A/N: Thank you so much to everyone who's read, followed, favorited, and reviewed this story! It was a ton of fun to imagine Rumplestiltskin and Superman meeting, and I'm glad that I wasn't alone in wanting to find out what would happen! Hope you all enjoyed it, and I'd love to know what you think!
Chapter 5: This World And Another
The door closed behind Lois Lane and Clark Kent with a last tinkle of the overhead bell, and Rumplestiltskin was left standing amidst the debris of his shop, afraid to look at the woman standing at his side. He'd been careful, ever since the incident with Robin Hood and the hug she'd given him even after he'd tried so hard to convince her—convince them both—he was much too evil for her, tried so hard to not show her the darker parts of himself, to reveal only the parts of himself he knew she'd liked. But this confrontation with this world's equivalent of a sorcerer…well, this had certainly revealed his colder deal-maker side, and he didn't want to look over at Belle and see disappointment in her eyes. Seeing that once in his life was more than enough. I thought you'd changed…she'd whispered once, and that had almost destroyed him all on its own.
But her hand was slipping from his elbow and she was turning to face him, and as much as his cowardly instincts were urging him to run or to put her off before she could speak, he'd been trying so hard to be brave for her—to be worthy of her. Besides, she was holding their chipped cup—the one she'd dropped her first night at his castle when he'd scared her with a calculated quip; the one he'd held onto ever since that night and for which he'd made deals that didn't benefit him—and he couldn't walk away, couldn't hide, without making sure it was safe.
Steeling himself, wrapping himself in numb neutrality, he turned to face Belle, his eyes fixed on the cup in her left hand. Then, slowly, he raised his gaze to meet hers.
She was smiling at him.
"You let them go," she said, and it was Robin Hood all over again, showing her the darkest parts of himself, allowing mercy for his own selfish purposes, expecting condemnation but receiving approval. He understood it this time no better than he had the last.
"Well," he began, though he wasn't quite sure what explanation he could give her. "Superman is fairly powerful in his own right. I'm sure you noticed he was rather quick."
"He is," Belle agreed, her smile undimmed. "But I know you, Rumple, and fast as he was—powerful as he was—it doesn't take you any longer than the snap of your fingers to turn them into…I don't know, flowers or something."
He gave her a sharp look, then tried to hide that he'd done so. If this was her subtle way of informing him she'd figured out that he'd turned Gaston into a rose for her, he would let it pass him by unremarked; he knew how to pick his battles.
"Maybe," was all he said aloud, every word truth because she deserved that. "Going up against him might have been more trouble than it was worth, though. Some people are better courted as allies than as foes."
Belle stepped closer to him, and even her knowing smirk was the same as she'd worn in Sherwood Forest when calling him out on his half-hearted excuse for letting Robin Hood and his pregnant wife escape with the wand they'd stolen from him. "I think you like Clark," Belle said archly.
Rumplestiltskin sniffed disdainfully. "Please. I have no doubt he and Prince Charming would get along famously—they're cast in the same mold."
"Mmm," Belle hummed. She was looking up at him as if she knew a secret he didn't, and it both scared and thrilled him. "Maybe," she said, mimicking him. "Or maybe he reminds you of someone else."
He arched a carefully raised brow at her, his mask intact though he really had no idea what she was talking about—this teasing byplay was much better than the scathing disappointment he'd expected and he didn't want to ruin it.
"Someone else," Belle prompted with a widening smile. "Someone who's more heroic than he wants people to know. Someone who hides away the best parts of himself but uses those parts to color everything he does. Someone who's more vulnerable than the world would ever believe. Someone who keeps secrets every day."
Belle usually ended up surprising Rumplestiltskin, one way or another, but he could usually hide it. This time, however, he couldn't help but gape at her incredulously.
Her smile turned into a full-fledged grin. "Exactly," she proclaimed with no little satisfaction.
"Belle," Rumplestiltskin whispered, but nothing else because she was so very wrong he couldn't narrow down all the arguments enough to simply make one. Because she was so very much more than he deserved that he dared not speak or move lest she vanish like a mirage.
She softened at his whisper, her expression thoughtful as she studied him. Then she gave him her quiet smile, the one where she tucked a corner of her lips into her mouth, and she crossed the few inches still separating them and wrapped her arms around him in a loose hug. He really didn't deserve this—deserve her—but Rumplestiltskin didn't let that stop him from holding her close and leaning his brow against hers. Sometimes he thought that, when she one day realized how wicked and flawed he really was and left him, if she would only let him hug her every once in a while, just for a moment, an instant, then maybe he would be able to survive the broken, withered heart she'd leave behind.
"Oh, Belle," he murmured without opening his eyes, simply luxuriating in her closeness. "I so wish I was as good as you think I am."
"You just forget sometimes," she said gently, so full of assurance and faith. "But you're remembering more all the time."
He had shown his wife the best of himself, and Milah had seen only things to scorn. He'd unveiled the worst of his blackened soul to Cora while teaching her the magic to make her a powerful queen, and she had still left him, tearing out her own heart to do so. But he'd tried to show Belle the little bits of good he could still pretend to and only ended up showing her all the worst and darkest parts of himself, and yet she kept seeing in them something better than he'd ever been. He was so afraid that one day that would change, and he was so relieved every day when it didn't.
Belle leaned more fully against him, her eyes fluttering closed, and it didn't escape him when a tiny tremor passed through her slight frame. Carefully, slowly, so as to keep his enraged indignation bottled up, he trailed his left hand up from her waist to lightly encircle her right wrist. She let him, silent as he surveyed the ring of chafed skin braceleting her wrist, but another tiny tremor ghosted through her, the reverberations of it echoing through his soul.
"I'm so sorry," he whispered, his breath dancing along the inside of her wrist.
"It's all right," she said, and she was so much stronger than he was, so much more ready to forgive. And since that was really the only reason she could stay with a beast like him—a beast who would never change into a handsome, good prince, as Ms. Lane had so helpfully reminded them both—he really couldn't begrudge it, so he reluctantly let go of his intentions to punish her wolf-friend.
"Ruby is safe," he told Belle, and hoped she understood he meant from him as well as from the mob.
"Really?" Belle brightened, the marks on her own wrist forgotten.
"Yes. Just before you arrived with the visitors in tow, our daring prince managed to convince the mob she'd been framed by a jealous rival."
"Good," Belle said with clear relief. "I'm glad."
Rumplestiltskin hesitated, not wanting to ruin this moment—or the ground they'd tentatively regained since she'd moved out of his house. But she was worn and strained from this incident, and he knew her nightmares would haunt her tonight—and he did not want to go back to his lonely, empty house and lie sleepless in a bed he'd magically ensured still smelled of her, did not want to spend another night here in his shop, trying and failing not to think of those few, brief days when she'd been a home worth going back to. So he took a deep breath and said, "Belle, the library is yours, you know, and the apartment, and…and you can say no, of course, but…tonight—"
Belle wrapped her arms more tightly around him and whispered, "Will you stay with me tonight?"
His answering grin was a little bit crooked, a little bit watery, and wholly sincere. "I'd like that."
"So would I," she assured him. "But first…" She brought her left hand away from his shoulder to show him the cup she still cradled in her palm.
"Ah, yes, of course." Rumplestiltskin reluctantly stepped away from her and regarded the mess of magical items from a handful of worlds arrayed all about him in a mess of chaos and ruin. A wave of his hand and a flare of smoke saw the shop and everything in it returned to its rightful, whole state.
Belle shot him a sidelong glance, a crease in her brow and a smile hidden in the corners of her mouth. "If you could just fix everything, why did you agree to Clark's deal to save my cup?"
Rumplestiltskin let his hand curl around hers, the cup safe and protected between their shared hold. "Because," he admitted quietly, "this cup was all I had of you after Regina told me you were dead. And, well…I hadn't been able to keep you safe, but I thought…if I could keep the cup safe…" He trailed off, knowing it was a foolish sentiment, afraid she would laugh.
But she was Belle, and she always took whatever he gave her as if it was precious. Her hand tightened over his and she rested her head against his shoulder for a moment. Eventually, when he could breathe again, she said, "And you did keep it safe."
At that, he had to let out a tiny laugh—because maybe he had kept a porcelain cup intact, but he hadn't protected her from anyone, not even himself. "Indeed," was all he said, though, because he was not a man to turn away when someone offered him what he wanted.
When she lifted her head from his shoulder, he tightened his grip on his cane and moved behind the main counter. "Shall we?" he asked, gesturing to the tiny hidden pedestal where he kept the cup. Belle placed it there with all the reverence he himself would have, and the tight band that had constricted around his chest when he'd caught sight of his cup spinning madly in the air eased a bit.
He closed and locked the shop behind them and they walked together to the library, a puddle of illumination spilling out from the cracks in the boarded-up windows. When Belle mentioned the manacles in the trash, Rumplestiltskin took vicious pleasure in melting them down to dust and reshaping the particles into one of her favorite books from the Dark Castle. Her delighted smile was more than reward enough, though he then had to be content with only one of her hands on his elbow as the other clutched the book close to herself.
After locking the library behind them, Belle led him up the narrow stairs into her small, sparsely furnished apartment. He let her sit him down and fuss over the cool air dancing in through a window she'd left open and serve him some hot tea, because it reassured her. And maybe because it reassured him, too.
Finally, when she was sitting beside him with her own cup of tea, Rumplestiltskin set aside his teacup and tentatively took her chafed wrist, cradled it between gentle fingers. "May I?" he asked her in little more than a whisper, his other hand hovering over the raw marks.
Belle studied him for a long moment during which he couldn't bring himself to look away from her, to sever this connection between them. He'd sent her away from his castle with the—dishonest, he hoped—excuse that his power meant more to him than she did; she'd moved out of his house because he had been practicing magic in secret and hadn't wanted to tell her the reason for it—so used to keeping the secret of his son tucked very carefully hidden from all—and now he was afraid he might have ruined everything by bringing magic into the room with them after she'd invited him up with her. But he couldn't bear to keep staring at the mark of her demons rubbed into her flesh, not when he could fix it.
Belle let out a shuddering breath, then shakily nodded. "All right."
He gave her a slight smile—so much more restrained than the overwhelming relief he felt—and skimmed his fingers over her soft flesh, leaving it pure and unmarred.
"Thank you," she said when he was done, her voice unsteady as he continued to dance his fingertips along the inside of her wrist.
"No matter," he finally replied, forcibly taking his hands away from hers.
She smiled, and his heart leapt in response, and they sipped their tea and he answered all her curious questions about Superman and the reporting duo he'd just made two deals wtih. Then he insisted on seeing to clearing away their tea things while she went into the bathroom and readied for bed. He washed the cups and set them to dry, then removed his shoes and socks, his suit jacket, his tie, his belt. It would be easy to summon a pair of pajamas to his side, but this loosened, softened attire was what he'd worn when they'd slept side by side in his house, and he didn't want to frighten her or make her think he was going to pressure her for anything more than what they'd once shared.
Belle came out of the bathroom with an adorably shy smile—as if this was the first time they'd done this—and when he emerged from the bathroom with the top several buttons of his shirt undone, she was already lying in bed, all lights but a single lamp beside the bed turned off. Rumplestiltskin crossed to the bed and was as surprised and awed and grateful as he had been the first time she'd asked him to stay to calm her nightmares, in a larger room with a softer bed, when she pulled the covers aside for him, welcoming him.
He maneuvered his bad leg onto the mattress and lay back, and Belle was there instantly, curling into him, conforming to his side, the tension escaping her body all at once as he tucked her close, wrapped her in his arms. He felt warm all the way through, comfortable in a way he never was; he felt loved and that was such an unfamiliar feeling that he didn't think he'd ever stop marveling at it.
Belle tangled her fingers in the opening of his shirt, as if seeking to pry away his layers, his armor. As if unaware that she already had and that she had long since found her way to his cowering, brittle heart. He still felt the same breathless awe as he had the first time they did this, when they'd been reunited after three decades apart, when they'd held each other close to chase away mutual nightmares. He had missed this, since she'd left, missed it and ached with longing to have it back.
And now here he was. Just for a night—he knew that, knew she needed time to heal from what had been done to her, to remember what it was to be free—but still here, welcomed, accepted, wanted.
"I love you," Belle murmured sleepily.
Rumplestiltskin blinked away tears. "And I love you, too," he whispered.
He was a creature of habit, unbalanced when there was a deviation in his normal routines, but despite the strange surroundings, he slept deeply and without nightmares, and he woke to sunlight and Belle smiling at him, her cheek cradled on her hands.
"Good morning," she said, and kissed him on the cheek. "Thank you for staying."
And even if he hadn't slept a wink all night, that would have been enough to wake him up and put a smile on his face. Enough and more than to see him dressed—in a suit he did conjure because appearances were important and perception was everything—and outside of Granny's, Belle at his side, as he waited for Lois and Clark to emerge from the diner.
They regarded him warily, almost suspiciously, when they did finally exit the diner and saw him waiting, but then, he would have been severely disappointed in them if they hadn't been wary of him. They had been careful with the wording of their offers, their negotiation, and that was something that always served to win quite a bit of his approval; so few thought to calm themselves and listen to the words of the deals they accepted so easily. They were also fairly good at concealing their secret—if Rumplestiltskin wasn't so good at spotting secrets, seeing straight to what mattered most to a person, he might have missed it when he decided to investigate the strangers to town.
"We get an escort to the exit, huh?" Lois remarked with a sarcastic twist of her mouth.
"Just to make sure the deal is fulfilled in all aspects," Rumplestiltskin said with a dry smile of his own.
"And what about your side of the deal?" Clark asked. "We can't harm you at all, but as soon as we're over the line, you can do whatever you like to us."
Rumplestiltskin's smile grew just a bit. They'd obviously pondered their deals quite a bit after leaving him; most people did, usually too late. "I told you," he repeated, "we can't cross the line and magic is only within the boundaries of Storybrooke."
A bit of the tension in the superhero's shoulders eased.
"Why can't you leave the town?" Lois asked, a puzzled crease in her brow. Curiosity was her prevailing flaw, Rumplestiltskin thought, as well as perhaps one of her greatest strengths.
"If I recall our deal correctly," he said in a cold tone, "you are prohibited from writing an article about us, so why do you need to know?"
"If we can't tell anyone, then what's the point of not telling us?" she retorted.
Rumplestiltskin smirked. "If you can't tell anyone, what's the point of knowing at all?"
"Please," Clark interjected as Lois drew in a deep, angry breath. He stepped forward, one hand held out beseechingly. "We just…we just want to know where you're from."
Belle's hand tightened over Rumplestiltskin's arm, and he narrowed his eyes, studying the taller man before him.
"Look," Clark said, his voice dropping to just above a whisper, "you know I'm Superman. I'm from another world, a planet called Krypton. I only found out a couple years back from a message my father left me, but I…" He paused, searched for words, then blurted, "I just wanted to know if maybe there were others. Others like me. If you're from another world—"
"Another world," Rumplestiltskin interrupted—and maybe he spoke quickly, and maybe he gave the truth for free, and maybe it wasn't wise, but he couldn't keep looking into earnest brown eyes and seeing an abandoned son searching for answers. It hurt too much and pulled too deeply and cost far too high a price to the walls he'd erected around his heart. "Not another planet. You're from this dimension—this time and space is your own. We, on the other hand, come from a world very different from this one, a world of magic and magical creatures. A world that exists on a different plane. We're different, you and I, and so there's no way I can help you find what you're looking for."
The disappointment on Clark's face, the smile he used to try to cover it, hurt even more than his desperate plea for answers, because Rumplestiltskin dreamed nearly every night of looking into a different man's face—a different lonely, searching son abandoned to this world—and seeing disappointment less politely concealed.
"Right," Clark said. "A different dimension, huh?"
"Of a sort," Rumplestiltskin said with a shrug. He'd gotten so good at hiding this type of pain that Belle didn't even notice the sharp piercing pain to his heart, didn't press closer to him, though there was a puzzled slant to her eyes.
Lois stepped forward, one hand patting a soothing rhythm on Clark's back. "So what brought you here?"
"A curse," Belle answered when Rumplestiltskin canted his chin back, irritated by the continuing questions. He was letting them go—what more could they expect from him? "The Evil Queen cast a curse that banished us all to this world without our memories."
Clark's brow creased. "So what changed?"
"All magic comes with a price," Rumplestiltskin snapped, "and all curses can be broken. Now, if our round of Twenty Questions is over, shall we be on our way?"
"Sure." Lois gave him a sour smile. "The sooner the better."
"My thoughts precisely," Rumplestiltskin returned, and his smile had centuries more of bitterness behind it.
Belle watched him closely while they dropped Lois and Clark off at Tillman's Garage and waited for them to emerge with their repaired vehicle. She didn't speak until they'd disappeared inside, presumably to pay the bill.
"Rumple," she began softly—which meant, he knew from experience, that he wasn't going to like what she wanted to talk about. But he owed her far more than just a listening ear, so he turned his head to look at her. "Maybe…maybe they could help. You know, with the search…?"
"It's all right," Rumplestiltskin told her with the flick of a single finger. "They can't hear us; a simple spell even Superman would have a hard time penetrating."
She nodded and waited, as if she knew that he needed to swallow back the lump in his throat at her care of his secrets. "They could help, Rumple, with your search for your son. I know you'll find a way to cross the town line eventually, but they could start looking for Baelfire now."
"No." Rumplestiltskin looked back to the dark interior of the garage, noticed Hansel and Gretel working in the back—well, Gretel was working while Hansel played with something on the ground.
"They're good people," Belle pressed. "You know they are—you said he'd get along with David, and I know you like the Prince no matter how much you deny it."
Rumplestiltskin contented himself with a roll of his eyes to answer her last accusation, but he shook his head to the first. "Of course they're good people. Clark Kent couldn't hurt a fly even if it was enchanted to destroy everyone he loved, and Lois Lane would hurt it only under duress. But they're from this world, Belle, and that means that what they think is the right decision will be different from what we think is right. Clark exists in this world with his powers on display only because he hides in plain sight, exposing himself as a disguise. But if we were to tell them that Bae was here, somewhere among them, a stranger from another world—a world that possesses magic they can't even begin to comprehend outside the realm of fiction…what would they do to him? What would happen to him?"
Belle sighed and looked away, her eyes tight. "I just…I just wish…"
"I know." Rumplestiltskin gathered his bravery and reached out to take her hand, offered her a smile. "I will find him, though. It's my quest, my journey—I wrote the curse that brought us here, I gave it to Regina, and I arranged for Emma to be our savior, all for Bae's sake. A town line isn't going to stop me for long."
He knew she didn't like being reminded of the fact that he'd been the one to manipulate their coming to Storybrooke, but she offered him a smile anyway, and squeezed his hand tighter. "Right. We'll find another way."
"Yes." Rumplestiltskin found that he could smile. Odd, considering the memories and nightmares of the son whose hand he'd let go of while he'd hung over a portal to a world without magic, but then, she was Belle and she was good at performing miracles like conjuring up smiles from darkness. "We will."
Her smile grew wider at his use of the word 'we,' and he basked in her light. With her at his side and magic at his fingertips, it was only a matter of time until he finally found his son and righted all of his wrongs.
Soon, very soon, they would be reunited. And then it didn't matter what happened.
Clark kept his eyes on the Cadillac leading them to the town line. Lois kept up a steady stream of chatter—one of her most employed gifts—as she drove with all her customary flair for carelessness, purposefulness, and ruthlessness, but Clark listened with only half an ear. The words spilling from his partner were nervous habit, more to fill the silence than to actually say anything, and she would be much happier if he were able to pull something useful from their dubious allies.
Not that he was getting much from them. A curious sort of barrier had surrounded Rumplestiltskin and Belle shortly after Clark followed Lois into the garage to retrieve their car—from Hansel and Gretel's father, if the comments Clark had overheard had been accurate—and it hadn't dropped yet. A spell, he imagined, some form of magic that kept him from eavesdropping on the legendary imp and the storied beauty.
But the barrier hadn't come down until after Belle had started talking about a search, and Clark was having a hard time concentrating on anything but the fact that Rumplestiltskin wasn't quite as content within Storybrooke's borders as he'd wanted them to think he was. Something was out there, in the real world—maybe even in Metropolis—and if there was something Rumplestiltskin wanted, Clark was pretty sure that he'd be trying to find a way past the town line. In which case, that 'forever' they'd promised him would certainly end up in his favor.
The really irritating part of the whole thing, Clark thought, was that he wasn't even surprised. Even with Belle as their advocate, he'd had the sinking feeling that Rumplestiltskin had let them off too easily. The murmured babble of the townsfolk that Clark had been listening to almost non-stop for the past several days touched on the deal-maker only rarely, as if to avoid attracting his attention, but from what little was said, Clark got the impression that Rumplestiltskin always got what he wanted even when it appeared he didn't.
And his magic was terrifying, even to Superman.
Clark darted a quick sidelong glance at Lois, a habitual smile curving his lips in acknowledgement to whatever she was currently talking about. There for a few minutes, he hadn't been sure that he'd be able to get her out of that pawnshop alive and well. He'd been so afraid that Storybrooke's magic would be stronger, faster, more powerful than he was, and it had made him breathless and shaky with terror.
Lois was his life. She was everything to him, the reason he could smile after rescues that went bad or saves that came too late, the anchor that grounded him to Earth even though it wasn't his native planet. If she died—worse, if she died when he was right there, with her, unable to get to her in time…what would be left of him?
His parents would try, he knew, and he would probably try for their sakes, but there wouldn't be anything super about him if Lois were gone. There'd just be Clark Kent, outcast, loner, drifter, wandering from one place to the next without any spark inside to give him the strength to be Superman for an entire world.
No, whether Rumplestiltskin had ulterior motives for those deals they'd made or not, Clark was beyond grateful that he'd made them. It had ensured Lois's escape from Storybrooke, this world within a world, and her safety, and nothing was too high a price for that. Besides, if Rumplestiltskin did eventually find a way beyond Storybrooke's strange borders, well, Superman was more blatantly powerful than Clark Kent, and perhaps Mr. Gold would be just as blatantly weaker outside the magical protections that made him Rumplestiltskin.
"Huh," Lois said, the word catching Clark's attention because she fell silent after voicing it. She slowed their car down and crept toward the town line, now visible just before them, her eyes locked on the Cadillac that had pulled over to the edge of the road and come to a complete stop.
Clark tilted his head and stripped away the outside of the car with his x-ray vision—glad that Rumplestiltskin's spell hadn't taken this power from him—to see Mr. Gold and Belle sitting there side by side, watching the car behind them.
"Should we pull over too?" Lois asked, glancing to Clark.
"I don't think so," Clark said. "In fact, I'd say he's eager to see the backs of us."
Lois's lips twisted into a grimace. "Yeah, sure. The minute we cross that line, we can't touch him."
"So it would seem," Clark murmured, though he'd spent all night using his perfect memory to go back through the precise wording of their deals and realized that just because he couldn't harm Rumplestiltskin or Belle didn't mean he couldn't immobilize them.
"Well, who cares?" Lois decided with a shrug. "The sooner we get out of here the better, if you ask me. If we could write the story—assuming we could even get anyone to believe us—then I'd be all for staying and figuring out how a world 'from another plane' can involve so many of our fairytales. But since we can't write about it…well, what's the point?"
Clark had no answer to that. He knew, of course, that Lois loved him and that she didn't view him as a story at all, but all the same, he couldn't deny the now-habitual fear that she would think him not worth the effort of getting to know since she'd promised him her secrecy. He should be past that by now, he thought, but it was engrained within him, and so all he could do was recognize it and then move past it, hopefully without letting Lois know just how truly afraid he was that he'd eventually prove to be too much work and effort and secrecy for her to want to deal with.
When they drove past the line, Clark was almost sure he could feel it, an invisible haze that clawed and pulled at him, straining to keep him from leaving. Lois didn't betray a reaction, not even the most miniscule of shivers or a jump in her heart rate, but Clark couldn't shake the conviction that whatever kept Storybrooke separate from the world had recognized him as different, too, and tried to hold onto him.
"We're different, you and I…" Rumplestiltskin's words repeated over and over in his head.
Different but not quite different enough, Clark thought. Still stuck on the outside, and even though he'd known there was very little chance that a town full of storybook characters could have any connection to Krypton, he was still overwhelmed with disappointment. His mom told him often that he had a tendency to brood, and this, Clark knew, would certainly prove her right—he could all but hear her telling him the way to a simple solution to setting aside this regret and loss—but he couldn't bring himself to speak, to say anything to make this situation seem right. There didn't seem to be anything to say at all. Krypton was gone, his parents had been dead for decades, and the only way he could fit in on Earth was by splitting himself in two; an encounter with outsiders brought here by magic didn't change any of that. And if even Rumplestiltskin, with all his daunting powers and frightening ruthlessness, couldn't find what he was looking for here, then what made Clark think he could possibly succeed where magic failed?
The black Cadillac with Mr. Gold and Belle fell away behind them—Rumplestiltskin's dark eyes glittering with something very near bitterness in Clark's rear view mirror—the clawing haze disappeared, they reached the rental car agency in Boston, and still Clark couldn't stop replaying Rumplestiltskin's words over and over again.
He was so out of it that he didn't even realize Lois had fallen silent, too, until she turned away from the valet taking their dented car away and tapped Clark's chest decisively. "Come on," she said, and she led him out of sight of anyone, a dark alleyway, empty but for a stray cat Clark could hear breathing behind the dumpster.
"What are we doing?" he asked when Lois turned to stare up at him expectantly.
She smiled almost mischievously. "You know…flying?"
"Flying?" Clark repeated. He narrowed his eyes. "To where?"
"Wherever you want," Lois replied. And she stepped up close and wrapped her arms around his neck.
Something inside of him loosened, just the slightest bit. "Okay," he said, curving his arms around her waist and floating upward into the daylight sky, careful to go quickly enough that the normal human eye wouldn't spot them unless specifically looking.
He probably should have gone straight to Metropolis. Perry would be waiting, wondering why he hadn't heard from them, anxious to get some big story for the next front page. But as much as he loved his life in the city and Perry and Jimmy in the newsroom, Clark wasn't ready just yet to return to the craziness of Metropolis. Strangely, though, he didn't want to go to the quiet farmhouse in Smallville, Kansas that he called home either. He just wanted the same thing he'd wanted for several weeks now, what he'd wanted when he'd forced Lois to come investigate colored smoke in coastal Maine—a few quiet, still moments to figure out if he still had a chance of a future with Lois Lane.
So he took her to a mountaintop, the slopes green and covered with foliage that swayed in a light breeze, the sunlight warming it, though he kept her close and gave her his jacket anyway. A quiet moment, with only the sway of trees and the movement of wildlife and the stir in the air created by ripples moving outward from every movement. A still moment, where he could sit beside her and look out over a thousand miles of forest and river, no cries for help, no stories needing to be investigated. A moment with just him—this strange man caught between her friend and her hero—and her. The woman he loved and wanted to spend the rest of his life with.
"It's beautiful," Lois whispered, nudging her shoulder closer to his until he put an arm around her. "Special occasion?"
"No." He shook his head, let out a smile, then reached up and pulled off his glasses, letting her see the hybrid he was. "I just wanted a moment before we headed back to Metropolis."
"This is nice. I could get used to this." Lois gave him a sidelong grin. "I can tell lunches are already going to be more adventurous by far."
He chuckled for her, but it was weak. "Right," he said. "I mean, we have to be careful. It used to be if anyone found anything odd about me, I could just move on. But now…if they found out…I couldn't leave, Lois. I hope you know that. I have too much to lose to think about risking any of it. Risking you."
She nodded slowly, leaned her head down on his shoulder, and then said, "I wasn't mad at you, you know."
Scoffing, Clark pulled back enough to raise an eyebrow at her. "It sure looked like mad."
"All right." She rolled her eyes. "Fine, so I was mad at you. But the truth is…I've been more mad at myself. I couldn't believe that you were staring at me the whole time—the truth was staring at me with the same pair of eyes in two different men's faces—and I didn't see it. I was so angry at myself for missing what was obvious."
"Lois," Clark began, because he'd wanted to talk about this, to face it and, hopefully, move on, but he didn't know what he could say that he hadn't already said—didn't know how to make right what had already been done. But Lois didn't give him a chance to even search for the magic words.
"No, Clark, I'm not mad anymore. You know why?" Letting out a breath, she angled to face him, his arm falling away from around her shoulders. She looked straight at him, locking their gazes, and even with Superman's strength, Clark couldn't look away. "I'm not mad because it wasn't obvious. That town, those people—they're strangers, Clark, outsiders that don't belong here. I wasn't in Storybrooke for two hours before I knew just how messed up they were—I wasn't in that town two minutes before I knew they were hiding something—but that's because the truth is that they're not from here and this world isn't theirs. But you're not like them, Clark."
And now Clark could look away, could avert his gaze and try to hide from the truth she spoke—she was Lois Lane and whatever truth she uncovered was twice as hard-hitting as anyone else could manage. But her palm on his cheek, tugging him back toward her, made his heart skip a beat with hope.
"You're not an outsider, Clark. I didn't notice that you were different because that's not what defines you. And I did notice the important things—I noticed that you smile more than anyone else I know, and that you actually mean your smiles. I noticed that I could count on you and that you always put me before yourself. I noticed that you are a good person, and that it wasn't an act or a mask. It's who you are. It's Clark Kent, and maybe it did take me a while…but I noticed him. And I fell in love with him, and even if he does have a side job—I still love him. I still love you. And you're not an outsider, because you belong with me, and when I'm with you, I don't feel like so much of an outsider."
Just like moments earlier, he didn't know what to say, but this time it was because he had a lump in his throat and his heart had swelled to a size that surely even Superman couldn't handle, and he was on fire, his every nerve ending alight with the awareness of Lois's hand on his cheek, her breath minutely stirring the air before him, the body heat emanating from her skin, the rush of blood in her veins and the rapid beat of her own heart.
"I love you, too," he finally managed to get out, a mere expulsion of breath shaped into words every bit as necessary as the oxygen used to make the declaration. He couldn't tell if he leaned forward or if she moved forward first, but it didn't matter. They met in the middle, and her lips were as soft as they'd been when Clark kissed her, as warm as they'd been when she'd kissed Superman, as welcoming as they'd been the day after she'd realized he was both Clark Kent and Superman. She was his one constant, the one thing he could depend on, to make him whole, to keep him sane and safe and here.
She was Lois Lane, and he didn't care who he was so long as she let him be in her life.
"So we're good?" he asked, breathlessly, his brow resting against hers.
Her laugh made the rest of the world disappear. "We're Lane and Kent—we're the best."
He laughed, too, and kissed her again because he could, because she wanted him to, because he didn't want to ever stop.
"Don't leave," she murmured against his lips.
"Never," he promised, and he covered her mouth with his and held his world—the only world that mattered—safe in the circle of his arms.