By Caroline K. <email@example.com>
Submitted August 2007
Summary: In the episode "Whine, Whine, Whine," Clark briefly considers doing away with his Clark Kent persona and living full-time as Superman instead. But what if, when Lois comes to him while he's packing and throws herself into his arms, he decides to make the opposite choice and to do away with Superman?
Many, many thanks to Sara Kraft for taking the time to beta this for me. Sara's encouragement, enthusiasm, and red pen made this a far better story than it would have been if I'd been left to my own devices. I also thank Nancy/Classicalla for giving me some medical beta where it was needed, for patiently answering all of my questions, AND for doing her usual awesome job as GE for this story.
Several lines in this story are borrowed from the show. Specifically, you might see bits you recognize from "Whine, Whine, Whine," written by Kathy McCormick and John McNamara; "Big Girls Don't Fly," written by Eugenie Ross-Leming and Brad Buckner; "We Have a Lot to Talk About," written by John McNamara; and "Don't Tug On Superman's Cape," written by David Simpkins. My thanks to these and other authors of the show, who probably don't even know that I snag lines from them here and there, but if they ever do find out, I hope they'll take it as a compliment and not sue me into oblivion.
It had been a crazy, emotional day, but in his wildest dreams, Clark couldn't have imagined its ending.
He'd thought he'd lost Lois to Dan Scardino, and as a result, he was prepared to walk away from everything. He was packing up his entire life — putting Clark Kent into neatly labeled boxes so that he could lock him away forever. He could picture it in his mind's eye; he knew just what those boxes would look like, stacked one on top of another in a dusty corner of his father's barn, while he lived alone and isolated in some secret lair. He hated that word, *lair*. It conjured visions of wild animals. Of things less than human. He'd never consciously thought of himself that way, yet the word had tripped right off his tongue in his conversation with his parents, and it still seemed to fit the only sort of life he could imagine for himself anymore. Once he put Clark Kent into those boxes, he *would* be less than human, wouldn't he? He was packing the trappings of his humanity away. Maybe sometime, when he stopped in Kansas for a visit, he'd look through the boxes and let himself touch his past and remember the an he'd been, but mostly he would have to turn his back on those memories — would have to try to forget the life he'd lived before.
But then Lois had come barreling in, her rush of words washing over him — confusing him at first — until finally she'd tossed him a lifeline. *Clark Kent's* lifeline.
She wasn't in love with Dan Scardino.
She wasn't in love with Superman.
And when she launched herself at him and pressed her lips to his in a fierce kiss, it finally dawned on him that *he* was her choice, and all thoughts of secret lairs and neatly stacked boxes vanished as if they had never been.
She pulled away from him, looking at him with a heart-wrenching vulnerability. "Clark, if you're going to run away from this, tell me now."
"I'm not going to run, Lois." And he wasn't. No more running. Not when he'd been granted this… this absolute *miracle*. "I swear to you, I will never run away from you again."
It was a foolish, reckless promise, but he meant every foolish, reckless word. Then he sealed it with a kiss that drove every other thought straight out of his head. Lois had chosen him! She had chosen Clark Kent, and he wasn't going to give her any reason to regret her choice. Not then and not ever.
So he kissed her and damned the consequences as they stood in the chaos of his boxed-up apartment. He kissed her and then some, letting his hands roam over her perfect curves and fitting her body to his in a way that sparked a deep, pleasurable ache of desire. That desire had been banked for too long, he thought dimly; it had been firmly tamped down while he tried to build a relationship with Lois bit by bit, moment by moment. How many times had he wanted to kiss her like this? How many times had he dreamed of pulling her this close, of feeling her body pressed so intimately against his?
His fingers crept beneath the hem of… what was she wearing, anyway? A vest-thingy that was far too form-fitting. It was nice to look at, of course… incredibly nice, even… but he thought maybe he'd just been granted permission to do a little *more* than look. And the vest-thingy was making it pretty hard for him to move things in the direction he was really hoping they were going to go. Not *all* the way, of course; not yet, but he wanted to touch her, to feel the soft warmth of her skin, and he didn't want to be obvious about it, which ripping her clothing to shreds clearly would be.
He hated the vest-thingy, he decided, right about the time his fingers got hopelessly stuck. He hoped she wouldn't notice, or that if she did, she would just ignore it.
Lois giggled, her lips still pressed to his. It should have been embarrassing, but instead it was just sexy as hell. Of course, Lois doing her income taxes would have been sexy to him just then, but the giggle was enough of a distraction that he broke the kiss long enough to mutter, "What?"
"Having a little trouble there?"
He felt his cheeks get hot as he tugged his fingers out of her infuriating top. "I hate this… whatever this thing is. I doubt it's even healthy. You probably can't *breathe* in there, Lois. So I'd be doing you a favor if I just…" His hand moved to the bottom button.
"Whoa, there." She lowered her hands to his, and looked up at him through her lashes. "I know we said we were ready for the next step, but I'm thinking this is heading a few steps past that."
"I'm sorry. Too much?"
"No, just… well, maybe a little." She gave him an embarrassed smile.
"It's fine," he promised. "C'mere. Let's sit." He led her to the couch and then settled with her against his chest, his arms around her. He would have been lying if he'd said that all he wanted just then was a cuddle, but the cuddling was pretty wonderful, too, and pretty amazing when he considered that just a few minutes before, he'd believed he'd never hold her again. And besides… "It's just as well you stopped us. I completely forgot that my parents will be back here any minute."
"Where are they?"
"They went out for Chinese food. They were, uh, helping me pack."
"Were you really going to leave?" She twisted in his arms so that she could face him. Her dark eyes were wounded, and he felt the guilt stab at him again: *He'd* put that look there.
Never again, he vowed.
He cupped her cheek in his hand, wanting somehow to soothe that look away. "I just couldn't seem to get it *right*," he told her, the words feeling as if they were torn from the darkest corners of his heart. "I kept hurting you, and I couldn't stand that. I'm so sorry, Lois. But I swear to you, that's over. I'm yours now, if you'll have me."
She gave him a shy smile and leaned a little into his hand. "Mine, huh?"
"Yours," he said again, and with that one word, he gave himself to her completely. In some ways he'd always been hers, since the moment they'd met, but he'd never put her first. He could see that now. There had always been barriers, conditions, outright lies — things that kept them apart, no matter how much he might love her. But he was determined that it wouldn't be like that anymore.
He had told his parents that he couldn't keep lying to Lois, couldn't keep hurting her, and now that was truer than ever. It was hard enough being a reporter and a superhero; trying to be a boyfriend — and eventually, he hoped, a husband — on top of that would simply be impossible. It wouldn't be fair to Lois even to try.
No, he'd already made up his mind that either Clark or Superman would have to go. He'd chosen to sacrifice Clark when it didn't seem like he had much to hang around for anyway, but this… this changed everything. Now it was *Superman* who was in the way.
Suddenly, he couldn't seem to remember any of the good things about being Superman. Intellectually, he knew there were some, but he couldn't find solace in them as he usually did. He'd saved a room full of people that day, and in the end, his actions had distanced him that much further from humanity, from Lois. "You live above us…" she'd said to him afterwards, but he didn't *want* to live above anyone. He didn't want a secret lair and a half-life as a superhero; he wanted to be Clark Kent. He'd always wanted that, but now he wanted it more than ever before. Clark Kent had a job he loved. Clark Kent had a home and parents. Clark Kent had *Lois Lane*.
And what did Superman have? He had the Calvin Dreggs of the world lining up to sue him. He had talk show hosts clamoring to cast him in the worst light possible. He had crazies like Trask who viewed him as an invader and wanted him dead. He had every crook in America trying to get their hands on a sliver of Kryptonite so that they could commit their crimes without his interference. He had magazine articles speculating on his habits, his diet, his alien mating rituals.
It made him sick. And tired.
That was it, really. He was sick and tired of being Superman, sick and tired of the suspicion, the insults, the lack of privacy. He was sick of trying to be two people, sick of hurting Lois time after time. He'd meant it when he'd told his parents that he couldn't stand by and see someone be hurt, but he'd helped anonymously for years before he'd become Superman. He could do that again. He would just have to be careful — would have to help less ostentatiously. He didn't need to parade around with an S on his chest in order to help people. Clark Kent had some good things to offer, too.
A sense of peace came over him that had been missing before, when he'd been packing all those boxes. He didn't *need* thirty boxes, he realized, and for a few seconds, the realization left him almost dizzy with relief. He only needed one. One box for a few spandex suits and a couple of pairs of boots. He'd made the wrong choice before, and it had *felt* wrong. But this felt like walking out of prison and into the sunshine.
It was a moment of astonishing clarity, and he wished he could somehow take a snapshot of it — wished he could always remember the exact way the afternoon light slanted through his windows, the golden patterns it left on his gleaming hardwood floors. He wanted to remember the sweet scent of Lois's hair and the way each silky strand felt against his cheek. He wanted to remember the surge of exhilaration he felt, the way the smile just seemed to bloom across his face. He had pulled her close again and tucked her head beneath his chin, so she couldn't see his smile; and thank goodness, for how could he possibly explain that he was smiling because he felt like he had just witnessed his own resurrection?
He already had an appointment set up with Constance Hunter for the following day so that they could discuss a strategy for dealing with any copycat lawsuits. Well, he had a new strategy: Superman was going to announce his retirement, and Clark Kent and Lois Lane were going to live happily ever after.
He wrapped himself tighter around Lois and sighed with relief and happiness, whispering the one word again: "Yours."
"Clark, what on earth are you doing up?" his mother asked sleepily as she entered the kitchen, still knotting the sash on her robe.
Clark was startled, nearly upsetting the glass of water in front of him. "Sorry, Mom," he said softly. He could hear the rumble of his father's snores coming from the direction of his bedroom, which was probably why he hadn't heard his mother's approach. Or maybe it was just that he was lost in thought. He gave his mother a guilty smile. "I didn't mean to wake you up."
"Did you have to go out on a rescue?" Martha asked, dropping into the chair next to him.
"No." He shook his head and reached for his glass, fiddling with it as he wondered if he should tell his mother what he'd decided. It wasn't that he didn't want to confide in her. He did want to, very much. But his decision had already been made. The promises he'd made to Lois were binding and could not be taken back. To tell his parents about them would make them feel they shared the responsibility for whatever consequences arose — and he wasn't foolish enough to believe there wouldn't be any. Since he had been old enough to understand the words, his mother and father had told him that all they wanted was for him to be happy. He didn't believe they would begrudge him his happiness now.
"Thinking about Lois?" his mother prodded, giving him a knowing smile.
"Yeah," he admitted. "I guess I'm pretty excited. I can still hardly believe it."
"Well, I can believe it. You two just needed to talk things out." She gave him a teasing look. "Though as close as you were sitting on the couch when we came in, I don't think it was *all* talking."
Clark looked a little sheepish at that. "No, not all."
"Well, that's okay. You have your whole lives ahead of you for talking." She reached for Clark's hand and held it between both of her own. "I have to tell you, honey, your Dad and I are awfully glad things worked out the way they did."
"I know, Mom." His parents had not wanted Clark Kent packed away, had not wanted their son living in a secret lair.
"All we've ever wanted is for you to be happy," she reminded him.
And there it was, that refrain from his childhood — sweet and pure in its simplicity. He felt it wash over him like a benediction.
"I know," he said again, because it was all he could manage just then. He flashed his mother a grateful smile and for a moment really took her in; her blond hair was mussed from sleep, and her blue eyes blinked at him myopically. Her hands were holding his, and he looked at them — really looked — and for an odd moment he saw them not as her son but as a stranger would see them. They were not beautiful, his mother's hands. They were the hands of a poor farmer's wife — scarred and callused, with short, practical nails. They were hands that had spent his entire lifetime gardening and cleaning and doing a thousand rough chores. If they'd ever had a manicure it had been a lark, something someone talked her into doing once, not an indulgence she would allow herself on any sort of a regular basis. And her hands showed it — showed the effects of all those years and all that work.
But those same hands had reached into a tiny spaceship in a lonely field, clasped him to her heart, and carried him home. They had changed his diapers and soothed him to sleep when he was a baby, newly arrived from a distant world. They had clapped at a thousand Little League games, had made cupcakes for his birthday parties, had tucked him in at night. Those hands had, in a very real way, given him *life*, even if he had not been born of her flesh. He had been prepared to cast all of that away, everything those hands had worked to give him. And then her hands squeezed his, and he felt a swell of love and gratitude he knew he could never adequately express. He was searching for the words to try, though, when his mother gave him a tender smile and he realized that he didn't need to say anything. She knew.
"Thanks, Mom," he said softly.
"It's going to be all right now, honey," she promised, releasing his hand. "I know these last few weeks have been hard, but you're on the right track now."
<<The right track…>>
His secret almost spilled out of him then. If he were going to tell her about the decision he'd made, this would be the moment he would do it. He looked down at the table and swirled his finger around in the circles of water his glass had left behind. He'd been sitting there long enough for most of the ice to melt, he realized. How long was that? An hour or more? An hour or more of sitting with his thoughts and listening to the soft nocturnal sounds of his apartment. "I want to make Lois happy," he blurted suddenly, raising his eyes to his mother. "I… haven't lately. I have to do better, Mom."
She cocked her head at him quizzically. "You *will*, Clark," she said simply.
"I have to… make some changes," he said, a little desperately. "I can't live the same way I did when I only had myself to consider. I love her, Mom. I have to think of her now, too."
"Of course you do," his mother said. "Clark, we know how you feel about Lois. We've always known this day would come. Children grow up, they find their own lives, and now Lois is a part of yours. We *understand* that, honey. We understand that she's going to be a part of our family, even if it's not official yet. We know what that means."
He knew she didn't understand, not really, but he couldn't bring himself to tell her. Those same beloved hands had made his suit, he remembered suddenly. They had dusted off the old sewing machine and stitched together his disguise. They had covered his chest with the shield of the House of El.
"You do what you think is best, and you know your father and I will support you one hundred percent."
"It's not going to be easy," he said, almost to himself.
"I know, honey. But it's *time*."
They were not talking about the same thing, he knew, but he just nodded. "Thanks, Mom. I'm sorry I woke you up."
"You didn't," she said. She nodded in the direction of Clark's bedroom. "It was your father's snoring."
He laughed softly. "Sorry. Can't do anything about that."
"It's all right." She winked at him and pushed back her chair "We women can forgive a lot in the men we love. Remember that, okay?"
"I hope you're right, Mom."
"Of course I am." She ruffled his hair and bent down to kiss his forehead as if he were still five years old. "'Night, honey."
"Goodnight," he answered, watching as she went back to bed, her slippers making soft shuffling sounds against the floor. He should sleep, too, he realized, glancing at the clock. The night was half over, and he had yet to close his eyes. He left the glass on the table and switched out the one light he'd left on in the kitchen. As he was making his way to the sofa, his father's snores ceased abruptly, a sudden silence falling over the apartment. Then he heard a muttered apology and his mother's answering giggle in the darkness. It was a ritual he'd heard before, and it comforted him now. He sank into his sofa and let the sounds of his parents' soft breathing lull him to sleep.
The next morning found him tired but still resolved as he stood before his astonished attorney and told her of his decision.
"You're going to do *what*?" Constance Hunter stared at her famous client.
"Retire," Superman said firmly. "Leave Metropolis. Leave… for good."
He was pacing around her tiny, cluttered office, too keyed up to be still. He could hardly believe he was taking this first step toward freedom, but somehow, saying the words out loud to Constance Hunter had helped to make them real. He was retiring. He was leaving. It was really *happening*. He had talked to his mother, had slept on it for a few hours, and had awakened with his mind unchanged: He owed this to Lois. He owed it to *himself*.
Constance watched him, apparently waiting for some sort of a punch line. "You're gonna go home to Krypton, play a little golf, do a little fishing … ."
Superman grinned. "Something like that."
"You're serious, aren't you?"
"Well, not about the golf," he admitted. "But about leaving… yes."
"These lawsuits…" She gestured at a pile of folders on her desk. "They're not that big of a deal. I know what I said before, but after what happened with Calvin Dregg, we can probably get most of them dismissed."
"Look who's Ms. Confident all of a sudden." Superman seated himself in the chair in front of her jumbled desk and smirked at his lawyer.
"Look who's not," she fired back. "What happened to wanting to help? What happened to knowing why you're here? Silly me… I actually believed all that stuff."
That wiped the smirk off of his face. "I did mean it. It's just… things have changed, Ms. Hunter. I can't do this anymore. It's not about the lawsuits — those just made my decision a little easier. This is… personal."
She stared at him for the space of perhaps twenty seconds and then shrugged. "All right. I work for you, so if you say you're retiring, you're retiring. If you announce that you're going to fly away in your spaceship, that should put an end to any lawsuits, but if it doesn't, we'll handle them and then you can go. Good enough?"
"Uh, no. Actually, I wanted to ask you about something else." He passed her an envelope addressed to "The Superman Foundation" in the care of Murray Brown of the Galactic Talent Agency.
"It's a bank statement. Murray Brown is my… representative, I guess you'd say. He handles all the merchandising of Superman products, and I've had him putting the profits into an account for charity. I haven't actually done anything with it, though. I don't know much about setting up a foundation."
She opened the statement and her eyes widened as they tracked down the page. "Superman… this is a checking account."
Superman frowned at her, confused. "Uh, yeah. In case I wanted to, you know, give some money away, a check seemed like the easiest way. Should I have done something else?"
"What, you mean like stuffing it in your mattress? A ceramic piggy bank, maybe? You have millions of dollars here! In a checking account that's earning…" She skimmed down the page again. "…three percent interest."
"Oh. I guess I should have invested it?"
She sighed. "You weren't kidding when you said you didn't understand greed, were you?"
"Not really, no. But now that I'm leaving, I want to get the foundation set up properly. Don't you see, it's a way I can go on helping without…"
"Having to fly around and save people?"
"Well… I wouldn't have put it quite like that. But, yeah."
"Listen, I definitely think you should get your foundation organized and do something worthwhile with this money, if you don't want it yourself. But the thing is… anyone can do that. Even I can do that. You're the only one who can fly through the ceiling with a briefcase full of C-12 and save a courtroom full of people."
"I appreciate what you're saying, Ms. Hunter, but my mind is made up about that. Superman is leaving. But the other thing you said… about you being able to run a foundation." He gave her a hopeful look. "Did you mean that?"
Her eyes widened behind her glasses, giving her an owlish look. "Are you offering me a job?"
"You don't seem to want to be a trial lawyer, and I could use someone with a legal background, someone who could protect Superman's image and uphold his values. I think you'd be perfect to run my foundation."
She cocked her head at him. "Do you often talk about yourself in the third person?"
Superman froze momentarily and then forced himself to relax. "In this context, it's appropriate. I'm not talking about me as a person, here. To most people, I'm not a person at all."
"Because of the alien thing, you mean? Because I don't think…"
"No." He smiled to relieve her obvious discomfort. "No, not because of that. Because I just don't seem real to them. Superman is an icon… larger than life. He's not the guy you ate bagels with last week, is he?"
She nodded. "Okay, I guess I see your point."
"You know, no one else has *ever* told Superman to bring the bagels before. One of the reasons I'm asking you to do this is that from the first time I set foot in your office, you seemed to see me as a real person. I need someone heading up the Superman Foundation who can represent the image but still understands that there's a real man behind it. Does that make sense?
"Yeah," she said slowly, "I guess it does." She looked at him again in a way that made him want to squirm like an errant schoolboy. "You're not going back to Krypton, are you?"
He reminded himself that Superman *did not squirm*. "Is this conversation privileged?"
"Then, no." He shook his head slowly. "I know it sounds selfish, but I don't want to be the icon anymore. I've promised someone the real man. This is the only way I know of to keep that promise."
Constance gave him a wry smile. "She must be something special."
"She's the most incredible woman in the world," he said softly.
"Does she know what you're giving up for her?" Constance's eyes seemed to pin him to his seat, and there was a part of him that resented it — that wondered just who she thought she was to be questioning him this way — but he knew that the fact that she wasn't intimidated by him was part of the reason he'd gone to her in the first place.
"I… I don't think of it as giving something up. I'm making a *change*. A change that will make both of our lives better, I think." He glanced at Constance Hunter and saw that she was still giving him that same, steady look. "No, she doesn't know. She will one day, though."
And he was smart enough to be dreading that day already, but it was none of Constance Hunter's business, and he had no intention of discussing it with her any further. She nodded, seeming to accept that.
"Well, then." She tucked the bank statement back into its envelope. "Let me think about the job offer, but even if I don't take it, I can still get you started in the right direction — especially now that I know you can pay me." She flashed him a quick smile. "Let me call this Murray Brown and hire an accountant to go over the financial end of things, and I'll go ahead and start pulling the paperwork together to apply for 501(c)(3) status. You need to be thinking of a list of potential board members. I'd like to start with at least eight."
"What will these board members need to do?"
"In the beginning, we'll probably want them to be instrumental in setting up the foundation — determining our mission, in accordance with your wishes, of course, approving the articles of incorporation, adopting bylaws, establishing a staff — all that sort of thing. Later, they'll probably only meet a few times a year to make decisions about investments and to award grants. We can work out of my office at first, but we'll probably eventually need to lease something larger, and the board would have to approve those kinds of decisions as well. Here…" She rummaged through a drawer and tossed him a Chamber of Commerce directory. "This might give you some ideas of who the movers and the shakers here in Metropolis are… unless you already have a board in mind?"
"Not a whole board, no, but I'd like to ask Bill Henderson with the Metropolis PD." He paused as she jotted down the name. "Mike Lane… he's a small business owner on the South side. Clark Kent with the Daily Planet. And Judge Angela Diggs. She threw me in jail once."
"I remember. Kind of an odd way to recommend herself, isn't it?"
He shrugged. "She was just doing her job. I liked her."
"I like her, too. OK, we've got a police inspector, a small businessman, a reporter and a judge. It'd be good if we could come up with someone from one of the big manufacturing companies over by the river, and maybe someone from over at Met U, especially if you think you'll be making educational grants."
"Definitely, but I don't really know any of the faculty over there. There's John West in the physics department," he said thoughtfully. "I interv…ened in uh, a situation he was involved in once, but I don't really know him."
Clark tensed at his near slip-up, but Constance only gave him a slightly confused look. "OK, well, maybe we'll keep working on that one. Let me ask around." She made another note. "We should probably try to get at least one more woman. We want the board to be as diverse as possible."
"What about you?"
"If I take this job, I'll work for the board, so I won't be on it. But if I don't take the job, I'll be happy to sit on the board."
"I really hope you'll do this, Ms. Hunter," he said earnestly. "It would mean so much to me to know I'd left all of this in good hands."
"I've never thought about running a foundation, but I have to admit, your offer is appealing. I like the idea of being involved in something so positive. When do you plan to announce your retirement?"
"I'm calling a press conference on Friday morning. Not looking forward to it much, but…" He shrugged.
"Friday's soon," she said, looking troubled. "We'll need you involved in establishing the mission of the foundation, but we won't have time to do much more than make initial contact with these potential board members before Friday."
"You don't need me for that. I'm going to ask my friend Clark Kent to help you with the mission of the foundation. Clark knows me, knows my values. He can speak for me."
"You must really trust him. This is a lot of money… your legacy."
He smiled. "I do trust him, and you can, too. If you need anything, call Clark."
She took a deep breath. "OK, then. I'll look forward to meeting him."
"Thank you, Ms. Hunter." He stood and offered his hand, and she shook it, looking slightly dazed. Superman smiled as he said his goodbyes and then whistled on his way out of the office. He ducked into a nearby restroom and spun into Clark Kent, taking a moment to straighten his tie before heading back to the office — back to Lois.
But there had been a moment there in that restroom when he had thought about how many times he had spun in and out of that suit. How many places he had ducked into as Clark Kent and dashed out of as Superman, and vice versa. For just a moment, he felt a whisper of… something. It wasn't quite regret. He wasn't sure what it was. But it hit him as he spun out of that suit that he'd just set something in motion — something momentous that would change his life, and Lois's, and perhaps even the course of history. He had thought of all that before, of course — had stayed up half the night thinking about it — but it hadn't seemed real until he'd spun out of that red and blue suit and realized that he might only do that a few more times, and then never again. It didn't feel like a death — not in the same way that packing up Clark Kent had — but it felt like an ending.
But it was a beginning, too, he reminded himself, as he exited the building and turned toward the Daily Planet. Not only was he beginning something with Lois, but he had just taken the first steps toward forming a foundation that would continue Superman's work long after he was gone. His life would be *different* without the suit, but it would be a change for the better. The world would be different without Superman in the skies and on the streets, but it had gotten along without Superman before, and it could do it again. In the meantime, Clark Kent would help where he could — surreptitiously with his powers, sometimes, and always with his pen and his partner.
It would be enough, he told himself firmly, and then he turned his attention to his date with Lois that night.
Walking into the Daily Planet that day had an exhilarating first-day-of-the-rest-of-his-life feel to it. He and Lois were taking the next step. They had an understanding. They hadn't spelled it out in so many words, but everything felt more settled now, and he knew the days of wondering if she would ever be his were over. Granted, for two more days, he'd have to juggle Clark Kent and Superman, but as of Friday, he'd be completely free. Just thinking about it filled him with a nervous excitement, like the feeling he'd had when he graduated from college and set out to see the world. In leaving Superman behind, he was embarking on a new life filled with new possibilities.
As always, he looked for Lois as he stepped off the elevator, and he found her at her desk. She was frowning into her computer screen, little lines creasing her forehead, and she so captivated him that the rest of the busy newsroom seemed like nothing more than an elaborate backdrop. Without trying — without even noticing him — she seemed to draw him straight to her side.
"Morning," he greeted her, making an effort to sound just as he always did. His face was giving him away, however, and he knew it. The feelings he'd kept hidden in his heart for nearly two years were finally out in the open and acknowledged, and he felt like he had "Clark Kent loves Lois Lane" tattooed on his forehead for the entire office to see.
"Morning," Lois answered, turning away from her computer, and though it was obvious that she, too, was trying to keep things professional at the office, the little creases in her forehead were smoothed away at the sight of him, and there was a softness in her voice and a sparkle in her eyes as she greeted him that told him she was feeling the same way he did. "Where've you been?"
For once, he was able to manage a truthful answer to that question. Or at least a half-truthful answer, which was still considerably better than his usual efforts. "I had an appointment with Constance Hunter. I had a couple of questions for her about the copycat lawsuits against Superman. She seems to think that most of them will be dismissed."
"Well they'd better be! Every last one of them is *ridiculous*."
He smiled. Now that he knew Clark was her choice, he found her vehement defense of Superman heartening, rather than threatening. "You won't get any argument from me," he told her, leaning against her desk. "So what else have we got on for today?"
"Not too much. They got an indictment against Middleton, and I thought I'd follow up on that."
"Doesn't sound like a two-person job."
"Not really," she said, sounding sorry.
"I'm meeting Mom and Dad for lunch, but they're flying back this afternoon. Can we have dinner tonight?" It occurred to him that he'd assumed they would see one another that night, but he hadn't actually asked.
She gave him a coy look. "Like a date?"
He chuckled. "I certainly hope so."
"With wine?" She batted her eyes at him.
"And dancing?" Her lips curved in a secret smile.
"If you want to."
"And kissing?" She lifted her face to his invitingly.
He leaned toward her, enchanted with this little bit of office flirtation, enchanted with *her*. "Definitely kissing," he murmured.
She pretended to think it over. "Nah," she said finally, pulling away from him. "I'm kinda busy."
He tsked and shook his head. "Well, I had my heart set on some kissing. Guess I'll just have to find someone else. Let's see…" He craned his neck, pretending to look around the newsroom.
She grabbed his tie and tugged him closer, her eyes narrowed. "Don't even *think* about it, Farmboy."
He grinned at her. "Does the fact that you're choking me to death mean that your schedule is opening up?"
"I might be able to rearrange some things," she said grudgingly, releasing his tie and smoothing it into place with one hand.
"I'm glad." He leaned in and let his lips brush over hers. "Because you're the only woman I have any intention of kissing."
She looked pleased and slid one hand behind his neck to draw him back down for another quick kiss. "Good," she murmured. "What time are you picking me up?"
"Actually… why don't you come to my place? I'll cook for you."
"Mmm. I like the sound of that. But what about the dancing?"
"Leave it to me," he promised, his heart racing at the thought of dancing with Lois in the privacy of his apartment. He imagined them moving together by candlelight, trading slow kisses to soft music, and for a moment their eyes met and desire leapt like a flame between them. <<Oh, yes,>> he thought. <<There would definitely be dancing.>>
"What do you two think you're doin'?" Perry bellowed suddenly, making them both jump. "Does this look like the balcony of a movie theater?" He stood in front of them, hands on his hips — a portrait of editorial crankiness.
"Sorry, Chief," Clark said, but he couldn't keep the grin off his face. His eyes slid to Lois's, and she smiled back, looking every bit as unrepentant as he did.
"Let's just try to keep it professional around here," Perry said gruffly. When that didn't succeed in wiping the smiles from their faces, he rolled his eyes and gave up. "Clark, what are you working on today?"
"Not a thing so far. Got something for me?"
"Maybe. Come into my office. I've got a couple of features that could use your touch."
"Sure, Chief." He glanced at Lois and saw that she was making a face at the word 'features.' He laughed and gave her a little wave and then followed Perry into his office.
By the time he came out again, Lois was gone — out on her story, he presumed — so he began making preliminary notes for one of the assignments Perry had given him. Since they were features rather than hard news stories, he wasn't racing against the clock, and he found his mind wandering again and again away from his notes.
Mostly, his mind wandered to Lois and the way she'd felt in his arms the night before. Finally acknowledging their feelings for one another had seemed to break down so many barriers — even the ones that had existed in his own mind. He'd always been a little afraid to let himself hope before, for fear of being crushed by disappointment if she were never his. The agony of watching her almost marry Lex Luthor had never left him, and he wasn't sure his heart would survive something like that again. So he had been cautious in his hopes, cautious in his expectations, but now the time for caution was over, and he could let himself imagine a future with the woman he loved. Each day would bring new intimacies; each day they would know and understand one another a little better, he thought with satisfaction.
Around mid-morning, his phone rang, startling him out of yet another daydream.
"Clark Kent," he said automatically.
"Mr. Kent, this is Constance Hunter. I represent Superman."
"Of course," Clark said warmly. "He told me you might be calling. Congratulations, by the way. I was very pleased to see the Dregg case dismissed."
"Well, I'm not sure I had much to do with that," Constance said. "As I told Superman, saving the judge's life tends to make him lenient."
"I don't think you give yourself enough credit," Clark said honestly.
"Well… thank you." Her tone was awkward, as if she were unused to receiving compliments. She hurried on to the point of her call, clearly wanting to change the subject. "Anyway, Mr. Kent… did Superman tell you why I would be calling?"
"Please call me Clark. And, yes. He told me he was interested in starting a foundation and that you'd be asking me to serve on the board. Of course I'll be happy to."
"Well, great," she said, laughing a little. "It sounds like he must have seen you right after he saw me." Clark felt himself tense at that observation, but she went right on. "That certainly makes my job easier. I'm going to try to make contact with some of the other potential board members he and I discussed, and I'd like to set up a first meeting as soon as next week. Is there a particular day that works best with your schedule?"
"Um…" Clark flipped through his appointment book. "Our editor holds a story meeting every Monday morning, but it doesn't look like I have anything else on my schedule that couldn't be rearranged. Whenever you can set it up, I'll make a point of being there."
"Great," she said. "Thanks, Clark. I'll look forward to meeting you."
"You, too, Constance." Her first name sprang to his lips naturally for the first time. Superman couldn't unbend enough to call her that, but Clark could.
With another word or two of farewell, they hung up, and Clark was left staring pensively at the phone, feeling uneasy.
*Why* had he told her he'd already spoken to Superman?
How many times had he used that one, he wondered. How many times had he explained away some bit of information by saying that he'd 'talked to Superman?' Each day it got more complicated, more confusing. Superman knew *this*, but Clark knew *that*. Superman had been *here*, while Clark had been *there*. He'd become a master of compartmentalization these last two years, but always there was the dread, coiled tight as a spring in his gut, that he was going to say or do something wrong. Something he couldn't explain away. Something that was going to expose his double life and put his friends and family in danger. For two years he'd walked that tightrope and woven his own safety net of lies.
He hadn't *needed* to lie to Constance Hunter when she called. That was the thing that had struck him most forcefully as he hung up his phone. What would it have cost him to let her give him her spiel about the Superman Foundation? Five minutes at most? Was he trying to save her the trouble of telling him or himself the trouble of listening to her? Either way, it didn't make any sense. It was one thing to justify lying to protect his family, but he was lying out of sheer habit now. Anytime Superman's name came up, it seemed, Clark spun another lie.
What would it be like not to have to do that anymore, he wondered? What would it be like to go a whole day without telling a single lie to his boss, to his co-workers, to the woman he loved? He wanted that, he thought fiercely. Wanted it with a greed he hadn't known he was capable of feeling. He was like a child with his face pressed against a shop window, desperately wishing for what he saw inside. He could imagine that life; it was almost near enough to touch. And in two days, it would be his.
The reality of that was settling over him like a warm blanket on a cold night. He wanted to wrap himself up in it, to let himself relax into it, but he couldn't — not yet. Constance Hunter's call reminded him that there were still things he needed to do. Until he made his announcement on Friday morning, he would still have to be Superman, for one thing. He would not break his promise to Lois — he would never, ever run away from her again — but so long as leaving Lois wasn't involved, he would go where Superman was needed up until he told the world he was leaving for good.
And he needed to work on that, too, he realized. It was a slow news day and Lois was out of the office, so there was nothing to keep him from working on the press release announcing Superman's 'retirement.'
He set his story notes aside, opened a new document on his computer, and then glanced over his shoulder, feeling ridiculously paranoid as he did so. No one was near enough to read his computer screen, and no one would have the slightest reason to be interested, even if they could. He felt like there should be a brass band playing and fireworks exploding over his workstation, given the momentousness of the thing he was doing, but instead, there was just the usual buzz of the newsroom and the usual people bustling back and forth, paying no attention at all to the mundane sight of Clark Kent working at his computer.
He paused for a moment as he started, wondering who he should list as a contact for the story. The author of the release would be gone, and he had no intention of leaving a forwarding address. He certainly wasn't going to put Clark Kent's name as a contact, and asking Lois to do it was unthinkable. He decided that he would just type up his statement, read it aloud at the press conference, and then leave it behind for members of the press, so that hopefully he wouldn't be misquoted. He would leave further contact information blank. With that decided, he began to type:
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Superman Announces Departure
(METROPOLIS, New Troy — April 17, 1995) — I come before you today to announce that I am being called away to other work and, in fact, to another life. I come before you to announce that, as of today, there will be no more Superman.
I came to Metropolis two years ago because I wanted to help, and I hope that I've done that. I've tried my best to use my powers for good, to fight for truth and justice, to make the city of Metropolis just a little bit safer, a little bit more peaceful than it would have been otherwise. I have enjoyed my time here and have been proud to call Metropolis home, proud to call the planet Earth my home. I am now needed elsewhere, however, and must bid you goodbye.
I know you have questions, and most of these I am not able to answer. I cannot tell you where I am going or how I will get there. I cannot tell you what I will be doing.
I can tell you, however, that I have taken steps to ensure that the work I began on this planet will go on. My attorney, Constance Hunter, is in the early stages of establishing a working foundation in my name. All profits from Superman-themed merchandising have gone toward the foundation, but until now, it has not been an organized effort. Ms. Hunter is changing all of that, and I'm very excited about the possibilities. The Superman Foundation will continue the work I have started here on Earth, and I am very proud to have my name associated with it.
Please know that wherever I am, I'll carry the best of Earth with me. I ask each one of you to look to yourselves for the strength, decency, and compassion that I know you have inside. Emerson said that self-trust is the essence of heroism. Inside each of you is a hero, and so I leave, knowing that a world full of heroes has nothing to fear.
Clark's heart was pounding as he read over what he'd written. Like his conversation with Constance that morning, seeing those words marching across the page seemed to make his decision that much more real. It felt like he was lining up dominoes one after another, until that final moment when he would give them the push that would send them tumbling into one another and end it all.
Those words were a tapestry of the vague half-truths that had become a staple of his life over the past two years. On Friday he would wear Superman's suit for the last time as he read those half-truths aloud to a crowd full of reporters. And then he would fly away to freedom.
Some impulse he preferred not to analyze made him leave his desk then and head to the roof of the Daily Planet. He spun into the red and blue suit and lifted off slowly, taking a moment to look out over the city. He'd come home to Metropolis when he was twenty-seven years old, even though at that time, it was a city he'd never seen before. In the two years since, he'd put down deep roots there, as both Clark and Superman, and he figured he knew every square inch of Metropolis by now. He paused and turned in midair, his cape swirling around him. Though he wasn't really leaving Metropolis, this view of it would soon be all but lost to him, and he wanted to soak it in… to memorize every detail. To his right, the bay shimmered in the morning sunlight. To his left, the river meandered lazily toward the sea. And between the two, buildings rose up out of a maze of streets and alleys, some stretching eagerly toward the sky, while others rested modestly in their neighbors' shadows. Every peak and valley of that skline was as familiar to him as the layout of his own apartment.
He felt a fondness for the city and its people well up in him. The citizens of Metropolis had welcomed him, for the most part, with trust rather than fear. They had allowed an alien in a red and blue suit to walk and work amongst them. They had celebrated his successes and had bought t-shirts and toys and Halloween costumes adorned with his shield. And when they were hurt or afraid, when they were in need of help, his name had risen to their lips in a desperate cry, and he had always tried to answer them.
As he drifted over the shining city, buffeted a little by the soft spring wind, he wondered for the first time if Metropolis would forgive him for what he was about to do.
Lois rapped once at his door and then turned the knob, and she was halfway inside by the time he made it up the stairs to the landing to greet her.
"Hi," he said, feeling suddenly tongue-tied. He'd spent the day building so many fantasies around this evening, but in his fantasies he'd always been suave and self-assured, words of flirtation and seduction flowing between them like warm honey. Now he was stuck with the reality of Clark Kent, and all those imagined words felt false on his tongue.
"Hi," she said, sounding as shy as he did.
"I'm glad you're here," he told her. "I missed you."
"You saw me two hours ago," she teased.
"Yeah, but two hours ago, I couldn't do this." He settled his hands on her shoulders, feeling the warmth of her skin through the thin sweater she wore. Her tiny frame felt so fragile against his strength. He remembered once, when he was a child, holding a baby bird for the first time; it had been so new and beautiful, so impossibly delicate, and he'd felt almost breathless with the responsibility of it — that small life resting in his clumsy, childish hands.
She stepped into him trustingly, her arms sliding up his chest and around his neck as she smiled up at him — a bewitching smile that was innocent and inviting all at once. The awkwardness of their greeting fell away, and he felt like the man in his daydreams as he lowered his mouth to hers for a sweet, lingering kiss. When they finally drew apart, Lois sighed contentedly. "You sure know how to make a girl feel welcome, Kent."
"You ain't seen nothing yet," he promised, and suddenly the joy bubbled up and wouldn't be contained. He laughed out loud and lifted her off her feet, spinning her around while she laughed with him and demanded that he put her down.
"Nope," he told her, carrying her carefully down the few steps to his living room. "I promised you dancing." And with that, he began to waltz her around the room, her feet still several inches from the floor.
"You've gone crazy," she said, through her laughter. "Why is it that after two dates with me, men just go completely crazy?"
He stopped then — he was laughing too hard to dance gracefully — and let her slide back to the ground, still keeping her in the circle of his arms. "I guess you just have that effect on us," he told her. "They'll be adding it to the psychology books any day now. Acute Lois-Lane-itis. Very serious. No cure." He kissed her again, kissed her while the laughter still spilled from her lips, and he realized in that moment that he had never been happier. There in his apartment, surrounded by love and laughter and Lois, he was having the single happiest moment of his life — a moment against which all future moments would be measured.
"I love you," he whispered, as the kiss ended, because it was true and because his heart was so full that the words simply couldn't be contained.
Her eyes went wide, and she stilled in his arms. He was again reminded of that tiny bird, so vulnerable and afraid, its small heart racing fiercely against the palm of his hand. "Clark…" she said softly, and he put a finger against her lips.
"You don't have to say anything," he assured her. "That's not why I said that. I just wanted you to know. There are so many things in life that are uncertain, that we can't control, but that one thing… my love… it's yours, Lois. It always has been and always will be."
"Wow," she whispered. "Clark, I…"
"Not now," he said, shaking his head and putting his finger against her lips again. He wanted to hear those words from her — of course he did — but he had a feeling she wasn't really ready to say them. And he wanted his own love to be a gift freely given, not one that came with expectations. For now it was enough to have her there, in his apartment and in his arms, with his love for her out in the open between them at last.
She pressed a tiny kiss to the finger that covered her lips, and his heart ached at the sweetness of the gesture.
"I promised you wine," he said softly.
"Well, we've done kissing and dancing already." Her voice sounded a little unsteady.
"Oh, we're not finished with those things." He kissed the tip of her nose — such a silly thing to do, but at that moment it felt exactly right — and stepped away from her for practically the first time since she'd come through the door. "Is Pinot Noir all right?" he asked. "I thought I'd just grill steaks for dinner."
"Do men know how to cook anything else?"
"And just how many things do *you* know how to cook?" he asked, reaching for the wine.
"Touche." She giggled. "And the wine sounds wonderful."
He rummaged in a drawer for a corkscrew, but it took longer to find it than it should have, mostly because his eyes were on Lois, watching her as she moved restlessly around his small kitchen as if she'd never been there before. She flitted from one thing to another, her hands lighting as quickly and gracefully as butterflies on the things she saw, the bits and pieces of his everyday life. What was she thinking, he wondered, as her fingers ghosted over the smooth enamel of the kettle on his stove or trailed through the fringe of the towel hanging from a drawer? Was she imagining a life there with him? Or was it just Lois being Lois — too full of energy and curiosity to be still?
His fingers finally located the corkscrew, and he turned his attention to the wine, opening the bottle and then reaching for the stemware he'd set out ahead of time. He poured two glasses and then offered her one of them, admiring her natural, unstudied elegance as she lifted the glass and breathed in the bouquet of the wine.
"What should we drink to?" she asked, and the question seemed more charged than it should have been.
But he knew the answer. Knew the one thing he wanted for them above all else. "The future," he said softly. "*Our* future."
Her lips curved in a smile, and he knew he'd said the right thing. "Our future," she repeated, as if she were tasting the words, trying them out. They touched their glasses lightly, and his eyes held hers, full of things he couldn't say, and then the wine was rich and warm on their tongues. It was a simple thing, the two of them standing there in the middle of his kitchen exchanging a toast, yet to Clark, it felt like a sacrament.
"It's wonderful," Lois said, and he knew she was talking about the wine, but to him the words meant so much more.
"It will be," he said, and watching her face, he knew she understood what he was saying, what he was promising her.
She lowered her eyes to her glass, hiding from the intensity of the moment, and then she took another quick sip of her wine. "So… steak, huh?"
He knew she needed to lighten the mood, to step back from the precipice they were hovering on, and he played along. "And salad and bread. With work, I didn't have time for much else."
"It sounds great. Is there anything I can help with?"
"Nope. But you can keep me company outside while I grill the steaks." He handed her his wine and reached into the refrigerator to pull out the steaks, which he'd already seasoned. He'd wanted every moment of this evening to be perfect, had planned each detail as well as he possibly could. It had been nothing like he'd planned or expected so far; it had been better. So many emotions in such a short time, as if they couldn't wait to experience them all; the evening seemed to be a microcosm of their entire relationship, with laughter and teasing, love and desire, promises and hope. Cooking dinner, which normally was such a mundane, everyday activity, seemed to take on a dreamlike quality as he ushered her through his bedroom and out onto his small balcony.
There wasn't much to see from his balcony, just the dirty alley and the solid brick wall of the building beside his, which was blank, except for a few scrawls of graffiti. But there was a sliver of sky above them, and it was streaked with pink and orange as the day softened into dusk.
"I didn't know you had a grill out here," she said, eyeing the small gas grill he'd lit before she arrived.
"Dad bought it a few months ago. Remember? He was doing all the cooking, and practically all he knows how to do is grill things."
"Told ya," she said smugly.
"I said that's all *he* knows how to do. But I've been on my own a lot longer than he ever was. I've had to learn to cook if I wanted to eat." He dropped the steaks on the grill and then, when the flames hissed and leaped up to engulf them, he quickly reached to adjust the gas.
"I've been on my own, too, but I've managed to avoid learning to cook." She leaned against the railing, watching him.
"Ah, now I get it. You're just going out with me because you're tired of microwave dinners."
"Maybe." She smiled and took a sip of her wine.
"You weren't supposed to agree with me," he scolded her.
Her eyes twinkled at him. "Sorry. Someone forgot to send me the script."
"Darn! I knew I forgot something!"
"Well, I'm trying to follow along as best I can. But… you're different tonight."
"Good different or bad different?"
"Good, I think. Just… unexpected."
"Well, I've always wanted to be a man of mystery," he teased.
A smile touched her lips but was quickly replaced by a thoughtful look. "You know, once I would have said that you were the least mysterious man I'd ever met. But I have a feeling I was wrong about that."
He stared at her, groping for the right response. He was probably reading way too much into her words, he assured himself; it was surely just her way of telling him that she found him interesting now, whereas they both knew she'd overlooked him before. She was not trying to tease out confessions.
But he had the same feeling he'd had during his conversation with his mother the previous night — a feeling that if he were going to tell her the truth, any part of it, this was the exact moment he should do it. She'd just provided him with the perfect opening, and all he had to do was to step into it… and fill it with words that had the power to destroy everything that he'd hoped and dreamed of for the last two years.
Their understanding was too new, he thought desperately — too tender and fragile to withstand that kind of storm. Later. When things between them were more certain. When the roots went deeper, were stronger, then he could tell her. When they'd become so secure in their love for one another that living without it was unthinkable. That was when he would tell her. And it would be awful — he didn't deceive himself about that — but they would get through it, and then there would be no more lies, no more secrets.
He forced a smile. "What you see is what you get, Lois," he said lightly, and that was true as far as it went. As long as he was with her, he was nothing more or less than Clark Kent, investigative reporter for the Daily Planet and lover of Lois Lane. And in little more than a day now, that's all he would ever be. "Need some more wine?"
"No, thanks," she said, glancing down at her glass, which was still half-full. "I'm fine."
And then he turned back to the steaks, poking at them unnecessarily, afraid of what his face might give away. She was so smart, and her attention was on him fully for the first time since he'd known her. Dread settled in the pit of his stomach like a stone.
"It's easier to get forgiveness than permission," his dad had said to him more than once. Usually the words were accompanied by a wink and a smile, and the infraction was no more serious than snitching a slice of his mother's freshly-made pie. But Clark felt the truth of those words and had seen them in action more than once. Lois might forgive him for exiling Superman if presented with a fait accompli, but she would never, ever give him permission. Nor should she have to, he thought, stabbing at the steaks again. Superman was his burden, either to carry or not, as he chose.
"Clark? Are you all right?"
At the soft, inquiring sound of her voice, Clark realized that his shoulders were rigid with tension. He forced himself to relax, to answer her normally. "I'm fine," he said, flashing her a smile. "You like your steak medium, right?"
He turned the steaks and then extended one arm, inviting her to join him, needing that physical connection between them. She came to him willingly, slipping one arm around his waist as he pulled her close to his side.
"It's a beautiful night," she said, sighing contentedly as she rested her head on his shoulder. "I love spring."
"Me, too. But if you like this, you should come home with me in the next month or so — see spring on the farm."
"Is there a festival?" she asked suspiciously. "Am I going to have to worship the seeds or the dirt or dance around your father's John Deere tractor?"
He laughed. "Well, I wouldn't mind seeing that last, but no, there are no festivals in the spring. The farmers are too busy with spring planting."
"Okay, then, I'll go. I love your folks."
"They love you, too," he assured her, remembering his conversation with his mother. His parents had already accepted Lois into their hearts and family. He knew that without question.
"Is that where you would have gone?" she asked softly, looking up and searching his face. "If you'd left here, would you have gone back to Kansas?"
"No. I guess I might have for a little while, while I decided what I was going to do next, but, no. I doubt I'll ever live in Kansas again. Why?"
"I don't know. I was just curious."
Something about the way she said it made him touch her cheek in a gentle gesture of reassurance. "Are you sure that's all?"
"It scared me, seeing all those boxes," she admitted, gesturing toward the inside of his apartment. "Realizing that you could just pick up and leave like that. What if we have a fight? Are you just going to disappear in the middle of the night?"
"No!" he exclaimed. "God, no. But Lois, I thought you were in love with Scardino…"
"But why?" she asked. "I only went out with Dan a couple of times. Why would you think that?"
<<You told me you were in love with someone else!>>
He nearly said the words, nearly made that potentially fatal mistake, and then he caught them just in time. Because she hadn't told *him* she was in love with someone else; she'd told Superman, and he'd been so crazy with jealousy that he'd forgotten that, to her, Superman and Clark Kent weren't one and the same.
"I was just jealous," he said, "of all the time you'd been spending with Scardino. I guess it made me a little crazy."
"Crazy enough to leave without saying goodbye?" She looked at him, and for a moment, she let him see her vulnerability. It was as if he could see her entire history behind her beautiful, wounded eyes: A little girl, too young to understand, left by her father to be raised by an alcoholic mother. A college student left for her roommate by her boyfriend. A young reporter left by her lover, and all so he could steal her story. No wonder Clark's disappearances had made her doubt him. No wonder the sight of those boxes had terrified her.
"Lois…" He folded her into his arms, felt her shudder a little against his shirtfront. "I promised you yesterday that I would never run away from you again. I swear to you, I will keep that promise. I'm here. I'm yours. I'm not going anywhere. And I'm going to prove that to you every day for as long as you let me."
"You'd better." She tried to sound threatening, but he heard the plea through her attempt at bravado.
"I will." He hugged her close. "You know what, I think these are almost done. Are you hungry?"
"Starving," she said. She drew away from him and picked up her wineglass, empty now. "And I think this must be going to my head."
He waggled his eyebrows at her. "All part of my master plan," he told her, relieved at the sound of her giggle. "Now let's go eat."
They ate by candlelight and talked of normal, everyday things during dinner, avoiding by unspoken mutual agreement the more charged, emotional subjects that lay between them. They laughed together as they remembered Perry's reaction to their kissing in the newsroom, and Clark told her a little about the features he'd been assigned. It wasn't quite the dinner of his fantasies, but it was even more satisfying, in a way, because he could imagine them sharing a lifetime of dinners like this, filled with laughter and quiet conversation. This was what his parents had, he realized, and what he'd wanted his entire life: a relationship built on a solid foundation of friendship. Suddenly, the two years he'd spent waiting for her seemed well spent. It had been frustrating and downright painful at times, but it had led to this wonderful, comfortable rapport between them.
The thing he'd most dreaded didn't happen until dessert, until they were eating the brownies his mom had left for him.
"Oh my gosh," she said, her mouth full of chocolate and her eyes closed with utter delight. "I adore your mother. I want you to tell her that, too. Don't just say, 'Lois liked the brownies,' because that's not even *close* to what I'm saying here. Tell her I *adore* her. Tell her I think they ought to make a statue of her holding a pan of brownies and put it right in the middle of Centennial Park." She grinned at him, and two of her teeth were black with chocolate. He was about to tease her about it when he heard the sound of sirens — lots of them — screaming toward the South Side of town. He tensed, his hands tightening on the edge of the table, instinctively pushing him away from her and toward the sound of the sirens.
She didn't miss it, and he saw the bright smile fade from her face as she braced herself for another hasty departure, another stupid excuse. He was already extending his hearing, automatically searching for a nearby radio or television that would tell him what kind of crisis he'd be dealing with, when he saw her face and remembered his promise.
"I'm going to get another brownie," he said, taking care to speak softly, even though his ears were ringing with the sound of the sirens. "Want one?"
She relaxed, then, but gave him a slightly quizzical look. "No, I'd better not," she said. "I'll have to spend an extra half-hour at the gym tomorrow as it is."
He stepped toward the counter and pulled open the tin. He reached into the little zipper bag and tried to think about the brownie, about the fact that his mom had used walnuts when he really preferred pecans. He wondered where she'd found the tin, which was a Christmas one he couldn't remember seeing before that had reindeer and lollipops on the cover, though what reindeer had to do with lollipops he couldn't imagine. But nuts and reindeer and lollipops weren't doing it; the sirens were still piercing in his head, and he felt as though his nerves were being plucked like harp strings.
"Clark?" Lois said, and he could hear the concern in her voice. He reminded himself that she was the reason he was doing this, that she deserved to eat her dessert without being abandoned by her date. He reminded himself of the way her eyes had looked on his balcony, of all the men who had run away from her.
"I changed my mind," he said, closing the tin and crossing over to her, sweeping her into his arms like a bridegroom about to cross the threshold. "I'm hungry for something else." He pressed his mouth to hers, swallowing her surprised giggles and training his sensitive hearing on the sound of her heartbeat accelerating as their kiss grew more passionate. She tasted of wine and chocolate, and the sound of the sirens began to fade away as he stood in the middle of his kitchen, holding her in his arms and losing himself in her kiss.
"Wow…" she whispered, when he turned his attention to the graceful column of her neck, to the spot where her pulse fluttered beneath his lips. He heard her breath catch and smiled against her soft skin. He looked up just long enough to chart the path to the sofa and then strode purposefully in that direction.
"Where are we going?" she asked, sounding a little dazed.
"More comfortable here." He sat on the sofa with Lois still cradled in his arms and let out a hiss of breath when she shifted so that she was straddling him, pressing against him in all sorts of interesting places. "Lois…" he hissed. Desire shot through him, and at that moment she was all he knew, all that existed. And then she was kissing him, her mouth hungry for his, and he let himself get lost in the taste and feel of her, soft and warm and willing in his arms.
Somewhere across town, the sirens still screamed, but Clark Kent no longer heard them.
The evening ended with a reluctant pulling back and some nervous laughter as they untangled themselves and rearranged their clothing in Clark's darkened apartment. They moved quickly and awkwardly, like two teenagers whose parents might be coming to the door any minute to catch them. Clark knew it was silly, this self-consciousness; they were both adults and could do whatever they wanted to in the privacy of his apartment, but still it was there, and they both seemed to be feeling it.
"I should go," Lois told him as she finished tucking in her sweater. Watching her, he was struck by the contrast between *this* Lois, flushed and disheveled from his kisses, and the Lois who had stood in the middle of his kitchen, so poised and perfect, with a wineglass in her hand. He wasn't sure which was more beautiful. She tucked a strand of hair behind an ear. "We have work tomorrow."
"Let me drive you home," he offered. "I can keep the Jeep — pick you up tomorrow morning."
"No," she protested. "You don't have to do that. I'll be fine."
"I really don't mind."
"I know you don't. And I know it's probably a blow to your overdeveloped sense of chivalry to know that your date can get home without your help." She smiled to take the sting from the words. "But I really can."
"I know you can," he conceded, recognizing that for whatever reason, she was going to insist on this bit of independence. "But be careful, please."
"Well, I thought I'd run over to the South Side on the way home and walk the streets a bit. You know… see if I can get any story ideas for tomorrow." She flashed him a teasing grin.
"Lo-is," he complained, because he knew it was expected of him, but the words 'South Side' had struck him like a blow to the gut. He extended his hearing, but the sirens were silent now. What had he missed? What had been happening in his city while he had hidden himself away in Lois's kisses? Were there people out there, hurt and confused, wondering why Superman hadn't come?
"Well, if you insist on driving yourself, you should probably go before it gets any later," he said. He tried to sound casual, but Lois cocked her head at him, as if she were searching for some hidden meaning in his words. <<What was he supposed to do?>> he wondered, suddenly feeling almost angry at her. She was the one who said she needed to go; she was the one who insisted on driving herself. He wasn't running away from her. He was *agreeing* with her, for crying out loud.
"You're probably right," she said, and maybe it was his imagination, but he thought her voice sounded a little cool.
No, he thought desperately, the anger draining away. No, no, no! He couldn't let their evening end on a wrong note.
"Hey," he said softly, going to her and putting his arms around her. "I had a really great time tonight."
"Me, too," she said, and he felt her relax against him. "A really great time. Probably the best time I've ever had."
He looked down at her, his eyes twinkling. "Is this the part where you slam the door in my face? Because I was kind of hoping you wouldn't want to end all our dates that way."
She laughed. "So how were you hoping to end them?"
"Like this," he said, cupping her face in his hands and bending to caress her lips with a kiss that was more tender than passionate.
"I like that way," she murmured.
"Me, too," he agreed.
"But I really should go."
"I'll walk you to your car," he offered. And as they walked outside, he felt the anxiety starting up again, like a swarm of angry hornets in his belly. He saw her safely to her car, watched as she got in and put on her seatbelt, and then forced himself to stand there while she gave him one last smile and drove away into the night.
But no sooner was she out of sight than he was back in his apartment, spinning into his suit. He had to *know*, that was all. He had to know what he'd missed, what the consequences were of ignoring all those sirens.
He shot away from his apartment, the sonic boom echoing over Metropolis as he rocketed toward the South side of town, where he saw the still-smoking ruins of one of the city's oldest school buildings. It was a middle school now, or had been before the fire, but when it was first built, it had housed all grades, first through twelfth. Clark remembered Scott Myerson doing a feature on it once, remembered pictures of bright bulletin boards, neat rows of desks, and a wonderful old gymnasium, the first in the city.
Firemen and policemen were still milling around the scene, and even though he could tell he was no longer needed, he landed solidly in their midst, arranging his face in his usual blank mask.
"Superman," the nearest of the policemen said, approaching him. "Not much for you to do here. You missed all the fun."
And the worst of it was that there was no accusation in his tone. No hint that Superman had disappointed them by not showing up when the fire was raging.
"Were there any injuries?" he asked, because he had to know, and he felt almost lightheaded with relief when the policeman shook his head.
"Lotta damage, obviously, but the building was empty, it being nighttime. Good thing it didn't happen during the day, though."
"I'm sorry," Clark said, feeling a crazy need to have this man grant him some sort of absolution. "I'm sorry I couldn't be here earlier," he clarified, when the policeman gave him a strange look.
The man shrugged. "We know you can't be everywhere at once, Superman."
<<What would you say if you knew?>> Clark thought, and for a crazy moment, he wanted to confess, to tell this total stranger that he hadn't been saving someone somewhere else, hadn't been off fighting for truth and justice. He'd just been wrapped around his girlfriend in a candlelit apartment on the other side of town — touching her, learning the things that pleased her — while a school burned to the ground.
"Seems to have started around the gym," the man said conversationally. "The fire marshal thinks it might have been kids smoking there earlier in the day."
Clark remembered doing the same one time — trying his first and last cigarette behind the Smallville High gym. His friend Adam had stolen the cigarettes from his mother's purse and shared them with his friends. Clark had gone along with it, but he had not seen the appeal and had never been tempted to try it again. It was a thing that teenagers did, though. They smoked cigarettes and they were careless and they never thought there would be consequences.
Suddenly Clark felt weary. He was not needed here, and maybe he never had been. All around him, the emergency workers moved purposefully, doing their jobs and sparing him the occasional curious glance, but no one seemed to expect him to do anything. No one seemed to blame him for the fire, or for not being there while it was raging. It wasn't what he'd expected at all, and he should have been relieved, but instead he felt tired and a little let down.
"You all right, Superman?" The policeman gave him a quizzical look.
"I'm fine," Clark said. "I'm glad no one was hurt. I should probably let you get back to work."
The man nodded, already moving away from him. "Thanks for stopping by, Superman," he called over his shoulder, as if Superman were a guest, a visitor, who had arrived late and missed tea.
Clark stood for a few seconds, watching the activity around him, and even though there were things he could do, ways he could offer to help, suddenly he couldn't stand to be in that place another minute. He turned his back on the smoldering building and flew away, making a perfunctory pass over some of the city's frequent problem areas but seeing nothing that required his special skills.
This was good, he told himself. It just confirmed the decision he'd already made. Metropolis could get along without Superman, and so could Clark Kent. Eventually, the sound of sirens wouldn't grip him by the throat, wouldn't call him to the skies. Someday, whatever emptiness he might be feeling now would be replaced by the fullness of life. And with that in mind, he flashed quickly back into his apartment, just long enough to grab the piece of paper he'd folded carefully and tucked into his wallet for safekeeping.
The light was on in Lois's bedroom, and Clark imagined her in bed, curled on her side, maybe reading for a few minutes before she fell asleep. He resisted using his x-ray vision to peek through the curtains at her, confining himself instead to the picture she made in his imagination. She'd be happy, he thought, after their evening together, and he was about to make her unhappy. That pained him, but he knew that telling her now, privately, was less cruel than letting her find out at the press conference, as if she meant no more to Superman than any other random reporter. There was too much history between them for that, and so he gathered his courage, moved to her living room window, and rapped lightly at the glass.
There was a cowardly part of him that hoped she wouldn't hear and that he could go away and tell himself he'd tried. But it was only a few seconds before the light in the living room flashed on and she was at the window, unlatching it and welcoming him, as she always had.
"Superman," she said, her voice threaded with surprise. She was wearing a t-shirt over some soft shorts, but he noticed that she folded her arms across her chest little self-consciously, and in that moment he knew they were both remembering the same thing — that dreadful night when she had offered herself to him and he'd coldly rejected her. They had gotten past that night, but neither would ever forget it. It was there, a part of their tangled history together, an awkward step in the dance they'd been doing ever since they'd met.
"Lois." He nodded a greeting, unsure of how to begin.
"Uh, did you need something, or is this a social call?" she prompted, when the silence lengthened and began to feel awkward.
"I need to tell you something." He had the press release clutched in his hand, folded as if it were a note he was planning to pass her in homeroom. "I… I'm planning to call a press conference. Friday morning."
She waited, and when he didn't go on, she said, "Do you… need some help with that?"
"Uh, no. It's not that. It's what I'm going to say. I didn't want you to hear it for the first time at the press conference. You've… been a friend to me, and I thought I should tell you myself."
"This… sounds bad," she said, taking a step closer to him, searching his face. "Is something wrong? Is it about the lawsuits? Because Clark said…"
"No," he interrupted, not wanting to bring Clark into this at all. "It's nothing to do with the lawsuits. It's that… I'm leaving, Lois," he said softly. "Forever."
She stared at him. "Leaving Metropolis?"
"Yes… no. I mean, I'm leaving… everywhere. Permanently. No more Superman." And that sounded ridiculous, he realized — as if he were just going to disappear in a puff of smoke.
"Oh." The one word was so desolate that it felt like needles being driven into his heart. "But… you *can't*. You can't just…"
"I'm sorry, Lois. I can't even explain it to you, but please believe me when I say that I'm leaving because I have to — because I'm needed — and I hope that one day you'll understand. I *will* miss you."
He realized as he said it that it was true. Despite the fact that he would see her every day as Clark Kent, would *date* her as Clark Kent, he would still miss her friendship with Superman. It had been inconvenient and uncomfortable and occasionally downright bizarre, but it had been comforting, too. It had been a constant — one of those things you could just count on. You had your death, your taxes, and your Lois Lane championing Superman. It was just the way things were. And if there had been a part of him that had enjoyed that adoring look she'd sometimes gotten when she saw him… well, what man wouldn't find Lois Lane's adoration a little addictive?
"I don't know what to say." Her voice broke slightly. "I don't understand."
"I'm reading this at the press conference on Friday," he said, and he was embarrassed when his hands shook a little as he unfolded the piece of paper he'd brought with him and handed it to her.
She swiped at a tear that had escaped down one cheek and accepted the piece of paper; he watched her eyes track over it quickly, and then she turned away from him a little and read it through more slowly.
"You're sure about this?" she asked finally, not meeting his eyes.
"I don't think there's any other way," he told her honestly.
"And you can't tell me why?"
"What it comes down to is that I can't… be in two places at once," he said, venturing as close to the truth as he dared. "I had to make a choice. I'm sorry, but I can't tell you any more than that."
"Who else knows?" she asked, and he was a little unnerved by the calm that had seemed to come over her.
"Just Ms. Hunter."
"No one else?"
"No. Only you."
"You haven't discussed it with Clark?" She looked at him then, and he could see that tears still tracked silently down her cheeks.
"No," he said, feeling his heart twist in his chest at the sight of those tears. "I'd rather the rest of the press not know until Friday."
She nodded, looking a little dazed. There was a long moment of silence between them, and he had no idea how to fill it. "May I keep this?" she said finally, indicating the press release.
He hesitated and then nodded, once. He trusted her.
She took a deep breath and seemed to regroup. The tears stopped flowing, and she carefully folded the press release and set it to one side.
"I'll help you," she said quietly. "I can notify the press for you. I have all the contacts…"
"You don't have to do that."
"I want to. I mean, I don't want you to do this at all, but if you have to, I want to… help you, however I can. You've done so much for me…" Her voice wavered a little. "…saved my life so many times."
The room seemed suddenly oppressive, the guilt pressing down on him so that he could hardly breathe. "*No*, Lois. You don't owe me anything for that."
"I know." She'd recovered from her momentary loss of control, and she sounded firm again, certain. "But I want to do this."
He heard the steel in her voice, her determination to carry her own way, and was reminded of her earlier refusal to let him drive her home. In the end, it didn't seem to matter very much one way or another who contacted the press, and he didn't have the heart to fight her. He hadn't counted on this, though — hadn't counted on making her an accessory to what he was going to do. Sometime in the future, he was sure he would pay dearly for this moment of weakness.
"All right," he said. "Thank you."
"Where were you planning to have it?" she asked. "And when?"
"Friday morning sometime," he said. "And I hadn't thought about where. I was planning to discuss it with Ms. Hunter tomorrow. I'd like it to be outside, I think." He suddenly felt as if he were making his own funeral arrangements, with Lois playing the part of the grieving widow, and the feeling was so morbid and uncomfortable that he wanted nothing more than to get the conversation over with as soon as possible.
"The park?" she suggested. "Maybe by the fountain?"
He nodded. It didn't matter to him, and the park was as good a place as any, and better than some. Whatever she wanted was fine with him. "That's fine. The park's fine."
"I'll take care of it. Be in the park at 9 a.m., and I'll take care of everything else."
"Thank you, Lois." He took a deep breath. "And thank you for all your help since I came to Metropolis. You've been a good friend to me." He rested his hands on her shoulders, just as he had much earlier that night, when she arrived at his apartment. This time, though, he was impressed not by her fragility but by her strength. He bent and brushed a chaste kiss against her cheek.
"You've been a good friend to me, too," she said softly. "I hope… you'll be happy."
"I will be." He said it with certainty and then added, "I'll see you Friday. We'll say our goodbyes then, all right?"
"Friday," she echoed softly, as he slipped through her billowing curtains and out into the night.
Clark woke the next morning to the relentless drone of his alarm and took care as he reached over to shut it off; he'd broken more alarm clocks than he could count by groping for them clumsily in his first moments of wakefulness. He sat up and rubbed his eyes, and then some of the grogginess lifted, and he remembered: it was Thursday, his last full day of being Superman. He leaned back against his headboard, his arms wrapped around his knees, and his eyes were drawn across the room to the puddle of blue spandex and flowing red silk he'd left on the floor the night before.
He would never wear that particular suit again, he thought. He would put on a clean one today, another tomorrow, and then he would fly away, leaving the Metropolis press corps scattered beneath him like brightly colored confetti. He tried to imagine what it would feel like, that final flight, but those emotions, whatever they were, seemed just beyond his reach.
What he knew for certain was that a few minutes later, he would arrive as Clark Kent to support Lois and to help her write the story of Superman's departure, and if it felt strange, like writing his own obituary, that feeling would surely pass. He would box up his suits, just as he'd planned, and he would store them somewhere safe, somewhere private, where no one would ever find them. Those would be the memories he might prowl through one day, when he felt ready to face them. He would open the box and run his fingers over the shield, his one connection to his birth family, and he would remember the time he'd spent being larger than life. Maybe he would show Lois. Maybe by then, it would all be out in the open between them, and he could show her those empty suits, let her touch them and hold them in her hands, and she would see that that was all Superman had ever been.
At the thought of Lois, his gaze drifted out to his balcony, where he'd stood the night before and promised her again that he would never leave her. Then, in perfect counterpoint, came the later memory of standing before her hours later as Superman and telling her he was doing just that. He felt all the falseness of that, but he told himself that if she knew what his life was really like, she would think it worth every one of her tears not to have to share him with the world. For now, though, she was hurt and grieving the loss of a friend, and the worst of it was that Clark would have to pretend he didn't know why. Another whole day of lies, he thought, feeling angry suddenly but not quite knowing why or at whom.
He threw back the covers and got up, stretching once before crossing the room to pick up his suit. It still smelled like smoke from the brief time he'd spent at the fire, and he tossed it quickly into his hamper on his way into the shower.
He considered going over to Lois's that morning before work — perhaps taking her some coffee — but that seemed fraught with potential difficulties, so he simply followed his usual schedule, making a quick morning pass over Metropolis as Superman. He cleared two wrecks from the highway, and then, after glimpsing the time on a police officer's watch, he headed in the direction of the Planet, choosing a nearby alley in which to change back into Clark Kent.
He was on his way into the building when he heard Jimmy calling to him. "Hey, CK! Wait up!"
Clark turned and smiled, waiting while Jimmy caught up. "Hey, Jim. What's up?"
"Not much. You?"
Clark thought of all that was going on in his life just then, of how complicated everything seemed, and he almost laughed out loud as he considered Jimmy's reaction if Clark were to actually give an honest answer to his question.
"Same," Clark said easily. "Slow news day yesterday."
"Yeah. Did you catch the Metropolitans' game last night?"
"Uh, no." Clark pressed the button for the elevator, his mouth curving a little in a smile. "I had a date."
"Way to go, CK!" Jimmy crowed, slapping Clark on the back. "Does this mean you and Lois have worked things out?"
"Yeah," Clark said contentedly. "I think we have. So what was the score?"
"Shouldn't I be asking you that?"
"Jimmy." Clark gave his friend a reproving look, but Jimmy just laughed, and the two talked about baseball the rest of the way up to the newsroom.
As they entered the newsroom, Lois was moving toward the coffee pot with her coffee mug clutched in her hand, and she stopped and waited for Clark and Jimmy to join her.
"Morning, Lois," Jimmy said cheerfully, but then his smile faltered as he got close enough to really see her face.
Though she'd taken care with her makeup, it was obvious that she'd been crying, and she looked as though she'd hardly slept. Seeing her, Clark felt sick. He hadn't known she would take it this hard. She'd seemed upset when he'd left her the night before, but not so wracked with grief that she would spend the whole night crying. He felt the slight stirring of his old nemesis — jealousy — and savagely thrust it away. She'd chosen Clark, he reminded himself. She only considered Superman a friend. Of course she would be upset at the thought of him leaving. Of course she would take it hard. It didn't mean that she regretted her choice.
"Morning," she replied, forcing a brief smile.
"Lois?" Clark asked hesitantly. "Are you okay?"
"You don't look fine," Jimmy blurted, tactless as ever. "You look terrible."
"Thanks so much," she snapped.
"It's just that…"
"Jimmy, I don't want to talk about it." She gave Jimmy a look that would send most people running, but Jimmy was more or less immune these days and stood his ground. "I'm going to get some coffee." She glanced at Clark. "Want some?"
"Uh, yeah. Thanks."
She nodded and moved away from them, and Jimmy looked at Clark accusingly. "I thought you said you two had worked things out."
"I gotta tell ya, CK, she doesn't exactly seem over the moon about it."
"I think this is… something else," he said quietly. "I'll talk to her."
"Yeah, good luck with that," Jimmy said under his breath as he walked away.
Clark went to his desk, turned on his computer, and watched as Lois fixed them each a coffee. She seemed to be trying to carry on normally, but it was as if he could feel the weight of her sadness from across the room. He felt completely helpless, though, to do anything about it. He couldn't console her because he wasn't even supposed to know what was upsetting her, and he'd sworn her to secrecy as Superman. He'd truly believed that he was doing her a kindness in telling her ahead of time, but now he wondered if he'd erred in that.
It was too late to second-guess that decision, though, and so he just pretended it was a normal day, pulling up the story he'd started working on the day before. He stared at it without actually reading a single word, and soon, Lois was at his side, putting his coffee on his desk.
"Thank you." He forced himself to look at her, to see the lines of sadness etched in her beautiful face, and he ached to take her in his arms and kiss them all away. There were many reasons why that wasn't possible, however, so he settled for saying, "Lois, are you sure you're okay?"
"No." She met his eyes briefly and then looked away. "Not really."
It wasn't the answer he'd been expecting. Lois Lane could be neck-deep in live cobras, and she would insist that she was fine and had everything under control. He was floundering for a response when she went on.
"Superman came to see me last night." She bit her lip, and he could practically see her editing herself, choosing her words with the utmost care. "He's having a press conference on Friday, and I offered to contact the media for him."
"All right." Clark's mind was racing. <<Would she break her promise to Superman?>> he wondered, and he was uncomfortable when he realized that a part of him hoped she *would*; it would show that her loyalty to Clark was greater than her loyalty to Superman. It was a thing that shouldn't need proving — not now — but two years' worth of insecurities didn't disappear overnight.
He knew that under normal circumstances, he would ask her what the press conference was about, but he couldn't bring himself to test her that way. "Do you, uh, need some help?"
"No," she said, shaking her head. "I've got it. I just… I learned something from him last night, and it was… upsetting. I can't talk about it yet, but I just thought you should know."
"Is there anything I can do?" he asked, meaning it. He wanted to help her through this if he could, but it seemed he'd tied his own hands by asking her to keep what Superman had told her in confidence.
"No," she said, shaking her head. "I just… I need a little space today."
Clark felt adrift, helpless. She was pushing him away, and he was letting her because he didn't know what else to do. "All right," he agreed quietly. "But if you need me, Lois…"
She nodded. "I know."
And then she was leaving him, returning to her own desk and turning her back to him. He wanted to go to her, to comfort her, but the hypocrisy of that was more than he could stand. He could not inflict the wounds with one hand and then soothe them with the other, even if she didn't know he was doing it. So instead, he sat mired in guilt while the woman he loved walled herself off from him. He tried to find comfort in his memories of the night before, tried to reach for that one giddy moment of perfect happiness right before he'd told her he loved her, but it was like trying to capture moonlight with his bare hands.
He watched out of the corner of his eye as she opened a drawer, drew out a fax cover sheet, and jotted some notes at the bottom of it. He lowered his glasses just a little and peered closer; the word "Superman" seemed to leap out at him, written clearly in Lois's confident hand. He shoved his glasses back into place and turned away, his heart pounding at the realization that however much she might not want to, she was keeping her promise and calling the press conference. He'd known she was going to, so there was no reason that seeing her actually *doing* it should make him feel so unsettled. He was at once exhilarated and uncertain. An odd feeling of nervousness seemed to claw at his insides, and he told himself that it was only natural to feel that way when he stood on the cusp of such a major life change.
He heard the rattle of paper behind him, but he didn't turn to watch as she rolled her chair back and stood up. Soft sounds of her smoothing her skirt, and then her heels clicked against the hard floor as she walked away from him, in the direction of the fax machine. He heard the small beeps as she punched in numbers, and then he set his teeth as the screech of the connection seemed to reverberate in his head. For an insane moment he wanted to speed across the room and snatch the papers out of her hand, to tell her he wasn't sure, wasn't ready…
He heard the whisper of the paper feeding through the machine, and he knew that it was done. The final piece had just been put into place.
Lois had done it.
Lois, who had helped bring Superman to Metropolis, was now helping him out of it. She had always been the strong one, Clark reflected, feeling a strange numbness creeping over him. Superman had gotten the glory, but unbeknownst to the rest of the world, Lois Lane had been standing right beside him, shoring him up. And now she was giving him his freedom, even if she didn't know it. She was doing it because he had told her he needed to go, and she believed in him and trusted him enough to help him do it.
He wanted to go to her. He wanted to touch her, to somehow reassure both of them that what they had together would sustain them through this strange day and beyond, but it seemed impossible. He could fly into outer space, but he could not approach her at that moment. He had been lying to her for years, so it was odd that it was this final lie — the one that was supposed to bring them closer together — that would open up a chasm between them that even Superman couldn't cross.
He slipped out of the newsroom while she was still standing at the fax machine, and instead of heading to the roof, he walked out of the Daily Planet as Clark Kent. He wasn't even completely sure where he was going — just away — but then on impulse he ducked into a nearby bakery and bought several bagels and some cream cheese. With the bag tucked in the crook of his arm, he headed for his attorney's office, the fresh air, the familiar hum of the city, and the scent of freshly baked bread soothing him as he walked. He'd planned to visit Constance Hunter that day anyway, to tell her about the press conference, but he knew that wasn't the only reason he was seeking her out. He was going there at that moment because her small, cluttered law office was a haven from the strange currents in the newsroom. He was going there because she was the only person in Metropolis who knew his secret — the important parts of it, anyway — and would understand what a strange day this was for him.
When he reached her building, he found the same restroom he'd used the day before and spun into Superman before approaching her door. He knocked softly and then opened her office door a crack and peeked in. "Ms. Hunter?"
She looked up from whatever she'd been reading, obviously surprised to see him. "Hi," she said, pushing her glasses up on her nose. "Did we have a meeting?"
"No. But I brought bagels." He held up the bag and was relieved when she smiled.
"How can I resist a superhero bearing baked goods?" she asked wryly, beckoning him inside.
"You can't." He dropped into his usual chair and flashed her a smile. "That's why I bought them."
She made a face. "Suddenly, I feel a little easy."
"Hey, these are good," he protested. "I got 'em at Bentley's. Best bakery in the city."
"You think?" She moved a pile of books and papers to one side, clearing a space in front of her. "I've always liked The Village Bakery better."
"They're good, too," he agreed. "But they weren't on my way." He fished around in the bag and pulled out a plain bagel for her and a chocolate chip one for himself, and then he tossed a wad of napkins onto her desk.
"Chocolate doesn't belong in a bagel," she scolded as she accepted his offering and eyed his own choice with disapproval.
"My girlfriend would disagree with you." For a second, a smile touched his lips as he remembered the night before and the look of rapture on Lois's face as she ate his mother's brownie. "She thinks chocolate belongs in everything."
Constance smiled. "So, did you get her one?"
"Yeah," he admitted. "Partly because I know she'll like it, and she's… uh, having a bad day. But also because it'll give me an excuse for being gone. We work together, so lots of times, when I have to… fly off, I'll bring her something back. Coffee, ice cream, a bagel… whatever."
He had no idea why so many truths tumbled out of his mouth in answer to a simple yes or no question, but he found he didn't regret it. He trusted Constance, and she already knew he'd been living a double life. Giving her glimpses of the day-to-day realities of that life was somehow freeing, and the things that stood between him and Lois just then were out in the open with Constance. She might not know what he called himself when he wasn't wearing the suit, but she knew that man existed — knew or could guess that he had a job and a home and a woman he loved.
"Speaking of coffee…" She nodded in the direction of her coffee pot, and Clark smiled his thanks and rose to fix himself a cup. While he was dumping in sugar and creamer, she said, "So, did you have to fly off this morning?"
"No," he admitted. "Mostly I just needed to get away from the… the, uh, place where I work for a few minutes. I don't know why I came here. I just thought of it, and… anyway, I hope it's all right."
"Sure," she said easily. "You're the boss."
He smiled. "Really? You mean it?"
"Why not?" She shrugged and continued spreading cream cheese on her bagel, as if she made major career changes every day. "It's not like I've been setting the world on fire as an attorney. I think this might give me the chance to make the kind of difference I've wanted to make all along."
"I'm glad," Clark said, feeling a sense of rightness for practically the first time that day. "I… thank you, Ms. Hunter. Thank you for agreeing to do this."
"You're welcome. I've made contact with all the potential board members we discussed, and everyone agreed to serve. I'm trying to set up a meeting for next Wednesday, and maybe there we can brainstorm about any other members. I don't suppose I could convince you to put off your retirement for another week or two, could I?"
He shook his head. "The press conference is set for tomorrow morning at nine, at the fountain in Centennial Park. That's one of the things I wanted to tell you. I plan to announce the formation of the Superman Foundation at the same time I announce that I'm leaving. I'd like for you to be there to take questions after I'm gone."
She nodded and finished chewing a bite of bagel. "I think you're making a big mistake."
"You made yourself clear about that yesterday. I didn't come here to…"
"Then why did you come?" she asked mildly. "You walked out of this mysterious place where you work, away from the girlfriend you supposedly love…"
"…and came to see me. For what? For breakfast?"
"You're the only one who… knows… what I'm going through today," he said, but she shook her head.
"Don't kid yourself, Superman. I don't have any idea what you're going through. I'm just your lawyer. But I do know that you're supposed to stand for truth and justice, and tomorrow you're planning to stand up in front of the whole world and lie. And I think you're the kind of guy who is going to find that hard to do… hard to live with."
"My whole *life* is a lie," he said in a low voice. "Don't you get that? All day, every day, I'm lying. Whether I'm dressed like this, or whether I'm wearing a coat and tie, I'm lying about who I am, what I can do."
"What about her?" Constance asked quietly. "Your girlfriend. When do you stop lying to her?"
"I don't know," he admitted.
"Before the wedding? The honeymoon? When the kids start flying around the house?"
"I said *I don't know*," he snapped. "The fact that I can fly doesn't automatically mean I have all the answers. Trust me… it just confuses things more."
"I can see how it might," she said, and he saw compassion shining in her eyes. "And I wouldn't trade places with you. But if you don't have all the answers right now, maybe that means you need to think about it some more."
"Last night, while we were having dessert, I heard sirens," he said slowly, "and for practically the first time ever, I didn't go. It was a fire."
"Over at Johnson Middle School," she murmured, nodding. "I heard about it on LNN this morning."
"Yeah." He was quiet for a moment. "I stayed with L… my girlfriend. And it was fine. No fatalities. No one was even upset that I wasn't there. But it meant something to *her* that I stayed. It meant something to us. And I don't know how to explain it, but the fire last night was like a confirmation that I was making the right choice."
"And what if the fire had happened in the middle of a school day? What if it had been at a hospital, or an apartment building? What then?"
Clark looked down at his hands… reached for a napkin to wipe away the smudges of cream cheese on his fingers. "I don't know," he admitted, still rubbing at his hands. "I've thought of that — of course I have — but… I don't know. It's not like I've ever been able to be everywhere. I had to accept a long time ago that I couldn't save everyone. If I'm here in Metropolis, I can't be in New York, or London, or the Middle East. I may have superpowers, but I'm still just one guy." He peeked at her and winced a little, suddenly embarrassed. "I'm being pathetic again, aren't I?"
She shook her head. "No, not pathetic. But I *believed* the things you said in court, and I think you believe them, too. You might not be able to save every life, but you make a difference when and where you can. And if you turn your back on that, I wonder how long it will be before you don't recognize yourself."
"Are you my lawyer or my therapist?" Clark joked, smiling weakly.
She didn't laugh. "Right now, I'm just the only person who can ask you these questions. I'm not the one you should be talking to, though. If your girlfriend is as incredible as you say she is, she should be able to handle this."
"Would you want to?" he asked. "Would you want to have to handle… this?" He lifted one corner of his cape and then let it flutter down beside him.
"No," she admitted. "But I'm not in love with you. This woman presumably is."
"Yeah. I hope she is. I know I'm in love with her. But to share… this life… I can't ask it of her. My life is… crazy. I don't think I've really stopped to think about just *how* crazy it is until recently. No woman should have to put up with that."
"No woman should have a relationship built on lies," she countered.
He sighed. "It's not that simple."
How could he explain just how ridiculously complicated things had gotten? How many wrong turns he and Lois had made along the way? How could he explain that he'd spent two years trapped in a lovers' triangle with himself, and how those insecurities were still eating at him, even after Lois had made the choice he'd wanted her to make? How could he begin to tell her just how angry Lois would be with him if she knew any part of this, when he suspected that the instrument had yet to be invented that could measure anger on such a grand scale?
He drew a shaky breath. "If I tell her now, there's a very real chance I could lose her. And if I lose her, then Superman just might disappear anyway." He tossed away the napkin he'd been twisting in his hands. "That's the thing that no one knows about Superman. He's never just been me… my powers. She's been right there, every step of the way. She doesn't know it, but he's as much her creation as he is mine."
"I don't exactly understand that," she said, her brow wrinkling thoughtfully, "but if it's true, then it's all the more reason you shouldn't make this decision without her. If she's really been there for you — the Superman you — all this time…"
"She has," he admitted, suddenly awash in memories: Lois supplying his quotes in his very first interview… Lois, defending Superman during the heat wave… Lois, kissing him goodbye when he went into space to tackle Nightfall… Lois, digging a Kryptonite bullet out of his shoulder…
…and Lois, standing at a fax machine, giving him his freedom.
"I don't know what to do," he said hoarsely, his head falling into his hands.
"What would *she* want you to do?" Constance asked quietly.
He gave a mirthless laugh. "She would want me to be two people. Because if I'm not two people, it means she's been wrong all this time, and… she doesn't exactly like being wrong."
"You can't be two people. You never were," Constance persisted. "So in light of that, what would she want you to do?"
"Are you *sure* you weren't good in front of a jury?" he asked, glancing up at her.
"Very sure. But I think I'm going to make a good foundation director, because when I believe in something, I'm willing to fight for it."
"What are you fighting for now?"
"Truth and justice," she told him simply. "I think those are the things your girlfriend would want from you — would expect from you — whether it's the Superman you or the other you I don't know."
"And if she leaves me… if I lose her, what do I do then?"
"You grovel," she told him, her mouth quirking in a smile. "Do they teach men to grovel on Krypton?"
He smiled in spite of himself. "I have no idea," he admitted. "I'm from Kansas."
"You'll do fine, then. You must have picked it up along the way."
"I thought you hated it when I was pathetic."
"I hated it because I can't resist it. I have a feeling your girlfriend might be even more susceptible."
Privately, Clark doubted it. Aloud he said, "I'll think about it. Everything you've said… I'll think about it."
She nodded. "Thanks for the bagel."
"You're welcome." He stood up and cleared his trash off her desk. "I'll see you at 9:00 tomorrow?"
She nodded. "At the fountain. I'll be there."
"Thanks." He reached for the bag with Lois's bagel and left his attorney's office, feeling more confused than ever.
Clark dragged his feet a little as he walked back into the newsroom with the rumpled bag from the bakery clutched in his hand. Normally, he loved the newsroom. If Metropolis was his adopted hometown, the people of the Daily Planet were his adopted family, and he looked forward every day to walking and working in their midst. He was an insider there — a feeling he hadn't had in very many places — and even though there were good days and bad, it was one place he almost always felt comfortable.
Today, though, he wanted to be practically anywhere else — wanted to escape to the sky and hide amongst the clouds, to lose himself in the middle of a thick, dark forest, or to float on his back in the middle of a salty sea. He needed to be alone, needed time to unravel the Gordian knot his thoughts had become over the past few days. He had been so certain only a day before, so confident, but now the certainty was gone, and all that was left was confusion. And in the busy newsroom, there would be no chance to sort it all out.
You're making a mistake, Constance had told him, and Clark was beginning to concede that she might be right. But if exiling Superman was the wrong thing to do, what was the right thing? Every other scenario he considered ended in his losing Lois, and when he reached that point in his imagination, he found he couldn't think any further. If he lost her, he would go on living, of course, but he couldn't quite conceive of what that life would be like. He only knew that it would be nothing like the life he wanted, nothing like the life he had dreamed of for so long.
And the irony was that it was such a simple dream, really. He didn't want money or power. He just wanted a wife, a home… maybe a child someday. And he was willing to work for it; he wasn't expecting anything to be handed to him. But all the hard work in the world wouldn't make a normal life possible for him. You live above us, Lois had said to Superman, but it wasn't true. It would be easier if he *did* live above it all — above all the worries and cares and desires of ordinary men. But he didn't, and that meant that, for him, simple dreams would never be simple at all. He had spent his life learning to adjust, playing the hand he'd been dealt, and being grateful for his many blessings, but it was hard to feel gratitude now. Looking at Lois from across the divide his powers had created, he had a sudden urge to shake his fist at the universe. For a moment, the rage and grief were like a physical place; they were like a room in his heart he thought he'd locked up tight, only to find himself suddenly trappedinside.
"Hi, Clark." The cheerful voice — one of the women from advertising — startled him, making him blink in surprise. "You all right?" She peered at him curiously.
"Uh, yeah. I'm good. How about you?"
"Fine, thanks. Gotta run, though." She patted his arm and moved past him. The brief exchange was enough to get Clark moving again, and he crossed the newsroom, feeling the noise and activity scrape against his nerves as he got closer to Lois.
She was sitting at her desk, and she looked up as he approached. He could still see the marks of sadness on her face, but they were less obvious now, and she was more controlled. That should have made it easier to talk to her, but it didn't. The passion and energy he associated with Lois seemed to have been tamped down, leaving a disturbingly calm simulacrum behind. He tried to remember her as she'd been the night before, soft and warm and responsive in his arms, but already that memory had faded like an old photograph.
"Where'd you go?" she asked.
"I, uh, was craving a bagel. I brought you one. Chocolate chip."
"Thanks." She took the bag he held out to her and set it to one side on her desk.
"Aren't you going to eat it?"
"Maybe later. What about you? Where's yours?"
"Ate it on the way back."
Her mouth curved in a half smile. "Must've been some craving."
"Yeah." He forced a chuckle.
"I arranged Superman's press conference." Her voice gave no hint as to her feelings. He searched her eyes, and saw nothing there, either — no hint of the pain she'd been in only an hour before. Just calm, cool, collected Lois, giving her partner an update.
But the words struck him like a fresh blow. He could picture it — the entire Metropolis press corps gathered to hear what Superman had to say, and Superman standing mute and doubtful before them, the words he'd prepared stuck in his throat.
<<I'm yours now… you live above us… all we've ever wanted is for you to be happy… making a big mistake… had to make a choice… she should be able to handle this… not sure that's possible, son… I have to do better… we women can forgive a lot… stand up in front of the whole world and lie… making a big mistake… never run away from you again… when do you stop lying to her…? you're different tonight… making a big mistake…>>
He felt his chest tighten and for a moment he couldn't breathe, couldn't speak, as the voices seemed to chase one another around in his head.
"Clark?" Lois's brow creased in confusion, and he knew he'd been silent too long. There was no telling what his face had given away, and he felt all the danger of that. This was not the time for him to be losing his grip on his bland Clark Kent persona. Not today, of all days.
"Uh, good," he said belatedly, mentally backtracking to confirm that his response was the right one.
"It's tomorrow at nine o'clock. At the fountain in Centennial Park. Why don't I pick you up tomorrow morning, and we'll go together?"
And there it was again: the panic blossoming in his gut, the feeling of being cornered, of being forced to tell another lie. "Oh… um, I figured I'd just come in here… hold down the fort."
"I was kind of hoping you'd be there with me," she said in a low voice. Not pleading but insistent. "For moral support, I guess."
"Then I will. But… let me meet you there. My place is out of your way."
For a second, he was afraid she would argue, but then she just nodded. "Thanks."
Clark Kent would arrive late, he thought with despair. She would need him, and once again he wouldn't be there. And there was no help for it. Not this time. But he promised himself that, one way or another, it would never happen again.
"What do we have on for today?" he asked, desperately needing a change of subject.
"Fire last night at Johnson Middle School. Perry wants us to look into it."
"Was there something suspicious?"
"The place went up like a tinderbox, Perry says. There's some talk that it wasn't up to code — wasn't safe for kids."
"Want me to call the fire marshal?"
She nodded. "Actually, I was hoping you could run with this one on your own. I'm going to take some personal time today."
"You…" Lois never took personal time. Not if she could help it. "Lois, is there anything I can do?"
She shook her head. "I just need some time to myself."
"Can I see you tonight?" he asked, but even as he said it, he hoped she'd turn him down. He still needed time to think, and if this was to be his last day as Superman, he felt he owed it to Metropolis to be on duty one last night. He was both relieved and, perversely, a little hurt when she shook her head.
"Maybe tomorrow night, okay?"
He nodded. "Okay, then. I'll try to plan something special."
"That'll be nice." The corners of her mouth turned up in an almost-smile. "Thanks for the bagel." She touched the bag she'd put to one side, and he knew he was being dismissed.
"Lois." He waited until she looked up, and then he reached out and gently cupped her cheek in his hand, needing to prove to himself that he could still touch her — that it was possible to bridge the distance he felt forming between them. He stroked his thumb across the pale softness of her skin, and she drew a shuddering breath, her eyes drifting shut as she relaxed briefly into his caress. Her hand came up as if to cover his, but he felt only the briefest touch of her fingertips dancing across his knuckles, and then she was drawing her hand away and pulling back, away from his touch.
"I'm sorry." He invested the words with more feeling than the moment deserved.
"No. It's just… we can't do this here."
"I understand." But that was a lie. He didn't understand anything anymore. All the rules seemed to have changed between them overnight, and he didn't understand them at all. It was as if they were getting farther and farther apart, but he couldn't seem to tell which one of them was moving. Was she drifting away from him because of her grief over Superman? A grief she couldn't share with him? Or was he moving away from her because of all she didn't know, all he hadn't told her?
A riot of emotions swelled in his chest, buried under a loud tie, a crisp shirt, and a red and gold shield. He wondered what emotions she was hiding and wished he could see beneath her calm exterior to know what was going on in her head and heart, but in this, his x-ray vision was useless.
"I'll let you finish up." He retreated then to his own desk, not wanting to feel the sting of a second dismissal. But when she let him go without comment, without trying to keep him there, it still hurt.
He called the fire marshal, and while he was still on the telephone, asking questions and jotting down the answers by rote, he saw her shut down her computer and gather her purse and briefcase. She raised her hand in a brief gesture of farewell as she walked away from him, and when she stepped into the elevator and the doors slid shut between them, he felt a surge of panic. He told himself he was being ridiculous. She was just going home; she wasn't going to the moon. But it was like the feeling he'd had when she was standing at the fax machine — the feeling that he needed to stop her, needed to *hurry* and do something before it was all too late. Even with the fire marshal talking in one ear, Clark could hear the whisper of the elevator descending. He could beat her to the lobby, he thought, could catch her before she left the building…
But something kept him in his seat, his right hand dutifully scratching out notes while his left curved into an impotent fist.
Clark turned in his story at five o'clock, feeling as though he'd spent the entire day in Purgatory. He and Jimmy had gone to Johnson Middle School, and as Jimmy had rushed around taking pictures, Clark had moved more slowly, taking in details he'd missed the night before when he'd stood there so uselessly as Superman.
And now, with his story turned in and the newsroom growing quieter, as more people left for the day, Clark sat at his desk, flipping through the pictures Jimmy had taken. The beautiful, historic gymnasium was gone now but for a stand of charred bleachers that peeked up from the ruins. Never again would that place be filled with young voices and the squeak of shoes against the polished wooden floor, but that hadn't bothered Clark nearly so much as the thought that the fire could have taken place when the gym was filled with children. He imagined the cheers turning to panic, and the stampede as alarms sounded and smoke filled the room. Where would Clark Kent be while that was happening? Would he be standing on the sidelines with a notebook in his hand? Or would he be sneaking in to help as a plain-clothes superhero, jeopardizing everything he held dear? He knew from experience that he could only work a certain number of 'miracles' before people started asking questions he couldn't answer. How long could he relistically survive in Metropolis without Superman?
Unconsciously, he slid his hand across his chest, beneath his tie, and into the placket of his shirt. He fingered the stiff shield with its bold, confident S, and he remembered his conversation with Constance that morning. "You're not two men," she'd said, but at that moment he wished that he could be — wished he could carve himself in two and give one half to his adopted planet and the other half to Lois. Wished he really could be in two places at once, rather than just creating that illusion. Wished that he didn't have to choose between duty and desire.
And he wished, most of all, that he knew what he was going to say at his press conference the following morning. He thought of the speech he had prepared and wondered if he could actually say those words out loud, could go through with exiling half of himself.
He suddenly realized that he was sitting in the middle of the newsroom with his hand stuffed inside his shirt like Napoleon, and he pulled it out quickly, smoothing his tie and glancing around to see if anyone had noticed. No one seemed to be paying any attention, fortunately, and he quickly closed the folder on the pictures Jimmy had taken and shut down his workstation. When he left the Daily Planet, it was from the roof rather than from the front door.
He'd interrupted a drug deal — the second that night — an activity that always made him feel like he was aboard a sinking ship and bailing water with a thimble. He'd sent the men involved off to jail, but he knew their stay would be brief, and in the meantime, Metropolis was full of others like them, creeping out of cracks and crevices under cover of darkness to peddle their poisonous wares. As he stood in a filthy back alley, alone now, he thought of Constance Hunter — of her unwavering ideals and her weariness with the realities of the justice system. Those were the things that had drawn him to her and made him sense in her a kindred spirit. He had the same ideals, but he also had many of the same frustrations.
Lois shared those ideals, too, but he couldn't share his frustrations with her because of all she didn't know. She had no idea that he spent every night out in Metropolis fighting crimes large and small — no idea the toll that could take on his spirit on nights like this, when it seemed that nothing he did made a difference. Yet Constance knew. On the strength of a few days' acquaintance, he had confided to his attorney what he couldn't confide to the woman he loved. He would have sworn that he would never consider cheating on Lois, but he had been doing just that, he realized. He had left her standing heartbroken at the fax machine that morning while he sought the comfort and counsel of another woman. It wasn't a betrayal of the flesh, but a betrayal of the soul.
He sank to the ground, heedless of the damp and filth, and took a shuddering breath as he realized what he'd done — how very far he was from where he wanted to be. Lois's apartment was just a few miles away, and he ached for her presence — for the encouragement that only she seemed able to give him. But he couldn't go there. Not now, with so much standing between them.
He had no idea how long he sat huddled there in that dank alley beneath a smudge of starless sky. The city hummed around him, and if he'd tried — if he'd cared — he could have picked out individual sounds. Cars going by, televisions and radios playing, phones ringing, people talking, planes taking off and landing, elevators dinging… he could have heard it all, but he let it all fade into a blur of white noise, almost like music.
There were thousands of sounds. Millions, even. And later, he couldn't have said what it was about that one small sound that made his head come up — made him leave off his worrying and his self-recriminations and really listen. But something made him tune out the din of the city and his own troubled thoughts and search for the one sound that had been… not right.
That's all it was. A vague feeling of wrongness. Of something there that shouldn't be. It was a sound that raised the hairs on the back of his neck, and he had no idea why.
He held his breath and listened, *really* listened, and he heard it again — a thin, raspy cry, like a toy doll with dying batteries. But it wasn't a doll, it couldn't be, because when he listened for it, he could also hear the flutter of a tiny heart.
"Oh, God!" The words felt like they'd been ripped right out of his chest as he took off toward the sound. It was coming from the end of the alley, from a collection of battered metal garbage cans. Even as he approached, he was scanning them with his x-ray vision, searching desperately for signs of what he'd heard and hoping just as desperately that he was wrong. <<It's a cat,>> he thought frantically, as he fixed his gaze on the garbage cans. <<Surely it was just a cat…>>
He followed the sound of the muffled heartbeat, quickly ripping the lid off of a battered can and letting it crash to the ground. The sweet-sharp smell of rotting food rose up around him, gagging him.
"Oh, God," he said again, but softly this time. Because he'd found it, wrapped in a back issue of the Daily Planet, like something at the fish market. He lifted it out carefully, and for a dizzying moment, he felt transported back in time; spots seemed to dance before his eyes, and he saw not his hands but his mother's hands, lifting another baby and clasping him to her heart.
He caught sight of his own byline as he peeled the newspaper away, the name 'Clark Kent' jumping out at him amid the jumble of words on the page. It felt like a sign of some sort, though at that moment he couldn't have said what it meant. And then the moment was forgotten as the baby gave another weak cry when it felt the rush of cold air against its skin, its body giving a jerky spasm at the same time.
The paper was stuck to the baby's skin in places, and for a second, Clark was reminded, horrifyingly, of one of his mother's papier mache projects. But with the paper peeled away, more or less, he registered the male genitals and felt, irrationally, that some sort of progress had been made — that a puzzle piece had been slipped into place — as if knowing that the child he'd fished out of the garbage was a boy made some sort of difference. It didn't, of course. Far more important were the blue-tinged lips and the chill of the skin that was still streaked with blood and vernix and bits of Daily Planet. Clark swept the baby with his heat vision, warming him gently as he used his hearing to monitor the beating of the child's heart and the whisper of each breath.
The baby felt almost weightless, as if Superman's large hands were the only thing keeping him from floating away into that dark, starless sky. But as he found his fist and began to gnaw on it hungrily, Clark knew that this child would not drift away without a fight. At that moment, Superman held life in his hands — life with all its infinite possibilities and potential — and his own words from the courtroom came back to him:
<<…in the moment that I save a life, I know two things most people never figure out: why I'm here, and how I can make a difference.>>
His mother's hands had lifted him from a spaceship, and together, she and his father had crafted a man named Clark Kent… and Superman. They had formed him for this crazy, complicated dual existence so that on this night he could be in this place, holding a miracle in his hands. And maybe there *were* things he would never have — maybe a life without Lois stretched out in front of him like an endless desert highway — but he knew that even for her, he could not turn his back on half of himself.
With the baby cradled carefully in one arm, he ripped the cape from his shoulders with the other. He swaddled the infant as best he could, to protect him during the flight, and he thought again of his parents, of what they had done, and all his old dreams surfaced; he wondered if he were to take this baby home instead of to the hospital… if he and Lois could…
But, no. He knew that keeping this little foundling was as much a pipe dream as his fantasies of a life without Superman. He'd spent the last two days chasing a mirage, and it was time for him to deal in realities, however difficult they might be. This baby had been wrapped in his newspaper, and now in his cape, but that did not make him Clark Kent's.
He pulled the baby close and shielded his face carefully with one hand before lifting off, out of the alley and toward the hospital.
Clark had known the baby would be taken from him immediately, but his arms felt empty as the baby was whisked away from him and into the care of others. He had done his part, and now it was time for the hospital staff to do theirs — to feed him and clean him and warm him and eventually to surrender him to the proper authorities, who would find him a home. But even though Clark served no purpose there, he couldn't bring himself to leave. Usually, when he brought accident victims to the hospital, he stayed just long enough to give the medical personnel whatever information he could, and then he took off again, disappearing into the sky over Metropolis. The sight of Superman pacing the ER waiting room was an unusual one and drew the stares of staff and patients alike, but Clark ignored them all. Eventually, he settled near a window, staring out at the parking lot, where tall lights illuminated a few ragged pansies struggling in their beds here and there amongst the cars.
"Superman?" A nurse approached him and touched him gently on the arm. "I thought you might want this."
She held his cape, neatly folded now but dirty from when he'd been sitting in the alley and torn across the top, where he'd ripped it from his own shoulders. "Thank you," he said, accepting the length of fabric. "Is the baby…?"
"He's going to be fine," she promised him. "We gave him some sugar water and are warming him up."
"He was in a garbage can," Clark said, still trying to wrap his mind around that fact. "I heard a sound, and at first, I wasn't sure what it was… it wasn't even really a cry. I thought he might be a cat at first."
"The fact that he was in the garbage can might have saved his life," the nurse said, sounding matter-of-fact. "It kept him warm — warmer, anyway, than he would have been out on the street."
"And you're sure he'll be all right?"
"He hasn't been examined by a pediatrician yet, but all indications are that he'll be fine," the nurse said. "It's a good thing you were in that alley tonight, though. You know, several states are considering passing safe haven legislation that would allow mothers to abandon their newborns in a safe place — like a hospital or a police station — without fear of prosecution. I hope New Troy will consider a law like that."
"I hope they will, too," he said. And in that moment, he realized that while he'd done all he could for the little boy as Superman, perhaps there was more that Clark Kent could do. Suddenly he wanted nothing more than to be at the Planet, writing up the story of what had happened that night.
The nurse must have sensed his sudden restlessness, because she said, "Oh, Superman…one more thing: The nurses like to give these babies a name — something we can call them while they're here with us. Since you found this one, would you like to name him?"
The yearning he'd felt in the alley returned full force. He knew that, for so many reasons, this might be the only chance he ever had to name a baby, and for a moment he wished desperately that this could really be his child, his son. The name "Kent" was on the tip of his tongue, but that was too close for comfort, so instead he said, "Jonathan. I'd like to call him Jonathan."
"Baby Jonathan," the nurse repeated with a smile. "It's a fine name and will give him a good start in life. Thank you, Superman."
In the darkened newsroom of the Daily Planet, Clark Kent did two things: First, he wrote up the story of Superman's rescue of Baby Jonathan, interviewing himself as he went along, just as he had so many times before. He sent the story to Perry and then pulled up his press release, quickly deleting most of it, leaving only the announcement of the formation of the Superman Foundation.
It was a flimsy excuse for a press conference, but it was all he had. Superman was not going anywhere — he knew that now — and the press had already been called. He would have to say something to them, so he would read his statement, and then he would call Constance up to answer any specific questions they might have about the Foundation.
After that, he — Clark — would take Lois somewhere private and tell her everything. He refused to allow himself to hope that conversation would end well, but at least it would be the truth. Truth and justice, Constance had said. That was what he owed Lois. But ever since she'd thrown herself into his arms two days before, he'd been neither honest nor fair. He'd spent every minute building castles in the air, pretending he could arrange the world as he thought it should be, and he'd been too afraid to ask her if the life he was imagining for them was even the life she wanted.
He was still afraid. Terrified, in fact, of what her response would be. But in a day that had been filled with confusion, two things finally stood before him in sharp relief: He had to be Superman, and he had to tell Lois the truth.
Finally, all that would be between them would be the truth.
Clark did not close his eyes that night, and when the sun finally rose above Metropolis, he was sitting in the window seat of his apartment, still holding his torn and filthy cape. It was a gray and dismal dawn; banks of heavy clouds had rolled in from the bay overnight and now hung ominously over the city.
"Gimme a break," he told the sky. He hoped the rain would hold off long enough for him to get through the press conference; being soaked would do nothing to improve Lois's temper.
The city stirred to life around him, but still he sat, forgoing his usual morning Superman duties in favor of the peace and quiet of his apartment. When the sun went down that night, it would all be different, and he was terrified. He had never thought of himself as a pessimist, but in this, he couldn't seem to allow himself to hope. That single moment when he'd held Lois in his arms and recklessly decided to jettison Superman from his life seemed to taunt him with its remembered perfection. It had all been a fantasy, he knew, a Xanadu, but knowing it was impossible didn't keep it from being painfully seductive. She deserved that life, and he couldn't offer it to her. In a few hours, she would know it. All his lies — his years of deception — would be laid bare before her, and what sort of future could be built on such a weak and rotten foundation?
When he couldn't put it off any longer, he rose from the window seat, stiff from sitting there so long, showered quickly and put on a clean Superman suit.
It was time. The press would be waiting for him.
But they weren't.
It was exactly 9 a.m. when he landed by the fountain in Centennial Park. He had expected to see the press assembled there, expected news vans and cameras and shouted questions upon his arrival. Instead, there was just the quiet bubbling of the fountain and the occasional bird call, with the hum of the city in the background.
His brain seemed to stumble. She'd said 9 o'clock, hadn't she? At the fountain? His heart thundered in his chest as it dawned on him that something was very wrong.
"You didn't think I was actually going to let you do it, did you?" Lois's voice came from behind him, low and controlled.
He turned slowly to face her, his cape billowing behind him, caught by the blustery wind. Her eyes were icy as they met his and dared him to look away.
"You didn't think you were actually going to get away with this?" She held out a creased sheet of paper — his press release — and he could see that her hand was trembling, just as his had been when he'd handed it to her.
There was a low rushing sound in his ears, and he felt himself sway a little, as if the world were tilting beneath his feet. "I… don't understand."
"I think you do."
She took a step closer to him, and he closed his eyes, wishing the earth would open up at his feet and swallow him — anything to keep him from having to face her like this. He had a hundred questions, but he was afraid to ask them. Afraid of what the answers were going to be. Afraid of Lois and the fury that seemed to be radiating off of her in waves. He was the strongest man in the world, and he was terrified of this small woman who had a death grip on his heart.
"I didn't call them." Another step closer. "I didn't send the fax."
He could hear the tremor running through her voice, like the distant rumble of thunder before a storm.
He thought back to the previous day, to the moment he'd heard that fax go through, to the mixture of panic and exhilaration he'd felt. It had been for nothing, that feeling, and so many of the ones after that. Outrageous as it was, he felt a little cheated.
"You said you would," he said stupidly.
"I lied. You know all about lying, don't you? For instance, you told me you hadn't discussed this with Clark. That was a lie, wasn't it, Superman?"
"No." He closed his eyes again. Because it was happening. The moment he'd been dreading for two years was happening, and there was nothing he could do to stop it, nothing he could do to change it. Somehow it had all gone out of his control. "It wasn't."
"You told me you wrote this press release. Was that the lie?"
He forced himself to look at her. "No. That wasn't a lie either."
"That's interesting," she said. "Because here's the thing: I might be stupid enough to be fooled by a pair of glasses for two years, but I'm not so stupid I don't recognize my own partner's writing when I see it. You didn't discuss this with Clark, and yet I would stake my career on the fact that Clark Kent wrote this press release. What should I make of that, Superman? What exactly does that mean?"
"You know what it means," he said quietly. He felt like ice was filling his veins, freezing his heart. He was standing in the middle of Metropolis having this unthinkable conversation, and he couldn't even find it in him to care. There was going to be nothing left after this anyway.
"The other night, you knew about the fire, didn't you? You knew about the fire, and instead of going to help, you were making out with me on the couch."
"I'd promised you I wouldn't run away again. I'd promised you…"
"Don't you dare blame this on me!" she cried, her composure suddenly shattering. "Don't you dare tell me this is my fault! If you'd ever once been honest with me… if you'd ever once in two years told me the truth…"
"When was I supposed to do that, Lois?" Suddenly, out of nowhere, the anger rose up in him and poured out in a white-hot torrent. "In the early days when you'd have splashed it all over the front page of the paper? Or maybe when you were getting ready to marry the most dangerous criminal this city has ever known? Would that have been a good time? What about the day you handed me back my heart and then threw yourself at Superman? Should I have told you then?"
"Yes!" she hissed. "Any of those. All of them. Anything would be better than this."
"'Even if you were an ordinary man leading an ordinary life.' That's what you said to me that night, Lois. That even if I had no powers at all, you would love me. Do you have any idea what those words did to me?"
"Do you have any idea what it did to me when you let me think you were *dead*?" she spat back at him. "I was imagining my best friend's body full of bullet holes, tossed in a ditch somewhere, and all the while you were flying around playing hero. Did it ever once occur to you then to tell me the truth?"
"You have no idea what I went through then," Clark whispered. The memory of that time seemed to claw at his insides, somehow tied up with those boxes in his apartment. Either way, Cark Kent was dead and gone, and nothing was left but Superman.
"No," she said, and all of a sudden the anger seemed to drain out of her, only to be replaced by something much worse — much more painful. "No, I *don't* have any idea what you went through because you never trusted me enough to tell me. You never once let me see you. You just lied and lied and lied some more. And now this." She indicated the press release. "You're not doing this. Not for me."
"No," he agreed hollowly. "I'm not." He handed her his own version of the press release and waited as she unfolded it and read the short statement.
"This is what you were going to say?"
He nodded. "Last night… there was a baby… you probably saw it on the news, I don't know. But he was wrapped in a newspaper. Wrapped in *our* newspaper. I found him, and I realized I couldn't… that Superman had to… stay." He paused, realizing that he wasn't making any sense, but he couldn't explain it any better than that. "I can't keep the promises I made to you, Lois. I can't offer you a normal life. I thought I could do this… that I could be free. But I can't. I love you… but I just…"
"Superman." Constance Hunter's voice broke into his jumbled thoughts. He'd forgotten she was coming — hadn't even noticed when she'd arrived. But she was standing just a few feet away, clutching her briefcase and giving him a look that was both embarrassed and sympathetic. "I think you and Ms. Lane should continue this conversation in private."
"No." Lois shook her head and backed away from him. "I don't have anything else to say to you right now."
The heavy clouds that had been hovering over Metropolis all night long began to spit out rain that left spots like teardrops on the beige jacket Lois was wearing. The wind picked up, disarranging her sleek hair and stirring the trees around them. It was a restless sound, those quivering leaves and branches, and Clark wanted to gather Lois close and take her somewhere warm and dry.
"Lois," he pleaded, hardly knowing what he was asking for — just knowing that he needed her not to leave things like this. But she shook her head.
"I can't do this now. I can't talk to you… like that." She gestured at his suit. "I don't even *know* you like that."
"I'll change," he said, hearing the desperation in his own voice. "It's just a costume, Lois. It's always been just a costume."
"But who *are* you, under that costume? That's what I spent all day yesterday trying to figure out. And I never could."
"You know who I am. You *know* me."
She shook her head. "The man I thought I knew…" Her lips trembled and her eyes filled with tears. "The man I thought I knew wouldn't have done this to me. Not Clark. Not my best friend. He would never have lied to me about something so important. He wouldn't have made a decision like this without telling me." Her voice tore on a sob, and he was sure the sound of it was more painful to him than Kryptonite.
"I'm sorry," he whispered. "I'm so sorry."
"I have to go." She turned and nearly ran from him, and he stood stock still in the rain and watched her leave.
He didn't know how many minutes passed before Constance approached him and touched his arm gently, but by then the rain was coming down hard and his suit was soaked through.
"You should go after her."
"No," he said dully. "You heard her. She'll never forgive me for this."
"I didn't hear her say anything like that."
He looked down at his attorney — his friend — who was standing in a steady rain and trying to comfort him.
"Thank you," he said, forcing out the words he knew he should say. "But I think I'd better wait. And you should go. It's raining." He laughed bitterly. "I think I owe you another bagel after this."
"I didn't mean to intrude. When I realized what was happening, I was going to go away, but then I was afraid someone else might come along and overhear."
"It doesn't matter." And it really didn't. For the first time in his life, he didn't care in the slightest that someone had probably just learned his secret. He turned to her and held out his hand. "In fact, I'd like to introduce myself. My name is Clark Kent, and I'm Superman."
It sounded ludicrous, as if he were beginning a twelve-step program for recovering superheroes, but as he said the words, he felt as if a giant weight was lifted from his soul. <<My name is Clark Kent, and I'm Superman.>> He should have said those words to Lois long since, but he wasn't sure he'd completely believed them himself until the night before in the alley, when he'd held that small, discarded life in his hands. In that one quiet moment, something had been reconciled. Something had been accepted. And now he could say the words and mean them.
Constance shook his hand and smiled, and he had a feeling she understood. But all she said was, "It's nice to meet you, Clark. But if you don't mind, I'm going to get out of this rain. You should do the same."
He nodded. "I think I'm going to go to the hospital… check on the baby I found last night. Can I give you a ride somewhere first?"
"No, thanks." She slicked her wet hair back away from her face and reached for her nearby briefcase before gesturing in the direction of a nearby street. "I'm parked just over there."
They said their goodbyes and he watched her safely to her car, and then he shot into the sky, above the clouds, to a place where it was warm and dry… a place where he could see the sun.
He went to the hospital because he had to go somewhere, and he was afraid of being alone with his thoughts. He went because he couldn't face Lois yet, and it was one place he was sure Lois wasn't going to be. He wasn't sure what he expected — some difficulty, he guessed, given the way his day seemed to be going — but he was greeted warmly there, and the staff in the nursery didn't question his desire to visit the baby he'd found. He was given over to a nurse who introduced herself as Katie. She seemed to be just a few years younger than his mother and had something of the same comfortable way about her. Clark liked her immediately.
"Do you want to hold him?" Katie asked, after he'd been briefed on the baby's condition.
"I can do that?" he asked.
"Sure," she said cheerfully. "We've all been holding him all morning. I'll need you to wash up, though, and to wear this over your… uniform? Is that what you call it?" She reached into a drawer and pulled out some disposable scrubs.
"Thanks," Clark said.
She showed him to a room where he could change and wash his hands, and when he was finished, she led him to the newborn nursery, where the newest residents of Metropolis lay squirming and squalling in their tiny rolling cribs. Somehow, his heart lightened a little at the sight; he could not forget his troubles with Lois for an instant, but it was impossible to feel completely hopeless in the presence of so much new life.
"Which one is Jonathan?" Clark asked.
"None of them," she answered. "We had to separate him because he was born outside the hospital. He's fine," she said hastily, seeing his look of concern. "It's standard procedure. Look, he's just through here."
A few more doorways, and they were in a quiet room where one baby was sleeping. He was tightly swaddled in a flannel blanket with turquoise stripes, and he had a tiny blue cap on his head. Clark approached the bassinette and looked at the child in wonder; such an amazing transformation in a few short hours! He was pink and healthy and sleeping soundly, innocent of the fact that his arrival to the world had been in any way unusual.
Katie scooped him up and placed him in Clark's arms, and he turned slightly away from her when he felt tears prick his eyes. How embarrassing, for Superman to be getting choked up over a baby. He stared at an empty Isolette in the corner until he felt himself regain control, and then he walked slowly to a nearby rocking chair and lowered himself into it.
"He's beautiful," Clark said huskily, looking down at Jonathan. The baby's lips were pursed and making small sucking motions in his sleep. "Perfect."
"Yes, he is," she said, smiling at him. "Listen, I need to get back to work, but you're welcome to enjoy him as long as you'd like. If you wait another 45 minutes, you can feed him."
"I'd like that." He stroked Jonathan's soft cheek, and the baby stretched a little and turned his head in response, his eyelids fluttering. Clark drew his hand away, not wanting to disturb him. Katie left them alone then, and he sighed deeply and settled the baby more comfortably as he rocked them slowly back and forth. Maybe it was the tight swaddling, but Jonathan felt more substantial to him now, his weight and warmth in Clark's arms a solid, comforting thing.
And he needed that comfort. The memory of Lois's face, shattered and hurt, was a constant torment. He would never forget the moment she told him he was not the man she'd thought she knew. It was worse, somehow, than anything he had feared, and the worst of it was that he had no defense. How could he expect her to have known him when he hadn't truly known himself?
"My name is Clark Kent, and I'm Superman."
He whispered the words to the baby in his arms, and this time, when the tears filled his eyes, he didn't fight them.
After Clark left the hospital, he went by the Daily Planet, only to find that Lois had called in and taken another day of leave. Perry wasn't happy when Clark wanted to do the same, but he allowed it, after threatening to make Clark work every major holiday for the next two years if he and Lois didn't "sort whatever this is out and get back on the beat."
Clark promised he'd try, but he had no idea what he was going to say as he approached Lois's apartment door. He could hear her moving around inside; there were slightly alarming noises coming from the kitchen, he thought, but whether she'd unlock her column of shiny locks for him he didn't know.
Well, if she wouldn't, he could always try the window, he thought bitterly, but perhaps that would be locked now, too.
He knocked softly, and the clanking in the kitchen ceased. He listened, and he heard her heart race into a frantic rhythm, but she didn't approach the door. He knocked again, louder this time, and heard her footsteps approaching. The sound of those locks turning made his own heart stampede in his chest, and he gripped the doorframe so tightly he felt the wood crack beneath his fingers. He dropped his hand quickly as the door swung open.
Lois looked pale and grave, and he was reminded that he'd seen that look the day before, only he hadn't been able to understand it then. Her distance made sense now, and in a way it was a relief, in the same way that having an illness diagnosed is a relief. You might still be just as sick, but at least you knew why.
"I expected you sooner," she said flatly, stepping back to let him in. She had changed into jeans and a t-shirt and put her hair up in a messy ponytail. She looked like a younger version of the Lois who had confronted him at the fountain several hours before, and fragile, somehow, as if she might break into pieces if he touched her.
"I… didn't know. I didn't know what you wanted me to do."
"It's a little late for that, I think."
The barb found its mark, but he didn't react to it. His eyes swept over her apartment. It looked like her kitchen had been ransacked, with every cabinet hanging open and the contents spilling out onto the countertops and floor. Food, pans, dishes, cleaning supplies — they were strewn everywhere.
"I'm cleaning," she said bluntly, following his gaze. "When I'm upset, I clean things."
"Because I wouldn't want you to think I was packing or anything. Moving without telling you. I wouldn't want you to think that."
"I apologized for that," he told her quietly. "And I meant it."
He'd been blinded recently, and he had stayed in this very apartment, stumbling and crashing around, damaging one thing after another without meaning to. He felt a little bit that way now. Clumsy and awkward, and everything he said seemed to be wrong, seemed to provoke her. He had no idea how to navigate the many obstacles between them without damaging something irrevocably.
"I'm sorry, Lois. I'm so sorry for every stupid thing I've ever done, and I know there have been a lot of them. But these last few days… all I wanted was to give you what I thought you deserved — a normal boyfriend who wasn't running out on you all the time."
"No you didn't." Her eyes flashed fire at him, and he knew that he'd put another foot wrong. "You wanted to weasel out of telling me something you knew I had a right to know. You thought if you just got rid of Superman, you wouldn't have to deal with him."
He was honest enough to admit that there was some truth to that, but it wasn't the whole truth. He just wasn't sure, after so many years of guarding his secret, that he knew how to be open about the Superman side of himself. He knew he had to, that at this point total honesty was his only recourse, but somehow knowing it didn't pave the way to actually doing it.
"Can we sit down?" he asked.
She nodded and gestured him to a sofa. She took the one opposite, reaching for a throw pillow and hugging it to her chest in a self-protective posture that hurt him to see.
He rubbed his cheek and tried to figure out where to start. "I guess the first question is how long have you known?"
"I would have thought the first question was how did I figure it out?"
"Well, they're kind of the same question, I guess. Could you really tell from reading my press release?"
She nodded. "It was like, as I read it, I was hearing it in your voice. I don't know how to explain it any better than that. Suddenly, I just *knew*." She gave him a pointed look. "And you have that Emerson quote taped to your desk."
He did, he realized, feeling like an idiot. The clear tape was curling, leaving a sticky spot right next to his keyboard. He fiddled with it all the time when he talked on the phone, scraping at it absently with a thumbnail, but the words themselves had been there so long he'd quit seeing them. "I didn't know you'd ever noticed."
"I guess I can see why you wouldn't have a lot of respect for my powers of observation," she said bitterly.
"I didn't mean it that way." He gave her a pleading look. "What do you want me to say, Lois?"
"I don't know." She hugged the pillow closer and seemed to fold herself around it. "I spent all day yesterday imagining this conversation, but… I never could imagine what you could say that would make this make sense." She paused and looked away from him, her eyes straying to the window. It *was* open, he noticed, the curtains stirring slightly in the wind. Lois took a deep, shuddering breath and looked back at him. "Ever since we met, or at least ever since I took the time to listen, something about you has always made sense to me. I trusted that, even when I knew there were things you weren't telling me. I trusted *you*. But now… it's like I never knew you at all. And I don't know what there is to say about that." Her voice broke slightly, and she wouldn't look at him.
"You *do* know me, Lois," he insisted. "You've always known me better than anyone. You practically invented Superman, you know. I never could have been Superman without you."
"But you were."
"No." He ran his fingers restlessly through his hair. "I don't know how to make you understand it, but no. I was never Superman without you. Not for one day."
"But you were going to just… kill him off. Without telling me. You were going to do that."
He shook his head. "I don't think I was, really. Even if I hadn't found the baby last night… I don't think I could have gone through with it. I think I just needed a… a vacation from the idea of being Superman. It was incredible, thinking about that. Thinking about just being *Clark*." His voice softened, and he realized he was still susceptible to that particular fantasy. Maybe he always would be. "I think all along I knew it couldn't really be the way I was dreaming it would be, but I wanted it, Lois. I wanted it for me, and I wanted it for you."
"But you didn't ask me what *I* wanted." She looked at him accusingly, and he began to fear that he would never find the right words to make her understand. Maybe it really was too late, he thought. Maybe he'd made such a mess of things that the right words simply didn't exist.
"No," he agreed wretchedly. "And that was… well, obviously, it was wrong. But I knew you would never let me do it if I asked, and you were so tired of me running off. Justifiably so. But as long as Superman was in the picture, it would just keep happening."
"So you didn't think I'd understand, is that it? Just how self-centered do you think I am, Clark? Did you really think I'd get mad at you for leaving me to save someone's *life*?"
"Not… not at first, maybe," he said carefully. "But Lois, you don't know what it's like. Being Superman means that I *can't* keep the promises I made to you. I can't promise to sit through a meal or a movie. I can't promise that we won't be interrupted at work, or on vacations, or even when we're… well, *if* we were making love."
"And you didn't believe I could love you enough to put up with that?" she asked in a small voice.
"You might… for a while. But what about in ten years, or twenty? Think about that, Lois — twenty *years* of me running off in the middle of things. No one should have to be that patient. And if we tried, if we were together, and one day I looked at you and saw that you… that you… regretted…" He trailed off, unable to put that particular fear into words. His gaze strayed to the window, the window with its gently billowing curtains, and those curtains seemed to beckon to him — to taunt him with the possibility of escape from this conversation that was hurting them both.
"And then there's the lying," he said quickly, feeling that he needed to get it all out, and quickly, before he lost his nerve and gave in to the impulse to fly out that window. "Being with me would mean you would have to lie for me every single day. It's awful, all that lying. I hate it, but I have to do it. I've been doing it all my life."
Lois was looking at him as if she'd never seen him before, and perhaps she hadn't, he admitted to himself. Normally, he had to fight to get a word in edgewise with Lois, but today she sat, looking pensive, like a juror who hasn't quite made up her mind about the defendant. He took a deep breath and went on. "My parents found me in a field. I was just a baby. A little older than the one I found — about four months, they thought. And they found me and took me home…"
Suddenly, he was awash in the mental image he'd created of his mother's hands lifting him from that tiny blue spaceship. He didn't know how to tell Lois about that — how to make her see it, too — to see how serendipitous it was that Martha and Jonathan Kent had been there at that moment to find the small refugee from the planet Krypton and carry him home. Had Clark arrived minutes earlier or later, his parents never would have seen the light in the sky, never would have investigated. He would have died in his little ship, or worse, been found by Bureau 39 or some similar organization, and Clark Kent would not have existed. His bare-bones narrative didn't even scratch the surface of what he felt about that moment, but the words to describe those feelings wouldn't come.
"They couldn't have children of their own," he told her, after taking a moment to steady his voice. "They told everyone in Smallville that I was the illegitimate child of one of my mother's cousins. Then they realized that story wouldn't work with the family, so they told them — my grandparents and aunts and uncles — that they had adopted me the regular way. No one ever questioned it. But that's when the lying started, Lois." He looked at her beseechingly, wanting her to understand. "Before I could talk, I was already living a lie. And I had to keep on living it, as I got older and it became obvious that I wasn't like the other kids. Then I invented Superman, and the lies became bigger, more dangerous. You have no idea what it's like to live with that day in and day out."
He sprang up from the sofa and began pacing in the confines of her living room. "How could I ask that of you? How could I expect you to take that on? I can't change who and what I am, but I thought that if Superman were out of the picture, at least I could offer you something somewhat… normal."
"But you're not normal," she said in a low voice, still looking down at the pillow in her hands.
He flinched as if she'd slapped him. "No," he agreed hollowly. "I'm not normal." The words were like acid on his tongue. <<Not normal, not normal, not normal…>> He almost didn't hear the next thing she said.
"If you'd been normal, you'd have probably used Superman to get me into bed two years ago."
"I… what?" He stared at her. "Lois! I would *never* do something like that."
"But you could have, and you knew it. If you'd been normal, you'd have probably done it. Except that if you'd *really* been normal, you'd have run as far away from me as you could the first week we met. No *normal* man has ever been able to stand me as long as you have." Her lips twitched. "That should have been the giveaway, now that I think about it. You'd have to be invulnerable to put up with me."
That little twitch of her lips captivated him. Was that the start of a smile he had seen? Was it possible that all this talk of his not-normal-ness was actually a *good* thing? He felt as if his brain was working at half-speed; he'd been doing most of the talking, yet he still couldn't seem to follow the conversation. "So… you're not mad?" he ventured.
"Oh, I'm plenty mad." He winced, and she went on. "I just couldn't care less whether or not you're normal, and I can't figure out what made you think I wanted normal so badly anyway."
"You told me… Superman… that he lived above you. That it would be selfish for you to love him… that he belonged to the world." He paused and cleared his throat, which seemed to have seized up on him while he was speaking. "But I don't *want* to belong to the world. Maybe I should, but…" He spread his hands in a helpless gesture. "Even with everything I can do, there's not enough of me for that. Being Clark Kent — being normal at least part of the time… if I didn't have that, Lois, I think I'd go crazy. Really. I mean that. I'd be curled up in a ball somewhere, sucking my thumb. So when I felt like I had to make a choice, I chose Clark Kent. I chose the man I thought you wanted, and I chose the man I most wanted to be."
"But that was a false choice," she argued. "Don't you see that?"
"I do now. But at first… it seemed like a dream come true."
"And what was next in the dream? What was supposed to happen when people started dying because Superman wasn't there? How long would it take for you to start hating me for that?"
"I would never have hated you! This was my decision, Lois. Whatever repercussions there were would have been mine to deal with."
She shook her head. "You think that, but it's not true. My father stayed in a job he hated because my mother didn't want him to go off on his own and do his own research. She wanted the security of him being in private practice. He agreed, but there was practically never another happy moment in our house. It poisoned everything, her taking that choice from him, and in the end he left and did it anyway."
"What about her?" Clark countered. "Didn't she deserve that security?"
"I don't know," she said. "Maybe she would say it was worth it even now. But I'm not my mother, Clark, and I won't be the reason you make a decision like that — the reason you don't follow your conscience, your heart. You'd wind up hating yourself and hating me. What if someone had died in that fire the other night? Can you honestly say it would have been worth it, staying with me?"
"It was wonderful, staying with you," he said softly. "It was… like every dream I ever had coming true. But if someone had died…"
"You'd have regretted staying."
He nodded. "Maybe so. But where do I draw the line? Someone is dying somewhere right now. Lots of someones are dying. Does that mean I shouldn't be here, having this conversation with you? Does that mean I should quit my job and be Superman full time? Because I thought about that, too — that's what all that packing was about."
She nodded. "I figured that out."
"I hate that idea, Lois. It's not that I don't want to help people, but I don't want to be Superman full time. Superman's not real. He can't have a real life… friends and a home. He can't play poker with Perry or go to ball games with Jimmy. He can't… be with you." He took a deep breath. "That's why it was so hard for me when I was shot by Clyde Barrow. I know I shouldn't have left you to grieve, and God, Lois — you have to believe I'll be sorry about that for the rest of my life. But I was almost out of my mind with grief myself. Those bullets might not have pierced my skin, but Clark Kent was *dead*, and I didn't know what to do."
She looked at him with tears shimmering in her eyes. "Yesterday, I had a lot of time to think about this. I didn't think about much of anything else. And I understood why you hadn't told me, right up until that day. But that… I don't understand that, Clark. How can I believe that you loved me, when you let me go through that?"
"How could I let you love a man who didn't really exist?" he cried. "I had nothing to offer you as Superman. It seemed kinder to let you grieve for Clark, to let you get over him."
"I never would have gotten over you," she told him in a low voice threaded with remembered pain. "Never. It would have hurt every day for the rest of my life. You should have told me. That might have hurt, too, but it would have been better than thinking you'd died protecting me."
"That was my fault," he said bitterly. "I'd gotten cocky. I thought I could handle anything, could always protect you. It never occurred to me that I could be put in that situation."
"But maybe if we'd talked about it beforehand, you wouldn't have been. Or maybe you would have been, but we could have worked together to figure it all out afterwards. Neither of us had to go through that alone, but we did, and that's why when you say that you loved me, that you weren't Superman without me, I just can't believe you."
"I *love* you, present tense," he insisted. "And yes, past tense and future tense, too. And you've been the heart and soul of Superman ever since I first put on the suit. But I just didn't know how to tell you so."
He was aching to go to her, to touch her, as if his touch could somehow make her understand what he was finding so hard to put into words. But she was still barricaded behind her pillow, and everything about her posture warned him not to trespass. He took a step closer, though, and looked at her imploringly. "I've had to carry this secret by myself for so long, Lois. A lifetime. This whole conversation seems surreal to me… that I'm here, saying these words out loud. You can't imagine how huge that is… how unprecedented. It's a relief — you have to believe that — but it's terrifying, too."
"*Why*?" She sounded anguished. "What have I done to make you so afraid of me?"
"I'm not afraid of you." His voice quavered with emotion, and his hands clenched into fists at his sides. "But I'm more afraid of *losing* you than almost anything else I can think of. And I know that you deserve better than me. I know that you deserve someone who doesn't belong to the world part of the time, someone who can give himself to you completely. And I can't do that. I thought I could… I was going to try… but last night, something happened and I realized that I had to keep on being Superman. That he was part of me and always had been, even before I started wearing the suit. I can't give him up, even for you, and I'm so sorry about that. I know you deserve…"
"Would you *shut up* about what I deserve!" she cried suddenly, jumping up from the couch. She crossed over to him and thwapped him hard across the chest with the throw pillow she'd been clutching. He blinked at her in shock, and she went on. "Why don't you let *me* be the one to decide what I deserve?" She shook the pillow at him threateningly. "You know what your problem is?"
"I… could name a few."
"That was a rhetorical question," she said, glaring at him and tossing her pillow to one side. She put her hands on her hips and he knew she was about to light into him, that there were going to be fireworks, but he couldn't stop himself feeling relieved that she was standing there, so close to him, so fired up and full of passion. He would rather have her anger than that terrible distance between them.
"Your problem is that you see everything in black and white — you always have — and the truth is that almost nothing is that simple. Yeah, there are going to be times when I have to lie for you. Lucky for both of us, I'm *good* at lying, which you know perfectly well, and the kind of lie I'm going to have to tell for you isn't going to trouble my conscience in the slightest."
She looked at him fiercely, as if she were daring him to argue, and then she blazed on. "And, yes, there are times when you running off in the middle of things really stinks. It's going to make me mad, and I'll probably complain about it. I can't promise that I won't. But every time you run off, I'll know where you're going and *why* you're going, and I'll know that you're going to come back. It won't be perfect, but what marriage ever is?"
"Marriage?" he asked, feeling both stunned and hopeful. She could hit him with every pillow she owned if it meant the conversation was heading in this direction. "You've thought about us getting married?"
"Haven't you?" she hedged.
"Only every day since I met you."
Her eyes softened, nourishing the hope that was growing inside of him. "If that's true," she said, "then it seems like you'd have had plenty of time to figure out that it's not going to be perfect, no matter how many identities you have or don't have. Trust me, Clark, being Superman is a walk in the park compared to living with me."
"Living with you…" Just the thought of it made Clark nearly dizzy with desire. Not physical desire, though that was certainly part of it, but just sheer *want*, as if everything he'd ever hoped for in life was suddenly set temptingly before him. "Lois, there is nothing in the world that would make me happier than spending the rest of my life with you. But… I know I've disappointed you… that maybe you don't feel the same way…"
"See, that's the thing: You *did* disappoint me. More than I would have ever believed you could. And yesterday, I could hardly look at you, I was so hurt and angry. I kept thinking you were going to come clean, kept waiting for it. I pretended to send that fax, and I thought you'd stop me, would tell me the truth. Instead you went out for bagels, or said you did, and when you gave me that stupid bagel, I thought, that's it, that's the last straw, I'm through with him." She took a deep breath, "And then, while I was thinking that, you touched me, like this…"
She reached for his hand and raised it to her cheek, and just as she had the day before, she closed her eyes and leaned into his touch. Tears slid down her cheeks and wet his fingers. "And when you touched me," she said shakily, opening her eyes and looking into his, "I knew that I loved you *more* than I was angry with you — and I was really angry, let me tell you."
She reached up and covered his hand with hers, and then she turned and pressed a kiss into his palm. This was grace, he realized, and he felt it wash over him like a cleansing rain.
"Lois…" he whispered.
"You hurt me, Clark. You hurt us. And it may take a while for us to get over that. But we have to, don't we?"
"Yes," he said urgently, pressing his forehead to hers. "We have to."
"Because you don't fall in love like this every day…"
"No," he agreed. "Not every day."
"Just once, maybe, and that's if you're lucky." She stepped into him and buried her face in the hollow of his shoulder, where he could feel her breath warm on his neck. He felt her shudder as his arms went around her.
"Only once," he murmured into her hair, hardly knowing what he was saying, just that he would agree with anything that kept her in his arms, in his life.
"So we have to find a way," she told his neck tearfully.
"We will," he promised her. "We'll find it together."
She sighed and relaxed into his arms, and they stood there and held one another in the quiet of her apartment. There was still much to say, and perhaps he would always worry for the future, but that was for later. This moment was a gift, and he would not defile it with his fears.
Eventually, Lois pulled back a little bit and looked up at him. "I'm still mad," she told him, as if for the record.
He felt the smile spread across his face. "You can be as mad as you want."
"And you were an idiot."
"Yes," he agreed fervently. "I was."
"A complete lunkhead."
"Oh, yeah." She reached up and stroked his hair back from his forehead. "But you're *my* lunkhead."
He laughed, not about to argue with her. If he was a lunkhead, he was *her* lunkhead. Whatever he was, he was hers.
She smiled back at him. "We can do this, Clark." Her voice, so quiet yet so certain, finally convinced him that she meant it. They were taking the next step, only this time, they were doing it on solid ground.
He bent to kiss her, tasting the salt of her tears, and he realized that he'd been wrong two nights ago in his apartment.
*This* was his happiest moment.
The hospital hummed all around him, busy even in the middle of the night, but the room in which Clark stood was dimly lit and quiet. It was soothing, after the fears and anxieties of the previous day, and as he stared down in wonder at the peacefully sleeping baby, he felt something inside him begin to unclench.
The baby was swaddled in the hospital-issue blanket with its turquoise stripes, but one dimpled hand had fought its way free and was splayed like a tiny starfish against the white sheet of the bassinet. Clark reached down to stroke that perfect hand, and the baby's fingers curled, gripping his finger tightly. He knew that it was only a reflex, but still, with those small fingers clasping his, he felt a fierce joy bloom in his heart.
He couldn't resist any longer. He reached down and fumbled a little as he lifted the baby into his unpracticed arms. As he settled her more comfortably, he remembered being in the same hospital with another baby — a baby he'd found in a trashcan during one of the darkest, most confusing times in his life.
Baby Jonathan had rescued Superman that night, just as surely as Superman had rescued him, but he would probably never know that. He had been adopted, though Clark didn't know by whom — just that it was a couple who had been desperately hoping and praying for a child. The little boy would be about four years old now, and as Clark lowered himself into the rocking chair beside his sleeping wife, he hoped that Jonathan was as loved by his parents as Clark himself had been… as loved as his own precious daughter already was.
He looked down at the miracle sleeping in his arms and gently traced her delicate features — the perfect shell of her tiny ear, the sweep of her fine eyebrows, the pout of her lips. Lois thought she looked like him, had insisted on it before she had fallen into an exhausted sleep, but he thought their daughter was absolutely unique and looked only like herself. It had not been easy, bringing this child into the world, but with the soft weight of her in his arms and her heart beating against his, Clark knew that she was worth everything they had gone through, every tear they had shed.
She stirred a little, wriggling against the confines of the blanket, and her eyelids began to flutter. Clark stopped the gentle motion of the rocking chair and held his breath while he waited to see if she would settle back into sleep. But no, her eyes opened wider and her mouth formed a small 'O' of amazement, as if she didn't know what to make of the large man who held her so close.
"Hi," he whispered, not wanting to wake Lois. "I'm your daddy."
Her murky newborn eyes seemed to rove away from him before coming back to give him a long, serious look.
He stroked her cheek tenderly, and then, because he had learned his lesson about being honest with the women he loved, he went on, starting at the very beginning: "My name is Clark Kent," he told her softly, "and I'm Superman…"