By CC Aiken <AikFree@aol.com>
Submitted: November, 2003
Summary: In the conclusion to the Un-series, starting with "Lois Unbuttoned" and continued with "Superman Undone," Clark Kent contemplates taking off his glasses and showing Lois the "real" him. But will the truth really set him free?
Many thanks to LabRat for all of her help and encouragement. And to Lynn M for her excellent GEing and comma placement.
All feedback welcome.
He could just take off the glasses. Say that all the reading was giving him eye strain, announce that in an off- hand way, and then just sit back and wait for Lois to look up from her own reading, for the comprehension to spread slowly over her face. That could work.
Then maybe this could be The Night, the one that they would eventually tell their children about, their grandchildren too. The Night that Daddy finally told Mommy. It would be like an anniversary date: They would mark it on the calendar, celebrate it with expensive dinners, fine wine…
Clark rolled his eyes at his own fantasy. Even to him, it sounded more than a little crazy. But, nonetheless, here they were, he and Lois, alone. There was nothing stopping him, none of the usual things anyway; no Jimmy, no hot breaking story, no multi-car pile ups.
<No witnesses, no innocents to be cut down in the cross- fire, no one to hear the screams…>
So, really, now was just as good a time as any. Better than most. He shouldn't let a golden opportunity like this slip by. Heaven knew, they were few and far between.
With a barely suppressed sigh, Clark pulled his eyes off Lois, gave himself a mental shake, and tried to bring his mind back to the real subject at hand: the story. Or rather, the pre-story; all the research necessary to see if there even was a story to pursue. Obviously, Lois thought so. He could tell by her intent concentration, her slow, rhythmic heartbeat, her even breathing…
He could stand up right now. Dump the files from his lap, unknot the tie, rip open his shirt, and just say, "Lois, I'm…" Only he wouldn't have to even complete the sentence. Lois would look up and see the blue, the S, and she would know.
Lois would know. At last.
There was absolutely nothing stopping him from telling Lois. And nothing in the world he wanted more than for her to know. Ok, well, he wanted other things, too, but not without this one thing first. Lois' knowing would not be a problem. In fact it was her not knowing that was killing him, slowly- hour by hour, day by day, so much of which they spent in each other's company. He definitely wanted her to know. So why wouldn't he tell her?
Clark shifted uncomfortably on the sofa. He ran agitated fingers along the papers he was shredding.
Sometimes he liked to pretend he didn't know the answer to that question. As if his not telling Lois was a source of sincere puzzlement to him. A mystery he couldn't fathom. He certainly had a thousand reasons to rationalize it. Some of them even made sense. Lately, he'd taken to proclaiming that the timing was never right. He couldn't get her alone for long enough, couldn't catch her attention completely enough. Couldn't count out Jimmy bursting in and shouting something about "those numbers" everybody always wanted.
But Clark knew why he didn't tell. He knew exactly why he'd never take off the glasses, had never revealed the man hidden underneath. He knew, and he hated himself for it. On a night long since passed into their memories, he had held Lois as Superman and had been the sole witness to her anguish over Clark Kent's "death." That had been a lie unlike any other. He and Superman and Lois were locked into it. Try as he might, he just couldn't see any way out.
That night was months behind them now. Since then, he and Lois had settled into something a little friendlier than friendship, and a little less romantic than romance. Their relationship remained undefined, despite all that he had learned that evening, when, in the most glorious form of torture, Superman had heard things not meant for Clark Kent's ears. And in hearing, Clark had understood, for the first time, the true depths of Lois Lane's feelings for him. Torn between elation and despair, Superman had rashly promised to "save Clark."
Clark half-heartedly shuffled the folders in his lap and tried once again to suppress his ridiculous resentment of Superman's heroic rescue of a well-loved, mild mannered reporter. He knew it didn't make sense, but he was tired. So tired of the endless loop his brain seemed to run on, and so tired of remembering…
It had been an amazing reunion. In the dark hours of that same night, Superman had brought Clark Kent back to Lois.
Clark pinched the bridge of his nose just under his glasses, squirming as he tried to blot out the images that played like a fuzzy movie in his mind's eye.
Her out-flung arms. His feeling of utter rightness and homecoming. The tears neither of them could hide. Urgent kisses. Indescribable murmurs warming the other's ear. Finally, exhausted, they had fallen asleep in a tangle of arms, legs, and emotions.
"Oh, Lois," Clark sighed now, startling himself with the unexpected sound of his voice and cringing at the longing within it.
"Um…nothing," Clark groaned softly. "It's really…nothing."
"It looks pretty hopeless, doesn't it?" Lois' voice was distant, yet sympathetic. She never looked up from her reading.
"You have no idea, Lois."
That night had ended. Morning had come, bringing the blazing sun into Lois' apartment, intruding on their closeness, creating an awkwardness between them. And fully illuminating, for him, what exactly he had done.
He had lied to Lois. Not by omission. Not with a little fib to get him to a rescue. Not using one of a series of "white lies", the kind he had long since accepted as completely necessary. No. This was a different kind of lie. A back- breaking lie. A lie from which there was no escape. Trapped in it, as he was, not one day had gone by that he hadn't suffered for it, cursed himself for it. And yet, done nothing about it. Take off the glasses? Right. And in so doing, tear the heart out of the woman he loved? He couldn't do it. He just couldn't.
"You're pretty useless tonight, you know?"
At Lois' words, Clark pulled himself out of his spinning head.
"Yeah." He smiled sadly. "I'm sorry, Lois. So sorry." He barely choked out that last word.
"Hey…" She rose from her spot by the coffee table, moving towards him. "Hey, no big deal. You look tired. I'm tired. And this," Lois gestured to the mess of their work, "is going nowhere."
Lois moved next to him, clearing the sofa with an unceremonious swipe which sent papers floating everywhere. She plopped down and took his hand, studying him for a minute.
"Something is bothering you, Clark."
Clark could barely meet her eyes. He'd been having trouble with that lately. He floundered for a distraction, a new subject, something, anything.
"So, are you going to spit it out, or what?"
Lois leaned forward and deliberately ruffled the hair his unconscious hand had just smoothed.
"Or are you just going to sit there like a zombie while I do all the work? Not that you aren't contributing anything. I mean, somebody in this partnership has to have the unglamorous job of staring blankly into space for minutes at a time, don't they? And since you've proven so good at it…"
Clark hid a grin. Apparently Lois had met her quota for silence this evening. She was now going to fill the room with words. Her words. He loved this. Not that his mom couldn't more than hold up her end of a conversation. But the Kents, for the most part, were quiet people. They spoke when they had something to say. Lois, though, spoke because…because.
Clark closed his eyes, leaned his head back on the sofa, let the goofy grin spread over his face, and listened.
"…and are you even listening?" Lois demanded irritably.
"Yes, Lois. Go on," he prompted, relieved that, once more, she had thrown a cog into the mental hamster-wheel his thoughts were forever turning on and stopped it cold. Soothed by her nearness and her voice, Clark at last let himself relax.
He had no idea how long he slept, or how far into her barrage of words Lois had gotten before she, too, had drifted off. He woke to find her stretched out on the sofa, using his lap for a pillow. Clark didn't move for the rest of the night. Instead he watched Lois sleep, once again deeply touched by the trust she had in him.
"Blinded by love," his mom had suggested once, when he had voiced his disbelief that Lois, the one person who knew both his guises so well, had never put them together.
"We see what we want, what we expect to," his father had offered, when his mom's theory had been met with a scornful snort and a muttered "wishful thinking."
Clark knew it was neither of those and much less complicated. It simply boiled down to trust. Only he was allowed to see Lois Lane as she was now, so unguarded and vulnerable. She trusted him enough to fall asleep his lap. She trusted Clark Kent with her friendship, a true gift he knew not many enjoyed. She trusted Superman with her life, taking crazy chances in complete faith that he would be there. Lois trusted him not to lie. Not to be a lie. Even when he stammered his flimsy excuses and ran off, she merely rolled her eyes at him and huffed something about his weirdness. But she had never turned her investigative skills on him. Had never put her calculating, brilliantly suspicious mind to work on Clark Kent or Superman.
He knew he'd fold like a house of cards if she did. In the end, it was her trust that kept his secret safe, even in the most preposterous of circumstances. And if he wanted a life with her, something real, he'd have to confess to the lie and tear that trust asunder.
Clark ran his knuckles gently along Lois' sleeping profile, opening himself up like a sponge, so he could absorb each sensation fully, every small detail. Her face, her soft breathing, her warmth. Clark soaked it all into himself, so that it could be stored away and called up later. A habit he had perfected over the last two years. An antidote for all the times he was with her, yet distant from her, unable to touch her, to love her, to be known by her…fully. If this could be enough, he knew he would never have to tell her. But it wasn't enough.
Lois stirred and frowned slightly, as if the heavy sadness of his thoughts had reached her, too. She burrowed deeper into the sofa, into him, a small sound of distress escaping her.
"You're ok, honey," he assured her. "I've got you." And then, very softly, "I'm going to make some changes, Lois. I don't know how, but I'll make this right, for both of us."
Clark held his breath as Lois relaxed back into full sleep, not wanting this to end, dreading the inevitable sunrise.
If only this could be enough. But it wasn't. As wonderful as this was, there had to more. He had to get moving on that.
A strategy. That's what was called for here. A strategy and a bit of honesty. Well, ok, more than a bit. For starters, Clark had to be honest with himself. Not really his strong point; something his mom was always pointing out in not so subtle ways. But for this to work, for this thing with Lois to work, he needed to face some hard facts.
He had made a fool of Lois. And he had gone to great lengths to do so. For Clark Kent to have a life, the world needed to be fooled, but Lois couldn't be, not any longer. In making a fool of Lois, as bad as that was, he had done more damage to himself. He had made himself a liar, unworthy of the trust she so generously placed in him. So this had to end. More time wasn't going to make Lois feel better once she knew. It wasn't going to make him any less ashamed of himself. And apparently, and not for lack of wishing, there was no magical fix in the offing. Nothing that was going to grant Lois full knowledge, minus the hard feelings, shouted recriminations…but instead…soft kisses, pledges of eternal love…
Clark brought himself back sharply. Right. Well, a strategy, then.
"Get with the program, Kent," he growled to his reflection in the mirror as he shaved.
If he was Lois Lane, he'd probably be making a list right about now. Clark knew she often employed this method to create an order from the whirlwind of thoughts, ideas, and possible criminal activities that seemed to take hold of her from time to time. He had stopped teasing her when, more than once, her list-making had broken a story wide open.
Something methodical. Carefully plotted. Delicately executed. This is what was needed. A campaign, slyly waged. So well crafted, as to make the unseen seen, the invisible visible, the unthinkable…um…thinkable. A way to slowly, gently turn Lois from the lie to the truth. A way to show her how…kind of super…Clark Kent really was.
"So, first up," Clark pronounced while knotting his tie, "mannerisms." He could have called them mild-mannerisms. He had a lifetime's worth of adopted gestures, postures, and expressions, all fashioned to convey but one thing: ordinary.
For Lois, the mannerisms would go. Clark would shed his slouch. The one designed to make him shorter than his other self. He would cut out the nervous tics. The ones meant to telegraph his uncertainty in his own skin. Not that this would cut out the actual uncertainty. How could a guy so completely non-ordinary feel anything but uncertain much of the time?
But Lois never saw Superman less than certain, or slumping, or shredding his cape with nervous fingers. Drawing his shoulders in on the elevator to make room. Tripping at the company softball game on an easy run to first.
Ok, that had been funny for all involved, and he hadn't minded it. Things like that further endeared him to his colleagues. Further buried any lingering doubts brought about by the whole Diana Stride near-miss. But for Lois, there would be no more performances. From now on, when it was just the two of them, there would be no more hesitancy. No more stammering. What he could help, anyway. He, Clark, would start to take up room. He was, after all, a big guy who played himself small. He would stop playing all together, and just be…himself. The real person, who wasn't just super and who wasn't only mild-mannered. The one who was in-between.
Lois was sharp, razor sharp. Her intuitive leaps between observation and conclusion were legendary. So maybe, if he helped her along, she would make that leap, and see what, or rather who, had been staring her in the face all this time. And, in fact, wanting nothing more than to kiss that face for so long. When she started to make that connection, when the very idea that there might be a connection to be made began to blossom, then he would step in, pull her aside. And if he'd worked it right, maybe the sky wouldn't fall, the sun wouldn't turn to blood, the apocalypse wouldn't be upon them all. Or him, really. Maybe.
Thus decided, though not exactly brimming over with confidence, Clark left for work.
Another week's end found Lois and Clark in their customary places, surrounded by cups of cooling coffee and empty take-out containers, folders and files strewn all about them. The hottest team in town had taken point on a Daily Planet investigation into yet another suspect holding company. This one was proving rather difficult to pin down.
Elusive, thought Clark inwardly. Elusive, and oh, so boring. He studied the top of Lois' head, now bent over a file he had just discarded, and once again, envied her focus.
"See anything?" he prodded. Not because he felt there was anything to see, but in vain hopes of starting a conversation.
"Mmmm?" was all he got back.
Clark reshuffled his papers, tried to make the words in the page make sense, before once more allowing his restless eyes to roam the familiar room. His jacket and tie lay just where he had tossed them when they'd walked in. Silent reminders of this week's unsuccessful attempt to show his true self to Lois.
He had taken to shedding the boxy jackets that camouflaged his build, and the distracting ties that were, well, distracting. Clark was practically doing a daily striptease in front of Lois, if you tallied all the things he had taken off. The stammering, the fidgeting, the hesitancy, the apologetic posture. All now tossed aside as soon as they were alone. Discarded as surely as the jacket and tie.
<Look at me, Lois,> he thought for the hundredth time that evening. <Really look at me.>
This was new too.
It took all of Clark's courage at times just to be looked at, up close, by anyone. Even before he had a super identity to hide, Clark had been acutely aware of and shy of any person's close study of him. The whole "dissected frog" thing, he guessed. If nobody looked too closely, then there was no reason to fear discovery.
For much of his life, just being looked at felt so dangerous.
His hand came up of its own volition to his forehead, checking to see that his "unruly" lock of hair was still in place, still covering his scar. How long had he obsessed over it? How close had he come, in his earliest days as Superman, when his fear of exposure was its greatest, to desperation over it? Something so ordinary. So completely normal. Shared by millions of people his age, and therefore so entirely recognizable.
It was ironic. At the tender age of six, still not really knowing for certain but suspecting he wasn't quite the same as his friends, he had been thrilled to catch the chicken pox when it had moved through Smallville's young population. Just like Lana. Just like Rachel. Just like Pete. Just like every normal kid. Granted, his illness had lasted a fraction of the time his friends' had. And, yes, he hadn't really itched. And, too, while the girls had bemoaned their scars, and the guys had compared theirs competitively, he had just had the one. But the one meant the world to him. Meant that maybe the differences he'd imagined between himself and everyone else where just that; imagined. The chicken pox scar was his badge of normalcy. So dearly treasured for so long, and a symbol of the time before. Before he knew how spectacularly not normal Clark Kent really was. Before he was super anything, when he was just a kid from Kansas.
But after he had donned the cape, the scar had stopped being a comfort and had become something else entirely. An identifying mark. One which couldn't be explained away, disguised, or refuted. One which held alarming repercussions should anyone see it, and, in seeing it, conclude that Superman had a chicken pox scar. And since chicken pox was overwhelmingly a childhood illness — an earth child's illness — that Superman may had been on earth as a child.
In his anxiety, he had nearly agreed to the headband his mom had suggested in their first attempts to create a super suit, until the physics of keeping it in place during flight had won out.
"It is so faint. Barely there," his mom had assured him, when they'd decided they had to go without it. "No one will notice."
So, in fear and trembling, Superman had taken his mom's advice. The scar went uncovered, his hair slicked back concealing nothing. And as in most things, Martha had been proven right. No one had noticed. Not the talking heads on LNN. Not various victims whose rescues had put them in close proximity to him. And not the best investigative reporter on the planet.
<They really don't look at my face,> he concluded, once more made a little uncomfortable by the thought.
Clark Kent hadn't taken the same risk as Superman, of course. It would be one thing, an entirely bad thing, for anyone to speculate over Superman's scar. And another, altogether more horrendous thing, for anyone to notice that Clark Kent had the very same one.
Hence the well-trained lock of hair, which to the casual eye looked like it just wouldn't stay in place. Still, whenever the wind blew, whenever he was bent over Lois' shoulder reading off her computer, he couldn't help but feel echoes of vulnerability. He was, after all, almost human.
"Earth to Clark," came Lois' voice from far away.
"I'm doing it again, aren't I?" He smiled sheepishly.
"Let's just say you've been noticeably absent from the partnership lately."
There wasn't any anger in Lois' observation, though Clark knew he was deserving of it.
"You have definitely been carrying my weight on this," he apologized. "I can't argue."
"Where were you, anyway?"
Lois had put down her notes and was eyeing him in such a way that might have made him nervous, if he hadn't just been wishing for her to do that very thing. And she was waiting.
Clark knew full well she was employing the Lois Lane Interview Tactic which had made her famous. Ask the question, fix the subject under microscopic stare, wait, wait, wait.
Well, Clark had been the witness of, and party to, this very thing countless times, and if anyone was immune to it…
"Chickenpox," he blurted, inexplicably, before he could finish that thought. Flustered, <how had she done that?> he rushed on. "Smallville had such a small little league team, no one to ride the bench, so when we all got it, we practically forfeited the whole spring away."
If Lois thought the topic was strange, she didn't let on.
"Lucy and I were miserable with it. We practically lived in an oatmeal bath trying to out-complain each other. I honestly don't know how my mother stood us."
Shrugging aside her sweater and pushing up the sleeve of her t-shirt, Lois bared her shoulder. "See? I itched like fire for days."
Clark leaned in, drawn like a magnet to her skin. Even with x-ray vision it would have been hard to spot the faint pattern of scars sprinkled over it.
He ran a quick inventory of all the sleeveless and strapless ensembles he had seen her in. All the various functions he'd had occasion to hold her close, dance with her, fly with her. So, if he'd never noticed hers…
"What about you?" Lois prompted.
Suddenly wary, Clark sputtered into the coffee mug he had just picked up. "Me? What about me?"
"Your scars," she taunted. "I showed you mine. Let's have a fair trade. You're not…shy…are you, Kent?"
Lois' tone had gotten somewhat dangerous. Someone with less Lane experience might have missed the casual sweetness in her voice. Might have actually thought it denoted sweetness.
<I'm an idiot> was all Clark could currently come up with.
<But you want her to know. You want her to know… Remember, no jacket, no tie, no put-on mild-manneredness. You're sitting, mooning at Lois to 'just look' at you, and here she is doing just that…and you're what? Balking?>
<Balking, yes, exactly that.>
Though Clark's mind was working at super speed, he kept his eyes locked on hers.
<Don't look away.> He reminded himself. <She can smell fear.>
<Where is 'HELP, Superman!' when you really need it? And am I sweating? I don't sweat! Well, unless I'm lifting something really heavy. Really, really heavy. Galactically heavy…>
"You were the one who got us started on this subject. Otherwise I'd be perfectly happy sitting here doing all the work, while you mourn the lost baseball season of your youth…"
<Oh, good. There she goes. Crisis averted.>
"I mean, who knows? Had things gone differently, you might have had a major league career, and Ralph and I would be the ones sitting here, well, not here, since this is your place…"
<But you want her to know, hence the whole subtle strategy thing, right?>
<Ok, maybe it was a bit too subtle, but things like this, done right, take time.>
<<You want her to know you. To really know you.>>
<She does know me, she does. She just…doesn't.>
"…but still, we'd be sitting, and actually, maybe working, though with Ralph, you never know. And I probably would have killed him by now and be on trial for something completely justifiable…"
<You are perfectly ok with her knowing. It's her not knowing that is killing you. If you're serious about this, about being truly Clark, no hiding, then why not?>
<Oh dear God, am I really thinking this?>
<No! She is an investigative reporter. Let her investigate! I'm not just going to hand it over to her. Just say… 'here, Lois..'>
"Here," he said softly. And trembling from a place deep inside him, he lifted his hair and pointed.
If Clark was standing naked in front of her, he couldn't have felt more exposed. Lois couldn't have any idea what he was doing. He had shattered an asteroid once, but this, this was really scary.
"Where? I don't see." Tirade over, Lois was on her knees next to him. "Turn to the light."
Clark gulped and obeyed. This wasn't exactly taking off his glasses, pulling out the red cape, but it came close. It felt dangerous, reckless, and a frightening kind of wonderful.
Lois' deft fingers swept his hair aside. She leaned in so close he could feel her breathing on him.
Clark closed his eyes, slowed his thundering heart-rate, and concentrated. Her hands in his hair, her scent surrounding him…
"Ah ha!" she cried, delighted. "Man, Clark, I would never have known that was there."
"Is it really so…invisible?" He didn't recognize his own voice. But something in it seemed to hold Lois in her place. Still on her knees, fingers in his hair, she moved a mere inch to kiss the scar.
"There." She smiled broadly down into his heated face. "All better."
The die was cast. Irretrievably. Now it was just a matter of time.
He had shown her the scar. Clark Kent's scar and Superman's scar. Just lifted his hair and pointed it out to her, like the crazy man he was. But this wasn't a problem. It didn't have to be. Because Superman wasn't going to go anywhere near Lois Lane. He hardly did anymore anyway. Well, not too often. But now, after…well, anyway, now, Superman was going to keep his distance. A from-here-to-Siberia type distance. No more casual fly-bys to Lois' apartment. A bad habit he had fallen into that was really hard to kick. He'd kick it now. Cold turkey. No more staying behind at rescues and taking "just one more" question from the press corps, not if she was among them. So, there was really no problem with Lois knowing about Clark Kent's scar, since she'd never see Superman's. It was as easy as that.
If there was a vast, sucking black hole set squarely in the middle of this logic, Clark choose not to look at it. Lois really had been unusually careful during these last months. Not to say she didn't occasionally court disaster, just not on the thrice daily basis she once did. So, if he, Clark Kent, stuck close to Lois, the chances of her needing the services of Superman ever again, were, well, he didn't really need to do the math.
There were millions of people in Metropolis. Most of which would never need him. If they did, it would be a once-in-a- saved lifetime sort of thing. And if you added up how many times Lois had needed him, divided by the one tiny person that she was, what you came up with was irrefutable numerical proof that Lois had more than used up her Superman rescue allotment, and therefore probably wouldn't need anymore saving until well into the next few lifetimes.
"She's going to fall down a well any day now," he muttered to his computer screen, after once more checking to see that Lois was where she was supposed to be. Clark had taken to shamelessly eavesdropping on her phone calls and her conferences with Perry. Just in case. He didn't let himself dwell on how inappropriate it was.
"Get trapped on a broken ice flow. Tied to the railroad tracks. Ride piggy back on a torpedo…"
This was agony. He gritted his teeth and returned his pained thoughts back to the story he was supposed to be writing for Perry. If he had just bitten the bullet and told her. She might still be screaming, but it would all be over now. But that was the root of it, wasn't it? It would be over. Completely. Forever. And this tortured dance they were doing was so much better than no dance at all.
"God help me, I am so stupidly, helplessly in love with you," he groaned softly as he watched Lois disappear into the elevator. He forced himself to wait ten seconds before leaping to follow her. Discreetly, of course.
Two hours and various non-life threatening errands later, the object of his misery darted off the elevator and into the bullpen. Even at superspeed, he had only beaten her back by minutes.
"We've finally got a lead on that so-called holding company," she sang out.
<So happy. So full of energy. So obviously well-rested.>
As she approached, Lois was shedding coat and bag and laptop. Dumping all of these into his outstretched arms, she pushed Clark towards the conference room.
"Look at this."
Lois grabbed the top lot of papers from him and spread them on the table. "I started thinking if we just looked from a different angle, then we could see…"
"…the unseen…that which is so faint as to be barely there?"
"Very poetic. But yes, like here."
Lois turned to find Clark still standing, arms full, pressed against the conference room doors. She grabbed him and steered him, none too gently, into a chair.
"You've got to see this." She leaned over his shoulder. When her hair brushed against the side of his face, he turned his head into it and inhaled, deeply, shakily.
"You're weird today," Lois told him matter-of-factly.
"I haven't been sleeping," was his truthful, if lame, reply.
"I just got a new mattress, Clark," answered Lois in that way she had of always having something to say on any topic. "You wouldn't believe the difference. Now I can just stretch out," Lois demonstrated by raising both arms far over head and bending back slightly, "and I'm out like a light."
Clark sat, too flustered to answer, angry at himself for letting the moment pass without committing it to memory. Could he ask her to do that again?
"Hello in there, Clark! Come on. Here's the pattern I'm seeing."
Lois' pages were highlighted in shades of yellow. She looked at him expectantly, willing him to see what she saw.
This was much easier for her, he reminded himself. Lois was firing away on all cylinders, like always. That was only because she had no idea of the grenade that sat between them, its pin out, the timer winding down. She didn't see it. She never saw it.
"So," he said slowly, stalling for time. "There is a connection, a hidden thing right here, under our nose?"
"Good grief, yes, Clark! That's what I'm saying. You are not even looking."
"I'm not looking. I'm not looking! Which one of us doesn't look, Lois?! Just for once, ask yourself, which one of us is the non-looker in this relationship?!"
"Hey…guys?" Jimmy's tentative voice called through the closed doors. "I have the numbers Lois wanted. Maybe I should just…slide them under?"
They spoke simultaneously.
"The non-looker?! What the…what are you…what?!"
"Jimmy! Come in! Come right in! Take a seat and stay!"
"What the heck is a non-looker? What is the matter with you.. you…Clark?! You have been strange for weeks now! And I have been nothing but understanding and nice!"
Clark could have pointed out that she was shaking her fist at him, even as she pronounced the word "nice," but he didn't have a death wish. And he knew that she was right. Lois had been bearing the brunt of their assignment while he had been wallowing in his own misery. So he wouldn't interrupt her, wouldn't cut her off with a quick, though heartfelt, apology. He had this coming, and Lois was more than ready to dish it out.
Jimmy, who had been foolhardy enough to come in on Clark's invitation, shuffled his file, shuffled his feet, seemed engrossed by the crack in the floor they had once agreed looked kind of like the Mississippi river on the map.
Of course, there was a cry for help.
"Clark…Clark! You are getting that look on your face. The one where you disappear to who knows where…" Lois' voice trailed off with a tired air of resignation, all the fight gone out of her.
"Look…um…Lois, Jimmy. Sorry, I just remembered a thing. A big thing. And…" One hand went straight to his tie, his eyes scanning the obstacles between himself and the stairwell. "…by non-looker, Lois…" He started to move. "…I didn't mean anything at all. Just that it's great you have an angle…" said with a reassuring squeeze on her arm, a pat on Jimmy's back, "..and great you have a new mattress…" said from outside the conference room doors. Now into the bullpen, and stated over his shoulder, "Since I'm late, I'll just go and be back…right away."
Slow jog to the stairs. And finally, up and out. Once on the roof he spun, ordered his tortured heart to beat again. Then with a whoosh, Superman was up and away. Cool. Calm. Collected. In no way crazy.
Back in the now very silent conference room, Jimmy ventured a look at Lois.
"Do you…want those numbers?" he asked in his friendliest I-just-work-here tone.
After an extra seconds pause, that might only have been in Jimmy's imagination, Lois answered flatly, "Yes, Jimmy. Thanks. I'll take them. I'll let you know if anything turns up."
Jimmy exited in triumph. He wasn't sure exactly how or why, but he had walked right into the lion's den, and come out without a scrape.
"Score one for the researcher and God help CK."
Superman's emergency was such a minor one, Clark was almost disappointed. Not that he wished anyone ill; no injuries, no major damage. It was just that in short order there wasn't much else for him to do, besides go back to work, back to Lois, the non-looker. He considered a quick side- trip to Smallville and the chance to unload the whole chicken pox scar dilemma on his parents. Clark knew, however, that his dad wouldn't like it. And more so, that his mom would like it all too well. With a sigh, the Man of Steel rocketed back to the Daily Planet to take his lumps.
Spinning into his clothes on the roof, he allowed himself the luxury of a pep talk.
"Stop being an idiot. Stop being an…"
"Hey," came a soft voice from behind. "I figured you came up here."
"Lois?!" Clark whirled. So intent on his own problems had he been, he hadn't checked for anyone before landing. "Did you…? Have you…? Were you…?" Clark couldn't find the end to a single question.
"Is that how I sound sometimes?" Lois asked, her head tilted to the side as she studied him. Sweating. Clark was sweating, and something else. "You know, when you tell me I'm babbling. Is that how I sound? Clark, are you ok? You really, really don't seem ok."
<No stammering, remember?>
"Ok. Yes, I am. Ok, that is, Lois. And sorry, too. Sorry about the um…non-looker thing which wasn't nice and wasn't tru…truly nice."
"Something is going on with you, Clark. And you look like you need a friend."
Lois let the pause string out between them. She was offering him amnesty and a chance to say whatever he needed to say. This was their secret. One that nobody else would have dreamed possible. That whenever Clark lost it, or came apart, Lois made room for him to do so. She didn't dismember him on the spot, as popular opinion would assume, though that sometimes came later. Lois knew, more than anyone, how rarely Clark gave way, and how little Clark really did say. And how much got bottled up inside and stayed there. Held in by his small town ethics, or the boy scout code, or by a fear of Something. For a while now, Lois had taken to calling the fear "intimacy." As kind and open and loving as his nature was, Clark would just hit a wall at some point, a line he couldn't cross, a place he couldn't reach.
Sometimes he retreated quietly, and Lois would watch him do so with sadness for him, and a feeling of loss for herself that she didn't quite understand. And other times he banged up against it noisily, almost desperately, like today. So, here was Clark. Hiding on the roof of the Dailey Planet, where he had obviously run to get away from her, struggling with It, and looking so lost.
"I'm your friend, Clark. Your best friend."
Lois wanted to say more, but knew she couldn't. Not until he summoned up whatever he needed to step across…to her.
Lois knew they were hung up somehow, somewhere. They had never managed to recapture the honesty, the emotional intimacy of that night they had spent together in her apartment, the night she hadn't married Lex Luthor. She faulted herself for that. Clark, in the months following, had remained as warm and supportive as he'd been that evening. But for Lois, the weeks leading up to that night, and the months following it, had been too painful to think about, let alone examine too closely.
And there was that other night. The one so full of revelation for her. The one she'd never told him about. She had spent that one with Superman. She'd thought Clark was…gone. Their reunion had blotted out much of the pain, but not all of it. And it hadn't blotted out the things she had learned about herself, about the two of them.
Clark, other than emphasizing how glad he was to have his life back, and how very much their relationship meant to him, had been resolutely unwilling to talk about what he'd gone through. So neither had she.
That nightmare grew distant at the same time a barrier grew between them. And they remained where they had been for some time, stuck in the in-between. If there was ever going to be a break-through, a forcing of the issue, she knew it was going to have to come from her.
The very next day, she fell from the observation deck of the Metropolis Planetarium. Up until Lois nearly died, it had been a wonderful night. Clark had picked her up on time, no rushing off, no strange outbursts. She had worn something new and a tiny bit eye-catching. They had danced and dined and listened to the speaker's long-winded explanation of the newest Something recently discovered, in the vast reaches of space, by STAR labs. Lois hadn't worried too much about the details, trusting that when the time came, Clark could recite it all back to her, correct spelling included.
Over dessert, Lois was certain she had seen one of the shareholders in that holding company they were still tracking. She had turned to point this out to Clark, only to find him inexplicably gone. His seat was still warm and his dessert only half-eaten, which just wasn't right. After finishing for them both, Lois had gone looking for her shareholder. It was just bad timing that the building had been plunged into complete darkness just as Lois made her way out onto the observation deck. The presentation was underway, and the planetarium's speakers had reached a bone-rattling crescendo, when someone shoved her over the railing.
For just an instant, Lois had been too surprised to scream. But thankfully, that all familiar in-peril feeling brought her back to her senses, and her "Help Superman!" saved the midnight buffet and her new dress from certain impact.
Then Lois was floating up, light as a feather, though for some reason Superman's arms seemed to trembling.
"It's ok. It's fine. No harm done."
Odd that she would be the one saying those words to him. After all, she was the one who didn't fly.
"Superman, are you ok?"
Lois and Superman had landed in a dimly lit balcony across from the observation deck. While he had put her down quickly, Superman still hadn't spoken.
"Someone pushed me, I think," Lois offered, just in case he was standing there thinking she was clumsy, or worse, that she had just been missing his company.
After an awkward pause, he spoke in a perfectly controlled voice. "Are you ok then, Lois?"
His eyes were serious. His expression just the right amount of stern and bemused. This was the Superman she knew so well.
"Yes, I'm good. Thank you, by the way. And maybe Clark and I are getting closer to the bad guy. Unless, of course, this was a new bad guy, or a formerly locked up bad guy with a grudge, or, you know, just an honest-to-goodness accident."
At this Superman smiled a real smile. "Lois, with you, there are no honest-to-goodness accidents."
With a degree of shyness Lois was certain only she ever saw in him, he offered his arm. "Walk you down?"
Their pace was slow as Lois navigated the steep staircase in her too-high heels. Once in the brilliantly lit lobby, Superman released her and rose into the air.
"Be sure Clark walks you home, ok?"
With a gentle smile and a whoosh, he was gone before Lois could thank him, again.
The weight of the world was off Clark's shoulders. He indulged in a few barrel rolls during his evening patrol. Lois had seen Superman. She had looked right at him. Just as always. And the world was still spinning on its axis. All his agonizing over the Night of the Scar, as he'd come to call it, seemed ridiculous now. That one night's conversation had no real significance. It was just one of a million conversations about nothing that had passed between the two of them.
And that was all it was. Not the pre-cursor for the end that Clark had somehow convinced himself it was. It was one night, one talk, one confession, now shrunk down to its proper size, now in its correct place, in context with all the others.
Like the time Lois showed him how her second toe was longer than her big one. Which had prompted a debate over the practicalities of open-toed shoes in the city. Who even remembers stuff like that? Lois' toe, his chicken pox scar; they were merely window dressing in the broader "getting to know you" conversation.
Except, of course, that he did remember Lois' toe, and ever since had vaguely noted her choice of shoes, especially in the summer. Sandals just were not a part of her wardrobe. And he refused to concede that they would be any less practical than some of those high-heeled ones she wore. In fact, if they were the kind that slipped off easily, she could sneak that much more quietly while breaking and entering.
Where was he?
Superman had lost a little altitude, along with his inner compass. He righted himself and headed back towards Metropolis. The point he had been making, Superman reminded himself, was that he was safe. Unexposed. Superman was Superman and Clark Kent was just an ordinary guy. This was good. No doubt about it.
Ok, so maybe he had shown his scar in hopes of Lois…connecting the dots. That was only because he did want her to know. Someday. If he wanted a life with her, she had to know. Eventually.
Clark was hovering over Lois' apartment now. High enough above the clouds so as not to be noticed. Low enough to see that she was there. And he was torn, again. Torn from the inside out over how and when to tell Lois, the one person in the world who made him feel he belonged on the ground.
Clark flew slowly home. The night had gone so well. Granted, Lois had plunged from a great height after dinner. But he had been there. He had forced himself to stay near her in the Suit. And afterwards, she had sought him out, confessed with no real remorse to eating his dessert, and ordered him to take her home. Lois was probably sleeping soundly by now, and maybe, finally, so would he. After all, the weight of the world was off his shoulders, right?
There was no good explanation, at least not one city management could offer, for the loose manhole cover. Nor was there a logical reason that it should be Lois, off all people, as lightweight as she was, and just the morning after the planetarium incident, who should overturn it and plummet beneath the street of Metropolis. For an instant, Clark wondered if that was how he looked to her- there one minute and gone the next. They had been walking back from another fruitless interview, bickering over their next move, and with barely a whisper, Lois was gone.
Clark found her immediately with his x-ray vision. She looked stunned and was wearing the jelly-filling from her donut in her hair, but seemed otherwise ok. Therefore, he was caught off guard when Lois opened her mouth and yelled for…
Clark jumped back a pace or two, casting quick glances around for passers-by. It was early and they were quite alone. Changing and flying down to scoop Lois out would be an extremely simple procedure.
Only, Lois wasn't really hurt.
And it was broad daylight. They would be in such close proximity. Lois might see…
This was, after all, a very minor emergency. Not so much an emergency as an inconvenience.
And Superman couldn't always be around for every little rescue.
His mind in turmoil, Clark kneeled down and shouted into the void. "Lois, are you down there? It's me…Clark." He knew that sounded a little silly, so before she could answer he rushed on, "Can you reach my hand? I could pull you up."
"It's too far. I see your hand, barely, but there's no way."
Clark lay on his belly, lowered his head and shoulders in as far as he dared, trying not to look like a guy who could easily hang upside down. "What if I drop down there? You could climb on my shoulders…"
"And how exactly would you get out, then, Clark?"
"Well…" He hadn't quite thought that far. "Ok, hang in there, Lois, help is coming."
He voiced that last bit with great confidence, then sat down next to the overturned cover to figure out just what form that help would take. If he had just changed as soon as she had called, they'd be headed back to the Planet by now. And on the day that she finally knew everything there was to know about him, did he really want her first question to be, "So why did you leave me in the sewer so long?"
This could be it. He could drop down, help her out, and when she voiced her concern that he was now stuck, he could say, "There's something I've been meaning to…"
The Fire Department! They'd have a ladder!
Clark x-rayed the area around Lois much more thoroughly this time. There were no rats hidden in the darkness. No evil geniuses, either. She'd be fine where she was for a while longer. He could go call 911.
"Clark? Are you still there? My ankle…"
He spun. Had her out before her next word.
"Your ankle…what…Lois?" He cursed himself for his selfishness. "Are you hurt?"
Superman didn't set her down, just in case.
"Well, nooo," Lois began, somewhat sheepishly. "I was just going to tell Clark, that well, it was just really cramped down there, and I felt a twinge. I'm fine. I can stand. Thanks. This must get really old for you. Where's Clark?"
Superman hesitated before setting her down gingerly, discreetly x-raying her ankle, shin, thigh…
"Um…what? Oh, well, Clark had a thought about the Fire Department. You know they have a ladder." He grabbed the manhole cover and set it in correctly. "This sort of thing fits their job description."
And that was completely truthful, he congratulated himself.
"Ok," said Lois, with that bright smile and easy friendliness she only showed to Superman. "I'll just head back to work. He'll probably find a million things to do between here and the Fire Department. If you see him, will you tell him I'm out?"
"Lois!" he sputtered. "Clark would never leave you down there while he…he…ran errands or…anything else. I'm sure the Fire Department will be arriving any minute."
Clark stopped and adopted his far-off listening pose, pretending to hear the sirens.
"In fact, I should just go tell them it's all taken care of. That is, if you're ok?"
"Yes. That sounds like a good idea." Lois agreed easily. "And Superman, it's nothing against Clark. You might never have noticed, but he's easily distracted, that's all."
He bit his tongue and shot straight up. He was halfway to the Fire Department before he realized what he was doing. Was he losing his mind? Maybe this wasn't his fault? Maybe this was red kryptonite at work? Or a previously undiscovered shade? An evil master scheme? A government conspiracy? Something, anything besides his own ridiculous stupidity and insecurity.
Superman had stood and talked to Lois in broad daylight. He had held her mere inches from the scar that she had kissed to make better. And she had treated him as she always did. Everything was as it should be. Landing on the roof of the Daily Planet, he straightened his tie, checked for missing buttons, and told himself, once more, that the status quo really was a good thing. Then he went down to make his excuses, which he hadn't come up with yet, to Lois.
That afternoon, Perry called a meeting in his inner sanctum and, in very few words, removed Lois and Clark from their stagnant investigation.
"You have to admit we really weren't getting anywhere," Clark said reluctantly, his loyalty to the chief warring with his survival instincts. "Perry had a point. We've been down one blind alley after another, with absolutely nothing to show for it."
They were standing in the deserted bullpen. Lois was furiously packing her briefcase.
"Right, right. You're right. Perry's right. I get it. Holding company investigation closed. I think I'll just go home, spend an evening away from-" She waved her hands over the room. "-all this. It'll be good. I'll be good. Good is the operative word here, Clark."
On a sharply turned heel, she was off to the elevators.
"Lois…you're not thinking of…doing anything, are you?"
"Doing? What?" She didn't have to turn to know how he was looking at her. "I'm going home, Clark. I'm doing nothing. Good is the operative word!"
The STAR labs alarm went off at an unholy hour. Deep in sleep for the first time in weeks, Clark nearly missed it. The droning chimes had worked their way into his troubled dream, in which he had been trying to pull his cape from quicksand, only to find that each tug carried it further under. He was thinking how his mom was going to kill him. "Another cape ruined. This material is not inexpensive, Clark…" when the droning began. At first, he'd thought it was Martha.
Minutes wasted, Clark finally sat up, coming to awareness. "STAR Labs," he yelped as he spun out of bed and into the Suit. In seconds he was hovering over the complex of buildings, slowly x-raying, not wanting to rush, not wanting to miss…Lois.
Yes, dammit, Lois. The small, quick moving figure rifling through the contents of files which had certainly been locked away just minutes before…that Lois. She was photographing the pages smoothly and methodically, with a singleness of purpose that belonged to her, and only her.
Superman saw the police converging on the parking lot. Hesitating only briefly, he flew down to meet them
"Officers," he greeted them.
"Don't you ever sleep, Superman?" A grumpy, disheveled Henderson hailed him as he exited his cruiser and trotted towards him. "Have you looked?" he continued in a lower tone as the two men stood side by side.
"Yes…well," Superman studied Henderson's left ear, fully aware of how shrewd the detective was. Able to squeeze a world of meaning out of any statement, no matter how trite.
"And?" Henderson prompted, not the least fooled by the superhero's obvious reluctance to talk.
"I think, maybe, a…technical glitch…or something," Superman told Henderson's left eyebrow, not quite able to meet the Inspector's eyes.
Henderson seemed to consider this for a moment. "A false alarm, then?"
This time Superman looked directly at the other man, having heard what sounded like amusement in the question. "I could shut it off for you," he offered.
A long look passed between them. Just long enough for Clark to consider breaking down and confessing all his sins.
"Ok, then," Henderson finally replied. "If you can do that, I'll just send the men away. Is that about right?"
Superman was already in the air. "Yes, sir. No problem. And thank you. I'm really grateful you're letting me…um…help."
The night mercifully hid his flushed face as he heard Henderson's snickered, "You're welcome. No charge. Say hello to Lois for me."
He hovered long enough to watch the police convoy pull away. Absentmindedly, Superman disconnected the annoying alarm. The silence was a huge relief. She had to have heard the alarm. Granted, he had super-hearing, but he'd heard it from a deep sleep across town. The police had heard it. All residents of the suburb surrounding STAR Labs certainly had. He could hear their collective heartbeats once more slowing as they settled back into sleep. So why hadn't Lois reacted? Why was she still moving in her deliberate way? Still taking pictures, making no effort to hide or tidy up? Surely she knew someone would come to investigate.
He pondered all this from the roof, watching Lois' every move. What the heck was she doing at STAR Labs, anyway? He remembered the day of their fight. She had come in babbling something about a connection she had seen. He had lashed out at her and run off. Had that connection pointed here? He hadn't heard her out that day. Never had at all. They'd declared a truce on the roof of the Daily Planet, and she'd never brought up her theory again.
Just this evening Lois had gone home declaring "good" the operative word. That had been the tip-off, of course. He'd tried to wait up for her but had finally gone to bed, expecting her to burst in, all in black, lock picks in hand, fantastic scenario all woven. He'd been so certain that he had slept with his glasses on, like he did on stake-outs. So why hadn't she come for him? Or called?
Superman couldn't put the inevitable off for much longer. He set his face into his trademark grimace, checking his reflection in the skylight just to make sure he had it right. He flew to Lois, and for reasons he was afraid to examine too closely, or more to the point, didn't even want to think about, he spun…into Clark.
"What are you doing here, Lois?!" he demanded as he threw the door open.
Lois gave him a brief glance. "Just…browsing," she answered, her tongue set firmly between her teeth as she continued to concentrate on the task at hand.
"Browsing…what? Why didn't you call me? What…what are you looking for? The police were here, by the way. Superman saw you…and lied for you."
That last bit won him Lois' full attention. "Superman was here?" she asked rather anxiously.
"Yes, and he lied, Lois. Told Henderson, who was not fooled, that it was a false alarm. Didn't you hear the alarm, Lois? In Breaking and Entering 101, a course you could teach by the way, the alarm going off means it's time to run, hide, put away whatever it is you are doing…What are you doing?!"
"So, after Superman talked to the police, he came and got you out of bed?"
Her mild, sweet tone stopped the furious torrent of his words. And only then did he realize he was standing in STAR Labs in just his boxers.
He opened his mouth, swallowed air, blinked. "I'm…I'm in my pajamas," he offered unnecessarily.
Sure he'd been careful enough to sleep in his glasses, but in little else. It was one thing for Lois to find his face naked, but, well, as for the rest of him… His thoughts trailed off in an altogether different direction, a well trod one.
"So, Superman is not here now?" Lois had to repeat that, since Clark appeared to have gone somewhere.
"What? Oh…no. It's just me. Clark. In my pajamas."
He closed his eyes, willing himself to wake up in his own bed, for this just to be an odd distortion of some of his more personal Lois Lane dreams.
"Well, that's a relief." Lois smiled. "I wouldn't have wanted to face Superman."
"Not face…why?" Honestly, he needed to get a hold of himself, stop feeling like he'd just walked in on the third act of a play, lines forgotten. Clark steadied himself deliberately.
"What are you photographing, Lois?"
"Why, Lois?" he demanded of the back of her head, this time with the Superman grimace firmly in place.
"I don't know really. Just bored, I guess. And curious. I haven't read any of it yet. But Perry has taken us off our story, and nothing is really brewing. So, when I couldn't sleep-" She changed the film in her camera, depositing the used film canister in her pocket without missing a beat. "- I just got to thinking about Superman. There is so much about him that we don't know, you know?"
Only now did she look up at her disapproving partner, smiling a bit at his posture, so obviously an unconscious imitation of the Superman pose. It's effectiveness seriously diluted by the fact that Clark was in his underwear. Still, he made for quite the picture. Actually, a really nice picture, and what with her camera so handy…
"You can't, Lois," Clark told her. All of his flustered uncertainty gone. "You absolutely cannot do this, Lois. This is none of your business. This could hurt him. If it was published, if it became known how he works, whatever. You can't. I won't let you."
She raised her eyebrow at this. "Won't let me?" she challenged softly.
"Won't let you," he repeated emphatically.
They squared off, only inches from each other.
"Ok," Lois said into the tension.
"Ok?" Clark said back to her, no small amount of suspicion in his voice.
"You're probably right. I guess our long dry spell has been making me a bit crazy. I wouldn't hurt Superman. This wasn't for publication. Just for knowledge's sake."
"His privacy, even from you…" he began.
"I said you're right," Lois answered, rubbing her hand soothingly up and down his bare arm. "You are absolutely right, Clark Kent. Want it in writing?"
"Yes, please." He smiled at her warily. "In writing, on my desk, first thing in the morning."
"Ok, ok, let me just put all of this away, and I'll drive you home."
"I'll help you," he offered quickly.
A short time later they strolled out of STAR Labs arm in arm.
"Your film, Lois," he reminded her as they approached her Jeep, holding out his free hand.
"Dammit, Clark!" she shouted, handing it over roughly. "Find your own way home!"
In a huff, and with a screech of tires, she was gone.
Confined to their desks all the next day, with no new stories looming, the air between them had definitely been frosty. Clark hadn't been surprised that no note from Lois stating that he was right had been forthcoming. He was, however, a bit disappointed. He had cleared a space for it on his shelves. Had the perfect frame for it in mind. And another thing, she'd left him in the parking lot in the middle of the night in his underwear. Granted, she had been infuriated, but how had she thought he was supposed to get home? Lucky for him it was fairly easy, but Lois didn't know that. Clark was thinking a few scribbled lines of apology wouldn't be too out of bounds, and would fit nicely onto the p.s. of that note he was never going to get.
"This stops today," Clark told his grim-faced reflection, in the mirror the next morning, as he readied himself for work. "By tomorrow morning at this time, no matter what, Lois knows everything."
He enunciated the "everything" very clearly, stringing out the syllables slowly, lest his reflection not take him seriously.
"No more thinking about it. No more wavering. No more worrying. No more. No more…please God, no more."
Clark leaned his forehead against the cool glass of the mirror. At least from this angle he didn't have to face himself, the look in his eyes that spoke of too many things, but most primarily of one thing: fear.
"I am not afraid of Lois Lane," he snapped out the words. "I am not afraid of Lois Lane," he said again because it made him feel better and actually enabled him to leave his bathroom. "I am not afraid…" he breathed as he jogged to the stairs, headed for the door, which was being opened by…
"Hey," she breezed in, beaming. "You'll never guess, Clark. My hunch paid off. Remember from the other day? And you and I, partner, have an appointment with a disgruntled ex- employee. My absolutely favorite kind of ex-employee."
"Hello, Lois, and how was your night?"
"Good. Fine. Short. Listen, I want you to let me take point on this. I think this guy will be jittery, and he's only spoken to me over the phone, so…"
"Fine? Your night was fine? That's just fine. And mine? Well, since you asked it was fine, too. I did something crazy. I slept through it. Never once waking up to trespass or photograph sensitive materials. Really, really boring night by your standards."
Lois was silent only long enough to draw a deep breath.
"You see? This makes me crazy. Listen to you! Did you hear that tone? Why, just tell me why, can't you use that tone on me in front of witnesses? Just once while we're at work? But would you do that? No! No, when we're at the Planet you're all 'I'm from Kansas where we're polite to everyone, and aren't I adorable?' and everyone is all 'oh that sweet man, look what he has to put up with.' If I had come in and said that to you, say in the conference room at morning report, you would have been all 'Ok, Lois. That's interesting, Lois. 10-4, Lois…'"
"But see, we're here all alone, so you can be as sarcastic and biting as you want to. It won't ruin your reputation because who would believe me? Just once, Clark, I dare you to be that rude in public. To be the rude one in this partnership!"
"And you be the adorable one?"
"The incredibly competent adorable one, yes."
"Already done, Lois."
Her pause was ever so slight.
"The guy's name is Oswald. He worked for this company for almost thirty years." Smoothly she hooked her arm through his, drawing him out the door. "He's nervous. He knows something." She ran her fingers lightly through his hair as he bent to lock-up. "I told him I was bringing my…partner." She loaded that last word with a little something extra, a little…flirty.
Clark flushed, pulled them both to a halt. "And?" He asked, looking deeply into her shining eyes, trying to convey his apologies with his.
"And," she wrapped her arms around him, pulling him in for the close hug she seemed to know he needed, "we have exactly fifteen minutes to get there."
Clark's arms had taken longer to catch up with his brain than he could have ever believed. By the time he raised them to hold her, Lois was gone, hailing a cab.
"So, we'll fight later?" he asked her, ducking in to join her.
"You called me adorable. We might not fight at all."
As Lois watched the slow smile spread over his face, she couldn't seem to help herself. "I said we might not. Don't get too confident. Any more outbursts like that and you'll be the one calling Superman to save you."
"I am not afraid of you, Lois Lane," he whispered softly, reverently into her ear. Wishing with all his heart that it was true.
It was a short ride to a very bad part of town.
"The guy's an ex-executive and he wants to meet here?" Clark asked doubtfully.
"How does a guy like that even know about a place like this?" agreed Lois, unconsciously moving a bit closer to Clark.
"Makes you wonder, that's for sure." He put one arm protectively around her shoulders, maneuvering his body just a touch ahead of hers.
"Oswald?" Lois broke the early morning silence. "It's Lois Lane. I've brought my partner, Clark Kent."
"Geez…shut up, will you?" came a thick, angry voice from above them, giving Lois a start. "Up here, second floor, leave your things."
They located the source of the voice through a broken, dirty window. A man inside the abandoned warehouse- and when wasn't it an abandoned warehouse- gestured furiously to them.
"I don't know about this, Clark," said Lois, taking his best line.
"You and me both, then." He was trying to x-ray the place, but like most buildings in this area, it was practically held together with lead paint.
"Do you have what you told me about?" called Lois quietly.
"Inside, inside!" came the voice again, more insistent and a bit more panicked.
Clark noted Lois' show of caution. It looked really…strange…on her.
"What?" he asked her. "A bad feeling? I've never known you to…"
"I know," Lois let out the breath she'd been holding. "He said he had proof. Papers, memos, records, the works. But this seems…weird."
Clark tightened his grip on her, his heart suddenly soaring. She was nervous, and she'd come as close to admitting it as she ever would. This was it, then, an opportunity he couldn't let pass. Whatever this Oswald guy had up his sleeve, he didn't know who he was dealing with. Some superspeed, a judicious use of heat vision, anything the situation warranted, he would do it, as Clark Kent. He would let Lois see him in action. Oswald might have to be gently knocked out, and that was unfortunate, but he couldn't risk him seeing anything revealing. So, from this point, right here, Clark Kent was holding nothing back. He was going in, no holds barred, in front of Lois.
"Come on," he told her firmly. "It'll be fine. I won't let anything happen."
Her protest was cut-off by Oswald's outraged bellow.
"Do you need an engraved invitation? How long are you going to stand there and…"
"Coming," Clark called. "Second floor. Two reporters. Our things left at the door."
Oswald had a gun, of course. A really big one. And he was obviously still high. His drug paraphernalia took up an impressive amount of the tiny room he'd led them into. He grinned wickedly, if a bit blearily at Lois, who just rolled her eyes and gave Clark a didn't-I-tell-you look.
"Look, Oswald," said Clark with smooth confidence. "We don't want trouble. I know you don't either. So, why don't you just hand me the gun?"
Clark didn't want to take his eyes off Oswald, panicky and stoned being a tricky combination, but he was dimly aware that Lois was gaping at him. Angling his body just a bit more in front of her, Clark stretched his hand out to Oswald slowly.
"I hand you the gun?" Oswald seemed to be processing this.
"Yes," Clark smiled. "And the papers, too, please."
"I hand you the gun," parroted Oswald. "And I hand you the papers?"
"Please," Clark repeated, now standing fully in-between Lois and Oswald. "And we'll get out of your hair. Let you get back to…" He gestured vaguely to the numerous pharmaceuticals in the room.
"You see that I can kill you, right?" asked a clearly confused Oswald.
"We see," Lois answered from behind Clark. "And we know you're scared and we don't blame you. If it's protection you need, we can do that. You won't be implicated, either. We won't print anything about you."
Lois slid just a few steps to her right, so Oswald could see her. Her eyes met his. "You can trust us, Oswald. We're the good guys."
Oswald's face softened. He started to lower the gun.
"Just give us the goods or else, Oswald," snarled a voice that could have been Clint Eastwood's.
The storm clouds immediately darkened over Oswald's face. "Wh…?" he asked, turning back to face Clark.
"You heard me," Clark leaned in threateningly. "Give us the papers, Oswald. And… stop …looking… at… the…lady."
Clark risked a glance at Lois, catching a look of alarm and astonishment on her face. The same look she must have seen from him a thousand times before. He was playing this badly, he knew.
Oswald, enraged now, lunged to shove him. When he found Clark unmoving, he did the next best thing. With reflexes that belied his size and his condition, he grabbed Lois by the arm, squeezing tightly, his gun, all the while, pointed at her head.
"Don't make me hurt the pretty lady," he growled.
Lois' eyes, still shooting Clark looks of disbelief and something else he didn't care to identify, bored into him.
Sternly, in his best super voice, he ordered, "Let her go."
Oswald, taken aback by the strange authority in Clark's tone, nearly did. For an instant his grip loosened, and it was enough.
With lightning fast speed, Lois had bent, twirled, twisted, and maybe one other thing, it was hard to follow. In mere seconds, Oswald lay sprawled face down under the pressure of Lois' boot, gasping and gun-less.
"What could you have been thinking?!" Lois shouted, while removing the clip from the gun.
Oswald stammered and sought an answer to a question Clark knew was meant for him.
"I was going to save you, Lois…" he began dismally, trying to ignore her rolling eyes. "This isn't how it was supposed to go. I'm here. I'd never let anything…"
"You have gone crazy, do you know that? We could have been in and out in two minutes, no gun play, no close-calls. You don't always need to come blazing in where quiet and caution can do the job just as well."
"Lois, do you hear yourself? Did you really just advocate quiet and caution? Do you even know what those words mean?!"
"Oooffff," came Oswald's voice from the floor. "Please, isn't someone going to call the police?" he asked wistfully.
"Isn't this where you run off, Clark?" Lois raised an eyebrow at him. "Find the nearest phone? Alert the proper authorities? How many calls have you made to 911, anyway? That must be kept on file somewhere. They must know when they hear 'this is Clark Kent' to send in the national guard."
"You need a cell phone, is what. Hold this." She thrust the empty gun at him which, by habit, he squeezed beyond recognition. He hastily pocketed it as Lois pulled her cell phone from her own pocket. "Presto. Now you can stay right here and wait for the cavalry, just like the rest of us victims."
"Lois, I would hardly call you a victim."
"Neither would I," moaned Oswald. "Could you just let your foot off an inch? My nose…"
It was nearly lunchtime before Inspector Henderson was finished with Lois and Clark. He couldn't seem to believe the sequence of events. And much to Lois' outrage, he had continuously interrupted her account with "is that true, Kent?"
Clark, to his credit, had owned up to it all. Except to where the gun had gotten to. That could just remain a mystery. The sun was high overhead and Oswald was sleeping it off in his cell by the time Lois and Clark headed back to the Planet. Halfway there, Lois laid her hand on Clark's arm. Wordlessly Clark pulled her close to his side, tucking her under his arm where she always fit just exactly right.
Lois sighed, hooking her fingers through his belt loop, at last breaking the silence. "You took a page from my book today, Clark. Just when I think I know you."
"You do know me, Lois," he said quietly, heavily.
"Give us the goods or else?" she mocked sweetly.
"The goods, Oswald, or Lane and Kent will slay you with sharply written copy," he returned with an embarrassed grin.
"We'll edit your sorry behind!" countered Lois.
"You won't recognize your content when we're through," growled Clark.
"We're losing it," Lois giggled.
"Only one of us is losing it, Lois," Clark sighed. "The same one who needs his head examined."
As they entered the lobby, Lois turned, surprising him. "No, Clark. You're doing just fine. I want you to know I am never afraid when I am with you."
"Lois…" He dropped his eyes from hers. "Lois, it's way past time you knew…"
"So let's hear it," she said, punching the elevator buttons.
"That…I-" He glanced over his shoulder at the crowded lobby. "-would never let anything happen to you. I wouldn't. I couldn't."
Others pushed their way into the elevator between them. They stood in opposite corners, their eyes holding them together. The doors eventually opened to reveal the bullpen. The day was well underway, the frantic pace evident from where they stood. Lois reached out to Clark, taking his hand in hers, lacing their fingers together.
Clark blinked, swallowed, followed her out onto the landing. "Lois," he said, struggling for words, for composure.
"Buy me lunch," she ordered him softly. "After we break it to Perry that the big fish got away."
"Lois," he said again, bringing the hand in his up to his heart. "I was an idiot."
"Yes." She smiled. "It'll need to be a really good lunch."
It had been a great lunch. And since no other stories were pending, it had been a long lunch. And because Lois was feeling a bit frustrated by the events of the past weeks, it had been, for her, a liquid lunch.
Lois wove a bit unsteadily on her feet while Clark kept a firm hand on her elbow.
"Overdid it a little, I guess," she admitted sheepishly.
"Maybe just a little." Clark grinned, pulling her heel from a street grate for the tenth time on their walk back.
"Sorry, Clark," she giggled.
"I don't mind, Lois. You were blowing off some steam. The last few weeks have been…" He sighed, his voice trailed off. What had they been? For him they'd been spent in an epic wrestling match with himself; his desires, his worst fears, his needs. And in the end, he'd finished exhausted and no closer to putting the pieces of his life together.
If Lois noticed Clark had dropped out of the conversation, she didn't comment. They continued making slow, forward progress down the sidewalks of Metropolis. Clark glanced around appreciatively. He loved it here. Something most folks from Smallville would never understand. He loved so much about his life. Loved that a slightly tipsy Lois was letting him see her home. Loved how she was the perfect blend of velvet and steel. So tough when it was called for, so kind when it was needed. And when had he needed it more than these last weeks?
She'd dropped off the balcony during a really nice dinner. He'd caught her in time, but still, when you couldn't even leave your date alone for a few minutes without her coming to mortal peril… well, that was Lois. He'd known that from the start.
Then there was that fall down the manhole. Lois had taken that like a trooper. In fact, she hadn't even mentioned his disappearance during that incident. He'd expected to have to defend himself, and he had no idea how he would have. That she was so accustomed to his running off was telling. Lois had learned not to count on Clark Kent being there. She'd had to. He'd given her no choice.
And the STAR Labs thing. Superman's files? He'd spent some sleepless nights sweating over that one. Lois, for her part, seemed to have dropped the whole idea rather easily. Which was alarming, because when did that ever happen? He cast a glance over at her now. She looked so harmless, head resting on his shoulder, slightly hiccupping her way home. Was she, even now, building a secret laboratory dedicated to the study of Superman?
Lois frowned a little as her heel once again found a grate.
No, Lois wouldn't. He was being crazy. Again. Clark bent down and once more tugged on her ankle.
"Lois, are you building a secret laboratory dedicated to the study of Superman?" he asked her shoes.
"Yes, Clark," Lois replied very seriously, and almost soberly. "Just need to (hic) get the (hic) funding."
"Oh." He righted himself, took her elbow. They set off once more, grinning at each other.
"Cool, huh? My own secret laboratory."
"Very," he agreed, giving her arm a squeeze.
And the Oswald fiasco this morning. He'd rushed her into an unreliable situation. Something he'd never believed possible of himself. The height of irony, when you counted all the times he'd tried desperately to talk her out of stuff like that. But he had wanted to — no, needed to — show off in front of her. Him. No tights. No cape. He had wanted her to see…so he wouldn't have to tell her. And in doing so, he'd put her at risk.
"Lois." Clark stopped them both, turning her towards him. "I'm so sorry about this morning. If anything had happened to you…" He couldn't finish the thought, couldn't bear to. "I'm just so sorry."
"Hey…" She shushed him. "Hey, Clark, it's ok. I'm ok. No harm done."
"But there might have been." He felt sick with the thought.
"That's your problem, you know, Clark." Lois was stroking the lines in his face. "You think way too much about what might have been or what may be. And you don't just let yourself…be. You're looking forwards, backwards, sideways, always worrying."
"Oh, please, Lois. You are the serene one in this partnership?" He couldn't help but laugh. "You've found your center? Inner peace…"
"Maybe." She turned the mega-watt smile on him, raised up on her tiptoes, grabbed the back of his head, and kissed him fully, resoundingly on his still moving lips.
"Shut you up," Lois stated with satisfaction.
"Lois, I was talking. I…missed that…didn't see that coming…didn't get the full effect…So, I wondered if…you could…again?"
"We're here, Clark." Lois nodded towards her building. He'd never noticed they'd arrived. "You could come up?"
Oh, he was definitely going up. Bridges could collapse and villagers might flee mudslides, but he was so going up. She'd kissed him. Kissed him…kissed him.
"I…You're…um…a little tipsy, Lois."
Who said that?! Horrible, horrible good manners, hard-wired into his psyche! Darn them! Darn them to the fiery cellars where Lex Luthor dwelled! Lois was only the tiniest bit drunk. He didn't care. He'd go up and just watch her sleep it off. That would be enough for him.
"Not that you couldn't trust me, Lois…"
Clark's words were interrupted by Lois' explosive yawn. "Never mind," she sighed wearily. "Tired, anyway. Walk me up?"
He'd settle for a kiss at the door. That would be good. Just lean in for a soft, warm…Was she actually snoring on his shoulder?
"Lois!" He jostled her not quite as gently as he could have. "Are you sleeping? On your feet?"
"Huh? Oh, sorry. Here, Clark, keys."
She handed him a silly amount of keys and returned her head to the pillow of his shoulder as he navigated the mind- boggling collection of locks. After a time, he pushed the door open, put both arms around Lois, and lifted her over the threshold. She snuggled up to him for just a moment before lowering her legs to the floor.
"Thanks, Clark." She gently shut the door between them.
On her side, Lois stood perfectly still until she heard the sound of his retreating footsteps. Even then, she hardly dared breathe until the loud echo of the lobby door's closing confirmed Clark's departure.
"Superman has left the building," Lois whispered to herself as she crossed to her window.
For sometime she only stood there, waiting, watching him move out of sight. She noted the soft sonic boom.
Lois Lane had known for a long time who her partner really was. On a level well below conscious thought, in some sub- terrainian, deeply buried place, she had known the truth. She just hadn't exactly been aware of it. Hadn't realized how much she truly knew, until she had looked right at Superman's scar. Lois was able to admit to herself, much later, that the only reason she had looked directly at his scar was because she had known it would be there.
The balcony had been softly lit, and having just escaped certain…discomfort after plummeting through the planetarium's space, her head had still been reeling. So, she shouldn't have seen. There couldn't be any good reason for her to see then what she never had before. Other than she had simply looked. As if confirming something, really. As if one could confirm what one never consciously suspected. Well, one could, she knew, because she had.
And furthermore, if she hadn't already made the connection in some unexplored part of her, wouldn't she have been surprised? Lois grimaced. "Surprised" was such a weak word for what she would have been. In the days that had followed, she had tried a few more on. Flabbergasted? Outraged? Dumbfounded? She still couldn't find the right one. She just understood that if, on some previously established fundamental level, she, Lois Lane, had not known who He was, she would have been all those things, and more, and entirely unable to hide it from him.
Satisfied that Clark was truly gone, Lois moved quickly to her bedroom, dropped to her knees, and from under the bed wrestled the heavy lead-lined box she'd paid too much for. In her heart she knew it was a silly precaution. He would never take advantage of her privacy. Lois was almost wholly sure of this. But then again, if she was the one with the x-ray vision, what wouldn't she look at?
She pondered this as she dialed the combination. The man who had sold her the box had offered her the heavy duty special lock, guaranteed "unbreakable." She smiled at the memory. The one for whom this box was intended didn't know the meaning of such a word.
The box now open before her, Lois scooped out its only contents, a yellow legal pad. Humming tunelessly, she ran her finger down the list on the page. By her rules she was making excellent progress. "Open manhole" and "STAR Labs break-in" had already been checked off. "Held at gunpoint", which had seemed like a pipe dream when she'd written it, had been made possible by Clark, himself. Lois checked it off with no small satisfaction.
"Next up, man-eating shark."
Now, realistically, Lois knew this couldn't be done within the city limits. And, too, there was intrepid and there was just plain stupid. But didn't the Metropolis Aquarium house a shark exhibit? And while the specimens there might not be the type that devour, they could maim, couldn't they? Once, on a rare day off, Lois had enjoyed the seahorse exhibit. Perhaps Clark could be lured there under such a pretense? How hard could it be to accidentally stumble into a giant fish tank? Since witnesses could be a problem, maybe she'd ask the management for a behind-the-scenes tour for the city's hottest reporting team.
"Buckle up, Farmboy." She grinned, "You ain't seen nothing yet."
She carefully replaced the notebook in its box. Grunting and groaning, she struggled to fit the box back in its hiding place. She reached underneath her bed, flinging various things aside as she tried to make a bigger space. Her hand brushed up against what had formerly been a gun. Her gun, given to her by Lex Luthor, from before, way, way before. Superman had squashed it like a ripe tomato, stopping her from using it to avenge Clark's murder. Now, Lois pulled it out, held the cold, twisted steel in her palm, and let herself remember the night she'd seen Superman for who he was.
After the planetarium dinner, she and Clark had bid each other their usual goodnight at her door. The one they always hoped would somehow end in a kiss, but which inevitably ended in a warm hug. Lois had reassured Clark for the thousandth time that she hadn't been hurt in her free fall, that Superman had been his usual prompt self, that she would lock the door and call him if she felt uneasy. His face had then taken on that odd, distant look, which had suddenly made sense to her. Clark had declared himself exhausted, squeezed her into a fast hug, and hurried off.
Lois couldn't remember ever being so relieved to be rid of someone. LNN's bulletin confirmed that Superman had been needed in Suicide Slum. Not really news, but then it had been a quiet night. For the rest of the world.
Shaky and a little sick with her new knowledge, Lois had made her way into her bedroom. On autopilot, she had removed the new dress, the too-high heels, and sat down on her bed. She didn't know how long she had sat there, just that the silent numbness in her mind had been welcome, sweet, even. Made all the more so by her understanding that it was temporary. Lois didn't dare move, hardly dared blink, for fear of bringing forward the leaping tiger of her mind. The one that wanted to claw its way out, to tear, to scrape, to hurt.
Her anguished question had caught her off guard, but once asked, once out of her mouth, she'd known she couldn't stop the others that would follow. She'd swallowed hard, willed them all back into the numbness.
It had been the sight of her own reflection in the bureau mirror that had brought her to her feet. Lois couldn't look at that woman. She had eyes so full of pain, so full of agony, so full of other things she didn't want to identify. She had to move, get out of her line of sight.
Lois had hurled her shoe at the woman in the glass. The resulting crash had been so satisfying she'd indulged herself. Overturning the bedside table, smashing the lamps, ripping the linens off the bed. She hadn't been able to tip the bureau over, but the struggle with it had felt good. She had let the black blanket of anger cover her completely, and in so doing had wiped out the horribly sad woman in the mirror. But that, like the sweet numbness, had been only temporary.
The same anchor on LNN had then assured her that Superman had finished his work and headed off to "who knows where."
He could be home already, she'd thought. She was going over. But she wouldn't go empty-handed. No. That would be rude. Superheroes deserved thanks, didn't they? And she had certainly used his super services often. A token, then. Something that symbolized the depths of her feeling for…both of him. Where was it? Where had she put it?
Lois had ransacked her room still further, though this time with a single purpose. She had dropped to her knees beside the bed, begun to drag out the boxes and odds and ends that seemed to collect underneath. It was still there, still in its original box, the gun paperweight. Made for her especially by Superman the night Clark was killed in front of her. And it really was special. A special reminder of the lie their lives were. She would take it to him, she'd decided. Pound on his door. Bounce it off that scar in the middle of his forehead. And never, ever in a thousand lifetimes, ever speak to him, again.
Plan formed, Lois had moved to get dressed. She had given considerable consideration to wearing the red dress over to Clark's, wondering if he'd even recognize it. He had certainly held her in it long enough for it to have made an impression. With shaking hands and a furiously pounding heart, she had pulled the wrinkled, discarded dress from under the bed. It's shade was an exact match of his cape. That is why she had bought it. How pathetic was that? She was so stupid, so stupid, so unbelievably stupid.
Dropping the red dress, she had sagged to the floor, all her energy completely drained. Laying there in the mess she had made, she saw the other dress. The beautifully made testament to her now well-established stupidity. Lois Luthor's wedding dress, a satin and imported lace construction of treachery and heartache. Years had passed since she'd seen it last. Lois had pulled it into her lap, fingering the buttons that were still undone. She'd never done them up, just pushed the whole thing under. Out of sight, out of…well, she couldn't deny that Clark Kent had saved her that night, in a way Superman never could.
Lois sat up suddenly. In a flash she put it all together.
Clark Kent had been in the kryptonite cage.
Dear God. Lois closed her eyes, drew a deep breath that bordered on a sob.
She had seen that cage. On a tip from Bobby Bigmouth, she had stolen her way into the police's evidence lock-up. She'd been on a mission, then. Had needed to see it with her own two eyes. It had disappeared soon thereafter.
Once, she had asked Clark what he knew about it. His easy smile had vanished and for a moment, before it returned, he had looked…scared.
Clark had been in that cage. Lex had trapped him because of her. Clark had been in that cage, and she, Lois, had put him there. No wonder he'd been so drawn, so tired when he and Perry and Jimmy had returned her to her apartment that long ago day. He had tried to leave, but in the end, his… goodness hadn't allowed him the luxury.
Lois had buried her face in the rich material of the wedding gown and cried for them both. The anger, the leaping tiger, the gun paperweight all dissolved into irrelevancy. She had hurt him as deeply and completely as a person could be hurt. They were even. But for one unfinished promise between them. The vow that she had made to him on what wasn't her wedding day. Standing in the folds of this dress, she'd taken his hand and promised:
'One day, Clark, I want to free you, so you'll know how it feels. Just tell me when. I'll let you out, pull you up, and put you back together. I owe you. I mean it.'
Clark's reply had matched her seriousness. 'I accept, Lois. I'm holding you to it.'
Lois had once despaired of ever keeping this promise to Clark. She had wanted to be his hero, as he had been hers. But how did one go about saving someone as level-headed, as well adjusted, as good as Clark Kent?
But then, Clark had shown her the scar. He had chosen to show her. Lois knew this was important. In showing her the scar, he had shown her what trapped him And he had, also, given her the key. Lois would free him; from the isolation that had to be stifling, from the uncertainty that had to be chronic, and from the fear that stayed with him. The fear of being found out, the fear of rejection, the fear of her rejection of him once she knew.
This she could see clearly now. When he'd caught her at the planetarium, he had been holding himself steady by sheer force of will, by self-discipline, by long, long practice. But Superman had been afraid. Had he once shown his true self to someone he'd loved? Had they turned away? With disgust? With fear? With condemnation?
Clark, in showing her the chicken pox scar, had shown her the deeper scars. The ones that haunted him, closed him in, cut him off. But not anymore. He didn't know it yet, but that part of Clark Kent's life was over. She was here. And this was a job for Lois Lane.
If the truth really could set you free, she would make Clark Kent proof of that. She would make him tell her the truth, and in doing so, uncage him. The very next day, some guys who knew guys loosened the manhole cover, and Lois had gotten the ball rolling.
A tentative knock on her door jolted Lois out of her memories and back into the present. Frowning at the mess her attempts to hide the box had made of her bedroom, Lois shut and locked the door behind her and hurried to answer.
"Hey, Lois," greeted an obviously nervous Jimmy. "About those numbers?"
Superman was patrolling for lack of anything better to do. The city was just quiet enough for Lois' shout to have him at her window in record time.
"Aarggghhh!" she was yelling. "Are you kidding me?! This is all there is? I can't believe it, weeks and weeks of useless fact-finding…"
"Yeah," Jimmy was answering sympathetically, if not miserably. "Sorry, Lois. I knew you wouldn't like it, but you wanted everything a.s.a.p."
Superman hovered alongside Lois' apartment, relief battling amusement, as he realized the cause of Lois' cries. She was ok, just taking some of the hide off Jimmy. He floated quietly away from her living room window, lest either one of them see him. Not a good idea for Jimmy to see how closely Superman watched over and listened out for Lois Lane.
He was pulling out of sight, enjoying Lois' tirade directed at someone other that him, when his gaze fell into her bedroom. The chaos within caught his attention, holding him momentarily still. It looked like someone had searched the place. His eyes made a quick inventory of the mess spread all around the bedroom floor. Maybe she was just…spring cleaning? It wasn't spring and this looked like the opposite of cleaning. He told himself he was prying. Lois hadn't called him for help. And her bedroom door was closed, as was her bedroom window, so he had no business…a lead box.
There was a lead box sitting right in the middle of her room, right next to the bed. He went inside. The window had been locked but that hadn't really been a problem. He would fix it later. Lois' voice wafted under the bedroom door. She was still just warming up. There was no hurry.
He looked at the box. No doubt about it, lead boxes made him nervous. Nothing good ever came in them.
"Lois would not have kryptonite," he scolded the box. She had threatened to kill him with it once, but that was different. That was when she'd thought Clark was gone. And it hadn't really been him she wanted to kill, just Superman, who was trying to stop her from seeking revenge, and who he, of course, was. Right. Ok. But she wouldn't have kryptonite. That was the point.
Jimmy's responses had sputtered out, and Clark could only make out the cub reporter's moans and what he took to be pleas for mercy.
He opened it. Bracing himself, foolishly he knew, for the shock of the green glow. Just a notebook. He laughed softly at himself, relieved. Crazy she would keep it here. Obviously it was valuable, or personal, or both. Nothing he should look at.
Superman sat down slowly on the bed. He studied the notebook that had somehow gotten into his hand. He opened it. Smiled. It was just one of Lois Lane's famous lists. This was part of her brilliance. Her sharp mind was a whirlwind of ideas. Still, she was able to build a methodical list of possibilities, plans of action…
His mind slowly, unbelievably slowly, processed the words on the page. Superman turned to stone. Frozen completely on Lois' bed, trespassing and invading her privacy, and utterly unable to move.
She knew. Lois knew.
No, wait. She knew? Lois knew? And she'd been doing what? Pushing his buttons? Getting even? Deliberately torturing him? How long had she…?
She knew. She knew and she'd been taking her revenge.
She'd been making him the fool.
She'd been stringing him along.
She'd been…so…so…good to him.
She had. In the last few weeks when he'd been awash in turmoil, he had needed her, her friendship. And Lois had given it at every turn. She'd been kind, generous, supportive.
Lois knew? She really knew?
He cast his eyes blindly around the room, still not moving, just trying to keep his thoughts running along one track, trying to gather his wits, to think what he should do next. The detached part of his mind noted some familiar objects strewn about. On the floor, next to his boot, was the gun paperweight. From that night…dear God…
He stood. Spun. And burst out of her bedroom door. He didn't care how it looked, Clark Kent emerging from Lois' bedroom, still doing the buttons on his shirt. Heedless of Jimmy's presence, and since when wasn't Jimmy present when it mattered, he blurted the question that was the single most important of any warring inside him.
"Have I lost you?"
Two startled faces turned to meet him. For an instant, the shocked silence held them all still. Then Jimmy made a snappy about face, his exit so quick he might have been the one who was Superman.
"Have I, Lois?" Clark persisted. He didn't care anymore who might hear what.
"Guys," Jimmy begged. "Please, let me out first. Before…just…"
Jimmy was tugging unsuccessfully on Lois' front door. Having been there himself, Clark took immediate pity on him. He marched over and yanked it open, breaking any number of bolts. If Jimmy noticed, there was no sign of it. His boots beat a rapid tattoo down the hallway.
Closing the door once more behind him, Clark turned to face Lois. "I'll need to fix a few things before I leave today," he offered weakly. And then, "I've lost you, haven't I, Lois?"
Lois walked past him into her bedroom. "No, Clark, no. You don't get it."
She started packing away the things from under her bed.
"Truer words have never been spoken," he agreed as he followed her in. "But Lois, you…know." He gestured to the lead box, to the list still laying where he'd dropped it. He picked up the twisted gun and held it out to her, his face burning with shame.
"Of course I have my suspicions, Clark, but I don't know anything until you tell me," she answered easily.
Clark saw the red dress she was folding. It was bunched up and wrinkled, but definitely the same dress.
"Until I tell you?" He frowned. Uncertain how to proceed. Uncertain why she was holding that dress.
"Yes. Until my best friend, the man I trust more than any…being…in the galaxy tells me, then I don't know."
Lois moved around to the opposite side of the bed, now vigorously shoving another dress under. The dress. The one with the ridiculous amount of buttons. He didn't remember how many, just that he'd undone every one of them.
"But, clearly, you do…know, Lois."
He was trying to stay in the conversation. Watching her put it all out of sight, out of human sight.
"You asked me if you'd lost me, Clark." Lois stood up to watch him. "It's the opposite. You've found us."
Clark stopped counting the buttons on the dress. His head snapped up.
"There's an us?"
"There's always been an 'us', just in an unconventional form."
"Lois, I'm floundering here."
He was watching her now, as carefully as she was watching him.
"You need to say it, then. I can keep going with this as long as it takes. Really, I can. Did you read the whole list? There's more to come. But I'm not sure how much longer you'll hold up under the strain. I'm not sure how you've done it for so long, anyway. And now that you don't have to, you shouldn't. Take off the glasses, Clark. Open your mouth, Clark. What more could you possibly need, Clark?"
"I'm Superman," Clark said, and let out the breath he'd been holding for minutes, for weeks, for a lifetime. "I'm Superman," he repeated raggedly. "Lois, I'm Superman."
She smiled at him. A smile unlike any he'd ever seen before.
"A-la-kazam, Clark, you're free."
Clark heard the long ago echo of his own voice. He had said that very thing to Lois. In this very spot, on the night that she had shot out of the wedding dress and back into his life. With those words, things between them had really begun. It had been the first time he had really known that the possibility for more between them truly existed.
"Free," he repeated, savoring the sound, understanding at last.
"I promised you, Clark. I owed you."
"You have never owed me anything, Lois." He shook his head at her, tried to put his heart into his next words. "You have given me everything."
"No," Lois corrected him. "But I've set you free, so that now everything is possible."
A future then? Their future? The life he so wanted…with her?
"Everything, Lois?" At her nod, he continued. "Where should I start?"
"No imagination, Superman?" she taunted him softly.
Clark reached for her; across the bed under which so much of their history lay buried, across the space that had always been between them, across the years that had finally led them to this place. And he found her there, waiting…warm…willing…and all his.