With that heartfelt, telling cry still ringing in his ears Richard pulled out before he was finished and sprawled alongside her, tucking a fold of sheet over the essentials. That one blurted-out word had killed the hard-on more effectively than a dash-slap of cold water.
"I meant... I meant you're my Superman," Lois said quickly, pulling up her side of the sheet as if girding for war.
Richard leveled her with a narrow look, clenching his jaw. She at least had the grace to seem abashed and her eyes slid for the far wall. As if by mutual unspoken agreement they broke eye contact and stared at that wall for an uneasy number of uncounted heartbeats, at the end of which Richard broke it by quietly saying, "I want to move out."
Lois's head jerked around and the heat of her eyes on Richard's skin was a tangible thing. For a long, burning moment during which Richard's eyes fought displacement from the build-up of prickling moisture, there was a terrible silence. At last Lois said, "All right," agreeing with what Richard's innermost heart hadn't even settled yet. He wanted her to fight, maybe; to disagree, to tell him all the reasons she wanted him to stay.
Maybe, just maybe, he wanted her to agree, though, to set him free without the guilt of having the final word. That was something for which one could always count on Lois.
That night he moved to the sofa, because there was no longer point in sharing a bed; by the end of the week, he'd moved to a nice high-rise a few subway stops from the Planet, leaving his ex-fiancée with the house, the car, the son...they still shared Jason-duties, though, because Lois couldn't handle single motherhood no matter how fiercely she tackled the rest of the world and Richard was having a hard enough time over the split without leaving behind his little guy too.
Clark stepped into the void, unexpectedly; Richard had already made overtures of friendship, not capable of sizing up and dismissing the big Kansas reporter as his dainty ex-beloved had done.
They were on the latest of a string of many outings that had taken place during and after work when it hit Richard that he wasn't building up a guy-friendship...he was courting. He treated most of the time - Clark was fumble-fingered and had trouble finding bills and dropped change - and he sought the man's company for the simple pleasure of his presence and he found himself sifting through Metropolis's delights for the latest to share with Clark, and stored up little anecdotes and items of interest day and night that he found himself wanting to relate...and the person he turned to now for that was Clark.
It was a Saturday and they were going to check out a weekend exhibit at the Metropolis Museum, and had stopped for coffee on the way. As they queued up, Richard turned and he was on a level with Clark's mouth. It seemed only natural, looking up at the firm, sensual line of those lips that he wanted to reach up and kiss...
Oh. Oh, that was new.
He was going to have to give the man fair warning, the thought tumbled through his mind as he took a step back and the focus of Clark's true-blue eyes returned to him. Also, those college experimentation days that he'd thought he had put behind him for good? Well, that was the problem with telling himself 'never again.'
"Richard? Something wrong?" Clark asked with that self-deprecating chuckle of his as they found seats near one of the high, wide shop windows. It was that particular category of laugh that let Richard know if there was any fault it had to be Clark's, in his very presence; the man was so self-effacing he wanted to take him by the shoulders and...
Not shake him, exactly. But there was a strong urge indeed.
"I have a confession to make," Richard said, steeling himself. "Clark, I..."
Clark gave him inquisitive eyes. It was the most adorable look Richard had ever had turned on him aside from his childhood puppy, or Jason.
Perhaps that was what loosened his tongue enough to lean forward, both hands cupping his hot beverage, and say, "I like you, Clark."
"Well, I like you too, Richard!" Clark said brightly, a happy flush rising into his cheeks.
"No, I..." Richard held up a hand, a bout of nervous gripping him as he hadn't been ambushed since high school. "I...really like you, Clark. As in..." Romantically, sexually, frustratedly... "Um. You know."
Clark's mouth rounded and he remained thus for long enough Richard thought he'd be better off apologizing, or claiming it had been an unfunny joke. Then Clark adjusted his glasses and blurted, "Richard, I...I'm--"
Richard raised his eyebrows to maximum height; he had, fortunately, kept his voice low. "Clark, I...well, I guess that makes sense, I mean when you first showed up I did think -- never mind. You realize that isn't really much of a response to me telling you that I...I like you as more than a friend." He rushed to get the last few words out, his face falling slightly as if in anticipation of rejection, or as if the need to repeat himself to clarify made for an automatic put-down.
"I know," Clark said. "I'm sorry. I - I didn't know I was going to say that, I mean, I didn't intend to..."
"It's okay," Richard said, his tone already colored with defeat. "So, was that an answer of sorts, or were you just...making sure I knew what I was getting into?" His smile, always so uplifting, now rose only slightly at the corners, anticipating nothing.
Clark looked at him, really looked at Richard, and he wanted to smile reassurance, he wanted to laugh with the sheer heady sensation of delight, he wanted to erase the past five minutes. Richard confessed, and he in return had...confessed. He had never done that before. In fact, no one on the planet besides his own mother knew the truth; they had never seen beyond the Clark-mask to the man beyond to declare so much as the fact that they cared for him that much, let alone... So he'd given it to Richard, this secret of his. If he traced that thought to the logical conclusion--
"I have to go," he said, standing up.
"Clark?" Richard protested, brow furrowing; he half-rose but Clark splayed out a hand in warning, in farewell, as if to fix him in place.
He left behind his friend, and two hot cups of coffee, then shed the suit and tie and trappings of Clark Kent and broke the sonic barrier on the way out of town.
There was a cat in a tree five miles out from the Kent farm, and clad in Superman glory he took the time to rescue the scared animal for the little girl waiting in the gingham dress below. Her flaxen hair was tied up in pigtails; she gave him a brilliant buck-toothed smile as he glided to earth beside her and detached the cat, which was still vainly trying to drive its pitons through his suit and bristling in fright. "Thank you, Superman!" she lisped, clutching the animal to her chest and watching him with wide, reverent eyes until he gave her a little wave and took off. The interlude gave him time to think, but he was still troubled.
He made a fast stop in the Kent backyard, alighting like a feather to prevent stirring up dust that might scare the chickens, then caught the sound of his mother puttering around the kitchen, humming an old country tune to herself.
He smiled, made a detour to his old bedroom to pick up a change of clothes, and Clark Kent made an entrance through the kitchen's back porch door, putting on an inquiring look. "Do I smell cookies baking?"
"Oh!" Martha Kent kept her grip on a slippery dish and turned wide blue eyes on him. "Clark! Blessed if you didn't used to do the same thing when you were a boy, always turning up when the cookies were ready to come out of the oven."
He grinned then, and found his seat at the table right where he'd left it, so many years ago. Clark sighed, leaning back in the chair and closing his eyes and relaxing that tension at last in the smell of baked cookies, the splash of water in the sink, the drone of the radio.
"What's wrong, Clark?" Martha asked him softly, and dishes chinked as she set them in the rack to dry.
"Wrong? Nothing's wrong," Clark replied, defensive. "Do I need a reason to visit you now, Mom?"
"Well, a warning would be appreciated," she said with a chuckle. "You're lucky Ben's not here, you know; he is coming over later, and we're going out."
Clark shook his head. "I..." He sighed and gave up on trying to gloss over things for his mother's sake. "I made a mess of things, Mom. First I went back to Lo--to Metropolis, expecting things to be the same after all that time because, well, it didn't feel like five years to me so it didn't really sink in how long it had been. A really, really long time...because Lois was engaged. And I...I put that distance there, I mean, I had kind of given up before I'd left but I really gave up then. He wasn't just 'the fiancé,' he was...a really, really good guy." He kept back the thought that he'd wanted to hate Richard, at first, and there was no way he could do that. Richard was just too good.
"So I put that mental wall there, thinking we're just friends, and even became friends with Richard - her fiancé - then all of a sudden they weren't engaged. But Richard and I are still friends." He frowned at the tabletop, rubbing a hand over the side, his thumb tracing over the deep-cut grooves that spelled out his name. It was still here - his side of the table.
He was running away from thinking about what Richard had told him, in every way. "I mean, I thought we were friends. When I think about it...I suppose he's the first real friend I've ever had." His very being balked flatly at the prospect of telling his mother an unexpurgated version of what Richard had said, innocuous as it was. "He, uh, told me he likes me today. And I told him I'm Superman." You show yours; I'll show you mine... Clark shook his head. He was at a loss.
Martha Kent sighed and wiped her hands on the dishtowel to rid herself of the remnants of soap before crossing to the table and settling a comforting touch on Clark's broad shoulders. "So you think you've made a mess of things, but you've been honest, Clark. I don't see how that's a bad thing. Now all you have to do is try your best, that's all anyone can ask."
She sent him off with those words and a bundle of fresh, oven-hot cookies. Not five minutes later he rounded the corner for the coffee shop, not harboring much hope after the way he'd left it. Instead of an empty table, he was brought head-on with the meaning of the phrase, to have his heart skip a beat. His heart contracted painfully as he looked through the window at Richard still waiting across from an empty seat, his face bleak.
After wrestling with the front door of the coffee shop to get it open, insinuating himself as best he could through a sudden crush of people leaving, Clark had to abandon the prospect of slipping back into his seat as stealthily as he'd left it. Richard's clear blue-green gaze was tracking him from the door on in, and he greeted Clark's return with an expressionless face.
"I'm sorry," Clark said at once.
Richard shook his head. "You don't have to apologize." The corners of his mouth lifted in a tight, perfunctory smile.
"Yes, I do," Clark said, and pushed the packet of cookies across the table. His hand brushed against the cup of coffee he'd left behind, and it was on the tip of his tongue to ask if he was still welcome for an afternoon at the museum. He knew Richard would say yes.
Richard unwrapped the bundle and his eyes widened. "They're still warm." He picked one up, his brow creasing. "Clark, where did you..."
"I, uh, stepped out to see my mom for a bit," he said after a millisecond of hesitation. Like she had said, he had been honest. Was it really bad? Now he had to soldier on and do his best.
"Your mom; but I thought she was in...Kansas..." Richard trailed off and looked at the cookie in his hand, then shook his head and bit into it with the air of one testing its reality. "This is really good."
Clark smiled. He watched Richard as he chewed, swallowed; his attention was drawn to the flex of Richard's jaw, the high arch of his cheekbones. His first real friend? Was that really all this emotion was?
Richard looked down at his empty hands, then his full, wide-lipped mouth twitched at nothing in particular. "So we're not going to talk about it, are we. The fact that you're..."
Clark uttered the word with a touch of incredulity, his dark brows raising, that pleasant condescension on his face reminding Lois why she never really pitched her ideas for the Superman stories to him, and why Clark of all folks at the Planet had never jockeyed to cover Metropolis' favorite son. Even with the evidence before them that a man could fly, her cornfield-bred co-worker managed to express skepticism when confronted with continued proof of his existence.
Lois rolled her eyes. "See, Clark, this is how you always get sidetracked into puff pieces like retirement home scandals and opera-house closures, you have to be willing to...you've got to put yourself out there, you have to grab onto the outrageous and pull it down to earth, frame it so that other people can...what?" She let herself get sidetracked as her gaze tracked over Clark in passing and settled on him, attention snagged by the way his deep blue eyes remained steady on her, giving her undivided concentration with the barest hint of a smile, thoughtful and almost...
She stopped herself from shaking her head, abandoning the word 'tender' with an impatient wave of her hand. "What is it, Clark?" she said, but her tone contained considerably less ire than she would level at the average person for derailing her by showing her such intent consideration. Her hand slipped to her mouth and she bit down on the thumbnail, casting a guilty glance over one shoulder before she remembered Richard wasn't keeping tabs on her anymore, for that or anything else.
"Well," Clark said, measured but not in that meek fashion he had begun with, years before. His mild-mannered nature had made her want to stamp her foot in frustration many times, even when he'd first come back from his long absence, and Lois blinked in surprise as she realized he had mostly dispensed with it. "I happen to think there's value in taking what most people would consider ordinary, and exposing the ways in which it's extraordinary. Not - not to say that your methods of reporting aren't equally--" he rushed to deliver a disclaimer when Lois's eyes flashed. He drew himself up and Lois looked up with his movement. She was so accustomed to taking him for granted she overlooked his physical presence, until - like now - he towered over her. "I mean, there's room for both styles."
"Okay," Lois said, cocking her head, and Clark smiled. It was a bright, pleased expression, reminding her of Jason somehow when he was discovering something new or being rewarded for good behavior. The smile tugged at her and she found the corners of her mouth lifting in response.
"You have a pretty smile, Lois," Clark said softly, and he was still looking at her. His blue eyes pierced to the core of her, and Lois all but uttered a gasp as it struck her with the force of a bolt from the blue. Clark... she and Clark... Oh, but... She turned away and gnawed at the nail of her index finger.
Would it seem too soon after Richard?
"Is something wrong, Lois?"
His deep voice spiked a shiver through her, low and masculine and making Lois wonder how she could have failed to notice the potential, before. If there had been just one person willing to hold on, would he ever have left in the first place?
"Clark," she blurted, impulsive as anything she did, "do you want to go out for coffee sometime?"
Blue eyes widened in her direction, and Clark's mouth rounded in that dumfounded look he pulled every time someone threw him a curveball. For once, Lois found it charming instead of irritating. Wait, was something wrong with her? Was she hormonal, her ovaries having decided to take point on this one? This was Clark.
Who had a low, sexy voice, big hands with long, fine-boned fingers, the most intense blue eyes she'd ever had focused on her...and he did look at her, she realized just then. Clark looked her way almost every time she raised her head, as if gravitating to her like a blade of grass to the sun.
"Or dinner..." she trailed off, and gave him a sheepish smile. She didn't think she could make her interest any more obvious without taking her top off. Most men seemed to get that just fine. Not that she'd done that with many men but maybe she'd do it for Clark if he asked nicely...all right, that had to be ovulation talking.
"Hey, are you ready?" a cheerful voice prompted from some point behind her right shoulder, and Lois swiveled, a hand going to her hair. Lois scraped her hair back, giving Richard White a 'back off' sort of look. If he thought he was going to horn in now that she'd noticed someone else in the bullpen and was taking an interest, he had another thing coming. He raised his eyebrows in response, blue-green eyes cool as a sea becalmed.
"Richard, we don't have a lunch date today," Lois said, flapping a hand as if to shoo him off. They still shared Jason-time, and sometimes met at lunch to strategize.
Richard's brows reached their peak height. "Oh, I wasn't asking you," he said smoothly, and lifted his chin as he looked beyond her. "Clark, ready to go?"
Clark gave her a brief, deprecating nod as he moved past her.
"We'll talk later," Lois said confidently, already considering how to encourage Richard to pick up the munchkin for the evening so that she could make her moves on Clark. As the two men moved off, Richard shot her an inscrutable look. They moved off toward the elevators, side by side with enough space for a very slim briefcase between them, maybe. If the briefcase was empty. Lois's brow knit and she fit her thumbnail between her teeth again. It was almost lunchtime, the bullpen was empty with most reporters out on the beat, and there was plenty of space to move around... She watched them until they reached the elevators, then as they waited she wondered why Clark had looked so staggered when she invited him out, then with a ping the elevator doors opened and the men moved in tandem for it, Richard's hand cupping Clark's elbow.
"Huh," Lois said.
Well, there was always Superman.