Terms of Estrangement

By angelic_editor <moxie406@yahoo.com>

Rated: PG for mild language

Submitted: February 2006

Summary: Lois struggles to distance herself from Clark after her disastrous almost-wedding to Lex Luthor. Angst ensues.

Disclaimer: The characters aren't mine; the words are. Please don't take legal action, as poor college students aren't worth suing, anyway.


Chapter One

{*Deep within I'm shaken

By the violence of existing for only you

I know I can't be with you

I do what I have to do*}

— "Do What You Have to Do," Sarah McLachlan


Clark stared at the blank Word document and sighed.

His byline mocked him. "By Clark Kent, The Daily Planet" — that's all he'd written in the past hour and a half.

Frustrated, he absently raked a hand through his dark hair and set the laptop aside. He stood, pacing in front of his couch. He should have been able to write — he was in his apartment with nowhere else to be, dressed down in his favorite navy sweatpants and a worn grey T-shirt. He'd worked out for an hour after waking up. He should be relaxed and hammering out his latest piece for The Planet.

But he wasn't.

He couldn't concentrate. Four hundred sit-ups couldn't clear his head. Food held no appeal. Threats from the Chief did nothing for his motivation. Thoughts of Lois pervaded his brain.


God, just the thought of her sent bittersweet waves of remorse coursing through him. He ached to take back his words in the park. If only he hadn't been so foolish, so naive to think she could actually care for him — just everyday, average, plain vanilla Clark — the man behind the cape and the tights.

He closed his eyes and swallowed hard, willing the image of Lois' warm, honey-brown gaze, so full of pity, trained on him.

He took his glasses off and squeezed his eyes shut, pinching the bridge of his nose.

This was getting him nowhere.

Defeated, Clark replaced his glasses, flopped back onto the sofa, and pulled the iBook back onto his lap.

A knock at the door caused an incoherent string of "asdfjkl;" to skitter across the blank page. He gave the screen a disdainful smirk, tossed it aside, and started toward the door.

*Probably Perry, here to check on the story,* he thought ruefully, knowing any excuse, no matter how plausible, would only get him a lecture on the King's work ethic. He could already hear the man exclaiming, "Great shades of Elvis!" when he saw just how little Clark had accomplished.

He opened the door and nearly did a double-take.

Lois Lane flashed him a tight smile, nervously shifting her weight from foot to foot.

"Do you — d'you think I could come in?" she asked hopefully, her eyes riveted on Clark's surprised features.

Clark stood, unmoving, his hand still on the doorknob.

"Lois, I … this isn't the best —"

"Please?" Her gaze dropped to Clark's hand, which was completely covering the knob. She'd never realized how big his hands were. Or how white his knuckles could be when he was gripping something.

"Look, I know I'm probably the last person you want to see right now, but there are some things I need to … that I just need to say. And I just needed to — to see … you," she finished lamely.

Clark studied her face for a long moment, taking in her fitted, slightly wrinkled white T-shirt and faded, frayed jeans. Her eyes were red-rimmed. She looked exhausted.

His jaw tightened as his resolve began to waver, but he said nothing.

Lois blinked back the tears threatening to spill. "I — you know, I'm just being silly," she stammered brightly. "Of course you're busy. I should just go, just — I'll see you at the office in a few days."

Clark's expression softened just before she turned to leave.

"You know, I'm not that busy right now." He stepped back to open the door wider. "Come on in," he offered quietly.

Lois hadn't realized she'd been holding her breath.


She stepped inside, her trainers barely making a sound on the hardwood floor. She allowed herself to briefly admire Clark in his sweats and the snug grey T-shirt that hinted at his well-defined chest and stomach. She breathed in the clean, slightly spicy scent of his aftershave.

Giving herself a hard mental shake, she walked into the living room and spotted the laptop.

"Working on the Luthor piece?" she asked, forcing her tone to remain light. The hard set of her jaw almost dared him to pity her.

Despite her defiant demeanor, Clark noticed the tremor in her voice, the almost imperceptible tremble of her chin.

He stepped closer. "Lois," he began, his brown eyes shining with compassion, "I …"

She shook her head, holding a hand up and pressing it against his chest as if to physically stop his next words.

"Please, don't," she implored, closing her eyes, her palm still flat against his solar plexus. "It's over. Done. And I'm a laughingstock. A bad punch line, left at the altar." She forced a humorless laugh. "I never knew what a real shotgun wedding could be —"

And then Clark's arms were around her, the solid warmth of his chest and the softness of his thin T-shirt against her cheek. She stiffened at his touch, but Clark's embrace was so gentle, so completely devoid of any ulterior motive that she sagged against him.

He held her, wordlessly stroking her hair while her shoulders shook with silent sobs.

"God, Clark," she cried, her words muffled against his chest. "I've been so stupid."

"No, Lois," he murmured woodenly, swallowing a resigned sigh at his Clark-the-Nice-Guy, Clark-the-Best-Friend role in all this. "Lex was charming, he was brilliant," he forced himself to say. "And one of the richest men in the world. He was like the perfect guy. No wonder —"

Lois jerked in his arms.

"I can't believe you," she breathed, her eyes searching Clark's earnest expression in astonishment.

He frowned. "But Lois, what happened at the altar wasn't your fault. You've got to believe me." He struggled to keep his emotions from his voice, but his hands tightened on her narrow shoulders. "You have every right to be upset about the wedding, but you can't keep blaming yourse —"

"Clark," Lois said, cutting off the rest of his sentence, "when I said I've been stupid, I wasn't talking about what happened with Lex — even though that was a total lack of good judgment on my part."

Confused, Clark stepped back, letting his arms hang at his sides.

"Then what were you … ?" he asked slowly.

Lois' heart was pounding so hard in her ears, she knew Clark had to hear it.

She took a deep breath.

"You," she said simply. "I've been so stupid when it comes to you."

Clark's thoughts spun into overdrive. She knew? But how? He'd tried so hard to keep his life as Superman a secret, and he couldn't allow Lois to be a target for his enemies.

His hands were shaking as he ran them through his hair.

"What — what do you mean?" he asked, folding his arms across his chest.

Lois gave him a tearful smile and stared down at her hands.

"I've let the best thing that ever happened to me slip through my fingers," she said with obvious pain. "I've hurt you — someone who's only ever tried to look out for me, to see and do what's best for me — I've hurt my best friend because … because I'm afraid."

She wiped a tear from her cheek, eyes still downcast.

"I just wanted to say I'm sorry, Clark. For everything. For always making fun of you, calling you 'Farmboy' and 'hick' and making those awful, snide remarks about Kansas."

She paused, managing a small, sad smile that disappeared as quickly as it had surfaced.

"I'm sorry for taking your friendship for granted," she continued in a small voice.

"And," she said, swallowing hard and holding his gaze for a long moment, "I'm sorry for the way I reacted in the park last week. For being too scared to admit that I love you, too."

Clark was so stunned that it took a full thirty seconds for him to realize Lois hadn't figured out his alter ego's true identity.

And that she was walking toward the door.

"Lois, wait."

She looked at him over her shoulder, strands of dark hair brushing her cheek.

"That's, um … that's all I wanted to say. Thanks for listening." She turned before he could see the tears in her eyes, but was so blinded by them that she couldn't unlock the door. She fumbled with the knob for a moment, cursing under her breath.

"Lois," Clark said in a low voice, gently taking her hand from the door and placing it between both of his.

She nearly stopped breathing at his closeness, but forced herself to speak.

"You don't want to fall for me, Farmboy," she said shakily, her eyes on Clark's hands holding her own. "I'm broken." Her eyes closed for a moment. "And I don't think you can fix me," she whispered.

Clark's heart constricted.

He leaned in close, his lips barely brushing her ear.

"Let me try," he breathed, his voice eliciting a shiver of longing that rippled through Lois.

Her free hand cupped his smooth cheek.

"Don't you understand you're just too good?" she asked, shaking her head. "It's unbelievable — I show up here unannounced, a wreck, and what do you do? You don't lash out at me for what I did to you. Oh, no," Lois argued. She raked a hand through her hair. "Instead of being angry, you immediately try and console me because you think I'm upset about Lex and the wedding fiasco. Come on, Clark, can't you be … I don't know — human?"

Clark flinched, but Lois continued. "How about egotistical? Petty? Spiteful?"

Her entire body was trembling. She wanted to stop shouting, wanted to stop these hateful accusations from tumbling out of her mouth, but she couldn't.

She had to make Clark see she wasn't right for him, even if it was breaking her heart in the process.

He had to know she wasn't anywhere near good enough for someone like him.

"You just can't be this perfect person, Clark," she went on. "It's not fair to everyone else. It shatters every preconceived notion I have about men and for you to be so good and honest and kind and intelligent and gorgeous and witty — it just — there has to be some flaw, somewhere, it's just not *normal* —"

When she finally forced herself to look at Clark, the hurt in his dark eyes was too much; her resolve crumbled.

"Oh, God," she breathed, horrified. "You see? You see what I just did? That's why I can't — we can't — I'm just not … not the kind of person you need in your life."

Her hands shook while she wrestled with the lock once more, succeeding this time. She placed her hand on the knob.

"Why is it so hard for you to accept me?" Clark asked, his voice rough with emotion. "What is it about me that upsets you so much?"

Lois looked up, immobilized with fear of answers she couldn't voice. She was trapped by the anguish she saw swimming in Clark's eyes, the sorrow etched onto his features.

An eternity passed in a handful of heartbeats.

"I — I should go," she said thickly.

Clark's shoulders slumped. He nodded and opened the door, then turned away and walked slowly toward his bedroom.

Lois stood in the doorway, staring after him, tears coursing down her cheeks.

*Forgive me, Clark. I'm doing this because I love you.*


Chapter Two

{*So it's better this way, I said

Having seen this place before

Where everything we say and do

Hurts us all the more*}

— "Full of Grace," Sarah McLachlan


"It makes no sense," Clark exclaimed, throwing up his hands in frustration. "None."

Martha Kent stifled a yawn. Dawn was still two hours away, but she understood the urgency that had prompted Clark's unexpected visit to Smallville.

"Honey, you have to give this some time," she replied gently, watching her son pace the length of her kitchen while she sat at the table with her morning coffee. "I think maybe Lois is just confused, a little unsure —"

"Unsure?" Clark interjected. "*Unsure*?"

Martha met her son's incredulous stare with an even gaze that would brook no argument.

Clark's mouth opened, then he thought the better of it.

He sighed.

"Mom, I — I … you know, never mind. I don't know. I've been talking in circles since I got here."

Martha picked up her coffee mug and took a long sip.

"She's been through an awful lot in the past few weeks, sweetheart."

Clark nodded and ran a hand through his hair.

"I know. Believe me, I know." His gaze met his mother's, and she saw the pain reflected in his dark eyes. "This is just really … hard."

Martha put down her mug. "Oh, Clark," she murmured, giving her son a sympathetic smile. "C'mere."

She stood and wrapped her arms around Clark, hugging him tightly. As a boy, his frame had easily folded into her hugs — now, he was more than a head taller than she, and his embrace all but enveloped her.

Now, the comfort he sought ran deeper than scraped knees or bruised elbows.

*Careful with your heart,* she inwardly cautioned. *It's the only part of you that's not invincible.*

She closed her eyes, willing her hug to transfer the strength Clark needed to deal with this.

"I — I love her, Mom," he said quietly, his chin resting on top of Martha's head.

Martha pulled back to look up at her son.

"Clark … " she began.

He shook his head.

"Thanks, Mom. For listening, for everything," he said, a slight hitch in his voice. "But this is something I'm going to have to work out for myself."

Martha nodded, her heart breaking for Clark's own.

"I gotta go," he said sadly, his eyes on the slowly brightening horizon. "Tell Dad not to be angry that I didn't want to wake him."

"Okay," Martha replied. "Be safe, honey. I love you."

"Love you, too."

And with that, he was gone, flying back to Metropolis to finish the Luthor follow-up for the afternoon edition, and to torture himself with thoughts of Lois and the relationship they'd never have.

*Be strong,* Martha silently implored, draining her mug and staring after Clark. *Give this some time.*


Lois' hands were trembling as she dressed for work. She had to get back to the office as soon as possible — to distract herself from thoughts of Clark.

In a perverse way, sitting at her desk just a few feet away from him would cauterize her bleeding heart while she lost herself in her work.

*Catharsis,* Lois told herself. *That's what it'll be — a painful, necessary catharsis.*

Lois sighed, looking at her reflection in her full-length mirror.

*Masochistic much?*

Tears welled in her eyes but she furiously blinked them away.

*I can do this. I have to do this, for Clark's sake. Because I am a federal disaster waiting to happen.*

She took a deep breath and smoothed her black skirt over her thighs.

*And I have to stop arguing with myself, because that's one of the hallmarks of the severely disturbed.*

She took a long look in the mirror. The woman staring back looked terrible — her eyes were haunted, her features haggard. There were hard lines around her mouth that she'd never noticed before.

*You will get through this. You have to.*

Lois nodded resolutely to herself.

*And you won't drown your sorrows in Double-Fudge Crunch bars, either.*

With that, she grabbed her coat and briefcase and headed to her Jeep.


"Morning, Jimmy," Lois mumbled into her coffee cup as Jimmy Olsen passed her desk.

"Hi, Lois," Jimmy replied cheerfully, oblivious to his coworker's listless greeting. "Need anything?"

*Sanity,* Lois thought sourly. *Or a new partner. One who's not so intelligent, flawlessly good-looking, kind, witty, patient, and understanding.*

"Nah," she replied. "Just wanted to say —"

She paused when Clark strode by her desk, coffee in one hand, the morning edition of The Planet in the other.

"Morning," he intoned hollowly as he passed, not meeting her startled gaze.

"… hi," she finished.

*God.* Lois swallowed hard, forcibly removing Clark's broad-shouldered, athletic build from her line of sight. *Get. A. Grip.*

"Oh," Jimmy said slowly, his eyes darting from Lois to Clark and back. "Well, uh — I'm gonna go talk to the Chief. You let me know if I can help with anything."

"'Kay," Lois said in a small voice. "Thanks."

When Jimmy walked away, Lois bit her lower lip, studiously averting her eyes from Clark's desk. She turned back to her computer, accessing the international news wire.

*And after I read this, I can come up with a list of follow-ups for Perry's budget meeting this afternoon,* she thought. *If I don't throw myself down the elevator shaft first.*


Clark had read the same paragraph four times before he realized he wasn't processing any information from the morning's paper.

Lois was so unexpectedly close, he could barely concentrate. He wasn't sure why she was already back in the office, as Perry had told her to take as much time off as she needed to cope with her disastrous almost-wedding to Lex Luthor, but here she was. "Mad Dog" Lane, his partner, back in action.

He snuck a quick sideways glance in Lois' direction, watching her stare intently at her computer monitor. He wanted nothing more than to walk over and make her smile or laugh with their usual sharp, good-natured banter — but this self-imposed estrangement didn't allow such an attempt at normalcy.

He watched as Lois absently hooked a strand of hair behind one ear, and he almost winced at the stab of pain her simple gesture caused him. He looked away, staring blankly at the business section.

*This is ridiculous,* he thought grimly. *I've only been here five minutes — how am I supposed to survive the next eight hours?*


Ten minutes later, Lois' eyes were glazing over. Speed-reading wire copy was turning her brain into a veritable sieve. Mindless busywork had never been her forte, but she couldn't seem to concentrate on anything remotely important.

*Don't,* she chastised herself when her gaze began to wander from the screen. *You don't want to dwell on what you're missing. Remember, it's better this way.*

She refocused on a recent report on corruption in the World Bank, resolving to find an angle to pitch at the meeting.

Then she heard Clark clear his throat. The pages of his copy of The Planet rustled as he turned them. She heard the clink of his coffee mug against his desk as he set it down. Twice.

*Federal disaster be damned, this is ridiculous.*

Lois licked her lips nervously. She abruptly stood and, before she could talk herself out of it, walked over to Clark's desk.

Clark looked up at her over the rims of his glasses.

"Lois," he said coolly, struggling to keep his voice steady.

"Um — h-hi," she stammered.

Clark didn't respond, but his dark eyes were trained on Lois' features.

"I — God, Clark, this is awful," she said in a rush. "I thought I could do this, I thought I could get lost here, forget … but — I'm sorry. Sorry for all the things I've said, for all —"

"Lois, wait," Clark interrupted. "Look, before you begin with the apologies, there's something I need to tell you."

"No," she argued, "you don't understand. I thought I — we …"

"Lois," Clark said in a low voice, cutting her off. "Please."

Lois closed her mouth and set her jaw.

"I'm listening," she said quietly, crossing her arms over her chest.

"Look," Clark began haltingly, "you seem to think that I — I'm almost perfect, or infallible or something."

Clark ducked his head, feeling his cheeks redden at the lofty admission. Lois nearly melted at his humility.

*Watch it,* she warned herself, forcing her attention back to Clark's words.

"I'm not," he continued simply, his eyes searching Lois' features for understanding. "I'm just as fallible as anyone else. You have to know —"

Lois opened her mouth to interrupt him, but Clark cocked his head slightly and narrowed his eyes, focusing his gaze on a spot just behind her.


The plea reverberated in his brain. He nearly swore aloud.

*Not now. Please, not now.*

Lois raised an eyebrow. "Clark?" she asked, puzzled. "Is something wrong?"

Clark's attention snapped back to his partner.

"Lois, I — look, I know this isn't the best time. I really, really want to have this conversation, but I have to go. I —"

Lois visibly stiffened.

"I see," she said with a crisp nod. "You've just changed your mind about this. End of conversation."

*"Please, somebody, help!"*

Clark winced. "No, it's not that, I —"

"It's all right, Clark," Lois retorted sharply, her tone indicating that it was anything but. "I completely understand why you wouldn't want to waste your time on an emotional wreck like me. Not professionally, and certainly not in your personal life."

"Lois, no —"

"Don't play the nice guy, Kent. You don't have to do that just for my sake," she cut in, turning away so he couldn't see the tears gathering in the corners of her eyes. "It's best if we keep each other at a distance, anyway."

She took a shaky breath and swallowed past the lump in her throat. "Besides, it was my mistake for thinking that …"


"… that we were more than just a good reporting team."

Clark wanted to pound his desk to sawdust in frustration.

Instead, he raked a hand through his hair.

"Lois," he whispered hoarsely, "I have to go."

*And I'm so, so sorry,* he silently added.

Lois nodded absently, refusing to turn and face him.

When she reached her desk and turned around, he was already gone.

*Good for you, Kent,* she thought sadly. *You're the smarter one — I only wish I had the strength to walk away from you, too.*


Chapter Three

{*Unravel me, untie this cord

The very center of our union is caving in

I can't endure

I am the archive of our failure*}

— "Black and White," Sarah McLachlan

Lois stared blankly at the television screen, scenes from "Woman of the Year" playing unheeded before her tear-filled eyes.

*I hate this,* she thought miserably, curling her legs beneath her on the couch. She pulled her oversize Metropolis University sweatshirt over her knees, picking at a stray thread.

*I hate falling in love. I hate men. Especially Clark.*

She sighed, knowing that wasn't true.

*No — I hate myself.*

She couldn't believe she'd been so stupid, so blind to her own actions. Her partner had slowly become an integral part of her life — he had been her best friend — and she'd ruined that by refusing to admit how important he was to her.

*Actually, you ruined it that day in the park,* the vindictive part of her brain argued. *Remember? He told you he loved you. And you almost married Lex instead of telling him the truth.*

Lois almost groaned out loud, reached for her lukewarm cup of decaf coffee, then thought the better of it.

She slumped against the couch, her gaze drifting over to the open window and the street-lit Metropolis night beyond.

*Too bad Superman can't save this kind of day.*


*Idiot,* Clark berated himself, pacing outside Lois' building. *The whole point is to give her some space to breathe, to figure things out. Showing up here isn't going to help anything.*

He squeezed his eyes shut and pinched the bridge of his nose.

"Damned if I do, damned if I don't," he muttered under his breath.

"You okay there, son?"

Clark started at the unexpected voice. "I'm sorry?"

"Just wanted to make sure you're all right," the elderly passerby replied. He gestured toward the entrance to the apartment building with his walking cane. "Looks like you're havin' quite the dilemma."

Clark chuckled — an uncharacteristically humorless, bitter laugh. "You might say that."

The old man squeezed Clark's shoulder. "Be good to her," he offered with an understanding wink, turning to continue down the sidewalk. "That's all that really matters."

"Yeah — um, thanks," Clark called after him.

He looked back at Lois' building, searching for answers he wouldn't find in brick and mortar.

*Be good to her?*

Clark clenched his jaw.

*All right, then.*

And with that, he walked away.


*Hot. Too hot.*

Lois tossed on the couch, struggling to get more comfortable. Half asleep, she couldn't understand why she wasn't in bed, or why she was drenched in sweat.

*Window's open,* she thought fuzzily. *Maybe it's my sweatshirt.*

Eyes still closed, she tugged half-heartedly at the hem.

Light flickered behind her closed lids. She winced.

*Too bright. Thought I turned off Hepburn and Tracy.*

She smelled smoke.

Lois gasped and sat up, fully awake in a nanosecond.


She recoiled from the terrifying scene before her. Angry yellow and red flames engulfed her kitchen — and they were licking their way toward the couch.

Lois stared at the destructive play of shadow and light for a long moment, transfixed.

*Oh, my God.*



Clark couldn't remember flying so fast, so hard, nothing more than a blue-red blur against the grey, pre-dawn sky.

He raced toward Lois, his stomach knotted with fear, with dread.

*Be okay,* he willed. *You have to be okay.*

He was nearly there.

*Because I love you.*


"Th-thank you," Lois stammered into Clark's spandex-clad shoulder, her arms still tight around his neck. "For — for everything."

Clark nodded mutely before he realized Lois couldn't hear that.

"You're welcome," he said, his lips close to her ear.

Lois shivered at his nearness.

*You would've loved this just weeks ago,* she thought sadly. *Being held, comforted, by this man.*

But thoughts of Clark had crowded her consciousness, forcing her to reevaluate this immature Superman fantasy she'd foolishly held close for so long.

*Clark — God, I wish you were here.*

She let her arms slide from Superman's neck, eyes riveted on the scorched hardwood floor.

She stood before him, looking so lost that Clark physically ached.

He placed his hands on Lois' upper arms and stepped back to study her soot-streaked face.

"Are you sure you're okay?" he asked gently.

She nodded absently.

"I think — um, I think so," she replied woodenly, taking in the charred remnants of her kitchen and the ugly black streaks seared onto the walls.

"Superman, you're shaking," she said in surprise, looking down at his hands still gripping her upper arms. "Is everything all right?"

Startled, it took him a moment to process her words.

He looked down and stilled his trembling hands, then let them fall to his sides.

*Watch it,* he warned himself. *You're just the hero — you're not yourself right now.*

"I'm fine, Lois," he reassured her. "I'm just glad you're safe."

She chortled.

"And I'm just glad you make house calls."

She nearly managed the glib retort, but her voice broke on the last word.

Tears filled her eyes and her chin trembled.

She covered her mouth with one hand, horrified at the thought of becoming a sobbing mess in front of Superman.

"I — I'm sorry," she whispered, turning away from his kind brown eyes. "It's just — I — I can't even turn off a stupid coffee maker. I created this … this …"

She gestured angrily at the still-smoking mess of her kitchen.

"I'm beginning to think I'm a failure at life," she whispered brokenly.

Clark frowned and took a step toward her.

"That's not true, Lois," he said softly. "You're so good at what you do. You've won awards, I've seen them —"

Lois shook her head.

*But I'm not good at what really counts,* she thought. Her shoulders shook with silent sobs.

Clark wanted nothing more than to take her in his arms. But he didn't. Couldn't. Not without losing himself.

"Lois?" he asked hesitantly.

She couldn't speak. Her breath came in shallow bursts. Her lungs were burning.

She shook her head and swallowed hard, forcing herself to regain control of her breathing. "I'm fine. Really, I'm fine."

Clark narrowed his eyes.

"You don't look so fine."

Lois forced a humorless laugh, looking down at her two-sizes-too-big grey sweatshirt and black leggings. She absently fingered her messy ponytail.

"Sorry it's not exactly formal attire," she said. "If I'd known I was going to burn my kitchen down, I'd have dressed for the occasion."

Clark stepped closer. "That's not what I meant."

She looked up at him questioningly.

*Don't do it. Don't,* he warned himself, but was unable to keep from touching Lois.

He cradled her cheek in his hand.

When Lois closed her eyes, a tear slipped down her cheek.

Clark felt his heart constrict.

"I meant you seem unhappy, not that you're a case for the fashion police," he said gently, hooking an errant strand of dark hair behind her ear.

Lois opened her eyes and took a shaky breath.

"Oh," she replied in a small voice, stepping backward.

*Knew it was a bad move — idiot,* Clark chastised himself. *Be the hero, not the man.*

"Is there anything I can do, Lois?" he asked after a long pause, his tone hopeful. "Get you something, take you somewhere?"

*Clark. Take me to Clark,* she wanted to say. *He'll make this better. He'll make _me_ better.*

But the words lodged in her throat, leaving a dry, sour taste.

*Unrequited love,* she thought bitterly.

"Um — y'know," she managed, "I really am okay. Thanks for everything, Superman, but I'll be fine."

*Without Clark,* she told herself sternly. *He doesn't need to deal with my problems.*

She stifled a sigh and met Superman's unreadable gaze.

"The fire's out, so I can take things from here."

Clark set his jaw and nodded, feeling like he'd just taken a Kryptonite-packed punch.

*You really don't need me at all.*

"All right, Lois," he said finally. "If you're sure."

"Oh, I'm sure," she said, her tone forcibly bright. "Thanks again."

Clark fought down a grimace and gave her a small smile.

"It's really no problem," he said, "but you're welcome. Be safe, Lois."

She returned his smile, ducking her head a little in embarrassment. "I'll do my best."

Clark floated toward the window. Just before he flew out, he turned back to Lois.

"If you need anything … " he said, trailing off.

Lois nodded. "I know — you'll be here."

Clark nodded jerkily, swallowing hard.

*More than you know,* he thought sadly, flying out and away.


Chapter Four

{*I knew you wanted to tell me

In your voice there was something wrong

But if you would turn your face away from me

You cannot tell me you're so strong*}

— "The Path of Thorns (Terms)," Sarah McLachlan


"Mr. Worthington, please."

Lois tapped her pencil impatiently against her notepad, scanning the news brief on her computer screen.

"Lois Lane, from The Daily Planet," she said crisply to the snarky receptionist on the phone. "I'd like to speak with him about a series of break-ins that included four of his stores last night."

*And I'd like you to make that easy for me, or I'll implicate you in the story on tomorrow's front page,* Lois thought darkly, stifling a yawn. *It'd serve you right for doing this to me after the night I had.*

She pushed thoughts of her kitchen, her beautiful, albeit seldom-used, kitchen, now only a smoldering memory in her soot-streaked apartment.


"I'm sorry?" she asked, shaken from her smoke-filled reverie.

"Yes, I'll hold," she replied grudgingly.

*Insufferable — *

"Out to lunch? It's only ten-thirty," Lois protested after the receptionist came back on the line.

Lois listened to the woman's response and silently counted to ten.

"I'm sure he's a very busy man," she agreed, realizing she'd attract more bees with honey than vinegar, as the old adage alleged. "May I leave my number for him?"

A minute later, Lois frowned and replaced the receiver with a quiet 'bang,' allowing herself that one small outlet for her frustration.

*I can't stand people who won't talk to me just because I'm a reporter. Don't they know I'm a human first, a journalist second?*

"Lois! Clark!" Perry White boomed from his office.

Lois jumped.

Her eyes automatically darted to Clark's desk, where her partner looked just as surprised as she felt.

Averting her gaze, Lois stood and walked inside the managing editor's office, unconsciously smoothing her grey skirt over her thighs.

"Yes, Chief?" she asked evenly, painfully aware of Clark standing just behind her right shoulder.

"Good, you're both here," Perry drawled with a crooked grin. "I need you two to follow this break-in story."

Lois opened her mouth to object, but Perry went on.

"Happened last night, and looks to be the most organized rash of thefts in this town in a long time — some sixteen locations, mostly electronics places. Worthington's suffered the most; four stores were hit."

Lois shifted her weight uncomfortably.

Clark cleared his throat.

"Chief, I've already —"

"Chief, I've been working on another —"

Lois and Clark paused.

Perry's eyes moved from Lois' face to Clark's, then back.

"There somethin' you aren't tellin' me?" he asked. "Like why my two best investigative reporters're turnin' tail at the hottest story of the week?"

Lois frowned.

Clark looked down at his shoes.

"But Chief, I said I've already —"

"It's not that I don't want —"

The two closed their mouths simultaneously. Lois stared hard at Perry's nameplate. Clark studied the wall just behind Perry's head.

Perry looked almost amused.

*These two must've had one helluva awkward first date.*

"One at a time, please," he said. "Lois, ladies first."

Lois set her jaw. "I'm all about equality, Chief," she said in the most saccharine tone she could manage. "Why don't you let Clark go first?"

Perry inclined his head toward Clark. "Son?" he asked.

Clark swallowed hard.

"It's not that I don't want to work with Lois on this, Chief," he said, his discomfort obvious. "I — I just don't think it's a good idea right now. I'm following some leads of my own on a couple of stories and … that'll be keeping me busy for the next couple days," he finished.

*Lame,* he mentally groaned. *You've got to get better at this lying thing.*

Perry studied Clark for a long minute. "I see," he said finally. "Lois?"

Lois stood up straighter. "Like I said, Chief, I've already begun a preliminary investigation — I've spoken with Worthington's secretary and he's supposed to call me back this afternoon." She gave Perry her best impression of a sunny smile. "I've got everything under control."

*Right. As long as you don't dwell on your personal life,* her brain shot back.

"And this story plays more to Lois' strengths than mine," Clark added.

Lois narrowed her eyes. *You bastard.*

She whirled to face Clark.

"Don't patronize me, Kent," she warned. "Don't. You. Dare. I've worked hard to get where I am —"

Clark's mouth dropped in shock. "But … Lois, I didn't mean —"

"That's it!" Perry bellowed.

Lois' shoulders jumped guiltily. Clark turned to Perry, shamefaced.

"You two are going out to lunch to work this out. *Now.*" Perry gave them both a hard look. "And when you come back here, I want to see the reporting team I can count on."

The two members of Metropolis' ace reporting team looked sheepishly at Perry before walking out the door.


"Of all the insulting things you could've said, that — that was the absolute worst," Lois raged, stalking down the sidewalk, oblivious to the stares from curious onlookers.

Clark nervously ran a hand through his dark hair, struggling to keep up with her.

"Lois, I'm sorry," he said earnestly. "I wasn't trying to —"

"To what, Clark?" Lois cut in. "To undermine me? To make me look bad? While you — you — come out of this looking like a — a long-suffering hero?" she spat, determined to keep the tremor from her voice. "A golden boy, a martyr to the profession?"

Clark stopped. He thought he'd just felt his heart crack. Again.

"Lois," he whispered in pained disbelief, "I can't believe you'd ever think that of me."

Lois paused. She was a few feet away from him, but she'd heard.

She almost wished she hadn't.

Lois turned to meet Clark's wounded gaze.

*Oh, Clark — I'm sorry. I've done it again.*

Clark clenched his jaw and ducked his head. He couldn't let Lois see how much he was hurting. He couldn't let Lois see how deeply her words had cut.

"If you think I've ever had anything but respect and admiration for you, you're so — you're just so wrong," he said, forcing his quiet tone to remain even. His dark eyes were riveted on a penny lying on the concrete at his feet. "But I can't — I can't change your mind."

Lois bit her lower lip, ashamed. She stepped closer to Clark.

He looked up, anguish etched onto his features.

"I — I keep saying the wrong things. The completely wrong things," he admitted hesitantly, ready to flinch at another verbal onslaught from Lois.

It didn't come. Instead, her brown eyes studied him while she waited silently.

Clark sighed and shook his head. He looked down at his trembling hands. "I don't … I just don't know what the right words are, Lois. Tell me how to fix this — how to — to fix us."

Tears welled in Lois' eyes.

Her heart nearly shattered at the pain she heard in Clark's words.

*God — what I have done to this man?*

"Clark, I don't … " She took a shaky breath and tried again. "I don't know if you can. I don't know if you should try."

Clark nodded slowly at first, then frowned in confusion. "But — why?"

*Because I'll break you. And that would absolutely kill me.*

"I haven't had the greatest relationship track record, y'know," Lois said, pressing a fist against her flat stomach to quell the knot twisting there. "And I'm afraid of what I might do to you, Clark. I told you, I'm just — you're so — I'm just not what someone like you needs."

Clark laughed humorlessly.

"And what do you think I need?"

*Not someone like me.*

"Someone who won't berate you," Lois said, sniffling. "Someone who won't cut you down. Someone who isn't a complete flake in her personal life." Lois bit back a sob, forcing out her next words. "Someone who — who deserves you."

Clark threw his arms out in exasperation.

"Lois, where the hell did you get this idea?"

Lois jumped. Clark was almost shouting, and drawing several stares from passersby on their way to an early lunch.

Clark stepped closer. Lois looked up at him, tears shining in her eyes.

"Look, I'm sorry — could we maybe go sit in the park for a minute?" he asked.

Lois nodded, following him inside Centennial Park's stone and wrought-iron entrance to a secluded bench next to an ancient weeping willow. The same place where Clark had first told her he loved her, just before she'd nearly married Lex.

*Seems like so long ago — has it really only been a couple of weeks?*

"I'm not perfect," Clark said gently as he sat down beside her, bringing her back to the conversation at hand. "I'm not this — this — guy on some unreachable pedestal." He took a deep breath. "I'm just — me."

Lois turned toward him and licked her lips nervously. "But —"

"No. No buts."

"Clark, you have to understand —"

"I understand plenty, Lois." His voice was barely a whisper, his lips inches from her own. "I understand that I love you. And that I should've told you this a long time ago."

Lois' mouth opened, then closed.

She couldn't seem to form a coherent thought, couldn't believe that after all Clark had put up with, he still wanted her. Wanted to make this work.

*How did this man ever fall for me?*

"Clark, I —"

"Lois, I'm —"

"… love you, too."

"… Superman."


Lois didn't move for a long moment. She held Clark's gaze, then cocked her head slightly.

"I'm — I'm sorry," she stammered. "I thought we were having a serious conversation."

Clark's eyes widened behind his glasses. "I've never been more serious," he protested with an apologetic wince.

Lois shook her head.


She swallowed thickly.

"No, you're not. You can't be. It's — it's impossible."

Clark reached for Lois' hand.

"Don't," she said coldly.

Clark froze. "All right," he whispered, scooting back on the bench, giving Lois some room.

Her eyes darted scanned the surroundings, looking for eavesdroppers.

There were none.

*Useless,* she thought absently. *He can just use his super-hearing to locate threats.*

Then her natural skepticism, bred from years as The Planet's most zealous investigative reporter, kicked in.

"Prove it," she ordered angrily, crossing her arms over her chest.

Clark couldn't meet Lois' gaze. He rubbed the back of his neck, suddenly self-conscious.

"Well — " he began.

"Prove it," Lois demanded again.

Clark opened his mouth, then thought the better of it.

Understanding dawned on Lois' features, and she reached over to remove his glasses with trembling hands.

*Oh, God.*

Clark's glasses fell from her shaking fingers, onto the grass at their feet.

Lois gasped. "Oh — I'm — I'm sorry," she managed, moving to them up at the same time as Clark.

Her fingers brushed his, and she flinched, moving her hand.

He bit his lower lip. "It's — it's really okay, Lois. I don't — um — I don't really need them."

Lois nodded. "I — I guess you're right," she admitted awkwardly.

Still, Clark picked up his undamaged glasses and put them back on.

Lois clasped her hands in her lap, twining her fingers together as she tried to process what Clark had just told her.

"You've … you've lied to me," she whispered, sounding defeated. "You've lied — the whole time I've known you … and — and all those silly excuses …"

She looked up at him then, defiance glittering behind the tears in her eyes.

"You're a liar — I don't even know you."

"Lois, that's not —"

"True?" she asked icily.

Clark fell silent.

*But you _do_ know me,* he ached to say. *Superman is just what I can do — Clark is who I am.*

Lois shook her head and forced a bitter laugh. "And to think — " Her breath hitched. "I thought I was in love with you."

*Lois Lane, federal disaster, strikes again,* she thought dully.

Lois stood.

"If you'll excuse me, I have a story to work on — alone."

She strode out of the park without looking back.

Clark watched her go, then dropped his head into his hands.

*Forgive me, Lois,* he silently implored. *I thought you'd understand — because I thought you loved me, too.*


Chapter Five

{*You know if I leave you now

It doesn't mean that I love you any less

It's just the state I'm in

I can't be good to anyone else like this*}

— "Wait," Sarah McLachlan


*This shouldn't be so hard.*

Lois sighed, slumping in her chair and forcing her concentration back to the deadline story at hand.

*Then why have you read the same paragraph three times?*

She skimmed the Worthington piece once more, triple-checking the quotes she'd used on the screen with those scribbled in her notepad.

*Eh — not bad.*

In fact, it was pretty damn good, especially since she'd managed to pull it together in a scant two hours, even counting the phone interviews.

Still, she couldn't help but feel it was less than stellar. Her writing was clear and concise, but somehow lacked the usual passion behind her byline.

*Could've been even better with Clark's help.*

The thought popped, unbidden, to the forefront of her inner running monologue. She narrowed her eyes.

*I mean, Superman's.*

Lois gritted her teeth and dropped the file onto the copy desk's server.

Almost unconsciously, she glanced at Clark's vacant desk.

*Don't,* she warned herself sharply. *Don't wonder where he is or what he's doing. Don't care — he's a liar, remember?*

She closed her eyes and swallowed hard.

*And he's not worth your time.*


"Superman, can you help my mom, too?"

Clark smiled at the earnestness he heard in the wide-eyed seven-year-old's voice.

"I sure can," he told her. "Let's find a safe spot for you to wait, okay?"

The girl nodded. She was content to be flying, cradled in Superman's arms, away from the acrid stench of burnt rubber.

Clark landed fifty yards away from the scene of the accident and set the child down on a park bench.

"She didn't mean to hit that big pole, Superman," the girl told him seriously, tugging on one of her long braids out of habit. "This man had a dog on a leash over there — " she pointed to the dirt path that wound around the edge of the park — "and it got away from him. I saw it out the window. It ran in front of us and my mom tried her very best not to hit the nice doggie."

Clark gave her an understanding smile. "Don't worry — sometimes accidents like this one happen. I just want to make sure it wasn't too scary for you, and that you and your mom are all right."

She nodded again. "You should go check, huh?"

"I should," Clark said. "Stay here and wait, please?"

"I will," she promised.

Clark smiled at her again and flew back to the black Explorer tilted at an angle on the curb, its front end wrapped around a telephone pole.

Clark's expression grew serious as he assessed the situation, peering into the open driver's side window. The woman's eyes were closed and her breathing was a little erratic. A gash on her forehead was bleeding freely, but Clark could see it was only a superficial injury.

"Ma'am?" he asked, leaning in close. "Are you hurt?"

The woman's piercing steel-blue eyes opened, clouded with confusion, and focused on Clark's concerned expression.

"Superman?" She paused, furrowing her brow. "I — I don't remember what happened."

She glanced into the askew rearview mirror.

"Emily — Emily?"

She gasped.

"Superman, my little girl —"

"It's all right, ma'am," he replied. "You've had an accident. I've already taken your daughter out of the vehicle; she's sitting in the park just behind us." He turned to check that the girl was waiting patiently on the park bench.

When he looked back at the woman, she was nodding and studying her hands, which were still gripping the steering wheel.

"She's safe," he said gently.

"Th-thank you," she said, looking up at Clark. "Emily and I can't thank you enough."

Clark could've hugged the woman for her gratitude.

*She makes the cape and tights worth it.*

"Really, it's no trouble, ma'am," he said, feeling his cheeks redden.

"You know, you don't have to call me ma'am," she told him, managing a small laugh.

Clark grinned. "Sorry, force of habit — let's get you out of here, then, okay?"

She nodded, but then grimaced in pain.

"Ma' — miss?"

Her blue eyes were wide when she met Clark's anxious brown gaze.

"Superman, I — I'm afraid I can't — can't feel my legs," she stammered, her chin trembling.

Clark felt an iron band of cold panic clamp around his chest, and for a painful moment, he forgot to breathe.

*Oh, no.*


*This is such a bad idea,* Lois chastised herself as she turned off the Jeep's engine.

Still, she didn't — couldn't — start the motor again.

She'd been running on autopilot since she'd left the office.

She'd listlessly picked up groceries on her way home. She'd ordered takeout she didn't remember tasting. She'd tried to get lost in Bob Woodward's latest book, though right now, she couldn't recall the title. She'd called Lucy, but hadn't left a message when her sister didn't pick up.

Nothing had worked — not even the thought of returning to the office to catch up on some groundwork for other stories had piqued her interest.

*It's definitely a bad sign when I pass on putting in extra hours,* she thought ruefully.

Throughout most of the afternoon and evening, her thoughts kept returning to Clark. To Superman. Her partner. Her best friend.

*If I haven't screwed this up.*

Lois squeezed her eyes shut against the tears that threatened to form.

All she could see was Clark — his dark eyes so completely unguarded when he'd told her his secret, then so completely crushed when she'd stood to walk away.

Those eyes had haunted her since she'd turned her back on him hours ago in Centennial Park.

So here she sat, fidgeting in her Jeep outside Clark's apartment.

*This doesn't mean I'm not still furious,* Lois reminded herself. *It just means that I can't … *

She sighed and looked up, her eyes studying the light emanating from one of Clark's windows.

*Just admit it. You can't imagine not having this man in your life.*

She swallowed past the lump in her throat and took her keys from the ignition.

Before she could change her mind, she was out of the Jeep and walking up the steps to Clark's building.

Then she was standing outside his door.

*Don't mess it up this time,* she warned herself.

She knocked on the smooth, worn wood, willing her hand to stop shaking.


She paused.

"Clark?" she called hopefully. "It's me — Lois."


She knocked again.


Still no response.

*But the light's on,* she thought sadly, gritting her teeth against overwhelming disappointment. *You have to be there. You can't just waste electricity like this — especially when I'm standing outside your empty apartment like one of those vapid, weepy heroines from some bargain-bin romance novel with Fabio on the cover.*

A lone tear trickled down Lois' cheek. She wiped it away impatiently, staring hard at the door.

*Fine. It's your own fault you're not here to accept my apology.*

She turned to walk away, absently smoothing her grey skirt over her thighs.

And her heart nearly leapt out of her ribcage.


There he was — her partner, her best friend — walking toward her, his keys in hand.

His head jerked up.

"Lois? It's so — so late — is everything okay?" He came to a stop beside her, keys forgotten in his hand.

Lois studied Clark's face for a long minute. He looked so tired. His shoulders were slumped and his eyes were so —

*Defeated,* she realized in shock. *Look what you've done, you stupid, stupid girl.*

"I think maybe I should ask you that question," Lois said quietly.

She nervously chewed her lower lip when Clark averted his eyes.

He cleared his throat.

"I've just been … out," he said finally, his expression guarded. "Trying to, uh, to clear my head."

Lois nodded.

"Clark, I'm sorry — " she began, but Clark shook his head, raking a hand through his dark hair.

"Lois, no," he pleaded. "I can't — let's not do this, not right now. I — I just can't handle this right now."

Lois stood, dumbfounded, while Clark turned his key in the lock.

*This isn't how it's supposed to happen.*

"No," she said in a small voice.

Clark turned his head.

"Lois, please, I'm not much good to anyone just now —"

"No," she said again, louder this time. "I — I came here to tell you some things, Clark. Some things that — that need to be said."

She looked down at her shoes.

"And I can't leave without saying them, because … " Lois paused and took a shaky breath. "Because I'm afraid that if I don't do this tonight, I'll never work up the courage again."

Her head came up, and she met Clark's gaze, tears shining in her dark eyes.

The fight went out of Clark then.

*I can never say no to you,* he thought sadly. *Even if it destroys me, I'll always give in.*

"All right," he said with a soft sigh. "Come on in."


Lois didn't know what to do with her hands. They kept trembling. She folded them on her lap as she sat on the couch, watching Clark tiredly remove his jacket and loosen his tie.

"Water?" he asked over his shoulder, heading to the fridge.

"Um — please, that'd be great."

Clark came back, holding two bottles. He set them on the coffee table and settled on the couch next to her.

"Clark —"

"Lois —"

They both fell silent.

A small smile ghosted across Lois' lips. "You first," she said.

"Um — all right. Lois, I —"

Clark took off his glasses. He squeezed his eyes shut and pinched the bridge of his nose.

Lois noticed his hands were shaking slightly.

"It's — it's been a bad day," he said quietly. "Just so you know."

*I'm sorry — God, I'm so sorry for how I reacted earlier.*

But Lois didn't trust her voice; she could only nod in response.

"That's why I wasn't going to let you in," Clark continued. "Not because I didn't want to, but because I don't want to say something stupid or hurtful or insinuate something I don't really mean … " He trailed off, staring blankly at the coffee table.

Lois stared hard at her hands clasped in her lap.

"I'm so sorry that I was horrible — just awful — to you today. I wasn't thinking, Clark, of course that's not something you tell to just anyone but — I mean, I'm still hurt that you kept your life as Superman from me for so long, but mostly, I'm mad at myself for not figuring it out."

Lois knew she was babbling, but couldn't stop herself.

"I — I know there's a lot to work through, and I haven't been able to process everything yet, but I care about you so much and you have to know that I — Clark, I — love you. Including the part of you who wears spandex."

*Too bad I hate him tonight,* Clark thought hollowly, staring straight ahead.

Lois hesitantly touched his forearm.


He turned to her then, his eyes so full of anguish that Lois recoiled.

"This part of my life, Lois — it's too much to deal with," he said hoarsely. "It's too much to ask."

Clark dropped his head in his hands. His eyes closed, and he could only see Emily, the seven-year-old girl sitting on the park bench, so lost and confused. He could only hear her asking why he couldn't help her mom — he was Superman, after all.

*"But, Superman, you can do anything. Why can't you help my mom today?"*

He drew a deep breath and turned his attention back to the conversation at hand.

"I can't — God, I can barely deal with it myself, sometimes."

Lois furrowed her brow.

"Clark, what — what's gotten into you? What happened today?" she asked gently.

"I — I couldn't — " he stammered. "I just — I just *couldn't,*" he whispered, his voice breaking. "It wasn't enough. I tried, but it wasn't enough."

Clark's entire body was shaking. He rubbed the back of his neck, agitated, struggling for the right words.

"How do you tell a seven-year-old that her mom will never walk again?" he asked sharply, meeting Lois' startled gaze. "Tell me, please — how does Superman explain that even he can't help everyone? That he can't fix everything at once?"

"Oh, Clark," Lois breathed. "I had no idea —"

"You're right," Clark interrupted, his voice harsh. "You don't."

*Did I deserve that?* Lois bit her lip, her eyes riveted on the two unopened bottles of water sitting on the coffee table.

She wanted to lash out, to respond in kind.

But she didn't.

"Clark, I'd like to — I'd like to know," she said honestly, her eyes searching his profile.

Clark sighed. He met Lois' eyes and she saw the unspoken pain, the specter of the horror he'd witnessed today.

"I'm sorry," he said, looking down at his hands. "Like I said, I'm afraid I'm not much company tonight."

Lois reached out and gingerly placed her hand on top of his.

"Do you want me to go?" she asked.

*No. But you should.*

"It — it might be for the best," Clark said sadly, a sick feeling settling into the pit of his stomach.

For a brief moment, Lois froze.

"Um — okay," she said with a crisp nod.

After an awkward pause, she stood and started toward the door.

"I'll walk you," Clark offered.

"That's not — not necessary," Lois replied, her knees shaking as she stood next to the door.

Clark stepped in close. "But I want to."

Lois heard the pained note in his voice, and her heart constricted.

*Be strong,* she cautioned herself.

"I'm a big girl, Clark — I can make it across the street by myself," she forced herself say, struggling to keep her tone light.

Clark clenched his jaw.

"If you're sure," he said as evenly as he could manage.

Lois brought her hand up to rest against Clark's smooth cheek.

His eyes closed; her touch was such exquisite torture.

*I'm sorry, Lois — I wish I could've found all the right words.*

Lois brushed her thumb across his cheekbone, her heart breaking for Clark. For his demons. For the burden he silently shouldered each day.

"We'll talk tomorrow," she whispered resolutely.

Clark opened his eyes, searching Lois' determined expression for answers she wasn't ready to offer and he wasn't ready to analyze.

"Tomorrow," he echoed with a nod.

Lois pressed her lips to his cheek.

"Good night, Clark."

*I love you,* she silently added.

Clark took Lois' hand and squeezed it gently.

"Good night, Lois."

*I love you,* he ached to say.

Instead, he watched her leave, then walked over to his window to make sure she made it safely inside her Jeep.

*Tomorrow,* he told himself, resting his forehead against the cool glass. *Please, let me find a way to turn this into something beautiful.*


Lois climbed into her Jeep.

*This isn't Claude, and this isn't Lex,* she told herself firmly as she put the vehicle into gear. *You may not be as perfect as I once thought, but I'm not giving up on you, Kent. For once, I refuse to allow this to turn into a federal disaster.*

Before she pulled away, she looked up to see Clark's apartment go dark.

*No, I'm not giving up — I care about you too much, flaws and all.*