Whisper of a Thrill (aka The Story That Made Dave Cry ;))

By Sara <sarafarneygal@hotmail.com>

Rated: PG

Submitted: November 2007

Summary: After almost losing Clark forever, Lois reevaluates her feelings for him and realizes that she loves him. While exploring their new relationship, they begin to share their feelings in a scary and wonderful way.

Okay, it's been a long, long while, and I have to apologise to everybody I kept waiting with this story. It's been hanging out in the back of my HD almost-finished for so long now that it seemed like it would never be done. <g> I started the first draft of this in June '04, and it's ended up… nothing like what I envisaged it. It's been a heck of a ride, and it wouldn't have happened without the buckets of help and support people offered me — knowingly or otherwise.

So… thank you to Erin, who got me started with a truly lovely fdk email. :) Thank you to Sara Kraft for her endless encouragement and/or screams of anguish/death threats. <g> Thanks to Nicole for the swap — I got the better end of the deal! — and the wonderful comments. Thank you to HatMan, who came in late, but vastly improved the parts of the story he gave such fantastic feedback on. Thank you to Wendy for the threats, the invaluable suggestions and for getting my butt in gear… whether I liked it or not ;) A big, BIG thank you here is owed to all the FoLCs on the boards who gave me such amazing FDK to this piece and whom I left hanging for… well, we won't mention that *blush*… suffice to say, I did eventually finish it, and thank you so much to those who first of all nagged me incessantly to get it done, and then actually came back after everything and offered such wonderful comments. Thank you also to Classicalla, my wonderful GE, who improved this story immensely with her fantastic edits. :)

Most of all, thank you to David, BR extraordinaire and supreme nagger… Dave, Davey, Daithi, Honey, this one's dedicated to you. For all the times you stayed up late just to read over new parts, for plugging me at every possible opportunity… and for letting me make you cry. ;)

The following was mostly inspired by the movie "Meet Joe Black" and its score, composed by Thomas Newman — particularly the gorgeous piece after which this story is named. Standard disclaimers apply, and all feedback and constructive criticism are *very*, very welcome.

Note: Lois thoughts are in between angle brackets <.> and Clark thoughts are in between double forward slashes //.// :)

***

"Love is passion, obsession. Someone you can't live without… To make the journey and not fall deeply in love? Well, you haven't lived a life at all…"

~ Sir Anthony Hopkins — "Meet Joe Black"

***

The night was all around her and she wrapped her arms around herself, against its bite. The soggy fabric of her drenched sweater clung to her arms, and she shook the heavy sleeves in disgust, trying to sluice some of the excess cement off herself.

"I can't tell you how sorry I am about your partner…"

Professor Hamilton was saying something, she realised distractedly, bleating about Clark, sending his name on a path through her left ear to rocket around her body. She braced herself grimly against the tumult of loneliness threatening to surround her, gritting her back teeth against the tide of tears waiting to sweep her away, and concentrated on repeating a mantra.

<You're not alone… Hamilton is right beside you, Jimmy and Perry are across town, there are people in the apartment blocks right across from you, and Superman is somewhere up above you. You're not alone…>

The thought was a small spark of cheap comfort in her head. Worthless and hopelessly contrived though it was.

She sniffed, throwing her maudlin thoughts to a corner of her brain, where they could be looked at later, over a tub of Double Choco-Monster Chip ice-cream.

And she froze at the sound of stiff formal shoes on cold pavement.

It was so late, and they were in such a deserted area… who could possibly…

<Capone,> she thought wildly. <He's coming back. He's coming right at me.> And yes, there was a shadowy form emerging from the darkness right in front of her.

She forced herself to examine it carefully — and her insides sagged in relief. The figure was too tall and walked too quickly to be Capone. And his shoulders were too broad to be Barrow's. There was no danger; it was just a random stranger from the street…

…strange… something about that swinging, easy gait reminded her of…

But what didn't remind her, now? What didn't? From the scent of freshly brewed coffee to the tang of sugar from a doughnut as it connected with her bottom lip to the lyrics of a particularly manufactured teenage pop anthem currently rocketing its way around Metropolis's main radio stations — all of them made her turn and start conversations with thin air.

Would you like a highly fattening, artery-clogging, nutritionally worthless snack item, Clark? Isn't it amazing what somebody with a bellybutton ring and a voice box can do these days, Clark? Can I get you a highly sweetened mug of fully caffeinated coffee, Clark? You realise at this rate you're going to develop diabetes before you're thirty, right, Clark?

Clark? Right?

"…Clark?"

She was walking, jogging, sprinting, saying his name into the air and not worrying about how crazy she was or how she looked or who might see. A blade of moonlight slashed across the person's face, and her heart turned a somersault as it reflected off his glasses.

"Clark!"

And she threw herself forward into his arms, wonderfully solid, hugging her as only Clark could hug her and he was there right in front of her and he wasn't a ghost, wasn't made out of mist, he was hers and he was there and he was alive, oh *Clark*…

She was sobbing wildly as she hung onto him, as she ran her hands over his shoulders, glorying in the breadth and warmth of him. Clark, her strength, her life, her Clark, there in front of her, and the feel of his…

His business jacket… but… no… it was smooth and… slippery to… to touch… over his shoulders, right there, it was… her hands were sliding off it…

Puzzled, she took a step back.

The moonlight fell on his chest, and she gasped in a strangled breath at the familiar crest — the red and the yellow, the symbol of all that was good, the thing that made her hate him so.

"No!" And then, "Why?" She yelled, she screamed hoarsely, and she pounded a fist against the centre of his chest, against that thing that made him not-Clark. "*Why*? First you don't save him, the most *powerful* thing on the… and now… how could you make me think…"

His hands clasped hers in a firm grip, and slowly she lifted her head. She felt as if she was moving underwater and she stared at him then, his face so impassive and free of emotion. Just as it always was. Superman, always so free of emotion, always so calm, always so perfect. His face was never mobile and full of expression like Clark's.

"Lois." His deep voice a distant mocking mumble in her ears. "Don't you understand? This is what you wanted, this is what you asked for…"

"No!" she shrieked, horrified, stunned into submission at the dazzling candid unfairness of that. "I didn't want this! I don't want this, I don't want *you*, I want… I want…"

<…*Clark*…>

***

Some people think living on the edge is fun. There's a whole group of them somewhere, they're called the People Who Think Living On The Edge Is Fun. Poor lunatics, to think that it's exciting, breathtaking to be unsure of yourself. It's *not*. It's terrifying. One more step, one wrong move, and things will change forever.

It had only been a dream. Nothing to read into at all. A product of her frazzled brain, which had doubtless not been helped by the pint of Ben and Jerry's Cookie Dough ice-cream she'd indulged in right before going to bed — her traditional chocolate taking a break for the briefest of moments.

Only a dream. One little dream. A tiny figment of her imagination. Nothing to worry about. And all she was doing right now was… waiting to talk to him. That was it. That was right.

Actually… all she was doing right now was waiting to knock at his door.

She hadn't seen him in so long. A week, at least. Her sense of timing hadn't been the greatest recently. She couldn't figure out where the days had gone — she'd wanted to call him, see him, but somehow the hours and minutes had slipped through her fingers like so many grains of sand.

She — they — needed to talk. Needed to eat pizza, to drink soda, to watch Lethal Weapon for the zillionth time, or maybe Top Gun — she wasn't fussy. They *needed* that. To… reconnect.

She knew that things would be a little tense. Uneasy. Tainted with a touch of darkness. But surely, surely he wouldn't be anything other than he ever was, please, please don't let him be different… she didn't think she could stand it if he was different…

She blinked, berated herself. It was utterly ridiculous to be as afraid as that. After all — it was only Clark.

Only Clark.

Somehow her arm was straight in front of her, her hand clenched, her knuckles ready, and she knocked before she even realised what she was doing.

She waited. And waited. And waited. For at least ten minutes. Definitely ten seconds, anyway. Lois's Sense of Timing still holidaying by a sparkling aquamarine pool, sipping cocktails along with Lois's Rational Thoughts and Lois's Patience. The last was long gone, anyway, so she gave the door another sharp rap, trying her hardest to peer behind the curtains on Clark's door.

A minute later, she stepped away in frustration, having tapped a staccato beat on the obstinate piece of wood. All of a sudden, her mishmash of emotions cleared and she was aware of one severe feeling — anger. How *dare* he? How dare he be not-home, when it had taken so much effort for her to just knock?

A very irritated sound expelled itself from her throat. It was so inconsiderate, and *so* like him. So like any man, to be unavailable, to be away when she trusted in his accessibility, to bail out on her when she genuinely needed him…

She should walk away, right now. She should leave her disgust at his tardiness and her anger at his lack of consideration on the porch, so that he'd feel it when he came home and be depressed by it, though he wouldn't know why, he wouldn't know…

Maybe that was everybody's problem, maybe that was the very root of everybody's problem, not being there for somebody when somebody needed them, not knowing when somebody was mad at them, not knowing what to do or say when somebody cried. And maybe Somebody was the troublemaker. If she ever met Somebody, she'd sure give him or her a piece of her mind.

Yes — definitely, she should *definitely* leave.

As if the gods were listening to her disjointed thoughts and growing tired of her babbling, the heavens suddenly opened. She stood there for a second or so, shocked into silence as the rain assaulted her, beating her head and shoulders with angry fists. Then she came to her senses, swore wildly, and jumped under the slight overhang at his door, but it was too late. She was already soaked through.

Leave. Now. Leave. Right now. Go.

She turned so that her back was to the wall, sank down into a miserable little heap and stared out into the billowing, swallowing night with empty eyes.

Wasn't this always what happened? Didn't she always end up here, waiting for a man, waiting for somebody, anybody to make her whole again? Why couldn't she stand alone? Why did she constantly need other people's confirmation that she was all right?

Why did her heart constantly cry out for contact with something tangible, something real in the shifting world around her — why did she ache for that? Why? It wasn't logical, wasn't rational, wasn't…

That was the problem, right there, wasn't it? The conflict between her head and her heart. Her heart drove her…

…*crazy*! She didn't know what it needed and it had never worked like this before… before…

<…before I met Clark…>

She stilled, suddenly aware of the truth in that. Clark had made her heart work again.

He had. Hadn't he? Hadn't he made her open up, hadn't he removed her protection, piece by tiny piece until she was delicate and defenceless as a newborn child?

And wasn't that just another reason to hate him?

Why was she staying when she knew how vulnerable he made her? When she knew how easily he could destroy her? Why wasn't she getting up? Why wasn't she going?

But she didn't get up, she didn't go, she stayed sunken on his porch, waiting for him to come home. Waiting for Clark. Staying on his porch, waiting for Clark.

A sudden, terrifying thought occurred to her — was she really staying with Clark? Was she staying *for* Clark? Would she be there… forever? Had she finally made her decision, the most dangerous one?

Her personal form of eeny-meeny-miney-moe. <Clark, Superman, Superman, Clark, Clark, Superman, Superman, Clark, Clark… Clark…>

Where *was* he at one in the morning, anyway? Out schmoozing around town, romancing some babe?

<Come on, Lane, be fair. You know he isn't like that.>

She swallowed, caught the end of her hair and wrung it tightly.

So what if he wasn't like that? He could make an exception, couldn't he? He could behave completely out of character for one night so that she wouldn't have to be so alone. She wouldn't have to be Wet Miserable Lonely Lois; she could be Lois and her Aggrieved Sense of Betrayal instead.

Or Lois and her Righteous Anger. Or Lois and her Sleazy Womanising Best Friend.

She sighed, acknowledging that she was being extremely unfair. If Clark really *was* out romancing some ba — woman, it meant that he was contemplating a relationship with that woman… maybe even falling in love with that woman…

And she — she had Clark as a friend. He cared for her, he was kind and gentle and patient and understanding and he…

…dammit, he'd been in love with *her* for a whole entire year! Where had that gone? What had happened to loyalty, to friendship, to waiting for her?

Waiting for her. But… she hadn't asked him to wait for her. She hadn't said anything at all.

Who could blame him if he was moving on? Not her, certainly. After all, she was going to lose him sooner or later. Why not sooner? It wouldn't make a difference, and now she could get on with the process of not needing him. She didn't need him, not one little bit…

<Liar… *disgusting* liar… how can you say that after everything that's happened?>

Her throat closed suddenly and she stilled.

She was nuts. She was totally and utterly insane, that she should still be trying to convince herself that she didn't need him, that his presence in her life was easily replaced.

She exhaled, trying to get rid of the painful heavy lump sitting on her chest. A sudden, petrifying thought occurred to her — had *he* felt like that, like there was nothing beautiful left — because of her? Had he hurt like this — because of her?

<Oh, Clark…>

The thought that he'd experienced anything remotely akin to what she was feeling made the back of her throat ache.

<Maybe he's still hurting like this because of me…>

She swallowed hard, shook her head — berating herself for the errant thought. It wasn't possible. Not after six months of nothingness. He… he was fond of her, yes, maybe, but he didn't… he couldn't. Not really… surely?

<You huge idiot, you complete fool. For Pete's sake, Lane, open your eyes. You know he loves you. It's not being cocky; it's being truthful, to yourself and to him.>

She bowed her head, trying desperately to quell the tide of tears in her eyes. She was standing on a precipice and there were things at the bottom, strange and terrible and yearningly beautiful…

Yes. Oh, yes. She did know that Clark Kent loved her. No matter how much she tried to rationalise it away, no matter how she tried to make it unimportant, she knew he loved her — with a certainty that was petrifying in its steadiness.

All the little things he did for her spoke for themselves. Unspoken avowals of love in the cups of coffee, the jelly doughnuts, the supportive hand on her shoulder as she pounded the keys of the computer in a desperate effort to squeeze the story in before deadline. The look in his eyes when she made him laugh, that warm sparkling appreciative… thing…

And then the big things — the unspoken understanding that flit between them, the shirts she'd ruined with mascara after a particularly poignant scene in whatever movie she'd forced him to sit through, the way he'd tried to teach her how to cook, the way he hadn't strangled her when she'd nearly burnt his kitchen down, all the times he'd saved her life, all the ways he'd saved her, every way he'd saved her from drowning in her own cynicism.

Big things he'd done for her…

Like when he'd challenged a dangerous gangster for her.

Like when he'd stepped in front of a bullet for her.

Like when he'd died for her.

When he'd died for her.

A misty veil rose quickly in front of her eyes and her breath caught in her throat. Suddenly she couldn't breathe, something was tearing at her lungs and scrabbling wildly at her chest and oh god, it was happening. She was choking on her own grief.

She put her hands over her ears and crouched down, whimpering, the still night suddenly overflowing with a deafening cacophony of sounds. The roar of a gun, a sickening thud — bullet crashing through bone? Oh *Clark* — the horror of that moment, her screams, kneeling there over his still face, motionless, pale and…

…dead.

Dead in front of her.

Everybody had it so *wrong*. Everybody thought they had a never-ending supply of time — time to write books, time to stop and stare at the sunset, time to paint a beautiful picture, time to live and love and breathe. They couldn't see the hourglass above their own hands, with its ever-decreasing supply of sand. They couldn't hear the alarms sounding.

The cruellest truth in life — mortals always realise how precious time is, but only when they've run out of it. Why was it that people thought things could wait, and *why* did people think life was precious, that death was the miscreant, something that destroyed them? They were so wrong. Life was the ultimate murderer, it killed people every day.

If she'd died right there, right alongside him, it would have been fine. When he was taken and she left, the very fact of her existence had destroyed her. It had been incomprehensible that she could breathe without him, impossible to contemplate living without him. And she'd done just that.

She'd lived without him. For a whole week, she'd gotten up in the morning, she'd eaten, moved, spoken, maybe even smiled. Even though she had been *so sure*, holding his body there in her arms, that she would drop and fade beside him and never get up again, that she couldn't possibly survive this. Anything else, but not this.

And even though she'd been so *sure* that her existence afterwards would kill her, that she couldn't possibly survive in a sterile Clarkless world… after a day or so, she'd realised that she wouldn't, that she would continue living in the vacuum for as long as it took. That she would go through the days and years drearily, praying and hoping that he would wait for her in death as he'd waited for her in life.

How many times had he worked beside her, his eyes patient behind his glasses, his mind working as smoothly as a well-oiled machine, his hand warm on her shoulder and his one-liners poking unwilling laughter out of her? How many times had she caught him gazing at her with a look that made her blush and lose her train of thought? How many times had she actually done something about it?

She'd fallen into the trap as well. She'd thought she had an endless supply of time, so she procrastinated, made excuses to keep him away from her. Thought maybe tomorrow she would risk telling him how she really felt, tomorrow or the next day, it didn't matter because he would always be there loving her, and when he wasn't…

When he wasn't… she was lost.

She hadn't dared define *them*. She hadn't dared define LoisandClark. Not even in her mind. Because once she looked at their bond too closely it would lose its appeal — working off the principle that the most beautiful things in life, love and friendship and family, all of them faded in time.

Hadn't defined she and Clark. Until she'd stared into the barrel of Clyde Barrow's gun, knowing but not fully comprehending what a horror it was. How it could kill. How it could take him away from her. How it could widen that gulf between them and multiply it to the power of infinity.

Abstractly, she realised that her chest was heaving and salty tears were intermingling with the spots of rain on her cheeks.

She'd been one of the lucky ones. She'd had him restored to her, good as new, lifetime guarantee firmly in place. Another chance.

Back to normal.

Except it wasn't normal. And it could never be normal again. She'd had a taste of how it felt when there was no time left, and she couldn't bear it. She couldn't delay even one second longer…

But she'd have to, if he didn't get home soon. Where *was* he, anyway?

Where… he… one in the morning…

Oh, god.

A breath caught in her chest and then she was up in one fluid movement. Why hadn't she *thought* of this? Why hadn't she been worried when he hadn't come home, when he hadn't appeared in front of her, chivvying like a mother hen, asking her what the heck she was doing sitting on a patch of cold concrete in the pouring rain? Why hadn't she *thought* of it?

She bounded down the steps, managed to stub her toe on a slice of brick wall that affronted itself too quickly for her to avoid, and stopped. Chilled, she stared out into the darkness.

The world was a large and dangerous place. Drilled into her so many times in childhood, by her parents, by her teachers, by every person who'd ever held authority over her. And yet, she'd never heeded it. Until now.

Clark Kent — the man who'd so recently been restored to her — was out in the perilous night somewhere.

Somewhere. Under an eighteen-wheeler truck. At the bottom of Hobbs' river. At the mercy of a gang holding knives…

…or staring down the barrel of another gun.

Right at that second he could be breathing his last, and she'd spent the last fifteen minutes musing offhandedly on his front step… if he died, it would be her fault, just as it had been her fault before…

She swallowed a sob of grief and headed for the street in a flurry of tears and panic, only to encounter a force with all the flexibility of a brick wall, which sent her tumbling — flat on her back on the pavement.

And then she was exhaling, long and slow, as a very familiar voice yelled, "Lois?"

***

Life was strange. Every time he began to think of it as a smooth and never-ending road, it tipped itself over and turned inside out. He'd once thought the stars held his fate in their depths — thought if he flew hard enough and fast enough he could maybe reach out and touch his destiny, taste it — but he was wiser now.

He'd given up trying to find rhyme or reason in his existence. His life didn't belong to the stars; it belonged to the woman sitting directly across from him, staring morosely into her mug of tea.

Oolong Tea. Which he'd unearthed from behind coffee he'd bought just for her. Which he'd placed in her mug. Which he'd poured boiling water over, for her. Which he'd blown on just a little, to cool it slightly — just the way she liked it.

She took a breath, as if to speak, then exhaled quickly. Twice. He didn't really mind; he was content with silence for a while. Silence allowed time, time to wallow and ponder, time for his heart to stop pounding like a jackrabbit's.

Because he'd possibly hurt her, outside, slamming into her like that. Because she'd said nothing except for the perfunctory 'yes' and 'no' since she came in. Because she was *there*, there with him, and he loved her so. And because of the visible tearstains on her face.

Crying. She'd been crying. She'd been sitting outside his apartment at half past one in the morning, crying.

But that made no *sense*! He'd been out on patrol earlier, and he'd flown by her apartment to check on her — just to make sure she wasn't being clobbered by runaway microwaves or strangled by houseplants or anything, wasn't as if he'd know any other way — and she'd been fine.

In actual fact… she'd been in bed. Asleep.

On a Friday night. At ten pm.

But more than likely there was a reason for that as well. Maybe she had been up late the night before. Maybe she'd been out on a d… date. Maybe she'd been on a stakeout. A private one. Investigating the genius behind Double Fudge Crunch bars, demanding to know just *what* they put in there to make them so fattening and then demanding that they take it out.

Maybe she had been. Who was he to say she hadn't? He was just her best friend.

Whom she hadn't contacted in over a week…

Even though she'd been *so* ecstatic when he'd 'come back from the dead' — throwing herself into his arms, bittersweet moment, he'd hurt her, hadn't he? She'd never have hugged him like that if he hadn't hurt her — even though she'd been so happy to see him then, it was obviously business as usual for Mad Dog Lane.

Business. But he knew for a fact that she *hadn't* been working. Perry had ordered them both to take some time off on the grounds of what he called 'extreme emotional stress'. It wasn't as if she'd been so busy that she couldn't pick up the phone once or twice.

She coughed and he looked up immediately, startled out of his acrimonious reverie. And he cursed himself.

She was shivering violently, her teeth knocking against her mug every time she took a sip. And her lips were blue, he noticed, staring at them with a detached sense of professionalism. He wasn't focusing on how perfectly shaped they were or how they made such a charming Cupid's bow or how soft they looked, no — just the blueness of them, that was all.

He jumped up from his couch, terrified into action, caught her hands and hoisted her, as gently as he could, to her feet.

"Lois, look at you! You're drenched, I'm so sorry, I didn't realise… well, I did, but I didn't think… um…"

He paused, looked at her worriedly. She wasn't reacting, wasn't saying anything — she was just standing there passively.

What could he do to snap her out of it?

"I need to get you out of your clothes," he said daringly, his entire being wincing at the double entendre yet willing her to look up, to raise her eyebrows, to take a swing at him, to do *anything* — but no, she just stood there. Obviously if she'd noticed, she hadn't cared.

He put his hands on her shoulders and turned her gently so that she faced his bedroom.

"Go. Take a shower and change into something of mine. Everything you need should be in there. My First Aid kit is in the bottom drawer — I have some arnica in there that should help with any bruises you have, and there's aspirin in case you have a headache, and I think there's some sort of vile lemony drink I can make up for you in case you're getting the flu…"

He prayed for her to click her tongue, to roll her eyes, to bump her hip against his, to whine 'Mother Hen Kent' in that high-pitched tone of voice she used when she was irritated with him, but she did none of those things.

She merely walked — didn't stride, didn't swagger, just plain old walked — over to the entrance of his bedroom. And — his heart stopped — she threw him a look, a look that was both gratitude and something more, something warmly appreciative…

…and *then* his heart stuttered back into action, jogged, sprinted, ran a marathon, dove into deep waters, jumped out of planes and into forbidden territory as she stretched her lips — blue lips that trembled and shook — into a distortion of her usual smile. It was pale, it was wan, it was even slightly queasy — and yet it was the bravest thing he'd ever seen her do. And he'd never loved her more than he did at that moment.

Trying to act like he wasn't ready to break down in the middle of his living room and beg her to love him, he smiled back at her gently and nodded in the direction of the door. His heart took another dive as she rolled her eyes at him — She Rolled Her Eyes At Him! — and disappeared through the archway.

Good. Things were clearly getting back to normal. Now all he had to worry about was how much he was going to miss her while she was in the shower.

//Good grief. I'm pathetic. Lois, look at what you've reduced me to…//

He was just about to flop down onto the couch when he noticed her abandoned mug, half-full with tea. She'd never liked that stuff, she hardly ever drank it. In fact, the only other time she'd ever had it in his presence had been late one night, when he'd watched in horrified fascination as she downed seven cups of coffee in thirty minutes. He'd literally forced her to take some Oolong, to counteract what the caffeine was doing to her system.

She'd taken it then. Not to say she hadn't put up a fight, of course. And he had a sneaking suspicion that she'd poured half of it into his ficus when his back was turned.

That was another reason to worry, then. Lois had drunk half a mug of Oolong without complaining. Clearly she wasn't herself.

He sighed, picking up the forlorn mug from the table and trotting back into his kitchen. The old routine of washing, rinsing and drying took his mind off Lois for a few precious seconds, and that was almost enough to re-energise him…

…and then his super-hearing kicked in. He could hear the shower running, the squirting sound the liquid soap made as it was squeezed from the bottle.

What he could hear most clearly was her heart. Thudding along in tandem with her quiet, jerky sobs.

The mug crashed to the floor and shattered there, but he barely heard it, couldn't hear it over the sound of her tears. He took two running steps in the direction of the bathroom, careened headlong into an inconveniently placed ornamental stand, and took a flying dive northwards. His glasses flew one way, his body another, and only his super-reflexes stopped him from hitting the floor with an almighty thud.

He whizzed back up just in time to grab a photo frame with the tips of his fingers. He and Lois, immortalised there, beaming at each other. Of course he and Lois. Always he and Lois, forever and ever, where they belonged, together, and she was *crying*! Kent, move, for Pete's sake do something!

But what *could* he do? In honesty, what options were open to him? He couldn't exactly barrel through the bathroom door like some five-hundred-pound gorilla, sweep back the shower curtain and…

…and…

He closed his eyes as a traitorous reel of images flashed through his head.

His hands were tied. He couldn't leave her there, weeping quietly in his shower — but he couldn't interrupt her privacy or invade her peace. In any case, how was he supposed to explain how he'd known something was wrong?

He employed careful use of his super hearing again, and his heart broke as he listened to her heaving, obviously trying to choke her sobs off at the juncture of her throat, and not succeeding — making it worse, in fact. She was trying to hide her sobbing from him — maybe scared he would be able to hear her.

And that really stung. It stung that she hadn't contacted him in a week and it stung that she felt she had to hide her feelings from him. After everything they'd been through together, he'd have thought that…

Sighing, he dragged his reluctant mind away from the sound of her sobs and gathered the pieces of broken mug. On his way to the trashcan, he flipped the switch on the kettle. Maybe coffee wasn't such a bad idea after all.

***

"Sorry I took so long." The pieces of her voice emerged from her throat in jagged edges, and try as she might, she couldn't clear them.

She wrapped both arms around herself self-consciously, rubbing the soft flannel sleeves of Clark's old MidWest University sweatshirt as he looked over his shoulder and smiled.

"You weren't long at all," he said softly. "You doing okay?"

She nodded jerkily, a hand going to her blotchy cheek in an almost unconscious response. She forced it back down and took a shaky breath.

"I thought some coffee might be nice." His voice floated back to her, and she smiled faintly. Her Clark. Always thinking of her. Always putting her needs before his own.

"How have you been?" she asked lightly, moving into the kitchen. He looked at her again in that way he had, head to one side, slightly puzzled, and then offered her another of his let's-be-friends smiles.

"I've been good, Lois."

She leaned against his counter, keeping a safe distance between them, and ran a hand through her wet hair. Befuddled by the steam and the utter incongruity of the situation. How could he be dead, and then be good? Dead and then good? Good and dead?

"I haven't seen you all week," she mumbled.

He turned briefly. Smiled like he hadn't noticed. "Yeah. I was busy. You wouldn't believe the amount of things that pile up on you. You're dead for two days and bam, there's this backlog of paperwork."

Dead. Dead again. Two days dead. She swallowed a rather large lump in her throat and decided a response wasn't necessary.

"Not that I'm not thrilled to see you," came his voice, wavering in and out like a badly tuned radio, "but why *are* you here?"

Oh. Um…

…nooo. No, no, no. She hadn't planned for this. She had no excuse — none at all. Her brain scrambled as she searched desperately for a feasible reason…

"I just wanted to see you." A carefree lift of her shoulders. "Do I need an excuse?"

A frown creased his strong forehead for an instant, but then his face smoothed into a smile. Another one. "No, of course not." And he handed her a mug of coffee. Placed a hand on the small of her back and guided her into the living room and onto the couch. Like he always did. Guiding her, protecting her.

They sat. Her knees were rigid, her thighs stiff and her shoulders locked. And he was looking at her inquiringly. Openness written all over his face. Not starting a conversation, but wholly open to contributing to one.

This was terrible, she thought despairingly. This was so awkward. Not the way it was supposed to be, not at all… Clark wasn't supposed to be like this… her-and-Clark weren't meant to be like this, stilted, struggling to make conversation…

"I'm glad you came by," he said, clearly giving up on the whole letting-her-speak-first thing. "I couldn't sleep either."

Her head whipped up and around. "Either?"

He froze — suddenly looking uncertain. And then the expression was gone and she was left wondering if she hadn't imagined it.

"It's kind of late, Lois," he pointed out.

"I guess it is," she whispered. She took a sip from her mug, and smiled weakly to herself. It was perfect — just how she liked it. Strong, with a hint of sweetness. How many people knew exactly how she liked her coffee? How many people had ever bothered to find out?

How many times had Clark made her coffee, just how she liked it? How many times had she thanked him, or even acknowledged the fact?

Suddenly she found her eyes filling with tears and her hands shaking. And then she drew a hasty breath as four strong fingers and a thumb wrapped around the mug and drew it gently from her grasp, setting it down on the coffee table and then reappearing to lace themselves with hers. He'd moved closer, she thought dizzily, and his eyes were doing their best to catch hers.

"Tell me what's wrong, Lois," he crooned softly, his thumb stroking a rhythmic pattern.

Angry. She was angry with herself for making him take care of her all over again. Him taking care of her, wasn't that how it worked, always? Shouldn't it be the other way around — just this one time?

"Nothing's wrong, why would you think there's anything wrong?"

<Everything's wrong, please don't let me get away with that, Clark…>

His gaze burning softly along her face. She could sense so many things, just from the way he looked at her… his worry, his anxiety for her, his tenderness, his awful, awful love… his final defeat as her stubborn mouth refused to say what needed to be said.

"You don't have to tell me if you don't want to," he murmured.

"Really, it's nothing. I just… I really, really missed you, Clark," she managed to choke. And then her head was on his shoulder as she cried her heart out.

She cried for the tiny bullet that had lodged itself in his chest with scarcely a warning, for the thunk of his powerful body hitting the floor, for the way he'd looked — his eyes closed and his glasses askew.

She cried for the things left unsaid, the things that could never be said, the moments lost and the time that could not be recovered. She cried for the way she'd been, before — how condescending and rude, taking him so much for granted — and she cried that she could never be that way again.

And his hand moving in soothing circles around her back.

Finally she stopped, shuddering, and moved away from him. Felt him watching her — her cheeks sodden with the wet of her tears.

"Lois… what's the matter?"

Life was too short to waste on lies and half-truths, on pathetic pleasantries when really she was screaming inside. And *oh*, life was too short for tomorrows — for the chain of tomorrows, forming links of weeks and months and years, pulling them both into old age, the tomorrows she'd thought she'd always have — all the tomorrows that'd dissolved with one single bullet. Without him she had no tomorrow, and he needed to know that.

"Clark…"

She hadn't noticed that he was stroking her hand till she looked down. Suddenly all her well-planned sentences stuck in her throat. She wound her fingers around his and covered them with her other hand, squeezing as hard as she could, needing that connection, the strength of his grip in hers — the affirmation that he was alive.

Her trembling mouth burst open. "Don't leave me, Clark. Promise you won't leave me ever again…"

"Hey," he said, concerned, bringing his other hand up to stroke the hair out of her eyes, then cupping her cheek in an achingly tender caress. "I'm here, Lois. I'm right here, okay?"

She shook her head blindly. "No… you left, and I was all alone… you died… I missed you so much… so, so much… all the things I said to you, Clark…"

"What things?" His voice puzzled.

//…hack from Nowheresville… Mr. Greenjeans… nearly missed that one, rookie… spare me your platitudes, Kent… yeah, like I've never heard that one before…//

"I was so horrible." Her entire body locked in horror. "I was so horrible to you for so long. Even that day. I *made* you go in there. I made you go into that place. You didn't want to, remember? You thought it was too dangerous. I made you. If I'd just listened to you you'd never have died…"

He wasn't saying anything. Anything at all. Which just reinforced her self-hatred. He'd obviously thought all these things a thousand times and just been too much of a gentleman to tell her.

"It was all my fault. I was so alone, I missed you so much, and *it was all my fault*. All the things I said to you… and all the things I never said…"

He murmured a soft protest, but she wouldn't listen — wouldn't let herself listen. This was something she had to accept and she refused to let him make her feel better.

"I never thought I'd have so many things left to tell you, Clark," she said, and, looking up at him, attempted a watery smile.

<He died without ever knowing, I never told him… how much he means to me, how much he's always meant, how grateful I am for his loving me, how much I respect him, how much I…>

"Tell them to me now." A quiet invitation, and looking into his eyes she saw a kind of terrible anticipation, a terrible waiting, a terrible patience.

She didn't know how to tell him. Didn't know how to even begin to tell him. And in the end, she was only human, and those doubts and fears were still in her.

She looked away. Bit her lip.

"I came here, y'know," she said. "The night you… that night. You… you'd left three of your suits crumpled on the bed. Trying to impress me, Kent?"

<Trying to lighten the moment, Lane? You *massive* coward…>

"Yes, Lois." His voice was very tired all of a sudden, and he let go of her hand. "Trying to impress you. Or maybe just trying not to embarrass you. That dress was pretty sensational. I wanted to measure up as much as I could."

She swallowed.

Embarrass her. Like he could ever embarrass her, whether he was wearing a tuxedo or the ragged clothes of a homeless man. Measure up… but he'd always measured up, didn't he know that? And the sensational red dress…

<Oh, the one that's sitting in the bottom of some bin liner somewhere, ripped to shreds with a kitchen knife? That red dress, Clark? The one I watched you die in?>

Distraction. Distraction would be good now.

"And you'd… you'd left a mug in the sink… and a plate… one of your windows was open, the one leading to the balcony. I closed it for you… I could smell your cologne… your sweater. I borrowed one of your sweaters, that grey one your mother knitted for you… I hope you don't mind. I just… I don't know."

His eyes watching her, appraising — wary.

"It got all covered in cement, though," she blurted, terrified. "I'll get it dry-cleaned for you, or I'll replace it if you'll just tell me your measurements. I'm really sorry… that and your jacket, too, all the frosting on that stupid cake…"

"Forget about it." Flat. Flat voice. Like he didn't care. "They're just clothes. No big deal."

She drew breath. How did she do this? How? She wasn't used to living so much on the edge — that terrifying place where a part of her died no matter which step she took. "Have… have you seen Superman this week?"

He was shifting away from her, and she could have kicked herself. He was bending to place his elbows on his knees. Rubbing his temples with his long fingers. Why did she always bring Superman up? Without even thinking about it? When she knew how much he hated playing second fiddle to a man she'd never really known?

"No, I haven't." He sighed, wearily. "You didn't drive over, did you? Do you want me to call you a cab?"

He turned back towards her — smiled.

She winced. He'd been smiling way too much. Cautious smiles, wary smiles, grim smiles, let's-be-friends smiles, I-don't-know-what-to-say-here smiles, I-really-want-to-make-you-feel-better-but-I'm-not-sure-how smiles. She was sick of them. They were all so polite and diffident. He'd never needed to fill the gaps with smiles before.

She ignored the hint about leaving. "If you see him around… will you tell him I need to talk to him?"

<Shut up about Superman! Shut up, for the *love* of ->

"Hey, you want another cup of coffee?"

"Will you tell him?"

<No.> Was she defiantly talking back to the voices in her head? She'd finally gone nuts. <No, I won't shut up about Superman. I need to tell him… need to tell him he's lost… lost out to the ordinary man with the bad eyesight.>

He sighed. "Sure, Lois, I'll tell him."

She watched him, his eyes dark with defeat.

"Clark?" Quietly. "Is there something wrong?"

He looked at her. "Why would there be anything wrong?"

"You never called," she whispered.

One of his eyebrows shot up.

"It's been a whole week and… you never called."

"I thought you were the one who never called me." His voice not accusing, not reproachful. Just… tired.

And that was true as well, wasn't it? She'd never called him.

"I… didn't want to bother you, I guess." The voices in her head admonishing her — that wasn't the reason, had never been the reason.

He shrugged. "I didn't want to bother you either, Lois. I figured you were busy." The look in his eyes.

"Too busy…" She bit her lip. "How could you ever think… I'm not… I'm never too busy for you."

His mouth dropped open, and she closed her eyes — hating herself that he should be so shocked at the open display of affection from her.

"Thank you, Lois," he said — surprised but warm. His hand snaked into hers again and squeezed gently before he withdrew.

He stood up, and she watched as he moved around the sofa. The athletic strength in his every movement… the gentleness in his eyes. Strength that in the end had failed to save him, gentleness that had maybe killed him — the refusal to believe that any human could be that casual about pulling a trigger and taking a man's life.

"I'm gonna get some tea. You want some?"

"No… but thank you anyway."

"Hey, no problem." His voice, surprised and warm. Surprised at the unprecedented display of gratitude from her…

<Good grief, who's writing your lines? Get up and *do* something…>

"I guess I should go home," she whispered, more to herself than anybody else, her eyes swimming with tears. It was too hard, it was all too hard, and she'd like to give up now, thank you.

"Do you really want to, Lois?" And she jumped, because his voice was still in the vicinity of the kitchen, and he couldn't possibly have heard her, could he? Was her sense of self so messed up that a whisper came out louder than she'd intended it?

She stood up. Walked to the kitchen, to stand in front of him. Held both elbows with opposite hands. Trying to shake some stability into her weary body.

"Do you want me to go?" she asked quietly. Trying, for once, to put his needs before her own.

His hands came up to hold her upper arms — strong fingers and a strong grip, a strong solid grip — and he looked at her concernedly. "I want to make sure you're all right, first."

She looked at him, bit her lip.

"You're going to be here tomorrow, aren't you?" she asked — suddenly not caring about his feelings or his anxiety, only that life would go on as she'd always known it, his existence wouldn't cease too quickly for her to tell him how deeply she cared about him, and tomorrow would be waiting just around the corner.

He looked puzzled. "Sure, Lois. Same as normal."

She shook her head, her chin crumpling. "No, Clark!" she half-sobbed. "It's not normal! And it's never going to be normal again!"

His arms had gone around her instantly when she'd started speaking, and now her head was tucked securely under his chin and he was rubbing her back in soothing circles.

"As soon as that bullet thudded its way into your chest… I realised… and *Superman*!"

He froze and his arm fell limp by his side, but she blundered on regardless.

"He never showed up… not once, not even afterwards, Clark! The one time it was important, he never showed up… and d'you know, I thought he was you… I really thought he was you…"

A shocked intake of breath somewhere made her hair flutter.

"I thought he was you, and then… I realised… I really didn't care, I really don't care anymore, Clark… I don't want him, I've never really wanted him, I just made up a person to love, because I didn't want to *see* you, standing there… loving me…"

A squeak, and then his arms were tighter than ever. She exhaled against their sturdiness, relishing the distinctly non-amorphous feel of them.

"Lois… what are you saying?"

She pushed against the bands of steel holding her, and looked up into his dark eyes — her own almost overflowing now.

"I'm saying… life is cruel, Clark," she said bleakly, watching the confusion dance merrily across his face and hating that she couldn't put this, of all things, clearly. "I'm saying that the *instant* Clyde Barrow shot that bullet at you, I realised… that some things go beyond time and reason and logic and… everything… beyond everything."

"Lois…" Her name on his lips a question and a prayer.

"I realised… how little a difference your death made to me, Clark," she whispered, and she watched as his mouth constricted in hurt disbelief.

"I realised that death doesn't make a difference when you love somebody. I realised I'd never get over losing you, that I'd always miss you… I realised I'd be in love with you for the rest of my life, whether or not you were in it, or with me, or breathing — and there's nothing I can do about it."

Her eyes on his, looking up at him fearfully — wanting and needing a reaction, and getting none. Suddenly he was as unresponsive as a plank of wood, standing stock-still there with his arms tight around her back and his eyes as blank as the first page of her novel.

She was just about to fob it off, to slip out of his embrace and laugh weakly, to tell him she was over-exhausted and she didn't really mean it, when a tremor went through the body so close to her own. His eyes were suddenly a kaleidoscope of emotions — shock and disbelief, wild and glittering hope exploding against the background of quiet love that'd always been there, ever since she could remember.

She closed her eyes and waited for what she knew was coming. With his arms tightening around her and his head drawing nearer hers, she was exactly where she needed to be — safe, in the midst of the conviction that Clark Kent had always loved her.

***

"Lois…"

"Mmm." She brushed a light kiss against the corner of his mouth, then rested her head on his shoulder with a contented sigh.

"We…" He seemed to be having trouble getting words out, she noted in satisfaction. "We're going back to work tomorrow, you should go home and get some rest…"

"Clark," she said, her voice lilting with laughter, "you've been saying that for the last half hour."

He blinked bemused brown eyes like one in a dream, and she watched as realisation dawned in their depths.

"Oh. No. Seriously, you'd really better go. We do have work in the morning, and it's…" He glanced at his watch and blanched. "…way, way too late for this."

"Well, if we have to…" Her arms curved lazily around his shoulders. "…I guess we could…" Smiling shyly up into his smoky eyes, at once familiar and so very strange. "…say goodnight. For now."

She kissed him tenderly, slowly, taking her time — time she hadn't frittered away with excuses or ploys to keep him away from her. Time they had and were using — right there, right then…

Drawing back, she looked up at him, into his shadowed face. She sensed a deep internal struggle going on within him, and she was touched at how obviously he didn't want her to leave.

Finally he opened his eyes, looked right back at her, and smiled. "Goodnight, Lois… my love." That last murmured questioningly, like he was too mired in rejection to ever dream he was allowed to call her that.

She drew him into a tight hug. "Goodnight, Clark."

She'd see him tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, and she would never hide from him again.

***

— One week later —

"I think I need you to explain this to me again. We're crawling around a cemetery in the dead of night, dodging ghosts, ghouls and guards —"

"You're slipping, Kent, ghosts and ghouls are the same thing —"

"No they're not, ghouls are scarier."

She snorted elaborately, enjoying the verbal battle.

"Anyway, we're crawling around a *cemetery* in the dead of night… because *Mrs Cox*, of all people, phoned you up from prison and told you —"

"— that if I wanted to find out what happened to Lex Luthor, I'd better come here, yes."

His arms came around her from behind, pulling her back against his chest. She nestled her head on his shoulder and shivered as his voice whispered playfully into her ear.

"I'll tell you what happened to Lex Luthor if you like, Lois. It'll take me all of three seconds, listen: he died and went to h —"

"— shh!" She dug an elbow into his ribs and pointed at a thin beam of light piercing its way across the graveyard. Seizing his hand, she dragged him down, behind a large gravestone.

"Guard coming," she murmured into his ear, and was relieved when he nodded imperceptibly.

She turned her face into his neck — awkward as they were in their crouched position — and shut her eyes, knowing he was doing the same — knowing that the glare of a flashlight reflecting against their eyes could give them away in an instant. She felt his fingers tighten against her own, and his forehead drooped to rest against her shoulder.

She smiled against his skin, reliving every minute of the past week they'd spent together in her mind. The way he smiled at her, in that hesitant way, as if he couldn't quite believe she was with him. The way he took her hand while they walked, played with her fingers when they sat. The unequivocal love in his eyes when he looked at her, and the sense of fear, lurking somewhere in the back — fear that maybe this was all a dream and they'd wake up and be back where they started, fear that one day he'd look around and she'd be gone.

She knew. She could read him so easily. She'd felt every single emotion she saw playing across his face on a daily basis.

And the past week — the best of her life? Probably. The way he moved, the way he touched her becoming imprinted on her mind so that when she closed her eyes he was there. And more than that, so much more than that — the time used, the time spent with him. Learning him by heart.

She was spun out of her happy reverie by the movement of his head, jerking up and away from her. She watched him curiously, and was about to whisper something inquisitive when a low moan reached her ears.

"Oh my, my… woe is me…"

For a second a shiver ran down her spine as she imagined the ghouls of their earlier teasing, rattling their chains in a way that would have done Dickens proud. What the…?

"And now the end is near… I face the final curtain…"

Clearly their friendly neighbourhood ghost was a fan of Frank Sinatra.

Clark was shifting away from her, she realised belatedly — probably seeking the source of the sound. She crawled after him, looking along the line of his vision, and located it — a small, plump, bandy-legged man was standing in front of a tombstone with a bunch of flowers and… and…

<Oh, for Pete's sake!>

The night was too dark, and she couldn't make out what Tubby Guy held in his other hand.

"Well, Mama, I guess you were right about me all along. Everything I touch turns to cow patties…"

Clark was moving, she realised, as gracefully and silently as a panther. Puzzled, she followed for a moment, and then stopped. She looked from him to Tubby Guy and back again, and snorted.

<Please tell me you're kidding. Clark, you idiot, you're not Superman. Leave it alone…>

"So being's how I'm just about as worthless as a one-legged bird dog…"

Clark clapped the stranger on the shoulder, and she winced on reflex.

"You're not going to do what I think you're going to do, are you?" Good-naturedly, light-heartedly. One man to another. Sympathetic, but emphatic. How did he *do* that?

A flash of lightning illuminated the entire area, and Lois's eyes fell to the man's left.

Every single drop of blood in her body turned to ice.

A gun. That was what was clasped so tightly in the little man's left hand.

A gun.

The gambling den. Red and white and black. His black hair tumbled against the white of his face, serene and pale in death. Her screams bouncing red off the four walls, her screams the colour of pain, blood-red with the taste of her agony.

And Clark was still talking. Talking easily and calmly, his arm all the time reaching downwards, slowly, slowly.

Clark. And a gun. Clark and a gun. Near each other.

In that second, she was aware of exactly two things; Clark's fingers — the man she loved, the fingers of the man she loved — closing around the weapon, that instrument of death, and Tubby Guy's eyes narrowing dangerously.

Without a single thought, a single word or a single breath, she launched herself straight at the two of them. Her frozen fingers clenched around the cold steel of the firearm, a giant crack sounded somewhere in the region of her right eardrum, and then she knew no more.

***

"Lois? Lois??"

Calling to her, the woman he loved, frantically feeling for a pulse, putting his fingers and then his sleeve to the wound on the side of her head, touching her face, cold and pale as marble against the wet clay of the graveyard, the woman he loved…

"Lois? Come on, wake up, come *on*!"

Catching her shoulders, dragging her up, her head flopping back, terrifyingly still, she'd only hit her head, why was this happening? Why was she like this, so cold and motionless, so pale, deathly pale… she'd only hit her head and life couldn't be extinguished that easily, surely it couldn't, the strength of his love would stop her from leaving him…

His trembling fingers finally located a pulse, a thready beat in her graceful neck, and he nearly sobbed in relief.

"Lois… Lois…"

He laid her back against his bent knees, sitting in the mud and holding her close, willing consciousness to flow back into her. Somehow he was aware of the stranger he'd just stopped from committing suicide muttering disgustingly about jerks who couldn't mind their own business and moving away.

His stuttering eyes fixed upon her. Alive, she was alive, but if she didn't regain consciousness soon…

//Please let her wake up, please, tell me she'll wake up… she's all I've got.//

So much left to tell her. So much he'd wanted to say. So much he'd been waiting to say all week.

So much he'd been putting off, so much he'd been afraid to reveal to her because it might mean the loss of her love… so much guilt. So much he'd have to live with, every day for the rest of his life… all the things he'd never told her, all she'd suffered because of them…

She coughed, and her eyes fluttered open. He choked in gratitude, aware that his arms were tightening around her, unable and unwilling to stop his grasp from becoming unyielding.

"Lois… are you all right? Please tell me you're all right…"

"Clark…" Faintly. Her voice faint but very definite, even above the howling wind and rain. The storm… he should get her out of the storm…

"You're okay… you're okay…" His breath bursting out of his lungs, his arm supporting her as his fingers fisted in her hair, kissing her temple and her closed eyelids and her cheek and her mouth, his beautiful Lois, his beautiful girl, *woman*, the woman he loved…

"What happened?"

He shook his head, tears of shock blurring his vision and mingling with the rain.

"I don't know… I don't know… you grabbed the gun just as I wrenched it away from that guy… just as I did, and then there was this huge flash of lightning, and you fell and hit your head — really hard — on that headstone there… the gun, oh god, Lois, I thought for a second…"

Her lips twisted and she raised her hand, staring at her fingers — grasping the gun she'd failed to drop when she'd blacked out.

"Guns," she said slowly, dangerously, "should be outlawed."

And she threw it from her with a tired flick of her wrist.

The two of them watched in open-mouthed silence as it rocketed away, bounced off a headstone, broke a granite angel's head in half and ricocheted high into the atmosphere.

What…?

He was the only one able to do that. Wasn't he?

He… the… but…

No.

No. Not possible. Not happening. Please not happening.

He looked down at her, his eyes wide, struggling for words.

Impossible. Please. It had to be.

Her mouth was working silently. "What's happening to me?" she gasped, finally.

"I… don't know… what's… I don't know how…" Stuttering. Stumbling. His stubborn mouth refusing to say what needed to be said.

She was moving, bending, gathering her legs under herself to stand shakily in the slippery clay. She pulled him up with her, grabbing his arms with fingers that trembled and shook, and oh the look on her face. Like she was willing him to make it better.

"Lois." So afraid, so deathly afraid, looking at her for maybe the last time. "I… don't know how… but I have to tell you something — please, please don't hate me — I'm…"

And then the word died in his throat, there was no need for him to say it after all. An equation learned in college years ago — white shirt + water =

"Superman…" Her lips parted and the word came sighing out — like she'd always known but refused to believe until this second.

She smoothed his shirt against his chest with a quivering hand. She smoothed his shirt turned transparent with rain against the bold primary colours of the suit underneath.

Suddenly her fingers clenched closed around the sodden material, and she pushed him with all her strength. And the slender, petite, saturated form of the woman he loved became a blur of colour as she turned around and ran for her life.

***

She was walking, stumbling, hacking through the dense undergrowth and smothering night, the tears on her cheeks refusing to evaporate into the humid air. She whirled around, once, twice, desperately trying to spot a landmark, a bush, a rock with which she was familiar. Her foot caught in the root of a tree snaking its way across her path and she fell heavily.

Wincing… expecting to taste blood where she'd bitten her lip and where a deadly-looking briar had slashed across her face, expecting the short stabbing breathlessness of unexpected pain to invade her body, and yet… nothing.

Nothing… how… what? She'd… fallen, really heavily onto the packed earth of… wherever she was, and… nothing?

She climbed unsteadily to her feet, noting the distinct lack of ache in her ankle.

<Nothing… no pain… there's no pain when you're superhuman… no dying… nothing.>

She wasn't even *bruised*!

She threw her head back and uttered a guttural scream of grief and rage to the steaming moon, then buried her face in her hands and sobbed her heart out.

Nothing, it had all been for *nothing*, every thread of rending anguish her heart had rippled with, every thought and every word and every breath she'd taken since he'd died, all of it for nothing. Tears shed for a man who didn't deserve them, a man who bound her in blindfolds of secrets and betrayal.

<…this is what you wanted, this is what you asked for…>

And the crushing love that wrapped her heart in aching tenderness at the sight of him — all of it a lie.

"Lois?"

A hesitant voice whispering in the sweltering night, a voice somehow sodden with guilt and horror.

"Get… away from m-me." She aimed her words at him, levelled them as bullets against his spandex-covered chest, but the clogging revelations crowding her throat made it impossible for them to fly straight.

His hand touched her shoulder, and she felt her stomach lurch. Without even thinking about it, she swung around and punched him, throwing her full weight behind her fist.

He yelped, staggered backwards and his hand went up to clasp his nose.

"You… that…"

"Hurt?" she bit viciously, watching him recoil. He blinked, once, twice, three times — obviously trying to banish the sheen of water that had come to his eyes.

"Lois, please —"

"I don't want anything to do with you," she hissed, tears scorched by the heat of her fury. She turned and walked away, in her shoes caked with mud, three inches shorter than they'd been before she'd dug them in the earth to stop her forward momentum.

He trotted after her. "But if you'd just let me —"

"Explain? How exactly do you intend to explain this, Clark?"

He exhaled, long and slow. And she hated that she could ache at the tremor of sadness and deep regret, hated that his emotions could echo within her and make her think that maybe he hadn't wanted this either.

She marched determinedly away from him, reached a clearing in the middle of… wherever they were. Looking up at the glossy stars just visible in the leaf-fringed sky, she sucked in a deep breath, and strained for the heavens.

She felt a gust of wind curve around her face and half-opened her eyes, amazed that it could be so easy… to find herself exactly where she'd been five seconds ago, with Clark levitating in front of her.

Ignoring the blatant display of his treachery, she turned her back on him and once again attempted to fly. Irritated at the lack of movement, she gave a half-jump, cursing under her breath when her body lurched determinedly back towards earth.

"Lois… please let me help you."

She disregarded the timid request and surveyed her surroundings, looking for… she didn't know. Maybe a tree to climb up and jump off…

The moonlight fell across a large pair of yellow eyes, and she jumped.

"It's just a pygmy owl," came his voice — his voice weighed down with the extent of his regret. "But there are more dangerous animals lurking around, please, just let me…"

"Where the hell are we?" she blurted angrily.

She could hear him swallowing. "Uh… right now? I think we're in one of the less dense sections of the Brazilian rainforest."

Against her better judgement, she wheeled around to face him. "*Brazil*?" she asked incredulously. "How did we wind up in Brazil, of all places?"

He offered her a weak smile. "That's the trouble with these powers… hard to control when you're angry."

Pushing him away in the cemetery, turning blindly, running as fast as her legs would carry her…

"Lois, I need you to let me help you fly." His quiet voice driving at her with building intensity. "I promise I'll go away once you're safe, but I can't leave you out here."

"Can't you just lie to me again? It's what you do best. Maybe then I'll be angry enough to run myself back to Metropolis." He winced at her sarcasm, and she found the sharp words a balm to her jagged soul — relieved that maybe she was hurting him as much as he'd hurt her.

"It doesn't work that way, Lois. You'll probably wind up in Timbuktu, and I can't guarantee I'll be able to keep track of where you are so I can bring you back."

"Works for me," she bit. Watched him swallow again — swallow words? Swallow lies? Swallow his guilt?

"Please." A quiet request in that gentle voice she lo… loathed so much. He extended a hand to her, and she flinched.

"I'm not going to touch you unless you want me to." Sadness in his voice, the sound of her heart splintering.

She barely grasped the ends of his long fingers. Refused to entwine her hand with his, refused to make a mockery of that which they'd done so often over the past week.

"It's simple, really." His voice in flickers and jolts. "All you have to do is think… up."

Their feet left the ground. As soon as she spied the soaring skyscrapers of Metropolis, she let go of his hand and veered alone towards her apartment.

***

A serious fire in Hobbs Bay was averted last night by Super

A serius fiRe in Hobbs Bayy was aveerted last nigt by Spuper

A serious fire in Hobbs Bay was averted last night by members of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade. Working alongside Superma

A srerious fire in Hobbsb Bat was averteeed last ngight by Sup —

"Dammit!"

She flopped moodily backwards on her chair and let her body swing loosely for a moment. Trying to picture her mind as a blackboard, she imagined writing "Clark Kent" on the slate, then viciously erasing it. And again. And again. And again…

She glared at her mug of coffee, then recoiled in terror as the dark liquid within started to bubble. Glancing around her, she picked the mug up, her hands shaking, and emptied the contents into her potted plant.

If somebody'd seen that… if *anybody* ever saw anything like that… what would they do?

She shuddered. There would be a complete media circus, and the thing she'd once revelled in — the thrill of the chase — would become something horrifying when flipped upside down, when she was the hare and not the hound.

She'd be hunted and harassed and thronged with people, everywhere she went, people looking for superpowers, people convinced that she was the newest addition to the alien race of superhumans threatening to invade the earth and make slaves of mankind… people like Jason Trask, people with Kryptonite… people with worse things than Kryptonite…

Images of dark laboratories and pointed steel instruments danced before her eyes.

<Did you feel like this, Clark? Trapped? Scared?>

Jimmy swung by her desk. "Morning, Lois, isn't it a beautiful day?"

She snorted, her train of thought derailed. "Is it? I barely noticed."

She tried drumming her fingers off the table for a few minutes, but the impulse to turn her head became too great. Her gaze returned to his desk — his unoccupied desk. Just a few short weeks ago, she'd watched Jimmy pack his nameplate and the photograph of his parents into an anonymous cardboard box, choking on unshed tears, stifled by the grief in the newsroom.

She'd thought she would never have anything to be furious with him about again. And now look at them. One step forward, two steps back.

"Uh… Lois?"

She twisted her chair around.

"Jimmy, what is it?" she asked tiredly. "Please don't attempt to show me another one of your tacky mail-order gadgets. I'm really not in the mood."

"Hey, my gadgets have saved your investigations a couple of times," he responded, looking wounded. "Like that little receptor pen, remember that one? You borrowed it to spy on Lenny Stokes? I never got that back, actually…"

She'd never *given* that back, actually. She'd had a half-formed thought in her head that maybe she'd use it to horn in on one of Clark's dates with Mayson. See if there was anything there. But then again, she hadn't really allowed herself to consciously formulate that thought, and so the pen lay in a box under her bed, along with the stub of a ticket admitting her to the Smallville Corn Festival and a dried rose from a bouquet received on the night of the Kerths.

She shook herself out of her reverie. "What is it, Jimmy?"

He looked slightly bashful. "Nothing. I just… well, you know how Perry made me clean out CK's desk back when he…?"

She flinched, and he must have noticed, because he hurried on. "Well, I was getting his stuff back out of storage, and the bottom of one of the boxes opened and the bits and pieces in it came out all over the floor, and I noticed this… I don't know, you guys work so closely together, it probably just got lost in the shuffle… anyway, I thought maybe you'd want it back."

He flipped something onto her desk. A stiff, shiny something.

She picked it up, her sweaty fingers leaving marks on the slick surface.

A photo. Of… her.

A photo of her. One she dimly remembered him taking. In his apartment, he'd been trying out his new camera, received from his parents for his birthday — photography was a quiet hobby of his, she remembered, her mind flashing to the pictures he'd taken on his trip around the world.

She was beaming at him — he'd managed to make her laugh with the lamest joke in history, a horse with a long face, and had snapped her just as she'd exploded with giggles. Her eyes were focused not on the frame but on him, just above it. She looked… pretty darned good, actually. Her cheeks were rosy from the wine and good company.

And the photo… was stapled to another one. She flipped it over and instantly felt like somebody had dealt her a blow to the solar plexus.

The self-timer… he'd been trying out the self-timer, she'd been teasing him so much about his bashfulness in front of the camera. She'd wrapped her arms around his neck, laughing up into his face as the tips of his ears turned red.

She looked at it. Her grin was wide and impish, her eyes dancing, comfortable in the embrace of her best friend. And he… he was looking down at her with such emotion in his dark eyes and his bright smile, such… depths of feeling. She couldn't think why she had never noticed it before.

Never noticed it before. But then she couldn't have, could she? He'd never shown it to her before. He'd obviously seen how obviously… he looked, and had hidden it.

In his *drawer*? His desk drawer?

She felt a sudden pang. He'd taken it to work with him…

"Thanks, Jimmy," she said quietly, and he put a hesitant hand on her shoulder, squeezed, and moved away.

She threw a glance at the newsroom clock. Ten thirty, and not a peep from the criminal underworld all morning. So he was just… not coming in.

<This is a good thing. I'm too mad at him to want to see him… to be bored without him… to be worried…>

A twinge of fresh pain went through her heart. How was it that she could be ferociously angry with him and yet crave seeing him, touching him, knowing he was alive, hearing the sound of his breathing?

<Because I thought I'd lost him. Because I thought I'd never seen him again, that he'd been murdered, and I haven't fully realised that he's a *liar* who can't be killed.>

She closed her eyes, feeling as though everybody in the newsroom could see her pulsing soul.

She was sick of being tossed around with these turbulent emotions, sick of feeling raw, her edges jagged and her voice spiked with sarcasm and bitterness. She was sick of loving him and hating him and losing him — to a chip of propelled lead and then to his own deceit.

She stared intently at Perry's office, where he was meeting with… who was it Jimmy had said? She hadn't been paying attention… some bigwig or other. Maybe she could convince him to move her to some other bureau. Boston, or… or LA, or something. Somewhere far away. Somewhere very far away where she wouldn't have to deal with —

She recoiled in shock as suddenly the walls of the building peeled themselves away before her wandering eyes.

<No! No no no!! NO!!!>

Right. Well, now she knew an *awful* lot more about Perry than she'd ever needed to.

<At least I know he likes those checked suspenders I bought him for his birthday last year…>

She put her hand to her cheek, feeling it flame, and sensed an inner resolve strengthening.

Enough was enough. Nighttime trips into tropical rainforests, breaking the knob off every door she laid a hand on and making her morning cups of coffee bubble over? That much she could handle.

Discovering the exact colour, size and brand of underwear every reporter in the building was wearing? There she drew the line.

She grabbed her bag just as Perry stuck his head out the door of his office.

"Lois, where in tarnation are you going? Staff meeting in ten minutes!"

She studiously avoided looking directly at him. "I have to go somewhere fast, Perry. I'll be back soon."

The editor looked liable to breathe fire.

"What could you *possibly* need that's more important than this?" he bawled after her as she raced towards the stairwell.

<Clark.>

***

Eight hours now since his worst nightmare. Eight hours since his flimsy life had come crashing down to bury him in horror. Eight hours since a single bolt of electricity had turned his world upside down. Eight hours since he'd lost her through his own stupidity.

To Clark Kent, sitting alone in his apartment with his head in his hands, eight hours was an eternity — several squandered lifetimes.

Eight hours had been an awfully long time to walk around feeling like he wanted to claw his own skin off with guilt, an awfully long time to obsess and ponder and wonder and self-deprecate, an awfully long time to spend thinking about Lois Lane.

Funny that his life hadn't come crashing down with a sudden round of gunfire. Funny that after that, he'd been able to pick up the pieces and keep going. Funny how impossible that seemed now.

Her face in his mind. Her beautiful, delicate face, her eyes full of expression and emotion, her mouth shaped with smiles and bubbling with laughter.

The sight of her tears as they spilled, the horror-stricken shock that comes when all the ugly things you're feeling hit you at once, the blind hatred that had followed. And her mouth opening, hissing what he deserved.

<Get away from me. Don't touch me. I never want to see you again. I never want to be near you again.>

And oh, he had no doubt that she'd stick to her threats, that the storms of angry, tear-filled words that had fallen from her lips would hold true and whip his life into an agonising Lois-shaped nothingness. He had no doubt about that. Because even though she'd loved him — even though she'd loved him and she'd *told* him — the sheer strength of his betrayal would bind her in hatred.

He couldn't blame her. He hated himself enough for the both of them.

He'd ruined it all. He'd messed it up. And now he was never going to see her again.

He reached over to graze the textured envelope with the tips of his fingers.

He couldn't undo what he'd done. He couldn't banish the pain from her voice or the hatred from her eyes. But he could grant her that one thing — not having to be around him. A small repayment for the world of grief he'd twisted her into. Writing his notice had been… painful, but it was over now, and it was the least he could do…

A knock at the door. He sighed wearily, pushing a hand through his hair, and plodded up the stairs to open it.

The first thing that swam into his consciousness was a large pair of hunted brown eyes, followed by a cascade of silky hair and a delicately curved mouth. He blinked.

"Lois??" Shock, disbelief and wild hope exploded from his lips.

She ignored the exclamation, a serious look in her eyes. "Can I come in?" she asked, getting straight to the point with a very un-Lois-like air of purpose. Wordlessly, he stepped aside.

She paced about halfway into his living room, her hands clasped behind her back, before turning around to face him. His mind was a whirl of emotions — what did she want? Why was she here? Did she still love him? Was she going to forgive him? She was so beautiful…

"I don't want this anymore," she said, enunciating every word with crystal clear diction.

His heart leapt and he moved closer to her. "What don't you want?" he asked softly.

She was looking down now, studying her hands as they rested on the back of his couch. "These stupid powers. I'm sick of them already."

"Oh," he said defeatedly. The powers.

//Of course the powers, Kent. What were you expecting? That she didn't want to fight anymore? Do you know the woman at all?//

"Why are you sick of them?" he asked, doing his best to ignore the mocking laughter of his subconscious.

Her bottom lip was trembling.

"Cause they're annoying and I can't control them," she said shakily. "Honestly, Clark, I don't know how you put up with them, but… but the… I keep breaking things! Stupid things… I broke a chunk of my kitchen counter off this morning, and my car keys have some pretty interesting indentations in them, and… and stuff like that."

He very nearly reached over to lay a hand on her shoulder, but remembered just in time.

"They take a while to get used to, Lois," he said softly. "If anybody knows that, it's me… and while I'm on that subject, you might want to keep your bedroom window closed at night — I've been known to float in my sleep…"

"Floating! That's another thing," she blurted, still avoiding his eyes. "I'm *terrified* that I'll start to float in front of somebody by mistake."

He shook his head. "That hardly ever happens. Last time for me was…"

//…roughly a year ago… the White Orchid Ball… her hair… she'd done something twisty with it… couldn't take my eyes off her…//

Her tearful voice yanked him back to the present. "How do you live like this, Clark? How? I'm so scared… that I'll do something super in front of somebody and then… then I'll be —"

"— locked up in a lab —"

"— and dissected like a frog," they chorused.

There was a split second of stunned silence as the two of them gaped at each other.

"How did you know what I was going to say?" he asked, unnerved.

She shrugged uneasily. "Dunno. Guess great minds think alike."

He acknowledged the saying with a nod of his head, still feeling slightly disconcerted.

"And… that's exactly how I feel," she admitted hoarsely. "I never thought *you'd* feel that way… how would you know that?"

He shrugged uneasily. "I did grow up with the powers, Lois, and I wasn't always invulnerable… that was something my dad always warned me about."

"Your *dad*?" Her eyes were incredulous — probably trying to reconcile the image of Jonathan Kent, Kindly Small-town Farmer, with the image of Jonathan Kent, Paranoid Parent with Debatable Methods of Preaching his Beliefs to his Only Son.

He shrugged again, strangely uncomfortable with that particular revelation. "He had a point. But Lois, that won't happen to you."

She swallowed. "It won't?"

He was stunned by the depth of vulnerability he saw in her, stunned at the insecurity and the pure fear. A surge of protectiveness roared through him, nearly lifting him off his feet.

"No." His voice very definite. "I won't let it happen to you."

A moment of silence in which he formulated a plan in his mind. And then he strode around the couch, grabbing one end and lifting it so it swung round to face his kitchen table.

"What are you doing?" Her curious voice behind him.

He turned briefly. "I can't get rid of your powers for you, Lois."

Her face fell.

"But I can help you control them." He smiled, and motioned to the kitchen. "There are some jugs in the top left press — can you grab a couple and fill them with water?"

She was already moving, her eyes watching him warily. "Why do we need jugs?"

"Easiest way to practice."

"Practice what?"

"Heat vision."

Approximately five seconds later they were sitting on the couch, and he was closer to her than he'd been in eight hours.

"The key is concentration," he told her, gently. "Focus all your energy onto making the water boil — or the steel melt, or the pot-roast brown. You've got to make it your one purpose. As you get used to it, it'll get easier, and soon you won't even have to think about it."

He watched as she stared intently at the jugs, watched her bend a line of fierce concentration directly from her eyes to the liquid on the other side of the room — fascinated with the sheer will she put into absolutely everything she did, whether it was writing an award-winning story or acting like someone straight out of Roald Dahl, trying to bubble water with her eyes.

The first jug exploded, and they both ducked on reflex. He looked over at her — she was holding her cheek in an expression of stunned shock, and for an instant his heart jumped. Had a shard of glass buried itself in smooth skin?

She glanced at him, her dark eyes embarrassed. "Sorry," she murmured imperceptibly.

He shook his head, relieved that her cheek was unbroken. "Not a problem. These things take practice to get right."

She sighed, and looked back at her targets. She blinked, once, twice, and then her shoulders slumped. "I can't turn it back on," she said in defeat.

He shifted infinitesimally closer to her. "Your eyes need to co-ordinate with your brain," he said softly.

Her gaze flashed over him, and he could see how hard she was trying. Suddenly her eyes widened, and her cheeks went fire-engine red.

"Everything okay?" he asked, puzzled.

She was staring hard at her folded hands now. "Yep!" A bright, false voice, a nervous titter escaping her lips, pinched as if in embarrassment.

Understanding hit him like a bolt of lightning, and he bit back a grin. "You haven't accidentally used your x-ray vision, by any chance?"

She still wasn't looking directly at him. Reaching up to tuck a strand of hair behind her ear, she shrugged and said "Just now? Yeah. And this morning at the Planet. Clark?"

"Yes, Lois?"

"There are some things that I'd be… so much healthier not knowing, you realise that?"

"Such as?"

"Such as the fact that… Perry wears polka-dotted boxers!" she blurted, and clapped her hand over her mouth as her cheeks deepened even further.

A shocked bark of laughter escaped his throat before he could choke it back, and she glared.

"Hey, in my world, that's nothing, Lois," he replied, trying to keep a lid on his bubbling amusement. "The first time my x-ray vision kicked in I was helping out in Smallville's retirement home as part of a project for school."

"Oh, boy," she said, trying to hide a grin. "That must have been fun."

He snorted. "Yeah, it's right up there with that earthquake in the Philippines last year for sheer entertainment value."

She looked at him, her mouth open, clearly shocked by the flippant comment.

He shifted uncomfortably. "What?"

She shook her head, looking slightly taken aback. "Nothing, I just… kind of… realised… that was you, wasn't it?"

The mud, the screams, the orphaned children, the bereaved parents, the thousands of lives destroyed forever, the stench of death on the suit, in his hair…

"Yeah." His voice was very quiet. "That was me."

She shook her head. "How did you manage it?" she asked, her voice a whisper. "I saw the LNN footage of that… and of you. You looked… destroyed. How did you come into work after that? How did you not… fall apart?"

"These," he said softly, and reached over to pick up his glasses. "I hid behind these."

"Must be pretty great to be able to hide yourself whenever you want to like that," she said pointedly, her bitterness evident.

He looked at her sadly. "No, Lois, it's not. It's not great having to hide who you truly are, every day of your life. It's not great having to constantly duck and dodge behind frames, hoping nobody will realise who the real you is. It's not great…" His voice was a whisper. "It's not great to feel inadequate beside the better parts of you, to feel like the woman you love will never love you in return… because she can't truly love two men at once, and you're unable to show her who you really are for fear of losing her entirely."

"I never loved two men at once," she retorted, looking almost angry.

He sighed. "Yes you did, Lois. You loved the paper cut-out, the infallible hero."

"I loved Clark Kent."

He shook his head. "You never knew Clark Kent."

"Because you never showed him to me!"

"How could I have, Lois? If I'd told you about Superman straight away you'd have —"

"Fallen into your arms and begged you to fly me to Vegas?" Her voice an attack, a swarm of angry words.

"Yes. Or written an exposť worthy of a Pulitzer… You were so blind to —"

"— what you prevented me from seeing?"

He nearly choked, searching desperately for a flaw in her logic.

"You still don't get it, do you?" she said incredulously. "You *still* don't get it! I didn't love a paper-thin hero. I didn't love Superman. I loved the parts of *you* that were so much more obvious when you were him."

He started to shake his head, started to interrupt, but she cut him off.

"You keep saying I didn't know you, Clark, and that's a load of bull. I knew exactly who you were, all along. I knew Superman was this… the most compassionate person I'd ever met, the most selfless, the most caring… and I knew Clark Kent was only human."

He laughed, bitterly. "Yep. That's me, Lois. Only human."

"I cannot believe how dense you are," she said scornfully. "I loved the best and the worst parts in you. You think that the cape and the boots and the 'S' hide who you are? What a load of rubbish. I knew exactly who you were. I saw exactly who you were shine out of you every time you saw someone in trouble, every time you reunited a child with its parents, every time you looked at me."

He opened his mouth but again her voice rode determinedly over his.

"Superman isn't a man of steel, Clark, he's a man of… cotton wool. Something so soft and pliable that every time he comes up against death and destruction and evilness and terror, it eats away at him… and oh god, I wanted to stop that so much… I wanted to stop you hurting… you were too good to be hurting like that and with nobody to turn to… you were too kind…"

"Clark Kent showed all of those things, Lois." He was shaking, unable to believe how wrong she'd gotten it. All those things… all that stuff she'd just described… was just him. Not Superman, not the flashy ostentatious hero… just him.

"No," she said, and suddenly her voice was deathly quiet. "Clark Kent showed me what he wanted to show me. Clark Kent hid behind glasses and a mild-mannered exterior. Clark Kent's special side was twisted into something weak and hurtful by a thousand *lame* excuses at a thousand inopportune times. I loved Superman because he was totally open about what he was, what he stood for. I loved him because of how transparent he was, how he wasn't afraid to show how he felt. Clark Kent wasn't transparent at all."

His heart, thudding inside his ribcage, and how he hated to admit how much sense she was making.

"The things that made me love you were the things you showed me least often. And y'know what? You're right. I never really knew you, did I?"

His heart twisted agonisingly. Somehow he had the feeling that the conversation had slipped decidedly out of his hands.

"Lois… I…" he stuttered uselessly.

Her shoulders slumped. "Forget it," she said tiredly. "I shouldn't have said anything. I don't want to go over this stuff anymore, Clark. You're there, and I'm here, and we're not going to reach a place in the middle, okay? I can't forgive you for what you've done to me…"

<…and you can't forgive me for what I've done to you…>

He jumped. "*What*?" he asked incredulously. "Why would you say that?"

She looked at him, and he half expected to see steam shoot out of her ears.

"Why would I *say* that?" she asked, her voice rising with every word. "Why would I say that?! Clark, you *died*! Or you made me think you died! And I *grieved* for you, and it was all for nothing! All of it! Because of you and your stupid lies —"

He held a hand up. "That's not what I meant."

"Well, what *did* you mean?" Her eyes incensed.

"I meant, why would you think that other thing you said?"

"I didn't say anything else," she snapped.

"Yes, you did," he barked back, frustrated. "You said I wouldn't forgive you for what *you'd* done, but… but what the heck *have* you done?"

"I never said that!"

"Yes you *did*!"

"No I didn't!!" she shrieked. "I thought it, but I didn't say it!"

A dead silence.

In which he watched her face drain of all colour.

"You… thought it," he said faintly, finally.

And now blood poured back into her cheeks and pounded a steady path in her temple. "You never told me you were telepathic," she said, and there were a myriad of tones in her voice… resentment, scepticism, shock… mortification?

He shook his head. "I'm not."

"Then how… what… why?"

He felt hot disbelief flood his limbs. "I don't know."

//Oh god, please tell me this is not happening, please tell me she can't read my mind, please don't let her be able to read my mind…//

"Same old Clark Kent," she said bitterly. "Still afraid to let me know what you're really thinking."

He stood, pushed his hands through his hair. "I have a very bad headache," he said shortly.

//Liar… you don't *get* headaches…//

"Sit down, Clark."

He stared at her. //What?!//

"Your subconscious tells the truth, even if you don't. Sit down. I'm like a time bomb, I'm not fit to be left alone. I need your help."

<Don't leave me… I hate it when you leave me…>

He couldn't sit there with her when his head was spinning like a merry-go-round. He couldn't be so close to her, let her see who he was, when he didn't really know himself.

He tilted his head to one side, tilted an ear to an imaginary distress signal.

//Hmm… fire? Building collapse? Terrorist strike? Bank robbery? …giant asteroid heading for Clinton Avenue?…//

"There's nothing out there." Her voice sad and smug. "Sit down. You're not getting out of this."

He looked at her, his jaw hanging open.

"Sit!"

He sat.

***

Yawning, she kneaded the tense muscles in her neck sporadically. She was so tired… she'd barely caught a wink of sleep last night, too afraid of her dreams. Doubtless he'd heard her mental grumbling — he'd hardly been sitting for five minutes before he'd jumped up to go make yet another pot of coffee.

//Ge-gung. Ge-gung. Ge-gung.//

Her head whipped around. "What the heck is that?" she asked sharply.

His voice called to her from the kitchen. "What's what?"

"Nothing," she said, frowning fitfully. The sound had been background noise ever since she'd come into his apartment, and it was only now, as her thoughts skittered around aimlessly, that she became fully aware of it.

//Ge-gung. Ge-gung. Ge-gung.//

She felt a pulse throb to life in her wrist as her heartbeat accelerated, placed two fingers on it as it beat a steady rhythm, in time with the one in her head.

//Ge-gung. Ge-gung. Ge-gung.//

Getting louder, getting steadily louder…

"Here you are," he said, his voice suddenly too close as he set down a cup of coffee on the table in front of her. She jumped, horribly scared, and watched as he sat beside her. Watched the blood beating a fevered trail through his temple. On the beat.

//Ge-gung. Ge-gung. Ge-gung.//

On the beat. Like the sound. Like her own pulse.

<Oh… no. No, no, this is too corny, way too corny… tell me I'm not hearing his heartbeat.>

He took a sip, looked at her in silent camaraderie over the rim of his mug.

"Don't fight it, Lois," he said patiently. "It gets soothing after a while."

//Sometimes I fall asleep listening to yours…//

"Great," she said aloud, not wanting to acknowledge the presence of that last thought of his. "Now just tell me how to stop hearing it and we'll be golden."

He shrugged sullenly, slouched down in his chair, and she sighed. Did she really have to carry on this spiky war? Not that she was about to forgive him, not that she was going to even come close to forgiving him, ever, but this constant point-scoring was wearing her down.

"Let's go over this once more." He rubbed the bridge of his nose

//tired so tired ge-gung ge-gung ge-gung//

with a finger and thumb and looked at her.

She set her mouth in a firm line, trying not to let his lip-curling, teeth-revealing weapon completely flummox her.

<I've *got* to stop letting him get to me like this…>

His eyes were surprised. His eyes, released from the prison of his glasses, free to dent her will and turn her into a quivering wreck. "Get to you? I get to you?" He sounded strangely… pleased? Or fearful…

She shifted uncomfortably. "So, we've got the flying handled —"

//I wish she'd stop changing the subject… she's always running away from me, we could work this out if she wasn't so stubborn…//

"— as well as the heat vision, and x-ray vision isn't a problem anymore, thankfully. Thought I was going to have to start wearing glasses with lead frames…"

She flashed a brittle smile at him.

He sighed. "You okay with the flying?"

She nodded, determinedly riding roughshod over the memory of them flying over Cuba and the Caribbean, her fingers grabbing his brutally hard as she tried not to let him see just how badly she was shaking.

He smiled. "It's something, isn't it?" he asked, and she suddenly thought how much fun this could have been for him — sharing this huge part of his life with somebody who'd been there, too.

<No, it's not something, actually. Not on my own. I miss flying with you…>

//You miss that? Really? I miss flying with you too, Lois, I miss the feeling of your hair whipping over my face, holding you close… I miss you…//

<Of course I miss that. I've never felt so safe in my life…>

His eyes were vibrant with emotion, and there was a long silence, apart from his heartbeat, never distant, always there in the background… She couldn't break her gaze from his. Her thought sparked the air between them. A whisper of a thought she'd once had, a whisper of a thrill she'd never intended him to hear.

She held her hands up to her ears. <STOP it!>

"Sorry." His voice quietly contrite. "I don't even realise I'm doing it…"

She stared blankly at a spot somewhere over his left shoulder. "We can't keep going on like this," she said roughly. "We need to figure out how to turn it off."

He shrugged. "Can't help you there."

//I don't want you to turn me off… turning off means letting go, and I'm not ready for that. I don't think I'll ever be able to let go of you, but it's too soon to let you let go of me…//

<Focus. Focus. Focus. Focus. You're angry, remember?>

"So that's the flying…" she repeated, desperately trying to stay on track.

"Yep." His dark eyes inscrutable. "That's the flying… and the heat vision…"

"…and the x-ray vision, once again, thank *god*…"

<Phfft. Come on, Lane, like you didn't enjoy the peek you got earlier.>

She could hear him grinning mentally, and a flame of red rushed up her neck to ignite her cheeks. She was intensely grateful that he didn't transfer the thought into action. Those charming, trust-me grins of his were… disconcerting.

"How about the superhearing?" he asked, clearly letting the moment slide gracelessly by.

She mumbled darkly.

"What?"

Looking away from him. Refusing to look into his eyes. Refusing.

"Superhearing appears to be in order," she said reluctantly.

"Are you sure?" His voice, amused. "Sometimes it's hard to tell whether you're hearing actual outside events or just the voices in your head."

She looked at him, opened her mouth to retaliate, and —

//A large cruise ship is reported to be in difficulties off the shore of Montevideo…//

— stopped, suddenly, as their heads both listed off to one side and their eyes became unfocused.

//…appealing for help… reported to be over five hundred passengers on board…//

"Oh god, it sounds bad," she said, as her heart leapt in her throat.

She could hear him becoming panicked, too. //Gegung gegung gegung gegung gegung gegung gegung gegung…//

"Lois, I have to go." Harsh and somehow apologetic at the same time. "You'll be all right on your own?"

"No, I won't. I'm going with you." She was already on her feet.

He rose, staring at her. "No you're not."

"We can get twice as much done if I'm there," she returned defiantly.

"Not true. Lois, you're still not in control of yourself, and you don't have a handy secret identity to step into and hide behind!"

"I'm going, Clark."

//Dammit, why are you so *stubborn*?//

<Must be a side effect of these powers — you don't appear to be any too easy-going yourself, Superman.>

//Get out of my head!!//

<Get out of mine!!>

He made an intensely frustrated sound in his throat and spun, becoming a whirl of blazing primary colours, reappearing as Superman five seconds later. She bit back a gasp.

"Lois, I want you to stay here and wait for me." The parlour tricks, the stern, hurried voice. His Superman persona. Not only a mask with everybody else, but with her as well. If only he knew how little it hid him. "I'll be back soon, I hope. Listen to the news, it'll keep you updated."

He strode over to his bedroom, and she watched with the x-ray vision that had become a second nature as he took off from his balcony.

She wrapped a scrunchie around her hair and followed. Luckily enough, her clothing was dark. She hadn't listened to him back when she'd been normal, and she sure as hell wasn't about to start now.

***

Colour. How could there be so much colour? The sterile white walls of the lower deck were pulsing with it, shimmering with the reflections bouncing off the foamy seawater lapping around his ankles. There was a small fire at the end of the corridor; how could there be fire in this watery hell? An electrical fault, the sparks igniting something that had been twisted and blackened beyond all recognition.

His mind froze for a second, but then became unstuck in a rush of relief. It was too small for a body. No way was it a body.

He was moving as fast as he could through the corridors, but still the situation called for some deliberation, some finesse. Every cabin held a bunk where a child could be huddled.

Two weeks ago, he'd exited a burning building, fully confident that there was nobody left in there, only to witness the fire-fighters bringing the stiff remains of a two-year-old out three hours later. She'd been hiding in a wardrobe, he'd stupidly overlooked it, never even cast it a thought. He'd been plunged into guilt by his own arrogance and he was damned if it was happening again, oh god oh god…

"Is there anybody down here?" he shouted hoarsely.

//Cruise ship… holiday makers… different nationalities…//

"Y-a-t-il quelqu'un ici? Hay alguien aqui? Gibt es hier unten jemanden?"

"Clark?"

He stilled, horror-struck.

"Lois??" He yelled as loudly as he could, with as much anger as he could muster, and she appeared around a corner. She was completely drenched, but he'd never seen another human being look so determined in his life.

"Go back upstairs," she cried over the roaring foam. "I can do this no problem, but I can't fly those people to safety dressed like me."

"What are you doing here?" He grabbed her by the shoulders, terrified that she should be here, that the woman he loved should be here, seeing this part of him, this place of roaring water and death and despair and everything he couldn't do, everyone he couldn't save.

<Go, Clark.> She stared at him, her meaning clear. <Go. I'm fine.>

He shook his head frantically. //No, not you, I don't want you to be a part of this, you can't see me… this… you can't… I can't fail in front of you…//

<Remember what I said to you, years ago? Whatever you can do, that's enough. It's as true today as it was then. Trust in me, Clark…>

//No… I can't lose you…//

<You won't.>

He could have dreamed it so easily at that moment — and looking back, years later, he would swear that he had — but for an instant, she kissed him fiercely, and that brief contact was enough to stoke a fire within him. It was all he needed.

//Be careful.// His eyes were holding hers and he hoped she could sense how much he loved her, he hoped with all his heart.

<I will.> Their gazes clinging, till finally they let go of each other and raced in opposite directions.

***

His entire being was stretched so thinly as he worked that she knew he was almost completely unaware of her presence.

She wished she could say the same.

//Come on… faster… fly faster… harder… work… do it… dammit, you're *Superman*, *move*…//

Who would have known? Who could have guessed that at the end of the day, during a rescue, Superman's thoughts weren't bursting with adrenaline or full of determination? Who could have guessed at the quiet panic that seeped into every nerve ending? The silent but colossal fear that he wouldn't make it, wouldn't be in time, that somebody would die?

She concentrated on the task at hand, doing her best to swallow the huge lump in her throat. Listening intently, she sensed that his focus was so tightly drawn that he was barely aware they were still on the same planet, let alone joined at the telepathic hip.

She bit her lip and let in the thoughts that had been hammering at her skull for the past hour. Thoughts like — maybe, just maybe it didn't matter that he was Superman, or that he had lied, or that he'd turned out to be only human after all.

Maybe it didn't. Maybe all that was important was that losing him was something she could never comprehend, that she'd tried living without him and failed.

Maybe she could have walked away before. Maybe if his death hadn't thrown the world off its axis and made each breath seem to scorch her lungs, she would be able to walk away now, to take her anger and her pain and her hatred and make them more important than the thousand things about him that made her ache with love.

Maybe before, the strength and power of his lies would have obliterated each thought of his that had rung through her head. Maybe if she hadn't seen how wracked with guilt, how completely and utterly wretched he'd felt every time he'd had to lie, she would have been able to banish his existence with a thousand tagged-on names.

Maybe if she hadn't been at this rescue with him — if she hadn't seen that under the strong and indomitable image he presented to the world, there lay a silent, terrified, extraordinary man — she would have been able to stop loving him.

But she had. And she couldn't. Had seen the purest, most truthful form of Clark Kent that existed, and couldn't turn her back on it, now that she knew it was there.

Maybe.

She sighed and turned her mind back to what was important — getting them out of there so they could go somewhere and… talk.

Or maybe just think.

Yeah. Thinking was good.

***

— Hours later —

When she stepped out of the kitchen and saw him sitting there on the couch, his cape wrapped around him, his shoulders slumped and his head bowed, a wave of tenderness crashed through her with such force that it nearly lifted her off her feet.

She winced at the oblique reference to water as she approached him, making a mental note to avoid all phrases with such connotations, even in her head.

Especially in her head.

"Hey," she said, trying to inject as much cheerfulness as possible into the single syllable. "How are you doing?"

She plopped down beside him, crossing a leg under her, and watched with interest as his entire posture changed. His head lifted up, his shoulders squared, and he smiled as though trying to disprove the tiredness in his eyes.

"I'm doing great," he said with another smile — bright, false. "Just great."

Something told her to keep her mouth closed as tightly as she could and just listen. She closed her eyes as images hummed along the invisible cord connecting their brains.

Swirling water and pulsing reflections and his voice bounding around the silent ship, how every room melted away before his eyes, how he was so scared so very very scared but kept going because after all what was he for but to help, and if he couldn't do that what was the point of him…

She reached over and gripped his hands as tightly as she could, stroking his large fingers with her small thumbs, trying to send some comfort, some peace, anything through that point of contact.

//Why am I never enough, why is it never enough, why am I constantly not fast enough, not strong enough, not smart enough, why do people have to die because of my failures, why… why… why does she have to see me like this, please don't let her hate me any more than she already does…//

Her voice got stuck halfway between her throat and her lips. She wanted so badly to tell him she didn't hate him, that she'd never really hated him, that she loved him more than she'd ever loved anybody, that she couldn't possibly leave him after what they'd gone through.

She wanted to ask him — how could she turn her back on him now, when she heard every thought and dream and murmur that whispered in his head? How could she leave when she could look at him, at his bare soul, stripped beyond any false sentiment or unnecessary platitude? How could she abandon him when he was here before her, when she could see his face, his eyes, when she could see the essence of him, right down to the very core?

She wanted to, but she didn't. She wasn't entirely sure if she meant it yet.

"I heard that." His quiet voice. His quiet, destroyed voice.

She bit her lip. "I don't know if I wanted you to."

He raised his head, looked at her for the first time since they'd arrived home, and the thoughts running between their heads became a thousand times stronger and more painful as the raw emotion in his eyes registered.

"Sorry." His voice flat. Not because he didn't care — because oh he cared so much; she'd never guessed how much he cared — but because he was tired, and wishing so hard he could just give up. Just wanting to sink into an armchair with a can of beer, in front of a game on TV, after a long day at work, and doze at halftime like everyone else.

She shook her head, aching for him. "Don't apologise, Clark."

He made a tremendous effort — she could actually feel it, she could actually *feel* the effort it took — and one corner of his mouth quirked up in a half-smile.

"Isn't this funny, Lois?" His voice tiredly amazed. "Isn't this so funny? Millions of couples would kill to be in our position, being able to read the other's thoughts, and here we are and we can't stand being this honest with each other."

Her hands tightened around his and she shifted, looking up into his eyes.

"I think I could get used to it, though." Her voice was gentle, she couldn't help but be gentle with him. He was hurting every bit as much as she had, he hurt this much every day, and he hurt this much completely on his own.

She'd nearly gone crazy with pure grief when she'd lost him for three days. She'd thought that she'd never get over that one single moment, watching him die. And he… he watched people dying every day. Dying because he hadn't been there, because he'd been asleep, or in the shower, or arguing with her, and just hadn't heard in time.

When she stubbed a toe or broke a nail, the entire cosmos heard about it. How had he borne this quiet secret, this depth of pain and horror, for so long on his own?

He was back to staring at his boots. "I don't think I could. Get used to this." He gestured between their heads. "I don't think I could."

"Why not?"

"I don't think I want you seeing this side of me. I don't think I want to let you into this side of me." His quiet voice drove at her heart.

"Why not?" Still gentle. She loved him too much to be impatient right now.

Staring at his boots, his hands, anywhere but at her. "Because…"

//…because Superman… isn't me… and I don't want you seeing me when I'm not-me… I want you seeing me when I'm me…//

She squeezed his hands gently. "This is where that phrase 'it makes sense in my head but nowhere else' kicks in."

"Sorry," he said despairingly. "I'm trying to put it into words… but it's not coming."

"Just think." Watching him intently now.

//I don't want you loving one part of me and not the other. I don't want you knowing one part of me and not the other, either. I don't want you knowing both parts and only loving one. I don't want you loving Superman. Superman's not me. Clark's me. I'm Clark. I want to be sure you love Clark before letting you love Superman…//

"I never should have been a writer," he said defeatedly.

She shook her head. "I get it… I think. You're… a walking ball of contradictions… but I get it."

He was quiet, and she tried to formulate a response in her head.

"Thing is, Clark," she said finally, softly, "I don't think you've grasped the idea that you're neither Clark nor Superman. You're a mixture of both."

He shook his head. "Superman is what I can do. Clark is who I am."

"No," she corrected him. Smiled as he looked up at her, indignant.

"Believe me, Clark, I know this is confusing. I've spent the past… I've spent ever since I found out thinking about this, chewing this over. And what I finally came up with was… the reasons for me loving Superman…"

His shoulders slumped, and she watched him intently.

"…they're so simple. And they're exactly the same reasons I have for loving Clark."

//…huh??//

She winced. "I'm sorry. I knew that was going to be a shock."

"No, no, it's okay," he said hurriedly. "Go on?"

"Thing is," she continued, "at first I thought exactly like you. I cursed myself. I *hated* myself for loving a man I never really knew. For loving a man because he was a superhero, a celebrity.

"But Clark, that… just doesn't make sense. It… doesn't. I'm not a shallow person. I'm a lot of things, but I'm not shallow. And… me loving Superman just because he was Superman… doesn't sit well with me. I'm sorry."

His eyes were skittering around her face. She looked right into them, needing him to hear her.

"You want to know why I loved Superman?" she asked quietly. "I've told you already, but I'm not sure either of us was listening."

"Sure," he said tiredly.

She squeezed his hands. "Superman was easy for me to understand. I… I knew him, Clark. I know you can't quite believe that, but Superman wasn't a two-dimensional figure to anybody but you. To the rest of us, he was as real as we were… and he didn't hide."

"What are you talking about?" he asked, a frown creasing his forehead. "Superman hid *everything* from you. He couldn't tell you where he lived, or what he did when he wasn't out saving people, or what his favourite colour was. He couldn't even tell you his *name*."

She shook her head. "That's not the kind of hiding I'm talking about. That stuff… yeah, that stuff is important, but… you, as Clark, had this rather large shield up all the time. And it seemed like you were always finding excuses to run away from me. Honestly, Clark — Cheese of the Month?"

"Not one of my better excuses, I'll admit."

"To say the least. And… not only that.. none of your excuses were good. I just… I didn't understand you. I knew that you had feelings for me, but you were constantly pulling me towards you, then pushing me away. I hate people like that, Clark — I hate people who hide, people who aren't honest. Especially men. I've had too many men being somebody, anybody but who they were with me. And you… when you did stuff like that… you seemed just like all the others. And I wasn't about to waste my time on somebody like all the others.

"Superman… didn't hide. Superman was completely, perfectly, fully honest about what he was about. *You* were completely, perfectly, fully honest like that. Because when you're in the suit, the part of yourself that you're hiding is considerably smaller than it is when you're in the glasses."

He looked taken aback. To say the least.

"Even your eyes are different when you're being him. They're… clearer. Superman was so transparent to me, Clark — I could see three fundamental parts of his personality — how much he wanted to help, how genuinely good he was, and how not being able to save everybody ripped him apart."

"If that's the case," he asked, "why did you care about Clark at all? Why did you give up on Superman, in the end? Or -" His voice turning bitter. "- or were you just biding your time and hoping that I would make him jealous?"

She heard the barb, bristled at it, then saw the motivation behind it and refused to take the bait.

"No," she said quietly. "No, I wasn't biding my time."

"Then why?" he asked, and every vulnerable, needy, fragile thought in his head took a deep breath and strained hopefully towards an answer that would make them go away.

She refused to let the barrage of thoughts intimidate her. Instead, she took a deep breath and looked at the ceiling.

"When I was younger, my mother told me that you never love a person for who they *are*," she said softly, her eyes tracing brushstrokes of paint. "She told me that when they're young, you love them for what they're going to be, and when they're old, you love them for what they were."

There was a barrage of confusion bubbling at his lips, waiting to be released, but he seemed to be successfully holding it back. She smiled to herself.

"I cared about Clark because I saw how hard he was trying for… something. I saw how much he wanted… something. At the end of the day, Clark, even through the crappy excuses and how mad I was at you, even through me being blinded by Lex, through it all — I saw you trying, and *that* set you apart, and I loved you for it."

His voice sounded strangled. "Trying for what?"

She shrugged. "Trying to fit in. Trying to be a success. Trying to keep going. Trying to be a good person. Trying to hang on to your beliefs. Trying to make a life. Trying to make a difference. All the things we all try. I saw how your life was — is — a constant struggle to be happy, and…"

She could hear him breathing very lightly and quickly. "And?"

She closed her eyes. "And I understood completely," she whispered.

There was a very long silence in which her words whizzed around in both of their brains. She could hear him mentally putting pieces of sentences together and pulling them apart again, trying to come up with an adequate response. She wanted to get there first.

She cleared her throat. "Ironically enough, the clincher was when you died." It was a testament to how far she'd come that she didn't put mental quotes around the word, nor inflect her voice sarcastically on the syllable. "When you died, I realised that there was another struggle in you that I was missing."

"There was?"

"There was." Now she opened her eyes, looked at him. "One to make me see you."

He was silent, and his face was blazing with all the emotions connected to her she knew existed in his thoughts. Hope and peace and fear and such love.

Despite herself, she could feel her eyes stinging. "You tried so hard to make me see you, and I wouldn't let you. I wouldn't. And oh, Clark, that killed me… I'd known all along, and I wouldn't…" Her voice became choked. "I'd known all along, and I'd willed your words and the ways you looked at me back. I never wanted them until I knew I couldn't have them."

Now his eyes were intense with hope. It was beating all other emotions down. It was radiating from him in powerful waves. His hope was a swirling thing in his eyes and still he said nothing — still he waited, still he wanted her to be sure, still he put his own wishes and desires on hold for fear they would make her uncomfortable.

And she questioned herself. She couldn't help it. She couldn't undo a lifetime habit, she couldn't dive into anything concerning her heart before checking the water level. She couldn't let go of her anger without making absolutely sure it wasn't necessary anymore.

She looked at him there, sitting on her couch. Not seeing a mighty superhero, clothed in scarlet and billowing blue, nor a mild-mannered reporter with framed glass hiding the personality swirling in his eyes.

She looked at him there and she saw one tired man — like a circus strongman at the bottom of a pyramid of acrobats, struggling to hold them all up at once. She looked at him there and she saw his struggle, saw the endless juggling back and forth, saw the weighty decisions he had to shift about on his shoulders.

Now she understood the choices he made every day, every minute. Now she saw the taut string of control stretched between his mind and his hands, his body. Now she understood how the slightest loosening of that string could make his life forfeit within five seconds.

She saw it all, down to the carefully measured calculations of how much force put on the handle of a door was enough to make it open. She saw his life of control and restraint and constant choice. Answer minor distress call versus miss conference meeting and possibly lose job. Reheat cup of coffee with eyes or trek across a busy newsroom to refill it normally. Miss a deadline or miss a child standing frozen under a heavy billboard dangling from one rapidly unravelling piece of rope.

She saw it and she couldn't blame him any longer, couldn't hang on to the vestiges of her own selfish hurt when one of those split-second choices had resulted in the thud of his body hitting the floor. She couldn't blame him for choosing the easiest option — to drop and fade and pretend he'd never been.

She wished all of his options were as easy as that one had been. She could see that most of them weren't.

Most of all, she saw herself. She saw herself in almost every thought, she saw every image of herself he'd kept tucked in her brain. She saw endless imagined scenarios between them and she saw endless memories. She'd always known he'd loved her, but now she saw exactly how much. And she liked it.

She loved it.

She loved him and she loved how he loved her.

A hand touched her shoulder hesitantly. She looked at him, into his eyes, full of hope and love and concern for her. As she did, his expression changed, and suddenly she knew that words weren't necessary — that no words could be more effective, more honest than what he'd just heard her think.

She took a deep breath, then floated closer to him. His face neared hers, and she knew that what was coming was a seal on a promise and something that couldn't be broken.

She kissed him, and for the first time in days, she felt safe.

***

— Two days later —

She rotated her neck, grimacing as she felt the bones crack and grind against each other, and blinked, returning her gaze to the computer screen in front of her. The hum of the newsroom, a symphony of jangling phones and chiming elevator bells, faded away as her eyes narrowed and her brain searched for the perfect line — the right combination of nouns, verbs and adjectives that would precisely and exactly carry the meaning she wanted to convey…

//I love you.//

Her head snapped up; the corners of her mouth curled into a beaming smile as their eyes collided and connected. She bit her bottom lip in pleasure as a tumult of thoughts crashed through her mind.

Suddenly they cleared, and she glared at him, doing her best to suppress her smile.

<Quit your moony-eyed daydreaming, Kent! I have a deadline to meet!>

Her only response was a grin and a salute across the newsroom — rolling her eyes in mock displeasure, she turned away.

Amazing how quickly they'd gotten used to being in each other's heads. Amazing how akin to being in her own head it now felt… how comfortable… how somehow reassuring… a constant companion, a reassuring voice in your ear… like having a talking cricket on your shoulder…

//Are you seriously comparing me to a talking cricket?//

She snorted with laughter.

<Okay, maybe it wasn't the best simile in the world. I saw Pinocchio once too often as a kid. Cut me a little slack, why don't you?>

She felt, rather than heard him grumbling under his breath. Smiling, she lifted her coffee cup to her lips to take a sip. Seconds later she spluttered, choking, as the icy cold fluid soured her mouth.

<Smooth, Lane, really smooth,> she thought disgustedly as she dabbed at the spots of stray liquid on her shirt collar. <And I can hear you laughing over there, Farmboy,> she added, treating him to another glare.

Grumbling silently under her breath, she glanced quickly around, then focused her eyes on the cup, frowning intently.

And then did it again.

And again.

And stopped.

She grabbed the mug of coffee. Pushed herself back from the desk. Got up. And walked over to him.

"Clark," she said, forgetting herself in her confusion, "conference room."

A beat, and they were there. She set the mug of ice-cold coffee on the table, shut the door and pulled all the blinds closed before grabbing his tie and pulling his surprised face down on a level with hers.

"I can't do the vision thingy," she hissed. "Just there. I can't do it. No heat. No steam. Not so much as a bubble!"

"Try again," he instructed her, his voice perturbed, and once again she glared with all her might at the innocuous brown liquid.

"Zip. Zilch. Nothing," she concluded deflatedly, as it stubbornly refused to warm. She saw the confusion in his eyes, read the panic in his thoughts.

"Well… try something else then. Try to x-ray somebody here," he instructed, becoming more fearful now.

Unable to help herself, she quirked an eyebrow at him suggestively, grinning as his face flushed.

"Lois! Not *me*! And not… like *that*! Just x-ray… a bone or something!" he hissed, his cheeks now scarlet. She giggled.

"I'm not even going to try that. I still haven't gotten over seeing Perry in his boxers the first day I got this… vision thingy. I'll just look through the wall."

The colour had reached the tops of his ears, she noted, interested. Obviously there was something under his clothes that he wasn't comfortable with her x-raying… not like the man had anything to be ashamed of…

"Lois, just do it!" he moaned, burying his face in his hands in mortification.

This time she laughed out loud. "Sorry," she said, still giggling, and patted his arm. "Seriously, Clark, sorry. Couldn't help myself."

Still grinning, she swung around and focused intently on the door. For a few seconds, the frame seemed to wobble. Then she blinked, and it was suddenly as solid as it had ever been, and she was left wondering if it hadn't been a trick of the light.

Her shoulders slumped. "Nothing," she said defeatedly.

He shook his head, obviously bewildered, then pulled out a chair for her to collapse into and sat beside her at the varnished oak table.

They stared at each other, brown eyes mirroring the thoughts which zipped back and forth through the line that connected them. By mutual agreement, the discussion verged back into the metaphysical — it had its disadvantages, she thought, but at the very least it afforded a level of privacy higher than that of Fort Knox.

<What does this mean?>

//I have no idea.// His eyes were dazed. //It's not like I have any past experiences to go by.//

<Could it be wearing off?> She frowned. <Could I be losing it? Could it be going away?>

//Maybe. I don't know. The efficiency of a large lightning bolt and the metal in a revolver to transmit superpowers into human beings is an area as of yet untouched by modern physics.//

He grinned at her — a beaming, cheeky, thousand watt grin with just a hint of nervousness and a slight apologetic air. Another entrant in the hall of Clark Kent's Smiles.

<As always, Kent, the depth of your humour astounds me.> Smiling, she took his hand and kissed the knuckles one by one.

Something struck her and she looked up, letting his hand fall.

<How is it we can still do this, if I'm losing all the rest of them? How is it we can still hear each other?>

He stilled, his eyes searching hers. His mouth tightened.

//I don't know. Maybe we'll lose this too, in time.//

She took his hand again, twined their fingers together.

<I don't want to lose this.>

His thumb stroking hers.

//Me either. Maybe we won't.//

Looking up.

<How?>

His eyes very tender.

//Maybe it's meant to be easy for us anyway. Maybe we could have always done this if we'd tried, and all we needed was to stop lying to each other. Maybe… maybe a lot of things, I don't know. Nobody knows what's around the corner.//

Her shoulders slumped, and her gaze left his.

<That's for damn sure…>

He cupped her cheek with his free hand, stroked the pad of his thumb directly under her eye, forcing her to look at him.

"Whatever happens," he said softly, meaningfully, "we'll face it, like we face everything."

She smiled mistily. Swallowed, nodded. And by mutual consent, they left the conference room, finished their respective stories at lightning speed, gathered their things and strolled out of the office, hand-in-hand.

Together.

THE END

(c) Sara, Nov 2007.