Work Header

Man Or Monster?

Chapter Text


The park looked different in the dark than it had in the daylight yesterday, when Lois had sat on a bench and smiled at him and asked him to be her partner a breath before turning him down when he offered her his heart. People had been walking the pathways then, chatting conversationally to each other, completely oblivious to the sound of his hopes and dreams shattering into a million pieces when Lois so politely let them fall to the hard ground of reality. The fountain in the distance had sounded loud in his hearing, mainly because he’d been focusing on it in an effort to try to calm first his nerves and then later his wretched anguish, but now it was only a tinkling even though he actually stood right in front of it instead of sitting on what had become, in his mind, The Park Bench.

The Park Bench, where he had made a last-ditch effort to prove that his optimism wasn’t delusion, that his hopes weren’t just baseless dreams, that his friendship with Lois was more than platonic. The Park Bench, where Lois had put a hand on his arm and smiled at him and told him she could never love him, never see in him anything worth pursuing, never do more than pat him good-naturedly and tease him casually and call on him in the middle of the night but only for work or maybe, at most, some friendly encouragement.

The Park Bench.

The capitals said it all, really, and the uppercase P and B had grown to such dimensions in his mind that they could encapsulate all the heartbreak and grief and the overwhelming, barren future that had so suddenly sprung into life before him.

Which was why he really couldn’t explain why he was here now, pacing in circles around the sparkling fountain, stealing glances of the stars that had been his only real company since the morning before rather than flying up to meet them, adjusting his glasses to make sure he hadn’t forgotten them—after all, he’d spent so much time in the Suit and so little time as the ordinary man Lois could never love that he’d hardly be blamed for forgetting the glasses that both gave him freedom to live his life and imprisoned him in a life sans Lois—and waiting.

Waiting for Lois Lane.

The same Lois who had been so carefully polite—even kind, really, for her—in rejecting him and then, without even losing her friendly smile, asked him—the man she couldn’t love—to fetch her the only man she could ever love.

The only man she could love, but not, apparently, the only man she could ever marry.

The same Lois who had just that evening blamed him for ruining Perry’s retirement dinner and accused him of jealousy in a tone that displayed none of the friendliness she had shown the morning before, even while she demanded that same friendship from him.

The same Lois who might possibly be accepting Luthor’s engagement ring any moment, any day, any time at all. But, Clark found himself thinking almost bitterly, since Superman had rejected her, why wouldn’t she accept Luthor’s proposal? Why wouldn’t she grab hold of this chance for happiness, this proof that Lois Lane was more than enough to ensnare the most important man in Metropolis, the third richest man in the world, the greatest philanthropist on the eastern seaboard?

Why wouldn’t she forget all about Clark Kent, the nobody reporter from some hick town that wasn’t even on the map?

But…Clark frowned and looked around once more, stretching his hearing out tentatively. Where was Lois?

“I need to talk to you,” she had told him over the phone, and for once, he hadn’t been able to read the emotion in her voice. He had wondered, almost idly, whether that was because they had acted like strangers at Perry’s retirement dinner or because she was feeling some emotion he hadn’t yet encountered in her.

“You just talked to me,” he had replied, and he wasn’t proud of the stiffness in his own tone, though that, at least, he knew the cause of without any trouble.

“Please, Clark,” and her voice had softened and turned quiet and malleable, which had made him weaken—which had doubtless been her goal. No one could manipulate him more often—or more openly—than Lois Lane.

“All right,” he had agreed, not quite petulantly, almost wearily. “Where?”

And then she had told him to meet her at the fountain in Centennial Park in twenty minutes, and he was here, but she wasn’t, and it was just like her, really, to make him wait even though she was the one who had called him out.

Frustrated, Clark ran a hand back through his hair, cutting off his resentful, circular thoughts. He was pacing in circles, thinking in circles…eventually he was afraid he would just start spinning in circles, and he let out a mirthless laugh at the image that popped into his mind of a brightly colored whirlwind spinning through Metropolis like a top, revealing and then concealing Superman in an endless…yes…circle.

He was crazy. That was the only explanation. He had been disappointed and hurt at The Park Bench, but it was The Window that had really severed his hold on sanity and crushed his rational thinking.

The Window.

Lois’s Window.

That was Superman’s nightmare, though, not Clark Kent’s, and right now, he was Clark Kent.

And Lois was late.

Trying not to jump out of his skin with impatience—trying to restrain the instinctual urge to leap into the sky and flee to the relative safety of the dozen cries for help emanating from various corners of Metropolis—he set himself to the task of trying to figure out why Lois would want to talk to him only an hour after calling out disdainful words to him as he walked away from her and Luthor’s strings-attached limousine.

Was she in some kind of trouble?

Had she stumbled into another story and still just assumed he would roll over and capitulate and be her reporting partner?

Had someone threatened her? He felt a low rise of protectiveness start building up within him at that, and marveled at the ability of Lois to inspire such feelings in him even after what had happened between them.

Or—and this was his worst fear, yet the most likely possibility—did she just want to tell him that Luthor had managed to easily deflect all of Clark’s suspicions and that she had thus accepted his proposal?

If that was the case, Clark was sure that one of two things would happen. One, he might instantaneously disintegrate, might just turn into a pile of dust when he looked at her and knew for a certainty that he was looking at the future Mrs. Lois Luthor, bought and paid for through deception, trips to the opera, snippets of misleading information for articles, elaborate compliments…and a diamond ring that was likely the size of that chunk of Kryptonite Trask had chased down in Smallville. Or, the other option, he might shake apart, just tremble with anger and horror and guilt and confusion and fear and terrible, awful jealous pain and fury and fly into a million, billion pieces.
Either way, whichever, he’d end up scattered in the wind, lost to the vastness of open air, strewn through the skies. Which was an oddly ironic end for the only man who could fly.

Just then, Clark caught the sound of Lois’s heartbeat and the click of her shoes on the sidewalk and the steady cadence of her breathing. Belatedly, he realized that he had frozen at the sound, just like a dog on point, and he shook his head at himself and perched on the edge of the fountain, doing his best to look disinterested and casual and knowing he failed miserably.

After a moment, though, listening to her grow ever nearer—soothing his sense of protectiveness with the slowness of her step—he gave up the useless pretense and stood to his feet. Then, realizing that staring in the direction she would appear also resembled a dog hearing its master coming up the walk after a long day at work, he ducked his head and stared fixedly at his feet. That, too, seemed wrong—he certainly didn’t want her to think he was too embarrassed or ashamed to look her in the eye—and so he looked upward toward the concealed moon, only to think that maybe that would just serve to remind her of Superman, and that was the last thing he wanted to bring up, for both their sakes.

After all, The Window lurked in wait, ready to haunt Superman given the least opportunity.

So when Lois finally came into sight, Clark was staring at the ripples in the fountain and mourning the loss of his easiness with Lois. He wished, as he had been wishing since only seconds after he’d said it, that he had never confessed his love to Lois. It could have remained unspoken, surely, the elephant in the room everyone avoided mentioning and treated like an old stray that had wandered in and since been adopted somewhat off-handedly as the family pet. After all, if his declaration hadn’t won him Lois’s heart or, at the very least, stopped her from marrying Luthor, then what point had there been in laying bare his innermost hopes and desires and dreams, which had turned out to be so much less invulnerable than he was?

“Clark?” Lois called softly, and finally, he let himself look up.

He felt his heart seize up within him and wondered what Lois would make of that if she possessed the ability to hear his heartbeat. Would she recognize why he responded such to the simple sight of her? Would she recognize it and simply accept it as her due? Or would she be confused by it? Certainly, he was often confused by what he heard and saw in her. If he hadn’t been so confused, in fact, maybe he wouldn’t have been stupid enough to give her opportunity to use on him a weapon even more painful than Kryptonite—the weapon of her casual, almost patronizing rejection.

“I’m here,” he said softly, pitching his voice to carry past the splash of the fountain.

She squinted in the darkness, past the spray obscuring his face and misting his glasses, and then stopped in mid-step to stand there and regard him uncertainly. “Clark?” she said again, and Clark felt a sudden irrational anger with her. Why did she always make him declare himself? Why couldn’t she, just once, come out and say what she wanted or what she needed or what she expected of him instead of always playing games with his heart? Didn’t she realize that in waiting—expecting—him to betray her, she was betraying him, preemptively lashing out against his expected disloyalty?

With great effort, he kept that burst of painful anger off his face and replied mildly, “I said I was here.”

She stepped forward then, farther into the light of the moon and stars reflected off the shimmering water in the bowl of the fountain, and Clark found his eyes darting immediately to her left ring finger. He was surprised the trees in the distance didn’t sway with the force of his sigh of relief when he saw that the finger was beautifully bare.

“I…I needed to see you,” Lois said tentatively, almost as if it were a peace offering. If it was, it wasn’t a very good one, but Clark was doing his best not to start another argument. He didn’t want to have to add The Fountain to his list of capitalized words.

“That’s why I’m here,” he said neutrally as the radio in a passing car informed him of the possibility of a tornado touching down in Kansas over the next few hours. Then, unable to help himself, he took a step nearer Lois and asked, a bit anxiously, “You’re not in any trouble, are you? You’re okay?”

“It’s nothing like that, Clark.” She waved her hand—her bare hand—dismissively. “Don’t be such a worrywart.”

A hot flare of anger burst inside him and flooded his veins with flames. Hastily, he squeezed his eyes shut and turned his head. His heat-vision had never yet exploded from him without his direction, but then, he had never been so angry before either, so he judged this a “better safe than sorry” situation. Only when he was certain he had an iron—or rather, steel—grip on his powers did he allow himself to look back at Lois.

“Wow, thanks, Lois,” he said, clipping his words off short to ensure he didn’t say something he’d later regret. “Glad I came out here in the middle of the night for that piece of advice. I think I might actually take you up on it and stop worrying about you. If that’s all, then, I’ll just wish you a good night because mine’s certainly been something of a disappointment so far.”

He knew he wouldn’t leave, not without hearing her out, but he did turn and pretend he could actually walk away from her.

“Clark, wait. I’m sorry.” The words were grudgingly spoken, but it was an apology, and that was more than he’d ever expected to get from her, so he found himself stopping in his tracks and turning back toward her. “I didn’t mean that. It’s just…it’s been one of those nights, you know? Well, of course you know—I mean, you just told me you’d been having a bad night, and I know I’m partly to blame for that, but our argument aside, I hardly think your night has been anything compared to mine. Coming to see your almost-fiancé to maybe tell him…well, never mind what I was going to tell him. But coming to see him and then hearing him on the phone talking about Kryptonite will do that to a person, you know? So, anyway, I thought I should let you know since you’re far more likely to see Superman sometime soon than I will, and he might listen to a warning coming from you better than he would from me. Or I think he would anyway, but since I still haven’t figured last night out, maybe I’m wrong about that. Of course, you don’t know anything about last night, so I don’t even know why I’m talking about it other than the fact that it’s why I’m here—to tell you about the Kryptonite so you can tell Superman.”

He was gaping at her, flat-out staring, which was what he usually did when Lois went into one of her no-breathing, nerves-showing, rambling rants. But when she mentioned Kryptonite and Luthor’s name in the same sentence…well, all the heat left from his burst of anger flashed into ice and cold chills swept through his body.

“Kryptonite?” He felt himself pale, felt himself stagger, felt himself sit heavily on the edge of the fountain. All other sounds faded away into a distance that even Superman couldn’t broach.

Aside from what had happened at The Park Bench and The Window, Luthor possessing Kryptonite was his worst fear.

“Clark…” The smallness of her voice demanded his attention and shook him from his panicked thoughts. “Why would Lex want Kryptonite?”

The question stunned him and left him speechless. Was she really asking him to tell her the truth about Luthor? Had she finally realized that the smooth-talking billionaire wasn’t what he appeared?

“Wh-what did he say?” Clark felt suddenly cornered, and the customary evasion fell from his lips…and he hated it. He wanted Lois to know the truth behind Luthor—not the ordinary man behind the hero but the monster behind the man—wanted it so badly, as if he were a starving man suddenly coming into sight of a mountain of food. And yet, instead of running to eat, he was turning away from that food…and it was the exact opposite of what he should be doing. He needed to tell her the truth now…didn’t he? But he had been lying so long, he wasn’t sure he knew how to pick apart the threads of his deception.

Lois shrugged and wrapped her arms tightly around herself, a move that made him inexplicably want to hug her. She was wearing a sweater even though the air was warm, and its light blue folds made her look tiny and fragile and young, so Clark swallowed and looked away because he wasn’t ready yet to touch Lois again, not after what had happened the last time.

“He was on the phone making what sounded like a business transaction,” Lois explained impatiently. “Then he hung up and started talking to that horrible Mrs. Cox. He said he’d be very interested in seeing if the Kryptonite actually worked. But really, that doesn’t even make sense because we don’t even know for sure that Kryptonite exists. And Lex loves mind games, so it was probably a simple question that he was answering, sort of a hypothetical…” But her voice trailed off, and Clark wondered if she had realized just how ridiculous her excuses sounded.

“Clark,” and her voice was abnormally calm, as if she had separated herself from this conversation, and Clark was afraid, deathly afraid, that his chance to show her Luthor’s true colors had already passed him by. “What would Lex want with Kryptonite?”

“H-he hates Superman,” he replied, stammering in his delayed haste to get the words out before she could stop him, before she could turn around and walk away, walk out of his life and straight into Luthor’s arms. “He sees him as competition, as an obstacle to his goal of becoming the most influential citizen of Metropolis and the most powerful criminal.”

“Criminal?” It was hard to tell what Lois was thinking—which was so unusual that it seemed almost alien, certainly more alien than he had ever truly felt—impossible for Clark to tell if she was really listening to him or only paying enough attention to be able to shoot him down once again. “Does Superman know that Lex hates him?”

“Yes,” Clark answered simply, cowering away from the memory of The Window, afraid it would leap up and attack him at even this mention of Superman.

“And does Superman know about your suspicions of Lex?”

“He…” Clark swallowed, every possible answer he could give laid out before him like an extremely complicated maze. Only, he was nowhere near as skilled at finding his way through it as the rats in laboratories were. “He’s the one who passed along much of the information I know.”

“Then why hasn’t he done anything about it?” Lois asked matter-of-factly—so matter-of-factly that Clark gaped at her, wondering if the woman he loved had been replaced with a robot that could only regurgitate Luthor’s excuses. “If what you say is true, Superman would have seen to it that Lex was punished.”

With a sigh that reached deep into the depths of his being and sent the bleak, searing ashes found down there out into the open air to coat the shimmering water in the fountain with an invisible miasma of despair, Clark stood and thrust his hands into his pockets. “Superman stands for truth and justice, Lois, so he needs proof to take Luthor down. He can’t just manhandle him into a prison cell, no matter how much he might want to. And believe me, I’m looking for the proof he needs. But…if Luthor has Kryptonite, then I guess I need to look faster.”

Lois canted her chin defiantly and finally the anger that was surging within her became visible in the flashing lightning storm playing through her night-dark eyes. “Superman would have told me if this were true. He would have warned me. And why didn’t he—why didn’t you—ask me for help if you were investigating Lex?”

“Because of that,” he exclaimed, pointing at her, still feeling cornered and defensive, still afraid of saying too much, of not saying enough, so incredibly weary of walking this tightrope between truth and deception. “Because you call him ‘Lex.’ Because you’re dating him. Because you refuse to believe anything bad about him and have not once thought to investigate him on your own even after he shot a man right in front of you without so much as batting an eyelash. You were supposed to be getting the first one-on-one interview with him, Lois, or have you forgotten that? What happened to not getting involved with your stories? What happened to never letting anyone else get there first? What happened to not sl—” Hastily, he cut himself off, knowing he was going too far, before resuming in a quieter voice. “Why would Superman ask you for help when you’re so obviously caught up in the same lies Luthor tells everyone else? Why would I ask you for help when you’ll barely let me say his name without jumping all over me? You’re an investigative reporter, Lois—investigate.”

Lois trembled with anger—actually, visibly trembled with anger—and Clark realized with familiar despair that he had said the wrong thing again, that she still wasn’t listening to him, that he was trapped in a situation he had no clue how to handle.

And sirens were going off across the city, and there was a news report about a cruise ship in trouble, and a bank alarm was sounding, and he could hear a tidal wave beginning to build up near Indonesia, and…and he was so tired. Exhaustion flooded through him, so much that he actually felt himself waver and had to spread his feet and brace himself to keep from collapsing to the ground. He wished he could fly away, wished he could flee whatever poisonous, agonizing words Lois was about to hurl at him, wished he could rescue everyone who needed him…but escape wouldn’t solve this, wouldn’t help him, and even if he flew to the ends of the earth and rescued people from dawn to dusk and from twilight to sunrise, he would never be able to run from the sound of her beautiful voice rejecting him yet again, never be able to make himself solely into someone she could love.

“That is not fair!” Lois hissed. “I have interviewed Lex, and I have written stories on him, and I do let you say his name—in fact, I even came tonight to hear what reason you have to think Lex is a murderer or psychopath or monster or—”

“Try ‘all of the above,’” he couldn’t resist interjecting, though he knew it would do no good, would only make her even more furious with him, less inclined to listen to him.
“—well, you know what, Clark? I still haven’t heard a single rational reason or any solid proof to make me distrust Lex. You’re just jealous, Clark, and Superman…well, I don’t know what his problem is—if he even knows. You could be lying about that too for all I know.”

He felt the anger that was rapidly becoming familiar rise up to engulf him once more, enough so that he almost saw red and had to squeeze his eyes shut again, but he was so tired of being mad at her, so sick of fighting with her, and the sound of nearby fire alarms was distracting him. Lois thrived on anger, embraced it and used it to make herself stronger, to lock herself behind ever-higher walls, but Clark couldn’t do that. He had always been slow to anger, but after his powers had developed, he had specifically cultivated an easygoing manner. Anger had too much possibility for catastrophe, too much potential for tragedy, too much room for hurt in it.

And Lois…well, it was worse being angry with her. Terrible to shout at her, awful to look at her and want to shake her slender frame, so soul-crushingly exhausting being at odds with the woman to whom he had, however unwisely, given his heart.

And what did it matter, in the end? Why should he argue with her over this when nothing he said would penetrate her fury-strengthened walls? Anything he said would anger her and everything that made her angry would further deafen her. It was a useless battle…and yet he couldn’t stop himself from trying anyway.

“You want rational?” he asked her in a voice so blank that she actually blinked and took a step backward. He sank down onto the fountain and looked up at her, not even caring anymore that his lowered position could give her the wrong impression. “I can’t give you that, Lois. Yes, I’m jealous—I admit it! Are you happy now? Yes, it kills me to know that you’re considering his marriage proposal even though you’re not sure you’re in love with him when you didn’t even take a full second to give me the same consideration. And no, I don’t have enough proof—if I did, do you think I’d keep repeating my same warnings to you knowing that you haven’t listened to a single one of them? But I did not lie about Superman’s involvement in this investigation, and the fact that you think otherwise…” He stopped, thought about it, and then shook his head. “No, I guess that doesn’t surprise me, after all. In fact, I should have expected it, all things considered.”

Lois was silent. That was harder to bear than anything else because a torrent of words meant Lois was dealing with something and he could usually tell where she was heading, but silence? Silence was a blank slate that could conceal endless rejections and condemnations and accusations. So he looked away, out over the city of Metropolis, his city, the city presently calling for Superman from a hundred different directions as it did every hour of every day.

“Clark…” In direct contrast to those frantic cries and jagged alarms and far away news reports, Lois’s voice was gentle and soft and kind, which was enough to make him take in a shuddering breath in order to keep his eyes directed away from her. And then she touched him, a warm, light hand resting on his, laid atop the cool marble of the fountain, and he could hear her settle herself beside him, could feel her presence so near him, could sense her eyes intent on him.

And suddenly he wasn’t tired at all. He was on fire, alive and vibrant and viewing the world through an explosion of color and sensation and life that hadn’t been there before.

And he was numb. Completely and utterly numb, as if all emotion, all feeling, all thought had been scoured away to leave only the bare bones. He felt abruptly disconnected from his body and his name—both of them—and his situation, felt his great and awful love for Lois as a force as powerful but as distant, as unknowable, as the ocean. It still called to him, was still obviously there, but it was abstract and it changed from wave to wave and it was liquid, moving and shifting and alien to his solid form.

Slowly, infinitesimally, sure that if he moved too quickly, he’d shatter—and wouldn’t that be a startling event for Lois to witness and have to try to explain in her next LNN story?—he pulled his hand out from under hers. “Don’t,” he whispered, so quietly that it was almost drowned by the bubbling of the fountain. “Don’t play with my heart.”

“Clark, I’m not.” She sounded so sincere, so earnest…but she had sounded just like that at The Window, and he could no longer pretend that that night was only Superman’s nightmare. Because no matter how much he wished otherwise, that had been Clark Kent’s nightmare too, just as The Park Bench was shared with Superman. Both man and hero pierced to the core by the events of both, those capital letters stabbing them at every point.

“I’m not entirely rational when it comes to Luthor,” he said before she could say anything else, before she could revisit one of those moments and possibly finish the job she had already started. The numbness that had engulfed him seeped into his voice, so pervasive that he didn’t even feel a twinge to see Lois scoot an inch away from him at the sound of Luthor’s name, so all-encompassing that he could scarcely hear the world crying for a hero he wasn’t sure he could be anymore. “But that doesn’t mean I’m wrong. Luthor’s going to end up hurting you, Lois, along with a lot of other people.”

Lois cocked her head and studied him as if she’d never seen him before, and he wondered if she could see the cloud of frozen detachedness, if it showed clearly around him, outlined him in a nimbus or aura.

“All right, Clark,” she said coolly, her hands now clasped in her lap as she regarded him. “You want me to investigate—let’s start with you.”

And the numbness wasn’t as all-consuming as he’d thought because a frisson of fear ran through it like a crack in a glass globe.

“How do you know so much about Kryptonite?” It was an accusation as much as it was an inquiry for information, a challenge more than a question, but Clark considered it anyway. In fact, he took a long moment to ponder his answer even though the fire alarms were growing more pressing, the cruise ship was rapidly taking on water, there were three more cries for help in the surrounding city blocks, and that tidal wave was growing ever larger and nearer land.

Finally, tired of trying to think his way out of the situation, he simply shrugged and said, “I was there in Smallville, too, remember? I helped discover Kryptonite.”

“And how did you learn that Lex was supposedly a criminal?” Lois demanded, intent on her prey as she leaned nearer him. “Tell me why you think he’s evil. How do you know of his crimes when nobody else does?”

The answer to that question was so much harder than she knew, so much more difficult to put into words, and that was why he had never tried to explain it and why Lois had never listened to his vague warnings and fear-hampered caution. But strangely, Clark didn’t feel afraid anymore. He should have, probably, should have been terrified that telling Lois anything would give Luthor power over him even above and beyond the threat of Kryptonite.

But it didn’t.

Didn’t because what it did matter anymore? If Lois would betray him, then what point was there in staying? If there was no hope of her love ever being given to both sides of him, then what was the point of keeping up the pretense? If Luthor could be brought down, then what was the point of lying any longer?

Or maybe it was as he had originally thought and he was just crazy. He had heard of such things, complete psychotic breaks. Maybe his had occurred at The Window, or maybe even earlier, at The Park Bench, and his insanity had convinced him that he was a superhero who could reject Lois as easily—ha!—as she had rejected him. Maybe he had imagined being able to fly and leap tall buildings and catch bullets and resist Lois Lane. Maybe he was just an ordinary man broken by the realization that he wasn’t enough, not nearly enough, to deserve Lois.

Or maybe he was just sick and tired of the lies.

Clark took a deep breath and stood, looking down at Lois, facing her in the dark, studying her features reflected in the light, almost completely detached from this moment, this scene, this revelation. “How do I know?” he repeated, as conversationally as if they were discussing the grass along the pathway or his parents’ health. “Because I’m Superman, Lois. I know all of this because I’m Superman, because I’ve seen Luthor commit the crimes, because I’ve heard him, because I’ve confronted him and he’s admitted it, because he hates me even more than I hate him and for less cause. But he gets away with it, and I can’t seem to stop him, and I know if I were smarter, I wouldn’t be in this mess, but it is what it is and I don’t know what to do.”

She was shell-shocked, perhaps a bit disbelieving, staring up at him as if she’d never seen him before, and maybe she hadn’t, but there was nothing to do now other than to press on, to say everything that had been boiling within him for so long.

“I want to fight for you, Lois,” he said, marveling at the neutral tone of his voice, “but I won’t fight with you anymore. And I don’t know if you love him, but if you do, then of course you have to stand by him. Only, I can’t figure out where that leaves us, which is why I avoid you and I vacillate between arguing with you and trying to understand you. I hate lying to you, and I’m tired of evading, and I can’t stand hurting you, and I know I’m not being the friend you need or the hero you want, but there you have it—the whole truth behind Clark Jerome Kent.” He paused, thought a moment, distantly ignoring the byplay of shock and astonishment and a hundred other different emotions playing across her face, then added, “And I know you’ll be even angrier with me for saying this, but at this point, I think it does need to be said—please, no matter how much you hate me now, don’t print this, for my parents’ sake if nothing else. Most especially, don’t tell Luthor because he’s actually, I’m realizing, my arch-nemesis. And I didn’t even want an arch-nemesis.”

He forced himself to stop then, knowing he was rambling, unable to pretend any longer that this speech that unveiled him and completely stripped him of his last defenses didn’t affect him, already beginning to be a little frightened of how resigned and numb and uncaring he felt.

And still Lois just stared at him, her eyes large and black and shimmering suspiciously in the night. And something within him moved, threatened his detached state, made him reach up his hand to brush a finger against her cheek—just to make sure she was warm because she looked so frozen and still—before he remembered that she wouldn’t want him to touch her, wouldn’t want him anywhere near her. He was the ordinary man she could never love and the superhero she idolized, but now, with this secret told, he was neither, and she would hate him for taking both those men away from her.

So he dropped his hand before it could reach her and he took a step back so that he wasn’t crowding her.

“I do love you, Lois,” he said because, regardless of his emotions or the situation, he couldn’t not say it. “If you can’t remember anything good about me after this, at least remember that. I love you, and I’m only a call away. Always.”

When her expression degenerated into a mask as empty as his future, he felt another frisson run through his aura, another tremor endanger his world of surreal calm, a surge move through that far-away ocean. And he knew he needed to get away, needed to give her space, needed to find out about Luthor’s Kryptonite, needed to answer the cries for Superman…needed to get away from Lois so that he wouldn’t end up disintegrating into that pile of Kryptonian dust.

Needed, above all, to escape before the last remaining pieces of his dreams were completely obliterated and the world’s icon of hope lost every shred of it.

So he looked at Lois one more time—one last time?—an ocean of feeling in his eyes, and then he lifted straight up into the air without bothering to change into his Suit and he rose toward the stars that would, he was sure, be his only company aside from his parents from this day on.

He had been wrong.

The Park Bench and The Window had been nothing, nothing at all, compared to The Fountain.