"And he's just gone forever?" asked Jimmy. His girlfriend Eleanor sat beside him, opposite Lois and Clark. It was somewhat emphatically not a double date. Lois was trying her best to shift her position on Clark in a way that he would actually believe. Eventually she would pretend to see the light, or give him a chance, and they would presumably have a relationship built on a foundation of lies. It left a sour taste in her mouth, but since Superman was impervious to physical damage, he needed to be anchored to the mortal world.
"It won't be forever," said Lois. "He'll probably come back, once he's figured some things out."
"It's been a week," said Clark. "Maybe what he'll figure out is that he just doesn't want to help people anymore."
Lois looked at him. A full week had passed, and it was still hard not to marvel at how completely she'd been duped by him. Her pride was only slightly salved by how much effort Clark seemed to put into it. He'd changed everything about himself to put on the Clark Kent persona, and there were a thousand subtleties to the performance that she hadn't been consciously aware of seeing. Everything about Clark was a lie, only there to fool people.
"He still cares," said Lois. "He still considers himself an American, I think. And there's been a lot less backlash than there could have been." That had been thanks in part to the media embargo that had let Lois get a head start on influencing public opinion. Superman had powerful friends too, not least of which was the governor himself. There had been no attempt to put out a warrant for Superman's arrest, and so far as Lois could tell, no one was seriously considering trying to stop him aside from her and Lex. A fair number of people even seemed to think that Superman had done the right thing.
"You're the expert," said Clark. He shot her a smile, reveling in a joke that he thought only he could understand. When she thought back through all their conversations, she could see that he peppered in these winks and nods to the truth, though he never said anything that Clark-the-ordinary-reporter-with-no-secrets wouldn't say. It reminded her of playing the game of double meanings with Lex. That was different, because at least they were both in on it, and there was a point to it other than gloating.
It did cross her mind that she was being uncharitable to Clark. Of course she couldn't actually tell what his smiles meant, and it was just as likely that he felt a fondness towards her extensive reporting on him. But since Superman thankfully couldn't read minds, and since Lois had to keep up a front at all times, thinking mean thoughts about Clark was a form of private rebellion, and helped her to keep her sanity.
After dinner had wrapped up, the couples went their separate ways. Jimmy had been dating the same girl for a while now, and things were getting serious between the two of them. It made her unexpectedly sad, since all the future seemed to hold for her was a sham of a relationship with Clark, and abstinence from any meaningful - or even meaningless - romances for fear of how he'd react.
"Can I ask a delicate question?" asked Clark. They walked together down the city streets. Even after being worn down by the city and losing some of his innocence, he was still a gentleman, and had insisted on walking her back to her apartment. It was questionable how real the transformation had been in the first place, since he had been Superman all along, and how could he have had any innocence left when he could see how big of bastards people were to each other?
"Out with it," said Lois.
"When I asked you out, why did you say no?" asked Clark.
"A delicate question indeed," said Lois. She let silence settle on them while she thought about it. To his credit, he made no attempt to rush her. "You'd been working at the paper for two weeks," she finally said. "I'd been working at The Daily Planet for eight years, since I was a teenager, and you were far from the first of our coworkers to ask me out. I care about my job, Clark. Dating someone from the office - it doesn't matter who - would be a recipe for professional disaster. Even outside the office I have to think about whether my relationships are going to be kosher. If I went on a date with a politician, people would start saying that I was sleeping with him to get a story. I can handle the rumors that crop up just from being in the public eye, and the way people talk when they see a woman in a position of power or authority, but I'm not going to invite more of it on myself, and I think I would always have a small voice in the back of my head that said they were right if I stepped over some abstract line."
She took a breath. All that had been true, but it wasn't all that needed to be said to Clark. She'd been preparing for this conversation in one way or another for the last week, and she was grateful that she hadn't been the one to start it. "And I didn't like you, not when you first came on. You're different now. You've changed. I'd thought that the city would chew you up and spit you out, but you didn't end up going back to Smallville, you stuck with it and persevered. You're a better reporter now too, someone who doesn't just rely on -" being able to see through walls and listen in on private conversations "- luck." The pause had been barely perceptible. "You'd better not hold this over me, but I respect you now."
She'd expected Clark to grin, but he only nodded. "You've changed too," he said. "Especially after Superman showed up. You said that you didn't want to invite rumors, but with him you just set that rule aside."
Lois stared at him. "Clark, you can't possibly be jealous that Superman and I - no, it's ridiculous." Nothing had ever happened between her and Superman, they'd gone on a single date together, and Clark knew all that. It was true that her attempts at playing the role of Superman's girlfriend had been painful from a professional standpoint, but Clark had no reason to be upset with her. They were the same person. Unless the problem lay somewhere else, in which case Lois thought she knew what to say. "Clark, do you know what I liked about Superman?"
"Past tense?" asked Clark. "You do know he might be listening in, right?"
The gall it must have taken for Clark Kent to say that almost left Lois impressed. She knew if she tried to have a conversation about Superman's eavesdropping she'd be liable to go incandescent with rage, so she skipped right past it.
"What I liked about Superman is that he was kind and gentle," said Lois. "He was good. And he liked me, even though I'm not very likable."
"You're likable," said Clark quickly.
"No, I'm really not," said Lois. "I'm opinionated and hot-headed, and I like to push people's buttons. I work more than anyone really asks me to, I stick my nose where it doesn't belong, and I turn every tragedy or triumph into a story for consumption by the masses without really even thinking about it anymore. People die and I think about what the headline is going to be, and part of me knows that's just a way of shielding myself. I know my good qualities, but likeability just isn't one of them."
"You're intelligent, driven, principled -"
"Clark, I said I know my good qualities," said Lois. She had to wonder whether any of that was what had attracted him, or if he'd simply caught a glimpse of her legs and worked backward from there. And with Clark it was always possible that it was another lie. "We've gotten off on a tangent, but what I was trying to say is that he liked me, and I liked him, and the rules I'd set down for myself seemed really arbitrary. If Superman had picked me out of all the reporters in the world - hell, all the women in the world - then maybe I was just being obstinate about how I wanted to be seen by the people around me." The lies spilled out easily, but the next part would be harder. "It wasn't that I broke the rule for Superman, it was that Superman made me see that it was a rule worth breaking."
They had reached her apartment building. Lois turned to look at Clark. "Look, I don't know whether you still feel the same way about me, but I do like you Clark. And if you asked me out again, maybe my answer would be different."
Creating more kryptonite proved to be a challenge.
Lex took a minor risk and shipped portions of the kryptonite to two different facilities which both operated as part of the Scientific and Technological Advanced Research Labs. Robert Meersman had wanted to create a series of research laboratories which were disconnected from any corporate or governmental interests. Lex had quickly seen that the end result of such a philosophy would surely result in either collapse at worst or organizational drift towards the very same set of problems which it was trying to escape at best. A combination of money and mild coercion had put S.T.A.R. Labs in his pocket, though few people knew the source of their funding, and fewer still knew the primary beneficiary of their research.
The kryptonite was given the name PU-356. It had supposedly been found in the core of a meteorite, and transferred for analysis shortly afterward, all of which was backed up by a trail of falsified documentation. It was the work of the labs to analyze the PU-356 into its component pieces, generate a full list of its properties, and then attempt to make more of it. It was semi-crystalline in nature, and after only a few days of work it was suggested that more might be made by introducing a shard of it into a super-saturated solution which contained the composite elements. It wasn't entirely clear how the structure of the PU-356 produced the properties that it did, but the elements which made it up were eventually sorted out, and a multitude of experiments were run to achieve synthesis.
This was part of the reason that Lex had taken the risk of shipping the kryptonite outside of his immediate control; it would have taken him an enormous amount of time to arrive at the proper solution to creating more kryptonite, which involved enormous amounts of energy, a small shard as a catalyst, and a wide variety of purified elements in very precise quantities. The process was slow and costly, but more of the kryptonite was produced with every passing day.
On those nights when he knew that Clark Kent would be occupied with Lois Lane, Lex began a slow renovation of his house.
Before she'd known that he was Superman, Lois had imagined Clark Kent's apartment as being relatively bare, with little more than a picture of his mother and father and a large cross. After she'd seen the truth, she'd imagined only a more extreme kind of minimalism; no toiletries, no toothbrush, no food in the cupboards or any other sign that a real person lived there, because no real person did live there. The world was Superman's playground, and he had no real needs beyond those he decided to indulge in.
She had been wrong. Clark's apartment was slightly smaller than her own, but just as packed with mementos, curios, and pictures. Where Lois had accumulated souvenirs over a lifetime of travel, Clark had instead pulled in pieces of Metropolis. It wasn't just the photographs that lined the walls, there was a collection of bric-a-brac on top of one of the short bookshelves; a model of the Emperor building, three-dimensional map of the city made with pressed tin, and a signed baseball among others.
"Jimmy took most of the pictures," said Clark. He seemed nervous, though there was no way of knowing whether that was his usual act or whether he was actually tentative about letting her see how he lived.
Her anger was starting to fade, which was a problem. It had been five weeks, and though she still felt hot sparks of rage, it was hard to stay as angry as she'd been in the beginning, especially when she was wearing a layer of deception over her feelings. Lying to Clark day in and day out meant building up an image of how she would feel about him if she didn't know, and almost by definition that meant some level of empathy.
She'd dealt with a number of battered women in her time, either as part of covering a story or through one of the social programs she was part of, and she had always found it puzzling that they would sit there with a black eye and say that their husband or lover had done nothing wrong, or that it wouldn't happen again. It was a lie, but it was one that they were able to convince themselves of. She'd never thought that she would be a woman like that, but now that she and Clark were courting, she could see it happening to her. She would tell the lies so much that she would start to believe them, because the alternative was making Superman upset. And if she tried to get help, she would be laughed off and alienated, and of course it would only make him angry. There would be no escape.
She could imagine Clark hitting her. She could imagine his fist going straight through her skull, pushing aside bone and flesh like it wasn't even there, just like he'd done with Calhoun. She kept more than enough secrets from Clark, and a few of them might set him off. She could have stopped meeting with Lex, but that would mean giving up hope that Superman could be brought down to mortal levels. She was willing to give up her personal happiness if it meant keeping Clark pacified, but she had to know for sure that there was no other way - some more permanent solution. Lex had not yet declared that it was hopeless, but when he did, Lois would focus all of her efforts on being a good girlfriend, and eventually a good wife.
"Do you like it?" asked Clark.
"It's not what I expected," said Lois. A glint of metal in the corner caught her eye, and she walked over to stare at it. "You can't possibly expect me to believe that you play the saxaphone."
"No," said Clark with a bashful smile. "I bought it thinking that I would learn, but it turns out that I don't really have an ear for music."
She had to wonder whether that was another bluff. Once you knew that Clark Kent was a disguise, it called into question everything he said. His appearance was a lie, the thick glasses most of all. His apartment was clean, in a way that suggested that it wasn't always so pristine, and she wondered whether that was another piece of the elaborate deception he'd woven for her. She felt a flash of anger coming on, and did her best to divert it.
"My father made me take harp lessons," she said. "He must have thought that it would make me more ladylike, but I hated the harp and never practiced. After I gave up, he kept the harp in the living room, and it was like an albatross around my neck. And we moved a lot, you remember, so for years my father just carried the harp with us from place to place."
"I'd be interested to meet him," said Clark with a frown.
"It probably won't happen, at least for a while," said Lois. "He got pulled out of an early retirement to work on some secret military project. He wasn't the best father, but he trained my sister and I well, and I think we're tougher for it. He wanted boys, and didn't get them, and on top of that he raised us alone."
"We have that in common," said Clark. "Not being raised alone, but unconventional childhoods." He tapped a photo of Martha and Jonathan, which held a place of privilege on his wall - the only piece of his life in Kansas that was visible. "They were too old to be raising a child, by most people's estimations. Sometimes I think everyone has their own story that's just as unique and interesting as your own, if you could only get to know them."
Clark made a dinner of stuffed chicken and mashed potatoes. It wasn't really a surprise that he was a better cook than she was, since he would almost have to be, but it still irked her just a bit. The thing was, there wasn't really anything wrong with Clark if you could subtract out the Superman business. If he were truly, honestly Clark, he wouldn't be so bad, especially given the ways that he'd changed over the past year. He had actual stories to tell now. He was kind and courteous, and he'd left the naiveté behind him. Most of all, he treated her like an equal, despite his infatuation. There had never been a moment in their time working together when she felt like he was dismissive of what she was saying, which was more than she could say for any other man that she worked with, except perhaps for Perry. Lois could practically feel the part of her that wanted to believe that she'd been wrong about him being Superman. If it was all just a bad case of paranoia, and Superman was a separate person that just looked like Clark despite all the other evidence, it wasn't like she and Clark would live some idyllic life of marital bliss, but at least she could see how she would find him compelling, and possibly even attractive.
But no, Clark was an unrepentant liar. She wasn't sure whether he was an alien that had forged a human identity for himself or a farm boy who had developed astonishing powers, but it didn't really matter much either way. He was cold and callous, and sat by while bad things happened in favor of reporting on the news in the least efficient possible way. Lois wasn't terribly religious, and much of it had to do with a conversation she'd had with a priest when she was eleven years old about why God let bad things happen. Most of the same arguments applied to Superman, even if he wasn't perfectly omniscient and omnipotent. When seen through the new lens of Clark Kent, it was possible to imagine that he'd never cared about doing the most good at all. Being a symbol for the people coincided with getting the highest amount of public acknowledgement, and that seemed a little too convenient. It was easy to look at Clark as Superman and think that it had all been about his ego all along.
After dinner they sat down on his couch together and listened to the radio. After debating it for a few minutes, Lois yawned and then curled up against him. It was a momentary shock to remember that he had the same hard, defined muscles that Superman did, but she tried her best to play the oblivious girlfriend that Clark wanted. The show that Clark had picked out was a fanciful bit of science fiction about a man meeting aliens on the surface of Mars, which didn't really hold her interest. Lois slowly fell asleep against the Man of Steel.
The radio show ended and the commercials started up, which was when Lois began to wake up. Clark leaned forward and shut it off. He turned towards her, cupped her chin in his hand, and kissed her. His lips were soft, and if it weren't for the thought that his hand could crush her jawbone in a heartbeat, she might have actually enjoyed herself. He wasn't awkward and fumbling like she had thought he would be, just calm and tender.
When Clark backed away, he looked sad. "How long have you known?" he asked.
Lois swallowed. She was still sleepy, but she knew this wasn't good. "What are you talking about?"
"I kept waiting for you to slap me across the face," said Clark. "From practically the moment I put on the suit, I was waiting for you to figure everything out and … I don't know what I thought that your reaction would be. I guess I thought you'd be angry with me, but I'd hoped that you would help to keep my secret." He sighed. "Lois, how long have you known?"
She wanted to deny it, but it was clear that wouldn't do any good. A surge of fear was working its way through her brain, clearing up her thoughts. "Since just after you retired Superman," said Lois.
"Ah," replied Clark. He took off his glasses and set them on an end table, then laid back against the couch. Some of the Clark Kent posturing faded away. "And that's why we're dating now." It wasn't a question. Lois kept herself very still. "I feel like I've made a mess of everything."
"You haven't -"
"Stop," said Clark, and so she did. "I love you Lois. One of the things that I always loved about you, right from the start, is that you never held back. You said the things that other people kept to themselves. In Smallville people talk in circles and hide barbs in their words. My mother -" His voice caught. "My mother always disliked it. You'd ask to borrow a cup of sugar, and they'd happily give it to you, and then afterward they'd complain about the inconvenience. It was worse for me, since I could hear all of the words said in private. But you were never like that. You talked to artists, urchins, and politicians all the same. There was an honesty to you, I guess. And then Superman showed up, and you were different. It took me so long to see. Here was someone that you were actually scared of, someone that you had to watch your words around. You lied to him - to me. Even your affection was a lie, because you were scared. So please, no more lies. We need to have it out, one way or another. If you hate me, I need to know."
Lois watched him carefully. She took a few moments to consider. Clark already knew that she had been lying to him, and nothing short of the truth - or at least a truth - would convince him. "Do you really want that?"
"You're squandering your power," said Lois. "You're invincible, and people are dying, and you're just … sitting here. If I had your powers, I wouldn't stop for a single instant. Lying to everyone around you is one thing, and killing a man in cold blood was another, but what I can't stand is that you're so indifferent to the suffering of the world." Perhaps it was more than he wanted to hear, but he had asked for the truth, and she hoped that he could hear it in her voice.
"You don't see the hypocrisy there?" asked Clark. He was perfectly calm, and it was hard to see whether that was another mask. "People say that all the time. They claim that if they had infinite power they would protect the weak and heal the sick. And then they eat out at fancy restaurants and buy expensive cigars. It's easy to say that someone else should do something, but it's hard to do it yourself. I've been in your apartment. I've seen how many things you could do without, if you were really serious about doing the most good to the detriment of your own personal satisfaction."
"I work twelve hour days," said Lois. "I work for and head up social programs in my free time." She could feel her face flush. "When I waste an hour on something small and petty, the cost isn't measured in terms of lives."
Clark didn't seem the least bit hurt by this. "The rich have a duty to the poor. But they also have a right to do as they please with their money, don't they? Lex Luthor engages in philanthropy, but you don't begrudge him his mansion, or the excessive amounts of money he's spent on lead shielding, among other things. I'm not talking about what should be legally required of us, and I don't think you are either. I have a moral obligation to the people of the world, as do you, but that obligation isn't all-encompassing. I'm not a slave."
Lois frowned. "I didn't say you were a slave."
"You just think you're better than me?" asked Clark.
"Clark, you lied to me, over and over. But even before that, you were so powerful and so strange. You crushed rocks into dust in your hands and you thought I would be impressed, and it seemed so hopelessly naive to me." She spoke slowly, trying to find the right words. "You lifted me up into the air like it was nothing, and flew me out a half mile above the city like it was second nature for my life to be in your hands. What you can do is objectively terrifying, and anyone who doesn't see that is just engaging in wishful thinking. I'm sorry that I tried to pretend at being the woman you wanted me to be, the one who you could settle into a life with, but Clark, it wasn't all an act. If things had been different - hell, things are different now, if we can be open and honest with each other, and tear down the lies … I'm not promising anything, you understand, but I think we'd both like to start over." There. Just the right notes of contrition, and something that was close enough to the truth that it could pass the sniff test.
"Starting over," said Clark. He looked out the window at the city. "Alright then." He held out his hand. "My name is Clark Kent. I masquerade as Superman. I can bend steel with my bare hands and move so fast that bullets look like they're frozen in the air, among other things."
She shook his hand. Relief flowed through her; she'd been worried that his outward calm was only for show. "Lois Lane," she replied. "Professional snoop. You're really from Smallville then? That wasn't all made up when you came to Earth?"
"I was raised in Kansas," said Clark. "Everything I've ever told you about my childhood is true, but I left out all the interesting bits. My parents found a spaceship in their field one day, and they took it as a sign from god. I was just an unremarkable baby back then. They adopted me without much discussion, and hid the spaceship beneath a tarp until my father could hook a tractor up to it and stick it in the storm cellar. I was raised like any other boy, until I started to get my powers." He paused. "How much of this do you want to know?"
"All of it," replied Lois. There wasn't much reason to believe it was anything but another deception beyond her gut feeling, but he was painting a picture for her, and either way he seemed to want to share.
"The hearing came first," said Clark. "I was six years old, and I thought I was going crazy. You can imagine my relief when I realized that I was just hearing conversations from the next county over. It got more powerful as the months went on, and I learned to shut it down, so that I didn't have to listen to everything that people said or did. I didn't tell my parents, but I thought that the hearing was what made me special - what God had put me on the earth for. And then I got the vision when I was eight. I could see straight through things. I could count the feathers on a hawk from ten miles away. That was when I looked inside the cellar that my parents had kept shut and saw the spaceship."
"The spaceship that didn't burn up over the Atlantic," said Lois.
"It was one of the lies I told you," said Clark. "Sorry."
"Wait, this doesn't make sense," said Lois. "You said that you were baby when the spaceship came down. But the story you told me was that you learned English from our radio waves on the way over. Was everything about Krypton a lie then? Because if you didn't know you were an alien until you were eight years old, I don't see how you would know anything about the planet you came from."
"I'm getting to that," said Clark. "And I know that you're skeptical, but you're going to have to bear with me. I asked my parents about the spaceship, and showed them what I could see and hear. They told me everything, and we went down into the cellar. Almost as soon as I touched the spaceship it grabbed a hold of my mind and showed me a vision of Krypton as it had been. The ghost of my real father was there, and he told me about the planet as it had been."
Lois stared at him. "A ghost," she said flatly.
"Not really a ghost," said Clark. "A simulacrum. A shard of my father's personality. Krypton was a sprawling place of crystalline spires and flying cars, and my father sat me down to explain everything to me. He told me how my powers would grow, and tried to instruct me on how to help avoid the fate of his planet."
"And he said all of this in English?" asked Lois. If Clark wanted her as she truly was, that was what he was going to get. Skepticism as practically second nature to her.
"I only thought to ask that later, when I was a teenager," said Clark. "I'd read enough history books by that point to see that Jor-El was wearing a modified toga. All of the buildings and plants were inspired by Greece, mixed with a few more artistic flourishes, but it seemed too much like what I knew of Earth. I asked him about that, and he told me that what I was being shown was just a representation that would make sense to me. The real Krypton was a dark planet covered in black water, and the real Kryptonians were something like a cross between a spider and an eel. Before the ship landed, it mapped out human civilization and drew in samples of humanity to examine. I'm not really a Kryptonian, I'm something that the ship built. I actually think I was born on American soil. Jor-El showed me an analog of their world that I could understand, but I think they were even further beyond us than I could imagine."
The conversation continued on, and Clark talked about the defining moments of his childhood. Lois listened closely, and made mental notes for later, occasionally sharing her own anecdotes that kept him in rapt attention even though they didn't involve godly powers and alien ghosts. The important thing was that Clark was being honest with her now, and his secrets were spilling out into the open. She had told him off, and he'd called her a hypocrite, but somehow that didn't mean they couldn't still be friends. She debated telling him about her arrangement with Lex, but decided that was one secret to keep to herself. Nothing had ever really come of that partnership anyway. And besides that, all the talk with Clark hadn't really changed that much about how she felt. He was more human to her now, but still as negligent as he'd ever been, for all his protests. Some of the fear had left her, but not enough that she was about to let Clark know she'd actively tried to work against him.
The first attempt involved the drinking water at the Daily Planet Building. The kryptonite was ground into a fine powder and put into both the water cooler and the water main connecting to the building. Lex had run tests on it before using it on people, more because he was worried about overplaying his hand than because he was concerned about what effect it would have on the people. A week passed with no indication that there had been any change, though his channels of information from within the building were rather incomplete, especially since Lois had cut back her visits to practically nothing. She hadn't told him Superman's secret identity, despite his best efforts to pry it out of her. He was working on a way to have plausibly ferreted it out without exposing himself, but that was doubly difficult now that Superman was no longer active.
The second attempt involved aerosolizing the kryptonite powder. Lex thought it unlikely to work, given that the concentration would be measured in parts per million. The kryptonite seemed to lose the signature glow when reduced to pieces smaller than a gram, and Lex suspected that the still-mysterious source of the radiation required sufficient mass in close proximity in order to continue emitting its waves or particles. At any rate, this too seemed to have no noticeable effect on Clark Kent or anyone else in the building.
The third attempt involved exposure to the kryptonite. A small, thumb-sized piece was given to a man who had only the simplest of instructions: to walk past Clark Kent. Two spotters were put into position to watch. Their report was typed up and broadcast in code, which eventually made its way back to Lex. He hadn't been able to give them full instructions for fear that they would discover too much, but they hadn't noticed any real change in Clark's behavior, not even when the patsy came within arm's length of him.
Brief exposure likely wasn't going to do the trick, especially not at a distance. The fullest test of the kryptonite would be to place it directly next to Superman for as long as possible. The spaceship's creche had a large piece of kryptonite directly next to it, and a relatively thin layer of lead was apparently sufficient shielding, which said quite a bit about the danger that it posed. The kryptonite would have to be close, nearly in range of skin contact. That meant using Lois Lane. Unfortunately, Lois could lead Superman right back to Lex, but that was what contingency plans were for.
Superman waited, and watched.
Author's Note: Some post-publication edits have been made - if some of the reviews don't make sense anymore, that's why.