By Wendy Richards <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Submitted: December 2005
Summary: Lois swears to Superman that she knows him. He decides to show her that she doesn't. "A Barbarians at the Planet" adaptation.
This story started life as a birthday story for my good friend Elena, who loves stories about Superman. Along the way, however, it mutated, parts being posted in honour of other FoLC's birthdays: TriciaW and LauraU. Now, I'm dedicating this final version to a very special FoLC, Sara Kraft. Through her feedback on the boards, suggestions on IRC and lovely, detailed feedback emailed to me, Sara had quite an influence on the story. Several points in here arose from her suggestions or asides, and if she'd given me many more I'd have to give her co-author status!
So, to a very special FoLC and friend, thank you so very much, Sara! And this one's for you.
I would also like to express my appreciation to my Archive GE, Paul-Gabriel Wiener, for his usual very thorough and friendly editing. Nice job!
All rights to the characters belong to DC Comics and Warner Bros; no infringement of copyright is intended by their use in this work of fiction.
This was a mistake. A huge mistake.
She was wearing a nightgown. A spaghetti-strapped, sheer satin nightgown. And she had to have known there was a chance Superman might come to see her. She'd sent the summons, after all.
Could she get any more blatant?
Yes, she should put on a robe. Though, instead of agreeing with her, his mouth opened and a harsh, suggestive statement came out instead. His mother would've washed his mouth out with soap.
On the other hand, it was probably a good thing. Maybe now she'd give up whatever plan she had in mind. Not that there was any doubt about what she wanted.
But the next words out of her mouth dashed any hope that she might realise she was wasting her time.
"Superman, is there any hope for us? You and me? I'm so completely in love with you that I can't do anything else without knowing."
She was staring at him wide-eyed, pleading. Had she any idea how pathetic she looked?
Had he looked even half so pathetic earlier? God, he hoped not.
He shouldn't have come. Let his non-appearance tell Lois that he wasn't interested.
The problem was, it wasn't true. Even after today, her rejection followed instantly by her request that he find Superman for her, he still loved her. Even though it was painfully clear that, in the race for her heart, Clark came nowhere at all. And, when Lex Luthor ranked up there somewhere behind Superman, that was even more of an insult.
Yet… he still loved her. And saying words which would hurt her was just something he couldn't do.
He sighed. "Lois, I do care for you." That much was true, even if it was crazy to admit it. Still, he had to do something to give her the message, loud and clear, that Superman was never going to give her the happy ever after with a white picket fence she so clearly wanted. "But… there are things about me you don't know, that you may never know."
Was that enough? Would she accept that he was going to insist on keeping his distance, that he could never offer her a relationship?
No, it wasn't enough. Ever stubborn, Lois was pleading again.
"It doesn't matter. I know *you.* And I don't mean you the celebrity or you the superhero. If you had no powers, if you were just an ordinary man leading an ordinary life, I'd love you just the same. Can't you believe that?"
Could he believe that? How could he possibly believe it?
She worked beside that same ordinary man — well, had until the Planet had burned down. Had worked beside him daily for a *year*. Never once had she so much as suspected that there was anything different about Clark Kent. Anything out of the ordinary.
No, she wouldn't love Superman as an ordinary man. She *didn't* love him as an ordinary man.
So what now?
He could tell her bluntly that he didn't believe her. He could just fly out of here — which he probably should have done within ten seconds of arriving — or he could try, somehow, to explain why he knew that she didn't know him at all. Without giving away the real reason, of course.
Or… he could *show* her…
Slowly, he said, "You think you know me, Lois. Trust me, you don't."
"You don't, Lois. And I'll prove it to you." He stepped back, closer to the window. "Get some clothes on — something warm. We're going flying."
Flying with Superman. Any other time, a treat she'd savour, would dream about for weeks.
It wasn't as if she'd flown with him that often, and he'd never offered to take her just for fun; just to show her what the experience was like. Mostly he'd just flown her back to the Planet after saving her. So this, tonight, should be one of the most special times of her life…
Except that something about the way Superman had issued the invitation suggested that he didn't mean it that way. In fact, he hadn't even phrased it as an invitation. More an instruction, along with a challenge.
Well, if there was one thing Lois Lane relished, it was a challenge.
So he didn't believe that she knew him? She would show him. She'd had almost a year, after all, to understand everything about him. His ethics. What motivated him. The way he cared about everyone, no matter who they were. How it tore him up when he couldn't save someone.
The way his mouth crinkled at the corners on the rare occasions she'd seen him smile. His soft laugh — again, rare, but she'd seen it. His sense of humour. The way his brown eyes could soften with tenderness…
She knew him. Better than anyone else did, too — she'd bet her next Kerth on that. And, regardless of whatever it was he had in mind, she'd prove it to him, as well.
Warm clothes, he'd said. Well, at least it meant she could get out of this nightgown. How *embarrassing* that had been! Okay, she'd known he could come any time, but there was no guarantee that Clark would have found him today. Or that he'd have had time to come tonight. Just her luck that he had to turn up when she was half-naked in her living-room after an early shower. It had been too warm to wear a robe and the breeze from the open window had been cooling.
<Unless it's lead-lined, Lois, it's a waste of time>
Had he really thought that she'd worn it in some sort of blatant effort to seduce him?
Well, it was too late now. He'd brush off any attempt to explain, that was obvious. And he wouldn't believe it now, anyway. He seemed different tonight. Darker, more closed off. Almost as if he didn't like her, or didn't want to like her.
But that couldn't be true, surely. Superman wasn't like that. He'd only ever been nice to her — more than nice. Friendly. Caring. He'd always made it clear that she was his friend.
Dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt she'd borrowed from Clark and never returned, she headed back out to the living-room. Superman was standing by the window, looking out into the night sky, but he turned as she approached.
"Ready to go?"
She waited for him to pick her up. His grip on her was less… close than before. He seemed to be holding her stiffly as they flew through the window into the dark night.
He was definitely not happy with her.
"So, where are we going?"
"Just a few places I think you should see. If you really want to know what my life is."
"Of course I do!" What did he think she wanted? She was in love with him! Of course she wanted to know everything about him.
Though she already knew the most important things.
"I'm going to be flying pretty fast, so you'd better keep your head tucked in. I wouldn't want you to get wind-burn. Or worse, vaporised."
"Vap…vaporised? You're kidding, right?" She had to shout to be heard above the sound of the wind.
"No." He moved his hand to the side of her head, tucking it closer to the crook of his shoulder. "When I fly this fast, any passenger who's not close enough to my aura could get seriously hurt. At worst, vaporised."
<You didn't know that about me, did you?> It felt like a silent taunt inside her head. Almost as if he'd said it aloud, though he hadn't.
"Then… are you sure it's safe to fly this fast with me?"
"What's the matter, Lois?" His mouth was close to her ear, so close that she could feel his lips against her hair. "Afraid? Want to change your mind?"
She trusted Superman. Didn't she? Of course she did. He'd never put her in any danger. "No, I'm not afraid. Take me wherever you want."
That had been a bit… cruel. His mother would definitely box his ears if she knew.
He hadn't lied, exactly. It was true that if he flew at anything approaching his highest speeds while carrying a passenger it would be extremely dangerous. And, yes, it was possible that a human could be vaporised. As it was, any time he carried anyone he was breaking several laws of physics, one of which related to safe speeds for a human to travel unprotected by any kind of conveyance.
Over the years, it had become clear that he had some kind of natural protection — his aura, he called it. Anything — or anybody — held close to his skin seemed to have some kind of invulnerability similar to his own. Lois would be safe. There was no way he'd allow her to be anything else.
He tightened his grip on her, feeling the soft cotton fabric under his palm. His Midwest U sweatshirt. How ironic that she was wearing that, especially tonight of all nights.
Heading south-east. He flew onwards.
"Here. We're landing now," he told her as his destination came into view.
"Where are we? It's light."
"Southern Pakistan. It's morning here."
"Pakistan?" She sounded utterly taken aback. Well, it would be interesting to see how long would it take for the penny to drop.
He dropped downwards, coming to land on the edge of a pile of rubble which had once been a large building — a town meeting place, perhaps, or a mosque. And he heard her sharp, shocked intake of breath.
"The earthquake. Last week. You were here."
He had been. He'd spent almost twenty-four hours in the region, without a break — but then, other rescue workers had done the same, and more, and they didn't have his endurance levels or his invulnerability. He'd gone from place to place, wherever he was needed most, scanning under piles of debris and shattered rock and earth and mud to look for signs of life, people buried, trapped and terrified.
"Look around. But be careful. None of this is safe — they've barely begun the task of clearing the wreckage."
All around them were scenes of devastation. Buildings that had once been homes, now a jumble of concrete and wood and rotting, muddy detritus. Bits of people's lives strewn all around: broken furniture, pieces of fabric that might have been clothes, pieces of twisted metal from household appliances, cars, gadgets which once had cost someone a substantial portion of their income. A child's teddy-bear, filthy and with the stuffing bleeding from it.
Lois just stood a few feet from him, staring around her without moving except to turn her head. She was a reporter, of course; disaster scenes wouldn't be anything new for her. All the same, not even the most hard-bitten reporter could remain unmoved by this. By the sheer scale of what had happened. By the tens of thousands who had lost their lives; the hundreds of thousands who were left homeless, bereaved, hopeless. Left with nothing.
Where they were, of course, was only a tiny, tiny fraction of the devastation. And all she was seeing was the remains of a deserted village. There was much worse.
He waited, ready to catch her if she did move around too much and lose her footing. This was something she had to see on her own.
It was a long time before she turned back to him. Her face was pale and her eyes glistened faintly. "The pictures on TV… they just don't show how bad it really is…"
"They never can." He extended his hand to steady her as she approached. "It's the sheer scale of it, but more than that, too. On TV you can only see, and sometimes hear — you don't get any of the other senses. The smell — all the different stenches. They're overpowering. The vibration underfoot and all around — you wonder if there are more shocks coming, or if it's just echoes of what's already been. Or imagination fuelled by fear. The sounds you never get on TV — the screams, the weeping and wailing of terrified people, people who've lost everything precious to them. A father who's lost his children. A woman who's lost her husband and parents. Children orphaned. Desperate people trying to dig with their bare hands to find something — *anything* — to tell them what happened to their loved ones."
She was watching him, lips slightly parted, eyes wide in shock.
Good. Maybe she was learning something about what his life was like.
"Come on. Time for the next stop."
This time, she didn't ask where they were going.
She thought she'd seen disaster zones before. Floridian hurricanes. Tornadoes in the Mid-West. Earthquakes in California. Flooding in coastal regions.
This was different. This was a whole world away from American natural disasters.
In the US, buildings were constructed to withstand earthquakes up to quite a magnitude. This one had been around 5.5 on the Richter scale. In California, while there'd have been some damage, most buildings would have remained intact. Most roads would have been fine.
Here, that same magnitude had led to complete devastation.
Her reporter's brain could tell her all sorts of reasons for the difference, and probably would later. The usual answers: economics and of course politics, of both the local and global kinds.
Right now, though, all she could do was look. And feel. And learn.
He'd been here. He'd spent hours and hours helping, trying to save the living and rescue the dying before it was too late. And, even with all he'd done, still many thousands had died.
How could he bear it? Working flat out, dealing with people destroyed by grief, people who'd lost everything: their families, their homes, their livelihoods, all the time *knowing* that however much he did there was still so much more he couldn't do?
Focus on the living. On those he could save.
That was what a Red Cross first response worker had told her once, when she'd been sent to Iowa to cover the aftermath of a destructive tornado, a five on the Fujita scale. The death-toll in one town was in the dozens, including twenty kids on a school bus which had been caught up in the funnel. She'd talked to a woman who'd been among the first rescue workers on the scene and had been there for two days by the time Lois herself had arrived.
<You don't dwell on what you can't do. You have to focus your energies on what you can. On the people who need your help now. They're doing enough grieving without you making it even harder for them by getting caught up in emotion too. Later, when it's over, that's when you fall apart. And thank God that you still have a home and family to go back to>
It was painful for him to be back here. That was obvious now as he picked her up again; his jaw was set and he seemed to be avoiding looking at anything in particular. Was he remembering all those people he'd failed to save? All those cries for help he couldn't answer?
He was Superman. The strongest, most powerful man in the world. And even he was reduced to frailty by something like this.
They were flying again, but not at superspeed. Wherever they were going, it wasn't far. And, in fact, not much more than five minutes later he brought her down in the middle of a huge field of tents. A Red Cross temporary village. Or maybe that should be Red Crescent, given they were in Pakistan?
"This is where most of the survivors in this area are living for now," he told her. "Many of the injured are here, too — they simply don't have the resources to get them to hospitals, and all the hospitals left standing for hundreds of miles around are full."
The scene around them was pitiful. She'd never seen such desperation, such hopelessness, on people's faces. Children who should have been laughing and playing were just sitting in groups or alone, with expressions of grief or fear which never should be on the faces of kids so young. Adults who looked as if they simply didn't know where they were or what they should be doing.
Superman touched her elbow. "This way." He ushered her over to a tent nearby, one with closed sides and flaps and paper signs in Arabic pinned to the canvas. Pushing aside the flap, he attracted the attention of a man inside, wearing summer-weight khaki.
"Superman! I didn't expect to see you back!" His accent sounded English. Or perhaps he'd just learned English in the UK. After all, he looked more Arabic than European.
"Captain." Superman shook the man's hand. "I brought someone to see all the good work you're doing here — and to see how much you still need. This is Lois Lane. She's a reporter for LNN in Metropolis." He turned to her. "Lois, this is Captain Hakim. He's in charge of the Pakistani army medical corps at this camp."
She greeted the captain, her brain working overtime. Did Superman want her to report on this? LNN had covered the earthquake pretty extensively, though it was true that their coverage had diminished as the days had ticked past. Once the first shocking impact had passed, the news industry tended to lose interest. It might be wrong; it might be unbelievably shallow, but that was how it worked.
Yet there were so clearly people here still who needed help. The rest of the world needed to know about that. And, okay, she had no cameras. No film crew. No TV reporter. Just her, a behind-the- scenes person. But she was still a reporter, and she still knew how to gather the news.
"I'll be happy to tell our viewers anything you think we should know," she told the captain.
Superman nodded in what seemed to be approval. "Before you talk to Lois, Captain, is there anything I can do? Do you need anyone else flown out, or supplies brought in?"
The two of them talked for a couple of minutes; it seemed that there were things Superman could help with. He left then, telling her that he'd be back in a while, and she took a deep breath, drawing on all her reserves of professionalism. This story needed to be told, and she had to stay detached to do it. Not fall apart in the face of such human misery.
And still she had no idea how Superman did it.
She was holding up better than he'd expected so far. He'd known that she could never be unmoved by what he was showing her; Lois was too compassionate for that. Oh, he hadn't expected her to collapse into tears at what she was seeing. She was tougher than that, even with the soft core she hid underneath. But there'd been the suspicion that she might ask to be taken home after their first stop.
Instead, she'd let him take her to the refugee camp. She'd stayed behind without protest when he'd disappeared to make the emergency flights Captain Hakim requested. And when he'd returned he'd found her talking gently to a survivor with the aid of an interpreter. Holding the man's hand as he told her haltingly about the many hours he'd spent above the rubble of his home, tearing apart concrete and debris with his bare hands looking for his wife and baby daughter. He'd come home from work, barely escaping death when the single-storey office building where he'd worked had collapsed, to find his home levelled.
And Lois was holding his hand, speaking softly even though he couldn't understand what she was saying without the interpreter, as if she understood that the tone of her voice mattered. Her eyes were bright with threatening tears, but so far she'd held them back.
She rejoined him when he signalled to her, and he made his farewells to the captain before scooping Lois up and flying away. Once in the air, he bent his head to her ear.
"It's not all fast action, swooping in, performing dramatic rescues, saving everyone," he said quietly. "Sometimes it's just like that. No matter what you do, it's never enough. People die, no matter how hard I try. There's never enough time to save even a fraction of those who need me."
And he had to live with the fact that people had died. That he could fly away and get back to his normal life, his friends, his home, his family, his job and know that he was leaving behind thousands who had none of those. Not any more.
She was silent for a while. Then, slowly, she said, "But without your help, Superman, many more would've died. Or been horribly injured. You have to know that."
"Yes." She was right there. Even though he always wished that he could do more. Always.
Did she understand yet? Could she even begin to see what he was trying to tell her?
She didn't know him at all. Hadn't a clue what his life was like. Had no idea what he went through day after day.
"It's not all about the flying and the heroics, Lois. My life. It's… sometimes it's just dealing with one tragedy after another. Ever met a burned-out firefighter or cop or soldier? Ever thought what it must be like to live with someone like that?"
He wasn't burned out, of course. Or suffering from PTSD or any other trauma symptoms. But on the other hand, Lois had never seen him immediately after he'd been helping at something like that earthquake. Even as Clark. By the time he'd returned to his normal life after being involved in that sort of disaster, he'd have gone to see his parents — whose soothing presence comforted even if they could never take the pain away — and spent some time on his own to try to recover.
Again, she was silent for a long time. And then, finally, she said, "You really think I'm that shallow? You really think that I never realised this is the sort of stuff you face? You really think that by showing me this you're going to scare me out of loving you?" She shoved at his shoulders. "I think you're the one who doesn't know me, Superman."
He really did have one hell of a low opinion of her, didn't he?
Why had he ever bothered to spend time with her, if that was what he thought?
Because he had. Before tonight, when he'd arrived at her apartment obviously angry with her for some reason, he'd sought her out a few times. Appeared at her window for no apparent reason at all, come inside and spent a few minutes talking, before making his excuses and leaving. He'd come to speak to her, too, sometimes, when they'd met at some emergency or other.
He'd even told her, once, that she was special to him.
So… just *what* was all this about? This attempt to prove that she knew nothing about his life, that she didn't understand what he went through day after day, that she couldn't possibly cope with knowing the worst of what he had to deal with?
He hadn't answered her accusation. He'd just kept flying, his face averted from hers, his expression impassive. And it was pretty damn obvious what his intention was. He was taking her home. He'd bring her back to her apartment, set her down, bid her goodnight and fly away. He'd made up his mind about her and he had no intention of revising it.
No matter what she said -
No. She wouldn't allow that. And if he thought she would he *really* didn't know Lois Lane.
"Superman." Her tone was colder than she'd ever imagined it could be, addressing *him*. But he'd hurt her. And, loving him as she did, the hurt was worse, far worse.
It seemed to surprise him, too, because he frowned as he turned to look at her. "Yes?"
"Put us down somewhere. I don't care where, but do it now."
He sighed. "I'll have you home in ten minutes."
So she'd been right about his intentions — but that was no surprise. "I don't want to wait that long. I want to talk to you, and I can't do it while we're flying." Besides, if she made him land somewhere then he couldn't just fly off, could he? And he wouldn't just pick her up and carry her off without her permission. Not when she'd expressly asked him to put her down.
A louder sigh this time. "If you insist." And then they were drifting downwards.
There were mountains beneath them, snow-topped even in May. Wherever they were, it was a high altitude. As they came closer, she saw the mountains stretched out below them for miles all around, spectacular in their beauty, all rock and snow and ice at the peaks, and lush green slopes lower down. Streams and rivers and waterfalls cascaded over rocks, and morning sunlight glinted over all of it.
Further below, there were houses on the very lowest slopes — actually, *chalets*, picture-postcard in their wood-framed beauty — and then the tiny roofs and streets of what had to be a town in the deepest valley.
"This… it's stunning!" She couldn't hold back the breathless exclamation. "Where are we?"
"The Alps." Even the curtness of his explanation couldn't dampen her pleasure in the scenery all around.
"No." They touched down in a little valley, deserted apart from them. The village, the houses, even the cable-cars running up the mountainside, were invisible from this point. "Italy," he told her as he set her on her feet. "Actually, to be more precise, we're in the Dolomites — the Italian Alps. The town down there, on the other side of that — " He gestured towards the mountain to their right. " — is Cortina D'Ampezzo. In the winter, it's a popular ski resort. In the summer, people come to enjoy the scenery, hike, that sort of thing."
"Wow." Awed, she walked around a little, gazing at the enormous white-tipped peaks all around them, the narrow paths leading both up and down, a stream winding and gushing its way through rocks and crevices close to where she stood. Beautiful spring flowers pushing their way through the grass. And such a sense of peace. Utter silence, apart from the occasional bird.
And such a contrast from where she'd been a mere twenty minutes ago.
Maybe, now, she could understand how he did it. This… this beauty, this peace, couldn't completely wipe away the memories — nothing could do that, and she'd never want it to — but it could soothe. It could restore… something… to a grieving, aching soul. Whatever it was about a place like this… something to do with its serenity, its sheer *timelessness*. That these mountains had been here for many thousands of years, and would still be here when everyone she knew was dead and gone. That while time and the weather — and pollution, of course — could cause damage, erosion, these mountains would stay pretty much the same for centuries to come.
Natural disasters would still continue to happen. Hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, tornadoes, cyclones, volcanic eruptions would continue, and people would still die as a result. Some would die because of the failings of humankind — inadequate investment in safe construction, or a disregard for what the forces of nature could do to those who build in dangerous places. But there was plenty on this planet which was unchanging. And beautiful.
On this planet…
Slowly, she turned back to look at him. He was standing where he'd touched down, unmoving, arms dangling by his side, just watching her, his expression unreadable. Something in his posture signalled impatience, though. Hardly surprising; she was the one who'd insisted on landing, insisted that she wanted to talk.
Abruptly, she walked back to him. Something he'd said to her once, many months ago, was nagging at her. Something that, without a doubt, was important. "What happened to your planet? To Krypton?"
Whatever he'd expected her to say, it clearly hadn't been that. After a moment, his shocked look disappeared. "It's gone."
He sighed. "It exploded. I don't know any more than that. It happened… years ago. I was just an infant."
Exploded? And he'd been… a baby? A toddler? And he'd been alone ever since? Homeless, too, until he'd come to Earth. Where had he been all those years? Drifting around in space? How long had it been, anyway? How old *was* he now? In human appearance, he looked to be something between twenty-five and thirty, but that was meaningless. Who knew how Kryptonians aged? He could be the equivalent of a thousand years old — or he could be around ten.
Put that way… there was a lot she didn't know about him.
All the same, was any of that important? What mattered was the man his actions showed him to be. Everything else was just details.
His planet. Gone.
Was that what drove him to keep saving humans from the consequences of humanity's own mistakes?
"Oh, Superman." She stepped closer, extending her hand towards him.
This was going from bad to worse. Any moment now, she was going to tell him how well she understood him again. That she knew how lonely he was. That she knew he needed comfort…
…and she was going to offer it.
He turned away. "Lois, I thought you had something important you wanted to talk about. Unless you do, then I'm going to take you home. I don't have all night."
He heard her faint gasp. Shock? Hurt? Anger? It didn't matter which. He was going to take her home now, and then he'd avoid being alone with her as Superman ever again. He'd been his own worst enemy in the way he'd encouraged Lois in his Superman guise. Tonight's events, her protestations of love, were only the result of that, and it was all his own fault.
Now, even if it killed him, he had to convince her that she didn't love him. Even if it made her hate him in the process… even as part of him was starting to hate her.
Love and hate… two sides of the very same coin.
Superman would keep well away from Lois Lane in future. He'd probably stay away from her as Clark, too.
"Okay." She had herself under control now, her tone level though containing a hint of… yes, it was definitely anger. "Yes, I wanted to talk to you. I want to know… what the *hell* is this all about? I mean, it's not that I have a problem with you taking me to Pakistan. I… I won't pretend it was easy, or pleasant… but I'm glad I saw what it's really like for myself. Because now I'll *know*. I'll understand even better than before. But… what do you think you're trying to prove? That I don't understand what it's like for you? That I haven't always understood, and… and admired you for it? Loved you for it? Do you really think I'm that shallow?"
She'd made that accusation before. Just before she'd made him land.
She couldn't see what was right under her nose. Swore up and down that she loved Superman, would love him if he were an ordinary man, yet rejected that ordinary man outright when he laid his heart at her feet. Thought she was such a great investigative reporter, the best in the business, able to see through lies and deceit at a thousand paces, yet she never saw through his deceit, in either guise. Worse, she believed that Lex Luthor was really a good and honourable man. A man she was actually considering marrying.
He spun around to face her. "Yes, I think you're shallow."
Her jaw actually slackened. "That's… not fair. I *know* you don't know me, if you think that."
"Really? Not fair, is it?" He gave her a level stare. "How about this, then. Today, you turned down the love of… someone you know." He'd faltered, unsure how to describe himself as Clark. A friend? Was that even accurate any more? "You then asked him to tell *me* that you wanted to see me. You didn't even attempt to make up an excuse for why you wanted to see me — so you left it obvious that you'd rejected him but were going to run to me. You hurt him and you didn't even care."
She flinched. He ignored it. "And let's not forget your… oh, let's call him your contingency plan."
Her sharp intake of breath seemed to echo around the valley. "My…?"
"Your contingency plan. Lex Luthor. Or am I wrong in assuming that the only thing preventing you from accepting his proposal was needing to know if…" He paused for a second, then quoted her, a sardonic tinge to his voice. "If there's any hope for us." A flush was spreading over her face. As he continued to flay her with his words, she started to tremble.
A faint hint of guilt stabbed him. He'd never spoken to anyone so harshly before, and never imagined that he would to *her*. But… she deserved it. Every word he'd said was true.
If she started crying…
He sighed. Even angry, as he was tonight, as he had every right to be, he couldn't resist her tears. If she cried, he'd end this right here and take her home. He'd probably said enough to kill any feelings she thought she had for him stone dead anyway.
But, abruptly, the trembling stopped. She took a shuddering breath and tilted her chin to look at him. "You seem very… personally bothered by this. For someone who claims to have no feelings for me."
Oh, she still had claws, then. Of course, he'd never said that he didn't have feelings for her. Not that he had any intention of pointing that out.
How was it possible to love someone with every breath of your being, and hate them at the same time?
There should be no guilt. She deserved to hear this. All of it. Ignoring her accusation, he continued, "And let's not forget your inability to see what's right under your nose. You look at people — people you claim to know well — and you never see what they really are."
Her jaw shot up at that. "You mean Lex? You and Clark really have been talking, haven't you? He's always trying to make out like Lex is some… some crime lord or something…"
"He is." The words were bitten out. "But if you'd ever really been looking you'd have seen that for yourself."
"And just what am I supposed to be looking for?" She glared at him, a very familiar expression. It was exactly the way she'd glared at him — at *Clark* — the last time he'd tried to convince her to think again about Luthor.
He shook his head. It really wasn't worth the trouble of trying to convince her. If she didn't want to see it, then she wouldn't. It was as simple as that. "It's not only Luthor, anyway, Lois. There are… other things… you never notice, too."
"Such as?" she demanded.
"Things that make your claim that you *know* me to be pretty much an insult."
What the *hell* did he mean by that?
Come to think of it, what did he mean by a lot of other things he'd been saying? And why did he seem so… almost *personally* upset by what she'd said to Clark?
He was right, though. She had hurt Clark. And it wasn't even a defence to say that she hadn't intended to. She'd been thoughtless. That was every bit as bad.
She'd call him tomorrow and apologise. If there was any way to apologise without making things worse, of course… But, whatever she said, it wasn't going to be easy to talk to him. How could they possibly go back to the easy friendship they'd had for months now that he'd spoilt it all by falling in love with her?
Spoilt it… but that made it sound as if it was Clark's fault, and that wasn't fair. He was a good man — one of the best. Special. And the most important person in her life… well, apart from Superman.
Clark couldn't be in love with her. How could he? He knew her too well. Way too well. He'd seen her fits of temper, her impatience, her perfectionism. The way she treated him. He couldn't love her. And she… she liked him too much to allow herself to fall in love with him.
Besides… She loved Superman. Not that he was being very lovable right now…
"What sort of things?" She glared at him. "Of course I don't know everything about you! But I know enough to know what sort of person you are. I know your ethics. I know you care. I know how much it hurts you when you can't save someone. I've never thought that the powers were all you were — there's so much more to you than that." Despite her anger, her voice began to crack as pain set in. "And, frankly, Superman, it hurts that you don't believe me. It hurts that you'd think I'd ever want to insult you."
He wasn't looking at her. His fists were clenched and he was swallowing. There was obviously something upsetting him, making him angry with her. But… what?
He shifted his gaze to her suddenly. "You really think you know me?"
"Yes! Of course I do!"
He took a deep breath. "Okay, so tell me this. If you know me so well, what do you think I do when I'm not out on rescues?" It was more an accusation than a question.
What did he *do*?
But… wasn't he always off somewhere, helping someone? Well, apart from the few occasions he'd come to see her, or was spending time with Clark — he did give Clark exclusives occasionally, so that had to be how he spent some downtime. But… was that all?
"See? You don't know. You haven't a clue. It never even occurred to you that I might have a life apart from this, did it?"
No. It hadn't. What was he saying?
She ran a hand shakily through her hair. This was important. This was big. What did he mean? That he had a whole other life she knew nothing about? But what sort of life? Where?
Was he… oh, god, was he married? With a family? Maybe he wasn't the only survivor of Krypton after all. Maybe…
But, if he were married, he'd never have kissed her. Surely he wouldn't. And he *had* kissed her. And told her that he loved her.
Though he'd been affected by the pheromone… and she'd seen what that had done to Perry. He'd made a complete fool of himself with a woman he might have had a mild attraction to, but no real feelings for. And that was in spite of all the love he felt for Alice.
She had to ask. "Are you… married, Superman?"
He looked surprised at that. "No. I'm not."
"Then what? What are you trying to tell me?"
His mouth tightened. "That you know nothing about me at all, Lois. That when you said you'd still love me even if I were an ordinary man…" His hands formed into fists once more. "You were lying. Because I am an ordinary man, and you don't."
He hadn't actually said that, had he?
She was staring at him, slack-jawed. The anger she'd been firing at him for the last few minutes had disappeared entirely and she was simply… stunned.
Oh god. How could he have let that slip out? How could he have lost control of himself so badly…
Yes, he'd been furious at her audacity, back at her apartment, to claim that she knew him. That she'd love him if he were an ordinary man. But he'd had a plan to deal with that.
She'd wrecked his plan, of course. To begin with, she hadn't been convinced by what he'd shown her — once again, as she somehow always managed to, she'd come up with the right words. First, showing him why what he did was important. And then denying that any of it affected the way she felt about him.
Then she'd insisted that they needed to *talk*… and her refusal to react the way he'd wanted — expected — had just triggered something in him. Anger. Rage. A need to wound, the way she'd wounded him.
He'd called her shallow.
He'd called her blind.
He'd insulted her intelligence.
And now he'd told her that he — Superman, her hero — wasn't even real.
Had he given away his identity in the process?
"What do you mean by that?" Finally, she was speaking. Shaking her head, sounding completely confused, she said, "You're an ordinary man? But how…?"
Okay, maybe she hadn't understood. Just because it was screamingly obvious to him, there was no reason why it should make sense to her. After all, it had so clearly never occurred to her that there was anyone under the Suit. That the Suit could just be a disguise. She'd always seen Superman as real, transparent, no more and no less than what he appeared.
He was safe. He hadn't destroyed himself after all.
And Lois was still blind.
It was crazy, but part of him, over the past year, had actually hoped that she'd figure it out for herself at some stage. Because there was that part of him that wanted her to know. And, too, because she *was* a great reporter. Lois working it out would have restored his faith in her investigative abilities, faith which had been badly damaged by her complete inability to see through Lex Luthor.
But she still didn't suspect a thing. He was safe.
And now he had to get out of here before he did anything else stupid.
"Forget it, Lois. It doesn't matter." His tone was clipped. "I have to go now. So, unless you want to be stranded here…"
She wasn't happy about that. The frustrated look she gave him made that clear. Lois Lane never liked it when she couldn't get all the answers.
But, while she'd have argued with Clark, there wasn't a lot she could say to Superman. She sighed and said, "If you have to." Her tone made it clear that *she* wasn't satisfied. She had a lot more to say.
Well, she could say it to herself. In the privacy of her empty apartment.
"Come on." He stepped closer to her, then bent and lifted her into his arms.
This would be the final time he'd fly with her, other than if he had to rescue her. From now on, Superman was definitely staying well away from Lois Lane.
Being taken home, like an unwanted parcel, was the very last thing she wanted. But what choice did she have? Superman had spoken, and his word was final.
He made clear exactly how final it was, too, by conducting the journey in complete silence. He didn't even look at her. And, less than ten minutes after they'd left Cortina, he was setting her down in her living-room. She hadn't even regained her balance fully before she heard the whoosh of his departure.
She collapsed onto the sofa. Had they really only been away less than two hours? It seemed as if half a lifetime had passed in that time.
She'd never known Superman like this before. Anger had permeated everything he'd done, everything he'd said tonight.
Anger which seemed to be directed at her. Specifically at her.
But why? What had she done?
And what *right* had he to be angry with her? To speak to her as he had? To accuse her of…
Once they'd talked, after Pakistan, he'd been insulting. Offensive. Almost as if he'd intended, *wanted*, to hurt her. He'd chosen words meant to wound.
Couldn't see what was right under her nose.
Anger flared again. How dared he?
He hadn't even let her defend herself, not properly; how could she defend herself when she hadn't even understood what he was accusing her of?
It was all so unlike Superman, too. She'd never seen him like that before. Oh, she'd seen him angry, but only with criminals whose actions had endangered the lives of others. Never with people he… liked.
Never with her.
Clark, now… Clark could lose his temper, and the results weren't pretty when he did. Though that was very rare. Clark was one of the most placid, even-tempered, patient people she knew. Yet even his temper had limits, and when he was pushed beyond those limits…
Though, even then, his anger was usually justified.
This, tonight, with Superman… It was so out of character. And so unexpected.
It all seemed to revolve around her claim that she knew him. And somehow Clark was in the mix too. Superman seemed… annoyed about what she'd done to Clark. No, not annoyed… angry, yes, but there'd been hurt in there too. Hadn't there? In that diatribe he'd given her about how she'd treated Clark, he'd definitely sounded hurt.
Clark was a friend of his. She knew that. And obviously Clark had told his buddy Superman all about his *private* conversation with her earlier. That hurt. She'd never have told anyone about it. Yet Clark had gone off and blabbed…
Yes, he'd been hurt. She'd seen that for herself; the look on his face when she'd told him that she only loved him as a friend had sent a dart stabbing through her. She'd been as kind as she knew how, but causing him pain had been… unavoidable.
So he'd gone off and told Superman how she'd hurt him.
Though… asking him to find Superman for her had *definitely* been tactless. She shouldn't have done that. Maybe it wasn't so surprising that the two of them had bitched about her, after all.
Okay, so maybe that explained Superman's anger. He was defending his friend. What still made no sense at all was the other thing he'd said…
<You said you'd still love me even if I were an ordinary man… You were lying. Because I am an ordinary man, and you don't>
An ordinary man? What the heck had he meant by that?
Was he trying to say that he wasn't special or anything? That despite all the abilities he had he was just an ordinary guy, and he hated being treated as some sort of go-
No. No, that wasn't what he'd meant at all.
There was no point kidding herself. He was right. She really didn't know Superman one bit. Because what he'd told her was momentous, and she'd never had a clue.
He had another life. One where he didn't wear Spandex or save the world. A life as an… ordinary man.
And she knew him in that life.
And she didn't love him.
The apartment seemed empty tonight. And bleak.
Considering that there was hardly ever more than just him there, that didn't really make sense.
And yet… he noticed the lack of someone else there. Someone who would never be there again.
It was for the best. As long as he could remember that.
Tonight had been a disaster, from start to finish. He should never have gone over there. He should have ignored the summons, instead of thinking that he could go, tell her what he thought of her and then leave again.
Nothing had worked out as he'd planned. She'd taken Pakistan… well, not precisely in her stride, but much better than he'd expected. It had shaken her, but hadn't scared her off. In fact, she'd actually seemed to understand. Once again, she'd shown him that there was a purpose to what he did.
And then he'd just lost all reason, all sense, all *sanity*. He'd had a very narrow escape. It could so easily have been so much worse.
He walked across to the window and stood gazing out into the night sky. Metropolis: the city that never slept. The city he'd fallen in love with from the moment he'd arrived. The city he'd made his home, and had never intended to leave.
Now… now, there seemed few reasons to stay.
He had no job. The Daily Planet was dead, with no hope of resurrection as long as Luthor owned it. The people he'd worked with, become friends with, were scattered to the four winds.
And Lois was… lost. To him, anyway. After tonight, he couldn't see her again. Not as Clark or as Superman.
The Lois he'd seen today wasn't a Lois he wanted to know, anyway. She wasn't the Lois he'd come to know over the past year. Wasn't the Lois he'd fallen in love with.
That Lois wasn't shallow. Wasn't cruel. She'd cared about him. She'd been his friend. Now… Now, she was different. Brittle, distant, not the woman he'd known and come to love. Luthor's influence.
It didn't matter, anyway. She wasn't part of his life any more.
All he had to do now was decide what his life was.
And where to live it.
After all -
The door. A knock. Loud and insistent.
It was after midnight! Who — ?
Stupid question. There was only one person it could be.
To answer or not to answer? It was late. He could just pretend to be in bed. Asleep. The apartment was in darkness, after all. He hadn't bothered to put any lights on when he'd got home after flying his patrol. She'd give up and go home soon enough if he didn't answer.
Though… this was Lois… He wouldn't put it past her to break in. It wouldn't be the first time.
There was no point in avoiding it. He'd have to confront her at some point; she'd make sure of it. It might as well be now, and then he could get it over with. A quick exchange — not even a conversation — and he'd have her on her way within minutes.
He strode to the door and pulled it open.
"Hi, Clark." She started moving forward immediately, taking her welcome for granted. As always. Not for Lois hovering on the doorstep, waiting to be invited in.
She was still wearing his sweatshirt. It felt… wrong that she was wearing it. Intimate, somehow, when he'd already decided to cut all contact. When she'd already severed what they'd had between them by rejecting him.
He should ask for it back. Except… she probably wasn't wearing anything underneath it…
No. *Not* going there.
"Lois." He looked pointedly at his watch. "It's very late…"
"Not too late. I hope, anyway." She lifted her gaze to his face. She seemed… serious. Agitated in some way, impatient, and also maybe a bit worried. What was going on?
"Well, I was going to bed." He wouldn't give her an opening. She could say what she'd come to say, if she wanted, but she'd have to make it brief. He'd had more than enough of heart-to-hearts with Lois Lane for one lifetime.
"This is important, Clark." Now, she was twisting her fingers, playing with her watch-strap. "We didn't finish our conversation from earlier."
What? "It felt pretty finished to me, Lois. You told me you didn't love me and asked me to find Superman for you. What more did you want to say?"
"Not that conversation." And now her brown eyes were gazing directly into his.
He shook his head. "I don't know what other conversation you mean."
"The one in Italy. The one I only just understood."
His shock was visible. He reeled backwards a little, and his face blanched.
He'd really thought she couldn't have worked it out? God, he really did think she was stupid. He'd practically spelt it out for her, given her the letters one by one. Okay, it had taken her far, far longer to put it together than it should have. But then, who on earth would ever imagine that the guy they worked with daily — *used* to work with — and their best friend was really Superman?
It was one hell of a leap of logic.
But it had all come together with that final penny dropping. If Superman had another identity — a life as an ordinary man — and she didn't love him in that guise, then he had to be someone she knew.
And, really, there was only one person it could've been.
Once she'd mentally rearranged Superman and come up with Clark, too, so much else made perfect sense. His anger over her rejection of Clark. His fury and disbelief that she knew him and that she'd love him even if he were an ordinary man.
Clark sighed suddenly. "I guess there's no point saying I don't know what you're talking about."
"None at all." She studied him. It was so obvious that he didn't want her here — but then, she'd expected that. His anger, his sudden, desperate need to get rid of her, his abrupt disappearance from her apartment, had all made it perfectly clear that he didn't want to be anywhere near her.
And, despite her own anger at the things he'd accused her of, she could understand it.
Well, some of the things. After all, some of them were true.
"I know you didn't want to talk any more. But I can't just leave it… the way we did."
She grimaced. He really wasn't being very welcoming at all. He was still standing at the top of the steps, just inside his front door. She'd gone down a couple of steps when she'd first arrived, only to hesitate when he hadn't followed her.
"Look, Lois…" He dug his hands deep into his pockets. "If you knew I didn't want to talk, then why did you come?"
God. This was bad. She'd really destroyed any feelings he had for her, hadn't she? He hated her. Didn't want to be anywhere near her.
In the face of his coldness, his bitterness… the way he'd just closed himself off from her… she quailed. Almost gave up and went home. After all, she deserved it. She'd treated him appallingly and, although he'd been nasty in return, it had been almost in reflex. Anger talking. Anger justified by the way she'd treated him. And so out of character, too — which told her, all the more, how upset he'd been.
But she couldn't give up. This was too important. *Clark* was too important. And, even if he could never bring himself to be her friend again, she couldn't bear to have him hate her.
Plus, once he'd had a chance to calm down, to think about things, he'd realise that she knew the truth — and he'd worry. Even if he wouldn't let her do anything else tonight, at least she could assure him that his secret was safe.
"I had to come, Clark. I couldn't leave it… the way we did."
"There's nothing more to say, Lois." He leaned against the wall, looking weary. "We said it all back there. It's over. Go home. Please."
She shook her head. "I can't. Not…" But his expression was closed off. She'd really made him hate her tonight. What could she do in the face of such hostility, such bitterness, from the man who'd once been her best friend? He didn't want her here. Didn't want to talk to her. The fact that she wanted to talk to him… well, did she really have any right to override his wishes like that?
Probably not. She'd done enough, after all. For tonight, anyway. Maybe he'd be willing to listen tomorrow. Or in a few days' time. Clark rarely stayed angry for long. He'd let her talk to him in a day or two — unless she'd really managed to turn every feeling he'd ever had for her into hate, of course. Then… well, she didn't know what would happen then.
"All right. If you insist. But there's just a couple of things I have to say. If you still want me to go after… then I will."
His sigh accepted the inevitability of her intent. "Go on, then." Get on with it. Don't waste any more of his time; what he wasn't saying came across louder than words.
"Right. The first thing is… I'm not going to marry Lex. I'll tell him tomorrow."
"And that concerns me how?" He sounded bored, completely uninterested. But she'd seen the flicker of relief on his face.
"You told me he's dirty. I know I never listened before — and I didn't even want to listen tonight, and I should have. Well, I'm listening now. If you tell me he is, then I believe you." She shrugged faintly. "Anyway, I don't love him. Never did."
"So why were you even thinking of it?" Emotion from him, at last; his tone was actually incredulous. And he was looking at her, instead of at some point on the wall beyond her.
She met his gaze. "I wasn't, not really. It was just… oh, it doesn't matter now." It didn't. It would be a confused explanation, one she wasn't even sure she understood herself, and he didn't want her here. He certainly didn't want to hear this.
"It matters." The tone was curt. But the words… weren't. But now he was looking at the wall again.
She couldn't look at him as she told him this. It was too… oh, stupid, teenage-romance stuff. Not the sort of thing a mature, intelligent investigative reporter would do — but then, she hadn't been very intelligent lately. As he'd told her only too bluntly tonight.
Hands wrapped in the hem of the sweatshirt she was wearing — *his* sweatshirt — she stared at the floor. Saw the knots in the wood, the lines of the grain, without really taking it all in. "I… He proposed, Clark, and it was like something out of a fairy-tale. He'd taken me to Paris. In his private plane. I… have you ever been swept off your feet?" She didn't give him time to answer. "Stupid question. When you can *fly* — I mean, who could sweep *you* off your feet?"
"You'd be surprised, Lois." The words were muttered; had she even heard him correctly? But his whole posture didn't invite questions; positively repelled them, in fact.
"I… my parents' marriage was a disaster-zone. I think you knew that, right? I guess I've always fantasised about the fairy-tale. You know, handsome prince sweeping me off my feet and me living happily ever after with him. Not that there are many princes around, really. I mean, all the guys I met had… flaws. You know? I couldn't trust them. They betrayed me. They… just weren't princes. And I guess that's why I… well, why I fell for Superman. He didn't have flaws. He was…" She swallowed, now embarrassed. Wanting to fall through the floor. "…perfect."
Silence. Now she'd really done it, hadn't she? Made her feelings for Superman sound like the silliest of teenage crushes instead of… Instead of the love she'd professed. The love she still felt, even with this new knowledge. The love that had grown, spread and matured, and finally encompassed the whole of the man. That had joined up with the love she'd already felt, and denied, for the other half of him. The half she'd rejected, because loving him was too impossible — too dangerous — to contemplate.
"I'm not perfect, Lois." Again, his voice was so quiet that she barely heard him. Finally, she dared to look at him. He was watching her now, not the wall, and his eyes were sad.
Well, she was already digging her own grave; she might as well finish it. And he seemed to be in something more of a receptive mood now. "I set Superman on a pedestal, yes. I just shut my mind to the possibility that there was any more to him than what you let me see… and that was stupid of me. Blind, too. You were right there. But whatever — whoever — Superman really is, he's — you are — amazing. Not just the things you do, but what makes you do them. No, you're not perfect. That's one lesson I learned tonight. Nobody is. Not even Superman. And definitely not me."
He exhaled loudly. "You were telling me why you even considered Luthor's proposal." Again, he was curt, abrupt. She was getting too personal, obviously. Her relationship with him, her feelings for him, were out of bounds now: that was the message. She'd forfeited her right to have feelings for him, obviously.
That wasn't fair. He'd made mistakes too. But it wasn't an argument for right now.
Lex. Well… "He proposed, Clark. And… everything in my life was changing, all the constants I thought would always be there… they were just sliding away from me and I couldn't hold onto them. The Planet. Perry. Even you. All we did was argue… I wasn't sure where I was going. What was happening to all of us. And Lex offered me… stability. An anchor. Something to trust in. I… it wasn't what I wanted, but maybe it was something I could live with. So I didn't say no. Not then."
"Not while you still thought Superman might…" The biting anger was back, and suddenly her mind flashed back to that moment in her apartment. Begging, pleading with Superman to love her, and after she'd rejected him only hours earlier… If she could only undo that. Yet she hadn't known — couldn't have known!
Then Clark sighed. "This is pointless. Lois, you now know why I couldn't believe you. Let's leave it at that. Go home." He didn't sound angry now; just very, very weary.
She had to accept his wishes. Even if there was so much more she needed to say — even if there was so much *he* didn't understand. Like how unfair it was of him to expect her to have known stuff she couldn't possibly have known.
"I'll go." She reached for the doorknob. "But there's one more thing… It's important," she added as he made an impatient gesture. "You have to know… Your secret's safe with me. I'll never tell anyone. I'll take it to the grave."
Then she opened the door and stepped through. Said a silent goodbye to the best friendship she'd ever had… to the man she loved more than she'd ever loved anyone in her life before.
It was over. And it was — mostly — her own fault.
At last. She was leaving.
Hell. No! She couldn't -
But it was what he'd wanted. His apartment, empty of Lois.
Before she could shut the door behind her, he'd stepped into the opening. Without even realising that he was going to do it. "I'll make coffee."
It wasn't the most gracious of invitations. And she knew it — she turned her head halfway around so that she could just see him, and she raised an eyebrow. "And that concerns me how?"
He winced. And knew he deserved to. "Come back in, Lois. Please. You were right — we do need to talk. And this isn't something we should just leave to drift."
Yes, she'd hurt him more than anyone ever had in his life before… but even with the pain bleeding out of him every time he looked at her, he couldn't let it end here.
She didn't move. "Five minutes ago, you didn't want me here."
No. He hadn't, and he'd made it all too clear. But… this was still Lois, still his best friend, still the woman he couldn't help loving, no matter what had happened today. Despite what he'd thought, she was still the Lois he knew. After all, she'd just done it again — taken his breath away by not saying what he'd expected her to.
She'd said there was one more thing she wanted to tell him before she left. Bile had risen in his throat again. She'd been going to swear that she still loved him. He'd been sure of it.
And she hadn't. Instead, she'd reassured him on something he hadn't even remembered that he needed to worry about.
He'd been wrong. The Lois he'd loved — still loved — was still there.
"I want you here now." It was a surprise to discover how much he actually meant it. "Come on. You can't stand out there all night."
She played with her car keys and, for a moment, it actually looked as if she was going to leave anyway. But then she turned and faced him fully. "You're right. We should try to talk about this." Her voice was little more than a whisper. And she walked back to him and through the door.
He closed it behind her. Oddly, some of the heaviness had shifted from his heart.
"Coffee," he repeated. It would give him something to do while he worked out what the heck he was supposed to say now.
"I don't want coffee." She'd paused by the top of the steps again, looking just a little uncertain, seeming to be waiting for something.
He started down the steps into his apartment, watching her out of the corner of his eye. The uncertain expression disappeared and she followed him.
Oh. Because he'd kept her waiting by the door earlier, she'd been unsure that her welcome was real this time.
God, he'd messed up tonight. In so many ways. But then, so had she. And he still had no idea whether they could get past it. Whether, no matter how much he loved her, he'd ever be able to see her as his best friend again.
She shook her head. "That's just procrastinating. There's stuff we — I — need to say and it's best just to get on with it."
He blew out a breath. Despite her ability to avoid the issue when it came to anything personal, she was still able to surprise him sometimes by being so direct it took his breath away. "Okay, then. Want to sit down?" He gestured to the couch.
She shrugged. "Might as well." And she perched at the furthest possible end from him. The distance that their actions today had placed between them couldn't be more strongly emphasised.
And then there was silence.
Uncomfortable, he sat staring down at his hands, resting uneasily on his lap. Words refused to come. He'd said enough earlier, anyway.
Shallow. Blind. Uncaring. A lousy friend. A liar.
Words which couldn't be called back, even if he wanted to. You couldn't unsay something.
And anyway… harsh though what he'd said had been, there'd been elements of truth in all of it. A lot of truth in some of it.
He'd said enough. Maybe it was time to listen to her.
"Yeah." She sighed and turned to him. "You were right. I was… arrogant. And I guess you showed me that but good."
Yeah, in probably the cruellest way possible. Was that really any way to treat the woman he loved? Even if part of him still wanted to hate her… though that part seemed to be fighting a losing battle now.
"It was pretty stupid of me to say that I knew you. Superman, I mean. But the thing is…" She trailed off and stared into space.
No, she didn't need to finish it. The thing was that she had a massive crush on his alter ego. Not love at all. She loved what she thought Superman was. No matter how much she denied it, it was all about the powers.
"The thing is," she continued abruptly, determinedly. "I *do* know you. I did know you. Even before I found out that you and Superman are the same person. That doesn't affect anything of what I meant then."
What was she talking about now? "You're not making much sense, Lois."
She grimaced. "It's like this, Clark. What I was talking about… Superman is — you are — far more than just the powers. I know you thought that's all it was about, but it's not. It's his — your — everything you're about. Doing good. Setting a higher standard for people to live up to. Making us believe that the world can be a better place. Giving us hope. Even when you can't help everyone, the fact that you can help *some* people gives everyone reason to believe that there's good in someone. That's what I meant. That's why I love — " She broke off abruptly. "Anyway, that's what I was talking about."
He stared at her. It was so far from what he'd thought, what he'd believed… and yet it had the ring of truth. It was so exactly like Lois, like the Lois he'd come to know over the past year. The Lois who'd encouraged him and given him the strength to go on more times than he could remember.
He'd been wrong about her, at least on that. Yes, she'd come across as arrogant and pathetic, and when he'd known exactly how little she did know about Superman, plus how hollow her avowal that she'd love him even if he were an ordinary man had rung given her rejection of him he couldn't have believed her even if he'd wanted to.
Yet this… Yes, she did know him, in ways he hadn't realised. Hadn't even thought of.
Maybe even in ways he hadn't known himself.
"I guess taking you to Pakistan was a stupid idea." He shook his head. Why had he ever even thought that she needed that lesson? "You understood about that all along."
She shrugged. "I'm still glad you did. I knew that's the sort of thing you have to cope with sometimes, but I never really understood it. It's different seeing it for myself." Turning towards him, she added, "I meant what I said. When I get into work tomorrow I'm going to talk to the news editor about doing a follow-up story. I'm not sure if we can get a local news team out to the camp you took me to, but I'll get something on air."
"Thanks." He grimaced. "If the Planet had still been going, I'd have done it myself. Or talked to Perry to make sure the Asia newsdesk had it covered."
But the Planet was gone, along with his job and, as he'd been thinking earlier, his life in Metropolis…
"I wish the Planet was still there too." She sounded sad, wistful. And that was a surprise.
"I thought you loved your new job?" He frowned. "Yesterday, you were so excited about it, insisting on showing me around and everything…"
"I wanted you to come and work with me. Wouldn't have been much of an inducement if I'd told you I'd give anything to be back in print news instead."
Yeah, she'd wanted him — but as a partner. Not as someone special in her life.
Obviously she remembered what had followed his brief tour of the LNN studios too, for she flushed and looked away. But then she made a cluck of impatience and turned to face him again. "We've got to deal with this, Clark. Or else it's just going to fester. I mean, I don't know if you can ever be my friend again, but…"
It'd be easier now than a couple of hours ago. They were making progress, thanks to her determination.
All the same, he had to be honest with her, and right now he could offer no guarantees.
"I don't know, Lois. I really don't know."
He heard her sharp intake of breath, saw the flinch she tried to hide. But what more could he have said? He couldn't lie to her and tell her that everything would be okay. Too much had happened for him to be able to do that.
"Okay." It was little more than a whisper. "I know I hurt you, Clark." Now she was struggling to find a normal voice. "I… you took me so much by surprise, and I… the thing is, you… I… I guess our relationship's always been complicated. I didn't want a partner. I didn't want a friend. But you became both, and the reason I wanted you to come to LNN is I realised I just couldn't *not* have you in my life. But I never expected that you'd… you'd tell me you love me."
Her words faded away to a whisper, and she chewed her lip.
"No. You didn't." And now the bitterness returned. He couldn't help it. "Because you were so busy swooning over your god in a cape that you never noticed when your best friend fell in love with you. Let alone even consider maybe loving him back. Yet you found it easy enough to love me when I was dressed differently."
That was just so… so *damn* unfair!
Lois jumped to her feet, breathing heavily, angry words tumbling over each other inside her head, fighting to get out.
But too many words had already been said in anger tonight. If she allowed this to escalate now, then she really would have lost the best friend she'd ever had.
Count to ten. Remember that he was hurting, and he had good reason to be.
"No, I didn't notice," she said once she was able to control her voice and answer him without yelling. "But, you know, Clark, you really have to take some share of the blame here."
"What do you mean?" He was standing too now, glaring at her, looking as if the very last emotion he could possibly feel for her was love.
Didn't he even realise what he'd done? "You encouraged me! As Superman! You kept coming to see me… you told me I was special… you even kissed me! And I had no idea he was you. What did you think would happen?"
He looked dumbfounded. "I never meant…"
"No? Then why do it? You can't possibly claim you treated me exactly the same as you did everyone else. You never looked at other people — other women — the way you did me. Or did you tell everyone you met that they were special to you? How many women did you kiss?"
He was silent for a long moment. Then, quietly, he said, "Only you."
"And you never imagined that I'd fall in love with you? You as Superman?"
This time, he didn't answer. He shoved his hands deep into his jeans pocket and glanced down at the floor.
"And you never even *tried* as yourself — as Clark, did you? Okay, I know I told you right back when we first met not to fall for me, but we didn't even know each other! You could have… I don't know, asked me out? I don't know what I'd have said. Maybe I'd still have said no. I just don't know. But you could have tried to make me fall for Clark, instead of doing everything you could to make me fall for Superman."
She hesitated. He still wasn't responding in any way. But he was listening, she was sure of that. Maybe a bit of ironic humour would provoke a reaction out of him. "There's this thing about us Earth people. You might have noticed. Most of us are kind of… well, fussy about only being with one person at a time. It's called monogamy. I know you've heard of it. So… if I was already in love with Superman, I couldn't fall in love with Clark too."
He gave a short laugh, but it sounded hollow. "You wouldn't have, though. It wasn't me — Clark — you were interested in. I was great to have around as a friend, but you made it clear what the limits were. I always knew that there was so far I could go and no further if I wanted to keep your friendship."
That was true. She couldn't have made it more clear if she'd put up neon signs. But there were reasons for that, and he knew about at least one of them. "I've been hurt before by someone I thought I could trust, Clark. I… didn't want it to happen again."
"You knew me well enough to know I'd never do that." He fixed her with a hard stare. "I'm no Claude, and you know it."
This was pointless. Why was she even trying to defend herself? She'd been stupid and blind, just as he'd said. The one thing she *knew* she hadn't been was shallow.
"Okay, let's not argue about what I might or might not have done if you had ever tried… well, before yesterday, I mean. You're probably right. I probably wouldn't have given you a chance. But I… I *need* you to know that it wasn't the powers, the flying and everything that made me fall in love with Superman. Even if you don't believe me, I have to tell you that."
He shrugged. "I'm not sure that it matters either way. You only loved that part of me. What's the difference between him and me? He flies."
God, he could be so stubborn sometimes! "What attracted me to Superman is exactly the stuff I told you about — that he's kind, and ethical, and he sees good in everyone, and he'll never walk by when he sees someone who needs help. He's a force for good in the world — he made *me* believe in something again, and I've been a cynic for way too long. And…" She sighed; she was fighting a losing battle, but she'd started now, so… "When he smiled at me, I just wanted to melt."
Clark didn't reply. But he was looking at her again.
"The crazy thing is, Clark, I knew all the time that those were your qualities too. And I always admired you for them, even though I told you you were hopelessly na´ve and you needed to wake up and see reality. I… I think I didn't *want* to see how like Superman you were. Because then I'd have to admit —"
No! She'd forfeited the right to say anything like that. And he'd never believe her anyway. So, when he looked at her questioningly, she shook her head. "It doesn't matter."
The best she could hope for now was to keep his friendship. The chances of him ever believing that she really did love him — Clark — were none at all. If she tried to tell him, he'd draw the worst possible conclusion. And he'd throw her out.
Clark sighed. "There's no point in endlessly rehashing this, Lois. I should never have told you how I felt. I… well, as long as you're not going to marry Luthor, none of this matters."
Right. Lex. "I want to know about that, you know." He gave her a questioning look. "Why you think he's dirty. And, yes, I know I wouldn't ever listen before," she added as he raised an eyebrow in her direction. "I want to listen now. Well, not right now. But soon — very soon."
Another shrug. Then, after a moment, he said, "It bothered me that you never questioned him, Lois. You're the best there is. And you had someone like him right under your nose and you never once wondered if there was more to him than met the eye."
Was she imagining it, or was this conversation suddenly layered with meaning too?
She was going to find out. "Clark, is that what really bothers you? That I never realised you were Superman?"
He blinked. Either he hadn't really been talking about himself, or he hadn't expected her to realise it. But he looked thoughtful for a moment, then said, "I guess… if I'm honest, yes. You *are* the best, Lois. I spent more time with you as Superman than with anyone else. You looked into my eyes… you even kissed me. And you never once saw Clark Kent."
And that had hurt. The pain in his voice on the last few words told her how much.
"You wanted me to figure it out?"
A grimace. "I don't know, really. I mean, yeah, part of me must have. Why else would I have felt… resentful that you didn't? But, at the same time, I went to so many lengths to make sure you didn't find out. I always knew that anyone finding out would lead to way too many complications. That's why it's a secret identity, after all." He shuffled, looking a little awkward.
But she wasn't just anyone. And she'd already assured him that she wouldn't give him away.
"You did it too well. The disguise thing, I mean. And pretending that Superman was a separate person. It never even occurred to me that he could be someone in disguise. And you — you're so open, as Clark, most of the time. No-one could imagine that you have a big secret. Even when I knew there were things you weren't telling me, it never occurred to me that it could be something this big."
He almost smiled. "I guess I should be pleased that it works so well."
"You know… I'm furious with myself for not working it out. For not even guessing. Like you said, I'm supposed to be a damn good investigative reporter. And I completely missed the fact that my best friend had a whole other life."
"And that you knew the other life." That sounded more like her friend Clark, suddenly. He actually smiled at her. "I think maybe it's just as well I wasn't with you when you figured it out. You must've wanted to kick me for fooling you that well."
She had to return his smile. How could she not? Clark's smiles had always been impossible to ignore. Just like Superman's. How could she never have noticed that they were the same?
"A little. Maybe. But I was too busy kicking myself."
He blew out a sudden breath. "Let's make a deal, Lois. I won't hold it against you that you didn't figure it out if you don't."
She stared at him, her own breath catching. That almost sounded like… an offer of a truce.
There were still so many unresolved issues, of course. She'd hurt him. She'd rejected his heartfelt declaration of love. She'd fallen in love with his alter ego and not him. She'd told him, stupidly, that she'd love him if he were an ordinary man.
And he, in turn, had hurt her. He'd said things to her that, while they'd had some truth in them, had felt unfair. Had been painful to hear.
But if they could both agree that they wanted to get past it all, to start again, to rebuild their friendship, then there was hope. Wasn't there?
She nodded. "Yeah. I can do that."
And, slowly, he smiled. And then said, "How about that coffee after all?"
She had a point. Actually, she had several points.
She hadn't known that he was both Superman and Clark. So how had he expected her to act? He'd flirted with her. All but come on to her, as Superman. And, as Clark, he'd pursued the path of best friend. It would've been perverse if she'd ended up falling for Clark in the face of his behaviour.
And he really did know her well enough to acquit her of only being interested in the powers.
She'd nodded at his offer of coffee and had followed him into the kitchen. It felt like old, familiar times — except that so much now lay between them. They'd begun to build bridges, but lots of cracks remained.
Maybe Lois had the right idea. Maybe, in order to complete the process, he had to expose the deepest hurts, talk about them, perhaps find some sort of healing in at least telling her how he felt.
He poured the grounds into the filter machine. Without looking at Lois, he said, "I think it was you telling me that you'd love me if I was an ordinary man that was the worst. Everything else… well, it might have hurt, but it's understandable. I mean, I had no right to expect you to love me back. Or not love Superman."
"I know." She was leaning against the counter, watching him, and as he stole a glance from the corner of his eye he saw her chew her lip again. "I… that's the one thing I'd take back if I could. I… I mean, I didn't know you had an alter ego or that it was you. So I had no idea who I was saying it to. But that's irrelevant. It was still a… well, just a crass thing to say. Stupid. And, I know now, hurtful."
Clark poured water into the machine. She hadn't stammered apologies, or tried making excuses for herself. She'd just acknowledged what she'd done in a way which showed him how bad she felt about it.
She was right. Telling him how sorry she was wouldn't undo the damage. Pleading excuses wouldn't make her claim any less unbelievable. Asking him to forget about it was impossible.
So, really, where they went from here was in his hands. He had a choice. He could continue to hold one foolish claim against her indefinitely… or he could forgive her.
Actually, there was no choice. Because he'd already made it. He took down mugs from a cupboard, found milk and artificial sweetener for Lois and cream and sugar for himself, and finally turned to her.
"I forgive you."
She started. Then swallowed. "You do?"
He nodded. "Have to, really. Can't go on holding a grudge against my best friend. Just like…" He paused, then took a guess. "Just like you have to forgive me for calling you a liar and shallow."
The quick widening of her eyes told him he'd guessed right. "Yeah. I do. Clark…" She began to play with the sugar-bowl. "Does that mean we're friends again?"
About to answer in the affirmative, he hesitated. Did it? Or… "No. It means we're still friends. We never stopped being, really, did we?"
"Well…" She raised her gaze to his. "I thought you did. I know I made you hate me."
"Oh, Lois…" He gave her a crooked smile. "There's a fine line between love and hate."
"I guess." She made as if to reach out and touch him, but drew back. He understood. It had to be his move.
"C'mere." And he took the steps that closed the distance between them and enfolded her in a hug.
It felt so good to be back in Clark's arms. Wonderful.
Especially as it'd been looking as if she never would be again.
He felt warm and solid and substantial and… just perfect. As always.
"Oh, I've missed this!" The words escaped before she could stop them.
"Yeah, it's been a while, hasn't it?" He drew back a little to look at her, but didn't let her go.
It had. Weeks, in fact. Ever since Lex's proposal and his buy-out of the Planet. It had been that long since she'd really had her best friend.
"Thanks for giving me another chance." She had to hug him again, and he reciprocated.
"I didn't have a lot of choice." He smiled, letting her know that he was teasing. "I never wanted to stop being friends with you. Even after what happened in the park. And you're right. A lot of it is my fault. Including the ordinary man thing."
"It's both our faults. I made a *lot* of mistakes." But he was willing to admit he'd made mistakes too, and that was a huge step.
"I don't think you lied," he said suddenly. "With the information you had at the time, I believe you thought you really did mean it. You couldn't have known you were telling the guy you already had turned down."
And she wished she hadn't… but, again, she couldn't tell Clark that now.
Even still, that was a very generous admission from Clark. "Thank you. I appreciate that."
"Well…" He gave her a lopsided smile. "Let's get that coffee before it goes cold."
Releasing her, he went to pour the coffee. Then, handing her a mug, he said suddenly, "There's something I'm curious about. Since you came here — since you worked out who I am — you haven't called me Superman once. You've just called me Clark. Is that because I'm not wearing the Suit?"
She had to think about that for a moment. It had just seemed… natural… to call him Clark. It hadn't even occurred to her to call him Superman.
"No. It's because that's who you see yourself as, isn't it?" And that was it. That was why. It was so obvious — had been in Italy, in retrospect, and here in his apartment. He was Clark. Superman was… well, an adjunct to his real self. "To you, you're not Superman. You're Clark Kent who has a second part-time job, right?"
"You didn't expect me to realise that." Her tone was flat. Of course he hadn't. But then, he still thought, despite what she'd said, that she didn't know him. "It was pretty obvious, really. You think of yourself as an ordinary man. That was clear once I thought back about your reaction to me saying I'd love you if you were an ordinary man — and anyway, that's what you told me you were. In Italy."
"I did, didn't I?" He looked at her over the rim of his cup. "Yeah. I'm Clark. Superman's just a disguise I put on to do what I need to do when I have to."
He would think that, wouldn't he? He really had no idea at all.
"Clark, Superman's not a disguise. He's you. Everything about him is you. I told you, everything that's so good about Superman… it's all you. He's just a side of you that you can't show to the world because… well, reporters don't fly, do they?"
He half-smiled at that. "Not as a rule, no."
"So you're Clark, but Superman's a part of who you are. You just don't want to be Superman first and Clark second. I can see that. And I wish I'd known it before I put my foot in it so spectacularly."
"Oh, Lois…" He shook his head slowly. "I got it so wrong, too. I accused you of things you're not. You know me a lot better than I even know myself." He frowned. "You're making me wonder whether I should just have told you the truth earlier. When I came to see you, I mean. Instead of trying to prove that you didn't know me."
She tried to imagine that, and failed. Telling Superman that she'd love him if he were an ordinary man, and he spinning into Clark as a result. How on earth would she have responded to that?
The answer came immediately. Badly.
And he'd still been angry and hurt. It would have been a disaster from start to finish.
"No, it's just as well that you didn't, Clark. Really."
He looked thoughtful for a moment, then nodded. "Yeah. You're right. A recipe for disaster."
She shrugged. "I don't regret what happened. I'm still glad you took me to Pakistan."
"Yeah." He took a sip of coffee. "Actually, I am too."
Why? Because he'd been able to share it with someone? But he did have… Her eyes widened. "Oh, Clark, I've just thought… I'm so glad Superman's you."
He seemed surprised. "Why?"
"Because you're not alone. That's what struck me most after Pakistan. That you're alone, the last survivor of your world, and you have to carry all of this stuff alone. All the people you can't save. All the disasters you can't avert. You didn't have anyone to help you through it. But you do. You have your parents. And I can't think of anyone better than Martha and Jonathan to help you through the kind of things you have to deal with every day."
"Every time I think you can't surprise me any more… Yeah, I can't imagine how I'd do it without Mom and Dad. But you help, too. You always have."
Really? "I have?"
"Oh, yes. Remember telling me that it's not what Superman does, it's the idea of Superman? Giving people hope?"
Yes. She remembered that. Months and months ago, it'd been. Superman had disappeared for a few days. Clark had been very depressed about it, for some reason. He'd asked what use Superman was if he couldn't save everybody. The answer had been so obvious to her.
"Yeah, I remember."
"I'd almost given up being Superman altogether then. And what you said convinced me not to."
She gasped. "Given up being Superman?"
"Long story. It concerns Luthor. Why don't we save it for another time?"
Lex again. It seemed he really did have good reason to hate the man. But he was right — that wasn't a conversation for now. "I'll hold you to it."
That was really amazing — that she'd helped Superman to do what he needed to do. And more than once, from what he'd said.
"I couldn't have done this — being Superman — without you, Lois," he said, almost as if he'd read her mind. "You and my parents. That's what's got me through."
He gave her a rueful smile. "That's why I could never stop being your friend, Lois." He put his coffee down and came over to her again. "You're way too important to me."
And he pulled her into another hug. It really felt as if she was being given another chance — a chance to make up for everything she'd done wrong, and to start again with the Clark she now knew him to be.
There was a lump in her throat. She'd so nearly lost it all. So nearly thrown away the best thing that had ever happened to her.
Clark — with or without Superman — was so incredibly special to her, and she couldn't imagine life without him. Couldn't imagine how or why she'd managed to make him think that she didn't care about him. Didn't love him.
As he drew back, impulse made her stretch up and press a kiss to his lips. Maybe, if she couldn't tell him, she could show him.
He pulled back in shock and stared at her.
Oh god. Mistake. Big mistake.
Now he was going to think that she'd changed her mind about him — Clark — because she now knew he was Superman. That she was still trying to get Superman.
She whirled out of his arms, clapping her hand to her mouth. "God, Clark, I'm sorry! I should never have done that!"
She'd kissed him.
She'd *kissed* him!
But *who* was she kissing?
He tried to calm his breathing and made himself think.
Earlier, she'd said she didn't love Clark. She'd told Superman she was crazily in love with him.
*Who* had she kissed?
Ever since she'd come to his apartment, she'd called him Clark. She'd understood. Clark was who he was. Superman was the disguise.
But, no, she'd said Superman was more than a disguise. That Superman was part of him, too.
*Who* had she kissed?
There was one way to find out…
"Lois." He looked straight at her. She was staring at him, wide- eyed, her hand over her mouth, looking horrified and embarrassed. "Why did you tell me — Clark — that you don't love me?"
She swallowed. "Because… because I thought I… Well, I loved Superman. And I didn't know…"
"I know. You didn't know he was me. But how did you really feel about me?"
What was he even looking for from her here? He had no idea. But he'd know it when — if — he got it.
"I… you're my best friend, Clark. I just hated not having you in my life. I'd been miserable over the last few weeks, when we barely saw each other or spoke. I… cared about you more than I'd ever cared about anyone I'd ever known before. But when you said you loved me, I was… scared."
He frowned. Scared? But why? "Why scared, Lois?"
She shrugged. "Because relationships and me… don't get along. Falling in love is… the quickest way to end a friendship. And your friendship means way too much to me to lose. That's why I was scared."
That sounded… If he could believe her, that sounded as if she did feel more for him than she'd said.
Could he believe her?
He'd believed her about other things. And he knew Lois. She might lie about little things. Unimportant things. Like stories she didn't want him to know about, though that rarely happened these days. Like what she'd done in her free time if she didn't want him to know that she cried over soppy movies.
If it was something important, something she knew meant a lot to him, she didn't lie.
So he could believe her. It was as simple as that.
"Lois." He took a step towards her and reached for her hand. She held hers out towards him, letting him take it. "Life's full of risks. And sometimes you just have to take them, because not taking them… means you risk losing something that could be very precious. Very special."
"Yeah." It was said softly, almost tremulously.
"Imagine we're back in the park, Lois. And I'm telling you how much I love you. I do love you. More than I can tell you — and more now than I did earlier. Me. Clark. Is there a chance that, maybe, you might not tell me you don't feel the same this time?"
Her eyes widened. And she gasped. "I… thought I'd ruined everything. That you'd never want me now."
"Told you. I can't do all this without you. And love's not something you can just turn off because you have one misunderstanding."
She squeezed his fingers, then reached up with her other hand to touch his face. "I do love you, Clark. I always did. But it's always been easier for me to live in denial. I was only able to admit it to myself when I thought I'd lost you altogether — but I never thought you'd believe me so I was never going to tell you."
"I believe you." She knew him. She understood him as no-one else ever had, not even his parents. Of course he believed her.
And he loved her.
He tugged her closer. "So, want to give it a try? Us?"
Her smile was as wide as her face, and brilliant as the sun. "Please. I love you, Clark Kent."
"Just as long as you don't mind having to put up with Superman too. I mean, I know what you said about you humans preferring monogamy, but I can't exactly leave him out…"
She giggled. "Oh, shut up and kiss me!"
"Your wish is my command."
And he did. And it was super.