Clark pushed the spare pair of glasses up the bridge of his nose and lifted his hand to knock. Hand in the air, he caught himself on the verge of loosing his deep vision to peer into Lois' living room.
He dropped his hand and shook his head violently. Well done, Kent. Chances are, she's not hoarding kryptonite. But she might be dressing.
Just the final evidence, he thought with weary resignation, that his veneer of philosophizing was just that. He should leave, and page her for an extension, and wait till he could pull it together.
No. He had kept her waiting long enough. She had gotten no time the morning before, to get her own thoughts together.
But he was still touched by the kryptonite madness, his emotions still slipping out of his grasp at the wrong times.
He was, in fact, suddenly taken aback by his own rashness in coming at all, in expecting either of them to be ready for this conversation. What had he been thinking? How single-mindedly, unreasonably, had he wanted to see her?
If you start acting like this, you'll blow your cover by next week. And then you'll get to have this conversation with everyone you know. He turned to go.
Then the door opened behind him, and Lois peered out from behind it.
Had she heard him? Or had she been checking the peephole?
She had changed the bandage on her jaw. She looked, not well, but better.
He couldn't read her expression. He wanted to drop through the floor. He wanted to take off. Instead, he looked down at his flannel shirt and his jeans and said, absurdly, "I wasn't sure what to wear."
She leaned her head against the side of the door, cracked a ghost of a smile, and said, "For coming in? Or for skulking outside?"
He blinked. He opened his mouth to say something, but the next moment, her face dropped and she said, "Sorry." She backed up, swinging the door open with her.
He stood there on the threshold, looking at her in her oversized sweatshirt, her hair damp from the shower, small and warm and alive. He felt himself unclench just a little. No matter how well or badly things went, whatever well or badly was in this context, she was all right.
"Do you want to come in?" she asked softly.
She looked down at the floor and laughed ruefully. "You see, if we put if off, my coping mechanisms will kick back in. They're bad mechanisms. They actually make things worse."
She sounded almost like herself. Though the content was less than promising. He smiled.
In fact, he wanted to laugh. But he had had a showertime epiphany.
Anything he did that invoked their old relationship would make a reciprocal demand on her. Laughing would demand a laugh in reply. Teasing her would be reclaiming a license it had taken her a year to grant him. She would have to accept or reject it, and she would hesitate to hurt him.
And he was not, tonight of all nights, going to manipulate her like that. So he just stepped in, and she closed the door behind him.
"You're all right?" they asked softly, together. And they nodded, together.
They looked at each other for a moment, there in the warmth of her living room.
Lois swallowed, and said, "Come on. I made coffee." She turned and moved behind her kitchen bar. Clark watched her hands, bemused, as she poured a black cup of her thick brew and stirred in two creams and then two sugars to smooth it out. She handed it to him across the bar, and he took it from her little hand. His appetite was utterly dead, but the warmth of it felt good.
He looked up at her face. "Thank you." And then he added, "And thank you, for covering for me at the station."
It was a luxury I've never tasted, Lois. It left me stunned, touched, dumbfounded.
But he had sworn to himself, in the shower, not to say things like that. Not to do anything to invoke that fierce protective instinct that nearly shut down her thinking altogether.
She smiled, and the sweetness of it cut him to the heart. He wanted to smile back, wanted to say, You might even have been right about holding on to that lighter, after all. But the impulse convicted him, of that desperate desire to know they were all right, sooner than he had any right to ask.
He clamped his mouth shut.She swallowed, and dropped her eyes.
After a moment, she looked back up at the untouched cup in his hand. "Do you…actually taste it?"
Clark set the cup down and looked at her, for anger or wariness. But there was only curiosity in her eyes.
Then, under his gaze, she blushed a bit and almost dropped her eyes. It was her Superman reaction.
"As far as I know," he said quickly, to break that moment, "taste, for me, works the same way as it does for you. Yes, I taste it."
He wanted to add, I never deceived you about that. But that would sound like throwing back at her an accusation she hadn't made. Or had she? Lois might be quick on the trigger, but she rarely missed the implications of what she was saying.
She raised her eyebrows. "What about spicy foods?"
He blinked. "Not spicy to me," he admitted. "It's the same with alcohol, poisons..."
"Stomach flu?" she finished. And he smiled, in moderation. "What about smell?"
He sat down carefully on her barstool. "It's the same, to my knowledge. But the noxious smells – like ammonia, or decay – don't bother me."
Lois nodded. She almost opened her mouth, and then stopped. He just caught himself, on the verge of smiling wryly and saying, maybe eyesight next?
She had been always most comfortable with Superman when talking business. So instead, he said, "Have you heard anything, about their luck finding Abraham Marshall?"
She shook her head. "And who knows what he was, really? The deal broker? Or the right-hand man, or just the chief of goons?" She looked up at him. "But what's ea…what's killing me is this. How do you first approach another dimension, to see if they have dangerous toys and want to trade them?"
"YesExactly." And the thing we never learn to pay attention to, that I have no idea if I'm getting closer to, is this. How do we keep it from happening again?
But that was a different conversation, four long days ago. And it was time to start the one they needed to have.
So instead he said, "Lois."
She looked at him mutely, her hands clasped round her own cup of coffee.
"This was unfair to you, beyond description. Beyond justification. You deserved so much better."
She was silent, searching his face for something. He schooled his face to stay still, simple, making no demands.
"You know why I did it. People known to be…my parents…would be the most hunted people on the planet." He did hear the fear in his own voice, then, and clamped it back under control, before it got into the human audible range. "But I know it was still essentially…" Oh, God. "…a human sacrifice."
"Now, that's a bit…" she started to say, and then apparently thought better of it, and fell silent.
He swallowed, looking down at the cream-colored formica of her cabinet, at the intersecting scratches on the surface. "And now you have the aftermath, and there's no one who's gone through it, to help you."
Lois tilted her head. "There isn't?"
He looked up at her. It was a moment before he understood the question. "I'm sorry. Just my parents, and you. And of course, it was different for them. For us."
She nodded slowly.
All right, Kent. Be a man and say it, without squirming. Don't cheat and plead between the words. "But I have to be sure you know this. All I'm asking from you is that secrecy. I'm not here to try to… invoke an old relationship, and expect you to blithely drop back into it. I understand that this changes things. That you have every right to be furious."
Lois swallowed, and toyed with her spoon. She was silent for a long moment, and he wanted to bury his face in his hands, and say, Oh, God, Lois. I really am sorry.
But that would pull in her protective instincts all over again.
Then she looked up and said, as if the words were difficult, "Did you sleep all this time?" She raised her eyebrows. "I can't imagine your wanting to take in more Monster Channel."
He blinked. He'd never once seen her sidestep like that. Was she stalling? Was it too soon, after all?
She must have taken his surprise at the change of subject for something else. Something changed in her eyes. "Or…do you sleep?"
"I haven't woken since that last emergency." He hesitated. Or was she just gathering her will, to say what she knew would be hard? "I usually need, maybe, two hours in a day."
"The rest of the time, you fly patrol."
Clark nodded. "It's helpful. In fact, it's the only possible way to keep up two…to keep this up."
Lois took a deep breath. She hesitated a moment. Then she pushed away from the bar, her stool scraping on the tile floor. She came around in front of him. She was a full six inches shorter, standing, than he was sitting on her low barstool. He could smell her shampoo.
Not, he realized, her cigarettes. He felt a weary little flash of pride. He had expected her to chain-smoke the remainder of her stash over this. He barely stopped himself from congratulating her.
Then he remembered he had thrown it all out a month ago.
"I'm not…upset with you," she offered.
Clark's heart pounded.
He stilled himself ruthlessly. Because anger was never that simple. And because after it first flared, or didn't flare, the question was what was left standing.
"Actually," she revised, "this time, I might be. I'm not sure yet. I'm perfectly aware I'm still shellshocked."
And we should never, never, never have started this tonight. "I know," he said gravely. "It's too soon. I'm sorry. I could come back. You could take…as long as you need."
"Wait," she said softly.
She looked up at his glasses.
Please, Lois, leave them on. Don't make it even worse.
But she didn't reach for them. She just studied them for a moment. "You don't update your prescription too often, I'm guessing." She hesitated, searching his face. "What about eyesight?"
More stalling? Real curiosity? Both?
A week before, he would have teased her about whether they were on the record. "The anatomy's similar. My optic nerves don't cross, like yours. But the major difference is the photoreceptor density. Mine are much smaller, more tightly packed."
She pulled up her other barstool and sat backwards on it, facing him. "How much more?"
"About ten orders of magnitude. But the medium is still ordinary light. I can't see anything smaller than its wavelength."
"So that you have the equivalent of light microscopy."
"But not electron microscopy, yes. Exactly." He looked up at her, feeling the pale ghost of his first excitement in discovering these things. They had talked for hours about politics and science; she had teased him for his fascination with the physical world. But he had never talked with anyone about this.
"And the heat vision?" There was a curious intensity in her voice.
Keep it together, Kent. Don't sound like a puppy she'll have to take in.
He kept his voice neutral. "Rapidly alternating the polarity of a magnetic field, like a microwave. But the field is distorted, tightly focused."
Of course, the question is how you 'focus' a magnetic field, out of its natural shape, at all. Let alone to where it's nearly linear. It's a scientific mystery.
Personally, I do it by squinting.
But that's more than you want to know.
She paused, as if she had in fact expected more. Finally she nodded, looking troubled. "And the hearing?"
Clark hesitated. It was strange, this succession of questions like an interview, with this undercurrent of tension. She didn't seem to like the answers she was getting. But what other answers could she have hoped for?
"The basic mechanism is the same as yours. The difference is in the precision of the elements. And the number of dedicated neurons making up the pathway."
"Ten orders of magnitude again?" There was that edge in her voice, that strange heat in her eyes. Was she doing this to pour salt in her own wound?
No, of course not.
It hit him like another man would feel a punch in the gut. She was doing it to get the distance she needed. She was building up the image of the stranger, till it was clear enough to give her the strength to send him away
Lois has always seen the alien in your eyes. She'll be the first to turn from you.
And it made the sting of their conversation in the newsroom a few days ago pale in comparison. Because this time, she knew exactly what she was doing. The questions, the stalling, it was all building to that moment. And she was almost there. There would be no time even to brace himself before the hammer fell.
He closed his eyes for an instant. It would be as gentle as she could make it, of course. Lois was only harsh when obeying her compulsions about speaking truth to power. She was never rough with the helpless.
Clark opened his eyes and looked at her, at the wreckage of his hopes. It seemed as if the lights should flicker or the floor tremble. He swallowed hard, but schooled his face to stay still. Because if that was what she wanted, his place was to help her with it.
And if it did invoke his boyhood fears and his kryptonite dreams, it was a shame, but then they all shared the seed of the same truth.
So he answered in exactly the same soft tone as before. "Twelve orders of magnitude, in this case. With commensurate effects on the number of simultaneous signals I can take in."
His nonhuman forebrain was already planning the path ahead. It would take a few weeks, at least, to get everything in place to leave Metropolis. The hardest part would be passing on his work on Luthorcorp. Because in all the Planet, all their history aside, the only person could take it over properly was still Lois Lane.
They would have to talk at least once more, and at length. Maybe they could do it, if he gave her a week.
"So do you process all of it at once?" Her voice jerked him back to the present, to a conversation he was thinking of as if it had already ended. "Do you think like thousands of people at once?"
Is that where you think this ends? A thousand aliens, instead of one? No wonder it's always made you nervous.
I'd give it to you, to end this, if I could. But that's beyond my power.
"No, Lois," he said finally, softly. "Just one." He looked at her.
Her eyes widened, as if he'd said something critical without realizing it. She was almost thrumming with tension, at total odds with her words. She was building to a head.
"So I have to pick and choose," he added after a moment.
"Does it ever get distracting, in staff meetings?" she almost whispered. She was almost done.
Oh, especially during staff meetings, some part of him said. But that didn't belong here any more. No room for inside jokes, for defusing what she was trying to build, for making her start all over.
So he said, amazed that his voice held steady, "It's manageable." And he waited for the hammer to fall.
And then instead, to his astonishment, he saw tears well up in her eyes, and her face trembled. "Okay," she whispered. "I get it, already. Just…give me a minute." And she turned away from him.
He dropped down off his barstool and stared at her, at her back and her shaky breathing as she braced herself on the counter.
He had the sinking feeling this was not what the hammer was supposed to look like.
"Lois?" Now what am I supposed to do?
Could I have been wrong?
She was fighting not to cry, clamping down her glottis and diaphragm. Was she having second thoughts? Could it, as the final twist of the knife, be up to him to make the last move to turn her loose? Was he up to to it?
He watched mutely as she stilled herself. Lois always wanted her space when she was trying not to cry.
Finally, low, almost whispering, she got out, "Was Clark ever even part of you at all?"
"What?" He dropped back down on the barstool.
That wasn't in the script either.
She shook her head, keeping her back to him. "You didn't have to do this," she whispered. "I was just trying to fix the damn poached byline."
"What?" He heard the distress in his own voice. "I don't understand."
She turned and raised her face to him. He saw the devastation in her eyes, too deeply stricken even for anger. "Please don't patronize me, Superman."
"Did you think I was getting close that night? I wasn't." She closed her eyes for a moment, and then opened them on him again, raw and shattered. "Even if I had been, I knew what I owed you. I liked you. I wouldn't have outed you for a Planet exposé!" She swallowed. "You didn't need a second cover."
"Oh, God," he whispered, as he felt the room and the last half hour spin around him, to replay everything through her eyes.
She had only been trying, all along, to find out which one he really was.
And he, turning his terror of losing her into his damned macho mantras about self-restraint and not influencing her choices, had played the alien to the hilt. Her every attempt to reach out to him had bounced off his impervious skin. And his thick, thick skull.
Leaving her alone with a stranger, who didn't speak her language, whose eyes she would never see behind. Whose affection had been feigned, his motives barely comprehensible, his heart aloof and alien. Leaving her, essentially, alone in his own nightmare.
"Oh, Lois," he whispered raggedly, looking at her in horror. "Oh, God, honey, I'm sorry, I didn't mean it. I was trying…I thought you wanted…I was…"
He trailed off and stood there, torn. His best-laid plans were crumbling down around them, like concrete rubble; the choking dust filled the air between them. She looked back at him in utter confusion, searching his face, her tears shivering in her eyes. "Clark?"
He swallowed. "It's me, honey. I'm right here."
"Then what are you doing?" Her voice cracked.
He stared at her mutely, torn in half, afraid to explain the line of thought that had brought him there, terrified that his fears were thick and tangible in the air. That if he spoke, she would sniff them out, and their mute demands would have hold of her forever.
"Oh," she said softly, her voice trembling. "I know that look."
Lois took two steps and closed the distance between them. She took his face between her palms and held him facing her. She fixed his eyes with hers. "What confession can you possibly have left? What is it you're trying not to say?"
And all you accomplished, Mom was saying, was denying folks their right to a say in which burdens they bear.
"Clark Jerome Kent," she said, with a trembling intensity that pinned him to the floor. "The truth's not your lapdog, either. If this is about me, if you're not protecting some other set of parents, it's time."
Clark bowed his head. He swallowed.
And he said, low and defeated, "It's just this." He forced his eyes up to meet hers. "If you leave me alone on this world, Lois Lane, I'll get eaten alive."
She was silent for a moment.
"Oh," she said softly.
And then she flung her arms around him, both an embrace and a tackle, a hold. "No, Clark. No. No, no, no. No."
He drew in a gasping breath, feeling her warmth against him, her words sinking into him. She was staying. He was panting, shuddering with the thunder of his dam's fall as it flooded him. She was staying. And the arms that had changed the course of planets trembled, as he stood and pulled her close.
He pressed her head to his chest, smoothing her hair. "Lois," he whispered, reeling, "I didn't mean it. I didn't. You know me. You know me."
She lifted her head again and met his eyes. He saw there the bloom of utter comprehension, wordless understanding. The same things that had looked out at him from the eyes of another of her kind, in a Kansas farmhouse.
"You thought I'd do what? No. No, no, no, no, no. I thought you…that you never even…"
He folded her back in his arms, one hand cradling her dark head, smoothing her hair, breathing like a man coming up for air. Her wiry little arms tightened around him, till they might have squeezed the breath from another man, the both of them shaking together. "It's okay, honey. It's okay. You know me. You know me."
Finally she pulled back, gently, to look in his eyes. Hers were rimmed with red. He could only imagine what his must look like.
She searched his face. "Clark?"
He swallowed. "I'm right here, sweetheart."
"I'm sorry about that."
He laughed once, incredulously.
"No, I mean, I really wasn't going to do that." She laughed shakily. "I was going to be so understanding, whichever one…was…you know. I was trying so hard not to tell you, be Clark, dammit! Because I did understand. I knew it was the hand you were dealt. But then I…there's not much left in the world that's still what I thought it was."
Clark nodded gravely. He dried off her cheeks with his thumbs, and cupped her face in his hands a moment. Then he reached down and felt for her hands, small and cold, and folded them in his. They looked at each other, like the last rescued survivors of the end of the world.
If the kryptonite voices came back, he thought dimly, he would have to tell them. They had become their own answer. There were no unknowable minds here, no eternal aliens.
Because that same fear that had eaten at him, about humans, had looked back at him from human eyes about himself.
"Lois," he said softly, "I'm so sorry. Forgive me. I thought you were trying…I didn't want to push you…what an ass."
She shook her head, half-laughing, half-sobbing. Her hands tightened on his.
He took a deep breath. "You don't know how long I wanted to tell you."
She smiled wryly at him, through the tears glimmering in her eyes. "Lucy has a quote for everything. For everything there's a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven. I think sooner would have been too soon." She laughed, or sobbed. "If you thought this was bad…"
He pulled her close again, feeling his eyes fill up with tears again, shaking his head. He smoothed her hair down and fit her against him, trying to anchor her. "No. You were amazing. You were perfect. You were patient, beyond my wildest dreams." At that he felt her shake with laughter against him.
After a long moment he said, "You know I trusted you from the beginning. Or almost."
She laughed softly at his backpedal.
He held her back out at arms' length and met her eyes. "But people have been…making other people talk for thousands of years. Long before the diaphragms. And I couldn't…you can't calculate a risk like that. And… oh, God…" He looked at her helplessly. "Mom won't even get an alarm. I had to beg her on my knees to let me add a deadbolt. And I know she doesn't use it."
Lois laughed helplessly. The last tears were still glimmering in her eyes. "More trusting than you? Or more reckless than me?"
"Almost as brave as you." He laughed ruefully. "And she reads minds."
She looked at him for a long time. "She gave you an ultimatum. Didn't she. Maybe four days ago?"
Clark looked at her wryly. "You wouldn't buy that I just couldn't take it anymore?"
"Your capacity for 'taking it'," she said dryly, "is apparently almost limitless."
He blinked. It might be true that not all humans were in on strange and alien secrets. But clearly the females all had regular secret meetings.
They fell silent and looked at each other, swimming in the dawning absurdity of it all. "We need to work on our exposition, Kent," she said after a long moment, and they laughed.
And then, studying him, moving along some strange, thread-thin beam of human or female or Loisine intuition, she asked again, "Clark, what did they do to you?"
He looked at her for a long moment, wondering if it was right to burden her with it all. But then he had, apparently, a poor track record with weighing burdens.
And so he told her, about the kryptonite madness, about the world moving wrongly around him, and then the demon whispers invoking his oldest fears. He tried to be vague at first. But she gave him a piercing look, and then he told her what they had said about her.
She looked stricken, and then furious, and then just floored by the irony of it all. That was the worst of it, but she wanted the rest. And so he told her about the flashbacks of his recall during the police questioning, and then about the addled dreams that had followed.
When he finished, she looked, Loislike, enraged. She was trembling again, this time with anger. He had a half-notion she would be out the door in a minute, to find the kryptonite voices and take them on.
"There's no one here to throttle, sweetheart," he said, laughing, safe again in her presence, in her eyes.
Lois shook her head, and came up to his barstool again. This time she stood on the bottom rung, using his shoulders for balance, where his forehead was even with hers, and pressed their foreheads together. "But I'll find someone, someday," she murmured. "And then I'll throttle them."
He laughed, and realized there were still tears in his eyes, and didn't really want ever to speak again. They were at peace. It was more than enough.
But there, in the warm space they had carved out, the questions might be gentler but still remained. After a long moment, he took a breath. "What I meant to say," he started, "back when I was being an idiot –"
Oh, God, she's beautiful. "I thought you wanted an out. I was trying…I mean, you can still want an out…"
She laughed helplessly. "Which part of 'no, no, no, no, no' was ambiguous?"
He set her down on the floor, gently, and tipped her head up to look at him. "Lois."
She raised her eyebrows.
"What I mean is, what about Superman?"
She sat back on the stool, and was silent for a moment. She looked up at him. "Clark, can I ask you a favor?"
"Please don't refer to yourself in the third person any more. It makes me want to chain-smoke the rest of my stash."
He shifted uncomfortably. "About that. I may have…misplaced it a little."
Lois buried her head in her hands. Her shoulders shook with laughter.
"I won't do it anymore. The third-person part. But Lois…"
She looked up at him, more solemn. She nodded. "I know. I know. But you have to talk to me first. What part of you is he?" She smacked her forehead. "And look. Now you've got me doing it."
He laughed. Then he sobered. "Honestly?"
"The coping mechanism."
Lois laughed, as if she half-understood it, and then waited for the other half.
"You saw tonight. It's how I react to the face of…danger."
She raised her eyebrows. "Danger? Tonight?"
Clark laughed. "I'm still shaking." Then he sobered again. "But you see better than you realized, I think. The way I react at those times, the way I think…it's not human. It never will be." He looked at her helplessly.
She nodded, holding his eyes. "I know that."
After a moment she looked down. "Clark, I know this is outrageous, but can I…I need to…" Her hand lifted from his and hovered halfway between them. Her eyes went to his shirt buttons. "May I?"
Clark blinked. Mutely, he nodded. He turned from the counter and clasped his hands in his lap.
Lois stepped in closer, between his knees. She lifted her hands; they were trembling. But she undid the top button successfully. And then the one below it. And the one below, holding the two sides of the fabric together till she finished. And then she pulled them apart.
She looked down at the blue fabric, brilliant in her lamplight, and the crimson and yellow of the great crest. She swallowed, and shook her head in wonder. Then she traced the top of the crest, and the curve of the S, down to where his shirt buttons joined. Her hand looked so small against his chest.
She laid the back of her hand against one pectoral, and looked up at him. "What's your body temperature?"
"Thirty-nine Celsius," he answered softly, looking down at her hand. "About the same as a good fever, for you." Then he looked up at her. "So you see, I really need that second cream and sugar."
She laughed, and then nodded. "I always thought so. When we flew. Twenty-four times, of the sixty-six times you saved my life."
He blinked. He had thought she was only conscious for twenty-one of them.
She cocked her head. "Clark?"
"Do we look…fragile, to you?"
He looked at her, in her too-big sweatshirt, hair damp from her shower, the bandage on her jaw. He thought of dad holding up the morning's mail, his face a study in shame and grief as he realized he didn't know what do with it. Of mom, a little more stooped each year, her grey eyes still bright and sharp as a fox's.
"Fragile, yes." He thought a moment, then laid her hand in his palm and spread it flat with the other hand. He looked up at her. "I can't see through my own skin."
"But here –" he pointed to her index finger. "I can see the tendons, from the attachment at each joint, till they merge into the muscle." He pointed to her forearm. "And the muscle, to its insertion on the radius." He pointed higher. "And the bone under it…it's not just mineral. It would be brittle, like porcelain. It's shot through with rubbery fibers…they bend, and bounce back. And it's not static, or it would be cobwebbed with cracks, from a few days' work. It's always breaking down, always rebuilding…what?"
Because she had started to laugh, watching him rapt with the brilliance of it. He looked up, a little sheepish.
"No, I'm sorry. It's just…" She trailed off, looking at him, with the old affection in her eyes. Then she looked more solemn. "It's just good to hear you sound like that again."
"You were saying."
He smiled. "So, fragile, yes. But magnificent." He looked up at her features in the lamp light. And beautiful beyond words.
She smiled. And then her hand went toward his glasses.
His hand shot up at speed, unthinking, to catch her wrist, as it had in his kitchen when she reached for the pot. "Lois…"
Her eyes widened for a moment, looking at his hand. He realized the motion had, in fact, been quicker than her optic pathway. She would have seen his hand vanish, and reappear. "Sorry."
She looked at him, gentle, grave, her eyes full of pity. "Oh," she said quietly. "I hurt you, didn't I? For the last two years. When I was being an idiot."
He laughed, but had trouble meeting her eyes.
She nodded. "We'll leave it. I just…want you to know…that I can be taught."
Clark hesitated a moment. And then he decided he expected the worst far too quickly, and that he did, in fact, need to lighten up.
Still holding her wrist, he guided it up to the bridge of his glasses, and let go.
Lois searched his face for a moment, hesitating. Then something occurred to her and her mouth quirked up. "I only wish," she said, eyes twinkling, "that Lucy could see me now." And she slipped them off.
Without taking her eyes from his face, set them down on the counter. She placed her palms on either side of his face to hold his eyes, and he looked back at her, almost hypnotized, watching for her Superman reaction.
She looked back at him, lucid, steady, patient, more lovely than daylight.
Softly she said, "You have beautiful eyes."
He breathed. Something in his chest unclenched.
After a long moment, she said, "Clark?"
"I'm going to have to blink now."
He laughed and closed his eyes, and laughed more. Then he looked at her again. "Lois," he said softly. "It was never just you. They're not human. I'm not."
She scooted her stool up behind her and sat back down on it, between his knees.
And then she reached down and took hold of his hand lying on the counter, and turned it palm-up, spreading it with her fingers. "But not alien, either." She laughed a little, and then looked back up at him. "Just a sheep from another fold."
And strangely, wordlessly, it made perfect sense.
It sank into him, and unlocked something else that had been silent all this time. His whole being reeled and flooded, as if he had just taken a breath for the first time in his life. He wanted to laugh like a small child, on the first day of vacation. He wanted to sit there forever in that perfect, jewellike moment.
"Lois," he got out, too moved to say anything more. He interlaced his fingers with hers, closed his eyes, and wanted never to speak again.
After a long moment, she asked him, "How do you do it?"
He looked up quizzically.
"You had this chance that would be a sort of dark pleasure for most people, to indulge two separate sides of your personality at once, each with no consequence for the other. And you…you used it to let you face mortal danger daily and work sixty hours a week for peanuts while Bill Wechsler stole your bylines."
He looked at her gravely. "Well, you see, the Planet coffee cart has those little hazelnut creamers…"
She swatted him, and they laughed. And then they stopped, and looked at each other. All around them was the sea of the uncounted moments of the past years, transformed in hindsight by the light of this one truth. Again he watched her scrolling back, through the firefly glows of one insight after another.
And again he thought of the things his cover had cost her. He closed his eyes a moment. "Lois," he said softly, "that time in Shadyside. With the Mafia."
She looked up, with penetrating eyes. "That one nearly broke you, I think."
He nodded. "It was closer than you can imagine." He looked at her gravely. " 'Sorry' doesn't quite cut it. I know that."
He shook his head. "I'm not darkening the moment, sweetheart. I only thought you ought to know, that I know. What it's cost you." He looked up at her and barely smiled. "And that, without thinking they're sufficient for a moment, I mean to make you…reparations. Though I think you know, already, that all things in my power are yours, by right, for the asking."
She laughed, and her hand tightened on his. "You'll regret that. I fully intend to let the power corrupt me."
Then she looked more solemn. "But I'll darken the moment a bit. I think we both know what hypocrisy it would be for me to rail about the lengths you go to for your cover. Because it's not just your parents who are sheltered by it."
He growled. "If it weren't for those damned Enquirer articles. The next time that building takes fire, I should watch it burn."
She laughed darkly. "But you haven't seen any for a while, though, have you? I did call a couple of my contacts there, after we talked." Then she cocked her head at him, and looked solemn. "Maybe if they thought of it that way, half the women in Metropolis wouldn't be claiming to have your love-child."
"Oh, for the love of God, Lois, it was just the two, and they weren't even real people…they just ran stock photos." He ran his hand through his hair. He had spent that whole month in fear of that crap filling the Smallville grocery store checkout aisles. "Not to mention the utter absurdity of the whole trans-planetary cross-fertility concept…they'd have better luck with homegrown tree pollen than with me…"
Then he saw her eyes laughing silently, and realized she had finally mastered the deadpan, and he burst out laughing.
Then he grew solemn. "We'll need to talk about that. About insulating you, not about love- children. It's more complicated, with you here in Metropolis. We'll have to plan."
"We may even have varying opinions on it," she said dryly.
He sighed. That was a talk for another day. And then looking at her face, his gaze fell on the bandage again, and his thoughts went from dangers future to dangers past. "Lois…"
"It doesn't hurt any more."
"Are you all right? Otherwise?"
She sighed. "Yes. And no. I think we'll both have dreams for a while, you and I."
"And Jimmy," he agreed.
"And Jimmy. And Howie, and Dawn, and Jason."
And they were both silent, thinking a for a moment of the other member of that little group. A stranger among them, to the end. But not an alien, exactly.
And then he thought of that morning in the station, so many hours ago, seeming so far away. "Lois," he said softly. She looked at him inquiringly.
"So we know Luthorcorp is inside the G.M.P.D."
She nodded slowly. "The guy who took my statement today. Clark, I'm sure of it."
"I know. I heard."
Her mouth quirked up. "That's going to take getting used to. What about yours?"
He shook his head. "She was clean. I'm almost certain." Then he laughed ruefully. "But then, I'm not you, am I?"
She rolled her eyes.
"But there's more." He sighed, and rubbed the back of his neck. "She said…possibly…the Planet too."
Her dark eyes widened. She swallowed.
They said nothing for a long moment.
"Okay," she said finally. "Okay." She looked up at him. "This is just beginning. Isn't it."
He looked at her grimly. "More strange things will happen in Metropolis. I suspect the evidence for a Luthercorp link will always be suggestive, and never conclusive."
"Maybe someday, we'll even find out what he's after."
"Villains have goals?"
He got down off the barstool and took her in his arms again. The first embraces had been frantic. The second had been fierce. Here in her kitchen, surrounded by a beloved city riddled through with dark mysteries, this one was quiet, like coming home, like coffee with two creams and two sugars. Or black and strong.
"On the bright side," he whispered after a long moment, "it turns out Jimmy preset his VCR two days ago, to copy that night's Law and Order."
She laughed against him, longer than it really deserved. He looked at the bright little kitchen around them, and then buried his face in her hair and breathed in her shampoo.
I'm not here to try to invoke an old relationship. What a fool. Thank God he had lost that battle. The God of Catholics and Protestants and heathen agnostics, and humans and kryptonians, and second chances.
Tomorrow, they would have to take their records off the Planet servers, said his nonhuman forebrain. And speak with Abraham Marshall's ex-wife in person.
And meanwhile, some time in the past hour, he realized, the things still unspoken between them had shifted. They had been ambiguous; now they were conspicuous by silence. He could feel them swimming lazily just below the surface, in no hurry to break into the peace of this night, in which so many other things had first been spoken.
They would stand guard over Metropolis together, he and she. They would have to be wise with the people around them - not too trusting, not too afraid to trust. And he would watch for her decision to develop. There was a season for everything, and a time for every purpose under heaven. Enough for now, and more than enough, to be two sheep from different folds.
He laughed to himself, smoothing her hair. Eventually, he was going to have to meet Lucy.