Clark spent the ride back to Lois's place contemplating how he would approach her with his questions, but he still hadn't made any real headway on the issue by the time he pulled up in front of her apartment. The two of them were silent as Lois let them inside, and though Clark's thoughts were occupied with Kal-El, he wondered what was on her mind.
Probably nothing good, he decided, given that their encounter with his mother hadn't gone as he'd expected. He wondered why his mom had reacted as she had to Lois's presence – but, then, that brought him around to the Kal-El Question again.
"Listen, Lois…I'm sorry about…about before. With my mom," he said sheepishly, seeking a way to fill the uncomfortable silence.
He was surprised to see a wry smile on her face when she turned to face him after placing her purse on the table. "It's okay," she said with a small shrug. "This may come as a surprise to you, but I get that kind of reaction a lot, actually."
"Lois, why do you hate Kal-El so much?" he blurted, forgoing the struggle to find a subtle way to bring up the topic.
He heard her sigh and watched as she looked away from him and raised her hand to her necklace to finger the Kryptonite pendant. "Clark, I'm not sure…it's not…it doesn't really matter, does it?" she asked, still not looking at him.
"It matters to me," he replied softly, seeing how difficult this was for her. He wished he didn't have to bring up what were undoubtedly bad memories, but he had a feeling the answer to his question was much more important than either of them thought.
She hung her head for a moment, but there was resignation in her eyes when she looked up at him. "All right," she said with a twist of her lips. "Grab your hat and sunglasses; we're going for a walk."
"We are?" he asked in confusion, though he did what she asked.
"If I'm going to tell you this story, then we're taking a walk while I do it," she said, waiting for him to scoot a safe distance away before preceding him through the door. They walked for a while in silence, keeping enough distance between their bodies so that Clark didn't suffer from negative effects of Kryptonite exposure. Clark let Lois set their course, but eventually she began to speak.
"You sure you want to hear this, Kent?" she asked in a lighthearted manner. "This is your last chance to back out of it! I won't think less of you if you back out now."
"I probably don't want to know about Kal-El," he admitted. "But I think I need to. How did the two of you meet?"
She chuckled. "He saved my life, actually." She glanced at him out of the corner of her eye and must have noted his expression, because she asked, "That surprises you?"
"A little bit," he admitted. "I mean…I guess I thought…"
With a nod, Lois finished his sentence, "You thought he would never do something nice like that? Well, I guess it just goes to show you. Even Kal-El will surprise you." She seemed amused; her tone was even lightly teasing. However, she sobered up a bit as she continued, "I'd been thrown out of a plane without a parachute."
"A plane?" he squeaked. He didn't know which was more alarming – that she'd apparently been thrown out of a plane at some point in her past or that she seemed rather nonchalant about the experience. "And…uh…does this happen to you a lot?"
"More often than you'd think," she admitted with a shrug. "Anyway, he rescued me on the way down, which I have to admit I really appreciated." Pausing in her step, she turned to him and said sternly, "By the way, just because I admitted that I appreciated his rescue, I don't want you to get the wrong impression. I'm perfectly capable of saving myself, and I'm sure I would have found a way to save myself if I'd had to."
"How?" he asked, tilting his head to the side and regarding her with a mischievous glint in his eye. "Were you planning on growing wings?"
"If I'd had to," she replied dryly. "You doubting me, Kent?" she challenged.
Shaking his head, he grinned down at her. "Never, Lane. Anyway, you were saying?"
After a short pause, she gave one quick, satisfied nod of the head and said, "Right. So, anyway…I'd been working on a story, and some people weren't too happy about that, so they chucked me out of a plane. Kal-El caught me; I think he was more curious to know what I was doing in that situation, more than anything else, if you want to know the truth. He took me home, and that was how I landed the first exclusive interview with Metropolis's own Kal-El."
"Sounds pretty great," he admitted. "So what happened? I mean, why'd you and he…? I mean, if he saved you…it sounds like he was a hero."
"I thought so, too. I remember that night, when he took me home…" With a grimace, she glowered up at him. "Okay, listen, Kent, I'm going to confess something to you, but this stays between us, alright? And after I've finished telling you about Kal-El, you never heard me tell you this. Understand?" He nodded. "Okay. Well…when I first met Kal-El, it's possible that I had…that I developed…that I may have fooled myself for a very, very short time into thinking that I had a…a bit of a…a crush on him, really. I know, it's absurd and pretty embarrassing, but there you go. It was just that he…he came from out of nowhere and just swept me into his arms, and I thought he…that he was…well, anyway, I thought I had a crush on him.
"But even that night, I should have realized that he wasn't the person I thought he was. He was just too…when he took me home that evening, while I was trying to talk him into giving me an exclusive interview, I tried to convince him of all the good that could come from the world knowing about him and what he could do. I tried to…I told him I could help him. I think I even told him that maybe I could be his f-friend, as ridiculous as that sounds in retrospect."
By the expression on her face, Clark could tell that Kal-El had not been receptive to this idea. "I think it things didn't go as you'd hoped."
With a wry twist of her lips, she admitted, "Not exactly. He told me that he didn't need friends, and that he certainly didn't need any help from a mere human."
Clark spluttered at this. "A m-mere…he didn't actually say that, did he?"
Lois had a rueful expression on her face as she nodded. "Yeah, swept me right off my feet with that one. But still, as embarrassing as it is, I didn't really get it, even then. I mean, I realized that he didn't…it's hard to explain. He didn't connect well with other people, I guess you could say, but he told me he was an alien and I figured he'd just…you know…arrived or something, so I thought he would adapt, that he would learn how to relate to other people or warm up to them or something."
"But he didn't." It wasn't a question.
"You catch on pretty quick," she said with a chuckle. "No, he didn't. Don't get me wrong; he did get a little better. At least I thought he had. But in the end, I guess I never really knew him at all.
"But, anyway, for a while, things got better. He warmed up a little to people, though I don't think you could ever say that he really let anyone get close. He was always a little unapproachable, a little cold. He saved us, and we were grateful to him for it, but I don't think we ever came to love him the way that I think he could have been loved if things had been different. As much as we appreciated what he did for the city, people were always a little scared of him."
"Even you?" Clark asked, a little surprised. Of course, he knew she'd come to fear him, but he'd had the impression that this hadn't always been the case.
"Not at first," he admitted. "I believed in him, you know? Or maybe I just wanted to believe in him. Even though I saw the way he was, I knew he always thought he was a little above us, I also saw the way he could be. Maybe I just saw the man I wanted him to be."
Lois's head bowed as she lapsed into silence, and Clark let her be as they strolled a couple more blocks. He pondered the story she'd revealed thus far as he listened to the soft sound of his footsteps falling in tandem with hers. Glancing over at her, he pondered the distance between them – the oh-so necessary distance that had to be ensured at all times for his protection. And perhaps for her protection, as well. Even with as little as he now knew, he suspected that Lois maintained not just a physical distance from him but an emotional one, as well – and that she would continue to do so (or so he suspected) as a matter of self-preservation. Would he ever be able to get close to her? He could only wonder. And if, by some chance, she ever allowed him to get close enough to her to take her hand in his, to wrap her in his arms and promise to keep her safe, he wondered if she'd ever let him truly get close to her – to trust him, to depend upon him. To care about him, even if just as a friend. To be for him what another Lois had been for a far more deserving Clark than he. Finally, when his thoughts became too much for him to bear and although he knew the conversation was hardly likely to become easier for her, he asked softly, "So what changed between you?"
They had reached the edges of a small park, and Lois altered their course, cutting across the grass as she headed towards some benches surrounding a statute in the center of the park. "Fix your hat; you don't want to be noticed," Lois muttered in an undertone as she sat on the far side of the bench from Clark, still careful to maintain that distance between them.
As Clark did as she directed, Lois shifted in her seat, her expression darkening as she recalled the past. "Like I said, for a while, people trusted Kal-El. They never loved him, and they never really trusted him. Of course, if everyone hadn't been more scared of him than they were grateful for all that he did, I probably wouldn't be in the mess I'm in."
Clark stared at her curiously, but he didn't press her. He trusted that she'd tell him the rest of the story in her own time. After a moment, she continued, "I don't really know why Kal-El agreed to the partnership with Lex."
"Lex Luthor?" he asked in surprise and a little trepidation. He thought about the friend he knew, but he remembered that another world's Lois had feared Lex and he wondered which version of his friend had existed in this timeline. Apparently oblivious to his internal conflict, Lois continued, "Maybe Lex wasn't scared of him like so many others were, or maybe he just pretended better than anyone else did."
"I thought you weren't scared of him," he interjected. "Or had something changed by that point?"
"No, I still wasn't afraid of him, really. But over the years, things had…changed between us. He'd always been a little stiff around me, of course, but he was that way with everyone. I can't say it was entirely his fault. I guess I never really forgot the man I knew he could be, and maybe I was just tired of the disappointment."
"It wasn't your fault," Clark said comfortingly. "Whatever happened, it wasn't your fault."
"That's because you don't know what happened," she said sadly. "Anyway, for whatever reason, as much as I'd spent years trying to be close to him, there was always this distance between us. I interviewed him more times than I could count, but I don't think I ever really got to know him. But I guess none of that matters now."
With a heavy sigh, she said, "I guess there's no point in dragging all this out any longer, is there? So Kal-El agreed to work with Lex Luthor, the Greatest Man in Metropolis…his PR, not mine. I don't know about "Great" but he certainly was the most powerful man in Metropolis, so I guess it wasn't a huge surprise when he and Kal-El decided to work together. Lex's company developed a number of experimental – and highly dangerous – projects, and there was something comforting about knowing that Kal-El was there to watch over everything and make sure that nobody got hurt in the event of an accident.
"And then Lex decided to build a space station – the largest, most advanced space station to date. It was touted as a marvel of technology. Highly experimental, of course, but when Lex announced his plans, just about every reporter in the world started thrusting microphones in front of every scientist they could get their hands on, and all of them said the same thing. With the LuthorCorp Space Station, we could do amazing things – in medicine, military technology, everything.
"Of course, a project like that wasn't without its skeptics. Since it was proposed that fifteen or so people would staff it at all times, at least in the beginning, with that number only increasing over time, everyone wanted to make absolutely sure that it would be safe – at least as safe as these things ever get. So the project got hung up in a lot of red tape; everyone had to sign off on it, and that took time.
"But a number of pretty important people were eager to get it off the ground. Lex made such promises…and I suppose we were only too willing to believe in the new world he promised us. Even me. So when he announced that Kal-El had agreed to help oversee the project, well…all that red tape started to be less of an issue. The people in charge weren't so worried any longer. After all, Kal-El, the Savior of Metropolis, had come out saying that the project would be absolutely safe – and if anything did go wrong, he was willing to personally guarantee the crew members' safety."
As she spoke, Lois ducked her head and started to pick at an invisible piece of lint on her shirt. Clark watched the wisps of her hair blow in the slight breeze as he waited for her to continue, his heart growing ever heavier in his chest with each word that she spoke.
"All of a sudden, everyone was scrambling to get the space station up and running. Politicians were clamoring because it was a popular project and they wanted to look good for their constituents. Lex talked up the project at every opportunity, and there was so much enthusiasm for it. Of course, as soon as Lex announced his plans, the clock had started to tick – competing companies were racing to get their projects approved before his station could get approval – and even though they weren't going to be as advanced as Lex's, the space race is still all about who gets there first."
"I don't understand," Clark cut in. "If everyone was so excited about it, why the delay?"
Lois laughed. "Ironically enough, because it was tied to Kal-El. Like I said, people were glad for all he'd done, but they didn't trust him. For the politicians endorsing the project, Kal-El's involvement was a great line they could sell the public to drum up support, but they were like just about everyone else. Deep down, they were scared of him. So while it was something of a relief to know that he'd be there if anything went wrong…people were frightened of having anything to do with something that was so closely tied to him. They didn't really trust him.
"This, in case you were wondering is where I come in," she said with wry amusement as she tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. "Kal-El came to me for help. I'm not going to go into all the messy details, but he came to me with the details of the space station. He was so…the way he talked about the project…I believed him when he said he was involved with the project because of all the good it could do. He was so passionate about it; he talked about how he knew he wasn't a part of this world, but he believed that, with this project, he could help Lex do something truly amazing.
"He fed me a line, and I fell for it. Oh, don't get me wrong; he knew exactly how to play me. He let me look at the plans, with the understanding that they were to remain confidential, so that I could satisfy myself as to the safety of the proposed project. He seemed so…sincere. I was to look at the project, decide on it for myself, and then, of course, write a story about it."
They were quiet as Clark considered the story he'd been told thus far, and then he asked, "So did you?"
With a nod, she responded, "Of course I did. I was a reporter, after all. To his credit, Kal was true to his word. I was given a copy of the plans, and they gave me all the time I needed to assure myself that it was safe. I didn't entirely trust Lex, so I took it to every scientist, engineer, architect, and anyone else I could trust to keep it confidential to have it evaluated, and they all came back with the same answer. So far as they could tell, the LuthorCorp Space Station was not only the forefront of technology, but it was as safe as man could reasonably make it.
"So I wrote a story about my findings, and Lex used it to help allay some of the fears that had put his project on hold. After all, Lois Lane, star investigative reporter for the Gotham Gazette, had signed off on the safety of the project after a thorough investigation, and the Gotham Gazette, one of the top newspapers in the country – if not the world – had stood by the veracity of her words by printing the story. All of a sudden, all that red tape became less of a problem, and the project went ahead.
"But even though I hadn't been able to prove that there was anything wrong with the plans for the station…I don't know. Something still bugged me, and I couldn't let it go."
She raised her hand to her face and began to rub her forehead, and Clark could tell that they'd gotten to the hardest part of the story. "There wasn't much I could do at that point. Things had moved rapidly ahead; I kept investigating, but the station had been built and manned in the meantime.
"Anyway, like I said, the station was supposed to be the forefront of medicine, military technology, everything. So I found out from some contacts of mine that some of the engineers on board had been working on a new weapon. The details were highly classified; nobody would tell me anything about it. But I found out that some high-ranking military men had been invited to spend two days on the station to watch the weapon's test. So I went to the General – my father – and asked him if he could pull some strings so that he could go along.
"I can't tell you how hard it was to convince him to do it. I think if I hadn't managed to convince him that we could be talking about the safety of the entire world, he never would have agreed to it. But, for whatever reason, and with however many strings he had to pull to get up there, he eventually agreed to do what I'd asked. Of course, he told me he wouldn't be able to divulge any confidential information to me, but he agreed to check it out."
Though Clark had been the one to push her to tell him the story, he suddenly felt like he didn't really want to know the rest. Maybe she'd been right, in the beginning. Maybe he didn't really want to know why she hated Kal-El so much. Maybe he didn't want to know the end of the story. He should never have started this, but, having begun her story, Lois seemed ready to carry it on to the bitter end.
"In the end," she continued, "I guess I have the small consolation of knowing that I was right, at least. There was a problem on the space station. See, the thing was, for all his pretty words, Lex didn't trust Kal-El any more than the rest of the world did. In secret, up on the space station, Lex was conducting experiments with Kryptonite. Maybe he only intended to use them if Kal-El ever posed a danger to the world. Maybe not. But whatever he had planned, it backfired on him.
"What happened next…Well, nobody really knows for sure. What few reports there are all pretty much conflict with each other. But from what we do know, whatever new weapon they were testing, the test went wrong somehow and the station was compromised. Kal-El flew out to help, and that's where reports differ. Some experts say there had to be a flaw in the design of the station. Some say the station was sound and the accident was unavoidable. Whatever caused the accident, we do know for a fact that, there was an explosion, the station's integrity was compromised and an emergency evacuation was ordered.
"It's unclear whether two of the station's three escape shuttles were damaged in the explosion or whether there was just a chance that they'd been damaged and it was too dangerous to attempt to take one. We do know that some of the Kryptonite on-board had been blown up in the explosion and affected Kal-El when he tried to help.
"There wasn't much even he could do, at that point. The station was a loss; the only question was how to rescue the people on-board. But everyone couldn't fit on the one escape shuttle, so…"
"He decided," Clark interjected. He could already tell how the story was going to end. When she glanced over at him, he explained, "You said that he let people die. That's what he did, isn't it? He chose who got to be saved."
One quick jerk of her head confirmed his suspicions. "He chose," she repeated. "And, after that shuttle took off, he had a chance. He could have loaded everyone else onto the remaining shuttle and tried to take them to safety. He could have tried something. But he didn't.
"Of course, he was weakened by Kryptonite exposure. The people who did make it back alive testified that he'd expressed his concern that, if he remained behind to try to help everyone else, he might grow too weak to make it back alive himself.
"So he chose. Six people out of the twenty-two people aboard the LuthorCorp Space Station made it back alive. Everyone else was lost as he abandoned the station and flew back to Earth. There was another explosion, and every one of the remaining sixteen people died."
"Your father?" he asked, though he supposed he didn't need to. The pain in her eyes was answer enough.
Gesturing towards the statue in front of them, Lois remarked, "This statue is a memorial to the sixteen people lost that day. Take a look."
Rising very slowly to his feet, Clark walked to the statute and read the plaque of names engraved on the side. As he'd suspected, "General Sam Lane" was engraved halfway through the list of the dead. "Lex Luthor" was engraved immediately beneath.
Clark's breath was coming in ragged gasps as he read the names, one right after the other. Part of him was trying to rebel. It wasn't true; it couldn't be! He would never do such a thing! In no reality could he allow such a thing to happen!
But Kal-El had.
He heard Lois's say softly from a few steps behind him, "The rest of the story almost writes itself, doesn't it? In the aftermath of the tragedy, everyone was looking for someone to blame – and who better than the reporter who had so publicly signed off on the mission, particularly since she'd seemed so close to Kal-El? The woman who discovered him, who named him. The only reporter to ever interview him. The world couldn't take its rage out upon him; they couldn't touch him and they knew it. So they turned to me.
"And so did he. He came to me, two days after the explosion. I don't know what he wanted, actually. He tried to talk to me. He wanted to ask something of me. But I was…I was angry, and I was grief-stricken. I told him to leave, and when he wouldn't, I…I…
"We argued, and in the end, he grew angry. I don't know if he meant to do what he did, but when he tried to leave, I…I was just so angry at him! I grabbed on to him, and he…He shoved me away. Hard."
She didn't fill in the gaps, but he didn't need her to. She had been injured – he didn't know exactly how, but he had no doubt that her injuries had been serious. He supposed that he could ask, if he truly needed to know, but frankly, he wasn't sure he could take the truth any longer.
"Lois…I-I'm sorry for what…I don't even know what to say," he stammered.
Shrugging, she thrust her hands in her pockets and turned. "Say? There's nothing you can say, Clark," she said as she started to walk back towards the street. "You wanted to know why I hate Kal-El, and I've told you. He took so much from me. My reputation. My career. My family. My father died on-board that station, and Lucy hates me as much as everyone else for my role in the situation. She lost not only her father, but her husband in that explosion. You want to know why I hate him? How could I do anything else?"