By Wendy Richards <email@example.com> & Kaethel <Kaethel@wanadoo.fr>
Submitted: May 2003
Summary: When Lois needs to hear a few home truths about her relationship with Lex Luthor, what better way to get her to listen but to wait until it's impossible for her to escape that painful conversation?
This story was written in honour of our friend Meredith Knight, on her birthday. What started out as a light and short story sort of blossomed into something a bit longer than we had both expected, but our Muses seem to be greedy these days. <g> In fact, for several days the file ping- pong-ed back and forth between the UK and France, sometimes with three or four exchanges in the course of one evening. :) So we hope you have fun reading it as much as we had fun writing it!
We would like to thank our faithful readers on the Lois & Clark Fanfic Message boards for providing support, encouragement, and very helpful suggestions. The authors would also like to thank our Archive editor, Jeanne, very much indeed for her speedy and efficient work in editing this story.
Feedback is, as ever, very welcome. :)
Wendy and Kaethel :)
~ Captive Audience ~
A Birthday Story for Meredith
by Wendy Richards and Kaethel
Lois looked anxiously once more at the ticking clock displayed so prominently in front of her. Twenty seconds remaining. That was hardly any time at all! Where was he?
"Help!!! Help, Superman!" she yelled again, screaming at the top of her voice, which was now getting hoarse from over-use. At the same time, she tried once more to escape from the ropes binding her, only to have to admit that there was no give in them whatsoever. She was well and truly trussed up like a chicken.
"No need to shout, Lois — I can hear you," a familiar voice observed, actually sounding amused. She jerked her head around, to see Superman floating in mid-air just to her side.
"Well, if you can hear me, why didn't you get here sooner?" she demanded, frustration now replacing her earlier terror. She strained against her restraints again, grimacing as the ropes cut into her.
"I do have to rescue other people sometimes," Superman pointed out, that amused note still present.
"Well, okay, I can understand that," Lois conceded, "but now that you're here, do you think you could get a move on and *rescue me*?"
"Well, now, Lois, I'm not sure," Superman answered, floating around to 'stand' in front of her. He crossed his arms and gave her an interrogative look. "Why would I want to do that?"
"Superman! This is not a time for games!" she yelled at him. "That bomb's about to go off any second now, and if you *don't* mind, I'd really prefer not to be blown to pieces!"
"Oh, is that what you're worried about?" He moved slightly to one side, giving her a clear view of the counter, which was on 19 seconds. "I stopped that as soon as I got here."
"You did?" Relieved, Lois released a long breath. Then, baffled, she stared up at her rescuer. "Then why did you make me think…? And why haven't you let me go?"
"It's quite simple, Lois," Superman said with a grin. "I just think that, for the moment, I prefer you just as you are. Tied up so you can't get away and get yourself into yet more trouble."
"What on earth are you talking about?" she demanded. "Come on, Superman, stop playing games. These ropes hurt!"
"They wouldn't hurt if you'd keep still," he informed her with that amused grin which was beginning to irritate her enormously.
"No, Lois." Again, that aggravating smile. "I want to talk to you, and I think that right here and now is just the perfect opportunity. I have a captive audience, so to speak."
He wanted to talk to her? That sounded… a little ominous. On the other hand, could she really complain about having Superman's uninterrupted attention for as long as it took him to talk about whatever it was he had on his mind?
"Superman, you know I'm always happy to talk to you. But, you know, I'd be a whole lot more comfortable if you untied me. Really. And then maybe we could talk while flying, or something nice like that," she wheedled.
But he shook his head. "Uh-uh. Not a chance, Lois! You are going to sit right there until I'm done with you."
Lois pulled a face. It was all very well for Superman to say that, but he wasn't the one who had ropes wrapped around her wrists and chest and knees and ankles.
"What makes you think I'll listen anyway? Just because I can't go anywhere, you think I'll hang on your every word?"
She saw his eyebrow twitch almost imperceptibly, and held back a wince. She had never talked so rudely to Superman before. She had always addressed him with the respect and awe he deserved, and all of a sudden she was treating him like the common of mortals. Like… well, like Clark, for example. How could she treat Superman like Clark?
Not that he deserved any awe from her today, she told herself firmly. He was looking at her with a smug expression on his face. But he was *enjoying* this! Seeing her in a very humiliating situation, tied to a chair and unable to move anything beside the fingers which already hurt from trying to undo the rope binding her wrists.
He ignored her threat, too, she noticed as he started to talk. She was determined not to listen — it wouldn't hurt to teach him a lesson after the way he had talked to her. But how did you teach *Superman* a lesson? How did you ignore him? It wasn't as if she could tear her eyes off the fine figure barely hidden beneath the flashy spandex suit!
"— but I want to try anyway."
She blinked as she caught his last words, and curiosity won the battle against determination. "Try what?"
A wail, now? Superman didn't wail. Yet it sounded very much like a wail. In fact, it sounded like Clark Kent's reproachful call of her name when she blanked out on one of his speeches on how to spell "massacer"… or was it "massacre"? Whatever.
He sighed, and the weary sound drew her attention back to him. "I need to talk to you about Luthor."
She eyed him warily. It didn't begin well if he was following Clark's tracks in terms of invading her private life with his opinionated comments about Lex. "What about him?" Her attempt to keep her voice light and friendly failed miserably.
"He's not who you think he is, Lois."
"Stop. Don't even say more. I don't want to hear it."
"But I want you to. I *need* you to hear it."
"And you think that taking advantage of my current…" She shifted in the chair in another attempt to free her sore limbs from the tight rope. "… situation is a good idea?"
"It's the only one I have, so it will have to do."
"If I was a naturally suspicious person, I would wonder if you didn't orchestrate this little incident just to get me to listen to you." He gasped in outrage, but she cut off any attempt at defending himself. "I'm kidding! Well, mostly. So go ahead." She heaved a dramatic sigh and rolled her eyes for good measure.
"Just hear me out, okay?" He waited for her nod before he continued. "I know things, certain things, about Luthor that you don't suspect, that no-one suspects."
She opened her mouth to protest, but his held-up hand stopped her.
"You promised to hear me out," he warned.
"You forgot to tell whoever tied me to that chair — and I will find out who they are and send them in jail, where they belong, by the way — to gag me."
"All right, all right! Do tell me what I *absolutely* need to know about Lex."
"Do you remember the Messenger Shuttle? The sabotage? Samuel Platt?"
"Yeah. What about it?"
"Luthor was behind it."
"What?!" No way. There was no way on earth Lex would do something so… and… and kill people! No. It was impossible. It didn't make any sense. "You have no proof," was all she managed to stammer.
He lowered his head. "No. I don't. And that's why I never told you anything about it until now."
"So what's different now?"
"I know that you're giving serious consideration to his pro… well…" He trailed off, then as she glared at him, he added awkwardly, "Clark told me that Luthor had asked you to marry him."
"Clark told you?!" Clark! Clark, her best friend Clark, whom she trusted more than anyone in this world, had talked to Superman about something that was strictly between them?
Tears stung her eyes, but she bravely shook them away. She wasn't about to make a fool of herself and cry in front of Superman. But Clark… the only man she had ever trusted! And he had betrayed that trust, trampled on it as if it was a meaningless thing. What else had he told Superman about her? She fought a blush as she remembered that Clark was aware of her infatuation with the superhero.
Superman's hand rested on her shoulder and gave her a brief squeeze. "Oh, Lois, don't be mad. I was… *Clark* was pretty distressed by the turn of events, and he needed to talk. And usually he turns to you, but this time he felt that he couldn't. That he would only upset you by telling you about his fe… well, about his opinion on the matter."
"I thought Clark was a friend. I never imagined he went around telling people about my private life."
"He cares for you, Lois."
"Yeah," she replied, her voice thick with tears she could barely hold back. "He cares so much that he runs to you to discuss something that was supposed to stay between him and me!"
"Lois, Clark loves you! I love you."
What had he said? Oh god, had he really said that?
What on earth had possessed him?
He'd effectively given Lois a present of his secret identity. Just handed it to her on a plate. And — okay, she probably wouldn't splash it over the front page of the Daily Planet, though even that might depend on how mad she was. But she was going to be furious with him. And she certainly wouldn't believe another word he said on the subject of Lex Luthor.
She might even marry Lex Luthor. And the thought of Luthor being that close to finding out Superman's real identity sent shivers down his spine.
How *stupid* could he possibly get! All his life he'd been taught never to tell anyone about himself, never to do anything which might give himself away. For his own safety — and also, he'd decided long ago, for the safety of his parents.
All his life, he'd been careful.
And now he'd just blurted it out, without any forethought, any good reason for telling Lois. Without any thought for the consequences. He'd simply opened his mouth and the words had emerged. Okay, he hadn't actually told her that he was Clark Kent, but given what he'd said he might as well be wearing a placard around his chest announcing that fact.
His mom was going to kill him.
Lois's puzzled voice broke in on his agonising. He hardly dared look at her. But after a moment, he risked a quick glance.
Her tears had gone and she was watching him, frowning, looking confused. Yeah, sure, he told himself. Any second now, that Lane brain would figure it all out. And he'd be mincemeat.
"Superman… do you mean… *both* you and Clark are in love with me?"
"Huh?" Clark stared at her — and then realised what she'd thought. A love triangle — which was how he had occasionally thought of his relationship with Lois — but with three men.
While he was still struggling for the words with which to correct her mistake, she exclaimed happily, "But, Superman, that doesn't have to be a problem! I love you too!"
"You do?" Clark felt as if he'd swallowed glass. "But… what about Clark?"
"What about him?" Lois asked, taken aback. "Um… well, sure, I'm fond of him. I mean, I love him, but not the way I love you. He's my best friend. And he means a lot to me — I've really hated the way we've been the last few weeks. But I'm not *in* love with him. Not the way I am with you. I'm so completely in love with you, Superman!"
Oh, sure, Clark thought bitterly. She loved a one- dimensional cartoon figure; a man who didn't exist other than in times of trouble. She loved the flying and the superpowers and the heroic side of Superman; she knew nothing at all about the man beneath the suit.
He'd suspected for a long time that she believed herself in love with Superman, of course. And he was well aware of her feelings for Clark — but hearing those feelings at the same time as she was swearing undying love for Superman made him feel sick.
It was just as well that he hadn't managed to tell her how he felt about her that morning at the Planet, after all. She'd probably have laughed herself silly.
Clark choked down bile, trying to think of one good reason why he shouldn't just fly out of there and away that very second — even better if he were to do it leaving Lois tied to her chair. But then sensible thought returned.
Lois claimed to love Superman. Yet she was apparently considering Lex Luthor's proposal. There had to be a way to turn this to his advantage…
"Lois," he said firmly.
"Yes?" The glowing, worshipful smile she gave him made him want to wring her neck and force the truth into her.
"You say that you love me?"
"I do!" she protested.
"And yet you're considering marrying Lex Luthor?"
Lois lowered her eyes and chewed on her lip.
"Or do you love Luthor, too?"
"But you haven't turned him down."
"It's not a split-second decision," she protested weakly. "When a man asks you to marry, you tend to think about it before you say no. Especially if you've been in a relationship with him."
"Well, obviously I've never been in a relationship with Luthor, but I can tell you one thing. How could you be sure that a man is really in love with you when he proposes after a couple of dates?"
Wrong move, Kent. Very wrong move. He knew he had made a mistake as soon as her angry glare darted back at him. Invulnerability or not, he was sure that if those eyes could shot poison into him right now, he would fall dead to the floor in less than seconds.
"Nothing," she spat, "and I mean *nothing* gives you the right to pass judgment on my relationship with Lex." She twisted under her binds. "And will you please untie me now? Or do you intend to leave me like that even once you're through with this stupid conversation?"
Lois half-expected him to find another excuse to leave her in her ordeal, but he complied silently. Her last words to him had apparently struck a chord, and hopefully he would find someone else to rescue within seconds and leave her alone.
She had never thought she would want Superman to fly away from her, she mused as her sore hands were finally freed and she set about working on her ankles.
Superman reached for her hands, though, and held them both in a firm but careful hold. Then he snapped the rope binding her feet, and she was free at last. She rose to her feet, and he released her.
She should leave. She should turn away without another word and sulk for a few days before she let him talk to her again. She should…
… but he had told her something of importance.
<I love you.>
So many men had spoken those three words before… well, not that many in her case, but Superman was the fourth one in her life. And where had the other three led her? Paul had been snatched away by her so-called best friend before he was even through with the magic sentence, Claude hadn't waited for the sheets to cool off before he was out the door, and Lex… well, Lex had asked her to marry him. But would he turn his back on her once she accepted his proposal?
*Once* she accepted it? But she hadn't said yes yet. And, in fact, Superman's three little words had thrown a doubt on her reasoning regarding the decision she should take about marriage to Lex.
He was right. How could she seriously consider Lex's proposal if she loved Superman? How could she do that to him? To herself?
"You're right," she confessed in a low voice. "I shouldn't be considering marrying Lex. And I'm not truly considering it. I couldn't bring myself to give him a flat-out no, because we have been dating and it means something. And I'm attracted to him. But I don't love him. I'm not even sure I could grow to love him. Not when I love another man."
"So why did you even think about his proposal?"
"Superman, you're out of this world! Literally! And until now, I had no idea that the way I feel about you was… well, welcome."
"It's not welcome."
"Excuse me?" She paled. She couldn't have heard him right.
"Lois, you can't have a relationship with Superman. Or rather, Superman can't have a relationship with you."
"But you just said that you… Oh, no, wait. I imagined that, right? You didn't actually tell me that you lo —"
"That I love you? I meant it, Lois. I truly do love you."
She took a step towards him, feeling bold enough to rest a hand against his crossed arms. He didn't flinch away. "Then what's the problem? If you love me and I love you, why can't we be together?"
"Can you imagine Superman being in a relationship with a woman? The yellow press would run after the scoop and splash it across the trashiest of tabloids. Your life would be at risk."
She rolled her eyes. "One would think that you, of all people, should know that my life is at risk on a daily basis anyway."
"And one would think that you, of all people, should know that it gives me way too many sleepless nights."
He pulled her hands in his and grew serious again. "Lois, you wouldn't be free in a relationship with Superman. You would always have to be on your guard. We could never go out and enjoy dinner in a restaurant or a movie at the local cinema. And even your apartment windows would be watched after a while if people noticed my comings and goings."
"I'm ready to make that kind of sacrifice," she said urgently, squeezing his hand and making his determination waver. It was so difficult to turn her down when she was looking up at him with so much love on her face.
This love was directed at Superman, he reminded himself. Not at Clark. Not at him. In fact, she had said that she was fond of Clark, but wouldn't consider him anything beyond a friend.
"But I'm not."
He let go of her and took a step back, needing to set some distance between them. He knew that what he was about to say would seal the fate of any hope he might have harboured about a relationship with Lois. How could he find the courage to turn his back on what she offered when he was so completely in love with her?
He loved her. He truly loved her. But the sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach confirmed that Lois's feelings for him weren't real. She loved someone who didn't exist, and she barely noticed the man beneath the suit.
It was over. His hopes were dashed.
If that was all she felt for him — a crush on a comic-book character who didn't really exist — then perhaps he should leave her to Lex Luthor.
"Lois, do you need me here any more?" he asked, his tone deliberately cool.
"Huh?" She stared at him, clearly not following his shift of subject.
"I've rescued you. The bomb's defused. You're untied. Do you need me for anything else? Should I be catching the people who left you here like this?"
Her expression changed, her eyes narrowing. She understood what he was doing, all right; knew that he was distancing himself from her. Part of him wished against reason that she would ask him to stay. He unceremoniously quashed the thought. It would do no good to hang around now that it was clear that he had to put his romantic attachment to her behind him. It would do no good to let himself believe in her pretence of love.
"No, I'm fine, Superman. Thank you for saving me. As for the people responsible, I know exactly who they are, and I have proof, too — the police will get them."
"Good." He gave her a brief nod, then turned around and strode out of the building, his dreams left in shattered pieces behind him.
Lois sank down onto the chair again, feeling utterly bewildered as she tried to make sense of the last half- hour.
Superman loved her. And yet, somehow, it had felt as if he hated her just as much.
Lex Luthor, if Superman was to be believed, was an arch- criminal. Well, if Superman said so, shouldn't she believe it? Probably… She didn't think that Superman was the type to run down another man out of jealousy.
And Clark… Clark loved her, too.
But she'd known that, hadn't she? It was one of those things she'd simply taken for granted, like the fact that she always won the Kerth for investigative journalism, that Jimmy was the office gofer and that Ralph was a sleaze. Clark loved her.
Suddenly, she felt ashamed of her callous remark to Superman when he'd asked 'what about Clark?'. She'd been dismissive, utterly uncaring of her partner's feelings for her. She'd metaphorically trampled all over Clark. Okay, he hadn't been here to hear it, but Superman was his friend. Even if Superman didn't actually tell Clark what she'd said about him, it was bound to colour the superhero's opinion of her. And since Clark hadn't hesitated to tell Superman about the secret turn of her relationship with Lex, she could only too easily imagine that her lack of consideration for her partner's feelings would come back to his ears soon enough.
That could even be part of why he'd said that he didn't want to love her.
Maybe he thought that she was a horrible person. Maybe he was ashamed of the way she behaved, especially towards Clark. Maybe he was disgusted that she, a top-flight investigative reporter, had never bothered to look beyond the superficial with Lex.
Because that was exactly what she'd failed to do…
What if Lex really was dirty? She'd never even questioned his honesty, his reputation as an upstanding citizen. She'd never once wondered whether he could possibly be as clean- cut as he appeared to be — despite the mysteries surrounding his past and other signs she should have recognised as potentially indicating that Lex Luthor wasn't all that he seemed.
She'd failed in her obligation as a reporter to look beyond the external. And it was no wonder if Superman was contemptuous of her as a result.
That was it. Superman thought that she wasn't worthy of his love. And he was probably right.
How could she have been so awful to Clark? Lois had no idea why that thought suddenly occurred to her, but suddenly, without any warning, her mind was filled with memories of the way she'd treated him over the past month or so. She'd brushed off all his concerns about her relationship with Lex, accusing him of jealousy. She'd ignored him a lot of the time, and then demanded his friendship when it suited her. She'd been dismissive of him in public.
She'd been cruel. And definitely unworthy of his friendship.
Yet he loved her anyway. That was humbling.
Maybe, once she'd sorted out today's bad guys, she should go and talk to Clark. It was time that she made her peace with him, and she had a lot of humble pie to eat.
As long as he was still willing to talk to her, after the way she'd treated him.
Clark didn't even need to use his X-ray vision before he knew who was pounding on the door that night. Who other than Lois could drop by his apartment at one in the morning? A smile started to form on his face, but disappeared just as quickly. Seeing her would only remind him of what he had lost today. What he had never had, actually.
He had spent months fooling himself into believing that maybe, someday, Lois's friendship for him would evolve into something more, that she would see beyond the tight suit he wore as Superman and start to consider the man beneath, the man who worked with her on a daily basis… the man who was nothing to her. Nothing.
He glanced at the shadow behind the glass door. If he ignored her, would she go away? This time, he couldn't hold back a chuckle. Hoping for Lois to go away was like hoping for a pit-bull to let go of your leg once it had decided it was good enough to chew. She would rather stay here till morning and break her wrist from knocking constantly than go home. In fact, she was more likely to pin the lock and get in.
He barked a "Comin'!" and made a dash-grab for his glasses, then fiddled with the lock as the pounding on the other side intensified.
"I'm not deaf, you know?" he growled as she brushed past him and made her way down the stairs and into his living- room. "But even if I was, you'd have cured me in seconds."
"We need to talk." She sank onto the sofa, her coat still wrapped around her.
"Lois, do you have any idea what time it is?"
"I'm serious, Clark."
She looked up at him, and he could immediately see that she wasn't kidding indeed. He trotted down the steps and took his place beside her, though careful to leave some safe distance between them. He winced as he realised what he was doing. Until today, he would never have thought twice about sitting next to Lois, setting an arm about her shoulder, or drawing her in his embrace. Their comfortable closeness had always seemed to be enough for the time being; enough to persuade him to wait for her to come to feel about him as he did about her. He had never pushed her into more than friendship precisely because he believed that what they had was enough for now.
Except he now knew that what they shared would have to be enough for ever. Lois would never love him. She might stick to her surreal Superman fantasy for a while, then her affections would move on.
He was being unfair. He should be satisfied with their friendship. He should be content to have her trust. But the bitterness of rejection was hard to fight, especially since he hadn't been told in person. Or rather, he had been told in person, but Lois didn't know she had been talking to the man she had dismissed so easily at the time. Maybe it would have been better to remain locked in blissful ignorance. If he had, his friendship with Lois would seem intact. He wouldn't hesitate to sit closer to her tonight and even be bold enough to reach for her hand. He shifted even further away and kept his posture stiff.
She looked nervous, too. Her hands were fiddling on her lap, and her eyes were avoiding him.
"What happened?" He fought very hard the instant urge to rest his hand against her arm. "Is everything okay?"
"Yes. No." She got up and started to pace. "No, it's not okay. Clark, I've had a talk with Superman today." She planted herself in front of him for a mere second before she started to wear a track in the carpet again.
"And he told me things that I never imagined."
<Please, Lois, no>
"Clark, he said that he… that…" She threw up her arms in obvious frustration and fully turned to him. "He said that he loves me." She paused, probably expecting some kind of reaction from him. He remained stubbornly silent. "And he also said that *you*… Clark, I need to know. How do you feel about me?"
Clark swallowed. Just how was he supposed to answer that?
"Lois… I…" he began, struggling to compose an answer.
"Clark?" She sounded a little uncertain now. "It can't be that hard, surely? I mean, you've known me long enough… you must know how you feel about me."
<Of course I do, Lois! And I know that you know… don't you understand just how humiliated that makes me feel?>
"Lois, why do you want to know?" he answered after a few moments. "Isn't it enough that you have Superman and Lex Luthor in love with you? You want to make it three for the price of two?"
She flinched at that. "Clark, you make it sound as if I'm collecting scalps," she said quietly. "Is that how I've made you see me?"
He sighed. "Not scalps… but you do seem to be kind of possessive, don't you? I mean, you haven't exactly said no to Luthor, and you have Superman, it seems… why do you need true confessions from me, too?"
Lois looked away, and to his shock Clark saw her surreptitiously raise a hand to her eye. That was all he needed; now he'd made her cry.
"Aw, Lois, please don't -"
"Please don't what?" She rounded on him, anger warring with misery in her expression. "Don't try to make up with my best friend, who I'm convinced now hates me? Don't try to find out if he really cares about me after all? Don't wonder if I've been a complete *moron* in the past month or so? Don't think that I've been in danger of making the biggest mistake of my life?"
She broke off, breathing heavily, but continued before Clark could respond. "Don't even try to repair the best thing that's ever happened to me… don't assume that the only man who ever really cared about me still does? Don't forget to close the door on my way out?"
She could have kept on listing the things she shouldn't do if Clark hadn't risen from the couch to wrap his arms around her and draw her into a hug. She wanted to pummel him, to scramble out of his embrace, turn away and walk out through the door, but she clung to him instead, her fingers gripping at his t-shirt as she hid her tears against his neck.
She had come here to save her friendship with Clark; she had come here because she craved for a relationship that was the sole anchor in her life. And instead of her best friend, she had come face to face with a man who behaved and talked in a remote and subdued way, as if he already knew what she had told Superman only a few hours before. As if she had already lost him.
The thought had been unbearable. Contemplating life without Clark was out of the question. And yet, instead of making up for her too numerous mistakes, she had managed to make things worse by asking him to confess his feelings for her. She had needed to hear that Clark truly loved her, that he would never stop loving her, that nothing would ever come between them. She hadn't even stopped to wonder about his willingness to share with her something that, after all, was bound to bring him disappointment. Hadn't she made it clear to Superman that very afternoon that her fondness for Clark didn't go beyond that?
Her hands tightened their grip on her partner and her body pressed closer to his. It always worked that way, didn't it? She needed him. She craved for him. And then she dismissed him. And Clark, the only true and loyal friend she had ever had, was always there. He always gave and he never took.
"I need you, Lois," he whispered against her hair, and for a mortifying second, she wondered if she had spoken her thoughts aloud. "I care for you because I know that despite what you want people to believe, you're not cold and insensitive. I could never hate you because it would be more painful than loving you." He seized her shoulders and pulled away to look at her face. One large hand stroked her cheek, and a pair of deep brown eyes gazed at her with more tenderness than she had ever thought possible. "I need you because I love you."
His arms dropped from around her, and he took a step back. "But I know you don't feel the same way about me. I know you think that you can't love anyone else but Superman, even more so now that you know about his feelings for you. I know you're seriously considering the proposal of a man whose name gives me shudders, and I know that telling you about my feelings for you is probably going to ruin whatever trust you still had in me."
He gave her another steady look. "Now at least you know." Then he turned and disappeared through the archway to his bedroom, leaving her alone and lost in the middle of his empty living-room.
Now, she knew. The words echoed in her head as she stared at the retreating back of her partner. Now she knew, indeed. She'd thrown away the love of the best, most decent man she'd ever known.
And for what? For a superhero who didn't want her, and a businessman who saw her as something between a merger and an acquisition; probably closer to the latter, actually, Lois conceded wryly. And, of course, the businessman was no prize, according to Superman.
No, she didn't want Lex Luthor. She'd already decided that when she'd come looking for Clark. But what about Superman?
<What about Superman?> she asked herself hollowly. <You don't really love him, do you?>
<I don't know!> she screamed inwardly, before following her instincts and heading to Clark's bedroom.
He was standing by the large picture window overlooking his terrace, hands thrust in his jeans pockets. He turned at her approach, and she realised that her reflection must be visible in the window.
"Lois? I thought you'd gone." His tone was casual. For all the world as if he hadn't just told her that he loved her in a voice so passionate it had set her heart beating furiously.
"How could I go?" she asked, giving a helpless shrug.
He gazed at her in gentle enquiry.
"Clark, everything that's important to me is here. Why would I leave?"
That got his attention. She could actually see his jaw drop, and he yanked his hands out of his pockets.
"Lois, you don't know what you're talking about," he said harshly.
"Oh, yes, I do," she said, feeling her voice crack as she said it, but not caring.
*He* was important to her. Didn't he realise it? There was no-one in her life who mattered to her as much as he did. He was her best friend; her rock; the person who kept her sane. And, as she'd resolved earlier, she was going to do whatever it took to make sure that she deserved his friendship.
"Lois, you're in love with Superman. And you're someone else's girlfriend," Clark pointed out, beginning to turn away.
"I'm nobody's girlfriend," Lois objected bitterly. "As Superman quite rightly pointed out earlier, a few dates doesn't make a serious relationship." She was puzzled to see Clark apparently flinch at that.
"Anyway, he's right," she continued. "I never considered my relationship with Lex to be at all serious until he proposed. I don't know why I didn't laugh at him. I guess… maybe I was flattered… maybe he seemed to be offering me something I needed…" She trailed off, uncomfortable about questioning her relationship with Lex in front of the man who'd been most sarcastic about it all along. Oh, wouldn't Clark love to say "I told you so!".
He came closer to her. "What did you need, Lois?" His voice was soft, offering understanding.
"I don't k — " she began, halting as she realised that that wasn't the truth. And somehow, now seemed to be the time for the truth between her and Clark. After all, that was why she'd come over here, wasn't it? To have an honest, open conversation once and for all; to try to repair some of the damage she'd done. And that, she'd now recognised, also meant Clark taking responsibility for his own part in the way things had deteriorated between them.
Taking a deep breath, she amended, "Yes, I do."
Clark simply waited.
"I needed my friend," she confessed, giving a helpless shrug.
Clark looked blank for a moment. Then his eyes widened. "Me?"
"Of course you, lunkhead!" she exclaimed.
"But… Lois, I've always been there for you! You could always talk to me. You know that!"
Lois shook her head. "No, I couldn't, Clark. And you know it."
He looked to be about to protest again; but then he blew out a long breath. "You're right. You couldn't. I didn't want to listen."
"No. You didn't," Lois agreed. "Clark, I needed my friend. I needed to be able to talk to someone about my relationship with Lex. I needed to be able to tell someone how I felt about his proposal. I needed someone to help me understand what I wanted. And… there's no-one else I could have talked about this with. Only you. And you didn't want to know. How could I have talked about Lex Luthor with you, Clark?"
She was absolutely right, Clark acknowledged with a stab of guilt. He'd never given her the opportunity. As soon as Luthor's name had been mentioned in a conversation, he'd been off on one of his rants, telling Lois that the man was the root of all evil and that she had to be mad even to consider going out with him. It was no wonder that she'd never talked much about what was going on; no wonder that it had felt like such a bombshell when she'd announced that Luthor had proposed.
Although it sounded as if Lois had been equally taken by surprise.
If he'd been less judgemental, she might have come to him and told him what was going on; she might have told him how confused she was feeling and talked things through with him, in the same way as she talked to him whenever her father called and wanted to meet up, or her mother was being irritating. It wasn't that he told her what to do, but by listening and being sympathetic he was usually able to help her decide what she wanted to do.
And he could have done the same this time — if he hadn't been so green-eyed with jealousy.
He was all she had, after all. Who else could she talk to about something like this? Certainly not her mother. And, judging from things Lois had said, her sister was hardly an expert on men or romantic relationships. So she couldn't have talked to Lucy either.
"You're right," he said softly. "I should have been there for you, and I wasn't. I'm sorry, Lois."
"Clark, no!" Lois rushed over to him and clutched at his arm. "I wasn't trying to put you in the wrong! You don't have anything to apologise for."
"I'm not so sure about that," he said wryly. "Not on the basis of what you just explained to me."
"Clark, I'm not a kid — I can make my own decisions. And take responsibility for my own mistakes," she added, a wry note clear in her tone. "I just meant… maybe not being able to talk to you made me take Lex's proposal more seriously than I should. And that's as much my fault as yours — I mean, any time you tried to talk to me about him, I accused you of being jealous and simply refused to listen. I got angry, and that made you angry, until we just couldn't talk to each other."
And that was exactly how it had gone, Clark knew. "Lois… I don't know if it's too late, but if you need to talk, I'm here," he said quietly, and covered her hand, which was still on his arm, with his own.
"Oh, I want to talk all right." Her tone was dry, which surprised him. "I think we've got a lot to talk about."
"Okay." He nodded. "And… I'll do my best to put my own feelings aside when it comes to Lex Luthor. You need to discuss him, I can handle it."
Lois shook her head. "There's nothing to discuss as far as Lex is concerned. Well, apart from how we're going to get the Planet out of his hands and prove that he's a criminal. You will work with me on that?"
"Try and stop me!" Clark gasped. "But are you sure that's what you want, Lois? You're not going to marry him?"
"I always told you that I was thinking about his proposal. And that's all I was doing. There were… other things — other people — I also needed to think about."
Such as Superman, Clark thought, bitterness flooding back. And now, such as the fact that Superman had told her that he loved her.
Of course, *Clark* had also now told her that he loved her, but he knew very well that Lois didn't want to hear that. Wasn't interested.
And yet, he remembered, the reason she'd given him as to why she hadn't left was that everything important to her was right there in his apartment…
Her best friend, he reminded himself harshly. The man she always called on when she needed a shoulder to cry on, or company for pizza and a movie, or when she'd been stood up by a date. Good old Clark, who was always there for her and would always come when she called him. Any time, day or night, he was at her service.
Just like right now. It was one-thirty in the morning; he was tired and he wanted to go to bed. And yet here he was, listening to Lois, telling her that he was there for her once more, that he would listen to whatever she wanted to talk about.
And he did it because he loved her. While she… *liked* him. Loved him like a brother.
He sighed, trying to make himself push the bitterness aside. He'd already made his decision when he'd answered the door. The choice had been between letting pride and hurt feelings take over, in which case he would have ignored her knock, and swallowing all the bitterness and resolving to be her friend regardless.
Maybe he was just a doormat. But, on the other hand, he loved her. And he knew that she wasn't the shallow, uncaring person she'd seemed to be over the past few weeks. Maybe he was hoping that, one of these days, the generous, warm, caring Lois Lane would come back.
Maybe he just loved her no matter what, and until the day she walked down the aisle with another man he'd always be there for her.
"So what do you want to talk about?" he asked, making a great effort to ensure that his tone was as neutral as possible. They'd done enough shouting at each other; too much bitterness and anger had flowed between them. It was time for straight, calm talking. If that was possible…
Lois bit her lip. It was obvious that she wasn't being fair to Clark. She was expecting far too much of him. She'd hurt him badly by her behaviour, that was clear. While she hadn't known that he was in love with her, she should have realised that the way she'd been behaving over Lex was hurting him.
And now she'd turned up at his apartment out of the blue and selfishly demanded that he be her friend and listen to her, help her sort out her feelings. That was what she was expecting of him, wasn't it? That he would sit down with her and help her decide what to do.
How could that possibly be fair to Clark?
He'd already walked away from her, clearly indicating that for him the conversation had gone far enough. He'd revealed more than he'd wanted, obviously.
He was in love with her.
She'd been so self-absorbed that she'd barely acknowledged his declaration even to herself.
What was Clark to her?
The best friend she'd ever had, without a doubt. The first person she always went looking for, whether she was looking for praise or sympathy. Her first choice for an undemanding, entertaining companion. The only partner she'd ever been able to work with. The only man who could hold his own in an argument with her, and who didn't drive her to thoughts of homicide.
The man without whom her life would be empty and soulless.
She did love Clark. That was a given, something she'd acknowledged a long time ago. There wasn't even a question about it. But she'd always assumed that it wasn't a sexual or romantic love. He was her best friend, and she loved him.
<You were jealous when Linda King was throwing herself at him. And you hated seeing him kiss Toni Taylor>
Why had she never thought that she might be *in* love with Clark?
Because, she acknowledged, answering her own question, she'd long ago cast him in the mould of 'guy next door'; reliable, good company, but unexciting. Not the dashing romantic type. Certainly not the sort of man who could sweep her off her feet.
<He knows how to kiss!>
She was an idiot, Lois told herself harshly. Shallow, foolish, juvenile, blind… all those and more. She'd completely failed to see what had been underneath her nose all along. She hadn't even recognised her own feelings.
She was in love with Clark.
But he'd never believe her now. Not after the way he'd seen her throw herself first at Superman and then at Lex Luthor. Not after she'd actually considered Lex's proposal instead of turning him down flat. And certainly not after she'd sworn undying love to Superman only a few hours earlier, something she wasn't sure whether Clark knew about, but he could probably work it out from what she'd said about Superman's confession.
No, Clark would never believe her. And anyway, she'd hurt him more than enough. It was time to be a true friend to him, and stop expecting him to pick up the pieces of her mistakes time after time.
He was looking at her expectantly, she realised when she turned her head to glance at him.
"Lois? You looked as if you were miles away." His tone was faintly amused as well as quizzical.
"Yeah, I was thinking. Look, Clark, I think I've bothered you enough for tonight. I'll get out of your way. See you in the morning, huh?"
Oh no she didn't! There was no way that Clark was going to let her walk out of there now. Not when it looked as if they were finally going to have the conversation they'd needed to have for several weeks — even if it was going to crush him all over again when she told him once more that she was in love with Superman.
"Not a chance, Lois," he told her firmly. "You wanted to talk. And I want to talk too. So let's go back to the kitchen, I'll make some coffee, and we'll take as long as we need.
He thought she was going to refuse. Then, with a hesitant shrug, she said, "Okay."
His desire to have her stay was in complete contrast to his attitude earlier, Clark mused as he spooned coffee grounds into the filter machine. Not much more than half an hour ago, he'd just wanted her to leave. He'd walked away from her and into his bedroom in order to make his escape, once he'd made the mistake of telling her that he was in love with her. The thought of facing her after that had been too embarrassing.
Not that it had seemed to bother Lois; she'd come after him, after all. Although his confession seemed to have made little or no impact on her. Had she already known that he loved her? But that didn't make sense; she'd been upset because she thought he hated her.
And yet, now that she knew he was in love with her, she hadn't given any indication of a reaction. Oh, sure, she'd told him that everything of importance to her was in his apartment — meaning himself, he was sure — but he wasn't convinced that he believed that. No, Superman was the most important person in Lois's life, and she had no idea, of that he was sure, that Clark Kent was also Superman.
So why did he now want her to stay?
Not for any faint hope that he might persuade her to return his feelings, he acknowledged ruefully. That was never going to happen. But they did need to talk and to reach some understanding, even if it meant going back to the status quo ante where he was secretly in love with her and she regarded him as 'good old Clark', her best friend. As for his confession of love… with any luck, she'd forget all about it.
There was no chance she could ever put Clark's confession behind her, Lois reflected as she followed her friend into the kitchen. She mechanically reached for the mugs and sugar while he busied himself with the coffee he had promised her.
She paused in her ministrations to observe him from the corner of her eye. She didn't think she could ever grow tired of a life that involved something as simple as that: spending time with Clark, taking pleasure in a task as mundane as coffee making, in the small, cramped space of his kitchen area, where her awareness of him was increased by his closeness.
She shook herself out of her reverie and returned her attention to the mugs. Milk. She needed milk. Well, she didn't, but Clark always liked his coffee with some. In fact, she had often teased him that he only took a few drops of coffee in an ocean of milk. She hid a smile. Clark never seemed to mind her gentle teasing.
And that was something she couldn't do with Lex. Or, god forbid, with Superman. She had never felt their equal. How could she?
Superman… Well, it was a given that she could never be Superman's equal. Although, she added in a second thought, he would probably try to convince her that he wasn't anything special. How could a man who devoted his entire life to helping others, always put everyone else's well- being first and never thought about his own happiness, be the equal of a mere mortal like her? She had a remunerated job and paid her rent and bills. Superman had probably never seen a bill in his life, for that matter.
But how did he live? As a matter of fact, *where* did he live? And how come she had never asked herself those questions before? Oh, she had occasionally wondered if Superman had a home somewhere, but she had never truly stopped to consider the issue. Deep down, she acknowledged with a sigh, she hadn't really wanted to explore the subject, because the lack of answers would only have confirmed that Clark was right: she didn't really know Superman. No-one really knew him. And how could she fancy herself in love with someone of whom she knew nothing at all?
But she couldn't claim to be Superman's equal. They were friends, yes. Not that they had spent much time together to get acquainted, but there was always something when they met, some underlying but genuine affection that she was sure didn't come from her imagination.
He was affectionate with her, and she thought he trusted her. Mostly. As much as he could trust anyone, anyway.
And yet… she never felt anywhere as relaxed around him as she did around Clark. She didn't feel like she could tease him and get teased in return. It just wasn't part of her relationship with him.
As for Lex… She was always under the impression that he thought he was doing her a favour by spending time with her. She had never thought it was intentional, but his attitude had never managed to make her feel at ease around him. He was nice, but… but she missed the easy-going friendship that could relax her into their relationship and stop her worrying about his judgement of her. Teasing him was simply out of the question.
In fact, with either men she missed the kind of friendship that she had only ever found with Clark. She tried to picture herself making coffee with Superman, and stifled a giggle. It was ridiculous. As for Lex… she sobered immediately. Lex had servants to make coffee. She would be surprised if he'd ever approached a coffee-maker himself. She pushed the uncharitable thought to the back of her mind. Up until today, she hadn't minded his wealth and the life he led.
It didn't matter now, though, she decided, then reached for the fridge to retrieve the milk carton at last. Intent on her mission and the thoughts swirling in her mind, she bumped into her partner and yelped. Strong, gentle hands were at her waist immediately, steadying her.
She felt anything but steady when Clark's eyes rested on her, full of concern and… and something else: the raw feelings he had confessed a few minutes earlier. Why hadn't she seen it before? Why had she refused to acknowledge that Clark loved her, and not just as a friend? It was so very obvious now, in the way he looked at her. In the way he held her.
She swallowed and turned her gaze away, unable to sustain the intensity of his passion. Half-relieved, half- frustrated, she felt him pull away and return his attention to his task. She quashed the unwelcome craving for the touch of his hands and went back to her search for Clark's carton of milk.
It was only when he poured the freshly brewed coffee into the mugs that he gave her a tentative smile and the tension of the atmosphere eased up a little at last.
"I don't really know where to start," she replied to his encouraging nod when they settled on the couch a few seconds later. "I always thought I could talk to you about anything, but somehow this is different."
He gestured as if to take hold of her hand, but she saw him hesitate and retreat. She closed the distance between them and grasped his fingers in a firm clasp. "It shouldn't be. Just like you shouldn't behave differently around me now."
She lowered her eyes to his thumb rhythmically brushing against the back of her hand.
"I don't want you to feel pressured by what I said."
She squeezed his hand tighter. "And I don't want to hurt you with what I need to say."
"Lois, I want to be your friend. I realise I've put my feelings first these past few weeks, and as a result I've —"
"No," she interrupted firmly. "Clark, you have to stop putting your own happiness last. You don't even see that it's what you've been doing," she added at his puzzled frown. "If you had told me…" She ducked her head to hide the inevitable blush burning her cheeks. "… about your feelings sooner, maybe we wouldn't have got to a point where we became uncomfortable around each other."
He gave her a wry smile. "Or your rejection would have sent me away to lick my wounds. To be honest, I'm not even sure why I'm not out walking the streets and drowning my sorrow."
"I haven't rejected you."
He pulled his hand out of hers and looked down. "Lois, you can ask me to be your friend. You can ask me to listen to you about your relationship with… Luthor. You can even ask me to try and be fair about him, although I'm not sure I can promise you that." He turned to her again, and his expression left her in no doubt that he wasn't joking. "But don't play with my feelings. Don't make me long for something you can't give. Don't make me hope when you know it's hopeless."
The look on his face, and even more the raw feelings which his words exposed, left her shaken. He was her friend, and he was in pain. He was her friend, and the wrong word from her right now could cause him deep hurt.
How had she failed to notice how she'd been hurting her best friend?
How could she convince him that the last thing she wanted, now, was to hurt him? How could she convince him, after all that she'd done, that she wanted what he wanted?
"I promise you that I'm not playing," she told him softly. "I don't want to hurt you, Clark. I never wanted to hurt you. I know I've done an extremely poor job of it lately, but you have to believe it's the last thing I wanted to do. I don't think Lex is the problem here any more. Superman seems so certain of his guilt; I guess he convinced me to be cautious around Lex at last."
"Where I failed," Clark muttered sourly.
"I'm sorry I wouldn't listen to you," she told him, pulling a wry, self-critical grimace. "I've been stupidly stubborn about this. And I admit that after a while I persevered with Lex just to prove a point with you. But it went further than I had bargained for."
"When he proposed."
"Yeah. I didn't expect it. And I didn't know what to say. Clark, he was taking me to dinner in *Italy*!"
"Well, all right. Few people could offer you a dashing life involving dinner in Milan."
She winced at his obvious bitterness. "It's not what attracted me to him."
"I know it's not, Lois. I never thought it was his money that attracted you."
"Thank you. But… the problem isn't Lex. In fact, it's probably never been Lex," she confessed, biting her lip.
"Then what is it? Oh… Superman, right?"
"Not just him." She sighed and rose to her feet. He flinched, but didn't hold her back. "And this is why it's a bad idea to talk about this whole situation."
"Why?" he asked dejectedly. "Why won't you talk to me?"
<Why won't you trust me?>
He didn't say it aloud, but she heard the unspoken question all right.
"Because I can't ask you to help me sort out feelings that concern you!"
<Feelings that concern you>
Clark had been about to get to his feet in an attempt to draw Lois back into his arms — he hated to see her hurting, even when the reason why she was hurting was causing him pain too. He'd intended to persuade her that she could trust him with anything she needed to confess.
But her last words, exclaimed as if she hadn't been able to help herself, halted him. What did she mean?
Hesitantly, he tried to feel his way through the situation. "Lois, if you mean that you don't love me the way that I love you — well, I know that. I never expected you to… and don't worry, I won't ever mention it again. I can be your friend, you know that — now that you're not marrying Luthor, I can be happy -"
"Clark!" Lois's agitated interruption finally silenced him. "Clark, you've got it all wrong -"
"How?" he questioned her instantly, shaking his head in puzzled frustration. "Lois, you're in love with Superman. You told me that. And — well, he loves you too. So just what does any of this have to do with me? How have I suddenly become the issue here?"
Suddenly, Lois slumped down onto the sofa again and threw her head back against the cushions. "Because… you are," she said softly. "You always were. And I've only just admitted it to myself."
Clark sat beside her, not touching her. "I don't understand."
"You were right. And so was Superman," she explained, leaving him no further enlightened. "I can't love Superman. How can I? I don't know him. And, like he said, it's not as if we could have a normal relationship anyway. I — I think I allowed my admiration for him and everything good he does to get in the way of practicality… I mean, I do care about him, but I really know very little about him."
She was right there! Clark thought wryly. "I… know that he does care about you, too, Lois. But… you know that he's not going to date you or anything."
"I know. I faced that today, finally," she agreed, turning so that she was looking at him again. "The thing is, all of that — talking to Superman earlier, talking to you tonight — made me recognise something I've ignored for a very long time. And that's what I'm scared to tell you about, Clark. It isn't that I don't trust you, I swear it! It's that -"
She hesitated, and he reached for her hand again, squeezing it in encouragement.
"- I'm afraid that you won't believe me," she finished on a whisper.
He wouldn't believe her? What on earth could she possibly be talking about here? Of course he'd believe her — she was his best friend, and he'd never known her to lie about anything important. And this clearly was very important.
"Lois, tell me," he murmured. "You know you can tell me anything. We can sort this out between us, you know we can. What are friends for?"
She snorted at that and shook her head, looking away from him. "I know what friends aren't for, Clark. They're not for trampling over, as I've done to you again and again. They're not for taking advantage of, and I keep doing that to you. They're not there to be used, to be hurt, and to be taken for granted. I've done all that to you too many times. I won't do it any more. It's just not fair. I hate myself for the way I've treated you, Clark," she finished bitterly. "That's why I can't tell you about this. Not just because you won't believe me, but because I don't deserve to have you believe me."
Her harsh, self-critical tirade pulled at his heart- strings. Clark had often seen Lois angry before, of course, but never so furious, so bitter, against herself. He'd imagined, somehow, that he was the only person hurting in this situation; that was clearly not true.
Lois was in pain here too. And he hated to see her hurting.
"Lois, don't talk like that," he urged her. "Tell me. Whatever it is, you can tell me. And then let's see if I believe you. Of course I'll believe you!"
She turned her gaze to his again, and her eyes shimmered with tears. "Okay. Let's see how you believe this, then! I love you, Clark. I'm in love with you!"
His jaw dropped. All knowledge of the English language left his brain.
Lois *loved* him?
No. No, it couldn't be true.
How could she? She was in love with Superman. She'd told him so time and time again. She'd sworn undying love to him, as Superman, only that afternoon. She'd pleaded with him to have a relationship with her as Superman.
And now she was telling him, as Clark, that she loved him?
"You're right. I don't believe you," he said flatly, getting up from the couch and walking into the kitchen.
How could she do that to him? How could she lie to him like that? Pretending feelings that he knew she didn't — couldn't — feel. Was she trying to hurt him even more than she already had?
What on earth made her think that he'd believe a word of it?
"I think you'd better leave, Lois," he said abruptly, harshly, without turning to look at her.
She shouldn't have told him. She'd known that he wouldn't believe her. So why had she put him and herself through the pain of seeing it happen?
Now, she'd not only hurt Clark even more, but it was clear that she'd wrecked any chance of repairing their friendship. She'd made him hate her.
She'd hurt Clark, but she'd hurt herself even more.
He was right. She needed to leave. If only she'd left earlier, as she'd tried to; if only she hadn't listened to his persuasions and allowed herself to stay. If only he'd never let her come in the first place.
Clark had been right all along. It really had been too late for talking.
Her vision was blurry suddenly, and she had to grope around her for her coat and car keys. What had she done with them, anyway? Those darned things… She could go without her coat, but her keys…?
All the time she was searching, she was conscious of Clark's forbidding figure, standing only a few feet away, and yet so far away that he might as well have been on another continent. He wanted her out, and his silent, brooding presence reminded her that she'd very much overstayed whatever reluctant welcome she'd had in the first place. If only she could find her keys…
Giving up, she muttered, without looking at Clark, "I need to call a cab. If I can just use your phone… I'll wait downstairs until it comes."
"What do you need a cab for?" he queried tonelessly. "You came in your car, didn't you?"
"Can't find the keys." The words came out quietly through gritted teeth as she forced her voice not to break.
"You mean these?" Suddenly, there was a jangle as something was dangled in front of her face.
"Thanks," she muttered, grabbing them. "I'll get out of your way now."
Silence greeted her statement, but then suddenly a large, solid body blocked her path. "You're in no fit state to drive," Clark said, his cold tone overwritten by reluctant concern.
She shrugged. "I'll be fine. You want me to leave, and it's for the best. Just let me go, Clark."
He was silent again. She was doing her best to avoid looking at him, but she was conscious that he wasn't moving out of her way.
Finally, he said quietly, "You'd better stay here. It's almost three in the morning. And you're upset. If you drive now, you're liable to have an accident."
"Maybe it'd be better if I did." The mumbled words escaped her before she could stop them.
Clark froze, unsure that he had heard Lois correctly. She couldn't have said… she couldn't have meant… no! But one look at her face informed him that she wasn't kidding. The anger that had eaten at him since she had pretended to be in love with him was immediately drained.
"Don't say that."
She looked at him, her eyes a void, and he paled.
"Lois, if anything happened to you… I can't even bear to think about it." He reached for her arm, but she flinched away.
"I'm not asking for your pity, Clark."
"Don't be ridiculous."
She didn't answer, but she stared at him for a long moment, as if committing his features to memory. Suddenly, he realised that if she walked out of his apartment now, he would probably never see her again. That if he let her go, none of the hurt they had inflicted to each other tonight would disappear. It would grow into a dull pain that time wouldn't soothe.
"How did it happen?" he asked as she started to turn away.
She stopped and shifted her eyes back to him, but still remained silent.
"How did we go from best friends to complete strangers? How could we let it happen? Lois, you're the best friend I've ever had. We've grown so close over the past year. I think you could easily say you know me by heart, and it wouldn't be a complete lie."
Superman notwithstanding, he mentally added. But she knew and understood the super-powered part of him more than anyone else, too. In fact, she really knew him completely, even though as two people.
"But you don't know me," she said at last, her expression still bleak. He started to protest, but she held up a hand. "If you knew me, you wouldn't accuse me of playing with your feelings. Of lying about my feelings. I've been handling a lot of things very poorly, Clark, but I would never lie to you about something that important."
"How do you expect me to believe you?" he asked quietly. "How can I believe what you told me when you dismissed me so easily in front of Superman?"
"I didn't dism — Hang on a minute! How do you know what I told Superman?"
And suddenly, the animation was back. The bleakness in her eyes had vanished, to be replaced by a look of challenge.
"Lois, you do know me very well. But there is one thing about me that you don't know. That you probably don't suspect." It was a split-second decision and he knew it, but keeping his secret from her seemed superfluous now. He trusted her with the information, so that wasn't even an issue. As for her feelings towards his alter-ego, it had become clear to him tonight that Lois would never be his anyway, so it really didn't matter that she professed love for Superman.
And anyway, anything which took that dead look from her eyes, anything which distracted her from her defeated attitude of a few moments ago, was worth it.
He took a deep breath. "I know what you told Superman today because I was there."
"You were there? I didn't see you th… Oh…" She stared at him for a moment, and he resisted the immediate urge to squirm under her scrutiny. When understanding finally dawned on her, he tensed. "Oh," she said again, in a much smaller voice this time. "You're… you were *there*. I… see. Clark, can I sit?"
He nodded mutely.
She made for the couch, but didn't sink down onto it. She changed direction at the last moment and started to pace about the coffee table. In fact, soon she was in danger of making his head spin. He slumped down onto the cushions and watched her carefully.
She looked agitated, but she wasn't screaming. It was a good sign, wasn't it? Every time he had imagined her reaction to his secret, screams and accusations had been involved. Her silence was very disturbing, though. She was probably countering the number of lies he had fed her over a year, and she would launch into a rant any second. "I'm sorry," he let out lamely, hoping to pre-empt it.
That seemed to bring her back into focus, for she stopped pacing and finally sat next to him. "Sorry? Clark, what do you have to be sorry for?"
"For letting you think I was two people."
"And for suffering through what I said earlier about you? You, Clark?" She started fiddling with her hands, and he expected her to get up and pace some more any moment. "I know I should be angry. Right now I'm just embarrassed, though. I never suspected a thing! And I call myself an investi -"
"You *are* a great investigative reporter. The best around. Don't blame yourself for not seeing what you weren't supposed to see."
"That's not really what bothers me. Though if Sup… well, if *you* are right about Lex, that makes two men in my life who managed to fool me about their true self. Three, if I count Clark."
"Clark is me, Lois," he said immediately. "I never lied to you about who I was. As Superman, I had to hide things from you, but I never *lied*. And the person you know as Clark Kent, that's the real me. There was never anything fake about that."
So Clark and Superman were the same man. And so the man she had loved from afar, the man she had admired for months, the man she always looked up to… had been the partner she kept dismissing all along.
No wonder he wouldn't believe her. No wonder he thought her insincere.
But how could she know? How could she have figured it out? It wasn't as plain as the nose on her face that this man, this amazing, fantastic man she had met, who always seemed to rescue her from herself, was also a superhero who saved the world on a daily basis. He was her best friend… and he was also the man she had been infatuated with. He was the man she had rejected… and the man who had rejected her. He was the man she loved… and who loved her, too.
"And Superman?" she asked when she found her voice again.
"What about him?"
"Is he all fake? Is he nothing more than a suit and superpowers?"
"No, he's not fake at all. He's… hang on, what do you mean?"
"Superman is you, Clark. Superpowers or not, he's *you*."
"He's a character I created to use my powers. He's not me. He's not fake either because, well, it's me wearing the suit, but -"
"But that's it, Clark! It's *you*. Even when you're not dressed as Clark Kent, you *are* Clark Kent. What I see in Superman is the innate goodness, the constant need to help people in distress, the certainty that when you appear, everything is going to be all right. What I know about Clark Kent is that if he doesn't do whatever is in his power to help, it's eating at him. I just wasn't aware of the extent of your powers before, but you *are* Clark Kent, whatever the guise you're in. And I think I saw that in him — Superman."
Clark looked struck by that. He didn't reply immediately; instead, he raked one hand through his hair and then rubbed the bridge of his nose.
"I know it won't be easy for you to believe me. I don't know if you ever can, after what I've done. But my feelings for you are genuine."
"It's easier than you think, Lois. To believe you," he added at her blank look. "I guess the question is, do I want to believe?"
"Do you want to put your heart on the line?"
"It's what you're doing, isn't it? You trust me even if I lied about Superman."
She hesitated, then nodded slowly. "Because it's easy to trust the person you love."
"Oh, Lois, I do love you." He reached for her hand and laced his fingers with hers. "And that will never change."
"And I love you too, Clark. Even if I had a very poor way of showing it. I wish I'd realised sooner that what I loved about Superman was right there in front of me. That it was you all along. I wish I hadn't been distracted by the flashy colours and larger than life superhero. But he *is* part of who you are, no matter how much you try to keep both personas separate."
"It's no wonder my mom likes you, Lois. You and she are on the same wavelength." And, amazingly, there was a note of humour in his voice. And he was even smiling.
Maybe, just maybe, they were going to be all right…
"Clark, I'm sorry," she said again.
"For what?" He genuinely looked surprised, she thought.
"For everything! But most of all for hurting you, Clark. You're — you were — my best friend. The last thing I ever wanted was to hurt you. But it seems everything I did in the last few weeks ended up hurting you. No, strike that — ever since we *met*! It's just as well you don't believe me — you're better off without me," she finished.
One long arm reached out and tugged her against him. "I'll be the judge of that, Lois," her best friend's familiar teasing, affectionate voice told her.
"Oh, Clark!" Without any warning, the tears came back, and Lois buried her head in his shoulder.
"Hey!" he exclaimed. "Lois… please, don't cry," he pleaded, stroking her hair. "We're okay, I promise. We're friends again. Aren't we? And no more apologising, okay?"
It felt so wonderful to be back in his arms. This was where she belonged, Lois knew; cradled in those strong arms, held against that solid chest. It had always been where she belonged, whether the chest wore a shirt and tie, a T-shirt or electric blue Spandex.
She'd been incredibly careless with Clark's friendship. No more. Not ever. And if the price of keeping him as her friend was that she had to hide her love for him for the rest of her life, she would do it. It would be worth it.
"Okay," she replied at last, allowing him to tilt her chin up and her head away from his shoulder so that he could see her face. Gentle fingers brushed away her tears, and a butterfly kiss brushed against her forehead. She had to resist the temptation to turn her head and claim his lips.
"I think we've both been acting a bit crazy," Clark said after a moment. "We've both done things we regret, and we haven't always made things easy for ourselves. Look at what I did earlier today! Telling you as Superman that I love you didn't exactly help matters," he finished ruefully.
"I still didn't have to say what I did about you," Lois said. Clark was being very generous in trying to take some of the blame on himself, which was sweet of him, but it was still the case that she'd behaved very badly. "I can understand why you didn't believe what I said to you earlier, even if…"
"If?" he prompted when she didn't continue.
Lois hesitated. He'd already dismissed her avowal of love, and she'd acknowledged herself that she didn't deserve to have him believe it — that, after the way she'd treated Clark over the past year, she didn't deserve *him*.
And yet she couldn't bear to lose this opportunity, when it sounded as if Clark wouldn't turn cold on her this time.
"Even if it was true all the time," she finished quietly.
Clark was silent for several moments, and the steady movement of his fingers over her hair stilled. Then, finally, he said, "I think I could learn to believe you."
Lois caught her breath. "You could?"
He nodded, his dark gaze holding hers. "If you're right, and you saw me in Superman all along — yes, I do believe you about that," he added, in response, she guessed, to her look of surprise. "If so… then you've been in love with me about as long as I have with you."
"But I loved Superman, not Clark!" Lois said sadly, amazed that Clark was being so accepting.
He shrugged slightly. "As Shakespeare once said, 'what's in a name?' You know *me*, and that's all that matters. And… I guess I think we've wasted enough time," he added wryly.
"I do love you, Clark," she told him, all the love she felt for him in her tone. "And I know it took me far too long to realise it, but at least I knew it *before* I knew that you were Superman. That means something to me, even you don't mind."
"Oh, it matters to me too!" he assured her. His hand moved from her hair to cradle her cheek in a soft caress; then he drew her face closer to his.
Lois held her breath; and then their lips touched.
She had dreamed of this moment several times over the past year. Of course, she had often daydreamed of the gentle but confident pressure of Superman's lips on hers. But at night, when fantasies couldn't be inhibited and directed by reason, it wasn't the face of the superhero she worshipped that occupied her dreams. Way too often, and much to her dismay, it was Clark who was kissing her then, shyly, reverently. She always woke with a disgruntled jolt before it could go any further.
And so nothing could have prepared her for the reality of his kiss. He held her close without crushing her to his chest; his hands held her waist beneath her coat, his fingers tracing light patterns through her blouse that sent shivers up her spine and made her arch against him. His lips had captured hers tentatively, a reminder of her dreams about Clark, but when she didn't pull away, his response was immediate, and she felt swept into the whirlwind of the passion overtaking them.
This was the kiss she'd waited for all of her life. And because of her sheer blind stupidity, they'd almost never got to that point. Clark had felt it, too. He had expressed his wish not to waste any more time, and she had understood; she had been so scared of losing him altogether tonight! And she knew that if he had let her walk out of his apartment, something would have been broken for ever, maybe never to be repaired. They couldn't let that happen. They *hadn't* let that happen.
Both could easily find reasons for not trusting each other; Clark's secret identity and her stubborn refusal to face her feelings for him could keep them apart… until their need to be together became too strong to resist.
Truth be told, she knew Clark Kent as much as he knew her now. There were no more secrets, no more barriers, no more doors between them.
And that was just wonderful, as far as she was concerned.
Oh, everything wasn't perfect; they still had a lot to talk about and to set straight between them; they also had to figure out what to do about Lex Luthor and his purchase of the Daily Planet. And then they had to see whether they really could make a go of a relationship. But they'd taken that most important first step.
They'd stepped up and said the scary words. They'd managed to get over the hurt and the suspicion and focused on the important thing: their friendship. And through that they'd found something even better.
(c) Wendy Richards and Kaethel
<firstname.lastname@example.org> and <Kaethel@wanadoo.fr>