A/N: Well, I promised a sequel to WWLL, and here it is! (If you haven't read it, you might want to do so first, or this world's Clark won't make much sense for you, I expect.) Hopefully it'll be updated far more frequently than my other two stories have been as of late. :D
Disclaimer: I own nothing but the idea. I only wish!
A World Without Superman
"True love stories never have endings."
- Richard Bach
"You never find yourself until you face the truth."
- Pearl Bailey
In the loft of his barn, in the place that his father had dubbed Clark's "Fortress of Solitude" long before an ice palace had grown out of the ice in the Arctic, Clark stared into the eyes of the woman he'd been told he was destined to love. And then he wished her goodbye.
"I don't think it would have taken very much at all for me to fall in love with you," she'd said, and those words both comforted him and tore at him. She was the most amazing woman he'd ever met, and he was well aware of the fact that while she didn't think it would take very much to fall in love with him, he knew it would take very little at all for him to fall head over heels in love with her.
But he couldn't allow himself the luxury of being that selfish. As much as he wanted to give into his desire to keep her with him, he couldn't ignore everything he'd learned in the time since Lois had first appeared on his doorstep. Somewhere, there was another man who loved Lois far more than Clark did at present, and he had no doubt that Lois would give up anything and everything for that man. He could keep her here, in his world, but he would never be able to make her happy if he did so. And so, because he knew that it wouldn't take much to love her, he recognized that he had to put her happiness above his own and let her go.
The smile she threw him, the quietly murmured, "Thank you…Superman," almost made it worthwhile.
As the light spilled over the two of them, he closed his eyes and willed her to be happy, whatever that would take, and he tried to ignore the pain in his chest that he felt when he realized that it would mean he would lose forever any chance that he would ever have what she had with the man she loved. His Lois was dead, taken from the world long before he'd ever had the chance to meet her.
I wish… Squeezing his eyes shut, he willed her to be happy, but even as he the light fell through the open loft window, he couldn't stop the thought that came traitorously to mind. I wish…
"Clark? Lois? What's going on?" he heard someone ask, but the voice came as if from a great distance. Then he felt a slight pressure on his arm, as if someone had grabbed hold of him, but he didn't really process the sensation. I wish…
Then there was a pain so intense that it felt like his body was burning, trapped in the center of the sun. He felt light so intense it blinded him, even though his eyes saw only darkness. He screamed, but the sound was swallowed up by the eternal void around him, and he was lost.
Screams tore from his throat, but nobody heard. Even he heard nothing, though he felt another presence nearby, or possibly more than one; it was impossible to tell. The presence was benevolent but demanding. Calculating but wise.
It may be too late.
This is what he wants.
There is nothing we can do. It is far too late to turn back the sands of time in his world.
Then we send him to her.
But she does not believe.
Neither does he.
It will not be easy for him. He could lose everything.
It is his choice.
Very well…Do not judge her too harshly, Kal-El. She is lost, like you.
Then the presence was gone but the pain remained, burning through him until he was certain he was about to lose his mind. Sanity fled. His senses fled. His thoughts, his feelings, his sense of self and reason all fled. But the pain remained, burning through him so fiercely and so thoroughly that he wondered if there would be anything left of himself in its wake.
And then, suddenly, mercifully, the pain faded, though Clark's scream still echoed in the air around him, strangely hollow in the aftermath. His eyes still clenched tightly closed, he rolled over and scrambled onto all fours, where he held his body aloft with shaky arms as he retched repeatedly. Sweat trailed down his brow and tears ran down his cheeks as his entire body heaved over and over. Finally, when the tremors had calmed and he had regained some control over his body, his eyes flickered open.
"Are you okay?" he heard a familiar voice ask from just behind him, and though he recognized the speaker, it wasn't the person he'd been hoping to hear.
"Y-yeah," he muttered, embarrassed by his discomposure as he stumbled gracelessly and somewhat weakly to his feet. "I'm sorry…I don't know what just happened. Is Lois…?" Even as he said her name and gazed hopefully around, he knew that it was hopeless. She was gone.
"Don't worry about it," Chloe murmured, sounding embarrassed for him. With a quick clearing of her throat, she confirmed, "Lois is gone. I don't know where…"
"She went home," he answered, cutting her off, and even though there was a crushing sadness in the wake of this revelation, there was also a certain amount of happiness and relief. His wish had been successful. Lois was finally returned to the man she loved. She was where she belonged. She was home. At least, he imagined she was, but since the alternative – that she had unintentionally been sent to another world not her own – was too horrible to imagine, he chose not to. No, Clark was well aware of the numerous mistakes he'd committed in his life, but for the first time in an almost endless span of years, he felt absolutely certain that the course he had just chosen had been the right one.
With a sigh, he let go of the numerous possibilities he'd entertained over the last few days – a series of progressively unlikely scenarios, all culminating in the same end: Lois realizing she truly loved him and choosing to stay behind. It had been a pleasant dream, but, in the end, he decided the reality was far better. Lois had been the most amazing woman he'd ever met; she deserved far better than the broken shell of a hero that he had allowed himself to become.
"Thank you…Superman," she had said, and he steeled his jaw. She'd been wrong, undoubtedly overly kind in her assessment of his character. He wasn't Superman and never had been. But, still…maybe there was still hope that he could be, even if he didn't have her by his side, to help him up when he fell. He'd been depending on others, leaning on others, for too long. So perhaps it was only right that this – the greatest and most difficult thing he'd ever taken it upon himself to do – was a journey he took alone.
Feeling slightly renewed by his new-found sense of purpose, Clark took a step forward, thinking for a moment to look out the window to gaze out at the farmland that had always brought him such peace. When his foot fell on the loft's floorboards, however, he heard something crunch under his tread. With an inexplicable surge of dread, he lifted his foot to see what he had stepped upon.
On the floor of the loft, the shattered remains of the crystal that had brought Lois Lane to his world and then sent her home again lay scattered. Perhaps its last task had been almost too much for the crystal to manage. Either way, the end was the same. Even if he wished it, Lois would not be returned to him any time soon.
Sadness welled up inside him as he gingerly leaned down to pick up one of the shards. As soon as his fingers grazed the broken crystal, however, a series of images flickered through his mind, almost too quickly for him to process. Lois, swept up in the arms of the man she loved as he swooped out of the sky. Leaning into his embrace as the two of them sat on the couch and she shared her story. In his arms at night, the two of them clutching each other and desperately refusing to let go. On the day of her wedding, white flowers threaded into her hair as she looked at the man awaiting her in front of the alter, and she was filled with such love that it almost poured out of her like a visible presence.
In the span of a moment no longer than a heartbeat, he saw an entirely different world unfurl in front of him, and he knew his sacrifice had not been in vain. She was happy, and she was home.
Straightening, he ignored the broken crystal on the ground. It had done its job. It was over.
Rubbing the back of his neck sheepishly, Clark turned to look at his guest. With a wry smile, he suggested, "I guess we should go tell my parents what happened. I'm sure they're worried."
As Chloe gave him a nod of assent, he took a couple of steps toward the stairs, and then he stopped abruptly as a realization finally penetrated his consciousness and he noticed that there was something distinctly wrong about his surroundings. A quick glance around only confirmed his suspicions.
His old, well-used couch was no longer in its usual place. The desk with the globe nearby had disappeared. Gone were all the photos and various other bits of paraphernalia of his life. Instead, straight piles of slowly disintegrating boxes were stacked around the perimeter of the loft, like someone's life had been neatly packed away to fade discreetly from memory.
"What the he…?" he began before his voice faded in bewilderment. What the hell was going on?
A suspicion both wonderful and terrible caused his stomach to clench, and he bolted toward the stairs, his companion momentarily forgotten. As he all but flew down the steps, he didn't even register that his leg was no longer giving him the twinge that was the omnipresent reminder of all of the most foolish decisions he'd ever made. Actually, at the rate he was moving, it should have been throbbing in agony, but it wasn't – not that Clark noticed. Gone, too, was the limp that advertized to a world that needed no reminder that he was not the man he had once been destined to be.
Staggering slightly as he bolted out onto the lawn of his family's home, he stared in open-mouthed amazement at the scene in front of him. The house that he knew so well – the one he had returned to not twenty minutes before – was gone. Though the structure in front of him resembled the only home he'd ever known, it was distinctly different. The yellow paint his father meticulously and almost reverently reapplied every few years was chipped and peeling. The banister on the front steps was askew, as if one more strong wind might blow it over. Boards were nailed over the doors and windows, though enough space showed through the boards that he could see clearly that glass no longer remained in several of the portals.
"Mom…? Dad…?" he muttered weakly, then he bolted toward the steps. The boards covering the door came off easily in his hands; he was standing in the middle of the living room in mere moments. However, the inside was hardly more comforting than the outside. Though the furniture remained, various pieces were covered with drop clothes, and everything was coated with a heavy layer of dust. The structure might have looked like the home he knew, but it was obvious that his parents were no longer in residence. In fact, nobody had lived here for a very, very long time.
Fear tightened the back of his throat as he turned to face the woman who was gingerly stepping through the open front door behind him. "Chloe, what…?" he began, but before he could even voice the question, he knew the answer.
Closing his eyes, he remembered those words that had so foolishly and irrepressibly sprung to mind as the light washed over him. I wish…
This was his fault.
I wish I could undo the mistakes I've made.
I wish I could find such happiness.
Just as he'd unintentionally brought another man's fiancée to his world, he'd unwittingly sent himself somewhere else.
I wish I could find the woman I was destined to love, he'd willed, every bit as desperately as he'd longed to send Lois back to the man awaiting her.
"Oh, god," he moaned as his eyes fluttered open and he dropped his head into his hands. "What have I done?" What was this world he had unintentionally sent himself to? And, perhaps more importantly still, now that the crystal had shattered, how was he ever going to get home?