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Ghost Of A Chance

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“Lois?” She’s been hammering at his door loudly enough to pull him from his abstracted musing (his perusal of his apartment as he wonders if he’ll be able to last here much longer and how long it will take him to pack everything up as if he'd never been here at all), but that’s not surprising because she’s not the sort to knock quietly and wait patiently. She’s at his door, on his doorstep, and that shouldn’t be surprising either because she used to come all the time, barreling in past him, never waiting for an invitation, always so sure of herself, talking faster than he can move, waving her hands in the air to illustrate whatever her point happens to be, finally turning to face him with an expectant look on her face, impatiently waiting for him to agree with her.

It shouldn’t be surprising. But it is.

Because it’s Clark’s door she’s knocking on. Clark’s doorstep she’s standing on.

But maybe, he thinks, she is here to demand he once more retrieve Superman for her so she can plead her case again (twist the daggers she’s left in him, pour salt in open wounds, make sure he knows exactly who and what it is she loves and who and what she doesn’t).

Only that doesn’t seem quite right either. Because even if she wants something (and she does, wants him to be her friend and her sidekick and her backup-confidant-encouraging-friend-like-a-brother partner; wants him to pretend he isn’t completely horrified and terrified by the very thought of her marrying Luthor), she hasn’t come over in days. Hasn’t talked to him like she used to, true partners and maybe-but-can’t-admit-it friends. Hasn’t looked at him with that endearing expectant impatience. Hasn’t looked at him with anything other than frustration, or kind sympathy, or absentminded pity, and the only thing she’s waited for him to do is accept her dismissal and run fetch Superman for her. And when he did it (because she asked him and even though he knew it was a bad idea, he couldn’t quite make himself deny her), well, then she’d looked at him with awe, with admiration, with shock, with disappointment (with everything but understanding, recognition, realization).

Less than twenty-four hours ago, Superman flew away to the sound of her tears, and Clark has not seen her for even longer, since the morning before.

So why is she here? Giving him a watered down smile, looking pale and unsure, almost nervous, but here. Not barreling in but rather standing there, as if he has frozen her with his gaze alone.

“Hey,” she says, in a shadow of her normal voice. “Can I come in?”

She’s never asked him that before (never asked him if she could tear her way into his heart and take up permanent residence there).

“Y-yeah,” he stammers. And swallowing hard, trying to disguise everything he knows she doesn’t want to see in him, he steps aside and gestures her in. (As if there was ever any doubt, he thinks resignedly.)

She enters, but slowly, as if she’s never come in before. As if this is all new and different and exotic. She looks around and examines everything closely, her eyes never quite landing in one place for more than a second or two before moving on.

Clark steps up behind her—but not too close, because more than anything, he does not want to make her uncomfortable after his confession. “Are you okay, Lois?”

She spins to face him so fast that he’s brought up short, taking a half-step back and staring at her, trying to discern what lies behind vibrant, dark eyes (not that he expects to succeed; he’s been trying and failing for six months now and she still manages to surprise him on an almost hourly basis).

Her heart stutters in her chest in an odd, uneven pattern, and her eyes are locked on him—as if she wants to understand him as much he does her (but only one side of him, the side she doesn’t know is his), and Clark expects anything (has already braced himself to deny her when she asks for Superman), anything but what she actually says.

“You said you loved me.”

It feels like a punch to the stomach. Not that he has a lot of experience with it, but Trask gave him quite the education in taking a beating during those hours he was affected by Kryptonite and it’s not exactly something he can forget. So he knows, without question, that her words feel exactly like a blow straight to the core of his being. Like she reached out with a chunk of radioactive Krypton and slammed it into him.

But what makes it worse (worse than the blow she’d landed when telling him of Luthor’s proposal; worse than the beating inflicted by her gentle, open statement that she doesn’t love him; worse, even, than the knife to his heart caused by her affirmation to Superman that she’d love him as an ordinary man) is that he cannot tell why she is bringing it up. He cannot interpret whether it is meant to be hurled as an accusation or asked like a question or simply stated. And the uncertainty (the dangling hope, blatantly placed in front of him like bait he is not wise enough to refuse) makes him feel as if he is wavering precariously between a narrow stretch of solid ground and open air with gravity strong enough to claim even him.

But the statement (question; accusation) hangs in the air, and now, finally, after all these days, Lois is looking at him expectantly, as if he is exasperatingly slow and she must do everything herself, as if she wants something of him. And he is so tired, so very tired, of denying this most basic fact of existence. So he nods and says, “Yes.”

Her smile is almost bitter. Her eyes skitter away from him. She wraps her arms around herself (as if uncomfortable to be alone with him).

Heavy, sluggish disappointment (not surprising and fully expected, but painful nonetheless) trickles over him like raindrops in a storm, profiling his form, outlining him in damp grief he can’t escape no matter how fast he runs or far he flies.

“Yeah, well,” Lois says, “Superman doesn’t.”

If he thought she couldn’t hurt him more than she already has, then he was wrong, because this hurts. Because he hurts, and he starts to wonder if maybe it was a mistake to ever come to Metropolis, to dare to apply at such a prestigious newspaper, to not take off running the moment he realized he’d fallen in love with a woman who’s never seen him as anything worthy of a second look.

But she is sad and disconsolate, and that is partly his fault (result of his lack of self-control when he wears the Suit his mom made him, of his own mistakes and his own insecurities), so he summons up the best comforting tone he can manage and says, “Lois, I’m sure he—”

“No, it’s okay.” She cuts him off with a careless wave of her hand (and at least she is unfolding, is letting down her guard just a bit, even if it is only because she is more upset with Superman than with him). “I mean, why should I have expected any differently?”

Now it is guilt’s turn to take a bite-sized chunk out of him.

He starts to reach out to her (not quite sure what he can do but needing to do something to assuage the wounds he’s given her), but she smoothly evades him by beginning to pace, taking up room, forcing him back another couple of steps.

“Anyway, it doesn’t matter,” she says quickly, the words coming so fast they fall to lay in her wake only to be trampled underfoot when she turns to pace back the way she came. “I told Lex I couldn’t marry him.”

His apartment seems to shrink around them. The city disappears from his senses, the world vanishing so that it is only him and Lois alone, in this small amount of space, that exists. The Earth itself seems to stop where it is, right in the middle of its orbit of the sun. All so he can assimilate this one fact—that Lois has turned Luthor down. So he can ease the soul-crushing weight that has been breaking him beneath its burden ever since Lois told him the crimelord-in-philanthropic-armor proposed to her. So he can breathe again, for the first time in weeks.

Clark can’t move, can only stand there, afraid to so much as blink lest he jolt the Earth back into movement and cold reality back into place (and yet, he breathes, and it is still real; he can still hear the fading echoes of Lois telling him she has not bound herself to a monster).

And finally he can’t help but let out a deep and sincere sigh of relief, his eyes fluttering shut in a futile attempt to disguise the hope creeping back into his eyes, the smile trying to free itself at the corners of his mouth. “Thank you,” he says, with all of his heart.

“I didn’t do it for you,” Lois snaps, jerking him and the Earth alike from the moment of relieved realization. She doesn’t seem to notice, well on her way to working herself up to a full-fledged rant. “Truthfully, I’m kind of frustrated with all of you—Lex with his grand gestures, and Superman with his disparaging comments, and you—” She whirls on him, and despite himself, Clark flinches away.

He shuts his eyes, hopes she will stop herself there, will take pity on him and decide not to finish her sentence. He doesn’t need all of his failings spelled out for him again, not now.

But he is never that lucky.

“You’re supposed to be my friend,” she says furiously, her voice low, crackling with intensity that usually compels him ever closer but now only lashes out at him, driving him back and away. “You’re my friend, and you threw…that…at me anyway!”

He swallows back his immediate retort (you are my friend, and yet you didn’t even give me a chance), his pleading explanation (Luthor is so dangerous, so deadly, and I couldn’t make you see it), his careful justification (I have been holding it back for so long that I decided to finally be brave and for once in my life fight instead of run), and says nothing at all. The truth is that he knows he shouldn’t have told her (knows she doesn’t love him), but he convinced himself that maybe she did feel more for him (she trusted him, after all, more than anyone else in her life, and that had to count for something), that maybe hearing he loved her would make her stop and see things differently. He’d told himself he was doing the brave thing, the right thing, and that even if it didn’t turn out the way he so desperately wanted, at least she’d know.

And even now, even after all the pain the last thirty-six hours have brought him, he can’t bring himself to apologize for letting her know she is loved. If she is waiting for an apology, or for him to take it back, then she will be waiting a long time.

“But,” she says, and her voice turns slow and musing, catching his immediate attention, “you meant it…didn’t you?”

The world is moving again, but Clark isn’t, not yet, not when every new word is bringing a new shock to his system, a new mystery to throw him for a loop. But if she is doubting him (if she is actually considering what he said, thinking about it enough to come to his apartment and talk at him and look at him as if he can do something for her), then he can keep quiet no longer.

Gathering his courage, hoping she will not run from him, he meets her gaze. “Yes, Lois,” he tells her. “I meant it.”

She doesn’t blink, doesn’t look away, but she looks…immeasurably sad. “I’m sorry, Clark,” she says quietly, “but…I don’t feel that way about you.”

Another sucker-punch with that glowing green rock. Another burst of pain so much bigger than it seems someone of Lois’s small, slender size should be able to inflict. But this type of pain, this type of searing reminder that he isn’t someone she can ever love, is something he’s grown quite used to.

“I know,” he says, with a small nod and a pitiful attempt at a smile.

“That doesn’t mean I can’t.”

That bombshell is dropped softly, purposely, and yet, before he can do more than gape at her (his super-speed deserting him), she is pacing again, her hands twisting in front of her. “Do you want to know why I was dating Lex?” she asks abruptly.

Clark shakes his head, looks away, tries to convince himself he did not hear what he thought he did (because at this moment, hope is almost more cruel than reality). “Probably not,” he mutters under his breath, sickeningly sure that he is about to be handed his heart on a silver platter with a Lois-shaped hole carved out of it yet again.

She throws him a look, all narrowed eyes and pursed-lip warning, but keeps talking anyway. “The reason I dated him—the reason I considered his marriage proposal—is because he can’t hurt me.”

It probably isn’t wise, not when she’s actually here, actually talking to him (actually not engaged to Luthor), but Clark sighs anyway. “Lois, I keep telling you, he’s more dangerous—”

“I’m not talking about that.” She waves his familiar suspicions aside, like cobwebs she’s grown used to cleaning up and parting in order for her to walk a well-worn path. “I meant…well, I like Lex. He’s good company and he certainly knows how to make an impression and he’s there when I need him to be. But his main allure was that he couldn’t break my heart, because I never gave him that power. I never let him near my heart at all, and he didn’t seem to really mind that.” She shrugs, smooths out her small frown. “And loving Superman—”

“Lois,” Clark interrupts hastily, shifting his weight in an effort to keep himself from disappearing before this can get any worse. “You don’t have to—”

“Loving Superman is easy too,” she continues over him, almost vindictively. She is, Clark realizes, watching him closely out of the corner of her eyes, as if she is gauging his reaction, so Clark carefully conceals his terror and his guilt and his anguish. Tucks his hands in his pockets. Rocks his weight back and forth on the balls of his feet. And feels each of her words hit him like stones cast at a condemned man.

“He’s certainly not going to break my heart, right?” she says, sarcasm and disillusionment and something more (something darker and heavier; something he can’t quite figure out) sharpening her voice. “I mean, he’s Superman. He’s always honest, always noble, and sure, maybe he’ll always be leaving me to go save the world, but he’ll always come back, and in the meantime, it gives me plenty of time to win a closet-full of Kerths. Plus, whenever he does get a free moment, I’d have the added bonus of flying through the skies with him. So you see, loving him is a safe dream, a fantasy just like knights in shining armor—doesn’t hurt to wish for them even if you know it’ll never happen.”

“Lois,” Clark says when she pauses to take a breath. “I don’t understand. I’m sorry if Superman said something that hurt you, but—”

She comes to a halt right in front of him. Stares up at him, something unreadable in her eyes, sharp and penetrating and silencing him in an instant, almost without effort at all. “And you,” she says softly. As if she’s memorized this speech and is determined not to let anything stop her from getting it all out between them—a wall, a barrier, a ring of fire to burn all the bridges he’s worked so hard to build between them. “It’s easy being friends with you. Well, actually, you’re great at being my friend, and I think I’m learning how to be a better friend.”

“You’re a great friend,” he murmurs past the lump in his throat.

She throws him a distracted smile for that, but doesn’t stop wringing her hands. Doesn’t stop pacing. Doesn’t stop dropping these words (that sound so disturbingly like the precursor to a farewell, a final goodbye) to lay at their feet, like all his hopes, shattering on the point of impact. “So you see, Clark, they were all safe choices—Superman as the fantasy, Lex as the reality, you as the constant, the loyal friend. I didn’t risk anything that way, because I made sure you were all safe.”

There’s something very tragic about that, Clark thinks, something terribly sad about her desire for safety over love, and he aches for her. Wishes he could love her well enough and thoroughly enough to fill all the missing holes inside her. Wishes that, even if she doesn’t love him, she would really, truly know that he does love her, so that she’ll never again think she’s someone to be left behind or overlooked or ignored.

Oblivious to his thoughts, Lois slows her steps, and says contemplatively, more to herself than to him, “But…when have I ever chosen the safe options?”

And even though he feels like she is slipping away from him, he can’t help but smile and nod to that, because she’s right. She lives life to the fullest and always on the edge, attacking life full-on and demanding that it give way to her. He isn’t sure (there are so many other things he loves about her too), but he thinks that trait might be what he loves most about her. It’s certainly what first captured his attention.

“So,” Lois concludes decisively, “I want to try.”

He’s lost. He feels as if he’s missed part of this wild, incomprehensible conversation. As if she has skipped the most important part and is only relaying the highlights to him. So he frowns, tries to piece it together, and ventures, “Try…the safe option?”

“No!” she exclaims impatiently. And inexplicably, startlingly, she looks almost…afraid. She swallows hard, and her heart rate doubles as she takes a careful step nearer him. “I want to try…to love you.”

“Wh-what?” It isn’t an intelligent reaction, isn’t eloquent or coherent (isn’t the desperate approval he wants to give this idea, or the frantic demand that she explain why she is doing this to him), but it is all he can manage. He can’t decide if this is a dream he’ll soon wake from, or a nightmare he can’t free himself from.

“Lex doesn’t love me,” she says quietly, stepping even closer (her heart rattling like dice in a cup), tilting her head to look straight up at him. “Not really. And Superman obviously doesn’t either—I mean, he’s never even told me his real name! But…but you love me, Clark. And I want to try to give that back to you.”

He wants it too. Wants it more than anything. Wants to sweep her into his arms and kiss her without excuse or disguise or farewell to mask his reasons for doing so. Wants to wrap himself around her and tell her she won’t regret it, and spend the rest of his life loving her until she can never again be insecure about her worth.

But.

But this is all wrong. The timing, her reasons for doing this, the speech she’s so determinedly recited, the awkwardness permeating every line of her slender, quivering body. The way her hands tremble, and the sheen to her eyes, and the rapid-fire rhythm of her heartbeat.

And in the end, this isn’t a dream at all, just another nightmare.

“Lois,” he says. Softly. Regretfully. Mournfully. He feels as if he will fall over if he tries to move away from her (to give her the distance she so obviously wants but, so characteristically, will not allow herself to seek), so instead he brings up his hands to cover his eyes beneath the glasses (cover the longing he can’t hide behind crumbling, disintegrating walls) and scrubs them over his face in a surreptitious attempt to wake himself before this nightmare degenerates any further. “You don’t have to do this, Lois. You’re right—I’m your friend, and I…” He swallows heavily, forces the words out, “I shouldn’t have said anything. Shouldn’t have put you in this position. I never wanted you to feel pressured into—”

“I don’t,” she insists, reaching out (with hands that shake) and grabbing his hands, tugging them down off his face (and still her heartbeat drums in his ears, frightened and frantic). “I want to do this.”

Clark shakes his head, stares at her hands on his, wills himself not to break down in front of her and make her pity him on top of everything else. “This isn’t what you want, Lois. You said it yourself—you don’t love me!”

She steps even closer, crowding him, making it hard for him to think past the roaring of his own heartbeat (quick and desperate and wounded) and her own (steadying, slowing, calming). He almost deludes himself into thinking that her breaths are longer and deeper, that her hands aren’t shaking anymore. “For years,” she tells him, “there was no one romantically in my life. And then, suddenly, there were three men. Two of them don’t love me, not the way I want them to, but I gave them both a chance. And yet, the one who does love me, who’s there for me all the time…well, I didn’t even listen to you. And that doesn’t seem fair, does it? So I want to give us a chance. I want to see if I can’t love you.” She takes a deep breath. “In other words, I guess what I’m saying is…will you go on a date with me?”

A date, he thinks. A date doesn’t seem so bad, does it? It’s just a chance. A dinner. An evening for her to see if she can’t move him out of the ‘friend’ category. He doesn’t have to feel guilty about saying yes (taking this last wild grab at his fading dreams), not when she’s only asking for a chance. Asking to see what they could be.

But then…if there’s nothing wrong with it, why is he having to stand here and rationalize it?

“Lois,” he says with the very last of his willpower. “I don’t think…”

But she is starting to look nervous, starting to drop his hand, starting to back away (and her heartbeat intensifies to a rat-a-tat-tatting that makes his own stutter and shake), and he can see his every chance, his last hopes, going up in flame, in smoke, in ashes that crumble at his touch.

“Yes!” he blurts out before she can walk away. He knows it is wrong, know it is foolish, but he says it anyway and almost does not even care. “Yes, I…oh, Lois, you have no idea how much I want to go on a date with you. But,” he feels compelled to add (because she is still nervous, still quivering ever so slightly, just enough to disturb the air currents around him), “maybe this is too much too soon. Please believe me, Lois, you don’t have to do this to…to, I don’t know—I’m still your friend, you know that, right? No matter what, I’ll always be there for you. You don’t have to go out with me just to keep—”

“Really, Clark,” she interrupts him, and he almost thanks her for that (he doesn’t babble nearly as well or as comfortably as she does). “I want to do this.” She takes the final step to bring herself up against him, less than an inch between them. Her hands are cold on his. Her heartbeat sounds like hail against a sheet of glass. “I want to try. I mean…how hard can it be? We already eat dinner together most of the time, and we’ve watched movies together before. Putting a label on it can’t be that much harder, right?”

They are words he’s wanted (so badly) to hear, words he’s thought of saying to her countless times. But there is something suspiciously like tears glimmering in her eyes, and there’s a tremor to her voice, and Clark feels uncomfortably guilty. As if he’s coerced her into doing this. As if he’s forcing her into something she doesn’t want just because he was too selfish to keep quiet and just be her friend.

“Lois,” he whispers. “Please, listen to me. You don’t have—”

“No, Clark,” she says firmly, her nervousness vanishing in the blink of an eye. “Listen to me. You’re the best man I’ve ever known. You’re the best friend I’ve ever had. You’re kind and considerate and you know how I take my coffee and when to back off or when to push me. You make me laugh and you hold me when I cry and you help me write better than I ever have before—not that I’d ever admit that to anyone else, so don’t even think about trying to spread that around. So…how hard can it be to love you? Sure,” she lets out a laugh—watery, but definitely amused, “you’re not exactly the snappiest dresser, and your sense of humor leaves something to be desired, and you can be irritatingly overprotective—”

“Wow, Lois, don’t knock yourself out,” he says dryly, to cover just how affected he is by her open, sincere words. (And her heartbeat sounds steady in his ears, proof that she is not lying.)

She smiles at him. A warm, genuine smile that makes him wonder if maybe this isn’t a dream after all. “I want to do this, Clark. Please…don’t give up on me yet.”

“Oh, Lois,” he murmurs, and he pulls her gently into his arms, gratified (and reassured and vindicated and astonished) when she comes willingly, even eagerly. “I could never give up on you. As a partner, or a friend, or whatever you want—I’m here for you.”

She burrows into him, wrapping her arms around him tightly enough that he feels as if she could hold him to the ground—and this is something he can do. Something he knows. Ever since their first hug, celebratory and excited, he’s known that if he can’t have anything else, he can survive so long as she occasionally lets him hug her. And he knows that she likes being hugged by him (sometimes, he knows, she even makes up excuses to hug him), so he doesn’t have to feel guilty for this, doesn’t have to feel like he is pressuring her for more than she can give. He can hold her close and feel himself relax, a fraction of his confusion leaking away, fleeing in the face of the coherency and peace Lois’s embrace brings him.

Except…except it’s not the same. Not all right. Because even though it is muffled by clothing and distance and her own self-control, he can hear a catch to her breathing. A tiny, stifled sob. And he can feel the warmth of her tears against his neck. Catch the rapid, uneven flutter of her heart. And so very quietly, inaudible to anyone but Superman, he hears her whisper, “I’m sorry, Clark.”

There’s a pit in his stomach, a green, glowing pit that radiates outward and fills him with a sense of foreboding heavy enough to tie him to gravity’s demands.

He draws back, pulls away just enough to look down at her (but cannot quite release her entirely because maybe this is the last time he will ever get to touch her). But when she looks up, meets his gaze, he begins to doubt his own senses. Because she is smiling up at him, and her eyes are bright but not with discernible tears, and her voice is strong and not at all affected by a sob when she says, “So, tomorrow? Dinner at seven?”

“Yeah,” he says automatically, without thinking. He cannot look away from her, cannot step away. Cannot stop hoping he is imagining all of this (except not really, because he wants her to give him a chance, just…not this way). “That sounds perfect.”

“Good.” She smiles up at him, bites her lip. “It’s a date.”

His smile is immediate, a natural reaction to her saying that to him (to Clark) that he can’t even begin to try to quell it. But…but this is still not right, and even though he doesn’t want to say it, doesn’t want to bring up the possibility (doesn’t want to say his name and conjure his presence between them), he knows this all, taken at face value, is far too good to possibly be true. So he asks, “Lois, how did Luthor take you turning him down?”

The brightness to her eyes dims, and she steps away from him with a shrug, leaving him wishing he hadn’t said anything. “Not well,” she says, but with not even a flicker to her heartbeat to hint that she is afraid of Luthor or only here because he forced her to be for some convoluted, vengeful scheme. “But life’s full of disappointments. Anyway, seven, right?”

He tries not to, tries not to read too much into it (he’s the one who brought up Luthor’s name, after all), but he suddenly feels very much like a consolation prize. And maybe that’s why Lois might have apologized to him (if she really said what he thinks she did, and maybe he’s wrong; he can hope anyway), why she is so awkward. Why she looks as if she might cry every time she glances at him.

He supposes he should feel ashamed of taking this chance anyway. Maybe he should pretend to some pride, pretend that she can love him on his own rather than just because the men she really wanted have disappointed her. But…truthfully, he doesn’t care (he does, actually, but not enough to turn away from her). He already knows that she doesn’t love him on his own, that he isn’t her first (or even second) choice. And he already knows that he will take whatever crumbs she’ll throw at him. And anyway, what good is pride if it leaves him alone, apart from Lois, no longer even her friend or partner?

No, maybe this is wrong, and maybe it isn’t the best option, but he is going to take it anyway. Going to seize it and make the most of it and hope (with all his being, with everything he is) that he can make it become more.

“Seven,” he says with a forced smile. “I’ll pick you up.”

She rolls her eyes as her heartbeat slowly steadies. “Of the two of us, I’m the one who owns a vehicle, Clark.”

“I know, but…” He shrugs, feeling almost shy. “But I’ll come to your place.”

“Oh, I see. The old-fashioned route, huh?”

He’s suddenly unsure, wondering if he’s messed this up already. If he’s blown his chance before he can even manage to convince himself he has one. “Is…is that okay?”

Her smile is slow and contemplative, sparking a bolt of hope that makes his every nerve ending feel like it’s on fire. “Yeah. It’s great.”

And then, with a last smile and hesitant pause, she’s gone, up the stairs and out his door before he can do more than blink. He’s left behind, alone, pinching himself, wondering if this really did just happen.

The only thing that brings him back to Earth, with a painful thud, is the smell of salty tears emanating from the collar of his shirt.

Chapter Text

Clark is punctual (as he often is, but not always, and it only figures that he’d choose this time to be so). His knock sounds on her door exactly on the dot, making Lois suddenly wish she’d set the date for later. Much later. She takes a moment to compose herself, calm the racing of her heart, and check her reflection in the mirror. Her face looks just like always, staring back at her in reverse; her paleness is covered up by blush, the track of her tears hidden by mascara. There are butterflies throwing a full-scale riot in the pit of her stomach, but those aren’t noticeable from the outside.

For an instant, her eyes haze over and her vision doubles, so that she sees herself as she is, and a herself that is dressed in black and nervous, almost giddy, fussing with her hair and biting back a smile. She blinks, hard, and the image fades, and once more she is staring at herself, wan and hesitant and not giddy at all.

It was a mistake, though, (for more than one reason) to look in the mirror, because she meets her own eyes (clear and not hazed at all) and she wonders how on earth she got here, about to open the door to her partner and best friend so he can take her out to dinner—dinner dinner, as in fancy perfume and a new dress (well, okay, she’s had it a while, but she’s never actually worn it before) and the start of something more.

But he knocks again, soft and unsure (and she is jolted out of the moment of terror and confusion as she rolls her eyes at how expressive even his knocks are). She takes another steadying breath and pulls the door open, ready to get this over with as quickly as possible.

Clark stares at her. She hears his sharp intake of breath, feels his eyes on her like beacons, radiating heat and tangible approval, and when she braces herself, meets his eyes, she sees…awe. And admiration. And affection burning so strongly that she feels herself blushing. Impatience and terror fall away, disintegrating beneath the weight of his stare—but that’s bad, because all they leave in their place is guilt and despair.

She doesn’t want to do this. She wants to do anything but this.

But she has no choice.

“Lois,” he says hoarsely, and then he falls silent. She can actually see it (and wonders why she never has before), can see him taking a moment and rebuilding his walls and hiding away all that strong (overwhelming) emotion that radiates outward from him. She sees it all, and she imagines him bending and rolling up the awe, throwing it into a box alongside the fluttering devotion, stacking it up next to his voluminous admiration, and then hiding them all in a corner, drawing the curtain over the collection until it is more welcome. And he blinks—and it is all gone—and then he smiles at her. An ordinary, friendly, sincere smile (but diluted next to the strength of what is hiding behind the curtain).

“Clark!” she says, except it is more like an exclamation of sadness for him than a greeting, because she can’t help but wonder how many times he’s done that before while she looked the other way or did not take the time to look and see. And she wonders (vaguely, dimly) if she notices now because of the reason he is here (the reason she asked him here) or because of what she’s learned about him. “Um, come in.”

Nervously, she smooths a hand over a perceived wrinkle in her burgundy dress and steps aside to give him room to enter. But then she has to smile reassuringly at him because he hesitates before stepping inside and needs the silent encouragement to enter. She gets the sudden impression that he thinks he is stepping into the lion’s den.

(And he is, she thinks, and knows that careful as he is, he won’t be emerging from this unscathed.)

“Hey,” she says after a moment when he only stares at her. His emotions are safely tucked away, his expression neutral (well, neutral for Clark, which means warm and friendly), but she can see a hint of longing peeking through, and she can feel the battle he is waging within himself. Can sense the conflict as he wars with himself (his conscience against his desires; his own wishes against what he thinks she wants). And she knows how this battle will turn out (because even after everything she’s learned, this is Clark), and she should be doing something. Should be looking away and smiling and chattering to fill up the silence and allay all his concerns and sweep him along with whatever she decides on just like she always does.

But she can’t. She can’t look away from him (can’t stop studying him and seeing him and realizing how much she has skipped over before). Can’t do anything but realize (for what feels like the first real time) how attractive Clark actually is. The fact that he is seemingly oblivious to that fact only makes him all the more appealing.

Another hazy flash streaks along the edges of her vision, brightly colored, misty images of Clark on a sandy beach wearing sunglasses—but she’s never seen Clark at a beach, so she blinks and shakes her head slightly to dismiss her imagination.

“Hi,” he finally replies, as if only just realizing that he should say something. It breaks the spell, and his eyes fall away and he shifts uncomfortably, and Lois knows that his conscience has won out (that he is once more packing away what he wants and setting it aside for an unforeseeable day).

Her stomach falls to plop unceremoniously at her feet, because now she has to start all over again. Has to open her mouth and lie to him, has to convince him that they have a future and they should try for it. Has to make him think that all his dreams are coming true (and they aren’t, not really, but for the first time, she wishes that she could give him this).

She can’t go along with this, she thinks wildly. She’s furious with him and disappointed with him, but he is, above all, still her friend. And even as mad as she is, she knows he’s never done anything (will never do anything) to deserve this.

But it is what it is, and things will be worse if she doesn’t do this, and there is no backing out now.

Clark, for once, is the oblivious one, standing awkwardly in the middle of her living room and looking like he is being torn in two. “Lois, I hope you don’t mind, but…I talked to my parents about this.”

“Oh.” She’s taken aback, not sure what she’s supposed to say. It’s not part of the script, not something she anticipated. She tilts her head, asks curiously, “Why?”

“I want to do the right thing here,” he tells her, quietly. Honestly. “And I think I’m a little too…biased…to judge the situation objectively.”

She hates doing it, hates the necessity for it, but she doesn’t know how else to overpower his conscience (and she cannot let him talk himself out of this). So she frowns at him, lets a hint of her uncertainty show through the cracks in her mask. “Clark. Are…are you trying to say that you don’t want this anymore?” She lowers her eyes to the floor, bites her lip (hates herself), and adds, “Don’t want me?”

“No!” His eyes fly to hers, and he’s across the room so fast she blinks in surprise. He reaches out with gentle hands that wrap around her arms, just above the elbow, and pulls, a slight pressure she could easily evade. But she doesn’t. Instead, she gives into it and steps forward into his embrace.

It’s wrong, she knows, to take comfort from him when she’s going to destroy him, but she needs it. Needs his strength and his embrace and his scent, his warmth and his openness and his tenderness—needs it to make her strong enough to follow this all the way through. So even though she feels as if she is stabbing him in the back (poisoning him with the friendship he offers so freely and unconditionally), she still lets him hug her, lets him chase some of the tension out of her sore, strained muscles. (Remembers another hug, outside LexTower, her in a wedding dress, him breathing heavily as if pained, but that’s impossible, it’s never happened, and she’s getting tired of these fake hazy flashes of might-have-beens, so she remembers, instead, a hug on the floor of her apartment, his quiet voice telling her everything was okay.)

“No, Lois,” he whispers, so earnestly that she almost can’t breathe. “You have no idea how much of a dream come true this is for me. How much I want this. It’s just that…” Reluctantly, he drops his arms from around her (her own linger an instant longer, wishing he could just keep hugging her until this is done and over with and nothing more than a bad memory). He steps backward. “I don’t want to take advantage of you.”

She can literally feel her heart break inside her chest. Can feel it snap and shatter, crumble beneath the weight of her pretense (her lie), can feel the serrated, stabbing pain as it turns sharp and jagged and brittle. “Clark,” she breathes (because if anyone is taking advantage here, it is her).

“I know,” he says quickly, throwing up a warding hand between them (and he doesn’t, he doesn’t know anything, and it has to remain that way, but oh this hurts so much more than she thought it would). “I know you can make up your own mind and you don’t need anyone else to tell you what to do. But, Lois, you’ve been going through a really stressful time, and I know…I know I didn’t exactly help with that.” He takes half a step forward before catching himself and retreating again. “I want this, Lois—I want it so much—but I don’t want you to wake up one day and look at me and hate me for this.”

He looks away and his voice trails off to a dry whisper for his next statement (his confession), but Lois hears him anyway, feels each word strike like well-aimed arrows through the disparate pieces of her heart:

“I don’t want you to regret me,” he says.

“Oh, Clark.” She crosses the distance between them in a step and a half, brushes it aside as if it means nothing (because it shouldn’t), and looks up, forces him to meet her eyes. His are so full of guilt, so uncertain, brimming over with aching longing, that she wants to break down and confess everything and let him reassure her that it will all be okay (somehow, impossibly, as if things can ever go back to the way they were).

Instead, she smiles at him and says, gently, “Clark, it’s been a while since you’ve dated, hasn’t it?”

His eyes widen, like when she catches him stealing donuts for her from Perry’s box, but then his face relaxes into one of those smiles she likes so much. The smiles she’s pretty sure she’s stealing from him, taking and hoarding away and leaving him with nothing in their place. “It’s that obvious, is it?” he asks wryly.

“It’s sweet,” she corrects. “And I love that you’re looking out for me.”

His breath audibly stutters at that, at her use of the word ‘love,’ but once more, looking at him so closely, she can see him mentally shake himself and remind himself not to take it too literally. After all, Lois thinks with a sudden burst of realization (of memories, connecting and linking and springing from one to the next; real memories, not fake half-glimpsed ones), it’s not like it’s the first time she’s done it to him—said something to make him hope and then taken it back.

“You’re right that I can make my own choice,” she says, hastily, before he can conjure up a concealing smile and say something painfully self-deprecating. “And I choose this. I choose you.”

His eyes catch on fire, those boxes and curtain where he hid away his emotion set alight and going up in smoke, leaving only the emotions there to burn as brilliantly, as vibrantly, as destructively as the sun. “Thank you,” he breathes, and Lois comes closer to breaking down at that (at this proof that he thinks she’s doing him a favor and settling for him in the absence of anything better) than she has at any other point in the past forty-eight hours. Which is certainly saying something considering everything that’s happened (that’s been revealed) in those two days.

“Don’t thank me yet,” she manages to say with a casual shrug, turning away just for an instant, pretending to check her hair again but really catching her breath and her nerves.

She thinks maybe the worst is over, maybe now they can settle into their familiar routine—even if they are both dressed up and obviously on a date—but Clark seems to have finally come to a decision. Has allowed himself to give up the fight and let her convince him to give into this.

So when she turns back to him, she sees him look her over again. She’s his date, after all, she reminds herself, and now that he knows she’s not going to back out, he obviously feels like he can comment on her appearance (so carefully selected, but for reasons she still can’t entirely untangle in her head; still can’t entirely decide which of him she’s dressed for).

“You’re beautiful,” he tells her, and Lois catches her breath because he didn’t need to say it aloud. It is in every look, every gesture, every swallow.

“Thanks.” She gives him another once-over herself, trying to slide back into the part, frantically trying to imagine what she’d really do and say if she ever decided to go on a date with Clark. “You’re not so bad yourself.”

Mischief dances in his eyes and the corner of his mouth—and this is what makes Clark so much more dangerous than Lex or Superman, she thinks. This humor and mischief and the way he can so easily move between open admiration and gentle teasing, can make everything seem easy and natural, can make her catch her breath and then make her release it in a laugh. “Well,” he says, “I know I’m not the snappiest dresser, but I did my best.”

“You did good,” she admits with a laugh that almost doesn’t catch in her throat at all. “Ready to go?”

“Wait.” He catches her hand before she can reach the door. “I…I have something for you.”

“Really?” She does not sound breathless, she assures herself. She’s just…just impatient, that’s all. The feel of his fingers curved around hers, the sound of him saying he’s brought her something—that’s all just to help convince him, to sell the part. She certainly isn’t affected by Clark Kent (can’t be because then this whole thing will go from unfortunate to tragic faster than she can blink or Superman can fly).

He nods, and turns and steps out into the hall. She watches with interest as he bends to pick something up, then approaches her almost shyly, his hand behind his back. “I didn’t know which way you would choose, and I didn’t want you to feel pressured,” he explains awkwardly, “but I couldn’t not bring some, so…”

She can’t breathe, can’t move, can’t think of anything but why she’s never realized that Clark (the man she accused of taking his dates to the Dairy Freeze and groping them in the car) could be this…this sweet, this endearingly attractive, this hopelessly compelling. Can only stare at him and wonder if he is acting as differently as she is or if she’s really been this ridiculously blind.

Or at least, she can’t move until Clark begins to look scared and starts to lower the flowers he holds in his hand. Then she can’t stop herself from moving, can’t do anything but quickly step forward, so close she can lay one hand on his charcoal jacket and reach out with the other to take the small, pretty arrangement from him.

“You brought me flowers?” she asks in a voice she doesn’t recognize, a small, young voice.

Clark watches her intently, obviously afraid to move and startle her from her place so near him. She doesn’t think he’s even breathing. “Yellow roses are for friendship,” he says quietly, a whisper of sound in her ear, a breath against her hair (an echo of a dream swirling past the fringes of her mind, vindictiveness and a trash can, disappointment and fifty bucks, before she blinks it away).

She’s afraid to look away from the flowers, afraid to meet his eyes and see all that blatant emotion so unashamedly, unabashedly burning there again. Still. Always. “There’s a red one in the middle,” she observes, and yes, this time she is definitely breathless, but no one’s ever given her flowers like this before (large, over-the-top bouquets from Lex after dates, and perfunctory roses from assorted dates on Valentine’s Days through the years, but never before a date, never so thought-out and hopeful and considerate).

“I know.” And at the note of longing in his voice, she looks up at him. And it’s just as she feared. All of it there, staring back at her.

He loves her. Completely. Wholly. Utterly.

And she is using him.

Deceiving him.

Breaking him.

Hastily, swallowing back bile, Lois lets her eyes fall back to the flowers. “I’m going to put these in water,” she says abruptly. “I don’t want them to die before the night’s over.”

She hopes he understands her hidden message.

She knows he doesn’t.

He’s careful not to touch her (not to crowd her, she thinks) as he escorts her outside and to her car. She lets him open her door for her, even though she’s the one driving, and waits patiently for him to go around and climb in the passenger side. “You know you can’t do that every time,” she remarks casually.

Clark grins at her, the smile white and startling in the evening dusk. “Not every time—but tonight.”

“Tonight,” she agrees without thinking, then rolls her eyes when Clark grins again in victory.

The restaurant he directs her to is classy, nice, elegant without being overbearing. There’s a fountain somewhere in the center of the room, adding a tinkling melody to the hum of conversation, and two tiers of floors. They’re set next to the railing looking down over the lowered level, and offered menus with more choices than Lois could hope to wade through in a month. It’s also expensive, something else to add to her list of crimes against Clark; they don’t have jobs anymore and she’s getting him to take her to an upscale restaurant for a dinner she doesn’t even want.

“This is nice,” she says, closing her eyes behind the cover of the menu and trying not to drown underneath the extent of her own deception. (And something else, flashes of memories that aren’t hers, whirls of color and sound and scenery, glimpses of a life she’s never lived and never will live.)

When she glances over the top of the menu, she sees Clark give a small shrug, mischief once more turning him dangerously attractive even without the benefit of a cape. “Well, their chocolate dishes are the best in the city—and I figured, couldn’t hurt to offer Lois Lane chocolate, right?”

She laughs. She’s dying inside, little bit by little bit, trying desperately to remember that this is the right thing to do (trying to keep her own self intact past what she has to do and the flashes of memories she’s been experiencing intermittently for less than a day), and despite all that, somehow, he makes her laugh. He’s always been able to do that, actually, she thinks, shaking her head as she tries to sort her memories into some sort of order, make them fit into before and after. She remembers the first time he made her laugh, over Chinese food at her desk, translating a fortune for her and laughing at her reaction. It had startled her, her own laughter and his provoking it, but in the ensuing weeks, it had become a common occurrence. Even when they ran into her father, Clark was able to make it easier not to cry.

“Lois?”

She looks away from her trembling hands and sees Clark’s gaze fixed on her, full of worry and concern and inner conflict. And fear. For her, not of her like it should be.

With an effort, she summons up a sardonic look and levels it at him. “Just trying to decide if I should take offense that you think you can control me with chocolate.”

Clark relaxes slightly, though he’s watching her too closely (hovering over his concealing boxes as he tries to decide whether to pack everything up again). “I’d never try to control you, Lois. But if chocolate helps keep you calm enough that I can keep up with you, then who am I to argue.”

“That’s what you think,” she says, closing her menu decisively. “We’ll see what you say after I make you order a bit of every chocolate dish they offer.”

He laughs and shakes his head. “They probably have a good selection, but if I was going to get you chocolate, I know a few of the best places.”

And of course he does. Probably Switzerland, or Denmark, or France. There’s a sparkle in his eyes and an almost bitter twist to the corners of his mouth, and he spent years traveling the world, and of course he knows where to find the best chocolate.

And the realization slams the reality of the situation back into her.

He’s Superman.

Superman is him.

Whichever, it doesn’t really matter, not right now. Not anymore. He could bring her chocolate from Switzerland or pearls from Japan or snow from the Alps—he could fly her to any restaurant in the world, could wine and dine her in a way no one else on Earth can. But here he is, sitting across from her with his glasses perched on his nose, ready to buy her a dinner a former reporter for the Daily Planet can afford (if just barely), courting her with his quaint sense of humor and his old-fashioned chivalry, dressed in a nice—but not terribly expensive—suit and a colorful tie. He could have swept her off her feet and never let her land again, but instead he jogged behind her and allowed her to pull him around by that same colorful tie and made her laugh.

It makes him fascinating. It makes him unbelievable. And it makes him important. More important than her or even just Clark Kent or anything the two of them might have. So terribly, unspeakably important, and so here she is, pretending to be dating him.

If anyone had told her about this even just three days ago, she knows she’d have laughed in their face. Would have rolled her eyes and lectured them on the many differences between Clark Kent and Superman and called to book them a reservation in the nearest padded room. If someone had told her that Clark Kent was Superman and that he saved the world in his spare time, she’d have shaken her head and marveled at the gullibility of people in general. She would have told Clark about it and laughed at him and scoffed at his reaction—which would have been, she’d have been sure, either teasing her about being flattered people could think he’s Superman or blushing in embarrassment that people could think he’d ever wear Superman’s Suit.

If they’d told her she’d be on a date with Clark Kent, finding him attractive and almost breaking down into tears at his sweet gestures…well, she wouldn’t have even deigned to give that a response.

But she isn’t laughing now. Isn’t scoffing or rolling her eyes or marveling at anyone’s gullibility but her own. Isn’t ignoring Clark and the possibility of more. Instead, she’s sitting across from the partner she idealized, the hero she scorned, and she is marveling at how she never saw it there before.

Superman is the one who teased her about not being able to name the seven dwarfs. Clark is the one who crashed through a bank vault to catch her up in his arms. Superman is the one who had his apartment ransacked, and Clark is the one who kissed her while pretending to be affected by that love pheromone. Superman stayed with her in the honeymoon suite, and Clark single-handedly stopped an asteroid the size of a small town.

And there’s more, whirling colors, flashing moments, brief glimpses of more that’s never been. Her own memories are enough to send her into a tailspin, but worse are these new memories, slamming into her with all the force of a locomotive, tearing through her mind and leaving her dazed and adrift in years of a life she can only imagine. Humming in the background of her mind like the murmur of the fountain in the restaurant, but every once in a while reaching upward and blinding her, clear and bold and stark, hazing everything real into obscurity for brief moments.

Like now. A picture of what isn’t overlaid atop what is. This restaurant, Clark across from her, a date, music playing. Chocolate on her tongue, desire in his eyes. Smiles and looks and intense silence. Hope and nervousness and butterflies dancing lightly in the pit of her stomach.

But no, reality is different. The lights harsher, the sounds clearer. Clark across from her, yes, but nervous and conflicted. No chocolate between them. And her own butterflies feel more like stampeding elephants.

So maybe it’s just a dream. A glimpse of what could be if she didn’t have to do this for the greater good. If things were easier and simpler and she didn’t know everything she now does.

“So, Clark,” she says, leaning across the table toward him after their waitress has taken their orders. “What’s your next move?”

He cocks his head, alert, curious. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, here I am. Dressed up, hanging on your arm, mood music…what’s your next move?” When he still just looks at her blankly, she rolls her eyes. “You know, your strategy for winning a girl’s heart?”

“Oh.” Clark shakes his head and leans back, as if he needs a moment to compose himself. “I guess…I haven’t really thought about it like that.”

“Really.” Lois can’t sound more disbelieving if she practiced for a month. “So, when you decided on this restaurant, that was it—your whole game plan?”

Unexpectedly, Clark looks right at her, his eyes crashing into her. “I don’t really think of this as a game, Lois, or a strategy. I care about you and I want you to be happy. I thought you’d appreciate this place—not too loud or boisterous, but relaxing and quiet. And afterward, I thought I’d ask you what you wanted to do. I know you like taking walks at night—even though I’ve told you a hundred times it’s dangerous—so we could do that. Or we could go to a late movie if there’s one that looks good. Or…”

“Or what?” she prompts him, intrigued despite herself. Lex certainly saw his courtship of her as a strategy (and she thinks uneasily of his obvious displeasure with her answer to his proposal), and Claude had planned his moves on her like he was heading out to a battlefield—and emerged the victor.

Clark shrugs, summons up one of those self-deprecating smiles she’s decided she doesn’t like. “Or, if you decide this isn’t working, you can go back home.”

For a long moment, the only sound Lois can hear is the violins playing in the background. The clatter of silverware, the clink of plates, the distant murmur of muted conversation. All she can see is Clark playing with his napkin, folding it over and over again until she wonders how it hasn’t completely disappeared from sight.

Finally, impulsively, she reaches out and places her hand over his, stilling the nervous gesture. “Well, so far,” she says lightly, “I’m definitely leaning toward a walk in the dark. And don’t worry about it being dangerous, Clark—I’ll protect you.”

His smile is slow. It’s tentative. It’s full of so much hope that Lois does want to protect him, wants to put her arms around him and shield him from what is coming.

But she’s done her job, exactly like she needs to. She’s allayed his concerns, gotten them back on the right page, and reassured him this is what she wants—and that is, after all, the most important thing. So what if it makes her feel lighter and calms her rampaging butterflies to see Clark so obviously happy? So what if she wants to crawl under her chair and die for what she knows is still to come? The end results are what matters, and this is all just a part she’s playing, a necessary evil.

Conversation flows smoothly after that. Clark is careful to keep the topics light and interesting, and Lois finds it as easy to talk to him as she always does. He’s a very good listener, always completely engaged in whatever she says, always able to find something to say about whatever she brings up. In fact, he seems to know something about everything—not in an obnoxious way, but just because he’s interested in everything.

“You know,” she says over a plate of dessert (not chocolate, because she doesn’t want to tempt those glimpses of another life; she doesn’t want to try to make them reality because she might crumple under the impossibility of it all). “When you said you’d traveled a lot and done a bit of everything, I didn’t take you as seriously as it seems I should have.”

Clark smiles and scoops up another spoonful of the strawberry shortcake she’d ordered for them both. His eyes are still aglow with the surprised happiness that appeared when she knew his favorite dessert without asking. (She wishes she could take the credit for that, but she thinks it was a flash of a memory, a blur of another moment outside time, that imparted that nugget of information.)

“That’s all right,” he says. “I have to admit that when Perry first told me you could get into trouble in less time than it took to recite Elvis’s greatest hits, I didn’t take him as seriously as I should have either.”

Her laugh only adds another coal to the flame burning in his expression, but Lois is relaxed and lulled by the conversation and the wine and how easy it is to pretend to date Clark Kent, so she doesn’t even mind the flames. She feels content and satisfied, and if she moves slowly and languorously, if Clark’s eyes follow her every gesture, every movement, well, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, is it? It just means this won’t take long at all. She can have this over and done with in a week or two and then she’ll never have to worry about hurting Clark Kent (or Superman, or whoever he really is) ever again.

When their dessert is finished and their wineglasses are empty, Clark offers his hand to help her stand. Some small voice deep inside warns her that he is testing her, checking to see if she will welcome his touch. She doesn’t hesitate in reaching out and grasping hold of his hand, and she doesn’t let go even when she’s standing.

His eyes aren’t mud brown, she realizes, only inches away and staring straight into them. They aren’t dull or insipid or whatever else she said about them. In fact, they almost seem brighter, more vivid than Superman’s, though that’s silly (because they’re exactly the same). His glasses, she supposes, the lenses adding a sheen to the silky brown (and she wonders why he wears the glasses at all, whether it’s just because of Superman or if they help remind him who he is at the moment).

Not that it matters. She’ll never know, never get to find out, not unless one of those inconvenient flashes lets her know, and even then, she can’t be sure if it’s true. The glimpses are wrong, after all, and they can never be true, never be more than flashes of fantasies dancing behind her eyes.

“Still want to go for a walk?” Clark asks cautiously when they exit the restaurant.

Lois smiles and sidles a bit closer to him, glad for his warmth. The chill air is doing wonders to snap her out of her haze (and she reminds herself to be careful, because he’s not affected by wine and he’s always been able to read her so easily). “Yeah, that sounds good.”

His smile is relieved, all but accompanied by an audible sigh.

“Don’t look so nervous,” she advises him with a sudden lump in her throat. “When I give something a chance, I don’t usually give up on the very first try.”

“Right, sure, because that makes me feel better,” he says dryly, and she laughs and loops her arm through his.

“Come on, Clark,” she says on the spur of the moment as they pass by a street that can, she knows, lead them to his apartment with its mass of souvenirs and decorations she’s never taken the time to really examine as they deserve (Superman’s home, and she never thought much about it at all, and she’s never felt so dumb before). “Tell me about yourself. You know everything about me, but I don’t know nearly as much about you.”

“Really?” His voice is quiet, skeptical. “I think you know me better than anyone, Lois.”

“Ha!” she scoffs. “Your parents could beat me in any basic trivia. So come on, help me out here—tell me something.”

She’s not sure why she’s doing this. She knows he won’t tell her about Superman, and truthfully, she doesn’t want him to (doesn’t want him to bare his soul to her when he’s already given her his heart so unwisely). But still she asks and waits for his answer, and finds her guilt subsumed beneath curiosity.

Clark studies her closely, weighing his response, before he gives her a sudden smile. “Why don’t you guess?”

“Guess?” Her eyes narrow at the challenge. “You want me to guess something about you?”

“Prove your investigative skills,” he teases. “Go ahead—your job is to strip away the external and see the truths behind, right? Let’s see how good you are.”

She wonders, for the briefest instant, what he’d do if she were to come to a halt and meet his eyes and say, “I know you’re really Superman.”

And then, an instant later, she wonders if maybe that’s what he wants her to do. Wonders why he dares this (why he ever dares any of this, talking to her and partnering with her and befriending her and loving her when she can ruin his life with an article, can destroy him with a smile and a word and a secret whispered in the wrong ear, and isn’t that exactly what she’s doing right now?). Wonders what goes on behind those vibrant, vivid eyes.

She studies him at her side, walking instead of flying, hands that can smash asteroids to space dust tucked inside his pockets, and suddenly she wonders how lonely he is. Wonders who else he can talk to. She remembers (not a flash or a glimpse, but real) him coming into the newsroom after a bad shooting, bitterly wondering aloud what good Superman is if he can’t help everyone. Remembers the struck expression on his face when she said something about Superman helping enough people to make a difference. Doesn’t he have anyone else to talk to about these kinds of things (about anything) other than a workaholic journalist?

His parents, she thinks, but she’s not sure they’re really his parents at all, not sure how real they are or whether they’re simply people who help him perpetuate the illusion of being Clark Kent. Another flash assails her, a swirling glimpse of Clark hugging his parents; a real memory of his parents engulfing him in a hug follows soon after, the backdrop of Smallville’s corn festival behind them. So maybe they are real, but he wouldn’t want to upset them all the time, would he? So what does he do? Does he just bottle it all up? Pretend it doesn’t affect him? Hide how hurt he is, how much he sees, how much he can and can’t do?

Lois walks in the shadow of his warmth, her hand atop the arm capable of strength she can’t even comprehend, and she’s struck with the sudden, soul-shaking revelation that he is always alone. Always, constantly, every day. He might be able to fly and shoot fire from his eyes and cross the world in moments…but he is so utterly alone.

So maybe he really does want her to look at him and see his secret. Maybe he wants her to look at him and actually really see him when no one else ever does. Maybe he hopes, no matter how impossibly, that she will know him inside and out the way he sometimes seems to know her. And the irony of that fact that she does know, she can see him now (and she will never, ever be able to tell him) hits her like a bolt of searing lightning, like a bullet hamstringing her.

“Nothing?” Clark raises his eyebrows in mock surprise, but his masks are paper-thin and once she has the key, they fade away to nothing, so she can look at him and realize that the man who longed to fly was instead given the gift (the curse) of invisibility. And he is hurt, is wounded, that even when he masks it in a teasing challenge of the sort she usually cannot deny, she still doesn’t seem to have anything to say about Clark Kent.

She is going to hurt him so badly (but he will recover; she’s been promised that it will not be forever), but this is one thing she can give him. One moment he can treasure next to all the others he will undoubtedly see as a nightmare.

So she nudges his shoulder with her own and says, “Now just a minute. You don’t get out of it that easily. I know a lot more about you than you think.”

“Do you?” he asks, almost wistfully.

“Yes. For instance,” she throws him a smug smile, as if she’s confident she’s about to win this game he’s making up, “I know that you’ve been giving Jimmy writing lessons on the side without telling anyone. I know you go home to see your folks pretty regularly, because you’re always thanking your mom for dinner when you talk to them on the phone. I know you’re working on getting Jack a lawyer because you believe in him. I know the one thing above all else that you can’t stand is to know that something’s wrong and to not be able to fix it or help in some way—well, that and misspelled words in your copy. I know that you prefer pasta over Chinese and that you like strawberry better than chocolate. I know you pretend to roll your eyes when I get worked up about something but that sometimes you upset me on purpose because you, for some reason, like seeing me pace and rant. I know that you’re probably the gentlest man I’ve ever known and that your parents are incredibly lucky to have you.” She glances up through her lashes, and lets herself smile at his shocked expression. “So…how am I doing so far?”

His smile is a bit late in coming, but the hoarseness of his voice more than makes up for it. “Wow.” Then, obviously reclaiming his staggering composure, he gives her the hint of a mocking bow. “Lois Lane, greatest investigative reporter of all time.”

She looks at him sharply, but there’s no hint of sarcasm, no triumphant smirk behind his words. Just humor and affection and maybe a lingering hint of surprise…and more, of course. The more he can’t hide nearly as well as he used to.

“But,” he adds, in such a way that she knows he’s not serious (and she’s glad for it, glad for any humor he can use to dilute the intensity of the moment). “You haven’t guessed my favorite color yet.”

Scoffing, she shakes her head. “I just gave you a complete behind-the-scenes of your life, but just because I didn’t name your favorite color, it doesn’t count? All right then, tell me—what is it?”

The corners of his mouth tug upward as he stares straight ahead. “At the moment, definitely burgundy,” he replies. At first, Lois doesn’t get it, but then he glances at her and she looks down and sees her own skirt, swirling about her legs, and she blushes.

Clark seems to regret that he’s made her uncomfortable, because he’s silent while he turns them back toward her Jeep. He opens the door for her again, ignoring her muttered comment about him not getting used to that, and he only makes casual small talk as they drive back to her place. She planned on opening her own door, as soon as she pulled up at her apartment building, before he could do it for her, but for some reason she can’t quite name (maybe because she wants to give him a perfect memory of this night), she stays where she is and lets him do it.

“Thank you,” she murmurs. She doesn’t like feeling shy, doesn’t like feeling hesitant, but she can’t help it. She’s been off-balance since Superman dismissed her love for him (since Clark declared his love for her), since the knock at her door that she now bitterly wishes she’d never answered, and tonight has only made it all worse.

Clark stays at her side as he walks her to her door (and of course he would do this; door-to-door service, she remembers him saying), and she knows what she’s supposed to do, what all this is for (exactly how far and how not far she’s allowed to go), but…but she isn’t sure what he thinks is going to happen. It’s Clark, after all, and she’s fairly certain he doesn’t think first dates include anything more than a quiet good night at the front door. It’s Superman, too, who probably doesn’t expect anything more than a quick goodbye before he’s off to save someone else.

But he loves her, has loved her for so long, and he thinks this is his only chance, and…and maybe he will take another chance, one of his own. Maybe he’ll put it all on the line.

She barely has a chance to feel her heartbeat racing frantically at that thought before Clark comes to a sudden halt halfway down the hallway leading to her door. “I’d…I’d better say good night here, Lois.”

She gapes up at him, caught unawares by the abrupt decision. “Wh-what?”

His smile is almost sad as he lifts a finger and caresses her cheek, a whisper-light touch that goes straight through her. “I had a…a wonderful time, Lois. Thank you.”

“Thank you?” She narrows her eyes, tries to read the incomprehensible thoughts running through his head. “Clark, you don’t…”

And suddenly, abruptly, she’s blinded by a flash of other. A gust of memory that’s not hers: Clark standing in his apartment. Boxes packed up all around him. And her own voice (but not hers, soft and vulnerable) asking if he’d planned on telling her he was leaving. He’s frozen and he looks away, and she (the her that isn’t her, the woman who sounds like her but thinks such different things and doesn’t know, doesn’t realize, doesn’t think that Clark is Superman, and yet she feels so much more than Lois herself, the real her, has ever felt before), she looks at him and reads him, knows him. Sifts past her own shocked grief and quick anger to recognize his desperation and his despair and his resignation.

The flash is gone as quickly as it came, but Lois finds that not everything is different.

The expression on her Clark’s face is the same.

He thinks this is it. He thinks it’s over. He thinks his chance has been taken and now the date is over and Lois Lane will do as she always does and dismiss him back to the role of friend. And so he’s saying goodbye, distancing himself before she can do it for him.

“Clark,” she says, and can hardly name the emotions roiling through her (can scarcely tell which are hers and which are other-hers). “I had a wonderful time too.”

He nods, a fake smile twitching along his lips. But he doesn’t say anything, just looks at her and…waits. Waits for the end to that sentence. For the rejection he’s so sure is coming.

Has she really done this to him? Without even noticing? Without ever realizing what she was making him feel? (Without taking the time, two days ago, to consider his declaration of love as anything more than a surprising oddity?)

His hand is fever-hot beneath hers when she reaches out to twine her fingers through his. She doesn’t look away from him as she steps closer. “This was…a beautiful night,” she tells him. “So, unless you’ve changed your mind, call me tomorrow?”

“Yeah,” he says hoarsely, automatically. He stares at her, as if she’s a dream, a fantasy he can’t quite let himself believe in. “Tomorrow.”

She smiles encouragingly. “Maybe we can go for a movie. It’s not like we have to worry about work, right?”

His eyes soften. “We’ll find a way to bring the Planet back, Lois.”

“I hope so,” she murmurs past the bolt of hope suddenly giving her heart wings. “But in the meantime…”

“In the meantime,” he repeats. Confirms.

If she leaves it up him, this will be the end of it. He’ll step back as soon as his mind catches up with everything that’s happened, and he’ll say good night, and the night will be over. He looks like he’s still interested (still in love, a voice whispers in her head), and he’s clearly in no danger of deciding he wants nothing to do with her, but Lois doesn’t care. If she has to do this, has to break his heart, then she wants something for herself.

Not something done for the greater good.

Not something done because it’s what she’s been told to do.

Something for her. Something she’ll do because she wants to.

Before she can talk herself out of it, she goes up on the tips of her toes, steadies herself with her hand on his arm, and she leans into him. Lets her eyes flutter shut.

And kisses his cheek.

His scent envelops her. Sky and storm and crisp air, cologne and strawberries and something else she thinks of as just him. His arm is rock-solid beneath her touch, his body completely motionless. His cheek is smooth and warm, his face tilted down toward her in the instant he realized what she was doing. She kisses his cheek and knows it is perfect. It’s right.

And it’s the biggest mistake she’s ever made.

She stumbles away from him (not too quickly; he mustn’t think she’s running from him), manages a last smile and a “Good night, Clark,” (so he won’t think she regrets the kiss), and then she slams the door between them. She can’t breathe, her chest heaving, her heart slamming against her ribs, her coat and purse fallen carelessly at her feet.

He’s Superman, she reminds herself; he’ll be able to hear her. He’ll be worried, will wonder what he did to make her cry, will have second thoughts about pursuing this.

She lists all the reasons she can’t cry, can’t stand here and hyperventilate and see silvery fairies (full of tantalizing glimpses of different moments) dancing at the edges of her vision—but it’s useless. She can’t stop herself. Heedless of all the reasons she shouldn’t, she sinks to the floor and curls up around herself and sobs out her grief and guilt and despair.

All she wanted to do was save the world.

She just didn’t realize the cost would be quite so high (would be Clark’s heart and soul and smile and hope). She didn’t realize it would destroy her own soul in the process. And now that she knows…well, now it is far too late to back out.

There’s nothing she can do but follow this all the way to its bitter end.

Chapter Text

Clark wants to be happy. Lois asked him out on a date, after all. He took her to dinner and wasn’t called away even once. They walked by moonlight and she looked at him (spoke of him) as if she knows him (as if she notices so much more about him than he’s ever realized). She kissed him (on the cheek, not the lips, but it was voluntary, willing, uncoerced, and so much more intimate because of that) and told him she would call him.

It was a perfect night.

He wants to be happy. Really, he does. But…but he doesn’t think he is. He thinks, instead, that he is the very opposite.

Because she only asked him out after Superman rejected her and Luthor disappointed her. Because she blinked away tears (and swallowed back things she didn’t want to say) during dinner. Because everything she’s obviously already seen in him (that he never realized she saw even as he hoped she did) has only ever made her see him as a friend before all this. Because he’s pretty sure she didn’t really want to kiss him, and she is dating him only because she doesn’t want to lose the last of the three men in her life.

Because the entire time he is with her (his dream seemingly coming true, his long-held hope played out before him), he cannot forget that he (Clark Kent) is only a stand-in for the man (the men) she really loves.

So instead of being out wheeling through the skies like an explosive, celebratory firework, Clark finds himself sitting in his apartment. Staring at his phone. Wanting to call his parents but not at all sure what to say to them. He’s glad Lois never asked him what their advice was the day before; he’s not sure how he would have told her that they’d cautioned him to be careful, to go slow and make sure this (he) is what she really wants.

He meant to follow that advice—really, he did. He’d gone to her apartment with his own speech planned out (with flowers in his hand to illustrate just how inescapable hope is), and he’d even gotten most of it out before she derailed him. But he’d known he was lost from the moment she opened the door. The moment she looked at him as if she’d never seen him before (as if she liked what she saw). He’d let her talk him into continuing the date (into giving them this one, maybe-flawed chance), and so many moments of last night are impressively memorable. Perfect snapshots of time and hope and love that he can replay and savor in his head (can tuck away in his heart) for years to come.

And still it doesn’t feel right.

He’s always imagined that dating Lois would be like holding onto a hurricane, being swept up in the vortex of a tornado, diving into the center of a whirlpool. She’s so full of life, so bursting with passion and vitality, crackling with lightning surges of energy, with bright intensity, that he knows if she ever knowingly grabbed hold of him (ever turned her full attention to capturing his heart rather than just unknowingly pulling it in her wake), then he would need every bit of his superpowers to keep up, to keep pace with her and turn the pull of her orbit and the push of his flight into a dance, beautiful and destined.

But instead, he finds it is like walking through a minefield, deaf and blind and tentative. It is like diving deep into black, pressured waters with no hint of where the next air-pocket is. It is like opening a line of lead boxes, one after the other, never knowing which one contains the Kryptonite to fell him.

No, something’s not right. And he needs to find out what it is before he takes this too far and finds out this one chance has turned into his only chance.

He goes to Perry first.

“Come on in, son. Ignore the mess—Alice is doing some packing. Wants us to leave for Florida as soon as the retirement party’s over. Not that I ever imagined leaving like this, but, well…” There are hints of pain layered up behind Perry’s gruff voice, reminding Clark of his own very real, still fresh wound. The Daily Planet is the first place after Smallville that he’s ever felt like, maybe, he belongs. Like he could contribute in a way all Clark Kent. To lose that, even when he is sure they will find a way to restore the paper, is like losing a limb. He can go on without it, but the phantom pains throb and pulse and remind him of all he once had.

“You’re really leaving then?” he asks (and feels like an abandoned child).

“Well…” Perry hesitates, then shrugs and gestures Clark to a seat on the couch, squeezed between half-filled boxes. When the chief slumps into an armchair, carelessly knocking a pile of papers onto the floor, he looks tired and defeated. Old, though Clark has never thought of him as such until just this moment. “Sure looks that way.”

Clark nods. An uncomfortable silence falls. He knows Perry is probably waiting for him to speak, wondering why he is here, but Clark doesn’t know how to put his questions into words. He doesn’t think he can just blurt out, Lois says she wants to try to fall in love with me, but it feels like a trap or a lie or an impossible dream, so do you have any idea what would compel her to do this to me? He came here because no one understands Lois better than Perry—and maybe that’s why he’s suddenly so afraid to ask him questions (maybe he is afraid of what the answers will be).

“Something on your mind, son?” Perry asks shrewdly. He doesn’t look old anymore; nothing suits Perry White like a mystery.

“Just…” Clark leans forward, plants his elbows on his knees, and clasps his hands. It helps remind him that he can’t let his nervous energy out (can’t ever say or do or reveal as much as is bottled up inside him). “I was…wondering if you’d heard from Lois lately. If you’ve heard any news. If she’s told you anything.”

“She told me she was going to try to convince you to go work at LNN with her.” Perry studies Clark closely, and Clark feels himself shrinking instinctively under the scrutiny. “I told her you there’s no way you’d go for it, but she pretended she didn’t see why not.”

His attempt at smiling hurts, and from the frown on Perry’s face, it doesn’t look that great either. “You were right. I didn’t take it.” He pauses, but Perry has always helped him, given him chances when no one else in his kind of position would, and so he confesses, “I told her I love her.”

“Ah.” Perry looks away, and as closely as Clark looks, he cannot read the older man’s expression. “And how did that go for you?”

Somehow, Clark doesn’t think Lois would appreciate him relaying everything that happened (Superman and declarations of love and rejections and the whole tangled-up drama their lives have become), so he only says, “Not well. At least, at first. But…she went on a date with me last night. She said she wanted to try it. But she was crying, and I…I don’t know if…I’m just not sure…”

“Sounds like you are in a pickle.” There’s something in Perry’s voice that makes Clark look up, and when he does, he’s surprised to see a hint of humor sparkling in Perry’s sharp, faded eyes. At Clark’s obvious confusion, Perry laughs out loud. “Now, son, there are far worse things to happen to you, you know.”

“I know.” This time, Clark’s smile is real (and he still wants to pinch himself to make sure he’s not dreaming this). “She turned Luthor down. She’s not going to marry him.”

All of Perry’s humor vanishes so fast that even Superman nearly misses the transition, mischief subsumed beneath relief that (even to Clark) seems almost excessive. “Well, why didn’t you say so already?” he demands. “That’s great news, Clark! You don’t even know how good that news is!”

A chill runs down Clark’s spine, and he feels cold, something so rare his thoughts stumble and slow. “Why?” he hears himself ask.

Perry falls still (another chill wraps around Clark, intense enough to make him shiver). The hesitation is so long Clark can hear entire galaxies of molecules move and shift and collide, can see oceans of currents in the air fade and grow and weave through each other (can feel his heart crack and splinter and break). Finally, though, Perry lets out a gusty sigh and leans forward. “All right,” he says. “I shouldn’t be telling you this, but…desperate times and all that.”

“Tell me what?” And only a lifetime of restraint keeps the question from turning into a desperate demand.

“I have a source in the police department who let slip something they’re keeping awfully hushed up. Turns out a few days back, someone anonymously donated quite a bit of incriminating evidence against Metropolis’s favorite philanthropist, businessman, and recent newspaper owner. They’re keeping it quiet for now while they verify everything, but so far, it all looks legit—and if it is, Luthor’s going to be going down for a whole lot more than insurance fraud and blowing up the Planet. My source was throwing around words like ‘extortion,’ weapons-dealing,’ and ‘murder.’ I’ve been trying to figure out how to warn Lois without actually warning her—you know as well as I do that she’s a great one for digging in her heels at the most inopportune of times.”

For a long moment, Clark cannot process the information. He is Superman, able to assess a situation and choose any one of an array of powers to best handle the crisis, capable of moving faster than the speed of sound, and thus, capable of reacting that fast too. But now, here, in this room cluttered with boxes only half-heartedly filled with odds and ends, he finds himself as dense and slow as a lump of lead.

Luthor incriminated for all the crimes Clark has been trying (in vain) to bring him to justice for. The police finally aware of what Superman has known since his first days in town. And Lois, willing to date Clark, willing to try to love him.

“If I didn’t know any better, Clark, I’d think you’d found a genie,” Perry says, effortlessly putting Clark’s half-formed suspicions into words. “Sounds like everything’s going your way. You got any mysterious benefactors? Win the lottery recently?”

Clark forces a laugh. “Not yet.”

“Well,” Perry’s eyes are intent on him (the opposite of light-hearted). “If you do, I hope you put that kind of money into rebuilding the Planet.”

“You know I would, Chief,” Clark says with a slightly more genuine smile. “That way I’d get you, Jimmy, Jack, and my job back—definitely worth a third wish.”

“I like the way you think.” Perry clasps his hand on Clark’s shoulder, startling him with his sudden closeness. “Listen, Clark, I don’t know what’s going on with Lois, but if there’s one thing I know about that gal, it’s that she never does anything unless she decides it’s a good idea. Have you ever been able to force her into anything? No, of course not, because Lois Lane makes up her own mind, and woe betide anyone who tries to change it for her.”

For the first time, Clark allows himself to feel a trace of happiness (of relief) lightening the load bearing down atop his shoulders. For the first time, he lets himself really wonder what it might mean if Lois is seriously giving him a chance (if the smiles and soft looks and that magical kiss on his cheek were all simply because she wanted to). Carefully, unobtrusively, he curls his fingers over the arm of the couch to make sure he doesn’t start floating.

“Thanks, Perry,” he says (both of them pretend his voice isn’t slightly hoarse).

“Not a problem. Now, get out of here. I don’t want Alice to tear into my hide about how little packing I’ve done, and you need to start planning the perfect way to impress Lois Lane.”

Clark stands (thinking heavy, dense thoughts because he can’t stop imagining a Lois who wants to date him and hug him and kiss him; him, Clark Kent). “I sure wish you weren’t leaving, Perry. If Luthor’s out of the picture, there’s got to be a way we can bring the Planet back.”

“No matter what charges they bring Lex up on, I doubt there’s anything the verdict can do to resurrect a newspaper.” But Clark smiles anyway, because he can see the gleam of interest suddenly sharp in Perry’s eyes (can hear his heartbeat speed up, and can all but see the gears in his mind whirring with sudden purpose). And if this is a world in which Lois can suddenly decide there may be more to Clark Kent than a brother and a friend, then surely there is hope that other good things can happen too.

“Have you heard from Jimmy lately?” Clark asks as Perry walks him to the door. “He told me he was looking for a job, but I haven’t heard from him for a couple of days.”

“I’m sure the kid’s fine,” Perry says, “but I’ll check on him. Make sure he’s landing on his feet. I didn’t do all that work training him in the finer points of being a lackey just to have him up and find a different career.”

Clark laughs (glad that it is once again easy to do so). “Sounds good, Chief. I’m off to visit Jack, let him know I’m still trying to get his name cleared.”

“Don’t let him know about the police’s leads on Lex,” Perry warns him (unnecessarily, but Clark is well used to being warmed by the feeling of people caring enough to be concerned about him even when there is no need of it). “That’s a tight secret, and we can’t have word of it leaking out to Luthor.”

“Sure, Chief. I’ll be careful. And thanks.” He doesn’t have to say what for. Clark’s pretty sure Perry had him figured out when it came to Lois only a day or two after hiring him.

He’s glad he went to Perry’s. He doesn’t know what to think about Luthor or the incriminating evidence against him, and he only has the faintest edges of hope about the fate of the Daily Planet, but Perry’s words on Lois are enough all on their own to make Clark want to fly as giddily as he always thought he would when dating Lois Lane.

Maybe, he thinks, he just needed the words said out loud. After all, he knows better than most (better than he knows the sound of her heartbeat and the scent of her tears) just how independent and bullheaded Lois is. He knows that she never lets anyone bribe or blackmail or guilt her into doing anything. He’s never met anyone more determinedly their own person than Lois Lane (and that’s part of her allure, isn’t it, to know that she is a single identity, a strong person who knows who and what she is; to envision a life in which some bit of that confidence might rub off on him and allay the confusion and sense of being lost that has dogged his steps almost his entire life?).

He wonders if, all along, he’s just been scared. Terrified that, now that his chance is here, he will blow it. Now that he doesn’t have the excuse of Superman standing between them or Luthor interfering or their partnership providing an easy out—now, standing on only his own merits, he will still fall short (still not be enough to make Lois Lane happy; still not deserve her). Maybe he is just a coward who would rather doubt Lois’s intentions and make up conspiracy theories to avoid having to win or lose the woman he loves than admit that he can never be who she wants or needs.

It’s a sobering thought, but infinitely better than the fears that swirled through him when he’d come to Perry’s.

He wants to call Lois now, wants to take advantage of the optimism fizzling like champagne through his veins and the bravery buoying him up before it evaporates and goes flat (before he remembers that for all he wants Lois’s trust, he is lying to her). But he forces himself to wait. It’s still early in the morning, and knowing Lois, she’s either at work or sleeping in on her day off. So he visits Jack, reassures him that he’ll get him out, and is glad that he did when he can see Jack straighten at the sight of Clark’s renewed optimism.

“Won’t be long,” Clark says, and means it.

“All right,” Jack agrees. “I’ll keep my head down, then. You just be careful out there, Clark. Prison’s not the only place a man can have enemies. I don’t think Lex Luthor is a big fan of yours, or your friend, Superman, either.”

Which only reminds Clark that someone had to tip the police off to Luthor’s criminal dealings. Anonymous, Perry said, but the police are surely digging into where it all came from. After glancing at his watch to see that he still has a few hours before Lois should be off work, he contacts a few of his own contacts within the police department. No one knows much of anything, until he finally gets to Henderson.

“Can’t say much,” the inspector tells him, before inviting him out for a hot dog in the park. As soon as they’re settled on a park bench with a bunch of laughing, shrieking children in front of them, Henderson zeroes a piercing look in on Clark. “I don’t know how you heard about this, but if you hear anything more, I’d appreciate a tip. We’ve got nothing on the source of all this stuff—tapes, paperwork bank trails, everything we need to make a solid case. Anyone who has all that has got to be high up in Luthor’s organization, but it doesn’t make sense for any one person to have all of what we have. Whoever it is, they’re either a good enough investigator to be on my payroll, or they’re government agency level. Either way, I’d feel a lot better if I knew who they were.”

“I don’t know anything,” Clark admits. “I just barely knew that you had a case at all. If I do find anything, I’ll let you know—of course, it might be hard, with the Planet being gone.”

Henderson smirks. “I don’t think you’ve ever been asking questions about Luthor because of your job. How is Lois, by the way?”

Rolling his eyes to hide the beginnings of a blush, Clark says, “Working at LNN, as far as I know.”

“You are behind the times,” Henderson snorts. “Luthor fired Lois a couple days ago.”

After that, Clark can’t put the call off any longer. His hands shake when he lifts up the phone in his apartment (he’s not sure if it’s because he’s suddenly worried about what Luthor’s spurned anger might prompt him to do to her, or because he just really wants to hear her voice again; wants to make sure she really is happy to hear from him). He wills himself to calmness (the kind of calmness Superman employs when he arrives at a disaster scene so much bigger than a naïve reporter from Smallville) as he dials her number. And he holds his breath, tense and nervous and excited, as he waits for her to answer.

“Hello?” Her voice cuts, instantly, through the clamor of his ricocheting thoughts, leaving him in an island of stillness that could almost make him forget he’s Superman.

“Hey, Lois,” he says, and then winces. After their date (with just this one glimmer of a chance at something more), he wishes he could have thought of something a bit more suave to greet her with.

But she says his name, and he can hear the smile in her voice, and suddenly he doesn’t care so much. “You called,” she says. “I was afraid you’d talk yourself out of it.”

“Are you kidding? I’ve been having to try to find things to keep me busy so I didn’t call too early.” Another wince, then (because, really, how pathetic can he get?), but Lois’s laughter is gentle, not mocking or uncomfortable.

“You didn’t have to do that. I forgot to tell you, but I don’t exactly have a job right now either.”

Clark bites down on what he wants to say (Luthor really doesn’t take rejection well, does he?), takes in a deep breath, and then makes himself smile so she’ll hear it in his voice. “Well, if neither one of us has anyplace to be tonight, maybe we could spend the evening together? I could cook, we could watch a movie…?”

Friend things. Things they’ve done before, without the pressure of a maybe-chance and a scary word (date, and he’s not sure when that word, that label, started to take on nightmarish connotations, but it’s almost comical how suddenly terrified he is of it). Things he hopes she can do with him without feeling pressured. (He wonders if this is just more cowardice, more excuses he’s preparing in advance for when she smiles so sweetly at him and tells him, I just don’t feel that way about you.)

“That sounds great,” Lois says, and despite himself, Clark lets out his breath in a sigh of relief. “Mel Gibson or Bruce Willis?”

“You bring the movie.” Clark smiles as his heart trips itself picking up a rapid pace (in anticipation; in relief). “Italian sound good?”

“Uh…Clark, maybe tomorrow would be better. I just remembered that I agreed to meet someone tonight about something.”

The abrupt transformation in her voice from friendliness to nervousness is so jarring that Clark actually takes a moment to process it. His smile is slowly falling away, his reaction speed left in the dust, when he hears it.

A sound. A voice. A man’s voice, from somewhere behind Lois.

A familiar man’s voice.

Luthor.

Clark’s read more books than most people see in a lifetime, and studied the art of writing, and taken tips from any professor and reporter that comes his way. He’s learned the value of descriptive prose and seen turns of phrases that seem more poetical than literal—and he’s always assumed ‘blood running cold’ to be one of those. But in that instant, when he hears Luthor there, in Lois’s apartment, and Lois’s muffled shushing of him, his blood does literally run cold, flowing like sluggish glacial ice through the veins framing his muscles and bones.

“Look, Clark, I have to go. But I’ll be there tomorrow, around six?”

He doesn’t even have time to confirm before the dial tone rings in his ear. An entire day’s worth of encouragement and relief sloughs off him like extraneous heat in the stratosphere. Perry’s reminder that Lois makes up her own mind suddenly seems like nothing so much as empty words (because Lois has consistently made her mind known over the past year, and always Clark has been an afterthought, never a starring role). Henderson’s teasing asides seem more like cruel jibes than reason for hope (because the inspector knows Clark loves Lois, and why did he let him think there was hope when Clark can never measure up to Superman or Lex Luthor?). Clark’s own justifications seem like nothing more than the desperate excuses made by a heartbroken man (a man, not a hero, because surely a hero would have been able to win the girl, and even if he hadn’t, he would have continued on his way with little more than a regretful shake of his head over what might have been).

“Think, Clark,” he whispers to himself, finally replacing the humming phone in its cradle. “Think this through.”

Grabbing a pad of paper and a pen, he sits at his table, but once there, he doesn’t actually jot anything down. He just likes having the familiar items there, the comfort of their presence a reminder to act like a reporter rather than an angst-ridden teenager.

“Luthor proposed to Lois; Lois told him she’d think about it. I told Lois I love her; she said she didn’t love me. She told Superman she loved him; he…flew away.” Clark grimaces, hating to think about that night. “Then, for some reason, Lois tells Luthor she’s not going to marry him. And she tells me she…she’s willing to give us a try. But what changed?”

He stands up, tossing the pen down on the blank pages. He starts by pacing on the floor, but his apartment isn’t long enough and there’s too much furniture in the way, so he soon finds himself passing, upside down, back and forth over his kitchen table.

“She said she didn’t want to marry Luthor because…” Clark stops, his eyes narrowed. “Actually, she never said why. She just said she didn’t love him. But she doesn’t love me either. So…maybe whatever happened has to do with Superman.”

He’s going crazy. That’s really the only excuse he has for why he starts to wonder what happened between them before he actually has to remind himself that he’s Superman. As if to underscore that, he finally looks up and realizes he’s leaving scuff marks on his ceiling.

“Wonderful,” Clark mutters, floating down to the floor. “I get everything I could ever want, and I start losing my mind.”

And he hates to admit this, but he wishes now that he had never told Lois how he felt. If he’d kept it in, swallowed down everything he wanted to say (like he does so often, as Clark and Superman) and just been her friend, then they wouldn’t be in this position. She’d be comfortable around him and he wouldn’t be trying to clean footprints off the ceiling. But then, she might be engaged to Luthor too, so maybe this was a fair trade off (any chance of being given her heart in exchange for her freedom from a psychopath).

Clark swallows, looks around his apartment (echoing with emptiness and void of answers), and decides that he can’t stay here. In a blink, he’s dressed in red and blue and soaring up into the air, headed toward Kansas. Right now, he needs his parents more than he ever has since arriving in Metropolis, and that’s saying something.

(But on his way, he swings by Lois’s apartment. Lois is alone, writing in a notebook. There is no sign of Luthor.)

Chapter Text

Lois holds her hands out in front of her. They’re not actually shaking, which seems odd because she feels as if she’s about to come apart at the seams. She’s lightheaded, dots swimming just at the edges of her vision (she tells herself they’re dots, anyway, because that’s so much better than the blueprints of a life she’ll never live), and her balance seems off. It could be because she hasn’t slept more than an hour here and there for over four days. It could be because Lex isn’t exactly the man she thought he was (and her hands actually do shake at that thought, a long, ragged shudder at the memory of black shadows and dark eyes and a hand clamped around her wrist), and that makes three men in total (the three most important men in her life at this moment) that she’s completely and totally misjudged.

It could be those things, but she knows the real reason. It’s because of what she’s here to do. And because it seems like it’s been ages since she’s seen Clark and misses him (the uncomplicated him that could always reassure her even as he riled her up with teasing asides and amused smirks and calmed her down with a simple touch and the murmur of her name). And because she remembered (far too late, because it still isn’t natural to think of Clark as Superman) that Superman has super hearing and a hand over the telephone receiver isn’t enough to hide that Lex Luthor was in her apartment when Clark called to ask her out on a date.

All of these things swirl and dance inside her, coalescing into a singular feeling of nausea right in the pit of her stomach. She doesn’t want to be here. She doesn’t want to do this. She doesn’t want to see Clark and whatever fears (or accusations) shine in his eyes.

But it is what it is, and that’s all there is to it. Nowhere to go but forward.

After another long hesitation while she gathers her fragile, silken threads of courage, Lois takes a deep breath. When she is sure that she is not trembling (so Clark won’t think she’s afraid of him), and that her heart is beating relatively calmly (so he will not think she is lying), and that she can summon up a smile (so that he will think she is happy to be here; so that he will not think she is here merely because of Lex), she knocks on the door. She just has time to take in a deep breath and brace herself before Clark’s shadow plays along the glass surface of the door. And then he pulls it open, and there he is.

Standing, open-armed, one hand still on the doorknob, his lips offering the suggestion of a smile (as weak and shaky as her own feels), dressed in jeans and a black sweater (casual, normal, the opposite of intimidating), holding the door open for her (even though he doesn’t know why she’s here; because he has no idea what’s coming). His glasses reflect the light, and his hair is so dark it gleams, and he looks so much like Clark (warm and friendly and always there for her when Superman wasn’t and Lex didn’t even know to be) that Lois can’t help herself.

She steps forward into his willing arms and is not surprised when they close about her. She is strung tight, rigid, really, with tension and stress and too many shocks in too short a time, but Clark’s familiar arms and familiar scent and familiar presence enfold her in an atmosphere that drains all of her anxiety out of her. It’s so easy to melt into him. So easy to hold onto him and feel the grip of his arms holding her together, anchoring her, steadying her so that it’s impossible to feel shaky or unsure anymore.

It’s familiar (so startlingly familiar for a man who’s only been in her life for just under a year), and yet, at the same time, it is strange and new. She always used to wonder at how tightly Clark hugged her. It seemed stranger to her, that a man as mild-mannered as Clark, with his relaxed attitude and genial outlook on life, would hug her so tightly she felt as if it would be impossible to evaporate or dissipate or flee from his grip. She’d always thought (somewhere in the back of her mind where she puts thoughts she isn’t brave enough to face) that he was afraid of losing her if he didn’t hold on with every bit of his strength.

Now, though, knowing just how strong he really is (knowing who he is when the glasses come off and the cape goes on), she realizes that there is no contradiction at all. Clark is holding her gently. Infinitely gently. He is cradling her with the same carefulness he would bring to handling something as delicate as a paper flower or a glass figurine or the remnants of his birthworld. He is Superman, and he does not crush her; he is Clark, and he holds onto her.

And she needs that right now, both the strength of his grip and the knowledge of his care. She needs to soak in his devotion, let his nobility (his purity) wash away all the remnants of Lex’s visit yesterday (the dark memories that had hazed reality into nightmare) and soothe the knowledge of what the future holds for her (because it was not Lex she saw last night, instead of curling up next to Clark’s gentle frame; not Lex there as she listened to warnings and instructions and encouragement that tasted like ash and dust and poison). She needs the scent of tomato sauce and spices she doesn’t know the name of and warm bread and Clark. She needs him, and here he is (but not for long, and that only makes her cling all the more).

“Lois,” he says, softly, as if he thinks she might break should a careless soundwave hit her. “Are you all right?”

“Yeah.” She smiles and makes herself let go of him, take a step back, keep smiling. This is something she should be plenty practiced at—pretending; lying; playing a part; doing what she has to do—only it’s usually to get a story, not to save the world. (That should make it easier; it doesn’t.) “I’m just…I’m glad to see you. I miss you, Clark.”

Apparently, none of his masks work on her anymore, so she catches the surprise that flickers like lightning over his features. “Really? I mean, I’m flattered, but I thought—”

“I miss working with you,” she interrupts (sliding past him and into his apartment before he can come to his senses and slam the door between them. “I guess I just got used to seeing you every day.”

Clark chuckles (but she knows what his laughs sound like, and this one is fake, fake, fake, like tasteless water where one expects to find a life-saving antidote). He follows her down the few steps into his sunken living room. “All right, not that flattered, I guess.”

And surprisingly, she laughs. It has, perhaps, a touch of hysteria to it, and maybe a pinch of tears, too, but it is real, and it is enough to make Clark’s eyes brighten and the corners of his mouth edge upward into the beginning of a real smile.

“I’m glad you called yesterday,” she tells him (because as many lies as there must be between them, she suddenly, desperately wants there to be as many splinters of truth pierced into those deceptive wedges as possible). “I’m glad you haven’t given up on me yet. I know you’re afraid of why I’m doing this, but…but I’m glad you’re still here.”

“Hey, Lois.” Clark takes a step nearer her, reaches out with those strong, gentle arms, curls his fingers over her elbows to tug her slightly toward himself. She gives into the temptation (so weak; so selfish; so needy) and lets him encircle her once more within the limitless bounds of his affection and fondness (his love; she makes herself think the word because it’s true, it’s undeniable now, and it’s the only reason she’s here). “You keep talking like…like I could ever ‘give up’ on you. As if a person is something that can be left behind. As if love is something that can just run out or hit an impassable barrier. I want you to know that…” He pauses. When she tries to look up at his face, he pulls her tighter against him. It brings her forehead against the warm skin of his neck; she can feel his throat working as he searches for world (can feel the pulse of his love thrumming against her temples).

“I care about you, Lois,” he says, careful even now not to overwhelm her (Clark has ever and always been a master of the understatement, she is realizing more every day). “That’s not a fact that’s going to change or become untrue. You’re my best friend, and that’s something I will never give up on. I promise.”

For a moment, she can’t speak. (She hopes, with everything she is, with every particle of her being, that he is wrong. She hopes he will eventually…not hate her, because she does not want to live in a world where Clark Kent—where Superman—hates her…but she hopes he will definitely give up on her. She hopes he will leave her behind and never look back; he deserves that. He deserves to be able to heal one day, and that promise, that future, is all that is keeping her here with a smile plastered over her lips and poisoned honey dripping from her mouth.)

“Clark, you’re so sweet.” This time, when she pulls back, he lets her go, watching her through wary eyes. “Thanks for saying that.”

It’s a weak response, and they both know it. The inanity of it practically seeps into his cozy apartment, turning it stifling and quiet.

“Sure,” Clark says after a brief pause. The moment, so intensely charged, fades into awkwardness, and he shifts, his hands flexing at his sides. She knows him (Clark more than Superman, because she’s never been able to read the superhero correctly, now has she?), and so she can tell that he wants to ask her about Lex. He wants to demand that she tell him what happened between her and her ex-almost-fiance. He wants to peer inside her head and see what she is thinking; wants to take up residence in her heart and know he is the only one there. But all he says is, “Well…the lasagna and the bread still have a couple minutes. Would you like some wine?”

When he moves into the kitchen to pour them glasses, Lois is able to finally tear her eyes away from him and to the small table, set with matching plates and silverware and napkins. Everything paired. Everything right next to each other, cozy and intimate. Not because it is a strategy, not as a ploy, just because this is all the room Clark has—a table for two tucked up against the wall, well-worn wooden chairs nearly touching, and china that probably has a history involving either his parents or some interesting story about his travels and a person he inevitably remembers fondly. (Cozy and close and comfortable because it’s just who Clark is.)

“It smells great,” she says.

Clark throws a smile over his shoulder. “I hope it’s all right. I know it’s not a fancy dinner or theater tickets or—”

She winces when she realizes he’s comparing himself to Lex, to all the things he knows she did with the billionaire (and Superman? does he compare himself to the superhero he thinks she knows, too?)

She flinches beneath the subtle, passive-aggressive dig that even Clark himself may not recognize as such. (But she’s earned his anger, even if he doesn’t realize it yet, so she lets it go.)

“It’s perfect, Clark,” she says firmly. “Really. I can’t think of anything nicer.” She bites her lip, then gives him another truth (a tiny diamond buried amidst piles of sand). “I like it best when it’s just us, together, relaxed and…comfortable. I’ve never had anyone I could just be myself with. Not until you.”

His smile is real, and spontaneous, but it fades too quickly. (She can all but see the red and blue specter hanging between them, and just a few days ago, she would have been bitter and vindictive; now she is only sad and regretful). “Me neither,” he says softly. “I’ve always wanted this chance with you, Lois, this chance for us…but, even without that, you’re the first person who’s ever made me…” He looks down at the salad he’s tossing, averting his eyes (hiding from her). “Well, I like normal with you.”

The first one who’s ever made him feel normal. That’s what he was going to say. She knows it as surely as she knows that she can never again look at Superman and not see a naïve, idealistic farmboy from Kansas trying to do the right thing.

Her stomach sinks down to her toes, weak and congealed and heavy. This is too much. It’s too hard, too complicated, too confusing. He’s Superman, and she admired him more than she ever imagined she could admire a living being. He’s Superman, and she’s imagined all sorts of things with him—soaring over exotic locales, kissing in the moonlight, dancing in the heavens, flying off into the sunset. He’s Superman, and she is in love with him and yet, so angry at him for his behavior when she poured out her heart before him and he let it slip and fall and plop unceremoniously to the floor between them.

But he’s not just Superman. He’s Clark, too, so dependable and boring and steady and loyal. So ordinary and normal and staid. He’s Clark, and they eat pizza together and watch bad movies and make up annoying trivia games so he can win money from her and pretend that’s why he pays for her coffee all the time. He’s Clark, and he’s annoying and kind and her friend (and she has never once had to fantasize about him, because he is firmly rooted in to the mundane and obtainable) and her partner (correcting her typos, not swooping to her rescue). He’s Clark, and he was always supposed to just stay Clark—there when she needed him, in the background when she didn’t.

She liked them being two separate things, each in their own comfortable niche. She liked knowing the world and everything in it and her place in it—liked that everyone had their own label and she never had to be confused and surprised and left in the murky dust.

And yet now, here they are, labels torn off and ripped apart and vaporized, a colossal revelation dumped on her lap and no time to process it, no luxury of confronting Clark about it, nothing to do but push it to the back of her mind and pretend it has not shattered all her preconceptions and shaken her foundations. Nothing to do but put all of her overwhelming reactions off until later (when he is no longer a part of her life at all, in either guise).

(And there is Lex, too, and the sparkling memories that had distracted her while he sprinkled out words that sounded uncomfortably close to ultimatums, until she blinked away the fantasies and found him grabbing her arm and snarling down at her, his black eyes all menace and malice, his voice ugly and feral.)

It’s all too much, so Lois swallows down the lump in her throat and makes herself think on anything that will ground her to this moment. She can’t handle any more revelations or shocks or new, revolutionary ways to look at the world and the people inhabiting hers. She can, however, focus on dinner.

It’s only when Clark passes by her carrying a basket of bread and the pan of lasagna that she notices his strained expression and realizes it’s been long moments since she’s said anything. This isn’t something she wants to do (is, in fact, pretty much one of the last things she wants to do), but she’s failing anyway. She’s failing, and she knows the consequences if she can’t do this right. What she’s doing now will hurt him, but not being able to follow through on it will destroy him.

She feels abruptly desperate and panicky. He’s slipping away from her right in front of her eyes, and she’s hurting him already (this time without purpose), and if she can’t do it the right way and in the right time, then the whole world will suffer…and she will have hurt him, this man who offers so freely and loves so unconditionally and cares so deeply, for nothing.

This time, her hand is shaking when she reaches out to stop Clark from compulsively arranging and rearranging the food on the table. “Clark,” she says, her voice tiny and scared. “I’m not very good at this. I know this may surprise you considering everything that’s happened in just the year you’ve known me, but I’m pretty much married to my job and that’s not something most guys find very attractive. And you’re…you’re important to me. You’re my friend and you know me better than anyone and I don’t want to lose what we have, and that just makes all of this harder, because I’m so scared that I’m going to mess everything up.”

Clark softens, his entire manner melting into concern and empathy and understanding (and she hopes that’s not what made her confess so much). His hand over hers is warm and heavy (as comforting as it is condemning). “Lois, as you already noticed, I don’t exactly date much either, so…maybe we’re both a little…nervous?”

“I just don’t want you to think that it’s you,” Lois says, then kicks herself when she sees his answering apprehension. She clutches his arm tighter, willing him to stay in place so she can finish, even if she doesn’t quite know what she’s saying or how to say it. “You’re just so good at this, Clark, at always saying the right thing and being so sweet and…and…you. And I never know the right thing to say, or when to say it. You say you’ve been in love with me for so long, but what if I’m not who you think I am? What if I disappoint you? What if you’ve had this picture of me built up in your head, and I can’t live up to it? What if—”

“Lois.” His voice, soft and sure and saying her name in that way he says no one else’s, slices through her spiraling ramble (through the blurry images of a similar speech while she sits at her desk in the Daily Planet, talking about beds and thinking about something else entirely). He takes her elbow and guides her to a chair at the table, the food wafting out appetizing smells she barely registers next to the nervous slant to his expression. “Lois, whatever you do or say is the right thing. If I’ve built up any sort of expectations, it’s not your place or responsibility to live up to them; it’s mine to let go of them. But I know you, Lois—I’ve seen you at your best and worst and everything in between, and I have never, ever been the slightest bit disappointed in you.”

A sob catches in her throat.

Because he—as Superman—has done nothing but strive to live up to the pedestal she unthinkingly created for him.

Because he—as Clark—is of course willing to lower his own expectations and tamp down on his own wishes for her sake.

Because she’s going to hurt him so badly, and he will never know why, and how can she do anything but disappoint him?

Because unbelievably, despite all that, he still makes her smile a real smile through the tears she won’t let fall.

Clark takes a deep breath, and something changes in his eyes. A flicker, a spark, as if that breath told him something he didn’t want to know. She blinked her tears away before they could do more than blur her vision, but she knows better than most about his enhanced senses, and she wonders if the scent of saltwater can overpower cheesy lasagna and French bread.

So before he can say anything (before he can make her feel even worse and quench the smile he’s ignited on her lips), she reaches out and takes his hand, weaves her fingers through his, and tries to hold on tightly enough that even Superman will feel the pressure and know she does not want to let go.

“Never disappointed?” she asks, teasing, smiling, tugging until he looks up and sees her eyes (her tears all hidden away where even Superman cannot find them). “Not even when I stole your story?”

His chuckle is feather soft and whisper quiet. “Maybe at first, but when you congratulated me the next day in full view of the newsroom, I was too in awe of you to remember any disappointment.”

Her breath catches. She keeps smiling, inching closer to him. “How about when I used the burglary of your apartment to get a story instead of helping you?”

“You did help me, Lois,” he murmurs, his gaze so intent, so open, that she cannot look away. “You always help me, in ways you can never know.”

She swallows. Hard. “What about when I didn’t believe you after Cat spread all those rumors about you?”

“You didn’t know me then,” he points out. “You believe me now, don’t you?”

“Yes.” The answer (surprising herself, because she hadn’t realized this herself) falls like the ripple of the birth of a far-distant galaxy, trickling to them only eons after its first breath in the cosmos. Her hand tightens over his, tingling as he rubs his thumb in soft, unconscious circles over hers. “And what about in the park the other day, Clark? Didn’t I disappoint you then?”

His eyes fall to their hands (a knife twists, jagged-edged and salt-tipped, in her heart at the pain he can’t quite hide from her). “You don’t disappoint me,” he says, stubbornly insistent. “And you’re not going to lose me—and I’m sorry that my confession that day ever made you think you would. If all you need is a friend, Lois, I can be that for you. If this isn’t what you want—”

“Clark.” Lois straightens her spine, firms her chin, and dares Clark to meet her gaze (flinches inside when he does, with those wide, sincere eyes). “Stop, please. Maybe I don’t have a lot of experience with the whole dating scene, but I’ve never had anyone try so hard to get out of dating me.” Her wry grin seems to take him aback, and she’s encouraged when he does not look away. But she has to ask (and she will give him this, she decides, suddenly, absolutely; if he wants to stop, if he wants to back out, she will let him, no matter what the consequences of that will mean for them all). “Do you want out of this, Clark?”

She should feel relieved at the possibility (maybe, after all, his heart is already broken enough; maybe the seams and tears and crumpled folds she has given him over the past year of put-downs and barbs and suspicion and ignorance will be blood enough to save the world). She wonders why she only feels stricken and breathless instead.

Clark’s smile is sad, and he studies her hand in his as if it’s utterly fascinating. “I want you to be happy, Lois.”

“But what do you want?” she persists. “What do you, Clark Kent, want?”

His expression is a picture of confusion. “I…what do you mean?”

She smiles indulgently, fondly (and wonders if this pain in her chest means all these concussive revelations have prompted a premature heart attack). “All you talk about is what I want or what I’m afraid of. And that’s great that you’re so concerned, but what is it that you want?”

He’s frozen, as if the idea, the concept, has never occurred to him before (as if he cannot risk translating his desire to the open air where it can so easily be crushed and mutilated and rejected, laughed at and scorned and left behind in favor of other more exciting things). When she finally manages to catch his eye, putting a hand on his chin and tipping his head up toward hers, she sees the answer there, sparkling in misty brown, bathed in kindness and openness and desperation (a death knell, because this means there will be no easy out for her, for them, for him).

He wants her. Forever and for always (he’s that kind of guy, she’d know that even without her inside information). He wants love and marriage and children and a future. He wants acceptance and normality and the boring, mundane life that has never appealed to her but must seem like a paradise just outside of reach to him. He wants everything (and that is his crime for which she has been sent to him as punishment).

But he won’t say it, not when he thinks it’s more than she wants to hear (and it is, oh it is, but for very different reasons than he thinks). And he looks so sad and desperate, as if he is losing her even before he has her (as if he sees the truth), that she cannot help but lean forward and hug him, strengthened and broken by the feel of him immediately sinking into the embrace.

“Okay,” she says, releasing him from the expectation of answering her demanding, intrusive, dangerous question. “Okay, so neither one of us is very good at all this, but we’ve both agreed that we feel comfortable with each other, right? So…so let’s just be. Let’s just be us. We can do that, can’t we?”

“Yeah,” Clark says, his voice hoarse, his eyes locked on her as if he has never seen anything more wondrous (she knows the look because he’s given it to her so frequently; because those fantasies that crowd her mind and pound behind her temples are full of thousands of those looks). It makes her squirm. It makes her blush. “Lane and Kent.”

“Lois and Clark,” she adds softly (and wonders when she began to love the sound of their names linked together; wonders if she will ever find another name she likes half so well with her own). She completely misses Clark turning to dish out the food due to the sudden image of her own hands holding up his name plate and putting it next to hers, playing with their last names, her other-head full of thoughts about marriage and identity and what name she would keep or give up.

But the Daily Planet is gone, their name plates blown up in flame and soot and ash, and she will never be in the position of wondering what her last name should be, so she shakes her head to dislodge the fictional blur, and turns her attention to the meal.

Or tries to. But as usual, Clark is always both more perceptive and more persistent than she wants (expects) him to be.

“Lois.” He looks at her over his own full plate, spots of color in his cheeks, sparks of determination in his eyes. “I have to ask you something. About Luthor.”

“Oh.” She sets her fork down. “I wondered when this would come up.”

“I know you think I’m just jealous,” he says, and for the first time, there is a hint of irritation smudging the smoothness of his voice, “but surely a year of being your partner, being your best friend, earns me a little bit of trust.”

Despite herself, Lois’s eyes narrow. She’d been warned to forget about Lex, warned that it was best just to get rid of him entirely, and next to the other sacrifices she’d been asked to make, that one had hardly been a blip on the radar at all. And after yesterday, when he’d let his mask (so much thicker and more iron-clad than Clark’s) slip to reveal the cold maelstrom that lurked beneath, she’d begun to wonder if this wasn’t just another way of saving the world, forgetting Lex and getting him out of her life, of saving her.

But she does not like to be told what to do. She hates knowing that she’s been wrong for so long. And it really irks her that she suddenly realizes just how it is that Clark knows more about Lex Luthor than she does (and isn’t that cheating, even if she would do it, too, if she were the one with powers?).

“Clark,” she starts, but he shakes his head.

“Look, I’m probably blowing whatever shot I have right now, but…I heard Luthor yesterday. On the phone. With you. And not that I don’t know I can be accused of edging into creepy-stalker territory for this, but I did go by your place a couple times last night. I didn’t see him, and I’m not trying to invade your privacy, but I’m scared for you, Lois. You yourself said he didn’t take your rejection well, and he fired you, and if he’s—”

“He doesn’t matter,” Lois says firmly. She places her hand over his once again, hoping he can read the truth in her words. “He doesn’t matter, Clark. Really. When I told him that I didn’t want to marry him, I also quit LNN. You were right—I’m a newspaper journalist, not a TV star. And yes, he came by yesterday, because he thought he could talk me into coming back, to him and his desk job. I told him no, and he…” She takes a deep breath, rolls her eyes, and admits, “And all right, he wasn’t exactly the gentleman I would have expected him to be”—the gentleman Clark was, she thinks, when he’d received her rejection—“and he did scare me a bit. But he can’t hurt me.”

Clark’s eyebrows arch up into a dark half-moon. “Can’t hurt you? Lois, he’s a multi-millionaire with fingers in almost every part of this city. He can do a lot of damage just to your career, let alone you yourself.”

“He can’t hurt me because he’s a little busy being investigated by the police,” she says bluntly. She hadn’t wanted to tell him. She wants to get this over with as quickly as possible, and that means making sure Clark’s attention is on her, not distracted by following a long, drawn-out criminal investigation. But she’s underestimated Clark’s animosity toward Lex, and maybe it’s better just to get this all out of the way so he will stop being so worried about her (and jealous, too, because no matter what he says, she knows that’s part of it, had seen it when those terrorists took them all hostage at the Daily Planet; has glimpsed it in hazy visions of Clark snapping at her while she drives beside him with a huge diamond ring on her finger).

“What?” Clark blinks at her. “You know about that?”

It’s her turn to be surprised (she’s the one with all the insider knowledge, the one with the foreordained scoop, and he’s still a step ahead of her). “You know about that?” she echoes. “How did you find out?”

“Perry told me,” he says impatiently. “Lois…” And suddenly, his eyes are alight, his smile brightening up the room and painting heat along her cheeks. “Lois! Are you the one who gave all the evidence? You’ve been investigating him?”

Shame sits heavy and sodden behind her breastbone, tightening the pressure along her temples and erasing the hunger Clark’s food had stirred. She thinks about lying (thinks about making him be so awe of her right now that he forgets the disappointment that will come), but cannot meet his gaze. “No,” she says flatly. “No, it’s not me. But it is a source who came and confided in me. I don’t know what the evidence is—I don’t even know what crimes they are—but I know enough to stay far away from Lex from now on.”

There are too many questions brewing behind those perceptive eyes, too much potential for danger here, so she touches his hand again. Lets her eyes soften, her voice gentle, her body angle even more toward him. “But that doesn’t matter, Clark. Like I told you, I don’t love Lex. He was a distraction to keep me from realizing just how impossible a fantasy Superman was. And…” She lets her voice become uncertain, lets her face blush with unnatural shyness. “And maybe…maybe to distract me from what was right in front of me all along. Someone who is closer…more real…than I was ready for.”

He wants to believe her. He longs to believe her. (He is afraid to believe her, though she’s not quite sure why.) All she has to do is give him a little nudge. Just the slightest push. And she knows exactly how to do it.

“Clark,” she says in a tiny voice, picking up her fork in her (trembling hand) and pushing her salad around, watching the cherry tomato balance at the rim of her bowl. “Do you remember when we stayed in that honeymoon suite at the Lexor?”

“Yes.”

She closes her eyes against the wariness in his voice. “Do you remember playing those board games all night, and how you wouldn’t let me use my words and teased me when you won a game?”

There is a hint of laughter in his voice (she still can’t look at him). “Yes.”

“Do you remember how you said good night. And kept saying it until I said it back.”

“Yes.” Now it is puzzlement that shades his voice in three-dimensional tones.

“And do you remember how I called you, to say good night, after the story was done?”

“Yes.”

She takes a deep, shaky breath and looks up to meet his patient eyes. “Ever since then, I’ve always wondered what it would be like…to say good night every night. To have someone say it back. To play games and tease each other and fight over things like who gets to brush their teeth first. And when I thought about doing those things with Superman…it didn’t fit. And when I thought about doing them with Lex…it didn’t feel right. But…but with you, it did.”

She cannot name the expression on his face, widening his eyes and parting his lips and making him glow. She cannot name it because she cannot face it.

“That’s why I came here the other night,” she lies. “That’s why I wanted you to call yesterday. It’s why I’m here now. It’s why I want there to be an ‘us.’”

This time, it is Clark who drapes his hand over hers. His smile is slight, but real. Small, but powerful. Almost not even there, but so very beautiful (and so very, terribly tragic, because he believes her now, and she only had to lie and manipulate and con him to get them here).

“I want that too,” he finally manages to say. “That’s all I want, Lois. To play and fight and work together and say good night.”

There’s a lot between the lines of that, but only if she wants to dig for it, and right now, she is too exhausted, too relieved (too disgusted with herself) to do anything other than take it at face value. So she conjures up a smile and squeezes his hand.

“Well,” she says, a little awkwardly. “Shall we eat, then?”

Clark lets go of her hand and she makes an effort not to give into the hazy fantasy swirling at the edges of her peripheral vision (spaghetti sauce on a wooden spoon and herself draped over Clark’s broad back and a smaller, more beautiful ring than Lex’s glinting on her left ring finger). Clark makes an effort to keep things relaxed and lighthearted (to make sure she is comfortable). They both try their hardest not to think about this being a date, pretending that they are simply hanging out together as they’ve done before multiple times (pretending that they are not pretending).

When they’re finished eating, Lois helps him do the dishes over his protests (we’re a team, remember?), and then they move to the couch where Lois pulls out a VHS from her discarded purse (she can’t remember what she brought, and doesn’t notice the title when it comes up on the screen).

It’s easy to settle back on his couch; they’ve done this before, countless times. It’s easy to sit right next to him and, mere moments after the movie’s begun, snuggle into his warmth (and now she knows why he always feels like he carries a tiny sun tucked away side by side with his heart, doesn’t she?). It’s easiest of all to lay her head on his shoulder and feel his arm holding her close beside him. She focuses on the sound of his heart beating beneath her cheek, all steady rhythm and calm tone, rather than the riotous sounds coming from the television.

He’s careful not to push her, careful to keep his touches light and only reactionary to hers. (She’s only now realizing how careful he has been the entire year she has known him, ever since she stalked away from him on a dance floor and confessed her most shameful secrets to him while tied up to a pole and cried in front of him for the first time.) He’s never going to lead in this twisted courtship, and she knows that, so it’s up to her to lead this—and she cannot chicken out like she did after their first date.

But it’s one thing to know, and another to do (out of the blue, out of nowhere, with no transition or build-up).

He wants this, she reminds herself, and she made him admit that (again), but if there’s one thing Clark is good at besides understatement, it is talking himself around in circles. He likes plans and control and foreknowledge (which makes a lot more sense now considering the powers he has at his disposal); he prefers to think things through rather than leap in headfirst. And despite her damage control tonight, she has made him too suspicious already. Has turned to him too quickly after both Lex and Superman and her own rejection of Clark. Has cried when she should have smiled and paced when she should have reached out and said nothing when she should have simply said his name.

He cannot doubt her—cannot doubt this. He must believe in her wholly, must give her all his heart, and then, when she slices and crumples and tears it and sets it aside, he must bend and take it up again for himself. He must let her walk away. Everything she’s doing, everything she’s manipulating, is all for the greater good, and it’s imperative that she remember that—and convince him of her honesty (both the romantic and the brutal). And the only way to make him stop thinking and start believing is to overwhelm him, to take him out of his mind and into his flesh.

But when she lets her hand fall to his leg, when she traces patterns on his knee, when she turns and slides her other hand up to his shoulder to play with the hair at the back his neck, when she looks up at him and sees him looking back, wide-eyed and swallowing and so horribly, awfully awe-stricken…she feels sick. She feels dirty. She feels like a prostitute, selling his soul for the promise of future ideals.

She feels like a monster.

He loves her, and he has done everything (more than everything) to try to be accommodating for whatever she wants of and with him, and here she is: punishing him.

A good memory, she tells herself as she slides closer, closer, closer, to him, tugging at the back of his head to tilt his lips toward hers. She just wants to give him some good memories. She wants him to think of her and smile for an instant before he remembers what must, inevitably, come later. She wants him to be happy, even if for a moment, a night, a day, a week; even if it cannot last forever.

(She is good at lying, even—especially—to herself.)

“Clark,” she whispers as his breath feathers along her cheekbones (so he knows that she knows who she’s kissing). And then she lets her lips play along his. The lightest touch. The merest brush. A test. A tease. A temptation.

His breath stutters, jagged and shallow. His arm holds her close without imprisoning her. His shirt is soft, the flesh beneath hard and giving, his eyes alight and dazed (and how can this vulnerable, fragile, trusting man be the aloof, austere, alien Superman?).

She’s kissed him before, more than once, and always it’s taken her aback. I love you, like a brother, she told him once (and even then, she recognized the look of disappointment etched so markedly across his face). He’s her friend and her partner and her comforter, even her confidant, and that is all she had ever allowed him to be. But every time they kiss, no matter the reason, she is starkly reminded that he is more than all of that.

He is a man.

He is a tall, dark, and unbelievably good-looking man.

A man who looks at her (in her real memories; in her pretend memories; right now) as if she is his whole world.

A man who can kiss better than anyone she’s ever kissed before, so well the world itself fades away next to the reality of him.

And he’s not her brother. He’s not just a friend. He could be her partner in so many more ways than one.

So much possibility (she admits now). So much potential (she realizes anew, as if for the first time). And with this one kiss, she taints it all (and forever kills any possibility of her fantasies becoming reality).

But he is so close, and so warm, and so forgiving, and she is so alone and so afraid and so selfish. And this is, after all, for the good of the world. This will (she has been promised by an inviolable source) save Superman.

So she curves her lips in the facsimile of a smile and whispers, “Good night, Clark,” with a hint of playful laughter in her voice.

And when he sighs out her name (his own smile so much more real than her own), she closes the inch (the chasm) of distance between them, and kisses him again. A real kiss, all lips and heat and sparks that chase away her building headache and paint tingles along her fingertips, cast explosions behind her eyes. His hand comes up to caress her jaw, tilt her face so that he can part her lips, and Lois lets herself forget why she is here.

She simply is. Right here, right now, with Clark Kent.

She kisses him, and hopes that one day, someday, she will feel clean again.

Chapter Text

The air this high up in the sky is cold and fresh and crisp, sharpened by the tang of electricity and rain and ozone, but it cannot erase or even dampen the memory of Lois’s scent and texture and taste. He is no longer anchored to the Earth at all, loose and free and drifting, but still all he can think about, all that consumes him, is bound up the small, slender frame of a single woman.

Lois Lane.

He read her articles and admired her writing long before he ever knew what she would come to mean to him. Even when he first met her and felt himself bowled over by the confidence and competence and sheer presence of her in the flesh, he had not imagined just how much she would come to mean to him (how much pain she could inflict with a smile, and how much pleasure she could impart with a kiss). Just a week ago, sitting on a park bench and listening as all his dreams evaporated into thin air, when she asked him for a favor and he found he still could deny her nothing, he had not known what she could do to him. What she could make him feel. What she would give him, with trembling hands and tear-filled eyes (the key to her heart, but only through a confusing maze, a hidden gate, a back door, because everything that is worth anything at all takes time and patience and care).

Clark floats up so high that the United States curves away below him in a tapestry of topography, scents and sounds blurred into a distant haze rolling like fog at his feet, and he cannot stop smiling. A week ago today, Lois kissed him. A week ago today, she told him good night (as if she wants to say it every night for the rest of their lives; as if she wants him to say it to her every night). A week ago today, she started calling him so that they can exchange good nights, among other things—teasing banter and amusing anecdotes and news about friends, and little secrets spilled among their exchange of words as if they are not each afraid to really open up to the other.

A week ago today, he feels like he was finally given a real chance. Not one gilded with tears and steeped in secrets. But a chance freely offered and truly desired.

She laughs now, when they see each other (and does not blink away salty tears). She touches him (without pausing in between or calculating what it will mean). She kisses him at the end of every date (freely offered; freely accepted).

One week, and it is still not like holding onto a hurricane or flying through a tornado, but it isn’t like walking through a minefield either. Instead, it is like floating in the center of an opaque lake, ripples spreading out in concentric rings on every side while hidden depths plunge below him, waiting until he gives himself over fully to each ripple before allowing him to sink further into the unknown places below. It is like their friendship, already established, already rooted and planted deeply, but budding and blossoming and stretching thick branches to the sun. It is easy and beautiful and sometimes messy but real.

Guiltily, Clark shakes himself from thoughts of Lois (an all too common occurrence) and drifts lower so that he’s within hearing distance of the teeming mass of humanity below. He’s been spending a lot of time with Lois (not enough for Clark; too much for Superman), and he needs to make up for his caped absence from Metropolis. He can’t have anyone wondering about where the superhero is, where he goes, what he does instead of saving people (can’t have anyone start to wonder about disguises and secret identities). And if he is Superman now, he might be able to make it through another evening with Lois without having to leave her in the middle, only a bad excuse and sharp regret lingering behind him.

So, steeling himself, he closes his eyes and lets his hearing broaden and reach out, searching for cries of help.

It doesn’t take long.

For the next few hours, he has no time to think of Lois beyond a flicker here, a snatch of an image there, a tidbit of information stored up to pass along later (beneath some excuse of Clark’s as to how he came by it). He is inundated with panic and fear and anger and relief, with blame and gratitude and disbelief, the emotions of those who encounter Superman so strong, so potent, it still takes him aback. He combats it, weakly, with his own anxiety (fading, now, after so many months as Superman) and the professional calm he cloaks himself in (easier, every day, as he closes in on a year of adopting this alter ego). Behind him, he leaves a trail of trembling people, cursing criminals, competent emergency workers. From Beijing to Fawcett City to Rio de Janeiro to Montreal to Keystone City to Seoul (everywhere, anywhere, following the calls for help and the sirens and the alarms and the scent of terror), and finally back to Metropolis, to this place that smells and sounds and feels like home (home because Lois smells, always, ever so slightly, ineffably, of the same scents that make up the Big Apricot; of ocean and ink and steel and something more, something undeniably Metropolis).

It’s not the stench of smoke and ash and burning metal that alerts him to the fire consuming a low-rent apartment building not far from the harbor. It’s not even the shrill sirens piercing the air as the fire department heads toward the emergency.

It’s the screams.

In everything Superman has seen, in all the disasters Clark Kent has attended (invisible and unseen, a ghost in the shadows), it is always fire that conjures up the most extreme fear. The deepest desperation. The deadliest panic.

Flames that lick the walls and turn a place of safety into a deathtrap. Smoke that clogs the air and congeals lungs and burns eyes. Burning metal that scorches flesh and buries exits and sends people screaming with the urgent, painful fear that they will be trapped until the fire eats their bodies away to leave only charred bones behind. Electricity fizzing and sparking, always threatening a larger disaster, a higher body count.

Clark can smell a fire from miles away. But he can smell the terror and the sweat and the ashy tears and seared flesh from even farther. It lends him speed that even Superman thinks of as extreme; he’s always surprised, later, to realize how quickly he arrives at fires (he’s always horrified, later, to realize how late he is and how much damage is already done).

This one is bad, the lower five levels of the building already engulfed in flame, the top ones consumed in smoke rising to congest the blue and golden sky. Two fire engines are there, water spraying from hoses, beating back the conflagration, but the second floor is the hottest and no one can get through to search the top floors for any stranded souls. Clark pauses just long enough to make sure the firemen see him, and then he dives in through a shattered window.

The next moments are a blur of action. Listening for heartbeats. Searching for signs of life. Moving as quickly as he can, shoring up unstable foundational walls and blowing out the tongues of flame that separate the firemen from the uncleared levels. Intent, always, for any live wires, any sparks, any gas tanks. A blur that passes around him in crimson and carnelian and tangerine, and yet each moment, each instant, is simultaneously crystallized in his mind, rife with sensation and sound, sharp enough to puncture through everything else in his head (to silence his dread and waken his focus).

On the third floor, he finds a family of three. He has the father wrap his arms around his neck from behind and scoops the mother and child up one in each arm. He maneuvers until he can fly horizontally with his feet pointed straight ahead, heads for a stable wall, kicks open an entrance large enough to get them out. He sets them down next to the arriving ambulances and then plunges back into the inferno. Tongues of flames engulf him, lick upward, twining around his arms and legs (he remembers the first fire he ducked into, the barn with the screaming horses, Old Ben Hubbard’s grandson huddled in the back corner; he remembers his terror that the fire would hurt, and then his terror when it didn’t because how much of a freak did this make him?), catching at his cape, rebuffed by his aura.

He ignores it. Moves on.

A young woman, unconscious from smoke inhalation. A few children, safe and climbing toward an open window thankfully (he has found children dead before, wreathed in smoke and guarded by flames, and every time, he thinks he will not survive finding it again). An older couple, trying to make it down the stairs. A cat, hissing and scratching at his impervious skin.

He deposits the cat next to the crowd of people watching their home burn and hopes its owner finds it. It will have to fend for itself for now; he hasn’t made it through the entire building yet. And there are too many people around him, too many heartbeats clamoring for his attention, the heavy stench of heat and fear and collected humanity drowning out anything from the fading building. The firemen are pulling back, not able to get any farther up the crumbling staircases.

Turning his back on them all, Clark lets the world pause around him as he speeds forward and up and through, around and around, barreling through every door, listening at every floor, x-raying every heap of rubble. He cannot leave before he knows for sure (before there is no doubt, no room for nightmares to take root in and grow to choke him in the dead of night with haunting what-ifs). He left a building before (years before Superman), wanting to disappear before he could be found out. He left, and the next day, in the paper he’d written a meaningless, forgotten article for, he’d read of an older woman (very much like the one who’d regaled him with Chekhov in a derelict theater his second day in Metropolis) who’d died. Trapped in her room, alone in a tiny space, choking for air, cremated without the benefit of ceremony; gone without even farewells from her family.

Never again, he thinks firmly, and focuses intently.

But there is nothing. The building is empty, and the fire is so far gone there is nothing to do now but pull up and out of the building, hover above it, angle himself away from the crowd below, and take in a breath. A real, actual breath, deep and full, more than he usually takes in. When he lets it out, he feels the sense of relief he always does, being able to relax in just this one way, for this one moment, to actually let out all the air in his lungs instead of siphoning it out bit by miniscule bit.

And it’s done. The fire is out. The building is gutted, blackened, but still somewhat standing; its neighbors are still safe from all but smoke damage. Everyone is alive; no one has been badly hurt.

Clark begins to let himself relax.

And that’s when he hears it.

“Oh, Clark, Clark, Clark. Always so predictable.”

Instantly, he is soaring, ascending high above where anyone can see anything clearly about him (not features, or eye color, or freckles; not height or weight or mannerisms; nothing that can connect him to Clark Kent). He looks down to the milling crowd below, searches them for anyone looking up toward him. There are many—Superman hasn’t been around long enough yet to not garner stares wherever he appears—but he sees nothing out of the ordinary. No one who looks suspicious (of his quick disappearance) or triumphant (at discovering his secret) or devious (with dangerous plots to unmask him to the world).

He widens his search, perusing the blocks on either side of the burned building, looking for…he’s not quite sure. Looking for anything he should be scared of, he supposes. Anything that means he needs to flee to Smallville and pack up his parents and get them to safety (and Lois? would he have to bring her too? has he already endangered her before he even entrusts his secret to her?).

He finds nothing.

He’s not the only one named Clark; the man could have been talking to anyone. Clark tells himself this, over and over, a dry repetition that means less with every recitation. It could have been anyone, speaking about anything. It doesn’t have to mean anything. His hearing had been extended farther than he usually kept it, after all, letting the cacophonous sounds of the city encompass him in a continuous deluge, still on the alert for anyone he might have missed. The sound could have come from anywhere within ten city blocks on either side—at least. And there are, he tells himself yet again, other people named Clark.

“There’s no reason to panic,” he mutters to himself, and resists the urge to fly to Smallville anyway (to his place of refuge, the arms that have always held him and comforted his fears). He’s been there so often lately, begging for advice on what to do about Lois, that to come again (particularly with concerns about a man speaking his name while Superman hovers in the air) would do nothing but alarm them.

(And, he admits silently, in the tiniest corner of his mind, he does not want to leave Metropolis. He does not want to leave Lois. And he cannot let his father advise him to do so, not when that would mean having to confront just how selfish he feels, how possessive he is of this one chance to win everything he’s ever wanted.)

Perhaps in penance of his own fear, Clark makes himself take long, swooping arcs around the city, his hearing still expanded past the streets just below him. A headache builds up behind his eyes (stress more than the hearing, he thinks, because he can count the number of headaches he’s had on less than two hands), but he keeps moving, keeps listening, keeps watching, pausing only occasionally to help where needed.

Eventually, hours later, he lets himself begin to relax. There have been only three mentions of Clark in the city since the fire—two from an assisted living home where the residents were watching It Happened One Night, one from a job interview with an applicant whose last name was Clarke.

No whispers about Clark Kent spreading through the city. No headlines or special news reports. No one taking the information to Luthor and bartering it away for money and a private island.

Clark drifts up high enough to release his breath in a gusty sigh of relief before heading down to the streets. Still, he makes sure he lands far away from his apartment, and he is careful to walk as casually (as humanly) as he can through the streets, pretends to stumble a time or two, stops to buy a warm pretzel with mustard (it’s strange how few people believe Superman actually eats), and finally arrives home with a shiver into his jacket as if the temperature bothers him.

Nothing super about Clark Kent. Nothing out of the ordinary or special at all. Just a regular guy, taking a walk and thinking about job options while passing the time before his date with a beautiful woman.

Who confessed her love to Superman after the ordinary man offered her his heart.

Clark shakes his head, hard, swallows to bite back the residual pain. It’s stupid to still feel hurt about that, he thinks. She’s dating him now, and she calls him to say good night, and she kisses him as if she wants to keep kissing him. (But it still aches, in a deep, hollow place behind his breastbone; he wonders if it always will.)

He’s distracted from both fear and pain when, minutes after he arrives home, he hears Lois walking up to his door. It makes him smile to hear her authoritative knock again, to see the way she strides in as if she owns the place, already saying hello (just like old times, before he thought his confession had scared her away). It makes his heart turn as light and fluttery as his cape to see the way she pauses, really looks at him, then gives him a soft, shy smile. “Hello, Clark,” she says again, and bites her lip.

“Hi,” he manages.

And she smiles again, goes up on her tiptoes, and grazes his cheek with her lips. He freezes, doing his best to memorize every instant—the weight of her hand on his forearm as she balances herself, the scent of her minty breath ghosting past his ear, the sheen her lip gloss leaves behind on his hypersensitive skin (the surge of sheer hope in his chest, to know she does it because she wants to).

Only when she steps back, allowing a rush of cool air to flow between them, is Clark able to gather his thoughts enough to say, “I didn’t know you were coming over.”

Her shy smile slides into a sly smirk so fast Clark falls in love with her all over again. “That’s why it’s called a surprise, Clark. If I told you I was coming over, it would ruin it.”

“Thanks for explaining that,” he says with his own smile (too wide, too happy, too giddy to be a smirk). Then, daringly, wonderingly, he reaches out and slides a careful finger down her cheek, memorizing the sensation (the struck look casting sparkling reflections in her dark eyes). “You don’t have to go out of your way, though, Lois. You surprise me every day without even trying.”

She licks her lips, and Clark can’t help but follow the movement. “Well, I don’t want to ruin my record, then.” She blinks when he lets his hand slip away, then flourishes a pair of tickets. “Here. Surprise!”

The tickets are smooth, small, simple. The words printed on them in stark black are anything but: METROPOLIS MAGIC SHOW!

Two tickets for a show that starts in just three hours.

He looks up at Lois, staring at her (with an ordinary man’s eyes, because a Superman’s have not deciphered her yet), trying to see beyond the nonchalant, nervous attitude. “But…you hate magic.”

She rolls her eyes. “But you don’t. Besides,” she shrugs, lets her hand rest on his arm, “it’s starting to grow on me. A bit.”

A flash of memory comes to him, the chance he’d taken, the florist he’d passed by in a blur of wind, the roses he’d left on her desk, the questions for two weeks afterward as she relentlessly pestered him, trying to find out how he’d accomplished the trick. He has to duck his head to hide the smile on his lips.

“Thank you,” he breathes, and engulfs her in a quick, heartfelt embrace.

“Oh, good,” she says lightly (but her arms clasp him with more force than usual). “I was a little afraid our late run in with Constance and her amazing hypnosis act might have ruined the allure for you.”

Keeping his arms wrapped around her waist, he draws back enough to smile down at her. Truthfully, he is a lot warier about the idea of magic now, knowing how vulnerable he is to it (when Superman cannot afford so dangerous a weakness). But Lois has gone out of her way to get these tickets for him. Because he (Clark Kent) likes magic shows. Because she knows he likes magic shows. He doesn’t think he’s been so touched by her since she told him Superman wasn’t just a story (since she told him good night, and kissed him).

“Even if it had ruined magic for me, this would restore all my enchantment,” he tells her, and smirks at her slight flush (the heat emanating from her cheeks intoxicating against his skin this close).

“Well, hurry up, then!” she snaps, shooing him toward his bedroom. “Get dressed. If you’re fast, we’ll have time for dinner before the show.”

But for once, Clark doesn’t follow her direction. Instead, he steps closer (watching, listening, for any sign that she is made uncomfortable by his show of confidence) and cups her warm cheek. He wants to say something sweet, something reassuring; he wants to tell her again that he loves her. But he gives her his own gift, and says nothing at all (does nothing to bring back that uncomfortable, cornered look she gets when he reveals too much).

He does lean forward, though, slightly, slowly. Gives her time to duck away, to start talking at a hundred miles a minute to disguise her embarrassment, to slap him.

She tips her head up. Her eyes flutter closed, her dark lashes laying like warm snowflakes against dusky skin.

He kisses her.

He’s kissed her before (he’d count them, but they always feel dreamlike and he’s afraid of confining them to real numbers and mundane reality), more this week than he once thought he’d ever be able to. Each time, each kiss, each moment when her arms wind around his neck and her body leans fully against his, he thinks it is more (more beautiful, more humbling, more profound) than he can bear. His body fills up with light and air and happiness. His mind spirals in the unfamiliarity of a freefall. His heart stutters and jumps and pounds for freedom from its suddenly fragile cage.

She kisses him, and Clark thinks he could die (and that is so strange a feeling, so alien a notion, that it seems otherworldly, to know he is vulnerable and mortal and yet still, somehow, so alive).

“Dinner,” she murmurs, breaking away from him. It takes her a moment to open her eyes and let her hands fall from his chest. “I skipped lunch, so dinner is a really good idea.”

Clark chuckles. “Dinner it is. I did promise you chocolate desserts if we dated, didn’t I?”

“Promised?” she scoffs. “I think you mean ‘threatened?’ And I hope you’re not still holding out hope that you can control me with chocolate.”

“Hey.” Clark pauses in his trek to his room to arch an eyebrow at her. Grinning, he holds up the tickets in his hand. “I got the magic tickets, didn’t I?”

She throws the pillow from his couch at him, and Clark laughs as he ducks into his room. Behind him, he hears her laughing too, and as soon as he’s closed the bathroom door between them, he’s floating in elation.

They have plenty of time for dinner (with a dessert Lois pretends not to want but ends up eating most of off his plate), and make it to the show early. Clark leaves his glasses where they are; no need to try to figure out the secrets, not tonight, when the woman at his side is more mysterious, more entrancing, than any of their illusions.

Superman is needed only twice during the evening. Clark excuses himself both times, and breathes a sigh of relief both when Lois doesn’t tease him for it and when neither of the rescues take longer than ten minutes each. He knows that if this continues (if she does not break his heart and go back to Luthor, or just decide that she can’t love the ordinary man), he will need to tell Lois his secret. He knows that he only has a limited amount of time before this turns from keeping her safe to just keeping a secret. But…but things are still so new, so raw, so frail that he cannot think on it for long. He cannot bring himself to imagine how angry she will be when she discovers what he’s been hiding. (He cannot let himself think of a future where Lois knows him and accepts him and loves him anyway, still, despite, because…)

“Clark,” Lois says when the show is over and people are beginning to stream toward the exits and confetti rains down over them, catching in her hair and making her gleam in the stage lights (she looks like the stars in a night sky, so close he could almost reach out and touch them; so far he could fly forever without quite reaching them). “Why do you like magic so much?”

His heart thuds in his ears. His breaths stir the confetti drifting in front of him. The room is dark and crowded and noisy, but he feels as if he and Lois are alone, in a bubble of stillness and silence. Lois rarely asks Clark personal questions like this; she rarely turns her clever, probing mind in his direction (and Superman is relieved and Clark is hurt). But she is now, and for some reason, it feels as important and weighted as the tickets.

“I guess,” he says slowly (wanting to give her the truth; wanting to stop lying even, or especially, in the little things), “it’s because I like to believe that there are things we can’t explain. Things that can surprise us. And also, in a world where people routinely fear what they don’t understand, it’s nice to see something that confounds and surprises people being accepted and loved by so many.”

She blinks at him, a furrow in her brow. “That’s… I never thought of it like that.” Abruptly, she clears her throat and stands, shaking out the wrinkles in her dress. “I still don’t like mysteries, though.”

“So no more roses?” he teases (glad the world has returned to normal; relieved Lois did not laugh at his answer).

Her smile is sly and mischievous and nervous all at once (she is confounding and mysterious and attractive, and if there is any magic in his world, it is all her). “Well, if you can make them appear even faster than the last time, I might consider it.” She slides her arms through her coat and starts forward, deftly avoiding a few passersby.

“In this crowd?” Clark pats down his windswept tie and slips his free hand through hers, biting back a grin when her fingers weave, of their own accord, through his. “It might take a bit longer than three seconds just to get to the door.”

“Magicians need to always be improving,” she chides him mockingly. “What are you going to do to one-up yourself?”

“That is a challenge,” he agrees, and then he takes his hand from behind his back and hands her the single, chocolate rose, wrapped in tinfoil colored to mimic the flower, all red and green (and so very symbolic). It had been too good an opportunity, when she turned to slip on her coat, for him to pass up. It had taken only a split second to dart out to the novelty vendor wagon outside the theater and drop the money where the rose had been. It would take him a lifetime to fully catalog and savor all the variations of surprise and awe and quiet, simmering interest on her face as she looks up from the rose to him.

“Red,” she murmurs. “Not yellow.”

He swallows (hopes his hand does not shake, held out between them). “Not yellow,” he agrees.

There’s a moment of arrested stillness (of panic). Then Lois smiles. And she reaches out. And she takes the rose from him.

“I like red better anyway,” she says, and slips past him.

Clark stands there, breathless, astonished, almost giddy, before he thinks to turn and follow her. She smiles at him over her shoulder, opens her mouth to say something, pieces of confetti shaking free of her hair to pepper her shoulders.

And he hears it.

“Clark—”

Just his name, in a baritone voice, from someone maybe sixty or a hundred feet away. Then it’s gone, swallowed up in the clamor of voices and milling bodies. No trace of anyone staring at him or watching him or singling him out. Nothing to pinpoint where it came from. But he knows he heard it. He knows someone said it.

And he is afraid.

Chapter Text

“Clark, really?” Lois rolls her eyes at him and tries to keep her smile from being too obvious. “The dwarves were hard enough, but at least then I’d watched the movie before thanks to a younger sibling. But naming ten constellations? Who actually knows that stuff?”

“Lots of people know a whole lot more than just ten constellations.” Clark’s smile is more of a smirk, but she doesn’t mind too much because it suits him (and it’s nice to see him relaxed after a week of watching him stare off into space and scrutinize passersby and jump at things she couldn’t hear). His hand is warm and envelops hers completely, and he’s still not close enough, so she brings up her free hand to hold onto his elbow (and feels him lean, ever so slightly, into her).

“Including you?” she asks with an arched eyebrow. “Seriously, Clark, you know more useless trivia than anyone I’ve ever met.”

“And yet, I still don’t know as much about Elvis as Perry does,” he replies easily, and Lois laughs.

“Give him time, and eventually you will,” she says. She’s disappointed to realize that they’ve already reached her apartment building, that he’s loosening his grip on her hand so she can get out her keys, that he’s readying himself to say good night. She doesn’t want this night to be over. She doesn’t want to say good night and watch Clark walk away. She doesn’t want to be alone again (for headache-inducing flashes of another life to crowd her vision and for heart-wrenching stabs at her conscience to bleed her slowly dry).

It’s strange to think that a week ago she thought a magic show would be enough to tip the scales and help her finish this job quickly (to think that a couple of tickets and a few hours watching rabbits come out of prop hats would be adequate to serve as one of her last evenings with Clark Kent). It’s strange to realize that a chocolate rose and a twinkle sparkling behind glasses would be enough to make her succumb to her more selfish impulses to just enjoy these times with Clark (the last she will ever have, because there’s no way he will want to go back to being her friend after all is said and done). It’s strangest of all (and yet somehow completely natural) to realize that she doesn’t want to end this.

She wants to keep going to nice quiet restaurants or letting Clark cook for her, and walking along piers and through parks, and holding his hand and letting his fingers caress her cheek, and kissing him good night outside her door. She wants this (laughter and teasing and looks full of intensity and secrets that mean everything and nothing spilled out before each other without concern or regret), wants it all, and she’s known she didn’t want to lose Clark-her-friend and Superman-her-hero, but only lately has she begun to realize she doesn’t want to lose this chance for more (for us).

And yet…she will.

She’ll lose the sweet evenings together, so low-key and relaxed, so gentle and fun, where he picks her up to walk her through the park and stop for ice cream and let her choose whatever flavor she wants without mocking her for it. The nights he walks her up to her apartment door and looks at her with all that…affection…that devotion and that awe and that happiness (that will prove much, much too transient) and kisses her until she can hardly stand straight and leaves her with a soft good night and a promise to call.

She’ll lose him.

(The world will lose this him, too, this easy, relaxed version of him, and that hadn’t even occurred to her when she agreed to this, but now it is all she can think about when he is not there to distract her with his clean scent and warm hands and open smile.)

“So now I guess I owe you five more dollars,” she says when they reach her door. She dropped her keys back into her pocket as soon as they got in the building; it gives her an excuse to stand there longer now, to hold his hand tighter, to look up at him with a blatant invitation spelled out on her features. “How much does that make now?”

“I’d tell you, but I don’t want to show off more of that ‘useless trivia’ I know.” He laughs at the mock scowl she throws him, and steps just a bit closer to her. “But maybe there are other ways you could pay me.”

She gapes up at him, laughing despite herself. “Clark Kent! Did you just suggest that I use sexual favors to pay a debt!?”

His smile doesn’t waver, though his cheeks turn dark and his eyes narrow. “Hey, I’m not the one who jumped straight to ‘sexual favors.’ Maybe I just wanted some free help cleaning my apartment one day. I’m sure you can wield a broom as skillfully as you do a word processor.”

“Playing the innocent, hmm? You know, Clark, I have this feeling that you’re more mysterious than anyone would ever guess.” (Certainly more than she’d guessed, and so much has happened recently that she almost forgets, sometimes, just how much she resented him for his Secret when she first heard it.) But she does not let him shutter up the openness in his eyes, does not let him draw away from her. She steps forward, up on her toes, and slides her hands up his chest, one hooking around his neck, the other playing with the collar of his shirt.

He watches her, leans so that she doesn’t have to reach as far, rests his hands on her waist. So patient. So accepting. (And he is innocent. Innocent in every meaning of the word.)

“You know I don’t like mysteries,” she murmurs. “Which just means I’m going to have to figure you out.”

“Might take a while,” he whispers back, and a hot thrum of triumph pulses through her veins to hear the breathless catch to his voice.

“Oh, don’t worry. I’m prepared to devote as much time as necessary to this.”

She’s not very good at this game. Never has been, really. Flirtation was always something her friends did (usually behind her back, with the very guys she herself was attracted to) while she worked on her studies or her investigations. She meant this to be fun and flirty, light and amusing, only there to lead up to a kiss that will keep him with her for a few more moments. Instead, despite the teasing in his tone and the warmth of his hands on her, she sees the wariness, the remorse, the guilt, all of it painted there on his face.

(He’s so easy to read now, and she can never quite decide if it’s because she knows his Secret, or because she sees him constantly now, an older him, one with a wedding ring on his finger and love unfurled so publicly across his being, lying in bed beside her and greeting her over morning breakfast, papering the walls of their new home, wracked with grief that he cannot give her children. She sees him, a him she has begun to think she is making up to keep her company when she eventually has to give up this present Clark. She sees him, and it makes reading this younger, more secretive, hurting version of him so immediate it is almost instinctive.)

So she lets her fingers glide from his shirt collar to his throat, traces the steady line of his pulse, watches him swallow against the delicate sensation. She meets his gaze and has to close her eyes against the potency of his stare. And she kisses him. It’s become so easy, so natural (but then, it’s always felt natural to kiss him, so natural and comforting that it always completely takes her by surprise), but she doesn’t think she could get tired of it. His hand comes up to span her cheek, his arm pulls her tighter against him, and Lois wishes she could stay like this forever.

He’s Clark. It’s not supposed to be like this.

He’s not hers (will never be hers). It’s not supposed to feel like this.

But Clark has never cared about rules or should-bes or supposed-tos. He’s always defied them all, from the first day he got the job at the Planet, when he laughed at her tirade and followed her so closely and gave back as good as he got. Now, opening his mouth against hers, pushing her back against her door, blanketing her with his heat and weight (and love), he breaks through all her walls. Makes her feel everything. Inspires her to long for things she never would have imagined wanting before.

And she pulls him closer against her, strokes her hand through his hair, kisses him deeply. Because this is wrong and it is painful and she will always regret it, but this is life. It’s real and it’s happening and there’s nothing she can do to change it, so she simply enjoys it. She lives it, and savors what little time she has with him. She gives him her all because she is going to take everything from him and he deserves it (and so much more).

He gasps when he finally breaks the kiss and leans his brow against hers, the hand he’s threaded through her hair keeping her from bringing her mouth back to his. His body shudders against hers, his hands shaky, and Lois wonders (not for the first time) just how many times he’s done this before. How many other women there have been (or if there have been any at all). Sometimes he shivers at the lightest touch, his eyes widen after a heated kiss, or his breaths will judder raggedly, and it makes her think that she might be his first. (But she does her best to shove this thought far, far away because this is already criminal enough; she cannot afford to think of ways it is even worse than she imagines.)

So she is gentle, careful, as she sinks back against the wood of the door, granting an inch of space between their bodies, and lets her hands drift back down to his chest, resting innocently there. “Good night, Clark,” she whispers.

He grants her a soft, sweet smile that lodges itself deep, deep inside her. “Good night, Lois.”

Eventually, slowly, they separate, and her keys are retrieved from her purse, and her door is opened. She smiles at him from across the threshold (blinks back a flash of the same door slamming between them), then closes the door, and their evening ends.

She has stars in her eyes and warmth in her heart and Clark’s smile on her mind, so of course it is ruined. Of course it is all yanked away from her, leaving her cold and disoriented and trapped once again. (Of course, and it is right, it is good, because why does she deserve to have any moments of happiness or hope when she is digging Clark’s grave deeper by the minute?)

“Well, things do look cozy, don’t they?” The man—her source; her handler; her nightmare—steps out from her bedroom, silhouetted by light that shines through his hair, turning it from white to silver. “From what I saw, it seems our job here is nearly done. I never doubted you, Ms. Lane.”

A shiver ripples down from her scalp to the arches of her feet, a shockwave of denial and guilt and fierce, almost instinctive protectiveness. “What are you doing here?” she snaps. “How did you get in here? What if Clark had heard you?”

The man steps away from her bedroom door, turning from a limned silhouette to a man, old and stooped with age but bright-eyed and limber enough, white-haired and staring at her (so closely; so unnervingly) from behind the lenses of round glasses. He looks harmless. He looks defenseless. He looks normal. And all of those things are a lie (his own façade, she thinks, is so much thicker than Clark’s).

“Every one of these old buildings has a fire escape,” he replies easily, carelessly. “And you don’t seem to keep your window locked.”

A flash of guilt strikes her at the same time a vision sparks across her eyes, temporarily blinding her to the familiar surroundings. Clark (Superman, but it’s become harder, almost impossible really, to keep the distinction in mind these past weeks) appearing behind her with a comment about her Kerth Awards. Herself spinning to face him, for some reason feeling ashamed, as if she’s been caught with her hand in the cookie jar. Frank Sinatra singing in the background, Clark’s hand warm in hers, the floor falling away beneath her feet as they spin slowly, her elation as he dips her, his nervousness melting into confidence as she does not see through him.

It’s there and gone in an instant; Lois has become so accustomed to the visions that she manages not to react at all. When she blinks it away, her source is still in front of her, prowling along the edges of her living room, watching her (always watching her) out of the corner of his eye.

“And if Clark heard you?” she manages to ask, mostly just to keep him from getting suspicious. He knows her, in ways she can’t explain or understand; he seems to be able, at times, to read her mind, and at others, the twitch of his lips or the flash of his eyes will stop her more surely than any amount of words or weapons could.

He scares her. He always has, since the first night when she opened the door to his knock and saw him standing there in the hallway, smiling so benignly, one hand already raised to stop her immediate urge to slam the door. It had taken him only seconds to ensure her attention, only minutes to make her think he’s crazy, and three whole days to make her believe him. And now here they are, her frozen and terrified and defiant, standing as if she is on trial; him pacing around her, here in her apartment, calm and sure, telling her that it is time to end it (time to say goodbye to Clark forever).

“I know Superman better than anyone,” he tells her. “I have contingencies for everything. Trust me, I won’t give up the game. Not now, when we’re so close.”

“Close?” The word is dust in her mouth. As soon as she says it, she wants to take it back. She’d rather pretend to ignorance, play the fool, the incompetent, anything just so long as she gets more time with Clark (just so long as she doesn’t have to see his delight and affection transform into heartbroken dejection).

“You’ve done an excellent job!” he exclaims. “I heard enough to know that you’ve played your part admirably. He loves you, Ms. Lane—thoroughly and completely.”

“You said he already loved me.”

“And so he did. But now he loves you in a way that is easier to manipulate. And we must manipulate it. You know the consequences if we don’t.”

She’s been trying so hard—to pretend. To play a part. To lie. She’s lied when she’s alone (she is not in love with him; it will not harm her irreparably to sever him from her life). She’s lied when she’s with Clark (she is falling in love with him; she will give him a fair and honest chance; she will do her best to be gentle with the heart he gives her so willingly, so trustingly). She wants to lie to her source, too, but she can’t. She’s so tired, and she’s so afraid, and she’s so horrified (that she ever thought this was a good idea, or that she ever thought she could go through with it, or maybe just at herself for being able to take it this far), and her masks all crack and fall and shatter at her feet with the muted sound of a breaking heart.

“Please,” she whispers. (A part of her, drowning beneath visions of another life and memories of what her source showed her, is disgusted at the tears slipping free to run down her cheeks.) “I don’t want to do this. There has to be another way. We can find something else, something that won’t—”

“Now, Ms. Lane, I thought you wanted to save the world—to save Superman?” He stares at her, motionless, his dark eyes so intent on her, narrow and questioning (and she feels their intensity, their disappointment, so poignantly it is almost physical).

“I do.” She has to look down, has to break his stare, has to wrap her arms around herself to keep from fragmenting apart beneath the weight of his expectation and her lies. “But…but who will save Clark Kent?”

His laugh is so condescending that Lois’s tears instantly dry up and her spine stiffens, borne up by her immediate and bone-deep urge to wipe that smirk off his mouth. “Oh, really, Lois, I thought we already went over this. Clark is Superman. It’s him being Clark that will lead to the decay of our world. It is only when he takes on the mantle of Superman wholly that we can work for the bright, shining future we both want. And the only way to get him to devote himself fully to his role as champion is to make him realize that there is no point to all these…mundane…distractions.”

She flinches (the concept had sounded so much simpler, so much nobler, when she was still reeling from the realization of just how much Clark and Superman had lied to her, when she still thought Superman was more important than Clark; now it just sounds demeaning and simplistic and…and stupid).

“No.” It comes as little more than a dry breath, and when her source tilts his head toward her, she clears her throat, lifts her chin, (thinks of Clark, smiling down at her with that soft, sweet smile, whispering good night in that vulnerable voice), and states firmly, “This can’t be right. I know what you said, what I saw, but… He’s happy, all right? He’s happy, and he’s still Superman, and this…this doesn’t have to end this way. I can—”

“You can what?” The man’s thick white eyebrows draw down over black, shadowed eyes. Light reflects off the glasses in a flare that blinds her to whatever his expression might give away. “Tell him that he should just leave you alone at home for weeks at a time to be Superman? Tell him that it’s all right if he’s always busy, always being called away, when you’re waiting for him to return? Promise him that you will never feel lonely or abandoned, that you won’t ever make him feel bad, even inadvertently, for what he’s doing? Reorder the world so that there are two of them and one gets to do what he wants while the other does what he was born to do?”

When her mouth tightens into a thin line, he stops to take a deep breath. His own eyes flicker closed, just for an instant (but it is the first sign of weariness, of remorse, of hesitation, that she has ever seen him betray). “You must have noticed,” he says, softly. “The way he looks around for threats that aren’t there. The times he tenses at nothing, turns to stare at things you can’t see. The times he hears a call but doesn’t go to answer it because he’s with you. As long as he is with you, Lois, he cannot fully be Superman. He will always fear for your life, will always make protecting you his first priority, and will always, always be distracted. And when you are a superhero, you cannot afford distractions.”

She turns her back on him (stupid, when he makes her skin crawl, but necessary, so that she doesn’t bleed out from the razor-sharp wounds each of his words inflicts on her heart). “I don’t… There has to be something.”

“There is.” And now his voice is soft, almost pitying. He steps closer, stops behind her, his shadow cast across hers, swallowing it up. “And you know what that is. We’ve been through this. I’m sorry. Really, I am, I know it’s painful. And it will hurt. But we both know there’s no other way. Superman must endure. He must be the symbol the world needs. And he can’t do that when he’s tied down.”

Somewhere inside her, there is a small, lost girl hunched in on herself, huddled in a corner while her mom tells her that her father has important work that needs to be done and that Lois will just have to have her birthday party (her Christmases, her graduations, her award ceremonies) without him there. Somewhere inside her, that small girl breaks again, because this time there is not even the discovery of cyborg parts or grand dreams or criminal dealings to vindicate her resentment; this time, there really is more important work, and how can she even think to pretend to be just as valuable as the world itself?

When an age-spotted hand drops onto her shoulder, Lois doesn’t even react (not to shrink away or to break). There’s no point. She does know that this is the only way. She already agreed to it and there is no backing out now. All that is left to her are her visions (and even if they are mark of insanity, she decides to cling to them with everything she is, savor them as she wishes she could a lifetime with Clark).

“I’m sorry,” he says again. “But he’s Superman.”

He is. And he’s important. He’s necessary. He’s good. (He deserves so much better than her.)

But he’s also Clark. And Clark is wonderful and earnest and so very, very good. (He wants her, even when he shouldn’t, even when she can’t figure out why.)

So she turns to the old man in front of her, looks up to meet his eyes (even with his stooped shoulders, he is taller than her), and nods. “You’re right. I won’t forget again. But…but I don’t think he is quite ready. Not yet. He doesn’t trust this, not since I went to him right after Lex’s proposal. Give me another week, maybe two, and he won’t have even a shred of doubt left.”

Her source studies her for a long moment before he shrugs, stepping aside and letting his hand fall away from her. “Very well. When in doubt, go with the expert, right? No one knows how to break Clark Kent’s heart better than Lois Lane.”

She frowns at him. “What does that mean?”

He looks surprised (as if, for the first time, he did not anticipate this reaction, but she doesn’t know if she can trust that). “Why, Lois, I’m sure you remember that day in the park when you shrugged aside his love as if it meant nothing. I really thought that would be enough to do the trick all on its own, but Superman is nothing if not resilient.”

Long minutes later, Lois is vaguely aware that he is gone. Hours later, she is distantly aware that her feet ache and she is too hot with her coat still on. But all she can do is continue to stand there as ice envelops her heart and her mind teeters between visions of a future she will never live and nightmares of a past she is only now beginning to see clearly.

She should have known that Clark Kent’s heart wouldn’t be the only one that ended up broken.

She should have known her own was fated to be collateral damage.

(She had known. She just hadn’t expected it to hurt quite this much.)

Chapter Text

Clark spends his days split into two (not a man and a superhero, because they have blurred and merged in both their panic and their love), constantly teetering back and forth between polarizing extremes.

He is terrified. Attending rescues and monitoring cries for help and talking to the media only cautiously, nervously, as apprehensive and scared as in his first few weeks of being Superman. His hearing is constantly attuned to everything around him, always listening for his own name (for Superman, spoken so often and so carelessly, by anyone and everyone, discussing and questioning and theorizing and gossiping; for Clark Kent, spoken rarely, but precious and valuable and now so very, very vulnerable), always alert for any sign that he is in the exact sort of trouble he’s been running from for decades.

And he is in love. Spending time with Lois, getting to touch her and kiss her, taking her to dinner, having fun at a bowling alley one evening, treasuring every smile and handhold, every heated glance and warm touch. These are like warm, sepia-colored dreams, desired and yearned for so long that now that it’s real, he can hardly believe it. They seem abstract in a way, so ephemeral that he clings to them, etches every single second on the cells that make up his being, memorizes every sensation, wills them to last forever. When he is with Lois, his entire self is focused on her, orbiting her, and nothing else matters. Nothing else exists.

But he cannot be with her every moment of every day. He cannot cloak himself solely in her steadying, enrapturing presence. He has to be Superman (he has to do something with the responsibility given him, inherent in the powers and abilities granted him by the yellow sun), has to fill up his hours separating the man from the superhero.

And in those hours, caped and bespectacled alike, he is breathless with fear, his gut clenched, his teeth gritted, as he waits, expecting disaster to fall each and every second.

He’s heard someone say his name (Clark, whispered so matter-of-factly, almost patronizing) on five separate occasions. Once at the fire, the second time after the magic show, third at a flood in Louisiana, fourth while buying groceries in downtown Metropolis, and the fifth just four days ago, outside Coast City when he’d been helping stabilize the coast after a particularly brutal earthquake.

Three times in Metropolis, twice in very different, very far away locations (and yet, the voice is always the same).

Three times when he was dressed as Superman, and twice as Clark (and yet, always the voice refers to him as ‘Clark’).

He doesn’t understand. He can never find the person, though he has become convinced that it is no accident he is allowed to hear his name, and this frightens him, too, how this person knows exactly what to do, how to move, where to stand, to both make himself heard and also avoid discovery (and yet, the media has no news about secret identities or superheroes lying to the public). It’s puzzling—or more accurately, it’s worrying.

And he couldn’t put off warning his parents any longer, not if this mysterious person knew his true identity.

“I’m worried,” he had said that morning, (and meant he was scared, as much so as if he were still a small boy waking drenched in sweat from nightmares of darkness and close spaces and the sky falling in on him), sitting at the table sedately though he buzzed with the wish to be up and pacing.

“Oh, honey.” His mom, sitting beside him, placed her hand over his and his dad moved to stand over them, his own hand on Clark’s shoulder. They had always been good at seeing beyond the obvious, at reading him past his bluffed calm, at reaching out to the son who brought so much danger and uncertainty into their lives.

“It sounds like you might need to worry,” his dad said (and Clark’s heart had clenched into melted, cooled, misshapen steel).

“You…” He had to swallow, had to force the word out past his selfish regret and bone-deep despair. “Do you think I need to leave Metropolis?”

(They’d played out this conversation dozens of times before—Clark confessing that he’d done something that drew attention, his mom telling him he’d done the right thing, Clark being forced to admit he might have been seen, his dad telling him he should move on as quickly as possible. That didn’t, however, make it any easier this time. He’d thought he was done with this conversation, with exits in the dead of night and the pain of forced departures.)

His dad exchanged a look with his mom, and then surprised Clark by saying, “No, son. You can’t leave. Metropolis is your home now.”

“Besides,” his mom put in, “if Superman flees, and someone does know who you are and is trying to intimidate you it would just confirm that he could get to you.”

“You stay, Clark,” his dad said, his hand warm and anchoring on Clark’s shoulder (not shoving it away, not pushing back, just holding on firmly, but not too tightly; giving him simultaneously a place and the freedom to do with it what he would). “But that doesn’t mean you don’t need to be very careful.”

“Find out who this person is,” his mom interjected.

Clark smiled at her (because he’d been trying to track down this threat for weeks now, but his mom still seemed to believe he could do it so easily). “That would be a lot easier if I still had the resources of the Daily Planet. Superman sure hasn’t been able to find out anything with his ‘resources.’”

“You mean yours,” his mom said tartly.

His dad frowned. “I thought you said Perry was talking to someone about buying the paper now that Lex Luthor’s been indicted.”

Again, Clark smiled (and this was why he needed to come see his parents; it is always so much easier to believe things can turn out well when he is reminded that he is believed in and loved so thoroughly). “He is, and if anyone can convince Franklin Stern to bet on the Planet, it’s Perry. But even if Stern does buy the paper, it will be awhile before it’s up and running again.”

“You’re smart,” his mom told him, reaching out to run her hand through his hair. “You got along just fine before the Planet. You’ll figure it out now.”

“It doesn’t seem like whoever this is plans on moving quickly. He’s trying to scare you first.” His dad paused, then chuckled weakly (betraying the fear he was trying to hide for Clark’s sake). “Of course, what do I know? This is a long way from farming.”

“You know plenty.” His mom smiled at his dad warmly. “And maybe they’re not sure you’re Superman. Maybe it’s just a suspicion they’re trying to force you into confirming before they do anything.”

“I hope so,” Clark said. (Because Lois is in Metropolis. Because Clark can’t envision leaving her and can’t imagine endangering her. Because it’s too cruel to think that Clark Kent should be forced into permanent obscurity just when Lois Lane is finally looking at him and seeing him.) Quickly, because he could tell his mom realized he was thinking about Lois, he added, “But you guys need to be careful too. If someone knows who I am, they’ll come to you eventually. Here, I borrowed this from Jimmy.”

He handed them the signal watch Jimmy had used in his solitary visit to Smallville and showed them how to work it. “I want you to use it the instant you see anything suspicious. I’ll be listening for you, and I’ll fly over as often as I can.”

“Don’t listen so hard you miss the important things in Metropolis,” his mom advised him, and even though she was clearly referring to Lois, Clark was relieved she left it there. They are happy he and Lois are taking this chance, but they can’t help but worry (and Clark doesn’t need anything else to worry about, not right now; not about Lois, when she is sometimes all that is holding him together).

It was a quick trip, and startling for all that did not happen that he’d expected, but Clark is glad he went to see them. It allays the guilt he’s been feeling and firms his resolve to get to the bottom of whatever’s going on. It makes him stop feeling like he’s sneaking around when he’s with Lois (she deserves so much more than to be a guilty pleasure he hides from his parents, the forbidden luxury he can only have if he keeps it secret).

She deserves everything (certainly more than the lies he’s had to tell her the multiple times Superman’s been called away during their dates). She seems happy with him (but she is smart and suspicious, and no matter how she’s accepted his excuses so far, he knows they will not last forever).

He will have to do something about that. That, and the man following him and saying his name. And the Planet’s reopening soon to come (Lois’s eyes still flame with her joy at getting the Planet back, and from the phone-calls he made earlier, Clark knows Perry and Jimmy are just as excited). And the fact that Superman’s been asked to stand as a witness against Luthor in court (though Jack is out of prison for now, and that is a victory all on its own).

So many balls in the air. So many potential dangers and problems. So much to juggle that even Superman might be hard-pressed to keep track of them all.

But he can’t think of them. Not now. Not here, in his apartment, relaxed on his couch with Lois leaning against him, her head a welcome weight on his shoulder, her hand tracing mindless patterns over his chest as some movie they’ve watched a couple times before plays quietly on the television. Her breath is flavored with the ice cream they ate earlier, moist against the side of his neck, her fingers are mesmerizing him, her touch poignant and intense even through his shirt, and it is all he can do to keep his hands to her shoulder and elbow rather than pulling her up into a kiss.

“I didn’t know it could be like this,” she says, her voice low and dazed, adding yet more wonder to his sensory overload.

“Like what?” he manages to ask (thankful his voice doesn’t crack when her finger alters its pattern so that it intermittently strokes against the skin above the collar of his shirt).

“So easy. And nice.”

“Nice.” He cranes his head to look down at her, grinning and teasing and worried all at once. “Is that good?”

Her smile is sleepy and wide, but she burrows back into him, hiding her face (and he swallows hard because she only does this when a moment gets too weighted, too real, for her). “Yeah,” she murmurs, the words soaking into his skin, scented with chocolate and Lois. “It’s good.”

For a long moment, Clark tries to pinpoint every sensation, to memorize her effect on his every molecule, every inch of skin. The look of the light reflecting off her inky hair, spilling over his green shirt. The way she warms even the portions of him she isn’t touching (she has always been able to reach the parts of him no one else can). The tingles her fingers leave behind, marking down a map against his skin. The shape of her against his flesh, his bones, his heart. He tries to comprehend just how happy he is in this moment (and comes up short, because it seems impossible).

“Clark,” she says, breaking the silence again. The movie plays on, as much in the background to him as all the clamor of Metropolis. “I know we talked about it a little before, but…I broke your heart, didn’t I? That day in the park.”

His entire body tenses. (He senses his entire world, constructed so perilously over such a steep precipice, poised to teeter and come crashing down on him.)

She tenses too, and Clark immediately makes himself relax. The park was a long time ago, and it is Clark at her side and Superman relegated to lies and excuses and evasions. So he forces a smile even though she is very carefully not looking up at him.

“But you’re here now,” he points out (because it’s what matters). His hand tightens, almost unconsciously (except that Clark has spent over a decade training his body to never make completely impulsive movements, conditioning his muscles to never exert force a human cannot withstand), over her shoulder, pulling her tighter, closer.

“But…” She’s clearly uncomfortable (her heart races, her lungs deflating before they’re completely full), but just as clearly determined to press on. “But you said you’d…for a long time. And I…I never… Well, it wasn’t the first time I broke your heart, was it?”

He isn’t sure if it’s the right move (he thinks whatever he sees in her heart might break his), but he angles slightly, cups her cheek in his hand, and tilts her head so that she has to look up at him. She looks sad. Strained. Unsure. But she closes her eyes against him, shutting him out (and he isn’t sure if he’s frustrated or relieved).

“Lois,” he says, firmly, “it doesn’t matter. You didn’t know. And anyway, here we are. Together.” He can’t help but smile at the word (hoping that saying it aloud does not mean that it is about to be ripped away from him).

Lois smiles at him, and when her eyes open, he can see the pain in them. “I just… I don’t want to hurt you, Clark. You’re my best friend, and my partner, and…and I think you’re the most important person in my life. And I don’t want to hurt you anymore.”

It is his turn to draw patterns on her dusky skin, to trace the curve of her cheek, paintings that release some of the thrill he feels at her words (the relief that she is not about to break his heart again). “I love you,” he whispers. “And so, yes, that implies a certain vulnerability. But it makes me strong, too. You and I are stronger together, Lois.”

She pales (her heart rate spikes, sharp and panicked).

“It’s okay,” he assures her quickly, his hand on her shoulder tightening even though she hasn’t made a move away from him. His smile isn’t quite as wide anymore, but it is still genuine. “I know you don’t feel the same way yet. But that’s why we have this chance, right? To try. To see if we can…if we can be us.”

Maybe he would say more, he’s not sure. It doesn’t matter. The words are caught and dammed and transformed into power and energy as Lois’s mouth crashes against his. She kisses him hard. Desperately. Frantically. Kisses him deeper and longer than she ever has before, and Clark feels himself falling and falling, as if gravity is exacting its payment for all the times he’s snubbed it.

She tastes of chocolate and sugar and coffee and that ineffable, indescribable more of Metropolis and Lois Lane. She is small, and fits perfectly within the eclipse of his arms, and yet she surrounds him completely. There is a spark between them (no smell of electricity, no discharge of static, but there), traveling across his flesh, raising the hairs on his arms and neck, drawing him deeper, closer, until his mind itself falls into the paradise that is Lois.

Before he knows it, she’s pulled him down on top of her. She’s stretched out on the couch, and he can feel every inch of her beneath him, and he is shaking, his body seeming to contain a will and electricity of its own. He’s never been so out of control (never felt that he belongs somewhere more). His hand is buried in her hair, he’s angling her head into the kiss, his other hand is gliding along the edges of her hips, her stomach, her ribcage, and she’s running her hands through his hair—no, one is sliding down lower, under the collar of his shirt, down along his spine, and Clark is about to fly into a billion pieces. He’s about to cross lines and lose himself—and he’s shaking.

With a gasp, he jerks his lips from hers and his hands both to the marginally safer areas of her arms, tugging them until her own hands fall to his chest (over his shirt, thankfully; regretfully). He can’t catch his breath, can’t open his eyes (because he knows, he knows, that if he sees her, quiescent and panting beneath him, he will not be able to tear himself away from her again, and it would be a lie because she thinks he is human and mortal and honest), can only hold them both back while he tries to pull himself together.

He’s still shaking.

He never shakes. Never. A sneeze can blow holes in the side of his dad’s barn. A sharp movement can send his elbow through walls. A look with too much heat behind it can ignite fires. And his entire body is shaking and he is so close to Lois, so near to running his fingers along curves and secrets he’s never explored before, so close that there is no distance at all between them, only fragile and steel bones separating their hearts, and this is dangerous. It’s overwhelming. It’s intoxicating.

When he finally dares to open his eyes, he finds Lois staring up at him, her expression one he’s never seen before (so tender, so soft, so fond, that he feels his heart stutter and ricochet against his breastbone). She frames his face with her hands, stares and stares and stares as if she has never seen him before and will never see him again. And the words slip from his mouth before he can stop them.

“I love you, Lois.”

Something almost like panic, almost like sadness, flares like fireworks in her eyes, but she blinks and it is gone, no more than an afterimage, so blinding, yet false, not real at all (only his own fears being swallowed and blinked away). Blinks again, and then she leans up and kisses him. Softly. Lingeringly, so that he feels as if she is infusing his whole form, his every cell, with her.

“Shh, Clark,” she whispers, forming the words against his lips (and he is spiraling out of control again, but he is ready for it, a bit more prepared to face it this time, inured by exposure), and kisses him again.

And Clark hopes, because maybe she didn’t say she loved him, but he thinks she is showing it with her every move, her every touch. With everything that matters.

Chapter Text

Jimmy is waiting for her when Lois exits the doctor’s office, excitement and anticipation transforming his features into a youthful mask. “Can you believe it?” he asks before she can say anything. “The Daily Planet is finally coming back—it almost seems too good to be true.”

“Almost,” she says, and tries to infuse some of her own excitement into her voice. It shouldn’t be hard; she’s overjoyed to be getting the Planet back (doesn’t even know, really, who she is without it), and happy to be headed to the unveiling of its remodeling. But the doctor’s words still ring in her ears and she’s still tucking away the prescription bottle in her purse (hoping the pills work, and yet not if the cost of that is taking away the bits of happiness she has left to her) and there is a steady, rhythmic pounding at each of her temples, sharp spikes of pain that make lights seem too bright, sounds too loud, and excitement just out of reach. “Almost,” she says again, forcing a smile, “but it is real. We should have known nothing could keep the Planet—or Perry—down for long.”

“That’s true.” Jimmy’s smile fades as he watches her tuck away the pills. He looks behind them at the doctor’s office, looks back at her, a crease forming in his brow. “Lois…is everything all right? Are you okay?”

“Fine,” she says brusquely, but she has missed Jimmy (missed his presence and his loyalty and his ever-present willingness to do or be whatever she needs him to be), and she does not like to see him worried (and she wants to talk to someone, now that she can no longer confide in Clark). So she summons up another smile and adds, “I’ve just been getting migraines lately. The doctor gave me some pills to try to get rid of them.”

He is instantly sympathetic (following her cues as ably as if they have seen each other more than once in the past couple months). “Ah, man, I’m sorry. I had a migraine once, and wow, it was brutal. I hope those pills work.”

“Me, too.” They turn a corner, leaving the doctor’s office behind, and Lois feels the tension ease between her shoulder blades.

The truth is, bad as her migraines have been lately, she finally gave in and visited the doctor for another reason entirely. She went because the migraines are worse when she fully indulges the flashes of a life-that-could-have-been. She went because she’s been savoring those flashes more than usual (more and more as her deadline approaches and her farewell to Clark draws ever nearer) and sometimes it’s impossible for her to even open her eyes to reality anymore. And she went, ultimately, because she’s afraid, in some small and dark corner of herself, that she is losing her mind (that she made everything up these past months, and that she is about to destroy Clark for no good reason at all).

Not that it’s done her much good. Three appointments in the past couple weeks, CAT scans and MRIs and X-rays, and in the end, she has a few pills to take for headaches and nothing conclusive at all about hallucinations. Not that she brought those up out loud—no need to have them send her straight to the padded room without even stopping to ask her whether she’s partial to white straitjackets. Three appointments, and it was just a waste of time (and she’s still stuck trying to come up with a way to both break Clark’s heart and protect it as much as possible).

Three appointments, and no more time left on her deadline, and she has to destroy Clark Kent.

A hazy of burst of color and almost-sound (she cannot hear anything happening in these quick bursts of might-have-been, but other-Lois hears, and comprehends and reacts, and so Lois herself feels as if she hears) blur through the street ahead of her, the other, happier (luckier) Lois, walking with Clark at her side until a cab pulls up in front of him and a blonde woman shouts for him to hurry or they’ll miss their lead. Other-Lois pretends she doesn’t care, but she is struggling, bereft, as Clark apologetically leaves, and the abandoned feeling does not only come because of her job insecurity.

Lois blinks, and the images are gone, leaving her (wearier, harder, so much less lucky) alone with only Jimmy at her side, prattling on about something that seems too far away for her to try to catch up. Her fingers itch, desperate for pen and paper, for the journal where she has begun recording each and every glimpse of this life she would give anything (even the future? even Paradise? she sometimes asks herself, when Clark’s lips are on hers and his hand caresses her cheeks and she thinks she will die if she cannot have his presence a fixture in her life) to have for her own (to have for Clark, because even though other-Clark is sad and hurting and wounded sometimes, she is sure that it pales in comparison to what her Clark will end up being when she is through with him).

Instead of digging out her journal in the middle of the street (like a crazy woman, though that’s what she’s begun to think she is), Lois winds her fingers through the strap of her purse and makes herself smile at Jimmy, pretending as if she has been listening to him. Only, he’s not talking anymore, just looking at her expectantly.

“What?” she asks blankly, and slowly unfurls one hand just long enough to press her fingers against her temples, letting the pressure give her an instant of relief from the pounding that has become almost constant.

“Is Clark going to meet us there?” Jimmy asks, patiently. “I mean, he mentioned that you’d be together, but then when you called to meet you, I just figured he’d be showing up. But…?” He pauses again and watches her instead of the ground in front of him, and she’s glad that she’s not so far gone she can’t read the crosswalk signs for him.

“Yeah, I guess,” she says shortly, hoping that’s the end of it.

She is, of course, not that lucky.

Jimmy’s eyes narrow, his jaw clenching. “You…guess?”

She could do more than guess, actually. She was supposed to meet Clark early for breakfast so they could go to the unveiling together. She’s supposed to be with him right now, soaking in his warmth, delighting in his smile, relaxing in his presence. She’s supposed to be dropping his hand, and squashing his smiles, and crushing his hope.

But she’s a coward, and weak, and so she did not meet Clark for breakfast (in fact, intentionally arranged her latest doctor’s appointment so that she had something to distract her from the image of Clark waiting fruitlessly for her), and she did not call him (she is increasingly unsure that she can follow through on what she needs to do when he is in front of her, happy and trusting and unsuspecting), and she has been dreading the moment when she has to see him in front of the Daily Planet building.

“I guess,” she says, firmly this time. “We didn’t have anything concrete nailed down.”

Jimmy slides an uncertain glance over at her; she thinks he almost drops a hand on her shoulder before thinking better of it. “You know,” he begins, voice so casual it reads like a screaming alarm, “Clark’s told me that you’re dating now. It’s…not really a secret.”

There’s a questioning lilt to his voice (as if he knows he is just making up his own excuses for her odd behavior) that twists Lois’s conscience (yet again, new ways of torture, because she hadn’t considered this either, losing some of her, their, small circle of friends). Nonetheless, she forces a bright smile. “We are dating, and I don’t think it was ever a secret.”

She can’t quite decipher his reaction. Maybe it is surprise, maybe happiness, maybe confusion; maybe it is some of all these things. His smile seems genuine, at least, and his hand does briefly brush over her shoulder this time. “That’s great, Lois! Really, Clark really…cares…about you. And…” He shrugs, still watching her out of the corner of his eye (and his strange reaction leaves her grounded to the moment, the flashes she longs for temporarily scared away).

With a sigh, Lois stops in the middle of the sidewalk so she can turn and face him head-on. “All right,” she says. “What is it?”

“What is what?”

“Your little innocent act doesn’t work on me anymore, Jimmy, you know that. I can tell there’s something you want to say.”

He stalls a minute more before finally caving, holding up his hands in front of him as if to hold her back. “All right, well, it’s just… CK really likes you, Lois. Like, really, really likes you. And I know you and I have known each other longer, and the last thing I want to do is make you think I’m picking sides, but…I guess I’m just a little worried about him. About both of you. I don’t want either one of you getting hurt.”

Absurdly (because she is going to hurt Clark, already knows it, knew it before she ever even opened this door in the first place), she feels deeply offended. And hurt. And so incredibly, horribly guilty. She wraps her hands tighter in the strap of her purse, so tightly she wonders if there will be bruises ringing her wrists and knuckles, and takes a deep break.

“Listen, Jimmy, relationships don’t always work out. But Clark and I both decided to try this out and see what happens. And it’s…it’s good, all right? We’re both okay, we’re both still here.” She smiles at Jimmy, because she knows this is what really worries him (this kid too young, too alone, with no parents that she’s heard him talk about yet; though Clark, she thinks, probably knows his entire life story by now). “And even if it doesn’t work out, we’ll still be okay.”

His smile is shaky, unsure (not comforted or convinced at all, and why did her source ever think she was the one to do this if she is such an unconvincing actress?). “Right. But, Lois…I don’t think CK has ever even thought about your relationship not working out. I don’t think he’ll be—”

“I know,” she rasps. Another bright smile (eventually, they will be all that is left of her, and therefore, at least somewhat real). “Trust me, Jimmy, I didn’t agree to this lightly, okay?” When he winces and looks away, she adds, “You’re a good friend. Thanks for worrying about us.”

He’s diverted immediately, blushing at the compliment even as he stands a bit straighter. It’s a nice look on him, enough to distract her from her own worries until they reach the Daily Planet.

Perry’s already there, standing still and silent as he surveys the cracked shell of their beloved paper.

“Hey, Chief!” Jimmy calls out, grinning and alight, concern set aside in favor of excitement (and Lois wishes it were that easy for her, too). “And hey, I can finally call you that again!”

Laughing, Perry slings his arm around Jimmy for the briefest moment, in a move that looks like a hug (and that must feel like one, too, if Jimmy’s radiant expression is anything to go by). “Don’t call me, Chief, kid,” he says gruffly, then ruins it by laughing again.

“Great job getting Stern onboard,” Lois says. Because she needs to say something. Because she wants to be a part of this moment, all happiness and relief and victory (and she is numb and disillusioned, severed from their glee; as if she has become as much a phantom as other-Lois). “I was afraid there for a while that the Planet was done for.”

“She was beaten for a little bit, but it’d take more than a criminal owner and a little fire to keep her down for good.” Perry smirks down at her, daring her to call him out on his almost-retirement and near-move to Florida.

(Do you know? she wants to ask him. Can you tell how broken I am inside? Can you see the lies eating me up from the inside out? Can you help me?)

“How could I have ever doubted?” she teases, and scrounges up another bright (fake) smile.

Perry turns to Jimmy (distracted by something new, and blinded by a dream come true, and she’s never seen the similarities between him and her so clearly). Lois is left for a moment to stare up at the hollow façade of her favorite place on Earth. The place she belongs—more her home than her apartment or any of the places she’d ever lived with her family. She still clearly, sharply remembers the first time she walked through those doors, weeks away from her graduation, armed with a story, determination, and so much idealistic hope. She remembers Perry, his distractibility fading into interest and calculation as she talked. She remembers the feel of his hand on hers as he shook it, the smell of ink and coffee, the sense of belonging when she sat at her tiny desk, shoved into some forgotten corner.

So many memories, so much history, and yet, looking up at the building now, with the sheet billowing out over the remade globe, the moments that seem the most pivotal, the most monumental…all center around Clark.

Hardly noticing him as she barged into Perry’s office. The first time he effortlessly followed her quick pace, the smile he hid from her until she was ready to realize he was laughing with her rather than at her. His desk placed just so, precisely where he could look over at her (where she could always see him, just out of the corner of her eye; just that little bit out of focus). The coffee he brought her, always the perfect temperature, and his hand on her back, and his laughter inviting hers.

(A ring placed in a desk drawer and a banner welcoming them back. Signs pairing their names and pictures showing them side by side. Kisses shared in the janitor’s closet and the conference room and out in the open. Cheers from a group of their friends, including an older Perry and Jimmy, shouting Surprise! for a husband who’s disappeared in a blur of red and blue.)

She’s always belonged at the Planet, but she thinks she’s only been completely happy there since Clark arrived, as if some piece of her had just been waiting, all along, for him, until it could ease and unfurl and slide into place. Homes can be lonely and cold and sterile, even when you belong, but Clark makes it warm and bright and happy.

And for the first time (now accepting and believing that the Planet is actually coming back, that it is not dead and gone forever), Lois starts to wonder how much is going to change. Once she breaks Clark’s heart—once she cements Superman’s place in history—what will be left at the Planet? Clark Kent will still exist, she’s been promised that, but he will be secondary to Superman. Will he still work at the Planet? Even if he does, there will be no more coffee or friendly wagers or easy partnership or undercover nights. There will only be hurt and coldness and silence, and maybe he will even leave (she doesn’t know, hadn’t thought to ask because she hadn’t dared think she’d ever be back here again). And she wonders, numbly, if it will still be home at all.

“Lois!”

She turns, slowly, almost dreamlike, to see Clark coming toward her, relief scrawled all across his features. His glasses reflect the light in a scattering of prisms, his tie barely matches his suit, and his face is open and trusting even through the confusion and relief. He’s beautiful, even more so than Superman because he could be so many things, terrible and awesome and frightening, and this is who he is. He’s beautiful…and unattainable.

(Hadn’t she known that? Doesn’t she know, yet, that her place is merely to write about wonderful things, not to own them for herself? The reporter does not become the story, and even though it is Clark Kent jogging toward her, it is Superman who is the biggest story there has ever been.)

“You’ll have to give Superman up,” her source had warned her when she finally agreed to his plan, after days of convincing. “And you’ll have to forget about Lex Luthor—he’s not important anymore. But overall, I can promise you that the sacrifices you make will be worth it. It will, after all, save world and make the future a…well, a utopia.”

Lex Luthor. Superman. These are sacrifices she can endure. One is easily shrugged aside (grand romantic gestures more easily dismissed than her rage at the knowledge that Lex blew up the Planet), the other hurts, but she will survive them both.

But there’s something her source had neglected to mention, something more important than any of the rest of it: that she will lose Clark Kent, too (partnership and friendship and now so much more), and this is the sacrifice that she thinks will destroy her.

“Lois, are you all right?” Clark steps close, radiating heat and affection both, and runs his hands down her arm. She wouldn’t be surprised to find out that his sweeping gaze is actually him x-raying her for hidden damage; he’s trying to conceal it, but she can see fear and worry still in his gaze, no longer hidden by his glasses now that he stands so close she can see past the reflections. “I thought we were going to have breakfast.”

This isn’t about you, she reminds herself harshly. This is about Superman, and the world, and the future. She can’t afford to be distracted anymore with what she wants, only with what is best. And, she thinks, if Clark knew everything (and he can’t, that has been stressed to her above all), he would know (even if he could never admit) that this is the right thing to do.

“Sorry, Clark,” she says with a casual shrug. “Must have slipped my mind.”

His hands fall away from hers as he takes a step back. “What?” He shakes his head, his brow creased. “We talked about it just last night. I waited for you for almost an hour. I thought you were hur—” Sharply, he breaks off and looks away, his jaw clenching.

And there it is. He’s worried about her. Distraught, leaping to paranoid conclusions, waiting on her instead of doing any of the hundreds of other things Superman should be doing.

Distracted.

Just as her source had warned her.

She adds steel to her heart, to her spine, to her voice. “I’ve had a lot on my mind, Clark,” she says sharply. “The Daily Planet is going to be open for business again, and that means I’ve got to make sure we have stories to put on the front page. I’m sorry if you had to eat breakfast alone, but you don’t have to make such a big deal about it. It’s fine.”

It’s quick, short, the smallest flash of hurt gleaming there in his eyes before he blinks it away, but the aftermath lingers, aching like a bruise on her heart. “I’m not trying to…” He huffs out a breath and reaches for her hand. She turns, pretending she did not see, and lets his hand drop back, empty, to his side. “I was just worried about you.”

It’s impossible to look at him, so she rolls her eyes, stares up at the veiled globe. “Really, I’d think that after all the times you’ve disappeared on me, you’d be the last person to criticize one missed breakfast.”

And she knows that this time, his hurt will be harder to conceal, more difficult to wrap his arms around and wrestle into submission, lock it away in a cavernous box, veil it behind curtains he does not realize are so sheer they might as well be translucent. But she does not look, because she does not need to see it (does not need it etched into her mind to torture her for the rest of her life).

She told him she was giving them a chance. She didn’t tell him it was a dead one, already a ghost—just like her. And she cannot blame him for not knowing that. She cannot hate him for making her play this entire twisted story out to its bitter end.

“Lois, Clark!” Perry’s voice interrupts them, a loud noise that piles up on top of all the other noises to drive those spikes deeper into her skull. If Clark weren’t still so close, she’d reach into her purse and try one of those pills the doctor gave her right now. “Stern’s here!”

Clark turns to face the arriving car, carefully positioned so that she cannot see his expression. Lois stares straight ahead (watches him out of the corner of her eye; she certainly has enough practice with that), and smiles at Stern, and laughs with Jimmy and Perry, and claps when the sheet is ripped away to reveal the rebuilt bones of her home, and feels Clark. Steady. Warm. Right behind her (never leaving her side, even as he always has his face tilted away from her).

“Lois,” he whispers, softly, when everyone begins dispersing. “I’m sorry.”

A god brought to his knees. A good man driven to unnecessary apologies. Clark looking at her as if he can see her slipping away, and thinking it is all his own fault.

And she wonders how anything can ever be worth this.

Chapter Text

It’s a missed breakfast one day, then a date where she’s late to meet him, then a few times she doesn’t call him back, and it’s fine, really. She’s right, after all—if anyone knows about not being there when someone needs him, it’s Clark. He’s been letting friends down and backing out of appointments and missing meetings with sources for a decade. He always has a good reason, too, and he knows Lois does too (he knows she does, she has to, even if he’s not quite sure, yet, what it is). And he doesn’t own Lois, would never presume to think that he could, or should, tie her down (can hardly try to force her to stay with him when she’s never stopped him from leaving, no matter how lame his excuse). So it’s fine that she doesn’t call him back, that she acts distracted during dinner, that she doesn’t stay to finish watching the whole movie with him. That her kisses are quick and perfunctory, her hugs short and to the point, her hand more often wound through the strap of her purse than holding his.

They’re busy. The Daily Planet is open once again, this place that took a chance on him and gave him a place to belong for the first time since he left the Kansas plains, and he is investigating and writing and making a difference. It’s addictive, and he can only imagine how magnified that feeling of satisfaction must be for Lois, who does not have superhero-ing as an outlet and who has been doing this for so much longer than him. Besides, all couples go through rough patches (his parents have assured him of this, and counseled him to patience and understanding). Things will smooth out eventually, he is sure, whether because the novelty will wear off or because they will find a new routine whenever Perry partners them up once again.

But for now, Perry is on fire with the need to show the world that the number one newspaper in the business is still as big and as buyable as ever, and Lois is blazingly brilliant as she pulls in story after story (but never types a single word about Luthor’s trial, as if completely oblivious to the raging media circus surrounding the courthouse). And Clark is both a reporter himself and Superman; he knows what it is to be caught up in the greater good, to be swept away trying to do the right thing. Lois’s zeal and determination is part of what makes him love her, so he makes himself smile and nod every time she excuses herself or reschedules or walks away before he can kiss her (she’s beautiful, after all, when she’s on the hunt for a story that will change the world, and it is what first caught his attention and captured his heart).

But then she ducks into the elevator even after he knows she heard him calling after her. And when she gets back to the newsroom, she only shrugs instead of giving an excuse when she has to cancel a date. And she turns her face when he bends to kiss her, so that his lips land on her cheek rather than her mouth.

And all of the fears and the reservations he talked himself out of and excused and justified when she came to his apartment that night, blinking back tears while her heart shook like a jackhammer in her chest, come roaring back in. He spends the entire night pacing his ceiling and then patrolling the city while drowning in all the ways she is slipping away from him, all the reasons why he is not enough for her, all the desperate (foolhardy) things he can do to win her heart before she gives up on him (on them) completely.

When Luthor destroyed the Daily Planet, he took away the one really solid thing in Lois’s life, the foundation she stood upon and the label she used to define herself. Clark had watched her cling to Luthor in its place, had been there when she tried to grab for Superman (but he was too proud, too aloof, too caught up in impossible dreams, and so he soared too high for her to reach, and it’s really only bitter irony now that he is the one left falling in the cold), and yet left both behind when one pushed too far too fast and the other turned his back on her. And so all that was left for her to cling to, he realizes in that rim of sky that bridges the atmosphere and the earth below, was Clark himself. Her partner, who reminded her of days when she had a noble purpose and an all-consuming drive.

But now that purpose is back, and Clark…well, he’s still just the ordinary man, left behind in the dust, not exciting enough to compete with anything the fast-paced world has to offer. Good enough when there is nothing better, when she is lost and confused, and easily left behind when better things come calling.

And it’s not like he can even complain about it (not unless he wants to turn into an even bigger hypocrite than he already is). How long has he dreamed of being ordinary and how hard has he worked to appear normal? How many times has he left Lois behind, alone, while he dashes off to serve his own higher calling? How often did he warn himself that this chance for more between them was flawed, that it was happening in the wrong way and at the wrong time…that it would probably only lead to disappointment?

It’s his own fault, for daring to dream about things that can never be his.

And still, he cannot help but dream. Because maybe Lois has been late to dinner, but she still came. Because maybe she did not call him back, but she still does smile when she first sees him, nearly every single time (as if the sight of him makes her happy, almost instinctively). Because her hand does not reach for his anymore, but when he takes hers, she does not flinch away, but squeezes back, tightly.

There’s still a chance (slighter than the first, shrinking rapidly, maybe, but there, and as long as there is even the glimmering of hope, he will take it). She still cares for him, at least a little.

So the next day, he waits until it’s almost dinner time, until her phone is silent, until she is slowing down in that way she does when she has nothing else to work on. Then he approaches her, as casually as he can bring himself to move, a fixed smile on his lips. (He feels as if he is slipping backward in time, regressing to those days when he so much wanted to be close to her, to have her looking at him and talking to him, but was so careful not to crowd her or intimidate her or, worst of all, give her the idea that he might want to be more than a friend to her.)

“Working on any big stories tonight?” he asks her carefully, perching on the edge of her desk (he’s not quite sure he should, not quite sure she will welcome it, but he cannot bring himself to act tentative around her; he cannot bear to take any more steps back of his own free will lest he never be allowed to gain that ground back).

She frowns at her screen, as if it is demanding all her concentration. Clark does not look at it (he is afraid that it will be blank, nothing more than an excuse for her to avoid his eyes). “I won’t be getting those employee histories until tomorrow, so I guess not. This is why job efficiency is so important, Clark—if someone had done their job and kept better records, I could have this story sitting in Perry’s inbox already.”

“Good to know.” He chuckles, relaxing a little, and lets himself give a pointed look to her own scattered filing system. “Always lead by example, huh, Lois?”

Her laugh is quick, almost surprised, and he counts it as a victory (despite the way she bites her lip immediately afterward). He can’t help but grin down at her, and is encouraged when she finally looks up and meets his gaze. Her eyes are dark and luminous in the bullpen lighting (just as they were that night he brought her Chinese and looked at her and knew he could love her if she’d only let him), heavy with intensity but guarded (just as they were that night she looked at him and told him not to fall for her and shrugged him aside after she labeled him so carelessly).

“Clark,” she says softly.

He doesn’t breathe, doesn’t move even an iota. Just watches her, not letting her look away, not allowing this moment, too, to slip away from him. Waits. Hopes.

“Clark, I…” She swallows. Her heart is tapping incessantly at her chest, as if begging to be let out (and Clark hopes that it wants to come to him; that she wants to be with him). “I’m sorry. I just…there’s so much going on, and…”

“I understand,” he murmurs, when it’s clear she’s not going to say anything more. “We’ve been busy, and Perry figures that if he can’t have a nice, easy life in Florida, then none of the rest of us need personal time either.”

Her laugh is breathy and quick, as if prompted out of habit instead of genuine humor. While he was talking, he gaze slipped away from him and is now focused intently on her hands, laying limp and still over her keyboard. “Yeah. Okay, look, Clark, I have to tell you something.” She stands, abruptly, startling him so that he actually moves back a bit. His seat on her desk leaves them almost level, and she is closer to him than she’s let him get in the newsroom in three days.

“What?” he breathes.

The air stirs around him, affected by the force of her inhalation. Warmed by her heavy sigh. Patterned by her reluctant words. “I can’t…I can’t say it here. How about you come by my place tonight? I’ll tell you then.”

“Okay,” he says through the smile curving his lips. “Seven?”

“Uh…yeah. That’s all right. I’ll go pick up some groceries—my treat.” She winces, then, a flush on her cheeks (as if embarrassed, or flustered, and Clark feels his hope grow).

“I’ll be there,” he promises, and finds boldness enough to reach out and stroke a finger along her cheek (remembers doing this before, when she gave him two tickets and he finally let himself believe she wanted this, and maybe he can recapture that same magic now). Her eyes flutter shut at the caress, and he thinks she almost smiles.

She cares. He can still affect her. It’s enough (for now).

It’s a short moment, transient and fleeting, but it happened, and Clark holds it close as he watches her walk away, watches the elevator descend through the floors, watches her slip outside into darkening streets. Belatedly, he realizes what he’s doing and quickly turns, blinking away the sight of sky and street and focusing instead on his desk and computer. But he can’t concentrate, and he ends up shutting everything down for the evening. He’s just deliberating on whether he should bring some wine or flowers when he hears the crash of metal and plastic, the screams and blaring car horns, the yells for Superman.

When he leaves the Planet, he uses the window instead of the elevator.

 

By the time he finally jogs up the stairs to Lois’s apartment and knocks on her door, it’s almost eight, and the smell of gasoline and blood lingers on his skin, though he hopes the moisture in the clouds above the city dampened it enough for Lois not to smell anything out of the ordinary (because even now, with it all slipping away from him, heaven forbid that Clark be anything but ordinary).

“Clark,” Lois says when she opens the door.

“I’m sorry,” he blurts immediately, the words already prepared to march out into open air before he ever even left the scene of the massive pile-up. “Something came up before I left the Planet, and I couldn’t get away. I really—”

“It’s fine,” she interrupts him, her tone short, and Clark blinks when he actually registers what she looks like.

She looks tired. She looks in pain. Slumped against the door, dressed in a baggy sweater and sweat pants, lines of tension around her eyes and mouth. When she brings up a hand to run back through her hair, it shakes.

“Lois, are you all right?” He steps forward, one hand around her shoulders to steady her, the other lifting to run his fingers along her temples, gauging her temperature.

“I’m fine, just…just a headache.” She winces, then, and makes a tiny noise in the back of her throat, almost like a whimper.

Clark forgets everything (the fear and the confusion and the hurt; the curiosity and the terror about whatever she wanted to tell him; the guilt that he’s let her down once again) except her. She feels so small in his arms, and it always takes him aback, that someone with so much force of personality can be so tiny, so fragile. He knows she would probably hate it, but he feels a surge of protectiveness build up in him as he shuts the door behind him and moves to help her to the sofa.

“I’m fine,” she says again, and means to say more but doesn’t because she brings up a hand to her head and her knees buckle. Clark sweeps her up and changes his direction, heading for the bedroom (ignoring everything about the connotations of that, because she needs a caretaker more than a boyfriend right now). “I’ve been getting migraines lately, but I took a pill. It’s supposed to help.”

The lights are off, a single lamp Lois’s only concession to needing to see where she’s going. The apartment is warm, though, and Clark turns his face away from Lois to let out a hint of cooler air. It sweeps through the apartment, lending a chill to the air, and almost immediately, Lois eases a bit in his arms.

“My dad gets migraines sometimes, after he’s been out in the fields all day.” Clark carefully keeps his tone soft, his words slow, lulling and soothing, nothing loud or fast. “He has pills, too, but they take a while to kick in. How long ago did you take yours?”

“When I got home.” Lois lets her head loll back a bit so she can look up at him. “They’re not usually quite this bad, but I…” She blinks, then, and Clark catches the shimmer of a tear sliding down into her hair. “I just needed something good, so I… It doesn’t matter, obviously it was a bad idea.”

He frowns, and bends to lay her gently on the bed, kneeling at her side so that he can keep her head propped up. “You know what causes them?”

Her hands clench in his shirt, one bunched around his loose tie too. She stares at them as if they are more entrancing than mere fabric should be. “I think so. A bit at least. I’ve been seeing a doctor about them.”

It’s the wrong time for it (but it helps distract her from the tiny bits of heat-vision he is playing out along her temples, back over the sides of her skull, sweeping hints of warmth to counter the coolness keeping her from getting too nauseous), but he can’t help but say, “I…I didn’t know. How long have you been—”

“I didn’t want you to know.” She looks sharply up at him, then grimaces again and falls motionless, her face going green. Clark lets out a tiny sigh of cool breath again, moves a hand to cup the back of her skull so his fingers can gently massage her head. The lines around her mouth loosen, and eventually her eyes flutter open so she can look up at him again. “You know I hate looking…weak. I didn’t want you to know because I didn’t want you to worry.”

“Good call,” he teases. “I’m definitely not worried at all now.”

Her chuckle is light and almost inaudible, but it does make him relax just a bit.

“I’m sorry I wasn’t here earlier,” he whispers. He scoots a bit closer to the side of the bed, presses his chest against her side to help warm her. His dad always claims the coolness helps ease the nausea, but he chills, too, and Clark wants to try to mitigate that as much as he can.

“It’s okay,” Lois murmurs, her words slurring as she drapes her head against his shoulder, pressing back against his gentle fingers. “I’m used to it.”

That stings, sharp and sudden, burrowing in deep to lodge itself in his heart, a prick that burns with each breath, each beat of his heart. He’s glad for the darkness in the room, the exhaustion weighting Lois’s eyes closed, the care this judicious use of his powers requires that helps him stay where he is rather than recoiling as he wishes to do.

“I’m sorry,” he whispers again, the words muffled against her hair as he presses his lips against her aching skull. “I don’t mean to hurt you.”

“Me neither.” Lois’s statement startles him, both because he thought she was nearly asleep and because he doesn’t think she heard him correctly (or maybe he chooses to believe that, because he doesn’t want to have to consider what she means if she’s telling him she knows she’s hurting him, is going to hurt him). Her hands tug at his shirt, trying to draw him closer to her side. Clark hesitates only briefly (but he needs this, closeness and trust and her seeking his proximity, wanting his presence) before he lifts her again and moves so that he can lay down beside her. She rolls into him as smoothly as if they’ve done this a thousand times, as if she is intimately familiar with the angles of his chest and the crook of his elbow, the curve of his neck. When her head rests on his chest, when his hand falls over her spine and his free hand moves to continue massaging her skull, she lets out a deep sigh.

“Clark,” she sighs, a noise halfway between a whine and a cry. “Don’t hate me.”

“I don’t,” he reassures her. He wishes he could help her, that he could take this pain away from her. His dad had told him and his mom once that when the migraine is at its worst, it makes him careless of anything but the pain, heedless of anything but the nausea (makes him say and think things he might not any time else). “I could never hate you, Lois.”

Her huff skitters across the exposed skin of his neck, a tickling caress. “You shouldn’t say that—you know I can’t resist a challenge.”

He smiles against her hair, moves so she can feel it against her brow, a quick tactile smile before he moves away so the heat won’t build up again and make her headache worse. “Why would you want to beat a challenge like that?”

She tenses against him, and Clark wishes he could take the words back (perhaps it’s not such a good idea to tease her when she’s so vulnerable). Carefully, slowly, he lets himself float an inch above the mattress, lets her weight sink against his chest and his hand, lightening the pressure on her bones and hopefully on her skull.

“I don’t want to,” she says, soberly. “But sometimes I think I can’t help it. You’re so good, Clark, and I can’t get in the way of that.”

“You would never,” he vows. “Truthfully…” He pauses, hesitant to say more (to risk more, to put even more of his heart on the line when things seem so dubious already). But she is lying against him, completely dependent on him, and afraid and hurting, and he wants to be honest with her (more than anything; with everything), so he finishes the thought. “Truthfully, Lois, you make me so much better. It’s hard to know what to do, sometimes, but you have such a clear-eyed way of looking at the world, that it makes things so much clearer for me. I know you think you’re cynical and jaded, but I think you’re idealistic—I think you believe in the best of things—and that makes me want to live up to those ideals.”

He thinks of Superman’s first days. The quotes she’d suggested for him (truth and justice, such noble ideals, so much higher than he might have dared to offer himself), the casual way she’d assumed the best of him (no cheating at poker, no using his x-ray vision immorally, no bending the law), the hurt she felt on his behalf when Luthor was testing his powers (the way she’d worried it would drive Superman, and the words she spoke to bring the hero back). So many ways she made him better, and that was just as his made-up alter ego. As Clark, she made him better and stronger and nobler every day—every time she looked at him with a smile and he wanted to earn more. Every time she gave him one of her casual, back-handed, but sincere compliments to his writing that made him work twice as hard to write a better story. The kisses that threatened to take away all his control but also offered him a world he’d never thought (hoped, yes, but never been convinced) could be his.

“I wish this was real,” she finally murmurs, and Clark shivers when her lips ghost against the skin under his jaw. “I wish…I wish you could really be mine.”

“I am yours, Lois Lane,” he exclaims in a hushed whisper. His fingers tighten over her back; he can feel his heart pounding against his chest, clamoring to be even closer to hers.

She smiles against his throat, and then she lets out a deep sigh, and her eyes flutter closed, her lashes butterfly-kissing his skin. Her body relaxes completely against him as she slips into sleep, her hands still fisted in his shirt, keeping him near.

“I am yours,” he says again into the dark room. “I just wish I could be sure you were mine, too.”

Chapter Text

When she wakes, with Clark wrapped around her, her body soaking up his warmth, the smell of sky and coffee filling the room, she thinks she’s in one of her flashes of might-have-been. They’ve never been this vivid, never involved the sense of smell and taste as well as sight and sound, but she doesn’t care. How many times has she blinked away images of her other-self blissfully entwined with Clark, so safe and secure and happy? How many times has Lois herself had to fall into an empty bed and wake from nightmares of her Clark looking at her with hurt and rejection that morphs into anger and dismissal?

Too many times. (Once is far too many.)

But this, here, feels real, and it is even better than she imagined, and so she lets herself lay there. Lets her body sink even farther into his hold. Lets her eyes drift open (slowly, lest this all fade) and move upward until she can see Clark. He’s asleep, his breaths lightly feathering against the flyaway hairs at her temples, his arms solid around her. Her headache is gone, and she feels…loved…and she doesn’t think she will ever move again.

This is better than the flashes. This can’t be blinked away, or ignored. This is real.

Real.

It’s real.

Her gasp wakes him, and Clark stirs, turns slightly, nuzzling his nose into her hair. His hand splays out against her spine, one of his fingers sweeping against skin where her sweater has ridden up; Lois’s eyes flutter as she tries not to sink back into the overwhelming sensation. She can’t breathe. She can’t move. She thought this was a vision, but it’s not, and that means…

That means she’s made a terrible mistake.

She remembers now, the soft, vulnerable look etched in his silvery eyes at the Planet. The words crowding her tongue (confessions; lies; both of them right there, ready to be released, and she still doesn’t know which she would have given him if things had turned out differently), blocked and stifled so that she could only stammer and flail. The visions she hadn’t been able to turn away while the groceries sat unheeded on the counter (images of Clark kneeling in front of her and her hand sweeping away his glasses; of her opening her door to find Clark there with a Christmas present, and them standing at the window, her head on his shoulder). Trying to find her journal so she could write them down, then the migraine, hitting her all at once. And Clark—at the door, apologizing, helping, touching her, offering her everything, holding her, so sweet and kind and warm and everything she wished he wasn’t (only because it would be easier on her, and no, actually, she didn’t want him to be different, she wanted him to be as perfect as he is, and that’s exactly what has her in this whole mess, isn’t it?).

“Good morning,” Clark says when he finally pulls back enough to meet her eyes. His voice is raspy, husky with sleep. His lips are curved up in the beginnings of a smile. His fingers are tracing entrancing patterns along her spine.

Good morning instead of their usual exchanged good nights, and it’s just as good—no, even better. Better all on its own, and too much to comprehend if it’s combined with a good night before it and after it and a good morning after that.

It’s too much. It’s all wrong.

(It’s everything she wants. It’s not enough.)

Swallowing back a lump, she forces an awkward smile. “Clark. What…?”

It’s the only way she knows to extricate herself from this mess, pretending that she doesn’t remember what happened. It’s actually a pretty clear, simple solution. But it hurts when Clark’s smile is lost to uncertainty and he pulls his hands back to safer (less hypnotizing) territory.

“I…sorry,” he offers, tentatively. “You had a headache last night. I…I was—it was only—”

“Thank you,” she cuts him off, hating to see him flounder. She sits up, exaggerating her awkwardness, pretending to embarrassment. “I’m sure I would have been fine, but…anyway.”

“Yeah.” There’s a wealth of disappointment in that one word.

Lois squeezes her eyes shut as he sits up, stands from the bed, talking about breakfast and shoes and work. For just that moment, while he is distracted by his own uneasiness, she lets herself imagine what would have happened if they were here for real reasons, if she’d been telling the truth all this time and decided to finally give Clark a chance.

She’d wake in his arms, and instead of a lump of guilt in the pit of her stomach, she would have had to quell fluttering butterflies. When he woke and curled tighter around her, she’d have let her hand cover his, would have looked up and smiled at him. When he said his good morning, she would have returned it and then she wouldn’t have been able to resist reaching up to kiss him, never mind morning breath and bedhead. That finger on her bare skin would have been only the start. His smile wouldn’t be gone. He’d be happy and comfortable, laughing and confident. He’d look at her and know that she loved him as he deserved. She’d look at him and know she didn’t deserve him, but she’d still try, anyway, and still keep him no matter what.

It’s oh so tempting, to slip into a self-made vision, but she can’t because now, here, in the real world, Clark is standing at the door of her bedroom, hesitating, waiting for an answer, lines of tension crimping his normally easy expression. He asked if she wants him to make her breakfast before they head to work. He’s trying, still, when she gives him nothing to work with.

And the fantasy is just that—ephemeral and fleeting and useless because it will never happen. So she does what she’s become so good at, and blinks it away (but this is worse, so much worse, than blinking away the other visions, because those are impossible but this one could so easily be), and cuts him down. Again.

“No,” she says, her own sleep-roughened voice lending her an annoyed tone. “You don’t have to do that. You have to go all the way back to your place and change before we have to be at the Planet, anyway, and I have stuff to get done.”

Unexpectedly, Clark lets out a heavy sigh. “Lois, stop,” he says (and another chink is added to her cracked and bleeding heart at the sound of exhaustion in his voice). “Why are you doing this? I don’t understand what’s wrong, but I do know you’re trying to push me away.”

“Really?” she snaps (and it’s easy, so easy, because she’s hurting and about to shatter into a million pieces, and he’s making this so hard, why won’t he just give up on her already?). “I’m the one who’s not committing? Me? If I remember correctly, I’m the one who was here on time yesterday—you’re the one who didn’t bother to show up until an hour after you were supposed to get here!”

The words are out before she can stop them. She winces, already averting her eyes so she doesn’t have to see Clark’s realization that she does remember what happened last night.

He’s silent for a beat before saying, “I’m sorry I was late, but… What’s happening, Lois? What are you thinking? What are you feeling? I can’t fix things if I don’t know what’s wrong.”

“Nothing’s wrong!” She stands up to even the field between them a bit (only belatedly realizing she didn’t have any covers on, that it was all Clark keeping her so warm all night). “I don’t understand why you’re acting like this, Clark. Of course I can’t spend as much time with you now that I’m working again, but I’d think you’d be happy we have the Planet back instead of acting like a spoiled child who’s not getting enough attention.”

For the first time, she doesn’t see hurt in his eyes (she knows it’s there, though, carefully masked and hidden away). Instead, anger flashes there as his shoulders broaden. “I am happy the Planet is back—I’m happy that you get to do what you love. I guess I’m just wondering if I was only ever a priority because you didn’t have anything better to do at the time. I’m wondering if you need—or want—me at all now that you have the Planet back. Was I just a distraction? Did you ever mean this chance for more?”

She can’t say anything. She literally cannot say anything. Her voice isn’t working, her throat too tight, her tongue dull and heavy in her mouth, her jaw locked tight. She only stares at him (and she was so wrong; he is hurt, wounded and bleeding out in front of her), and wishes she could wake up from this nightmare.

Unfortunately, Clark seems to read this as confirmation. He recoils as if slapped, his hands tightening into fists. Then he’s giving a short, tight nod and turning, hiding his face from her, trying to get out of there before he breaks completely.

“Right. I guess I’ll see you at work, huh?”

“Clark, wait!” Her hands are raised toward him, without her permission, the plea falling into the suffocating room without her knowledge (her entire body mutinying against her, desperate to keep him here, with her).

His form is rigid with tension, but he stops at her voice. Stands there in the middle of her living room. Poised, waiting, not breathing at all.

“I…” She hadn’t meant to call him back, to stop him (this is what she’s been working for this entire time, isn’t it, to have him walk away from her and devote himself to much more worthwhile pursuits). But her source did tell her to make certain the break was as final as she could make it (“Closure,” he’d said, “is important if he’s going to be able to turn the page on this short chapter of his life.”), so she quickly says, “I do have something to tell you. Tonight, okay? We do have to go to work, but I will tell you what’s going on. I promise.”

They’re lies, but maybe they don’t have to be. Maybe she can finally tell him the truth. Maybe there is another way.

Slowly, tentatively, Clark turns and searches her face, looking for something (she hopes he finds it, even if she knows it would be better if he doesn’t). Finally, he nods. “All right. After work?”

“Yeah.”

And she means it. Tonight, one way or the other, this whole farce will be over and done with.

 


 

Six hours later, she’s in her apartment again (after dodging Clark all day and sneaking out of the newsroom while he was out) and waiting for a man to show up. She’s breathless with anticipation and strung tight with nerves and ready to end this once and for all. She promised Clark she would, and she will. This has gone on too long already, and no matter what she saw, no matter what her source showed her and told her and revealed to her, Clark is worth more. Than anything. Than everything. Than the future and a world she’ll never see and he’ll never know could have existed.

It’s selfish (it’s selfless, though, too, in a way), but she will give up the world if it means Clark’s wounded eyes are transformed into joyful smiles. Maybe it’s wrong, maybe it’s short-sighted, but well, she’s human, isn’t she? She’s not Superman, and has no legacy to live up to, and if there is anything Lois Lane believes in, it is independence and the right for everyone to make their own mistakes. So if this is hers (and she doesn’t think it is; cannot believe that this is the mistake when everything leading up to this moment has been what is tearing her apart), then she will make it and live with whatever regrets might eventually come her way.

She waits, and waits, and waits, and lets the time do nothing but build up her resolve. She’s been committed to this plan for weeks now, has devoted her all to it, and it’s been wrong. Now, finally, she will turn her resolve to something better, more worthy, and that means she can’t let any doubts get in her way. No matter what he says, she will stay firm. She will not back down.

So when she opens the door to her source’s short, one-note knock, when he steps into her apartment with that neutral look of his frozen over his creased features, she is ready.

“I’m not doing this anymore,” she says without preamble. “I know what you showed me. I know what’s at stake. But I don’t care. Superman is a symbol of hope. He’s proof that the impossible can happen, that there’s always another, better way. So I’m going to try to hope, and we’ll find another way, no matter how impossible it seems.”

He regards her, unblinking and unsurprised. Not dismayed, not shocked, and definitely (unfortunately) not won over. Finally, he lets out a heavy sigh and raises his hand to pinch the bridge of his nose. “Lois, Lois, Lois.” Even his voice sounds calculated, as planned as his every move. “Even though I knew you were going to do this, I hoped you wouldn’t.”

“You knew?” Instantly, she straightens (she promised herself she wouldn’t let him dissuade or distract her). Ignoring the migraine building up behind her eyes to replace the one Clark soothed away, she fixes an image of Clark’s hurt, bewildered eyes to steel her nerves. “Well, congratulations, you were right—about this. And if you already knew I wouldn’t go through with it, then why did you ever come to me in the first place? Why not pick someone else to do your dirty work?”

He tilts his head at her, and if she didn’t know better (she’s not sure she really does, actually), she’d say he’s impatient. As if he’s already lived through this conversation a hundred times and knows how it will turn out, knows it’s every turn of phrase and argument, and is already tired of it. “You know why. And besides, Lois Lane may doubt herself, and she may falter here and there, but in the end, she will always come through. This is just a bump in the road. You’ll realize that you’re only stalling. I mean, you care for Superman, so of course you don’t want to disappoint him. But you’ll remember what I showed you. The happiness you saw, the fulfillment, the peace that makes it all worthwhile. And when it comes down to it, you will do the right thing.”

He takes a step nearer her, his eyes shadowed, a shaft of light falling across his mouth, emphasizing the words he’s speaking (each word, each insight, falling like a brick, shaking the ground beneath her). His glasses sparkle, dull and silver, so different from Clark’s. “You will do the right thing, Lois Lane, and I know this because Superman will eventually speak very highly of you. And the one thing he will always mention, no matter how many years pass, is your dedication to making the world a better place.” He holds out his arms in a pseudo-shrug and adds, “And if you can’t believe Superman, then who can you trust?”

“He…speaks highly of me,” she repeats, and cannot help the tremulous tone adding a tremble to her voice. He’s shown her a lot of impossible things, this source she never asked for, some of them more than just mind-boggling, nearly incomprehensible, but this revelation seems hardest of all to believe. Because Clark keeps trying, and he keeps flinching, and he has started bracing himself before Lois even opens her mouth (as if he already knows there is no hope). Because all she’s doing is ripping him to shreds, and how can he ever look past her to see anything but disappointment and heartbreak?

(But of course, he’s Clark, and if anyone can possibly be so forgiving, so understanding, it is him.)

“He will not hate you,” her source promises her (a waste of breath she would think, except he has incontrovertibly proved everything he has told her, hasn’t he, always backed up his words with proofs she cannot deny). “I told you this will only be a simple phase. He will come through it stronger and better and nobler—so long as we fix what never should have happened in the first place.”

“Meeting me,” she says (so she doesn’t have to hear him say it yet again), and sinks blindly back onto her sofa. “Loving me.”

“You know it wasn’t supposed to happen,” he reminds her. “And you know it’s time to finish this. No point in dragging it out unnecessarily. Let’s fix this mistake, correct the future, and let Superman be who he was always meant to be.”

She’d been so determined, so resolute that he would not talk her out of her new decision, but she should have known better. How can she refuse to listen to him when he’s taken her through a window that appeared out of nowhere, escorted her through the streets of a utopian Metropolis, showed her the headlines of centuries and pointed out the museum to Superman’s greatness and told her just how much the world owed to the superhero in their midst?

And then told her, gently, sadly, as they sat on a bench in front of a statue of Superman that towered over Centennial Park, that something had gone wrong. A blip. A fluke. A mistake.

She’d burst into Perry White’s office in 1993 when she wasn’t supposed to be there, and interrupted an interview, and seared herself onto Clark Kent’s heart. A distraction from what he was supposed to be focused on. A diversion from what he should be accomplishing. A mistake he would never know he made unless they (her source, a peacekeeper from the future, and her, the person Clark was never supposed to meet) fixed things.

And how can she change her mind now? How can she decide that she knows best, when she’d seen it, as she sat on that bench and listened to her source spell out just how much of an obstacle she was to the superhero she admired—seen the statue waver and shrink, the city around them darken, the headlines alter, all while she’d been listening and looking and realizing just how much she didn’t know?

No. Her source is right. Clark will be all right, one day. He won’t hate her forever. He’ll be fine. She just needs to rip this Band-Aid off as quickly as possible, stop prolonging the whole messy affair. It’s for the best—for the greater good, even, and that’s something she knows Clark would understand (if it was only possible to just explain it to him instead of playing out this whole twisted game). He’s bigger and more important than her, and the future is at stake (and she wants to be known as someone who does the right thing instead of as the mistake that derails the entire legacy of Superman).

Superman will have his future, and she will have her visions of a future, too, albeit one that will never be.

Her source smiles at her, reading her decision on her face as soon as she makes it (and it doesn’t even surprise her anymore, because he knows her so well, knows everything she says and thinks and does before she says it or thinks it or does it). “You know what you have to do, Ms. Lane. Now…be the hero the world will never know it needs.”

A hero. It’s kind of what she’s always wanted to be, isn’t it? Not consciously, maybe, but somewhere buried deep down. She’s wanted to be the best, the brightest, the reporter with the most awards and the most accolades and everything else besides. She’s been attracted to power (to Lex, to Superman, even to Perry, in a different way, attaching herself to the most experienced reporter around) because she wants to be someone who can make a difference. She felt like she knew Superman from the beginning because she already had all the ideals mapped out for the hero she secretly wanted to be.

She wants to be important. She wants to be special. She wants to be needed.

And isn’t it just the world’s greatest irony that just when she has the greatest opportunity to be all those things, she realizes she’s been wrong.

She’d rather be all-important to one person than to the world. She’d rather be special in the eyes of one man than the future. She’d rather be wanted than needed—to be chosen by Clark, not because of an accident, but because he loves her with all of his heart.

Too late. Too late. And she should have known better than to ever let herself think she could ever be anything more. She’s not important at all (except for breaking a good man’s heart). She’s not special (just the side effect of a time traveler inadvertently distracting a security guard so that a crazy scientist got into the bullpen with a good story tip, which made her barge into an interview history says she was never supposed to interrupt). She’s not needed (and by the time she’s done, she won’t, surely, be wanted either).

She’s just Lois Lane. Just a nosy workaholic with nothing but interviews and articles in her future. She’s just…just her, and of course that’s not good enough for Superman.

Her heart beats slow and steady in her chest as she checks herself over in the mirror one last time. Her breathing is even, calm, as she heads over to Clark’s apartment (so she can walk away from him rather than make him be the one to do it). Her mind is numb, shut down to all but the most basic of commands as she knocks at his door. And as she looks at him and lets him invite her (one, last time) into his home, she is, body and soul and future, utterly and completely broken.

Chapter Text

It’s time. This is it, the moment he’s been waiting for his whole life. It has to go perfectly, everything exactly right, because he’s not going to get a do-over or a repeat (or ever find someone else to trust this much). One chance to say it, one opportunity to confide this to the one person who can share this with him, one woman to entrust everything to.

He’s going to tell her.

The truth. The Secret. The fact behind the fear that’s been casting a shadow over him since he first discovered just how different he was (fear that he won’t be accepted; fear that he will be idolized; fear that betrayed anger will blot out everything else).

But this is Lois. He knows she won’t betray him. He knows she will keep his Secret for him, and she will not revile him for being an alien (ha! as if that’s ever been anything Superman’s had to worry about from Lois Lane!), and she will, of course, have to believe him, seeing as how he can fly even with glasses on. The only thing he doesn’t know…is how she will react. How she will look at him once the Secret is revealed. How she will (if she will) talk to him tomorrow.

He wishes he could see the future. That would be a useful power, much more helpful than super-smelling or arctic breath. But then…maybe he doesn’t want to know what will happen. Maybe it is too awful, too heartbreaking; maybe he would prefer to live out his dwindling moments of hope in blissful ignorance.

It doesn’t matter either way, of course. He has to tell her.

“Are you sure?” his dad had asked when Clark joined them for lunch. He’d known since closing Lois’s door behind him this morning that he has to do something (anything, though he is reluctant to admit that to himself; reluctant to face the squirming guilt that maybe this is just the only way open to him to retain some semblance of her love) to keep her from slipping away, but he couldn’t just tell Lois without at least warning his parents. It’s been their Secret even longer than it’s been his.

“You did say she’s been acting more distant,” his mom pointed out, even though she’d smiled when Clark announced his intentions. “Maybe this isn’t the right time.”

They are afraid for him, terrified that there is someone out there who knows who he is (someone Clark still hasn’t been able to find). But this is a different matter entirely, and actually, the fact that he has a stalker means it’s probably even more important he tell Lois. Safer for her if she knows to be on the lookout for someone who may use her to get to him (in both his guises).

“If I wait, I may never get another chance!” he exclaimed. He paced before them, back and forth, a little afraid to let them see the determination, the impatience (the panic that has nothing to do with the threat they’re thinking of) in his eyes. “She won’t tell me what’s going on, and this morning I realized…how can I expect her to tell me her secrets if I can’t tell her mine?” And then he did look at them, struck by the truth behind his own words. “I love her. She’s afraid of commitment, and I think I am too, in a way, but…but I love her. And I think—I hope—she loves me too.”

And (though he didn’t admit this to his parents) he knows that he has to tell her eventually. She is a part of his life forever, has been since he first caught sight of her and was swept up in her orbit. She is written into the very molecules of his being, wrapped around the chambers of his heart, flavored in every breath he takes. He is hers, and one day, no matter the circumstances, she will know his Secret. What better time to tell her, then, than now, when it is because he chooses to trust her?

So here he is, fiddling with the sleeves of his light blue shirt and wondering if he should dress up, dress down (dress as Superman). Listening for Lois’s arrival. Carefully measuring his breaths, in and out, in and out, gently lest he knock over the lamp with a worried sigh again.

He’s always dreamed of telling one special woman his Secret. He imagined candlelight and music, terror lodged in his throat and hope beating in his chest. Shock and surprise turning to acceptance and smiles. Kisses. Hugs. Belonging.

Then he chose to become Superman, and the dreams changed (because he met Lois or because the world is different, or are they the same thing, intrinsically tied up one in another?). Then all the specifics had gone hazy and unclear, unimportant. All that had been crystal clear was his hand (unsteady and purposely) pulling his glasses off his face. And Lois—it is always her, across from him, staring at him.

And that’s where the dream always ends.

Tonight, finally, he will find out how reality continues on from that instant. And tomorrow…tomorrow, he’ll never have to imagine this again. He’ll never have to dream about it, or wonder about what-ifs, or stop himself from imagining it too full of clichés and happily-ever-afters. Tomorrow, it will all be over: the fear, and the lies, and the stupid excuses, and the disappointment in her eyes, and the painful things he has to do to keep up the charade of being two people.

Clark has to stop in mid-step, then, has to hold his breath completely and fold his arms over his chest to keep himself in one piece (in one place).

He’s never been more terrified in his life. Flying out in the open, for the first time, dressed in the Superman Suit, was nothing compared to this. Facing Trask while his parents were tied up and he was wracked with pain is only a dim thought compared to what he’s about to do. Only the possibility of Lois marrying Luthor comes anything close to the absolute terror rampaging through him now.

All his life, ever since he first started running so fast and hearing so well and seeing through walls, he has been frightened of people looking at him. For years, he has shrunk away from attention, learned to be a master of distraction, and become used to fleeing ahead of suspicion. He has never actually planned on telling anyone real that he is Superman. That he’s an alien. That he’s different.

Even his dreams have always been just that—abstract dreams. Not real. Nothing more than imagination and fiction.

But he can’t rely on those anymore. He has to take a chance (on Lois, the woman who took a chance on Superman in her first article about him; who is taking a chance on Clark).

Her knock on his door startles him so badly his breath leaves his lungs in a whoosh and he has to blur across the living room to save the lamp (again). For just an instant (a shameful, childish instant), he thinks about just ignoring the knock. Rushing out of the apartment and pretending like he’s not home.

But, no. He wants this. Really, he does.

He does.

Swallowing hard, Clark takes the steps up to his landing one at a time, reaches for the doorknob, pulls the door open.

She’s here.

(In some small corner of his brain, relegated to the darkest shadows, he is almost disappointed that she did not cancel or fail to show up.)

Strangely, she looks almost as nervous as he does. That steadies him, just a bit. She is just as worried about whatever she’s hiding from him as he is about his Secret. (Whatever she has to tell him, he doesn’t care; it doesn’t matter next to how much he loves her. He hopes she feels the same about his Secret.) Here, as in all things, she seems to understand him. (She will understand, he promises himself, and wishes he could be sure of it.)

“Hey,” she says in a shadow of her normal voice.

“Hey,” he says back, and manages a smile.

“I have something to tell you,” they both say at the same time, and Clark lets out a nervous laugh while she forces a smile.

“Sorry.” He moves and gestures down toward the couch. “You want to sit down?”

She nods and follows him, but only sits for an instant before she is back upright, her feet tracing the path his own have worn in the rug. “Clark, let me go first, okay?”

“No, Lois.” He stands too, right in her path. This is his moment and he will not be waylaid. He can’t let all the courage he’s built up through the day dissipate (can’t give his cowardly self an out, or he may never bring himself to this moment again). “Let me this time! I know you’re mad about me always running out on you, or showing up late, or giving you stupid excuses—”

“No, it doesn’t matter.” She shakes her head, wraps her arms around herself. Her face is set in a mask of resolution (Clark’s heart stutters and falls, because it is impossible to think that he has already lost his chance). “You were right when you said that I was pushing you away on purpose. I have been, and it’s just because I’ve been afraid to tell you something.”

“Me, too!” Buoyed by this sudden confession, he steps closer to her, rests his hands on her arms. She doesn’t loosen them from around herself, doesn’t hug him, but she doesn’t step away either. In fact, she stares up at him as if entranced. “But I’m tired of being afraid,” Clark whispers. “I don’t want to make excuses anymore.”

“I can’t make excuses anymore,” she whispers. Then, suddenly, she lunges forward and kisses him, quick and desperate and hard. He’s too stunned to respond, and she retreats halfway across the room before he can even think to grab hold of her. “Clark, I’m sorry.”

“I’m sorry, too,” he tells her. She’s distracting him (she’s always distracting him), and he doesn’t know what she’s thinking or feeling, but it doesn’t matter anymore. Now that he has glimpsed the possibility of letting her in on his Secret, there is no way he can relegate himself back to the lonely world of lies and alter egos. He does want this, so badly there is a rushing noise in his ears and his hands shake.

Because once he tells her, once she knows…he will belong to her. In some way, in some form, he will always belong to her.

“I never wanted to lie to you, Lois—if you believe anything, please believe that. I just…this is something I’ve never told anyone before. But I want to tell you. I want you to be the first person I—”

“Clark, it’s over.”

There’s an eternity of blackness flickering at the edges of his vision, and drums pounding in his ears, and fire raging through his heart. There’s darkness behind him and ahead of him, and he is all alone in this cold night.

This can’t be happening. It’s not fair. He’s telling her his Secret! He’s trusting her with everything—and she’s already given up on him?

(He wants to belong to her; she wants to separate from him; and this has always been their problem, hasn’t it, always on different pages of the same story.)

“No!” He steps forward yet again (always, always, taking those steps; always, always, watching her retreat), crowds her, forces her to look at him instead of shut him out. “Please, wait, Lois, wait until I explain, all right? You may still want to break up with me afterward, but at least do it for the right reasons. You said you’d give us a chance, and that includes listening to me.”

“I did say that.” She nods, her eyes blank. Looking past him. Already moved on (to something brighter, and bigger, and better; more exciting than a mild-mannered reporter). “But this isn’t working, Clark. I didn’t want to tell you, but…I’ve tried, all right, and I just don’t feel that way about you.”

He stares at her. “Really? No romantic feelings toward me at all? And the magic show, the tickets, the red rose—what was that? The nights on my couch, the walks together, the way you said it was ‘nice’ being with me—that was all a lie?”

“I tried, okay!” She throws her arms up in the air, forcing him back a pace, and she is still not looking at him, but at least she is alive and afire again. At least she isn’t looking past him blankly, as if he’s not even there. “I just…I’m starting to think it was a mistake to give up on Superman.”

A strange thing happens then: Clark actually breathes a sigh of relief. It’s not Luthor, or her own feelings, or a lack of chemistry between them. It’s just his Secret. Again. (Always.)

And he already knows how to take that out of the equation.

(He tries not to think about fury taking the place of affection in her dark eyes; disappointment replacing fondness; shock subsuming everything he’s worked so hard to wake in her.)

“Lois, that’s what I’m trying to tell you!” He stops, takes a breath, and tries to regroup. This isn’t the way he planned it at all (and certainly not the way he’s dreamed of doing it). It’s all right, though. This is honest and messy and chaotic, which is, in the long run, probably better than a scene set just so and practiced words.

“You don’t have to give up Superman. There’s a reason Superman is always there for you when you need him and Clark never is,” he says, scrambling to catch up to where he wants this to be. This is the most important speech he’ll ever give in his life, and he’s always been better with the written word over the spoken (he always stumbles and forgets important things when he speaks; always holds back too much and stutters in the silent pauses), but he has to get this right. He has to say it in such a way that Lois will forgive him one day (hopefully very soon).

“Stop!” Lois looks almost panicked, her hands held between them as if she’s warding him off. Hope flowers inside Clark because she is never more defensive than when she is affected more than she wants to admit. She hasn’t given up on him! “Just stop, Clark, there’s no point, okay? You and I were never meant to be anything more than partners or friends. A romantic future just isn’t in the cards for us.”

“I don’t believe you.” A preternatural calm falls over him. He can almost literally see the line separating all the yesterdays from all the tomorrows, stamping a before and an after on each side, leaving him no way out. “All the kisses we’ve shared, the way your hand feels in mine, when you hug me and I feel like I can take on the whole world—I know those weren’t all one-sided, Lois. I know you’ve been lied to before, and you’re afraid to trust me—that’s why I need to—want to—tell you this.”

Lois looks right at him, finally meets his eyes, and he is staggered by the intensity there. “Don’t do this, Clark. We tried, it didn’t work out, that’s just the way it is. You can’t expect every woman you meet to be The One. Just move on.”

“I can’t. Lois, there’s more between us than you know. Have you ever wondered why Superman singled you out from the beginning? Why you’ve never seen him and me in the same place? It’s because—”

“Stop it, Clark! Don’t do this!”

“—I am Superman. Or rather, he is me. We’re the same—”

Lois sags, her hands over her face. “Oh, Clark! I told you not to tell me!”

“—person, and I’ve wanted to tell…” He trails off abruptly, his mind suddenly catching up to her words.

All his dreams. All his imaginings. All his golden fairy tales, and not one of them has ever included anything like this.

She looks utterly defeated. Exasperated. Annoyed. Impatient. All perfectly Lois Lane things to be (except for defeated; that’s all new), but…but not where Superman is concerned. Not when Clark has just admitted to lying to her and, for all intents and purposes, tricking her. Where’s the shock? The anger? The lightning-fast process of her mind putting all the pieces together? The tears? The shouting?

None of it’s there. There’s just sad irritation.

Because…because…

“You knew,” he whispers. “You already knew. How…when did you…I don’t understand.”

When she lifts her head and looks at him, he’s not surprised to see tears on her cheeks (though he wonders if they match the tears he feels building up inside him). He’s not surprised when she only stands there, motionless, watching him. He’s not surprised by anything. In fact, he feels…numb. Maybe, he thinks, it’s his heart going into shock, protecting him from the trauma being inflicted on him, the pain that will eventually cascade over him in electric surges.

“You shouldn’t have told me,” she whispers (as soft as the words are, they explode against his eardrums). “Why are you making this so difficult?”

Angrily, he shakes his head (to clear his ears and scare away the blackness creeping up in the corners of his vision). “What are you talking about?”

“I’m talking about this!” she exclaims, gesturing between them. “I told you it was over—why do you have to prolong it?”

A long moment passes (an eternity; an eye-blink; he’s not sure which, only that his entire world shifts on its axis, reverses its orbit). Finally, he says, hoarsely, “I tell you that I’m Superman—something you already apparently know—and…and that’s all you have to say to me?”

He wanted (wants? he’s not sure, he’s so confused, everything is upside down and inside out) this Secret to bind them. He thought this would tie a cord between them (a welcome one, he hoped; he prayed). But Lois doesn’t want anything to do with him.

But why? Why, when she has admitted she regrets giving up on Superman? When she’s looked at Clark with stars in her eyes and…and affection, if not love…written all across her being? What has changed? What is different?

How did she find out?

“I’m sorry, but—”

“How long have you known?” he asks abruptly. His mind is cluttered and filled to overflowing with all his dreams and imaginings and hopes, and they are slow to return to the dusty corners of his heart, but belated as it is, he is beginning to put some pieces of his own together. Beginning to remember the night Lois came to his apartment and told him she wanted to try to love him. When she told him that she was giving up on Superman and taking a chance on Clark. The almost vindictive way she threw Superman’s name at him over and over again.

“It doesn’t matter, Clark. What matters—”

“How long have you known, Lois?” he cries, and whatever Lois sees in his face, it arrests her. There are more tears trailing down her face, but he only knows by the scent of salt; his eyes are blinded by his own fears and disappointments. “Since that night? The night you came to me and asked me on a date? Is that why you were crying? Why your heart was racing and I could tell you were hiding something? Is this what you were hiding, Lois?”

“Hey, I’m not the only one who’s been hiding things, and you’ve been doing it for far longer!” she snaps back, bristling.

Clark trembles. A crack echoes through his hearing and when he looks down, he sees hairline fractures in the floor spreading out from his feet, a shockwave effect caused by the amount of pressure it is taking him to stay in one spot.

“What happened, then?” he asks, and cannot help the bitterness pervading his tone. “You found out I was Superman—the ordinary man you promised you would love—and decided to give it a try? And then what? You found out I was Clark instead of the perfect hero you made up? Are you disappointed to find out that Superman isn’t real?”

Lois actually winces at that. And then (freezing the blood in Clark’s veins), she just shuts down. Her face goes expressionless, her eyes icy, her mouth a firm line. “You have no idea what I think, or why I came to you. You don’t know me, Clark! If you did, you would never—”

“No, I don’t!” His hands curl into fists, and Clark takes a precautionary step back (clearing a pathway to the door for Lois so he does not frighten her). “But I’ve tried! I have done nothing but ask you what you think, or what you feel, or what you want from me! I love you, Lois, and I have done everything to try to be what you need. What you want.

“But why?” Lois shouts. “Why me? Why did you pick me to lie to, Clark? Out of all the people in this city, why did you have to make me look like the fool?”

The echoes of their voices die out. The apartment falls silent. Clark stares at Lois. She stares back. A silent, painful tableau.

“You think I did all this to make you look bad?” Clark finally asks, his voice a pale shadow barely daring to slice through the quiet around them. “You think I wanted to lie to you—to lie at all, about everything, for my entire life? I guess you don’t know me either, Lois. You’ve known my Secret all this time, and you still…don’t know me at all.”

“How can I?” she asks dully. “You’ve never bothered to show me who you really are.”

“I have shown you more of who I am than I have ever shown anyone else. I have been honest with you as much as I can, and I only ever lied about one thing. I trusted you with my Secret, Lois! And still…that’s not enough?”

(I gave you my heart, he wants to say, because it is what matters most, but he is already too hurt, too humiliated, too heartbroken, to let those fragile, vulnerable, shattered words out in the open. He will keep back this one last secret from her, even if he knows it isn’t truly secret at all.)

She swallows, the sound thunderous to him. Then, slowly, purposefully, she shakes her head. (Her heart is slow and ponderous in her chest, as leaden as his hope.) “No. It’s not enough.”

And Clark has no more words. He’s given them all away (entrusted them all to the revealing of his Secret), and left nothing for himself. No more convincing arguments to sway her to his side. No more pleading cries to hope that she will eventually learn to love him. No more dreams of a better tomorrow.

He doesn’t have to lie anymore, just like he wanted. He doesn’t have to imagine a scene where he tells his Secret to the woman he loves. It’s all been done, just like he planned. And just like his parents warned him, there is no going back.

“You’re right, Lois,” he says. “It’s over.”

And then he disappears from the apartment, blurs away and does not stop until he has crossed the world over, until he hovers in the atmosphere where he can scream and scream and no one will hear him (and if the earth shudders beneath the shockwaves of his grief, well, it is not the only world that has been irrevocably altered).

He is alone. Still. Always. Forever.

And Lois (cannot) will never love him.

Chapter Text

Lois Lane stands in Clark Kent’s apartment and feels as if she has lived a lifetime here. She first burst in here when she was following Clark, thinking he would lead her to a scoop on the superhero she was so desperate to know anything and everything about. She’d followed him inside in a fury and then had to sneak out when they were both undercover at the Metro. She’d spent the night while waiting for Alan Morris to wake up, and shared tea with Clark on the balcony and a special moment with Superman in the living room. She’d spent the night again when Barbara Trevino threatened her and Clark offered a haven. She’d leaned against him on the couch while they watched movies, and kissed him while stars danced in her eyes and fairies flew through her heart. She’d broken his heart and destroyed him and watched him flee in pieces without calling him back or doing anything to alieve the destroyed look written over his being.

But there are other things, too. Other moments. Other lifetimes. Another night spent on his couch after a threatening phone call, his arm around her, his chin resting on her crown. Arriving to tell him she chose him and finding him standing amid the packed-up boxes of his life. Kissing him while he cooked. Sitting on the couch in a wedding dress. Enjoying a honeymoon on the ceiling (though she’s always blinked those type of flashes away, feeling like it’s an invasion of privacy; knowing there’s a limit to what she can endure seeing when she will never get to experience it herself). Endless evenings and early mornings and snatched moments, all with Clark. All a future she will never have.

And this is the last time she will ever be allowed to stand here, she knows. The look on Clark’s face…it makes her shudder just to think of it. The shock turning into anger turning into desolation, and then the worst: bleakness. So utterly, terribly bleak. As if all the light in his universe had gone out. As if there was no more hope in his world.

“He’ll be okay,” she whispers, but the apartment’s emptiness mocks her. Throws the words back at her with a hollow quality (because they will never, ever be consolation enough).

He will be Superman. The bright, good hero the world needs. He will lead the future into an ideal civilization. His legacy will never end. (And he will think fondly of her; he will speak well of her; though how she cannot imagine.)

But as wonderful as all that sounds (as empty as it seems, these past weeks), Lois knows that even the forgiving Clark will never be able to be her best friend again. They will never be able to go back to that easy partnership, the comfortable friendship. He will not invite her back into his life or ask her to drop by his place or offer her safety here in his own private home.

She looks around at the familiar surroundings. Later, she will probably wish she memorized absolutely everything, savored it one last time, but right now it doesn’t matter. Clark is not here, and he is always what made his apartment seem so much more welcoming than anywhere else. Now that he’s gone, there’s no point to being here.

Besides, she doesn’t want there to be even a chance of still being here when Clark comes back. Even her cruelty has its limits. She will not make him face her again.

She has taken only one step toward the door when her source strides through it as if he owns the place. He casts one appraising look at the apartment, then sniffs and dismisses it. Which makes it even more surprising when his gaze falls on her and he immediately breaks into a grin. He looks almost smug. Or maybe he doesn’t and it is only Lois’s resentment that makes her think he looks cocky and triumphant. Either way, her skin erupts in goosebumps and she feels the sudden urge to growl at him.

“Lois Lane!” he announces grandly. “I knew you could do it. If you want to break the Man of Steel’s heart, always go to the expert.”

“How can I be known as the expert if I wasn’t supposed to meet him?” she snaps. “And what are you doing here? Are you spying on me? On Clark?”

He cocks his head as he descends the steps into the living room. “Duh. I told you, Ms. Lane, you do always come through—but I felt it best to make sure you came through on the right side this time.”

“The right side?” Her eyes narrow dangerously. “I thought we were all on the same side, even if the most super-powered one of us doesn’t know it. And again, your use of the word ‘always’ about me doesn’t make any sense. If you’ve been telling the truth.”

Her source laughs as if they are not standing astride the shattered rubble of Clark’s heart (and hers, though hers has been trailing blood and regret for the past month). “You choose the best times to start asking questions, don’t you? Should I take you to Utopia again so you can see for yourself? This time, you can actually make it through all of the museum’s exhibits—see firsthand how Superman’s life will go. The way he rebuilds his life, but now with the right priorities. The time it takes him to realize the correct balance of Superman and Clark Kent. And then, after his parents’ deaths, the moment he finally ascends to his place in the grand orbit of the sky, visible to all as the true Man of Tomorrow, leading the world to truth, justice, and all that other good stuff. Would you like to see how long it takes him to move on from you—is that what this is really all about?”

“You keep saying he’ll be okay,” Lois mutters, “but I don’t know… I don’t see how this plan of yours makes sense. You say I’m making him be the hero he needs to be by breaking up with him, but you didn’t see his face. You didn’t hear the way he said… This is just breaking him. There’s nothing good about this. There’s nothing about this that should turn him into a hero.”

Her source reaches up and fiddles with the edge of his glasses, as if about to pull them off, before pushing them up more securely on the bridge of his nose. “Not for you or me or any regular person. But we can’t forget that Superman is not ‘regular.’ He’s different. Abnormal, some might say. We need him to be in the sky, Ms. Lane. Not on the ground.”

And that’s what it always comes down to, isn’t it. Every single one of these conversations (arguments; confrontations; plea bargains) with her source always leads back to this: Superman over Clark Kent. The hero over the man. Alien over human. Aloof demigod over warm inspiration.

It was enough when her source first came to her and told her the truth. It was enough when she was clinging to the fact that Clark would be okay, in any form, to get her through the first dates. It was even enough to get her to come to his apartment tonight and stab him with a knife sharper than even Kryptonite. But now? Now that it is over and she doesn’t have to shield herself (doesn’t have the luxury of protecting herself with these half-truths), she knows that it’s wrong.

“He’s only a hero because he’s Clark Kent,” she says. It’s a quiet statement, slow because she is turning it over in her own head as she speaks it, and it seems to take a minute for her source to process it. “He needs to be on the ground to know what to do in the sky. He’s not an emergency response system—he’s a man, and that’s what makes him the shining beacon that people will follow.”

Her source is silent a moment. (She thinks that she has, for the first time, actually taken him aback.)

But the moment passes, and he shakes his head slightly. “I’m sorry you don’t agree with our conclusions. Regardless, the correction’s already taken place. Utopia is safe, no matter what…private qualms you might have.”

“I could tell him.”

It’s the first time she’s even let herself think it, and it staggers her just how freeing it is to consider it. Just going to Clark and telling him. Letting him know everything that’s going on. Explaining why she had to do it. And then he’d…he’d…

“You’d tell him?” Her source is, somehow, behind her, though she didn’t see him move. His voice is soft, sonorous, weaving his words around her as if pulling them straight from her mind. “And what will you say? Will you tell him that you asked him out just to break his heart? That you did it all on the word of a man who claimed to be a time-traveler? That you led Clark on and gave him just enough of yourself to ensure he’d love you forever, and then…” He leans closer, over her shoulder, causing the hairs on the back of her neck to stand up stiff and bristling. “Then you used all his fears against him…and destroyed him. That’s what you think you’ve done, isn’t it? Broken him? And what do you think he will do then?”

“Clark would believe me,” she manages, a heaving gasp of defiance against the flood of images rolling through her imagination—his anger and disbelief and scorn. And hurt. So much hurt. Hurt enough to crush her. (The images are all too clear; she just saw them played out in front of her, after all, horrible enough to haunt her for the rest of her life.)

“But would he forgive you?” he asks. “Would he ever let you into his life again? Would he ever believe you if you were to try to tell him you love him?”

“I…” She whirls to face him, not incidentally putting about a foot of distance between them. “I don’t…who said that I…he’s just—”

His silver hair gleams as he gives her an almost condescending smile. “Exactly. And with such eloquence as that, how could he not take you back with open arms?” He straightens, fiddles with his glasses again. “No, the job is done, Ms. Lane. You made the right choice, and now everything is on the right track. Be happy! We’ve saved the future! Oh, and of course…” His smile turns smaller, harder, colder. “I couldn’t have done it without you.”


 

Somehow, she makes it back to her place. She doesn’t know how. Everything is a haze around her. She opens her journal long enough to jot down the new flashes she saw in Clark’s apartment, then she puts it away.

In a strange form of penance, she does not let herself give into the flashes hovering at the edges of her vision. Clark is somewhere alone, right now, hurting and lonely and heartbroken. He does not have the luxury of vicariously living a better life, so why should she get any reprieve either?

Instead, she crawls into bed, wraps the covers around herself in a cocoon (wishes she could come out as something better; something worth a superhero’s heart), and gives herself permission to cry.

Only…she can’t. There are no more tears left inside her.

She wonders if she will ever feel anything again.


 

The next morning, she heads into the Planet. She doesn’t want to hurt Clark anymore (and seeing her will hurt him, she knows that unequivocally), but she doesn’t know what else to do with herself. He was right, in a way—the Planet is her life. (Except when Clark was with her. Except when he pulled her away and taught her how to have fun and laugh and make something besides work a priority.)

But Clark isn’t there. He doesn’t show up all day. She’s worried that he has left his Clark Kent life already (worried that her obliteration of him is more thorough than she ever could have imagined), but Perry tells her he hasn’t heard from him, and surely Clark wouldn’t leave without letting Perry know he is quitting. Surely. Hopefully.

There is no mention in the news of Superman all day.


 

Clark doesn’t show up the next day (Superman doesn’t either, a strange absence no one is commenting on yet), and Lois sits at her desk, staring at a blank screen while she runs through all the same things that kept her up all night (and the night before that, and will for nights to come, ad infinitum).

Her source’s promises.

The bits of Utopia she saw.

The bleakness on Clark’s face two nights ago.

The way Clark got her to play games in the honeymoon suite at the Lexor.

The smugness on her source’s face when he strolled into Clark’s apartment.

Clark crying out that she didn’t know him if she thought he wanted to lie his entire life.

He’s Superman, the man from the future had said, over and over again, in every imaginable way. But nothing about Clark. Never one single thing about Clark Kent. Only Superman.

You found out I was Clark instead of the perfect hero you made up, Clark had said, so bitterly, so defeated.

And she knows about being only one thing all the time, doesn’t she? Didn’t she just realize how much Clark added to her life outside the Daily Planet? Doesn’t she know how much better she felt—how much happier—she was when she could do something besides her job?

Superman’s not a person, she thinks, so suddenly her heart seizes up inside her. He’s just a job.

Clark is a person.

And I just killed him.


 

Twenty minutes later, she’s left the Planet without a word and is bursting into her apartment, stumbling across the room to pull out her journal. She flips through it frantically, a hodge-podge mess of images, flickers, scenes, dreams—all out of order, haphazard, sloppy, often written through the pounding pain of a migraine, with unsteady hands, while her eyes blurred with tears.

She’s avoided thinking about these flashes as anything more than a refuge from the hell her life has become. It was easier to just accept them than to have to question them. Aside from taking the headache pills she was prescribed, she hasn’t done anything to try to stop them either. She’d written them off as desperation mixed with imagination (because she was afraid of being crazy), but there are too many coincidences. And there to prove it, in the back of the journal, is her list, written one morning when she’d been feeling strong and confident—things that are in the flashes that have proven true, like the strawberry shortcake a flicker of a vision had told her was his favorite dessert. Like where he keeps saucepans in his apartment. Like the way Clark looks when something has reached past his invulnerable skin to rend and tear at his oh-so-vulnerable heart.

These are real. Somehow, someway, these images she’s been seeing are true. But how? They are so different from her life now, from Clark’s life, as to be almost unbelievable. But she has to believe. She has to take a chance. She has to hope (because Clark isn’t, anymore, so someone has to for him).

If she can find out how these images are true—how they all happened—then maybe she can find a way to…

To what?

Her hands freeze, the journal trembling over the floor. What does she think this will accomplish? What can she possibly do to fix things? She can never take away the pain that shadowed Clark’s eyes when she told him she didn’t love him. It can never erase the way he flinched away from her harsh words. It can never make him look at her the way he did just a few days ago, when he woke up with her in his arms and smiled at her as if she were everything good in his world.

“But maybe I can save him,” she whispers, taking a steadier grip on the journal. It’s what she’s been trying to do all this time, the reason she took his dreams and shredded them in front of him.

Or almost. She was trying to save Superman, then. Now, she wants to save Clark. Needs to save Clark. (And she thinks, is almost sure, that saving Clark will be the same thing as saving Superman.)

So, first, she has to find the earliest memory-flash. The first one that diverges from reality. If she can figure out why things are different, maybe she can also figure out a way to make her-Clark as confident and whole and happy as the memory-flash-Clark.

It’s a long shot. But then, what else does she have to do?


 

The sun is rising through her sheer curtains by the time she finally steps back from the jigsaw puzzle she’s made of her cut-up journal. A timeline spreads out over her living room rug, the couches shoved aside to make room for the life she will never get to have.

The changes don’t start from her entrance into Perry’s office during Clark’s interview. They don’t include her meeting with Samuel Platt. In fact, there is not one single memory-flash from before her own memories. Maybe that means nothing, but she thinks it means everything.

She thinks it means her source has lied to her.

(She thinks it means she is the villain to this story rather than the unsung hero.)

It’s not her introduction to Clark that ruined everything.

It’s her wedding to Lex. She was supposed to say yes to that two-faced criminal. She was supposed to drive alongside an angry Clark while he spit bitter words at her. She was supposed to stand in front of a mirror and pair her name with Clark’s. He was supposed to hug her in trembling arms and watch Lex fall to his death.

They were supposed to be friends. Partners. He was supposed to ask her out, and she was supposed to say yes (not because she was willing to do him a favor by giving him a chance; not because she wanted to save the world and a superhero; because she wanted to). They were supposed to be happy. Engaged. Married. Partners in everything in life.

And for all the drama and the conflict and the mistakes she glimpses in these memory-flashes of a life where Clark Kent is just as dominant a presence as Superman, there is one thing she doesn’t see—a Superman too distracted and paranoid to be the superhero the world needs.

She sees cold dinners and lonely nights and interrupted dates. She sees a few arguments and some lonely moments. She sees forgiveness and acceptance and a balanced life. She sees welcomed returns and teasing laughter and strength found in partnership.

But no ruined Superman. No fading Clark Kent. No jealous Lois Lane-Kent.

All she sees, then (as she looks down at these warnings she’s been treating as mere fantasies), are the lies her source told her.

Let Superman be who he’s always meant to be, her source said.

“All right, I will,” Lois says. She straightens up from the blueprint of a happy life. Ignores the headache pulsing like roiling lava behind her eyes. And she begins to plan.

Chapter Text

The fields beyond his parents’ house are just as they were when he was growing up. The same straight lines. The same sound of soil trod under his weight. The same distances stretching out around him. The same silence filled, nonetheless, with tiny resonances of life: insects burrowing below and flying above, wind sheering across the plains, birdsong, people just far enough away not to intrude on his senses. And the sight of his house standing on the horizon, flanked by the barn with its old, flaking red paint. Inside that house, he knows, his parents are sitting down to lunch. His dad is intent on his sandwich while his mom chatters on about her latest art project. There is a comforting pattern to the sounds they make in the background, a tapestry of movement and sound and sights that blanket all of Clark’s childhood memories.

He’s always wanted that same comfort, that same kind of pattern, for himself. And since he met Lois, he’s wanted to make a tapestry of interwoven lives with her, faster-paced and riskier, maybe, but stitched together with the same kind of love and care and trust.

Well…he’s going to have to give that up. All of it. The idea that he can find love in this life, on this world not his own, with a people he’s not connected to by anything other than chance. The dream that Lois will ever be a permanent part of his life. The hope that someone will love him simply because of who he is (in all his facets and guises and names).

It’s just him now. Him and his parents.

He knows if he walks across these ancient fields with their tiny green sprouts, and enters that house with all its memories, his parents will welcome him. His dad will smile and tell him about the plans he has to paint the barn. His mom will tell him he looks hungry while she makes him a sandwich. They will touch him and pull him into their presence and blanket him in love.

He needs that. He craves it.

He cannot move.

There is a crater spreading out around him, a result of his spiraling plummet down from the heavens (a shooting star reenacting his arrival here so long ago, only this time, there is no one to find him and choose to love him). He couldn’t seem to control the descent, had only known that he could not stay up there in the cold, airless dark anymore. He’s not even sure how long it’s been since he left Lois behind in his apartment. All he knows is that he cannot go back there. He cannot face the rubble of a life he doesn’t think he has the strength to live again.

It’s time to move on.

Only, he’s never moved on without talking to his parents first.

And he can’t talk to them.

His legs won’t move to help him stand. His arms won’t push him upright. His voice won’t emerge from his sore, throbbing throat. He can only sit huddled in on himself, silent, a pathetic mess, a tiny disruption in the orderly life around him.

He screamed himself hoarse in the atmosphere. If he cried in that vacuum, he’ll never know, the tears wicked away before they had a chance to be (symbolism he doesn’t care to delve into at all). He tried to tell himself to go, to descend back to the Earth, but he never quite could manage it. No call for help reached him. No gentle whisper spoke to him. Nothing could puncture the void around him. It was welcoming at first, but then constraining. Claustrophobic. Eventually, he grew desperate. A strange compulsion grew in him to hear his name again. He felt as if he had been forgotten completely, erased from the Earth, as if leaving her atmosphere had stripped him of all his years of adopted belonging.

So he floated downward and listened harder than he ever had before. For his name. For someone calling for him. For someone wanting to talk to him.

And all he heard was Superman.

No one said Clark. No one called for Clark. No one needed Clark.

Only Superman.

Until one man. The same voice he’d heard so many times before. Just as frightening as every other time.

“Ah, Clark, another one down. There’s just never too much of a good thing, is there?”

He’d been up far too high for anyone to see him, drifting across the heavens above the East Coast. No one could have possibly known he was there or calculated what volume to speak at to reach him. Wherever his stalker was, he had to have been talking to himself.

Clark zeroed in on the sound as soon as he heard his name, but strangely, by the time the sentence was finishing, by the time the world had resolved from multi-colored topography to Stryker’s Island, just off the coast of Metropolis, the voice was gone. The man’s breathing had stopped. Vanished so quickly Clark couldn’t imagine what could have stopped it (couldn’t think what manner of death was so abrupt and so final). He’d flown quickly, invisibly, across Stryker’s Island, over the deserted grounds of the old prison, through every rusting cell, along each ravine, but he found nothing (not even a body) save the scent of crackling ozone wisping through musty air.

Another dead end.

A reminder, though, that Clark isn’t the only one in trouble. Superman, too, has his problems, and his are far more dangerous to his parents (the only ones in this world who love him whether he wears a cape or not).

He fled, again, into the black sky. Maybe for minutes, maybe for hours, Clark doesn’t care. He only knows that he finally felt himself waver, his strength flicker, and he fell, wavering and only half-controlled, toward the far-distant ground. Guiding himself in the direction of Smallville, keeping his landing to only this ten-foot shallow crater, seems to have sapped him of the last of his resolve. So here he is, collapsed and broken two miles from his parents, utterly useless, utterly despondent. He wants to call out to them, but his voice is raspy and weak. He wants to go to them, but his limbs are heavy, drained of all strength.

And what does it matter? Why did he even come here? If his parents see him, he will have to tell them—tell them that he’s made a terrible mistake. Tell them he was wrong. Tell them they are still in danger because for all his superpowers, he can’t find a single man (who disappears in an instant and knows his name and seems to want only to taunt him).

Tell them he’s failed. Superman holds too much risk and Clark holds too little value, and it’s better that he just go back to being a nameless, purposeless drifter. A ghost, flitting across Earth, touching but never quite belonging. Alive, but never quite living. Loving, but never quite loved.

Alone, tired, hurting, Clark wraps his cape around himself and curls into the smallest shape he can make. In another moment, he will be strong for his parents. He will do his best to put a good spin on things for their sake. He will let them hold him so that he can let himself actually fall apart (without being afraid that he will never be able to pull himself back together).

In a moment.


 

His dad finds him that night, while walking back to the barn with the dusk turning the air purple and blue. Clark only knows Jonathan is there because there is a gasp and then the ground shakes beneath his ear, and heavy footsteps pound down into the shallow crater.

“Clark!” his dad shouts. “Clark, my boy!”

Warm hands fall on his shoulders and tug him into his lap. Clark pries his eyes open and looks up into his dad’s familiar face, marred by panic.

“Dad,” he croaks. “I’m sorry.”

He should have just walked into the farmhouse. He should have made himself be stronger. He shouldn’t have scared his dad.

“Clark, what’s wrong?” Jonathan asks. “What is it? What happened to you? Is it the man who knows your name?”

And Clark is ashamed. It’s not Kryptonite, or a government agency, or his stalker, or any of the other nightmares his dad is imagining. It’s just a woman (the woman he loves even though his heart feels like it’s etched through with riven lines of fire and blood that spell out her name). It’s just his broken dreams and hopes and heart.

“I’m sorry,” he says again.

His dad tries to tug him up, and Clark doesn’t have the heart to disappoint him. From somewhere, he dredges up a smattering of strength and drags himself to his feet. Once there, though, he finds himself listing. He’s grateful when his dad wedges himself under his shoulder, even more grateful when he doesn’t ask any more questions.

Together, in silence, they stagger across the nascent fields. Clark’s only aware of how cold he is when he finally registers the heat emanating from his dad, enveloping him in warmth, making his teeth start to chatter in contrast.

“Oh, Clark,” Jonathan whispers when he feels the tremors. There’s a tremble to his voice; Clark doesn’t need superhearing to detect it.

“It’s over, Dad,” Clark finally manages to say, knowing he deserves something. “I told her and it didn’t matter. She just doesn’t love me. I don’t know why I ever thought she would.”

Jonathan doesn’t say anything as they leave the fields and head past the barn (Clark’s heart is like Kryptonite burning down through his ribcage). But when the light on the porch reaches out to welcome them inside, he tightens his arm around Clark (Clark almost breaks, then, but he can’t, not while his dad is already bearing so much of his weight). “I love you, son,” he says, simply.

That’s all.

It’s too much.

Clark shatters, and everything goes black.


 

“What’s wrong with him? It isn’t Kryptonite, is it?”

“I don’t think so, Martha.”

“Then what? Here, wrap him in this. He’s so cold!”

“He was just laying there. How long was he out there?”

“Get me that hot water bottle from that chest, Jonathan. I don’t know what’s wrong with him, but we have to get him warm. Maybe we should light a fire and heat up some bricks to put around him.”

“Why was he just laying there? Why didn’t he come to us?”

“He did. He’s here, isn’t he? But why is he like this? If it’s not Kryptonite, then…what else can hurt him?”

“Martha…he said he told Lois. He said she didn’t love him.”

(Clark stirs, shaken, flinching. The touch of a warm, soft hand on his brow calms him. The deep hum of a man sitting at his side soothes him.)

“Oh no. Oh, Clark, my beautiful boy. Why, Jonathan? I don’t understand. Why does he have to go through this?”

“Shh, Martha. You’re right. He’ll be okay. He will. I’ll light a fire. Just let him hear your voice. Let him know we love him.”

(Clark sinks deeper into the sound of her voice, crooning out the lullaby of her familiar, beloved I love you, and lets the world fade away.)


 

The first thing he becomes aware of is sunlight. It is draped over him like a blanket, soaking into his porous skin. When he twitches his hands, he feels that there are no blankets. He is dressed in only a pair of sweatpants, and tilting his head without opening his eyes lets him know that there are no curtains over the window letting in that rejuvenating light. He’s in the living room, on the couch; it’s the only room with windows large enough to let in this much sunlight, and the couch is a familiar texture beneath his bare skin.

He slept here before, those few nights when Lois took his bedroom and he imagined an ordinary life.

Shivering suddenly, Clark shakes his head, forcefully, and does his best to think about something else. It’s strange to feel goosebumps rising along his arms, to shudder beneath the chill that seeps through him, negating the effects of the solar illumination.

“Clark?” His mom’s voice is soft, calming, but there is a catch to it that hurts him and fills him with guilt.

Ashamed but wanting to comfort her, he turns his head and finally opens his eyes (finally lets in the world again, with all its pain and heartbreak and regret). “Mom,” he says. His voice emerges clear, though perhaps a little weak. “I’m sorry, Mom. I shouldn’t have worried you and made—”

“Oh, Clark, don’t worry about us.” She abandons her rocking chair and kneels at his side, stretching her arms to give him an awkward embrace that permeates through him as ably (and just as restorative) as the sunlight. “We’re just glad you came home. Always come home, Clark—no matter what, all right? Just always come home to us.”

He doesn’t have anywhere else to go. He has no one else to worry about.

Shaking away his thoughts again, he clasps his mom and eases her up with him as he sits upright. “I will,” he promises. “Thank you for being here.”

She sits at his side, gives him a slightly less clumsy hug from this position, and rests her head on his shoulder. Clark breathes her in, her scent (so familiar he isn’t even sure how to identify the individual components), the feel of her, the tickle of her hair on his cheeks, the welcome warmth of her closeness driving away the chill invoked by the thought of Lois.

“Where’s Dad?” he asks when his shivers have abated.

“He went out to try to cover up that crater. We weren’t sure when you’d wake. We didn’t think it was Kryptonite, but…well, we didn’t figure the sunlight would hurt anything.”

Clark flinches at this reminder of their fear, and sighs. “I’m sorry,” he says again. “I don’t know what was wrong. After Lois…after, I just…I don’t know. I don’t even know what day it is. I just…started flying, and I didn’t stop. Until…until I couldn’t anymore, and I tried to come home, but I…it was like all my strength just ran out.”

“Oh, Clark.” There’s a strange mixture of relief and grief in her voice, her expression, the tilt of her hand as she cups his jaw in her hand. “That’s not so hard to figure out. Heartbreak can do strange things to a person, even a person who can fly.”

He’s silent for an instant, another instant, but it’s his mom’s eyes (blue and gray and full of love; the same eyes that coaxed him into confiding his fears about his developing powers and teased him when he had his first crush on Lana Lang) that finally compel the words to burst forth. “I told her. I told her, but she’d come to break up with me, and it didn’t change anything.”

She nods, then strokes his face again (a gesture he remembers well from childhood, and might have squirmed away from in other circumstances; but now it is more than welcome, almost necessary). “Would you have wanted it to?” she asks him, gently. “I thought you didn’t want her to love you for Superman.”

“I don’t,” he admits. “I didn’t. But I was going to tell her, and then when she said it was over before I could, I just…I thought it would be enough. She felt something for me, Mom, I know she did—I can’t have imagined these past weeks! She did care for me! And I thought…I hoped that the only reason she didn’t love me yet is because she knew I was lying. If I took that away, if I told her the truth, she’d have everything she felt for Clark on top of everything she could have for a man who didn’t lie to her.”

He’s pulled away from her, sometime during that clumsy speech, and now stands in front of her, the sun cascading down his back. Martha just looks up at him, calm and reassuring. If she tells him he was wrong, if she shakes her head at him, he thinks he might collapse again. He thinks the weight of all his regrets and should-haves, could-haves, maybes will topple him to the floor.

But she doesn’t say anything. Only sits there and watches him, waiting, listening.

“She already knew,” he finally says, and his shoulders slump. He holds himself upright solely so his mom will not have to catch him. “She doesn’t feel anything at all for Clark Kent. Everything I thought she felt, all those moments I thought…they weren’t real. She only gave me a chance at all because she found out I was Superman. And I guess…I guess it wasn’t enough. I’m not what she wants.”

A brief flash of something very like anger passes like lightning across Martha’s face, but she swallows and it’s gone. When she stands, she does so slowly, cautiously; when she reaches for him, it’s instinctive, familiar.

“I’m so sorry, Clark.” She goes up on her tiptoes and lets him collapse down into her arms for a brief, cleansing hug that does more than all the who-knows-how-many hours of sunlight.

“I’m the one who’s sorry,” he murmurs into her hair with a weak effort at a chuckle. “I never should have told her. It puts you and Dad at—”

“No.” Martha pulls back, limitless resolve layered through her expression and the strength of her grip on his arms. “No, if she was going to tell anyone, she’d have done it already. It’ll be okay, Clark.”

“Yeah,” he says (and tastes the lie, heavy like ashes). “Yeah, it’ll be okay.”


His dad, when he comes back in, clumps right over to Clark and his mom, huddled together in front of the window, bathed in afternoon sun, and puts his arms around them. He’s sweaty and covered in dirt, his forehead streaked with a smear of mud, but Clark lets himself (for just a moment) pretend that he is small again, young enough to believe his dad can still fix everything for him, and leans into him. He breathes in deep of the smell, as familiar as his mom’s, flavored with dirt and plants and hard work.

“Dad,” he croaks, and has to work very hard not to grip too tightly.

“Son,” Jonathan says. He’s always been a man of few words, content to sit back and listen to Clark and Martha talk for hours, watching them with a small smile on his face, only every once in a while teasing them with a sentence here or there. He’s never needed more than just a few words, not when this one syllable can be filled with more eloquence than Clark manages on a good day of writing.

Clark breathes in, breathes out, and begins to remember (to believe again) that he is loved.


 

“I think my stalker is like me,” Clark says. He didn’t mean to speak, but his mom is stacking her and Jonathan’s empty plates to take to the sink, and her sleeve falls back to reveal the glint of Jimmy’s signal watch. It’d be nice to just get to hide out here until he feels more prepared to face the world, but as has already been proven, he doesn’t get what he wants.

The toast in his hand crumbles, giving him excuse to look away. It’s the first time he’s left the living room, and he’s surprised at how strange it seems to be clothed in flannel instead of sunlight (to be sitting at the same dinner table he’s sat at countless times before, as if nothing has really changed at all; as if he still possesses his cracked and beating heart).

“Like you?” Jonathan asks, Martha stilled behind him. “What do you mean? You think he’s Kryptonian?”

“I thought Jor-El said you were the only one to make it out,” his mom adds, brushing her free hand over his wrist, a warm touch to combat the cold truth behind her reminder.

“I don’t know if he’s Kryptonian.” Clark watches the yolk from his uneaten eggs soak through the crust of his crumbly toast. “But he moves too fast. And he seems able to know where I am, even when I’m not visible to the human eye—able to get to wherever I am when I respond to a crisis. And he’s somehow able to leave before I can pinpoint him whenever he says my name.” He pauses, swallows, drags a finger through the drying mess on his plate, and says, “I tracked him to Stryker’s Island earlier, and unless he can either move as fast as me or teleport, I would have cornered him. So I think, Kryptonian or not, he’s…different.”

“Well, maybe that’s why he’s keeping track of you,” his mom says with a sudden burst of hope. The dishes make a clatter when she sets them down in the sink, as if to underscore the thought. “Maybe he’s just trying to get up the courage to come clean himself.”

Jonathan’s already shaking his head. “Then why doesn’t he just come talk to Clark? Why follow him around and let him hear him? No, something’s suspicious about that.”

“I don’t know.” Clark shrugs (hard to do, to shift all that weight of regret and risk it crushing him). “At Stryker’s, I zeroed in on him as soon as I heard him—I singled out his heartbeat, and it didn’t recede or move or alter. It was just…gone.” He meets his dad’s gaze for only a second before looking away, flicking through memories he usually does his best to pretend he doesn’t have. “And nothing ever dies that fast and that silently without something left behind to show for it.”

“So he’s still out there,” Martha sighs.

“And I don’t know how to find him. All I know about him is that he’s male. I’d recognize his voice by now, but—”

“No, didn’t you say you heard his heartbeat?” Jonathan leans forward intently. “And didn’t you once tell me you could always recognize your mom and me through our heartbeats? Like fingerprints, you said.”

Clark hesitates, caught by the idea. “That’s right. I mean, I might get the worst headache ever by listening closely enough to pick out heartbeats, but it’ll be worth it if I can finally pin this guy down.” He frowns, then, abruptly restless. “I guess I should start in Metropolis.”

His parents exchange a look (one he’s used to seeing between them whenever they want to bring up something he doesn’t want to talk about). “Speaking of, honey,” his mom says, falsely casual as she sits at his side (trapping him between her and his dad’s love and focus). “What are you planning on doing? About Metropolis, your job, your friends, your apartment…”

As suddenly as it came, his drive and desire to move drain out of him. He’s once more heavy, anchored to the earth in leaden chains, too ashamed to look up from his cold breakfast to see his parents’ reaction. “I don’t know if I can go back,” he admits, then, slower, “I don’t know if I want to.” He forces a laugh that sounds hollow, matches it with a brittle smile. “I mean, what’s there for me?”

“Uh-huh.” Martha watches him, Jonathan’s hand wrapped around hers. “What’s your name?” she asks him, gently (it hits him with all the force of Nightfall).

“Clark.” The word, the name (the wish; the threat, even, when spoken by his stalker), is dragged from him unwillingly, but it’s a thousand times easier to say than Superman.

“Exactly.” Her smile is sad, sympathetic. Unrelenting. “That’s who you are, and you can’t stop being who you are, no matter how badly you feel right now.”

“I don’t think I want to be Clark anymore!”

He winces as soon as he hears his own confession. An apology dances on the tip of his tongue, but his mom only smiles at him.

“Why not?”

“Because…” He’s going to suffocate, to calcify, fossilized right here at the kitchen table that still bears his clumsily etched initials under the tablecloth, so he gets up and moves, paces back and forth (awake and alive and afire with hurt). “Because it’s too hard! Who am I kidding? Trying to juggle two identities is ridiculous—I’m always running out on Perry and Jimmy, on Lo—” He swallows, hard. “It’d be simpler to…to just be one person.”

“Clark.” His mom is there, standing in his path (seeing right through him). “Why don’t you want to be Clark Kent? The truth.”

“Because she doesn’t love Clark!” The truth is ripped from him, searing and twisting through his throat, scratching and flaming across his tongue, cold and heavy as it falls to crash like rubble between him and his parents. “She can’t love him. She’ll never love him. At least Superman is…” He trails off, unable to even finish that (pathetic, shameful) thought.

“At least Superman’s someone she loved,” his mom finished for him, and he can’t deny it. “Clark, honey,” she says, infinitely tender, inescapably tenacious, “do you really want to pretend to be something to earn love? Do you really think that’s the right thing to do?”

His knees give out. He drops back into his chair, steadied by his dad’s hand on his shoulder. “No,” he says heavily. “No, I can’t do that. It wouldn’t be fair to me. Or her. Or you guys.”

“Besides,” Jonathan says, breaking the silence after a moment, “if she doesn’t love Clark Kent, she doesn’t deserve Superman.”

There’s a lump in Clark’s throat as he looks up at his dad, who looks back unrepentantly (a smile hidden in the corner of his mouth). His mom opens her mouth, but then says nothing, just takes her seat again, completing their familiar circle of three (with no fourth to be added, no one else at his side).

“She kissed me,” Clark whispers, staring once more at his uneaten breakfast. “Why would she do that if she only came to tell me it was over?”

“Maybe…” Martha gives Jonathan another one of those looks, but his dad doesn’t seem to have an answer. “Maybe you should talk to her again, Clark. If you don’t understand what happened, maybe there’s something—”

“No.” Clark stands, looks down at his parents (offering sunlight and acceptance, unconditional love, their presence and their wisdom). “No, she said it was over. She said she didn’t want to prolong things. I have to move on.”

Jonathan stands, then, too (ready, maybe, to catch Clark if he starts to fall again). “And how are you going to do that?”

“However I can,” Clark says (and the truth tastes just as ashen as a lie).

Chapter Text

“Lois, can I have a word?” Perry gestures at her as he walks past her desk. Lois startles, jarred from her ongoing investigation of (one way of putting ‘staring longingly at’) Clark’s desk (which is as empty as the news about Superman).

“What is it?” she asks, and belatedly realizes she probably should have tried to inject at least a little bit of life into her voice. It’s hard to remember that kind of thing, though, when there’s a chorus of cannons blasting steady pulses of pain against her temples and a metal band trying to shrink her skull inward (when her heart is empty and yearning in her chest and flashes of a better life taunt her and Clark is nowhere to be found). “I’m still working on—”

“Oh, do you still work here?” Perry interrupts with a mock expression of surprise. “I’m sorry, but when I stopped receiving any stories from you, I just assumed you must have quit without telling me.”

Oh. That kind of ‘word.’

Lois takes a deep breath (tries to summon up the concern this moment deserves) and follows Perry into his office. He moves behind the desk deliberately, sits carefully, places his hands very specifically on top of his desk—in short, does everything he can to broadcast just how much he doesn’t want to be having this conversation.

“Now,” he starts, and Lois finds herself sinking down into the chair she usually just paces around. “Is there something you want to tell me?”

“I…”

She’s spun whole days’ worth of leeway from the measliest of excuses. She’s made up stories and talked about investigations she’d never even started to get Perry to leave her be when she’s needed space and time. She’s done this moment (not as bad, not as desperate, not as never-ending as this, but similar) a dozen times before, and has never frozen or choked up or drawn a blank.

Until now. Until this moment. Sitting here in front of Perry, facing him in a remodeled version of the same office where she first met Clark. That meeting haunts her now—with all its what-ifs, and maybes, and possibilities. Maybe the worst thing that ever happened to Clark, first because she was told it was and then because she did her best to make sure it was the worst thing that ever happened to him. But still, somehow, maybe the best thing that ever happened to her. To meet Clark, to have him in her life, to see that spark of…something…light up his eyes for the very first time when he looked at her.

(The spark that flickered and sputtered and died under her manipulation.)

“Lois,” Perry says.

And Lois starts crying. Huge heaving sobs she can’t control, can’t hold back, can’t swallow back down to that dark gaping hole eating her up from the inside out. All the tears she thought she was too numb and empty to fill, bursting out of her in an explosion that seems devastating judging by Perry’s aghast expression but are merely the delayed aftershocks of the tragedy that’s already played out.

She brings her hands up and covers her face (wishes it were that easy), tries to ignore the temptation of those memories-that-should-be, and sinks into Perry’s awkward, sincere embrace.

“I don’t know what to do,” she sobs out. “I messed up, Perry, and I don’t know how to fix it.”

“Now, now, it can’t be that bad—”

“It’s Clark!” she cries, and then can’t speak again for several minutes. “It’s Clark,” she says again, when she can, when Perry’s hands on her back and his soothing murmur have cajoled her back to semi-coherency. “I broke his heart, and I don’t think I can take it back.”

“Ah.” He takes a deep breath, pats her one last time, helps her sit up straight, and even hands her a tissue from his desk (she takes it, and grabs several more, too, because a crying jag like this demands almost a whole box). “I…I was afraid it was something like that.”

“Has he been in at all?” As soon as the question is out, Lois winces at the pitiable tone turning her voice into a wavering mess. But she doesn’t take the question back.

“Uh, no. No, not exactly.” Perry rubs the back of his neck and stands to take a few steps away. “His parents called about a week ago. Said there’d been an emergency and he’d had to fly out to see them.”

He didn’t talk to you?”

“No. They…said he was out. Helping, though they were a bit vague on the details of what he was helping with.” Perry meets her eyes, then, unexpectedly, and she knows he sees the stricken look she doesn’t have time to cover up. “Lois, darling, what… No, never mind, I don’t want to get in the middle of anything, but…you’re sure it’s something you can’t fix? I mean, that boy, he…he’d do a lot for you.”

Only a quick shuddering breath, another pass of a crinkled tissue, and Perry’s startled expression keep her from falling into another crying fit. She feels unsteady. Unstable. As if one sudden movement, one sharp word, and all her molecules will go flying outward, separated from the impermeable field that holds them together into one cohesive shape. As if she will simply stop being…and just…disappear.

“Have…have you ever trusted the wrong source?” Lois finally asks. She can’t quite make herself look up at Perry (can’t bear to see his expression when she reveals how badly she’s misstepped). Instead, she looks down at her lap, and the shredded, sodden remains of her tissues. “Have you ever believed the wrong person and…and just messed everything up because of it?”

Gingerly, Perry approaches her again and sits next to her. His hand dances along her spine for a moment before settling down onto the chair back. Moments like this, naked and sensitive and emotional, are not Perry’s favorite, she knows, but still he sits there, beside her, and Lois almost starts crying again just to feel someone, anyone, so close to her. (She’s been so alone, lately, watching the news as the world starts to notice Superman’s absence; sitting at home and looking through her cut-up, pasted-together journal of another life and wondering where her lying source is now; staring at the phone and her door and trying to talk herself into, or out of, calling or visiting Clark. She’s just been alone, and it’s hard, and it’s lonely, and it’s felt like a prison sentence.)

“I think every reporter makes that mistake at least once,” Perry says quietly. “A lot of ‘em make it more than once. The trick is how to come back from it.”

Lois nods dully. Nothing she doesn’t know. Nothing she hasn’t already told herself. (It still means something, though, to hear it coming from Perry.)

“Why do I always wait until things are completely broken before I stop to think maybe I made a mistake?” she blurts out.

His low chuckle surprises her. “Well, now, that’s just because you’re stubborn. And that doesn’t have to be a bad thing, you know. Why, the King himself—”

“Please, Perry, no Elvis stories. Not right now.”

“All right.” He nudges the trashcan over toward her. “You pick a path and you keep on it, Lois. It’s what makes you a good reporter—never letting anything stop you from reaching your goal. And all right, so it steers you wrong sometimes. It’s also what keeps you trying and trying until you fix the problems you see.”

She lets out a laugh that sounds jagged and poisoned. “That’s what I always told myself too. But this time…”

“Look, darling, you and I both know not everything can be fixed.” Perry shakes his head with a rueful smile. “But if I have faith in anything anymore, it’s that Lois Lane can come through pretty much anything.”

“But can Clark?”

The question hangs in the air like a drenched flag. White, and heavy, and speaking of surrender (or maybe just an admission of guilt).

Perry stares at her for a long beat, then smiles. Gently. Kindly. Knowingly. “I wouldn’t bet against that young man. Not for anything. And maybe you should give him a little bit more credit, Lois. After all, he’s lasted longer than either one of us would have thought the first day we met him.”

It’s comforting (like a justification). It’s calming (like an excuse). It’s not enough (like the truth).

“Yeah,” she says.

He’s strong. He’s invulnerable. He’s optimistic and idealistic and good, and Lois knows Clark can stand up against all the forces of this world without bowing or flinching.

But she also knows that he’s fragile, and vulnerable, and oh so very breakable. Because it is not his body that Clark entrusted to Lois.

It’s his heart, and that is made of something even more delicate than spun glass; it’s made of trust, and love, and faith (and she broke them all).


She’s coming out of Perry’s office (his trashcan filled with Kleenex, his face shadowed with a few more worried lines) and walks right into someone very solid. Her eyes ache from the tears, her head hurts with a constant pain, and she opens her mouth to snap at whoever got in her way.

She looks up. Draws breath.

Loses that breath all at once.

Clark stares back at her, his apology already half-spoken, rising from his mouth and then falling, misshapen and premature, to the floor to shatter between them.

“Clark,” she says (and it feels like a reprieve, unlooked for and fully appreciated, to be able to speak his name again).

She’s so close to him, close enough to feel the shudder wrack his frame (hidden, as usual, behind his boxy suit and distracting tie).

“Sorry,” he mutters, and steps almost a foot away. Waiting for her to walk away from him again. Waiting to get into Perry’s office (to give his resignation? to leave her behind forever? to leave Clark Kent behind?).

Sudden desperation (panic) surges through her in lightning waves of frantic desperation. “Clark, I need to tell you—”

He shoots her a look, then, different from any other he has ever given her. Jagged. Desperate.

Scared.

She stops—speaking, moving, breathing. (Hoping.)

He’s scared of her. Terrified of her. Of her.

“Lois, I…” He swallows, looks toward Perry’s office as if to a lifeline. “I can’t, okay? I just…you said it was over. So don’t do this anymore.”

And he’s gone, fleeing as he never has before (not from her; not from anything this world has thrown at him; not in any flicker of the never-to-be-future), ducking into Perry’s office and shutting the door firmly between them.

Lois leaves the newsroom—to give him space, she tells herself. (Doing her own running away, she knows.) Heads out into traffic, walks until she has blisters, wipes away tears.

And wonders how she’s supposed to accomplish any of her plans to confront her source if she can’t even talk to Clark.

(Wonders if the broken shards inside her breastbone will ever stop scraping along the interior of her soul and bleeding her dry.)


 

Desperate times call for desperate measures. That’s the only explanation for why she’s here, standing on the roof of a forty-story building, looking over the edge and hoping Clark is still in town. The wind scatters her hair in every direction, stings her eyes and gives her excuse for their watery state. Her hands shake, but her voice is steady as she calls for Superman.

“Please, Clark,” she whispers. “Save me one more time.”

It’s actually not as hard to jump as she assumed it would be (half the time spent readying herself for this last-ditch plan was mostly just coaching herself on actually stepping off firm ground into empty air). She feels almost free, in fact, tearing herself away from the dreams-turned-nightmares dogging her every step, ripping herself away from the mistakes she’s made. It’s liberating, to throw herself forward without knowing what will happen (and she hates it, because this is exactly what she’s been doing her entire life, and exactly the reason she is in the mess she’s in now, since it all started when she stepped from the known into the unknown with a completely false sense of bravado).

The lights of the buildings around her, the feel of the wind scouring her flesh, the billow of her clothes whipping at her body…all of it blurs and streams together into a solid, unending parade of sensation. There’s no room for thought or fear or regret, only sight and feel and sound.

Only one way forward. No way back.

The ground transforms from a featureless blur at the edge of her vision to a reality. It looms, larger and larger, until it threatens to dominate her entire life. To consume it. To destroy it.

Her hands tighten their grip on the only thing holding her silent.

But that’s the wrong thing to do.

Her mouth fills with cold, streaming air when she opens it, and all she can do to beat it back is to scream out his name.

“Clark!”

(It’s strange, that name that comes quivering and urgent from her throat, when she has spent all afternoon envisioning the scene with a different, newer name in its place. Strange, and yet somehow, completely unsurprising.)

She doesn’t have time to think he won’t be there. Doesn’t have time to worry that he hates her so much he will not answer, or is so frightened of her that he is no longer anywhere close enough to hear her. She only has time to notice that the myriad lights, all gold and green and red and glittering, look like stars. Like a galaxy pulling her in upside down and inside out (or maybe she was that way already, and it is her own perception that has flipped it).

And then there he is.

She feels him before she sees him. Is embraced by his warmth and his strength before she hears his heartbeat, thudding painfully fast against her ear. His cape flutters against the backdrop of artificial cosmos, wrapped around her by sheer momentum and the abrupt change of their direction from down (and nowhere) to up (and somewhere).

Her breath is caught in her throat, or even deeper, stifled at the bottom of her lungs, aborted before it begins. Her hands are still shaking.

In a swooping move that sends familiar butterflies dancing through her stomach, they are at the roof (back where she started, going in circles, over and over and over again). He sets her down, and she stumbles from the speed with which he separates them (but she can still hear the echo of that panicked heartbeat rattling around her eardrums).

Whatever expression he holds, whatever secrets the moonlight will reveal, is swept away when he sees the ropes attached to the harness strapped around her torso.

“Lois!” he bites out her name. Stern. Irritated. Even angry.

(She breathes a sigh of relief, because anger is so much better than resignation.)

“What?” she says defensively, stripping herself of the harness as quickly as possible, not wanting any distractions from this conversation. “I’m desperate, not suicidal.”

His sigh is explosive, but it’s the downtrodden slope to his shoulders that really makes her heart twinge. “Why would you do something like this? Jumping off a building?”

“Because I need to talk to you,” she says, searches his face for signs of that terror she saw there earlier, “and this was the only way I could think of to get your attention.”

His eyes are cold as diamonds, etched against his face by harsh moonlight. “Really? Because I feel like your last tactic worked pretty well at keeping my attention.”

She doesn’t need the headache nearing migraine level (despite the double dose of pills she took before coming here) or the flickering images that cause it to read his expression—hurt and anger and resignation and loss and remorse, all rolled up into a burden that Clark, of all people, should never have to bear.

“I’m sorry,” she says (a single blanket statement to cover up almost the entirety of her interactions with Clark). “I’m so sorry, but you wouldn’t talk to me at the Plan—”

“I can’t do this,” he says, hurriedly. And he’s standing at the edge, stepping back, moving toward that empty air that doesn’t mean the same thing to him as it does to her (though maybe it does, freedom and liberation and running away from the past). “Not now. Not yet.”

Her heart leaping forward to bang against her ribcage, Lois takes a hasty step closer to him, as if she could possibly pull him back down to the earth (to her). “It’s not what you think! I—”

In a move that single-handedly crushes her heart to dust, he holds up his hands between them. A shield. A ward. A move to protect himself from her. And the fear is back, scrawled all across his face. “Don’t you understand?” he cries. “I love you, and you’re breaking my heart! I can’t do this—”

“This is important!” she yells, cutting him off.

He stares at her, stricken.

“I…I’m not saying that…” Her words are gone. Her voice is stolen. Her plan is shot down to pieces before she can even try to complete it. “I didn’t mean that the way it sounded. Of course your…of course that’s important, I just…I need to tell you why—”

“I know why,” he interrupts, and much as he tries to mask it with anger, she hears the hollowness of his voice.

(And he’s always been wiser than her, always spotted danger so much more quickly, and he is so right to be so terrified of her, but he’s never been as good at protecting himself as she has, and it’s too late, because all his fears have come true.)

He takes a deep breath.” “Superman’s the mask when you thought he was the man.”

There it is. Spelled out for her. The key to escape from the prison cell her source made for her.

Except that to Clark, it’s not the key. It’s the cell door slamming between him and all his dreams.

“No!” Her hands hover near his arm, but he flinches. A tiny recoil that reverberates through her universe as surely as if the sun has just gone supernova. She cannot touch him, then, not when he is so very frightened of her (not when she so clearly doesn’t deserve the comfort of his touch).

“No, that’s not the reason. I…I did come to your apartment that night because I found out you were Superman, but that’s exactly the thing.”

He is bewildered, and swings away from her to hide it, casting the shadow of his profile against her like a ghostly touch (the only kind she will be allowed now). “You…you wanted to hurt me?”

“I wanted to save you!” she cries over the pounding of drums (of judges’ gavels, proclaiming her guilty no matter the extenuating circumstances). But she shrinks back immediately after, lest he turn from his perusal of Metropolis to gaze on her, surely just as flawed and corrupt as the city.

It’s too late. He is turning toward her (still so completely exempt of any trace of self-protection). “What?” His brow is furrowed, his tone distant, but he is looking at her again. He is looking, and he is listening, and this is her one slim chance (her last appeal).

“Just…just listen, all right, because I know this all sounds ridiculous, but I swear it’s true.” He isn’t flying away, isn’t reduced to only a speck of red and blue, so she takes a deep breath (wrests it up and out of the viscous bottom of her lungs and lets it go free) and launches into a rapid spiel.

“The night that I told Superman I loved him, and that I would even if he were an ordinary man—which under the circumstances I can see why you didn’t believe me, but is actually true—I was upset. Devastated. And I wasn’t thinking—well, never mind. The point is, I was angry and confused when a man knocked at my door. I shouldn’t have answered it—believe me, I’d do anything now not to have answered it—but I did. It was an older man with white hair and dark, really severe eyes covered up by glasses, and he knew things, Clark, things he shouldn’t have been able to know. He said he came from the future.”

She’s been afraid to look at Clark too closely (afraid of his reactions; afraid of knowing for sure with no more chances left for hope), but here he snorts out a soft disbelieving scoff. “Really, Lois? The future?”

“I know,” she blurts out, desperate that he not give up and leave, “but you believed in the invisible man, and hypnosis turned out to be pretty real, and you’re an alien, so just hear me out.” It comes out harsher than she intended; she winces when she sees Clark recoil, locking himself back behind walls (but he’s no good at making them, not experienced at it like her, and they are far too transparent, paper-thin).

“He had a kind of strange palm-sized box, and I was laughing at his claims when he did something to it, and suddenly there was a sort of window floating vertically in my living room, glowing and shimmering, and I could hear the sounds of a city behind its curtain of light. Well, you know me and how good I am at letting go of anything that could be a big story, so I went through it.”

“Lois!” She almost melts at the familiar tones of exasperation and concern shading his voice from a stranger’s to a friend’s. “How could you? What if—”

“It took me to the future, Clark,” she interrupts (because as encouraging as it is, his concern is months’ late; because now that she has released the floodgates, all of these truths, these excuses, these justifications, come spilling out in an unstoppable torrent, hopefully drowning out his anger and blame and hatred…but never, she knows, his fear). “It was Metropolis, but it was definitely the future. The technology, the newspapers, the people, the landscape, even. The future, but a better one.”

She dredges up another deep breath. “It’s called Utopia, and it’s all because of Superman. Because of you. The ideals that you fight for, the example you provide so we can all aspire to greater things, the amazing deeds you do—all of it, everything you are, created Utopia. A world where people are happy and crime is nearly nonexistent, and truth and justice prevail, and a hundred-foot statue of Superman stands in Centennial Park.”

Despite her better judgment, she has to stop then, just for a moment. Long enough to try to gauge Clark’s reaction. He’s listening. She’s not sure she can read any more than that from his stiff silence, but that’s better than she dreaded this would go, and there’s no stopping now.

“I stayed there for three days, just to be sure. To prove it to myself. I traveled a hundred miles and saw a new suburb that’s not there yet. I read history books from a random bookshop that doesn’t exist here. I visited the lobby of the Superman museum and read the pamphlets. I talked to people on the streets. It wasn’t a hoax, Clark, or a con. It was real. It is real.” She swallows. “And it was all fading away. In just the three days I was there, the city noticeably changed. The buildings got darker and grimier, crime started to spike, and your statue began to tarnish and rust, covered in graffiti. Utopia was dying, and it was because of me.”

The sentence falls like a death knell. She hates saying it, hates even more saying it to Clark rather than her source. Hates it because she’s seen the truth of it already, here in her own time, watching the happiness fade from Clark’s eyes, the bounce disappear from his step, the hope die in his heart. In a way, she’s watched paradise fall twice now, and both times, she has been the cause of its demise.

“I don’t understand,” Clark murmurs. “How could you be responsible for any of that?”

“We were never supposed to meet, Clark,” she says, and ugh, she wanted to do this without crying (without burdening him with her own grief), but her throat has a lump in it and her voice is watery and her vision is hazed with moisture as well as with the ignored visions of a parallel life. “John Doe told me that—”

“John Doe?” he says, cutting her off, and she wants to scream. She wants this all to be out in the open. She wants him to know everything. She wants to never again have to lie or pretend everything. (She wants to be a coward and let him have all the responsibility of making the decisions and knowing what to do with this impossible situation.) “You trusted a guy who called himself John Doe?”

“That’s…” She waves her hand vaguely through the air. “He said he couldn’t tell me his real name, that it’d give too much away or—I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that he said you and I were never supposed to meet.” She talks faster, aware that Clark is frowning, his brows drawing down in negation, but he needs to believe her. (He needs to know she never wanted to hurt him.) “Something went wrong, and things were thrown off course, and we met. And because we did, all of Utopia was slowly but surely ceasing to exist.”

Clark is shaking his head. “How could our meeting possibly be a mistake—”

“Because I’m a distraction!” She pants heavily (wishes that this, of everything, was the lie). “I’m a distraction for you, Clark, and that’s all.”

His jaw clenches. He draws back another step in midair, his arms folding over his chest (like an extra wall to guard his precious, fragile heart from her). He is chiseled stone, granite, steel, every impossibly strong substance that can wall her away (and he doesn’t need practice to build walls, after all; or maybe he does have practice, to hide his secret from the world, and this is just the first time he has built them for her).

“John Doe…he said that you…you fell in love with me, and you shouldn’t have. You weren’t supposed to. You got so distracted—loving me and saving me all the time and chasing stories with me—that you…you never became a strong enough foundation for Utopia to be built on. It was founded and successful because Superman was everywhere, saving everyone, but instead you became fixated on me. And eventually, one time you didn’t save me in time”—she notices the painful spasm that ghosts across his rigid features at this—“and Superman disappeared. And Utopia never existed.”

She pauses, but he says nothing. Makes no reaction. Gives no sign.

And she is desperate. Panicked.

Guilty. Ashamed.

“I wanted to save the world,” she pleads with his unmoving profile. “I wanted to save you. Superman is here to help, and Clark always helps, and what better reward is there for that than a perfect world in your name? John Doe said you would never give up on me, never walk away on your own, that once you loved, it was immovable. So the only chance to get Superman back was to make you give up on the idea of love. He said I just had to make you happy for a while and then break it off. He said you would recover, that you would be stronger for it, and that you would be the hero the world needed.”

He turns his head, hiding even his profile from her. A slight movement, but it sparks an earthquake in her soul.

She takes a hasty step forward, her toes crushed up against the ledge, reaching out toward him. “I didn’t take you seriously, Clark. That day, on the park bench. I didn’t take your confession of love as seriously as I should have, and I’m sorry. I know now that you meant it, but I…at the time, I thought it was just a crush. A fleeting attraction. And he said you’d be fine, and who doesn’t suffer a few broken hearts in their lifetime? Everyone recovers and moves on—”

“Did you?”

She stammers, stunned that he can speak at all through his unmoving jaw. “W-what?”

“You’ve told me about how your heart was broken. Have you recovered?”

And she is speechless, because she hasn’t. She’s grown up and moved on (become the breaker of hearts rather than the owner of the broken heart) but there are scars on her heart still. Wounds where those pains never quite healed right but instead shaped and molded her. (And she felt nothing at all for Claude or Paul or anyone else compared to what she knows, has seen, has felt, that Clark feels for her.)

“I wanted to save you,” she finally whispers. A piteous plea. “I wanted to save the world for you, and I was in too deep by the time I realized the price was too high. He told me your pain would be temporary. He told me Utopia would be safe. And all I had to do was give you up—and I thought it would be worth it but—”

“He was wrong.”

She’s already shaking her head, already looking away. She’s made this denial herself (still thinks it, guided by those flashes of memories and futures, but it doesn’t matter anymore; it’s far too late). “Clark, I know it’s hard to accept, but I walked through those streets. I saw—”

“I don’t care,” he says, unbending. Unyielding. And he steps forward, his own feet right up against the ledge. Only that thin strip of concrete separates them. His face is cast into light, and she can see, behind the granite walls of his expression, the sincere earnestness shining in his eyes. “I don’t care what he said or what you saw. I believe you, Lois, all right, because I know you wouldn’t make something like this up. But it doesn’t matter. John Doe is wrong. You’re wrong. All of Utopia is wrong if it is founded on the premise that love is less important than some idyllic, idolized symbol high up above everyone else.”

And his arms uncross, and his walls fall away, and it is Clark, with his kindness and openness and compassion (and courage) standing in front of her. “Loving you could not possibly make me weaker or more ineffective or less in any way. Loving you made me stronger, braver. I couldn’t be Superman without you, Lois—there would never even have been a Superman if I hadn’t met you.”

“I don’t…I don’t understand.”

“Meeting you made me want to stay in Metropolis. Seeing your drive made me brave enough to try again after Perry turned me down in my job interview. You told me to bring a change of clothes to work. You gave Superman his name, and most of his ideals and quotes—you gave me the epitome of a hero that I strive to live up to. There is no Superman without Lois Lane.”

The air closes in around her. The lights are blurring and fading into shooting stars that streak by just out of reach.

“You…you just think that now,” she begins.

“I know,” he says. “Lois, where has Superman been these past two weeks?”

She pales. Thinks of all the empty news she watched, waiting in vain for mention of a Superman sighting.

“Exactly. He hasn’t been. And if there’s no Utopia without a focused, on-the-job Superman, then there is no Utopia without Lois Lane. I don’t know if this John Doe has read the wrong history books or if he has some kind of agenda of his own, but he’s dead wrong.”

Lois swallows, ignores the way the world is spinning around her (the vast chasm spanning in the foot of distance between her and Clark), and makes herself remember her plan. The notes she jotted down as she pored over that could-have-been timeline.

“That’s why I needed to talk to you so badly. I thought my source wanted to save Utopia, and that’s why I did all this. But you’re right—he cared more about Superman than he did Clark Kent. And that’s wrong. It made me finally realize that I think he actually wants to destroy Utopia. Destroy you.”

Clark nods. “It makes sense. A lot more sense than that he wants to save the world by erasing Lois Lane from my life.”

Flinching, she looks away. His words sound wonderful. Hopeful. Beautiful.

But he is cold. Remote. Earnest, yet aloof. He is standing next to her, but allows them to remain divided by gravity. And maybe his words speak of a future where they are happy together (a future she’s seen and envisioned and wrapped herself in so many times that there is a permanent path of pain etched through her mind), where he still loves her…but she thinks that he is speaking as much of the past as she has been speaking of the future.

He did love her. He was made better by her. He once patterned himself to her words and her presence in his life.

But not anymore.

You’re wrong, he said, and that’s that.

She made the wrong choice. Trusted the wrong person. Took Clark Kent for granted one too many times.

And now here they are. Allies by circumstance. Nothing more.

“I think I’ve heard this John Doe around,” he says unexpectedly. “And I think I know how to find him. When I do, do you know how to send him back to the future?”

“We traveled through the window he opened. I think he always carries it around with him.” She pauses, then adds, “I don’t think he actually spends much time here; he’s shown up in my apartment when he shouldn’t have been able to get in.”

“Do you think you can open the time-window?”

She frowns at him. “Why? If he’s targeting you, he’ll just come back.”

“I don’t think so.” Clark shrugs, a stiff, ponderous movement that makes her wonder if his every move hurts him as much as hers do. “If he really is trying to destroy Utopia, chances are there are people from there that would love to stop him. If we turn him over to them, he won’t be able to keep coming back and making trouble for us.”

“Oh. Of course. Good idea.”

For some reason, Clark flinches at that. “Yes, well, I do have some of those. Too bad you didn’t think of that when a strange man first came and abducted you.”

It hurts, and absurdly, that makes her feel a bit better. It’s so much easier to listen to a biting rejoinder than the beautiful words of love he gave so coldly.

Clark swallows, and looks away. He’s drifting, no longer pressed up against the ledge, the edges of his profile blending into the backdrop of lights and shadows. “The point is, if I can find this John Doe, can you help me get rid of him?”

“Yes.” She tries to stand straighter, feels the weight of it on her bones. “I can.”

And he’s disappearing. Leaving. Vanishing out of her life (and there will be only one more meeting between them, when they send John Doe back to his future while she prays it hasn’t been altered too badly). The knowledge that this might be the last time she gets to really speak with Clark gives her courage.

(Or just more desperation, enough to fuel another insane action.)

“Clark!” She reaches out, dangerously far over that long, exhilarating fall, and catches hold of his arm. It tenses to stone beneath her touch, though she doesn’t let that deter her. In the midst of all the confessions and truths, she feels something very important has been forgotten. The most important thing of all.

“Clark,” she says again, a quiet whisper. “I am sorry. I’m so sorry I hurt you.”

A ripple passes over his jaw muscles, a shadow over his eyes (fear over his posture). “Me, too,” he finally whispers, and then he’s gone, leaving her bereft in his wake.

Chapter Text

He focuses on the small things. The temperature fluctuating around him as he moves in gridlike patterns farther and then nearer the harbor. The din of so many noises they crescendo into chaos, and the underlying arrhythmic pulse of heartbeats as he searches for that elusive sound he’s not even sure anymore that he will recognize. The pain building up along the back of his skull, directly affected by the auditory overload he intentionally buries himself under. The protest from the bones in his hands as he tightens them, again, into bruising fists.

Everything else, he blocks out. He ignores. He forgets.

Or pretends he does.

Things like Lois’s whisper reaching him just before he took off out of his apartment for Smallville. The panic that clawed at his throat when he saw how close to the ground she was. The fury that nearly blinded him with heat-vision red when he realized she was only manipulating him. Again. (Wanting to talk to Superman instead of Clark. Wanting to partner with him instead of be with him. Needing him instead of wanting him.)

Things like the disbelief that battered him in receding, engulfing waves as she spilled out all those desperate words that sounded so fantastical and felt too real. The even beating of her heart as she told him she didn’t take him seriously (a direct countermeasure to the rat-a-tat-tatting of fallen dice that had echoed her when she told him she wanted to try to love him). The leap of his own pulse when she said she’d wanted to save him (save him, save his legacy, while he is bleeding out right in front of her, wounded with a thousand cuts left by her caressing hands and soft lips).

The cold shiver working its way down his spine when she reached out to touch him. When she said she was sorry. When he realized none of it (the excuses and justifications and fantastical story) mattered.

He still hurt.

His heart still felt jagged and molten.

His mind still ran up against the same obstacles over and over again.

She was sorry. She’d been trying to help him. She wanted to save him. And what? Did she think that would make everything better? (Did he think that?) Erase the past torturous months? Undo that night in his apartment when his entire world came crashing down atop him? Did she think telling him it had all been a con (a lie so big he can’t, even now, fully comprehend it) would make everything magically go back to the way it was before? How could she think that? How could he have ever thought that if she had some form of explanation, he would feel better?

He doesn’t know. He can’t think. Can only react and feel, and none of this feels right. Or good. Or healing.

What had she told him when she shut the door on a future together? Oh, yes (as if he could ever forget): It isn’t enough.

Well, it isn’t. It’s not nearly enough.

She’s sorry, and it doesn’t matter. He still can’t see a future.

(Only the past, over and over and over again, rewriting it, rewatching, understanding now, finally seeing all the clues she left him that he so willfully, naively ignored.)

Which is why he’s flying over Metropolis in a specific pattern for the twelfth time in three days, on the hunt for a tiny, insignificant, specific sound. If he concentrates enough on the immediate (and not on the past, on the future, on the hypothetical), he can complete the grid four times in a day. It doesn’t leave him much time for meals or visits home or his job, but then, he’s still not sure he’s going to stay in Metropolis anyway, so maybe this will make the decision for him.

Finally finishing just over his apartment (for only the fourth time, since he varies the direction of his search), Clark stumbles when he hits his balcony. The cessation of all the noise in the city pounds into him with nearly as much force as the noise itself had, and he has to hold his head in his hands for a moment before he can regain his balance and even think of opening the balcony door.

Not that he has to do that either.

When he can manage to lift his head, drop his hands back to his sides, and look up, he sees Lois standing there. Holding the door open for him. Watching him.

She looks small. Worried. Nervous.

All such very strange, unusual things when paired with Lois Lane. But then, what’s new? Why should he even feel surprised at all to be surprised by her?

Has he ever really known her? Maybe this is what she looks like. Maybe this is what’s left when the con is over and the blinding lights are gone and the magic’s packed away for the next unwitting dupe. Maybe this is what the stranger who wore Lois’s face really looks like, beneath the dream he fooled himself into seeing.

He stiffens, slightly, makes sure that his body doesn’t betray any of the raging confusion swirling like a whirlpool inside him, bruising everything it hits, and walks past her without a word. Without a sound. Without any visible reaction whatsoever.

It’s what he’d do, after all, if it were someone he’d never seen before standing there, watching Superman land on Clark Kent’s balcony and stride into his apartment. It’s what he’d do for any stranger he wasn’t sure he could trust.

And that’s what Lois Lane is: a stranger.

At least…this Lois Lane is.

“Any luck?” she asks softly.

Because he doesn’t know what else to do (because even as awkward as this is already, he cannot quite bring himself to fold his arms across his chest as if it is only Superman standing in this Suit before her, not when he has already told her his Secret and envisioned a world where there are no lies between them), he fills his kettle with water. Places it, carefully, on top of the stove. Lets it begin to heat.

It doesn’t seem worth his time to reply to her question, not when the answer is so readily obvious.

(He wants to ask a question of his own, to demand why she is there, breaking their unspoken truce, blurring all the lines they have drawn. He doesn’t trust himself enough to speak.)

“Still nothing, huh?” The casual normalcy of her voice is so forced, so unnatural, that both of them wince away from the sound of it.

Once more, for the thousandth time, Clark has to unclench his protesting hands from their fists. Has to float a miniscule bit above the floor to keep from making a tiny crater to match the one in the living room behind him (the impact of his heart being thrown back at him).

“Clark, please,” Lois whispers (and maybe there is no crater in his floor, but there is in his soul, a scar to show where her words and the pleading tone of her voice strike and bruise). “I’ve tried to give you space, but…I have to know what’s going on.”

At that, he cannot control himself. His stiff, steel bones melt and contract so that he whips his head in her direction, levels a glare at her that is only the barest hint of self-control away from containing unearthly fire.

She needs to know what’s going on? She wants to be kept informed? How nice it would have been for him if she had thought the same thing for her partner. How much better off they would be now if she had confided in him. (How much safer he could have kept his heart if she had told him she only intended to shatter it.)

Lois recoils, and he knows she read his thoughts in his stare. (And it’s not fair, how she can still read him so well when she is a stranger he does not know and cannot read.) She shrinks inward, pales, then gives a slow, defeated nod.

“Right,” she says. “Of course. Well then…I guess I’ll be going.”

His hands are curled back into fists (he is reminded of a dead thing, how it contracts in on itself, emptied and stripped of everything that matters), but he does not turn to watch her head to the door. He does not walk her out. He does nothing.

(Better, by far, to do nothing than to entrust his heart to a stranger, confide his secrets to a con-woman, bank his future and his parents on a partner he does not know.)

But he listens. He cannot stop himself. He is, for all he has tried to sever it in the deafening chaos of a million other heartbeats, somehow inextricably linked to the steady pulse of this one stranger’s familiar heart.

So he hears it when she stops at the door, her fingers brushing against the dry paint over the knob. He hears her swallow to gather her courage and turn back toward him. He hears her say, “Don’t worry about Perry. I told him you were undercover. It should buy you a couple more days at least.”

He wants to tell her not to bother. He feels the words in his throat, ready to come out and let her know that he doesn’t need her to protect his job for him. But he says nothing. He can’t. He hasn’t been able to speak for three days, since the night she told him she cares more about his reputation than his heart. Since she stopped lying and revealed that his Secret means nothing to her, that the future she will never see is worth more than their partnership. Their friendship. Their anything.

His throat is tight, lined with cement. His tongue has become a desert, filled with the bones of whatever could not escape it, his teeth sentries that allow nothing in or out. He is silent, reduced to only a repository for the sounds constantly inundating him on every side.

The door clicks shut, her footsteps recede, and still her heartbeat taps away inside his head.

He does not know this Lois, the one who just left, the one who jumped off a building to be able to tell him she doesn’t love him (while hinting that she does, and how could she? why would she say that?), the one who shattered his heart with a hollow, expressionless look on her face.

But he cannot forget his Lois. The one he befriended and loved from a distance. The one he wrote stories with and ate Chinese with and told her he loved. The one who kissed him and gave him tickets to a magic show and told him good night and loved him.

Except…except that was the stranger-Lois, wasn’t it? Pretending, playing a part, forcing herself to be with him and counting down the days until she could cut him loose so she could go back to her life the way it’s meant to be.

There are two Loises. The one before, the one after, and that one in the middle only confuses him—the Lois who wrapped her arms around him and pulled him down on top of her and overwhelmed him to the point where he could not stop shaking, where stars exploded behind his eyes and universes erupted along his skin and the future wasn’t something to fear.

(He is shaking now, too, but for a different reason…he thinks. He hopes.)

Is that Lois the before or the after? Is she somehow both, or only a lie, or everything he’s ever dreamed of? It’s so hard to know, to differentiate them, because he wants her to be his Lois, wants it all to have been real, slivers of truth amidst boulders of deception, but he is only now realizing just how easy it is to be deceived and he does not want to fall back into that (into her) trap again so easily.

And yet…for all that, he cannot quite convince himself that her soft kisses and the look of such unfiltered affection and her quiet plea that he not hate her were all part of the lie.

It can’t be. (He doesn’t think he can survive it if it was all just an act, if she really hates him that much.)

The kettle is whistling, a shrill sound that cuts like Kryptonite through his skull. He uncurls his hands yet again to remove it from the stove, turn off the burner, and open the balcony door once again.

There’s no time for tea. Not if he wants to finish another search of Metropolis. Not if he wants to find this John Doe who threatens everything he still cares about.

(Not if he wants to drown out the sound of Lois crying, four blocks away, as she walks toward her apartment.)


In the end, he doesn’t find that heartbeat he’s searching for, maybe because this John Doe is ten steps ahead and never would have let him catch him unawares or maybe just because Clark’s heard literally millions of other heartbeats since he last chased that elusive pulse to Stryker’s Island. In the end, it doesn’t matter because it all goes back to Lois. (The stranger, the lover, the partner, what does it matter at all next to the staggering enormity of silence?)

She’s the one John Doe went to first, to destroy Superman and Utopia. She’s the one he used and manipulated and turned into a weapon. And she’s the one who ultimately leads Clark to John Doe in the simplest, most terrifying way of all.

Her heartbeat winks out.

Clark didn’t even know he was listening for it, to it, using it as a fixed point to keep him grounded amidst the cacophony of noise bombarding him from every side. But it disappears (she disappears, the last remnant of the Lois he loves), and he comes crashing to a halt in the sky sixteen blocks away from the Daily Planet.

She’s gone. Vanished. Dead.

He has only an instant to think that (to feel a scream building, poised to rip through his imposed silence and shatter the earth itself) before her heartbeat comes back. And back. And back. And back.

A hundred different heartbeats, all intrinsically Lois’s, all echoing and resounding against each other. All coming from the same place.

The air rends in a sonic book behind him and Clark erupts through the walls and floor and ceiling of LexTower to emerge in a wine cellar he’s fairly certain wouldn’t show up on any filed blueprints.

In the center of the cavernous room, surrounded by overlarge casks of wine that smell overpoweringly potent, overwhelmingly bitter, there’s a cage. Inside the cage, lounging against the bars as if it’s a throne rather than a prison, there’s a man—old and white-haired and wearing glasses that do nothing to disguise his arrogance and triumph.

Lois’s heartbeats skitter and build all around him (a prison of their own, caging him within their thumping metronome, fixing him to the ground), but even with x-ray vision he can find no other trace of her. Only that cage, and the man, and a palm-sized box in his hand that glows and shimmers and resonates with those hundred different, similar, familiar heartbeats.

He has her. This man (John Doe, and for all that Clark scoffed at the name, it does seem to fit him, casts a sinister edge to this man Clark already recognizes as an enemy) with a portal to other times—he’s taken Lois and who knows where (when) he’s keeping her. Who knows how Clark will be able to get her back.

And all of this (the lies and the three days in the future with Lois and the elaborate game and the scheming lies and the Clarks he dropped so carefully to keep him distracted and paranoid and always looking in the wrong direction, all of it), just to bring Clark here. Standing in front of him. Already broken, bleeding inwardly, all but defeated. All of it this John Doe’s game with Clark both the target and the pawn, the King on a chessboard with only one move open to him and all the stakes hinged on his fate.

Caution sizzles against his skin like steam, and Clark moves forward slowly, infinitely careful, more aware of his mortality (his vulnerabilities) in this moment than he has ever been before. He is rewarded for his caution by the sick dullness turning his limbs to lead and the green glow that springs up around the bars of that cage (not a throne, but a trump card). Instantly, unwillingly, he stops where he is, retreats a few inches and sees that glow recede.

“We meet at last!” John Doe proclaims, and his voice echoes all around them, marred by potent bitterness (but cannot mar the melody of Lois’s heart beating a rhythm that encases Clark’s steaming, electrified form). “Although I’m sure you’ve heard all about me by now. Lois never does like to play by the rules—nothing like her husband at all.”

His jaw has been clenched tighter than his fists and it feels like a battle just to make his mouth open, but he does it, forces his teeth to part and his tongue to move and his throat to unlock so he can say, “John Doe.” (It’s always important to name the enemy, to know it, to face it; not to shrink away or turn aside.)

His voice sounds gritty, rusted and weathered, but at least it sounds.

“A minor affectation.” The older man waves a hand through the air, the one that holds the portal, and Clark tenses as it makes the echoes of Lois’s heart (hearts? how many Loises does this man have, kept locked away while multiple Clarks tremble and shake and panic?) waver and shimmer. “The name’s Tempus, actually,” his smile is cold and poisonous and so wide it makes Clark shudder, “and yours is Clark Kent. I guess we both prefer the allure of a good disguise.” And with that, he pulls his glasses off in a showy gesture, tosses them to the side where they bounce against the cement floor and land next to a Kryptonite bar. “Never overlook the effectiveness of a simple trick, eh, Clark?”

Clark doesn’t let himself be pulled in by the barb (the implications behind it), just keeps staring at John Doe. No, at Tempus, this man from the future who may know him better than Clark could expect, but still doesn’t know everything (not if he thought Clark would ever give up wholly and completely on Lois). “Where’s Lois?” he asks, because that’s what’s important. That’s what matters most here.

(Lois, his Lois; Lois, the stranger-Lois; any Lois, every Lois, they all matter.)

Tempus raises his eyebrows in an exaggerated show of surprise. “What’s this? You still want to save her? Come on, Superman, she’s the one who broke your heart!” He lifts a finger and wags it at him, as if they are old friends, as if Clark is someone he wants to protect from himself. “Don’t try to say she didn’t—we both know that’s what Lois Lanes are good for, right? Leading Clark Kent on and breaking Superman’s heart! And once again, why overlook the effectiveness of a tried and true method.” He shrugs and looks down to his portal, tinkers with it, looks up with a sly sidelong glance that makes Clark automatically tense and ready himself for some form of attack. “That was always my problem, you know—I spent so long trying to do things in a beautifully ironic way, tripping over my own convoluted plans, when the simplest solution was always right there in front of me.” He smiles that cold smile again, a flash of white teeth against the darkness of the cellar, and throws out his arm bombastically. “Just let her do it for me. The beauty of it! No one can bring a Superman to his knees faster than Lois Lane.”

Finally that caution splinters, turns from steam to electricity, and Clark lunges forward, almost to the bars, ignoring the bruising ache in his joints. “Where is she?” he hisses.

“Case in point,” Tempus says softly, then straightens, once more the consummate showman, revealing the illusion and waiting for his applause. “I wouldn’t get much closer if I were you, Clark. Lex Luthor has never been able to really get the job done, but he sure has developed quite a few different ways of almost slaying a god. And even though I had to regretfully get him out of the way in this world, I couldn’t let this delightful cage go to waste.” At his words, the bars seem to glow brighter, pulsing waves of pain adding to the headache encasing Clark’s skull.

“You think you’re safe in there?” Clark asks scornfully (but carefully, because he is centuries behind Tempus and has no time to catch up; because this is a man who can bring Lex Luthor crashing to his knees as if he is no more than a minor obstacle). “How much protection do you think Kryptonite will give you when I tear this building down around us and watch the rubble bury you?”

Tempus’s eyes widen. “Temper, temper,” he chides. “I didn’t realize this Clark was quite so cranky. And before you set about on your remodeling, may I remind you that if you bury me in here, you also bury any hope of beating Lois’s location out of me.”

His own heart rate spikes, a quick leap that clashes discordantly with Lois’s choir of beats. “What do you want?” he demands. There’s no way, he knows (he hopes), that Tempus would have gone so far out of his way to engineer this meeting if he didn’t want something from him (that he would have killed Lois already, out of sight, without Clark there to see it).

“I want you in pain,” Tempus replies, and to contrast the chilling words, his tone is so conversational it takes an instant for Clark to process what he’s actually saying. “I want you broken and alone. I want you dead. But, well, we never get everything we want, do we? So I’ll settle for two out of three. Your choice, which two you pick.”

Clark narrows his eyes (tries not to show that all his attention is on the portal in Tempus’s hand and the distance between that hand and the nearest gap in the bars). “Why should I choose? You’re the one in the cage.”

“And you’re the one who’s still, always, so utterly predictable!” Tempus exclaims. “I don’t need to leave this cage to destroy you—all I had to do was press a button and bring one…single…thing through. Just one creature, and your whole world is gone. One lie, and your future is destroyed. One secret, and the woman you love becomes your enemy. Really, Clark, it’s almost gotten too easy!”

“What has?” Clark asks. He’s not even quite sure what he’s asking, only knows that there’s merely a foot between him and the cage and Tempus’s waving arms bring that portal closer to him with every exclamation he makes.

“Destroying you, of course! Oh, like I said, I’ve tried doing things myself,” he says dismissively, taking a step back (Clark tenses, halts the move he was making to grab the portal from him, hopes Tempus doesn’t notice the slight vibration around him), “but somehow your own brand of super luck always ensures you come out with flying colors. No, this time I decided to go a different route—not as subtle, maybe, but just as inherently satisfying.” And before Clark can even blink, he slips the portal into the pocket of his suit jacket. With his other hand, he reaches into the opposite pocket and brings out a remote.

There’s a television in a corner, tucked between wine casks. Clark hadn’t noticed it before, but when Tempus clicks it on, his focus swings to it unerringly. Immediately. Horror sweeps over him, horror and disbelief and that awful incomprehension that has stalked him since his rooftop conversation with Lois. No, since she broke up with him. Or since she came to his apartment and told him she wanted to try to love him (and if he were a time-traveler, if that were one of his powers, he would go back there to that night and tell himself to run, to flee, to get out of Metropolis and never look back; he’d tell himself, but he knows he, the idealistic and heart-bruised-but-not-heartbroken him, would never listen).

There’s a monster on the screen. And beyond that reflection of Tempus, marred by a green glow, beyond the glass, there is the image of a creature. Gray and large and spiked with what looks to be bristling bone. It’s so inhuman, so out of the blue, that Clark stares at the reflection of Tempus (measures the closeness of that pocket with the portal inside, and Lois inside that portal) without at first realizing the enormity or the danger of that creature.

Green hills, blue skies, they only make the strange creature look even more fake. Unreal. A trick to distract Clark from what really matters (Lois, Lois, Lois, pulsing with every one of her different, same heartbeats). But then the hills and skies transition—shakily, as the news helicopters try to keep pace with the creature’s sudden, bounding leaps—into a suburb that Clark recognizes all too well. And against those streets and buildings that will, eventually, lead to the very heart of Metropolis, the creature abruptly transitions from a strange oddity to a very real menace. A monster, towering over cars and people and even some buildings. Roaring out his defiance over the panicked voices of newscasters, screaming a shriek that digs deep, deep down into Clark’s bones and rattles them, sinew and muscle contracting and recoiling, veins chilling, a primal, visceral reaction to a creature that doesn’t seem fake at all anymore.

That is all too real and immediate when he reaches out a spiked hand, grabs hold of a woman running, and smashes her against the asphalt.

“No!” Clark cries out, but it’s too late. The camera goes wide, the newscaster mute with horror, and screams in the distance are drowned out by another chilling shriek from the creature.

“There are whole universes out there,” Tempus says, quietly, dangerously, the mask of humor fallen away to reveal deadly intent and a more vicious scorn. Hate. That’s what it is pouring off him in sinister waves. Pure, unbridled hatred. And soft as it is, almost conversational even, his voice is the only thing that can make even the creature’s screams seem less imperative. “Multiple words, and all of them with a Superman. Whole worlds of villains and criminals and monsters. And in every universe, for every Superman—no matter what suit you wear or name you go by—there is always this monster waiting in your future. A mindless savage beast, bred and birthed for no other reason than to kill you. In every possible future, there is always, Clark, a Doomsday.”

A chill moves through him, cold and frightening, as if the name itself is enough to strike a fatal blow he can’t avoid.

Tempus moves closer to him, wraps his hands around the bars, and smiles that awful, leering smile. “You would have run into him eventually, you know. But—and wait for it, you should be sensing a theme here—why try to reinvent the wheel? And what’s the point of waiting when I can bring it here, now, right…to…you.”

The monster hasn’t moved on yet. It stands in the middle of the street and swats away police officers as if they’re bugs, when it deigns to notice them at all. Their bullets don’t hurt him at all. A car swerves straight into him (Clark can’t tell if it’s purposeful of not, can barely think at all past the effort required to keep him locked in place) and the creature simply shakes off the rubble and leaps forward by two blocks. Ahead of him, backlit by the evening sun, the skyscrapers of downtown Metropolis form a precious, vulnerable profile.

“Where is she?” Clark asks numbly, eyes locked on the screen, on the creature, on the doom he sees approaching. He has to go face that thing, has to stop it (he should already be there, now, standing between it and his home), and Tempus’s words, the primal foreboding Clark feels in every cell of his body, makes him think that he might not be coming back here. Which means he has to find Lois first, save her now (even if she is a stranger now; even if he didn’t know her at all). “Where is Lois?”

Tempus smirks and nods to the television screen. “Doomsday knows.”

Clark clenches his jaw, takes a careful step forward. “I thought you said he was mindless.”

“Ooh, nothing gets by you, does it?” Tempus laughs. Laughs as if there is not blood staining the streets leading into Metropolis. As if Lois’s heartbeat isn’t growing more rapid, frantic. As if Clark is already dead and beaten. “All right, so he doesn’t know. But I know where she is—your Lois, not these others I’ve used to lure you here. And I will only tell you where she is if you kill Doomsday. Or, if it kills you, I’m the only one who can let her go. Think of it as a trial by fire—see how much you really love the woman who stomped all over your heart. See what exactly you’re willing to sacrifice for the person who’s hurt you worse than any other. Great drama, isn’t it?”

“Why?” Clark scratches out. “Why go after her? She’s not the hero you so despise.”

“Oh, not in so many words. But without Lois, Superman fades.” Tempus shrugs and leans back against the bars. “You’d still be a hero—even time-traveling miracles never seem to cure you of that inclination—but you’d no longer be the icon, the symbol that will shine for all things good and just and sickening for the next thousand years. Without Lois, you may be super, but you’re not the Superman.”

There’s another crater spreading out underneath him. He can’t tear his eyes from Doomsday, from Tempus, long enough to look down and see if the damage is there in the world for all to see, or if he is the only one that can feel it, a black hole sucking him down. There’s a tugging in the pit of his stomach, a lurch in his heart, that makes him feel as if a timer has started counting, descending, beating out the last moments of his life. As if all his time has run out and right now, in this moment, he is only the afterimage playing out against the brightness of his demise.

“If Doomsday kills me, how do I know you’ll really let Lois go?” he asks (and feels as if he’s reading off a script, the final pages, the last curtain call for his part). “How can I trust you?”

“Clark!” Tempus exclaims with another laugh. “I’m the bad guy! Of course you can’t trust me! In fact, you should probably just keep standing there, acting as my jailer until I starve to death. But then…uh-oh. Then I guess Doomsday will just have to roam the Earth all on his own. Did I mention he’s from Krypton too? And he hates your kind, can track them to the ends of the universe, even, which means it won’t be any problem for him to sniff you out, walk in your footsteps—or flight path, as the case may be. Killing and destroying everything that gets in the way. And Lois will starve too, while you stand there and watch me so nobly. So go ahead, Superman—keep standing there by all means. Watch him track your scent down to that hick town in Kansas. Watch him tear your parents to pieces. Do nothing…and destroy your symbol yourself.”

His parents. Clark feels a sharp, sudden spike of terror stab through him. He hasn’t called them. Hasn’t talked to them. Hadn’t been able to open his mouth or summon up a voice. Hadn’t been able to stop searching Metropolis over and over again for the heartbeat of the man who threatened them, threatened his life, and turned the woman he loved into a weapon.

And now they won’t know to be afraid. They won’t realize how much danger they’re in. They will watch the news, and they will believe that their son will be there to save them, and they will die. Smashed against the ground by an unfeeling creature. Murdered because he could not save them.

Lois’s heartbeat is all around him, the creature’s shrieks are still reverberating through his bones, Tempus is smiling that cold, amused smile, and Clark can all but hear the last sands running out of his glass.

“I’m coming back!” he says fiercely, shifting his feet. “And when I do, not even Kryptonite will stop me from taking you.”

“Oh, of course not.” Clark is speeding away, but he can still hear Tempus’s last words (his voice following him once again, distracting him, hunting him). “It won’t have to. Because in every universe, no matter when or how it happens, Doomsday is always, always, the death of Superman.”


 

He can’t hear Lois’s heartbeat anymore. He can’t hear anything but the deafening, unnerving screams of the beast. The stomp of its feet as it leaps forward in irregular lines, but always heading in the general direction of the Daily Planet. The rush of his blood in his own veins and the sonic boom following far behind him.

Tempus is a villain, he thinks, just like he admitted. He’s a monster, and a liar, and he will say anything to get under Clark’s skin. This creature might even just be a diversion, or a trick, still. It doesn’t have to be the doom Tempus has promised. It doesn’t have to be unstoppable or inevitably lethal. It might not even be mindless.

But it’s hard to remember that when Clark finally comes up on the creature and sees just how enormous it is. Sees how easily it rips a wall from its foundation and tosses it aside. Sees it stop, instantly, inhumanly still as it lifts its head to the sky. It’s hard to remember anything when it whirls to face Clark, and he finally sees its eyes, barred behind defensive spikes but unerringly fixated on Clark hovering in the sky above it.

Once again, he has to pry his mouth open and force words out (has to try even when there is not one iota of his being that doesn’t believe that this creature wants to kill him). “Wait,” he says, and holds out his hands in a placating gesture. “Why are you here? What do you want? Surely we can come—”

It happens in a blur (and that’s strange, so very shockingly strange when nothing is a blur to Clark, who can see and process things at a rate no human can comprehend). One instant the creature is watching him, the next Clark feels a cold, terrifyingly strong hand wrap around his legs, and the next he is choking up concrete dust and lifting a wall off his back and struggling to rise back into the air. He has no time to blink away dazed numbness, no time to swallow the metallic blood in his mouth, because the monster is there, bounding over him, screaming that shriek that rattles like electricity through Clark’s bruised body.

Clark throws a punch, but he’s too used to holding back (he’s never really punched anyone before, not once in his entire life, and he doesn’t know how not to limit himself) and the creature hardly reacts to it at all. But Clark definitely feels the monster’s return strike, can feel the swoop of his stomach as he goes flying (not under his own power, and it’s so strange a feeling that he almost forgets why he’s here, or maybe that’s just because of the way he hits his head against four buildings and sees Kryptonite stars exploding in his vision), can see the searing line of bloody fire the monster’s spikes leave etched across his chest.

He’s slower to rise, until he hears a scream—not the creature’s, but a human’s. A child’s. A man’s. A crowd. People. They need him. They’re vulnerable and scared and so very mortal, and he can’t save Lois (can’t save himself), but maybe he can save these few. Maybe he can keep Metropolis’s skyline standing there against the sea and the sky, the Daily Planet building still erect and rebuilt.

There’s no time for any more reasoning, then (or for hope that Tempus was lying), only time to move faster than he ever has before, to sweep people blocks away and return to take the punches the creature means for anything in its way. Only time to finally learn how to punch with all his strength behind it, and to see the monster buckle and fall only to roar back upward with renewed strength and growing hatred.

Only time to realize that Tempus was right, after all.

This is his Doomsday.

Chapter Text

Her hands are bloody, her arms are bruised, her shoulders feel like they might be nearly dislocated, and her throat is scraped raw from screaming. None of it does any good.

Wherever John Doe has brought them, Clark comes…just as her source said he would. He cannot get close, though Lois can’t understand why (she hears the word Kryptonite, remembers the article she wrote and Clark so beaten and the name he bestowed on Trask’s paranoia, but it doesn’t make sense here). He does not hear her, no matter how she shouts and cries. She cannot reach him, cannot hold onto him and keep him here (cannot convince him that she didn’t want to break his heart and hurt him so badly and provide John Doe with all the ammunition he needs to send him off willingly to his death). All she can do is slam herself over and over and over again against the barrier holding her here in this strange, unearthly box, suspended amidst a cosmos her eyes slide away from.

She can hear Clark and John Doe (Tempus, this man, her source, who lied to her so adeptly and took her to a future she now cannot understand; who manipulated and used her and pointed her at Superman with all the accuracy of a master marksman). Her breath is lodged deep inside her, building and building, pressure that can only be relieved through an explosion great enough to destroy her (but, oh, it would be worth it if it destroyed Tempus too).

“Doomsday,” Tempus says, and Lois shrieks and hurls herself at the barrier.

“Don’t, Clark!” she cries. “Don’t listen to him! Don’t let him destroy you!”

But Clark cannot hear her (and even if he could, why would he listen to her now, after everything she has done to him, after all the lies she has told him?), and he stands there and talks to Tempus (and this is a mistake, no one knows it better than Lois, who made it herself and broke Clark’s heart and vanquished Superman and brought devastation down on herself).

“Where is Lois?” Clark asks, once, then again, and again, and blood drips from torn fingernails and sliced hands as Lois, frenzied, scratches and claws at the slippery, evasive barrier.

“I’m here!” she screams. “I’m here, Clark! I’m safe, I’m okay, don’t listen to him!”

But it doesn’t matter. Her warnings fall unheeded, as if unuttered, and only her lies can reach him, only her false untruths allowed to stand.

“Please,” she whimpers when she hears the crack that follows Superman’s speedy exits. She huddles in on herself against that barrier, stained with her blood, echoing with her screams, and has no strength to move. “Please, Clark, don’t do it.”

But he’s already gone, and she is as alone as ever.


 

She never should have gone to see him (the latest in a long line of never-should-haves stretching far back into the distance). She should have let him be, given him all the space he needed, and focused on finding something she could do to help him (to save him, even though she could never say those words out loud again, could never even think them without feeling bile rise up to choke her). But she was selfish and lonely and scared, and she hated seeing his bleak, hollow eyes every time she blinked, so she let herself be weak and she went to see Clark.

Not that it did either of them any good. It only served to carve more lines into his face, etched deeper with every moment of his silence. It only made her realize just how much she’d lost (given up for a future she’d never see and that would never exist now). She’d left in tears she tried to hide, in sobs that erupted before she could ever reach her place. And then she’d compounded her mistake with another one (when would she ever learn her lesson? when would she learn to be strong?).

As some perverse form of penance, she’d been avoiding the visions of that happier, better life ever since she irrevocably broke Clark’s heart, but coming back from that silent, shuttered Clark, she’d caved. Just like every addict she’d ever interviewed or written about, she’d justified this latest fix (because maybe there’d be something in them to help him; or, she’d admitted deep down, to help her figure out how to win him back). She’d curled up on her couch and let the flashes pour in.

Old ones, new ones, scenes she’d already written down and some she’d never imagined—but they all had one thing in common: Clark smiling. Laughing. Looking at her with love scribed across every line of his being. Holding her hand. Wrapping her up in his embrace. Kissing her. And then, for the first time, she’d thought of giving into to the one flash she’d never let herself see—considered seeing, feeling, what it would be like for Clark to kiss her and not stop. For her arms to wind around his neck and his to lift her so lightly into the air. For sheets beneath her back and his warm weight over her. For the feel of his hands in places they’d never been and his lips following. For the taste of his skin on her tongue and the glint of moonlight off his eyes, so open and easy to read…so heavy with the weight of all he felt for her.

She’d ignored the disorienting crush of the migraine…and considered it…and closed her eyes…

…and when she’d opened them, John Doe was there, with that box in his hands and a smile on his lips and the light reflecting off his glasses.

“Ms. Lane,” he said, and then he reached up and took the glasses off with a cocky smirk. “Recognize me now?”

And now she was here, in her sheer prison, able to hear Tempus send Clark off to his death.

Here, huddled in on herself and helpless. A dupe. A puppet. A victim.

A villain.


 

The shimmer of the portal blinds her. When she blinks the stars away, she finds herself splayed out on cold concrete, the scent of wine so potent it stings her nostrils and makes her cough. The sight of her own hands chokes her again, this time in surprise. No blood. No scratches. The fingernails all intact. No bruises along her forearms, no ache in her shoulders—no sign that she was ever held in that impermeable prison.

For just an instant, she lets herself believe that she imagined it. That Clark is really safe and there is no Doomsday and Tempus is only a bumbling time-traveler trying to correct his mistake and willing to listen to her when she says there has to be a better way.

But that’s too good to be true, and it wouldn’t explain the shame and guilt that coats her soul in ash. So she finishes coughing, swallows once, and then struggles to her feet.

Tempus stands in the corner of a cage (a cage? but yes, that’s the only word for it, green bars enclosing him with her in the middle of what looks to be a vast wine cellar) and smirks down at her. He’s leaning back against the bars, his arms crossed over his chest, and Lois has never hated anyone as much as she hates him in that moment.

“You know,” he remarks, “for as many times as I’ve done this, as many worlds as I visit, this is always the moment I look forward to most—when you look at me and know there is nothing you can do. When you look at me and finally, really see me. I mean, yes, it’s fun to play the good guy”—and he bends to scoop his glasses up off the floor, puts them on, laughs at her glare—“but nothing compares to the moment of revelation.” He pulls the glasses off, drops them to the floor, steps on them with undisguised malice. “The moment you realize that I’ve won again.”

“Won what?” Lois hears herself ask (once a reporter, she supposes). “What’s the point of all of this? Why all the stupid lies? The trip to the future? The weeks of making me—”

Making you?” His eyebrows rise to his forehead in exaggerated surprise. “Hardly an effort at all, I’d say. Lois Lane is just as much a do-gooder as her husband, after all. Show her a worthy cause, throw in a couple ‘for the greater goods,’ add a bit of flattery here and there, and she’ll do anything I need her to. You know, they always tout her as the more unpredictable one of the two, but as in so many other things, they’re wrong—you’re just as much of a straight arrow as he is.”

She gapes at him, then says, dumbly, “He’s not my husband.”

Tempus shrugs, unconcerned. “Not this one, maybe. But trust me, where there’s a Clark Kent, there’s a Lois Lane, and marriage is always in their cards if I don’t get there first. It’s disgusting, really—makes it hard to believe in free will.” He smiles, then, so abruptly Lois actually flinches back, as if the smile is itself a weapon. “Which is where I come in. Can’t have people going around believing in all those shades of black and white, not when gray is so much funner.”

“So what?” Lois looks at him in scorn. “You just go from world to world, timeline to timeline, and ruin our lives? Why? Why do you hate us so much?”

“You could be a bit more grateful I didn’t just leave you in that place—the space between worlds. Stay there long enough and it’ll rip you into a million pieces as it tries to take you to each and every reality it can find.”

“Why?” she demands shrilly.

Taking a step toward her, Tempus mimes a yawn. “You know, years ago, I would have had a long eloquent answer to that—Utopia, boring, channels on TV, all very rational and reasonable. But I’ve been doing this a while now, and I’ve got it boiled down to one sentence, all very simple and easy to understand, even for you.”

“What?” She tenses, wants to lunge forward and grab him, smash him back against the bars, grind his face into as many pieces as the lenses of his stupid glasses. “What possible reason could you have?”

“Because I can.” When she just stares at him, he laughs and moves even closer to her, completely unafraid. Openly gloating. “Think about it—a Superman with absolute convictions. A being who disproves the ages-old adage about absolute power corrupting. Incorruptible, invulnerable, oh so powerful, and yet…I can destroy him. You. Both of you. Your future, your legacy, the Utopia that spawned me. I’ve spent countless lifetimes traveling from world to world to do what all the Luthors and Metallos and Brainiacs and Nors can’t do—bring Superman to his knees. They all go after his powers or his secret identity or his morals, when the answer is staring them all in the face the whole time: Lois Lane.”

The room spins around her. There’s a spike drilling through her head again (it was gone while she screamed warnings at Clark in that strange, incomprehensible place, but it’s back again now, stronger than ever), and terror clutching at her spine, but Lois can’t look away from Tempus. It’s not the glasses, of course, but she does feel like she’s never seen him before. He was a weird stranger, probably crazy, when she first answered her door to his knock and heard him rambling about the future and saving Superman. He was an old man who’d made a mistake, a source who was helping her save Superman, before she began to resent him and fear him and even hate him. But now he is a monster, and she thinks this is the truest vision of him. An old man, wrinkled and white-haired, shoulders beginning to stoop, middle beginning to round, the veins prominent in his hands…hatred in his voice and scorn in his eyes and insanity dogging his steps.

“Lois Lane is the fastest, surest way to destroy Clark. Not by killing her—you—no, that’s too fast, too easy, and Clark Kent is too much of a paragon,” he sneers, “to fold so easily. Not by outing him to the world and making him live in hiding—you two always seem to be able to make a go of it that way. It took me years to think of it, but it’s the simplest thing: make you the weapon. Turn you against him. He can survive your death, even if it does make him look like a kicked puppy for decades afterward. He can survive under a different name. But to have the woman he loves in every lifetime break his heart? The perfect solution. The perfect weapon.”

Lois staggers (shrinks away from the weight of those words, he loves in every lifetime, contrasted against the lie she believed all this time: that she was a mistake, that they were never meant to meet at all), tries to make it look deliberate but doesn’t think she succeeds because his eyes narrow and his lips purse. The movement does have the benefit of forcibly breaking her stare from him, and she finds herself looking over his shoulder, finding a television screen. It’s muted, but it doesn’t matter. The pictures are enough to bring the entire world to a sudden, shuddering halt.

A beast half as tall as the skyscraper he stands near, gray and spiked and so alien. And in his hand, a small figure, clothed in blue and draped in red. Fire pours from those small, shadowed eyes, gray skin blackens and singes and glows, and Superman’s gone while the creature opens its mouth and screams silently at the blur above him.

“Why Doomsday?” Lois makes herself ask as she stares at this threat she could never have imagined. “If I’m such a perfect weapon…if turning me against him is so foolproof, then why bring in a Kryptonian beast to kill him?”

Tempus furrows his brow and stares at her as if she’s asked the most ridiculous question he’s ever heard. “Doomsday isn’t to destroy Superman,” he scoffs. “Doomsday is for you, Lois.”

Her back hits the bars with a clang that echoes and reverberates through her. “What do you mean?”

“Well, I’ve already broken Superman—his ideals are crushed, his naiveté ruined, his dreams turned to ashes. If it were just me and him, I’d let him live out the wreckage of his life. But then there’s you. And the only way to destroy Lois Lane…is to kill Clark Kent.”

The cage is shrinking around them. She’s claustrophobic, locked up in a tiny space with a madman, with a monster, and she’s terrified (that he will succeed in destroying her; that she will kill him). The bars swim and flicker, the ceiling above seems to fold inward, the floor wavers beneath her feet. She grabs hold of the bars behind her and devotes all her attention to remaining upright (to trying to ignore Tempus’s scent, wine and metal and scorn, surrounding her as he nears). For an instant, there are two Tempuses—the one hovering over her and another one, sitting in an armchair eating popcorn, laughing about commercial breaks. She blinks and there’s only one.

(She curses herself then, because that was a flash of could-have-been, and he’s in them, Tempus is in them, she could have been seeing him, learning about him, she should have known he was a monster.)

“What’s wrong with you?” he asks suspiciously. “Usually you’re all full of spunk and wisecracks. I’ve never seen one of you shaking in your boots before.”

She squeezes her eyes shut, reaches for those elusive visions, concentrates. And sees Tempus in front of a campaign poster, the name John Doe written over it. Clark, no, there are two Clarks, both of them facing down Tempus at a press conference, one Clark, one Superman. Lois whimpers (she can’t lose it, not now; she has to help Clark, has to find something to stop Tempus). Dimly, she feels herself sliding down the bars, crumpling on the floor.

Another flash, Tempus dressed in black with a Stetson on his head and a pistol in his hand. Tempus facing a short man dressed in an old-fashioned suit with a bowler hat on his head. Tempus standing over Clark (but not her Clark, there’s something different about this one, more timid, not quite as open) as he writhes in pain beside a rock that glows green.

“Hey!” The sudden sting of a slap jars Lois away from the flashes, but she’s disoriented when she sees another Tempus in front of her. Is it him? Is it a flash? For a dizzying length of time, she cannot tell what is real and what is not. It all blends and blurs together until the only thing she is still sure of is that Clark is in danger.

“What is this?” Tempus is muttering (she thinks, anyway). “What do we have here? Oh, sneaky, aren’t we, Herb? I guess I’m not the only one who’s learned a few tricks along the way.”

He reaches out for her, a hand with something that beeps and flashes lights, and Lois flinches back, bats away the hand. “No!” she gasps defiantly. “I don’t know why you gave me these visions, but I’m going to use them against you.”

Tempus laughs. Laughs, and Lois actually reaches out to claw his eyes out but he grabs her hand and holds it down. “Taunting you with visions of a life you’ll never lead does have a certain flair to it,” he agrees, “but this wasn’t me.”

And he brings down that strange device on her head. Pain rips through her, and Lois actually feels her scream rip through her skull. Fire burns behind her eyes and she’s blinded by a slew of images that go by so fast she’d need Clark’s super-speed to process them all. Another scream that scrapes the inside of her skin, and then suddenly, as if a switch has been flipped, the pain is gone. So is the headache.

So are the flashes.

Tempus stands and pockets the beeping device with a tsking sound. “Ah, Herb, you always are just a couple steps behind.”

“W-what…” Lois dry-heaves (Tempus draws back in disgust, she notices with some satisfaction), then tries to finish her question. “What was that?”

“A nuisance. Herb’s always trying to stop me. He’s a little slow realizing the futility of his own existence. I put up a dampener around this world so he couldn’t follow me, but he must have thought trying to upload you with your future soul might work to warn you about me. I could have told him you’d be far too stubborn for something like that to work—and I’m surprised he took the risk. Much more of that and your mind might have split in half trying to accommodate two lifetimes. You’re lucky I still need you.” She has no time for more than a flash of interest (of hope) before he adds, “What good is winning if there’s no one left to hear you gloat?”

She shakes her head, wishes she were thinking clearer (wishes she could understand what he’s saying), but does finally make it to her feet. Without the headache blurring her thoughts, without the flashes at the edge of her vision every time she blinks, without the pain distracting her, she actually feels…not strong. Not well. But better.

(And hollow, somehow. Empty, and alone, as if the flashes had been an actual companion.)

“The way you talk…” She trails off, stares at Tempus, at the pocket where she can see the outline of that window device. “How long have you been doing this—hunting down Superman and hurting Clark and breaking me?”

“It’s not called a life’s work for nothing,” he drawls.

“But how many times have you done this to us?” She steps forward, her hands clenched into fists.

Tempus sighs impatiently. “You didn’t recognize me when you saw me, so this is probably my first visit to your world—that is, unless Herb intervened again. But it doesn’t matter which Clark Kent and Lois Lane I find; you’re all alike. All good, all predictable, all in need of a good, strong wake up call.”

The flashes are gone, the constant presence that she’s come to depend on (to crave, even, in a way) for so long, the images of a life that’s been ripped away from her. Ripped away from Clark, who deserves it most of all and who is now battling a beast that could far too easily kill him. In their place, she feels a sudden cold, still purpose. She’s been leaning on those visions, telling herself that even if her life is ruined in the here and now, at least somewhere she and (more importantly) Clark are happy. But now they are gone, and she knows that there are Lois and Clarks out there who have been hurt and broken and even killed by this man, this monster, in front of her.

“You’re never going to stop, are you?” she whispers. In the claustrophobic cage, in the cavernous cellar, her whisper carries and resounds and circles and sounds again until it takes on the sound of inevitability.

Tempus laughs his harsh, rolling laugh that swallows up the last echo of her words. “You’re still not very bright, are you, Lois? Of course I’m not going to stop! There are thousands of Supermen still out there for me to torment. Thousands of Lois Lanes to use and then destroy. Why would I stop? I’m at the top of my game.”

She kicks him. He staggers back under the first kick, catches her foot on the second and twists. She falls, but is up immediately, launching herself at him in a whirlwind of fists and feet and knees. There’s a part of her mind focused only on him and the way he seems to know her moves before she makes them (of course he does; how many times has a Lois Lane attacked him?). There’s a part of her that is trying, still, to catch glimpses of the fight still showing, choppily as cameras are taken in and out of commission, on the TV. But most of her? Most of her is locked into one solid, irrevocable purpose.

Tempus may know her, but she’s been listening to him. He knows a Lois Lane who is as idealistic as Clark thinks (or thought, a few weeks ago, as he held her in his arms and soothed her migraine) she is. He knows a Lois who is a hero, who will become an icon for a paradise. He knows a Lois he has destroyed. And she? She is something new. Something harder, with jagged edges and dark pits where there used to be morals. She is the bare bones of what she could have been.

There is a Lois, somewhere, who made the colossal mistake of accepting Lex’s proposal. There is a Lois, somewhen, who got to fall in love with Clark on her own terms, in her own time. There is a Lois, she hopes, who never answered the door when John Doe knocked, who never played with her best friend’s heart and never let him march forward to his own doomsday, who deserves a future where she is happy.

But she is not that Lois. She is a Lois who has made every mistake there is to make. She is a Lois who can see her Clark bloody and broken on a television screen. She is a Lois who knows that Tempus will never stop, never learn the error of his ways, never leave Clark, any Clark (and all of them might as well be hers, they all deserve so much better), alone.

She is a Lois who is already broken and beaten and bowed.

And she has nothing left to lose.

Tempus blocks her moves defensively. He thinks she wants to incapacitate him so she can get out of the cell. And any other Lois might But this Lois wants him right here, in an enclosed space, surrounded by a radioactive metal that clangs with an almost harmonic ring when she slams his head against it, once, again, again. He’s dazed, confused, struggling. Lois tears at his pockets, pulls out the window, and then, abruptly, is stumped.

She’s seen him put the portal in the air and throw her into it, trapping her in a prison with no escape. She’s seen him enlarge it and let her step through into a Utopia that began to decay only after she began to believe John Doe’s lies. But she has never seen what he pressed or did to make it transform from a box into that portal.

Hurt flares up in her back and she staggers forward, dropping the portal as Tempus tackles her. The box flips in midair, topples toward the ground…and enlarges, hovers, shimmering, above the cement. Her moment of uncertainty ends. Tempus is behind her. She can hear him take a breath, ready to gloat again.

He has no time.

Lois whirls, slams him back against the bars, then retreats. He follows, smiling, certain he has the measure of her, that she will hurt him only enough to try to get away, that she is good and moral and still believes in black and white. That she is a Lois Lane a Superman can love.

He lunges for her. Lois ducks. She gets behind him. She crashes into him with her whole body.

There’s a moment where everything seems to move in slow-motion. A moment where there are multiple futures spread out before her.

One: Tempus regains his balance and subdues her and makes her watch as Clark is torn to pieces by a mindless beast.

Two: Tempus teeters on the edge, but does not fall. Lois knocks him out and finds a way out of the cage, and makes her way to Clark, only to watch him die.

Three: Tempus kills her and escapes and moves on to unending worlds to wreak his havoc, a swathe of destruction even wider and crueler than Doomsday’s left behind him through the multiverse.

Four: He falls into the portal and is ripped into a million pieces, forever permeated through the endless worlds he sought to make less (because anything without Clark there, without a man who hopes and loves and believes so fervently is less in a tragic way that makes tears spring to her eyes even to contemplate).

Multiple futures, all right there, hovering in front of her. But unlike the flashes, where she could see them but could not choose them, this one she can affect. She can make it happen.

What is one more crime? What is one more sin to stain her conscience? What is one more cost when she has already sold her soul?

Nothing.

She curls her clean, unharmed hand into a fist, and punches Tempus with every bit of force she can muster (with all the hatred and resentment and fury clashing inside of her).

And he vanishes, swept away into a prison that will become a coffin.

On the television screen, a tiny form in red and blue is trapped in the cage of spiked hands that rend and tear, and slammed into a building.

Tempus is dead, Lois thinks numbly (staring at her hands and wondering why they look so clean when there is blood all over them), but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t still won.


 

Later, when she thinks back on it, she will remember the next moments only in flashes (and she will laugh, ha ha, because there are no more flashes now, not of the future, so she makes them of the past). Staring at the portal. Staring and staring and staring until she thinks she will still see it when she is old and gray and senile, that brown box with a blue shimmer like a doorway, all covered in metaphorical blood.

She doesn’t remember coming up with the plan. She just remembers kneeling and picking up the remnants of those crushed glasses and using them to pick the lock of the cage. Taking hold of that portal (did it really burn like a brand into her hands or was that only her imagination?) and watching it fold in on itself. So innocent and harmless looking; so lethal and dangerous. Like her, a matched set.

Later, she will read the reports and realize the wine cellar was beneath LexTower, but she can never remember making her way up into the building proper. Never remembers recognizing where she is. She does remember walking down an abandoned street in the direction of screams. She remembers the image of a steel beam thrusting up toward the sky next to a pile of rubble. She remembers sirens and the roar of helicopters. She remembers walking (so slowly, so purposely) past a group of people running the opposite way.

The smell of dust and concrete and asphalt and metal will always make her remember her first sight of the trail of destruction left by Doomsday, so she supposes the scent was heavy around her. She thinks she probably got blisters from climbing over debris and overturned cars. She probably saw bodies and blood and bone. But all she remembers is that first image of Clark.

The thick dust of pulverized concrete swirling aside in the wake of movement she sensed before she saw. The comparatively bright colors of his Suit (though it was in tatters and covered in ash and dust and who knows what else, so surely it was muted, but she remembers it bright and vivid and defiant), the quickness of his flight, the sparks of red shooting now here, now there, from eyes so gentle and kind and wounded. She remembers how utterly large Doomsday was. How he could follow the swoop of Clark’s flight without faltering or being distracted.

She remembers the winds that buffeted her, shockwaves from the force of their blows. She remembers yelling his name, and seeing him come to a sudden halt, turned in her direction, stunned and disbelieving. And she remembers Doomsday slamming full-force into him (like she had with Tempus) and the high, piercing note of her own scream slamming her back into alertness.

Only when Clark rises once more into the sky, slow and looping but still flying, does Lois breathe again.

“Clark,” she says again, quiet and calm, forcing herself to a measured cadence. “I hope you can hear me—I have a way to get rid of Doomsday. Tempus’s portal. If he goes through it, he’ll be torn into multiple worlds and end up in none of them.”

A simplified interpretation maybe, but Clark doesn’t deserve to have a life on his conscience, too. Better to let him think of it as an endless loop. Maybe it is, after all; it wouldn’t be the first time Tempus lied. (She wishes she could believe that, but she can’t; she can feel the sin of murder branded all across her soul.)

There’s a sudden gust of wind, a flash of primary colors, and in the midst of that blur, she hears his voice, as if it’s dropped from the heavens itself. “I have to push him through it?” It stuns her, because even before she registers those sounds, hanging in the air long enough for her human ears to recognize them as speech, she can see Clark already, still, fighting Doomsday, trying to hold him to the harbor.

Quickly, she shakes her head and tries to catch up. “He has to go through it,” she says. “I don’t think it matters how.”

Clark launches a sudden, full-out attack on Doomsday (Lois wonders how he gets the energy, how he can stand to move at all, to keep coming at this beast that spears and strikes and savages him), culminating in throwing him up so high Lois sees the flare of atmospheric flame, so fast her ears ring from the sonic boom. And then Clark is there, standing in front of her, and she almost faints when she sees the blood that paints his body, the bruises that shadow his flesh, the tears in his Suit and skin, the exhaustion staining his eyes and slumping his shoulders. He’s always so graceful (more so as Clark than Superman, even, because Clark doesn’t hold himself with the same rigid tenseness the hero does), but now he is stiff and slow. But he stands, upright. Still here. Still alive. Still fighting.

He looks at her, meets her gaze, and Lois feels her stomach bottom out. It’s the look from before. The look that swallows her up in tenderness and drowns her in love. He reaches out with battered, crimson hands to cup her cheek, infinitely gentle (and the contrast between this and the blows he delivers to Doomsday is enough to boggle her mind).

“You’re okay, Lois?” he asks in a voice that rasps (and yet still possesses kindness above and beyond anyone else she’s ever met). “You’re okay? He didn’t hurt you?”

She is hurt. She’s so hurt she doesn’t think she will ever recover from it (will never not see Tempus’s form teetering there on the precipice), but that’s not what he means and it doesn’t matter anyway. “I’m fine,” she says. “I got away.”

“And Tempus?” His gaze goes past her, clawing through boundless space and solid objects to look for the monster (the dead man). No matter how hard he looks, though, she knows he will not find him, not unless his extraordinary vision can show him the life that blots her hands with a stain she will never be able to remove.

“He’s gone,” she tells him (the truth, for once, but it tastes as terrible as the lies). “Here’s the portal. Just drop it and it’ll enlarge on its own.”

As she hands him the box (glad to rid herself of it), it doesn’t escape her notice that he is watching the sky, listening for Doomsday’s return. “He can’t fly,” Clark explains when he looks back at her, “but he falls fast.” Even as he speaks, she sees the fireworks explosion of Doomsday’s return.

Clark straightens his shoulders, tries to stand taller (cannot do anything to hide the hollows under his eyes or the gashes carved out of his flesh). “Make sure you stay well back,” he warns her. He’s right in front of her, but distracted and damaged and so distant.

Suddenly, desperately afraid, Lois grabs his hand. “Clark. The military has to be mobilizing. Maybe we should wait, see if they can get it to—”

“He’s too fast,” Clark says. And then, abruptly, with no warning, he is completely and overwhelmingly focused on her. He tugs her toward him with that careful, non-pressuring touch. “I’m so glad you’re alive. And safe. That’s all that matters in the end.”

He is warmth and devotion and concern and pureness of heart and everything good (and probably pretending, right now, that she is the Lois from before rather than the liar and murderer she is now, but she doesn’t care; she will be whatever he wants and she will give him whatever he needs). And she is so scared, so absolutely terrified, because she cannot even begin to imagine a world without him.

He turns to look up, leaving, flying off to face a danger so great it has killed an unknown number of him before, and of their own volition, her hands latch onto him, pull him back to her, craving the intensity of his attention, his whole-hearted focus (in case this is the last time she will ever feel it).

“Clark,” she gasps, and wills him, with all her fractured heart, to believe her, “I love you.”

He’s touching her. Her hand. Her elbow. Her cheek. Her hair. Her jaw. All over, as if memorizing her (as if replacing the feel of Doomsday with her). His eyes are alight with all the radiance of the sun, eclipsing color and light and life apart from him, away from him, without him.

“I love you too,” he says (like goodbye). His smile is soft and gentle and beautiful (like the last ray of sunlight before eternal darkness). His hand on her cheek is benevolent, consecrating, loving (like the touch of an angel, a ghost, rather than a living man). “Thank you for trying to save me.”

Then, shocking her, he kisses her, quick, searing, too short, too fast, too little (not nearly enough to last her a lifetime). And he’s gone. And Lois is terror incarnate. She is chewed up and devoured and burned alive by the acid pain of panicked, frenzied fear.

“Clark!” she screams as he collides with Doomsday, both of them in the air, a ripple of concussive force spreading out in concentric rings to knock her to the ground (but she doesn’t notice, doesn’t care, because her world has already incontrovertibly shifted). “Clark!” she screams again (while she still can; while there is still someone alive who answers to this name that comprises her entire universe).

But it’s a mistake (and she knew that, she did, she should have stopped herself, she is always hurting him and causing him hurt, and if she could trade places with him, she’d do it in an instant), because he looks over to her and suffers for it when the creature hits him almost out of eyesight. She has to be calm. She cannot distract him. He needs her to be strong for him. So she forces herself into a steel body cast, like armor to strengthen her limbs, to lock herself in place. And she cannot be silent, so she recites a simple mantra for him (for herself).

“Clark, don’t die,” a whisper pealed out between them, like a contract, like a bargain (like a hopeless plea). “Please don’t die. Don’t die. Don’t die.”

Because Clark has never denied her anything. Because he has always given her everything she’s asked of him. Because she can never stop asking for the impossible.

It takes long moments (full of blasts that knock her over, again and again, of monstrous shrieks from Doomsday and the occasional cry from Clark; of dust and rubble and blood and despair), but these do not fade to flashes of memory. They are sharp, imprinted on her eyelids so that they haunt her dreams for years afterward. Every time the creature slams a fist or a bone spine or a building into Clark, every wound that spreads across his body, every cry of pain that mars the other, meaningless sounds, all of it printed like stark, black, painful ink across the landscape of her mind.

Long moments that seem to fill an eternity, but finally Clark has lured Doomsday into a huge parking garage (Lois remembers parking there herself, shopping with Lucy, stopping at the nearby coffee shop, meeting Molly there to buy an outfit for her job interview at the Planet; it held memories once, but now it holds only terror and pain and a hope she can’t quite catch but can’t release either).

She knows she should be keeping her distance (she cannot bear to do anything else to break Clark’s concentration), but she has stayed close enough (or maybe just looks hard enough to convince herself she sees it) to see the blue shimmer of an opened portal. It’s small, too small for Doomsday, but she thinks that a technology advanced enough to open on cue will be able to accommodate whatever weight and mass approaches it (she hopes, because she cannot bear the alternative).

Doomsday leaps away, that tiny bit of red and blue circles him, strikes, darts away, lures the gray beast back to the garage. She cannot see Clark as anything other than a small blot of color against the dark gloom, but she knows he is hurt and exhausted, depleted of everything but fierce will and devotion. She knows it is taking everything he has to go after Doomsday yet again (still, how long has it been, how long have they been here, fighting and hurting and rending?), but he seems to find a burst of strength.

With another sonic boom, Clark is there behind Doomsday, reaching out, wrapping his arms around the spikes rising from his head. Then, in a feat that rivals any he’s ever accomplished before, he lifts the beast straight up…and drops him, kicking and shrieking, into the portal. But Doomsday is a creature of instinct, feral, savage as he claws his way up, trying to rip himself out of the portal. His spikes slash through Clark’s chest, but Clark is Superman and he hits him once, again, again, heedless of the great red and white swathes being rent through his torso. And then, with a last scream, Doomsday is gone in a final flash of blue-silver light.

And the building crumbles and shatters and falls over every bit of bloodied blue and red.

“Clark!” Her scream interrupts her mantra, disrupts her heart rate, collapses her lungs.

She runs, crying, sobbing, stumbling, falling, crawling, bleeding, calling his name. There is no movement, no shaking and subsiding as he shrugs the debris away from him. No triumphant hero pushing aside the remnants of that old parking garage in the crater of his victory.

“Help me!” she shrieks. “Help me, please!” She screams it as she lifts boulders and throws them carelessly, digging, digging, digging as her hands are bloodied once more and her fingernails break for real and her arms are bruised and shaking. She cries and yells and shouts and howls (anything to make noise; to fill the awful silence that is crushing her). Because Superman has always come to her call. Every time she’s needed help, he has swooped in to her rescue, with the flurry of his cape or the tap of a coffee mug at her elbow.

He has always come for her. He has always rescued her. He has always answered.

But there is nothing. No sound. No blur of primary colors. No shy smile and the gleam of light behind glasses. Nothing except the sounds of wreckage settling, and her frame-wracking sobs, and her lonely screams echoing in an empty sky.

Chapter Text

There’s a pie warming in the oven; Clark can smell it, sugar and fruit and just a hint of spice. It’s quiet here, comfortably soothing with nothing to break the relaxed atmosphere. A breeze comes in through the open door to the balcony and plays along the nape of his neck, his cheek, his arm. He takes a deep apple-scented breath and leans back against the couch. A basketball game is playing on the television, but it’s muted and he pays little attention to the score. Instead, he lets his eyes flutter shut, and rests his head on the pillow behind him.

He’s tired, so tired he can’t even remember why he feels a little sore, a little—a lot—worn. Superman rescues, probably, or maybe Perry sent him to cover a few too many stories. Not that it matters. The world is still and quiet and calm. All is well. He can just relax here.

“Clark!”

The feminine scream jerks him fully awake, but when he looks around, there’s no one there. The sunlight still falls across the floor, the air is still drenched in the aroma of bubbling apple pie filling, and the TV still shows the Nets. It must have been a dream, he decides, the remnant of some nightmare. It’s over now. He’s safe. Everyone’s safe.

Slowly, contentedly, he flops back onto the couch, stretches to every side, and closes his eyes again.

“Help me! Please help! Save him!”

That same voice, more screams. So desperate. So panicked. So afraid.

Groaning, Clark rises to his feet, ready to don his Suit and fly off to the rescue. Except…

Clark shakes his head, paws at his ears, extends his hearing—tentatively, and then all at once—as far as it will go.

There is nothing. A bit of birdsong, the same kind he used to wake up to when he was a boy, chirps that rise and fall, appear and flutter away outside his window. Beyond that, the world is silent. Far too quiet. Clark turns and searches for the remote, then, wanting to turn the volume of the TV on. Wanting some confirmation that he isn’t deaf.

Before he can find the remote, though, the TV flickers on its own. Or maybe it changed a while ago and he is only just noticing it now. The basketball court is gone, and so is the scoreboard, the players, the gymnasium. Instead, it shows a desolate city street that looks as if it has survived an earthquake.

Clark blinks, as if he can feel the dust from that street in his own eyes; and behind his eyelids, as if it is printed there indelibly in his mind, there is a gray monster, jagged and savage and looming over him. Its deafening, guttural shriek blasts through his hyper-focused ears, and Clark cries out, reeling backward, clutching his head with both hands.

But the cry fades, just as the voice did, and the birdsong is still there, undisturbed and unafraid.

When Clark risks another cautious glance to the TV screen, he sees that same street, still filled with rubble and crumpled cars. Only this time he catches a flash of movement. A tiny form picking through the debris, tearing at large pieces that mark what used to be a large building. A parking garage, he thinks rather abstractly.

It’s a woman. Small and dark-haired, her clothing ripped in several places, and two bloody handprints on the back of her shirt (handprints that might, he thinks, match his hands exactly).

“Clark. I love you.”

The world shakes around him. Clark hears a whimper, finds himself pressed up against the wall, vaguely aware that the keening sound he hears is coming from his own throat. He can’t smell the apple pie anymore. He wonders what happened to it, where it went, who ate it without him even noticing.

He doesn’t want to look at the television again. He likes it here, in this apartment that’s the first place he’s settled down in since high school. It’s warm and cozy and filled with things that each have a story he likes to remember, and it’s his. The birdsong reminds him of being safe and protected as a child, of summer days playing with Pete and Lana, spring days spent at his father’s side, helping with the planting. The ghost of that pie’s scent, gone but still there in his mind, brings back all the times he sat at the kitchen table and spilled out his dreams and his fears to his mother.

He wishes she were here now. Wishes his dad would tell him everything’s going to be okay.

Shakily, Clark reaches up to check his glasses, an automatic movement that’s become habit whenever he feels nervous or unsure. They’re there, just where they should be, but he stops mid-motion when he sees his arm.

It’s covered in blood.

Gasping, shivering, he holds both arms away from his body, stares as if he has never seen them before. There’s a gash running all along his right forearm, dripping blood onto the floor. The sleeve of his shirt hangs from his left shoulder, allowing him to clearly see the bruises turning his elbow black and the tiny slashes all along the skin, as if he’s been thrown through glass. His knuckles are torn, shredded, three of his fingers hanging as if broken.

But…but this doesn’t make any sense. He hadn’t noticed this at all before! Only…when he looks to the couch, he sees the rust stains along its length. The sight of it reminds him of those faded handprints on the woman’s shirt, and against his will, his eyes dart back to the TV.

She’s not alone anymore. There’s an older man there, his face streaked with dust, his hands wrapped around a pole he’s using to leverage up some debris.

Perry. But what is Perry doing on the news? Why is he there, alone, on that street that looks like the middle of a warzone?

“In every possible future, there is always, Clark, a Doomsday.”

Sudden fire spears through him and Clark curls in on himself, falls to his knees, wraps his arms around his middle. There’s more blood there, sickening rents in his flesh, and he thinks he catches a glimpse of white bone around the mess of his ribcage before he squeezes his eyes shut and tries to focus on the birdsong. Somehow, it doesn’t surprise him at all when he realizes that the birds are gone. The pie is gone. The sunlight has gone cold and sterile, and its light does nothing to warm or strengthen him, only illuminates the heavy cloud of concrete dust filtering through the air to choke him.

Coughing and hacking to try to catch a breath of clear air, Clark drags himself into the bedroom. Away from the dust. Away from the TV. Away from the pain.

“Please don’t die.”

The whisper is soft and gentle, more welcome than any amount of pleasant chirping. It threads its way around him, soothes the pain covering him from head to toe, eases the effort it takes to breathe in and out.

“Lois,” he whimpers.

And he cannot see the television, but it doesn’t matter. He can see the scene plastered across his own mind, rooted in every thought he possesses, flashing over anything else.

Lois standing in front of him, handing him something that seems unimportant now, and in her eyes so much fear and concern and…and…something else. Something he’s seen before. Something that’s made him catch his breath and put his hand over his chest to keep his heart in place. Where has he seen it before? What is it?

Ah, yes, he remembers, how could he ever forget? Lois was with him, beside him on the couch, and she told him he was the most important person in her life, and he told her he loved her, and she kissed him. She kissed him and pulled him down into spiraling, whirling sensations he’d never known existed but has dreamed of nonetheless, and he’d whispered that precious, most vulnerable, most important secret again, and she’d looked up at him, all soft and tender and warm. And fond. Affectionate. Caring.

And he’d believed (let himself believe? fooled himself into believing?) that she loved him. That she couldn’t say it, but she betrayed it with every move she made, every look she gave him, every caress she bestowed on him.

But that was before. Before the revelation and the end. Before the confession and the confrontation. Before…before…

Agony lances under his skin, like fire, like green glowing radiation, and Clark screams, curls into a ball on the cold floor and tries to hold himself together. Tries to staunch the bleeding from his chest and the mercurial ebbing and flowing of his pain. Tries not to see that metallic, mindless monster that had fixated on him.

Ripped into him.

Torn at him.

Thrown him from one torment to the next.

It was so cold, every time Clark touched it (to hit and grab and throw and hurt, violence like he has never known before), a cold that went beyond mere temperature. As if the beast was the antithesis to the sunlight, as if it drained all the solar energy from Clark’s cells with every touch, every blow, every slash.

No, Clark thinks almost incoherently. No, please, no more. I can’t do this anymore.

He cracks his eyes open, and watches his blood trickle along the floor. Watches as it pools along the cracks of a tiny crater that seem to profile the edges of a pair of feet.

“It’s over, Clark.”

He doesn’t want to be here anymore (where he can hear her voice delivering that terrible sentence). He doesn’t want to do this anymore. He’s scared and alone and hurting, and it’s not a comforting silence anymore; it’s a terrifying quiet that threatens to sink into his bones and still his heart.

“Please,” he whispers, or thinks he does. But he doesn’t even know what he’s begging for, and he didn’t actually say anything at all, because his voice is locked away inside him, and the silence is of his own making.


 

It’s late and the bullpen is almost empty. Clark likes the bustle and energy of the day, but he also likes it like this, where he can think easier and worry less about what all the people might be seeing when they look at him. His desk is arranged just as he likes it, and his chair is placed just exactly so that he can always see Lois’s desk at the edge of his vision. He can hear Perry muttering to himself over a story he’s editing, and Jimmy’s breathing steadily at his desk, and the scent of old, strong coffee completes the scene.

Clark stretches his arms over his head, then lets them fall back to his keyboard. He’s not paying attention to the screen in front of him, though (if he were, he might wonder about the image of Perry, frantic and worried and stained with dust and blood, reflected over it), but watches Lois. She’s been avoiding him, and he wants to know why. Needs to know why, so he can correct the problem and help her.

A flicker to his right catches his attention. He jerks his head that way, but there’s nothing there.

“We’ve got to get him out of here before anyone sees! Help me!”

Inwardly sighing, Clark tenses at the sound of those familiar words and raises his hand to his tie (for some reason, the movement makes his fingers ache, but the sensation passes before he can do more than casually notice it). Then he blinks, shakes his head, wonders why he thought he’d heard a call for help when everything is calm and quiet.

He gets up, takes a deep breath for courage (chokes at something thick and cloying in his throat, tastes metallic salt against the roof of his mouth), and approaches Lois.

“Oh, Perry, he’s…there’s so much blood.”

The world blurs around him. The colors of this newsroom that’s grown so familiar and comforting to him seem to fade and haze under the imagined sound of that scared voice. But he blinks, and Lois is in front of him, letting him get close to her, saying she has something to tell him, inviting him over for dinner.

“It’s not enough.”

His heart seizes up in his chest. For just an instant, he thinks it has stopped beating altogether. For just an instant, everything goes white and sparkly and numb. Then he hears the blood rushing in his ears, feels spikes of agony scrape along his bones, almost thinks he groans when pulling in a breath that tastes of grit and blood and terror.

“I’ll pick up some groceries—my treat,” Lois says, and Clark is once more perched on the edge of her desk, watching her walk away. The pain fades, the colors go back to normal, and his heart is beating steadily, if a bit rapidly, in his chest.

This time, watching Lois walk away from him doesn’t send a pang of panicked fear through him; it makes him smile to himself and turn back to his desk with an extra bounce to his step. There’s still so much chance of heartbreak (he’s not so distraught that he doesn’t notice Lois didn’t give much of a hint about what she wants to tell him), but there always has been when it comes to Lois Lane. Just coming to Metropolis was a gamble; fixing his gaze on Lois was a risk. It seemed so easy, so full of potential, at first. But she shot him down as easily as if she broke the hearts (and Clark’s pounds unsteadily, as if flinching from a remembered pain) of enamored young men every day, and walked away from him on Luthor’s dance floor, and then confided in him about her own broken heart. And he decided it was better to let her realize she could trust him first. And then came Superman—

“I’m starting to think it was a mistake to give up on Superman.”

—and unflattering comparisons and swooning over caped alter egos, put-downs for boring partners, and that just friends label he thought he’d never escape.

No, in Clark’s most honest moments, he can admit that for every moment of joy Lois grants him—

“Ever since then, I’ve always wondered what it would be like…to say good night every night.”

—there is an accounting in pain and disappointment.

“Why me? Why did you pick me to lie to, Clark? Out of all the people in this city, why did you have to make me look like the fool?”

“You all right there, CK?”

Startled, Clark looks up (away from the reflected image of rubble and blood and Perry and Lois’s faces swimming over him), and gives Jimmy a sheepish smile. “Guess I got a little caught up in daydreams—thanks for waking me up before Perry caught me.”

“He is taking the phrase ‘on the warpath’ a little literally,” Jimmy says with a laugh. Reassured that Clark is fine with talking to him (much as Clark tries to convince Jimmy he always enjoys the younger man’s company, this is an insecurity seemingly engrained within him), he steps closer. “So Jack and I were going to watch the game tonight—you want to come with?”

“Thanks, Jimmy, but Lois and I have plans.”

“He said I just had to make you happy for a while and then break it off.”

“Oh!” Jimmy raises his eyebrows, obviously amused (or worried? does Clark only imagine the flicker of caution there? did he ignore it on purpose?). “Hot date, huh?”

Clark gives him a quelling look but can’t hold it for long. “I guess. I think she’s planning on cooking.”

“Lois Lane? Cooking?” Jimmy laughs, but he doesn’t sound as if he’s joking. (He doesn’t look as casual as he’s trying to make himself appear; as Clark thought he was.) “You’re a brave man, CK.” He pauses (is that a measuring look in his eyes? is he trying to gauge whether Clark will listen to him or not?), then adds, “She must really have something big planned. I remember Lucy said that TV dinners are as far as Lois ever goes in the kitchen.”

“Well,” Clark teases (ignores…misses?...the warning), “she didn’t say that we weren’t having TV dinners.”

Jimmy looks at him for a long moment (is that sadness there? does he know? did they all know?). “I hope it’s everything you want it to be, CK,” he finally says.

There was more, Clark knows (though he can’t explain how), but it’s gone, shaken and rattled and burned away in the sudden baptism of cruel sensations bombarding him on every side. The newsroom is washed out, washed away. Jimmy vanishes, left behind in the searing wash of Clark’s desperate escape from the life that has hurt him so badly.

He reaches out, searching for something to hold onto, something that will ground him and stop the way his vision is going around in circles. Whatever he grabs, it’s hard and solid, angular—the edge of his desk.

“Don’t leave me, Clark! Stay with me!”

No. No, that’s not what she said. She said, “Don’t give up on me,” and he’d thought she meant on loving her, but what she’d really meant was on helping her with another of her crazy stunts. Come and help me sneak into the lair of the guy who just about killed us, Clark. Come with me while I confront the megalomaniacal murderer, Clark. Come and give me everything you are so I can break your heart and earn you the consolation prize of a statue hundreds of years in the future, Clark.

He loses his grip on the desk, and his knees give out, leaving him in a heap on the floor. He’s lying in a pool of blood, and it hurts too much to breathe, and there’s a monster coming for him. He has to get up. He has to climb to his feet and stop the beast from killing anyone else.

It’s going to hurt. He knows it is. His body is already cringing in anticipation of the next blow. But he’s Superman. He’s Superman and this is what he’s here for, it’s all he has to offer the world, the only thing the future will remember him for, and there is no one else.

“Clark. Please. Please. I love you. Don’t die.”


 

“Rise and shine, son!” his dad calls, and Clark groans and nestles deeper into his blankets. A yawn overtakes him, and he can’t help but stretch out to the ends of the bed. The blankets slide away from him as he unconsciously rises into the air. The scent of bacon and eggs and coffee bring him completely awake, and Clark feels a smile overtake him. No matter how often he visits, his mom still insists on making him a full breakfast—and his dad certainly doesn’t complain.

The stairs are cool against his bare feet, well-worn from the thousands of times he’s made this trip to the kitchen. His mom smiles brightly at him, the sunlight behind her casting a halo across her hair. “Good morning, honey,” she greets him. “I already poured you a glass of orange juice.”

His dad’s sitting at the kitchen table, sipping from a mug and skimming the newspaper in front of him. Clark’s lips curve upward at the familiar sight, and he feels his entire body relaxing, his super-senses all but fading, his muscles unwinding, even his bones seeming to become more limber, less constrained. When Clark drops into the seat beside his dad and leans his elbow on the table, he can feel the etching of his name where he’d burned it there with his heat-vision to show his mom just how well he’d learned to control his latest power.

Everything around him is infinitely familiar, intimately recognizable. His mom, ruffling his hair as she sets a plate down in front of him. His dad’s low voice as he mentions what he plans to do in the west field. The scent of breakfast, of corn and wheat and prairie. Of love and belonging and family.

“Martha…he said he told Lois. He said she didn’t love him.”

Clark starts, his hand knocking over the orange juice. It puddles on the table between his and his dad’s plates, bright and smarting of citrus.

“Dad,” he rasps, and flinches again at the sound of his own voice. It’s hoarse, strained, as if he has not spoken in days. As if he has screamed himself raw. “Why would you say that?”

But Jonathan just looks up at Martha and shakes his head sadly. Like he didn’t even hear Clark (but his parents always listen to him).

“At least Superman’s someone she loved,” Martha says, and smiles at Clark, as if the words don’t carve furrows through his soul.

Suddenly, the scent of the bacon makes him sick. Roasted flesh, seared and blistering. His stomach roils, and Clark rushes to the sink. He vomits, chokes, hacks up blood and dust and blood and grit and more blood. His sides ache as if banded about in pure steel, and he has to hold his arms to his side to keep his ribs from grinding one against another.

When he looks down, trying to find out why he hurts so badly, he realizes he’s in the Superman suit. But…why? Why did he dress in this instead of the comfortable, worn clothing he still hasn’t completely moved out of his old bedroom?

“If she doesn’t love Clark Kent, she doesn’t deserve Superman.” His dad’s gaze is steady, somber, and Clark remembers, then, how this conversation goes.

“She kissed me,” he says, because that’s what he did before. “Why would she do that if she only came to tell me it was over?”

She did kiss him. He remembers it. Remembers the anxiety and the hope and the nerves and the giddiness all vying for control inside him, and the way she lunged forward and slanted her mouth over his. It was quick and desperate, and even then, it hadn’t made sense to him.

“Clark. Don’t hate me.”

A groan is pulled from deep inside him at the sound of that voice, so small and desperate. He promised her he couldn’t. He remembers making that promise, can all but feel the words in his mouth, shapes that make him shift and move his tongue, as if he can rid himself of them this far after the fact. He promised her he wouldn’t hate her, and he thought it was a safe promise, one that would never be broken—could never be broken.

But that was before, too. Before the truth from both of them. Before Tempus in his Kryptonite cage. Before the…the beast that…the creature with its claws…

Clark shudders, so deeply, so involuntarily, it feels almost like a seizure, rippling through his body like a tidal wave. His entire chest burns with remembered, all-too-new pain.

“I wish this was real. I wish…I wish you could really be mine.”

The blue sleeves banded about his arms feel wet, sticky. They aren’t quite the right color either, and Clark turns a bit away from his mom to hide the stains from her. Only, his mom isn’t there anymore. The kitchen is empty. He is alone.

“I am yours,” he murmurs. He is so cold. So cold his bones shake and rattle inside his skin. So cold that his teeth are chattering and his lungs are iced over and his Suit is useless to protect him. His cape drapes itself around him, settles over his prostrate form as if it is a shroud, but it does not warm him.

“Lois, get some blankets! I think he’s going into shock.”

Perry’s voice is strange here; he’s never been to Smallville. Never visited the farm. Never seen where Clark grew up, and where he still flies to when he needs to remind himself what matters most.

He hurts, but it’s so overwhelming, so inescapable, that he doesn’t bother to catalogue it. Just sinks into it.

“Do something, Perry, please! Please help him!”

“Lois. I am yours,” he says again through lips that are turning blue. He knows what comes next. Remembers confessing to her sleeping form, draped over his body just like his cape is now. He doesn’t want to say it, though. He wants to go back to before, when he knew Lois so well and didn’t question her all the time. When she showed him she loved him and he didn’t know it was only for the future’s sake.

He wants to fast forward to a time when she is in the past and he has moved on and it doesn’t hurt so much to remember her.

(He wants to go to sleep, to fade, and not wake up. He wants to give up.)

He wishes he were strong enough not to say it…but he isn’t.

“I just wish I could be sure you were mine too.”


 

Sometimes when he wakes he is in his apartment. Sometimes he’s in the newsroom. Sometimes he’s at the farm. Once, he’s on a rooftop while Lois tells him I didn’t take you seriously, Clark, but that doesn’t last very long because he loses all strength and plummets to the earth far below and wakes in Smallville, stays long enough to feel the embrace of his parents before he is yanked back into the cold darkness where his body aches so much he feels as if he will shatter if he moves.

He always has his glasses on (at least, he thinks he does), but whenever he realizes he’s bleeding, he’s back in the Superman suit. Strange snippets of things come to his attention before drifting away again. He hears Perry snapping out orders and Lois crying. He feels blankets over his legs and a washcloth on his brow. He hears moments and statements and confessions from the past interspersed between things he doesn’t understand, like Perry saying I already guessed he was Superman.

Always, he is given a moment of respite, and then gradually, inexorably sucked back into his nightmare. Always, he tries to cling to the moments of comfort and calm with everything he is, and always the flashes of that gray monster, the beautiful things Lois (the in-between Lois, the one he doesn’t understand) says, are what smacks him back into incoherency.

But he can only run for so long. He can only lie to himself so many times before he knows that it is him trying to keep himself safe and protected from the harsh truths.

So finally, eventually, he doesn’t look away from the television screen. He sees the beast closing in on him. Feels its claw sink into his chest and rip. Hears its guttural shriek as it falls (not falls; is pushed into, by him) into oblivion. Struggles against the chilling, deadening grasp it has on him.

He feels it die, its hand going limp not quite as cold around him.

He remembers falling, sliding, fetching up against a wall. Remembers the tremor that followed and the piece of the ceiling that tumbled and crashed into the portal frame. Remembers the blue glow winking out as if it’d never been. He remembers trying to stumble to his feet and curling up in agony around the ruins of his chest, and he remembers choking on the dust that suffocated him. He remembers being buried alive. He remembers not being able to move (except he always could in his dreams, always woke and stretched out his limbs) and going mad with panic.

He’s not surprised when he opens his eyes this time and finds himself in a little hollow carved out of the rubble by his own body. The rocks around him are pulverized, shattered on impact with his alien musculature, but he is still trapped. There is no light. No sun. No warmth.

He’s going to die here. Alone. Buried. He used to have nightmares, when he was little, of being trapped in a tiny dark place, and now he realizes that he’s come full circle. Or maybe he is still developing more powers, and those nightmares were just a glimpse of the future. Despite everything Tempus said, and all the things Lois saw, maybe this is where he was always going to end up.

“Your parents are here, Clark, okay? You should wake up and say hello. Please…please, Clark, wake up.”

The voice, alto and melodic and a source of both comfort and terror, weaves its way into his prison. Clark’s used to it now. Used to not knowing where she is, or why she says the things she does when none of them are applicable to his unending torment.

He licks his lips and swallows the blood he finds there, a vain attempt to wash away some of the gravel he’s constantly afraid he’s going to choke on. As dusty as it is, the concrete can’t lap up all the blood he’s losing; he can feel it underneath him, a sticky, liquid bed.

It’s strange, not being able to just stand and shake away the debris around him. For all the familiar sights and sounds and scents his photographic mind is granting him, it’s this that is unfamiliar to him—being trapped.

Or maybe not. If his long, tumultuous relationship with Lois has taught him anything, it is that he is helpless before her.

“I’m sorry, Clark.”

She told him right from the beginning. That’s what he can’t escape from. That night she came to his apartment and started him on the road leading to Doomsday, she told him, in veiled words and couched tones, in sideways glances and speeding heart. I’m sorry, she said, and meant it. I want to try, she said, and she did. She gave it her all, and if it wasn’t enough…if she still can’t love him…

Clark’s thoughts stutter to a halt. That’s what he can’t quite get away from either. I can’t make excuses anymore, she’d whispered, and she’d kissed him. And before, the way she looked at him, the same look she gave him when she stood amidst destruction and gave him the key to salvation and told him she loved him and begged him not to die.

She lied. She lied when she said she wanted to try to find an us with Clark. But she told the truth when she said I didn’t know it could be like this. She wasn’t telling the truth when she said It’s not enough, but she wasn’t lying when she said I’m sorry on the rooftop.

“You’re so good, Clark,” Lois says, and he fights to blink his eyes open, to look up where there should only be black rubble and find her standing over him, her eyes soft and her expression gentle. “You’re so good, Clark, and I can’t get in the way of that.”

“Lois!” he gasps, and maybe he hates her, just a little bit, maybe he is still furious and betrayed and bewildered, but he doesn’t want her to leave him. He is afraid and he is broken and he is dying, and he does not want to be alone.

And this is why he closed his mouth and soldered his teeth together and buried his voice deep inside him. This is why he could not speak, why he could barely look at her, why he did not want her to be near him.

Because the minute she is here, the instant he opens his mouth, the wrong thing comes out.

(It already did, when Doomsday was falling at him, and death was nipping at his heels, and there was no more time.)

“I love you, Lois.”

He expects her to fade. To vanish. Or worse, to turn and leave him of her own volition.

She does none of those things.

Smiling a small, secret smile, she reaches her hand down to him. Daringly, timidly, Clark slides his hand into hers, and then gasps when she pulls him to his feet. Inexplicably, there is room now, as if rock and stone and reality all bow and retreat before her. She is warm, and Clark shudders to feel the suggestion of heat so near him. He wants to stretch out to prove that he can, but at the same time he wants to bend and fold in around Lois, cradle her warmth to himself and protect it from their bleak surroundings.

But he does not like that smile on her lips. It’s mysterious, ambiguous; it hints of secrets. It reminds him of the after-Lois. The stranger-Lois.

He wants his Lois. But he also wants the in-between Lois. He knows that now. He wants all the moments he’s treasured, all the progress he’s watched in awe, all the kisses and sweet things, to be real. But if he takes that in-between Lois, if he accepts her as the Lois he loves, then he has to take the after-Lois, too, because she’s inextricably tied up with that in-between.

And he’s just not sure he’s ready to do that.

“I wish it was enough that I loved you,” he tells her, because now that the worst is out, he can’t lock his voice back up.

“What if I said that I love you, too?” she asks. Heat still radiates off her. She’s so alive, so vibrant, so full of color and breath and health. Clark feels like a wraith standing beside her, hunched and gray and on the edge of death (maybe dead already, he can’t tell). “Would you believe me?”

He forms his own smile, sardonic and as close to jaded as he has ever come. “I want to. And that’s what scares me. Last time, I wanted to believe you so much, I walked right into your trap. I can’t do that again.”

“Because I do love you,” she continues, as if he hasn’t spoken. “I love you so much more than I ever thought was possible. If you…if you die… You can’t die, Clark. I need you.”

“I thought you said the world needed me,” he snaps, then recoils, afraid she will disappear, taking all the light and warmth and space with her.

But she stays there, so close he could embrace her if he didn’t think his arms would go right through her. And she’s not smiling anymore. She’s crying. There’s dried blood smeared across her temple, and salt stains marking tracks down her cheeks, and bruises under her eyes, and her hands are shaking.

“I need you, Clark.”

He reaches for her, then, because not to would be a repudiation of all that he is.

But when his hands reach her, he is yanked away.

“Lois!” he calls, but she’s already gone.


 

He’s standing on a street. No, he’s hovering over a street. Below him, there is a creature, alien and inhuman and vicious. Clark is shaking, his flesh tight, the hairs on the back of his neck standing straight up, but none of that compares to the bolt of sheer terror that overpowers him when the beast turns and looks straight at him.

This, then, is the end. The way out. The key to the cessation of his nightmares.

He must face Doomsday again. Once and for all.

“And in every universe,” he hears Tempus say, gloating and triumphant, “for every Superman—no matter what suit you wear or name you go by—there is always this monster waiting in your future.”

Doomsday roars at him; Clark feels the foulness of its breath wash over him, tainting him.

Below, the street is stained with the blood of the beast’s helpless victims.

“A mindless savage beast, bred and birthed for no other reason than to kill you. In every possible future, there is always, Clark, a Doomsday.”

The creature is being led, somehow, as if scenting Clark’s past presence there, toward the Daily Planet, where Perry and Jimmy are. It would be easy, oh so easy, for the beast to turn, instead, toward Smallville. Toward his parents.

“Did I mention he’s from Krypton too? And he hates your kind, can track them to the ends of the universe, even, which means it won’t be any problem for him to sniff you out, walk in your footsteps—or flight path, as the case may be. Killing and destroying everything that gets in the way.”

No choice. No other way.

But he doesn’t know where Lois is. She could be dying right now, her throat crushed beneath Tempus’s hands. She could already be gone, cast adrift into the infinite chaos of time.

Doomsday grabs him, snatches him clean out of the air and tosses him with savage intent, and Clark is embroiled in a battle he knows he will never escape.

He fled, and ran, and tried to hide in memories of better times and safer places, with the people he loves and cares for. But in the end, none of it matters. This is still the only way out. This is still his future, his fate, and his legacy will be marked in cratered impacts along downtown Metropolis.

“Because in every universe, no matter when or how it happens, Doomsday is always, always, the death of Superman.”

Superman throws himself at the monster, meets him head-on, hears the air crack around him with the force of their collision. Everything goes white.


 

“Please, Clark. Stay with me.”

(He whimpers, whines deep in his throat, scrabbles at the covers desperately. Her hand covers his. Blood leaks from the bandages wrapped around him, everywhere she looks, his body ribbed and striated in white and red. He is constricted, bound; he cannot move.)

“Don’t leave me.”

(He already has.)

Chapter Text

She doesn’t notice when Perry gets there, isn’t even aware that there is anyone else at all in this hellish nightmare until she realizes that he’s helping her lift a chunk of metal that dangles dead wires. (Everything is dead around her.) Even when she sees him, meets his sad, tired gaze, she can’t summon enough energy to ask him how he knew to come; all her strength is being poured into her wish that Clark still be alive (and the dimmer, more abstract hope that they can find him and get him out of here before the outside world comes blazing in with sirens and military uniforms and questions).

Her throat is raw; her screaming has long since ceased. Outwardly, at least. Inwardly, her mantra continues unabated.

Don’t die, Clark. Please don’t die.

Don’t be dead.

When they finally find him, unearthing him from his cramped metal and concrete coffin, she thinks all her prayers have been in vain and the world is unfamiliar and alien and less.

Everything is gray, in this new post-Doomsday world, but Superman is still as vibrant as ever. Rich red blood that soaks into the small cocoon formed around his twisted, unmoving body, gleaming against the darkness. Traces of blue and green marring the pallid hue of his skin, and between shreds of his Suit, tiny, nauseating glimpses of white, white bone. He’s full of color, and drained of life, and surrounded by gray. There’s even the remnant of one of Doomsday’s spikes broken off inside him, as if the muted shade that Tempus so desired is rooted there, growing out of Superman, a cancer, a canker, a disease.

Perry’s quick indrawn breath sounds like cannon-fire, impelling Lois to action. Carefully, slowly (so very, very afraid of what she will find at the bottom), she lowers herself down beside this splotch of color, clinging to the edges of the rubble to make sure she doesn’t touch him, or worse, collide with him. He looks waxen and fragile; she thinks even the smallest brush of her hand against him might shatter him.

“Please don’t die.” Only when she hears the words break the self-contained atmosphere around her does she realize that she is the source of them. A quiet plea she could no more help than she can heal all the wounds marring Clark’s body.

“Lois,” Perry says, then, making her jump. A rock skitters out from under her foot, starting an avalanche of scree that buries Clark’s palm. “I’ve got my car a few blocks from here—had to park it when the rubble got too bad. You think we can get him there on our own?”

She stares up at him blankly before looking back down at Clark. Move him? How…how could they… She can’t even touch him!

“Lois!” Perry barks, and she jumps again. Another tiny avalanche, and Lois almost whimpers to see more of Clark’s battered body covered in unfeeling stone. “We’ve got to get him out of here before anyone sees! Help me!”

It’s torture, to finally place her (blood-stained) hands on him, to help Perry shift him. He’s large and heavy and unwieldy, and so impossibly frail. So defenseless. So hurt. (It’s as if the state of his heart after she was through with it has been transposed to his physical body, to match him outside and in.) He whimpers, a quiet, needy sound, when she and Perry heave him up out of the hollow his body formed around him. Worse, the blood that had been sluggishly seeping from the ruin of his chest begins to leak brighter, faster. His skin’s as white as his soul, and she doesn’t know how much more blood even Superman can afford to lose.

“Oh, Perry, he’s…there’s so much blood,” she gasps, wanting him to give her a respite. To tell her it’s all right. To let them stop moving until Clark wakes and smiles and once more walks with that bounce to his step, as if he might lift off from the ground at any moment.

Perry only grunts and tugs at Clark’s limp body without letting up, though Lois can see the track of tears outlined on his cheeks by the wisps of dust and smoke sifting around them, hiding them from view of all the cameras and soldiers holding back until they know what happened to Doomsday. Until they realize that the monster is gone, and barge forward now, when it’s too late, when Clark has already given everything he can give in their defense. And they will see him, will realize that Superman is not untouchable. Maybe they will mourn or try to help, or maybe they will see her and Perry and begin to connect the dots—and out of everything that Lois has stolen from him, she absolutely refuses to strip away his privacy. His one, great Secret (that he offered her so trustingly, so hopefully).

Finally, long moments of eternities later, they have him free of the heap of debris, have him back to relatively flat ground. Perry huffs and bends over to catch his breath, coughing when he gets a mouthful of smoke (some of the hanging wires out there aren’t as dead as the ones Lois found), and Clark’s shoulders slip from his grasp.

His head knocks against the pitted ground. The breath is expelled from his lungs in a soft, soughing sound.

He doesn’t take another breath.

“Clark!” Lois exclaims. She’s there, at his side, touching him, hands grazing over the raw meat where his smooth chest should be, her fingers fluttering here, there, everywhere, in vain. No soft whisper of breath, no rise and fall of lungs, no pulse in his throat. “Don’t leave me, Clark!” she begs him. Commands him. Her voice so shrill, so panicked, it is almost incoherent, but that one plea is all that is left to her. It consumes her entire focus. “Stay with me!”

Perry knocks her aside. His face is flat, expressionless, as he sets his hands down on Clark’s mangled chest and pushes, once, again, again, a steady rhythm that Lois wills Clark to mimic. Their gruff editor bends, pinches Clark’s nose with a red hand, and breathes into his mouth. Lois wants to help, wants to do something, anything, to help, but she can only watch. Frozen, uncomprehending, keening with terror at the sudden inchoate future yawning before her, all empty and desolate.

She wishes this moment would fade and lessen. Wishes it were nothing more than brief flashes she could blink away if she so chose. But instead it is sharp and piercing, and even years later, when the parking garage is rebuilt and the streets of Metropolis are long cleansed of their scars, she will wake from nightmares of this instant, this eternal limbo, where she still lived while Clark was dead. A limbo she will never entirely leave. It is always there, with her, panic and terror and grief so large it can encompass every ocean in the universe.

She doesn’t know how long Perry worked with that forced calm. She doesn’t know how many tears she shed. She only knows that eventually, finally, Clark gasps in a breath of his own, and gags, and chokes, and sags inward. He looks smaller, diminished somehow, as if he is back but left part of himself behind.

Perry sags too, and though his face is hidden, Lois can see his shoulders shaking with the force of his own overwhelming emotions.

“Thank you,” Lois whispers. “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

“Come on,” he says simply, breathlessly. “We’ve got to get moving.”

Somehow, they maneuver Clark’s impossibly heavy body up between them. Red boots—stained and torn—drag against the ground, but at least they’re moving. At least she can feel the susurration of  Clark’s continuing, miraculous breaths against her cheek. That’s all that matters. That trumps everything else—the feel of his blood soaking into her clothes, sticky against her skin, and the fear that threatens to turn her into a gibbering mess, and the wasteland around her. For just a few more beats of Clark’s heart, she would live a thousand more years in this hell.

“There,” Perry gasps out, finally, using his chin to point up ahead. “There’s the car. Let’s lay him in the back seat.”

She wants to wince at the thought (this cannot be good for Clark, none of it; he needs paramedics and doctors and medicine and Kryptonian blood), but gamely struggles onward. His head lolls limply, his limbs splay out in uncoordinated angles, and he groans (a tortured sound that tears at Lois’s insides and haunts her dreams for years), but eventually they have him in the car, crumpled along the backseat. Perry heads for the driver’s seat immediately, but Lois can’t help lingering just to try to right the uncomfortable cant to his neck, to brush his hair back from his eyes, to shrug out of what remains of her jacket and drape it over the awful wounds covering his front.

“Clark,” she murmurs (has no idea what she wants to say; just wants to remind them both that he is still alive, that she can still use his name and he should still respond to it). “Please. Please. I love you. Don’t die.”

“Lois!” Perry barks. “Get in, quick!”

Dimly, she knows she’s grateful that he’s staying level-headed. More immediately, she wants to strike at him, to snarl and hunch over Clark’s form and dare anyone to try to separate them.

But Perry’s right. They have to leave. Her staying here, touching him, isn’t doing Clark any good at all.

It’s one of the hardest things she’s ever done (and she knows about hard, doesn’t she, after everything she’s already done to destroy him), but she lifts her hand from Clark’s brow, and closes him up in the car, and gets in the front seat.

“What are we going to do?” she asks, blankly. Perry’s driving. She knows they’re moving. All she can see is the pallor of Clark’s skin. The mangled remains of his ribcage. The white of his bones. “How can we save him?”

Perry glances over at her (she’s not strong enough to look at him and see whatever is there in his expression). “I don’t know,” he says, and Lois shrinks in on herself. She didn’t realize how much she wanted him to assert that everything would be fine until he didn’t. Until she hears the terror there, hiding beneath his staunch exterior. “We’ll do everything we can, though. He’s strong. He’ll pull through.”

“Oh, Clark…” She breaks, then, as if her spine simply melts away, leaving her bending and bowing, broken and defeated, her hands over her eyes to try to staunch the mortal stream of tears. “He’s going to die, isn’t he? He’s so hurt—Doomsday tore right through his chest. He stopped breathing and he hasn’t woken up and this is all my fault and it should be me not him why couldn’t I save him—”

“Lois! Lois, honey!” Perry is frantic, one hand leaving the steering wheel to pat her back, but Lois is gasping now, hyperventilating, dissolving right here in this seat, with Clark’s dying body just a foot behind her. “Just breathe, Lois! Breathe! He needs you to be strong right now, all right? Keep it together!”

And how can she deny that? After everything he’s done for her, after all the crimes she has committed, how can she fall apart now, when he still needs her?

She can’t. She won’t.

So she forces herself to breathe, in through her nose, out through her mouth, her head against her knees, until the white spots fade from her vision and she can take a breath without sobbing.

“Okay,” she says, over and over again. “Okay. Okay. Okay.”

(Nothing is okay; she’s still lying.)

The gentle way Perry rubs circles over her shoulder blade helps calm her down. Quiets her, until even that verbal breakdown fades. By the time she looks up, pretending to strength and calm, Perry is parking the car in front of Clark’s place.

Lois stares numbly up at the building. She wants to ask why Perry brought them here (how he knew to show up when Clark needed him most), but her world is only holding stable by a single thread; she can’t afford for anything to shake her. So she swallows back her questions and steels herself to move Clark again, this time up a flight of stairs.


 

It’s bad. So much worse than she ever could have imagined. It’s logistically hard, of course, made more difficult by just how heavy Clark is and how limp his limbs are. It’s physically hard because neither she nor Perry want to hurt Clark, but it’s impossible to lift him and carry him upstairs without coming up against wounds and bending him in places that shouldn’t be bent right now. What makes it hardest of all, what makes it torture of the worst sort, though, is the quiet keening sound Clark begins to emit when they hit the stairs. A humming whine that sounds so pitiful, so helpless, that endless tears stream down Lois’s face and Perry’s teeth are probably chipped from how tightly he grits them.

But at least his heart doesn’t stop again. At least he’s still breathing.

This is how Lois learns to measure success: in the flutter of shallow breaths. In the sluggish pulse beneath fragile skin. In the way his eyes roll behind eyelids that betray a mind still working.

For hours (or years maybe; it seems unending), she and Perry do everything they know to do. Perry tells her the signs of shock, and they try to mitigate them, and Lois screams for Perry’s help when Clark’s body stiffens once, as if seizing up. His heart skips beats then, and Perry puts his hands over that gaping wound once more, ready to press against broken bones to make sure that precious heart keeps moving and pulsing, but Clark comes back on his own. That time.

They strip him of the tatters of his Suit. They wash the blood off him as best they can (and pretend they don’t see how more seeps out to replace it). They bandage him, one gash at a time, bandages made out of sheets they tear into strips and soak in warm water. They dress him in Clark’s clothes (Perry says nothing, betrays no sign of surprise, when they fit him perfectly). They work together seamlessly, silently (so they can hear the inhale, the exhale, the pause, the catch, the terror, the inhale, the exhale…), with shaking hands, with unsteady breaths, through blurred vision, past exhaustion.

He breathes. He lives.

And they exist in the terrible, awful medium between each weak heartbeat.


 

It’s dark when his parents arrive. Lois doesn’t think Perry called them (he’s had no time; neither of them dare risk stepping away from Clark lest the change in the air itself disturb whatever tenuous grasp on life Clark still holds) because they look astonished to see Perry and Lois both looking up, startled, from their vigil over Clark. Or maybe it’s the blood that stains the floor, and the bedding, and Lois and Perry. Maybe it’s the first sight of their son, weak and shrunken and at first glance not even seeming to breathe (but he is, Lois has timed her own to Clark’s, no matter how it makes her lightheaded and dizzy). Whatever it is, they stop on the landing, and stare, and then Martha lets out a single, cracked sob, and all but falls down the stairs, not stopping at all until she is at Clark’s side, his hand cradled in both of hers.

Jonathan follows more slowly, carefully, picking his way as if the slightest misstep will cause him to shatter and tumble to the floor in heavy, uneven pieces.

Wordlessly, Lois and Perry watch, but neither of them move. She doesn’t think they remember how. Besides, if they moved, if they added more sounds to the sudden hectic feel of the apartment, it would mask the sound they’re still listening for, their entire beings fixated on the nearly inaudible rise and fall of Clark’s chest.

He is only three steps away from the bed when Jonathan suddenly pauses, mid-step. Lois doesn’t notice at first, her gaze focused on Clark because he’s on the pause, the catch between breaths, and it’s long…so long…panic is clawing at her throat…and there, finally, the inhale. Only then does she look up to follow the direction of Jonathan’s stare.

It’s the Suit, or what’s left of it. A few tattered remnants of blue and red; there is no yellow left at all. Perry had flung it aside as soon as they finally cut the last of it free from where it was stuck to Clark’s gaping wounds, and Lois never bothered to even look and see where it landed. Evidently, though, she should have.

Jonathan looks from the Suit to his son, then to her, then to Perry. There’s a shadow in his eyes (maybe a catch to his breathing, too, but Lois can’t tell, she can’t stop listening to Clark’s), and his hands are clenched into fists.

“It’s okay,” Perry says hurriedly. Lois flinches to hear such a loud, unexpected sound breaking the tense silence. “I already guessed he was Superman.”

“Jonathon,” Martha moans. “Our boy. What’s…what’s happened to our son?”

Without loosing her grip on Clark’s hand, she twists in her seat and falls into Jonathan’s ready, waiting embrace. The stolid farmer bends his own head over his wife, wraps his hand around hers and Clark’s, shutting them both away in a private moment of shared grief. Lois meets Perry’s eyes for only a moment as they awkwardly look away (do what they can to give the parents privacy without actually leaving Clark’s side) before she looks down to Clark.

“Clark,” she whispers, brushing her fingers over his brow (searching for an inch of unmarred skin). “Your parents are here, Clark, okay? You should wake up and say hello.”

Nothing. Inhale, exhale, pause…pause…pause…her heart fluttering so rapidly she thinks it is trying to beat for both of them…pause…catch…Perry is so tense he feels like a statue beside her…inhale.

Another success.

“Please…please, Clark, wake up.”

He’s so small. So weak. So distant from her.

Inhale…pause…this is new, this is not the pattern she is used to, she cannot breathe…pause…his parents are turning, looking, fear scrawled so strongly across their faces that Lois doesn’t need to look to see it…exhale…pause…pause…pause…no, this cannot be the end, it can’t be…pause…catch…all three of them are silent, holding their own breaths, listening, listening, listening…inhale…

One more tiny victory. One more second he is alive.

One more breathless, panicked wait for the next breath.


 

Sunlight, his parents tell them. He needs sunlight to live, to heal, to revive.

But it’s night. The sun has long since set. The morning is hours away. If she weren’t so intent on staying strong for him as long as he needs her, Lois think she would have collapsed then and there, fallen to her knees and wept and begged and shrieked.

It’s not fair. It’s not right. Why is it him in that bed, fighting for his life? It should be her. Doomsday was here for her, that’s what Tempus said, and Tempus only got as far as he did because of her, and Clark went to face his own death thinking she didn’t love him all because of her. This is her fault, and if she could trade places with Clark, she’d do it in an instant. She would have already done it. She would have marched out to meet Doomsday and let him rip her to pieces and never made a sound of protest.

Instead, it is Clark who marched out to meet Doomsday, and let him rend and tear at him, and never complained. Clark who looked at her and said all that mattered was that she was safe. Clark who smiled when she said she loved him (but wistfully, as if at a dream), and told her the same (but simply, as if it didn’t even need to be said), and left to die.

But he’s not dead. Not yet. One breath. One success. One victory. Another. Another. And still the morning seems unreachable. They’ve bandaged his wounds, and Martha unwinds some of the strips and tries to hold the ends of skin together as best she can when no needle will puncture his wounded flesh, but none of them know what to do about the hole in his chest or the bones peeking through red tissue. None of them know how to help him. They dither about keeping him bandaged before finally deciding to keep him wrapped up until morning when they’ll see if they should let the sunlight hit the open wounds (in other words, Lois thinks, they put the decision off for later).

Perry talks with Jonathan, explaining how he heard Lois call for Clark over the news, how the newscaster thought she was calling for someone lost in the chaos but Perry put all the pieces together and headed straight for his car. He reassures Martha as best he can and brings her and Jonathan glasses of water. He offers one to Lois, but she only stares at it blankly. How can she drink water when Clark is still struggling for each breath?

Martha and Jonathan bend over Clark and straighten the blankets around him, the way he likes it, they say, and put their hands over his shoulder (Lois tenses so as not to bat them away; he doesn’t need anything else weighting him down—but then, he’s always depended on the love of his parents in a way she can’t understand) and stroke his cheek and whisper quiet words of love and encouragement. It makes Lois wish she had done the same before they got there.

He did it for her, after all. That night in her apartment, when pain beat like a rainshower inside her skull, and he touched her so gently. Lifted her, held her, cradled her to himself. Told her he needed her. Told her he was better with her. Told her she helped him know how to make the world better. He whispered sweet words against her skin, and kissed her hair, and told her in so many words that Tempus was wrong and she was wrong and he needed her.

She wishes she could help him the same way (only he would listen better than she did, he always has, hasn’t he?). Wishes that before his parents had come and filled the air with their own whispers, she had told him how much she admires and respects and loves him.

She certainly won’t get a chance now.

His parents hate her. She wasn’t expecting it, the first time Martha turned and glared at her, such a look of contempt on her face that Lois actually physically recoiled. She’d been so caught up in Clark’s continuing war, so fixated on praying for each breath, that she’d forgotten what she’s done to their son. She’d forgotten that he went to his parents after she trampled over his heart. She’d let herself conveniently forget the fact that she doesn’t deserve to sit here and listen for Clark’s breath and know that he is still, for now, alive.

Martha glares and Jonathan ignores her, and Lois is silent (but refuses to leave her spot at Clark’s side; if she steps away once, she thinks, they will never let her back, and she cannot survive that), and in an uneasy, unspoken truce, they continue to count their tiny, measureless successes. But they do not leave her alone with him. They do not let her sit with Clark by herself, and though she cannot blame them, she wishes they would give her a moment, just one, just long enough to whisper her own private words in Clark’s ear.

(In case it is the last thing she ever says to him.)

Finally, when Perry’s watching the windows for the slightest sign of the rising sun, when Jonathan is making coffee in the kitchen, when Martha is sitting across from Lois and holding tightly to Clark’s hand (Lois’s hand clenches in envy at the sight; she has not touched Clark since she first remembered how much Clark and his family have a right to hate her), her moment comes. Perry calls to Martha to come tell him if he’s imagining things or if that is the sunrise (winks at her over Martha’s shoulder), and Lois seizes this last, unlooked-for opportunity.

“Clark,” she murmurs, and bends so that the soundwave of her voice will caress his skin. So that she can smell the scent enveloping him: newsprint and coffee and sky (blood and pain and sickness). So that she can feel the tiny ripple of his exhalation against her cheek, like a small kiss.

Only…only now that she is here, almost alone with him, she does not know what to say. She does not know what words she can possibly give him that will convince him to keep fighting. To stay here with her. To live.

She closes her eyes and leans her brow gently—so gently!—against his. Imagines that if she opens her eyes, she will see his, looking back at her (as they always are), mischievous and amused, tender and caring. Devoted. “You said you loved me,” she breathes against his skin. “You thanked me for trying to save you. I don’t understand you.”

It’s not enough. Or rather, it’s not the right thing. He knows what he said. He knows why he said it. He knows that she has no right to ask him for explanations.

But even now, listening for that next inhale, all she can think of is that kiss he gave her. The final kiss. The touch of his lips to hers, tasting of copper, sloppy, but still so gentle. Still speaking volumes.

Love and longing and a want so deep she could drown in it.

She’d told him she loved him, but it was as if he hadn’t heard her.

“What if I said that I love you, too?” she asks him. “Would you believe me? Because I do love you. I love you so much more than I ever thought was possible. If you…if you die…” She can’t speak, can’t finish that sentence—that thought. It’s anathema. It’s unthinkable. “You can’t die, Clark. I need you.”

She’s so selfish, even now, while he is dying. She does need him, and she has to ask him to stay with her because he is so good at giving her whatever she wants. Because he always acts as if it is his greatest joy to bring her the things she loves, to make her smile in surprise and delight. Because he is the thing she loves most, and if he really does want to make her happy, he has to take another breath. He has to stay alive until morning, and then beyond that. He has to get better.

Her tears fall to his cheeks, tiny splashes that echo against the quiet of his rasping breaths.

“I need you, Clark.”

Her only answer is a soft inhale…pause…exhale…pause…pause…catch…pause…pause…inhale…


 

The horizon is smudged with pale blue, rosy pink, butter yellow and the sun is casting its first rays upon the damaged city of Metropolis when Clark’s entire body seizes up. Martha’s shrill call for Jonathan, his quiet, pained exclamation for his boy, Perry’s quick intake of air, and Lois’s own blood rushing through her ears—all those sounds overtake whatever Lois might hear of Clark’s own breathing. But she can see.

She can see the muscles in his neck locked tight and straining.

She can see his eyes bulging.

She can see his back arched off the bed.

And she can see, in exquisite detail, the instant it all…just…stops.

His muscles bend and unravel. His body collapses as if he’s a puppet with the strings cut. His mouth goes slack. His eyes are hollow, his cheeks gaunt.

They wait. Silent. Poised. Teetering over an abyss.

There is no inhale. No pause. No catch. No exhale.

Nothing.

And she does not care that his parents are watching. She does not care that she doesn’t deserve this (or maybe she does, but Clark doesn’t). All she cares about is that her universe is shattering around her. All she cares about is that the future she saw, even the grimy and depleted one, will never come to pass now because there is no Superman to found it. There is no Clark.

Heedless of it all, she throws herself forward. “No!” she shouts, and presses her hands over his chest, reaches with everything she is, wills him to take another breath. “No, Clark!” She presses and retreats, presses and retreats, a constant rhythm she hopes is right because her mind won’t hold numbers right now. She bends and places her lips over the mouth she knows so well, breathes out, eager to trade her every breath for him. She will do this forever if she has to, will give him all the air in her lungs, will wear her strength away making his strong, beautiful heart beat, do anything to save him.

He chokes in a breath—the strongest one he has taken since they carried him up the stairs to his apartment—and arches once more. Lois backs up, lets her hands fall away from him, and waits.

He breathes. He gasps. He sputters. He whimpers, a sound utterly chilling in its helplessness.

“Please, Clark!” she begs. “Stay with me!”

His hands tangle in the bedding, a last spasm that rips through his drained shell. Then he stills. There is blood on the bandages. There is bloodshot brown peeking from below his eyelids.

There is no sign of life.

“Clark!” Lois scrabbles for him, desperate and urgent. “No! Clark, please! Don’t leave me!”

She pushes, she breathes, she screams, she thrashes wildly when Perry pulls her away from the body. She goes wild, feral, as mindless and savage as Doomsday, reaching for Clark, struggling until her mentor, shaking with his own sobs, merely encompasses her in his arms and hugs her, tighter and tighter until she tires herself and goes limp, drained of everything but a grief so great she knows she will never escape it.

And still there is no inhale. No success. No victory.

They won so many battles, but in the end, they lost the war.


 

The sun comes up. It casts a golden light across Clark’s body until a sheet is drawn up over him.

The apartment is cold. She shivers in the corner, huddled up on herself.

Martha weeps, a constant sound that feels as if it is the voice of the world itself. Jonathan makes no sound, but he holds Martha and silent tears make a trek across his bewildered face.

Lois leans on Perry, listens to the beat of his heart, feels her head rise and fall with his every breath, and wishes with every cell in her body that it was Clark holding her. Clark with a beating heart. Clark breathing.

She can still hear it, the phantom sound of his intermittent breathing. It rings in between Martha’s hopeless sobs.

Outside, she thinks, the world is turning—the rising sun proves it—but in here, in this tiny pocket of unreality, everything has stopped.

Clark is dead, and there is no more reason to be.


 

One moment, Perry is there. The next she realizes he isn’t. She doesn’t know where he is.

Clark’s body is still on the bed, hidden beneath a sheet. She keeps watching it to see if it will flutter around his mouth. It doesn’t. She keeps watching it to see if it will ever not hurt. But that’s impossible.

A while later, Perry is there. He tugs at her elbow. His mouth is moving. It’s too much work to try to figure out what he’s saying. It doesn’t matter anyway.

“It’s my fault,” she says. “He should still be here.”

Maybe she doesn’t say it after all; Perry doesn’t act as if he’s heard her, just keeps talking. Lois shrugs him away and moves her head so that she can still see the body lying on the bed. She wishes she could pretend she didn’t know who was under that sheet, but she can’t. It’s branded into her every thought, every molecule, a crime every bit as large and pervasive and damning as the life staining her hands.

“I’m sorry,” she wants to say, but she can’t. She’s forgotten how to speak.

She thinks she sees the sheet move, but that’s impossible. Still, she watches intently for some sign that Clark is still capable of accomplishing miracles.

Nothing.

Disappointment overwhelms her.


 

It’s dark again. Perry turned the lights on, but Jonathan turned them off when Martha finally drifted into exhausted sleep. It doesn’t matter. Lois still keeps her eyes fixed on that blanketed form.

Three times. Three times she’s seen it move out of the corner of her eye. Or rather, move so subtly that it seemed to be only something she glimpsed peripherally, because she hasn’t let herself look away from it at all. Three times the area around the body’s mouth has ballooned out a millimeter. Three times she has let hope consume her only to be proven in vain.

Clark’s still dead.


 

Her eyes burn and itch by the time the apartment grows light around her again, but she doesn’t care. She can see the body again. Can see that sheet, off-white with bits of brown and rust-red on it from where it’s sunk against the wounds beneath it. She thinks she should get up and move to the body, take the sheet off and let the sunlight bathe the form beneath, but her joints have rusted and her limbs frozen. She is so cold she will shatter if she moves.

Besides, he’s dead. No amount of sunlight will help him.

So she keeps her silent, motionless vigil.

Perry talks, a baritone drawl that’s familiar and comfortable. Lois lets the sound soothe her even as the individual words escape her. Martha is crying again, quietly, as she fixes a breakfast for Jonathan and Perry.

The food all goes into the trash.

Lois thinks she sees the sheet move.

Four times.


 

Perry has tried to get her to move several more times (three? Four? It doesn’t matter). Jonathan has even broken through the neutral zone between them and tried to get her to drink something. She takes the cup because even in her fugue state, she knows how much it means that he’s trying, but she doesn’t drink it. It seems like sacrilege to even consider letting water past her lips when Clark’s are forever sealed shut.

Martha finally steps over the gulf between Lois and everyone else, too, with a fixed expression on her face. She opens her mouth as if she will speak, but she must be having just as hard a time as Lois is with that, so she lets her mouth close without any words between them. Lois prefers it that way.

Clark’s mother reaches out and pats her, once, very quickly, on the hand, then retreats back to the safety of Jonathan’s embrace. They’re trying. If Lois were able to, she’d appreciate it. Instead, she can only watch that motionless body.

It’s six times now. Six times in thirty-six hours. Is that a pattern? Is that reason to hope?

Probably not.

Lois hopes anyway.


 

She jerks awake when she begins to list, then instantly freezes. It’s dark again, but that’s no excuse. How could she have fallen asleep? What if the sheet moved again? What if it is eight times now? What if she would have finally recognized the pattern?

Panic hazes like lightning through her veins, shooting adrenaline into her system. She won’t fall asleep again.

The moonlight through the windows facing the bedroom cast cold, aloof illumination over the body. She knows they’ll have to do something soon. They cannot let this be Clark’s final resting spot. They will have to make arrangements, take his body back to Smallville, bury him on a hill overlooking the farm he loved so much. He’ll like it there, she thinks, but she still shudders to think of Clark buried beneath the earth.

It’s not surprising, really, that it was the sunlight that helped him. He was so bright. So radiant. Sunlight’s golden child, the sun god, a man with the sun bronzed into his very skin. The moonlight does not suit him, but at least it lets her see him. The earth is alien to him, and it will swallow him until there is nothing left.

He was already buried once. She and Perry dug him out, and for what? So he could die again and again?

A whine from deep in her throat startles her, but she tamps it down quickly. No need to wake Jonathan and Martha; it took them long hours to fall asleep. She doesn’t know where Perry is, if he’s here or if he left again. Whatever, she doesn’t need to disturb him either.

The sheet moves again.

Eight (or maybe nine).


 

Lois’s body finally betrays her, and she feels the apartment whirling around her in a dizzying swoop of color and sensation. She thinks she falls sideways. She thinks another shudder run through her. She thinks the sunlight blinds her as it casts its heavy gold through the windows, because she closes her eyes.

But not before she sees the sheet move again. Maybe it’s because everything is fading around her, or because she has hoped for it so badly, but she could swear the sheet does more than flutter.

She dreams that it shakes and stirs as a hand from beneath its folds searches for the end of it. She dreams that the hand draws the sheet aside to reveal Clark lying there, his eyes blinking sleep away. She dreams that the sun encases him in a brilliant embrace.

She dreams that he sits up and looks at her.

She dreams that he says her name.

It’s such a beautiful, impossible dream that she finally willingly gives herself over to unconsciousness.

Chapter Text

Doomsday. Blood and agony and screaming exhaustion. The monster that will not let him be. A collision that shakes the world. White light explodes around him, transforming him into the pupil in a blinding, chaotic cornea. There is pain. There is a heaviness that attaches itself to him like a parasite. Then, gradually, abruptly, there is nothing.


He drowns in a vastness he can sense but not pinpoint. Afraid to move, he floats. It’s dark and yet he is not shadowed. It’s cool, but he’s unaffected. Bright, painful light threatens, but he resists. That way, he knows, lies pain and betrayal and terror.

Anchorless, he drifts.


 

When the light overtakes him, he does his best to avoid it. When it surrounds him, he refuses to acknowledge it. When it recedes, he feels something rend inside his chest.

Darkness apprehends the light.

He shudders and shakes and seizes, but in the end, there was never any question. The light is harder, so much more difficult, and oftentimes torturous, but it is his way, where he belongs.

It is right. It is good. It is his responsibility.

His calling.

The light screams for him, and Clark rises from the immersive ashes into agony.


 

There’s something over his face, smothering, constricting, a layer that separates him from the sunlight his body strains for. Panic threatens to send him reeling back into that void, but he swallows it down. Commands his hand to rise and push away whatever is trying to bury him. Forces himself to remove the flimsy obstruction.

There’s light bursting in his vision, making him blink and shut his eyes to clear the explosions. He can’t hear anything except a ringing in his ears. How long has it been? Where is he?

Where is Doomsday?

Where is Lois?

He blinks and blinks again, again because he thinks he sees Lois, but it is only the pale shadow of her. A lesser reflection.

“Lois,” he rasps.

She’s in danger. She was there, he remembers, there in the street while he faced Doomsday, and now there is only silence.

With a gasp, Clark leaps to his feet, staggers, nearly falls but catches himself. No shrieking—has the monster continued to follow his waning scent even though it left him beaten and broken here? No screaming—is everyone around him dead? How many people have died since he succumbed to weakness and fell to an early grave?

Lois.

He did see her. She’s there, a form, solid and real, amidst the sparks catapulting along the edges of his vision. A small shape in the corner of the room. Slumped over. Unmoving.

“NO!” The scream is ripped from him so savagely he feels his throat begin to bleed. “Lois!”

She’s dead. Doomsday was here for him, and Clark was afraid and let himself cower in dreams and Lois died, was murdered, his fault, why didn’t he hear her call for him, or did he, had he heard her scream and ignored her, let his anger and the kernel of hatred he promised he’d never feel for her stop him from listening and now she’s dead she’s dead she’s dead—

“Clark! Clark, honey! Oh, Clark, I can’t believe it!”

Hands are pulling at him, tugging and turning (warm, not cold, not Doomsday, and he narrowly stops himself from lashing out at them with lethal force), but Clark can only see Lois. Still unmoving. Unnaturally still. She’s never that quiet. That motionless. That small.

She’s dead she’s dead she’s dead—

“Clark! Clark, are you all right? Oh my boy. Clark, honey, you’re safe—”

“Doomsday,” he chokes (because you’re safe to him is nothing more than an indictment, an accusation, when that beast still roams free and who knows how many are dead). “I have to stop Doomsday. I have to face him—”

“You did! You did, Clark, son, you stopped him. We’re safe. You took care of him.”

Clark stills, falls, is borne up on trembling (familiar) arms.

Doomsday is dead. Gone. Clark took care of him.

Too late. Too late.

Lois is still dead.

Tempus has won.


 

Doomsday!

Clark shudders awake and tries to rise (he has to stop Doomsday, has to move and attack before someone else dies!) but cannot. His muscles are shivery under his skin, his limbs jerk spasmodically when he tries to move them, every breath delivers a piercing stab through his entire chest…and something is leaning on him.

A warm, limp weight with feathers that tickle his bare shoulder.

It can’t be Doomsday, he tells himself, and takes a very careful breath. It can’t be. It has hair and Doomsday did not. It is soft and Doomsday was not. It is warm and Doomsday was frigid.

(But it’s holding him down and Doomsday did that more times than his photographic mind can face.)

Gingerly, his heart tripping a rapid pace along his burning ribcage, Clark bends his neck and looks down.

Lois.

The pain that shoots through his heart makes all his other hurts seem as much a feathering as her hair tickling his arm. Lois. She’s dead, he wasn’t fast enough or strong enough to save her and she died, but here she is, right next to him. Who did this? Who would play such a sick joke on him as to place her body on the chair beside his bed and place her hand in his and lean her head against his shoulder?

Her warm body. Her twitching hand. Her stirring head.

She’s alive.

Lois is alive.

Clark’s universe shifts and whirls around him, too much for his overwhelmed body.

The light reclaims him (but his hand tightens over hers).


 

The next time he wakes, he’s covered in a cold sweat and shaking from terror, but he is finally coherent enough to remember that Doomsday is gone (dead; he killed it) and Lois is alive (he thinks, but it would not be the first time he has convinced himself of something that is not true). He even, he begins to realize, recognizes that his parents are here.

It was their voices, before, telling him he was safe. Hoarse, raw voices that sounded altogether too upset and shocked and disbelieving.

He has put them through so much lately. Telling Lois his Secret, coming to them brokenhearted, leaving to hunt down a threat (with no idea, no comprehension at all, of how terrible this threat actually was), and then…then his silence. Then Doomsday.

Clark forces himself to take a breath, tries to calm the instinctive panic that surges at even thinking (remembering the sheer menace and power and unstoppable force) of Doomsday. It’s gone, he reminds himself. It’s gone and done and dead. (And he is alive, still here; he’s faced his monster, his doomsday, and has emerged the other side.)

Still, it takes every ounce of willpower he possesses to relax his muscles from their locked readiness.

Lois is asleep again at his side. She’s curled up in the chair, her hands tucked up against her raised knees this time, her head tilted at what looks to be a terribly uncomfortable angle. Across the room, on the couch they’ve apparently dragged into the doorway so they can see him, his parents doze, his mom leaning back against his dad’s limp form.

A smile curves Clark’s lips. It’s so startling (so painful, stretching bruises and opening gashes) that Clark actually raises a hand to trace the shape of his smile. Strange to realize how foreign such a simple gesture feels (to have a reaction that does not involve fear or anguish or desperation).

“Mom!” he calls, but his voice is so weak even he can barely hear it. Still, he says, “Dad,” too, just because he can, because he’s missed saying them. Because he is so grateful they are here.

His mouth is dry, his body is a mess of aches and pains, and he’s still not sure how exactly he came to be here, in his own apartment, but for the first time in what feels like weeks, Clark allows himself to really, truly relax.

Within seconds, sleep claims him.


 

They try to bandage his wounds. His dad lifts him up and wedges himself behind him as a warm, breathing pillow, and for the first time, Clark can finally relax. With the heat of a living body next to his and the earthy scents of his dad overpowering the stench of blood, he can finally convince himself that Doomsday is not just behind him, ready to leap out and grab him with hands stained with innocents.

His mom sits beside him and begins to unwind bandages he hadn’t really noticed covering him. His arms, and his hands, and his legs, and his stomach, and then the sheet tied around his chest. At first, Clark is watching his mom—the steadiness of her hands, the tears sliding down her cheeks, the clamped position of her lips, the pallor of her skin. But then his eyes track the movements of her hands, and look past the disappearing bandages, and catch on red muscle, purple vein, white bone…a mess of meat and skin and cartilage.

Clark’s skin goes clammy with fear-sweat and his stomach roils and spins. He jerks and seizes, feels his dad hold onto him, hears as if from a terrible distance him mutter soft words in his ear.

“Dad,” he whispers, or maybe he whimpers it, it’s hard to tell past the roaring in his ears.

He’s seen atrocities. He’s witnessed terrible things, found bodies in awful shapes and lifted them out of their grotesque positions, taken them and framed their limbs and rearranged their features to deliver them with some dignity to their waiting families. But this is…different…somehow, to look down at his own chest and see an open gaping wound where nothing has ever before been able to affect him.

To realize at once how utterly vulnerable he is…and how terrifyingly alien.

“Dad!” he calls, and his mom is crying and his dad keeps whispering in his ear and Clark shakes and shakes until he thinks Jonathan’s arms are the only thing holding him together.

“It’s all right, Clark, you’re all right. Shh, it’s okay, you’re here, you’re safe, we’ve got you. You’re all right. Oh my boy, I’ve got you and I’m not letting go.”

Clark closes his eyes against the image of his own corpse (still breathing, but how?), sinks deeper into his dad’s embrace, and shrinks his whole world to the sound of that husky voice promising him he is not alone.

“Don’t leave me,” he pleads, and his dad holds on even tighter.

“Never!” he says in a voice fiercer than Clark knew was capable of. “I’ve got you, son. I’ve got you.”

He wants to be strong and staunch the tears his mom is still weeping, salty and sharp and pervasive in his nostrils, but the darkness is still strong. The world shakes and swirls around him, and Clark feels himself drifting away, crushed back into passiveness.

Until he is unceremoniously yanked back to awful alertness. A scream is halfway out of his throat already, but he doesn’t know why, doesn’t know why he is suddenly painfully awake, why his dad’s grip on him is failing, why his bones are freezing in their joints and his heart is lagging behind in the cold.

“Clark, honey, calm down!” It’s only the fact that he has been trained his entire life to respond to that voice that Clark manages to obey his mom and still his spasms. She’s there instantly, bending over him, her hair tickling his face, her hands fluttering from place to place on his skin. “What is it, Clark? What’s wrong?”

There’s terror, there, he can see it up close as she examines him. She’s frightened, he recognizes, but not the reason for it, because she has never been afraid of him, even when he set the kitchen on fire with a careless blink. But then, his chest is in ruins and he should be dead (how is he not dead?) and maybe that is reason enough for the unreasoning panic she holds back with only the most tenuous of shields.

He wants to calm and reassure her, or at least try to answer her question, but he doesn’t know what’s wrong. Doomsday is gone, and Lois is alive (and she said Tempus was taken care of, too, he remembers with a rush of thankfulness), and that should mean everything’s fine now. But it doesn’t. Because his mom is terrified, and his dad is shaking behind him, and Clark is still holding back a scream for some reason he doesn’t even know.

“I don’t know,” he stammers through chattering teeth. “It’s just…I’m so cold. It’s freezing.”

And there is something on his chest. A weight. A foot, leaching him of warmth. Holding him down so it can flay him alive, and he cannot breathe. He cannot move, reduced to nothing more than dead weight (except he’s alive, a ghost lingering past his due date).

“I’m sorry,” Martha says, and smooths a hand back through his hair, infinitely tender. “As soon as I get these wrapped back up, we’ll get you under some blankets, all right?”

He starts to nod but he’s interrupted by another involuntary scream as Martha sets a bandage across the gash over his lower ribcage.

“It’s the sunlight!” Jonathan exclaims. “He needs it, Martha. I don’t think we can cover him up at all.”

Martha yanks the bandage away. The sunlight settles itself over him again, warm and weightless. The scream dies in Clark’s throat. She moves to shove away the blankets bunched up around them, and with every inch of his skin the blankets reveal and the sunlight covers, Clark’s body relaxes more. Behind his eyelids, the darkness recedes, swallowed up by gentle light.

“Better,” he murmurs as the shivers abate. Without the immediacy of pain, though, it’s harder to stay awake.

“But…” Martha looks up at Jonathan. “We can’t even try to bind the wounds together?”

Jonathan tenses under Clark, and he shifts a bit in an effort to stay conscious. “It’s not like we could stitch them up anyway,” he says gruffly. His voice resonates through his chest, tickling Clark’s cheek. Clark smiles and can’t resist nuzzling closer to the pleasant vibration. “The sunlight will do better for him anyway.”

Martha’s hands trail a soft line over his face, erasing hints of pain. “Yes,” she whispers, and bends to place a kiss on his brow. He’s already falling into the vastness of healing light when he hears, “But what will we do when the sun sets?”


 

What will they do? It doesn’t take long to find out.

From the moment the sunset’s last crimson streaks fade from the skies, Clark begins to scream. Jonathan weeps silent tears and holds him down. Martha strokes his brow and croons soft nothings to him. The blankets are made of ice and the sunlamp lights they bathe over him are edged in shadows that stroke frostbite along his skin. Worst of all, though, are the weights that keep him constrained. That close in around him until he cannot breathe and he is afraid they will crush him completely. A claustrophobic grave that starts in his limbs and moves outward and brings back every nightmare he’s ever had about being buried alive.

Hours, eternities, later, Clark’s voice gives out and he shakes and stirs and turns from side to side (to remind himself he can; to prove that he is not shut up in cold, alien stone). He’s weak and trembling and his muscles feel like water bottled up inside loose constraints, but for all that, he still has his powers. For all his fragility, he can still punch a hole in the wall behind his bed and rain down brick-dust and plaster over his head (bringing back vivid, rampaging memories of being buried alive and choking on concrete and his own blood), so only half his drained strength is devoted to continuing to breathe. The other half is fixated on not hurting his dad. Not pushing too hard during a spasm or pulling too quickly when he starts awake from a half-lucid nightmare. Not killing his own father with a careless twitch.

His mom hums and sings and valiantly holds back sobs. His dad tries to share as much of his body heat with Clark as he can, combating the frost that has turned Clark blue and pale (but his arms are wrapped around Clark’s torso and Clark feels just as trapped as he does loved). Clark holds himself as still as possible and dreams of monsters and green cages and claustrophobic graves.

Eventually, the sun rises.

Eventually, gradually, he remembers what it is to not be cold.

(But he still cannot breathe without feeling the pressure of a weight even Superman cannot lift.)


 

The soup is hot enough to remind his chilled body what warmth is. Its scent is familiar enough (conjuring up memories of days as a boy, nights curled up in blankets while blizzards howled outside the protection of his parents’ presence) to calm the panicked tremors that hit him at irregular intervals. Its taste soothes his emotions even if the salt burns against his raw throat. But for all that, it is the fact that it’s his mom holding the bowl for him, steadying his hand with the spoon even as she forces herself to let him pretend to be feeding himself, that makes him believe everything will be okay. His dad hovering in the background, blanketing them with his steadfast protection, helps him reclaim the sense of stability he didn’t realize he was craving until he has it back.

“Just a few more spoonfuls,” Martha says, and her smile is forced and genuine all at once as Clark strains to lift the spoon again, a feat that has become somehow more herculean than lifting a shuttle into space.

Clark swallows, drops his hand (relaxes it, rather, so his mom can guide it back to the bowl), and smiles at her. Gently. Mischievously. “I’ll bet you never thought you’d have to be convincing me to eat more.”

She is surprised into a chuckle, and he’s grateful when her eyes warm and the worry lines ease on her face. “Miracles do happen,” she agrees, and then bursts into tears. Again.

With a resigned sigh, Clark lets go of the spoon (his dad swoops in to rescue the bowl) and manages to lift his arms again, this time to hug his mom. It’s a weak embrace, but at least he’s participating this time. The first dozen or so times his parents hugged him, he couldn’t do anything but not flinch away from the sheer force of their desperate relief. He’s gotten better about being able to move with the right amount of speed and pressure, not so good about handling the amount of times his mom will break out in sobs or his dad will shudder and go still.

Apparently, they told him this morning, he died. More than once.

Apparently, he was dead for fifty-two hours before waking up and pulling a sheet off from over his face and panicking at the sight of an unconscious Lois Lane.

Apparently, he is immortal (though not invulnerable).

Truthfully, Clark’s having a better time handling his parents’ mini-breakdowns than he is at reconciling the fact that he can, apparently, rise from the dead. But then, the very fact that his parents cannot step away from him for more than a minute or two proves that they are having just as hard a time coming to terms with it as he is (or worse, really, since he’s mainly just avoiding thinking about it).

He pats his mom on the back, does his best not to recoil at the feel of his dad’s hand on his shoulder (his dad, not Doomsday), and lets out a choked laugh. “I’m all right, really.”

And that’s all they need. His touch, his laugh, his reassurance. Then they pull themselves together, and Martha wipes her eyes and Jonathan takes the bowl to the sink, and there might be ten minutes or an hour before another crying jag starts. So little, and they are happy again.

But it’s not enough for everyone.

Almost unwillingly (almost desperately), Clark’s eyes move across the room, to the seat beneath the windows lining his bedroom wall.

Lois is still sitting there. Unmoving. Watching him. She’s always watching him, every time he looks her way (which is often, because she is not the only one who thought the other was dead). She hasn’t said anything, though, not since he opened his eyes yesterday (after he saw her sleeping in the chair but before the nightfall proved to him just how frail he is) and saw her looking down at him. Not since she gasped and flung herself at him and said his name, once, like a prayer. Not since he couldn’t move to return the embrace (physically couldn’t…or wouldn’t…he’s not sure) and she stiffened and drew away and her eyes clouded over.

Then his parents were there, with hugs and sobs and garbled explanations, and Clark was struggling just to stay awake beneath the onslaught. And Lois retreated to the window-seat, and now she watches him. Ceaselessly. Silently. His parents don’t address her. Clark steals glances at her. When Perry was there, he hugged her and whispered to her before leaving to head to the paper (Damage control, he’d said by way of vague explanation).

And before, Clark might have told himself that he doesn’t know what she’s thinking. That she has walled herself away and she’s unreadable to him. That she has left him again and will not talk to him, just like before.

But Clark may not remember dying, and he might not be able to comprehend the fact that his heart actually stopped beating for almost three days, but he does remember waking up in his apartment to the smell of apple pie. He remembers the newsroom and Jimmy’s concealed warnings. He remembers Smallville and pieces of past conversations drifting back into his conscious mind.

He remembers the Lois from before he knew, and the Lois from after he knew (but not the Lois-in-between, because the truth is that there never was an in-between-Lois, just Lois Lane). He remembers that they’re the same, he and her, and she has always been walled away. She has always hidden behind defenses and pretended she is unreadable. And he has always been able to see past her mask and flimsy disguise. (He has always looked at Lois Lane and known that she is worth the effort, the trouble, the turmoil.)

So he does know what she’s thinking. He knows why she won’t come near him and why she will not speak and why she does not look away. He knows what she needs from him.

But he’s afraid.

(And the sun is on its downward journey to the west horizon.)

“You okay there, son?” his dad asks, coming back in from the kitchen and reclaiming his usual place on Clark’s right side, across from Martha.

“Yeah,” he says. He does not look at Lois. He can feel the weight of her unflinching stare. (He is not sure he is strong enough yet to face her.) “I’m feeling better. The sunlight’s definitely helping.” (He does not miss that Lois shrinks in on herself yet again, trying to make herself smaller so that her body blocks less of the window.) “But, uh, I am kind of tired.”

He is. He’s so tired it feels as if he’s been awake for days instead of just a couple of hours. As exhausted and worn as if he’s been on non-stop rescues rather than simply eating a bowl of soup and drinking a glass of water. Mortality is a heavy burden to bear, one he might feel grateful for in another situation but that now seems only another weight pressing him down (because his mortality is only temporary, and he cannot bear to think how that affects his future).

But tired or not, frightened or not, this moment can only be put off for so long (and he has only three more hours at best before the night reclaims him).

His parents all-too-easily believe that he’s ready for a nap, and with soft words and careful caresses, they make their way to the living room. There’s no door between them, only a partial brick wall and two open doorways, but it will have to do (and Clark thinks he might be grateful, anyway, to know there is an escape open to him and allies waiting should he need them).

Silence. He can hear Lois breathing (more melodic than any birdsong). He means to look over, to meet her gaze, but he’s frozen. Once he speaks to her, there will be no going back. Once he faces her, and sees her (not the stranger he feared, not the transition he imagined, not the partner he loved, but all of them together in one, all of them facets of one woman), he will never be able to go back to comforting himself with the memory of before and divorcing himself from the after. After this, he will have no excuses left.

His body shakes, a tremor that spikes his heart rate and makes him break out in a cold sweat. Remembered terror floods his system, fills his mind with strobe flashes of Doomsday and violence and agony (fills his heart with the aching feeling of déjà vu, because he’s lived this moment before, preparing to have a conversation that will change everything, and it did not end well).

But he faced Doomsday—in real life and in his dreamworld, when all he wanted was to rest in dreams of brighter days. He faced it and he won and he is still alive, still here…still trying. Because he can’t give up (his birth parents didn’t, when they faced the destruction of their entire world and found a way to save him). He can’t turn away (his parents didn’t, when they saw a spaceship and found a baby and realized he had powers they would never be able to comprehend). He can’t just let go of people (Lois doesn’t, not once she realizes that they need something she can provide, not ever). Those are not things he does (not a legacy he will leave to the future world…if he ever can die), and it’s time he finally accepted that.

It takes every bit as much courage to turn and meet Lois’s gaze as it did to rise into the air to meet Doomsday, but he does it. He even somehow conjures up the ghost of a smile.

“Hey,” he says, and it’s a weak opening, but at least he made it.

She flinches.

Clark’s own flinch is reactive, an instinctive negation of this moment, when a mere word from him is enough to scare her. This is not what he wants, what he has ever (even in his darkest moments) wanted.

“I just needed to make sure you were okay,” she blurts out. Her voice is almost as hoarse as his; the bruises under her eyes nearly match those on his legs where Doomsday kept grabbing him and pulling him back into his claws (Clark shudders and tries to shake away the unwelcome memory; focuses on the here and now). He’s been unconscious or practically incoherent most of the time since waking up here, but he hasn’t seen her eat or drink anything at all. He wonders who is taking care of her while his parents tend to him.

When Clark doesn’t say anything (too busy trying to remember how many times Perry’s been there to bully Lois into looking after herself), Lois tenses. “I can go, if you really want me to. It’s just…you were dead, Clark. I watched you die and you just…you just stayed dead for so long, and…and now that you’re alive, I just wanted—no, I needed to see you be alive for a while. But…but I understand if you don’t want me—”

“Why would I want you to go?” Clark blinks at her in surprise. He steadfastly ignores all the references to his own death (human, he feels human, and he doesn’t want to face anything that will change that). “I wouldn’t have even been able to defeat Doomsday without you.”

She looks away, unusually small and frail. “You would have found a way,” she mutters. “I know you would have.”

“Maybe.” Clark swallows (forces away nightmare images that were all too real and still, at times, seem more real than the apartment around him). “But it would have been harder. And who knows?” He forces a smile. “I probably would have ended up dead a lot longer.”

Her glare is sharp and pointed. Apparently she doesn’t think it’s a joking matter (though really, Clark doesn’t know how else to treat it; humor is so much better than the alternatives…like terror, or veneration). “It’s my fault you even had to face Doomsday at all,” she spits out, and at this Clark has to bite back a real smile, because it’s good to see Lois Lane admitting fault with as much grace as she always has.

“Actually,” he points out, “Tempus said he took the Doomsday from our future, so if we can believe him, I would have had to face it eventually. This way, we got it over with early, and luckily for us, the death he kept threatening turned out to be a lot more temporary than one would expect.”

He doesn’t miss the way her eyes skate from his ruined chest to the sunset behind her. Just because he didn’t see her last night doesn’t mean she wasn’t there, listening to his screams. At the reminder, Clark looks away; he can’t explain why he feels so ashamed, but he does. Ironically, he wishes now that she weren’t here. The last thing he wants is for her to see him weak and broken.

“I’m sorry, Clark,” Lois says (and he relaxes when he remembers that she’s seen him far more broken than just screaming at mere physical wounds; she has seen him crushed and hopeless from emotional pains, and that is so much worse).

He doesn’t know what she’s apologizing for, but it doesn’t matter. None of it matters. Because this, here, her and him, is easy. It’s comfortable and simple to slip right back into bantering with her and teasing her. He likes it being easy with her, and he’s tired of being angry and hurt and bowed beneath the weight of heartbreak and lies. He’s tired of wondering if he really does hate her.

(He doesn’t.)

He wants to stop drifting in limbo, and move into the light.

“It’s all right,” he says softly. “We both had secrets, right? We both confessed them at the wrong times. We both believed Tempus when we shouldn’t have. We both broke each other’s hearts. That makes us even.”

Her stare is heavy and direct (weighted with the pain of all the hurts pressing up behind his succinct statements). “Don’t do that,” she says, so quietly he hears her only because even broken and bleeding, he is not human. “Don’t act like what happened is less than it was. Don’t underrate what I did to you. I lied about things that hurt you, and I manipulated your feelings, and I—”

“I lied too,” he interrupts her, because he knows what she did, has struggled and fought and avoided it and now wants to face it and pass it and get over it. He wants to move on. “I lied about who I was and made you think I was two different people, which was a lot more manipulative than I ever cared to think about. You did it for the fate of the future, and I did it for my loved ones and for myself. Not so different, in the end.”

“I didn’t do it for the future.”

He starts, then, jerked up from his perusal of his hands, twitching in his lap. “What?” he asks dumbly.

She looks away, to the sunlight dropping out of sight, sluggishly withdrawing its rosy hues from the sky. “I didn’t do it for the future, Clark, or for the greater good. I mean, that’s how it started, but…but after our first date, when we just walked together and you asked me to describe you…when you didn’t think I would be able to… I did it for you. I know that sounds stupid, but…you deserve everything good in this world, Clark.”

“And you thought that was a nice statue instead of you?” He winces as soon as the words are out of his mouth. He doesn’t want to be bitter (is doing everything he can to be understanding and forgiving), but that came a bit closer than he meant it to.

Her shrug is small, defeated, weary. She won’t look at him (he’s almost grateful for that consideration). “I’m not that much of a prize, Clark, not really. Especially not compared to what John Doe was offering you.”

“Stop saying that!” he exclaims with a violent wave of his arm, and then has to hold himself together until the spasm of blinding pain passes. When he can see again, can move carefully and adjust himself back to a better position, she’s there, standing over him, helping him up. Her hands are warm and tender, absurdly cautious as she props the pillow up behind him and settles him back against it. Unwillingly, instinctively, his breath catches in his throat at her proximity. He can smell her, worn and tired and wearing clothes his mom found for her in one of his drawers, but her, the undefinable, ineffable scent that makes him think (even still; always) of home.

He catches her hand before she can retreat back to her hiding place. “Stop saying that,” he says again. He’s weak, so tired that his voice sounds faded and husky, but she stills. She’s listening. Right here, right now, she is here beside him, pulled into his space, and she is meeting his gaze and listening and this might be his only chance to say this in a way she will accept.

“You’re my partner, Lois. Before anything else, before we were friends, even, we were partners. I’ve never had that before, someone who watched my back and stood at my side and did what I couldn’t and depended on me for everything else. I love being your friend, and of course I dreamed of more, but none of that would have been possible without our partnership first. That—having someone I can depend on, someone to help me and hold me up; someone who’s there when I look over—that is so much more important than any kind of future. And that’s what I want back. Please, Lois, no matter what else we’ve lost, please don’t stop being my partner.”

She’s crying. He can feel her tears dripping onto his skin; the salt fizzles against his wounds, an almost-pain that keeps him clinging to consciousness even though every cell in his body is crying out for rest. When she reaches up and places her hand on his cheek, he almost breaks down himself.

“Lane and Kent,” she whispers. “The hottest team in town.”

Relief sweeps through him in such a powerful surge he actually feels his heart skip a few beats. Her fingers entwine through his. The sweep of her fingers against his cheekbone dazzles him. It’s not perfect. It’s not everything he ever dreamed of.

But it’s enough.

(For now.)

“Thank you,” he murmurs. He wants to say more (wants to say good night and hear her say it back), but his body fails him.

Exhaustion drowns him and he slips away. But even in his nightmares, trapped and suffocating in the cold, he can still feel her hand pressed against his.


 

Darkness falls. He’s pulled into alertness by the lightning-surge of agony in his chest, along the gashes in his arms and the bruises in his legs and the fractures in his bones. Chills wrack his body until he can’t take a full breath in past the chattering of his teeth. For the first time, he wishes he had died (or…stayed dead, and he will never get used to that, he decides; it’s impossible to fully comprehend that he died and just…got…better?). He’s not strong enough for this, not equipped to handle this kind of searing pain; he hasn’t built up any kind of tolerance for it, and his pain threshold is far too low. If he could think clearly long enough to have a coherent thought, he would admire humanity all the more for being able to be wounded and in pain and still endure it.

He doesn’t think he can.

His dad is holding onto him, his mom is soothing him, and it isn’t enough. There is a gulf between them, a chasm that separates him from their care. He is drowning in dirt and stone and pressure, and they are safe above him, and as lonely as he feels, he cannot bear to even wish they were beside him.

Then, as if from a distance, he feels her hand in his.

“Clark,” she whispers, and it’s her voice. Lois’s voice. His partner. She’s there, beside him, bearing him up, supporting him, holding his hand, and her scent chases the stench of blood from his nostrils.

Yet he is still constrained, frozen solid. His bones are made of lead and magnetized to the earth beneath him. He can feel her hand, but he cannot lift it.

“Lois,” he chokes out. “Lois!”

“Shh,” she soothes. There’s a shuffling around him. His dad loosens his grip on him (Clark bites back a protest), then slides to the side. His mom is there, but her quiet humming comes from just beside his dad now. And there, holding his right hand, slipping underneath the blanket covering him, she’s there.

He’s held her before. She’s fallen asleep on his couch, leaned up against him. He held her over his body and did what he could to mitigate her migraine. But this…this is different. He can’t see past the sparks of pain clouding his vision. He can’t hear over the rushing of blood through his ears and the chaos of all the noises around him. He can’t move without setting off explosions in his nerve endings. He is alone, pinned down in a sea of isolation and torment.

But she’s there. Somehow, in some way he can’t explain, she bridges the gulf and floats at his side. And with her, she brings warmth. She stretches out alongside him, and her arm is draped over his stomach and her hair is feathering along his arm and her breath is warm against his throat, and Clark is finally able to take a breath.

Vaguely, he is aware of memories flitting around his mind like fireflies, never still, leaving phosphorescent trails in their wake. One alights, briefly, just long enough for him to spread its wings and relive all the moments when he felt entirely too light and unconnected, as if he might simply drift away up into the sky and never find his way back down again. Moments when Lois tugging him forward by his wrist or looping her arm through his or draping herself over his back gave him the tether he needed. Grounded him, anchored him, the fixed compass point he could not lose.

Now, it is different. Now he remembers lying in a grave and breathing his last, terrified gasps, and Lois standing there, bringing with her light and space and air. He was torn, then, between wanting to stretch out to the ends of space or to fold himself around her (undecided, so he’d done nothing at all, and that’s just the story of his life—and death—isn’t it?). But now he knows better. Now he knows that the only way to truly find freedom and impetus is to fall into her and damn the consequences.

So he hurts, but he does not care; he does not let it stop him. He stretches his feet to the end of the bed and elongates his spine and extends his arms, lets her rearrange herself over him, pressed all along his side, small but so much more than he can comprehend (and it is not so hard, after all, to know why he came back, how he came back, from the dead; not when he has her to hold onto, holding onto him in turn, fixing him in place in this life, this world, this moment). She is trembling in echo to his own chills, but she feels warm against him, as blazingly brilliant as the sun. She is there and the weight is gone and he is free and the absence of sunlight seems, suddenly, like only a temporary setback.

She is here, of her own free will, with no ulterior motives or secret agendas. She is here with him. She is here.

“Don’t leave me,” Lois whispers against his neck, words that are little more than sighs of air, heated and desperate. She slides her hand into his. “Stay here, Clark. Stay with me.”

He tightens his grip on her hand (gently, carefully, because he mustn’t forget how strong he still is), and he holds on.

With his parents on one side and Lois on the other, Clark remembers why he lived. He remembers what he still has to live for.

He remembers to move toward the light even if (especially if) it is hard.

And he endures.


 

The bruises fade. The gashes close and scar and disappear. The wound in his chest shrinks; the white of bone is hidden; the muscles knit back together. Clark stands to his feet after the third hellish night and totters on unsteady feet to the bathroom to clean himself. His dad has to help him finish but it’s progress all the same.

He finishes a whole bowl of soup without dropping the spoon once.

He dresses and does not curl into a shivering ball of agony when the clothes veil his skin from the sun.

His parents stop crying so much, and he learns anew how to make them smile.

Lois holds his hand when he feels himself drifting away, and does not offer to leave again.

Perry comes and sits at his bedside and tells him not to worry. “I won’t give your secret away,” he says gruffly, as if it doesn’t need saying but he’ll say it anyway.

Clark nods, solemnly, accepting this as the vow it is. “Thank you.”

“Well, you’re doing more good than anyone else we write articles about. No need to spread around what it is you do in your spare time, right?” He cracks a smile, then, startling and comforting all at once. “Especially when that’s bringing in some front page stories for the Planet. Why give up a real newsman just when I had you all broken in?”

Something tight and frayed eases inside of Clark (because this is normal, and he’s always been afraid he’d never be able to feel that once anyone knew his Secret). “I’m sorry,” he blurts out. “That I disappeared on you before all this. I should have called, or let you know I’d be—”

“Now, just hold on a minute, Clark,” Perry interrupts him. “In the future, for the record, I’d definitely appreciate a head’s up, but…but I think we both know you had reason.”

Clark stills, breathless. Perry grins and glances meaningfully at Lois, asleep curled up on the window-seat, limned in gold and bronze, her hair a dark halo.

“I-I…” Clark stammers, and Perry laughs.

“Don’t worry. Your parents called for you. I’ve had Eduardo covering the Luthor case while you were out. If you keep mending like you have been, you might even be back in time to hear the verdict.”

“I’ll do my best.” Clark smiles at him (and for the first time since long before Doomsday, it does not seem a foreign motion). “Thanks, chief.”

“Uh, don’t thank me yet.” Perry pauses, tenses, shifts in his seat. Clark can hear his heart rate pick up a bit, can see his throat work before he speaks. “I got you out of the rubble as quickly as possible, but the media were all around that place, buzzing like groupies around Elvis, and a few of them have been claiming they saw someone making off with Superman’s body. They don’t have any definitive footage, but the going theory right now is that Superman is dead. I’ve been telling everyone that Clark was hurt when you got a bit too close to the action for the story, but…but those wounds of yours are pretty awful. Jimmy’s been wanting to come visit you—the kid’s been worried sick, to tell you the truth—but I don’t know what to tell him about why you aren’t at the hospital.”

The intrusion of the outside world is jarring. Clark actually has to brace himself against the headboard and turn his face to the sun for a minute before he can reply. The sight of Lois there, silhouetted against the daylight, is enough to remind him that he has to find a way back to the life he was so careless with before. She promised him partners, and he has to do his bit to meet her halfway.

“I’ll heal,” he finally says with an attempt at a smile. “Let Jimmy come visit. I can cover up the wounds, and I miss him.”

“And Superman?” Perry’s eyes are sharp, intent on him. “Do you want the Daily Planet to run a story for you?”

Clark stares. His breath is caught in his throat and his vision is hazing, but it has nothing to do with his wounds and everything to do with the enormity of Perry’s gesture. Since almost the moment he met Perry, Clark has admired his integrity and his devotion to the truth; this offer, to use his paper as Clark’s platform, is beyond anything he would have ever expected.

And this is what he almost gave up. This man, this job, this place in this city. He almost packed everything up and ran away from it, abandoned it in favor of an aimless, drifting life. He could have thrown it all away and only realized far too late what treasure he was missing.

“Perry,” he says, then stops (because the editor would far prefer pretending the gesture means nothing than to have it called out). “Thank you,” he finally says. “I…can I think about it for a bit before I let you know?”

“Sure, sure.” Perry coughs and scrubs his hands down his legs before standing. Clark smiles at the familiarity of the mannerisms. “And, Clark…” He takes a deep breath. “I’m sorry I didn’t take you to the hospital. At the time, I just…I didn’t think they could do anything for you. It kind of went beyond the normal when I saw a rock shatter beneath your hand while we were carrying you to the car. But…but maybe they could have saved you. They might have been able to keep you from dying—”

“No.” Clark shakes his head (hides a shudder at the thought of doctors hanging over him, peering down at him under a microscope, exclaiming over his resurrection and trumpeting the news of his alienness to the whole world). “My parents couldn’t have come to the hospital for Superman. No one I care about could have. I’d rather be here, believe me. You did the right thing.”

Perry studies him for a long moment before clasping a hand over Clark’s shoulder (and he counts it a victory when it doesn’t make him think of Doomsday at all). “So did you, son. We’d all be a lot worse off if it weren’t for you.” He straightens then, the moment too heavy for him, and squares his shoulders. “Now I’d better get back down to the Planet before the whole thing falls apart. Jimmy’s probably letting everyone there get away with slacking off.”

Clark doesn’t miss the considering look Perry gives Lois before he apparently decides he’s gone far enough outside of his comfort zone for one day. He clasps Clark’s shoulder one last time, stops to exchange a few words with Jonathan and Martha in the kitchen, and then he’s gone.

In the silence his departure brings, Clark stares at the closet—the wood and brick concealing his Superman Suits.

Superman is dead. To the world, at least, the superhero is gone, a sacrifice made for the greater good. A noble death, Clark thinks, and is struck by the sudden, urgent temptation to let him go. Just let the superhero die. This could be a deserving end for a grand experiment, the tragic conclusion to Superman’s story. No more lies. No more pressure. No more time-travelers painting targets on his back and sending Kryptonian beasts after him. No more ideal whose legacy is more important than Clark Kent’s happiness.

Perry knows his Secret, and he accepts it. Lois knows, and she…well, she’s still his partner. He could be Clark Kent, and still help people in the shadows, all without risking his life here.

He could. But Clark tilts his face toward the sun, and soaks in its radiance, and he knows that he won’t.

It would be easier to give up and live a quieter, simpler life. But he’s already realized that it’s not worth it to hide in shadows and cower in fear. Better by far to step into the light and strive for a better tomorrow.

And if that tomorrow includes a statue of him in the future…well, not everything’s perfect.


 

“Are you scared?” Lois asks. She rests her head against his shoulder, her eyes locked on the window and the purple streaks painting the sky in dark shades. Her hand is in his, her fingers threaded through his, her body pressed alongside his. On his other side, his parents are spread out across the couch they’ve moved even closer now, ready to leap up and help should he start screaming again. He knows they heard Lois’s question, but they say nothing, their attempt at giving him and Lois some privacy.

Clark looks down at Lois, and smiles. “No,” he says. “Night doesn’t last forever.”

Her mouth is tight when she looks away. “It lasts long enough,” she mutters.

He can’t stop himself: he reaches out his free hand and cups her cheek in his palm. Turns her face up toward his. Wills her to believe him. “It’s worth it, Lois. Everything we’ve gone through…it’s all worth it. Doomsday is dead, we’re all here, neither of us have to lie anymore, and you’re safe from John Doe. Although,” he sighs as the world outside this apartment with his family once more intrudes, “I suppose we’ll still have to do something about him. I know you said he was taken care of, but the police will surely need some kind of explanation for him, and we’ll have to get rid of the Kryptonite cage.”

Her body goes rigid, her hand suddenly cold in his.

“Lois?” His brow furrows as he tries to duck his head to meet her gaze. The movement jars his chest and sends a spasm of white-hot pain through him, and by the time it fades back to its usual embers, Lois is fine again, her face free of any tension, her hand on his face as if they have traded places.

She’s still worried, though, so afraid as she watches him.

“It’s all right,” he says gently, as the stars take their place in the skies. “I’m okay, and I’m not going anywhere.”

All he wanted, all those months ago when she came to his apartment, was to know for sure how she felt about him. He wanted her to love him, to accept him, but most of all, just to know him. Not Clark-him and Superman-him, but him.

She does know him now, just as much as he knows her. And he knows how she feels about him—it is written across every line of her being, every molecule of her body, every layer of her soul. It shines out clearly through her eyes as she watches him, ready to hold him and soothe his every hurt and hold him together. I love you, she told him, and he did not think he could believe her, but he has always seen past her masks, and he was right, that night on his couch before all the darkest parts of their story: she proves it in quiet, subtler ways that cannot lie.

“It’s okay,” he promises her, and then, because he wants to say it (because he wants to hear her say it back), he adds, “Good night.”

Her smile is faint, but genuine. “Good night,” she replies.

(And it is.)

Chapter Text

Clark’s alive. It’s like a second chance. A miracle that seems too good to be true, but she has watched incessantly for any sign that this is fake, or (her real fear) a flash of might-have-been that she dived into with all her heart and soul, forsaking reality entirely, when Clark’s heart stopped that final time…but there is nothing. Or rather, there is everything.

Not just the sight of Clark smiling reassuringly at his dad, or wrapping strengthening arms around his mom in an embrace, or shaking Perry’s hand, or beckoning Jimmy closer when the kid hung back uncertainly (the flashes were filled with details for her eyes to feast on, too), but there is more.

The sound of his laugh. The sound of him telling her he wants her, still, in his life. The continuous, even sound of his breathing.

The smell of his skin, crisp and somehow still reminding her of clean air and brisk wind even though he hasn’t flown since Doomsday tore him from the sky—the scent that welcomes her and feels more like home than any other.

The touch of his long fingers wound through hers, and the smooth flesh where there were sickening wounds mere days before, and the warmth of his gaze on her.

Every sense, every moment, combines to prove that this is more than a flash. More than a fantasy. It’s real.

It’s true.

He’s alive, and because of that, she can live too. Can do more than just survive, and actually live. Can breathe without feeling shattered glass shift and stir in her lungs. Can move without feeling the ache of rust in her joints. Can think without degenerating into pure, distilled panic and grief and broken-heartedness.

He’s alive, and everything is more. She has transformed from an eroding creature of loss to a glowing being of vibrant energy. She is filled and overflowing with sheer joy, with hope and relief and gratefulness, so that every movement threatens to send her careening through his apartment, dancing from room to room, crackling and unrestrained. It’s so tempting to give into her jubilation, so tempting to throw herself at Clark—heedless of the still-healing wound in his chest—and wrap herself around him and bind her flesh, inch by inch, to his until they are as intertwined physically as she feels them to be in every other way, but…but…

But there is still so much between them.

Death has separated them, yes, but it did so only after her lies built a barrier miles high between them. And yet…and yet…if death can be so easily (her heart shudders in its nest of bone and muscle and hope, because easy is a relative term) conquered, if miracles can be granted so unexpectedly, then surely, surely, they can get past what happened before.

Clark has already taken the first step.

Partners, he said, and Lois clings to that word as if it is a life-raft in the midst of an endless ocean. Partnership is what he offered when he first started working at the Daily Planet. It’s what he taught her and showed her and modeled for her for weeks before she began to call him her friend. It’s what comes easiest, most naturally, to her, because he needs her and she needs him and he has what she needs and—

Lois shrugs aside the shiver down her spine (the tiniest razor-sharp edge of anxiety to her sparking, fizzing happiness).

And hopefully, she still has something he needs. Something he wants.

(Hopefully, somehow, miraculously, she is what he wants.)

“Lois?”

She startles and looks up, then smiles (it is so hard not to smile, ever since Clark filled his lungs and opened his eyes again; since he took her hand in his and gave her absolution). Jimmy’s smile is a lot more tentative, shaky at the edges, but at least it is there. Much of her time at the Planet after Clark fled to Smallville is a blur to her now, but she doesn’t think Jimmy was speaking to her if he could help it (another reason she should have sent Tempus packing long before it came down to their final showdown; another clue that the present was not being molded at all into a utopia).

“Hey, Jimmy,” she says. “He sleeping again?”

She asks, but she’s already craning her neck to peer around Jimmy, her eyes well-trained to fix on Clark no matter what else is happening or who else is in the room. He’s been chafing, the last few days, at spending so much time in bed, has been getting up and walking around to stretch his legs; his parents let him, though they hover in his footsteps with arms outstretched as if to catch him even before he falls. Lois watches from her usual perch, and says his name quietly when she can tell it gets to be too much (when the lines in the center of his forehead appear, as they did whenever she would go too far for a story, before he would plant himself in place and refuse to move).

And he listens. He will tilt his head toward her, then look at his parents (listen, too, to their strained silence), and he will let them help him fall back into bed. And then he sleeps, for hours. At first, it frightened them, how long he slept, how little he was awake. Until they realized that each time he wakes, he is stronger, more alert, more ready to smile. Now, Lois feels herself relax when she sees Clark sleeping, propped up on pillows, fully dressed (though his mom will sneak in any minute, once Jimmy is gone, to undo the buttons on his shirt and roll up his cuffs, to expose him to as much sunlight as they can get away with).

“Yeah.” Jimmy shakes his head. His hands are shaking. “He…he fell asleep really fast. You’re sure he’s okay?”

“I’m sure.” She reaches out to him (because Clark reached out to her, and it’s impossible to do anything else after being granted such grace), clasps his hand, and steadies it in her own. “He hit his head when a building came down—luckily, Superman moved him away before the whole thing came crashing down on top of him. Perry and I got him out, but he’s still disoriented. He’ll sleep for a while, but trust me, Jimmy, he’s getting better.”

He is better. He’s breathing, and there are no catches, no pauses, no stops. Nothing but inhales and exhales, smooth and so steady Lois is no longer lightheaded setting her own body rhythms to his. He’s alive, and it will be a long time (if ever) before she stops thinking that incredulously every few moments and rejoicing in it.

He was dead. He was dead. She held his body in her arms and breathed for him and pumped blood through his heart, and it was all for nothing because he was still dead.

For so long, an indeterminate amount of hours she doesn’t care to figure out, Clark Kent was gone from this world.

But now he’s back, and everything seems so much brighter, better, more wonderful.

She wishes she could make Jimmy realize how wonderful this is. It seems so wrong, so tragic, that she is so relieved, and Jimmy is still worried and afraid.

“Why didn’t you take him to the hospital?” Jimmy asks, and Lois is reminded again that Clark is here, with them, because Jimmy has only ever been so bold and confident around his friend. “If he’s still this messed up, almost two weeks after the accident, don’t you think he should get checked out by a doctor?”

“I told you,” Lois says steadily, “the hospitals were overflowing, and they wouldn’t take the time to check out a conscious, talking man when there were hundreds of more emergency cases. Martha’s had training in the past—you really think she won’t take better care of her son than an overworked hospital staff?”

It’s the story they’ve told everyone who’s asked, Jimmy and Jack and Henderson, even Cat, all of them worried about Clark. Truthfully, the city’s in such a mess after Doomsday’s rampage that most people have their own problems and people to worry about; Jimmy’s the first one who’s questioned it.

“Are you sure he was just hit in the head?”

Lois tears her gaze from Clark, looks back to Jimmy curiously. “He was hit a couple places. That’s why he’s sore.” She checks Clark again, compulsively, then asks, “What’s this about, Jimmy? Didn’t he tell you what happened?”

His jaw clenches as he looks away, stuffing his hands into his pockets. Then, angrily, he mutters, “I just wondered if maybe he wasn’t in the danger zone by accident. Maybe he went so close to the actual fighting because…because he…”

Sudden tension thrums through her veins. She forces herself to calmness instantly, before reminding herself that just because she is patterning her breathing to Clark’s, that doesn’t mean he will wake up when something throws her off.

His Secret. That’s what Jimmy’s talking about. What he’s dancing around.

Clark’s Secret. Superman. He knows. Somehow he’s figured it out. Lois swallows then, her continuing exhilaration muted by the dull resurgence of guilt. Her fault. She screamed Clark’s name over and over again on that dusty, blood street. Screamed it until her throat was raw, and called for Clark and let Superman come at the sound of it, right there, in full—if distorted—view of the media and anyone else trapped nearby. Perry put the pieces together because he heard her screaming on the news, and now Jimmy…

How many more?

How much more can she do to Clark? What else can she take away from him?

“Because what?” she snaps, sharper than she intended, and Jimmy recoils, then bristles at her.

“Because he probably saw you with Superman!” he accuses, and Lois is dumbfounded.

“I-I…what?” she stammers.

“Haven’t you seen the news?” Jimmy demands. “They found a security camera that wasn’t mangled, and there’s footage of you kissing Superman! How could you, Lois? Why would you do that to Clark?”

She stares.

“How could you?” he asks again, his voice breaking. “I know you guys were having problems, and I know Superman’s a great guy, but…but Clark loves you! Didn’t you know he was there? And now you’re here—have you even told him that you kissed his friend? Because if he was that close, I think he probably saw. I think he knows, Lois.”

It’s an odd blend of anger and protectiveness, judgement and confusion, and it twists something uneasily in Lois’s gut. Because she isn’t guilty of the crime Jimmy thinks she is, but she is guilty of hurting Clark. Of valuing the superhero over the man. Of being criminally ignorant of just how much harm she would be inflicting on an oblivious Clark.

So how can she say anything in her defense? What is there she can say?

(Clark’s alive, and miracles do happen, but she is undeserving of them. How could she have let herself forget that in her euphoria?)

“She did kiss Superman,” Martha says, and both Jimmy and Lois jump in surprise. Jimmy turns to look at her, remorse and something that looks a lot like hope there. As if he thinks that Martha might have an explanation that will clear the whole thing up.

He’s going to be disappointed, Lois thinks. The Kents still haven’t forgiven her, though they all pretend to be fine with each other around Clark. If anything, this will give his parents a chance to get rid of her finally, an excuse to send her packing while they close ranks around their son.

(And if she can’t see Clark, if she can’t prove to her constantly doubting heart that he’s still alive, still breathing, then…then what will be left of her? She will go mad—and there are no more flashes to flee to for consolation.)

Martha fusses with Clark’s hair and his shirt (she can’t open it, not yet, not until Jimmy isn’t there to gasp in shock and disbelief at the wound that hasn’t completely healed yet), seemingly unconcerned about the abrupt bomb she has dropped into their conversation.

“Mrs. Kent?” Jimmy asks, tentatively.

She looks up and bestows a warm, maternal smile on him. Lois’s breath catches at the sight of it (at the memory of that same smile being turned her way, in Smallville, even after she’d insulted them and put her foot in her mouth, repeatedly). “Oh, Jimmy, surely you don’t begrudge Superman a good luck kiss? I’m not saying I was too happy when I saw it, either,” she adds tartly, with a reproving glance Lois’s way that almost lands on her (but slides away, as all her looks toward Lois do), “but it wasn’t the first time. Superman needed a bit of luck before Nightfall too.”

Jimmy’s frown begins to slide off at that, his brows furrowing. “That’s true,” he muses, “but…but you weren’t dating Clark then.” He turns back, and at least he actually does look at her, narrow-eyed and expectant.

“I know,” she says, then clears her throat and tries to simulate a bashful shrug. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t really thinking, and…and I was so afraid for Superman. For all of us,” she adds hurriedly.

She wasn’t thinking. Even now, her mind skirts the edges of those memories, hesitant to bring them screaming back into the light of day.

“Don’t worry, Jimmy,” Martha says benignly (Lois makes a note to never, ever underestimate the power of Martha’s poker face). “Clark knows about it. There were a few words, but I think he understands.”

“Yeah…” Jimmy shifts his weight, then looks at Clark. “I guess.” He’s silent another moment before blurting, “They still haven’t found him. Superman. He’s still missing, just like that monster. You don’t…you don’t think he’s dead, do you?”

Both Lois and Martha flinch at that word (at the question, and the answer, and the truth that is no longer true).

“No!” Lois says emphatically. She can’t help it; she can’t bear to let anyone, least of all Jimmy, go for a moment longer than necessary thinking that Clark (Superman, but the distinction is hardly there at all for her anymore). “No, he’s not dead, Jimmy—I refuse to believe it. He’ll turn up, just like after Nightfall.”

Martha reaches out and caresses Clark’s brow, soft and gentle and desperate. Lois wishes she could trade places with her, or that she could at least sit nearer even without Clark awake to invite her to his side. But Martha has already done more for Lois today than she could have asked, so she tamps her longing down and looks back to Jimmy.

“Maybe he was just hurt,” she says (tries to remember not to blurt out the truth that means everything: he’s alive). “Maybe he needs time to recover.”

“But where did that monster go?” Jimmy shudders and looks around furtively, as if just speaking of the beast will summon it. “Perry called it Doomsday. Do you think it’s still out there?”

“No,” Martha says, and the assurance in her voice is so strong that even Lois feels infinitely reassured. “Superman would never have stopped fighting if he thought it would be back.”

It won’t be back, Lois knows, and Doomsday’s not the only one. Her hands tingle with pinpricks of guilt, as if the flesh itself remembers the stain of blood. Her ears ring with the echoes of Tempus’s surprised shout that cut off so abruptly when she knocked him into the portal. When it closed on him with such lethal finality.

She hasn’t told Clark yet. She doesn’t know how to tell him.

But Jimmy’s right about one thing, even if he didn’t say it outright (even if he was talking about something completely different): Clark deserves to know.

No more secrets. No more lies. He wants a partner, and equal partners share information.

She has to tell him. She knows she does. (She wishes she didn’t have to; wishes she could pretend it all away.)

After she tells him, he will look at her, and see a murderer. He will look at her, and see the blood on her hands. And Clark may be able to forgive crimes committed against himself, but she doesn’t think he’ll be able to overlook crimes committed against someone else.

Besides, he is not the only one she needs to face, and killing Tempus is not the only crime she has committed.


 

She waits until morning. Clark is always weakest through the night, and strongest after he’s slept a few hours past dawn. Perry isn’t visiting until later, and the Kents are awake as soon as Clark is, and he’s well enough, now, that she can fathom (if only just barely) leaving him when she is inevitably banished back to her own apartment.

“I don’t think any of you have heard the whole story yet,” she explains when she asks them all to sit at the breakfast table instead of dispersing to their usual places. “And I need to tell you.”

Martha and Jonathan exchange a look while Clark merely looks confused. “Clark’s filled us in on a bit,” Jonathan says slowly, as if Lois has not been close enough to overhear nearly every conversation they’ve had. Clark’s apartment is homey and comfortable, but it is not large, or conducive to privacy.

“I want you to know it all,” she says (and want is a strong word for what she really feels).

It takes a long time. She rambles and backtracks and gets distracted explaining things that don’t matter, and if it were an article, Perry would have torn his hair out in frustration and forgone his editing pen in favor of simply tearing the whole thing up and demanding she start all over again. Clark’s eyes are on her the whole time, though, and they carry a weight of their own, one that makes her stutter and forget what she is saying and lose track of her sentences.

“I’m sorry,” she says, in the end (because this is what’s most important), and dredges up enough courage (or is it resignation?) to meet Martha’s gaze. “I never wanted to hurt your son, but I did know I would, and I did it anyway.”

“Lois,” Clark starts, but Martha shakes her head, leans forward, intent and somber.

“Lois, honey,” she says, “I’m so sorry you had to go through all that.”

Bemused, Lois makes a half shake of her head. “No, I…it’s not…I—”

“You saw the future,” Jonathan interjected, his voice shaded with wonder. “Three days, you said? You must have seen all kinds of things!”

“No flying cars, though,” she says flippantly. The humor is automatic, a natural defense as she tries to sort their reactions into something that makes sense. “But I should have realized that the changes I observed were directly influenced by how thoroughly I believed John Doe. Or, Tempus, I guess.”

“I should have tried harder to figure you out when you asked me to give us a chance,” Clark says.

“You both should stop trying to shoulder blame,” Martha says pointedly. “Life’s hard, you know, and sometimes we end up in places we’d rather not be. I think the important thing is that you came to Clark for help as soon as you realized what was wrong, Lois. And you listened to her, Clark.”

Clark offers her the hint of a smile, though he seems almost subdued (and she hasn’t even gotten to the parts he doesn’t know yet). “Partners, right, Lois?”

“Lane and Kent,” she agrees sadly. It’s tempting, oh so tempting, to use this as excuse enough to let the rest go. After all, if she tells him the truth, it will only hurt him. It will take away the partner he thinks he knows and still wants.

But that’s a rationalization, and she is so sick of making those. If she hadn’t made so many before, she would have gone to Clark long before she broke up with him.

“You had a good idea earlier, partner,” Lois says, swallowing down the lump in her throat and forcing a neutral expression to her face. “Tempus did have enemies from the future. Or at least, I assume that’s where ‘Herb’ is from. Tempus said that he put up a dampener around our world—or our time period, I’m not sure which—so that Herb couldn’t follow him and stop him. To try to get around that, Herb…somehow sent me the memories of our life as…as it should have been. Could have been, I mean, if I…if I hadn’t—”

“If Tempus hadn’t interfered,” Clark offers gently.

She breathes past the lump in her throat. “Yeah. It’s what was causing all my headaches—visions, flashes of scenes, moments that might have been. Us, in the future.”

She’s unprepared for the sudden, potent longing that springs up in Clark’s face, burning there like bright solar flares.

“Our future,” he whispers, and there is a reverence in his voice that disturbs her (that makes her immediately, painfully jealous of her other-self, of what she had, or should have had, or would have had, or whatever; Lois only knows that she won’t get those moments).

“Yeah,” she says quietly. “They were…weird, sometimes, but…” She can’t go on, because Clark is looking at her as if he would give anything to have the power to read her mind, to look past her skull (past her mistakes) and delve deeply into the things she’s seen (the her he could have had if she weren’t so gullible). “They’re…fading,” she admits. “Tempus did something to tear them out of me, and since then, I…I can’t remember them as clearly. They’re blurry and disjointed.”

“Oh.”

Stung, Lois looks away, hiding from the disappointment so evident in his voice, like a weight bearing that word down to the floor. “I’m sorry,” she says uselessly (and no matter how she craved those flashes, depended on them, wanted them, now she is lying; better to lose them than to have to relay them all to Clark and witness his disappointment turn into bitterness when he is left with only her).

“Probably best,” Martha says briskly. “The grass is always greener, dear.”

“It’s possible to know too much,” Jonathan adds, and Lois shrinks in on herself until she chances a look up and realizes they’re talking to Clark.

He nods, seemingly chastened. “Right. I know.” His chuckle is stilted and unfamiliar. “I’m sure there’s some things we’d all like to unknow.”

It doesn’t take a genius to know he’s imparting some secret message; Lois has no time to decipher it. If she’s offered any more excuses for not telling him this, she will cave in and close her mouth and repeat her sins. Time to bite the bullet, then.

“Clark,” she says abruptly, too loudly, “Tempus isn’t in jail.”

His eyes widen. He’s on his feet, a movement so quick she missed it while blinking. “He’s out? He’s free?” It’s Superman’s stance, and Superman’s voice, and an all too human fear blazing in those worn eyes. Fear that verges on terror so great his entire body is shaking even as he holds himself together with his arms crossed over his chest (covering his wound; protecting his heart; shrinking into himself).

“No! No, Clark, not that.” She’s on her feet, too, and how ironic that now, at the moment of confession, she no longer feels guilty at all.

That fear, that terror, there, in Clark’s being, scribed there in blood and scarred into his flesh and graven over his punctured, rebirthed heart…that is Tempus’s doing. Tempus’s crime. Tempus’s legacy. And he has done it to multiple Clarks, over and over again, in different ways, with varying shades and tools of cruelty. He’s done it to her Clark, terrified him and threatened him and caged him out with Kryptonite and sent after him a beast that still leaves Clark shaking and panting and whimpering in nightmares.

Tempus hurt Clark—killed Clark, indirectly and impermanently, but killed him nonetheless—and Lois would send him through that portal again, would strike and claw and rend and transform herself into Tempus’s Doomsday, a feral savage beast, a thousand times over if it would keep Clark (her Clark, any Clark, all of them so undeserving of pain and hate and fear) safe from his machinations.

“I killed him,” she says. A clear statement of fact. A report, rather than a confession. “He was going to watch you die, and then find another world, another timeline, and do it all over again. That was his entire life—destroying every Clark he could find. Ripping every Superman from the sky. And doing it in the most brutal, most destructive way possible. So I sent him into the portal.”

Martha’s hand is over hers. Jonathan is quiet and solemn, his mouth downturned in a sorrowful expression. Clark, in direct contrast, is crackling with restrained energy, sizzling with raw purpose that has no direction. Yet.

“And Lois?” he asks. For a second, she’s confused, not sure what he wants of her, until he adds, “The Loises from these worlds—he hurt them too? Used them like he did you? Killed them?”

Her shrug is faint (she waits for the other shoe to drop). “I guess so. He said you were already—” She coughs, then, hopes it covers what she was about to say (she cannot say it, though; cannot look at Clark, on his feet and ready to fly to any Lois’s rescue mere days after being on his deathbed, and tell him that Tempus thought he was broken). “He said that Doomsday was for me. That seeing Clark Kent killed was what would destroy Lois Lane.”

And then, another miracle: the energy around Clark is damped down, retreats to its usual place inside him, and he gives her a quick, fond smile. “I’m glad he was wrong.”

He wasn’t wrong, she wants to say, but doesn’t. In that, at least, Tempus was absolutely, completely right.

She was destroyed.

But her Clark came back. He saved her, again, still, always, in ways she can’t even explain.

“You’re alive,” she says simply, not sure how else to put into words everything she feels.

And Martha smiles at her, a wide, expansive smile. And she stands and moves to hug Lois. And Jonathan pats her on the shoulder. It’s strange and inexplicable, at first, until she realizes that they understand. They know what it is to be destroyed by the loss of Clark Kent, and what it is to be healed by his return. They know, so intimately, what it is to be willing to do anything and everything to protect him.

“I knew it would be you,” Martha whispers into Lois’s ear while hugging her. “I’m so glad I wasn’t wrong. Thank you for coming through for him.”

Lois smiles back (because she can’t not smile at this remarkable sign of acceptance) and pretends like she knows what Martha is talking about.

Over Jonathan’s shoulder, Lois catches sight of Clark. He’s smiling at the sight of her surrounded by his parents. Smiling. Even after she’s told him what she did. Smiling in her direction. At her.

She doesn’t understand this family at all.

She doesn’t care. She takes it anyway.


 

The wound on Clark’s chest scars. Fades. Disappears. He dons a Superman Suit and flies his parents home and attends a press conference Perry arranged for him. The world welcomes him with parades and awards and tears. The media accepts his explanation of taking Doomsday into space, sending the monster where it can cause no more harm, and needing time to recuperate after the journey (why shouldn’t they believe it? It took him time to recuperate after his last trip to space, too, for Nightfall, didn’t it?). Metropolis’s streets are cleared of rubble in record time, a bright blur and opened roads left behind to mark Superman’s frenetic passing (a legacy being built up in front of her very eyes).

Lois packs up her few things, her blood-stained clothes and her new toothbrush and her raging reluctance, and goes back to her apartment. Clark’s promised Perry he will be there for the end of Lex’s trial, so she knows she will see him at the Planet. He’s promised her that he still wants to be partners, so she knows he will talk to her.

(But she remembers his disappointment after she told him of their destined life together, and she does not think he will ever kiss her again. She does not think he can love her anymore.)

She returns to the Daily Planet a month after Doomsday, and silently accepts the well-wishes and slanted remarks and jokes that greet her return. She writes an article on Superman cleaning up the city, and delivers it to Perry, and does not waste time staring at Clark’s empty desk. At her apartment, she cleans out her refrigerator and dusts her shelves and does the laundry, and does not glare at the phone for not ringing or her window for not being opened.

Three more days pass. Superman is busy, so she is too. Clark is absent, so she is too (absentminded and numb and in denial that it can end just like this, so quietly, so inevitably). She suffers from nightmares of a heart that doesn’t beat and breaths that pause and catch and never start again. Of graves in rubble-strewn streets and a whimper that keens endlessly while blood leaves a trail through her city, all pointing back to her. She wakes screaming, sits shivering, and stares outside (and knows that Clark is avoiding the nightmares by simply not sleeping, by working endlessly, tirelessly, relentlessly).

She picks up the phone to call him ten times, a hundred times, but never does (he won’t be there; he’s out, fixing and cleaning and healing).

Perry is careful with her. Jimmy is exuberant around her now that he’s forgiven her, happy she is back, happy to hear Clark will be back soon, happy that things are going back to normal (she envies him his illusions). Martha calls her once, maybe just to reassure her that all is forgiven; they talk for a few minutes before Lois finds an excuse to hang up. All those weeks of wanting Martha’s acceptance, of wishing for inclusion, and now that she has it, she doesn’t know what to do with it. Without Clark in her life, there is little for them to talk about (when it is all Lois wants to talk about; when all she wants is to beg Martha to explain what he is thinking, to plead her case to Clark).

Finally, on Friday night, facing a long weekend until Clark returns to the newsroom (if he is well; if he’s still alive, still recovering; she has only Superman reports to prove it to her fearful heart), Lois finds herself sitting on her couch doing the same thing she has done every evening.

She sits, motionless, and stares at what she holds in her hands.

Her journal. Filled with all the memories-that-will-never-be. Stuffed full with details of a Clark who is in love with her. A Clark who wants more than partnership, and who is given it. All the stories of a life she would give anything to call hers. How many nights did she spend narrowing her eyes and unfocusing her vision in that way that let the flashes spin through her mind? How often did she cast herself adrift into those fantasies and luxuriate in the idea that somewhere, there is a Lois who got to be with Clark?

So many times. Endless nights. No matter the headaches, heedless of the consequences and the hangover of regret she’d be left with, she’d lived vicariously through years of their potential life.

And now, in her hands, she holds the recollection that escapes her now. It’s a fat book, filled with chaotic scribblings, torn from the book and placed in a haphazard order as she tried to make order and a timeline out of it, all thrown back together carelessly. It would be so easy to open the front cover and lift up the first page (or the middle, maybe, because the beginning would only remind her that this life will never be hers, the chances to grasp it already past; but the middle is full of people she hasn’t met yet, places she hasn’t gone, decisions she hasn’t messed up, and a Clark she will never call husband) and let herself fall back into fantasy.

Except…there is a small part of her that is scared it won’t be enough. Her notes were quick and usually written at the same time as she peered at the flashes. She could decipher her meanings before, when the flashes were clear in her mind, but now? Now they might be nothing more than the scrawl of a demented mind, incoherent and jumbled, as hollow and out-of-reach as life to a ghost lingering long past its prime.

“Coward,” she whispers to herself, and sets the journal down on her coffee table.

That’s not the real reason she won’t open it. The truth is far pettier, more slanted to envy than to fear.

She will not open it, will not read her slapdash notes, will not give into the temptation…because Clark wants this. She saw it, heard it, knows it. He wants this future, this Lois Lane, this life. And she cannot give it to him, and so she wants nothing more to do with it. No need to rub her nose in all of the decisions she should have made, the things she should have done, the man she should have.

The knock at her door startles her. For just an instant, she is taken back to that night, so long ago, when she opened her door to a knock (hoping it was Clark) and found John Doe. When he tempted her with a story bigger than she’d ever dreamed of, and she’d deprived Clark (and herself) of a future growing from friends into lovers into spouses into a legacy that would birth a Utopia.

But Tempus is gone.

Lois rises from her past and moves to the door. When she opens it, Clark smiles hesitantly at her. This is a flashback to an entirely different kind of moment, and she briefly worries that it is a flash; that her mind is scarred from the visions of the future and now shows her flashes of her past (just as divorced from her now as her future). His hair is windswept, the collar of his jacket isn’t quite straight, but his glasses are perched on his nose and his smile is Clark’s.

“Clark,” she says. “I… Come in.” She extends the invitation even knowing that he might just be there for a minute, to tell her…she doesn’t know what. She just cannot shake the idea that he might be there just for a blink, long enough to prove that he is alive, and then he will leave, his presence serving the purpose of rousing her from her numbness and reminding her of just how much she misses him.

She went from being his best friend to dating him, constantly with him, always seeing him, holding him, touching him, kissing him. And then the distance and the barbs and the absences, and then his desperation to keep her and then…then the end. The gulf between them. His death, and then his return, and she was with him every moment of every day, able to easily find him without more than a step or two of effort, able to touch him, sometimes, while he was awake and inviting her close.

And now it has been five days since she’s seen him. Since she’s heard his steady, even breathing, and matched hers up with his. Felt the heat emanating from his body, seen the flush of blood in his cheeks and the glint in his eyes. Known with every sense she has that he is alive.

She misses him. It’s an ache so large, so all-encompassing that she didn’t even realize why everything seemed so wrong until he is here, and suddenly everything is right again.

He follows her in and makes no move to stop her when she closes the door (flicks a lock when he isn’t looking, just to make it seem more final, more real). “I’m sorry I didn’t warn you I was coming,” he begins awkwardly, and Lois shakes her head.

“No! No, you…you don’t have to call.” She stops, takes a breath, forces herself to sound like a rational human being. “I mean, you’re welcome any time, Clark. You’re always invited.”

It’s a little desperate, maybe. She doesn’t care.

He smiles (it might be a bit nervous) and shifts uncomfortably. “Um…I wanted to see you before I came back to the Planet. I thought it might be good if we could…talk…you know, before we were in front of everyone.”

“Sure,” she says, only half listening. She’s distracted by surveying him, trying to find any hint of lingering aches or bruises or scars. The half-step she takes toward him is involuntary, as is the way she reaches out toward him before she can stop herself. “You’re okay?” she blurts. “You’re still healing?”

He softens, the line of his shoulders easing. “Yeah, Lois. I’m fine. Good as new.”

“The nights?” she asks quietly. “Are they…?”

“I’m fine,” he repeats, not quite meeting her eyes. “And I haven’t exactly been sleeping much. There’s a lot still to do.”

“You don’t have to do it all at once.” She gestures him to the couch, watches him sit, and then pauses. Her couches are small enough she should probably sit on the second one, opposite him, with the coffee table between them; it’s a professional distance, one most work partners would probably choose. But it is not the kind of partners they have ever been, so she sits right next to him. And so close, she cannot deny the temptation to spread her fingers and place her palm over his heart.

She feels only smooth skin beneath his shirt. No gaping wound, no exposed bones, no leaking blood. Just his chest, rising and falling with his breaths, and the thrum of his heart, so steadfast and strong. She lets out a sigh of relief that judders and probably smells of salty tears.

Clark lifts his hand and puts it on hers, holding it against him. He’s not smiling, but there is a warmth to his expression as he meets her gaze that she cannot define (that she is afraid to quantify for fear of a disappointment she will not recover from). “I’m here, Lois,” he says. “I’m not going anywhere.”

“Sorry.” Her voice is light, breathy; she cannot look away from him. “I just keep seeing you…”

Dead.

She can’t bring herself to say it.

He winces but does not push her hand away. It’s impossible to tell exactly what changes, between one second and the next, but one instant he is strong and comforting and almost-smiling, and the next he is worn. Tired. Haunted. Another mask turned translucent and ineffectual against her, as if he keeps parting layers like curtains before her, leading her deeper and deeper to his true, hidden self.

“Clark,” she exclaims sadly, and lifts her other hand to caress his cheek and finger a strand of his hair. She watches herself as if from afar, shocked at her own daring.

Clark leans into her touch. “Sorry,” he says without pulling away. “I thought I’d get used to it—the idea that I…died.” He lets out a mirthless laugh, little more than an expulsion of breath. “But it just gets weirder every time I think about it.”

“It’s a miracle.”

“It’s a nightmare,” he returns, and Lois recoils from him so violently her hand is yanked from between his (his touch always seeming so strong until any pressure is exerted and then its delicacy is revealed).

“What?!” she gasps.

“It scares me,” he admits, a tiny admission that freezes the rant boiling up from her chest to simmer in her throat. “I saw what my ribcage looked like, Lois—what my heart and lungs looked like. I died. And then…I just wasn’t dead anymore.”

“How is that scary?” she demands. She’s trying to understand, really, she is, but all she can see is his motionless body on the cold ground and Perry shifting his ribcage as he forced his heart to beat; all she can hear is the pauses and catches to his ragged breathing and the hollow silence when he stopped.

“I don’t want to be alone.” Clark looks down at his hands, clasped in front of him as he leans his elbows on his knees. “I don’t want to be immortal, Lois. All my life, all I’ve wanted to be is human. But to be human means to face mortality, and I…apparently, I can’t even do that right.”

He stands, then, and moves restlessly, finally settling in front of the window to survey the dusk light. Lois watches him, carefully, intently. She thinks he only moved because he is afraid to show her his expression (hesitant to let her through this newest layer).

“I guess that could be scary,” she allows after a long moment. “But I can’t see it that way. You were gone, Clark, and I was never going to get to talk to you again or hold you or—” She takes a deep breath, wipes a tear away before it can fully drop from her eye. “You came back,” she finally settles for saying. “And that’s hope, right there, in concrete form. Besides, you’ve aged normally so far, right, so as far as you know, mortality will still catch up to you eventually, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

“I try not to think about it long enough to pinpoint exactly what I’m worried about,” he says wryly, something in him soothed, and moves to sit back down beside her (she’s encouraged that he didn’t choose the other couch either). “Anyway, I didn’t come to talk about that.”

“You can, though,” she interrupts him, the words tripping over each other in her haste to get them out. “You can talk to me about anything, Clark.” (Partners, she almost adds, except she thinks she’s begun to hate that word.)

“Thanks.” He smiles at her, and despite the inky smudges under his eyes, it’s a genuine gesture. “That means a lot. I know…I know I told you my Secret when you didn’t want me to. And I know you…didn’t find out in exactly the best way. It occurred to me that you didn’t really have the chance to be mad at me about it.”

“Mad?” She arches an eyebrow, almost amused. “Why do you think I’d be mad?”

He laughs. The sound is startling and electric; Lois’s entire body turns to it, as if magnetically attracted by forces so primal and inherent they cannot be denied. “Every time I imagined telling you, I definitely envisioned you mad.”

“I was,” she confesses. “Those three days I was in the future were filled with a lot of angry diatribes. You’re glad you missed it.”

A shadow flashes across his face, a solar storm eclipsing his usual brightness. “Yeah,” he says, almost listlessly. “The future’s probably overrated anyway, right?”

She considers him for a long, eternal moment. He’s alive. He’s here. He’s being more than her partner—he’s being her friend. It’s more than she deserves, she knows that. She wants to give him something close to what he deserves, something he won’t ask for and doesn’t even know she has to give him.

“Here.” Her heart is slow and plodding, beating out her reluctance. Her hand trembles when she picks up the journal from the coffee table and offers it to him.

He looks at it, quirks his lips up in a lopsided, curious smile, and takes it. “What is it?”

“It’s the future.”

His eyes fly up to meet hers. The apartment is silent around her, encasing the two of them in a silken, translucent bubble of possibilities.

“I wrote down all the flashes I had. Before. Everything I saw about the future we could have had. Our lives.”

“Our lives,” he repeats (and there is that reverence again, layered through his voice like hope and longing and wistfulness; it burns like acid through her soul). His hand caresses the cover of the journal, infinitely gentle. “Together?”

“Yeah.” She smiles at him (a bittersweet, melancholy smile). “Together.”

“We were happy?”

“We had our moments,” she says with a dry chuckle, “but yes, we were happy. At least, as far as I can remember.”

He tilts his head to study her. “You haven’t read through it?”

“No.” Clasping her hands to still the desire she has to snatch the journal back, she looks away. “I’ve been meaning to. I’ve tried every day, actually. But…I don’t know. I just haven’t.”

His long fingers play with the corner of the cover as he stares down at the pages. “Ever since you mentioned it, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it.” She watches his hands, transfixed, almost nauseous with trepidation as she waits for him to open the book and realize just how much she ruined. “Us. That’s what you said. You saw us in our future.”

Her blood turns to sludge in her veins, cold and leaden and guilty. Even Clark’s forgiveness, it seems, is not without limits.

“I’ll bet we were reporters,” he says slowly, musingly, as if crafting each fact from imagination. “I’ll bet we were partners and friends before we were ever more. I’ll bet it took me a while to be brave enough to tell you my Secret. And,” he smiles mischievously, “I’ll bet you were mad for a while after you knew. I’ll bet it took us a while to really adjust to being together, a couple, no secrets, knowing each other fully. I’ll bet that trouble always found us—because it always finds you, and you usually drag me along with you. I’ll bet we were always there for each other, even when bad things happened, even when we were hurt or scared or upset. I’ll bet I loved you with everything I am.”

She’s staring. She’s crying, a hand over her mouth to hide the sobs, the tears silent and continuous, dripping over her fingers. She’s breathless and speechless and motionless.

“I’ll bet you loved me,” he continues, so quietly she has to stare at him to make sure she’s hearing him correctly. “I’ll bet you proved it with everything you did.”

When he reaches out, when he places his hand over her free one, knotted into a fist in her lap, she breathes in sharply. When he wraps his fingers over that fist, and straightens her fingers, and intertwines their hands, she has to drop her hand from her mouth and place it over that knot, joining them completely together, a set all matched and bound.

He dropped the journal sometime (she didn’t even notice when he did it). It’s laying by their feet. Lois doesn’t spare it a glance (doesn’t dare look away from Clark).

“I don’t need to know the specifics of that future,” Clark tells her. “That’s what I realized after thinking about it while I shifted rubble and fixed up buildings and rebuilt portions of this city. Metropolis will never be exactly what it was before Doomsday, and I wish it hadn’t been torn up like that—but it will be made better, Lois. And I think we can be too. I don’t want the future you saw, because that’s not us, not anymore. Instead, I want the future we can make, together, from here on out. It might be different, but I think the important parts will still be the same. I think we can be just as happy as them.”

“I think we can be happier,” Lois says hastily (she already is, right now, right in this moment, so euphoric she feels as if she could fly them to the sun, so radiant she thinks she could rival the sun). She wants to lean forward and throw herself into his arms, but that would mean taking her hands out of his. Besides, she’s not entirely convinced just yet that that’s what he wants.

Smiling, wide and happy, Clark leans closer toward her, untangles one of his hands to cup her cheek in his hand. “A long time ago,” he says, as if telling her a story, “you came to my apartment, and you said you wanted to take a chance on me. Even though you knew I’d been lying to you, and even though you were mad at me, you still came and you still said you wanted to try. And I think part of you meant it, even if you didn’t realize it at the time.”

He’s always known her so well, better than she knows herself. She wishes she could see herself through his eyes (wishes he could see himself through hers).

“That changed our future.” His fingers play through her hair while his other hand lets go of hers and moves to tug at her elbows, that slight pressure she could so easily evade (but that she never will). “I want to change our future again. Which is why I’m here, in your apartment, and I know you lied, and maybe I am still a bit mad at you, but I want to try, Lois. I want to take a chance on us. No secrets. No ulterior motives. Just us, and a future we write ourselves.”

If she wrote this scene down, in a brand new journal, she would never be able to get through it without smudging the page with tears (and she will try, later, will laugh when for their first month anniversary, Clark gives her a thick, blank journal; she will sit and begin to write their journey from this moment on, and the ink will smear with salt water and Clark will come in with furrowed brow, wondering why she is crying; and she will set the pen aside and concentrate on the present, on making new memories to write down for their unknown future). It’s beautiful, and wondrous, and just as much a miracle as his return from the dead.

She wonders how long he’s practiced this. How many days it has taken him to compose this speech and imagine this moment. She’s sure there’s more.

She doesn’t care.

“I love you!” she blurts out, and then she is scrambling forward, tripping over the discarded journal and flinging herself into his open, waiting arms. “I love you, Clark!” She repeats it over and over again, a vow and a confession and a statement of fact all rolled into one, interspersed between kisses that pepper his lips, his cheeks, his throat, anywhere she can reach.

“I love you too, Lois,” he says, silencing her. And then his lips slant over hers, and she is home.

She is safe.

She is whole.

And the future is whatever they will make of it. He kisses her breathless. He kisses her until it is impossible to think.

He kisses them a blank slate and a full life, and Lois seizes it and kisses back the same for him.


 

The End