A/N: Thank you to everyone who's followed/favorited this story, and especially for those who've reviewed! I actually started writing this story in 2012, and only got it finished thanks to the gentle prodding of my betas, so great big thanks to Lynn SM, Morgana, and Deadly Chakram! Anyway, it's always such a treat to come back to Lois and Clark, and I hope you've enjoyed reading this story as much as I enjoy writing them!


Chapter 8: Ordinary Person

For a very long time, he simply stood at the bottom of the landing, his gaze locked on the dry, rust-colored stain on the floor. His floor, the one he'd clean not because the police would be by to dot their i's and cross their t's, but because it was his living room and his mom had taught him to keep a clean living place or so help her. His floor, marked with swirling constellations of pain, crimson and rust, galaxies of torment and grief—but it was red, and it proved he could bleed, and for now, with Clark so newly restored to him, released from his tiny, claustrophobic cage, he let himself believe that the blood only proved how very human he was.

Vulnerable and destructible, yes, and therefore human.

Not alien. Not completely isolated. Just…different.

Clark. What you see is what you get, and that meant red blood poured from a dangerous wound was nothing more than what happened to anyone and everyone when they were stabbed.

With a deep, cleansing breath, he finally moved from his statue-like position. He headed into the kitchen, ran the water until it was hot—and it took longer than he'd thought, without his heat-vision to speed things along—filled up a bucket with the water mixed with soap, and then he knelt before those bloodstains with a rag in hand, and he began to scrub.

It hurt. His muscles ached, his bones thrummed with exhausted echoes of pain, his skin felt ripped along the seams where the tiny white scars were still engraved, and crouching on his hands and knees scrubbing with all of an ordinary man's might did nothing but aggravate his condition. But he didn't stop. In fact, he scrubbed harder, pushed himself further, courted the feeling of exhaustion and toil and aches. It was unusual, it was different—it was perfect.

Clark Kent was human, and he had to scrub at stains on his living room floor, and he winced at the pain of standing upright, and he felt the satisfaction derived from a job well done as he stopped to look over the spot of floor he'd once thought had become a memorial to Clark Kent's premature ending.

Now it was just another bit of floor. Indistinguishable from the rest. Ordinary and boring…and beautiful. In fact, he was almost inclined to think it was his favorite bit of floor—but perhaps, he counseled himself with a smile, that was going a bit far. It was floor, it was clean, and now that he was Clark Kent again, he was realizing there were more important things to think about. Like the fact that he was still clothed in the torn and tattered remnants of a Superman Suit.

Time to stop obsessing over a patch of floor and change that.

Peeling off the tight Suit was a lesson in pain and frustration, but Clark savored it, the feeling of freeing himself of a trap, a disguise that granted him freedom but could also destroy him. The façade of Superman dropped to the floor, discarded, useless, the shed skin left behind when it was no longer needed, no longer enough. Its bright colors were dimmed, cast into shadow, all but turned to black when Clark kicked it away into a corner and turned to his closet. Not the secret closet, but the ordinary one. The one completely filled with variety and shades and textures, a mass of options and choices laid out for him, so much more freeing than a single outfit, a single course, a single mask.

He pulled on a long-sleeved shirt, hoping the loose cuffs would help hide the scars on his wrists and hands. The collar covered the ones on his neck and collar bone, but there was no way to hide the spider-webbing of white adorning his cheeks, chin, and brow. The scar on his stomach, a long jagged line that had only hours before seemed the end of the world was now no more than the merest indentation against his sensitive fingers, detectable only when he looked specifically for it.

Finally, Clark sat down on the edge of his bed and opened his bedside drawer. Inside, sitting there so innocently, was his extra pair of glasses. His hand trembled when he reached out to pick them up, as if his every molecule was straining with impatience to become what it was meant to be. Who he was meant to be.

It felt like coming home when he slid the glasses into place. Felt like he was finally waking from the long nightmare that had taken him to the lowest depths he'd ever sunk to. Felt like he could survive after all, and the world would still be there when he walked outside his apartment, and the sun would shine again eventually to heal him of even the deepest of his scars.

The knock on the door, dull and distant, startled him; he was used to being able to hear the approaching footsteps long before they reached the door itself. He reached up, touched his glasses to reassure himself they were there—where they belonged—and then he stood and slowly made his way across the living room—a smile alighting on his lips as he trod on the spot of floor exactly the same as the rest of it—and up the stairs to pull open the door.

Lois stood there, the light behind her casting a halo along newly gleaming hair and the pale violet shirt she now wore. He wasn't naïve enough to think Lois Lane angelic, but he couldn't deny a certain awe that gripped him at the sight of her standing on his doorstep, an overflowing brown paper bag in one arm and a nervous smile almost hiding the tension tightening the corners of her mouth.

"Lois," he breathed.

"Clark," she said, almost in surprise, her eyes locked on his. No, not on him—on his glasses. The glasses he'd never thought he'd get to wear again. She stared, and then she gave him a small smile—not nervous, not a mask over tension—but so shy and sweet that Clark felt his heart squeezed into a pliant, hopeful thing inside his chest, all hopeful eagerness and reserved wariness. "Clark," she said again, as if locking him into that identity, and he felt, suddenly, as if he didn't have to hold on so tightly to it anymore. He could relax, could breathe easier, could rest content knowing that she looked at him and saw Clark…and made him Clark. "Can I come in?"

"Of course," he said, quickly stepping aside to let her through the door. He wondered that she even had to ask at all—or that she would, when so many times before she'd simply barged in without even a 'hello.' Of course, so much had changed thanks to his unwise confessions, he shouldn't wonder that her brazen comfort with him was just another casualty of his ill-advised honesty.

As soon as she reached the bottom of the stairs, Lois spun to face him, holding up the large paper bag. "I brought breakfast. Or dinner, whichever it is. I mean, it's the middle of the night, so I guess the proper definition would be midnight snack, but we've missed meals and I'm not really even sure what day it is right now so this would be…" She trailed off, then, as if even she had gotten lost on that one. "Anyway," she said with a false brightness, shaking her head, "I know this twenty-four hour place and they're pretty good—not great, but good—so I stopped by and picked us up something."

"Thank you," Clark said, touched and amused all at once. "I think I have some food in my fridge too, if we need it." He said it more to remind himself that it was his fridge again, that it was food he could eat, or that he would need to clean out if he forgot about it—to remind himself that Clark Kent wasn't dead anymore—but he regretted it instantly when Lois's face fell, lowering the bag back to her side.

"Oh," she said in a small voice. "Of course you do."

"But your idea sounds better," Clark interjected hastily. "I don't exactly have a microwave for the leftovers." He fingered his glasses yet again, surprised by the dejection in his own voice. He'd spent hours lamenting the fact that he was Superman—it seemed particularly hypocritical of him to be missing the superpowers already, so soon after reclaiming the man. But then, he'd never claimed to be logical, had he, or to be rational when it came to trying to figure out all the details of his separate personas.

Lois blinked at him, then looked to his kitchen before staring at him again. "Oh. You don't, do you." She paused, and Clark found himself holding his breath, afraid of another explosion or interrogation. But she only gave him the suggestion of a thoughtful smile and set the bag down on his table beside the coffee mugs still filled with the coffee from earlier.

"Oops." Clark grimaced and reached for them. "Sorry, I didn't have a chance to clean up yet."

"Really?" Lois arched an eyebrow at him, then looked to the clean floor.

"Well," Clark offered a grin, eager to take advantage of this glimmer of normality between them, "maybe just the important parts."

"Hey—" Lois stared at her hand on his, stopping him from lifting the cups, stared as if she'd never touched him before, never seen what their hands looked like next to each other. Clark stared too, but it was mainly to memorize the moment, the sensation, the feel of her touching him of her own volition, of her skin against his own, slightly different—not dimmed, not dulled, but different—than what it felt like when he had his superpowers.

With a slight shake of her head, Lois's hand fell away, and she looked up to meet his arrested gaze. "I'll do it," she asserted. "And I'll set the table—after all, I know where you keep all your dishes, and you should probably be resting."

"I feel better," he said, partly because it was true—had been true since he opened his door and saw her standing on his doorstep as if she weren't planning on leaving and putting him firmly behind her—and partly out of habit. But nonetheless, he was more than happy to sit at the table, his elbow warmed by the heat emanating from her large paper bag, and watch her bustle around his kitchen, all energetic purpose and determined focus. He'd learned, through all this, just how precious these little moments were, how fragile happiness could be, how frail were those instances of complete perfection, and he was content to sit there and savor this one moment. Because he'd also learned not to reach for impossible things or to let dreams taint reality, learned to take what he could get, and this moment—Lois chattering away and saying nothing as she pulled out plates and forks and napkins and bottles of water—was mundane heaven. Paradise on earth.

She set everything before him, perfectly, positioning each utensil just so, as if afraid the stars would fall should she forget to put the fork exactly half an inch from the plate. Nervous and edgy, jumpy and tense, and Clark watched her, his moment of contentment trickling away like tiny particles of sand slipping through the middle of an hourglass, and hoped with all his might that her anxiety was not because of him. That she wasn't afraid of him. Afraid he would be angry with her or blame her, or just afraid of him in general. He'd promised to stay, but if he frightened her, if she could no longer trust him to protect her and not hurt her, then he'd have to leave. He couldn't stay and force her to be terrified all the time—he'd done everything he had to try to make certain she didn't have to be afraid of anything.

But she kept talking, jumbles of words and sentences and questions tumbling from her mouth, a veritable storm of syllables that didn't really mean anything but managed to clumsily, haphazardly weave a sort of cocoon around the two of them, scanty and pocked with holes but just enough to remind them of what they'd once been—partners and friends.

He wasn't actually very hungry—Kryptonite made him sick and lesser and vulnerable, hungry only for sunlight—but Lois set the food out before him so earnestly, all the same kinds of Chinese dishes he'd brought her that first all-nighter they'd pulled at the Planet, when everything had seemed open and full of promise. When he'd looked at her and realized he had a chance…until she saw him looking and then shot him down.

She'd warned him. She'd warned him, and if he weren't so used to wearing a mask himself, if he hadn't so fully convinced himself that her warning was a mask too and he only needed time and patience to earn her trust so she could remove it around him, then he'd have listened to her. Listened to her and cautioned his heart to tread lightly, to act wisely, to not go giving itself out to the best investigative reporter in the world who'd expressly told him not to fall for her.

Reminders of those early days, the hopes and the bright futures and the beginning of dreams—that was what this meal was. So carefully chosen, so precisely placed, and Clark was both immensely grateful that she remembered—that she was so obviously bringing this for Clark Kent, reporter for the Daily Planet—and extremely daunted, wondering if she meant to remind him of her admonition.

The spasms in his side had passed when he'd put on the glasses, but Clark moved carefully, as if afraid of more pain, as if the slightest wrong movement would break the truce between them. He ate because Lois seemed to want him to and because his mom's voice in his head warned him that he probably could use the food even if he didn't feel hungry. Lois hardly ate a thing herself, her eyes never leaving his except to dart occasional glances to the bag that didn't seem empty despite all the take-out cartons around them.

Finally, Clark set his fork down, hoping it wasn't a sign that he was ready for her to leave. If it was, he'd pick it up and start eating again, would drag out their midnight dinner for hours just to keep her there—he had let her walk away once, but there was only so much strength even Superman could conjure for Lois Lane.

"No fortunes?" he asked with a forcibly light tone.

Rolling her eyes, Lois pushed her own plate away. "No. Theirs weren't in Chinese, and I didn't need to read for myself how great horses are."

Clark looked away, his smile almost painful, so full of grief. She was here and she was teasing him…but she wasn't, at the same time. She was distant, abstracted, focused on something besides him. He couldn't blame her, not after everything the day had held for her. But it was hard, being relegated to the background again; even if he'd have done anything to save Clark Kent, there were moments when he wished Clark Kent could be a bit more interesting, a bit more intriguing, a…a bit more.

But he wasn't. And really, what did it matter? Lois was here all the same, bringing him dinner and rummaging through his cabinets and watching him eat as if she were a mother hen fussing over her foundling chick. She was here—and he'd promised himself he'd be more proactive.

So he dusted off another smile for her and cautiously said, "I really appreciate this, Lois. Really. But…why are you doing this?"

"I can't bring dinner for a friend?" Lois huffed. But her eyes fell away from his and her hands moved to the table to fiddle with her napkin and there just wasn't enough spirit in her voice—all classic signs that Lois Lane wasn't being completely honest. Or that she was hiding something.

He smiled at her, because even if she had a secret—and he certainly couldn't cast stones if she did, now could he?—she'd referred to him as a friend. Not exactly what he'd hoped for at that infamous park bench, but more than he'd thought could be his at the equally infamous fountain. Friend had been a word he'd clung to, a word he'd hated, a word he'd fought against, a word he'd fought for…and now it was a word that seemed to be tangible forgiveness, a lifeline cast to him where he drifted in ever-widening circles, looping spirals away from her, an anchor to draw him back to earth. To her.

But Lois still wasn't looking at him, and so she didn't seem to notice the smile. Her fork made tiny, repetitive clinking noises as she nudged it against her plate once, again, again. "We…we are still friends, Clark. Aren't we?" she asked, her voice so small, so shrunken, so timid.

Before he could think better of it or second-guess himself, he reached out his hand and placed it over hers, silencing the fork and his own misgivings and hopefully her doubts. "Of course, Lois," he promised. "I'll always be your friend."

She sighed and nodded, her eyes falling closed, physical veils to hide whatever reaction she had to the promise. Or so he thought, but when they snapped open again, her brown eyes were filled to overflowing with resolve, as determined as anytime she believed in a story even despite Perry's objections. "Well then," she said briskly, "seeing as we're friends and you just saved me from a fate worse than death—not that I ever would have actually said yes, you understand—and you're recovering from…well, recovering—I got you something. A present. Well, three presents, to be exact."

"Lois," Clark said, his heart reclaimed inside him and skipping about in his chest like a precocious child, uncontainable, finding playmates in his lungs, inflating them with air so light it was like cotton candy or spun sugar rather than oxygen. "You didn't have to do that."

"I know." She unfurled her smile like the slow unfurling of a white flag of surrender, sweet and conscious and stark against the darkness of night. "Just like you didn't have to befriend me, or give me any of the hundreds of things you've given me since you came to Metropolis." She paused, then let out a chuckle. "But I want to."

"Well…" Clark wasn't quite sure what to say, didn't know what the script for this moment was—didn't know what part he was playing: partner, friend, acquaintance, certainly not the enemy, but despite what the stars in Lois's eyes were telling him, he didn't think it was the lover either. But whichever part he was cast in, he could tell this was important to Lois. This mattered, and so he didn't have to know everything—he just had to play along. "Thank you," he accepted with a smile.

Lois's answering chuckle was a bit watery, gurgling low in her chest. "You haven't even seen what they are yet."

"I'm sure I'll love them," he whispered back, his throat gone dry as air just before the embrace of the atmosphere gave violent way to the void of space.

After a slight hesitation and a struggle played out on her face, as if she were giving herself a silent pep talk, arguing with herself, Lois pulled the paper bag toward her and drew out three bundles, all hastily wrapped in old editions of the Daily Planet. "What?" she said defensively when she noticed Clark's lips tug upward despite himself. "It's not like I carry gift wrap with me."

"It's perfect," he assured her, and when she gave him the hint of a smile, he didn't think he'd ever been so completely honest in his life.

"Then open it," Lois challenged him. He'd never been able to resist her—not from that first challenge she'd given him after storming from Perry's office and sweeping him up into her personal orbit—so he grinned and pulled the first package toward himself.

His fingers were a bit clumsy against the paper—which smelled of ink and bore familiar names on bylines and sported the familiar, comforting logo of the Daily Planet—but he was encouraged to see that the white lines creating an extra trail of veins along his skin were fading. Not that he paid much attention to them when he pulled the paper away to reveal a VHS copy of 'Beauty And The Beast.'

He stared at it for a moment, but it didn't miraculously reveal to him its secrets. "Well," he said, puzzled, "that's—"

"Open the others," Lois urged, scooting forward to the edge of her seat, her hands shoving aside their plates and take-out cartons so that she was almost too near, so close Clark found it difficult to turn his attention to the remaining two presents. But the one nearest him, nudged toward him by Lois's hands—shaking and pale, the nails thrown into sharp relief against the starkness of her flesh—bore their byline, which caught his eye and froze him in place. 'Lois Lane and Clark Kent,' it read, and Clark felt a lump in his throat, large and aching so that he couldn't breathe.

When he tore the paper open, he was careful not to rip their names, careful not to split them in two even in print. This time, he uncovered a book. "The Hunchback Of Notre Dame," Clark read aloud, needing the sound of his own voice to cover the silence of the apartment. To help him ignore the smallness of the world now that the sounds of millions of people were muted.

"Not the most apt analogy," Lois said hurriedly, as if afraid he'd misunderstand. She didn't have to be afraid of that—he was in no danger of misunderstanding because he didn't understand at all. Though he thought he recognized this book; he'd seen it enough, sitting on Lois's pristine bookshelf.

"Lois…" He studied the two items laid out on the table before him. He tried for light-hearted, reaching for a smile and pretending he'd reached it despite the lengths by which it failed. "Do you think I'm going to have a lot of downtime? I know the wound looked bad, but I heal fast. And I know the Planet isn't up and running right now, but with Luthor out of the picture, surely we can find a way to rebuild. Start over again."

"That…that would be amazing," Lois said wonderingly. But then she blinked, her eyes large and fixed on his face, and shoved the last present toward him. "One more and then I'll explain," she whispered.

Clark regarded her for a long moment, then he nodded and ripped open the last of her gifts, splitting a line down the double columns of one of Eduardo's articles. This was the most puzzling of all—a comic book, blaringly bright and graphic against the muted colors of Clark Kent's surroundings. "Spider-Man?" he asked. This time he did catch a smile to send her way along with a sidelong glance. "I didn't know you were into comics."

"I'm not. It's…it's not that." She paused, and Clark almost felt the air temperature drop around them as she took in a deep breath. As if bracing herself for something. As if afraid of what his reaction would be to whatever she had to tell him.

And all three of her presents involved masks or monsters or misconceptions. And he was exhausted and hurting and tired, but he knew what he wanted this to mean. Knew what he wanted her to say. Knew, above all else, what he wanted her to feel. For him.

But he hadn't been right about anything she'd said for so long. Hadn't been able to guess her actions or thoughts even from the beginning, when she'd constantly surprised him by switching between entrancing strength and compelling vulnerability, and he didn't know if he could stand to be disappointed again.

So he just watched her. One hand caressing the glossy cover of the graphic novel, his eyes locked on Lois, afraid to miss even the slightest flicker of emotion that might help to build a bridge between them, that hope he couldn't rid himself of fluttering in his chest like a bird trapped between the slats of his ribcage, straining for freedom, for air. For Lois.

"Look," Lois said suddenly, straightening and nudging her hand a bit closer to his on the table, palm-up. "I know it's stupid, but they were all I could find on short notice, and obviously the analogies don't really work at all—I mean, Beauty and the Beast…well, I guess I'd be the Beast in that one—and that's not very flattering, is it. And the Hunchback…that's even worse, and the ending is awful, and they don't end up together, which is…" Her breaths came short and quick, as if she were terrified, but she was still so resolute, so fierce, so beautiful, and Clark could only gape at her.

And still that bird of hope flapped inside him, stealing the air from his head, leaving him dizzy, beating out a tattoo of desperate longing against the inside of his chest, making him yearn for things he'd already been told were impossible. Even now, even after everything. Apparently, not even Luthor, or Kryptonite, or disappointment, or the loss of his powers, could strip him of his greatest weakness.

"The point is," Lois said, seeming to regain her courage, "they all have to do with masks. People who wear masks or disguises, who aren't really what they seem or who are judged wrong. I mean, I've never read Spider-Man—I'm not into him, never have been, not when I had a real-life superhero around—but," she let out a cracked laugh, "but you don't want to hear about that. It's just…Jimmy loves him—the whole photographer thing, I think—and he told me that everyone in Spider-Man's city thinks he's the bad guy. Thinks he's a monster. But…" She looked up, met Clark's gaze, caught him so that he felt like a deer in the headlights, like a moth in the instant before it crashed and burned against the lantern. "But he's actually the hero."

There were no sirens going off. No tornado warnings. No cruise ships filling the ocean air with distress calls. No fire alarms. No people crying for help. Maybe for Superman there would have been—certainly there would have been—but he was Clark Kent now, wholly and always. So there were no distractions, no excuses, no exits, just him and Lois, and he sat at his table and stared at the woman he loved and felt three words burning like coals on his tongue. Curled up there, like eggs about to hatch—laid by that fluttering, shrieking hope—tapping and pecking at their shells, begging to be released.

I love you.

He wanted to say it. Wanted to let those three words out to caress Lois's skin, to wind through her thoughts until she could never again think that she was unloved or unwanted or unneeded.

But he'd already said them. Once, again, again, again, and he'd dreamed that she could return them, maybe even that she wanted to give them back to him. Dreams, though, that was all they had been. They felt real, rang loud and resplendent in his memory, side by side with pictures of days gone by when they'd posed each other friendly bets and laughed at the same movies and perched on each other's desks. They all felt real, but he was deaf and powerless and mute, and if he said these three words—spoke them into existence again, let them enter the harshness of reality—and she didn't say them back…then he'd be wounded, too. Crippled and felled and destroyed so utterly that he didn't think there'd be a recovery.

I love you. The most beautiful, and the most damaging three words of any language he knew.

Worth everything—even taking risks, even high costs, even the possibility of being shot down yet again. He'd survived it before, he told himself; he could survive it again, surely. Surely.

"Lois," he said, his mouth barely moving, barely opening, afraid those three words would spring free of their protective shells and go winging out, fragile and premature and vulnerable, into the cold, lost world. "What are you saying?"

And he didn't breathe again. Breaths, caught up inside him, oxygen shaped into that declaration, locked away in the vault of his own flesh and bone. Patience, great and unwieldy and stern, encased Clark's limbs, his lungs, his heart, his entire being, so that he sat there, completely still, one hand on her presents and the other left halfway between them—so close to her own, still palm-up—waiting for her answer.

"What I'm trying to say," Lois whispered, "is that I…I…oh, wow, this is hard. I don't know how you did this, Clark!"

"Did what?" he asked, and wondered if he was about to wake in his bed, left hanging, waiting for an answer that would never come.

"Look," Lois said, so abruptly, so firmly, that Clark startled back. She leapt from her seat, began to pace before him, darted quick glances his way, her hands gesticulating wildly between them. Slowly, carefully, lest he frighten her away, Clark stood, too, earth-bound, the soles of his feet firmly entrenched on the clean, spotless apartment floor.

"Look, if you don't believe me, or if you think I'm only saying it because you're Superman—because Superman is you—then I…I understand. And if you can never love me again, then I don't blame you. I know I messed this up, and I pushed you away, and the odds of this working after everything that's happened between us are completely against us. But if there's even the slightest chance—if there's even the possibility that there could be more between us—more than partnership or friendship…then I have to try, Clark. I have to. I can't let you slip away in the middle of the night without even saying goodbye or without thinking that it…without knowing that it would break my heart to not have you in my life."

I love you.

Clark tried to clench his jaw to keep back the words, but he couldn't. His mouth was fixed in the softest, most wistful of smiles, tiny and wan but there and hopeful, and so he couldn't tense up, couldn't hold himself aloof or draw back behind a shroud of numbness. "Try me," he dared her in little more than a whisper. "What do you want me to believe?"

Her hand half-rose toward him before dropping back to her side; Clark had to fight the urge to reach out and grab hold of that hand, wrap his longer fingers around hers and draw her into the circle of his arms. Instead, he let his hands hang at his sides, slack and empty. But waiting. Loose and open.

"I love you, Clark!" Lois blurted. "And it's not because of Superman—even though I do love him. But I love him a thousand times more because he's you." There were tears, like precious jewels, teetering on the edges of her eyes, falling over the precipice, tracing gilded lines along the curve of her cheekbones. "I love you, Clark. The reason I told Lex I couldn't give him my answer right away was because all I could think of was you. I didn't know if you would still be my friend if I told him yes. I didn't know if you would still look at me the same way—and I want you to look at me that way. I want—"

"Then look at me now," Clark interrupted, and he stopped fighting himself. Stopped holding himself back. Stopped caging himself in the deadening numbness that made him feel more alien, more cut off, more isolated, than his powers ever had. Stopped denying who he was. Stopped compressing his heart into the tiniest, darkest of boxes to try to pretend it wasn't the property of Lois Lane.

He stopped fighting, and he reached out and took her hands, drew her forward, encircled her in his arms—and how very fitting, how perfect, that she stopped him from going forever and ever in useless, purposeless circles, that she moved to the center of his circle and gave him cohesion and shape and form and purpose—and pressed the gentlest of kisses against her temple.

"I love you, Lois," he freed those words, watched them hatch and fling themselves aloft, triumphant and beautiful and perfectly formed. Watched them turn Lois from the scared, trembling shadow left behind by—not Luthor's betrayal, not his crimes, not his death—but by Clark's death. Clark's absence. Clark's farewell.

Like a phoenix, Lois transformed in his arms from a frail shadow into a brilliant, burning angel—a superhero all on her own, given strength and power and color, as if his words were as much a joy to her as hers were to him.

"I love you," he whispered against her brow, etching the words into her head, her heart, her soul. "And I believe you."

"You do?" She sounded breathless—she was quivering, ever so slightly, against him—sounded awed, as if she trembled on the knife-edge of a chasm, teetering on barefeet over a leap into midair, a dive that would end the instant he caught her and flew her into the vast, endless skies. "How?"

"I do," he answered, and dared lift one of his hands to paint his thumb over her cheek, chasing away the trails left by those diamond tears. Each tear seemed to hold the reflection of a memory, dreams he hadn't even realized he'd been living. Moments when Lois had touched him. When she'd held him. When she'd made him laugh and smiled to hear it. When she'd looked at him, in either guise, and not turned away. When she'd loved him. "And I believe you," he said, "because just like you can see behind my mask, I can see behind yours—and you're not the beast, Lois. You're the hero."

Her smile turned the world back on. Brought back sound and light and life. Brought back every nerve ending, every emotion, so that he felt as if he were suddenly afire, all numbness, all apathy seared away in that single burst of white-hot sensation so sharp and stark that Clark felt as if he had never been more alive than in that instant. He was alive, and the scars were gone, evaporated like steam, and the world sprang back into existence around him—but for all the cries and burdens and sounds of that world, all he could hear was the steady, rhythmic beat of Lois's heartbeat.

She smiled up at him, and suddenly she was winding her arms around his neck, holding him together, offering him her strength to bear up Superman, to make Clark even more real, and she was raising up on her tiptoes and her breath nudged his lips. "Clark," she said, and she laughed. With relief. With joy. With hope.

And then, with his name on her lips, with her smile in his eyes, she kissed him. And there were no words—no capital letters, no periods, no beginnings or ends, not even names—just her and him.

Together.

And it was perfect.

The End