A/N: I own nothing; I'm just having fun. This is a one-shot I typed up while waiting for the train today.
Less than Perfect
On the Outside, Looking In
Clark closed his eyes briefly and let out a heavy sigh as he hovered over Lois's apartment building. He didn't know when it had happened, exactly, but at some point during the last year, he'd made a habit of flying past her window as the very last thing he did as Superman every night. Though he told himself he was simply ensuring that his partner was safe, he knew that there was nothing altruistic about his impulse. He just felt better, calmer, more at peace when he was around her – which, he acknowledged with a smile, was somewhat ironic, since there wasn't much peace to be had around Lois Lane.
Still, for a while, he'd been making these nightly trips, just pausing beside her window long enough to check in on her before returning to his own empty apartment. In the last few months, however, he'd been trying to break himself of the habit. Seeing Lois in the evening was no longer the comfort it used to be. Now it was jut a reminder of his own weakness, his own cowardice. When he saw her, he couldn't help but think of how he wanted to tell her how he felt about her, but he was too afraid. He was afraid of her reaction, afraid of seeing the pity in her eyes as she tried to find a way to gently let him down; he couldn't bear even the thought, so his feelings remained a secret.
Sometimes she'd see him flying past her window – it was hard to be surreptitious when dressed in bright blue, yellow, and red, after all – and she'd throw open her window and call out to him, her voice sounding a bit breathless as it always did when she was talking to Superman. He'd stop (he always stopped for her) and feign surprise to find himself in the area, to see her there, all the while hating himself for the promise he saw in her eyes. He could see the world in her eyes when she was looking at Superman; what a difference from what he saw when she was looking at Clark Kent.
But tonight she didn't notice him, and even if she had, he doubted she'd have called out to him. In a thousand nights, Clark had seen her in a myriad of activities as he'd flown by her window. He'd seen her quiet, curled up on the window seat with a book. He'd seen her angry, yelling through the phone lines at the General, her father, or Lucy, her little sister. He'd seen her happy, laughing at something her cousin Chloe had said as they sat together on the couch; melancholy, watching a sappy romantic comedy on late night television (which, if he called her on it in the light of day, she vehemently denied ever doing); and even – once or twice – passionate, the last time she was in a serious relationship. Clark cringed at that particular memory whenever it came to mind. He'd even once caught sight of her as she undressed for bed, and he'd somehow managed to tear his eyes away in time to avoid seeing anything more than a tantalizing glimpse that had recalled a distant memory that had tormented him for the remainder of the evening.
He had come to see her in a hundred different ways in the time he'd known her, her moods becoming as familiar to him as the patterns of the stars he flew under every night. But tonight, as he flew past her window, he realized that Lois was as he'd rarely seen her. She was crying.
Clark pulled up short in front of her window and stared in at the figure silhouetted on the bed, her head pillowed upon her crossed arms, her shoulders shaking. She wasn't just crying; she was weeping, and he ached at the sound of her heartbroken sobs. She would hate to think that he'd seen her in such a state, but, having done so, he couldn't just leave her.
Raising his hand, Clark prepared to knock on the window, but he found he couldn't quite follow through. He wanted to comfort her, but not as Superman. It was ridiculous to be so jealous of his superhero alter-ego, but the Man of Steel already had so much of Lois; Clark couldn't bear to relinquish the little part of her that he could call his own. Superman could hold her, could dance with her, could even kiss her, occasionally. But Clark Kent was the one who sat with her on those rare occasions when she cried, he was the one she turned to when she turned her back on the rest of the world, and he wouldn't give that privilege away to anyone else – not even himself.
Though it took every ounce of willpower he possessed to pull his gaze off the tragic figure he saw through that window, he finally managed to turn away. Flying home as fast as he could, Clark changed into the first t-shirt and pair of faded blue jeans he found, the distant echoing of her sobs speeding him on. In the few moments it took for him to finish donning his civilian persona and race back to her apartment to stand outside her door, he could hear that her tears had not abated.
His heart heavy in his chest, Clark raised his fist and knocked, his hand trembling with the urge to break down the solid panel of wood that stood between him and the woman he loved. Though she might need someone to turn to right now, he knew she wouldn't welcome such a dramatic intrusion on her private grief, and so he found the strength somehow to do the most difficult thing in the world: he stood still in pretend ignorance as he waited for her to cross the distance between them.
By the catch in her breathing, he could tell that she heard his knock, but there was no accompanying sound of footsteps. No doubt, she was still sitting on the bed, trying to wipe the tears from her eyes as she debated whether to answer. After a moment, he tried again, and he heard her shift her position on the bed and slowly cross over to her bedroom door.
"Lois?" he called, trying to convince her to broach that final gap between bedroom and front door. "It's Clark. I…ah…," he paused, trying to think of an excuse for his presence. He couldn't very well tell her he had flown past her window and witnessed the scene inside. "I…uh…I was just in the area and I thought you might like some company." His excuse sounded weak even to his own ears, and he winced; it certainly hadn't convinced her to move so much as an inch more in his direction. Hating himself for stooping so low, Clark continued, "Actually, I was…I needed to see a friendly face."
It was a low blow; he knew that she'd been worried about him in the last few days, since he and his last girlfriend had decided to stop seeing each other, and she would misinterpret his comment. Lois clearly thought that Nicole had been the one to break it off, when in actuality, it had been by mutual consent. As much as Clark had enjoyed Nicole's company, he had simply been unable to stop thinking of all the ways she simply wasn't Lois, and while he'd never expressly admitted to his unrequited feelings, his girlfriend had been far from stupid.
It was probably dishonest, letting Lois think he needed her friendship to get him over the loneliness and heartache she presumed him to have, but it wasn't entirely a lie – it was just that it was Lois herself, and not Nicole, that was the source of both of these emotions. Still, while it was probably wrong of him to play upon her sympathies to get her to listen to him, he couldn't entirely regret doing so. He knew how proud Lois was; she would never open the door on her own account, but she would on his. She never closed the door on him when she thought he actually needed her.
Though he could tell she wavered for a moment, she didn't keep the door closed on him now, either. Very slowly, he heard her cross the length of her living room and then the quiet sounds of her fumbling with the latch. After what felt like an eternity, she pulled open the door, and he caught his breath when he caught sight of her.
Her eyes were red and puffy, there was high color in her tearstained cheeks, and her lower lip was still trembling as she tried not to cry. "C-Clark?" she said on a jagged breath. "Are y-you okay?"
She was clearly upset, but she was asking him if he was okay; was there any doubt as to why he loved her? "I-I'm fine," he replied honestly, gazing down at her in concern. "I was just…uh…in the neighborhood and I thought I'd stop by, see what you were doing. Lois, what's wrong?"
His question was met with a pathetic little hiccupping noise and a sniffle, and she grimaced, clearly unhappy that he'd picked up on her distress, though he'd have to have been both blind and deaf not to have noticed. "N-nothing," she lied. "J-just having a b-bad day."
There it was again, that door she kept so firmly closed against everyone in the world but Superman – and even to him (or perhaps especially to him), Clark knew she would refuse to ever admit that anything was wrong. She hated to admit to any kind of weakness, which she for some reason seemed to believe sorrow to be, and so she would never admit to the emotion, even when there was no way for her to pretend that nothing was wrong. "Lois, I…I hope you know that I'm your friend, if you ever need to talk," he finished lamely.
"I'm fine, C-Cl –" she tried to speak with that tough-girl attitude she usually pulled off so well, but this time, her face crumpled and the tears continued rolling down her cheeks before she'd even finished saying his name.
The floodgates opened, and even Lois couldn't pretend any longer. "Oh, Clark!" she wailed, throwing herself against his chest suddenly. His arms automatically went around her waist and held her tight as she tucked her head into the curve of his neck and began to sob anew, and he felt her fingers dig into the cloth of his t-shirt as she clutched him.
Clark knew she'd be furious with herself when she stopped crying long enough to realize that the two of them were still standing in her doorway, her so-called "weakness" on display for all the world to see, and he didn't want to give her cause to be any more upset than she already was. So, as gently as he could, he shuffled her forward far enough into her apartment that he could close the door behind the two of them, and then he stood there in silence, running a hand comfortingly up and down her back as he let her cry.
"Oh, god," she said suddenly, flinging herself out of his arms as suddenly as she'd thrown herself into them. "Wh-what a scene I'm m-making. You m-must think I'm pa-pathetic." As she spoke, she whirled around so that her back was to him, but he could tell she was fiercely trying to wipe the tears from her eyes.
"I don't think that at all, Lois," he replied honestly, not wanting to lose her now. "I'd never think you were pathetic. I just wish…I wish you'd tell me what was wrong."
She was silent for a long time after he finished speaking, until he thought there was no chance he'd ever get an answer out of her. Then she moved a few feet away from him and walked around to the front of her sofa, where she stooped to pick something up off the floor. Without a word, she turned and offered the crumpled piece of paper to him, and he stepped forward and took it gently from her hand.
At a glance he could tell what it was, and he caught his breath. A quick scan of its text revealed what he'd suspected when he caught sight of the glossy white cardstock, and he looked up at Lois again with sad eyes. "He's getting married," he said rather stupidly, since of course she already knew that. "Lois, I'm sorry."
Lois scowled as she threw herself onto the couch. Though she turned her face away and looked out her sliding balcony door when he came near her, she didn't shift away from him as he sat beside her. She also didn't look at him when she murmured, "He said he just couldn't stay in one place for very long, but that if he ever did, it would be with me. He said he loved me. He said he knew he'd regret ever leaving me. I guess he was lying though, huh?" Clark grabbed her hand, and his touch must have caught her attention, because she turned to look at him again. Though her eyes were wet and filled with pain, she was no longer crying. "It wasn't that he couldn't stay in one place, Clark. It was that he couldn't stay with me. Am I so awful? Is being with me so terrible that…Is there just something about me that's fundamentally unlovable somehow? Do I drive everyone I care about away?"
Clark's heart broke for her, and this time he didn't wait for her to come to him. He wrapped his arms around her and pulled her close, throwing her legs over his lap as her tears began to fall again. In that moment, he'd have done everything in his power – he'd have moved heaven and earth if he had to – to take away her pain, but the only thing he could do was hold her and hope she believed him when he said, "No, Lois. God, no! That's not it at all. He was an idiot to let you go, and I know you're going to find someone someday that sees what an amazing woman you are and is never, ever stupid enough to break your heart." He knew that now was obviously not the time to impose his feelings upon her, but he hoped that, if nothing else, something in his touch would convince her of the honesty of his words.
She didn't reply, but her sobs did abate a little, so Clark hoped that he was getting through to her. It took a long time for her tears to stop falling, but finally, her breathing returned to normal and she lifted her head off his shoulder and offered him a shaky smile that almost reached her eyes. "Thanks, Clark," she said earnestly. "Oh, crap," she continued, giving the shoulder of his shirt a futile swipe of her hand. "I've gotten your shirt all soaked. Sorry about that."
He suspected she was looking for a way to deflect attention from herself, and he didn't protest because he knew both that she was trying to regain her dignity and that it was important to her that he let her do so. "It's okay," he said reassuringly as he glanced down at the shoulder she indicated. He hadn't really noticed and, honestly, if he had, he wouldn't have cared. "It'll dry."
When she chuckled, she seemed to mean it; it didn't sound forced. To hear the sound of that weak laugh, Clark would happily have done anything, even if it meant letting her stain a thousand of his favorite shirts with her tears. Except that he didn't think his heart could bear another second of her sorrow.
Lois shifted on his lap so she could lay her head on the shoulder that was still dry and murmured softly, "It's not that I still love him so very much, you know."
"I know," he replied, and he did. She had, at one time, but that had been long ago, and she had moved on since then. It had just hurt her to think that all his pretty words had been lies, that he hadn't even spared her a backwards glance as he moved on as well. That, in getting on with his life, he had also unintentionally caused her to doubt herself was enough to make Clark want to pulverize the unsuspecting groom-to-be, but the impulse passed the longer he held a reasonably content Lois in his arms.
"Don't tell anyone about this, okay?" she murmured a little sleepily against the side of his neck as she shifted against him, trying to find a comfortable position, and he swallowed heavily as he grabbed the blanket off the back of the couch and threw it over her legs.
"Don't worry; I won't," he promised, wrapping his arms around her once more. Trying to lighten the mood, he joked, "Who would believe me, anyway?"
Her answering laugh made it worthwhile. Then she fell silent and was quiet for so long, he'd have thought she'd fallen asleep if the sound of her heartbeat didn't tell him otherwise. Finally, she said quietly, "I hate that you've seen me cry."
Clark wasn't surprised that she felt that way, of course, but it hurt a bit to hear her say so. Perhaps he was deluding himself, but deep down, he liked to think that she was okay with letting him see this side of Lois Lane. Maybe she didn't love him the way she loved Superman, but she clearly trusted him. She depended upon him. And he always told himself that meant something, even though he suspected he was fooling himself into thinking it might someday mean something more. "I know," he said a bit heavily, unable to completely hide his disappointment at her words.
He'd hoped she wouldn't, but Lois seemed to pick up on his tone, because she laid a comforting hand on his chest and lifted her head far enough off his shoulder that she could look into his face. "You're my best friend, Clark," she said, and though he felt like she was offering him a consolation prize, he was careful to hide his reaction from her searching gaze.
"What are friends for, Lois?" he asked instead, as evenly as he could manage. "You know I'm always here for you."
"I know," she replied, still looking at him closely. Whatever she saw in his features must have reassured her that the status quo had not been marred, however, because she replaced her head on his shoulder and murmured, "It's just…sometimes you look at me, and I think that you think I'm this…this incredible person or something, and I like the person I see through your eyes. I don't want to break the illusion by showing you that I'm not perfect, somehow."
Clark couldn't even imagine what that moment of honesty must have cost her, and he knew he should handle it with the gravity it no doubt deserved, but the chuckle escaped before he'd realized it had formed. When Lois's head shot off his shoulder and she gave him an affronted glare, he tried to offer her an apologetic smile, but he couldn't entirely hide his humor. "Sorry! I'm not laughing at you; I promise! It's just…Lois, I do think you're an incredible woman, but I have never thought you were perfect." She was still glaring at him, so he teased, "Bossy, maybe. A little annoying. Occasionally rude. Terrifyingly fearless. And, you know, you're a bit of a smart aleck, and you never listen to reason. Plus, you…"
"All right, all right! I get your point, Smallville, you can stop talking now!" she said on a laugh as she relaxed against his shoulder again. "You certainly have a way of making sure my ego never gets too big, don't you?" She clearly didn't take offense, and her amusement was what he'd been going for, so he smiled.
Again, he replied, "What are friends for?"
Pretending an affronted sniff, she muttered darkly into his ear, "Great. My ego's been thoroughly trounced by the King of Plaid. If that isn't a sad testament to the state of my life, I don't know what is." She paused and then offered a little too brightly, "You know, if you happen to be harboring any illusions that I reciprocate and am under some kind of misguided illusion that you're perfect, too, I'd be happy to dispel them for you!"
"Thanks," he replied dryly. "But, you know, I've somehow never quite managed to delude myself that much."
"Are you sure? Because I've got a whole list of reasons in my head, and I can list them off alphabetically, if you like." Her unholy glee at this prospect made him wonder if she didn't actually have such a list.
Clark laughed, and it sounded a little nervous, even to his own ears. "You know, as great as that sounds, I don't think –"
"Chronologically it is, then," she said, interrupting his protest, but he didn't really mind. He didn't actually mind her teasing; he gave as good as he got, and he liked the camaraderie they shared. "First of all, you're moody."
"Wait, wait, wait," he said, interrupting her in turn. "How is it that your first complaint isn't about my plaid shirts?" he demanded. "You're always teasing me about my shirts! I think it's actually one of your most cherished hobbies!"
Lois lifted her head off his shoulder and looked at him with laughing eyes. "I told you I was going to do this chronologically, and if you'll recall, you were naked the first time I met you. You just happened to be a very moody naked amnesiac."
"How could I forget," he began with a feigned sigh of exasperation, "when you take such pleasure in reminding me?" She opened her mouth to retort, but he didn't let her. Giving in to the grin that was hovering at the corners of his mouth, he said slyly, "And if I recall properly, you didn't waste any time in looking."
"I did not!" she choked, her cheeks flushing scarlet. It was the first time he'd dared call her on the trip south her gaze had taken out in that cornfield, and he could tell she'd been hoping all this time that he'd not noticed. "I was…I was just making sure you hadn't been injured! I mean, you'd just been hit by lightning, after all!" As she spoke, he watched her gaze unconsciously travel down the length of his torso to his lap again, and she flushed even deeper, if that was possible.
While Lois tried desperately to dig her way out of the hole she'd unwittingly found herself in, two things happened: Clark lost his heart to Lois all over again, for something like the four millionth time, and he realized he didn't mind so much, that he spent so much of his time looking in on her from the outside. It was all worth it for those rare moments she let him.
As Clark listened to Lois's defensive (and ultimately unconvincing) babbling, he reflected that he was glad they had moved off the subject of what he thought of her. For all that he had assured her he thought she was rather less than perfect, he suspected if she looked close enough, something in his eyes might indicate otherwise.