard you," he returned, tightening his grip on her. "I shouldn't have even been in the neighborhood."
"I like that you came," she answered. "I know how you must have fought it. But that you couldn't stay away…"
"I couldn't." His voice cracked on the last word.
"But you have to." She straightened up, wiping the tears that had spilled from her eyes. "We can't. You know we can't." She steeled herself, drew in a deep breath and met his eyes. "Don't come again unless…well… I'm…calling you for real, ok? You know, boiling in oil, fending off an intruder, that sort of call."
His arms fell from around her, leaving her cold, so very cold. He nodded curtly. She saw in his face that he didn't trust himself to speak.
"I'll see you at work." She smiled a small smile at him, willing him to do the same. To not look so devastated. To at least pretend to be ok.
"Ok," he cleared his throat roughly and took a deliberate step back. The top of his suit and his cape reappeared in an instant. "Goodnight, Lois."
With a gust of air and a slight banging of the window, he was gone.
She stayed where she was for some time. Running the last few minutes through her head. That's all it had been. Minutes. A handful of minutes during which they had come so close to crossing the line, to straying over a boundary. To really…messing up… in a wonderful way.
She looked closely at her face in the mirror. Studying it. She looked the same, like the exact same person who had brushed her teeth in this very spot before bedtime hours ago. But she could still feel his arms around her. Still hear his voice in her ear.
He loved her. Loved…her. But maybe she'd known that? Suspected? Had she?
Her mirror self wasn't giving up any answers. Well, she knew now. And she wasn't the same, wasn't the same person who had stood in this very spot earlier. Inside she was…different, changed.
Sending Clark away made leaving Marvin seem easy.
And Marvin had been so great, she remembered fondly. She had absolutely no regrets. But it hadn't been like this with him. Maybe nothing really was. Maybe if Clark was free and they were dating, things would be different. Would feel normal. Mundane, even.
She checked her face in the mirror to see if she believed that. If that was a passable observation. That if Clark Kent was just some available, good looking earth guy from work who had come over in the middle of the night, things would have been nice, but they wouldn't have set the night on fire with their longing. Forbidden fruit and all that?
No sense answering that. No sense at all. He wasn't any of those things. He wasn't…hers.
She studied their footprints in the condensation on the tiles. His boots, her toes. So close together. Mere inches. And worlds apart.
She took her towel and wiped them away, erasing them. Those prints were an illusion, a…horrible tease. Not real. Not right. Not possible. Not…anything. Gone now.
Once the floor was scrubbed clean, she moved to her window and locked it. Everything was put back just as it had been, as if he'd never come at all.
He flew for the rest of the night. Enormous circles around the earth. Back and forth, zig-zagging, up then down. He didn't hear any calls. Didn't stop anywhere.
It wasn't guilt that kept him moving. It wasn't longing or regret, either. Though he knew he couldn't out run those; they would all catch up with him sooner or later.
It was fear. Pure and raw. Fear of what he was capable of. Fear of what he had almost done. Of what he almost certainly would have done…if Lois hadn't stopped them…
Fear of who he was — who he was becoming…
He didn't know himself any more. Or maybe he knew himself too well, now. And that was the most frightening thing of all.
He would quit the Daily Planet. Relinquish that absurd attempt at something normal. A job? A desk? Hiding behind the smokescreen of Jonathan Hudson…
He needed to stop fooling himself. He was Superman. Lana was right — once he'd made that decision he had effectively cut Clark Kent out of the equation. What Clark Kent wanted didn't matter.
Time to stop…wishing. Time to stop imagining a life outside of the one he had chosen. Because he had chosen it. He had chosen every bit of it. A career helping others, using his abilities for the good, no matter how it set him apart.. He wanted that, needed that. He had chosen Superman, and he couldn't regret it…He shouldn't…
And a marriage to a woman who was his family. The girl he had passed notes to in algebra class, taken to his first dance, the only girl he had ever really kissed. The girl who had grown up to be his wife. He had chosen Lana.
And he just needed to be content with the way things were. These doubts, these…wants were simply growing pains. A part of growing into his new life. Normal. Natural. The uncertainty would pass.
Away from the Planet, away from…Lois, he could concentrate on being who he was supposed to be. On saving what needed saving. His marriage. His sanity. His life.
He'd call James in the morning. He wouldn't even go in, it would be safer. And he'd go home to Lana and fix things. Say whatever needed to be said, do whatever needed to be done. Love her like she deserved to be loved. He would. Right away.
"He's not coming in today?" Lois asked James. "We had…things…to work on."
"He quit this morning, Lois," James returned gently. "Said it wasn't working; being Superman and trying to hold down a full-time job. He was really, really sorry," he added, awkwardly patting her arm. "And…we'll miss him."
The morning conference had concluded. That Clark hadn't been there was not unusual. And James asking her to stay behind wasn't either. He often did. Asking for updates on the warehouse, or more tales from the Congo, or simply to talk. She just hadn't imagined this is what he was going to tell her.
She had come to work fully prepared, she had hoped, for how uncomfortable Clark was going to be around her. She'd expected that. And had been ready to set him at ease, to move them back towards easy friendship, however that was possible after last night. She hadn't actually worked out the details on that, though she was pretty sure a cup of coffee wasn't going to cover it. What she hadn't prepared for was this.
Gone. And he wouldn't come back, would he? He would stay away at all costs. No matter what it might cost him…and her.
"You ok?" James's voice penetrated the fog that has seeped in, making her lose her bearings.
"Yeah," she said tightly. "We'll…miss him."
She stood from the table, moving away from James's troubled frown. "I'll just…get to work. I need to…get his notes together, I guess, since this investigation is…all mine, now."
"Not all yours," James said, touching her shoulder lightly, stopping her. "Or it doesn't have to be. Lois, I'd love to…work with you. I know I'm the boss and it might seem…odd, but you know the newspaper business is a new playground for me." He smiled bashfully. "And you just found yourself short one partner, so…?"
"We team up?" She turned and hit him with her brightest smile, though it might have wavered a little. This was not the end of the world. There was still the story. And she was free now…from any distractions that might slow her down. She'd be the best reporter in the building, in the city. And though she didn't need anyone to help her, really, she wouldn't mind…the company. "It's a deal."
"Dinner, then?" James met her smile with a delighted one of his own. "You can catch me up. And we won't do it here; I could stand to get out of this place more often. We could go someplace… special?"
Only on that last did he sound a bit hesitant, as if he feared he had jogged too close to a boundary.
Well, she knew all about that, didn't she?
"I think a nice dinner between friends and, now, working partners is just the thing," she answered.
And it was. It was just the thing. It would keep her from going home tonight and just heating a frozen dinner, watching whatever was on television…
"See you after work, then?" James asked softly.
"I'll meet you right here."
She returned to the bullpen. Her desk and Clark's were still piled high with the files they'd been reading through. She would miss his speed reading, that was for sure. It would take her hours to do what he could do in minutes. But that was how it was supposed to be. So he might have left right on time. She had probably been depending on his abilities a bit too much lately. Taking for granted what they could accomplish in a short period, and in so doing, letting her own skills get rusty.
And there was a lot to do. It would take her days to sort through it. There would be no time for anything else, no time to think, or to…miss anyone. She'd be too busy.
All his things were still here. She took a moment to decipher his hurried writing on the post-it notes that adorned his computer. Nothing important. Memos to himself about what he needed to follow up on. Hard to keep it straight when you have to drop everything a dozen times a day. When shots are fired, banks are robbed, cars pile up…the wife calls…Anyway, there was nothing on the post-its she needed. They were simply reminders.
Reminders that he had been here, just yesterday, sitting across from her, his hair mussed and face intent with concentration. And last night…in her apartment…his face intent with…
She shoved his papers aside and moved her things over to occupy his space. There was plenty of room for her now. Their workspace had gotten too cramped, anyway. She could spread out and get to work.
It would be better this way.
The phone on her desk rang after nearly everyone else had gone home. And she could have predicted it. She knew, without having to answer, exactly who it was and exactly what he was going to say.
She glanced at it, willing its shrill ringing to silence, and pretending not to notice the curious and impatient glares of the few remaining coworkers, who, like her, were working to meet a deadline. She pulled herself closer to her keyboard, feigning a fascination for the nonsense she was typing. She would ignore it. She wasn't ready.
Not yet. Not so soon after last night. She had known he would call eventually. As soon as he had figured out how to say what he had to say.
'Should never have happened. My fault. I'm sorry.'
She didn't want to hear that. She didn't want to hear anything besides "I love you. I should have stayed." And she sure as hell knew that wasn't what he was calling to say.
When ignoring it didn't work, she gave the phone a melting stare, hot enough to subdue it. It didn't take the hint. So in a casual show of nonchalance, she stretched forward and unplugged it.
Silence. Blessed silence.
Lois tried to rub away the dull headache that had threatened off and on since he'd flown out of her window the night before.
She rolled her shoulders, trying to relax. She didn't want his apologies. No matter how badly he no doubt wanted to give them. He could keep them. She didn't want to listen to his regrets, to know for sure that he had regrets. And above it all, she didn't want any regrets herself. Didn't want to sit here in the quiet, staring at his empty desk and her unplugged phone, wishing she had done it differently.
That she hadn't stopped them. That, instead, she had done what she always did — tossed caution to the wind and jumped in feet first.
A word from her. Or not even a word. A touch, a kiss. And last night would have been so different.
<And he would hate himself even more than he does right now.>
<<But he wouldn't be any more gone, would he? And you would have had something, a memory, to keep with you.>>
And maybe if they had been together last night, he wouldn't have been able to stay away…
The phone on his desk sounded, jolting her from her thoughts and making her jump in her chair.
Unbidden, a small smile stole over her face. 'Do this now,' his phone seemed to be saying, 'or listen to me ring every phone in your radius until you give in.'
She debated it. On the eleventh ring, much to the relief of her frazzled colleagues, she answered.
"You were supposed to give up," she said by way of hello.
"I know," he said. "But you're as alone as I'm going to get you, so…"
"I'd be more alone at home." She lowered her voice. "If you want to call me there later?"
He didn't answer.
"Or not," she sighed. "I get it. Safer here. Public place. But how did you know I wasn't completely alone at this hour?"
"I'm outside." His warm voice, so intimate in her ear, had her trembling, remembering, all over again. "And I promise this is the last time I invade your privacy."
She stood up carefully, looking out the window. It was too dark to discern anything.
"On the roof," he said.
"We could do this face to face then," she offered quietly.
There was a pause. Pause enough to give her the answer to that.
"I can't. I can't see you. I'm not…I can't, Lois."
"Ok." And she had known that. What was she thinking? Get him alone, get him face to face, and what? She didn't want to know the answer to that. She wasn't feeling particularly noble at this moment. She sat back down in his chair and waited for what she knew was coming.
"I owe you an apology."
"Keep it," she told him evenly, rubbing her temple where the slight ache had definitely turned to hammer-like blows. "I don't want it."
"I shouldn't have come down last night. I shouldn't have stayed for one second after I did. I shouldn't have…" His voice, so steady, so soft and sincere, wavered just a touch before he continued huskily. "…undressed you. God, Lois, I'm supposed to be Superman. I'm married. I'm…sorry."
"I know." She drew in a shaky breath. "As soon as James opened his mouth this morning, said that you had quit, I knew all this, Clark. And I should have known as soon as you left last night that I wasn't going to be seeing you again."
"I'm sorry," he repeated, and she couldn't miss the desperate edge in it. "I know you don't want to hear it, but you have no idea how sorry I am that I've hurt you. That I've hurt Lana. How sorry I am that things aren't…different."
"I think I have some idea," she replied as casually as she was able.
"If I had met you earlier, Lois." Again, his low, whispered voice had her heart tripping unsteadily. "I would have been…ecstatic and damn lucky to have been where I was last night. You're amazing and beautiful…and I can't be with you."
"I know," she repeated, though that didn't stop his rush of words.
"I'm married," he said again. "And I'm Superman. I'm supposed to be this great example. Some kind of hero to people. And half the time I don't even know what I'm doing. I'm just making it up as I go along. And I'm a person, too. A man, not an icon. And I have these feelings, these…needs that I just…can't act on and be…good. And I have to be. I owe Lana. I owe her my fidelity. I've already put her through so much just by being me. She's never had an easy time with who I am, with how I'm different, even before Superman. But now, after how she has to live, after I made things this way, the very least I can be is faithful. And that shouldn't be hard. The right thing shouldn't be so hard…" His voice trailed away, and over the line she could hear that his breathing was as ragged as her own.
"Finished?" she asked softly.
"Yeah," he laughed weakly. "That was a bit of a…catharsis. But I had to say it, Lois. Maybe more for me than for you. Of the two of us, you seem a bit clearer on this stuff."
She knew from his tone that he was probably pacing up there, scrubbing agitated fingers through his hair. She knew, also, that she might could change his mind. She was good with words, with arguments. She could mention that Lana didn't exactly appear to accept him for who he was. That being Superman was vital to him, and while his wife wasn't supporting him in that, she could. She could help him find how the man fit the cape, how he could be a person with feelings as well as a hero to many. That it wasn't a matter of one over the other. That there had to be more to life than just doing good. Being happy, for starters. He deserved that as much as anyone.
"I'll miss you," she said instead, because he needed her to. Because he needed to be faithful so he could live with himself. It was the same reason she had let him fly away last night. The same reason she hadn't jumped in feet first.
When he didn't answer, she thought he might have already hung up.
"I'll miss you so much," he finally returned. "Just one last thing, Lois."
"And that is?" She tried to sound impatient, as if she wasn't desperate for this conversation to continue. As if she wasn't calculating how quickly she could get up the stairs. And if he would be strong enough to fly away again if she made it. If she could push open the door into the cold night air, see him face to face, and…what? Become his mistress?
Yes. To hell with his needing to be above reproach. To hell with Lana, Superman, and everything else. She deserved some happiness, too.
"I want you to be happy," he said, reading her mind. "So, if you find someone…"
"I've got your blessing, then?" She hadn't meant it to sound so bitter, but it galled her. She knew very well what would make her happy. "I can look after myself. I don't need you worrying about me. I have…prospects, you know."
"I do know," he cut in. "I see one now, Lois."
She raised her head from where she'd dropped it against the back of his chair, seeing now what he was no doubt seeing.
James was hovering indecisively in his office doorway. He'd put on his jacket and the tie looked new. And he was hiding, rather badly, an arrangement of yellow roses.
She started to tell Clark it wasn't what it looked like. She and James were partners now. The flowers were obviously just a sweet gesture, a nice way to start things off before their dinner tonight.
But then again, she and Clark had merely been partners, too.
"Be happy, Lois," Clark said. "Forgive me for being so weak. And thank you the best days of my life."
She opened her mouth, but closed it again when she heard the click and the dial tone. "Goodbye," she said aloud, knowing he was probably still close enough to hear her.
She forced herself to her feet…Forced a welcoming smile on her face. James approached her eagerly. "For friendship," he said with a flourish, as he pressed the bouquet into her arms. "Nothing romantic, Lois. Just from one partner to the other."
"They're beautiful," she told him honestly. "Let me just grab my coat and we can go, ok?"
She turned, and in doing, caught a brief glimpse of Superman's cape outside the window. She blinked and it was gone. The sonic boom reached her ears just as she and James made it onto the elevator.
Jonathan Hudson's retirement from the Daily Planet was encapsulated in a single sentence in the back pages of the next day's addition.
The paper had simply announced that the new reporter's by-line would no longer be appearing, as he had left to pursue other career interests. It was so well crafted; it didn't look like a lie.
Clark had no other interests. He had duties. He had responsibilities. But nothing, nothing held his interest like…what he'd had.
The morning he had phoned in his resignation, he had explained to Lana that he had quit the Planet and wasn't going back. The understandable question, the inevitable question, the one he has braced himself for had been, "Why?"
During the predawn hours he had thought of every reasonable explanation. And that wasn't hard, there were several that would be…safe to mention.
But Lana hadn't asked. She hadn't said much of anything. After a long, carefully blank stare, she'd simply nodded, tossing over her shoulder as she left the room, "Having a little trouble with the super willpower?"
He couldn't exactly deny that, could he?
"It's just better," he'd plowed on, following her up the stairs, "if I'm home as much as I can be…unfair to you the demands on my time…on our time. I'm going to…right that…as much as I can."
He hadn't really expected her to open her arms to him. To welcome him back into their home, from which he knew he'd been a virtual stranger for months. He'd done absolutely nothing to deserve that. Whatever he received, he would have to earn. He knew that. It was stupid to wish for…anything else. But still…the door in his face hadn't exactly been…encouraging.
Despite an inauspicious start, they had settled in. And for the first time since he'd taken on his celebrity status, their days had a pattern. Dinner every night, when he was able. Conversation downstairs in their seldom used den. When she went to bed, he left on evening patrol. Before she woke up, he went again. That way he was there, with her, as much as he could be.
And the weeks passed. Quietly.
Maybe the quiet was what had prompted him to jump at Perry's invitation to dinner. A small affair, the Mayor's voice had boomed over the phone. Informal. Just friends. He and Alice were getting sick of official functions, of dinners every night with various city officials. They wanted an evening in and a good company. Would he and Lana come?
He hadn't asked who else would be there. He'd just said yes.
He hadn't seen Lois up close since that night. Outside of their one conversation over the phone, they'd had no contact.
He stayed close to her in other ways, though. In super ways. Flying high overhead. She couldn't see him. But he could know where she was, that she was safe. His last request of James had been for his ex-boss to call him if there was any 'trouble.' He hadn't been more specific than that, but they had both known exactly who and what he had meant.
But if she was at Perry's tonight, if an informal dinner among friends included her, then he wouldn't miss it. He couldn't. It was the safest possible setting. They'd be surrounded by people. Maybe he could ask her about the investigation, casually, over dinner. And he could listen to her talk. Share a room with her, a table. There was no real harm in that. And things were a bit more settled now in his marriage. So maybe, eventually, the two of them could be friends again. Or, at the very least, friendly acquaintances.
Tonight might be the perfect place for that to start.
"Does this look all right?" Lana's question tugged him back to the present.
She was dressed in his favorite color, her hair twisted up the way he'd once said he liked. She was trying.
"You look beautiful," he answered her truthfully.
"You do that all the time now," she ventured.
"Compliment you?" He smiled at her. "Is that so bad?"
"No." She moved to collect her things from her bureau, keeping her back to him. "You stare off into space — for long minutes — your mind completely elsewhere."
"Oh…uh…well," he began.
She turned and held up her hand to stop him. "Since you've left the Planet, you're home a lot more, and I'm not saying I don't appreciate it. But it's really not much different than when you were away all the time. You still go out that window, only now your body stays here. You're gone now, Clark…do I know where?"
He sat down on the bed slowly. Despite the multitude of perfectly acceptable answers that coursed through his head, he didn't give any of them. They would all be lies.
"I'm not stupid," she told him roughly. "And I'm not blind."
His head came up. He was listening, though not to her.
He couldn't tell exactly what he was hearing, but he knew he was needed.
The phone started to ring in almost the same instant. The private line, known only to a very few authorities.
"Something's happening," he told her unnecessarily. He was in the suit before she picked up the phone. "Tell them I've already gone. And—" He hesitated. "— I'll meet you at Perry's when I can, ok?"
She nodded grimly.
"I'm sorry, Lana."
"Right," she answered as he lifted off. "I've never heard that before."
The Chief, himself, threw the door open at her first knock.
"Good service here at the Mayor's mansion," Lois noted, walking into his open arms.
"Tell me James is parking the car," he whispered to her urgently. "Or feeding the meter…"
"There is no meter—"
"But James doesn't know that, right? I mean, he overlooks things like that sometimes, so he's walking around out there…" Perry pulled her back outside, keeping one arm tight around her shoulders, as he peered into the night. "…trying to put coins into a non-existent meter."
"He had a meeting," she said, and felt him sag against her. "He was sorry, it was last minute—"
"If I had a dime, dear." Alice rode into the conversation smoothly, hooking one arm through Perry's and bringing them into the foyer. "Never date an editor."
"Better a politician?" she returned, kissing her friend on the cheek.
"A hen party," Perry muttered darkly from behind her.
"Perry," Alice admonished him. "You know Clark will be back when he's able, and James works hard, almost as hard as you did."
"A drunken hen party," Perry continued, somewhat miserably.
"A drunken…?" Lois frowned, her head swinging back and forth between them, noting the looks they were exchanging. "Who's drunk?"
"Is that Loooo-is??" a voice sang out from the living room. "The Lois Lane? The fabuuuulous, the woooonnerful…"
"Oh…god," Lois said, freezing in her tracks.
"Amen, dear," Alice murmured. "How about I fix you a little something? Cocktail hour is well underway." Donning a radiant smile, Alice strong-armed her over the threshold and into the lion's den.
Well, into the den. There were no lions. Silly. There was only Lana. Who seemed glad to see her. If she was able to see her at all through eyes that looked a bit…glazed.
"Hello," Lois tried. Safe enough.
"Alone, Lois?" Lana puckered her brow. "No James? No James Olsen Suuuper Editor! Was he called away to…save someone's dangling participle?"
"He had a meeting with the suits upstairs," Lois told the room, wincing at the false cheer in her voice. "We've been so busy in our investigation; he's been falling behind on his day to day stuff."
"Ohhhhh." Lana nodded sagely, her head wag so vigorous it nearly tumbled her from the chair she was sort of propped in. "The investigation. How's that working…without my husband?"
"Sherry?" Alice trilled. "Something stronger, maybe? Who's thirsty?"
"I know I am," Perry fairly bellowed. "Only maybe the occasion calls for something less…er…spirited? How about a round of black coffee?"
"Or strychnine?" Lois muttered.
"Try this instead," Alice whispered, evidently having superhearing of her own, handing her a glass of something sparkly. It tasted wonderful. It just wasn't going to be enough to kill her.
She drank it as quickly as she could. Lana seemed to have the right idea, and by all appearances was more than a few drinks ahead of her. No reason she couldn't catch up, though. Or else those years at college had taught her nothing.
She shouldn't have come.
And she had known that, even before she'd left the apartment. Before James's roses and note of abject apology had arrived at her door. She had been foolish to press on. To pretend, even for a minute, that this wasn't exactly what was going to happen. That Lana wouldn't be here. That she wouldn't be alone because Clark, that bastard, had probably gotten lucky and a dam had burst somewhere.
Oh, to be Superman. Able to come and go whenever you wanted. Things get awkward and you just stand up and declare you've heard something only dogs can hear…
Wait! Did he do that?
She scowled into her glass. It was empty. Hey, not bad. New personal best.
<No fair, Kent,> she seethed as she moved towards the bar and poured liberally. And yet…she'd do the very same at least six times a day if it were her. Wouldn't have to waste her time in conversations that went nowhere. Evenings that were shaping up to be endless… "I'm so sorry," she muttered under her breath, "but the state of California is collapsing into the ocean and I have to go hold it up. Eat without me. Save me some cake."
Into the silence Alice wondered aloud if there was a way to speed up the main course, leaving behind an obviously uneasy Perry with orders to "keep everyone entertained."
A friendly dinner party, that's what he had wanted. Free from any political undertones, the stress to say the right thing, double-talk, back stabbing. Lois remembered his exact words. That's how he had talked her into coming. And it had sounded just right. Easy, pleasant, fun.
And the chance to see Clark, no matter how awkward. Just…the chance to lay eyes on him, see if he was…as happy as she was.
Well, if easy and pleasant were what Perry had wanted, he'd gotten the guest list wrong, hadn't he?
She couldn't blame him for not knowing. For not being a mind reader. For just assuming that she and Clark still had any sort of relationship.
Despite the fact that Superman's quitting the Planet had been noted and speculated over, along with what his source of income would be, no one knew what had really precipitated it. Unless…
Lois stopped. The bottle slipped from her fist and hit the bar with a loud clatter. She became momentarily lost in the study of the swirling amber inside.
Stupid. Clark had probably told Lana. Of course he had. Confessed all. Felt so bad about what he had almost done…What they had almost done…
<I wasn't exactly beating him off with a stick, was I?> she conferred with the liquid in her glass. Though not aloud. That would be crazy.
With a slight tremble in her hands, Lois downed the drink in one swallow, letting the warmth of it spread to her extremities while she considered taking another stab at conversation.
Maybe she should just address it? Clear the air and get it out of the way. She sure as hell owed Lana an apology. Something like, "Sorry about letting all of my clothes fall off in front of your husband. Careless of me.Won't happen again."
And it wouldn't. He'd never come near her again, not if she was alone. Never let himself get anywhere close.
"James and I are doing pretty well on that smuggling operation, Chief," she said instead. Despite the liquor in her bloodstream, it seemed the wiser choice. And she sort of punched up the 'James and I' part, never mind that they weren't officially a couple. It was just nice to have…a someone. Couldn't hurt for Lana to know that.
"So, you can get along without Jonathan Hudson?" Lana's voice cut like ice despite the slight slur on the vowels. Always hard when you're tipsy, Lois acknowledged. "That's good to know."
"What's new?" Perry boomed, overly loud. "I know the city has a problem policing those docks. We don't have the money or the manpower for what's required, but there's no telling the things that come and go out of there."
"Guns," she said. "Thousands of them. And they are sold at outrageously low prices and distributed to, well, almost anyone."
"That lets out the local gangs, doesn't it?" Perry frowned. "Too sophisticated."
"Yes. James can hack into…or rather…research almost anything on his computer. We know it's someone with a lot of money. Someone very calculating and very well connected."
'You're very…smart, Lois," Lana said carefully. "Efficient. Good at getting what you want. You remind me so much of Clark's first distraction. Remember her, Perry?"
"Ahh," Perry stammered. "Ahh, Lois is…very smart… the…best…ever. Most natural reporter I ever saw…" He trailed off weakly. Lois could almost see the mental white flag he raised as he took a seat slowly next to the fireplace, suddenly looking every bit his age.
"What does that mean?" she asked Lana quietly.
"What does what mean?" Lana parried with a confused look, picking up one of Alice's tasty appetizers with a well-manicured hand. "Oh, curried shrimp, Lois. You should try one!"
"His first distraction," she repeated, setting her glass down and squaring her stance. Despite all her efforts, she felt horribly, coldly…sober.
"You know." Lana looked up from the plate absently. "The other woman. The one who changed his life, made him into the man he is today. The one who looked exactly like you. It must be the brunette thing, the dark eyes…He can't resist."
"He felt this real bond with her. And for a while there, I thought it was over for us, even though we've been together since we shared a sandbox. But she moved on, and I guess he did, too."
She popped the delicacy into her mouth, chewing slowly. "But you know who I'm talking about, Lois," she said only after she had swallowed.
"No," she said. "I don't."
And she didn't. But for some reason Lana's words, the part about the bond, hit like a fist.
"He didn't tell you?" Lana's eyes widened in shock, then obvious delight. "You don't know? You're kidding! She's kidding, right, Perry?"
Perry opened his mouth, swallowed air, closed it again.
Lana read his expression with a look of wonder, swinging her head back around to study her through a glassy stare. "You think this little fling is unique to you, Lois? You think that you're unique? Unbelievable…"
"A fling?" Perry bleated weakly . "Oh, Lord, oh…great shades." He moved from his corner, pulling to stand. To referee, maybe, or to run, more likely. Maybe to find Alice, who, wisely, hadn't returned.
"There is no fling," Lois answered sharply. "None. And I don't know what you're talking about."
Lana was drunk, clearly. And out of her mind…incoherent…delusional…possibly insane…
But Perry was shifting uncomfortably from foot to foot, his movements telegraphing that there was some truth to Lana's words. Some truth she wasn't supposed to know.
"What, Chief?" She turned on him, feeling a small amount of remorse for startling the poor man, whose only wish had been for a low key meal among friends. "Tell me," she demanded.
"Yes, tell her, Mayor White," Lana echoed with a bright smile. "You know more than anybody. You've heard the whole crazy story. Tell Ms Lane she isn't the first woman to catch my husband's eye. To tempt him away. Tell her you've met the original."
"The original?" Lois questioned, completely baffled. "Perry?"
"Honey," Perry began carefully, holding up his hands in entreaty. "It isn't what you think—"
"That's for sure," Lana snorted. "And believe me, you couldn't guess it."
Perry cast Lana a stern look. "Now, it's a long story, Lois. And really not mine to tell. Clark could tell it better."
"Then why hasn't he?" Lana asked sweetly. "What on earth could be the reason for that oversight?"
"I think you should go, Mrs Kent," Perry ground out. "I don't mean to be rude, but it's obvious you're a bit…worse for wear. And Lois is like family. I'll have the car brought around; see that the driver gets you home…"
But it was Lois who moved first. Entering the foyer at a near sprint, yanking open the hall closet, digging for her coat.
"Honey, please." Perry tried to stop her. "Stay. Alice will be so disappointed…" His voice trailed away as he took in the look on her face.
"Some other night, I think," she said quietly.
Lana swept past them wearing a dazzling smile as she opened the front door with a flourish.
Clark stood on the other side, fist raised in an aborted knock.
"Oh, how nice! This must be a special occasion; you're using the door," his wife greeted him.
"Um…hi," Clark offered, stepping into the tense atmosphere. "Wait…you're going?" he asked of Lana, taking in the coat tossed over her arm, the curried shrimp clutched in her fist. "Am I…that late?" he teased faintly.
"My ride is here. You missed it, sweetie," Lana informed him. "The appetizer was fantastic and the conversation better than that. But you and your lover have a few things you need to discuss. Evidently, you haven't been all that forthcoming. Sooo, I thought I'd just take myself out of the way—" She stumbled a bit, though was still able to navigate fairly adroitly around Clark's helping hand. "— let you two get to it. 'Night all. Thanks, Perry, tell Alice this was way more fun that I expected."
With a casual wave and a flip of her hair, she was gone, leaving behind a rather deafening silence.
"I missed something," Clark said at last into the charged silence.
"You think?" Lois returned, avoiding his searching eyes, the questions and apologies that were burning on his face.
"I'll just…check on dinner," Perry gasped out. "Don't want anything to burn, or dry out, or…spoil! That's it, don't want anything to spoil." With that the Mayor spun on one heel and made his way to where he was almost positive the kitchen might be.
Neither of them had moved since Lana's exit line and Perry's about face. Since he couldn't even begin to imagine what had happened, didn't want to imagine what had happened, he had no idea how to break into the stillness. To get them both to breathe, again. He simply said her name.
"Do me a favor," she finally replied, as she charged to life all at once and steered around him. "Don't look at me with those eyes, and don't try to ask what happened, and don't follow me home. I just…need…to get out of here."
"I can't look at you. Can't ask what's going on. I just let you go?" he clarified slowly. "It must have been really bad."
"This thing—" she gestured to the two of them as she struggled into her coat, stepping away when he reached to offer his assistance. "— can't happen anyway. And since it isn't happening, and we know it isn't, I don't need to know anything else!"
"I know Lana was…not herself. That was pretty obvious. Things at home have been…" He hesitated, while she watched him. He measured out his next word. "…strained."
"That's exactly it. 'Things at home.' Did you just hear yourself? You are married, Clark. And this is crazy." She turned on a heel and reached for the door. "And it shouldn't matter. Since you and I aren't…I shouldn't care. I don't! I don't care! Whatever you've done in the past is just…not what I want to hear about"
He followed. Wanting to stop her, to put out his hand, pull her around towards him. Knowing he couldn't.
"If you aren't the man I think you are—" she continued, spinning to face him just as he hoped. Though the look in her eyes made him wish she hadn't. "— I quite honestly don't want to know. Ironic, huh? Ace reporter Lois Lane doesn't want to know something. Chooses ignorance over facts."
"I give up, Lois. What are you talking about? There's nothing new here. You said it yourself, you know I'm married. You know, more than anyone, that I'm not perfect. I wouldn't have come to your place that night if I was. So what is this about?"
"It's about whether or not that night meant anything to you. If I'm…special to you," she returned in a voice so low he had to strain to her.
"Lois," he whispered, suddenly desperate to find the connection that he knew was there, underneath whatever had happened since, whatever had happened tonight. "You know you are. You know that night meant so much that I had to…quit work. If I stayed around you, kept working with you, I wouldn't be able to—"
"Right," she filled-in sharply. "Right. It doesn't matter. None of this makes a difference anyway, so conversation, any further conversation, is completely pointless. I'm not interested. Go home to your wife, Clark."
"Aren't we still friends?" he begged her. "Can't you tell me…?"
"We aren't friends any more. We can't be. Don't pretend to be that naïve."
She was right, and he knew it. There wasn't any good reason for her to stay and talk to him. There was no explanation that she owed to him. He couldn't ask anything of her, not anything. And that he did, that he wanted to, wasn't right. They couldn't be friends. He shouldn't have come. Shouldn't have risked it. There was no going back.
"Goodbye, Lois," he said at last, unable to look up, unable to move until the door had closed behind her. He studied the floor for a number of minutes, idly x-raying down into the basement, the wine cellar, the earth beneath the foundation. He wished he was so solidly built, ground firm beneath him, unshakable in a gale. Clearing his throat roughly, and shutting away any further thoughts on the subject, he went to find Perry.
He tried to beg his way out of dinner. Tried to apologize for Lana's obvious inebriation, explain the stress that their lifestyle put her under. He mentioned more than a few times that he needed to leave, to check on her.
Alice and Perry weren't buying.
"Seems to me you could use an evening among friends, Clark," Alice had murmured with a glint in her eye.
"And I have a bone to pick with you," Perry had thundered, only to be shushed by his wife.
Chagrined, he sat down to a torturously uncomfortable dinner for three. After which Alice had beaten a circumspect retreat from the den claiming fatigue, a need to lie down. The two men sat in the arm chairs in front of the fire, nursing beers, studying the flames. Alice's strained conversation no longer filling the blank spaces, the silence was pronounced.
"What did Lana say to Lois?" Clark finally asked when the room was dark enough.
"She implied that Lois wasn't your first temptation," Perry answered heavily, immediately. "I'm not one to put my nose in…" He cast a glance over at him, obviously waiting for his go ahead, or his quick exit.
"Please, Perry," Clark sighed, completely unable to stop himself. "Help me out here."
"How bad is it, is what I want to know. Be up front with me, son, otherwise I can talk all night and not hit the target."
"I love her," Clark whispered in a voice full of dread. "And I hate myself."
"Have you told her?" Perry didn't have to ask which her he spoke of.
"Yes." Clark bowed his head. "In a moment of…weakness. And I shouldn't have."
"Maybe you should have, maybe you shouldn't have. What did Lois say?"
"She…" He paused. "She didn't answer that actually. Just said that she knew."
"So, now what?" Perry returned slowly. "Are things going to change?"
"How can they?" he demanded softly, running agitated fingers through his hair.
"You know the statistics, right? Half the marriages in this country end in—"
"No," Clark vowed. "Not my marriage. No."
"And why not your marriage?" Perry asked gently. "You think the people who make up that percentage want it to be their marriage? Hell, nobody picks that. But things happen. Things we can't predict."
"Superman," Clark pronounced wearily, "cannot get a divorce." He forced himself to say that last word, feel the shape of it on his tongue.
"That's crap, son," Perry swore sadly. "Who took your vows? You or the man in the cape?"
"I am the man in the cape, Perry!" Clark leapt to him feet, furiously pacing in front of the fire. "I'm sick of telling people that. There is no difference. I am Superman. Superman is me. Superman is married. He's a…a…role model…he can't.—"
"Be happy?" Perry supplied.
"Get a divorce, dammit," he exhaled in frustration. "Perry, you know what I mean."
"I almost always do, Clark," Perry conceded. "But not this time. You can't be a divorced role model? Can't be effective as a superhero if you and Lana don't make it? Without a ring on your finger, you can't stop a tidal wave? A mud slide? A plane crash? If a house is burning, you can't find the occupants because you couldn't work things out with your wife?"
"I can't seem like a person who can't handle it when things get tough. Who gives up. Who fails. It…lessens me."
"Good people don't fail? Good people aren't humbled?"
"I'm different. This is different, Perry, whether or not you want to acknowledge it, I have to. I am not like everyone else. I never have been. I can't pretend to be."
"I ever tell you I'm not Alice's first husband? I'm not." Perry nodded at the surprise that he hadn't been able to hide. "She was young, in love. He was the son of a good friend of the family. They were the perfect match…for a time. You think less of her, Clark? Think she's a failure? He didn't beat her, didn't booze, didn't gamble away all their money. He was a perfectly nice guy, and mostly they got along fine."
"Then what happened?" Clark returned to his chair.
"Nothing really. Over the years they just grew apart. It's not a unique story, but it wasn't easy for her. Though it was damn lucky for me," Perry chuckled.
"What if you'd met her when she was married?" Clark asked slowly. "What if she wasn't divorced yet and you met her and you…felt something?"
"I would have steered clear," Perry stated plainly. "But that's not this, Clark. You're the married one, which means the decision is yours. I couldn't have divorced Alice from her husband, she had to do that. We met not six months later."
"I don't think I can," Clark fumbled. "I can't even believe I'm talking like this. I've known Lana my whole life. She's the only person I have left from before."
"Well, where is Lana in this?" Perry demanded. "You say you love Lois, but you and Lana have a lot of years together. Where does she stand? She made it pretty clear tonight that she's miserable."
"I don't know," he answered truthfully. "We can't seem to talk about things without getting bogged down in everything. And it's my fault. I made things this way. She fell in love with a small town boy, and I made her world famous…and flew away and fell in love with someone else."
"Circumstances beyond your control—" Perry began.
"No. They weren't. They were never beyond my control. I could have done it differently. When Lois, the first one, came, I didn't have to do it exactly like…the other guy she modeled me after. I just…did, because… oh god, I wanted to. And I didn't let myself think of my wife. I knew what her thoughts would be. I just…did it."
"That means something, Clark, whether or not you want to acknowledge it. And you owe it to Lana to find out what. You owe it to yourself." Perry informed him grimly.
"Right." Clark nodded. "You're right. I know."
"And, son, about Lois. Take some advice?"
"Is this that bone you wanted to pick with me?" he joked weakly.
"It is. And you listen. Leave her alone until you know what you can and can't do. She hasn't had it easy."
"Did you know about Marvin?" he blurted. "About his…not being here?"
"Yes. She told me pretty soon after she got here and settled in."
"And you never let on."
"It wasn't anyone else's business, was it?" Perry countered gruffly.
"No." Clark smiled sadly. "It wasn't."
"Take care with her, son. She's like a daughter to me. If I find out you've hurt her—"
"I'll hurt you," Perry answered, deadly serious. "I know that wouldn't be easy, but those details could be worked out later."
"Consider me warned." Clark clapped Perry on the shoulder. "And thanks for dinner, for…everything."
"Think about what I said, Clark," Perry admonished. "You say there's no difference between the man who married Lana and the man you are now. You think that's really true? You think Lana would agree?"
"No," he confessed. "I'm not even clear on that any more. And from the beginning, Lana has insisted that I've changed, we've changed. It's all completely different."
"So maybe you've left her already," Perry offered quietly. "And maybe it wasn't for another woman. Maybe you left her for of a red cape and a snazzy pair of boots. And now it's just a formality. A matter of making it legal."
He was sickened at the thought. Sickened at the truth in it. But he couldn't look away from it any longer. "That's what I've done, isn't it?"
"Don't ask me," Perry ordered. "Go home and ask your wife."
He went home to ask his wife. To confirm what Perry had told him, what Lana had been telling him from the beginning of his Superman career. That she had never married the man in the cape.
How many times had he denied it? How many times had he argued indignantly that he was the very same person she'd always known? How many countless apologies had he offered?
And where had it gotten them?
Tonight she had had too much to drink and called Lois his lover. An idea she didn't conceive of in a vacuum, obviously.
He landed heavily in the back garden. The house was completely dark. The usual members of the press gone. They had called it a day, given up on anything interesting happening.
Well, they'd left too soon, hadn't they?
He walked slowly up the stairs, keeping his steps light, keeping them moving.
She was in a deep sleep. The girl of his dreams. Of his childhood dreams. Such a long time ago now…
He moved carefully into the room, undressing noiselessly, though it wouldn't have mattered, the liquor had obviously knocked her out cold. Still, he picked up his pillow and pulled a blanket from the foot of the bed carefully, and headed down to the couch.
She would sleep it off. And morning would come soon enough. Bringing with it all the things that needed to be said.
"How big is it?" he asked again, working to shake the last shadows of sleep from his brain. He didn't know how long the phone had been ringing upstairs before he'd heard it. After hours of tossing and turning on the sofa, he had only just drifted off.
The voice on the other end of the line impatiently repeated all the pertinent information.
An oil spill. Alaska. Formerly pristine waters. An ecological disaster in the making…
"I'm on my way," he stammered, as he tried to take in the numbers, the very idea of millions and millions of barrels of oil. And how exactly he was supposed to deal with that. He was a journalism major, after all. A flying, super strong journalism major, but still…he had no idea how to contain a spill that size. Surely they would have an expert there, an army of experts, to advise…
Another one of those things he could have used a lesson in. How many classes did the other Superman have to take? CPR, anatomy, child birth, elevator cables, back drafts, proper angles for flying into asteroids and tidal waves, saving Lois…so many things to know.
He headed for the window, blurring into the Suit as he did so.
Behind him, Lana stirred, and he slammed to a halt.
"Where to, Superman?" she asked him, her tone completely emotionless.
"Alaska," he said, unsure how to continue. "Oil spill," he offered, though he knew she wasn't listening. She had rolled back over and fluffed up her pillow. "Lana?"
"Go," she said. "Can't let the world fall apart without you."
He took a step towards the window. Then turned and took a few steps towards her. "How are you feeling? You…kind of…overdid it last night. Can I get you something before I go?"
"A new life."
He closed his eyes. "I know. Listen, when I get back—"
"There's no hurry on that," she stated. "Absolutely none. Take your time."
"Maybe I should stay a minute?" he breathed. "I mean…if you want to…talk about what happened? About what you called Lois?"
She didn't move or open her eyes. "But there's no time for that is there? And this is the choice you made. The one you made for both of us."
"I'm sorry," he said. And he was, to the bone, sorry. "And you're right. When I finish with the oil spill, I want us to figure out how to make you…happy. Can we?"
He waited a long minute for an answer, any answer. When it didn't come, he opened the window and shot into the sky.
He was exhausted and covered in oil, headed back to Metropolis, back to Lana and that conversation he'd spent the day rehearsing, all the while he'd plucked various marine mammals out of harm's way.
"You're right, I've changed," he had admitted to an indignant elephant seal as he scooped it from the muck. "We're hurting each other. All ours years together, and it's like we're strangers now…Why can't we…even like each other?"
"And why does that sound so stupid?" he groaned to himself now, after the heavy lifting was done and it was safe to leave the rest to emergency workers.
Even as he asked, he shot off course. A detour. A quick side trip. Not because he was trying to avoid the inevitable, but because there was one other thing that had weighed on his mind, one other thing he'd left undone far too long.
Lois and James were still embroiled in their investigation of the docks, the warehouse, Lester Lyle and his charter plane. The one angle they hadn't been able to fully explore was the Congo. The place all the arrows pointed to. It wasn't practical to send anyone over, not with some much happening right in their city. Not until they knew exactly what they'd be sending someone over for…
But practicality wasn't the only reason they hadn't pursued it. It was more complicated than that. From the very beginning, Lois has dismissed Lester's connection to her years away as freakish coincidence. Repeatedly pointing out that in the time she had lived there, if something had been happening, she would have seen…would have realized.
And James's initial skepticism had been won over. Something Lois had clearly appreciated. Something that had certainly…endeared her new partner to her.
Any doubts cast on Marvin certainly didn't go down well. To say the least. And who could blame her?
But since the night they'd identified the keeper of the warehouse, he'd kept the possibility open in a pocket of his mind. Occasionally pulling it out and worrying over it. Not wanting to say it out loud, not wanting to hurt her when she was so confident, so sure…
He'd acquiesced, because he couldn't stand the thought himself. Because the hurt she tried so valiantly to keep from her face, the night James had first raised the question he hadn't been brave enough to, had stayed with him…
But now, given a bit of distance — from her, from the investigation — there were things that were hard to overlook.
Lois chases a lead to the Congo. She meets Marvin. She stays. But her letters are never delivered, so no one comes to see her, to check on her. She's dead, for all intents and purposes. Out of the way…
The first attempt on her life had come almost immediately upon her return. As soon as she had set foot on the docks. Again, on an anonymous tip. This one leading to a bomb, a ship in the middle of the harbor, hardly random. And later, a push off a building.
Someone was really nervous that she was back in Metropolis, that she was digging. And the longer it took for Lois and James to solve the puzzle from their angle, the more at risk she was.
He didn't work with her any more, but he could still look out for her. She would hate knowing what he was about to do. Hate him for doubting, for checking. But if it saved her, it would be worth it.
And she didn't need to know.
Just this one thing. This one thing for Lois. And then he'd go home, straight home, and face the music.
This had to be the place.
He had landed and flown off, landed and flown off, more than a dozen times trying to find it.
He spoke the language, or rather languages of the Congo, and the story of the beautiful woman who lived in a tree was an appropriately popular one.
That had been part of the difficulty. Every village, starting with the first one, hundreds of miles away, knew of her. Therefore, narrowing down the actual place had taken one long frustrating day.
But he had done it.
The camp site was impressive, just as Lois had said. The most basic of comforts were all there, as well as some amenities he hadn't expected. The bucket and pulley system that primed the shower. The soft mattress that dominated the loft under a heavy canopy.
He studied the bed longer than necessary. Trying to picture her there. Happy…without a care…being loved by another man…
Unbidden, the well-worn image of Lois naked in front of him, in his arms, came to him. This time he didn't close his mind from it or try to push it away.
Marvin had done so much more than just hold her…
<Don't let him be a bastard. Let him be exactly who she thinks he is.>
Because if he wasn't, if Marvin was somehow involved with Lester Lyle and gunrunners, involved with the attempts on her life, he didn't know how he'd tell her. What it would do to her…
The pictures of the happy couple atop the crude chest of drawers were arresting.
Lois, in shorts and a halter top, her skin darkened to a glowing brown, sitting in the lap of a very happy man.
He picked it up. Looking at Marvin, the man she had so much faith in. The two of them looked good together, right together…
He thought of the photos of him and Lana over their mantle. Did they look like this?
Maybe to the outside eye. To someone who didn't live there.
He committed Marvin's face to memory. And then took a moment to confirm what he'd known as soon as he landed.
There was no one there. The place — once lived in-was clearly deserted. In fact, abandoned. Wherever Marvin was now, he hadn't slept in that bed in months.
He lifted off from the clearing, taking one last look at the campsite before turning towards home. He has flown less than a minute, less than a half a minute, when pain overtook him, pulling him from the sky, crashing him through the trees. He fell, unable to control his descent, snapping branches in his tumble to the jungle floor.
"What?" On a moan, the question barely escaped his lips. He rolled slowly to his knees, shaking his head. The nausea hit him with the force of a tidal wave, and for a long minute he stopped trying to rise, stopped trying to think. He sat limply back onto his heels, his hands splayed along the moss covered ground, just trying to balance. Trying to breathe.
He'd only felt it once. At Tempus's hands. And he'd never forgotten it. Not likely that he ever would. But this…so much worse.
Again he tried to stand, and again the pain beat him back. He forced his eyes open, and gasped. He was practically in a field of it. Under the dirt, on all sides, a sickly green glow surrounded him. Small pieces…but so many…
Too many. Too many to count.
<So stop counting and get moving!>
He started to crawl. No particular direction, just away. What did he know about that stuff, anyway? Other than what the first Lois had told him that day so hurriedly. After he had been exposed to it. After she had apologized for ruining his life. Right before she left him. She had told him about kryptonite…
Did it originate here? He couldn't remember. But that didn't sound right.
The sweat between his shoulder blades was rolling down his back, making the spandex unbearable. He stopped, sagging against a tree, and tried to work the zipper. To get some cool air, some relief.
His fingers couldn't do it. They were too clumsy, too heavy…
Like the night he had tried to unzip the suit with Lois. His fingers hadn't been able to do it then. Right there in her bathroom, at the edge of her shower…at the edge of…everything.
He'd never get another chance.
He stopped again. What was the use? Maybe he should just lie down, catch his breath…
<Don't you dare,>said a voice from somewhere inside. <Move!>.
He crawled on hands that became bloodied quickly. The knees of the suit tore.
When his mind registered his first bloody handprint, he halted, stunned, turning his palms up and examining them. He saw the tears in the blue spandex, the scrapes on his knees. Crazy. He hadn't had scrapes on his knees since he was five. He and Pete and that contraption they had called a soapbox flyer. They'd been sure it was going to work… so sure they'd ridden it off the hayloft…
Whatever happened to Pete? Did he move? That sounded right. No…no. Pete hadn't moved. He had. After his parents…
I'm going to die, he thought. Right here. But maybe I'll see my parents again…
He started to shiver violently, the cold knifed through his bones. He wrapped the cape around him, holding it closed with one hand. He would wait here, warm up a bit, and then get moving.
<Keep going. Don't stop.>
The voice in his head propelling him forward was interesting. It wasn't his. It wasn't his dad or mom's. It wasn't Lana's…
<Move it, Kent! You want to be somebody's dinner?>
He was aware of the sounds of wildlife in the underbrush, some of them circling, some scampering out of his way. He knew how vulnerable he was. Whatever was out there, he just had to hope it wasn't hungry.
What had Wells told him? He gritted his teeth, forced himself to concentrate on his one fast 'lesson' in Superheroship. Sunshine was an antidote. And rest. Rest was good, too.
But he'd never said don't fly over the Congo, had he? That would have been helpful. Good to know. And he'd said that the piece from the press conference would be found. That it had been lost in the melee, but would be recovered, he wasn't to worry…
Right. As if he needed one more reason to hate that little man.
He lost all sense of time, the sky grew dark and then light again, but he kept moving. Finally, he pulled himself into a clearing, recognizing it through bleary eyes. Lois's campsite.
Maybe he had just gotten used to it, but the pain seemed less here. The pounding in his head less fierce. The hammering of his heart less audible.
<You can stop here,> the voice relented. <Use my bed, push the canopy down.>
He staggered to the bed with a reserve of strength he would have sworn he didn't have. With one last effort he pushed the canopy aside so that the morning sun blazed from the deep shade onto the mattress. Not caring that it sat under layers of dust and grime and other things he didn't want to identify, he collapsed and let the sleep take him.
"It was nothing."
"But you said that somebody tripped the wire, set off the alarm."
"Must have been an animal. A big one, from what it looked like."
"That system wouldn't go off for anything less than…"
"We have it calibrated to about one hundred pounds. But some of the creatures around here get that big. You can't plan for everything."
"I don't like this."
"Look, I flew over. Nothing has changed. The cache is still hidden, still locked up tight. It was just the perimeter that was breached, and there was nothing there."
"Stay close by, just in case."
"I guess I could camp out a night or two in the plane."
"The rocks are still there, right?"
"Yes. Whatever the animal was, it looks like it got curious, though. Uncovered some of them, but they're all still there."
"Forget it. Just stay there until I call. When's the next shipment?"
"Should make port tomorrow."
"Good. That sounds…perfect."
"I'd like to speak to my husband, please."
"To…who? You…?" Lois sat up in her bed, wiping the sleep from her eyes as she squinted to read her alarm clock. "Lana, do you have any idea what time it is? And I have not seen your husband since Perry and Alice's dinner party."
"Put him on, Lois."
She looked around her empty bedroom, despite the early hour a smile of exasperated amusement played on her lips.
< Sure thing. Oh, Clark, darling, wake up, get dressed, your wife is on the phone…>
"He is not here," she said slowly, and rather politely she thought.
"When did he leave?" Lana pushed.
"Is this a bad connection?" she said in a low voice, a dangerous one, if Lana knew better. "I haven't seen him since the party, and I didn't stay, so that was for all of ten seconds."
"Lois." Lana's voice changed. Grew less belligerent. "Seriously. I won't be mad. Just tell me…tell me you've seen him."
She expelled her breath loudly. "I could tell you that, but it would be a lie, Lana."
"Maybe you could call his first distraction? His original brunette lover?" It was cruel, but so what? She hadn't had her coffee yet, and she wasn't set to deal with paranoid spouses.
She should just hang up, she thought tiredly. No reason she should have to put up with this.
"Our phone rang all night," Lana said softly. "The one used for emergencies. There was an earthquake, rescue workers were overwhelmed."
Lois found herself sitting up straighter. "And he…isn't there?"
"Not as of thirty minutes ago. I thought he might be elsewhere, something big, maybe…?"
Lois walked over and snapped on the television.
"But the networks don't have anything. Neither does anyone else. Nothing big enough…" Lana's voice trailed away.
Lois started to shiver, despite the heavy sweatshirt she was wearing. "You've heard nothing from him, then?" Her voice sounded funny, but her mouth was very dry all of a sudden.
"And he carries a pager. I have an emergency code. When I punch it in, he comes. That's the deal."
She ignored the sweep of envy that image brought. Just push the code, and he's yours. Drops everything. Shows up at the window.
She walked to her own window, pressing her forehead against the glass, searching…hoping…
"I take it he didn't answer."
"You were my last hope, Lois," Lana conceded. "And I knew better. Knew he wouldn't…as much as he might want to."
Her eyes filled with tears and she swallowed hard, in full sympathy with the defeated sobs on the other end of the line.
"What could have happened?" she asked brokenly. "What…delays Superman?"
"I don't know," Lana choked. "I'm…scared."
That made two of them. Clutching the phone she darted towards her dresser, pulled open the drawers and started getting dressed.
"I'm going to go into work, Lana. Keep my eye on the news sources. See if anything…anything…"
She stopped, one shoe off and one shoe on.
"Do you think he might be…with that other woman?" she asked hesitantly. "I mean…things haven't been…easy, I know. And maybe he…?" She hated to ask it. Hated to hurt Lana with the question, hated to hurt herself.
"No." Lana's return was firm. "There isn't anyone else, Lois. Not any more."
She sat down on the bed. Was that good or bad?
It didn't matter. She jumped to her feet again. "I'll call you if I hear anything, ok?"
"And I'll call you," Lana surprised her in answer.
She dropped the phone and finished fastening her jeans, found her other shoe, and headed to the door at a sprint.
The third time she had checked every available news source, legitimate and less so, James stuck his head out of his office door.
"Can I see you in here?"
She swallowed hard and nodded, moving slowly into the room.
He steered her gently to the chair across from his desk. "I take it…something's happening?" His look of concern was almost her undoing.
She drew a few deep breaths, fought the urge to scream in frustration, and settled on nodding again.
"Take your time," he said, pulling his own chair out and sliding it over next to hers.
"Clark is missing," she said as evenly as she was able.
James's expression went blank, the look on his face a perfect match for her own, she was sure, when Lana had told her. He sat back in his seat with a thump.
"There's been an earthquake—"
"Mexico City," James said faintly. "I just assumed Superman was there…"
"They called for him all night. He never came. He was last seen leaving the Alaskan oil spill yesterday afternoon."
"Somewhere else, then." James leapt to his feet, moving towards his computer, rifling through the late evening editions that littered his desk. "Something big. Maybe not even reported yet."
"Do that for another couple of hours and you'll be exactly where I am now." She spread her hands, palms out. Empty.
"Could he be…taking some time off?" James flushed a little. "I mean…it's none of my business, but I couldn't help but notice…things between you two were kind of…intense towards the end."
It was her turn to blush now. She'd thought they'd been discrete. They certainly had been with each other. Barely letting on even when they were alone. Or especially, then. Except that one time.
"I love you," he'd said to her that night in her apartment. The night he had slipped off her robe, stood trembling with desire and nerves in front of her, his thoughts completely transparent. "No matter what…this is love."
She closed her eyes and wrapped herself in the memory. She hadn't told him, she'd never told him. And if that was all they were ever going to have, she hated herself for stopping him. For not putting her arms around him and demanding he show her that he loved her, damn the consequences.
"Maybe," she said faintly. "We haven't been in touch in…awhile, so…I guess."
"Even Superman needs a break?" James offered with a weak smile.
"Especially Superman," she echoed doubtfully. "But all those people? I can't imagine he would stay away. Unless he had no choice."
"Don't even think that, Lois." James's hand reached out to lift her chin. He smiled into her eyes. "He'll turn up," he promised. "The world needs him."
Clark opened his eyes, squinting painfully into the afternoon sun. The pressure on his chest, which had woken him, shifted a bit, then settled back in place.
He eyed it with a frown. It eyed him right back.
"You don't look anything like your picture, Marvin," he croaked, trying to place his companion.
Too small for a chimpanzee. And too…furry. Ok. Something smaller and furrier than a chimp…that should be easy. He'd taken zoology in college…
"I'm a farm kid," he rasped by way of apology to the Whatever that was sitting on his chest.
Its only response was to stop chewing the mango clutched in his paws for a barely discernable second.
Eats mango. Unflappable, he catalogued. It still wasn't ringing any bells.
"I give up. What are you?"
Doesn't answer, he added to the list.
"Am I…using your bed?" he tried again politely.
Marvin the not chimp yawned, scratched vigorously behind one ear.
Bores easily. Itchy.
"I should have researched," he sighed, closing his eyes. He opened them quickly on a thought. "Hey…you don't bite, do you? I'm kind of…bitable right now."
His companion blinked a slow blink.
Doesn't bite, he noted hopefully.
"Anything?" James asked her at the end of an endless day. "I hate to leave you here alone. Why don't you…?"
"No," she said.
"Anything?" Lana's strained voice barely made it over the line. "The press are starting to ask questions…"
"No," she said.
She went home. She'd have just enough time to shower and change before the sun came up and she started all over again.
He left the unclassified primate that was smaller and furrier than a chimpanzee behind.
"Sorry, Marvin," he apologized as he rolled gingerly from beneath it, stopping briefly to close his eyes against the throbbing in his head.
On his second attempt, he barely cleared the tree tops. The sun was up again and he was pointed in the right direction, flying a careful, large circle around the sight of his crash. If he fell again, he would never be able to crawl away a second time.
He drifted, fighting against the pain that weakened his limbs.
When his reserves were depleted, he landed.
Bobbed in the ocean. Sat on the occasional rooftop. One time he tried a park bench, but he attracted too much attention. And too many cries of "Where were you?" He was too exhausted, too empty to respond. It was obvious something had happened and he'd been needed. But he was just one man. One really tired man.
By the time the stars were out, he could see the lights of Metropolis. The townhouse came into view. Lana, bless her, had left the window open.
He put on a quick burst of speed, and was enormously relieved when he landed in the middle of the bed.
"Bullseye," he murmured, pulling the covers over him.
"He's here, Lois," Lana's quiet voice greeted her.
"Oh, thank God." She sat down, raising her eyes to James's inquisitive ones across the room, giving him a weak thumbs up.
He nodded, returned the gesture, and pointed towards his office. He'd want to know as soon as she hung-up the phone.
"Is he…ok?" Lois breathed.
"He's…sleeping. That's how I found him. I came home and he was…stretched across the bed. He's all cut up…covered in blood and he looks…"
"Covered in blood!" she blurted. "How is that…how can that be?" She stood, ignoring the interested looks. James came back towards her slowly, concern etched on his features.
"Clark?" he mouthed to her, his expression incredulous.
She nodded and drew a shaky breath. He put his arms around her, and she leaned into him, grateful for the gesture, not caring what the office gossip was sure to be.
"I don't know," Lana was saying. "His color is bad. He…he…"
"Did you ask him?" she persisted, not wanting to hear the menu of things that were wrong with Clark. "What does he say?"
"I can't wake him."
"Can't wake him," she repeated dumbly. James held her tighter.
"He's breathing. In a deep sleep. But that's the thing, Lois, he's just on the bed."
"Just…?" Her mind was shutting down, she guessed, because she couldn't think what that might mean.
"He isn't floating."
Ah. She blinked. She'd file that away and get back to it. "And that's bad," she stated.
"I've never seen him in a deep sleep less than three feet above the covers."
"Oh," she said, because that seemed to be all she had. And then, "He needs a doctor, Lana!" She cringed. She had shouted that, and now everyone in the newsroom was on full alert. Like dogs on point. They knew.
"Dr Klein is on his way."
She relaxed. Ok. "Will you…?" she faltered. "Will you call when you know something?" She kept her tone casual, steady.
"I thought you might want to come," Lana said haltingly. "If he's…if he's not…going to make it…he would…I would…like it…if you would come see him."
"Thank you," she said. "Thank you. I know, Lana, I know this isn't…Anyway, thank you." She loved that woman. She decided then and there. And no matter what happened, she always would. No wonder Clark had picked her. For the first time, she could see why.
He looked like hell. He was propped up against the headboard, bathed in the light streaming from the windows. Every bruise, every furrow on his face showed in marked contrast to his pallor.
He looked like…hell. But he was conscious.
She had found Lana and Dr Klein downstairs talking. She'd been grateful for the doctor's presence. A buffer for how awkward this visit was. But not so awkward that she wouldn't have come.
"Can I…?" she had asked Lana, slowing her jog for just a second.
Lana had looked at her for a thoughtful moment, her face giving nothing away. "Upstairs, on the left. I'll be… down here."
Lois had nodded curtly. If the shoe was on the other foot, in a million years, she never could have done that.
"Clark?" she whispered. Afraid to move or breathe as his head came around, his eyes focused. She heard the noise she made, low in her throat as his gaze met hers and a small, tired smile tried to form.
"You…wouldn't…let…me…die," he said slowly, thickly.
She had no idea what it meant, but she agreed with the sentiment whole-heartedly. "That would piss me off," she offered quietly.
He tried to laugh, but his breathing turned ragged.
She dared a few more steps closer. Unsure. Lana had allowed her this, had even given her the privacy that she hadn't expected. She didn't want to repay that kindness by flinging herself across him, holding on for dear life…
"You look so…bad," she said shakily.
"Better now," he rasped, his eyes telling her why.
"Can you tell me about it?" She moved again. His hand had lifted and weakly beckoned.
"The Congo. Marvin."
"What?" She leaned closer. "I'm going to kiss you now," she heard herself say. "Just the littlest bit."
He nodded, tried that awful smile again.
She tasted the salt on his forehead and stepped back quickly.
He hand came out to grab hers. Too weak to hold her, but she helped him by hanging on.
"Marvin," he wheezed. "You need to be…careful, Lois."
She frowned at him. "You're not making sense and no wonder. You've been through the ringer, obviously."
"No." His voice was stronger, clearer now. She watched him struggle with the effort. "I think Marvin…is the gunrunner. Working with…Lester. He's…dangerous." He had tried to project everything he had into that last word. He must have. His checks flushed and his breathing grew labored once more.
She dropped his hand, ignoring it as it reached for hers again.
"Marvin is not a gunrunner," she said. "You are…delirious."
"He is!" He came as close to shouting as he was able. "You aren't safe. He's been trying to…kill you. You must…know…too much, about his…operation…the Congo." A fit of coughing cut him off.
She reached for the water that was on his bedside table. Or maybe it was Lana's side, she didn't know.
"Look, Clark," she tried to say soothingly. "Marvin loved me. He's a great guy. No threat to me. You don't have to—"
"He's not a…great guy," he returned. His voice was quieter, but his content was clear. "You don't try to kill people you love, Lois. I think he's behind this. You have to be careful."
"How dare you?" she asked. Feeling a twinge of guilt because he looked so earnest, so upset. But he was so wrong. "How dare you suggest he didn't love me? You don't know a thing about him and me. You don't know…"
He flinched at her look and she caught herself.
"Listen, Lois," he rasped. "Near the campsite…something."
"You went to the campsite?" she clarified. "And this happened to you there?"
"Marvin did not do this." She was trembling, backing away. She was in his room, his wife's room, next to the bed they shared. And he was trying to tell her that the only man who had…
"Stop this. Just…rest. When you're better, we can talk through this. But you're…wrong," she spoke that last word fiercely.
Though he struggled to sit up, his voice was firm. Superman. "You're in danger. Marvin isn't who he seems. The bomb…the building."
"Marvin loves me," she repeated.
"Listen to me—" he said, shaking his head sadly.
She drew in a sharp breath, ignoring the pleading in his eyes. "You don't know what real love feels like, do you? That's why…that's why…you're trying to take mine from me. Well, you can't have it."
"Please," he whispered. "No, Lois."
"It's all I have. Marvin and my memories and the knowledge that I did it right once and I can do it again…with a man who's available…and not some do-gooder, duty-bound…robot who can turn love off and on like a switch!"
He closed his eyes and sagged back into the mattress.
"We'll chalk this up to you being sick and out of your head." She spoke as kindly as she was able. It wasn't much. "Get better, ok? So you can get back to saving the world."
She left as quickly as she arrived. Sweeping past a confused Lana, and ignoring his calls for her. She heard them for the longest time. All the way home. All the way into her bedroom. Deep into her sleep.
"How did it go?"
"Couldn't have been easier. No sign of the man in blue, no sign of a certain reporter. Everything delivered right on time."
"That's what I like to hear."
"Tell me how you managed it? We've been under such close scrutiny these last few months. I thought for sure you'd turn this shipment back."
"Know your enemy, my friend."
"Right. Whatever. Anything else?"
"How's that other problem coming along?"
"Taken care of. Bundled up tight."
"I'm looking at it right now. Trust me. Need anything else?"
"Not for a while. Keep the plane out of sight and I'll call you."
Clark jolted to consciousness. His throat was raw and tears were streaming down his face. Some nightmare. Really bad. He felt the edges of the bed, confirming where he was, that he was home. That he was safe. No monkey on his chest.
He was feeling stronger, really, more like himself. If you didn't count the hole in his gut, the hollow feeling that something was horribly wrong.
He concentrated. A vague, uneasy memory rose to the surface. What had he done? What had he said? He couldn't remember, but he could see Lois's face as he'd said it. Devastated, furious, and, lastly, remote.
He raised a weary hand to wipe at his eyes. He needed to get himself together. Go see her. Apologize for… things he couldn't even remember. So many things, he'd lost track.
The mattress gave beside him and a warm hand patted his arm.
"Lois?" Relief flooded through him. "Thank God. I'm sorry. Whatever I said. I'm—"
"Clark." Lana's voice opened his eyes, brought him back to his surroundings. His room. Their room. Reality.
He expelled a deep breath, absolutely unable to answer, to speak.
"She's gone," his wife's voice said. He listened hard for the recrimination, the accusation that should rightly be there. He didn't hear it. But he was tired, so tired. If she tried for subtle sarcasm, her specialty, he'd miss it entirely.
Gone, she had said. Like the first Lois. Only this time so much worse. There would be no recovering.
"She went home," Lana continued in the non-tone that gave nothing away, nothing but information. "Yesterday afternoon. It's the middle of the night now. You keep…waking up and calling her."
He cringed. Could he be a bigger bastard? He didn't see how.
"I tried to reach her," Lana offered conversationally. "I've left her messages. She's not answering."
It took him a long minute to find his voice. "Thank you seems really…inadequate," he said shakily. "Lana, I…I'm…"
"Forget it." The hand on his arm continued to stroke him, soothe him. "I just wanted to tell you. So you'd stop thrashing, stop waking, stop…crying."
He brought the heels of his hands over his face, rubbing vigorously. Wiping away the last of the tears. Scrubbing the cobwebs from his brain.
"Can you sleep now?" she asked in a voice far gentler than he deserved. "Dr Klein said you should stay put. I should keep you in the sun light for another day or so."
"Like a potted plant," he said dryly, meeting her eyes at last.
"You are a lot less trouble this way." She was teasing him. Or maybe she meant it. Who would blame her?
"I'm sorry," he croaked. That's all he had to offer. A weak apology. All he ever offered any more.
She studied him for a long time, pinning him under a thoughtful stare he did his best to meet squarely.
"I thought you were going to die," she said at last. "Really, truly going to die. Something I didn't know…you could do. Dr. Klein said it was…a miracle you made it here under your own power. A miracle you didn't just…"
He nodded his head, placing his hand over hers.
"I never would have known what happened," she continued. "Just that you'd gone to a rescue and never…" She faltered again, squeezing his hand, though who was comforting whom he didn't know. "My last words to you would have been, 'This is the choice you made for both of us.' God…I realized there are worse things, Clark. Much worse than…this."
"Lana, I've been…a horrible husband," he said. "Really horrible. You never wanted me to be Superman. You didn't. And I did it anyway. Made that choice. And you'd think that would be the worst of it, but—"
She cut him off. "Not now, ok? You're at your limit, and I'm exhausted." She gave his arm a final squeeze before she stood and moved from the bed. "Just rest. I'll be in the guest room. We'll do…whatever…later."
He took just a moment to gather himself before he stepped into the elevator. He hadn't been up to flying, just the taxi ride over had been tiring, though he knew at this point the fatigue was as much emotional as physical. Still, this had to be done. As hard as it would be, it wasn't safe to wait.
With that in mind he had gently shaken Lana awake in the guestroom bed, telling her exactly where he was going, what he was doing. And promising they would put things in order between them when he returned. She had nodded sleepily and noted it was a good thing he was Superman, she didn't envy him his task. He had paused by her bedside, surprised by the ease of her answer, by her very words, 'a good thing you're Superman.' Words he never would have dreamed would come from her mouth, ever.
He wasn't the only one who had changed.
The door slid open on the bullpen, and he found her right away. Lois was completely engrossed in what was in front of her, the phone tipped to one ear, her fingers flying over the keyboard.
He missed that. Now that he was Superman full time, he was certainly busy enough. But he missed …that feeling. Looking into a story, trying to fit things together, being part of something, with someone. He squared his shoulders and started to move towards her.
As he entered the bullpen, people parted all around him, scurrying out of his path, either to get out of the way or to get a better view to the proceedings, he didn't know which, but it didn't matter. He wasn't staying long. And he simply didn't care any more what people thought.
Her eyes came up slowly, vaguely. She looked at him, blinked, and straightened a bit.
"I'll have to call you back," she said to whoever was on the line, only after she had put the phone in its cradle.
He moved to take his seat, his desk was still unoccupied, although he noticed she was making use of it. It was covered in files filled with her sprawling handwriting and a very dead arrangement of yellow roses.
He didn't look, didn't read anything. He was out of the business now. None of his business now.
She was studying him, a world of questions on her face. Some of them he imagined he knew, and some not. But he certainly didn't have the answers.
He pulled the slip of paper from his pocket and, wordlessly, pushed it across their workspace towards her.
"My pager number. You just type in a code and I'll know you need me, no matter where I am."
"Well, that's convenient for Lana and me, isn't it?" she spoke in a low voice. "She can reach her husband whenever she wants, and I can reach my…"
She let that dangle there.
"Partner," he returned faintly.
"No," she corrected him, her eyes moving back to her screen, even as she shoved the paper back into his hand. "Partners are people who work together, and you and I don't do that. I work, and you…hover overhead where you think I won't notice you."
"Can we take this outside?" he whispered. "One minute, Lois, that's all I need."
"I'm busy," she said, though without heat.
She looked up again, and just like the first time when he'd saved her from the explosion, he watched as she visually steadied herself, pulled herself in brick by careful brick. Until she was completely together, nothing out of place. The very picture of composure. He hoped he was doing as well.
"I'll meet you on the roof," she said
He nodded, too grateful to speak. He hit the familiar stairwell at a jog and didn't bother to check for witnesses as he floated somewhat unsteadily to the top.
He flew. The whole world knew it. Time for them deal with it.
She waited as long as she could. Returning her phone call, nibbling on a reserve candy bar, looking as if she hadn't a care in the world. Or so she hoped.
With a nonchalance she was far from feeling, she pushed back from her desk with just a quick glance around to see if anyone was noting her direction. She headed to the roof.
<He's here,> her slow footsteps drummed out in rhythm against the steps as she climbed. <He's come. He's here. He's come.>
She paused at the door, one hand on the knob. But before she was ready, he pulled it open.
They were alone.
"Take this," he said, thrusting the paper at her, his touch on her palm fleeting.
"We aren't working together," she repeated.
And despite everything she'd told herself, despite her anger and the time that had passed, she felt it. Felt what had been there almost from the very beginning. The cord that somehow tied her to him, him to her. Whatever it was, whatever it was made of, despite everything, it tugged once more.
<Let's stop this,> she thought at once, suddenly exhausted. <Let's stop trying to deny it, wish it out of existence. It won't go away. It doesn't go away…>
He was absolutely still in front of her. Empty. There wasn't anything inside of him that he hadn't tamped down for this encounter. It was so unfair. He'd known he was coming. He'd had time. She'd had five minutes at her desk and a long walk up the steps.
She moved. Letting the paper fall and just missing seeing him pluck it from the wind in a blur of super reflexes. She walked as far away from him as conversation would allow. And that was fairly far, given his hearing.
"I don't need it," she said.
"I need to know you have it. If not as my partner then as my —"
"What?" she challenged, feeling stronger, buoyed enough by the distance between them to look at him.
"Friend." His eyes were imploring her.
"We've already discussed the futility of that label, Clark. And absolutely nothing has changed since then."
"I know you're mad, Lois. And I know you don't like what I said about Marvin. I didn't like saying it. And if I'd been feeling better, I never would have said it the way that I did, but—"
"Don't finish that sentence," she told him quietly. "Don't."
She watched in a kind of detached admiration as he regrouped, tried again. She'd never seen him so remote without the cape on. He was getting better at it; the superhero business was teaching him to keep his heart off his sleeve. "The investigation isn't over yet, is it? And I was in from the beginning. I'd like to know what happens."
"Oh, I get it. This is for the story." She walked towards him and snatched the paper from his hand. "Why didn't you say so? Well, what are the conditions? I call when I get a new lead? Do I need three unimpeachable sources to back it up, or will a hunch do?"
"When you need me." He wouldn't be baited. She could see that. He had simply willed all emotion away.
"And if I told you I needed you now," she challenged, "what would you do?"
"Is that what you're saying?" He moved towards her quickly. "Because I'm here when you need me."
She didn't let him come any closer. "You don't mean that," she hurled at him. "It sounds nice, but it's empty, Clark. I can't need you. I can't depend on you. I'm setting myself up to be crushed if I do."
"This isn't easy, Lois. Not for any of us." The muscle in his jaw jumped and an edge had come into his voice that was strangely satisfying. The smooth façade was shaken. And despite super strength and super willpower, he was still…human, vulnerable.
He started to pace. "I wish I knew what to say," he said finally, and she tried to steal herself from the despair in those words. "I wish I knew what to do." He stopped cold, his expression growing distant, his posture rigid. "Not now," he groaned.
"You're hearing something?" she guessed.
His face turned grim as he pulled his eyes back to hers, nearly burning her with the intensity she saw there. "This is part of it," he said. "A part of…being with me. This is why I'm such a lousy…" He shook his head. "Sirens," he said cryptically. "But we have to clear things up, Lois."
"You're sure?" Despite his nod, she could see his indecision. The longing to go and the longing to stay.
He cleared his throat. "I'm scared for you," he said simply. "Since you started this investigation, I've pulled you from an explosion and a death plunge, seen you traipse all over a very dangerous part of town wearing next to nothing. And now I know your boyfriend lives practically on top of—" He paused, listening again. The distress in his face marked even more clearly.
"What?" she asked quickly, moving closer, needing to know. "Just tell me that much and you can go. What does Marvin live on top of? What is this about?"
"There's something there. In the Congo." He forced his attention back to her. "I don't know what."
"So why don't you call the authorities? People listen to Superman. You could ask the government to send someone to take a look?"
She was close enough now to see the anguish on his face.
"Because," he sighed, closing his eyes. "Because there's stuff there I don't want found."
"Such as, Clark? You make all these accusations, but you give me nothing, absolutely nothing to go on."
"Can you…take me at my word?"
"Can you take me at mine? That Marvin wouldn't be involved in this?"
He moved a shaky hand to wipe his brow. "There's a field of kryptonite not five miles from your campsite."
"What the hell is…?"
"It's what hurt me. It can…kill me. And someone has planted a lot of it around…something. Something they sure don't want me to see."
"Lester?" she whispered, clutching his arm and pulling him to sit on the ledge. He looked bad. He was trembling, obviously still unwell. And she was just now noticing. "But how would he know? How many people know that? About what hurts you?"
"It's not so much who knows." He studied his hands and she recognized there was something, something important he wasn't telling her. "It's who has access to it. The one time I've come across it before, it was supposed to be disposed of. This was different, it was…a lot."
"And you think that Marvin, a botanist in the jungle who has probably never heard of you, has access to a lot of it and knows to use it against you? It doesn't make sense. And you've been holding out on me. How are we supposed to work together if—"
His head came up. She recognized the hope behind the new light in his eye. She stomped on it.
"I'm forgetting," she snapped. "You and I aren't doing anything together."
He blinked and the hope was gone. And that had been what she'd wanted, right?
He stood. "I have to go." She must have just imagined it earlier, because he looked fine now. Strong, healthy, steady. "Please call me if anything…anything happens, Lois. I'll be there, I swear."
"You can't promise me that," she said. "You can't make any promises to me. You know that and I do, too."
His never took his eyes off her, but she could see his attention was diverted again, to whatever was happening that only he would hear. He was trying very hard not to look like he wanted to jump out of his skin.
."This is pointless," she said. "Go on, Clark. You're needed. We'll do this later."
"I'm not leaving until you tell me you'll call. That you'll use that pager number if you need to." He was standing his ground, and she could see what it was costing him to do so. "If anything happens to you…" He stopped, his breathing unsteady.
"What, Clark? Just say it."
"It would kill me."
"Is this how you felt about her?" she blurted before she could think better of it.
"Lana?" he asked, sounding winded, confused.
"No. The woman. The other woman. The one Lana said you changed everything for."
He drew in a sharp breath and the shutters fell back over his eyes, again. She felt her heart thud into her shoes. He would have just said no, would have been insulted, injured…if it hadn't been true.
"You did," she said matter-of-factly. "You loved her."
And she believed him. No one could lie like that.
"But I thought I did. I was wrong."
"What changed your mind?"
"When she left, I thought her memory would stay with me. But then, you came and…erased her."
His voice had been so faint; she had had to strain to hear. But she understood him perfectly. Hadn't she left Marvin behind, certain she would be haunted by old love songs and lonely Valentine's days? And instead…
"And I didn't change for her," he continued. "I changed for me."
She opened her mouth to speak, but he wasn't looking at her any more.
A split second before the wail of sirens reached her ears, he blurred, and it was Superman who stood in front of her — torn, vibrating with regret.
"It's fine." She smiled as best she could to reassure him. "You're needed. I understand that. Go on."
He approached her, his eyes burning into hers. She hated what she saw in them. She had put that there.
"Call me if you need me, Lois. Please?" he demanded of her raggedly.
She nodded dumbly.
He was gone.
When she got home her mail was waiting. She kicked off her shoes and was headed for her sofa when one in particular caught her eye. It was covered in postage and the return address said Roenloie, a town forty miles from their campsite. A three day hike. She'd done it once with Marvin, and sworn never to do it, again.
She recognized his precise writing immediately.
"Finally," she breathed, nearly tearing the letter in her hurry to get the envelope open. It was sealed tightly with some kind of tree sap, or that's what it smelled like.
"Only you, Marvin." She rolled her eyes with some affection.
She opened the weathered pages carefully, picturing exactly where he would have been sitting when he'd written them.
By the time she finished the first paragraph, she knew.
She reread it three times, slowly, but it wasn't necessary.
She sat for some time as the sun set and the sky grew dark. Listening to the cars passing, her neighbors returning home, doors slamming, water running through the pipes…
She stood on legs that were stiff from inactivity, pulling the slip of paper from her pocket, the one Clark had just given her, the one she had sworn to herself she would never use.
She had decided that even if she was hanging over a vat of acid, mice nibbling at the ropes holding her aloft, she wasn't going to call him. Ever. He would have to call her. If he wanted…anything…at all, he would have to make the first move.
And she knew he had spent the entire day working alongside the police in a tense stand-off at an office building. One out of control worker and a terrorized staff of innocents. The gun man too unhinged to approach, those in his sights too numerous for a simple swoop and rescue. Or at least the authorities had insisted that was case, until the first shots had been fired.
He'd been ill. He had to be exhausted. He could very well still be busy with the aftermath, far too busy.
She paged Superman. She didn't know what else to do.
Superman arrived in under a minute. Remote and professional. His arms were crossed over his shield. His cape caught the wind, flaring out behind him as he came through the window. The picture of Metropolis's superhero was complete.
He almost pulled it off. But the relief in his eyes, when he saw she was fine, the concern on his face as he watched her stumble towards him, gave him away.
"I need help," she said.
He unfolded immediately. "What, Lois?" His arms came out her to steady her, and she worked to keep herself calm, reasonable.
"Marvin," she began. "I got a letter." She held it up with hands that wouldn't stop shaking. "He found out that something strange was happening near the campsite. He got worried. Had to hike for days to reach a reliable post office…"
"What does the letter say?"
"That he's coming…that he thought…Lester Lyle was…that he's coming, Clark!"
"That's good," he answered carefully. "I knew…I mean, I guessed…there was…a chance that Marvin might…know something. So, this is good. He'll come, and we can all put our heads together and—"
"No. No. The date. See the date? Three months ago."
"Three months?" His tone turned grim. He pulled the letter from her hands, scanning it in an instant. "This is a reliable post office?"
She nodded. "And he never made it." She was shivering now. Chilled and nauseated. Just saying the words out loud made them seem more real. He'd never made it. She stepped closer to Clark, just trying to get warm. "He's dead," she said.
He brought his arms up around her, though she knew it was the last thing he wanted to do.
"Tighter," she whispered. She burrowed as far into him as his firm chest would allow. He pulled the edges of the cape up, folding them around her, squeezing hard. She didn't look up when she felt the kiss on top of her head, but she knew that's what it was. Knew what it had cost him to give it. And she didn't care. She was past caring. She needed him.
"I want you to take me, to the Congo, to the campsite…"
"Yes. I have to check…to be sure…" She leaned her cheek against his shoulder, closed her eyes and let herself unclench, relax. She was so tired. One minute more wouldn't hurt anything. "That sweet man." She broke and gave up all together.
"Marvin isn't there, Lois," he told her quietly. "I was there for two days, nearly three. There was no sign of him…or…a body."
You don't know what he looks like," she protested, knowing how that sounded, like she was grasping at straws.
"I've seen the pictures," he said. And she heard the embarrassment in that confession. She hadn't shown him any pictures, not in the beginning. That just wasn't her style. And certainly not after. She kept a box of them stashed away. They were wrapped in tissue paper and warm memories. Nostalgia, without the pain they once caused. Not since Clark.
"I won't ask," she said dryly.
"Marvin had some," he offered. At the same time removing his warmth from her, stepping away.
When she looked up, he was Superman again. All business. All set to save.
"I'll go take a look. I can start with the city this was posted from, maybe he talked to someone, told them his plans."
"I'm going with you," she said. "What if the kryptonite gets to you? How will you…?"
"I know where it is. I won't go near that area."
"I'm going with you," she repeated. "Don't waste our time or your breath."
"I'm so much faster without you. I can be there, cover the place…" His voice trailed off and he scrubbed his hand over his face and messed his neatly slicked down hair.
He scooped her up.
"I knew better," he sighed to himself. "But there's something I want to show you first. It might help us out."
They flew without speaking over the lights of Metropolis. Lois was limp in his arms, her head lolling on his shoulder. He'd never seen her this way before — lifeless, defeated.
He'd been wrong about Marvin.
He hadn't considered for a minute that Marvin might be innocent or as unaware of the goings-on in the Congo as Lois had been.
Maybe he had wanted to believe he was guilty.
He tightened his grip on the woman in his arms at the thought. As much as he had known how it would hurt her. As aware as he was of how she valued her time with Marvin, her time away, when he had crashed into that field of kryptonite, he had made up his mind. Been blinded to any other possibility.
And Marvin had been missing for months.
If he was dead, it would kill her, he feared. She would blame herself for not knowing. Just as he blamed himself for being so quick to assume. To judge. To wish that the man in Lois's life wasn't worthy of her.
That only he was.
"Such an idiot," he muttered to himself.
"I was just thinking the same," she replied quietly. "How stupid was I not to know? I followed that lead out there, couldn't find the trail. So, what did I do? I wrote romance novels. Tried to find seven different ways to say 'unrequited passion,' and it was all happening under my nose."
"I was in a hurry to blame Marvin," he returned heavily. "After we saw Lyle, after the kryptonite and no sign of Marvin at the camp, I was so sure it all fit. But you told me."
"You didn't know him." They both heard the past tense at the same time, and he watched the tears well up in her eyes.
"We don't know he's dead," he said with more assurance than he felt. "And we won't go home until we find him, ok?"
"Where are we going?" She straightened up a bit, looking down on a darkened expanse on the far outskirts of Metropolis.
"A private air field," he told her. "From what I gather it's extremely exclusive, only used by the very privileged and the very secretive."
"You think Lester Lyle has a hanger here? You've seen him, Clark. Unless he has a secret identity of his own, I don't see how he'd be a member."
"We know he has a partner. And now I know it isn't Marvin."
"Someone with the means and the connections to house his plane, then." The animation was back in her face, and he smiled quietly in relief. "James and I have been wasting our time checking out every flight school, every public hanger, and every bar where the hobby pilots gather. I haunted every airport, big and small, but I didn't even know this was out here."
"I don't think you're supposed to. I just got lucky. Saw some small planes landing and got curious and followed them in," he told her. "I've probably flown over about a dozen times since. Nothing," he said in answer to her questioning look. "Except…"
"What?" she prompted, sitting up so sharply in his arms that she head-butted him. "Ouch!" she exclaimed.
"Head of steel," he apologized, kissing her quickly on the temple without thinking. So natural. Such a perfectly natural gesture. So right and so wrong all at once. That about summed up his feelings for Lois Lane…
"You were saying?" she asked softly, when he got lost inside his head, lost in the feel of her in his arms, back in his life. For now, this moment.
"Um…yeah…there's a whole lot of lead shielding down there. It's new. Someone's been redecorating, slowly, over the last few weeks."
"So, your flights over haven't gone unnoticed. And I guess everyone with something to hide will learn that trick after a time, won't they? Soon you'll be as disadvantaged as the rest of us."
"Over here. Not just one hanger, but a series of them."
"Find the peanut under the shell," Lois said.
"If we find the plane, maybe we find Lyle or someone who knows him, works with him. Or a flight plan, a name, anything. Anything that might help us figure out what's happened to Marvin."
"If we don't find anything, we head to the Congo, ok?"
He didn't answer that, didn't want her to see his dread at the very idea. He held her steady as they landed, giving her a second to recover her equilibrium. As it turned out, though, she didn't need it. She was already moving. He was the one who was off-kilter.
"Looks like they're all locked up pretty tight. I didn't bring my picks." She was tugging at the first hanger door. "If you had told me, I could have been ready. All I have is…" She fished in her pockets. "My penlight." She switched it on. "Not going to do us a whole lot of good, but if there's a window and you don't mind carrying me up, I can shimmy through, take a fast look around…"
She was still talking when he tore the door open.
"So much for that deal with the city, Superman," she deadpanned.
"That deal has just been renegotiated," he told her with a nonchalant shrug. "I'll let the authorities consider this my official notice."
The first three hangers housed nothing out of the ordinary. By the time he twisted the lock off the fourth one, he decided he'd been wrong. And in fact was going to have a lot of explaining to do to the air field's owners.
He peered into the inky darkness identifying yet another plane. This particular one showing signs of wear. But a sweep with his x-ray vision showed little else. Lois was standing beside him, shivering in the evening chill. Waiting as patiently as she was able, he knew, for him to finish this wild goose chase.
They were coming up empty. They were going to have to go back to the Congo.
Just the thought scared him. Badly.
He was turning towards her, an apology on his lips, when his eyes caught something in the back corner. He tracked it. Seeing what he'd missed the first time. A very faint trail of…
"Stand back, Lois," he said. "I'm seeing—"
"Blood," she voiced, her eyes already riveted in the direction his had pointed. "Lots of it."
"Yes." And he was hearing a heartbeat now. Slow, weak, but a heartbeat close by. "Someone's really hurt," he said unnecessarily.
"Where?" She cut small paths of light in the darkness with her flashlight.
He had already moved towards the sound, towards the person, the poor guy who had definitely seen better days.
"Over here," he called. "Don't touch him," he cautioned her. He was looking carefully. An assortment of broken bones, mainly in the ribs. The face, swollen and puffy, had a few. Breathing steady, but shallow. The man's knuckles were scraped almost to the bone. He'd fought, then. From the looks of it, put up a pretty good one.
The beam of the flashlight hit him, and he saw the sparkle in the man's hands immediately. He leaned in. Embedded, almost under the skin…a gold tooth.
Behind him Lois' soft exclamation ended on a moan, the sound of it slicing through him.
He had hoped he was wrong. The beating had been just enough to render the man hard to recognize. He had barely registered the urge to throw himself on top of the body, so she couldn't see…
"Marvin." She dropped down to take his head into her lap.
The man groaned.
"Careful with him, honey," Clark cautioned her. "He's pretty banged up."
"Marvin," she said again. And he hated what he heard in her voice.
He slipped his cape from his shoulders, wrapping it around Marvin, though he knew it couldn't do much to make him comfortable. No telling how long he had been there.
"Come with me, Lois," he said. "I'll take you to the Metropolis General and then come back and—"
"Can't you carry us both?"
She was alarmed enough that he considered it.
"I don't think so," he answered in what he hoped was a reassuring tone. "He's hurt pretty badly. I'll need two hands. Let me take you first, you can wait for us."
"That will just take you longer." She started to sob. "Take him, take Marvin, then come back for me."
"I'm not leaving you here alone. Now, please, come on. I'll be fast—"
"Let me get on your back, I'll hold on," she proposed. "You can…you know, fly stretched out flat. I'll wrap my arms around you, my legs, and you're not wearing your cape—"
"— so it's not slippery. And I'm strong, Clark, It's not far." She was on her feet and grabbing at him.
"Honey, please, calm down. We're just wasting time."
"See? I'll hang on like this, now you pick him up and we'll go."
Her voice was pleading in his ear. Her tears falling on his neck.
"I can't risk hurting you," he tried again. "Please. If I had to choose, I'd drop Marvin like a brick to keep you from falling, Now…come here, it's ok, I'll be back before you can blink.
He wrapped his arms tight around her, pulling her in, seeking to comfort her. She was still struggling when they took off.
She sobbed the whole way there. He'd never seen her like that, so completely unglued. And he had caught her in mid-air once, pulled her out of an explosion at the last possible second…
He set her down wishing he could say something, tell her anything to change the stricken look on her face. But it wasn't him that she needed right now, and he knew it. If he couldn't be the man she wanted, he could be the one who brought that man to her.
By the time he met her at the emergency entrance with Marvin, she had commandeered a doctor, a couple of nurses and a gurney. Marvin was loaded on and wheeled down the hall. She followed, completely composed and in charge, never looking back.
He stayed in his Superman suit because he had learned that won him certain advantages. Like whenever they were finished with Marvin, someone who remember to come talk to him, to fill him in on his rescue's condition.
He couldn't leave just yet.
It was one of the nurses who found him. Let him know that the patient was stable, had been splinted and bandaged, was more than a bit dehydrated but expected to recover fully.
That the woman sitting with him was crying and asking for Superman.
She was dozing when he entered the room. Curled up in the chair she had pulled alongside the bed. Marvin looked better, despite his injuries. He hesitated to wake her.
"Lois," he called quietly, watching Marvin carefully for a sign he was disturbing him.
Her eyes opened.
"You ok?" he asked her. "Need anything?"
"Call James." She sat up, made a move to stand, but he waved her down. "Let him know I won't be in tomorrow, or…for a while, ok?"
"Don't worry. I'll call tonight."
"Thanks," she said simply. "For everything."
"I didn't do much, honey." He hovered in the doorway, reluctant to walk any further into the room. Desperate to go and desperate to stay. "I wish it was more."
"You've done that a lot tonight," she told him softly.
"Called me honey."
"Oh." He straightened. "I…sorry. I had no idea. Um…Perry calls you honey," he pointed out weakly.
"You didn't know me before I left." She let go of Marvin's hand and stood, moving towards the window. "But no one called me honey. I would have killed any man who did." She smiled sadly. "Perry was like a father, so that was different. And he only ever said it privately. That, I loved. Still do. But a guy I worked with? A colleague?"
"I got it," he sighed. "And I didn't mean to. Just in the moment, I guess it…slipped out."
"What do you call Lana?" She didn't turn and he was glad.
"Don't. Let's…not," he said. "I don't want to."
"Marvin calls me baby, do you believe that?" She swung around, and he would have given anything to erase the pain on her face…"Do you believe that Lois Lane lets anyone call her baby? Because I did, for quite a while…"
"I know how you feel about him," he answered in a low voice. "You change when you talk about him. You always have."
"He slowed me down, Clark. Showed me how to literally stop and smell the roses, or the creeping poisonous kudzu, or whatever. Just not to be always moving. How to actually enjoy myself once in a while."
"This isn't your fault."
He'd hit the target, he knew, because her face crumpled, the fragile mask of composure gone.
"It was happening right there the whole time. How blind am I? How dumb?" She didn't say anymore, couldn't say anymore, and he was across the room and holding her before she could try.
"You can't blame yourself. Whoever is in charge was definitely watching you closely. If you had discovered anything—" He shuddered. "— started to put your nose in, you wouldn't have made it back."
"But I was so certain. You knew something was going on there." Her eyes wouldn't let him look away, to deny it.
"Only after I literally fell right into it, honey," he said, an apology. "And I had the player's wrong."
"There's honey, again," she noted, wiping at her eyes vigorously with the heels of her hands.
"Sorry, totally inappropriate…"
"And I love it," she whispered into his chest.
He heard her. And she would have known he would.
Behind them Marvin shifted in his bed, mumbled something unintelligible, a sound of distress.
Clark let go of her, watched her rush to his side, lean over Marvin, stroke his cheek with practiced fingers, whisper words he wouldn't let himself hear. At once he realized how grotesquely out of place he was. A malignancy on a private moment between a loving couple.
"I'm going to go."
"Ok." Her eyes, turned on his, were huge, bottomless, and so tired.
"Get some rest, Lois," he ordered. "I'm going back by the hanger, just to do a once over. If there's anything, I'll let you know tomorrow."
"Thank you for what you did." She had Marvin's hand in hers now. She looked really…comfortable that way.
"I'm just sorry it wasn't more, or sooner." He took one last look at her, at her with him, and willed himself to stamp the image onto his brain. And then go home to his wife.
He watched new tears well up in her eyes, brim over, spill down her cheeks in silvery streaks. She caught most of them, brushing them away, but some she missed. He took note of their progress and didn't move. "Goodbye," he said, finally.
"Goodnight," she answered, releasing Marvin's limp hand and skirting around the bed.
"Sleep well," he whispered.
"You, too." She took a step towards him, then another.
"Yeah," he said, frozen in place. "And call me if Marvin wakes up and tells you anything."
"Go now," she admonished, "if you don't want this." The tears were gone, replaced by clarity, a purpose that he thought he recognized. That he hoped like hell he recognized, that it wasn't just his imagination.
"Please," he heard himself say.
"Please stop?" She halted just inches from him, her hands lifting to his shoulders.
"Please," he said again, shaking his head to convey what he couldn't put into words. "Don't ever…stop."
She rose on her tiptoes, tilted her chin, breathed on him.
Then his hands were in her hair, and he was meeting her in the small space that separated them. His wife was at home. Her lover was in the room. It didn't matter.
The kiss didn't last long, but he was shaking when it was over. Letting go of her and stepping away took him an extra minute. As did convincing his heart to beat again.
"Goodnight, honey," he breathed.
"Goodnight, Pocket Boy," she answered.
She moved back to Marvin, pulled up a chair and placed her hand in his again. When he left the room, she didn't look up.
The hanger didn't hold any clues. But he reported the incident to the police, had them issue a warrant for Lester Lyle's arrest. If nothing else they had him on assault and battery. The tooth under Marvin's skin gave testimony to that, even if the man, himself, could not.
He stayed long enough to explain to the sleepy officer behind the desk that he'd taken the liberty of breaking and entering. "I'll be doing that from now on. When I have good reason to suspect I'm needed." His only answer had been a disconcerted nod. "Pass that along," Superman had added.
On his way home he noted the light in James's office was still burning, as always. He landed on the roof, spun, and headed down the stairwell.
James and Lois had grown close. He knew that. Had seen that for himself. And Perry had made a point of putting that piece of information in his ear, as well. A warning, maybe. Or an attempt at motivating him to get moving, make some decisions, stop trying to save what couldn't be saved…
Whatever their current status, Clark knew his former boss, and Lois's…friend, would want to know what had happened right away.
"So Marvin will recover?" James asked faintly, looking somewhat ill and much closer to his real age.
James had been glad to see him. But his gratitude for the distraction had quickly turned to dismay, when Clark told him about the latest development.
"He'll be in the hospital a few days, but he'll be put back together." Clark sank down onto the sofa.
"And he didn't know what was going on?" James pressed.
"According to his letter, it wasn't until after Lois left that he got suspicious, started to worry. Maybe he asked Lyle to fly him over. I don't know how he ended up in the hanger of a private airfield."
"Not the greatest move. But, man, I had him all wrong. I really thought…I kind of wondered if he might be…"
"I did, too," Clark was quick to assure his friend. "Lois knew the truth, but I didn't really listen."
"She has good instincts," James replied. "That's what makes her the best."
Clark nodded thoughtfully. The best. Exactly.
"So, once Marvin talks, once the police track down Lester, question the airfield owners, Hudson and Lane will have this pretty much tied-up?" James asked.
"That's Lane and Hudson." Clark smiled wistfully. "And we're still missing whoever was behind all this. The same person who gave Lois the tip, initially. The one that sent her to the Congo. And the same person who hired Lyle to try and get rid of her when she came back."
"Maybe someone from the Congo?" James guessed. "Trying to lure her away from what was happening here?"
"Maybe. Maybe we'll never know. I imagine whoever he is, now that Lester's caught, he'll disappear."
"Does that mean you just stop trying?"
"Lois will have an opinion on that, but I'm…still out of things."
"Too bad. You guys were dynamite together. Lighting in a bottle."
"Right." He held himself steady, no flinching, no slipping to betray anything underneath. They had been good together. They really had.
"Well, tell Lois I'll miss her, expect her back when she's ready." James paused a bit uncertainly. "Or do you think… she'll go back with Marvin?"
He hadn't thought of that. Hadn't considered it. He gave it a minute, to see how that felt. Lois returning to that quiet life she said she had needed so badly. To her novel writing. To…her lover.
"I didn't ask her," he answered truthfully.
It might be better. Maybe she should go. Maybe she should go as soon as possible. He'd seen how she reacted to Marvin's injuries. The stark contrast to how she reacted when her own life was in peril. He'd never, ever seen her so close to unhinged, to hysterical. Her reaction had shaken him, and shown him what he had only had glimpses of before. Her feelings for Marvin had come through, loud and clear.
Lane and Hudson were long since formally dissolved, but the added distance…It might be safer. Safer for all of them. And maybe she'd be happier. Maybe she should go…
"Why don't you go, Clark?" James was studying him now. "Go home. You look…"
"What?' he asked with some trepidation.
"Tired," James finished.
"Can I?" He gestured to the window, catching his former boss off guard, he knew. He'd never done that when he worked here, though some days it had been so tempting. The better to get around those at work who watched him so closely. But it would have made him…too different. A big in-your-face reminder of who he really was. How much of a joke it was that he had also been trying to be a writer — a reporter. Without Lois, it was never going to work again, anyway.
"Sure," James said a bit too quickly.
He was out in a blur — no colorful suit, just him. The raw Clark Kent, jacket and tie and broken heart.
He headed towards home. He'd been away for days. And then around only as long as it had taken to get strong enough to leave again.
Another night away. This one with Lois. Searching for Marvin, bringing him to safety…
And in Marvin's hospital room, right beside Lois's unconscious lover, they had…
He closed his eyes and slowed down, shooting up above the clouds, suddenly there seemed no hurry. He could float here awhile. The delay wasn't going to change what he'd done. What he'd willingly, knowingly done…
He had just been waiting for Lois's page. He saw that now. For days, for weeks, for his lifetime. He had been sitting in suspended animation, keeping his life on hold, waiting for her to…move him. And when she had, he hadn't hesitated, hadn't looked back. At his wife, at the life they'd built, at…anything.
And that was pretty damning.
How? How was he ever going to explain what he could hardly begin to explain to himself?
He came down from the clouds quickly. He needed to. He couldn't live up there, as many times as he'd been tempted to try.
He needed to get home. Lana was his wife. She was so many things. So many great things. She just was not…Lois.
"So, who's the muscle?" Marvin greeted her when she opened her eyes.
She jumped from the chair she'd been napping in. "You're ok!"
"You doubted?" He coughed slightly, wincing in pain.
"Don't do that," she admonished, leaning over him to fuss with his blankets. "Your ribs are cracked and coughing hurts."
"You go to medical school while we were apart?" He pried the blankets from her grip, fixing them back the way they'd been.
She moved to his pillows, fluffing them up, ignoring his muttered protest. "Marvin, you scared me," she scolded.
"But my plan worked." He reached behind him with some effort and flattened his pillow into a pancake. "I came to find you, and here you are."
"You might have ironed that plan out a little more before you set it in motion." She moved to the foot of the bed, checking his corners, retucking the already impossibly tucked ends.
"Hold still, Lois," he said gently.
She stopped. Her eyes meeting his properly for the first time. He cocked his head at her, his dishwater brown hair falling over one eye. He always cut it himself, and really badly, too. He smiled, holding her in his warm gaze. And like always, just like from the very beginning, her nervous energy evaporated.
"I've missed you," she said, wiping an errant tear from her eye.
"Have you been behaving?" he asked seriously.
"Of course," she answered brightly, moving around to perch by his side.
"No burning fossil fuels, no eating meat…?"
"Absolutely not," she said stoutly. "And I resent the question."
His hand reached for hers and she took it gently, mindful of the bandages.
"So, who's the muscle, baby?" he asked. "Kind of hard not to notice him. And harder still to play dead while he's kissing you."
"You saw?" She studied her shoes, swore softly.
"Stop it." His hand patted hers and he gave her a lopsided smile. "You think I thought you'd move home and become a nun? Just…tell me he makes you happy."
"He makes me miserable, actually."
"That good, huh?"
"Yes," she returned sadly. "That good."
"Want to come home? Had enough of artificial living?"
"I am home," she said heavily. "You know that."
"Just testing." He shrugged elaborately.
"Tell me what happened. I got your letter only today or, I guess, yesterday. I panicked. Figured you were…" She didn't finish, but he understood, and picked up the story.
"After you left, some of those business men that Lester was always bringing by started to look kind of…shifty. Not the same types who would come and swoon over my experiments and my girl." He nudged her. "In fact, they avoided me all together. And on my walks I kept finding litter, tins of food, smoldering campfires. People were staying there, not far from our clearing, but obviously trying to keep out of sight. And doing a bad job of it."
"Not neighborly," she replied.
"Exactly. Why not come by and say hello? I'm the only freakin' person around!"
"Unless they're up to no good."
He nodded. "My thoughts exactly. See? I paid attention."
"I didn't snoop. That's your department. I…watched and followed a bit…and took note."
"You're right. That is entirely different."
"It worked for a time," he exclaimed defensively. "If they caught me, looked at me funny, I would just stare thoughtfully at the closest tree, tell them everything I knew about its root system."
She laughed. "Let me slide in here," she ordered softly, coming to lie beside him. "I'll be careful."
He moved over with a bit of effort, shaking his head at her when she might have reconsidered. "The drugs are good," he assured her. "And I miss the feel of you."
She snuggled in under his arm, as close as she dared. "Ok. So Marvin the intrepid botanist is spying on the unusual goings on in his jungle…"
"And I found this…door. So well hidden unless you were familiar with every inch of the place, you'd never see it. But that's what they were doing. They were building some sort of metal…box. Big. Like a storehouse. And it was chained and ridiculous looking. Something that inorganic. It was partially buried, and they had tried to hide it under vines and moss, some of it not even indigenous to the area!"
"Let's get back on track," she coaxed him. "Did you see inside?"
"Never. It was locked. You left behind a set of picks, but I couldn't figure them out. I might have…scratched up the locks a bit. Could have been a bad move, in retrospect."
"No other suspects but you," she conceded.
"When I couldn't find out what was inside, I started to pay attention to how often Lester came and went. And it was a lot. And it was fairly predictable. And I just knew…something."
"So you wrote me."
"I worried. Worried that whatever it was, since you had been in such close contact with Lyle, since you'd been in the jungle right there…No. I don't know. Maybe I just missed you, and I knew you would be able to make heads or tails of it. So, I left. Hiked up to Roenloie to make travel arrangements. But on my way back, I was intercepted."
"By his men. Not much I could do. They took me. Held me there for a time. Treated me fine. I don't think they disliked me. I was just in the way. Then Lester flew me over here. Said he couldn't keep his men in the jungle watching over one guy forever. He kept me locked up in the hanger. I pounded on those walls night and day, but no one ever heard me. Air fields are noisy!" he complained. "How do people stand that?"
"Why did he hurt you?" she asked gently.
"Because I nearly got away. It took me awhile but I was cutting my way out — using my nail clippers like you taught me, you know, in case I was ever tied to a chair?"
"How long ago was that?"
"I have no idea. I lost track of the days…I just know, I'm glad to see you, Lois."
She kissed him, careful not to lean on him, though he gave a good-natured groan when she pulled away.
"So, you still like the muscle better than the brains?" he asked with a teasing smile.
"He has both," she sighed. "And…I'm kind of stuck with him."
"I'm glad," he told her seriously. "Make sure he's good to you."
She didn't say any more. If he knew, he would be worried for her. Irate on her behalf. Chasing Superman all over town and demanding he stay away from her since he was married and couldn't offer her anything…
It was kind of true, though.
"Some days I miss our uncomplicated life," she confessed, staring at the ceiling.
He tightened his arm around her. "You hate uncomplicated, Lois," he returned, the sleep edging into his voice.
"Any idea where Lester was headed when he left?" she asked.
"To the docks," he yawned. "New shipment of something. Due…sometime. And he needed to get…the warehouse ready."
"When, Marvin?" She sat up quickly, cringing at his grunt of pain.
"Told you, I lost track of the days…"
She was out of the bed and headed for the door. "Stay here," she ordered unnecessarily.
"No problem," he slurred. "Though I'm out of here as soon as I'm able, left a bunch of…seedlings completely orphaned…missing daddy…got to get…home."
" I'll be back in the morning."
"'Night, Lois. Sleep good."
She would. She would sleep well. After Lester Lyle was behind bars.
Clark let himself in through the front door, knowing how she hated his arrivals through the window, especially when she was sleeping.
When he entered their bedroom, he saw the suitcase first. He didn't have to x-ray it to know it was fully packed, ready.
He moved slowly towards the bed, watching Lana's features. Relaxed and bathed in moonlight, they were beautiful. Youthful, like the girl he'd first had the nerve to wink at in class one day. To walk her home. To carry her books. To admire her in that tight cheerleading sweater, the flippy skirt that when the wind blew offered the briefest glimpse of sassy school-colored bloomers beneath. He'd learned to use his superbreath that football season. Mastered it.
He smiled ruefully at the thought. He'd never told her that. She would have killed him for it. He reached a hand out to stroke her cheek, her hair. Why? Why couldn't he remember her, remember them like this when she was awake? When she was looking at him, talking to him? The gulf that sat between them, bleak and sterile and suffocating. Why couldn't Superman cross that? Why couldn't they get back to who they once were?
<Because you aren't those people any more,> whispered a sinister voice. <You haven't been…in years.> He closed his eyes, clenched his jaw, let out a slow, unsteady breath. It was true. They weren't.
Her sleepy voice pulled him from his painful thoughts, though the ache in his chest didn't subside.
"I'm here," he answered tightly, bracing himself for her anger, for her accusations, for everything he deserved. He'd left her the morning of the Alaskan oil spill, ages ago now, with the promise that they would talk about how they were going to make her happy when he got back. Make things right. But with the kryptonite poisoning and the night just spent, he was late, so late, always late. And out of excuses.
And more than that. He was out of ideas for how to fix things. Out of whatever muscle he needed to stop loving Lois. And he was tired. Too tired to fight, too tired to cling to what had been, and he hated himself for that weakness.
"I'm sorry, Lana," he whispered brokenly. "For all of this. For everything. This isn't working any more, is it? I've hated the idea of failing you, failing our marriage, but—"
"Come to bed," she interrupted him, pulling back the covers, revealing what he hadn't noticed before, what he had stopped looking for months ago. Her arms were open, her eyes full of invitation. "I've been waiting for you. And I knew, despite everything, you would be here."
"Lana." He couldn't keep the surprise from his voice, from his features.
"I don't want to talk," she said quickly. "Not yet. Just come to bed? Be my husband?"
His eyes returned to the suitcase on the floor, then back to her. He opened his mouth to ask, tried to form the words.
"I need you," she interrupted. "I need us…just…can we?"
He nodded, swallowing roughly, unable to resist the pain in her eyes, the pull of her words. "Is this goodbye?" he asked quietly.
"Yes," she said.
He went to her. He used no skill, no finesse. He was clumsy, fumbling, overwhelmed with crushing sorrow and love, loss and memory.
"Sorry," he whispered, knowing it was over too soon, that she hadn't been nearly satisfied. And unaware of the hot tears that fell from him.
"I kept waiting for you to say her name," she spoke quietly into his ear. "I was afraid…expecting…didn't know how you wouldn't. But they don't call you Superman for nothing."
He was unable to keep the grief from his face. "Lana," he gasped. "What have I done to you?"
That they were here, in their bed, finally having this conversation didn't strike him as odd. They were as comfortable with each other's bodies as they were with their own. Years of togetherness, of intimacy, which had started as hormone-fueled teens in the loft of his foster family's barn, and continued down through the years in the back seat of her first car, in his dorm room, her gilded bedroom in her parent's home, chair pushed up against the door for fear someone might discover them. His first hole in the wall apartment. To here, their home, their shared life.
"Daddy has offered me a job with the company overseas," she broke into his thoughts gently. "I want to take it."
He nodded, staring at the ceiling, unable to speak for a moment. "Lana, maybe I should…come with you? We can try it that way. I owe you that. I can work from anywhere, and maybe away from Metropolis, away from…"
"Yes," he said, noticing for the first time the tears. He wiped them away hastily. "I can be your husband. Keep the promises I made to you. Be with you and not be…anywhere else."
"Can you be happy?" she inquired softly, surprising him by hooking her arms around him and rubbing his back.
He didn't answer. There was no good answer to that.
"Daddy can pull some strings, and the divorce can be really quiet," she continued after a time. He ducked his head, unable to meet her eyes. "No scandal, no headlines. And I won't sell my story, don't worry…"
"I'm not worried about that," he returned heavily. "And you could if you wanted. You could say anything you like. I wouldn't deny it, and God knows I deserve it."
"Do you know how long I've loved Clark Kent?" she asked. "Since kindergarten. I can't hurt him — even if he isn't really here any more."
"Have I changed that much?" He rolled up onto on elbow, to better see her.
"And you don't want to be married any more?" he clarified.
"Because of…Lois or Superman?"
"Because I loved a boy from Smallville who was kind and sweet and a bit lost. And sexy as all get out." She grinned at him, and he felt himself grinning back. Suddenly he was with that girl, the one he knew, the one he had loved, and rightly so.
"And you aren't him any more; you've grown into someone else. Or maybe you've just grown into yourself, who you were always going to be. And I couldn't keep you from that, though I tried and made you miserable, even before the first Lois. And I know you can't go back — to hiding, to being someone you aren't. In a practical sense, it can't be done. But for you, you…can't."
"I could try," he offered her. And he meant it. "I could come with you, sort of disappear, blend in. I owe you that much. I did this to you. Became Superman without consulting you, made your life hell, no privacy, no time together. How can I leave you after that, Lana? I honestly don't know how. How can I just…walk away?"
"For love," she answered simply. "And to save the world. You can have both now."
He didn't answer, but fresh tears began to fall. He didn't try to stop them.
"Was I a saint to be married to?" she challenged him. "Was I good to you? What you've needed this past year? Or am I who you choose before you knew that one day…you'd be…someone else?"
"You are…the person who…loved me when no one else did. You gave me…a home," he choked. "I can't…possibly…turn my back on that…on you."
"Which is why I'm the one doing the leaving," she said. "And it's why you're not coming with me. You've said the words 'I owe you' twice now. I don't want you punishing yourself by staying married to me. Your loyalty is no replacement for love. I don't want it. You've moved on. I want to do the same. I am not Superman's wife. Never was, never wanted to be. But maybe…there's someone else more…suited to the job."
"Just let me get out of the country first," she whispered, tears coming into her eyes for the first time. "Daddy says it's nice there. I'll be busy. And you remember Pete? He's new there, too, and really likes it. I'll have someone there I know. Just…give me some time to get on my feet, to forget…ok?"
"What else?" he finally croaked. And it could be anything; he would do anything, whatever she needed.
"Be happy." She turned her face from him, closing her eyes.
"And you too, please, Lana. I don't have the right to ask." He slid his arms around her, pulling her tightly against his chest. "But please be happy. I couldn't be if you aren't."
She pressed against him, turning her face to his. He kissed her in answer. Softly, gently. She sighed. Moaned. He answered.
"Say my name," she ordered breathlessly.
"Lana," he whispered. "Lana." He held her, loved her, and repeated those familiar syllables over and over, until she let go, sobbing her release, sobbing their release. From the pleasure, from the pain, from each other. He joined her.
When he woke up, she was gone. The suitcase gone as well.
It was over.
It was beginning.
When he didn't answer his page, she just assumed he was off saving the world. He would want her to wait. Want her to include him. But if Marvin's ramblings were right, the break they needed was coming. Or, perhaps it had come and gone. But anyway, the warehouse, silent and yielding no clues for so long, was back on the board.
She tightened the straps on her disguise, teetering a bit on her high heels as she approached briskly. Just a lady of the night out for a stroll, hoping to find a customer…
She flexed her fingers inside the brass knuckles she wore concealed under a pair of gloves. Just looking to beat the hell out of anyone who stood in her way…
The door was unlocked. This was good. She felt it, that gut feeling that moved way beyond her gut. It rose into her chest, shot down her spine, putting her nerves on high alert. Something was happening. Now. Tonight.
She slipped into the shadows easily, halting in the nearest darkened corner, waiting for her eyes to adjust…listening.
Super-hearing…how great would that be?
She could make out a large pile in the center of the room. It was hard to miss. It filled half the space easily, and it had never been there before. She slipped out of her shoes and glided over noiselessly, but for the hammering of her heart. This was it. They finally had something.
She lifted the edge of the heavy tarp, struggling a bit under its weight. Clark would have x-rayed through it, told her exactly what was inside…
Boxes. Crates. Packing invoices she couldn't read.Guns. Thousands of them. Illegal and nasty looking. And very, very new.
"Bingo," she breathed "Page one."
If she hadn't taken that extra moment to admire her find, if she had just dropped the tarp and backed away, out the door, tried the pager again, left her shoes, run like hell…
Well, it probably would have turned out the same. Who was she kidding?
"Almost didn't recognize you in that get-up," came a lazy voice from over her shoulder. She caught the distinct scent of sour aftershave and gin. So, he didn't just smell because he spent so much time camping out in the Congo. He just…smelled.
"Until you started snooping around, I thought tonight was my lucky night. God had sent me a little playmate as a token of His esteem."
Lester Lyle moved into her field of vision, and how had she missed him? The screaming red parrots splashed all over his nicotine-stained shirt demanded attention. She gave it. He was holding one of the guns she'd just been taking inventory of.
"You're really hard to find," she told him. "Though now that I see you again, I can't imagine why."
"I don't let the moss grow on me," he laughed, wheezing at his own joke. He scratched his beard idly, looking her over through blood-shot eyes. It was an easy thing to do, as she'd been hit by the beams of a half dozen flashlights, suddenly finding herself in a semi-circle of ogling men.
"That's the same woman," one of them stammered. "She was here months ago."
"Oh, Lois," Lester sighed. "Why? If I were a reporter, you know what I would write about? Football. Horse races. Good stuff. Not the creeping around in dark alleys stuff. You're a tiny little girl; it can only lead to bad things."
She curled her hands into fists and took a quick head count.
"Where's that loser you were with last time?" one of them asked from the shadows.
"He's gone to get the police," she said. "They'll be here, any minute."
"We got some ideas about who your partner is," Lester said with a shrug. "Be kind of cool to see him in action. Load it up, boys, just in case she's not bluffing." He smiled at her. "Though we all know you're bluffin', doll."
He gripped her forearm gently but firmly. More strength in his flabby little fingers than she would have guessed. As he walked her towards the stairwell, he asked her almost politely. "How did you know it was tonight? And why on earth did you come alone, Lois?" He pushed the door open and lead her up, all the while her eyes stayed fixed on the weapon.
"It's loaded, if that's what you're wondering," he offered helpfully. "Now, to what do we owe the honor of this visit from a beautiful girl?"
"To Marvin, you bastard," He was steering her down the hallway, towards the office she and Clark had first broken into. "You owe the honor to Marvin, who, lucky for you, has recovered from the bashing you gave him."
"He put his nose in where it didn't belong, babe. He had it coming. And you'll notice I didn't kill him. I could have, but I didn't. He's a nice guy. It wasn't personal."
"Wasn't personal? Ok. Good. Maybe this won't hurt your feelings then, but you're going to jail for a really, really long time. And I'm sending you there. It isn't personal."
She glared at the chair and ropes he pulled out. "You're kidding me." She swore viciously.
"Sorry. I know it lacks imagination, and you writers like that sort of thing. Can't be happy with the simple facts, always embellishing. Like your little story about the police."
He held the gun easily out of her reach and tied her knots with a dexterity she wouldn't have expected. He saw her noticing and beamed. "Boy scout," he filled in. "To earn a merit badge we had to do this blindfolded, one handed, underwater…actually, wasn't the official boy scouts…more like what you'd call a gang. There. That's a pretty one."
"This is pointless, Lester," she asserted when he moved away and started gathering his things. "We've got you. We know about the gun stash in the Congo. Your best bet is to give us your boss. Who are you working for?"
"I don't work *for* anybody," he snapped, his patience showing a bit of wear. He picked up his pipe and filled it with tobacco.
"Who do you work with, then?" she corrected.
"Trust me, Lois." His eyes met hers and they weren't unkind. "You don't want to know. I'll make a point of telling him that you never knew, so you couldn't have told anyone. That way your family is safe."
"What?" she gasped.
"Marvin stays safe," he continued. "Your invisible partner who's allergic to a certain substance is safe. Your friends. Are you getting the picture?"
"Yes." She swallowed. "And me?"
"I hate this part." And he looked like he meant it. "But he really wants you dead. And if I let you live, then I won't."
He pulled a small plastic container from under his desk and started to pour, the gasoline fumes making the liquid instantly recognizable. "I'll start this on the other side of the room, doll. Just in front of the door. The men oughta be done by now, or close to it. It'll take a long while to get down there."
"Don't," she said.
"It really was nice knowing you, Lois," he told her from the doorway. "And I never apologized about your letters. Sorry about that. If it makes you feel any better, I read them, just to make sure you weren't on to us. So all that writing wasn't for nothing. We couldn't risk delivering them, couldn't risk someone coming to look for you and blowing the whole operation."
"The political climate made it too dangerous, anyway," she took a final stab, if he was going to kill her, the least he could do was fill her in first.
"We orchestrated that," he acquiesced. "It was never really dangerous. We just armed a lot of good folks and asked them to shoot at anyone who was unfamiliar. Told them they'd be protecting their homes, livelihoods, you know, general bad guy stuff." He shrugged. "I never felt right about that. Once it was clear you were staying, that you and Marvin were…" He made a gesture she didn't care for. "We eased off on that."
He struck a match, lit his pipe, and after a puff or two, he dropped it. The fire met the gasoline in under a second.
He gave her one last apologetic look. "Goodbye, sweets. I hope it will be quick."
He hefted his bag, and closed the door. The locks slid closed.
"Ok. This is ok," she muttered. "Just…stay calm. Think…"
< I'm over here and the fire is way over there. And the police are coming, be here any minute…>
No. No! The police aren't coming, she reminded herself with a scowl. That was a bluff.
And he'd called her on it.
"This isn't good," she groaned aloud. A mistake, as the rising fumes set off a hacking cough.
<He's going to have to come, then. Swoop down, snatch me from…oh god…I'll never hear the end of it…ever…>
Or…wait…somebody might see the flames from the window? A good Samaritan with a cell phone and a sense of justice might call the fire department and they would arrive at superspeed, get out the hoses …?
It was no good. She was out of options. She knew that.
Better to just do it now, before she didn't have the lungs for it.
"Clark!" she yelled, already picturing how she would explain this little predicament. 'It's not as bad as it looks,' she would begin.
"Clark!!" The smoke was tearing her eyes and leaving her breathless. 'And I had things under control, it's just that, well, Lester Lyle is some kind of evil genius with a knot.'
That might do it.
She lunged, crashing the chair to the floor. Should have done that first. The air was better down here. But it was hot. So hot. No more synthetic knits, either, not after this, she told herself groggily. She bought them because the clothes didn't stain, didn't wrinkle, were perfect for stakeouts. But they, along with her false leather skirt, seemed to be…melting onto her. "Clothes shouldn't melt," she gasped.
"Clark?" she wheezed, she could barely hear it herself, but she felt her lips form his name.
This was too bad, really. He'd be angry about this. Blame her. Stand over her grave — her real grave this time — and shake his fist at her tombstone and —
"Lois!" he would say. "Lois!!"
Just like that, really loudly. And he'd grab her and well, no…that wouldn't be right. She was in her grave, so he wouldn't grab her. But he might pull the dirt off, pry the coffin open to better see her when he yelled. And that would give her some fresh air.
It would blow across her face, into her lungs. His mouth on hers. Kissing her goodbye, maybe? Or…breathing on her? Either way, it would feel so good.
"Not so bad," she mumbled from her burial plot.
"Shhh," he told her.
Shushing her when she was dead? She frowned. Who shushes the dead? "Nobody's quieter than the dead," she argued. And it was a good argument. It was just lost in the coughing and she couldn't follow it up right then.
Still, he was nice to come see her, to visit. Even if he was mad and wanted her to be quiet. And ripping that lid off the coffin had been good, too. Otherwise it was just so suffocating.
"I love you, Clark," she choked gratefully.
"Dammit, Lois." It wasn't the words, but how he said it. It meant he loved her, too. Very much. More than he could say. Though 'dammit' was a pretty weak attempt for a writer.
<Too bad things couldn't work out so well when I'm alive,> she thought with just a trace of bitterness. Not too much bitterness, though. She fixed her lips into a smile. She wanted a serene afterlife.
When she woke, Superman's head was touching hers. Sharing her pillow. It wasn't much of a pillow, but she liked it because Superman's head was on it.
The rest of him was halfway slumped, halfway floating out of the chair next to her bed. She didn't blame him for the floating bit. She'd spent the large part of the night in a chair identical to that when Marvin had been hurt. If she could have floated, she would have.
Her throat felt raw, and her eyes were so scratchy. She moved her hand, tentatively, to rub them, but found she was still tied down. An IV pole. That made sense…there had been a fire…
She moved enough to really look at Superman's face. He looked peaceful, not angry like she remembered him.
She tried to move her other hand, taking stock, one by one, of the presence of her extremities. All accounted for. But this hand was tied down, as well. On further investigation she found it was clenched in his fist. His wedding ring making a slight indent on her knuckle. She pulled again, steady, slow pressure so as not to wake him. His eyes opened.
"Hi," she croaked, and wished she hadn't.
He kissed her. Releasing her hand, he put his own hands on her face and kissed her. This was so much nicer than yelling at her, which he tended to do after he had saved her life.
"Water?" she asked with some effort.
He pushed the call button next to her. "Let's get someone in here to look at you, honey. Then, I promise — water."
The gentleness, the warmth, the care in his voice brought tears to her eyes. They felt good, cooling the burning itchiness and loosening the tightness in her chest. The sob that went with them surprised her though. Him, too. He had been pacing by the door, but was at her side before she would inhale again. One hand in her hair, the other reclaiming the one he'd been holding.
Through her tears, she noted the wedding ring. She curled one finger around it, measuring its width, its weight, thoughtfully. He didn't seem to notice. He just kissed her until the doctor came, telling her over and over that she was safe, he would never let anything happen to her. He would die first. She was ok, she was fine…
She wasn't, though. She loved a married man. A married super man.
"The police caught Lester," Clark greeted her late that afternoon. "He gave up pretty quickly, as I understand."
"Lester's not a fighter," she sighed. She sat up a tad straighter, feeling better all of a sudden — the news and the company both welcome.
"He seemed genuinely glad to hear you survived."
He sat in the chair next to her bed, the one he had occupied for almost the entire morning before he'd stolen away at some point. He sat. Not touching her, not kissing her, just…sitting.
"What about his partner?"
He shook his head. "He won't budge on that. Someone pretty high up, I imagine," he said in a low voice.
"In the Port Authority, maybe. Or on the police force, in city government." she speculated. "I can't wait to find out. When can I…?"
He shifted his weight just a tad, causing the leather of the chair to squeak. She looked at him. His eyes darted from hers and back again.
"When can I get out of here?" she asked carefully, a dark suspicion forming.
"Lois." He dropped his eyes again, made the chair squeak again. "You have first degree burns."
"It's a sunburn, Clark. It isn't serious, or even all that painful. And I can dress it myself, or you can help me. So just tell me. Whatever it is that you're wishing you didn't have to."
He took a deep breath. In fact, if there was such a thing as apologetic breathing, he was doing it. "Ok. It isn't just the burns. Though a few more days here couldn't hurt." His eyes had turned pleading, so unfair. Did he know what he looked like when he did that? Maybe. That would explain why he did it so often. "We have guards outside your door. I want you to stay here, just until—"
He paused on her expletive, going still. Her voice was definitely getting stronger.
"I'm fireproof," he started. "Bomb-proof, pushed-off-a-building-proof—"
"Here we go," she snapped, turning her head away from him. "You forgot to do this earlier, you know? Must be slipping."
"When would have been a good time, Lois? Tell me." His voice was soft, friendly, but his hand cupped her chin and turned her forcefully back towards him. "When you were near death in an inferno? Should I have mentioned it then? Or when I was breathing for you? Might have been better? Or when I tore myself away from you to look for Marvin, to bring him to you? When, Lois? Tell me when I should have brought this up?"
He shoved back from the chair, his face dark with suppressed fury, his hand dropping from her. The hand that had held her chin in a gentle but firm vice, the same hand that had held hers so tightly during the night. The hand that wore the wedding ring.
Only now it didn't.
At some point, while she was sleeping, he had taken it off.
"You're staying here. James and I need a day to get a handle on things, see what we're up against."
"You need me for that."
He was across the room now, his back against the far wall, his fists clenched. And his eyes were telling her things. Some of them terrible. "Then I'll get you your notes. You'll work from here. If you get any bright ideas…call me."
"I called you earlier."
"Call me before you're about to die, ok?" He said that casually, leaning back now. "Give a guy more than a minute to respond."
"I did call you before…well…the fire. I tried your pager before I went inside the warehouse. You didn't answer. I figured you were busy…what?"
He sank slowly into the chair across the room. "When? What time, Lois? I keep it on all the time, keep it on me." He fished in his pocket and pulled it out to show her. "For just this reason."
"I'm not sure. It was a few hours before sunrise. When you didn't answer, I knew you were tied up." She watched the distress roll over his face before he buried his face in his hands.
"I wasn't out. I was…home. In…bed."
"It's fine, Clark." She had no idea why he sounded the way he did, but she hated it. "Really. You're entitled to your sleep."
He didn't answer, but he didn't have to. His anguish, so silent, said it all.
He hadn't been sleeping.
"The important thing is, you made it. You came."
He didn't respond. Every word she spoke for comfort only seemed to bow him more. His shoulders sagged, his fingers raked through his hair. And he wouldn't look at her.
Lana was his wife. So, he hadn't cheated…not really.
And he was here now. And obviously…something had happened; he wasn't wearing the ring…
"I know I scared you," she offered quietly, when she wanted to say so much more, to ask so much more. He still didn't look up. "I scared me, too. I never expected Lester would have it in him."
"You knew he was crooked," he finally replied, just as she was convinced he had turned to stone.
"Crooked yes, a killer no."
"You'll stay here," he repeated.
She didn't answer. He didn't look up.
"No one else could ask this of me," she finally said, noting that at her words some of the stress left his face. "No one else in the world."
"Why couldn't I find Marvin?" His voice was distant, careful. "He'd checked out against medical advice. He wasn't at your apartment, registered in any of the hotels."
She blinked, shrugged. "The unnatural environment was getting to him, probably. The only grass in the entire city is roped off. No trees, no bird song…you know. Metropolis was a kind of torture for him, and he had experiments going, things he needed to get back to."
He looked at her then. "He left you?"
"No. He went home."
"I didn't know."
His look tore the rest of her words from her, whatever she was going to say, going to hint for, taken right out her mouth in one glance.
"I'd say it was important," he replied mildly. And then, "Stay here tonight, Lois. Give me today. I'll beg you if I have to. Kidnap you if that doesn't work. Tie you up myself. Just…stay here. And…wait."
"Kiss me goodbye," she ordered quietly, uncertain that he would, but not caring what she was demanding of him. She loved him, and she was through protecting him from that knowledge. Protecting them both.
She had chosen, and it was time for him to do the same.
He walked towards her, his face a study in tension and longing, but there was a light in his eyes she'd never seen before. He lowered himself beside her, and she laced her fingers in his.
"I should have come sooner. Should have answered my page." His whisper was husky with emotion. "But I swear…I swear to God…it won't happen again. Things are different now."
With that, he brought his lips to hers, kissing her gently, slowly, wonderfully. Taking his time.
In answer she tightened her grip on his hands, certain now that she hadn't imagined it. It wasn't just wishful thinking; a hope conjured to blind her.
"You took off your wedding ring." She kept him pinned under her gaze, but it wasn't necessary. He didn't look away or try to evade. "You had it on earlier. It's gone now."
"Yes." He nodded, his eyes holding her tightly. "Earlier, when you called, that was…goodbye. Lana's gone." He released her hands gently as he stood. "Please give me today," he repeated. "Give me a chance to get this taken care of. To keep you safe. And then, you and I need to talk, Lois."
"This is hopeless," Clark said for the third time, but this time he really meant it.
He shoved away from his desk, moving towards the coffee maker yet again.
"I've looked at those things until my eyes are crossed." He scowled at the itineraries, the dock workers payroll, the list of ships departing and entering the harbor. "There is no rhyme or reason. No pattern. It's like…he knows."
"How could he?" James raised tired eyes from the papers he was holding. The late night skeleton staff had long since gone home, and the new editor had been working hard along side him.
"I have no idea," Clark answered heavily. "Are you sure this is everything you've got? Everything you and Lois managed to dig up while I was away?"
James nodded. "This is it. I did a little hacking. And Lois really felt like we'd find something in all of this. Maybe the police will get Lester to budge?" James asked hopefully. "We could just wait on that?"
"Maybe," Clark returned doubtfully.
"Or maybe there's something here we're just not seeing." James sat back with a sigh. "Something obvious. If we keep at it —"
"I think this is all a false paper trail. Stuff to keep us busy. What if there's nothing in it? What if we were supposed to get hung up here?"
He was pacing furiously now, tossing off the thoughts as they came to him. Cheap Imitation Lois Lane, but maybe it worked for anybody who tried it.
"This guy is too smart to leave anything important laying around, anything that could be found with a simple internet search."
"Well, I'd hardly call it simple." James protested.
But Clark barely heard him; he stared into space, remembering…
"Clark?" James said a bit tentatively after a time.
"Lester Lyle took some sort of case with him the night Lois and I saw him. What if he knew we were there? Knew we were coming? And he took everything incriminating. It wouldn't have to be much. A laptop, a disk, a file. That would make the rest of this — everything else — busy work…"
"How would he know?" James had risen to his feet, letting the papers he held fall. "No one knew you were there. You weren't even officially on the story then. No one but you and Lois. How would he have any idea you were watching the place before you broke-in?"
Clark grimaced. "I don't know, James. Maybe they were watching us watching them?"
"Could they have done that?" James asked slowly. "Would you not have…noticed…Superman?"
He heard the faint accusation in his friend's voice even as he asked.
He thought about it. All those hours with Lois, talking, well, listening…the lacy thing…
"I might not have noticed," he admitted, blushing hotly.
He moved away from James's speculative stare. He couldn't stand it anymore. The sitting, the reading, the nothing. Lois was in the hospital. Thank God she wasn't in the morgue. Somebody really wanted her out of the way. And him, too. The kryptonite field in the Congo, that had been only for him.
He hadn't wanted to go back there, ever. Just the thought of it…
But they weren't getting anywhere this way. How much longer could they afford to be sitting ducks? How many more attempts on Lois's life before they picked a time when he wasn't around, missed her call. Was too late?
He closed his eyes. It had to be done.
He spun into the suit, forgetting James's presence all together.
His friend's startled exclamation was quickly swallowed. "Speaking of Superman," James stammered.
"The Congo," Clark said. "It all starts there. I'll have to rely on the local authorities for help, but at least we know we have something solid. We start there and work back to here. It's a dead end from this side. The tracks are too well covered."
"Wait!" James moved to him, placing a firm hand on his sleeve. "What if you get hurt again?"
Clark paused, surprised.
"I was with Lois when she was looking for you," his former boss answered the question before he asked it. "She was a mess, a wreck. She wouldn't want you going."
"I'll be careful," he assured him.
"I can't talk you out of this?" He'd never seen James so serious. The friendly glint gone from his eyes, no trace of the easy smile. "It's your life, Clark. Your decision. Right here. But don't make it lightly, the world depends on you."
"It's Lois's life, too," he returned. "I've decided."
He hit the stairwell at a blur and made for the open sky.
James watched Superman disappear, literally, from the room.
He took one last look at the piles of useless documents spread about him. Well, not entirely useless. They'd done their job.Up to now.
He'd known it wouldn't last. Lester was in prison and he wouldn't talk. He was almost positive of that. But with Clark headed to the Congo, Lois alive to fight another day.
Well, if you wanted something done, you did it yourself. Sometimes there was no way around that, no matter how unpleasant.
Lois kept her word and stayed put. For as long as any reasonable person could expect her to, and far longer than a person with a million things to do should ever be required to.
Clark would appreciate that, if she ever told him. Though maybe for his peace of mind, she might forget to mention it.
It was late. He and James had probably spent the day chasing leads.
<Or chasing their tails without me.>
They would have gone home by now, right? Or back to the police station, the docks, the hanger. So many, many places they could be.
Just, hopefully, not where she was heading.
She needed the access the Daily Planet's computers offered. Needed to dig up the number for the one phone she'd ever seen during her stay with Marvin. It had been at the post office in Roenloie. She'd only seen it once. And not without a load of guilt.
Her mom and dad…She hadn't called. She'd known, or at least, she'd thought she had — how they would react to her choice to stay in the Congo with Marvin.
"Have you lost your mind, Lois?" Her mom.
"Your career, Lois. I expected so much better from you." Her dad.
If she had used the phone, though. Even just to put a call into Perry, how different things would be.
She would have known she was "dead."
That would have forced her to come home, to leave Marvin that much sooner.
She would have met Clark fresh off his bus from Nowheresville.
She would have been waiting.
She tossed off her covers in disgust. This is what happened when you were left with nothing to do but lie around with your own thoughts.
She moved gingerly towards the closet. Her burns weren't serious. She'd been lucky…or…ok, he'd been fast. But still, she felt them as she moved.
She would try to find the number to the one antiquated pay phone in the area. She should have thought of that sooner. She just had to hope that her rusty language skills wouldn't fail her. She'd identify herself as the Woman who Lived in the Tree, ask for a couple hundred favors.
Move the kryptonite to Marvin's campsite for safe keeping.
Pry open that damn metal box that was covered in the wrong vines.
See if the mastermind behind it all had dropped a handkerchief with his initials on it…?
"Piece of cake," she mumbled as she tied her shoes. "I'll be done before the sun comes up."
She was relieved it was only James.
His office light was on — and it wasn't as if she'd need to defend her presence here to Clark or anything — it was just kind of…nice that he wasn't currently around.
"I've got an idea," she announced into the room, pulling James from either a light doze or heavy thinking. She grinned at him. "Do you even have a home?"
He sat up slowly, shaking his head at her. "What the hell are you doing here?" he asked with a smile of his own. "You just saved me a trip to the hospital."
"I told you," she said smartly. "I've got an idea. And I couldn't sit in that place another minute. Um…where's Clark?"
"Don't worry," he said, beckoning her inside, "you're safe. He's not even close by."
It wasn't really a breath of relief she let out, so much as…a sigh of…oh, good.
"You guys have any luck?"
"Yes and no," he answered thoughtfully. "I haven't really decided."
"How so?" She frowned, stepping towards his desk to look over his shoulder at the mound of shredded papers there. "Making confetti?"
Her eyes widened when her eyes caught a broken sentence or two. A line here, a name there, all coming together to form a very disjointed picture, but a picture nonetheless, of what they'd been searching for. "Where did you get these!"
"That's the lucky part," he answered, standing up and gesturing to his seat so she could look more closely. "Hope you're good with puzzles."
"Clark could do it," she murmured absently, already shifting through the bigger pieces. "Whoever shredded these was in a hurry, there's still some good stuff here."
"That shredder is damn slow," James sighed.
It was the change in his tone, the change in the room, something.
She never quite put her finger on it later. Whatever it was, as soon as it registered, it stopped her. Stopped her furious piecing together of the papers. Stopped her absent, listening with one-ear inattention.
Stopped her heart.
When she raised her eyes to his, at last, there was no mistaking it. None.
"I don't believe it," she said simply.
"Some things are harder to believe than others," James returned. "Don't you think?"
He walked across the office and lowered the blinds.
"You want to hear something really hard to believe?" the man she had thought was her friend asked. "Try parallel universes on for size. Time travel…"
"What?" She shook her head. She remembered the nurse had given her something for the pain, for the burns, assuring her its side effects were minimal. But if anyone was going to be the exception, it would be her, right?
"Should have read the bottle," Lois fretted out loud. "Paranoia, delusions, check…but on the bright side, no pain…"
"Focus, here, Lois," James pushed. "I want your thoughts, and be honest. Do you believe in the possibility that there are worlds identical to our own, existing concurrently, just on a different plane?"
She sat down slowly, sinking into his chair, rubbing her fingers along her temples. Why not? The question made as much sense as anything else did. "If the movie's good enough and the popcorn is buttered, sure," she sighed, keeping her eyes shut, waiting to wake up. "Oh, and there has to be a plot, not just a lot of expensive special effects."
"There's a plot to this one, all right," he said softly. "And it's not fiction."
He moved back towards the desk and shoved aside the stack of papers she'd been studying. "I kept all this in the bottom drawer of my filing cabinet. It's lead-lined and fitted with a tamper-proof lock. That first safety was for him, of course, and the latter for you…"
"What are you talking about?"
"I'm talking about these." He spread a host of newspapers out in front of her. They had been buried underneath the shredded pages. They were from all over the world. Banner headlines, all with the name Superman in them.
"I've seen these," she said. "These are from when Superman was exposed. The debate. I read through most of them right after I got back, to catch up. But I got more serious about studying them after Clark rescued me from—" She stopped, remembering that she hadn't told James about her first brush with death in the warehouse investigation. She'd thought he'd be upset…might order her off the story…be worried about his new reporter…
She laughed a bit giddily, shaking her head to clear it, listening as he picked up her story.
"From the ship in the harbor? The bomb? I thought that's what happened."
"You never let on."
"I'm not as dumb as I look, partner," His smiled was warm, friendly. Vintage James.
But she saw for the first time what that smile hid so well. A calculating mind. A cheerful would-be killer. Such a simple disguise. A guileless, warm nature, affable enthusiasm. He wore it like a second skin. And it was more effective than any mask. How? How had she missed it?
"So blind, so stupid," she sighed.
"No blinder than anyone else," he soothed. "We see what we want to see. Don't blame yourself." He gave her hand a little pat. "And as for these pictures, you've seen what the whole world saw. And not to belittle it, it's remarkable stuff. But even more remarkable, is what the world didn't see."
James leaned down and withdrew another folder from the same drawer. "I owned the TV studio where the mayoral debate happened, did you know? From the cheap folding chairs to the sophisticated recording equipment. All part of the James Olsen media empire," he said with a grin. "Actually it was a bad investment, wasn't doing well. Wasn't worth my time and money…until that day. The debate. Superman. Tempus, Wells…"
"Tempus? The other candidate, right? But Wells…?" She paused. On her very first day, at their very first meeting, Clark had mentioned those names to her, together, just like that. "I never heard of any—"
"You wouldn't have. Neither did anyone else. There were plenty of eyewitnesses, and that first feed was live, so there are some out there in the city who, no doubt, saw the entire thing. Nothing I could do about that. But it probably didn't mean anything to them. And I made sure no one saw it again. No other photographers were allowed inside; I wanted to sell off the stills from the tapes. My studio, my privilege…"
"So…" She eyed the folder uneasily. "What are you telling me?"
"That I was able to control what information got out. That Clark was Superman was big news. That he was an alien who could swallow a bomb was…incredible. That caught everyone's attention. And in the panic, and the hysteria that followed, some things and some people were completely overlooked."
He flipped the folder open and pointed. "She was there. Right by his side, through the whole thing."
Lois stood up slowly, her hands automatically reaching, rifling through the photographs, even as her mind told her there was no way she was seeing what she was seeing.
She was there alright…holding Clark. He was hurting, suffering…
She was…crying. Yelling, maybe, at a very satisfied looking man. Tempus.
She was…throwing some sort of rock…? Kryptonite. It had to be. She was…watching Clark eat a bomb…
She was there. She was beside him.
And the pleading love in Clark's eyes, as she cradled his head in her lap, was not lost on her. He'd looked at her much the same, the day she's come to see him when he was so ill…and other times since…
The other woman. The original. The one who changed his life…
"How…?" she choked. "Just…how? Are these…? These aren't real." She shoved them towards him and moved swiftly from behind his desk.
"Strange, isn't it?" James's voice was smooth with sympathy. "If I hadn't met her — seen her myself — I'd doubt my own memory, that's for sure. As well as my sanity,"
"Who?" she said, dreading the answer, even though she couldn't imagine, for one second, what sort of answer there might be to that.
"Lois Lane the First," James replied matter-of-factly. "Or wait, maybe that's you. Well, she's *my* first. First one I ever laid eyes on. And I thought she was you, initially, so she scared the hell out of me."
He moved slowly from the desk to the office door, closing it and turning the key in the lock.
Her eyes followed his hand as he pocketed it. She told herself to just listen, to hear what he was telling her. How it all fit. How…that woman…was involved. Then she would call Clark, scream for him at the top of her lungs. They would finish this together.
"The software thing is a front," he offered conversationally as he returned to his seat.
She put as much distance between them as possible. Between her and James. Between herself and those pictures. He seemed not to notice that she was pressed up against the far wall.
"That business went bust pretty quickly. But I got lucky. Found another endeavor that made some money. I funneled it into the company, and, by all outwards appearances, I was the boy wonder. Only, you started sniffing around, Lois. And even though you were just a cub reporter, I was afraid that if you followed the trail of illegal weapons, you might eventually wind up on my doorstep…"
James's voice trailed away as she marched to the door and jerked on the handle. When it didn't give, like she knew it wouldn't, she turned. She was just checking, just in case. No reason to panic. Clark always said if she called, he'd come. And, granted, he had missed her page before the fire, but he'd gotten there just the same.
This was no different.
"Do you want to hear this, Lois?" James asked her politely. "I'll let you yell for him. I don't mind. But aren't you a little curious about the rest?"
She nodded dumbly.
"Ok." James leaned back in his chair once more. "Put yourself in my shoes. One day, out of nowhere, you just waltz into the Planet and say, 'How do you do?'" He shook his head, remembering. "By that time I had invested a lot of years and a lot of money having you watched and distracting Perry. You seemed so content to stay where you were. And I was getting the Chief elected mayor. You see, that worked two ways. I got a hand in local politics. And I took him out of the newsroom, away from any temptation to follow up on the case of the missing Lois Lane and the Congo story. It was perfect."
She moved to the window now, testing. It was either locked or sealed shut.
"We're too far up," he told her. "That would just be suicide, unless you think he's right outside." He fished the key to the door from his pocket, holding it out for her. "If you want to leave that badly, I won't keep you," he said kindly.
She saw the triumph in his eyes when she sat back down across from him. She had to know, and he knew that. Played right to that. Her need to know. Her own personal kryptonite.
"Everyone has me pegged as kind of unobservant. Clark, Perry…you. You have no idea how helpful that is. James Olsen: made of money, eager as a puppy, and just as harmless…"
"You're dying to show off, so go ahead," she said as coolly as she was able.
To her surprise, he blushed a little. "It's just too good for you not to know. That woman who waltzed in? She kissed Clark right away, by the way. Oh, you don't like that, do you? But the thing was, Lois, she wasn't you. One frantic phone call to Lyle confirmed that. You were…shall we say…indisposed with Marvin at the same moment that…you…were in the conference room with the future Superman. Two of you. And not twins. Just…two of you.
"I had to listen to the audio on the studio tape about a hundred times before I came close to putting it together. Wells, Tempus…they're not important. But they knew your double well. Once she left, once Clark was revealed as Superman, the waters were so muddied; my little operation got a whole lot easier." He sighed heavily. A touch theatrically.
"You should have stayed with Marvin, Lois. I hoped that you would. You were so far out of the picture I was willing to leave you alone. But I guess the pull towards Metropolis, and then towards Clark was just…super strong."
"This whole time we've been looking for you. The gunrunner. The kingpin. Right under our noses"
"You were always the smart one," he replied with a broad wink. "Which is why I knew I needed to stay close to you. Know what your next step was going to be, so I could get there ahead of you. I realized I couldn't misdirect you forever. That eventually you'd put it all together, after talking to Marvin, or if Lester cracks before I get the charges against him thrown out. And now that Superman is off to the Congo to find our storage space, it's better to act. I'd much rather be too careful than too sorry, you know."
She walked back towards the window, searching the sky, a bit desperately, for the flash of blue and red. In the Congo. So far. She tried to ignore the trembling in her knees.
"You thinking of just screaming for him?" James asked. "He probably won't hear, but go ahead."
He pulled a brilliant green rock from his desk drawer and set it on his desk. "I recovered this from the press conference," he said casually. "Saw right away it could be really helpful. In fact, I didn't waste any time having as much as I could find dug up. It wasn't hard, not when we knew who Superman was, where he came from, where he landed. And I knew having it would come in handy some day. Today, as it turns out."
She knew it from the pictures, of course. But more that that, she knew it from the way Clark had looked when he'd finally made his way back from the Congo the first time. Beaten, bruised…vulnerable.
"Call him, if you like," James offered kindly, pulling a weapon from the same drawer which had housed the rock. "You two can die together. That's real love."
"There's no way I'm calling him," she spat. "You'll have to shoot me first, if you have the guts."
"Now don't be all noble and self sacrificing, Lois. He wouldn't like that. And besides, I can do that. Pretty easily. Kill you, and then just wait for him. I'll tell him I walked in and found you …muster up a few tears…but the rock will still be here."
"I won't call him to his death."
"Loyal to the end." he sighed. "I'll mention that to him when he's writhing on the floor, drawing his last breath. It'll mean a lot."
He was starting to sweat now. Finally, and that had to be good. She could see it from where she was standing — the façade cracking. The effort of staying so cool, so cheerful under pressure starting to be a bit forced.
She eyed the key on his desk, weighing her chances. Without the weapon, she could probably take him. She doubted James had done any real fighting of his own. He'd had Lester for that. Lester and a pack of hired goons. No. As the mastermind behind the operation, he was clever, but that didn't mean he was wise. He was an innate gambler, too. He had to be. The offer of the key, the offer to let her leave earlier, confirmed that.
Whether or not he could hold his own in a wrestling match was a bit moot, anyway. He had the gun. That certainly leveled the field. Still, how much experience with a firearm could he have? Computers? Yes. International smuggling? Yes. Subterfuge, clearly. But firing a weapon? Maybe he was as green at that as he was at editing, and she'd see some of his edits; he couldn't place a comma to safe his life.
And if James was a gambler, she was, too. But with one important difference between them. She had nothing to lose.
Decided, she whimpered, just for show, and watched with satisfaction as his stance relaxed. "I feel…faint. Can I sit for a minute?" She filled each word with dread, it wasn't hard. The dread was real.
She moved unsteadily towards his desk, towards the chair closest to him, making soft sounds of distress meant to relax him further. When she reached it, she set her hands on the arms of the chair, bending at the waist. Taking deep breaths and continuing to cry, even as she was tightening her grip.
"Sit, Lois," he said. "I'm not a monster. I'll wait until you pull yourself together—"
She pivoted, swinging the chair with every ounce of strength she possessed, and then some, adrenaline making her strong. She hadn't taken the time to aim, but she couldn't have asked for better. She connected with him solidly, right across the bridge of his nose. With blood cascading down his face, James hit the floor in a puddle of perspiration and expensive Armani.
She barely gave him time to fall before she followed, grabbing for the gun.
She'd made a lot of mistakes in this investigation. Not picking up on Lester's agenda all the while she lived happily oblivious in the Congo. Not realizing her boss was the one who was driving the whole thing. Rookie mistakes. She was still new, she would improve. But this…this was one mistake she wasn't making. No knocking the bad guy down and then just standing there, triumphant and feeling safe, until he popped right back up again. There was oblivious, there was blind…and there was just plain stupid. Which, she was not.
Her instincts set on survival, she wrenched at his wrist, pulling with all she had.
He didn't let go.
And to be honest, that surprised her slightly. He was much stronger than he looked. And pretty motivated.
Which one of them had played the odds better? She wondered that, dimly, as shots resounded — once, twice, three times. She lost count, and was trying to guess how many more bullets before the clip was empty. New strategy… just hang on and let him use all the bullets…that could work just as well as actually taking the gun…
Behind them the window shattered, a rain of glass covered the room in the same instant.
She knew before she looked up; it hadn't been gunshots that had broken the window.
Before she could register her relief, Superman had scooped her up, shoved her behind him, taken the gun, and mangled it. All in one easy motion, all just before he crumpled and hit the floor.
He'd had the presence of mind to collapse directly onto James, knocking him out cold, and trapping him beneath the weight of his body.
Lois found herself holding the green rock, though she couldn't remember dashing over to retrieve it. She took a step towards Clark, halting at his pained grimace.
"You have to tell me; what do I do with it?"
His only answer was a moan that sounded vaguely like her name.
She grabbed the key from James's desk, fitting it in the door with excruciatingly clumsy fingers. Once opened, she sprinted from the office, directionless, tasting her fear in her throat. What was it doing to him? How far from him did it have to be?
She needed to get rid of it, though not at the risk of anyone else finding it. She stopped at her desk. Would this do? With frantic fingers, she emptied her bottom drawer, flinging papers and files everywhere. She shoved the rock into the far corner, dumping everything back in to cover it
By the time she got back, Clark had moved off James and was looking for her.
"Did he…are you…?" he croaked, reaching a hand out to her even as he struggled to stand.
"I'm fine," she answered tightly, helping him stagger to the sofa. "I'm absolutely fine. No problem. Feeling good. Feeling… absolutely fine. But I said that already, didn't I? Still, you asked, and you should know—"
"Lois." That's all he said. That's all he had to say. Her legs, for some reason, wouldn't hold her up any longer. She swayed towards him, dropping down onto his lap.
One hand wrapped tightly around her waist, drawing her against him. The other buried itself in her hair, pulling her head gently down to his shoulder. "Shhh," he said, though she hadn't made a sound, other than her breathing, which did seem overly loud, but she couldn't really help that.
They stayed there. Not moving, not taking their eyes off James.
"I didn't see that coming," Lois finally said after a time.
"That's two of us, then," Clark returned in a low voice.
"Nice pair of investigative reporters we turned out to be."
"This is our first case," he said somewhat breathlessly. "We'll get better. And we solved it, right?"
"Sure. Just like we planned." She gestured to the phone, moving to rise. "The police."
"Just…not yet," he whispered, tugging her back towards him. "I hear sirens. Someone must have reported the gun shots."
She let herself go completely limp against him. "Can you feel that green rock from here?"
"Kryptonite. Only a little. Thanks, honey."
He looked drained. Exhausted. His eyes were closed and he leaned forward, his heart beat drumming against her side, his face fitted in her neck.
"I should be thanking you." She moved her hand to stroke the muscles in the arms that held her close. They were trembling, just as hers were.
"You didn't need me. You were doing ok when I got here," was the muffled reply.
"Right." She nodded. Her head bobbing up and down vigorously. "Just another day at the office."
James groaned loudly and rolled over, startling them both.
"The police?" she asked again.
"In the building." He lifted his head and listened. "Almost here." With great care he slid her from his lap, holding her steady around her waist until she gained her feet. "You ready?"
"Yes." She took a purposeful stride away from him. Then two more. "What made you come back?" she asked as calmly as she was able.
"I don't know. I just…did."
"Good decision," she said briskly. "Have I mentioned that I love you?"
He face lit up as he moved to stand, a little unsteady on his feet. "And have I said the same?"
"You're looking like a weak kitten, there, Superman. Can you do any better? Don't want the police to know—"
"— about the kryptonite, right." She watched as he pulled himself ramrod straight, brow stern, confidence in place. He was ready. "Better?"
"About the kryptonite," he repeated. "You would…lie…to the police?"
The elevator doors slid open.
"Get used to it," she retorted. "For Superman's sake, you're going to have to learn a little self preservation. And remember, no matter what he says, James Olsen is clearly insane. A criminal. You can't believe a word that comes out of his mouth. And besides, I never saw a thing."
She moved past him to greet the officers.
It was a couple of hours before the police left with James in tow. As soon as the elevator doors closed on their former friend and boss, Clark spun back into his casual clothes. Lois was still in the conference room after having been interviewed separately from him. He knew he had a small window of opportunity. To sit with her. To tell her things that were long since overdue. Any minute now she would leap to her feet, charge to her desk, start writing.
He knocked lightly on the door. Lois was lost in thought. Her head came up and she gave him a measuring look. "Are you feeling ok?"
"Yeah." He approached her, sank into the chair next to her. "You?"
"I guess so." She nodded a bit belatedly, letting him take her hand in his. "James," she sighed. "I'm not even angry yet, you know? Just…I tipped him off to our every move."
"You and me both." He rubbed her hand between his own, warming it. She felt cold.
She stood up.
He hadn't been quick enough, and maybe there was no such thing as quick enough when there was the story to write. Well, this could wait. It had already waited for months.
She paced to the window and back again, around the table once and then once more. He brought his elbows to his knees and leaned forward, watching her.
"You never answered my question that night I fell from the building."
"James had you pushed," he thought out loud, shaking his head as he tried to fit that to the man he'd thought he'd known. Lois was doing the same. "What question?"
"I asked you what made you decide to be Superman."
Their eyes meet. He swallowed hard. She knew.
<Too late. Always, always, too late…>
"But, I asked it wrong, didn't I? I should have asked you *who* made you decide to be Superman."
He held his hand out towards her, wanting her back, close to him. "Sit with me?" he entreated.
She did, which touched him deeply. He ran gentle fingers along her cheek, sinking them into her hair, rubbing the back of her neck, feeling the knots of tension.
"I only knew her for a couple of days. And I didn't really…know her," he began.
To his surprise he felt her relax beneath his hand.
"I want to know everything," she said. "And I'm prepared for it to be pretty unbelievable. I mean, after what happened earlier, I'm inclined to believe anything," she ended on a hollow laugh.
"And keeping in mind that you're sitting next to a man from another planet…" he rejoined.
"Exactly. More things under the sun and all that jazz," she prompted, her eyes holding his.
"She was you, Lois." He waited for her surprise, but it didn't come. "And she wasn't you at all. She lives in another dimension with her own life, her job, her…husband by now, Clark Kent. She was dumped here by a time-traveling criminal mastermind."
She did blink at that last, and he had to smile despite himself. "I'm taking notes," she said faintly. "There's a novel in this. A mini-series…"
"Lane and Hudson branch out into sci-fi?" He frowned a bit. "Yeah. I can see that, but I get top billing, the story is mostly mine, you came in late in the second act."
"So, tell me the story," she said, leaning her head on his shoulder as he wrapped his arm tight around her.
<So right. So perfect. So perfectly right…>
"When I was sixteen," he began, noting her start of surprise. "This is the real story," he said in a low voice. "And I've never told it." At her nod, he drew a deep breath. "I was on a class trip to Topeka. The big city." He smiled at her snort of distain. "Big to those of us raised in Smallville," he amended.
"And?" she said quietly.
"A train came into the station out of control. I could hear it from miles out, long before anyone else could. Could hear the conductor talking about failed brakes… And I had…no idea what to do."
Her hand slid to his knee, squeezed.
"I tried to tell the station manager that I thought something might be wrong, but he just looked at me like I was some kind of…green farmer's kid who'd never been to the fair. And well, I was…"
"What did you do?"
"Nothing. Not one thing."
"Did you know how strong you were, what you could do?" She sat up a little straighter.
"I never let myself find out. I knew about my vision, my hearing. I…suspected other things. I didn't really want to know, to be honest."
"So, you never really tested your limits." It wasn't a question.
"That probably sounds stupid, but even when I started here as Superman. Even after everything I knew about myself, the things the visiting Lois told me…It's one thing to know you're bulletproof, and another to step in front of a gun and believe it."
"So you didn't step in front of the train."
"I stood there. With my classmates. Pretending I was as helpless to stop it as they were. And knowing better. Really, despite not testing myself, I knew better. I knew."
"And there were injuries?"
"The train careened in, hit a waiting passenger train that, thank God, was empty. Untold damage, injuries, yes. No one killed. And that was just luck, Lois. It could have easily been far different."
"Half your life ago," she noted.
"I waited half my life to learn how I could help. To right that wrong. To redeem myself. No…listen," he persisted when he felt her move to protest. "When the other Lois came with this story of a parallel universe, a Clark Kent who dressed as a superhero and saved the day, I was ready. I had to — I needed to — be Superman."
"And Lana didn't understand that?"
"Lana was there that day at the train station. She was next to me during the crash. I…shielded her with my body, her and as many of my classmates as I was able. And later, after we'd gone home, I broke down and told her everything. How responsible I felt. How…different I was…"
She sat up and looked at him closely. The understanding in her eyes almost did him in. He lowered his. "It scared her, of course. And…repulsed her a little, I guess. I didn't let myself see that for a long time. She knew me, so I figured we'd…get around it. And we did, as long as I acted…normal."
"And then this Lois comes, teaches you about Superman, and Lana says…?"
"Lana didn't say anything," he said flatly. "Because I didn't give her a chance." He glanced at her expression. "I didn't even try to take her feelings into account, and you're surprised by that, aren't you? That's not like me, is it? Kind, sensitive Clark Kent." He smiled bitterly. "But, Lois, here's the secret. The real one, unknown to anyone but me, and to Lana. You need to know, too, if, well, you need to know."
"Let's have it." Her eyes never left his face, and he leaned in close, taking her hands in his, speaking carefully.
"Superman is a selfish endeavor. Entirely selfish on my part. I'm not the selfless, sacrificing hero I'm made out to be. I know that's how the divorce will play, and I don't deserve that. I'm Superman because I want to be. I could have done it differently. I didn't have to buy into the red cape. And when I was exposed, Lana and I could have disappeared. But I didn't. I choose this. I wanted this. More than I wanted…anything else."
"The divorce?" she repeated carefully.
He nodded. "Everyone will have this idea that I couldn't hold a marriage together and save the world. That I'm giving up my own happiness to watch out for the needs of the many. But that's a lie, Lois. That's the lie and nobody gets it. Superman is what I do — first and always — for me. I see that now. And I can't be sorry."
"And it crowds out everything else? Doesn't leave you with room for…anything?"
He hesitated. "It has. I didn't know how to change that. I hadn't really tried. Hadn't really felt the need to until…"
"You," he finished quietly.
She didn't answer.
He didn't offer more.
Her eyes pulled at his, looking, searching. He met her gaze.
<Let her find it. Whatever she needs, whatever she's looking for, let it be here. Let her find it.>
She stood. Started to pace. His heart started to pound in rhythm with her rapid footsteps. She was deciding.
"A few questions, Mr Kent" she said briskly, all business.
"Fire away, Ms Lane." He leaned back in his chair, trying to look as cool as she was.
"You loved this Lois?" she asked. "When you met her? You…felt something?"
He let out a long breath. "Yes, I did. But not like you think. She was…important. She taught me, shook me out of my life, and showed me—"
She held up her hand, cutting him off. "She was Marvin," she finished for him.
"She was not Marvin!" he answered her indignantly. "She looked a whole lot better than Marvin."
"You never saw Marvin before his face was broken," she retorted.
"No, no," he rushed to assuage her. "He's…adorable, Lois. He's just not my type?"
"He," she said with an arched brow, "shook me out of my life. Showed me what was possible. Made me better…for having loved him. Sound familiar?"
"She was your double," he said haltingly. "Married to my double. That's…ok?"
"He was a fantastic lover," she countered. "And there's no one else like him. That's…ok?"
"Ok," he said weakly. "Now I'm just…trying to stop the pictures in my head."
"Yes?" The knots, which were already in his stomach, pulled tighter.
"You said you were divorcing. You told me things were different. That the night of the fire…you were saying goodbye."
"I was." He read her face closely. He didn't want to apologize. And she didn't seem to be expecting him to. "We were…together one last time," he said softly. "And I know how that might sound, Lois, but…Lana and I had so many years, and I do love her. In a way, I guess I always will. And she loved me…as much as she could love…an alien. And I can't blame her for that, she was always true to that. It's just that…when I changed, it wasn't enough…for either of us. We couldn't pretend any more."
"It isn't a new story, Clark. And being an alien doesn't make it any different. You and Lana. Marvin and me. My parents. Not all love lasts forever. If I told you how many boyfriends…well…forever isn't the norm, let's put it that way."
"But I want that, Lois," he said, laying it all out in front of her. "That is exactly what I want. It's all that I want. Forever."
"Come here," she said. And he did, immediately.
She studied him in silence for several minutes.
"Yes," she said at last, just when he had decided the quiet was going to kill him. "Yes," she repeated a bit more firmly. A slow, beautiful smile crawling across her face.
He swallowed, or rather tried to swallow the desperate hope that had risen.
"Lois?" He hadn't meant it to sound that needy, that shaky. But he was needy and shaky, so there it was.
"You and me," she answered what he hadn't asked.
"You and me," he returned.
"Let's do this. Let's be Lane and Hudson, and Superman and Superman's lover, and Rescuer and Rescuee, we'll take turns on that one, and…you and me. Let's do this. Let's figure out how this works."
She was taking him on.
"It's a lifetime project," he cautioned her, though God knew he wasn't trying to talk her out of it. "I'm a lifetime project."
"I see great potential in you." She grinned, tilted her head as she walked slowly around him As if he were a new car she had thoughts of buying.
"Care to kick the tires?" he asked. "Make sure everything's in working order?"
"You mean like a test drive?" Her arms came around his waist, and he felt her press up against him, her warm cheek between his shoulder blades, her soft curves against his back. He forced his feet to stay on the ground, no floating.
"It's only smart," he breathed.
"Anybody ever tell you, you're a bit too cautious?" she had risen up on tiptoe to put those words in his ear. He had felt the delicious shift of every inch of her against him.
He closed his eyes, brought his hands to cover hers, as they smoothed his tie. He would keep this tie forever, he decided. Frame it. Never tell anyone why. Because when he had put it on this morning, he'd had no idea, none at all, that this was the day his whole life would change. More than the day he became Superman. More, even, than the day his parents died. Today was the day he understood what his purpose was, who he really was. How he fit. Because now he did.
"We could get out of here," he said huskily.
"But where would we go?" she asked, doing a nice job of dressing that in innocent confusion.
He turned then. Into the circle of her arms, her embrace…into her life. And whatever he had been going to say, however he had planned to answer, fled his mind when he saw her face. Turned up towards his. Open. Loving. Right on time.
"All this time, Lois," he said. "I thought I was the one doing the saving."
"Well, don't knock your contribution here," she said with a smile. "One bomb, one freefall, one fire, a boss with bullets. You have definitely been contributing."
"But you were rescuing me. Making me see how to be…me. And it was definitely the harder job," he told her. "Thank you." It sounded inadequate. It barely spoke to everything in his heart. But he knew she understood.
Her eyes, which had already been sparkling, glimmered more under the tears. "You're welcome, Clark," she answered him seriously.
The Daily Planet reported the arrest of its editor and owner, James Olsen, young software mogul, political advisor to Mayor White, and gunrunner.
Perry weathered the storm, though some doubt was cast on the legitimacy of his office. He had been handpicked by Olsen to run the city. Speculation over the reason why was rampant.
In the end, a thorough investigation by Lane and Hudson cleared Mayor White of any wrongdoing, other than being duped by a very slick, very likable criminal mind.
A new editor was hired. And after weeks of controversy, the Olsen story, like all others, was eventually shoved off the front pages by something else.
The something else was Superman's divorce. It was met with the same intense scrutiny as the Olsen scandal, though Lane and Hudson declined to cover it, insisting it wasn't hard news and was more suited to the society pages.
Lana Lang-Kent issued a statement saying that she and her husband had parted amicably. There was no blame. Living with Superman had proven to be a task she wasn't up for and had never desired. But she wished him well. And what she wished most for herself was to be left alone.
Superman spoke on record only once. Mostly to make clear that though they were no longer together, he still considered Lana Lang his family. As such, she was still protected at all times by Federal Agents. And if anything ever happened to her, he would take it very personally.
The world moved on.
Clark moved out of his and Lana's townhouse, explaining to those encamped there that he didn't need such a big place to himself. That he was single now and would stay that way.
Nobody needed to know differently.
His whereabouts, when he wasn't Superman, when he wasn't at the Daily Planet, were largely a mystery. Those who had spent a year covering his every coming and going were a bit relieved. How many different ways were there to describe his swooping in and out, the flash of his cape against they sky, the brilliance of the blue, the determined, aloof, saintly veneer…?
Clark Kent was Superman. Everything that could be said about that had been said.
There wasn't anyone on the sidewalk or in the parked cars below. No one stirring in the building across the street. The neighborhood looked completely quiet. No reporters, photographers, pedestrians. In fact, from his vantage point, the whole city appeared to be sleeping, but for one person. He spotted her seated at her kitchen table, and even from his careful distance, he could see her face was a study in concentration, the kind of concentration unique to Lois Lane.
He stayed where he was for just an extra second, breathing deeply, pushing away the memories of the long night and day just passed. The reminders of all that Superman couldn't do.
He was back now. The window was open for him. She had waited up. And there wasn't any reason in the world he couldn't fly down and be with her. He had been returning to Lois in just this way for a couple of months now. The wonder of it, the rightness of it, still touched him deeply.
He blurred to near invisibility, taking no chances, despite how vacant the streets seemed at the hour. He hit the floor and spun simultaneously. She didn't even look up.
"Hey," she offered absently over her shoulder.
"Hey, yourself," he returned, grasping her by the shoulders and tilting her chair back to lean over and kiss her properly. Just as he had hoped, she let herself relax against him, meeting his lips warmly, making the sound in the back of her throat he had come to listen for, to delight in. But it was only for a second. Then, she was springing to her feet with a sparkle in her eyes that was more than a simple greeting.
He took an instinctive step backwards, though he knew that was ridiculous.
<No reason to be alarmed. No point jumping to conclusions. Only a question.>
"What?" He shot a quick glance behind her, at what she had been working on. Checking for designs to take over the world, a blue print for running the city, the flow chart outlining the fall of her enemies. He saw only…contracts, surveys…largely innocent looking.
< A story, then. See?>
"I bought the farm today," she stated in a rush, waving the papers he'd been discreetly deciphering under his nose. "Bought the whole thing — lock, stock, and barrel. Or…well…more like derelict sheds, abandoned barn, and…uh…horseshoes."
She was waiting for his response. Her body language sending him frantic signals to understand, to be happy, enthused…
And he wanted to. He really did, but…
"I give up," he said with an apologetic shrug. "Pretend I just flew in from a typhoon and I have no idea what you're talking about."
"I bought your farm, Clark. The Kent place. In Smallville."
"You…bought it? As in…bought it?"
"Yeah." In face of his bewildered silence, her smile dimmed somewhat, along with some of her energy, her confidence.
He took the papers from her hand and pulled her to sit on the sofa.
"I…don't understand," he faltered. "Why, Lois?"
"I thought if we had a place that was off the radar, some place they might not think to look for you…some place that was…ours, then we'd be…I don't know…more settled."
"More settled," he repeated blankly.
"What? You don't want that? Oh…god, you don't want that!" She was on her feet in a blur. "You're just barely divorced, of course you aren't ready for 'more settled.' Too fast, too…permanent, Too…oh, so stupid, I shouldn't have done it…"
"Lois, honey, no—" He reached for her, but she danced away like a boxer into her corner. Light on her feet, ready to hit back. Only the person she was currently beating up was herself.
"It's just…I had this flash, this insight — where would they never think to look for you? Everyone knows you were born there, but you haven't been back since you were eighteen, and you've never shown any interest…"
"But of course you haven't shown any interest. You aren't interested. And there's a reason you haven't gone back, right? I mean, what could that farm hold for you but unhappy memories; you were only ten…What was I thinking?"
"You don't have to yell, Clark. I can sell it. I mean, it isn't exactly a hot property, but I'm sure there's someone out there with a spare twenty bucks and a yearning to grow corn who might take it off my hands. I'll just call Nancy the realtor —"
Before he could blink she was across the room, phone in hand.
"Lois…" He approached her carefully, successfully removing the phone from her vise-like grip after only a minute of tug of war. "It's four a.m. Whoever Nancy is, I'm pretty sure she's not available. And I can't believe you did that for me. Bought my home. That's…"
"What?" she asked, shifting rapidly from foot to foot, hers eyes glued to the phone in his hand, looking for an opportunity to seize it back.
"Amazing," he finished quietly.
"Oh," she said, her gaze flashing to meet his, as she finally went still. "Oh…good. See? I knew you'd like it."
"Well," he said with a smile, "that was quite a sales pitch."
"It was held for you for years by the Irigs," she said with a glare, moving to show him the paperwork.
"Yeah." He sat down in the chair she'd vacated. She slipped onto his lap. The most natural thing in the world. "When I left town, I told Wayne to sell it. I didn't think I'd ever go back, there wasn't anything to go back to."
"Three families came and went during that time, tried and failed to make good of it. Nancy warned me that farming there doesn't pay."
"But we won't be farming."
"Now you're catching on."
"So, what will we be doing?"
"Living like any couple. Even if it's just weekends, holidays, whatever. We'll have something that's…ours."
"Want to go see?"
She didn't have to ask twice. He spun back into the suit he'd just taken off, taking her by the hand and stepping cautiously over the windowsill, checking that all was still quiet.
"Coast is clear," he said with a wink as they drifted noiselessly into the dark, cloudy night.
It was pitch black when they landed, and he was embarrassed to admit that he'd had a little trouble finding it. He had been eighteen when he had flown away from Smallville for what he had thought would be the last time. He had come back, though, just a handful of years later. To get Lana. To bring her to Metropolis where he had settled, where he was sure they could have the anonymous, ordinary life he wanted.
Had he ever been that naive?
Lana hadn't wanted to fly back. She had insisted that they drive, hauling a trailer full of her things behind them. The trip had taken hours, and for much of it they had excitedly discussed their new place, what it would like to live together, the wedding…
The things he had missed that long day. Or maybe had just refused to notice…
He could have had them there — in the place Lana begged him to describe over and over, the place she 'couldn't wait to see' — in minutes. He could have moved all of her belongings under cover of night. Then, once there, could have unpacked for her in seconds.
But she said she wanted to be 'normal.' A normal, regular couple.
And he had nodded, understanding. Didn't he want the very same thing? As he had tried to stretch in the cramped confines of the car they'd rented, he had told himself…what? That this was what his life was supposed to be? That he could make her happy? That Lana was his…soul mate?
And now here he was, back where he had started, one divorce later, with the woman he loved desperately, wanted to spend his life with. Once more embarking on something new, something theirs. Was this really different?
It had to be. It just had to. He couldn't stand to think otherwise.
"A flashlight," Lois said, breaking the silence, "in retrospect, might have been a good idea. For those of us who don't see in the dark."
"I know where the generator is," he answered just a bit unsteadily. "Stay right here? Don't move and don't fall down any abandoned wells that aren't in the survey, ok? Let me go see if it still works."
It did. The farm house blossomed into light.
Blossomed…maybe being a bit too poetic.
"Hurray!" said Lois.
"Right…well." He studied it for a minute. "It looks like a…hovel."
"It's our hovel. And I was told it was a…fixer-upper."
"That might have been a tad understated."
"We've got time, though. It'll be fun. We'll work on it slowly."
"Time isn't exactly on our side, Lois." He turned in the dark to face her, watching the reflection of light from the windows play on her face "We can't hide forever. We'll be discovered one day, and then you'll be right in the middle of it, just like —"
"I'm not Lana, Clark," she cut him off impatiently. "I knew the risks going in. And I'll be fine with it."
"It isn't fair to you."
"It's part of the deal."
"It isn't a great deal, Lois. And this—" He gestured to the farmhouse. "— might be more than you bargained for. I…might be more…than you bargained for."
"You are definitely a fixer-upper, too," she tossed over her shoulder as she headed for the door. "I hope it isn't locked."
"You could just huff and puff and blow the—"
She gave him a withering glare and the door a hearty shove. It groaned on its hinges, swinging open. At first glance inside, she called back, "When I said it would be fun…that might have been a tad optimistic. She stepped over the threshold. "Anyway, until we get this in shape, my apartment does just fine."
He didn't follow her in, but hovered in the doorway, marking her progress into the house. "Does it, Lois?"
"Hm?" She headed for the light switches, experimentally flipping and observing what worked and what didn't.
"Does your apartment…do fine?" He pushed himself into the room, into her path. "I mean…how awkward is it, having me around, and having me…not around?"
As soon as he realized he was doing it, he dropped the edges of his cape, stopped shredding it with nervous fingers.
She barely shrugged. "When you gave up your townhouse, we agreed that it didn't make sense for you to take another place. We already work together, spend evenings together, it just makes sense."
He drew in a deep breath, closed his eyes. "If we were sleeping together, it would."
She stopped counting the cracks in the ceiling, or whatever else she'd been doing, and looked at him.
He kept going, wishing she wasn't quite so focused, so intent…on him. "This roommate thing is…I don't know, Lois. Who moves in with their girlfriend before they've ever been on date? If they could ever hope to date without being noticed, which they can't—"
The flash of anger on her face stopped him cold.
"How long?" she demanded. "How long have you been thinking like this? And why didn't you just open your mouth and say something before?"
He moved away, making a show of checking the fireplace, running his hands over the worn mantle. Suddenly, he was five years old again, watching his dad make the mantle in his woodshop. He had carved it out of a tree that had grown in Schuster's field. "A keepsake," Jonathan Kent had said with a twinkle in his eyes, "of a little souvenir we picked up there."
He swallowed hard, caught off guard by the ghosts that still lived inside the walls, after all this time.
"Because I'm scared to death you're going to figure out what a lousy deal this is for you," he said finally, without turning. "You loved all that peace and quiet in the Congo, staying with Marvin. Being with me, being Superman's love interest is about as far from that as you can get."
"That's why this place is perfect. It's a compromise. We'll have a get away, some place hidden—"
He did turn then, to meet her eyes fully. To be sure she heard him.
"They'll find it, Lois. I want you to look around and imagine yourself here, alone, while I'm half a world away. Three photographers on the roof. A dozen reporters camped in the barn. Ten on the front steps. And you with no place to go."
"I'm not her, Clark," Lois returned heatedly. "If they bother me, I'll just kill them and bury them in the backyard. Look out there; we have acres. I could hide hundreds of bodies before anyone got wise."
"I could help you dig," he suggested with a weak smile.
"You're coming around."
"I sound ungrateful, I know. I'm just…wondering…"
"Spit it out," she demanded, taking a seat on the ancient chair next to the fireplace, a cloud of dust rising as she did so.
"Here." He unhooked his cape and placed it on the overstuffed sofa, hesitating for a fraction as he smoothed out the material. What that the same sofa? It couldn't be, and yet he thought he remembered the faded pattern, though if you had asked him to describe it before now, he wouldn't have been able to.
Lois moved to the red silk "Nice," she said, bouncing up and down a little. "We'll keep this."
"Why don't we make love?" he blurted, feeling his face flush as he did so.
She stopped bouncing, but otherwise showed no surprise. "Because you don't want to."
"I don't…want to?"
"You don't, Clark. You wanted to wait for the divorce to be final, and I did, too. I liked Lana. I didn't want to hurt her or you by…pushing for more."
He circled the living room slowly. Circling the ghosts of his past, as well. His mom's rocking chair, the front door Lana had knocked on countless times. The place was haunted, or he was. Either way, it suddenly felt very crowded.
"My divorce was final weeks ago," he said, studying the scratches his skates had made in the wood floor. No one had bothered to buff them out. He'd been eight. His mom had been so mad; he had thought he'd never live it down. Two short years — that was all he'd had left here. He couldn't have imagined…
"And you're still grieving, still blaming yourself."
"Is that what you think?"
"Am I wrong?" she challenged.
He took a few steps into the kitchen, not only to avoid her eyes, but to see how it felt to stand where he used to stand when he was confused and needed comforting. His mom would be at the counter, baking something great that involved a lot of ingredients. And he would lean against her, tell her what current trouble plagued him. Pete was sick and couldn't play. Milking the cows was boring and did he really have to?
"I failed Lana," he said, speaking loudly enough for Lois to hear him, but not so loud as to disturb the memories, to dissipate the love he imagined he could still feel in that very spot. "I don't want to fail you. And if I get as close to you as I want — I'm dying to, Lois, you have to know — I know it will be closer than I've ever been to anyone." He halted, embarrassed by the emotion creeping into his voice, the shake he couldn't keep from it. "Closer to perfect than anything, and if this doesn't work, if you ever decide you want out…"
"I won't decide that." She had moved into the kitchen, and he stepped back a pace, making room for her, wanting her in there.
"You did with Marvin." He knew it was a feeble argument, but still.
"Marvin lived in a tree, Clark."
He smiled, despite himself, and opened his arms to her, needing her next to him, not sure he could look at her and say what he had to say.
"I want to be good for you. Like you are for me. And I don't know how, when I'm gone so much, when I come with this heavy set of baggage, when I'm so…scared…all the time. More scared now than I've ever been, now that I have what I never thought I would. Stupid, isn't it?"
Her arms tightened around him and he closed his eyes and tried to remember when he had ever felt so safe, so completely loved. The last time had been right here. In another life.
And it hadn't lasted, either.
"Trust me," Lois said. "Can't you just trust me — that I know?"
"How?" he pushed. It was too important not to. "How would you know?"
She pulled away from him, hands on her hips, head tilted to the side, ready to fight if need be. "How did you know to come back to the Planet that day with James? How did you know to find me on the boat in the harbor? You said you were asleep when I called and beside me in the next second. Or when I fell from the building, what about then? I didn't even scream. You just…caught me out of thin air. How did you do that, Clark? How did you know?"
"I. just did," he sighed. "I always have. I didn't understand it at the time, and I sure knew I didn't like it. That I was, somehow, so connected to you from the very beginning."
So, why can't I just know? Like that? And why can't you trust that connection, trust me to know what I need?"
"What do you need, Lois?"
"Someone to dust this place for one thing." She ran a hand across the counter top, her fingerprints showing stark against the grime. "And new slipcovers for another." She pointed to the sofa. "Curtains." She gestured to the window.
"Blinds," he said. "So no one sees in. That's how it would have to be, you know. Keeping the blinds closed when I'm here, just in case. Always closed. And I'd have to soundproof; the walls are too thin, otherwise. It's…suffocating…to some."
"Cozy," she snarled, managing to make it sound like a swear word. "You and me by the fire. The rest of world outside these doors. Do I have to draw you a picture!"
"Sorry," he studied his red boots for a second, working to keep the smile off his face. "Ok, blinds, and then what?"
"Furniture that won't splinter me," she continued with a scowl that said she forgave him, but he had better watch it. "And hot, running water."
"You have a hang-up with the running water thing. You know you still say 'ah ha!' every morning you turn the taps on the sink?"
"Three years, Clark." She stalked off towards the bathroom. "Three long, dry years."
He followed her into the downstairs bath, moving around her as she struggled with the taps in the shower. "This room is clean," he observed. "How do you figure that?"
"Nancy the realtor said she had someone come out and start cleaning. I guess this was as far as they got."
The pipes groaned in protest, choking and chugging before a stream of rusty water made its way out, followed in a few minutes by clear, hot water.
"Ah ha!" Lois said, as the steam rose to meet them.
"Seems to work fine," he confirmed. "I guess you'll stay now."
"That was the deal breaker," she agreed. "Come on, show me which one was your room."
When she got to the stairs, she realized he hadn't followed. "Hello in there? Let's go up."
There was no answer; the water in the shower continued running. "I said it was hot enough for me," she teased a bit impatiently, stepping back into the room. "Look, loose tile here, can you just…give it a push?"
He didn't move. Instead he stayed where he was, one hand absently taking the temperature of the water, the other rubbing the back of his neck. He was thinking…again.
"What now?" she sighed.
"I was wondering…" he answered slowly, turning towards her. The look in his eyes was the last thing she expected. It was…well, it was…something. She'd come back to this. Think of the right word later.
"Wondering?" she croaked, pressing a bit harder on the loose flooring with her sneaker.
"About what you dreamed that night, Lois," he said in a low voice. "The night I…heard you in the shower."
He was studying her closely now, waiting, she knew, for her to join the question to the images. She felt a flare of heat in her chest, a slow burn rising to her face, but she didn't pretend to misunderstand.
"You told me later that you were awake because you'd been thinking about me," he prompted with a small smile.
She found her voice. "Given that some thought, have you?"
"Not in the last five minutes," he confessed quietly.
"Did you look?" She watched his face. He was a horrible liar, and she would know otherwise. "That night?"
"No, I didn't." He shook his head, grimaced. He hadn't. "But almost. And it never occurred to me that you might wonder that. I invaded your privacy so completely, of course you would."
"I didn't care," she told him. "Didn't care if you saw, Clark. I find privacy to be… overrated."
He took a step towards her in the small space, drawing her gently off the tile she was still teetering on. "If I had looked, what would I have seen, honey?"
"Me," she said on an exhale. She was trembling now, and she knew he could feel it, because his arms came tight around her. "Trying to get you out of my system…wishing that things were…really different." She closed her eyes, leaned against him. "Wishing that just once I could have what I had dreamed about it."
He lowered his lips beside her ear. "Thing are really different now."
"Yeah." She could feel the high color on her cheeks, and wondered briefly if he could feel it as well, heating the spandex that surrounded her. She pressed against him, feeling his heartbeat drumming against hers…every bit as quickly.
"So, what woke you up that night?" The words were kissed into her hair. His grip tightened. "I want to know, Lois."
"If I have a complaint about you—" She slipped her arms around his neck, meeting his eyes, and in so doing, forgetting entirely what she wanted to say. She kissed him. It seemed like a good way to go, instead.
He kissed her back, rocking her against him, moving his hands lower to anchor her in the same instant she realized she had gotten a bit wobbly in the knees.
"You were lodging a complaint," he prompted after a time.
"I was?" she asked a bit dreamily. "Oh…I was. Right. Um…it's this: You're really bad at coming right out and saying what you want. Remember the day that James tried to kill me?"
"I hate how many of our conversations start something like 'when so and so tried to kill me…'" he sighed a bit dramatically. "But, yeah, it rings a bell."
"You said you wanted forever." She continued as his nod, warmed by the light that came into his eyes. "You said that forever was all you wanted. And you know, that was the first time you'd ever said out loud something that you wanted. I think this — telling me you want to know what I was thinking that night — is only the second."
His hands dropped from her waist, went up to worry with his hair, so she knew his answer was going to be good. Honest. "From the time my parents died, there wasn't really anyone to tell what I wanted, or what I thought. So, I got used to…not." He was already shaking his head at the look of pity she knew she had failed to hide, despite how he would hate it. "And that's not a sob story, it's just…my story."
"Maybe we could work on that." She moved back into his arms, back into the warmth there, holding his gaze with her own. "You could practice telling me what you're thinking, what you need…"
He looked thoughtful, and leaned forward to meet her lips gently, sealing the deal. "In that case," he murmured against her mouth, "I need your shoes."
"Yes, your shoes, please," he said with grave importance. "I need you to take them off, give them to me."
"Of course, I thought when you finally started talking, I would understand—"
He went to his knees before her. One hand steadying her waist, the other removing her shoes and tossing them aside. "And your socks, please, Lois."
"This isn't some primal, he-man fantasy, is it?" she scolded. "Get the little woman down on the farm, and then keep her barefoot and—" She halted on a giggle as his palms slid over her bare feet, the faintest of tickles. "Seriously, what are you…?"
"That t-shirt," he said, rising to stand, a slow, delicious smile crawling over his face.
"Sorry?" she choked.
"I want that t-shirt, Lois." His hands moved to the hem of her shirt, tugging it from her jeans. "Please," he added nicely.
"I…I…" she answered smartly. "Uh…" she threw in for good measure.
"Water's still hot," he whispered in her ear. "Won't be for too much longer, though with me here, that isn't really…a problem."
"Is this what they call progress?" she gasped out, as his warm hands slid across her stomach and along her ribs, drawing her shirt up with a gentle pull. "You seem to be catching on to voicing your desires."
"I'm improving by leaps and bounds. I was always a good student. And the reward system here is so…" His voice trailed away as he lifted her shirt from her shoulders.
"Yes?" she asked.
"What?" he raised his eyes to hers after a time.
"The reward system is so…? You seem to have lost your train of thought there, buddy."
"It's so…soft…beautiful," he said earnestly, moving slow hands down the sides of her neck, over her shoulders, to her waist. "I got to see you that night, but I never got to really touch you. I knew if I did…but still I held you in that towel and died a thousand deaths, that's for sure. Your jeans?"
"You know you said that all in one breath? This may be a major break-through. A person keeps it all inside for years, and then one day just starts…hey!"
"You were taking too long. I needed you to go faster." His fingers were playing with the button on her waistband, the zipper already undone.
"Well, that's a little…pushy, isn't it?" she said a bit unsteadily.
"All this communicating isn't making you nervous, is it, Lois?" He threw her a wicked grin. "I mean, I know you've been tied to a bomb," he said through lips that were exploring her collar bone. "Thrown from a building…" This while his tongue found the hollow of her throat. "Caught in an inferno…" His knuckles coming up to brush against her curves. "Wrestled with a former boss turned gun runner…" Back to her mouth to kiss her deeply.
And he shouldn't have, but he made those words sound so sexy.
<Tied…oh, yeah. Thrown…baby. Inferno…whew, it sure was. Wrestled…well…heh.>
And he was still talking, his hands in her hair now, tilting her face up to study her. "…but I don't think I've ever seen you this…rattled."
"Take that smirk off your face," she said on a moan, pushing away from him, and reaching for her jeans. "Here." She put an extra shimmy into her hips, taking some satisfaction in the change in him as she kicked the denim aside. "Have we reached the end of your list of demands?" she challenged.
He might have blinked. She wasn't sure.
"Uh… No." He shook his head vigorously. "No. We are definitely just getting started."
His eyes held hers tightly as his fingers slipped under the straps of her bra, sliding the satin strips over her shoulders with great deliberateness. When he reached around her and found the catch, she stammered, "This too?"
"This, especially." She felt the low rumble of his words against her chest. Against every inch of her. When her bra fell away, she melted into him, into the heat of his body she could feel even through the spandex. Feather light touches brushed along her spine, traveling down her back, until they reached the edge of her panties.
"These?" she asked. "Seems unfair. I mean, that leaves me with nothing, and you with—"
"I want them, Lois," his voice and lips teased her ear. "You said I just needed to tell you."
He peeled them slowly off her hips and down her legs, lifting her from the floor as she stepped out of them. He carried her to the shower, setting her inside. "I want to finish what we started that night. What we couldn't."
"Then you're way overdressed, Superman."
"This was as far as I got last time," he said, his fingers reaching for the zipper of the suit. "I froze right here. Wanted to so badly, Lois, you have no idea."
"I do know," she returned, the teasing gone from her voice as well. "I know how much you wanted to, and how much you didn't want to…want to."
"This was what I couldn't do."
He spun, tossing the suit over his shoulder and onto the floor. He paused on the threshold, a plea in his eyes. "From here on out, Lois, it can only be you and me. I mean, I can't do this and then learn to live without you. I said I wanted forever, and I do, so much. Just…tell me, again, that we'll make it. That you can handle being famous. Beyond famous. That one day you'll marry me. And that you won't be sorry. I have to know that. I need to hear—"
"Clark," she interrupted not quite as gently as she could have, given the sweetness and urgency of the sentiment. "I know I said your communication skills were somewhat lacking, and I appreciate what you're saying. But right now, I'm really missing my tortured, silent hero. Remember him? He kept a lot bottled up inside, didn't use many words. He just…acted."
He moved to join her so quickly she almost didn't see him.
"Show me, Lois. What you dreamed that night. Show me what you wanted."
"If you can shut up for two minutes," she groaned against his mouth. "I will."
The water ran hot, then eventually lukewarm, until it finally turned cold enough for them to notice.
"Sorry," he said, reaching blindly behind him to turn off the taps, warming her with his heat vision as he did so. "And call Nancy," he gasped, as they slid, rather ungracefully, to the wet floor. "Tell her she sold a house to two…very satisfied customers."
"You see?" Lois said into his blinding smile. "Fixing this place up will be fun."
It was still dark when he quietly let himself into the kitchen. He would hear her even breathing coming from their bedroom. The one — that what now felt like a million years ago — had been his mom and dad's. He paused. Stood still and simply listened. Smallville was so silent he could make out which birds were nesting in what trees, the sound of milk hitting pail in the Irig's barn, a cranky tractor lumbering through the fields. He let himself absorb it, get lost in the peace of it, and appreciate the contrast.
Metropolis, even before sunrise, had been as busy, crowded, and frantic as it always was during his predawn patrol. And he loved that, too. But this…this was different.
Lois was asleep in the four-poster bed they had unearthed in one of the derelict storage sheds on the property. His parent's bed. Theirs, now.
He spun quietly, tossing the suit onto the sofa in the den. He'd need it again in just a couple of hours, when Lois Lane and Clark Kent would leave their Fortress of Solitude and report to work at the Daily Planet along with all the Monday morning commuters.
He took just a moment to look at her from the doorway. Her hair covered her face, the waning moonlight lit up her bare shoulders. And she was, once again, hogging all the covers and his side of the bed.
He wouldn't have it any other way.
He lifted the ancient quilt carefully, sliding in behind her, gathering her to him. "Five more minutes," she mumbled groggily.
"It's early," he whispered against her hair, "we've got all the time in the world."
End note: That invaluable input from LabRat I mentioned in the author's notes, the one bit I couldn't have written this without, was her "What if James is the villain?" musing.