By Wendy Richards <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Submitted: March 2004
Summary: Superman has saved Lois's life many times. But this one was the closest call of all…
Author's Note: Since a certain person argued that birthdays are a time when the celebrant should write stories for others, this story was dedicated to all those FoLCs with February birthdays. I'm glad you all enjoyed it!
Many thanks, as always, to Kaethel, Yvonne and Elena for their invaluable beta-reading skills — and to Tank for a minor suggestion which I hope he notices. ;)
All rights to Lois and Clark are the property of DC Comics and Warner Bros; no infringement is intended by their use in this work of fiction.
He wasn't coming.
She'd yelled until she was hoarse, but there'd been no response.
Just silence. And the occasional flapping of wings as a flock of birds passed overhead in a hurried flutter.
Searching the skies once more, Lois couldn't even detect the faintest speck of royal blue. He wasn't coming.
It had finally happened. Clark had warned her often enough — and even Superman had taken her to task, grimly pointing out that he couldn't be everywhere at once — that one day she would take one risk too many and that she would run out of luck.
Well, her luck had clearly been running on low all evening — and now the supply was empty. Gone. Not even the vapour remaining to offer her a shred of hope.
She was minutes, if not seconds, from death. And Superman was nowhere in sight — clearly nowhere within earshot.
The famous Lois Lane luck had finally run out.
It wasn't as if she'd never imagined meeting an untimely end, she told herself as she fought once more, vainly, to free herself from the prison which threatened to become her grave. But her imaginings had tended to include getting caught by a stray bullet as she got in the way of an escaping murderer or fraudster. Or being tied up in a weighted sack and dumped in the Hobbs at dead of night.
Not tied up on a hillside counting the seconds as she stared up at a painfully sharp blade suspended about two feet above her head. Suspended directly over her throat, in fact, and held there only by a thin, fraying rope.
A rope which, by now, had to have been reduced to a couple of strands…
That was the idea, her captors had told her when they'd caught her nosing around the boarded-up warehouse where they conducted their business of supplying the rich and jaded with something different to satisfy their palates. Exotic slave girls — young women, few more than teenagers, smuggled in from the Far East and Latin America, to become middle-aged men's playthings.
Lois hoped that the phone call she'd been able to make to her contact on the Vice Squad would have been sufficient for the horrible trade in human beings for sexual exploitation to be stopped and the young women taken into safe custody. Unfortunately, she would never be able to find out for herself. One more second, and she would have been safe — but one of the slave-traders had driven up just as she'd let herself carefully out of the warehouse, and she'd been caught. Trapped.
And now she was tied and pinned to the ground some distance away from a very lonely road outside the city, with that blade dangling over her, suspended from a tree-branch. The rope, they'd told her, was far too thin and frayed to hold a blade of that weight — a butcher's knife — for long. Maybe half an hour, they'd taunted. Maybe less.
But, just to help things along a little, one of her captors had held the flame of his cigarette lighter against the rope for a couple of seconds before he'd left.
She'd been yelling for Superman ever since. But he hadn't come.
He wasn't coming.
The tears she'd been fighting since the slave-traders had tied her to the ground and explained how she would die refused to be held back any longer. Lois's eyes filled with tears and a large lump swelled in her throat.
She was going to die. Out here, alone.
And it was highly likely that her body might not be discovered for some time. Days. Weeks, even. After all, while her police contact knew that she'd been at the warehouse, no-one would have any idea where she'd been taken subsequently — even if her captors were arrested, she'd bet they'd refuse to say. It was hardly as if they could make any kind of plea bargain, given the charges they'd already be facing.
She would never see the Daily Planet again. Wouldn't get to see her scoop about the slave traders in print, and bask in Perry's admiration over another front-page story.
She would never see Clark again.
Would he miss her? They'd been fighting a lot lately, mostly over her friendship with Lex Luthor. She hadn't felt quite as close to Clark lately; hadn't felt quite as welcome to turn up at his apartment any time she wanted. They teased each other less frequently, and on a number of occasions she'd noticed him apparently catching himself before saying something to her. When had Clark — or she, for that matter — started guarding their tongues around each other? When had she stopped feeling that she could confide in him?
And now, it was too late to do anything about it. She was about to die.
It was useless. But she just had to try one more time…
Her voice hoarse, her throat aching, she yelled, "Help! Superman, help… please help…"
The scream turned into a fit of harsh, dry coughing. Lois closed her eyes, trying to squeeze the traitorous tears out. If she were going to die, she wouldn't do it crying… she wouldn't…
There was a sudden rush of wind.
She was abruptly, painfully wrenched away from the ground.
And her shocked gaze fell on the blade as it plummeted to the ground and embedded itself in the soil where her head had been seconds before, a chunk of her hair trapped beneath it.
Arms tightened around her. "Oh, god, Lois… Lois!" Her head was pressed hard against an unyielding chest.
She was, miraculously, suddenly, safe. Alive.
"Superman." The tears flowed unrestrained, and she let him hold her.
It was probably only minutes later, although it felt like much longer, when Superman loosened his grip on her and held her a little way from him, still without letting her go. His brown eyes seemed to bore into hers and, to Lois's amazement, they were glistening with moisture.
Superman, the strongest man in the world, was crying.
"Lois." His voice, little louder than a whisper, was shaky, and so was the hand he raised to her face. The backs of his fingers stroked along her cheek for brief moments before he let his hand fall again. "I almost didn't get here in time," he said, in something more like his normal deep, commanding tones, but the faint tremor as he said 'time' told Lois that he was very shaken up.
Just as she was…
"Yeah, that was a close one," she managed, trying to make light of things but knowing that she was failing. Then, before she could stop herself, she added, "I thought you weren't coming…"
The brown eyes closed briefly as Superman winced. "I'm sorry… I — " He broke off, inhaled deeply, then explained. "There was a landslide in Mexico — I've been down there for the past few hours… I never heard you calling until just a few minutes ago when I was almost back in Metropolis." He gave a shuddering sigh. "I almost didn't find you in time."
Lois let her head fall to his chest again as the realisation of how lucky she'd been hit her once again. Superman had been thousands of miles away. Of course he hadn't heard her. And if he'd been just a minute or two later getting back to the city, it would have been too late. He wouldn't have heard her last, desperate cry for help — and she would still have been on the ground when the blade had fallen. She would have been guillotined.
She could feel the rise and fall of Superman's breathing beneath her cheek; could hear the steady, slowing beat of his heart. She was aware that her own heart-rate was probably returning to normal as the initial shock of her near-death experience and rescue began to fade.
She was alive.
Impulse made her turn to look again at what had very nearly been her deathbed: the blade half-buried in the grass a harsh reminder of what she'd been saved from.
"Who did this? Why?" The harsh voice barely sounded like Superman.
She told him the bare details. His mouth tightened further as the kidnapped women were mentioned. "If the police don't get them, I will," he said, through clearly gritted teeth.
But Lois barely heard him. She was shivering suddenly, and her teeth started to chatter uncontrollably. She clutched at the arm holding her securely, unsure that her legs would hold her upright.
"I'm taking you home," a reassuring voice said close to her ear. And then she was being lifted, held tightly against something warm and very solid, and the sensation of rushing air was back.
She was safe.
Lois was safe.
She so nearly hadn't been.
Clark fought unsuccessfully against the images flooding his mind, of his partner tethered to the ground, lying helpless beneath a lethal blade already starting to fall. Of what would have happened had he not got there just in time, without a second to spare. Of the woman he loved lying mutilated, bloody and lifeless, on the ground. Dead because he hadn't been in time to rescue her.
He'd been shaking when he'd wrenched her up from the ground, not daring to delay even the extra second it would have taken to ensure that all her bindings were loose.
He was still shaking now.
He'd probably hurt her, dragging her up and away the way he had — but that was better than her being dead.
There were so many things he should be doing right now. Going after the ruthless thugs who had almost killed his best friend, for one. Making sure that their trade in helpless young women was stopped, for another. And… well, when he'd heard Lois screaming for him, he'd been on his way back to his apartment to get cleaned up and changed before heading to the Planet to write up the landslide story. As an interview with Superman, naturally.
But right now, he had no intention of leaving Lois as long as she needed him.
He'd never seen her so shaken up before. There'd been close calls before, of course; he'd lost count of the number of times he'd saved her life just in the nick of time. But this was different, somehow. Admittedly, it had been a lot closer than most of those other times. But also, this time there was the fact that she clearly had really thought he wasn't coming. She'd been calling and calling for him… and he hadn't come to her rescue.
Lois had thought that Superman had abandoned her, left her to her fate.
As if he could ever willingly do that!
But he had been somewhere else, out of earshot. And he hadn't heard her. And because of that, she had almost died.
He'd almost lost her.
Just like so many people had died earlier because he hadn't been able to save them, Lois could also have died.
Involuntarily, he took another deep, shuddering breath and held his precious cargo closer to him. Lois. Alive and breathing, in his arms. Safe.
She was still now, calm; the tears, he thought, had dried and she'd stopped shivering. She'd been suffering from shock, of course. He could help her with that if she wanted; a sweet drink, a shoulder to cry on, if she needed it, someone to listen. But then, he thought, perhaps she didn't need any of that. Looking down at her, he realised that she was asleep.
It was probably for the best. She'd been through a horrible experience, and right now sleep was the best remedy for her.
Her apartment window was just ahead now; he approached carefully, freeing one hand to push it open before flying in and floating over to one of the sofas. He looked from her to it, hesitating. Those sofas really weren't the most comfortable pieces of furniture around. Nor was either of them long enough for Lois to lie on.
He made a snap decision and headed for the bedroom, floating across the room and gently laying Lois down on the bed. She'd be comfortable there. He could cover her with a blanket and leave her to sleep off the traumatic experience.
And then he could come over — *Clark* could come over — early tomorrow morning to see how she was. He could bring her breakfast. And do his best to heal the painful breach which had opened up between them in recent weeks. After all, if he'd been just a few seconds later tonight, she would have been lost to him for ever. What was his stupid jealousy over her closeness with Lex Luthor next to the thought that he might never have seen her alive again?
"Oh, Lois… if I'd lost you…" he murmured, gazing down at her as she lay still on top of the quilt, her dark hair tousled and her body curled into the foetal position.
She stirred. Her eyes opened and suddenly he was faced with two dark brown pools staring at him.
"Superman?" Her tone was anxious, and he hastened to reassure her.
"I'm still here, Lois."
"You're not leaving… are you?"
"Well…" He hesitated. "I was going to. I thought you were asleep."
She stretched out a hand towards him, her expression pleading. He couldn't look away from the remembered terror in her eyes. "Please don't go. Not yet. Please."
He couldn't refuse her. He didn't want to leave anyway. But still… "I… I really should leave, Lois… I'm filthy," he said, gesturing down at his Suit, indicating the muddy splotches all over the Spandex. "And I should go and track down those… those *bastards* who almost killed you…"
Her eyes widened at the swear-word, and he realised that Superman never swore. Too late. But then, these weren't usual circumstances.
"The police can manage," she said, and he could hear the hoarseness in her voice. "And do you really think I care about a little dried mud? Please," she added, now pleading again. "I can't bear to be alone… please, just hold me for a minute?"
If she looked at him like that, if she asked him in that tone of voice… how could he ever leave her side again?
And he needed to stay, too. The terror that had gripped him ever since he'd heard her petrified, hoarse scream still hadn't left him. It had intensified once he'd seen what had been done to her, what had so nearly come of her. If he left now… If he went away now, how could he guarantee that he would not be haunted by his fears, by nightmares of what could have happened to her? Imagining her beloved face staring sightlessly, accusingly, up at him, as so many others had mere hours earlier — all those poor people he hadn't been in time to save when the landslide had hit.
The thought that people had died because he hadn't been able to get there in time was painful. The thought that one of those people might have been Lois was… torture. Even flying back with her to her apartment, he'd been tormented by waking visions of what could have been. If he left her now, he knew that those images would not leave him.
He could go, of course, do the necessary checking up, and then come back as Clark. He could stay with her as Clark in a way that Superman couldn't without it looking very odd — Superman never stayed around, after all. But, he thought with an inward grimace, there was no guarantee at all that Lois would let Clark past her front door at the moment. Their relationship was in a very rocky stage.
But he needed to be with her now, just a little bit longer, to reassure himself again that she was alive and unhurt by her ordeal. No, Superman would have to stay.
He took the couple of steps required to take him to her bedside, then sat down beside her, reaching for her hand and squeezing it gently. "Whatever you want, Lois. I won't leave you. I promise."
He was staying. Gratefully, Lois curled her fingers around Superman's and squeezed his hand. She really hadn't been able to face the thought of being alone just yet. Not while she was still so shaken up.
She didn't know what was wrong with her. This was far from the first time that she'd had a close call. But on those other occasions she'd picked herself up, brushed herself down — literally or metaphorically — and got on with what needed to be done, which was usually making sure that the bad guys got delivered where they needed to be delivered and that she had the story for the Planet.
This time, she was shaking. She was still panicky, unable to push her unpleasant experience behind her and get on with what needed to be done. Part of her brain was reminding her that there was a story waiting to be written — a big one. And she should be finding out what the police were up to: had they caught the slave-traders? Were the women safe? Was there an ongoing investigation?
She should have had Superman take her to the Planet so that she could dive right in and get the story written. She should be getting up right now and making the phone calls that needed to be made. The last thing she should be doing was wallowing, acting like a terrified rookie reporter who'd faced her very first dangerous situation — and run away like a coward.
By staying here, by making Superman stay with her, wasn't she just a wallower and a coward?
And yet… She was still shaking. She was barely able to think straight. And all the time unwanted tears were threatening to spill. She had to pull herself together. Maybe if Superman would just hold her for a while, she'd soon feel better and she'd be able to get on with her job.
If he held her just for a while…
She shifted towards him, giving him another pleading look. He looked at her for a moment, seeming to be debating with himself, but then he moved so that he was lying on the bed beside her, head propped up against the headboard. Then, looping an arm around her shoulders, he tugged her to lie with her head on his chest, wrapping his arms around her warmly, offering the comfort of his embrace. Feeling much of her tension draining away at that simple gesture of closeness, Lois slid her arm across Superman's chest, holding him close to her as he was holding her close to him.
"Better, Lois?" he murmured, his breath gentle against her hair.
"I didn't hurt you, did I?" he asked, sounding concerned. Worried.
"Hurt me?" She tilted her head up to look at him.
"When I grabbed you. I don't think all the ropes were completely undone, but there wasn't time to wait."
"Oh." She tested her wrists. One felt a little sore, but nothing that wouldn't go away within a couple of days. Compared to being decapitated… "I'm fine. Really," she insisted as he showed signs of scepticism.
He nodded, accepting her assurances, then hugged her briefly, encouraging her to lie down again. She allowed herself to snuggle against him, needing the comfort offered by his presence, by his solid body holding her protectively. His strong arms around her seemed to give her permission to let a few tears escape, and she sobbed silently for several minutes, letting the panic and shock drain away.
It did feel better. Soon, she promised herself, she'd be her old self again and she could stop taking up Superman's time. She'd let him go and she would get back to work. Maybe just another few minutes…
"I'm so sorry," Superman whispered, some time later.
"Sorry?" She raised her head briefly to look at him, taking in the agonised expression on his face. "What do you have to be sorry about?"
"I so nearly didn't make it for you," he explained, pain evident in his voice. "When you said you were calling and calling and you thought I wasn't coming… Lois, you have to know that I'd never not come when you need me if I could possibly help it!"
Did he think she'd believed… "Superman, I know you'd always come if you could! I… I didn't know why you weren't coming, but I know you can't be everywhere at once," she reminded him. "I… guess I'd just resigned myself to thinking that this was the one time you weren't able to be there for me. Clark's always telling me that it's gonna happen some day… I guess he was right."
His arm around her tightened again. "I can't promise you that it'll never happen, Lois. All I can promise is that any time I know or even suspect that you need me, I'll be there for you."
"I know. It's what you do for everyone." Lois gave him a grateful, if shaky, smile. "That's what's so wonderful about you."
"I help when I can," he said tautly, and it seemed to Lois that he was uncomfortable with the conversation. "But I was talking about you, specifically."
And then the realisation hit her. She might be getting over the shock, but Superman wasn't.
She'd made the assumption, without even thinking about it, that for him this was just another rescue, as they all were. Okay, this time he'd been saving the life of a friend, but he'd done that before. Of course he'd be relieved that he'd arrived in time and that she was okay, but for him it really would be no big deal.
She'd been wrong.
She probably should have worked it out sooner. What had he said, just before she'd asked him to stay?
<Oh, Lois… if I'd lost you…>
"I'm… special… to you?"
It was a question she'd always wanted to know the answer to. She'd hinted at it before with him, trying to find out whether he cared for her in any way, whether there was any possibility that he might even in some small way return her feelings for him.
Under normal circumstances, she wouldn't dare to ask it as a direct question. Under normal circumstances, she was well aware that if she did ask him something direct about his feelings for her he would leave. He'd done it in the past, on those rare occasions when he'd actually been around long enough for her to bring the conversation around to personal matters.
This time, she didn't think he would leave. And she justified the selfishness of her question to herself by her conviction that Superman wasn't his normal self. He needed to talk, just as much as she'd needed to be held.
For once, perhaps she could actually help Superman.
Her heart thumping, she waited for his answer.
His tone was ragged. "You need to ask, Lois?"
There was her answer. But still… Something in her needed to hear him say it. "I know you like me, Superman. I mean, we've talked, we've spent some time together…"
The arm around her tightened briefly again. "Lois, are you trying to make me say it?"
"To say… what?" Almost breathless, she stared at him.
He hesitated and, as she watched, closed his eyes briefly. She saw him swallow. Then he shook his head once. "No. I can't, Lois. You know I can't." However hard she might have suspected that it was for him to say it, his tone was resolute.
He was refusing to tell her how much she meant to him. That had to imply, she realised, that she meant a *lot* to him. Her breath caught.
Couldn't she tell him that she loved him too? That it was okay to tell her how he felt, because she felt the same way?
And then it hit her. "You can't, can you? Because if anyone knew you cared about me…?"
He hesitated again. Then he gave her a wry smile. "Lois, people already guess that I care about you more than I should — more than I care about other people. Come on, how many times in the past few months have criminals tried to use you against me?"
"So you don't show that you care," she said; now it all made sense. "And it doesn't help that I let people see how I feel about you, does it?"
He shook his head. "I've wanted to ask you to… well, be more circumspect," he acknowledged apologetically. "But it wasn't easy. It's not exactly an easy thing to bring up in conversation, is it?"
"Especially as we don't talk all that often — well, other than when we're both working," Lois agreed. "I understand, Superman. I'll try to do better. But… just between us…?"
"Lois." Superman raised his free hand and drew the back of his knuckles over her cheek. "I care, okay?" His voice was gruff. "Just… don't push me to say any more. Please."
"I won't," she promised. He'd told her what she wanted to know, anyway. Okay, he was never going to act on his feelings, but… well, other than in her wildest dreams, she'd never imagined that she could possibly have a future with Superman. Even if he was willing — which he wasn't — how could she have a relationship with someone who belonged to the whole world? Who could be in Mexico one minute and the Middle East the next?
But he cared. About her. And that was enough.
She would never tell him how she felt about him. He'd made it pretty clear that he knew, but still… as he was hinting, it was better not spoken aloud. Time to change the subject, as much for him as for herself, she thought — and she could remind him that, however much it bothered him that he'd only got to her in the nick of time, he *had* got to her.
"Thank you for saving my life, Superman."
He gave a faint shrug and what was almost close to a smile. "It's my pleasure, Lois."
Impulse warred with caution. If she did it, he might push her away and leave. He might not let himself be alone with her again. On the other hand, she was well aware that this — Superman staying around instead of rushing off to be somewhere else — was unlikely to be repeated in any case.
Impulse won. She leaned up and brushed a kiss against his cheek. "Still. Thank you."
As she drew back, he hesitated; then he leaned forward and kissed her forehead. "I know I can't ask Lois Lane to start being careful, but… if you *could* possibly get into fewer near-death situations, you'd probably do my blood- pressure some good," he teased as he pulled back.
He was looking a lot better, Lois realised. Less tense, far less tortured. And she was better — he had to be aware of that. Any moment now, he'd make his excuses and leave — and she didn't want him to go just yet, even though she had things to do herself. She didn't want this interlude to end. Right now, it felt as if they were truly friends — the way she and Clark were friends. Or, truthfully, had once been friends. But the illusion of friendship would end, she was sure, the minute he flew out through her window.
She wanted to persuade him to stay just a little bit longer, to make this little oasis in time, in which Superman was her friend as well as her hero, last as long as she could.
Lois tightened her arm around Superman, deliberately staying close to him. "Tell me about the landslide," she invited. "What happened? Was it bad?"
That had been a close call, Clark thought. As it was, he'd let Lois see far more than he'd intended about his feelings for her. *Superman's* feelings for her, that was. Not Clark's — she wasn't interested in Clark's feelings anyway.
He couldn't love her as Superman, even if he wanted to.
He needed to get out of here. Now. Before he let his guard slip even further than he already had. Being with Lois at any time as Superman was risky, but tonight, given the state of his shattered, tormented emotions, was very dangerous.
She was safe. She was okay — making an excellent recovery from her ordeal, it seemed. So there was no need for him to stay any longer. She didn't need him. Did she? She wasn't crying any more — which was a good thing for his resolve, because if she'd still been in tears he could never have left her. She was okay now.
And as for him… so what if he was still shaken up and troubled by what he'd been through? He was used to it. It wasn't a big deal, after all.
"Actually, I should go, Lois." Deliberately ignoring her question, he shifted on the bed, beginning to take his arm away from around her neck.
"No — I mean, do you really have to?"
He sighed. "I should, Lois. You know it, too. I've been here longer than I should. That's not a problem — I wanted to see that you were okay. But you're fine now, I think, aren't you?"
"Are you?" she countered.
He didn't answer. He couldn't.
"Do you have somewhere else you have to be?" Now she was Lois Lane, sharp, intelligent reporter, simply not accepting his vague excuse that he needed to be going.
"Well, I really should check with the police —" he began.
"Superman, that can wait, can't it? I can ID those guys. If the cops don't have them, I'll go in and give descriptions tomorrow. I have to talk to them for my story anyway."
There was another surprise: that Lois Lane, intrepid reporter to whom nothing was more important than the story, wasn't already in the midst of writing it all up. But then, he knew that — like him — she'd been more shaken up by this than by anything else he could remember.
"Still…" he began, and made another attempt at moving. Though even that was half-hearted, he was aware.
"Do you have somewhere to go?" she asked, her voice soft.
Oh, that was his undoing. How could he possibly resist when she looked at him like that, brown eyes soft with compassion and friendship — she'd never looked at Superman like that before! — and spoke to him with such gentleness?
He wanted to stay and pour his heart out to her, to tell her the horrors he'd found when he'd arrived in central Mexico. Nothing he'd experienced so far, before or after he'd become Superman, had prepared him for that. The destruction of an entire town, people's homes and livelihoods ripped away from them in a matter of minutes — that was bad enough. But the bodies had been far, far worse…
Dead human beings, adults and children, were everywhere. And then there'd been those who were buried alive — he'd dug out as many as he could but, even with his Superpowers, that hadn't been enough. He'd had to be cautious, to go slowly, so that he didn't risk killing those who were still alive.
He hadn't been fast enough. He'd got there too late to save many of those trapped, and he hadn't been able to work fast enough to save others. Just like he'd almost not been fast enough to save Lois.
He'd never forget the smell. Or the noise. Or the gut- wrenching, heartbreaking cries.
And the silence, most of all; the silence where a family home, or a gathering-place, was uncovered, to reveal… nothing. Just dead bodies, where once an entire family had lived and laughed and been happy.
And the sadness in people's faces; the dawning misery as they'd realised that the great helper from America wasn't going to be able to work miracles after all. That all he could do, other than giving them advance warning of further landslides, was help them dig — a little bit faster than they could, and with a bit more knowledge of where people lay buried, thanks to his hearing and vision powers.
What use was Superman if he couldn't save lives? If all he could do was pick up the pieces after people had already died?
If, after all that, he'd been too late to save Lois too… he didn't know what he would have done.
"Superman?" Lois had moved and was now sitting cross-legged on the bed next to him. She touched his arm lightly. "What is it?"
Suddenly, not even words would come. He leaned back against the headboard again, all energy drained away. And, as he tried to search for something — anything — to say to Lois in order to convince her that he was really okay and that he needed to leave, something inside him cracked and he lost the struggle to pretend.
He squeezed his eyes shut as tears trickled down his face.
Lois stared, appalled and worried, at Superman. He was *crying*? And not like earlier, where his eyes had been suspiciously bright. These were real tears.
*Superman* was crying?
Somehow, she'd never thought of Superman as being vulnerable, of having the kind of deeper emotions most people experienced; he always seemed to be so much in control, both of himself and of everyone around him. Suddenly, he seemed less intimidating… less god-like. And much, much more human and in need of comfort.
She slid to the top of the bed, sitting next to him against the headboard, and wrapped her arms around him. Then, for a long while, she just held him as he dropped his head to her shoulder and sobbed wordlessly.
Eventually, he stirred. Raising his head, he muttered, "Sorry. I didn't… I never meant… uh, I should -"
Go? Not a chance, Lois resolved. Not while he was still clearly upset. She didn't release him, even when he tugged against her grasp; of course, he could easily free himself, but she saw it as something of a test. If he really wanted to leave, he'd be out of that door in less than a second.
He didn't move.
"Superman," she said softly. "Do you want to talk about it?"
He bit his lip, but didn't reply.
"I think you should," she urged. "What would you tell me, if I was the one who'd been crying?"
That got a slight smile and a raised eyebrow out of him. Okay, he did have a point. Not half an hour earlier she'd been the one in tears. "But I did," she pointed out. "Or we did. I mean, you know why I was crying, and we talked about it."
He shrugged slightly. "I guess…"
There was something incredibly familiar about that shrug, and about the refusal to admit completely that she was right. That nagged at Lois, but she couldn't figure out just why it was important.
Anyway, it didn't matter right at the moment. What did matter was the man in her arms.
"So talk," she commanded. "Tell me about it. Let me help you, Superman."
"You really don't want to hear it, Lois," he cautioned.
"The landslide?" she guessed. "Superman, I'm a reporter. I have to cover unpleasant stuff all the time. And, believe me, some of it was a heck of a lot worse before you came to town."
"Well, don't say I didn't warn you," he told her dryly. He drew his knees up to his chest in an action which felt to Lois as if he was distancing himself slightly from her. But then he started to talk, and she was no longer capable of doing anything other than focusing on the horror of his memories.
He'd been right: it wasn't pleasant. But what struck Lois most about what he was telling her was what he *didn't* say. About how helpless he must have felt in the face of so much disaster and human suffering. About how hard it had to have been to remain stoic, even hopeful and encouraging, in the midst of despair. And how lonely it must be to be him, to have to carry all of this horror inside himself, with no-one to talk to and nothing to help him grieve.
It was no wonder that her own near-death experience had upset him so much. He'd seen so many people die; the thought of losing yet another person, and this time someone he cared about, must have been the final straw. One burden too many for him to bear.
She felt honoured that he'd trusted her enough to confide in her. Though it made her wonder whether he had anyone else to talk to. Did he normally carry all this stuff alone? Did he have any way of letting off steam?
It was hardly surprising that he'd let down his guard with her over the past hour. Staying with her in the first place, telling her that she was special to him, hinting at even stronger feelings for her; these weren't things Superman would ever do under normal circumstances.
And she'd pushed him for more, tried to make him spell it out for her, when all the time what he'd needed most was a friend.
Well, he had a friend now.
She wasn't a psychologist or a counsellor, though. She had no experience in dealing with trauma victims. All she could do was go on her own gut instinct — which right now was telling her that what he needed least was sympathy.
"You think you didn't do anything to help those poor people?" she challenged him.
He turned bleak eyes on her. "And you think differently?"
"Superman, how long will it take before the aid teams get there? How long before the digging equipment and the first- aid tents and the doctors and the soldiers get there?"
"The main teams, tomorrow. A few advance workers had arrived by the time I left."
"So, if you hadn't been there, helping them dig people out, working out where survivors were, flying the most seriously injured to the nearest hospitals, what would have happened?"
He was silent; one hand reached for the edge of his cape and began to pleat it.
"You did help them, Superman. But most of all, you gave them hope and a reason to believe that the outside world hadn't forgotten them." She reached for his free hand and held it, squeezed it. "You can't save the whole world. You know that. But what you can do… it's enough, Superman. You just ask anyone at that place today. Or any other major emergency where you helped out. You give us all hope."
He met her gaze again. "You said that before, didn't you?"
Yes, she had; she distinctly remembered it. But… she hadn't said it to Superman, had she? That didn't sound familiar. And yet she couldn't remember who she had said it to. Maybe it had been in an article? And he'd read it?
Not that it mattered. If it helped him now, that was all that mattered.
"Yes, I did, and I meant it then. I mean it now too, Superman. What you do is amazing. You have to remember that!"
He smiled at last. "I'll try."
"You do that," she urged, squeezing his hand again. He would leave now, she was sure. There was no way that he'd want to stay around having just cried on her shoulder. Men always hated showing any weakness, and surely Superman would be no different. This, too, would ensure that his presence here this evening, and their heart-to-heart, was guaranteed never to be repeated.
Well, she hadn't expected it anyway.
"Lois." He was sitting up, leaning towards her, and she smiled back at him, unwilling to let him see her reluctance to let him leave now. But his words weren't what she'd expected.
"Thank you," he said softly. "I think we're even."
"I saved your life… and you just saved me back again," he told her. And then he leaned closer still and brushed his lips over hers in a sweet, affectionate kiss.
He was just saying thanks. A brief, light kiss, and then he would go.
But he hadn't reckoned on how it would feel to taste her lips once more.
Her gasp as his mouth met hers parted her lips, and the opportunity was too tempting to refuse. He let his tongue glide forward — or did it move of its own accord? — and suddenly they were *really* kissing. He was tasting her, exploring her. She was sighing, moving closer to him, wrapping her arms around his neck. And he was pulling her nearer, seizing the opportunity to kiss her as he'd longed to ever since that day at the airport when he'd pretended to be affected by the pheromone.
Their kiss was dizzying, exciting, passionate, loving… he never wanted it to end.
But it had to end.
Against his lips, she murmured, "Oh, Superman." And he remembered.
She wasn't kissing Clark. She was kissing his alter ego, the disguise. And he'd vowed never to allow Lois to get this close to Superman. There was no way that he would take the pretence so far as to start a relationship with her as Superman.
And besides, she didn't even like Clark at the moment… she was dating Lex Luthor.
He broke the kiss, dragging himself away from her. Breathing heavily, he faced her; she stared back at him, eyes wide and lips looking… kissed.
"I'm sorry," he said quickly. "I shouldn't have done that."
She looked back at him, disappointment on her face — but also, he noticed to his surprise, understanding. "I know. Like you said earlier — you can't take the risk of being close to someone."
"Yeah." He nodded, grateful for the excuse.
She was silent for a few moments. Clark, watching her, knew that he really needed to go. He'd stayed here far too long as it was.
He was about to get to his feet when she said, wistfully, "I can keep a secret, you know."
Could she really? He wondered curiously whether, if he confessed his secret identity to her, she would keep that secret. The jury was out on that one, he suspected; what was more important, though, was how she would react. Not that that was an issue here anyway; it wasn't as if he was contemplating telling her.
And that wasn't what she was asking, anyway. She was obliquely hinting that they could have a relationship in secret.
He shook his head firmly. "No, Lois. It's out of the question. It's not that I don't trust you," he added quickly. "It just wouldn't work. It's not practical." Before she could protest, he added, "Anyway, I thought you were already involved with… someone."
To his surprise, she looked puzzled. "What makes you think that?"
"I heard you were dating someone," he countered, an edge to his voice that he couldn't quite help.
The surprise on her face was quite genuine, he realised. There were none of the signs of lying he was used to, especially from her: she wasn't avoiding his gaze, and her heart-rate hadn't speeded up. "There's no-one… Oh, wait a minute," she added, sounding irritated. "Have you been talking to Clark?"
"Uh…" He hesitated, but that was clearly enough for her.
"He's obsessed with Lex Luthor. I'm just friendly with the guy, Superman, that's all! And, okay, I've been out on a couple of dates with him, but there's nothing to it. I'm not seeing him regularly or anything like that. Clark… oh, I don't know what it is. He's — maybe jealous or something. He never liked Lex. And it's really wrecked things between us."
Clark looked away briefly, his mouth tightening. Was she about to blame him for the breakdown in their friendship?
Her expression clouded. "I hate it, Superman! I was just thinking about it earlier — you know, before you came to save me? I… I mean, I didn't want Clark around in the beginning and I was pretty horrible to him. But then I started actually *liking* him. He… we… we became friends. And now this — and I really hate not being friends with him any more, Superman!"
"Do you know why he doesn't like Lex Luthor, Lois?" Clark asked, feeling guilty about using his alter ego like this, but unable to stop himself.
She grimaced. "He claims Lex is dirty. I… well, I don't know what to think. I don't know if it's just jealousy, or if there's something more to it."
"Why don't you ask him?" Clark suggested, doubting that she would, but wanting to see her reaction.
She surprised him again. "I should. I know I should. It's just that every time Lex is mentioned we end up fighting. And I don't want to fight with him any more. I want us to be friends again, the way we were before. Clark's very special to me, Superman. And I know I am — I *was* — to him." Ducking her head, she began to play with the edge of his cape. "And earlier… I thought I was never going to get the chance to tell him that I'm sorry. That I… care."
He was touched to the core. She cared about him — far more than she'd ever let on. He — Clark — was very special to her. She wanted their closeness back. She *cared* about him.
Words rushed to the tip of his tongue. He desperately wanted to tell her that he wanted that too; that he missed her and cared about her and wanted them to be as close again as they used to be. That he loved her.
But he stopped himself. He was here as Superman, not as Clark.
"Tell him, Lois," he urged, just managing to keep any emotion out of his voice. "I'm sure that if you tell Clark exactly what you just told me, everything will be fine. I… I know he cares about you."
She looked up at him again, biting her lip. "Just like you do. I guess sometimes I don't appreciate how lucky I am to have both of you. I suppose it takes something like tonight to make me realise it."
And to make him realise how devastated he'd be if he lost Lois, Clark reminded himself once more. His resolve to leave forgotten, he reached for her once more, tugging her into an embrace. And, as she wrapped her arms around him again, he felt her tears once more.
"Don't cry, Lois," he murmured, stroking her back, her upper arms. "It didn't happen. You're safe."
Sinking back onto the bed, he held her in his arms, wordlessly offering her all the reassurance he could that she was safe. And that he cared about her. That he loved her, even if he could never reveal his feelings.
That he would always be there for her.
Lois yawned, blinking as she slowly returned to wakefulness. The light streaming through the window told her that it was morning. But she didn't remember having gone to bed…
A glance downwards showed her that she was still dressed. Her clothes were crumpled, as if she'd slept in them — which she clearly had. She was even still wearing her shoes!
The previous evening's events returned in a rush of memory suddenly: her almost-decapitation, Superman's last-minute rescue and then their long conversation. An evening of confessions, actually.
Superman… where was he?
He'd left, presumably, she thought. She must have fallen asleep and he'd obviously left her to it knowing that she was fine.
And yet… The pillow next to her was indented. As if someone had slept on it.
He couldn't have been there all night, could he?
And then she heard it. A voice, coming from somewhere else in the apartment. A familiar male voice.
She slid off the bed, and her shoes fell off as she did so. Following the sound of the voice, she headed out towards the living-room.
"…Yes, I'm still holding… Oh, thank you. Detective Farrell? Yes, this is Clark Kent, Lois Lane's partner at the Daily Planet. I was just calling for an update on the slave traders Lois gave you the tip-off on last night…"
Clark was there? In her apartment? Very curious, Lois pushed open the door and went into the living-room.
A crumpled red cape met her gaze. Superman was holding the telephone, speaking into it in Clark's voice, on reporter- business.
*Clark*? Wearing Superman's costume?
And then the penny dropped. Clark wasn't wearing Superman's costume.
Superman was Clark.
She must have gasped. Clark turned and saw her. She saw his eyes widen, then he held up his hand. Two fingers. He'd be just two minutes. And his eyes sent her a message, pleading with her. Don't say anything until I finish this call, she understood.
Clark was Superman.
Stunned, she backed away until she was leaning against the wall; then her knees gave way and she slid to the floor. Clark. Her partner. Her best friend — her once best friend. *He* was Superman?
He'd pretended to her. Lied to her. Made a fool of her.
He'd saved her life. More times than she could remember. And the last time had been only last night. If it wasn't for Clark, she would have been dead.
He'd stayed with her last night, knowing that she needed company. And comfort. He'd held her, reassured her, taken care of her.
He'd cried on her shoulder, devastated because he hadn't been able to save people in Mexico.
Clark was Superman. Clark had spent most of the previous day battling against time and the elements to save lives after a landslide. Clark had saved the entire world from Nightfall. Clark had saved *her* life, in more ways than one, when Barbara Trevino had wanted her dead.
It was no wonder that she'd thought Superman's expressions had looked familiar a couple of times last night, she thought absently. Or that she couldn't figure out when she'd told him that he gave people hope.
Seeing Superman in tears, seeing him doubt himself after the landslide, had humanised him, made him seem like any other man who had doubts and insecurities. That had been somewhat incongruous with her idea of the Superhero. And yet, knowing that he was Clark, it all made sense.
Clark was human. He had flaws; he had insecurities; he doubted himself and sometimes got things wrong. And, at the same time, he was the kindest, gentlest man she had ever met.
Yes, she could see Clark as Superman now. It all made sense. The congenital helper; the kind and gentle man; the passionate crusader against wrongdoing; the upright, moral, principled person.
A hand rested on her shoulder. "Lois? Are you okay?" A pause. "I never meant you to find out like that."
She looked up at her partner; her hero. "Clark?"
He nodded. "Yes, it's just me."
Just him? She caught her breath. Was that really what he thought? *Just* him?
"You could never be 'just' anyone," she commented softly, giving him a wry smile. "It's not possible. You kind of have a tendency to stand out in a crowd, apart from anything else."
That made him smile slightly. "Only when I'm wearing this." He gestured to the suit.
"Clark, you stand out in a crowd even when you're not wearing the suit," she argued, and knew that it was the truth.
She held her hand up towards him, and he grasped it, pulling her gently to her feet.
"You don't seem mad," he said cautiously.
"Give me time!" she told him. "It hasn't fully sunk in yet."
"Uh… okay," he said warily. "So how much time have I got to get the heck out of Dodge?"
She held onto his hand and just looked at him for a long moment, remembering. Clark's affectionate teasing. Superman's care and concern for her. Clark saving her life and protecting her against Trevino and Mr Makeup. Superman holding her when she cried and reassuring her that she was safe. Clark hugging her and holding her when she needed it. Superman telling her that she was special to him.
Clark, being there all along for her: her friend, her confidant, her comforter, the man who cared about her.
More than cared, if she'd correctly read between the lines last night, and she knew that she had.
And it all fell into place. The reason why she'd been so upset to lose Clark's friendship. The reason why she'd felt torn between him and Superman for so long. The reason why she was jealous if another woman so much as smiled at Clark. The reason why she could kiss Superman one minute and almost cry about her lost closeness with Clark the next.
She loved Clark. She loved Superman. She loved Clark-who- was-Superman.
She took a step closer to him, sliding her free hand up to his shoulder. "Clark?"
"Yes?" He still sounded wary, but there was what she thought was a hopeful look in his eyes.
"Superman said that he couldn't have a relationship with me."
He nodded. "I know. And I can't."
Lois shook her head. "That's not true, Clark, is it? *Superman* can't have a relationship with me. But you're Clark, aren't you?"
Seeming surprised, he nodded again. "Yes. Superman's… well, just a disguise."
"I think he's more than that," Lois observed. "But that's not important now. If you're Clark, then you can have a relationship with me, can't you?"
His eyes widened. "Well, yeah. I guess. If you want to, I mean."
"Oh, I want to. Make that a definite!"
She closed the distance between their mouths, claiming her partner and her hero's lips with a firm, demanding kiss, showing him exactly what he meant to her.
She was kissing him. *Lois* was kissing him, Clark, having told him that she wanted a relationship with him.
No, she wasn't. She was kissing Superman. He was still wearing the costume, for god's sake! And she'd only said anything about a relationship with Clark because she knew that he was Superman.
He tore his mouth from hers, pushing her away.
"What's this all about, Lois?" he demanded.
She stared at him, looking hurt.
He deliberately ignored her expression. "Come on, Lois! You never gave me the time of day! I asked you out once, and you blew me off. You never wanted anything more than friendship from me, and more recently you haven't even wanted that."
"Clark, I know I was stupid!" she exclaimed. "I told you that last night! But things changed… I've hated the way things have been between us lately!"
That was true. She had told him that. But still… "Would you ever have said you wanted a relationship with Clark if he was just…"
Taking a further step back from her, he started spinning, not stopping until he was able to stand in front of her in the old T-shirt and jeans he'd been wearing when he'd heard about the landslide.
She was gaping at him, obviously put off balance by his spin manoeuvre. But then she drew herself up. Arms akimbo, she addressed him.
"Have you any idea how Clark-like you were last night?"
"Last night. I'm amazed that I didn't see it then. You said so many things — *did* so many things — that were so like Clark. And, you know, I've thought for a long time that I was in love with Superman. Last night, I *really* fell in love with him. It wasn't the powers, Clark. It wasn't even the fact that you saved my life all over again. It was *you*. The man underneath the suit. The guy who's really just human after all. The guy who feels pain and isn't afraid to show it. The guy who actually lets me see that he's vulnerable — who cries in my arms. The guy who needs someone to hold him and comfort him. And the guy who takes the time to listen and be a friend. That's all you, Clark. And I fell in love with you last night."
He stared back at her. Could he believe her?
And yet last night he'd seen a different side of Lois, too. Compassionate, caring, wise; she'd understood far more than he'd ever imagined about what he faced as Superman. She'd been there for him in a way no-one ever had before.
And she'd said things about her feelings for him as Clark, long before she'd had any inkling that she might actually be *with* Clark. She'd said, too, that she'd thought she wouldn't get the chance to tell him how she felt… because she'd thought she was going to die.
He'd almost lost her last night. If he had lost her…
His life would never have been the same again. As long as he lived, he would have had a giant, Lois-sized hole in his life and in his heart.
He'd been given a second chance. And so had she.
*They'd* been given a second chance.
Was he going to waste it simply because he couldn't be entirely sure that it was Clark rather than Superman whom she really wanted? When he *was* both Superman and Clark anyway?
"You're sure, Lois?" he asked her abruptly. "You want to be Clark Kent's girlfriend? Not Superman's?"
"I want to be *your* girlfriend," she said, taking a step towards him again. "You're you, whatever clothes you're wearing at the time, aren't you? I saw that last night."
He was, wasn't he? No matter how much he tried to pretend that Superman was a one-dimensional character, a semi- detached extension of himself, it simply wasn't true. Superman was an inseparable part of him. Lois had seen that, while he'd been too busy insisting that she could only want one side of him.
"If that's what you want, you've got it," he told her huskily. He took the final step needed to bring her to him, and cupped her face between his palms. "Lois, there's something I refused to tell you last night."
"Yes?" Her eyes were wide with anticipation.
"I love you."
"Oh, Clark!" She caressed his face with one hand. "I love you too. I don't know why I was so stupid for so long…"
"I think we both were."
"And we were almost too late," she reminded him, her voice shaky.
"But we've got a second chance. Let's not waste this one," he urged, and then brought his lips to hers.
He hadn't lost her. In fact, he'd won her.