Meet Me in Kansas City

By Chris Mulder (mulders@mindspring.com)

Summary: A novel that explores what might have happened if, instead of applying for a job at the Daily Planet, Clark had found work somewhere else. Will Lois and Clark meet? And what would they think of each other? "I wrote this story," the author says, "because I believe that people who are meant to be together will find each other."

Author's Note: I wrote this story because I believe that people who are meant to be together will find each other, no matter what. I mean, look at Lois and Clark. Here we have a couple who started out life separated by millions of miles of space and yet … they found one another! Talk about your needles and haystacks! Anyway, that got me thinking. What if, instead of applying for a job at the "Daily Planet," Clark had gotten a job somewhere else? What if, he was still looking for a way to, as he put it in the Pilot, " … use what [he'd] been given to do some good?" What if, Lois hadn't yet met a "superguy," what if, she were still having only "interviews" and not "dates?" What if, we could turn the whole thing upside down for a while, and shake it (just a little), and see what happens? Given the personalities of our main characters, I thought it would be fun to see what might happen if they'd met say, on a more even playing field — if Lois hadn't been "top banana" and Clark a mere "hack from Nowheresville."

If these thoughts intrigue you as much as they did me, then come with me to "those thrilling days of yesteryear … " Uh, sorry about that, wrong show. :-)

Anyway, I hope this little flight of fancy will entertain you. I will be using a lot of references and phrases from seasons one & two, but the Lois and Clark that you'll be reading about will be the ones I came to know and love in the first season. I'll also make references to some of the events that took place in the beginning of first season. One big change in continuity that I allowed myself was that Jonathan and Martha saw and retrieved the globe from Clark's space ship before Jonathan buried the little craft. (It never made sense to me that they wouldn't have seen it.)

Many of the people, restaurants, etc., that are mentioned in this story are fictional, as is the "Kansas City Dispatch" and the U.S. Press Association Convention. However, I did get some wonderfully helpful brochures, maps, etc., from the Travel & Tourism folks of both Kansas and Missouri (since Kansas City has a foot in both states), to provide me with background material. I'd also like to thank Jeff Brogden, the list's Kansas expert, for his help: answering *all* my questions about the area, pointing me towards some great websites and agreeing to read over the results for me. Thank you, Jeff. :-)

This story is based on the ABC-TV show, "Lois & Clark, the New Adventures of Superman." All recognizable characters are the property of their respective owners.

*Asterisks* around a word denote emphasis.

<Angle brackets> around words or sentences highlight Lois' little inner warning voice.

Asterisks between sections denote a change of scene, or passage of time. I've used one (*), two (**), or three (***) between sections as a way to help the reader distinguish between short and long breaks in the action.

***

CHAPTER ONE

Geez! What a day! First it was car trouble, then her source had decided he hadn't exactly seen what he thought he'd seen, then Perry had refused to run her story (even though she was sure she could get corroboration by press time), the photos she'd been counting on for another story had mostly turned out blurry, and on, and on, and on. Why am I a reporter anyway? I must be out of my mind! Nothing but aggravation … Jimmy Olsen, full-time photographer and apprentice reporter for the "Daily Planet," watched Lois Lane from the relative safety of his own cubicle. The blurry photos hadn't been his fault, thank heavens (he'd been on another assignment at the time), but he'd heard all about them anyway. Lois was a great reporter, no doubt about it. In fact, she was probably the best in the city (she had enough awards), but she also had her little "ways," as Perry put it … and stress certainly brought them out.

She was sitting at her desk now, angrily picking up papers and slapping them back onto her desk, crossing things out (and breaking pencils and gouging paper and getting madder), gesturing with her hands and muttering to herself. She'd talk herself into a better mood after a while. Lois rarely held a grudge and she wasn't mean, she just liked for things to go her way. Little setbacks were okay; medium-sized setbacks meant thunderclouds on the horizon, local conditions clear; large-sized setbacks meant that an all-out, kick-ass, frog-strangling thunderstorm was fixin' to bust loose!

Jimmy had become very good at reading these signs. Consequently, a sort of big-sister/younger-brother relationship had developed between them. Lois let him tag along with her occasionally, which he really appreciated since she mostly worked alone. She'd been encouraging him to write and had even (in a weak moment) critiqued his work for him. He didn't have a byline of his own yet, but he was hoping to some day.

That was for the future. Right now he just wanted to get through the rest of this day unscathed, if possible. He glanced at his watch again.

Four-thirty, almost there. Wonder if they need my help in the darkroom?

***

The paper had been put to bed, several "Planet" staffers were getting their things together in preparation for heading home, and the night staff was coming in. Perry White, Chief Editor, came out of his office and looked around for his star reporter.

"Damn!"

"What's up, Chief?"

"Oh, Lois, there you are! I thought I'd missed you."

"I was in the microfilm room, checking on something. Did you need me?"

"Yeah, I've been trying to get a chance to talk to you about this all afternoon, but, well … you know how it is."

"Mm, it's been one of those days," she said ruefully.

"Well, what I want to talk to you about is; the U.S. Press Association's Annual Meeting is coming up next month, and it's your turn to go."

Lois groaned inwardly. It wasn't that she didn't enjoy herself at these functions, because she did, but she would have liked it a lot better if there were a page one story in it for her. She would've hated to have missed out on a 48 pt. headline just because she was at a party.

"'The Planet' is sending five people this year, including me — I'm even going to spend my own money to take Alice along this time. We're going to stop off and see the boys in Des Moines on the way home. I'm saving one of the remaining four slots for you, Lois."

"That would be great, Perry, but I'm really swamped right now … "

"I can't believe what I'm hearing! Lois, think about this. You didn't go last year because you were working undercover on that real estate/banking scandal. I understood you needed to finish that story — which was a great one, by the way."

Lois smiled at the compliment.

"Now, you're making excuses not to go again. Lois, you need some time away from the office. I'm getting concerned about you, honey. I'm as much of a workaholic as the next guy, but there has to be a limit. Now, your editor is in a give-order mode, and I'm ordering you to go with me, and three of your fellow workers, to Kansas City next month for three days of fun and relaxation (with a few meetings, discussion groups and boring dinner speeches thrown in so that it looks like work)." He paused, peered at her over the rim of his glasses and grinned. "Even Elvis took vacations."

Lois had to laugh. Perry could be so funny when he put his mind to it. But his words had made her think. She *was* spending an inordinate amount of time working — just as her sister, Lucy, had pointed out to her. She used to go to movies or dinner with friends, but she suddenly realized that many of her friends had stopped calling. Not that she could blame them. How many times does one have to hear, "Sorry, can't tonight, have to work," before one decides to write that person off as a bad risk?

"You're right, Perry, I can't let this place be my whole life. Maybe some of my friends from Journalism School will be there." Then her face clouded over. "I hope that creep, Claude, isn't there."

"He probably won't be. I heard the 'Times' shipped him to their Paris bureau where his, uh, proclivities would be less likely to cause problems." The sardonic look on Perry's face made Lois chuckle again. "You get on outta here. I'll see you tomorrow."

"Okay, Perry. See you tomorrow."

Perry went back to his office and sat at his desk. He watched her get her things together and head for the elevator. Suddenly, she stopped, turned around, picked up some file folders which were on her desk and put them in her huge pocketbook/brief case. Perry just shook his head and sighed. "What am I going to do with her?"

***

The opening reception was in full swing. Lois was beginning to relax and enjoy herself. The dinner buffet looked pretty good, the music being played was varied and pleasant to listen to, and she'd seen several people she knew. Perry had been right; it was good to get away once in a while and catch up on what other people were doing — especially when one could learn that one's own job was more interesting than anyone else's. Not that her friends or former classmates didn't have interesting jobs, it's just that she was very proud of what she'd been able to accomplish at the "Daily Planet."

She knew that in the Old Boys' Club, which journalism still was, she was something of an exception; a young, attractive woman who also was at the top of her field. And she'd gotten there by hard work alone, by always getting there first, by giving up a lot of free time to pursue stories, by being tough, and forthright and tenacious. She'd risked her life time and again for a headline, but it had all been worth it. She was respected by her peers and she was the star reporter for the "greatest newspaper in the world." Things just didn't get any better than this.

She'd never been to Kansas City before, but had been impressed with the aerial view she'd gotten as the airplane had circled over it prior to landing that afternoon. Spring was more in evidence here than it had been in Metropolis, sunlight sparkled on the rivers and the sprawling city with its varied skyline had intrigued her in spite of herself. The hotel/convention center was impressive and the suite she was sharing with Diane, one of the City Desk reporters, was very comfortable indeed.

"Hey there, Lois! Now, aren't you glad I made you come?"

Lois looked around at the sound of that familiar voice. "Hi, Perry. And, yes," she added with a smile, "I am enjoying myself." She looked past him. "What have you done with Alice?"

"She's in the powder room. Listen, there's someone I want you to meet. A real nice young fellow, works for the 'Kansas City Dispatch.' He's already an assistant editor, very bright, very — "

"Uh, Perry, I don't really want to … "

*"Why 'Perilous!!' I didn't know you were going to be here!"*

Lois turned and found that the booming voice belonged to a wall of a man in a cowboy hat and powder blue suit — she didn't know people actually wore such things. "Perilous," huh? This sounded like potential blackmail material. She looked at Perry and cocked an eyebrow. Her editor was pointedly ignoring her.

"Well, if it isn't 'Wild Bill!' How are you, man? I haven't seen you in years."

"I'm fine, jes fine." He drawled as he ran a connoisseur's eye over Lois. "And who is this pretty little filly?" He winked at Perry. "Not runnin' around on Alice now, are we? That would be perilous, 'Perilous!'" He bent over laughing at his own joke, and Lois couldn't resist a small giggle. The look on Perry's face was priceless!

"Now, Bill, you know I would never do that. Alice is in the powder room. This is Lois Lane, my star reporter."

"Wild Bill" looked her over again, took the hand she was holding out to him and turned towards Perry. "This little slip of a thang is the tigress who gets all those great stories for you? She looks like she weighs all of a hundred pounds, soaking wet. Y'all must raise 'em up tough up there in Metropolis." He turned back to Lois. "Honey, it's a real pleasure to meet you, and if you ever git tired of workin' for old 'Perilous' here, you jes come on down to Houston — now there's a city!"

Lois rescued her hand as politely as she could. "That's certainly a tempting offer, uh 'Wild Bill.' But I'm very happy at 'The Planet.'"

"Well, hello, Bill. It's nice to see you again."

Perry turned gratefully towards his wife. "Here you are, honey. Look who's here."

Alice certainly has a way with her, mused Lois, as she watched the three old friends together. She'd tamed "Wild Bill" in about 3.2 seconds — he'd pulled his hat off quicker than lightning when she'd walked up *and* he'd lowered his voice by about 60 decibels.

Since things appeared to be settling down, Lois decided to slip away. With any luck, by the time she'd see Perry again he would have forgotten all about introducing her to that "nice young fellow" from the "Kansas City Dispatch." The last thing she needed was a convention romance. What could Perry be thinking of? She said her good-byes, whispered, "See ya later, 'Perilous'" to Perry as she passed him, and made good her escape.

CHAPTER TWO

"You know, Clark, I never will understand why some of the old timers tried to keep women out of the news business. I mean, will you just look at all the *babes* in this room."

"'Babes?' Barry, I don't think they would appreciate being called, 'babes.'"

"I know, I know. You don't think I'm going to actually call one of them that, do you?"

"Well, I would hope not." Clark Kent smiled resignedly at his co-worker. Barry was always chasing after some girl or trying to get his friends to fix him up with girls, but he never seemed to have any luck in forming lasting relationships. Clark thought Barry would do better to just be himself, but Barry was perpetually looking for the right come on, or the perfect opening line.

Barry's eyes popped open appreciatively. "Wow, look at *her!*"

Clark started to turn around, but Barry stopped him. "No, don't! She'll see us looking at her."

Clark obligingly stood still so the other man could use him as a cover for his "spying." From the rapt look on Barry's face the young lady in question must be really something.

"I've *got* to meet her. I've just got to. She's headed towards the drinks table. See you later, Clark."

He started off after his quarry, but turned back momentarily to remind Clark not to be so shy and to get busy and have some fun. Clark watched the would-be Romeo hurrying away and glanced past him to catch a glimpse of the young woman who had inspired such an extreme reaction. He couldn't see her face, but she did have a nice figure and pretty, dark brown hair. She carried herself well; in fact she looked like a woman who would know just how to handle a guy like Barry, despite the fact that the top of her head would probably barely come to Clark's chin. Clark turned away before Barry reached the unknown's side — he didn't want to witness the upcoming carnage.

In fact, Clark was thinking about calling it a night. He'd been on the committee that had put this convention together and that, combined with an already full schedule at the "Dispatch," meant he hadn't had much free time lately. He was seriously thinking about slipping away and flying down to see his parents. It had been a month since he'd been able to get down there and he missed them.

They were the only other people in the world who knew he was not human — that his Kryptonian physiology was able to store and use the rays of the Earth's yellow sun to give him unique powers. At times, this isolation of his was acutely hard to bear. When that happened, a trip home helped him find his balance again in addition to giving him solace, because the farm where he grew up was one place where he could truly be himself.

"Well, Kent, you made it, I see."

Clark glanced around to see his editor, Johnson Davies, coming towards him. He waited a moment until J.D. had reached his side, and then replied, "Yes, sir. We put the paper to bed a little over an hour ago."

"Good, good." J.D. then lapsed into silence and stood looking around the large room with its constantly shifting crowd.

When he'd first started working for this kindly, quiet man these silences had disconcerted Clark — he hadn't known what was expected of him. He'd since learned, though, that J.D.'s retiring demeanor masked a keen observer of people and life; that the silences were just his way of absorbing and cataloging information which would later be used to wonderful effect in his writing. What he lacked in social graces was more than made up for in his skill with a pen. Clark had learned a lot from this man and was very grateful to be working with him. So they stood together, observing the crowd and occasionally breaking the companionable silence when one or the other felt the need.

"Ah, I see a former colleague of mine, Perry White. Let me introduce you to him, Clark."

"I met him earlier, J.D."

"Did you? That's good. He was a great reporter in his day. Did I ever tell you that he and I were in Beirut together — before the marines showed up? Those were the days. He's done all right for himself as Chief Editor of the 'Daily Planet.' I think I'll go say 'Hello.'"

Clark watched his boss walk off and saw the two newsmen greet each other. He looked at his watch. If he left right now he'd have about an hour at home before his parents would be going to bed.

Maybe Mom made a pie for supper, he thought, and just maybe — if I'm lucky — there will be some left over for me. He smiled to himself as he headed for the door. He'd almost made it when he felt someone tug on his arm. He turned and nearly groaned when he saw Barry's distraught face.

"She shot me down, Clark. Like I've never been shot down before. I think I'm in love. Really! I really do. You've got to help me, Clark. How do I get her to talk to me?"

**

"It's not funny, Diane."

Lois was fuming because some guy had had the nerve to walk right up to her during what had so far been a pretty decent evening and had tried to hit on her.

"Well, Lois, I think it's hysterical. I didn't know guys still used lines like that. And you … well, running over him with a steamroller would have been kinder. If you hadn't been so angry you would have laughed, too, at the expression on his face."

Lois stared at the attractive blonde next to her as she thought about what Diane had just said. She had to admit the poor guy had rather resembled some tiny forest creature who was about to become intimately, and terminally, acquainted with a semi. She giggled, her brown eyes twinkling. "I did kind of … annihilate him, didn't I?"

Diane rolled her eyes. "Honey, he may never walk upright or produce a coherent sentence again in his life — and you didn't even lay a finger on him. My hat's off to you, and for the good of all womankind, I think you should write a book and pass on your secret to the rest of us mere mortals."

This made Lois laugh a little harder. She could feel her irritation fading away. Diane was right, it was good to look at the funny side of it. As she wiped her eyes, she could see Perry bearing down on her. He looked quite determined and she had a feeling she knew why. She quickly told Diane she'd see her later, and slipped away. When Perry got to where Lois had been standing, there was no sign of her.

"Great shades of Elvis! Where did that girl get to?"

All Diane could do was shrug her shoulders.

**

Clark was trying to be a good listener, he really was, but he'd heard this kind of thing from Barry before. He sort of wished the man would get a hobby … preferably something that did not involve women in any way, shape or form. He was forcing himself not to look at his watch when his beeper went off. Thank heavens! He apologized to Barry and sprinted off to find a phone. If it wasn't anything too major — if it was a problem he could solve over the phone — he planned to head straight to his car after making this call. He did *not* want to run the risk of falling into Barry's clutches again.

**

Lois had slipped into the exhibit area in an effort to avoid Perry. She saw a couple more people whom she knew, registered to win a set of encyclopedias and was trying out some new software in one of the booths when she heard the unmistakable booming tones of "Wild Bill." Since she didn't think she could handle another dose of Houston's loudest, she quickly thanked the young man in the booth and hurried away. As she rounded a corner, she thought she heard him calling after her, but she pretended not to hear. This is getting tiring, she thought. She slowed down and glanced behind her, but didn't see any further sign of him. Thank goodness! Maybe this would be a good time to head for her room. She looked back one more time, went around a group of large potted plants and walked right into Perry.

"Lois! There you are!"

I'm doomed, she thought.

**

Clark hung up the phone. Well, that hadn't been too bad, just a question from one of the junior reporters who was under his supervision. Now to head for home. He took his name tag off, put it in his pocket and began to make his way to an exit, going in a direction which would almost ensure that he wouldn't meet up with Barry.

"Mr. Kent!"

Clark turned and saw a woman gesturing to him. She looked familiar and he rapidly searched his memory, sifting through the dozens of new names he'd heard that evening. Just as he reached her side, he remembered with relief where he'd seen her before and with whom, and he had a name. "Hello, Mrs. White."

She smiled at him as she took his arm. "I see you found me. Has Perry been waiting long?"

Clark looked from Alice White's face to the face of the woman she'd been talking to, and decided to play along. "Not too long. Would you like me to take you to him?"

"That's very kind of you, Mr. Kent. First though, let me introduce you. Mr. Kent, this is Mrs. Henry Gargan; Amelia, this is Clark Kent." She watched as the two shook hands, then reclaimed Clark's arm. "So lovely to see you again, Amelia."

Clark felt Alice's hand squeeze his arm lightly and he took that as a signal to leave. "Nice to meet you, Mrs. Gargan."

"Ah, yes … and you, too, Mr. uh, Kent."

The two of them moved away in the direction of the ballroom where the reception was being held. Clark held his peace and waited.

"Dreadful woman." Alice White looked up at Clark's face briefly before turning her eyes forward again. "I'm very grateful to you for rescuing me just now. If I'd had to listen to one more thing her son the lawyer was doing, or hear about one more elaborate gift her son the doctor had bought for her … well, I just wouldn't be responsible for my actions, that's all." She smiled briefly up at him, and he smiled back. She kind of reminded him of one of his aunts on his dad's side of the family. He liked her.

"I'm glad I could be of service, Mrs. White."

She patted his arm with her free hand, and he smiled at her again. What a handsome young man, she thought, even with the glasses — all that dark hair, those beautiful eyes, and he had such a sweet disposition, too. He'd be a wonderful catch for some lucky young woman. That smile of his was certainly making her very married heart flutter pleasurably.

"I think I see Perry. Your knight-errantry will soon be over, Mr. Kent." He blushed a little, which surprised her, as he stumbled over his words. She had thought that blushing, like modesty, had gone the way of the dinosaurs. Are there anymore at home like you? she wondered.

Perry turned and spotted them coming towards him. She could see that he had Lois in tow. The two parties met and Perry was asking Alice if she was all right — he wasn't used to seeing her walking on the arms of young men whom she barely knew. She was assuring him that she was fine, that Mr. Kent had merely rescued her from *Amelia* and very gallantly, too. Perry said, "Oh, brother! You mean that Gargan woman is here?" and then turned to introduce Lois to Mr. Kent. The words froze on his lips. It seemed that Lois and Clark had already found each other.

Clark never felt Alice take her hand from his arm, nor did he know how he'd gotten from her side to Lois's. Somehow his feet had moved without him having to tell them. His heart knew her even though he'd never met her, and he just had to be where she was. He wasn't aware of the ballroom or the people or the music or even the floor under his feet … only of her. He couldn't take his eyes off of her — that face, those eyes. Those eyes. In those eyes he saw someone brave and strong, but also someone who had been hurt and betrayed. He longed to talk to her, to touch her, to be with her. He wanted to find out who was responsible for the hurt he saw, and he wanted to be certain she would never be hurt again.

Lois had seen Alice approaching on the arm of an unknown young man and felt her earlier irritation returning. Was this some kind of set up? When she heard the concern in Perry's voice, and matched it with the relief and annoyance she heard in Alice's, she began to have her doubts. Maybe this wasn't the "nice young fellow" from the "Kansas City Dispatch" after all. Maybe he was just a guy who'd happened to have helped out her boss's wife. She turned to look at him more closely and met his eyes and for the first time in her life she lost herself in someone else's gaze. She felt her heart turn over and found she liked that feeling. Of her own accord she moved forward to meet him until they were only a foot apart. She couldn't take her eyes off of him, even though the part of her brain that normally warned her back from such collisions was screaming at her to <reverse course, down periscope and dive, dive, *dive!*>

CHAPTER THREE

<You're going to be sooorrrry!>

That nagging voice inside her head was back.

<What do you think you're doing, getting into his car like this? You're in a city where you don't know anyone, you don't know your way around and you're letting this guy, whom you've just met, take you some place you don't know anything about!>

Quiet!!

"Is this the first time you've been to Kansas City?"

She withdrew her gaze from the view outside the car and turned towards him. "Yes, it is. It looked … interesting from the air this afternoon."

"It's a nice city." He hesitated and seemed to be looking for something else to say. "Maybe … if you've got some free time … maybe I could … show you some of the sights."

"That would be nice."

<What did you say *that* for? You shouldn't be making plans with him! You don't know anything about this guy!>

Lois turned to look out of the window again. A thousand thoughts, memories and impressions were freewaying through her head — on- and off-ramping, merging, cutting in, braking: Clark's soft voice saying "Hi," the loudness of the voices around her when she'd returned to a sense of her surroundings, the wink from Alice as she'd led a stunned and (mercifully) silent Perry away, the tingle Lois had felt when she'd touched Clark's hand for the first time, the admiration in his eyes when he'd looked at her … That look had been what had made her decide to go with him when he'd suggested it.

She'd been admired by men before, and she thought she'd seen all the different ways a man could look at a woman; possessively, covetously, hungrily, slyly, smugly. Then along came this Clark Kent. When he'd looked at her, he'd seen her as a whole person — she was sure of it — not just as an attractive collection of various body parts. His eyes, never wavering from her face, seemed to have been able to see into her very soul: to all her hopes, doubts, ambitions, hurts, regrets and accomplishments. It never occurred to her to glance away, to break eye contact, for even as she was allowing him to see into her innermost being, he was granting her that same privilege. And in his eyes she saw not hunger or possessiveness, but friendship, regard, kindness, empathy and wonder. Then he'd smiled and said, "Hi" in a gentle, soft voice and she'd had no choice but to smile back. What was it about him that made it seem like she'd just found her long-lost best friend?

"I'm sorry. I seem to be staring," he'd said in that same soft voice. "That's okay," she'd responded, still smiling at him, "I guess I was, too." "I'm Clark Kent," he'd said, as he held out his hand. "I'm Lois Lane," she'd said as she put her hand in his. That lightest of contacts had sent delicious tingles up and down her spine. His hand had felt so strong and yet so gentle and she'd moved a half step closer to him, when suddenly and unwelcomingly a sense of her surroundings had rushed back to her.

The brightness of the lights and volume of the voices nearly staggered her. She looked around, wondering how long she'd been out of it. Perry and Alice were still there, so it couldn't have been too long, but Perry's mouth was hanging open and Alice was dragging him away before he could say anything, so it had been long enough. What could have gotten into her?

She'd felt herself blushing and saw that Clark was having a similar reaction to their situation. They both realized at the same time that they were still holding hands, but were unsure what to do about it. They laughed a little, self-consciously, and then dropped each other's hands, but didn't move any further apart. Her nagging inner voice had told her to think up an excuse to leave, *now* while the getting was good, but she'd ignored it and had stood there talking to him, listening to him, watching his expressions, responding to his smiles. When Clark had suggested they go some place quieter, where they could really talk, maybe have something to eat, she'd agreed. The voice had said, <No, no, no! He's just trying to separate you from the herd. The better to … > He's not like that, she'd countered. <They're *all* like that> the voice had said, dryly.

As he'd guided her towards the doors of the ballroom, she was thinking they'd end up in one of the half dozen bars or restaurants with which the hotel was equipped. Once in the relative quiet of the lobby, though, he'd said he knew this great little place … <Of course he does> … that was near a lake. The food was good, the music soft and they could just relax and get to know one another. <Yeah, right!> She'd agreed to go with him, and the voice had become nearly apoplectic, and now she was in his car, heading she didn't know where, riding through the night with a man whom she didn't really know … "Well, let's see. There's lots to do, especially this time of year. There are theatres and museums and parks … You'll have to tell me what kinds of things you like to do and I'll check to see what'll be available while you're here."

It took her a moment to understand what he was talking about, to realize that while she'd been off battling with her annoying inner voice for a few microseconds, Clark had been continuing his side of the conversation. She hoped he hadn't noticed her brief side trip.

Clark heard himself talking about parks and museums and wondered if he'd lost his mind. Can't you think of something more interesting than that? He looked at her from the corner of his eye; she was staring out the window again.

You're probably boring her to death!

He could hardly believe she'd agreed to come with him anyway. In fact, he could hardly believe he'd gotten up the nerve to ask her; he'd certainly never done anything like that before in his life. Of course, he'd never met anyone like Lois Lane before either. There was a quality about her that spoke to something in him he hadn't even known existed — something that had lain dormant until this evening. Now if he could just think of something intelligent to say … Good grief! I'm starting to sound like Barry!

That thought amused him so much, he felt the tension in him ease a little bit. Maybe he should follow his own advice for Barry, and just be himself.

He looked over in Lois's direction and found that she was looking at him. They smiled at one another and each, in their own way, felt at ease again. Things just might work out after all.

They made small talk during the next part of the journey. His car, she had one almost like it, when had he bought his? (It was a Jeep, but a later model than hers and dark blue instead of silver.) She made comparisons between the traffic of Metropolis and what she'd seen so far in Kansas City. He said he didn't think anything could compare to the traffic in Shanghai, and she laughed and said he hadn't seen Metropolis on a hot Friday afternoon when everyone decides to head out of town for the weekend. He had to admit that that sounded pretty wild.

Another silence, but less awkward than the last time. Clark was concentrating on maneuvering safely through a sudden knot of cars and Lois was content to watch him. He was certainly the most courteous driver she had ever ridden with, and the most forbearing. Nothing the other drivers did seemed to get under his skin. He also had amazing reflexes, she noted thankfully, after he'd deftly avoided a collision with a car full of joy-riding teenage boys. She could feel herself relaxing even more. Something that wasn't easy for her, as she usually preferred to do the driving.

They drove a little further and exited off the freeway into a residential area. The homes became more and more upscale and she began to wonder what kind of job he had that he could afford to take her to a restaurant in this neighborhood. They didn't stay in that neighborhood very long, however, and when they turned into an industrial-looking part of town, her inner voice started harping at her again. <I hope you're happy now! Just look where we are!> Lois did look, and she didn't like what she saw or what she was thinking. Everything looked so deserted.

Clark was chatting with her again, telling her about how much the city had changed in just the short time he'd lived there. She was trying to hold up her end of the conversation, but a large part of her mind was centered on what to do if … *if* … Oh, god, I don't want to think about "if!"

Now that her mind was flirting with various doomsday scenarios, she noticed for the first time just how strong Clark looked. His shoulders were certainly broad and he was quite a bit taller than her, too. She hadn't really taken it in before because he'd seemed so soft-spoken and gentle. <It's always the quiet ones, isn't it?> She began to mentally review her Tae Kwon Do moves … and every other bit of martial arts training she'd ever received.

Clark made a couple more turns and the buildings got farther apart, the road got darker and the landscape got a lot more wooded. Lois's heart sank, but she continued smiling and talking to him, and tried not to listen to that blankety-blank inner voice.

At least she'd have the element of surprise on her side, she tried to tell herself. But her "self" didn't feel any more cheerful. <Nah-nah-nah, nah-nah, nah!> Great shades of Elvis, what had she gotten herself into?!

What was he saying? Something about a speaker who was going to be at the conference tomorrow? Tomorrow seemed a long way off right now, and so did Kansas City … the hotel … people.

The car turned again … onto a gravel road. Uh oh. Lois could feel herself tensing. They went around a bend and the trees thinned out. There were lights, and other cars — a parking lot, a sign with the name of the restaurant on it, people, the gleam of the moonlight on water … All wild and scary thoughts exited stage right and, without her Greek chorus chanting predictions of disaster into her all-too-willing ear, Clark ceased to look like a satyr and resumed his previous, mild-mannered appearance. Lois could feel a flush of relief — and shame — crimsoning her face, making her glad for the relative darkness of the car's interior.

The restaurant Clark had chosen was charming. It had log cabin-like construction with a low-pitched roof, and a covered porch which went around all four sides of the building. Fireplaces were set at the two narrow ends, and large windows looked out over the water and the flower gardens which, at this time of year, were not yet at their peak. Soft, danceable music could be heard above the sounds of crickets and other night creatures as Clark assisted Lois in getting out of the car. She paused for a moment to look around her and had to admit she was pleased with his choice. See, she told herself, this is going to be all right. <It ain't over 'til it's over> Hush!

Because of the relative lateness of the hour and the fact that it was the middle of the week, Clark was able to secure a nice table for them by one of the windows. Usually, he told her, you have to make reservations at least a day in advance.

She nodded at his remark, but knew a little twinge of disappointment — so he's brought other women here before. <What did I tell you?>

Clark was holding her chair for her and, as she sat down, she forced herself to focus on what he was saying and tried not to look crestfallen.

"The first time I was here, the office was holding a party for a staff member who was getting married and moving away. I liked the place so much, I wanted to bring my parents here." He settled Lois into her place and then slipped into his own chair. "I made the mistake of calling for reservations on the day they arrived to visit me, though, and found that a little more planning was necessary than I'd thought." He was smiling as he told his story, and listening to him, she felt herself begin to smile again. "So, a few months after that, when I wanted to treat them to dinner and a show for their anniversary, I made sure I called *three* days before they even got here." He laughed a little at the memory. "I was kind of surprised when I phoned from the hotel that they had tables available tonight, but I'm glad they did."

Their waiter came up just then to take their drink order giving Lois the opportunity to tell her pesky inner voice to go stuff itself. Every single time it had predicted doom and gloom, Clark had proven it wrong, so Lois decided she was going to shove the little monster into a closet and toss away the key for the duration of the evening.

CHAPTER FOUR

The waiter left and Lois glanced around the large room. There was a small dance floor at the opposite end of the restaurant from where they were sitting, and a few couples were dancing to music being played by a lone musician. From the looks of things there was a more elaborate set up for busier nights. She asked Clark about it and he confirmed that his parent's anniversary had fallen on a Friday night and there had been a three-piece band then.

From there it was an easy jump to music and musicians, then plays … so that by the time their drinks arrived, they were so engrossed in their discussion, they barely noticed. It amazed her how easily they slipped into conversation, as if they'd known each other for years. It felt strange and yet familiar, too, to be talking to Clark. They covered some of the usual first-time-on-a-date topics and, while she knew she had no reason to know the answers to the questions she was asking him, she really had a sense of having heard all of this before — a feeling that she should know this stuff already, but without knowing why or how.

She heard about the farm he'd grown up on, and could tell from his voice and his expression how much that place and his family meant to him. It made her a little jealous to listen to him talk with such affection for his parents since her own growing up years had been filled with parental squabbles, quarrels, separations and finally, an ugly divorce. So many of the memories of that time she'd kept locked up inside, choosing not to talk, or even think, about them unless forced to.

There was something about Clark, though, that seemed to invite confidences and she found herself telling him a bit about her childhood and her inability to please her father — a distant, but talented doctor who " … only came home to criticize. I'd say, 'Look Daddy, I got a 98 on this test.' And he'd say, 'That's great Lois. That leaves two points for improvement.'" The sympathetic way Clark had laid his hand on hers had almost brought a tear to her eye, and she didn't know whether to be glad or sorry when the waiter had interrupted them by bringing hot breads and salads to the table.

Wanting to change the subject, she began talking about the story she was going to start working on when she got back to Metropolis — exposing a car theft ring. She told Clark that Jimmy had promised to show her how to boost a car and all about the disguise she planned to wear to infiltrate the gang. He was amazed at her daring as well as concerned for her safety, but kept his fears to himself, sensing that she would resent what would seem like interference. After all, Lois Lane had gotten herself in and out of a lot of situations before while chasing down stories. Who was he to suddenly be telling her what to do? Instead, he asked who Jimmy was and laughed at her description of the eager, young, wannabe reporter.

The salad plates were removed and their dinner appeared. Clark told Lois he'd known a "Jimmy-like" cub reporter at a paper he'd worked for in Borneo. The similarities were almost uncanny. She asked how he'd ended up working for a newspaper in Borneo and he told her a bit about the traveling he'd done after college. From there it was but a short step to world politics, current events and famous people, such as Lex Luthor. Clark had heard of the man, of course … who hadn't? He wanted to know if Lois had ever met him, and she had to admit she hadn't — yet. She'd seen him at press conferences and at one or two of his infrequent public appearances, but she confided to Clark that one of her major ambitions was to " … get the first one-on-one Lex Luthor interview, even if it kills me!"

"Would you like something else?"

The waiter was back at their table, taking their plates and offering them coffee … dessert, perhaps?

For the second time that evening Lois was brought abruptly back to a sense of her surroundings. She looked at her watch and saw that it was after 11 — where had the time gone? She started to refuse anything for herself, but Clark managed to persuade her to share a dessert with him. He promised she wouldn't be disappointed — his parents were still talking about it — so she acquiesced to his request and the waiter went away to fulfill their order.

Lois looked idly around the room, noticing that all but six of the tables were now unoccupied. Two couples were still dancing, but things were definitely winding down for the evening.

"Uhm … ?"

She turned back towards Clark at this tentative syllable. "Yes?"

"Well, it will be a while before the dessert is ready. Would you … ?"

He was looking slightly ill at ease, so she smiled a little to encourage him. He cleared his throat and tried again.

"Would you like to dance while we're waiting?"

She agreed (secretly hoping he knew something besides square-dancing), and he held her chair for her, then let her lead the way to the dance floor. There was only one other couple still dancing, so it was as if they had the place to themselves. She was losing herself to the soft music when … "You dance pretty good … for a reporter."

Lois looked up at Clark in surprise and then realized that he was teasing her. People didn't usually tease Lois Lane, so it took her a moment to come up with a response.

"Yeah, well, I guess all the tennis I played in college taught me to be light on my feet. You're not so bad yourself … farm boy." He was grinning now. "I suppose all that football *you* played in college is responsible?"

"Actually, I learned from a Nigerian princess who'd studied ballroom dancing in England."

She thought he was still teasing her. "Oh, really? How fascinating!"

"Well, it was actually. Her brother and I used to play football on the cricket lawn behind the mansion, too. Their mother was always trying to get us to stop, but their father would just say, 'Let the boys have some fun, Mother. I wish I could be out there with them.' And then she'd say … "

She'd been listening to him with growing amazement. "You're not kidding, are you?"

He grinned at her. "Nope."

There was something about his grin that one just had to respond to, and Lois did. Then she found herself chuckling; she was having so much fun! Clark chuckled too, and pulled her back into the dance, moving with a controlled grace and strength that thrilled her. He was just one surprise after another!

She was dancing with her head against his shoulder by the time the waiter returned with their dessert. No one had ever made her feel the things she was feeling now. How could Clark's shoulder seem like the natural place for her head, his hand the natural place for hers?

Her head said be careful, you've just met this guy, but her heart … her heart was telling her otherwise.

The music stopped and Clark guided her to their table, keeping his hand on her back this time — a gesture she normally would have interpreted as possessive, but with Clark, well … When she saw the dessert she could understand why it had taken a while for it to appear. In the middle of a rather large pearl-white dinner plate sat a small piece of what would assuredly turn out to be one of the richest chocolate concoctions known to man. Placed around it in a star-like pattern were raspberries and slices of strawberries. Two strawberry slices adorned the top of the cake, also. In the remaining space someone had drizzled a line of a raspberry- colored sauce and a line of caramel-colored sauce in a pattern reminiscent of a spirograph picture. Powdered sugar had been lightly sprinkled over the entire production. Lois's eyes popped open at the sight of so much opulence and Clark watched her delightedly, happy to have pleased her. It *was* delicious and they enjoyed eating it almost as much as they enjoyed sharing it.

The musician finished playing at about the same time they were finishing their coffee. They were one of the last two couples there. Clark left a generous tip, paid the bill and they got ready to leave. They walked out into the quiet, star-lit night and their hands found each other. Without saying a word they began strolling towards the lake, following a well-worn path illuminated by small lamps stuck into the ground at strategic points.

It was cooler by the water and Lois moved a bit closer to Clark for warmth. He took his jacket off and put it on her shoulders, then kept an arm around her as they watched the softly rippling water and listened to the settling of the night and each other's breathing.

Clark felt Lois put her arms into his jacket's sleeves, then half turn towards him, circling her arms around his waist and resting her head against his shoulder. He laid his free hand over her arm and touched his cheek lightly against her hair.

He'd never known the kinds of emotions he was experiencing that night; elation, wonder, fear … love. Yes, he was sure this was love. How he knew wasn't clear. He just knew. Actually he'd known the moment he'd seen her that she was something special, and the more he was with her the more certain he was that Lois Lane was the one woman he'd been waiting for his whole life.

All this was making him rather giddy — the way she felt in his arms, the softness of her hair against his cheek, the scent of her perfume — all combined to give Clark some of the wildest thoughts of his young life. He wanted to soar into the night with her, to cover her with kisses and show her the world as only he could — the way the stars saw it each night — but he knew he couldn't.

She'd shared a lot of things about herself with him that evening, but it was mostly in the things she hadn't said that he'd learned about her distrust of people and their motives, about her disappointments and disillusionments, and he believed that coming on too strongly would only cause her to raise her defenses again. She had a hard edge to her and he could understand why it was there. It had pleased him to see her relaxing more and more as the evening had progressed, responding to his teasing and sharing bits of her life with him. She had a sharp mind and a wit that had had him in stitches more than once, and had shown him a side of Lois Lane he guessed few people ever saw. She felt comfortable with him now and he didn't want to do anything to jeopardize that. So he focused all of his considerable energy into relaxing, breathing normally … *and* keeping his feet firmly on the ground.

Lois couldn't remember the last time she'd known such contentment. The evening had been just about perfect: the food, the conversation … the company. She'd actually been able to just relax and be herself. It had been a very long time since she'd been able to do that — to laugh and have fun without worrying about the other person's motives. She'd told him things tonight she'd never told another soul.

What is it about this Clark Kent that he could make her feel so good, so comfortable … so safe?

She raised her face to look at him, straining her eyes a bit in the semi-darkness and watched him turn his face towards her. He looked down at her for a moment, then she felt, rather than saw, him hesitate just before he leaned over to kiss her very gently and sweetly. She tightened her hold on his waist, kissing him back. The kiss ended but they continued holding onto each other — for support. That first kiss! Wow! Lois could hardly believe her reaction to it. She'd been kissed before, by men who had put much more passionate effort into it, but none of those had affected her the way Clark's first tentative embrace had done. She'd decided this required further study, and was just raising her face to his for another kiss when she saw the little lights which lined the path flicker off and on.

Clark laughed softly. "Looks like they want to close up for the night."

"Yeah, I guess. Their timing is lousy, though."

***

The return journey to her hotel was woefully short. All too soon, Clark was pulling into the parking lot. She couldn't help but contrast her present feeling of regret to her earlier ones of alarm and concern as she watched Clark walk around the car to open the door for her. She blushed again slightly. How could she ever have thought such things about him?

She wondered briefly if she'd be telling him good night in the lobby, but he let her know pretty quickly that " … when I take a woman home, she gets door-to-door service."

Clark took her hand as they walked through the lobby towards the elevator. It was one of those with glass panels where the fourth wall should be, so passengers could watch themselves being shot up to their floors — and other people could watch them — a state of affairs Lois and Clark both silently deplored.

The car arrived at the 15th floor and, as they walked towards Lois's room, Clark held his hand out for her key. Slightly bemused, she handed it to him, watched him insert the card into the slot and open the door for her, then step back after quickly checking the room from the doorway to be sure that all was secure. Diane had left a light burning in the sitting room for her, and it was obvious that no dastardly villains were lurking about. Still, his old-fashioned courtesy touched her.

"Your roommate snores a little, doesn't she?" he asked quietly, as he handed the key back to her.

"Oh, no!" she whispered in comic dismay. "I didn't know that. This is the first time I've ever shared a room with her."

CHAPTER FIVE

Lois replaced the key in her purse and pulled the door almost shut again so their talking wouldn't wake Diane … and to stall for time. Now that the moment for this good night stuff had come, she didn't know what to say.

Good grief! She'd been babbling away quite comfortably all evening, yet now all she could think of was … "Thank you, Clark. I had a really nice time."

He smiled. "Me, too, Lois."

Clark was waging a battle within himself, trying to decide what to do. Part of him wanted to tell her how he felt about her and the other part was urging caution — extreme caution. He so desperately wanted her to know she wasn't just another date, that she was special to him. But how to do that without scaring her off, he had no idea. She was watching him curiously; he had to say something.

"In fact," he added, "this was probably the best time I've ever had with anyone." His heart was thumping uncomfortably and there was a knot in his stomach the size of Gibraltar, but he was determined to say this. "Lois … something happened to me tonight. Something I can't explain. I don't know what it is, or how it's possible, but I feel so comfortable with you … like I've known you all my life."

He moved a little closer to her, never taking his eyes from her face, and the look on her face was making him lose his resolve to go slowly. He just had to let her know some part, at least, of what he was feeling. It wasn't in his nature to play the kind of games that seemed to come so easily to Barry. All he could do was speak what was in his heart, and hope it was enough. He'd waited so long to find her that he was afraid of losing her. He didn't want to even think about losing her. "What is it about you that makes me feel so good about you … makes me want to tell you things … things I've never told anyone else before?"

She listened to him with mixed emotions; relieved to hear what he had to say — so it had been the same for him — and yet worried that things seemed to be moving too fast. Lois had never been in a situation like this, and she couldn't decide whether to run like crazy or stay, and take a chance.

"I don't know, Clark. But, whatever it is I … kind of … feel the same way about you." She had never admitted anything like this to anyone else before and she could feel herself blushing a bit as she made her halting confession.

A look of great tenderness came over Clark's face as he listened to her — almost as if he somehow understood what it had cost her to make that admission. "I'm so glad to hear you say that, Lois. Thank you. I … I thought it was just me."

She shook her head.

He put a hand up to her cheek, gently caressing it, before leaning down to kiss her again. She couldn't believe this was happening to her. Not to Lois Lane! She *never* had any luck with men. She was going to wake up and find out this was all an hallucination, or some kind of cruel joke. That's the way it had always worked before, but oh, how she wanted this time to be different. Please, let this time be different. She moved even closer to him and rested her head in the hollow of his shoulder.

He whispered into her ear. "This is going to sound crazy, but I'm … I've got this horrible fear that when I walk away tonight you'll somehow disappear … that this isn't real."

She looked up at him in wonder. "You, too?"

He nodded.

She smiled self-consciously. "I thought it was just me, and … to be honest, my track record hasn't been too good in the relationship department. I've learned not to trust people, or myself, when it comes to things like this, so … " Her voice trailed off as she looked at him uncertainly.

He returned her regard steadily. "Lois, my own experience … in the 'relationship department' has been somewhat … limited. I've moved around a lot the past few years and I — I've never been interested in — That is … I don't want to — " She could see him blushing. He took a deep breath to get his voice under control, and tried again. "I've always wanted what my parents have — a life-long, caring relationship with one special person."

He could see a little flash of alarm in her eyes, knew that he'd said more than enough for one evening and hastened to reassure her, taking refuge once again in humor. "Don't worry, I *never* propose on the first date."

The teasing gleam was back in his eyes. She chuckled a little, relieved. She kind of liked what she was hearing. At least he didn't seem to be after a one-night stand, but … "That's good, because I don't accept proposals until at least the third date."

"Whew! That's a relief!"

They laughed softly, and felt at ease again.

Clark took her hand. "It's getting late. Even later for you than me. How about … if you don't have other plans, that is … if we have lunch together tomorrow?"

"Well … "

"I have to work in the morning, but I had planned on attending the speech by that guy from Chicago tomorrow afternoon. That's at 1:30. I could meet you here, at the hotel."

Lunch sounded all right, kind of casual, low-key. "Okay, sure. Lunch."

"Good." He smiled again — that smile which made her knees a little weak. When he smiled like that she almost felt she would believe anything he told her.

<Get a grip, Lois!>

Believe me, I'd love to!

<Lo-is!!!>

Clark leaned forward to kiss her again, gently, to say good night. Lois, relieved by how quickly he'd responded to her fears and grateful for his understanding, kissed him back — more enthusiastically than she realized. It left him rather breathless, and a bit stunned.

"Thanks for understanding, Clark."

Words had deserted him for the moment, and all he could do was make a noise which he hoped she would interpret as agreement.

Blithely unaware of the effect she'd just had on him, she smiled up at him. "I'll see you tomorrow, then." She turned to go into her room, but was struck by a sudden thought. "How do I get in touch with you? If something comes up … or something. Do you have a card with you?"

Card? Oh, yeah, a card. Pull yourself together, Kent.

"Uh, sure. I have one here somewhere." He looked through his pockets, actually had his hands on the things and had put them back before he realized what he was doing. That last kiss … man! He hoped he could remember how to get home!

"Here you go." His voice cracked briefly and he cleared his throat. "My office and pager numbers are on there." She took the card from him without looking at it.

"Thanks. Well, good night, Clark."

"Sure thing, Lois. Good night. See you tomorrow."

She pushed the door open again and Clark turned towards the elevator. She was starting to look at the card when she realized she still had his jacket on. Dropping her purse and his card on a small table, she stepped through the door and back out into the hall. He was just about to turn the corner at the other end.

"Clark!" she stage-whispered to him, but with every expectation of having to chase after him — there's no way he'd be able to hear her. But, he did! She saw him stop and turn to face her. He started up the hall towards her and she could tell by his face he had no clue as to why she'd summoned him back.

As soon as they met she spoke to him sternly, keeping her voice low. "I'll have you know, Clark Kent, I'm not in the habit of absconding with other people's property. Well, not unless there's a good story in it, that is."

He still looked perplexed.

"Your jacket, sir."

"Oh." Sheepish smile.

She took his jacket off and handed it to him. Their hands touched. "Thanks again for letting me borrow it."

"You're welcome."

They smiled at one another then moved forward, almost involuntarily, and kissed again — a nice, long, lingering kiss. Her hands roamed up his chest as she moved to wrap her arms around his neck. His arms were around her back, completely enveloping her, holding her very tightly.

This was the first time she'd been this close to him without one of them having his jacket on. She was acutely aware of his body in a way that hadn't been possible before. As she ran her hands over his shoulders and back, she could feel every muscle through the soft material of his shirt. His arms felt so strong as they held her close.

Lois was having some very unreporter-like thoughts by the time the kiss ended, and she'd also come to a surprising decision. "Lunch seems like a long time from now," she murmured.

"Huh?" Clark was having trouble coming back to earth after this latest encounter with the "Daily Planet's" star reporter.

"I think we should have breakfast together, too."

It took a moment for this to register with him. "Really?! That would be great, Lois!" A look of doubt came across his face. "It's pretty late, though. Are you sure you'll feel up to it?"

"Of course I will."

"I have to be at work by 7:30," he said, giving her one more chance to change her mind, "so we'd need to meet around six."

"Hey, this is Lois Lane you're talking to here!"

He laughed softly. "How could I forget? Okay, 6 a.m. it is. Would the 'Paddlewheel,' downstairs, be all right?"

"Sounds fine."

"I'll look forward to it." He paused, looking concerned again. "You're sure that you'll … ?"

"Clark!"

He was grinning at the sound of mild exasperation in her voice. "I'm sorry, I can't help it."

"It's a Smallville thing, isn't it?"

"I guess." He smiled slightly and studied her face to see if he'd offended her. She could tell he was worried, so she punched him lightly on the arm and commanded him to not let it happen again.

Relieved by the teasing he heard in her voice, he leaned forward to kiss her briefly. "Good night, Lois."

"Good night, Clark."

"You go ahead and get back in your room. I want to make sure you're safe before I leave."

She started to ask him if he'd heard any of the things she'd just said to him, then decided you can take the boy out of Smallville, but you can't take Smallville out of the boy — and she was just too tired to try enlightening him any more that night anyway. Besides, on Clark, all this chivalry stuff was kind of sweet, so she walked back to her room and even waved to him before shutting herself in for the night.

Once inside she leaned against the door, smiling to herself before pulling off her shoes and tiptoeing towards the bedroom. Lois was hoping to slip into bed without waking her roommate. She wasn't in the mood for "girl talk" tonight; she wanted to hug the events of the evening to herself for a while longer.

With her hand on the bedroom doorknob, she listened for any sounds from within, but couldn't hear anything. If Diane had been snoring before, she'd stopped now. Ever so slowly Lois turned the knob and pushed on the door, praying it wouldn't squeak.

Well, there wasn't any squeak, but with the door open she could certainly hear Diane snoring — not loudly, but she *was* snoring. How had Clark been able to hear that from the hallway door? As a matter of fact, how had he been able to hear her when she'd whispered after him in the hall earlier? Then she chided herself. So he's got good hearing. That's not a crime, is it? He's also very strong, has great reflexes and is one hell of a kisser! None of those are crimes either.

She moved over to the window and looked down, wondering if she'd be able to see him going to his car. At first she thought her room was facing the wrong way, but then she got her bearings and sure enough, there he was, walking across the parking lot. She watched him reach his car and unlock the driver's-side door. Instead of getting inside, though, he turned and looked back at the hotel. He seemed to be searching for something. He stared intently in her direction for a few seconds then raised his hand as if to say good-bye. She started to wave back, then thought; this is ridiculous! I'm standing in a dark room, 15 floors up. There's no way he could really be looking at me.

Clark tossed his jacket onto the passenger seat, got into the car and drove away. Lois stood at the window until she could no longer see the taillights of his vehicle, then closed the curtains and began to get ready for bed. When she'd performed all of her usual bedtime chores, she went out to the sitting room to turn off the light. She spotted her purse on the little table by the door, and went over to pick it up. Clark's card was there too, and she carried it with her to the light, intending to put it in her wallet, but just as she was about to slip it in something caught her eye and nearly made her laugh out loud. She had to sit down and hold her hand over her mouth to stifle the giggles that threatened to overwhelm her as she read:

"Clark Kent

Assistant Editor

Kansas City Dispatch"

No wonder Perry had looked so dumbfounded — he'd gotten his way without even trying. She'd been out with his "nice young fellow" from the "Kansas City Dispatch" after all.

CHAPTER SIX

When Clark had driven away from Lois's hotel, he'd headed straight for his place, but he didn't stay there long. He was much too excited to sleep and so, after quickly changing into dark jeans and a T-shirt, he took off for the sky.

Locally, his flying was necessarily limited to the night hours since he couldn't risk anyone finding out about him or his special abilities. There was too much at stake — his parents' well-being and safety, as well as his own chance for a "normal" life. It was such a part of him now, hiding his Kryptonian origins and his powers, but this need for secrecy chaffed him — especially when he saw someone in trouble. He couldn't just look past people who were hurting and not try to help them, so sometimes he took chances. His father, Jonathan, would often admonish him for this, telling him that some day, some "nut with a video camera" was going to catch him pulling one of his "stunts," and he'd be put in a laboratory and "dissected like a frog." Clark had heard all of this before, and while he knew the dissecting part was out of the question (since he was invulnerable), he could appreciate the underlying concern which prompted these outbursts.

And Clark did try to be careful, he really did, but the fact remained that he couldn't just let someone die in a fire if there was any way he could get them out, or let someone drown just because he was afraid of discovery. Consequently, he'd gotten pretty clever at covering up what he was really doing. He'd use other would-be rescuers as a blind: doing most of the work himself, and then giving credit to other people. Or, helping someone so fast — appearing out of nowhere and then disappearing back into the smoke or the gloom — that people thought angels or their own long-dead relatives had somehow helped them escape. It made for good television on shows which dealt with unexplained phenomena, but it was always a dicey thing to do. He was hoping someday to come up with a way to help more people, but for now he had to be content with doing what he could, and making a quick getaway afterwards.

The night was a beautiful one, the air smelled wonderful and he felt so happy. He started out flying over the darkened countryside which surrounded the city, but soon that wasn't enough, and he turned and headed for the stars. Going straight up, faster and faster until he was just a blur, he was out of the earth's atmosphere in just moments. He hovered in space for a while, reveling in the colors and shapes as they appeared briefly through the shifting cloud patterns on the planet below him. Watching this ever-changing show had often calmed him in the past, but tonight it wasn't enough.

Well, maybe he couldn't fly over cities in daylight, but there were many places still remote and unpopulated enough which he could visit without fear of detection. He headed for some of those now.

Hours later, feeling a little calmer, but no less happy, he found himself over the farm where he'd grown up. His enhanced hearing told him his parents were stirring and getting ready to start a new day. Sure enough, in a few minutes he saw his dad come out of the back door of the house and head for the barn through the pre-dawn darkness. Clark waited until Jonathan had entered the barn before landing and calling out softly to him.

Jonathan was delighted to see his boy, hugged him enthusiastically and wanted to hear all about what Clark had been doing since his last visit. They worked together to complete the morning chores while they talked, and so surprised Martha by finishing everything sooner than Jonathan could have done alone. She had breakfast only half ready when she heard footsteps on the porch. Two sets of footsteps could mean only one thing — Clark was home! She met him at the door with a kiss and a floury hug. They made him sit at the table and tell them all his news while they finished getting breakfast ready.

There was lots to tell. His job kept him really busy and lately there had been the conference to work on, too. They wanted to know how that was going and he filled them in on the events of the first evening.

" … and I guess about 80% of the participants are here already. The rest will probably sign in before the first session this morning. There are newspaper people here from all over the country, some really big names. Even Perry White from the 'Daily Planet' came this time and brought his wife with him, as well as four members of his staff."

Martha's ears pricked up. She and Jonathan knew their son better than anyone else, and she could tell by the way Clark mentioned the "Daily Planet" contingent, that something was definitely "up."

"The 'Daily Planet,' huh? That's a great paper all right. Any names we would know?"

"Well, I haven't met them all … yet. But Lois Lane is one of them. You've probably read some of her work — the wire services are always picking up her stories."

Martha and Jonathan were on the point of gathering up the plates of hot food to carry them to the table, but this oh-so-casual remark — and the fact that their only child was avoiding their eye — put their parental radar on alert.

Lois Lane! *The* Lois Lane! Well, well, well.

They joined Clark at the table and began passing the food around. Jonathan spoke first. "Oh, sure, Clark. We've read lots of articles by her. I would think she'd be tough as nails based on what I've read."

"Oh, yes," Martha added. "I've been amazed more than once by the kinds of people she takes on: gangsters, drug dealers, corrupt politicians. Her writing does seem to have a touch of cynicism to it, though, as if she just knows there are no honest people left in the world, that everyone has an angle."

Clark had been eating absentmindedly while he listened to his parents. Now, as they waited for his reply, he tried to think of a way to describe Lois which would do justice to her. "Lois is … well, she's complicated. I'd heard all the stories, of course; that she's domineering, uncompromising, even pigheaded." His face took on a far away look as he reached inside himself, to that special place in his heart Lois now occupied, trying to create a word-picture of her. "I guess she could be all of those things … " He was smiling to himself, completely lost in his reverie, and his voice had taken on a tone that neither of his parents had ever heard from him before. It stirred long ago memories and emotions in them, reminding them of when they'd first discovered each other — it was the voice of love.

"But the woman I met last night was so much more than that. She's brave and strong, funny, vulnerable … brilliant."

Martha reached for Jonathan's hand, looking at him through tear-clouded eyes. He grasped her hand tightly and smiled at her in understanding before returning his attention to their son. Clark, lost in his own thoughts, hadn't noticed their silent exchange.

"She's been hurt badly by life in the past, but it hasn't stopped her. I've never known anyone like her. We talked and talked for hours, about … " He paused, frowning a bit in an effort to remember. His memories of Lois were more vivid, it seemed, than his memories of their conversation. "I don't even remember all that we talked about … everything, I guess. I felt so comfortable with her, as if I'd known her all my life, and the evening just flew by."

Clark's voice trailed off and the room was silent. Eventually he realized that no one was saying anything, looked up, and saw his parents smiling at him. He laughed a little, self-consciously.

Martha hastened to reassure him, saying gently, "So you really liked being with her, didn't you, honey?"

Clark nodded, still looking a little embarrassed.

Jonathan told him that it was all perfectly understandable — he'd acted in much the same way the first time he'd set eyes on Martha, nearly thirty years ago. After he'd told Clark about one of the things he'd done to get his future wife's attention, and they'd all had a good laugh, they were able to return to their meal.

Clark couldn't stay long because he had to get back before daylight, so all too soon it was time for him to leave. As they had many times before, they kissed him good-bye and watched him take off, but never had they said their farewells with such mixed emotions. Happy for Clark that he'd found someone to love and yet very worried that of all the people in the world with whom he could have fallen in love, he'd chosen a world-famous reporter with a reputation for nabbing page-one headlines.

***

Clark dressed with more than his usual care that morning, taking time to pick out just the right combination of shirt, tie and suit. He whistled to himself as he drove into town. Arriving at the hotel with a good ten minutes to spare, he found a spot from which he could watch both the elevators and the door to the restaurant. Six o'clock couldn't get here fast enough.

***

Lois fumbled under her pillow, trying to retrieve and shut off the travel alarm clock before it could wake Diane. It didn't help any that her tired eyes were blurry and her fine motor skills were dull from too little sleep. Finally she found the switch and turned off that irritating noise, but it was too late — Diane was awake.

"Sorry. I didn't mean to wake you up."

Diane turned on her bedside lamp and looked at the clock the hotel's management had thoughtfully provided for each of the bedrooms. "Lois!" she mumbled disgruntledly. "What on earth are you getting up at this hour for?"

"I … uh, I just want to get a jump on the day, that's all."

Diane looked at her and grunted in disbelief. "Well, I hope you're not expecting me to join in with whatever crazy scheme you've got going. I know you, Lois. The only reason you'd be up at this ungodly hour is because of a headline. Although how you managed to scare up a story when you've only been here a few hours, I *don't* know."

Lois laughed in relief. She didn't want Diane prodding her for information about her date with Clark. Let her think what she wanted to.

"Yeah, you know me pretty well all right, Diane." Lois began to gather some clothes and other things. "You go on back to sleep."

"Oh, don't worry. I plan to." Diane began settling herself in her bed again, fluffing the pillow and rearranging her blankets. "So tell me, how long did you string that guy along last night before you steamrolled him like you did his pal? Did you get dinner out of him first?"

Lois was standing at the closet trying to decide what to wear when the meaning behind Diane's words hit her with the force of an avalanche. She felt her heart sink into her gut, and knew her face would have reflected her dismay — her utter despair — if the other woman could have seen it. She clutched her belongings to her chest with one hand while gripping a hanger for support with the other.

<I knew it! He was too good to be true>

She had to swallow hard — twice — before she could get her throat to work well enough to be able to speak. "Yeah, I got dinner out of him."

"Good for you, girl! I knew you'd give him a taste of his own medicine. Serves him right for conniving with his smarmy friend. Still, he sure was good-looking, I'll give him that. Do you mind if I turn this light back off? I'd like to get a little more sleep."

"Sure. Go ahead. I'm going to be in the bathroom anyway." Grateful for the semi-darkness, Lois loosened her grip on the hanger with difficulty. She'd been clutching it so tightly that she'd wrinkled the blouse hanging on it. Forcing herself to smile, she turned towards the other reporter. "So tell me, how did you find out what was going on?"

"Oh, I saw them together. After you ran off to hide from Perry, I was wandering around and saw them near one of those big palm tree-looking plants at the back of the room. The one who'd hit on you first was doing all the talking, and looking really upset, but the other one was nodding and smiling. I didn't think anything of it at the time, but when I saw him with Alice White later, well … I wondered if they were up to something."

Lois felt numb. This couldn't be happening, could it? Not Clark. He wouldn't have done something like this to her. Would he? She forced herself to focus on what Diane was saying.

"I wanted to find you and tell you but I got snagged by this big guy from Texas who kept calling me 'filly' or 'heifer' or something. By the time I did get away, you were nowhere to be found. I was a little worried when I'd heard you'd gone off with him, but I figured you'd see through his little ploy without any trouble. At least you got a free meal out of it. All I ever get from guys is directions to their house."

Diane settled herself for sleep again, totally unaware of having pulled Lois's dreams out from under her like a cheap rug. Relying on her years of undercover experience to retain the appearance, at least, of normal behavior, Lois walked towards the bathroom. Once inside, she turned on the water to make Diane think she was taking a shower, then she leaned against the wall beside the tub. Feeling totally betrayed and lost, she slowly sank to the floor while tears flowed unchecked down her face.

CHAPTER SEVEN

Lois stood in the shower for a long time, letting the hot water wash over her as she tried to decide what to do. Her brain was in turmoil and her heart felt conflicted. She was finding it hard to organize the few facts she had into a convincing argument either for or against Clark.

Diane had seen the two men together; they knew each other, but had they conspired together? It certainly looked that way. Clark could have "rescued" Alice just to get in good with Perry, as a way of insinuating himself into their circle. It hadn't seemed like it at the time, but that might explain why he'd been so anxious to get her away from the ballroom — to keep her from meeting anyone who could expose him. He must have been thrilled by how quickly she'd responded to his charms, and it was beginning to look highly probable that most of what he'd told her last night had been lies.

All that talk about the farm and Smallville (she should have known a hokey name like that was pure fiction), and the world-traveler stories … He had all the necessary skills of a womanizer; he was a good dancer, had endearing manners and a handsome face. He'd seemed the perfect gentleman.

A perfect … gentle … man.

She swallowed to force down a sudden lump in her throat. He *had* seemed so gentle and sweet and kind and … No! She wiped one lonely tear from her cheek and squared her shoulders. She absolutely wouldn't let her feelings enter into this. They couldn't be trusted because Clark had been able to play them like a fiddle. He'd pretended to be a naive, ingenuous farm boy and she'd fallen for it. All the things he'd said about having limited experience in the "relationship department." Ha! This guy was a pro! He knew just which buttons to push to get women to open up to him.

That realization made her pause in the act of wrapping her wet hair up in a towel. Through her brain flashed memories of some of the things she'd told him — things she'd never told another living soul — and she writhed with embarrassment. She clutched her robe more tightly around her at a mental image of Clark and his sleezebag friend having a big laugh at her expense; humiliation and chagrin changing over to white hot anger. How dare they?!

It was all perfectly clear now. Looking back on it, she could see that what she'd thought were charming smiles were actually calculated smirks; slick women-duping techniques were disguised as heart-felt confessions and pseudo-chivalry. He was good, really good. One had to give him credit for that. Well, Mr. Clark Kent, I'm on to you, buster. You thought you met Lois Lane last night — you ain't seen nothing yet!

She checked her watch as she wiped the moisture from the bathroom mirror. It was only 6:10. Plenty of time for a little reconnaissance mission. Depending on how far they were planning on taking their hoax, Clark might actually be waiting for her downstairs. More than likely, though, he and his cohort would be hiding, waiting to see her hurrying down to meet someone who wouldn't be there. If they hoped to embarrass her, they weren't going to succeed; she wasn't going to give them the satisfaction. She stared at her reflection in the mirror and was pleased by how determined she looked. All she wanted right now was Clark Kent, bagged and tagged. She smiled to herself in anticipation.

"Let's get him!"

**

Clark looked at his watch for the fiftieth time — 6:40. It was beginning to look more and more as though Lois had been too tired to get up this early after all. He was disappointed, but it was understandable because he knew humans needed more sleep than he did. He and Lois *had* been out pretty late and, with the time difference, it had been even later for her than for him.

Right now, though, he was trying to decide what to do; if he didn't want to be late for work, the latest he could wait was seven. He certainly wasn't going to call her room and risk waking her up. Checking his watch again he decided to hang around until the last possible moment just in case she was even now trying to get downstairs and meet him. He consoled himself with the thought that he could always leave a note for her at the front desk. *And* there was lunch to look forward to.

**

It was 6:50 and she'd been watching Clark for almost 20 minutes now. He was playing it to the hilt: sitting where he could see the elevator and restaurant easily, occasionally glancing down at his watch, eagerly looking around as people went back and forth through the lobby. He certainly gave the appearance of a man who was waiting for someone special.

He never turned in her direction, however, because it wouldn't have occurred to him that she would have taken the long way around, using the back stairs to get down to the convention center levels and then taking that elevator to the ground floor. She was currently standing just inside one of the meeting room doors and from there she could see a good portion of the lobby. According to the sign beside the door there was going to be a business meeting of the USPA Executive Committee in this room at ten, but right now the only people there were Lois and a bored convention center employee who was setting up chairs and tables.

If Clark's "partner-in-crime" was around, Lois hadn't been able to spot him. He must be here somewhere, though, otherwise it made no sense. Surely he would be waiting to gloat over her being duped into dating his friend. There was no point in continuing to string her along, and the longer they went on with this the more they risked exposure. In fact, she was having trouble deciding exactly what their game was. What was she missing here?

As she watched Clark, he looked around the lobby for maybe the hundredth time and at his watch for maybe the thousandth, then stood up and started walking further into the lobby, out of her line of sight. Aha! Now she had them! He's bound to be on his way to meet his accomplice, she thought, in order to plan their next move. Here was her chance to confront the pair of them. She was really looking forward to telling them exactly what she thought of them, *and* in such a way as to make them think she'd been on to their sorry little plot from the beginning.

Slipping out of her hiding place, she went in the direction recently taken by Clark. She reached the archway which marked the dividing line between the hotel and the convention center, and stopped to search for her quarry. Not finding him, she eased toward another corner, all the while keeping her eyes open *and* trying to avoid attracting unnecessary attention. The hotel foyer and lobby were both dotted with large marble columns and sprinkled throughout with plants of various sizes and shapes. All this made stalking someone a fairly easy proposition, but she still stayed on the alert.

He seemed to be headed towards the front desk, but Lois couldn't think why. The only things she remembered seeing in that area were some pay phones and an office or two, which left no place for the other guy to hide. Why wasn't Clark going to the restaurant or some other logical meeting place?

When she reached a spot where she could see Clark again, there was no sign of his compatriot. There was only Clark, standing at the front desk and writing something. As she watched, the desk clerk handed him an envelope, for which he thanked the man with a friendly smile. He took some time over whatever he was working on and then read through it before folding it and sealing it up in the envelope. She saw him hand the envelope and pen to the clerk, then Clark chatted a moment longer while the other man placed it into one of the guest's boxes.

Lois felt her mouth drop open a bit. Was he leaving her a note?! Why would he do that? What could he hope to gain by prolonging this farce?

She snapped out of her reverie just in time to slip back around the corner again. There wasn't time to regain her previous hiding place, but if Clark were leaving he wouldn't be passing right by her location anyway so she would be safe.

When he came into view again he did appear to be heading for the exit, but he seemed like a different guy than the one who'd sat anticipating her arrival. His feet dragged a bit, his shoulders were hunched forward and his hands were in his pockets. It was a perfect impression of a man who'd been disappointed and yet wasn't anxious to leave just in case things might get better. His steps got slower and slower the closer he got to the door. He stopped a few feet from it and turned to look in the direction of the elevators again. From her vantage point she could see his profile and so saw his expression change from one of rueful regret to mild hopefulness. She shifted her position a bit so she could see what he was looking at. One of the elevators was descending again with a group of five or six people on it. She returned her attention to Clark.

It was almost ludicrous to see his face fall when he realized she wasn't one of the elevator's passengers. For whom was he giving this Academy Award performance? Unless … it wasn't a performance?

But it must be. He … What other explanation could there be? They'd been seen conspiring together … the "rescue" of Alice … going somewhere else to eat … it all fit. Didn't it?

Lois was confused, and with the arrival of confusion much of her anger began to fade. Without that clouding her reason, she began to wonder if there were other explanations for what had happened.

Just because Clark knew this other guy it didn't necessarily follow that he was involved in a conspiracy to make her look foolish. When she considered it dispassionately, everything Clark had said to her or done with her the night before could also be consistent with what she'd first thought of him: a really nice guy who liked her and had enjoyed her company.

Part of her wanted to march right up to him and demand an explanation, but another part cringed from such an action. She'd been burned one time too many and she just didn't think she could handle any more disillusionments. Her luck with men had been so abysmal and many of those wounds were still raw. It all came down to a question of trust, and Lois had a hard time trusting people. She'd risked her life over and over again for a story, but in those instances she'd been relying on herself. Trusting someone else involved a different level of risk … one she didn't think she could accept.

So she watched in silence as Clark looked at his watch one last time before turning resignedly towards the door. Involuntarily she glanced at her own watch, and saw that it was almost ten after seven. He was going to be late for work. He'd waited so long and had taken the time to write to her and now he was going to be late for work. Would a guy just playing a hoax go to that much trouble? Her heart was urging her to go to him, but her fears kept her feet glued to the floor. His hand was reaching for the door. She was about to get what she wanted — Clark Kent out of her life. So, why did she feel so miserable?

"Oh, Clark," she said softly and sadly.

She saw him stop and look around, glancing towards the elevators again. He couldn't have heard her, but she suddenly felt a bit panicky. What if he looked in her direction? She knew she couldn't make it back to the convention center entrance without being spotted, so she decided to go the other way, hoping that from this angle the columns and plants would keep him from seeing her. She hadn't gone too far, though, when she heard him call her name.

"Lois! Here I am!"

He must think I'm looking for him! Damn! She forced a smile onto her face and turned around. "Oh, Clark. There you are. I thought I'd missed you."

He came up to her, all smiles and with the spring back in his step. As soon as he reached her, he caught her up in a big hug. "Me, too. I'm glad I hung around long enough to at least see you." He looked at her more closely. "Are you all right?"

"Sure. I'm fine. I just … well, I didn't sleep well last night." He was looking concerned. She didn't think she could handle sympathy right now. "I'll be fine. And next time I'll insist on a 'no snoring' room."

That distracted him. The twinkle was back in his eyes. "Poor Lois. Did she snore all night? Well, don't worry about missing breakfast. Why don't you go back to bed for a while. I'll see you later, for lunch."

Her feelings were in turmoil. She needed time to think. What if Diane had been right? <I told you you'd be sorry> She had to break this off right now. <You know you can't trust anyone but yourself> She must have been insane to have let it go this far already. <Think of your track record, Lois>

"No, Clark. I can't. I have to … That is, Diane reminded me … I, uh we … Diane and I, have plans for lunch with some people we met at the reception last night. I'm sorry."

CHAPTER EIGHT

"Oh," Clark said. He was disappointed, but also concerned — she seemed so distressed. He hastened to reassure her. "That's all right, Lois. I understand. Look, I'll have to go back to work after the lecture this afternoon, but I should be able to get away by seven at the latest. Why don't we have dinner together? I know this place, kind of casual but the food's good … "

She'd set herself on this course of action and now she was determined to stick with it, no matter what. In full retreat, holding her dignity to her like a ragged cloak, she sought a way out. "I can't, Clark. I already have plans for tonight — plans I made before I even met you."

Something in her tone of voice warned Clark that this was more than just sleeplessness. "Lois, what's wrong?"

"Nothing. Nothing at all. I just have other plans … that's all."

Clark was getting really worried. He searched for some plausible reason for the way Lois was acting, and thought he had the answer.

"Did I do something or … or say something last night to offend you? Because if I did, I'm sorry. I — "

"No, Clark. That's not it at all. I just … have … plans."

There was a finality in her voice that was unmistakable. Clark felt defeated. What else could he say? She was making it clear she didn't want to be with him. What could possibly have happened since last night to have effected this change in her? They were standing less than a foot apart but it might as well have been a mile, and he had no idea how to get close to her again.

"Oh. I see. Well, if you have plans then … "

She watched the light go out of his eyes, saw his face shut down, and knew she'd really hurt him. "Clark, I'm sorry. You understand, don't you?"

Yes, he thought he was beginning to. "Sure, it's fine." He looked at his watch and took a step backwards. "I'm going to be late for work. Good-bye, Lo — Miss Lane."

She watched him walk away until the columns hid him from view and tried to tell herself that what she'd done was for the best. It really, *really* was for the best. Even if he hadn't been involved in a plan to trick her, or make fun of her there was no room in Lois Lane's life for romance. She didn't have time for it. So it was better this way. Really.

She would tell herself that many times during the next few hours, just as she would replay that parting scene over and over in her mind; seeing once again the hurt on Clark's face, hearing the sad confusion in his voice, and feeling torn all over again.

It would be some time though, before it would occur to her that she hadn't actually seen Clark walk out of the door because the columns and plants had obscured her vision of him fairly quickly. And she would wonder — if she hadn't been able to see him, how could he have seen her?

***

"Clark! I need those figures by 11."

"Yes, sir. I'm working on them now."

How could I have been so stupid as to think a woman like Lois Lane would even … "Hey, Clark! That should be some game this weekend, huh?"

"Yeah, Dave."

Game. Was she playing some kind of game? Does she do this at every convention?

"Are you Kent? Well, I've got a package for you. Sign here."

That's me all right. Clark Kent — world's biggest idiot.

"Clark, I made brownies last night. Want one?"

Lois loves chocolate. The look on her face when she saw the dessert … the way she seemed to enjoy it … Ring … Ring … Ring … Stupid phone. What is it now?

"Clark? You read German, right? Could you translate this phrase for me?"

I can read 347 different languages. Why can't I tell when a woman is playing me for a fool?

"Clark! Robbery at the Municipal Bank! Tom and I are on our way!"

"Okay, Sally. Be careful!"

Wish I could help out at things like that. Hope nobody gets hurt.

Wish I knew what I'd done last night … Ring … Ring … Darn this phone.

"Have you looked over the copy I sent you yet, Clark?"

"I LAN'd it back to you five minutes ago. Looks good."

Lois looked so good last night in the candlelight at dinner, in the moonlight by the water … she even looked good in my jacket. And the way she felt in my arms … the kisses..

"Clark. Could I see you in my office for a moment, please?"

"Sure, J.D. Be right there."

If only I could get five minutes of peace and quiet so I can try and sort things out.

"Got any plans for lunch, Clark? Clark?"

No. No plans. Not any more.

Ring … Ring … Ring … Ring … Ring … Oh, Lois. I love you …

**

"Clark, what do you think?"

"Huh, what?" Clark came back to earth with a jolt. He was in the conference room and six pairs of eyes were looking at him expectantly. Obviously it was his turn to speak, but he had no idea what he should say. In his mind he'd been re- playing the scene from the hotel for the zillionth time — watching Lois's face, hearing her voice, knowing something was wrong, feeling cold fear creeping into his gut … "I'm sorry, J.D. What did you want to know?"

His editor looked at him closely. "Clark, are you sure you're all right? From the clip I saw, that explosion was no Nickel-popper."

"No, J.D., I'm fine. Really. I am a little concerned about the man we pulled out of the car, though, and it's been a pretty busy morning. I've just got a lot on my mind, that's all." And memories from last night and this morning keep popping into my head like clips from old newsreels. I think I'm going crazy … "I'm fine, J.D."

"Well, if you're sure."

Clark was relieved when his boss's penetrating gaze turned from him to one of his co-workers. The meeting broke up a few minutes later and Clark headed for the relative calm of his little office.

He hadn't been able to catch his breath since leaving the hotel. The encounter with Lois had knocked the wind out of him and then, on the way to the office, he'd come upon a wreck. He'd had to do something — he couldn't stand by while someone was burnt alive in their car. Thank goodness his actions had stimulated two others into coming forward to help. It had meant he'd had two more people to watch out for, but at least having them there made his stunt less conspicuous. In all the confusion, however, he'd failed to notice the traffic 'copter until it was too late. Now the "dramatic rescue" was all over the TV and it was just one more thing to add to his list of worries.

By the time he'd arrived at the office in his scorched jacket and shirt everyone had seen the news footage. So instead of being able to just slip unobserved into his office, he'd had to run the gamut of his co-workers' concern and expressions of amazement.

At first they hadn't known it was him on the screen because the helicopter had been pretty high up which made the people on the ground look about half an inch tall, but after the explosion the 'copter pilot had decided it was safe to get a closer look. That's when one sharp-eyed staffer had identified him by his brightly-colored tie, and the jig had been up.

They wanted to hear all about how he'd used his jacket to grasp the hot metal, and how he'd worked with the other two men to pry open the door, and how he'd felt when the car had exploded as he and his fellow rescuers were carrying the victim away. He was only saved from having to lift up his shirt to show everyone he was absolutely, positively all right by J.D. coming out of his office to investigate the cause of all the commotion. Everyone scattered and Clark was left to face his boss alone. J.D. had looked him over; taking in the oily smudges and the scorch marks, then studying his face intently before saying quietly, "Looks like you've had a pretty stunning morning, Clark."

Well, I do feel stunned, Clark thought, as he glanced down at his ruined clothes. "Yes, sir." Then he'd looked back at J.D. and was surprised to see not just concern but also sympathy in the other man's eyes, and wondered what possible secrets his own face had given away. He could feel himself starting to blush just before J.D. had waved him away to change his clothes and call his parents so they wouldn't worry.

As he'd cleaned up, Clark thought of all the different connotations one could put on the word "stunning" and tried to decide which one J.D. had meant to use. It was difficult to say. The man had a way of seeing what you didn't want him to see, and the ambiguity of the remark made Clark a little uneasy. He wasn't granted the luxury of time for reflection however, because the newsroom was really hectic that morning and Clark had been quickly sucked into the vortex along with everyone else.

*

Sitting at his desk after the meeting, he reflected that things weren't likely to get much better any time soon. Suddenly he felt very tired — not so much from lack of sleep, but more from the emotional strain. Much as he might try to, he couldn't seem to put the events of the morning out of his mind, nor could he stop himself from re-experiencing all the attendant emotions. There was still work to be done, though, and as he got up to get a third cup of coffee he found himself wishing he hadn't told Jim to go to the lecture in his place. At first it had seemed like a good idea, because he hadn't wanted to risk an accidental confrontation with Lois. Now, however, it might have been worth it just to be able to get away from the office for a while. His mind could have wandered all it wanted to.

"Well, well, well. If it isn't my good *friend,* Clark Kent. My *wonderful* buddy! The man I would trust with my *life!* It seems, however, that I can't trust him with my girl."

"Barry, what are you talking about?"

"*What am I talking about?* I'll tell you what I'm talking about — "

Annoyed by the man's continued sarcasm and junior high histrionics, Clark cut him short. "Just get to the point, okay?"

"The point is, pal-of-mine, you stole my girl. That's what the damned point is."

I'm really not in the mood for this right now, Clark thought, as he turned from fixing his coffee to face Barry. Trying to put as much patience as he could into his voice he said, "Look, Barry, I really have no idea what you're talking about."

Barry's mouth was hanging open. "'You have no idea … ' Clark! *My* girl! *The* girl!"

Clark just shook his head. "Barry you have a new girl with every work shift practically." He turned back to put sugar in his coffee, satisfied that this was just one of Barry's usual tantrums. "Look, I have to get back to work. Why don't you tell me about it another time."

Frustrated by Clark's apparent lack of interest, Barry grabbed his arm and pulled him around. "I'm talking about the girl from last night. The one I told you I was in love with. The one I asked you to help me with. You stole her from me."

"I don't know what … " Clark started to say again, and then stopped. Into his mind flashed a remembered image of Barry hot-footing it after a certain young woman. He suddenly realized that that young woman had indeed been Lois — same dress, same hair — but since he hadn't seen her face at the time he hadn't made the connection until now. Feeling chagrined he looked at the other man.

"Barry, I'm sorry. I've just realized what you've been trying to tell me. It wasn't done deliberately, believe me. We met by accident, got to talking and had some dinner together. That's all. Nobody stole anybody's girl."

Clark wanted to keep this as low key as possible. He was thankful that he and Barry were the only ones in the break room at the moment — he certainly didn't want to make Lois the object of office gossip.

CHAPTER NINE

Barry wasn't satisfied with that explanation. "That's not good enough. You went behind my back, Benedict Arnold! I guess the two of you had a good laugh about me didn't you?" Clark started to protest, but Barry cut him off. "Well, I hope it was worth it. There is *one* thing I'd really like to know, since I'm not likely to find out for myself now. Was she good, Clark? I'll bet she was. A Metropolis girl. Quite a feather in your cap, huh?" He thrust his chin forward and raised an accusing finger. "You know what you need — ?"

Barry abruptly stopped his ranting and took an involuntary step backwards. Before him stood a Clark Kent he didn't know; taller, more imposing, with angry eyes flashing.

"You know, Barry, I'd never realized until now what a truly nasty mind you've got." Clark folded his arms in front of his chest, as much to keep his hands off Barry as anything else. He took one step forward, pinned Barry with a furious glare and spoke each word clearly and menacingly, "I'm going to say this just once more. We talked. We had dinner. I took her home. The young woman to whom you are referring is a lady, and if I hear even *one* rumor to the contrary I'm going to come looking for you. Under the circumstances I think it would be wise for you to practice a little discretion." Clark paused, but didn't lessen his glare.

"I'm sorry, Clark, really. I'm sorry."

Clark watched Barry scutter away and then headed for his own office. Shaking with anger, he sat at his desk and put his head in his hands. It had been a long time since he'd been that furious with anyone.

Conscious of the responsibility which came with his awesome strength, he usually made it a point to keep himself under tight control. When Barry had made those disgusting innuendoes about Lois, however, he couldn't help it — he'd had to defend her. He was still trying to calm down when his cup of coffee suddenly appeared on his desk. He looked up.

"I noticed you left this behind."

Clark smiled self-consciously at the middle-aged staffer who'd just come into his office. "Thanks, Doris."

"I want you to know I wasn't eavesdropping. My desk is just the one closest to the break room and your voices *were* rather loud."

"I'm sorry you had to hear all that."

"I'm not." She smiled at Clark, then said understandingly, "Barry *is* a jerk, you know."

Still suffering from the aftereffects of his anger, Clark laughed rather shakily.

Doris turned to leave. "Don't let him get to you, okay?" She was rewarded by a slight smile.

"I'll try not to."

"That's good." She left his office, heading for her own desk and thinking, She's a lucky girl … whoever she is.

***

Lois wasn't feeling very lucky. The morning had started out horrible and hadn't gotten any better. After Clark had left the hotel, she'd stood in the lobby for several minutes trying to decide what to do. She wanted to be alone so she could think, and her first impulse had been to return to her room, but that was out of the question since Diane was there. She wandered around for a while looking for some place quiet, but the hotel was already awake for the day and there were people everywhere she went. Finally, in desperation, she found the indoor pool.

No one was there and she sank thankfully into one of the deck chairs feeling completely drained. What had she done? <You did what you had to do> Had she done the right thing? <Of course you did. Even if he wasn't guilty this time, it would have been something else later on. You, of all people, should know how men are>

Yes, she sighed. I do. She put her head against the back of the chair. Then why do I feel so miserable right now?

She sat there for a long time, thinking about the events of the morning; comparing the "evidence" she had against Clark to the impressions she'd received about him the night before. Things just weren't adding up. She was trying very hard to make things add up, but it was quiet in the pool area and the air was warm, and she was so tired. The harder she tried to think, the fuzzier her thoughts got. Her head drooped to the side, and she slept.

She was awakened by a big splash. Some kids were playing in the pool and from the looks of things they'd been there quite a while. A couple of women in dry bathing suits and salon-styled hair were sitting in chairs at the other end of the pool, keeping an eye on their offspring while they talked. Lois looked at her watch and was surprised to see that it was after nine — it felt as though she'd just sat down.

Despite the sleep she'd gotten, she didn't feel rested. Strangely enough she'd been dreaming of Clark just before she woke up. He'd been trying to reach her, but each time he moved, a marble column would appear out of nowhere and block his progress. She remembered getting brief glimpses of him from time to time just before the columns would hide him from her again, and each time she saw him he looked more and more worried. He'd been calling her name and asking, "Was it something I said? Was it something I did?"

Am I going crazy? she asked herself, and for a change her cocky inner voice had no answer.

Well, I can't hide in here all day, she thought, so she made herself get up and leave the pool area. She eventually found her way to the elevators and had just decided she might as well go to her room when she heard Diane calling her name.

"Hey, Lois! There you are." Diane came running up to her. "Aren't you going to the seminar?"

Seminar? Oh, that's right. I'm supposed to go to a seminar at ten. "Y-yes, I'll be there. I'm on my way to change clothes now."

"Yeah, I noticed you were in your skulking outfit," Diane said after running a casual eye over Lois's jeans and pullover top. "Anyway, I'm glad I caught up with you. Do you have any plans for this afternoon? I'm thinking of going shopping between the luncheon and the 3 o'clock session. Do you want to come along?"

"No, but thanks anyway."

"Okay, no problem. I just thought I'd ask. See ya." Diane breezed away, looking more cheerful (Lois decided) than any person had a right to. Lois was turning towards the elevators once again when Diane's voice called her back.

"Lois! I almost forgot. There was a note for you at the front desk. Here you are." Diane thrust Clark's note into Lois's unwilling hand. Feeling as disconcerted as she did about him, she'd have sooner touched a snake.

Holding it by one edge, she looked at it in the elevator. "Lois Lane" was all he'd written on the envelope. It didn't reveal much … except that he had nice handwriting. Well, she told herself sternly, there's no point in reading it now. Even if she'd been wrong about him, she couldn't change what she'd done. It was better this way. Really.

As soon as she got to her suite, she threw the note into a wastebasket, then went to pick out something to wear. That took care of Mr. Clark Kent — now he was truly out of her life. She was putting on a slip when an image of a nosey maid finding and reading Clark's note flashed into her mind. That would never do. She hurried into the sitting room to retrieve the blasted thing. Not knowing what to do with it, she tossed it onto her bed and went back to dressing. While she was buttoning her blouse, she could see the note reflected in the mirror — Clark's handwriting an unpleasant reminder of their meeting that morning. Impatiently she walked over to the bed and turned the envelope face down. There, that's better.

Except it really wasn't. Even face down, the envelope reminded her of him. It really had been sweet of him to take the time to write to her. In fact, he'd been so sweet last night and so much fun. What a dancer he was … what a kisser he was … and that wonderful smile … She glanced at her reflection and was surprised to see a tender expression on her face. Oh, this is ridiculous! She stalked over to the bed, grabbed the envelope and slapped it firmly on the dresser, defying herself to discover *any* possible associations there.

She looked at her watch again. Yikes! She'd better hurry if she wanted to grab a quick bite before the session started. With no further interruptions, she finished dressing quickly. Looking around one last time before heading downstairs, she spied the note. She certainly didn't want Diane to find it, so she scooped it up, tossed it into a drawer and headed for the door. She had her hand on the doorknob when she realized she'd put his note in her underwear drawer! She hurried back to the bedroom and pulled it out again, looking around for a place to put the dratted thing. Finally, in exasperation, she folded it in half and stuffed it into a section of her purse. She'd decide what to do with it later.

***

Clark was sitting at his computer, phone propped up to his ear by his shoulder. He'd been trying to get through to a certain City Councilman, but had been put on "infinity hold" instead, so he'd decided to do a bit of editing while he waited. Joel came into his office, dropped off some papers for him to look over, and stayed to chat for a minute. He and his wife, Sylvia, were expecting their first child in three months and he was delightedly telling Clark all about how strongly the baby was kicking now, when the Councilman's secretary came back on the line. Joel smiled in understanding at Clark's hand gestures, and left.

"I'm sorry, Mr. Kent, but Councilman Tulley can't see you today. He wanted to know if you would be available tomorrow morning."

Yes, Clark said, that would be fine. Ten a.m.?

"Yes, sir. I'll make a note of it. Thank you for calling."

A note. Clark hung up the phone, feeling stunned. Good lord! I left a note for Lois! He could feel himself turning pale at the thought. Then, remembering what he'd written, he felt a flush spread over his whole body.

***

Lois sat idly watching the people as they strolled or hurried by her table. She'd finally walked out of the "Modern Women in Yesterday's Journalism" seminar she'd been attending when it had became apparent that she hadn't heard one word in the last ten.

She couldn't remember ever feeling this confused about anything, nor could she remember the last time she'd felt this sorry for herself. She just couldn't seem to make up her mind, an annoying state of affairs for someone who was normally very decisive. Not liking this feeling, but not entirely sure how to counter it, she'd wandered out of the convention center and into the hotel with no particular goal in mind.

The "Paddlewheel Restaurant," one of three in the hotel, and the one nearest the convention center's entrance, had French cafe-looking tables and chairs set up in the area just outside the restaurant proper. Beyond that, the tower containing the rooms and elevators rose, but above it, skylights let in the midday sun. With trees planted in large containers and spaced among the tables, there was a hint of a sidewalk cafe. Thinking that this seemed like a nice compromise between the bustle of the restaurant and the loneliness of her room, she'd found an empty table near one of the potted trees and sat down.

As Lois Lane, award-winning journalist, she was used to dealing with facts. Facts were things you could track down, dig up, hold up to the light, make people face, and then expose in newspaper articles. Most of what she had to work with now, however, were emotions. It was frustrating to try and follow a logical train of thought from fact A, through facts B and C and suddenly end up at emotion K or S or Y. Why was this happening to her? Why was it that each time she'd nearly argued herself into believing Clark was guilty as charged, would she suddenly be remembering the way he laughed, or how his arms had felt when he'd … Darn you, Clark Kent. Why won't you get out of my head?

A waitress came up and Lois ordered a soda from her. It was only a little after 11, so things weren't really busy yet. A few other people were sitting at tables near her, but the noise of their conversations was dissipated by the height of the ceiling, making it relatively quiet for such a public place. Sipping on her soda, she idly watched the various comings and goings, but without really taking in anything. From where she sat she had a good view of a portion of the lobby, two of the elevators, as well as part of the restaurant and bar. A couple of TVs were playing in the bar, but since she couldn't hear the sound from where she sat, she paid them scant attention.

The waitress returned, giving Lois a chance to order a sandwich — she'd decided she might as well have some lunch. A group of three very happy conventioneers rolled past her on their way to the bar. She watched them without much interest, her eyes drifting from them to one of the TVs. The news was on and something on the screen caught her eye. She sat up with a start.

CHAPTER TEN

The newscaster was comparing the Senate's version of the budget against the House's, using the standard pro & con format.

That's what she should do, she thought. Get it all down on paper! If she hadn't been feeling so sorry for herself, she might have thought of it sooner. She snatched up her purse/briefcase, which doubled as her office away from the office. Finding her notepad was easy, but it took a little longer to put her hands on her pen; she must have neglected to replace it in its holder the last time she'd used it. It wasn't until she'd removed her camera, binoculars, wallet, scanner and datebook, that she spotted her pen.

Once she'd replaced everything in her bag, she was ready to weigh the pros and cons of the "evidence" against Mr. Kent. The waitress came with her lunch, but she ignored it, being totally engrossed with her list. With everything down on paper, the list of knowns about Clark's supposed "crime" was woefully short, and she had to face the fact that she'd tried and convicted him on circumstantial evidence.

So sure had her inner self been that he'd eventually be found wanting that she'd latched onto the very first hint of wrongdoing and built up a whole case around it. How could she have done that? And what could she do about it now?

Well, he probably wouldn't want to have anything more to do with her, but she at least owed him an explanation and an apology.

"Good afternoon, Lois."

Lois looked up in surprise. She hadn't seen Alice's approach.

"Do you mind if I join you? I've been out shopping, my feet are killing me, and all the tables are full."

Lois looked around her and was surprised to see that the lunch crowd had arrived while she'd been otherwise occupied. She also realized her notes were still on the table.

"No, of course I don't mind," she said as she hurriedly put her notepad and pen away in her purse.

Alice sank gratefully into a chair, placing her shopping bags on the floor next to her. "Ahhh. That's better." She smiled at the younger woman. "I've been picking up a few things for the boys. Perry will have a fit because we'll most likely need to buy another suitcase to put this stuff in, but I couldn't pass up these bargains. You just can't find things like these for such low prices in Metropolis."

Lois smiled back, relieved that Alice didn't seem to have noticed her scribblings. Alice looked around, but all the service people were tied up at the moment. "Looks like I've picked a busy time." She turned back to Lois. "Well, how was the session this morning?"

"Good. It was good." At least … she guessed it had been good.

Alice smiled serenely. "Well, that's nice," she said, before turning to look at the people sitting around them. A booming voice attracted her attention, as well as Lois's.

"Bill's here, I see. He and Perry were to attend the same meeting this morning, so I guess Perry can't be far behind." Alice looked over at Lois again briefly, then nodded her head in "Wild Bill's" direction. "People can be fascinating, don't you agree? Take Bill, for instance. To look at him and listen to him you'd think he's been riding the range for years, wouldn't you?"

Lois nodded, not quite sure where this conversation was going.

"As far as I know, though, he's never actually been on a horse, or a ranch for that matter. He's really Albert Mianulli from Paramus."

Lois looked blank.

"New Jersey."

Oh. "You mean, he's *not* from Texas?"

"Good lord, no. He was the youngest and smallest of ten children, often left out of things and lonely. At some point he discovered cowboy stories and, well … "

Lois looked over at "Wild Bill" again. "He sure *sounds* like he's from Texas."

"Well, Bill works harder at being a Texan than any real Texan I know." Alice paused for a moment. "You know, Lois, some people, like Bill, hide who they truly are. Others, like my Perry, are up front with you right from the start. They may be complex people and can take a lifetime to get to know deeply and truly, but they do not hide behind a facade — you know where you are with them. Sometimes, Lois, what you see is truly what you get."

Lois was giving Alice her full attention. "How do you know when you've met such a person?"

Alice looked into Lois's troubled young face, and said kindly, but firmly, "You just do."

Lois met Alice's gaze a while longer, then began gathering her things together. "Alice, I just remembered that I have an appointment. Would you excuse me?"

With her voice full of amusement, Alice asked, "What about your lunch?"

"I'm not hungry after all. I haven't touched it. W- would you like it? It's yours, if you want it. I have to go."

Lois threw ten dollars on the table and hurried away, leaving a very amused, but very satisfied, Alice behind.

***

Clark ran a hand through his hair. Things were finally beginning to calm down. He'd gotten those figures to J.D. on time, Barry had come by to apologize again, and Clark had actually had one whole 15-minute-period when he hadn't thought of Lois … except once or twice. Now he was working on a rough draft of a report.

He paused in his typing long enough to remove his glasses and rub his eyes, then, leaning back in his chair he turned to look out the window. Big, puffy clouds were skittering across the spring sky, and the temptation to be up there with them was almost overwhelming. On days like this, it was awfully hard not to just take off for a spin. Unfortunately, today the clouds were going to have to stay where they were — and so was he. With one last wistful glance outside, he returned to the work at hand.

The phone rang, and as soon as he'd said, "Clark Kent," he knew something was wrong because his amplified hearing could pick up the elevated heartbeat of the caller.

It was Maggie, a very young cub-reporter, who'd been out on what should have been a routine assignment, but who'd had the misfortune to have been a witness to a violent crime. She was trying to be professional and put a brave face on the whole situation, but he could tell she was very upset. The police needed her to make a statement, and she felt all alone, and scared.

Clark spent several minutes reassuring her and helping her to calm down, letting her know he had confidence in her, helping her to see that she could handle this. He offered to send Joel over to keep her company, and heard Maggie's sigh of relief at the promise of reinforcements. He said good-bye, hung up the phone and turned.

Lois was there.

Lois watched Clark's face change as he took in the fact that she was there. There was surprise, which was understandable; then joy, which thrilled her; then a wariness as he remembered their last encounter, which made her feel guilty. At the same time, he'd moved as if to come around the desk to meet her, changed his mind, glanced down at his computer, then put his hands in his pockets and looked at her again. He seemed to be searching for something to say, but when he did speak all he was able to come up with was a quiet, uncertain, "Hi."

A single word, but in it she heard all he hadn't said, such as, "Why are you here?" At least he hadn't ordered her to get lost.

"Hi. Are … you … busy?"

He glanced down at his desk and shrugged his shoulders. "Kinda."

She took a deep breath and tried to control the butterflies in her stomach. "Well, I was hoping we could talk. I … I owe you an explanation — "

"That isn't neces — "

"Yes. It is. Please, Clark. It won't take long, I promise."

How could he refuse her? "All right." He motioned towards his desk. "I have to take care of a couple of things first, though. Why don't you have a seat? I'll be right back."

She nodded and watched as he picked up, and then replaced, two phone-message-sized pieces of paper. He next grabbed a file folder and was halfway to the door with it, when he appeared to remember something. Hurrying over to his printer, he gathered some printouts and took a moment or two to arrange them where they belonged in the folder. That done, he took a couple of steps toward the door, turned to retrieve the notes he'd first had his hands on and with all that, finally, made it through the door, calling for someone named Joel.

She was too nervous to sit, so she wandered around his little office, looking at the pictures and other artifacts which adorned his walls and desk. There was an ethnic mask, a piece of Oriental calligraphy, and a couple of small statues - - one looked as if it was carved out of wood, the other one from stone — souvenirs of a world traveler. She also saw photographs of places which looked exotic and remote, beautiful and dangerous. Was one of these Borneo, or Nigeria?

Her wanderings took her to his desk, and there she saw a picture of an older couple standing outdoors with some kind of building in the background. She had picked it up and was studying their faces when she felt a presence behind her.

"My parents."

"They look like nice people."

"They are. The world's best parents. I'm very, very lucky."

He took the picture from her gently and, as he looked down at his parents' smiling faces, she studied his. There was so much love in his voice when he spoke of them. Oh, how she wished she could feel that way about her own parents! She watched him replace the photo on his desk, then she glanced around the office once more before turning back to Clark. He was just as she'd remembered him from the night before — gentle and honest. Gone was her vision of Clark as a conniving schemer. That man didn't exist. Alice had been right; sometimes what you see *is* what you get.

He was smiling down at her. Not the friendly, open smile from the night before, but, it was a start, she thought.

"I can't promise we won't be interrupted, but I've asked them to try to hold my calls … " He gestured towards a chair and then half sat, half leaned against his desk, his hands at his sides.

She took the chair he'd indicated, setting her bag on the floor next to her and thinking very hard about how to say all this. Maybe the simple, direct approach would be best. She folded her hands in her lap and raised her face to his.

"I owe you an apology, Clark. The reason I acted the way I did this morning was because I … I thought you were trying to … play a trick on me."

He looked slightly stunned. "Why would you think that?"

"Well, I … It's really silly but … You see, I thought … and Diane said … but I know now … That is, I'm sure that you … " She stopped and tried to get a hold of herself. "I'm sorry. I seem to be babbling."

He smiled reassuringly and said, "That's okay." Then, leaning forward, he laid a hand gently over hers where they were clenched together in her lap. She took his hand and squeezed it gratefully, stood up and walked towards the window. He stood, too, but stayed by the desk, watching her every move, every gesture.

More composed now, Lois turned and tried again. "Last night a guy hit on me and I … I kind of annihilated him." She paused, but all she could see on his face was a puzzled, if polite, interest. "Later on, you were seen talking with him and … and then you rescued Alice … " If this was sounding half as stupid as she thought it was, he was never going to believe her.

"We thought — " No! I shouldn't drag Diane into this. "*I* thought you were in collusion with that other guy to trick me, embarrass me, because I had embarrassed him. I realized a while ago that I was wrong about you, and … I'm sorry."

He thought about what she'd just said. "So *that's* why you broke our date this morning?"

She nodded.

He shook his head in bewilderment. "But why didn't you just ask me about it? I could have told you — " He stopped as the obvious answer to that question popped into his head. If she'd thought him capable of trickery, she'd have certainly thought him capable of lying. "Nevermind," he said, smiling a little uncomfortably. "I think I know."

CHAPTER ELEVEN

There was an awkward silence as they looked at one another, each trying to think of something to say. Finally, Clark gave a short, rather unhappy laugh. "Looks like I made a worse first impression than I'd thought."

As an attempt to lighten the moment it was a dismal failure because Lois could see the hurt in his eyes.

"No, Clark, that's not true. You made a great first impression, and I had a wonderful time last night — probably the best time I've ever had with anyone. It's just that … well, I've been disappointed so many times before, I guess I expect it to happen now." He still looked troubled and she took a step towards him. "Don't you see, it wasn't you, it was me. I'm used to people lying to me. I'm so used to having to dig for the truth, in fact, that when it jumps up and hits me right between the eyes, I have trouble recognizing it."

She was relieved to see his expression lighten a little. He stepped around the corner of his desk and came closer to her. He was watching her intently. "Sooo, how did you dig the truth out of this situation?"

"Well, first of all, I stopped acting like a victim and started thinking like a reporter." He grinned at the self- accusatory tone in her voice, and she smiled back slightly. "Once I took an objective look at everything that had happened, I could see I hadn't been fair to you."

His look brightened further, and the teasing gleam peeped back into his eyes. "You *are* a great reporter," he said as he took another step forward.

"Thanks," she replied, grimacing comically. She was glad to see he was able to find some humor in all this. "I didn't feel like a great reporter this morning, though." She brushed her hair back from her face impatiently. "I accepted what was told me without questioning it, then I built up an entire case against you on the flimsiest evidence … If Perry ever found out," she said, irritatedly, "he'd have me writing puff pieces before you could say 'Heartbreak Hotel.'"

Clark laughed. "I won't tell if you won't."

Lois laughed a bit, too, and then grew solemn again. "You're being so nice to me. By rights, you should be yelling at me and throwing me out the door. Why aren't you?"

Now it was his turn to be serious. He moved even closer to her. "Why aren't I throwing you out the door? Hmmm … well, first of all, that's not how I work. Secondly, why would I want to do that when all morning long, I've been hoping you'd come through that very door?"

She felt tears welling up. "Oh, Clark, I'm sorry. I'm sorry for thinking those terrible things about you and breaking our date and … and … I've really made a mess of things, but … Do you … do you think we could start again?"

He pretended to consider the matter, but his face told her his decision before he said it. "Well, as long as we don't have to re-live the last six hours over again … " She shook her head vehemently, and he grinned. "In that case I'm all for it." He held out his hand. "Hi, I'm Clark Kent."

She put her hand in his. "I'm Lois Lane."

Her hand felt so right in his and his heart swelled with happiness. Unshed tears were in her eyes and his only thought was to reassure her. He closed the remaining distance between them and gathered her into his arms — holding her, comforting her, and being comforted in return. He felt her wrap her arms around his waist and bury her face in his neck as she held him tightly. This was something he'd never thought to have experienced again, made all the sweeter for having nearing lost it.

For a while neither spoke and then it was as if the dam had broken for both of them at once:

"I can't believe that I … "

"It's been the longest morning of my life … "

" … if you only knew … "

" … so glad you came by … "

" … should have just asked you … "

" … it's all right … "

" No, no, no … "

They stopped abruptly and, without loosening their embrace, looked into each other's faces. Lois wiped a couple of tears from one cheek, while Clark tenderly wiped the other one. Each was acutely aware of the other's nearness, and neither could think of a thing to say.

Finally, Lois gave a rather shaky laugh, and said, "*That* may have been the craziest conversation I've ever had."

"Me, too."

He chuckled softly and she squeezed his waist a little tighter. "Maaaaybe, we should try that again. Say, over lunch? I find that I'm free after all."

She saw his eyes light up in delight. "That would be great!" Almost immediately, though, his face fell as he remembered something. "I can't."

"Why?"

He looked guilty. "Well, when … I mean after this morning … " A flush came to her cheeks, and he hastened to explain. "I mean, I thought it would be better if … " He stopped and, raising his eyes heavenward, exclaimed, "I am such an idiot at times!" She stifled a sudden laugh, and he looked at her, chagrined. "I told someone else he could go to the session in my place. I doubt if I could get away now."

"Oh, well … " She was disappointed but not deterred. "I could wait a while. I don't mind."

"No, Lois, you don't understand. I don't mean just *now* 'now', I mean this afternoon 'now.'"

She took a half step back, but kept a hand on either side of his waist. "You get a lunch break, don't you?"

"That was going to be my lunch break, but when I switched with Jim I got his shift — at least until he gets back. Not only that, but I've been so tied up with the convention committee work and everything here at the 'Dispatch' that I haven't been able to get down to the farm for a month. I promised Dad I'd help him out this weekend, and J.D.'s said I could take three days … " His voice trailed off.

She looked up into his anxious face, and then glanced over at the photo of his mom and dad. Imagine, wanting to spend time with your parents! What a concept!

Her hands were still at his waist. She tightened her grip a bit so she could rock him gently back and forth — first with one hand and then with other. " … and you don't want to jeopardize your time at home by asking for extra time now."

He was grateful for her quick understanding. "That's about the size of it. J.D. would probably let me have the time if I asked him for it, but I know we're short-handed because of the convention. I just don't want to put him in an awkward position."

"J.D.'s your editor?"

He nodded.

"I see." She smiled up at him and rocked him back and forth again. "It's all right, Clark. I understand. I wouldn't want to do that to Perry, either."

They were silent for a moment and then Clark said, "I should be through here around seven. How about if I call you and we'll go to dinner together?"

She smiled a little wider, and looked at him roguishly. "That's your *best* offer?"

He smiled back, and used a finger to push an errant strand of hair away from her face. "I'm afraid so."

She sighed and admitted defeat graciously. "I guess it will have to do, then, won't it?" She rubbed his side briefly before sliding her arms around him again. It felt so good to hold him. Never before had she known this urge to just be close to someone, as if something inside her needed to be near him. Now that they were together again, she was reluctant to leave him, but … "I'd better let you get back to work."

"I guess so."

But neither one of them made a move to release the other.

"I'll see you later then," she said with a bit more conviction.

"Okay."

They still held onto one another. Lois raised her head from Clark's shoulder and said, her voice full of laughter, "We're not very good at this are we?"

Clark leaned forward to touch his forehead to hers, and chuckled. "I wonder … do you think I could work like this?"

Lois grinned wickedly. "Like this?" she asked, just before she reached up and planted a nice, long kiss on him. She pulled out of the embrace and giggled a bit at the stunned look on his face. She rather enjoyed knowing she could have that effect on him, so she gave him two more little kisses … just because.

He looked down at her impish face. "Noooo, I don't think I'd get much work done this way. You're too much of a distraction."

"Good."

They laughed softly, their faces close together, and kissed again. Clark gently ran his hands up and down Lois's arms. "I can't believe we haven't been interrupted yet."

Lois glanced in the direction of the closed door. "They're probably listening in." Looking back at him she recognized the teasing gleam just before he spoke.

"Nah! They're used to me having strange women in here."

"Why you!" She gave him a little shove. "I knew you were going to say something outrageous. Just for that, I'm leaving."

He laughed aloud and then quickly silenced it, glancing towards the door. "I'm sorry. I just couldn't resist an opening like that."

She picked up her bag and wagged a finger at him. "One of these days, that teasing of yours is going to get you into trouble."

He moved around the chair and drew close to her again. Putting his hands on her shoulders, he looked remorseful. "You're probably right. I guess I need someone to set me straight … keep an eye on me."

She waved a dismissive hand. "An impossible task. No sane person would attempt it."

"How about you, then?"

Her jaw dropped open. "Clark!"

Laughing, he pulled her into his arms again. "I'm sorry, Lois. I don't know what's gotten into me. I guess I'm feeling a little crazy myself today."

She allowed herself to respond to him. Maybe she *was* insane, she smiled to herself. Look at all she'd done since she'd arrived in Kansas City! "Me, too. Although … I was perfectly fine when I left Metropolis, so maybe there's something in the air here."

"Maybe."

His voice was still full of laughter but there was a great deal of warmth in his eyes. Gosh, this is fun, she thought. "I hate to say this, but I'd really better go." She gave him a quick kiss. "I'll see you later, though."

"You sure will. I'll call you when I'm getting ready to leave here." He kissed her lightly, just as she was stepping out of his arms. "It seems like an awfully long time until seven." He followed her as she walked towards the door.

"Yes, it does." She turned to say good-bye, looked at his face, and suddenly smiled. "Hmmm, 'Burnt Rose' becomes you."

He was baffled. "What?!"

"You're wearing my lipstick," she said matter-of-factly as she wiped his lips with her fingers. "Of course, you let me wear your jacket last night, so this seems to be the least I can do. There, that should do it." She rubbed her fingers together to get rid of the lipstick.

"Thank you." He leaned forward to kiss her again, but she held him off with a hand to his chest.

"Oh no you don't," she laughed. "I just got you respectable-looking again."

"But you said it was my color!"

"C-Clark!" She was trying so hard not to laugh, that she could barely talk.

"All right, I'll be good," he said contritely.

She glared at him doubtfully and shook her head. "I don't believe you."

He put one hand over his heart and said in an overly dramatic voice, "Now you've cut me to the quick."

"That's it!" She threw up her hands in mock exasperation. "I'm out of here."

She was taking another step towards the door when it suddenly opened. J.D., folders and assorted papers in hand, came into Clark's office. He stopped short when he saw Lois and Clark, and blinked in surprise.

"Clark! You're here?! I thought you'd have left for the conference by now."

"Don't you remember J.D., I told Jim he could go in my place."

"Oh, yes. That's right." He looked at the two faces in front of him. "I remember now." He made a show of rearranging the papers in his hands, all the while keeping a covert eye on them. "I wish I'd have remembered sooner, then I wouldn't have barged in here like this. I didn't mean to interrupt … "

Both of them spoke at once:

"I was just leaving anyway."

"You're not interrupting."

They stopped, looked self-conscious, and J.D. smiled benignly into the sudden silence. At least one of us is having fun with this situation, he thought mischievously.

CHAPTER TWELVE

In fact, J.D. thought, watching the young couple from his office window as they headed down the street, that had been the most amusing ten minutes he'd spent in recent memory. He'd taken pity on them eventually, of course, and told Clark to take Miss Lane to lunch or he was fired, but getting to that point had been a lot of fun.

Clark and Lois had each, in their own way, tried to look nonchalant and unconcerned about being intruded upon, but the chemistry between them had been almost palpable, and quite impossible to hide. Whether they realized it yet or not, those two were made for each other.

Introductions were made (so this is Lois Lane!) and he'd explained what he'd come for. Clark had gotten the needed information for him while he'd chatted a bit with Lois. He could see what there was in Lois which would attract a quiet, fairly unassuming young man like Clark. She was very intelligent and beautiful, but there were other qualities even more attractive: her drive, determination, and courage. Clark, for all that he put forth a quiet demeanor, had these same qualities himself. He'd just channeled them differently.

As for the other side of the coin, J.D. was reasonably sure Clark must have been one of the few people who'd ever pleasantly surprised Lois Lane. She looked like a person who'd had her share of hard knocks, and had developed calluses on her spirit because of them. The attention she was receiving from Clark must have been a welcomed change for her.

Clark had come back to where Lois and his editor were talking, to tell J.D. he'd LAN'd the necessary files to his office. J.D. had thanked him and then turned as if to leave. He'd heard Lois saying she really had to be going, and Clark whispering that he'd see her after seven. They were acting very professionally, but the older man could hear the sad longing in their voices — they didn't want to be apart. Have to do something about that, he thought.

"Clark, I just remembered … do you have your beeper on you?"

Clark had looked perplexed, but being the obliging fellow that he was, he'd assured J.D. he did in fact have his pager and that it was working fine.

"Oh, I'm sure it is. Could I see it, please?"

By now J.D. was certain Clark must have thought his editor had taken leave of his senses, but he politely handed over his pager. I must remember, the older man thought, to compliment Mr. and Mrs. Kent on the raising of their son.

He'd pretended to examine the pager and then had looked up at the pair standing before him. "Yes, this seems to be working fine." Attaching the device to his own belt, he'd jerked his head towards the open door. "Now, Kent, I think we can dispense with your charming company for a few hours. I have a special assignment for you I hope you'll be able to handle."

Clark was still confused, but J.D. could see that Lois seemed to be catching on to what was really happening. Good, he thought, she'll keep him on his toes.

Smiling slyly, but sweetly, J.D. told Clark his assignment was to take Miss Lane to lunch, give her a personal tour of the city and guard her with his life. Clark's jaw had dropped open, but Lois had giggled quietly — she *had* known what J.D. was up to. A woman after my own heart, he thought.

Clark had protested, of course, but J.D. had put a stop to that nonsense pretty quickly by threatening all kinds of dire consequences if he didn't do as he was told. Between them, he and Lois had bundled a dazed and bemused Clark out of his office, J.D. telling him to pick up his pager later in the evening; he'd leave it on Clark's desk. Clark had nodded then started to ask one more time if J.D. was sure about this.

"Yes, I'm sure, but if you keep hanging around I may change my mind, so move it!"

Clark had grinned at that and grabbed his jacket. Lois had been thanking J.D., but Clark's movement caught her eye and she'd glanced his way then looked at him quizzically. They said their good-byes and headed for the door. The last thing J.D. heard before they got out of earshot was Lois saying she'd just realized something and then asking Clark why he was wearing a different suit than the one he'd had on at the hotel that morning, thus inadvertently providing the older man with a clue to the puzzle of Clark's recent abstracted behavior.

So, Clark, he'd thought, *she* was part of your morning. I guess I was right, then — "stunning" had been the right word.

Back in his own office, J.D. watched them emerge from the building and stand talking for a few minutes before heading off. They really made a charming couple and more than one person turned to give them a second look. J.D. didn't know Lois well enough to be able to tell how much of what he was seeing was a deviation from the "regular" Lois. Clark, however, he knew very well and he had to admit he'd never seen that young man look happier. He found himself wondering if he'd had the same kind of silly, but wonderful grin on his face when he'd first fallen in love with his wife, Rachel. He really hoped he had.

**

It was dizzying to find himself suddenly on the sidewalk, outside the "Dispatch" building, with the promise of an entire afternoon spent in Lois's company. Clark considered pinching himself to see if he was awake, but in his case it would have been a waste of time — he wouldn't have felt it.

When she'd asked him about the different clothes, he'd mumbled something about helping a guy who'd had car trouble, and getting his clothes dirty in the process. He just didn't want to go into the whole rescue thing right then. Besides, he told himself, if she hadn't heard about the explosion and rescue by now, chances were she wouldn't, since it would certainly soon be supplanted by an even bigger story.

Once outside, with a whole afternoon dropped into their laps like a precious gift, they stopped for a while to decide what to do. "Lunch!" Lois had pleaded, and he'd been happy to oblige, asking her if she'd like to walk a couple of blocks to this really great deli he often patronized. She approved and they headed in that direction, at first just side by side, then hand-in-hand.

Clark decided he'd never seen a prettier day. The wind ruffled Lois's hair and caught at her skirt, making her laugh. He laughed with her and put an arm around her. She moved closer to him and put a hand up to grasp his where it lay on her shoulder.

She was filling him in on her morning as they reached the next to the last street they'd have to cross on their way to the deli. The light had changed a few seconds before they'd gotten there and pedestrians were already making their way across. Lois and Clark were in the middle of the street, when she felt him suddenly tense.

She looked up, saw him staring down the street, followed his gaze, and gasped at the sight of a car barreling towards the intersection against the green. Brakes squealed, horns honked and still it came on.

We're going to die, she thought.

The scene played out as if in slow motion. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see two other people who'd followed them into the street and had made it about a quarter of the way across. Another woman had just started to cross from the other direction. For about half a second, they all stood frozen, looking at the huge machine rushing at them, then everything seem to happen at once. Clark yelled, "Look out!" The people behind them somehow managed to jump or fall out of harm's way and she found herself on the opposite corner, safe in the crook of Clark's left arm while he helped the other woman steady herself with his right.

Releasing Lois, he raised a hand to his face and she glanced up at him, just in time to see him pull his glasses part way down on his nose as he stared after the rapidly retreating vehicle. She was about to ask him if he'd been able to get the license number when she heard sirens. Two police cruisers shot into the intersection. One stopped and officers jumped out to look after the people who were still lying or sitting on the curb, while the other continued its pursuit of the reckless driver.

"Are you all right?" The concern in his voice brought her attention back to Clark.

"Y-yes, I'm fine." She was still flabbergasted to find that she was not lying dead on the street. "How are you?"

"I'm okay, too."

"How did we … ? I mean, why aren't we … ?"

"I'm not sure … adrenaline, maybe. My heart's pounding hard enough for it to be that."

"Mine, too."

He smiled with relief and gave her a quick hug. "I'm going to see if anyone needs any help."

They both crossed the street again to check on the other victims, but everyone seemed to have escaped with only scrapes and bruises. Clark recognized one of the policemen and went over to talk to him. EMT's arrived, but all they had to do was apply a few Band-Aids and lend a sympathetic ear. Everyone was saying how miraculous it was that no one had been killed, or even seriously hurt. It was as if an invisible hand had pushed me back, one man said. Another person remarked that it had felt like a sudden gust of wind. Whether it had been divine intervention, a freakish act of nature, or just sheer dumb luck, no one was looking this gift horse in the mouth.

Even more amazing was the fact that the police had been able to nab the perpetrator a mere block and a half from the scene. It seems the car's tailpipe had melted in upon itself, causing the vehicle to stall. The driver had tried to run, but had been quickly caught.

Statements were taken, and things returned to normal, which meant Clark could follow J.D.'s orders about taking Lois to lunch and giving her a tour of the city. She teased him, saying she was only going along with this because she didn't want to get him fired.

The deli sported dozens of pictures of Kansas and Missouri's cities, prairies, hills, and rivers which they looked at while waiting in line. Lois was rather surprised to find out that the area wasn't just one big flat cornfield.

"Wheat."

"What?"

"We grow mostly wheat, not corn," Clark said, pausing in the act of filling out the order slip. "What kind of bread do you want for your sandwich?"

"Wheat."

"What?!"

"Gotcha!" She laughed at the look on his face. "Rye bread, silly."

Clark just shook his head at her. "I should put down wheat bread just to get you for that one."

"What?? Wheat?"

"Lo-is!!"

They looked at more photographs while waiting for their order and he told her some stories about the history of the area; how the Oregon and Santa Fe Trails had begun in what would become Kansas City; about the Pony Express riders who used to pass through parts of Missouri and Kansas on their way to California; that at one time there had been dozens of forts dotted around the two states; and how legendary figures such as Wild Bill Hickok, Bat Masterson and Wyatt Earp had tried to keep the peace in towns like Dodge City, Abilene, Wichita and St. Jo.

While they ate, they discussed what she'd like to do that afternoon. She wanted to get a gift for her sister, Lucy, and she liked browsing antique stores, but she was open to suggestions, too. With those parameters in mind, Clark suggested that they return to the "Dispatch" for his car and then set out for "The Plaza."

"There are over 100 shops there, so we're bound to find something for Lucy. Besides, it's really pretty — lots of fountains and statues. And, if you get tired, we can take a ride in one of the horse-drawn carriages. After that, we can see what you want to do next. The historic district is worth a look, especially since you said you like antiques … or we could go down to the river and try to catch a glimpse of a paddlewheeler. You just name it."

His enthusiasm secretly amused her, and she didn't see how they could possibly fit in even half the stuff he wanted to show her in the time allowed. She was smart enough to realize, though, that what enthused him the most was just being with her. Something told her that if she said all she really wanted to do was sit in that deli all afternoon, he'd be just as enamored of that suggestion as he was with this whole sightseeing business.

"Well, Mr. Kent," she said, placing her napkin on the table, "you have successfully fulfilled two-thirds of your mission. You've guarded me with your life and I'm stuffed to the gills with creme soda and pastrami. Now, how about that tour?"

He grinned at her. "As you wish, Miss Lane. Your duly appointed guide is ready if you are. First stop: The Plaza!"

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

Lois licked the remains of her supper off her fingers one last time and looked up to see Clark grinning at her. She had to laugh.

"Okay, okay, you were right — that *was* the best barbecue I've ever eaten. Kansas-style barbecue rules! In fact, I wish they delivered to Metropolis." She looked down at the empty containers spread out on the blanket between them. "On second thought, maybe it's better that they don't." She rubbed her tummy in a self-satisfied way then leaned back, putting her hands behind her to support herself. "I've eaten so much, I don't think I can move."

He chuckled. "I'm glad you're enjoying yourself."

"Oh, I'm not," she said airily, wanting to get back at him for laughing at her. "I only eat like that when I'm miserable."

"Ahhhh," he said, playing along. "I see. Well, I guess that means I'm out of a job, then. When J.D. hears what a rotten time you've had today, he'll fire me for sure."

"Hmmm, well, you can be replaced you know. I was already starting to look. As a matter of fact … What did you say that guy's name was? The one from last night?"

"Barry?!"

"*That's* the one. Suave, debonair, man-of-the-world kind of guy … "

Clark smiled at this description of Barry's heretofore unseen qualities. "Sounds like he made quite an impression on you."

She grinned back at him. "Oh, he did!" She arched an eyebrow. "Not the one he was hoping for, I'm sure, but he *definitely* made an impression."

Clark laughed out loud at that, and Lois's grin got even wider. She loved his laugh!

Feeling contented, she took a deep breath and raised her face towards the last of the sun's rays. The wind had died down a bit, but a cool breeze still blew, pushing her hair away from her face and off her shoulders. Below them, the city's lights were winking on a few at a time, here and there. Boats were still plying the river, lights running, creating sparkly ribbons in the pink- and orange-tinged water. The flow of traffic on the freeways had diminished somewhat, but the red and white lights still drew the eye as commuters raced for their dinner tables and TV sets. Kansas City was settling in for the night.

For a day that had started out badly, this one sure had turned into something spectacular — not for anything that they'd done or seen, but because of the person she'd been with. Clark made everything fun, even shopping for Lucy. When Lois had been through several shops without finding anything she thought her sister would like, Clark had asked her about Lucy.

"Well, what kinds of things does she like to do? Does she have any hobbies? What's her favorite pastime?"

She'd thought for a moment, then ticked the answers off on her fingers, remarking fatalistically, "Going through my closet. Going through my dresser. Borrowing my clothes."

He'd laughed at this glimpse into the inner workings of siblinghood. "Okay, then, I have a solution. Pick out something you'd like to have, wrap it up and hide it in your closet or dresser."

The idea had tickled her and she'd remarked that he'd been wasted as an only child.

Their shopping completed, they'd strolled around The Plaza for a while enjoying the sunshine, talking with the ease of an old friendship, reveling in the nearness of each other.

The simplest things had become adventures: throwing pennies into a fountain to make a wish, buying ice cream cones and trying to eat them before the warmth of the day melted them, stopping to watch a street performer. They'd wandered to various places around the city, one thing flowing easily into another until, all too soon, the day had begun to fade away. It was almost time to think about getting some supper, but Clark had one last, special place to share with her " … to complete the tour," he said — the Arboretum.

There was less than an hour before the gardens were due to close for the night, but he'd shown her the areas he liked best, walking with his arm around her again. They visited the fish ponds, the rock garden, the ornamental grasses and the "Grandfather Tree," so-called because it was the biggest, oldest tree for several miles around. Some of its lower branches were so long and heavy that part of them rested on the ground before reaching upward towards the sky again. There was something rather … magical about that spot. She could understand why Clark liked going there, and maybe that was why —

"Are you warm enough, Lois?"

Clark's voice interrupted her reminiscences, snapping her back to the present.

"I could get my jacket out of the car for you, if you need it."

The sun was below the horizon now, only the afterglow was left. The night air would make a jacket feel really good. Since teasing had been the order of the day, however … "Are you sure that's what this is all about, Clark? Don't you have an ulterior motive here?"

In the half-darkness she could see that he looked adorably confused. "Huh?"

"You think that if I let you lend me your jacket then I'll have to let you have something in return." She saw him starting to grin. "I mean, that worked just fine yesterday. I wore your jacket and you ended up wearing my lipstick … "

"It wasn't the lipstick, it was the method of application — "

"Quiet!" She held up an admonishing finger, pausing for a moment to be certain that he'd been properly quelled. "As I was trying to say, you need to vary your technique. I'm on to this 'jacket ploy,' Kent. I've got you all figured out."

The light was deserting them so quickly now that she really couldn't read his expression anymore, but his voice was full of amusement. "Oh, really! It didn't take you very long."

"That's my business … looking beyond the external."

"Uh-huh. So, Miss Lois Lane, world-famous investigative reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper … do you want my jacket or not?"

"Sooo, Mr. Clark Kent, Assistant Editor for the 'Kansas City Dispatch' … yes, I do." A sudden thought made her pause. "Unless, do we need to leave? Don't you have to go by your office?"

"Not just yet. We can stay a while longer, if you'd like."

She said she would, so he fetched his jacket for her then sat beside her, unobtrusively positioning his body to block most of the breeze. She snuggled into his jacket, putting it in front of her and tucking her knees up under it. Clark helped her arrange the front of the jacket over her shoulders, so that it covered as much of her back as possible.

"Are you sure you're all right, Clark?"

"I'm sure. I guess it comes from being a farm kid. I'm just used to being out in all kinds of weather. We're having a pretty mild spring this year, actually. No tornadoes, yet."

"Have you ever seen one?"

"Oh, sure. We were always pretty lucky, actually. Most of them have missed the farm, or only touched down out in a field. Of course, it doesn't help the crops any, but at least nobody got hurt. The year I turned nine, though, one of the kids in my class had his house flattened by one. His mother and little brother were home and they just barely made it into the storm cellar in time."

Below them the lights of Kansas City had seemed to grow brighter since the sun's retreat, and by them she could once again make out Clark's face as well as the dim shapes of nearby bushes and trees. She led him on to talk of other things from his years in Kansas, and from there to his travels and his early days in journalism. They shared some newspaper "war" stories, laughing at the predicaments they'd found themselves in while trying to get a story, or sympathizing over the sadder events they'd each covered. She was rather surprised to hear a wistful tone in his voice when he spoke of his "reportering days," and asked him if he didn't enjoy being an assistant editor.

"Oh, yes! Don't get me wrong, Lois, it's interesting work … being involved in more of the behind-the-scenes stuff of what makes a newspaper run. It's just … well, there are so many meetings, so much desk time. I hadn't realized how much of that there would be.

"I've been an assistant editor before — even managing editor of the 'Smallville Press' — but those were all much smaller papers, weeklies, actually. There, we all pitched in — we had to — to get the paper out on time. I've had the opportunity to do everything from taking photos, to paying the bills, to beating the bushes for new advertisers, to … sweeping the floors."

She nodded in understanding.

"At the 'Dispatch,' though, the jobs have to be more tightly proscribed; so I do more editing than writing, go to meetings instead of press conferences and write up employee evaluations instead of chasing down leads … On the other hand," he added, gratefully, "I've learned a lot from J.D. He's been a wonderful mentor, and I couldn't have asked for a kinder boss." He sighed, "It's just — "

Clark stopped for a moment as if searching for the right words. It seemed to her that she'd stumbled onto something he'd been wrestling with for a while.

"When the chance came up to apply for the assistant editor's position, everyone said it was a great opportunity for me. I'd learn so much, gain a lot of valuable experience … and I guess that's true. My dad was thrilled."

He paused again, but she didn't say anything — wondering if she was the first person he'd been able to talk to about this.

"I miss being out *there,* though," he said as he waved his arm over towards Kansas City. "I miss helping out and meeting people … listening to them, and following up on story ideas then coming back and writing it all down." He shrugged and turned towards her. "I probably seem like an ungrateful fool."

She shook her head. "No, I don't think so. I know I'd miss it, if I were in your shoes. I don't suppose you could just ask to be a reporter again?"

"Don't think I haven't thought about it." His watch beeped and he looked down at it. "Well, if we don't get a move on, I won't have to worry about which job I'd like to have 'cause it will have been decided for me. None!" He got to his feet and turned to lend her a hand.

She laughed a little and said, "Well, we can't have that!"

He helped her rearrange his jacket so that her arms were in the sleeves. "Ahhh! So does this mean you've had a change of heart? That you're not going to tell J.D. about the rotten time you've had today?"

"No, you're safe … for now. Just don't get on my bad side, or I might change my mind."

Clark reflected that he'd seen quite a few of Lois's "sides" that day, and there hadn't been a bad one in the bunch. Seen from any angle, she was … *something!*

They worked together to clean up their picnic site and then carried everything to the car. Clark said he'd drop her off at her hotel first, but she told him she'd rather go to the "Dispatch" with him.

"But Lois, I know you must be tired — "

She interrupted him. "Oh, and you're not? I saw you trying not to yawn when you thought I wasn't looking. I've had more sleep lately than you have, unless you live next door to my hotel, and I'm pretty sure that's not the case. Besides, Mr. Tour Guide, you've done your job too well. I know a lot more about Kansas City now than I did this morning, so I know you'll have to drive right by the 'Dispatch' just to take me home … "

"Okay, Lois, okay! You win," he said, amusement in his voice as he surrendered to an unstoppable force. "You're right."

"Of course I am."

He'd been backing up the car, but he stopped and smiled teasingly at her. "It must be tough, being right all the time."

She grinned over at him gleefully. "Yes! It is."

They both laughed out loud at that and then Clark pointed the Jeep back towards Kansas City.

***

Things were much quieter at the "Dispatch" than they had been on her earlier visit, but Lois still found herself being glanced at curiously as she and Clark walked through the newsroom on the way to his office. They weren't the "wink, wink, nudge, nudge" expressions of people used to seeing Clark with yet another paramour on his arm, but rather those of people who were perhaps a bit surprised, and who found the whole event rather … cute. She smiled to herself — so much for everyone being used to him having strange women up here!

He had told Lois he was sure it would be a quick stop, that all he had to do was pick up his beeper and check for messages. So he was dismayed when a middle-aged woman, whom he introduced to Lois as Doris, claimed his attention to pass along a couple of verbal messages which she said would complement the ones she'd noticed awaiting him on his desk.

Lois told him not to worry about it, that she would find a way to amuse herself. Doris spoke up, offering to give Lois a bit of a tour, saying her shift was up anyway. Clark didn't want to impose, and he didn't like the thought of Lois being bored, but the women seemed to have hit it off: one saying that her "menfolk" were at the Royals' exhibition game so there was nothing to go home to, and the other saying she wouldn't mind getting a glimpse of the "Dispatch's" inner workings. So, thoroughly outflanked, Clark retired to his inner sanctum and his phone calls, amazed by how quickly the two women had formed their alliance against him.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

He was still there 30 minutes later when Lois came looking for him. He signed to her that he wouldn't be much longer and she smiled to let him know she didn't mind. The souvenirs and other objects she'd been only nervously aware of earlier in the day, drew her attention again and she wandered around his office picking up a book here or studying a photograph there, while idly listening to his phone conversations … until she heard a name she knew.

"Barry, you know we never print anything that guy says without checking it six ways to Sunday first, and besides … "

Lois smiled slightly. During their afternoon together, Clark had filled her in on what had really happened between him and Barry the night before. It would seem that relationships weren't the only things Barry liked to take short cuts on. Clark certainly has more patience with him than Perry would, she reflected.

"I'm really sorry, Lois. I didn't know it would take this long."

She glanced his way in time to see him hanging up the phone. "That's all right, Clark. I'm enjoying looking around." She replaced a book on its shelf as he began tidying his desk.

"Problem?" She turned and gestured towards the phone.

"Just Barry," Clark sighed resignedly. "The guy's actually a very good writer. He just … gets impatient with procedures sometimes. Did Doris leave?"

"Yes. She gave me quite a tour — she's very funny, by the way — then she said she'd better get home." She motioned towards a group of photos on the wall which showed a variety of mountain scenes. "Is one of these Borneo or Nigeria?"

He came and stood next to her, some papers in his hand. "This one is of Borneo — not the part of the country where I lived, though. I took this when I went hiking in the interior once. I don't have any photos of Nigeria here. These others were taken in the White Mountains of Crete, the Peruvian Andes and the Carpathian Mountains," he said, touching each photo as he named it.

"You took all these yourself?"

"Uh-huh." He turned towards his desk, then looked back at her and smiled. "There are lots more where those came from, so be prepared. If I can ever talk you into visiting the farm, they'll be lying in wait for you."

She laughed. "Well, at least that's fair — I'd know what I'd be letting myself in for."

"Don't worry, I wouldn't subject you to the full treatment … on your first visit, anyway." He was re-locking his desk and turning off his lamp.

"And you don't propose on the first date, either. I think I see a pattern here, Kent. You know, you need to vary your technique."

"So you've said." Walking up to her and grinning innocently, he murmured provocatively, "It's always worked before."

She looked up in surprise, took in his expression and then rolled her eyes at him. "Oh, really? With all those *other* women you've had in here, I suppose?"

"Those are the ones."

"Yeah, right!" She jabbed him lightly in the ribs with her elbow. He put an arm around her shoulders and gave her a quick hug.

"Are you ready to go? I'd better get you home before your coach turns into a pumpkin."

"Well, that's *one* way to end a date," she said with a smile. She looked around his office one last time. "I kind of envy you this space, Clark."

"It's one of the perks of being an assistant editor, here at the 'Dispatch' anyway. When I was a reporter, I had a 3 x 4' cubicle in the middle of the City Room."

"Sounds familiar." She gestured towards a mask on the opposite wall. "That's from Africa, right?"

"Hm-mm. Balumbo tribe … west coast."

"It's nice. What I really like, though, is the Oriental piece. The writing is so delicate."

"Chinese. I found it in a little shop on a back street in Shanghai."

She moved closer to it again, taking in the graceful brush-drawn calligraphy on the black-framed 4' by 8" amber surface. "It's really beautiful, Clark. Is it very old?"

"No, it was done around the turn of the century. That's recent when you think the Chinese have had a well-developed writing system for about 5000 years."

She sighed. "Well, it's really nice. I wish I knew what it says, but I wouldn't even be able to tell if it was hanging upside down, let alone … "

Clark started translating it for her, pointing to each of the characters in turn, "A just man seeks truth; an honest man seeks justice."

She was astounded. "Don't tell me you read Chinese!?"

"It came in handy while I was working at the 'Shanghai Daily Times,'" he said with a grin. "Anyway, when I saw this," gesturing towards the calligraphy, "it seemed to be talking about the qualities of a good reporter, so I bought it. I've had it with me ever since."

Lois nodded, then turned to look at the Chinese characters once more. Truth and justice — two things certainly worth fighting for. At least, she'd always thought so. She knew Perry did, too, and that belief shone through in the "Daily Planet's" pages, which was a big part of why so many people trusted the "Planet" … and why she was proud to work there.

"You're right Clark. A good reporter should strive for those."

They looked at each other a moment more and then by mutual, unspoken consent turned to leave. Clark turned off the overhead lights and shut his office door.

He left a well-used, and rather full, file folder with the night editor, telling her that Joel would be by shortly to pick it up, then he and Lois made their way to the elevator. "Thanks for coming with me, Lois," he said. "It was nice to have the company."

"Oh, I didn't mind. It gave me a chance to get my 'newsroom fix.' You know I go through withdrawal symptoms if I'm away from one for too long."

"Ahhh, I see," he said, grinning. "You've got printer's ink in your veins, huh? Just can't stay away?"

The elevator doors opened and they stepped in. Clark pushed the button for the lobby.

"That's it. I've got it really bad. Shouts of 'stop the presses' bring tears to my eyes — "

"You know," he interrupted, with a musing tone in his voice, "I don't think I've ever heard anyone actually say that in real life — only in movies."

"Well, to tell you the truth, neither have I. I might have to try it sometime, just to see if it works."

"I'd love to see Perry White's face if you ever do."

She laughed, and in her best Perry imitation said, "Judas Priest! What are we? Second stringers from the 'Weehawken Gazette?' Let's get back to work!"

***

Diane really shouldn't sing in the shower, Lois thought, or at least not unless she knows all the words to the song she's trying to sing.

"'Fly me to the moon

and let me' dum, ta-dum 'the stars,

Let me' something something

'on Jupiter and Mars … '"

Lois grimaced. Catchy tune, but the lyrics leave a little to be desired, and you'd think she'd remember that not everyone else in the world is out of bed, yet. Oh, well, at least she's on key — mostly — and much too preoccupied with her own plans to be at all interested in what her roommate might have been doing.

Diane was still bubbling over with enthusiasm about running into an old college friend while out shopping the previous afternoon. The breathless voice-mail she'd left for Lois had detailed the wonder of the chance encounter, and how she just couldn't get over it. "Imagine, Lois! After all these years!" The two old friends had had dinner together and talked late into the night, but apparently that hadn't been enough because "Joyce" was driving in to meet Diane for breakfast, too.

The bathroom door opened, allowing steam to escape and crawl across the ceiling. Diane, robed, and wet hair turbaned in a towel, walked towards the closet, humming as she picked through her clothes. In Lois's view, humming was preferable to talking.

Ever since they'd awakened, Diane's conversation had been peppered with phrases like "Joyce says" this or "Joyce does" that. Lois thought that if she heard the words, "Joyce says" one more time … "Joyce says — "

<Don't say it, Lois> "You want some coffee, Diane?"

The other woman peered out from the folds of the towel she was using to dry her hair. "Yeah, that would be great."

Lois tossed back her covers and reached for her robe. She hadn't intended to get up this early, but if she stayed in Diane's orbit she'd have to listen to more "Joyceisms." She made her way into the sitting room and towards the TV cabinet/snack bar/desk which occupied most of one wall. The management had provided a coffee maker with complimentary pre- measured packs of ground coffee. Hot chocolate mix and tea bags were also available. She and Diane had enjoyed this show of hospitality before. The snack bar, however, they'd steered clear of — $1.50 for a candy bar was ridiculous!

Lois started the coffee and then drew back the sitting room curtains. It looked like the start of another fine day in Kansas City. Diane's voice could be heard from the bedroom, still chatting away as she got ready to go, seemingly not caring whether Lois was listening or not. Lois opened the sliding glass doors and stepped out onto the small balcony. Maybe from out there the "Joyce says's" wouldn't be any more annoying than the distant buzz of traffic on the freeway.

A cool morning breeze was blowing, making her wrap her robe even more tightly around her and she found herself wondering if the air above this city was ever still. It hadn't been in all the time she'd been there. Her rooms faced southeast, more or less, which gave her a nice view of two freeways, quite a bit of the business district and the remnants of the sunrise. She found that by walking to the furthest right hand corner of the balcony and leaning out as far as she could, she could see enough of the western edge of the city to catch glimpses of the Kansas River. The Missouri River to the north, however, remained obstinately hidden from her.

She looked westward for a long time. Clark had told her that he lived over the state line in Kansas and commuted in every day. When she'd asked him why he'd opted for that rather than something a bit closer to the action, the way her apartment in Metropolis was, he'd first joked about having been too lazy to change his driver's license. His subsequent description of his neighborhood, though, had helped her see what had attracted him to it: close enough to the river to be at the edge of its watershed, which meant nothing would be built behind his place; it was quiet; the neighbors were pleasant without being intrusive; and it was far enough from the city that quite a number of stars could be seen on clear nights. It must have seemed like the perfect compromise between rural and urban to someone who'd grown up on a farm and yet had traveled through a rather large portion of the world before he was thirty.

"Coffee's ready, Lois! You want me to pour you a cup?"

Lois jumped slightly. Her thoughts had been so full of Clark that she'd forgotten all about her roommate, the coffee … Joyce. She sent a silent "Thank you" in what she hoped was Clark's general direction before stepping back into the sitting room to fetch her coffee.

Some thirty minutes later, after Diane had finally made it out the door, Lois was able to return to the balcony … and her thoughts of Clark. There was an awards brunch she was planning on attending at ten, but she wanted to spend the intervening time doing some serious thinking — about Clark; the rest of their time together yesterday, her growing feelings for him, as well as her hard-won and heretofore zealously guarded opinions about men, relationships, and life in general.

Having been kicked in the teeth before on her previous forays into the relationship arena, she had determined long ago that men are pigs and not to be trusted any farther than you could throw them. The first man in her life, her father, had hardly been a father at all. Paul, a college boy friend, had chosen one of her best friends over her. Claude, *Claude* had convinced her he loved her as a ruse to steal her story from her, and then there had been —

She shook her head sharply in an effort to derail this depressing train of thought. For a long time she'd thought it was her, that something must be wrong with *her* since she seemed to be able to attract only the wrong kind of guy. Then she'd decided that, no, it was *them.* They couldn't be trusted, or they didn't meet her standards, or they were weak, or stupid. Lucy had accused her of scaring guys off. What Lucy didn't know, couldn't know (because Lois hadn't yet known it herself), was that the guys couldn't have been more scared of her than she was of them.

Clark, on the other hand …

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

Clark was just so … Clark.

She had no frame of reference for him … and seemingly few defenses against him. Somehow he'd gotten past the walls she'd been so carefully constructing the past few years. He was part of her life now, she reluctantly admitted to herself, but how much a part she wasn't yet sure … especially after yesterday.

She was still berating herself for letting things get out of hand, but she'd been so relieved when Clark had forgiven her and so happy to be with him again that she'd allowed herself to forget all her carefully established rules for handling guys. She'd gotten lost in the moment — delighting in the beauty of the day, the joy of being with someone she really liked, the fun of doing simple things with such an agreeable companion.

I didn't do it on purpose, she told herself defensively.

<Well, you didn't have to reach for his hand so often, or smile at him in that goofy way … >

It wasn't "goofy," it was *friendly,* and he reached for my hand more often than I reached for his.

<You should have heard yourself. Chattering away at him, and laughing at all his jokes! You shouldn't have encouraged him!>

I did *not* laugh at all his jokes! And I didn't encourage him … exactly. I just didn't want to seem rude.

<HA!>

What do you mean … HA!?

<Just what it sounds like. Get a grip, girl! You care for this guy too much for your own good. You've only known him for two days — not even two *full* days. You're getting in over your head, Lois. You need to pull back, take stock, think … !>

I did! I told him I wasn't ready to … <Yeah, yeah! I heard you. And who was it who decided later on to kiss him good night, hmmm??>

Weellll, he'd been so nice about the whole thing. I mean, I know he was disappointed when I couldn't say that I loved him back … He even apologized for putting me in an awkward position, saying that he shouldn't have said anything. Then afterwards he treated me very kindly, not trying to make me change my mind or anything, just helping me to feel comfortable with him again, so that when it came time to say good night, I couldn't … <You couldn't let him go without kissing him, and hugging him, and smiling at him … You're sending mixed signals, Lois. What's the poor guy supposed to think? One minute you just want to be friends, and the next minute you're all over him>

I was not all over him!!

<Lo-is … !>

She pulled her feet up onto the chair, wrapping her robe around her legs and her arms around her knees. The balcony wall obscured her view of the city, which was fine because it also blocked most of the breeze. The sun was higher in the sky now and making itself felt — it was going to be another warm day. Hunched dejectedly in her chair, she tried to think of a way out of her dilemma.

The problem was that she didn't know *what* she wanted. Part of her thought things were moving too fast, but another part thought things weren't moving nearly fast enough. There should be a way to figure this out. If she could just focus on the *issues* and quit spending so much time thinking about the way his eyes wrinkled up when he laughed, or how nice his hand felt in hers, or how strong his arms were, or … <You have a romantic attachment to him, don't you? Why don't you just admit it?>

Because … because admitting it would mean she'd have to do something about it, and right now she just didn't know *what* to do.

"I love you, Lois." He'd actually said that to her yesterday. "I love you." As though it was the simplest thing in the world … you just say it and it's so.

They'd been standing beneath and among the branches of the "Grandfather Tree." The air was soft, and the light was just beginning to be tinted with pink. Cricket chirps were replacing birds' songs and lightning bugs were starting their evening dance. It was a magical time of day in a magical place, which was the only explanation she could come up with for what had happened next.

They held hands as they walked around the huge tree, ducking under some branches and stepping over others. Clark had said something to the effect that they probably should be heading for the car … she'd turned to look at him … saw that he'd been watching her, smiling at her obvious enjoyment of this place which was special to him, and the next thing she knew … they were kissing.

Lois knew she'd never been kissed like that before. Knew she'd never kissed anyone that way before. For the first time in her life she wasn't worrying about the mechanics of what she was doing — she was just doing it, and putting everything she felt into it.

He tasted so good, and his body felt wonderful pressed up against hers. They pulled each other closer and closer, lost in the moment and in one another. With her eyes closed, her hands and mouth exploring Clark, she was no longer aware of the fading day, the noises made by the various creatures around them, the breeze or the ground they were standing on. In fact, it felt as if they were floating, so absorbed was she in what they were doing.

Eventually, they'd come up for air and she was kind of surprised to find everything just as they'd left it. She continued to hold Clark tightly, laying her head against his shoulder and snuggling her face into his neck. He kept one arm around her securely, but brought the other up so that he could gently run his fingers through her hair. It had felt so *right!*

Then he'd said, "I love you, Lois."

At first, she hadn't really taken it in. That's nice, she'd thought, until she'd let herself hear what he'd said.

She'd tensed in his arms, even while she was trying not to. Don't overreact, Lois, she'd warned herself. She knew the old, familiar barriers were crashing back into place, promising to keep her safe — but also separating her from Clark. She hadn't known what to do, so … she'd babbled. Good grief, how she'd babbled!

That's when he'd apologized, trying to assure her that while he'd meant what he'd said, he had no intention of trying to hurry her, or coerce her into something she wasn't ready for. "We'll take this at whatever pace you feel most comfortable with, Lois," he'd said. "I promise. I just wanted you to know how special you are to me." He'd touched her cheek caressingly with his hand and looked at her earnestly. "You can trust me, Lois."

<Yeah, I've heard that one before>

Well, I *can* trust him! Remember Claude? Do you think he would have taken such news so well?

<Well, I — >

No, he would not! He'd have pouted and whined and tried to make me feel guilty … <All right, all right! Sheesh! I was just trying to help!>

Well, you're not helping.

Clark had been as good as his word. Somehow he'd been able to revert to the friendly, charming, funny guy she'd been touring Kansas City with all afternoon, and leave any hint of boyfriend- or lover-like behavior behind in the gardens. How he'd been able to do that with such apparent ease, she had no idea, because it hadn't been at all easy for her. Her emotions were on overdrive and her thoughts were chaotic.

Everything's ruined! she'd wailed to herself. I've hurt his feelings and now I don't know what to do or what to say. How can I possibly make it through the rest of this date? It will be so difficult and embarrassing. Maybe I should think up an excuse to return to the hotel. I could get a stomach ache … She'd never gone through with her half-formed plan, however, because Clark had managed to make her smile, and then laugh, at his descriptions of the various restaurant choices they had for the evening. By the time they'd decided on barbecue and had gotten the food, she'd felt totally at ease with him again. She was amazed that she'd been able to relax enough to agree to a picnic in a secluded spot, when only a short time before she'd barely been able to envision eating with him in a crowded restaurant.

Once or twice, as the evening had progressed, the memory of what had happened at the "Grandfather Tree" would resurface and she'd feel disconcerted all over again, but Clark had done such a good job of being just "Clark, the tour guide" or "Clark, the newspaper guy" that it had been relatively easy to shake off her discomfiture and enjoy herself. She couldn't even feel guilty because he'd done it without any obvious effort, almost as though he'd had lots of practice at hiding what he was really feeling or thinking.

Which may have had something to do with why she'd kissed him good night.

The transformation had been too complete — almost as if he were two different people. He was there, with her, and yet he wasn't any more. She couldn't quite describe it. He still seemed to enjoy her company, still looked as if he was having fun, but …

What was it? What had been different?

Feeling restless suddenly, she stood up and walked the length of the balcony. Looking westward again, she thought very hard about Clark and all the time she'd spent with him: the way they'd met, their first dinner together, the hurtful scene at the hotel the following morning, her visit of reparation to his office, the wonderful tour of the city, the picnic, the "Good nights" at her hotel, and she thought she had the answer.

Clark wasn't as sure about all this as he'd let on! That had to be it! Somewhere, sometime, he'd been hurt too, just as she had. It made perfect sense, and it explained why he'd retreated so readily when she couldn't return his affections right away. He was afraid of being hurt again. That's why he'd looked at her so warily when she'd shown up at his office to apologize and that's why he was able to adopt this friendly guy-next-door act with such apparent ease. It explained the slight reserve she'd sensed in him and the longing she'd seen on his face. He was searching, too.

Yes, it all fit … and it made her really glad she'd kissed him good night, and hugged him, and asked about seeing him again when it had become apparent that he wasn't going to ask for any of those things himself. Her instincts had nudged her in that direction, and she'd listened to them — more concerned that Clark should go home feeling at ease about their relationship than she was about how it might look. She was glad, too, that they'd had a chance to talk a bit more about what had happened in the gardens, because she'd been able to tell him she also cared for him … just not in the same way that he cared for her.

When it was time for him to leave, he'd reached out and stroked her cheek — a gesture that was becoming very dear to her — and then leaned forward to lightly kiss her good-bye. He'd had his hand on the doorknob, when she'd had a sudden inspiration.

"Call me when you get home," she'd said. "You look pretty tired, and I want to be sure you get home all right."

You'd have thought she'd just offered him a million dollars.

"Really!?"

"Yes, really," she'd said softly, as she'd wiped her lipstick off his cheek with her finger. "Good tour guides are hard to find, you know. I don't want to lose mine."

He'd smiled at her gentle teasing, but the look in his eyes was so tender and full of love that she'd felt a lump rising in her throat. He'd agreed to call her and they'd hugged each other one last time before he left.

All through her bedtime preparations; while she'd showered, checked her voice-mail and straightened the room, she'd replayed various scenes from the day in her mind. When the phone had rung, she'd rushed to it — picking it up before the first ring had finished. They'd said "Good night" all over again, alternately teasing and tender, and the contentment she'd heard in his voice was the best gift he could have given her.

She'd gone to bed feeling good about herself and Clark … where their relationship was, and where it seemed to be headed. She wasn't ready to say those three, big, scary words, "I love you," yet, but she *had* been right to reassure Clark that she cared for him. And … given time, who knew what might happen! Maybe, just maybe, this time *would* be different.

She left the balcony and went inside to get ready for the brunch. Clark had been on call last night, so he hadn't made a date with her for the morning in case he wouldn't be able to keep it. She smiled, remembering there had been no irony in his voice when he'd said this, and no sarcasm either. His mind hadn't leapt to the obvious comparison hers had. He was too straightforward for the kind of innuendo which would have delighted Claude.

She planned to meet Clark at the conference that afternoon. There was a round table discussion he wanted to attend and then they were going to have a wonderful last evening together before she had to fly back to Metropolis in the morning. They had lots to talk about, but she wasn't worried anymore. In fact, she felt more secure now than she had since she'd gotten caught up in this whirlwind two nights before.

It was a happy Lois Lane who rode the elevator towards the first floor where the brunch was to be held. She drifted around the room, more interested in her own thoughts than in others' conversations. Finally, though, it dawned on her that many of them were talking about the same thing, and she began tuning in.

That's when she heard about the accident.

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

Clark pulled his Jeep into his assigned parking space, turned off the engine, and put his head back against the seat's headrest, deciding he could allow himself a few moments of peace before going to the newsroom. A few were all he dared try for, though, because he knew that if he sat there too long, he'd fall asleep.

God, what a night! It had felt as though his head had barely hit the pillow before he'd been summoned to the hospital. He was worn out from all the worry and the effort not to appear worried for Joel's wife's sake, plus, as an added bonus, the odor of disinfectant still clung to him and bothered his sensitive nose.

Well, he thought, I managed to make it through my appointment this morning and in a couple more hours I'll be able to head for home. Maybe I can get some rest before the round table discussion this afternoon — don't want to fall asleep during my date with Lois tonight.

He sighed happily as he thought of Lois. Yesterday had been so wonderful! His mind moved contentedly over various images from their time together. She was *the* one for him, he was certain of it, even if she didn't quite believe it herself, yet. He felt that it was just a matter of time, and he planned to devote all his energies from now on towards helping her to believe it, too. The only questions remaining in his mind were when, and how, should he tell her about … him?

The timing would be critical. He wanted her to know before their relationship got too serious, and yet he couldn't tell her until he was sure she was truly in love with him. If he waited too long she might be angry that he hadn't told her sooner, however, if he told her prematurely she might be afraid of him or — even worse — repelled by him. At least he was now less fearful that she would be more attracted to the headlines he represented than to him. He believed she cared too much for him to expose him, but it would still be a delicate balancing act … one his tired mind couldn't seem to focus on at the moment.

Just thinking about her made him feel good, though.

She was such a creature of contrasts; funny and giggly one minute, serious and formidable the next. He'd opened himself up to her as he never had to anyone else, trying to absorb everything about her. Every gesture, expression, and mood was fascinating to him and he knew he'd never get his fill of her. It was going to be very difficult to get through the next few hours without seeing her, he thought with a sigh. He looked down at his watch.

Five more minutes, he told himself. Just five more … Clark jerked awake; ears ringing and heart pounding. What the — ?! He could smell burning oil. Alarmed, he used his special visual abilities to look around for the source and was relieved to see that it was just a car on the next level of the parking deck in desperate need of some mechanical TLC. Shaking and belching smoke, which alternated between black and blue, the old clunker didn't look at all road-worthy, but none of that seemed to deter the long-haired young man who was revving its engine. He backed the wheezing and pinging vehicle out of its space and headed for the exit.

Clark's enhanced hearing told him the poor old car was about to backfire again, so he put his hands up to cover his ears. Sure enough, it managed to fire off one more volley before exiting onto the street. Clark waited for the echoes to recede a bit before taking his hands from his ears, then yawned and shook his head to clear it. Whew! That had been a rude awakening! A quick look at his watch assured him he couldn't have been asleep for more than a few minutes.

He reached for his jacket and his interview notes, took his keys from the ignition and got out of the car. He wasn't really late, but he jogged down the stairs and over to the corner, where he waited with several others for the light to change. As he crossed the street towards the "Dispatch" building, he consoled himself with the thought that in less than four hours he'd be seeing Lois again.

***

<You're fidgeting again>

"Are you all right, Lois?"

Lois turned to see Alice watching her in concern. She hadn't realized she'd been fidgeting that much. She leaned over in her chair and whispered back, "I'm fine, Alice. Just a little restless that's all."

Alice nodded her head in understanding. "I'm about to reach my capacity for acceptance speeches myself." She smiled and patted Lois's hand then returned her attention to the podium and the earnest, grateful speaker.

Out of the corner of her eye, Lois could see Perry leaning over to speak to his wife, and Alice turning towards him to answer. From the hand gestures and the tolerant smile on Perry's face, Lois was certain they were talking about her. Oh, well, better that, she supposed, than to have them asking more questions. She couldn't explain what she was feeling to herself, so she certainly didn't want to be cross-examined about it. She reached for her water glass again and took another sip.

<You'd better cut that out!>

At least I'd have an excuse to leave.

Lois tried to smooth out the wrinkles in her program so she could open it. Its formerly crisp, white pages with the USPA logo emblazoned on them had endured quite a bit of abuse. Over the past hour or so, she'd folded the poor things into fans, rolled them into tubes and creased them into smaller and smaller rectangles.

There couldn't be too much more to get through, surely!

She was relieved to see that the bulk of the awards had been handed out. Only three more remained, but they were the most prestigious. In order to heighten the suspense a little, a speech was always scheduled to be delivered at this point. This year that thankless task had been drawn by Johnson Davies, Chief Editor of the "Kansas City Dispatch."

Poor J.D., she thought, momentarily giving her attention to someone else's problem. Everyone will be so anxious to learn who's going to win that they won't pay much attention to him.

He started off with an impromptu expression of gratitude for everyone's concern about the young "Dispatch" reporter who'd been injured in a car wreck the night before. He gave them the latest information about the victim's condition, and managed a smooth transition into his prepared talk.

While she was glad to know the injured reporter was improving, this news didn't do much to relieve Lois's restlessness. She'd already been able to determine that Clark wasn't the one who'd been involved in the accident — she wasn't an ace reporter because she could yodel!

When she'd first learned the identity of the victim, she'd experienced a sense of intense relief, but that had almost immediately been tempered by other feelings less easy to vanquish. All through the brunch her mind had kept wandering off in the direction of Clark. The other people at her table got used to having to ask her things twice before getting a response, and Perry had teased her about having "awards-function-jitters."

She'd smiled and pretended to laugh at herself, but inside she couldn't shake the feeling that she ought to be somewhere else. She knew it didn't make any sense. There was no reason to feel worried, she told herself confidently for the twentieth time, as she tried to settle down and listen to J.D. Just because Clark had been on call last night, and had probably been in the thick of things, that was no excuse for allowing her mind to take a vacation. Clark was fine. She was fine. She'd see him later that afternoon.

She tried again to give some attention to the proceedings, but …

… had Clark gotten any rest at all last night? Had he been at the hospital? The office? Where was he now? … She came back to reality to find she hadn't heard what had been said to her and that she'd folded her program into yet another nonsensical shape.

Well, she really needed to get a hold of herself and stop acting so ditzy. She tried to force her attention back on J.D.'s speech.

… Just because Clark might have been at the hospital and/or the office most of the night, she reasoned, there was no cause to be worried about him. After all, he's a big boy. He can take care of himself. No, she wasn't worried at all. Concerned maybe, but only a little, and there was really no logic in that eith — …

Someone sitting near her accidentally kicked her chair, and the resulting jolt brought her back to earth. Oh, for pete's sake! she thought, I've done it again. Pay attention, Lois! she silently commanded.

… Of course, if Clark were really tired, she'd have to insist on him getting some rest. Which would mean they wouldn't be able to have their last afternoon together as they'd planned. They still might be able to have dinner, if Clark didn't have to go back to the office. It would be awful if he had to work tonight! They were going to have too little time together as it was …

Sudden applause made her jump. Is it over? she wondered. No. No such luck. Just a pause in the proceedings; J.D. was resuming his talk. Lois glanced in Perry and Alice's direction, and saw Alice watching her curiously. Lois smiled to reassure the other woman, then forced herself to sit still and listen attentively to the speaker.

… So, if she and Clark didn't get a chance to see each other tonight, she thought, when could they get together again? She felt there was still so much they had to say to one another and besides, she wanted to keep seeing him — to see where all this was going to take them. If only she didn't have to go back to Metropolis tomorrow …

" … speech, isn't it Lois?"

Huh!? What?!

Lois came back to current events abruptly and saw Alice leaning towards her and smiling. She'd obviously just whispered something, but Lois had no idea what. Taking a shot in the dark, she whispered back, "Yes," and was rewarded by a nod and a smile.

Blushing, Lois chided herself for her inattention and made another determined effort to stay focused, but before she knew it, her errant mind was off on another journey.

… There was only the rest of today, and tomorrow morning. She wondered if he would be free in the morning. Hadn't he said he was going home to Smallville on Friday? Then maybe today was all they'd have …

She was brought back from pondering future possibilities by a second round of applause. This time it was a standing ovation, and J.D. was finished — walking back towards his seat on the dais, as a matter of fact. Lois saw her chance and took it. She grabbed her purse, said a brief farewell to Perry and Alice, and wove through the applauding newspeople towards the exit.

"Where did Lois say she was going?"

Alice took her husband's hand, gently shushing him as they sat back down, before turning her attention once again to the master of ceremonies. The next award was about to be announced.

***

"I'm here, Clark!"

Clark looked up from the copy he was editing to see Doris standing in the doorway of his office. "Hi, Doris. How'd it go this morning?"

"Fine." She seemed to hesitate, then came and stood in front of his desk. "If you don't mind my saying so, you look horrible."

Clark had to smile at the wry tone in her voice. "Thanks."

"Don't mention it." She paused, then asked, "What's the latest on Joel?"

"He's still in ICU, but he's responsive … knows his name, that sort of thing. They're pretty sure he'll need more surgery."

"Poor kid. How's Sylvia?"

"She's resting now. I got one of their neighbors to stay with her, and we've called their parents … they should be flying in this afternoon."

She thought for a moment. "They're going to need rides from the airport."

"Jim has rounded up a couple of people to pick them up. Also, Sally's going to coordinate getting hot food over to the house for the next few days so the family can be at the hospital as much as possible, and the paper's going to arrange for rental cars and hotel rooms, if necessary."

"Sounds like we've got everything under control … "

"Yeah."

"Well, I guess I'll find Sally and sign up to take some food over to Joel's house. My lasagna is to die for."

Clark managed another smile. "Thanks, Doris."

"Sure." She could tell something was bothering him … something beyond being worried about Joel, but what? Before she could find a way to broach the topic, the phone rang.

Clark picked it up, listened for a moment, then said, "I'm on my way." He rose from his chair. "I have to go down to Composing for a while."

"Okay, see ya." She watched him walk quickly through the busy newsroom and take the stairs.

His uncharacteristic behavior stayed on her mind while she chatted with Sally and signed up to help out with the food shuttling. Clark wasn't exactly the exuberant type — in fact sometimes it was all to easy to overlook him in a crowd — but he was a little too quiet and somber for her piece of mind. It's too bad J.D. isn't here, she thought, as she walked to her desk. He'd know what to do.

Doris settled down to write up her notes; the familiar newsroom noises like background music to her accustomed ear. Keeping an eye out for her editor, hoping to pounce on him with her concerns about Clark before he got too busy, she was relieved to see who eventually did step off the elevator.

This would be even better than J.D.

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

Bali or Seychelles … who knew that such a decision could be fraught with so many unforeseen complications? Tired as he was, Clark couldn't help but smile to himself as he recalled the recent scene in Composing. The travel writer was a nice guy, but he had a tendency to get flustered easily, and when he got flustered his voice became a trifle shrill. Unconsciously Clark rubbed his right ear, which had been the recipient of most of the little man's plaintive wails.

There was room for only one of his planned travel features in this week's "Sunday" mag, and he couldn't make up his mind which one to run … Bali or Seychelles. The folks in Composing didn't care one way or the other — they just needed a decision, which is how Clark had gotten dragged into it.

Bali or Seychelles … good grief!

Clark sighed as he climbed the last three steps to the newsroom level, all that furor over such a little thing when Joel was lying hurt in the hospital … As he threaded his way back through the newsroom towards his office, he thought about how much he'd been looking forward to having a break from the office this weekend. With things as they were, though — Joel's accident and all — he'd made up his mind to tell J.D. that he'd stay in town instead. His parents would understand, but he knew they'd be disappointed. He was dreading having to break the news to them, and that, combined with a lack of sleep no doubt explained this unaccustomed depression he was feeling.

The day was getting gloomier by the minute. The only thing that could possibly improve it would be if he could see … "Lois!"

"Hi, Clark." She was standing in the middle of his office, and seemingly a bit unsure of her welcome. "I know we'd said we'd meet later at the conference, but … I had to come."

He walked towards her and, at the look on his face, she opened her arms to gather him in.

"I don't think I've ever been so glad to see anyone in my life!"

The ache in his voice tugged at her heart, making her really glad she'd ignored her inner voice when it had told her she was being silly. He *had* needed her — she'd been right to come.

"I'm here, Clark. I'm right here."

He sighed as he held her, and as she pulled him even closer, she felt him lower his head to her shoulder. A lump formed in her throat at the realization of how necessary her being there was to him. No one had ever needed her this way before.

He lifted his head and loosened his hold on her, and as he straightened, she was finally able to get a good look at him. Tired and unshaven, he looked like a guy who'd been in a hospital waiting room most of the night. There was something else, too, though, that she couldn't quite put her finger on. Discouragement? Guilt … ?

"You look like you had a rough night."

He found a smile for her from somewhere and it made her want to hug him again. "I'm doing better now that you're here." He shook his head slightly in bewilderment. "How did you know to come? Are you psychic?"

She smiled back at him. "No, I heard about the accident at the awards brunch this morning. Knowing you were on call last night *and* using my highly developed reasoning skills, I deduced that you'd been out all or most of the night. I also surmised that you'd probably be on duty until J.D. completes his obligations at the conference because, being the conscientious fellow that you are, you wouldn't go off and leave the other assistant editor — Jim, isn't it? — all on his own for the morning."

"You know me better than I thought."

She poked his chest lightly with her finger. "I'm also willing to bet you haven't had lunch yet."

His smile, which had begun to get broader, suddenly vanished at the thought of having to disappoint her, too. "Lois, I can't — "

"I know you can't leave. That's why I brought lunch to you."

His eyebrows shot up. "You did?!" He looked over at his desk, and sure enough, there were some take-out containers sitting on it. "You really do read minds!"

"No," she laughed at the stunned expression on his face, "but I do have good hearing. I could hear your stomach growling all the way over at the convention center."

He laughed at that and reached to hug her again.

She pushed him away and said in mock severity, "Come on, let's eat! Your food's getting cold."

She took his hand and led him around to his desk, then pushed him into his chair before pulling the other one over for herself. He protested a little at her ruthless rearranging of the papers on his desk, but she told him she had no time for his compulsive behavior. He forgave her quickly enough when he saw what she had brought.

"A steak sandwich … !"

" … *with* fries," she added proudly, producing them with a flourish from the last bag.

"This is my favorite! How did you know?"

"I asked. I'm a reporter, remember. I ask questions for a living. The woman who waited on us at the deli yesterday seemed to know you, so I went back there today, and this is what she said you ordered most of the time."

"Very impressive, Lois," he said admiringly.

"Of course … now, eat!"

He grinned at her commanding attitude, but started on his sandwich hungrily — making it perfectly obvious that she'd made the right choice. He looked over at her. "Did you get something for yourself?"

"Chinese chicken salad. Want some?"

She gave him a sample of her lunch and he shared a portion of his sandwich with her.

He was beginning to relax a little, his smile becoming more spontaneous and frequent, when the phone started ringing. After the third call, Lois couldn't stand it any longer. She'd finished her food, and he'd hardly eaten any of his.

When the phone rang again, she motioned for him not to answer it while she got up and walked around to the other side of his desk. By the time he realized what she was up to, it was too late. The phone was in her hand.

"Clark Kent's office!" … "No, I'm sorry, he's rather tied up at the moment. May I take a message?"

Clark tried to grab the phone away from her, but Lois had the bit between her teeth now and would not give way to him.

"An appointment for next Wednesday? Let me check his calendar."

She put a hand over the receiver's mouthpiece and whispered, "Where's your appointment calendar?"

"Lois, give me the phone." His voice was stern, but his eyes were alight with laughter, so she very properly ignored him.

"No!" she hissed back at him. "Eat! Where's your stupid calendar?"

Giving up on a lost cause, he fetched his calendar for her and watched in fascination as she resumed her role of secretary. The fact that no one but him was seeing this performance, did not deter her from giving it her best: her body language, mannerisms and voice all changed to fit the character she was creating. No wonder she got all those great stories!

"Sorry to keep you waiting, Mr. Smith. Wednesday you said? What time?" … "Two p.m.?" She looked to Clark for confirmation and he nodded, his mouth full of steak sandwich. She grinned at him delightedly and he decided right then that she could come and play on his phone whenever she wanted to.

"Two p.m. Wednesday will be fine, Mr. Smith. Thank you for calling."

She hung up the phone to heartfelt but subdued applause, and bowed her head in gracious acceptance.

"Lois, I'm a fan! You were magnificent!"

She answered two more calls for him so he could eat in relative peace: one from a reporter who needed some advice and the other from one of Clark's friends who called to offer him an extra ticket to the first regular season Royals' game. She accepted the ticket on Clark's behalf, amused by how eagerly his eyes lit up in anticipation, and then rolled her own eyes at the compliments being poured into her ear over the phone.

"Uh, yes, well. I have to get back to work now, uh, Ron." … "What's that?" … "Oh, I see. Well, I think you have a sexy voice over the phone, too. Good-bye."

Clark's shoulders were shaking as he tried to keep from bursting out laughing. She couldn't let him get away with that, so she threw the message pad at him. He deftly caught it even though she'd have sworn he wouldn't have been able to see it coming. Her eyes widened in surprise, but before she could say anything about it, the phone rang again. She made a face at him, and answered the call, but this time as she performed her secretary's spiel, Clark tensed when he heard the name of the other person on the line. He motioned for her to give him the receiver and mouthed, "Joel's wife."

Lois listened to his side of the conversation while she cleaned up the remains of her lunch. Joel was making encouraging, albeit slow, progress but the doctors had said he would definitely need more surgery and his young wife was very frightened. Clark was kind and patient with her, offering gentle advice and encouragement, listening to her say the same things over and over until she'd talked herself into a more hopeful frame of mind.

Lois's heart sank as she watched the worry return to his face. Twice during the call he reached up to rub his shoulders and the back of his neck with his free hand. When he was finally able to hang up the phone, he just slumped back in his chair, the rest of his sandwich forgotten. She watched him for a moment, then went to stand behind him and began massaging his shoulders. She was surprised at how tense he was. He felt like iron … or steel!

"So, how's Joel doing?"

She listened to him voice his own concerns about his injured colleague — performing the same service for him that he'd recently performed for Sylvia. As he unburdened himself and gave in to her gentle touch, he began to relax and his words started to slur together.

"Thatfeelsreallygood,Lois," he murmured sleepily.

Her gut lurched with pity and concern for him, and she sent a silent, fierce threat to the phone, daring it to ring. He was having trouble keeping his head up, so she reached around with one hand, placed it on his forehead and gently pulled his head back so he could rest it against her midsection.

He was drifting towards sleep and she was just beginning to congratulate herself on getting him to relax when, for no reason that she could see, he suddenly jerked awake. She put a hand on his shoulder to reassure him and he reached up to take it in one of his own.

"I guess that felt a little too good, Lois." His voice was thick with sleep, yet he was still trying to make a joke. "If J.D. catches me sleeping on the job, he'll fire me for sure."

What on earth was she going to do with him? "Oh, yeah, right! I knew the first time I met him that he was a real tyrant."

"And don't let anyone tell you differently, young lady."

Clark and Lois looked up in surprise to see J.D. standing in the doorway.

"J.D.! You're back!"

"Hmm. What's left of me. There are few things I hate worse than listening to speeches, and making one has to be near the top of the list. Ah, well … it's behind me now and, if there truly is a god, I won't be singled out to inflict myself upon my fellow journalists in such a fashion *ever* again."

Lois laughed at J.D.'s self-deprecating tone as she stepped from behind Clark's desk. "Don't let him fool you, Clark. He got a standing ovation for that speech."

Doris came in while Lois was speaking, to hand some files and a disk to Clark. "A standing ovation! Good for you, J.D."

He raised a hand to forestall any further congratulations. "Only because they were delighted that I was finished." J.D. waited for the laughter to die down and then turned to Clark. "Give me five minutes to get settled, Clark, and then let's meet in the Conference Room with Jim. Unless … ?" He motioned towards Clark's lunch.

"No, five minutes will be fine," Clark assured him. "I was finished anyway."

J.D. turned to leave, with Doris following close behind. "Could I talk to you about something, J.D.? It's pretty important."

Clark waited until they'd moved away before getting out of his chair and going to Lois. He put his arms around her. "Thank you, Lois. You don't know how much this meant to me." He bent his head to kiss her cheek. "I've got to go to this meeting, but we're still going to get together at the conference later, aren't we?"

She nodded and smiled, and kissed him good-bye, then watched as he gathered what he'd need for his meeting. Once he was gone, a look came to her face that any of her "Daily Planet" co-workers would have greeted warily. Clark wouldn't have recognized it, but then he hadn't yet seen Lois Lane's determined-to-get-her-own-way-no-matter-what look.

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

The meeting was breaking up. Clark began gathering his notes; his brain already occupied with figuring out just how he was going to tell his mom and dad he wouldn't be able to make it to the farm this weekend after all.

"I still can't believe you interviewed Councilman Tulley in that get-up, Clark. You've got more nerve than I do," Jim said admiringly, looking at Clark's stubbly face, casual shirt and jeans.

"I didn't have much choice. I called from the hospital to postpone, but he said either we do it today, or not 'til next month. I'd been trying to get this interview for a long time and I've played more phone tag than I care to remember. I decided to go for it."

"Good thing, too," J.D. chimed in. "Now we can get started on that city government series we've been planning." He looked at both young men and smiled. "Thank you for all the great work this morning. I can see that if you keep this up, our publisher will decide he doesn't need me anymore."

Jim and Clark both chuckled at that far-fetched notion. They started to leave the conference room, but J.D. summoned Clark back.

"I won't keep you but a minute, Clark." He waited for the door to shut behind Jim and then said quietly, but firmly, "The answer is no, Clark."

Clark had been thinking this would be a good time to tell his editor about his change in plans, but this remark left him totally at sea. "Excuse me?!"

"You were going to tell me that you're giving up your weekend, and I won't allow it. You need this time away and you've earned it. Your parents are expecting you … so go." He could see that Clark was going to argue the point and he held up a hand to stop him. "There's something else I want to tell you, and I want you to listen very carefully."

Silenced by his mentor's serious demeanor, Clark nodded.

J.D. looked down at his hands for a moment, then raised his eyes to Clark's face. "Clark … what happened to Joel was not your fault."

Clark sank slowly into the nearest chair. "How … how did you … ?"

"How did I know what you were thinking? Because I know you, and because I've been where you are … and, heaven help me, I could so easily be there again." J.D. took a deep breath. "Even though Joel was injured while out on a story you'd assigned to him, that doesn't mean you get to blame yourself for what happened."

"I can't help it, J.D., I feel responsible."

J.D. walked over and put a hand on Clark's shoulder. "If you could have helped change this situation, I know you would have, but it was just one of those things, Clark. He could have gotten hurt driving to the "Quick Shop" for a carton of milk you know."

He shook Clark's shoulder briefly before releasing it and then sat down near him. The room was silent for a moment, each man thinking his own thoughts. J.D. let his eyes roam towards the windows and the view of the city's skyline. "I've had to dispatch reporters into war zones and riot areas," he said reflectively. "I've sent them to cover forest fires, floods, earthquakes … you name it, and it's been hard each time. I don't enjoy sending my people into dangerous situations, any more than my editors enjoyed sending me to Vietnam or Beirut all those years ago."

J.D. reached up to take off his glasses, then rubbed that spot on the bridge of his nose he always rubbed when he was thinking hard about something. "Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the time they come back just fine. It's the other times that stick with you, and there's not a lot you can do about that."

He slipped his glasses back on and turned to see Clark watching him intently. "Go to your parents' place for the weekend, Clark. Mend fences, drive tractors, round up cows … do whatever it is you do when you're home. You *need* this time away, Clark. We'll look after Joel, Kansas City, and the rest of the world while you're gone. It will all be here when you get back, and … you'll be in a better frame of mind to handle it."

Clark had to swallow hard to get past the sudden tightness in his throat. He felt as if a huge weight had been lifted from him. "Thanks, J.D.," he said gratefully. "I will."

J.D. stood and laid his hand on Clark's shoulder one last time before making his way to the door. He opened it and would have walked through, but something caught his eye, making him stop in his tracks. Clark had risen, too, and was re-collecting his papers, but he paused and wondered what could possibly have so mesmerized the other man. He joined J.D. in the doorway and followed the direction of his stare.

"What the … ?"

"Here's some friendly advice, my boy," J.D. said with a grin and a nod towards the two determined-looking people waiting in Clark's office doorway. "I have found that it's wisest to surrender peacefully. Better to be taken prisoner than to be counted as a casualty."

***

Lois took her eyes from the road just long enough to glance in Clark's direction. Sound asleep, just as she'd predicted — and they hadn't even made it to the freeway yet. She knew she'd been right in insisting that he be driven home. Thank goodness she'd found a willing ally in Doris.

Doris had voiced her concerns about Clark to J.D., and had learned that he was already planning to have a talk with him. He, too, had taken note of Clark's expression and appearance. This had relieved Doris's mind somewhat, but she was still glad to help out when Lois had come to her with her idea.

Deciding that one "Dispatch" employee in the hospital was more than enough, the two women had conspired to make sure Clark got home safely. Whatever J.D. had said to him, it seemed to have eased his mind, but they still had had quite a job persuading him to let them take him home.

He'd come up with all these excuses: he had this to do first (Jim could do that); well, he was supposed to call this person (Doris promised to take care of it); and then there was … (Whatever it was, it could wait until Monday); he didn't want to be a bother (You're not a bother, Clark, but you are a pain in the … !). They'd overridden all his protestations, gotten his keys away from him and ushered him into the elevator before he could dream up any more excuses, and now Lois was driving his Jeep and following Doris's station wagon westward through the streets of Kansas City.

"Just don't start snoring, Clark, all right?" she teased him even though he couldn't hear her. She glanced his way again. Because Doris had had the foresight to insist that Clark tilt the seat back a little, his neck wasn't bent in any funny angles and he looked pretty comfortable. The breeze blowing in through the windows was making his hair dance and ruffling his shirt.

There ought to be a law against anyone looking that good when they're sleeping, Lois decided. It puts others at a disadvantage.

They turned onto Clark's street about 40 minutes later, having gotten "lost" only twice. Doris parked her car at the curb and motioned for Lois to pull the Jeep into the driveway.

Lois turned off the engine and took a moment to look around the neighborhood. It was much as he had described it to her — quiet and pleasant-looking, with woods stretching out behind the houses on his side of the street.

Built, and lived in originally, by an up and coming architect, Clark's house was the smallest of the five on the cul-de-sac, and the most striking. Beautifully shaped windows were artfully placed among the uniquely angled walls, and three chimneys thrust gracefully towards the clouds from the differently pitched sections of the roof. Taken apart and examined section by section, the house seemed a perfect hodgepodge and yet, somehow, put all together … it worked.

Doris walked up to the Jeep. "Sorry about getting us lost, Lois. You'd think after all these years of finding my way around, I would have learned to read a map and drive at the same time. How's the patient?"

"He fell asleep after about four blocks. Haven't heard a peep out of him since."

"Hm. I'm not surprised. My guys are the same way — they can fall asleep in two seconds. Me, I have to read for an hour first." She motioned towards Clark. "Now comes the fun part — waking him up."

It soon became apparent that subtle and gentle weren't going to work. Now that he'd given in to sleep, sleep wasn't about to surrender him without a fight.

"Let me try my 'Mom voice.'"

Lois reached up to brush the hair out of her face and then leaned back against the open passenger-side door. "Your what?"

"'Mom voice.' Don't tell me your mother didn't have one. *All* mothers develop one. It's our greatest weapon." She grinned at Lois. "Observe and learn."

Doris leaned into the car door again, dropped the pitch of her voice a notch or two, and said with great authority, and not a little warning, "Clark Kent, you'd better get up! Right now!"

Lois watched in fascination as Clark stirred and started opening his eyes. "You're amazing!"

Doris smiled in triumph. "I haven't raised three sons for nothing."

They got him into the house all right, but then made the mistake of leaving him at the bottom of the stairs while they went off on errands of their own: Lois to put Clark's lunch leftovers in the refrigerator, and Doris to find and mute the upstairs phones. They returned to find him asleep on the stairs and looked at one another with rueful grins. One couldn't help but feel sorry for the poor guy, but at the same time this experience was starting to feel like a Charlie Chaplin film.

Another dose of "Mom voice" got him the rest of the way up the stairs and into his bedroom, but it was obvious that he was more asleep than awake and would have gone to bed without removing his jacket, shoes or glasses if they'd let him. They couldn't lift him to get his jacket off — he'd have to at least sit up so they could help him. They found, though, once they'd accomplished that, that the only thing harder than getting Clark started on something when in this semi- somnambulant state, was getting him to stop.

First the jacket came off, and they had to help him when the lining of the left sleeve caught on his watch band. Then he slipped off his shoes without untying them first, which caused the mother in Doris to make disapproving noises. Lois thought his glasses would be next, but instead Clark grabbed his shirt by its lower edge and pulled it over his head.

Lois just stared.

She'd been hugged by him, so she knew he was strong, but … Who could have known Clark was hiding all that … that … Mr. Hardbody stuff under those colored dress shirts and bright ties? She couldn't stop staring at him. He was so perfectly proportioned; muscular, but not overly so, and had such beautiful skin.

Is it getting warm in here?

Clark had at last gotten free of the shirt and was starting to fumble with his belt. He'd obviously forgotten (if, indeed, he'd ever known) that they were there. Lois froze, totally at a loss as to what to do. To be honest, she'd dreamt about this, well … something like this, but half asleep as he was Clark wasn't himself, and … <You can't take advantage of this situation!>

Oh, great! Look who's back! Miss Right, Miss Always Right!

<You shouldn't be looking!>

I'm *not* looking … well, I can't help noticing, and besides, I don't know what to do!

<Well, you'd better think of something, because if the rest of his outfit actually comes off … !>

Fortunately, for the peace of mind of everyone involved, Doris seemed able to handle the situation. She took the belt from him and convinced him it was all right to lie down now. Her actions snapped Lois out of her abstraction in time for her to step forward and slip Clark's glasses off just before his face hit the pillow.

He stretched out on his stomach, wrapping his arms around his pillow and settling himself among the sheets and blankets on the unmade bed. The two women helped each other get the linens straightened and out from under him, so they could cover him up. They placed his keys, pager and glasses on the night stand, then tiptoed away.

Letting themselves out of the house and double-checking to be sure the door was locked, they made their way in silence towards Doris's station wagon. One of Clark's neighbors, an elderly woman who was working in her front garden, called out to ask if Mr. Kent was all right. They reassured her and managed to answer her questions without going into too much detail, then got into the car and drove away.

Lois's thoughts were dwelling happily on memories of a well-muscled back and the way the light had played across the lovely contours of a pair of shoulders that *she* certainly wouldn't mind seeing again, when Doris's voice disrupted her daydreaming.

"Mm-mm-hm, mmm-mm-hmm-*hmmmmm!*"

CHAPTER NINETEEN

Lois's jaw dropped and she turned to stare at her companion.

Doris's face had taken on a rapt look and she was grinning from ear to ear. "That *was* the finest figure of a man I have ever … !" She glanced over at Lois and took in her stunned expression. "What?!"

"But … but you're … "

"Married? Yes. Dead? No! And don't tell me you weren't drinking in all that male splendor just as much as I was, because I wouldn't believe you."

"Well, I … I … "

"Yeesss?" Doris asked provocatively.

Lois was beginning to think that teasing must be a mid- west sport. She made an effort to steer the conversation into less dangerous waters and said, in as serious a tone of voice as she could muster, "I thought his face looked a little pale."

Doris snorted in disbelief. "One thing's for certain, Lois, I *wasn't* looking at his face!"

"Dor-is!"

"Lo-is!" Doris responded, accurately mimicking Lois's shocked exclamation. She laughed and then took pity on the younger woman's embarrassment. "Okay, no more teasing." She drove a little farther while the red in Lois's cheeks gradually faded. "I bet I know what you need."

"What would that be?" Lois asked warily.

"Double-double-chocolate fudge! How 'bout it? I'm buying."

***

It was the growling whine of his neighbor's lawn mower that finally woke Clark.

He'd been having a really scary dream in which he was re-living the rescue of the man from the burning car. This time the rescue wasn't going too well. For some reason, he couldn't get the car's door open, and the flames were getting higher and stronger. Clark could plainly see the terrified face of the victim and he was yelling at him to push against the inside of the door when suddenly, the person in the car wasn't a stranger any longer — it was Joel! Clark became almost frantic, and redoubled his efforts, straining to save Joel. The flames were getting ever closer, licking at his back and roaring in his ears … He sat straight up, panting and trembling. Clark ran a shaky hand through his hair and looked around; noticing that he was floating about six feet above his bed. He let himself fall, bouncing slightly as his body hit the mattress, then laid back down — relieved that he'd only been dreaming.

He lay quietly for a while, eyes closed, as his heart rate returned to normal, letting the familiar sounds of his neighborhood wash over him. It was comforting to pick out and identify his neighbors' activities by the sounds they made. Clark's senses were so acute that he knew precisely what was going on in and around the houses on his street. It was child's play for him to determine who was driving what vehicle, who was mowing their lawn and whose kids were playing outside. He could tell what each family would be having for supper by the smells emanating from their houses, and if he'd wanted to, he could have looked through their walls to see the patterns on their dinner plates. At the moment though, it was enough to know that what he'd thought was the roar of flames in his dream, was actually just the sound made by Jeff's mower.

The bed felt so welcoming and he could feel himself drifting towards sleep again, lulled by the everyday sounds and smells around him. He hadn't realized how keyed up he'd gotten until he'd allowed himself to relax, and right now, relaxing felt really, really wonderful. J.D. had been right. He did need to get away from everything for a while. Joel was on the mend, the conference was a big success, work was going well, and he'd be seeing Lois soon … What more could a guy want?

Clark sat straight up in bed again.

Lois! Oh, no! I was supposed to meet Lois!

He looked at the clock and couldn't believe his eyes.

Omigod! It's 6:30! I've been asleep for … too long! We were supposed to meet at the conference and then have dinner together. She probably thinks I'm not coming!

He swung his legs over the side of the bed and, reaching for the phone, began dialing a number he'd learned by heart over the past few months, while planning and negotiating with hotel personnel about the conference.

He asked for, and was connected to, Lois's suite, but, while the phone did its part by ringing enthusiastically, there was no response. The hotel's computer came on-line after the fourth ring to ask him if he'd like to be connected to the guest voice-mail system. He punched in the proper code, and then waited through the standard message so he could leave one of his own.

"Hi, Lois, it's me. Clark. I'm really sorry I didn't make it to the conference this afternoon, but maybe we could still have dinner together tonight. Please give me a call when you get in. Thanks." He left his phone number and hung up.

Well, nothing he could do now except wait, and hope she'd call. In the meantime, he decided to shower and shave just in case he might have some place special to go that night, and someone special to see.

A quick ten minutes later, he was standing beside the phone again, staring at it and willing for it to ring. All around him lay the shirts, jackets and pants that he'd tried on and rejected in his own peculiar whirlwind fashion. Without knowing for sure where they might be going, he'd had a hard time deciding what to wear. Spinning into first one outfit and then another, he'd vacillated between casual or semi-dressy and, totally "putting on the dog" or sort of "laid back," before he'd finally decided on a black dress shirt, no tie, and gray trousers. At the last minute he'd pulled out a matching gray jacket — in case Lois might need it, he'd thought with a smile.

Able to hear every clock for miles around ticking away the seconds, he grew impatient waiting for the phone to ring. Finally, he picked up the receiver and called her hotel, once again hearing the phone ring instead of what he wanted to hear — Lois's voice — and once again deciding to leave a message. This one was even shorter, just telling her that he'd decided to drive into the city for the evening, and he was still hoping they could get together.

He slipped on his glasses and grabbed his keys, then, out of habit, reached for his pager. He was clipping it onto his belt, when he caught himself, remembered that he was on vacation now, and put it back on his bedside table. Whistling happily, he secured the house quickly, sprinted for his car and, pointing its nose towards Kansas City, made a bee-line for Lois.

***

Lois let herself into her suite and switched on a lamp. The red "message light" on the phone was blinking, which raised her hopes for a moment, until she remembered how exhausted Clark had been that afternoon. There was no way he could even be awake yet, she reminded herself, which was why she'd accepted an invitation to have dinner with Perry and Alice. So, instead of excitedly grabbing for the phone in the sitting room, she went on into the bedroom to drop off her packages and begin getting ready.

It wasn't until she'd removed her shoes and suit, and slipped on a robe, that she finally sat on her bed, notepad handy, and picked up the phone. When she'd punched in the code for retrieving messages, the computer had responded, informing her she had four messages waiting. Four messages! What in the world … ?

Diane's happy voice came bubbling over the line. She wanted Lois to know she'd accepted an invitation from Joyce to spend the weekend at her home. She'd already called the airline to have her return ticket changed from Friday to Sunday, and had been by the hotel earlier to collect her things and check out.

"So, I'll see you next week at the 'Planet,' Lois. Thanks for being such a great roommate!"

Lois grimaced to herself. First Clark and now Diane; if not for Perry and Alice, she'd have been alone the entire evening. The second message was also from Diane, apologizing for not thinking of this sooner, but she wanted to leave Joyce's phone number with Lois, just in case anyone needed to get in touch with her.

Lois was a little dismayed at the prospect of listening to two more messages full of things Diane had forgotten to mention the first time around. She'd almost decided to hang up and listen to the rest later, when she heard Clark's voice.

Amazed that he was awake so soon, she would also have been thrilled by the opportunity to see him again, if not for the fact that she'd made other plans — plans she couldn't easily change. She hurriedly scribbled down his number, hung up and tried phoning him. All she got was his answering machine. Damn! Now, what was she going to do?

Her eyes wandered around the room for a moment, as if the answer to her problem lay hidden amongst the hotel-issue furniture. Her attention was caught once again by the red "message light." There had been four calls waiting for her, but she'd listened to only three of them.

Mmmm, I wonder … Suffering through Diane's messages once again, she waited with barely contained impatience for the sound of Clark's voice. When his second message had played, and her suspicions had been confirmed, she tried to think of what to do next. She couldn't get in touch with Clark and she could hardly tell Perry and Alice she'd suddenly changed her mind about having dinner with them. Deciding to try to head off a situation which would surely be embarrassing for all concerned, she dressed quickly, hoping to catch Clark in the lobby.

In the end, though, all her planning was for nothing, because Clark met the Whites in the hallway as they were approaching Lois's room. By the time Lois had heard the knock on her door, Perry had correctly sized up the situation and was trying to persuade Clark to join them for dinner. Before she could get the door open, Clark was trying to back out graciously, saying he didn't want to impose and that his "date" with Lois had only been tentative … really! Lois joined the conversation just in time to hear Perry saying he wouldn't take "no" for an answer, and Alice adding her own pleas to those of her husband.

"Please, Mr. Kent, do join us. Lois and I have heard all of Perry's Elvis stories several times. You'd be doing us a great favor by keeping him entertained so we women can talk about something sensible … like the state of the world's economy."

Clark had had to laugh at that remark. He'd looked to Lois for guidance, and she'd smiled encouragingly at him — an exchange which was observed with great interest by Perry and Alice. Apparently reassured, Clark accepted their invitation, and the four of them set off for the lobby, and one of the hotel's restaurants.

CHAPTER TWENTY

Well, well, well, Alice thought complacently, that had certainly been worth the price of admission! Most entertaining, and informative. Whether it was the look on Clark's face as Perry had launched into yet another Elvis yarn, or the brief but potent glances Lois and Clark had shared with one another, there had been plenty to observe, and file away for future cogitation.

She'd enjoyed herself enormously, but all good things must come to an end. When Perry had started on the "If not for the Colonel, Elvis would have married the wrong woman" story, Alice had decided it was time to call a halt. Firmly, but not unkindly, interrupting him, she'd apologized to everyone saying that, much as she hated to break this up, she really wanted to get started on her packing. Lois and Clark had had the grace not to look ecstatic by the suddenness of their unlooked-for early parole. They'd even managed polite and unrushed expressions of thanks for the dinner.

Alice's gaze followed them now as they made their way to the restaurant's exit. What a lovely couple they make, she thought. They walked close together, as if already very familiar with each other and comfortable with one another's nearness — their bodies instinctively knew the rightness of the relationship, it seemed. What she couldn't yet tell was the extent to which their heads may have acknowledged it.

Sighing contentedly, she switched her attention back to the table, and her husband. Dessert plates and coffee cups still awaited a busboy's attention, and the candle in its cut glass holder was sputtering. Across from her sat Perry, contemplating the last of the wine in his glass, or maybe just thinking editorial-like thoughts. With Perry, anything was possible.

You old hound dog, she thought. What were you up to tonight? You may have fooled Lois and Clark, but you can't fool me.

***

"So, Lois, what do you want to do now?"

Their steps had taken them into the lobby where other convention-goers were congregating and making plans for the evening; visiting with one another or heading out for a night on the town. Tomorrow morning would see one final meeting over breakfast, but for this last night of the convention there was no organized activity, so everyone was free to do as they wished.

"First things first," Lois said with a provocative smile, putting a hand on his arm to bring him to a halt. "I know what you must be thinking. Go ahead. You can say it."

"Thinking? About what?"

Lois looked disbelieving. "You know perfectly well 'what!' Dinner … Perry … " She leaned closer to Clark, and lowered her voice to a conspiratorial level. "El-vis."

"Ahhh, Elvis." Clark grimaced comically. "Well, it was, uh … " He reached up to scratch the back of his head, undecided as to what to say. "Actually it was … "

"Amazing? Unbelievable? Astounding?" Lois supplied, helpfully.

"Maybe all of the above." He shook his head slowly, as if in wonder. "Lois, I have *never* heard so many Elvis stories in my life!"

"Neither has anyone else, except Perry. He says he's got a million of 'em, and I believe him. No matter what the situation is, he can be counted upon to relate it to some obscure event in the life of — "

"Hi, Clark!"

Clark turned to greet the speaker, a fellow "Dispatch" employee. The two men shook hands, and Clark introduced his friend to Lois. They all chatted for a few minutes, then the other man left to meet his date.

"Let's see … where were we?" Lois wondered.

"Elvis … I think."

"Oh, right. Elvis. Well, I've never known Perry to be at a loss — "

"Lois! Judy said she'd seen you! How have you been?"

"Fine, Dan. How are you?"

Now it was Lois's turn to perform the introductions. Another few minutes were spent in talking to Lois's former classmate, before his wife came up to reclaim him. This necessitated further introductions, and more idle pleasantries, until Lois and Clark were finally alone again.

"Come on, Clark!" Lois commanded, as she practically sprinted for the door. "We're getting out of here."

"All right." She could hear barely suppressed amusement in his voice. "Where to?" he asked, trying to keep up with her.

"I don't care. Just away from here." She looked back to see Clark grinning widely. "Go ahead and laugh, but has it occurred to you that, between the two of us, we probably know at least one-third of the people here … and that, if we want *any* privacy, we'll have to find it somewhere else?"

"Did I say anything? I'm right behind y — Oops! Sorry."

Lois had stopped abruptly, causing Clark to bump into her. She didn't seem to notice, but stood, irresolutely looking from the front door to the elevator, and back again.

"What's wrong?"

"Well, I think I'd like to get out of these heels. I've suddenly realized that my feet are killing me, but I don't want to hold us up … "

"It's no problem, Lois. Go ahead and change. I'll wait for you down here."

Lois eyed the crowded lobby again. "No, I don't think that would be a good idea." She grabbed the sleeve of his jacket at the shoulder and tugged, heading back in the direction of the elevators. Obligingly, he allowed her to pull him along.

"Do you mind if I ask where we're going?"

"If I let you stay down here," she said with studied patience, "I'd come back to find you deep in conversation with somebody, and we'd never get out of here." She released her grip on his jacket in order to take his arm. "You're coming with me … and while we're at it, we can decide where we want to go."

Hugely enjoying watching Lois at full tilt, he'd have agreed to anything she wanted to do. "Sounds like a plan," he quipped happily.

***

"More coffee, ma'am?"

"Yes, thank you." Alice handed her cup and saucer to the waiter. "Do you want some more coffee, Perry?"

"No, thank you, honey. I'm fine."

The waiter left to continue his rounds with the coffee pot, and Alice began stirring sugar and cream into her cup. She glanced at Perry through her lashes, and noted that he was watching her appraisingly.

"It was nice of you to include Clark in our invitation to Lois, Perry." She took a sip of the hot drink. "He's certainly an unusual young man."

"Yes. He is."

"All the traveling he's done, and the variety of papers he's written for … Not your standard resume, wouldn't you say?"

"Uh-huh … " Perry fingered his wineglass, and worried his napkin, wondering if there were hidden meanings behind Alice's words. She knew him so well — better than anyone — and he speculated on what she might have thought about his "performance" at dinner.

"And Lois … I've seldom seen her as relaxed as she was this evening. Much better than during the brunch." She delicately blotted her lips with her napkin. "I did find it a little odd that she didn't ask if the 'Daily Planet' had won the Merriweather Award this morning. After all, she left before the announcement … "

"Hmm, I guess. Did you enjoy your dinner, dumplin'? You haven't said anything, so I was just wondering … "

"Yes, it was delicious. Thank you, dear." Alice picked up her purse, opened it, and extracted her cosmetic bag. "I don't think I've ever heard Lois laugh as much as I did tonight." She pulled her compact and lipstick out of the flowered bag. "Have you, Perry?"

"Oh, I don't know about that … " Perry gulped down the last of the wine in his glass. He knew from experience that it was almost impossible to throw Alice off a scent once she'd latched onto one. That had never stopped him from trying, however. "Did I mention that I ran into Pete this afternoon? He and some of the other guys — "

"I would have thought," she continued, with just the right amount of uncertainty in her voice, "that Clark would have been a trifle young to be an assistant editor … " Alice took her time uncapping the tube and adjusting the lipstick to the desired length. " … especially when you consider that the majority of his professional experience has been at rather obscure foreign papers … Which is no bad thing, of course." She carefully applied color to her lower lip, and pressed her lips together to distribute it evenly. "Still, it must have been hard for him to just walk in with a resume like that and expect to get a job at a paper the size of the 'Dispatch' — "

"J.D. says he's a good writer, and a hard worker," Perry asserted, in defense of his friend. "And besides — "

"I'm sure he is, Perry. Otherwise, J.D. would never have hired him. In fact," she looked up from what she was doing, to smile calmly at him, "J.D.'s probably lucky to have him." She put her lipstick down, and began to powder her nose. "There's a sample of his work from last fall on display in the ballroom … along with the other prize-winning pieces."

"I didn't see you — Uh, really! I, um, I must have missed that."

"Lois's series on corruption in New Troy's Highway Department is there, too." She dropped her makeup bag back into her purse, and snapped it shut. "I think I'll go upstairs and start packing now. I assume you're going to Pete's male-bonding, editor's-only, last-night-of-the- convention bash?"

"How did you … ?"

Alice smiled patiently. "Perry! Please!" She moved to get up and he hastened around to hold her chair for her. "Tell Pete 'hello' for me. You do know that he and Melissa are getting a divorce?"

"No! Where did you hear that?" The woman must have spies everywhere!

"Oh, just … around." She patted his shoulder and kissed his cheek. "I'll expect you when I see you, then. Have a good time."

He returned her kiss, and gave her a slight hug. "I won't be too late."

She nodded to acknowledge his good intentions, but she knew what he was like once he got with his newspaper buddies. She'd be lucky to see him before 2 a.m.

Relieved to have escaped closer questioning, Perry was reaching for his wallet to leave the tip, but Alice's parting words made him stop and stare after her:

"Their writing styles are very complimentary. They could be the greatest writing team since … Woodward and Bernstein. Don't you think so, dear?"

***

"Make yourself comfortable, Clark. I won't be long, and then we can head for that jazz place you were telling me about."

"Okay. Take your time."

Lois went into the bedroom and closed the door, leaving Clark to his own devices in the sitting room. He walked over to the sliding glass door and looked through it, and the balcony wall, at the city all lit up below. His sensitive hearing told him that someone was having a party a couple of floors above, and miles away — not yet visible to the human eye — a thunderstorm was flickering.

Suddenly, over the sounds of the party and the distant thunder, despite being able to hear the cars on the streets below, or the TVs and radios in all the rooms around him, another sound insinuated itself into his consciousness. He froze for a moment, then involuntarily turned towards the bedroom door.

There it was again!

Lois was dropping her clothes on the carpet as she undressed. The softly whispered "thump" each garment made as it hit the floor was the most tantalizing sound Clark had yet heard in his life. He told himself he shouldn't be listening, that he should turn on the TV, that he should … Now she was humming to herself — a throaty, sensual hum, low and lovely. It sounded like an old 1940's-style torch song, and it rooted Clark to the floor where he stood. Yet another article of clothing found its way to the carpet in the next room, and Clark felt his face getting red. The temptation to peek through the door — just a teeny, little peek — was overwhelming him … He turned from the door, ashamed of himself, and what he was doing. This was *not* the way his parents had raised him! In his mind he could hear his mother's voice: "Clark Jerome Kent! You get over here right this minute. I just don't know *what* I'm going to do with you … !"

Wandering around the room, trying to force his delinquent mind onto a more enlightened path, he noticed that the sitting room had gotten a lot warmer. Funny! He'd never had any problems with temperature extremes before.

***

What *does* Perry do with his clothes? Alice thought in exasperation. That's the second tie she'd found with food stains on it. Well, when they got back to Metropolis, all these things were going to *have* to go to the cleaners, and that's all there was to that!

Despite the wear and tear to Perry's wardrobe, she smiled to herself as she went about packing his things.

So-o-o, Perry had asked J.D. about Clark, *and* had checked out his writing skills. That was certainly promising.

She hadn't told her husband about the lunch time conversation she'd had with Lois the day before, but it hadn't surprised her to learn that Perry had been following certain "leads" of his own. He cared for Lois a great deal — as if she were his own daughter — so it was natural that he'd want to know as much as possible about any young man who could provoke the kind of reaction from Lois that they'd seen on Tuesday night.

Thinking back to that night, Alice got a little teary- eyed as she remembered the expressions on Lois and Clark's faces the first time they'd seen each other. It was as if they'd exchanged hearts, so profound had been the impact of one upon the other. There was no doubt in her mind that those two were meant to be together — that all their lives up till now had been leading them to this very time and place. She felt privileged to have been a witness to their first meeting.

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

Lois stepped into the sitting room to find it empty. She knew an instant's worth of panic, until the slowly moving curtains by the balcony door attracted her attention.

She walked soft-footed over to the door and, by the light from the sitting room, could see Clark standing at the wall and looking up at the night sky.

"There you are," she said as she stepped outside. "I wondered where you'd gotten to."

He turned at the sound of her voice. He'd been concentrating so hard on *not* listening to what was going on in the room behind him, that he hadn't heard her approach. He noticed that she had exchanged her tailored suit and heels for some casual slacks, knit top, and a pair of neat, but comfortable-looking flats. The sight of her made him recall his recent, less-than-admirable behavior, and tied his tongue into knots.

"Oh, hi. I-I was just … It got a little warm, er, stuffy … in there, and I — " He ran a hand through his hair and tried to regain some control over his speech patterns. "I hope you don't mind."

Why should he look so embarrassed? "No, of course I don't mind. Why did you think I would?"

"Well, I … It's not my room, and … "

"This must be another one of those Smallville things." Relieved to have found a reason for his behavior, she teased him:

"Don't worry, I won't tell your parents that you used my balcony without permission."

He grinned shyly, lowered his head and shuffled his feet a little, then hid his hands in his pockets. She'd noticed these actions before when he'd felt uncomfortable or ill at ease. Just a few more of his endearing little gestures she was learning to love.

Learning to love … Is that what you're doing, Clark? Teaching me to love?

She went to him and stood next to him, turning her head to look up at the sky, as he had been doing. Directly overhead a few stars winked down at them, but off in the distance they were obscured by clouds. The breeze was stronger and cooler than it had been that afternoon, bringing with it the smell of rain.

Lois discovered that by standing beside him at just the right angle, Clark's large form made quite an effective windbreak. That thought tickled her, and she reached for his hand.

*

Clark gazed out over the city, acutely aware of the woman next to him — her body, her scent, the way she moved, talked, sighed. He felt her hand slip into his, and looked down at her. She smiled at him — but it was the kind of smile one friend bestows on another.

Friends.

That's all she'd said she wanted from him for the moment — friendship. Yesterday, at the "Grandfather Tree," she'd made it very clear that while she valued him as a friend, she wasn't ready for any kind of deeper relationship. He'd promised her that they'd take this at whatever pace made her most comfortable, and he intended to keep that promise. After all, being a friend to Lois, maybe even her best friend, would be something special indeed. Yet … still, he wanted more. He wanted —

I've got to stop this, he told himself sternly. Just be happy that you get to be with her. Don't jeopardize what you already have!

At least, he thought, remembering the events in the Arboretum, he'd had the chance to tell her how he really felt about her — at least he'd been able to do that. He'd wanted her to know how much she mattered to him — that he wasn't just marking time with her, or having some kind of convention- induced fling.

When she'd hesitantly admitted to him that she couldn't return his love just yet, he'd been downcast but not totally surprised. He didn't regret what he'd said, however, because he did love her. And, the more he was with her, the more certain of that he became.

His words had made things scary for a while, though, after they'd left the "Grandfather Tree." The confiding, relaxed Lois he'd been spending the afternoon with had been replaced by a skittish, wary Lois who looked as if she were a mere heartbeat away from bolting.

He'd had to sublimate his own fears and disappointment, and extend every fiber of his being into getting her to relax again — joking about restaurants and other silly things, until she'd accepted him as a non-threatening companion once more. It had taken much more effort than he would have thought possible, which he devoutly hoped Lois hadn't been able to detect. He didn't think she had.

She had noticed how tired he'd been, though, and it had certainly buoyed his spirits when she'd asked him to call and let her know that he'd gotten home all right. Of course, that was also the sort of thing one friend might do for another. It didn't necessarily mean anything.

On the other hand, the "Good nights" over the phone had been special and fun. That had given him cause to hope. And then, earlier today, when she'd brought lunch to him at the "Dispatch," he'd been thrilled and touched by her gesture.

Surely that was proof that she *did* care for him, even if she didn't actually love him just yet —

"Thanks for putting up with Perry … and Elvis tonight, Clark."

Her voice brought him abruptly back from his hopeful speculations. For a second, his mind went blank. Perry? Elvis? Who the heck is — ? Then, he had it … "Oh, it wasn't that hard, Lois. In fact, I enjoyed myself." And, he thought, I'd have put up with a lot worse just to be with you, my love. "Are you warm enough? The wind is really getting cooler."

She chuckled a little as she leaned closer to him. "I was wondering how long it would take you to ask that question. You're always looking out for me."

Always, Lois.

"I'm fine, Clark. You're nice and warm, and just standing next to you is keeping me warm, too."

She looked so beautiful, all happy and glowing … smiling up at him.

What would he do if he couldn't have her in his life? He sighed quietly, and gave himself a mental shake.

You can't afford to think about that right now, he warned himself. He had to trust that things would work out eventually, but for now … Remember, Kent … "Friends."

Just friends.

What he should be doing was attempting to keep the conversation flowing naturally. He cleared his throat slightly. "I've been wanting to thank you for something, too, Lois, but there hasn't been an opportunity until now."

She looked questioningly at him.

"I really appreciate what you and Doris did for me this afternoon. You were right. I had no business even thinking about driving, as tired as I was."

Into her mind flashed an image of Clark sans shirt, and she felt her cheeks begin to flush. She hid her face against his shoulder, afraid that her heightened color would give her away. "Well, we were … we were glad to help out, Clark."

"It's funny, but I don't remember much of anything after we drove out of the parking deck. I've tried to and … I think I remember standing on my porch, but … " He shook his head briefly in an effort to bring the memories into focus, then shrugged and gave up. "Anyway, I'm very grateful. You probably kept me from hurting someone because I'd fallen asleep at the wheel."

She looked up at him. The relief she'd felt at hearing about the convenient lapses in his memory, was displaced by surprise at this last remark. "And you, too, Clark! I don't think a wreck would have done much good for you, either!"

"Uh, yeah … that's right." He gulped, worried that he could have made such a careless slip. He couldn't afford that kind of mistake around Lois. It was so hard to stay focused, though, when she was this close to him: leaning against him, or resting her head on his shoulder … Lois stared at him. "You mean you just thought of that!?"

"No!" he laughed, but not very convincingly. "No, of course not!"

Sometimes he said and did the oddest things. "You are a strange one, Clark Kent."

He tried to pull himself together, saying as nonchalantly as he could, "Am I?"

"Hmm … " she nodded, with a speculative look on her face. Her reputation as an investigative reporter was well- earned, and he'd seen her deductive abilities in action that very afternoon. He braced himself for what she might say next, sensing that her all-too-ready reporter's intuition was on the verge of kicking in.

It wasn't her fault, he mused. She'd been born with it.

Two floors up, though, the party he'd heard earlier decided to move itself out onto the balcony. Distracted from Clark's weird, but rather charming conduct, Lois looked up in distaste at the sudden interruption.

"Looks like someone's celebrating the end of the convention," she commented dryly.

"Actually, they're not with the USPA." She pulled back from him a bit, and put a hand on her hip. "Now, how can you possibly know that?"

He was relieved to be able to give her a reasonable, and truthful, response. "Because, I happen to know that our group was going to be placed on floors six through 15.

"Oh, yeah. That's right. You helped put all this together, didn't you?"

He nodded, extremely glad that he'd been able to satisfy her curiosity. The longer they were together, though, the more likely it was that her natural inquisitiveness, coupled with that intuition of hers, could lead her on to discover his secret, and he didn't want that. He wanted to tell her himself. He didn't know exactly when the best time to do that would be, but he was pretty sure that the night before her departure for Metropolis wasn't it. He'd better not give her any more cause to wonder about him.

Lois's chuckles reclaimed his attention.

"What's so funny?"

"Oh, it's … I guess it's more ironic than funny really, that after all the work you did helping to organize the convention, you probably saw less of it than anyone else."

Clark looked a bit stunned by her observation. "That's right. I hadn't taken the time to think about it, but … That's absolutely right."

"I think it's more a case of haven't *had* the time to think about it."

"The days have been rather full, haven't they?"

She nodded, resting her head against his shoulder once more, and sighing contentedly.

Clark looked down at the top of Lois's head, and felt her hand take his again, and the realization of how much he loved her flooded his heart. All at once his good intentions abandoned him, leaving him powerless to stay silent. "I wouldn't have missed them for anything, Lois." The words were out of his mouth before he could stop them, and much more heartfelt than they'd sounded when he'd said them in his head a mere microsecond before.

*

Lois smiled. It sounded as though Clark's feelings for her hadn't changed in spite of the hold she'd forced him to put on them. That pleased and reassured her. Her previous romantic experiences hadn't led her to expect the kind of consideration and constancy she was getting from Clark. He continually surprised her, and … she'd surprised herself with the way she was responding to him.

She looked out at Kansas City — the busy streets and freeways, the lights in the buildings. This place had certainly changed her life … turned it upside down as a matter of fact. It had changed her, too. The Lois Lane who'd come to Kansas City was not the one who'd be returning to Metropolis tomorrow.

What would her co-workers say if they could see her now? she wondered. And Perry … had he secretly been hoping something like this would happen when he'd insisted she come to the convention? If he had, he must be thoroughly enjoying this situation, especially after he'd tried so hard to get them together. She had to admit to herself, if not to him, that he had been right after all about that "nice young fellow" from the "Kansas City Dispatch."

Speaking of that "nice young fellow," all afternoon she'd been trying to make up her mind about him. So much had happened since the soul-searching she'd done on her balcony that morning: being worried that Clark might have been in an accident, relieved when she'd learned that he hadn't; the happiness she'd felt at sharing lunch with him and the pleasure she'd gotten from being able to help him.

Should she admit to him that her own feelings had been undergoing a change, or, to be more accurate, that she'd finally acknowledged them for what they were — that she felt more drawn to him than to anyone else she'd ever known? Of course her inner voice hadn't liked that idea at all.

<It's too soon for that, surely>, it had cautioned her. <Be reasonable, Lois. You just met him Tuesday night. Give it more time. He *can't* be as good as he appears to be — there's got to be a catch somewhere. There always is>

And yet … she didn't think so. Not with Clark. Maybe, this time, there wouldn't be a catch. Maybe this time, things would work out.

Well, whatever she was going to do, or not do, she'd have to decide tonight. She had to leave tomorrow, and she didn't want to lose this friendship, this relationship, this … whatever this was. It was only fair to let Clark know that. Having come to that conclusion, however, left her with another problem … How to do it?

And, when she did do it, wouldn't he think it odd, in light of what she'd asked of him just one day earlier? She didn't want him to think she was flighty — changing her mind all the time.

***

Alice sighed resignedly as she contemplated the full suitcases, and the number of as yet unpacked items still spread out on the bed. Despite her best efforts, she hadn't been able to find places for all the new things she'd purchased for her sons. Between them, she and Perry had brought to Kansas City two suitcases, a suit bag and her dressing case, and they hadn't been tightly packed.

There should have been enough room! This really was quite exasperating!

Feeling heated after a few rounds with uncooperative luggage, she walked out onto the balcony for some fresh air. There was quite a brisk breeze blowing which made her hug her arms to her chest. The air felt good, though, despite the chill.

*What* was she going to do with all those extra things? She'd only been kidding with Lois the other day about buying another suitcase. She'd need to be more creative, and subtle, than that.

Speaking of Lois, I wonder where she and Clark are now? Alice thought as she turned to go back inside.

One thing's for sure, they wouldn't be strolling hand- in-hand and gazing at the stars on a night like this. Unconsciously she raised her own eyes to the sky, and noticed that the local stars were being curtained by incoming clouds. No wonder her big toe was sore — it was going to rain!

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

Clark watched Lois and waited anxiously for a response to his impetuous declaration. Her smile had seemed a little abstracted, even pensive. Had he upset her?

When she turned her attention to the twinkling cityscape around them, he mentally kicked himself. Why couldn't he have kept the tone light … or better yet, just kept his mouth shut? He'd promised her that he wouldn't press her, and now she must think he couldn't keep his promises.

Try as he might, he couldn't be objective or rational when it came to Lois. He was finding that it was all too easy to make mistakes. In fact, it seemed that the more he tried not to make mistakes, the more he made them. He guessed that, when you were in love with somebody, it didn't matter how smart you were, or how many rules you might set for yourself, you were still vulnerable. It's just that … he'd never wanted anything as badly as he wanted his relationship with Lois to work out.

He wished he'd said something different.

He wished he hadn't said anything at all.

It would serve him right if she told him to leave.

He wished *she'd* say something. Why didn't she say something?

*

Lois really couldn't think of a good reason not to tell Clark about her feelings for him. All the positive impressions she'd gotten of him on her own so far, had been reinforced and enhanced by what she'd learned from Doris that afternoon.

After leaving Clark's place, the two women had spent a delightful couple of hours at the Fudge Castle, sharing not only a passion for chocolate, but also entertaining one another with their observations about the world in general, and men in particular. Of course, the conversation had eventually gotten around to Clark, and Doris hadn't needed much prompting to talk about her handsome, young co-worker.

Clark was well-liked at the "Dispatch," Doris had told Lois. He was intelligent and caring, even if he was something of a tease. He had integrity and an innate goodness … all things that Lois had noticed about him herself.

"I've worked with him for almost two years now, Lois, and he's still something of a puzzle to me. He's a quiet, low-key kind of a guy, and yet … there's something else. Something I can't quite put my finger on, but it's there, nonetheless."

Doris had been absentmindedly prodding her "Chocolate Extravaganza" with a spoon, but she'd looked up at that point to smile at Lois. "I think it has something to do with all the traveling he's done. It's given him a different perspective than most of us have, and that, combined with being raised on a farm and growing up in a small town … well, he's just unique. He's sweet, and even rather naive, and he has this quaint sense of ethics which, I must admit, can lead to some pretty amusing consequences."

Then Doris had gone on to tell Lois about a time shortly after Clark had come to work at the paper, when he was still a reporter. An older female staffer had set her sights on him: hovering around his desk, leaving him notes, and inviting him out to lunch or to her place for dinner. When Clark had continued to successfully, if rather inexpertly, elude her, the woman had realized that other "Dispatch" employees were being hugely entertained by her unproductive pursuit of this "hack from Nowheresville."

"Did she actually call him that?" Lois had interjected.

"Behind his back, yes. But the real kicker was when she started spreading rumors about a romantic tryst which she said she and Clark had had."

"What!" Lois suddenly wasn't sure she wanted to hear the rest of this.

"When Clark had heard the rumors, he'd been acutely embarrassed, and had tried to deny them. Some of the guys, Barry included, wouldn't believe him, and even started embellishing the event, until they made it sound as if Clark and this woman had been swinging from chandeliers wearing black leather."

"Had they?" Lois was surprised by how quickly she'd asked that question.

Doris had glanced at her curiously for a moment, and then answered with a smile and a shake of her head. "No, I wouldn't think so. Not Clark." Then she'd smiled wickedly, and added, "Not unless he's got a bigger secret than I've given him credit for." She grinned even wider. "Which isn't to say that with the right woman he — "

"So … " Lois cleared her throat and tried to steer the conversation away from her and back to Clark. "J.D. didn't do anything about it?"

Doris shrugged, accepting the change of topic with good grace. "It's hard to say. J.D. can be a lot of things, but obvious isn't one of them. All I can say is that no one never saw J.D., Clark and 'that woman' go into J.D.'s office, all together … and close the door, if you know what I mean."

Lois had nodded.

"Poor Clark," Doris had sighed. "He started to look like a coursed hare — kind of wide-eyed and harassed. I expected him to strike back in some way, to try and get even, but he never did. Lord knows that's what I would have done."

"Me, too!"

"I think he may have tried to talk to her once, but I don't think he was able to get through to her. So, in the end, he just went on doing his job, and eventually people found another nine-days'-wonder to talk about. About five months later, that rapacious female found another job and left. No great loss, to my way of thinking."

"What she did to Clark was practically sexual harassment!" Lois had exclaimed, incensed on his behalf. "Why didn't he press charges? He should have fought like crazy … "

"I don't know, except … I think he feels that fighting is a poor solution to conflict." She stopped talking for a moment in order to pay more attention to her dessert. Lois was about to ask something when Doris picked up the conversation again, saying in a thoughtful tone, and looking suddenly mischievous, "He *can* get angry, though. Why just the other day," she said airily, while waving her spoon around, "I overheard him defending a young woman's reputation against some rather scurrilous remarks being made by a certain "Dispatch" employee, who shall remain nameless."

It had taken a moment for the implication behind Doris's tone of voice and arched eyebrow to get through to Lois. "Me? He-he defended me?"

"Yep. Not that he mentioned you by name, or anything … that would have rather defeated the purpose … "

"Then, how do you know it was me?"

"Lois! This is *Doris* you're talking to! I've been putting two and two together since before you were out of pigtails — "

"I *never* had — !"

"Figure of speech. Lighten up!" She'd glanced around in a rather exaggerated manner, as if to be certain they couldn't be overheard. "What I'm about to tell you is in strictest confidence. If you breathe one word to Clark about any of this, I will deny it, and I will … "

Lois had hastily assured Doris that she would do no such thing, and so heard the rest of her story. Learning about what Clark had done for her, even after the way he'd been treated, made her feel more cared for than she ever had before.

She had someone in her corner now.

Putting all this together she realized she'd have to be crazy not to want to move forward with this relationship. However, since she'd been the one who'd insisted on applying the brakes, it would be up to her to get things moving again. And, it was something she wanted to do face-to-face, not in a letter or over the phone. The jazz club they'd talked about going to wouldn't be the right venue for intimate conversation either, so … "Clark, would you mind if we didn't go out tonight after all?"

*

Clark had been observing Lois closely, and thus he'd watched her expression go from smiling to thoughtful, and finally, to serious and determined. His worst fears were then confirmed by her words. She didn't want to go out with him, and she was probably going to ask him to leave. He knew he had no one to blame but himself.

Take it like a man, Kent.

He manufactured a smile for her, building it muscle by muscle, so she wouldn't know how disappointed he was. It gave him something to focus on besides the sadness that was engulfing him.

"Of course not, Lois."

He'd have to rebuild her trust in him, and he may as well start now. She didn't appear to be furious with him. Maybe, if he bowed to her wishes now, she might be more willing to give him another chance later on.

"I … I didn't think, Lois. Y-you're probably tired, or have things to do. We'll do it another time. Maybe you'll be able t-to visit Kansas City again soon."

His face almost hurt from the effort of smiling, but he was not going to make her feel uncomfortable about her decision. Resisting the urge — the need — to take her into his arms, Clark thought feverishly for something else to say.

A couple more party-goers washed out onto the balcony two floors up, irresistibly drawing the attention of both of them, and providing a thankful Clark with a neutral topic.

"I hope you'll be able to get some sleep with all *that* going on."

*

She felt him withdrawing from her, just as he had after the incident at the "Grandfather Tree," but this time she couldn't imagine why. He'd backed away from her, and seemed to be indicating that he was leaving.

Did it mean that much to him that they went out? Surely not … He moved another step farther away, and she took one forward while glancing up at the source of the noise. "I probably won't be able to hear it from inside," she said hurriedly, wanting to get things back on track. "Clark, I — "

"It's all right, Lois." He'd already endured one brief but very painful period this week, during which he'd believed he had lost her forever. He didn't want to go through that again. "In fact, it's probably better that we don't go out. I mean … since you've got your plane to catch in the morning and all."

"Well, yes, but I — "

He took another couple of steps backwards. "And you've still got to pack — " He broke off abruptly, and she could see that, for some reason, the mention of packing seemed to embarrass him. He was blushing as she hastened to keep up with him.

"I mean, I *assume* that you still have to pack … " He turned slightly, took two more steps, and was at the sliding glass door. "I had a nice time tonight, Lois, and I … I … "

She'd had about all of this she could stand. "Clark!" she said sharply.

That stopped him in his tracks. "Y-yes?"

"Will you land somewhere, please?"

His eyes nearly started from their sockets. "Wh-what do you mean?"

She closed the rest of the distance between them, and grabbed his jacket's lapels. "I mean, will you stand still?"

He nodded.

"Good." She released her hold on him, smoothing invisible wrinkles from his jacket to give herself a few seconds to think of what to say next. If he didn't want to stay, then fine, but she was going to get to the bottom of why he was acting this way before she let him out of her sight.

"Clark, I'm not all that tired yet, it won't take me long to pack, *and,* once we're inside, I don't think the party noise is going to bother us. The reason I asked about whether or not you wanted to go out, was that I thought we might just stay in, and talk … if *you* want to, that is."

Clark felt her words sink in and was so relieved that he had to lean back against the door jamb to stay upright. She *wasn't* upset with him! Everything was all right!

"S-sure, that sounds … That would be … " He couldn't bring himself to tell her all the crazy thoughts that had been going through his head. He'd always considered himself a pretty rational guy, yet, this fascinating creature standing in front of him had a way of making his normal thought processes get all tangled up.

He took a deep breath and, this time, had no trouble creating a smile. "I think staying in and talking sounds really nice."

"Good." We're making progress, Lois thought.

She still couldn't imagine why he'd seemed so anxious to leave just a few moments before. She smiled to reassure him, and took his arm. "Come back inside then. It's getting too chilly, *and* too noisy, to be out here."

Once inside, she released his arm so she could close the balcony door. She turned from that to see him standing in the middle of the room, hands back in his pockets. He still looked uncomfortable, so she decided it might be wiser to start the conversational ball rolling with a neutral topic. Now, if only she could think of one.

"So, uh … Clark?"

He looked up hopefully. "Hm?"

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

Alice tipped the concierge generously as she saw him to the door. The man had certainly helped her out of a tight spot. Not only had he found a carton in which she'd been able to pack all the things she'd purchased for her sons, but he'd also agreed to take care of shipping it to Des Moines for her. Now she wouldn't have to "trouble" Perry with such mundane details. He had enough on his mind, what with the convention and … everything.

She'd been only half joking when she'd seconded Perry's invitation to Clark by telling him that he'd be doing them a favor in going to dinner with them. Based on past experience, she'd been resigning herself to another in a long line of evenings spent with Elvis as an invisible, and yet prominent, dinner companion. She'd hoped that Clark would be seen by Perry as "fresh meat" — someone new upon whom he could inflict his life-long passion for "The King." And that had certainly happened. It hadn't taken her long, however, to realize that there was something more than that going on.

In amongst all the other stuff Perry had tossed Clark's way, had been some circumspect, and yet shrewd, questions; all designed to draw Clark out. As she began preparing for bed, Alice replayed in her mind Perry's machinations during dinner: arranging the seating to his satisfaction, dominating the conversation, being the life of the party, and she speculated about the conclusions he might have drawn from it all. She'd noticed him glancing her way from time to time, and he must have been wondering what she was thinking of his "performance."

Alice wished she'd had a chance to spend more time with the pre-Lois Clark, so she could have made the same kind of observations about him that she could about Lois. As it was, all she'd had to go on were two brief conversations during Tuesday evening's opening reception. If, however, Clark was capable of effecting the kind of changes that she'd seen in Lois, a young woman who'd been denying herself anything but work for a very long time, then he was certainly worth getting to know better.

Was that thunder? She was recalled from her musings by a distant-sounding rumble. She lifted her head and listened. Sure enough … there was another one. Sounds like it's going to be quite a storm.

She turned on the TV and switched to the Weather Channel to get an update on the local conditions. They were showing the global weather at the moment, but scrolling a local thunderstorm advisory across the bottom of the screen. Nothing about a possible tornado — just a lot of noise, and rain — so she turned off the TV.

As brief as her time had been with Clark before tonight, she'd still been impressed by him. And what she'd learned this evening had added to that — he'd certainly had quite a variety of experiences already in his young life. Not that he'd bragged about all the places he'd visited, and the sights he'd seen. On the contrary, he didn't seem to mind telling about his adventures in a self-deprecating way that had made them all laugh.

If Clark or Lois had realized what Perry had been up to, Alice hadn't detected any sign of it. Clark had listened to the Elvis stories as politely as he'd answered Perry's casually framed questions. He wouldn't have known whether or not Perry was acting normally. Lois should have, but … The fact that she hadn't, had been one of the most surprising things about the entire evening from Alice's viewpoint. That had been a very different Lois there in the restaurant, than the one Alice was used to seeing.

Lois usually had an "edge" to her, and it was that "edge," that drive and determination, which helped make Lois the great reporter that she was. It drove her to never, ever let go of a story, to always get there first. The Lois who had left Metropolis on Tuesday had had it; *she* would have smoked out Perry's intentions and challenged him about them.

In fact, Alice thought as she turned down the bed and looked for her reading glasses, Lois's famous "edge" hadn't really been in evidence since Tuesday night. Wednesday, at lunch time, Alice had seen some new sides to Lois emerging: unsure, hesitant, and yet more open and approachable. She believed that that had been the first time Lois had ever asked for her advice about anything.

This very morning, Alice had seen an even more fascinating side to Lois: abstracted, fidgety and — the most amazing thing of all — not caring about who was winning what award. Lois's competitiveness was one of her strongest character traits, so Alice considered the abeyance of it a most promising sign. It still wasn't incontrovertible proof that Lois was in love, however. Attracted to Clark, certainly. In love with him, weeelll … that was less certain. And that made Alice feel some qualms about having tried to get Lois and Clark together, because it was obvious that, whatever Lois might or might not be feeling, Clark was showing all the signs of a young man who was falling deeply in love.

Making herself comfortable in the bed, Alice consoled herself with the thought that Lois had been distracted enough at dinner while exchanging glances with Clark across the table not to have smoked out what Perry was up to. That should bode well for romance.

Alice adjusted her glasses and picked up her book, but didn't open it right away. Instead, she was thinking about how this romance might affect Perry's relationship with his star reporter. Lois had exasperated Perry many, many times, but no matter how often Alice had listened to her husband venting: "If she wasn't the best damned investigative reporter I've ever seen … " she knew that the threats were meaningless. Perry admired and respected Lois, and for her part, Lois trusted and respected Perry. Their relationship was one which was beneficial to both of them, and now into that mix had come this Clark Kent. Alice smiled as she opened her book.

This should make life pretty interesting.

***

"What do you want in your tea, Clark?"

Clark looked up from dialing the phone, to glance in Lois's direction. "Milk, please, and two sugars."

"Coming right up!"

He smiled at her and then returned his attention to the phone.

Lois was pleased with her strategy so far. The atmosphere between them was relaxed again, and it looked as if she was going to have Clark to herself for the evening. She still hadn't found out why he'd been so edgy before, but she was planning to.

They'd talked about various things: what he was going to do at his parents' place over the weekend, the convention, his house … until any constraint between them had all but disappeared. By the time she'd suggested having some tea, they were more at ease with one another again.

As she dealt with the tea bags, she listened to Clark's end of the conversation with the duty nurse at the Intensive Care Unit. Joel was doing as well as could be expected it seemed.

That's good, Lois thought. Now Clark will be able to leave for Smallville without worrying about his friend.

She was pouring boiling water into two mugs when she heard him hang up the phone.

"They're thinking about moving Joel out of Intensive Care on Sunday, if he continues to improve the way he has today."

"That's great, Clark!" She glanced over her shoulder at him.

He was rubbing his forehead with one hand as he stared down at the phone. "It's a relief, I can tell you."

Lois paused in the act of fixing the tea, and watched him unobserved for a moment. He was looking tired again, and she knew a pang of disappointment — maybe they wouldn't have much time together after all. She left the tea steeping, and went towards him.

He seemed to sense her approach, for he took his hand away from his face and looked up. Her steps faltered briefly in surprise. All trace of fatigue was gone! It was as if he were tapping into some unseen energy reserves. How was that possible?

She went to him, hoping he hadn't noticed her hesitation, and reached up to gently rub his shoulder. "Did they say anything about more surgery?"

"Just that the doctors want him to regain some of his strength before they have to operate again."

"Sounds reasonable."

He nodded.

He'd retreated from her a bit once more. For someone so friendly he had a strange reserve, behind which he'd retreat just when he should have been opening up. Like now. He was very good at keeping things to himself, and yet she felt that that was not the way he preferred it. Had he opened up to someone else in the past, and been badly hurt by the experience? If so, Lois could certainly sympathize with him. Maybe there had been a Claude-like reptile in Clark's past, too.

"Well, I'm sure they're taking really good care of him."

"I'm sure they are." He straightened his shoulders and took a deep breath, as if to chase away any doubts. "I'm sorry if I've seemed a bit preoccupied, Lois."

"That's all right." She let her hand slide down his arm, and took his hand in her own. "Look, why don't you take your jacket off and get comfortable, and I'll bring the tea."

He squeezed her hand a bit, and smiled for her. "Okay. Thanks, Lois."

When she returned with the tea, he had removed his jacket, placing it on one of the chairs, and was sitting on the love seat. She sat next to him and handed him his mug.

"Mmm … just the way I like it," he said, after blowing on the tea and taking a cautious sip. "Thank you."

"You're welcome."

A sound from outside attracted Lois's attention. "Is that thunder?"

"Hm-mm … " Clark murmured absently, paying attention to handling the hot mug. "A storm's coming in from the southwest."

Lois looked over at him in surprise. "How can you tell that?"

He froze. "Uhh, well … " Clark's mind went blank. He'd allowed himself to relax too much, and he'd spoken without thinking. Now he wasn't sure how to get out of this. He could hardly say he'd been able to see the storm coming from miles away. "Th-that's the direction they usually come from. Around here … anyway." That sounded so lame! He could see her considering his response and hoped she was going to believe him.

"Oh." She said at last. "I see." Was that relief she could see on his face? It had lasted only a second, so she couldn't be sure. And … hadn't he looked that way one time before?

Clark was exasperated with himself. Why was he continually slipping up like this? Was he subconsciously trying to give himself away? If he were, he wished he'd cut it out!

"Well, that's … " She was trying to remember when and where she'd seen him act like this. Then she chided herself, what does it matter? They were here to relax and enjoy each other's company, not cross-examine one another. She teased him. "So, there are hidden advantages to growing up on a farm and being so close to nature … ?"

Whew! Clark could relax again. She'd believed him! He grinned. "Hey, I can't help it if I'm a farm kid!"

"I'll remember that the next time I need the weather forecasted, or a cow milked." She leaned over and bumped her shoulder into his.

That made him laugh. "Now, just a minute! Farmers are very important. Take away middle America and what have you got?"

"Art, music, theater — "

"Crime, drugs, poverty … "

"Okay, okay." Lois laughed. "I think we tied on that one."

Clark smiled back. "Yeah, I guess we did."

They drank some more tea and settled back on the cushions. Lois glanced sideways at Clark. He seemed to be at ease again. This might be a good time to get some answers. Using the same light tone of voice, she said, "You still owe me something, though."

He was smiling as he drank his tea. "Not if it was a tie, Lois."

"I meant, an explanation for why you were so anxious to leave before? When we were out on the balcony."

He stared down at the steaming liquid in his cup, unable to meet her questioning gaze. He'd been afraid she'd want to get to the bottom of his strange behavior — a tenacious reporter like Lois would never let go of anything. Finally, he glanced over at her, but all he saw was a look of gentle inquiry and concern. That gave him the courage he needed. He took a deep breath. May as well make a clean breast of it.

"I thought that — Well, when I'd said what I'd said, then I thought you … " This wasn't going too well, he realized. "I know what I promised you, Lois, and I meant to keep that promise. It's just that I lo — , uh, care for you very much … and, and sometimes I can't seem to help myself … "

She put a hand on his arm to stop him. "You mean, you thought you should leave because of something you'd said?"

He nodded. "Well, sort of. I thought you were going to ask me to leave because of something I'd said."

She shook her head in bewilderment. "What could you possibly have said?"

"I guess it was as much *how* I'd said it, as it was the actual words. I don't remember exactly, but it was something about how much I'd enjoyed being with you … that I wouldn't have missed it for anything."

Lois was startled. He'd gotten upset about that? "But, Clark — !"

He interrupted her, and turned more fully towards her, eager to make her understand. "From the things you've told me, Lois, I know that, in the past, people have lied to you. I didn't want you to think that I was like that, too — that I couldn't keep my promises to you. You'd told me you wanted to keep things casual, and I agreed to that. Please … *please* don't think I'm going to go back on my word."

So, that's what all the strange behavior on the balcony had been about! she thought. Her theory about Clark having been hurt before appeared to have been a valid one. His previous experience must have been pretty bad, if it was making him so apprehensive over such a little thing.

Then it dawned on her — his most recent experiences had all been with her!

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

All he had to go on were the reactions he'd gotten from her, and what a batch of mixed signals they were! She'd gone from being very friendly with him during their first dinner together, to dumping him the next morning — that must have come completely out of the blue for him. The next thing he knows, she's making up with him, spending the afternoon with him and … <And hugging him, and kissing him, and — >

… and then turning around and telling him she just wants to be friends. She hadn't really stopped to look at it from his point of view. No wonder he was so edgy! Now she felt even worse about having kept her true feelings from him. She hadn't meant to be so ambivalent, but she hadn't been lying when she'd told Clark that she didn't have much experience in the relationship department. It was time to get some things straightened out.

"I know you wouldn't, Clark. To tell you the truth, I was touched by what you said out there."

"You were?"

"Hm-mm. I'm sorry that this has all been so difficult. If I'd known — "

"No, Lois, it's okay. I — "

She put a hand on his arm to stop him. "Let me finish, all right?"

He nodded slightly. "All right."

"I've been doing some thinking about … " She waved her hands vaguely, sketching the space between them. " … this. You … me," smiling self-consciously, "us."

Clark smiled back.

"That's what I wanted to talk over with you. I thought it would be easier to talk here than at a jazz club."

"Ahh." He nodded again, slowly, as if in sudden understanding.

She put her mug down on the coffee table, and took a calming breath. This wasn't going to be easy for her. Her inner voice had warned her against doing this and all her past experiences told her it was a big mistake. What she was about to do flew in the face of every relationship tenet she held dear, and yet … Sitting here with him, now, looking into his face … she knew this was the right thing to do.

"I came to this convention because Perry forced me to. I told him I didn't have time for it, that my work was more important. He pointed out to me that I'd let my work become too important — that I'd let it become my whole life. And … he was right."

She lowered her head and looked at her hands, noticed that they were clenched tightly together, and forced herself to relax. Glancing up again, she met Clark's eyes and saw sympathetic understanding in them. She could feel the beginnings of tears scratching at the corners of her own eyes, but resolutely blinked them away.

"Clark, the past couple of days have been special for me, too. Like you, I wouldn't have missed them for anything. I've had so much fun with you. You've actually helped me remember how much fun it can be to just … have … fun."

He grinned, making her smile, which chased away even the last hint of tears.

"I've also rediscovered what it's like to have a friend — a real friend. I'm not exactly sure what's happening with us, but I don't want to lose it when I leave for Metropolis tomorrow. "I can't tell you where this might end up, or how far our relationship might go." She could see his face starting to light up with hope. "It may be that we'll just always be friends, or maybe … maybe it will turn into something more. But we won't know unless we try. Do … do you want to try, Clark?"

"I … I … " Clark knew he was grinning like a fool, but he didn't care. Right at this moment he was the happiest, if the most inarticulate, guy on earth.

She saw on his face what he couldn't seem to say in words, and it thrilled her. It also frightened her a little. What if it didn't work out, and she had to disappoint him? The thought flashed through her mind that she should warn him not to get his hopes too high, but she couldn't bring herself to say the words. Not while he was grinning so widely and his eyes were shining so happily.

Clark managed to put his tea mug down safely, and then reached to hold both of Lois's hands. "Lois, nothing would make me happier than to keep seeing you. I didn't want to lose this either, when you go home tomorrow. In fact, I've been trying to figure out how to ask if I could write to you, or maybe even call you once in a while, but I didn't know if I should … if you would want to. This … this is wonderful!" Sudden doubt seem to overtake him, and she saw his expression change dramatically. "Are you sure about this, Lois? You're not feeling pressured in any way? I — "

He must have sensed her hesitation, and misinterpreted it, she thought. "I'm sure, Clark. I care for you, too … in a way that I've never cared for anyone else before. The only thing is … I don't want you to be disappointed if this doesn't work out."

He shook his head briefly. "Let's don't worry about that right now, Lois. Let's just enjoy this. We're already further along than we were yesterday, and now that we're going to keep in touch, we'll have time to get to know each other better. After yesterday, I didn't know whether I should even bring it up because you'd said — "

"Well, that was yesterday," she interrupted. "I've had a lot of time to think about things since then, and I've decided that I shouldn't be lumping you in with the other more typical males I've gone out with in the past."

Clark had to chuckle at that. "Lois, trust me on this … I am *not* your 'typical male.' "

"No," she admitted, smiling at him. "You're not." In fact, she thought, anyone *less* typical would be hard to find!

Now that she'd gotten through her rehearsed speech, she wasn't sure what to say or do next. Her uncertainty communicated itself to Clark, who noticed that he still held her hands in his own. He really would have liked to take her in his arms at that moment, but wasn't sure if that was on the program yet, so he settled for squeezing her hands briefly to reassure her before releasing them. Now what? Well, humor had helped him out before … "Since I seem to be on a roll here," he said good- naturedly, leaning forward to pick up his tea again, "how about if you let me give you a ride to the airport tomorrow morning?"

Grateful to him for bridging that awkward gap, she latched onto this new topic with relief. "That's nice of you to offer, Clark, but don't you have to go to Smallville tomorrow?"

"Sure, but I wanted to drive into the city to visit Joel one more time before I leave. I can pack the car, pick you up, take you to the airport, then go by the hospital. No trouble at all. What do you say?"

Because he seemed to have worked it all out, and, because she didn't want to disappoint him, *and* because she'd been secretly hoping he'd offer her a ride anyway, she said, "Okay then. Thanks!"

"Great! I was hoping I'd get to see you one more time before you had to leave."

With those simple, ingenuous words, Clark had lifted from her the one last, tiny cloud of doubt which she'd obstinately refused to acknowledge, but which had just as obstinately refused to go away. At the back of her mind — way back, in a dark, dank corner — had crouched a suspicion that he would try to capitalize on any admission of caring or regard she might make. It had happened before, as her inner voice had cynically reminded her: <He'll try something — mark my words! "Give 'em an inch, and they'll take a mile!">

Well, she'd given him that inch, hadn't she? Had he tried to parlay it into something more? No. And, it didn't look as though he intended to try: " … hoping I'd get to see you one more time … " sure didn't sound like a guy who was planning to "sleep over."

Clark was feeling very contented with the way things were going. He'd been wanting to ask Lois about staying in touch, but the fact that she'd been the one to bring it up, made it even better. This would fit in very well with the other plans he'd been making. "I'm really glad we're getting a chance to talk like this, Lois."

"Me, too, Clark."

"There's something I've wanted to tell you but I didn't want to mention it in front of the Whites."

"What's that?" She couldn't imagine what he meant, but she could see that he considered it good news.

"Do you remember our conversation after the picnic yesterday? About me wanting to be a reporter again?"

"Yes."

"Well, last night, at the hospital, I had a lot of time to think about things. I've decided to ask J.D. to let me go back to being a reporter."

"Oh, Clark! Are you sure?"

"Hm-mm. I've been thinking about it for a while, but talking it over with you made me remember how much I enjoyed that kind of work … and how much I've missed it. So, when I get back to the office on Monday, I'm going to talk to J.D. about it."

"Clark, that's great … as long as you're sure. But, what about your dad?"

Clark grimaced briefly. "I'll discuss it with them this weekend. He'll probably be a bit disappointed — he thinks it's safer for me behind a desk — but he and my mom have always wanted me to be happy. Once he knows it's what I really want and that I'll be careful, he'll be okay with it."

Lois wished she could count on that kind of support from her own family. She didn't let those thoughts linger, however. Right now she just wanted to be happy for her friend. "That's terrific, Clark! I'm happy for you."

"Thanks, Lois. I'm hoping to get back into the City Room, but we'll have to see how it goes. I'm not sure how close J.D. is to filling the positions that are currently vacant. However, in the past I've written about everything from Knob-tailed Geckos to Borneon medicine men, so I guess I could handle just about anything."

His enthusiasm was infectious, and Lois was having so much fun that she almost missed seeing the teasing glint reappear.

"You never know, Lois, maybe I could wangle an out-of- town assignment. You could find me on your doorstep one fine day. J.D. might send me to cover the upcoming launch of the colonists' transport to Space Station Prometheus, *or* maybe the Royals and Metropolitans will end up in the pennant race this year … "

"Combining business with pleasure, Mr. Kent?"

"Why not? And, Ms. Lane, when I do get to Metropolis, I'll be expecting a first-class tour."

She laughed. "Okay, that seems fair. But … " she poked his arm with her finger, " … *you* have to bring the barbecue."

"It's a deal!"

They reached to shake on it, hugely enjoying the joking and bantering. For some reason, though, when their hands touched, the humor of the situation faded away, and there they were … gazing into one another's eyes, and not having a clue as to what to do next. They both started speaking at once:

"Lois, I — "

"Clark, I — "

A sudden, window-rattling clap of thunder caused Lois to jump in surprise, and made Clark's ears ring.

"Whoa!" Lois let go of Clark's hand to turn and look through the sliding glass door. The rain was really coming down hard now, and there was some pretty spectacular lightning dancing around out there. Clark took advantage of Lois's momentary distraction to rub his sore ears. Normally, he'd have heard the crackle of the lightning which would have warned him to be ready for the thunder, but the nearness of Lois must have scrambled any incoming signals.

By the time she turned back to face him, he had things under control again. "That's some storm!" she exclaimed. "We don't often get a storm like that in Metropolis."

"The Chamber of Commerce orders them specially — to impress the tourists."

She rolled her eyes at him. "Clark!"

"I'm serious!"

"Yeah, right! Seriously crazy!"

"Sooo, that would make you … ?"

A martial light came into her eye as her competitive spirit came to the fore. Not even another, and louder, clap of thunder had the power to distract her. "Are you implying that because I'm here with you, I'm crazy, too?"

Clark was battling a severe case of gigglitis — it was all he could do not to burst out laughing. "You bet your sweet little — "

Another lightning flash, practically simultaneous with a deafening crack of thunder, interrupted them once more, only this time the lights went out for a few seconds.

"That one hit something close by, Lois." Clark looked, and sounded, concerned.

"Yeah, I think you're right. I'm going to turn on the TV and see what they're saying about this storm."

While Lois turned on the set, and searched for the Weather Channel, Clark moved closer to the sliding glass door and used all his powers to check out the storm. His hearing picked up the sound of flames and, by looking through walls and floors, he discovered that lightning had hit a tree near the outdoor swimming pool. He used his distance-vision to focus in on it, to see if he needed to alert someone, but the rain was already taking care of the resulting fire.

Opening the door a couple of inches, he reached out even further with his senses, comparing what he could feel about this storm against what he'd learned from watching hundreds of others while growing up. By the time Lois had heard that the storm wasn't harboring tornadoes, Clark had already been able to determine that very same thing.

"Whew! That's a relief," she said.

Clark closed the door, and came back to the center of the room. "It sure is."

The fun mood from before seemed to have been dampened by the storm. Clark hid his hands in his pockets again, not quite knowing what to do. "Well," he said uncertainly, "it's getting pretty late. Maybe I should head for home."

"In that?" she exclaimed, pointing towards the outdoors. "You *are* crazy!"

He had to chuckle a little at that. "Not really. It always takes city folks a while to get adjusted to the weather around here." She still looked unconvinced. "Honestly, Lois, it sounds worse than it is. Besides, I've been out in all kinds of weather. I'll be fine."

"Maybe so, but … " She'd been looking forward to some easygoing time with him. They'd gotten past the awkward stuff, and they'd earned it. "Couldn't you stay just a little longer?"

Clark couldn't resist the look on Lois's face, or the note of concern in her voice. She wanted to be with him, and that kind of compliment is pretty heady. "Sure, Lois. I'll stay until you get tired of me, or the storm quits, whichever comes first. How's that?"

"Thanks, Clark." Now what? "Umm … would you like some more tea?"

"No. I've still got some. Thanks anyway." Clark moved back to the love seat and sat down — that felt less uncomfortable than standing in the middle of the room with his hands in his pockets. After a moment's hesitation, while she tried to decide whether or not to suggest that they order something from room service, Lois went and sat next to him.

"So," she said brightly, trying to recapture the mood, "this will give us a chance to get to know each other better. I mean, we know that we like a lot of the same foods, and I just found out tonight that you like jazz, but I don't know what other kinds of music you like, or what your favorite color is." She smiled and laid a hand on his arm. "I already know that you're a big tease, and a pretty good dancer."

He smiled back and thought, That *wasn't* dancing, Lois. What would you think if I took you dancing in the air?

"If you only knew," he muttered under his breath.

Lois heard the sounds, but not the words. "What did you say?"

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

Oh, geez! She'd heard that? Uhhh … "'Blue!' I said, 'I like blue.' You were asking about my favorite color … so I said, 'blue.' And, um, red is nice, too." He knew he was overcompensating, but he couldn't seem to shut up.

"Oh."

Was she looking at him oddly again? Maybe he should say something else. "Burgundy is pretty, too. I think you would look good in burgundy, Lois."

"Uh, thanks, Clark."

He still hadn't gotten it right! "Not that you don't look good, now, or anything. I just … "

She stifled a sudden giggle. "It's all right, Clark. I know what you meant." And to think she'd once believed he was some kind of polished womanizer! He seemed to have had even less experience in the relationship department than she'd had.

On the other hand, he *had* been imagining her wearing certain colors … That was flattering.

"I'm sorry that didn't come out better, Lois. I did mean it as a compliment."

"I know you did." She rubbed her hand on his arm, then slid her hand down to grasp his again. "Don't worry about it."

"Thanks." He squeezed her hand lightly, and grinned. "So … what else do you want to know?"

"Oh, let's see … I know you like sports." She saw his eyebrows go up in surprise. "Well, I already knew that you used to play football, but the way you snapped up that offer of a free Royals' ticket today was a dead giveaway, too."

"Ah! I see. You're good!"

"Of course!"

Lois leaned against Clark's arm briefly, and they chuckled, both very amused by these interchanges. "I also know that you're a hard worker, a kind friend, and a good son."

"I try to be."

He was blushing at her compliments, so she tried to lighten the tone a bit, to give him time to recover.

"Based on the ties you pick out, I've decided that you're color-blind … " His sudden laughter made her pause, grinning, for a moment. " … and then, the other day when you had to pull your glasses down to see the license plate of that speeding car, I figured you must be far-sighted." She paused again, her forehead crinkled in apparent confusion. "Or do I mean near-sighted? I always get those two mixed up."

Clark could see that Lois was enjoying teasing him for a change, but he was getting nervous again. She was very observant! "W-well, I guess it's a little of both, Lois."

"Really! So you have to wear bifocals then! They don't look it. Could I try them?"

She reached for them, not forcefully, just in a casual way, but Clark still panicked — for years no one except his parents had seen him without his glasses.

He used his free hand to push them more firmly up on his nose. "I-I have a pretty strong prescription, Lois. I wouldn't want you to hurt your eyes."

"Oh, okay." She seemed to accept his excuse, but she continued to look at him as if she were trying to make up her mind about something.

"What is it?"

"Oh, nothing really. I was just wondering what you'd look like without your glasses on."

"About the same, I guess." Clark decided that it would seem peculiar if he didn't take off his glasses. After all, it was no big deal. It wasn't as if his glasses-less face was hanging on wanted posters in every post office in the country. "You tell me," he said, as he took them off.

He was surprised at how exposed he felt without his glasses. For a long time they'd been a pseudo-barrier behind which he could hide. Feeling as different from everyone else as he did, it was a relief to use the glasses as a way to blend in — to be more ordinary. He'd even developed a small repertoire of head and hand movements, which utilized the glasses' rims and earpieces to hide his eyes or obscure his expressions.

He'd learned long ago that most people don't see past things like glasses and, once they've seen them, they don't often even think to envision the face beyond without them. This suited him, because he didn't *want* anyone to look past the glasses, to "see" him … *really* see him. A person's eyes are their most telling feature, and he couldn't afford to let anyone get too close.

Lois studied this "new" Clark for a few moments before pronouncing judgment. "Well, there *is* a difference. Not," she added confidently, "that I wouldn't be able to tell it was you, or anything like that, but … Have you ever thought about getting contacts, Clark? You have beautiful eyes, and it seems a shame to hide them behind those glasses."

"I don't think contacts would work for me, Lois." He started to put his glasses back on, but the expression on her face stopped him.

She placed her free hand on his shoulder and rubbed it lightly. "Did I embarrass you? I'm sorry, Clark."

"No, of course not!" Well, he admitted to himself, actually she had … just not in the way she was imagining. "I-I'm just in the habit of wearing them, I guess." He couldn't put his glasses back on now. That would make her certain that she had embarrassed him, and he'd have endured anything rather than make her uncomfortable.

"I won't need them for a while. I'll put them in my jacket until I get ready to leave." He suited his actions to his words, but after he'd reclaimed his tea and sat back down, she still seemed a little upset. "It's okay, Lois. Really."

"I just don't want you thinking that I'm the kind of shallow person who — "

"I don't." He smiled for her and reached for her hand again.

"Because I'm not."

"I know." On impulse he leaned forward to give her a friendly kiss on the forehead. "Actually, I think you're pretty terrific."

She blushed and gave a brief, self-dismissing laugh before leaning her head against his shoulder. "I'm a little rusty with this friendship stuff, Clark." She hesitated a moment, and then added in a small voice. "I've never had a best friend before, you see."

Clark was moved by the loneliness he could hear in her voice — loneliness was something he, too, knew very well. He wanted more than anything to catch her up in his arms and reassure her beyond any doubt that he'd be there for her no matter what, but he settled for, "You have one now, Lois," he said, his own voice husky with suppressed emotion.

She looked up at that. "So do you, Clark."

The look in her eyes told him what she wanted to do, and then he saw her reaching for him. Somehow his tea mug found its way to the table again — god knows how! — and then Lois was in his arms.

It wasn't the passionate embrace from the Arboretum, but neither was it merely the comforting kind of hug she'd given him in his office at lunch time. It felt somewhere in between, and these subtle differences were bewildering, thrilling and terrifying him all at the same time.

When the hug ended, Lois stayed by Clark's side, her head resting in the hollow of his shoulder. To accommodate her, he placed his right arm across the back of the love seat before reaching to hold her hand with his left one.

Outside, the noisy part of the storm had rolled eastward, leaving behind a steady rain, but neither Lois nor Clark noticed. They each had something much more interesting to concentrate on. Now that they'd reached an understanding, and were comfortable with one another again, they found it easier to talk. It was like a replay of their first date — the way the conversation roamed effortlessly over various topics.

Clark was in heaven.

The one person he loved more than anything else in the world had said she wanted to keep seeing him. Not only that, but she'd asked him to stay longer when he'd mentioned leaving, and she was now snuggled up against him and resting her head on him. Clark closed his eyes, musing over how well things had turned out. This moment was just about perfect, and he was savoring it.

"Clark?"

"Hm … ?"

"Thank you."

He opened his eyes at that and smiled at her. "You're welcome." The smile was then joined by a quizzical look. "For what?"

"Everything, I guess." She chuckled. "For putting up with me, mostly."

He moved his arm from the back of the love seat to her shoulders, and hugged her briefly. "That wasn't such a hard thing to do, Lois. And besides, I've enjoyed myself, too."

Without lifting her head from his shoulder, she raised her eyes to his. "I don't think I have ever, or will ever, meet anyone quite like you." He dropped his gaze, and she could see that she had discomfited him a bit. "I've never had a friendship like this, Clark — with someone I could trust, someone who would always be there for me … always be up front with me."

Clark tensed a bit, despite his best efforts not to. Her words had touched a raw spot on his conscience because he was feeling guilty about having to keep his secret from her. She was right about one thing: she'd never met anyone quite like him.

"Is something wrong, Clark?"

As usual, Lois's radar had kicked in — putting him on the defensive again. This time he didn't have to look too far to find an answer for her. "There's nothing *wrong,* Lois, I just … " He stopped and shook his head briefly. "That's a lot to live up to, and, I guess I'm hoping I won't disappoint you."

"What do you mean, 'disappoint' me?"

"I mean, we haven't known each other very long. What if, later on, you find out something about me that, well, maybe … you won't like?"

With Doris's stories about him fresh in her mind, Lois was inclined to make light of Clark's concerns. "Like what? That you've got 16 wives and 85 kids scattered around the countryside?"

He nearly choked. "Lois!"

"What?! Oh, I know … don't tell me. There are only ten wives and 50 kids. Well, that doesn't sound so bad. See, you were worried about nothing."

It hadn't taken him long to recover his wits. "Whew," he sighed in exaggerated relief. "It feels wonderful to finally get *that* off my chest."

She nudged him in the ribs with her elbow. "Yeah, right!"

"I can see that there are some things I still need to learn about you, too, Lois. And, the sooner, the better."

She giggled quietly, and leaned against him again. "I got you good that time, Kent."

He nodded in rueful amusement. "Yes, you did, Lois. Yes, you did."

CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX

Quiet settled over the room, except for the sounds of the rain filtering in from the outside. They both could feel that the evening was winding down to a close, but neither one was willing to be the first to admit it.

Especially Clark.

Lois's words about finally having found someone who would be up front with her were making him waver over his decision about when to tell her his secret. Maybe it should be sooner than he'd originally planned.

He was beginning to believe that the longer he waited, the bigger the shock might be, *and* the angrier Lois might become. Trust was one of Lois's hot buttons. From her point of view, not telling her might be tantamount to saying he hadn't trusted her.

The other part of this was that he simply wanted her to know. For years he'd dreamed of finding someone with whom he could share himself and his life. When he'd met Lois, his heart had practically shouted to him that *she* was the one.

However, he sadly acknowledged to himself, certain events from the past couple of days had rather muddied what had seemed so crystal clear before. Lois's willingness to dump him based solely on suspicions and hearsay shouldn't — couldn't — be ignored. He was wary now of opening up to her completely, and hated having to be that way.

A naturally optimistic person, Clark was still certain that eventually he'd be able to be completely candid with Lois. He just needed to give her more time. Then, when she'd come to better terms with what was troubling her, and they'd had more time together, *then* he'd be able to tell her about him: his heritage, his powers … everything! That was a day that he both yearned for, and dreaded.

Suddenly, a very feminine, slender hand waved in front of his face, startling him.

"Earth to Clark! Hello!"

He started, glanced at Lois, and saw her looking at him with an expression halfway between amusement and exasperation. "I-I'm sorry. Did you say something?"

"Uh-huh. Several somethings, as a matter of fact. Where were you anyway?"

"N-no place. I was just … thinking."

"What about?"

"Nothing important … really."

"Nothing important! Clark, the building could have burned down around you and you wouldn't have noticed!"

He couldn't think of an excuse plausible enough, or quickly enough, for Lois and she jumped right into the resulting silence.

"Clark, something else is bothering you, isn't it? Why don't you tell me about it?"

"No, Lois, I'm fine. Just getting tired, I guess. Maybe I should head for home." He moved as if to stand up, but she stopped him.

"You're doing it again."

"What?"

"Retreating from me. Just like in the Arboretum yesterday, and just like out on the balcony tonight. You … you 'go' somewhere else — not necessarily physically, but in every other way. Why Clark? Is it Joel? Something else at work? Is it me? Did I upset you, or hurt your feelings?"

"No, Lois!" Then, more calmly, "No, it isn't you. Please don't think that."

"Then what else should I think, Clark? That I won't understand? Or maybe that I can't be trusted with whatever it is you're not telling me?"

"Lois, I do trust you."

"Then, what's the problem?" He was looking very unhappy, so she backed off a bit from her impression of a Grand Inquisitor. "Look at it this way, Clark. I've told you stuff about me that I've never told anyone else." She grinned at him. "I figure you owe me at least 1 3/4 secrets, just so we're even."

He did smile at her joke, but feebly. So, she tried again. "I mean, how bad can it be?"

"Oh, it's not bad. At least … I don't think it's bad."

So, she thought, there *is* something! What in the world could a nice guy like Clark have — ?

< … unless he's got a bigger secret than I've given him credit for>

Her stubborn inner voice had smugly reminded her of Doris's words. Words that had been spoken in jest, she sternly pointed out to it — words which shouldn't be taken out of context. She took a slow, calming breath and decided to ignore her inner voice.

"I'm sure it's not bad either, Clark."

"It's just … well, I've never told anyone about this before, Lois."

She nodded to encourage him. "I understand."

"And I *was* planning to tell you … when we'd gotten to know each other a little better."

She was taken aback. "Oh." I shouldn't be pushy about this, is that what you're saying? "Okay." Sounds like the No Trespassing signs have been posted, Lois. "Well … "

< … a bigger secret than I've given him credit for>

" … I guess we'll talk about it when we've gotten to know each other better, then," she replied, trying to keep the disappointment out of her voice.

Now Clark really felt like a heel. Lois was being wonderfully understanding about this. "Lois, I — "

"No, Clark, it's okay." Maybe if she said it often enough, she'd begin to believe it, and it wouldn't hurt so much. "I mean, I'm sure you have a very good reason and … and I respect that."

"I — "

"After all," she added, trying to distract him from her hurt feelings by interjecting some humor into the situation, "it's not as if it's anything terrible like … like having a prison record, because you would tell me that. Wouldn't you?"

He smiled at her expression of mock censure. "Of course I would, Lois. But I've never — "

"So, it's probably something perfectly harmless, like stacks of unpaid parking tickets."

"Lois," Clark grinned and shook his head at her. "It's not anything I've done … exactly."

"Because," she continued as if struck by a sudden afterthought, "in this day and age, being divorced is no big deal any more — "

"I am *not* — "

"And," she concluded, as she patted his arm with exaggerated reassurance, "you don't seem like the kind of person who goes around kicking dogs or stealing candy from babies."

Clark made a sound somewhere between a laugh and a snort. "Lois!" She was coming up with hypotheses so fast he barely had time to react, let alone formulate responses to them. Even more distressing to him, though, was that he could tell she wasn't as amused as she was pretending to be. Gently he took her hand. "Lois, I'm sorry."

"There's no reason to be. You have a right to your privacy." And I have a right to feel hurt, she amended to herself. She took her hand out of his and stood up. "You know, Clark, I think I'm getting tired, too. Maybe we should call it a night."

How had this happened? Clark wondered. Things had been going so well.

He tried to regain some measure of control over the situation. "Lois, I'll go if you really want me to, but I don't think we should leave things like this."

Lois, who was busy walking agitatedly around the room, tweaking at curtains and kicking at furniture legs, didn't reply.

Clark tried again. "Look, why don't we sit down, and I'll tell you all about it."

Perversely, now that he'd agreed to her request, she didn't want to hear it. She was annoyed with herself for having forced this issue, and even more annoyed with him for making her do it. "No, Clark," she said, with a false brightness, "that won't be necessary."

"Yes, Lois," he replied, firmly. "I think it is." He walked up to her, which made her pause in her perambulations. He reclaimed her hands and held them close, looking at her until she met his gaze. "Please, Lois."

Lois shifted indecisively from one leg to the other, before finally concluding that maybe he had a point. And, she reminded herself, he'd heard her out once before when maybe he hadn't really wanted to. "All right."

They went back to the love seat and sat down. This time, though, Lois sat on one cushion and Clark stayed on the other. He turned his body towards her, his heart thumping hard now that his moment of truth was upon him.

Where do I start?

"You know how I told you that I grew up on a farm … near a town called Smallville, in Kansas?"

She nodded.

He took a slow breath and tried to moisten his dry lips with an even drier tongue. "That was all true … as far as it went." Clark paused again. This was so much harder than he'd ever imagined it would be! "But there's more to the story, Lois. You see … the Kents are not my biological parents. They — "

"Adopted you?" Lois interjected. "You're adopted?" She was so relieved that she didn't know whether to hug him for being so worried about such a small thing, or to shake him for making her worry that it was something worse.

Clark could see that she was pleased with what he'd said so far, but he wasn't entirely sure why. "Yes. But that's — "

"Clark! Being adopted is no big deal! There's no reason for you to feel ashamed or embarrassed because you're adopted."

He waited for her to finish, then said gently, "I'm not embarrassed or ashamed, Lois. As far as I'm concerned, the Kents *are* my real parents — no one could ever replace them."

She looked at him tenderly, moved once again by the love she could hear in his voice. "Of course. I'm sorry. Then, what … ?"

"What I have to tell you isn't so much about them, as it is about my biological parents. They … Well, they — " Clark looked down, away from Lois. His eye caught one of the patterns woven into the seat cushion and he began tracing its outline with his finger as he mentally reviewed his options.

He really wished he could have waited longer before having to tell her about this. What could he say? Well, Lois, it's like this: My parents were from outer space.

Just try saying *that* with a straight face!

He wondered how she would take it. Whatever he did say there was no getting around the fact that this next part was going to be tricky.

Lois watched him, her mind moving rapidly over some possible scenarios. Why was it so hard for him to talk about this? What about his natural parents was so awful that he'd kept it hidden all these years? What could they have done to make him so reluctant to talk about them? Had he been abandoned, abused, or neglected before the Kents made him part of their family? She profoundly hoped it wasn't that. Had they been criminals, or involved in the drug scene? Had they … ?

Maybe, though … maybe it wasn't anything that dire. Maybe her experiences in Metropolis were coloring her suppositions — she'd seen some pretty nasty stuff in her line of work. After all, she reflected, we're talking about rural Kansas in the 1960's, not some crackhouse-infested back slum. What if it was a more common failing, like his parents just being young and "in love" and forgetting about pesky little details like marriage certificates. She, personally, didn't think that kind of thing mattered one bit, but she knew that in small towns being illegitimate could carry with it quite a stigma — even back in the "free love" 60's.

Suddenly, she felt very guilty about practically forcing him to tell her his secret. People *are* entitled to private lives, and thoughts, she reminded herself. It was perfectly understandable that he might want to wait until they'd known each other longer; that didn't mean he didn't trust her. After all, she certainly hadn't told him everything about her own past, so why should she expect Clark to just open up to her on demand?

He looked up. Presumably he'd decided what to say.

"My parents weren't … "

Oh, dear! She'd been right! "Clark," she interjected, attempting to stop him, "you don't have to — "

" … from around here. They — "

"What?" Had she heard that correctly? "You mean they weren't *not* married?"

Clark blinked in surprise, momentarily thrown off track. "Not married? What made you think that? Yes, they were married." He could feel the reins of this conversation slipping further out of his grasp with each passing moment. "You know, Lois, if you keep going off on these weird tangents, we're never going to get anywhere."

"Sorry. I'll try to be good." Smiling apologetically, she moved a little closer to him. "So, your birth parents weren't from Kansas. Do you know where they are now?"

He hadn't expected that question. "They were … killed when I was a baby."

Oh, god! she thought. Killed?! She placed her hand on his arm in sympathy and softly asked, "How?"

"In an explosion. It was a long time ago, Lois. I never really knew them — can't remember them."

"That's a shame, Clark." She rubbed his arm sympathetically.

"I know they loved me though. They made sure that I got away safely, even if they couldn't save themselves."

This is getting bizarre now, Lois decided. His parents had feared for their lives, and they'd sent their child out of harm's way. What could have happened?

Her imagination took flight again. Had they been the targets of terrorists, perhaps, or members of organized crime? Had they been part of the witness protection program?

Clark had been looking down where Lois's hand rested on his arm, his thoughts far away … with a planet and a people long dead. He brought his eyes back to her face, and saw the confusion there. "I'm sorry. I don't seem to be doing a very good job of this, do I?"

She hauled her attention away from her conjectures and back to him. "Well, this is your first crack at it, Clark. You'll do better next time, I'm sure."

A little startled, Clark shook his head emphatically. "There can't be another time, Lois. What I'm going to tell you *has* to stay a secret!"

"But, Clark — !"

"I can't afford to have people finding out about me, Lois — not if I want to have a normal life. Not if my mom and dad are to be safe. I need your promise that you won't tell *anyone!*"

She was stunned. She'd never expected anything like this! "Of course, Clark, of course. I won't say a word." She watched as the tension left his face, then asked quietly, "So you're afraid that the people responsible for the deaths of your parents might come after you, and the Kents?"

Huh?

"What?! You mean you think — ? Why would you think my parents had been murdered?"

"Because you said — " She stopped herself. Actually, maybe this one was *her* fault. Her usually infallible intuition (well, almost usually infallible intuition) had apparently jumped to the wrong conclusion. "Nevermind, Clark!" she said hurriedly.

She sat nonplused for a moment or two, then realized that Clark was looking just as perplexed as she was feeling. She took a deep breath to help get back her composure, and said, "I think we've been talking at cross purposes. I take it your parents were not the targets of Mafia hitmen or international terrorists?" She cocked at eyebrow at him and smiled an apology.

A brief grin lightened his expression. What an imagination she has! "No," and he shook his head slowly back and forth.

"Okay, then. How about this … you talk and I'll listen." She put her hands in her lap and affected a demure expression.

Clark chuckled. "Okay. I just hope that what I have to tell you won't be anticlimactic after all this."

"Actually, I think it will be a relief. To top my scenarios you'd have to be the deposed monarch of a tiny, but very wealthy eastern European kingdom, or … a Martian." Lois began to laugh at her own joke, but the arrested look on Clark's face gave her pause. Then she realized that he was probably getting ready to reply in kind. She decided to beat him to the punch. Folding her arms, and assuming an attitude of great patience, she asked, "So which is it? A monarchy or Mars?"

With some vague notion of not wanting to lose the lighter tone they'd recaptured, Clark replied, "It's … Krypton, actually."

CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN

Lois was not impressed. "Cripton? That doesn't even sound eastern European. You're going to have to do better than that, Kent!"

Clark tried to set an encouraging smile on his face, took her hands in a gentle grasp and said, "It's not in Europe, or anywhere else on Earth. Krypton *was* a planet millions of light years from Earth, in a solar system with a red sun — "

Lois rolled her eyes. "Okay, Clark. I'll admit you've won this round. Now can we settle down and have a serious talk?"

Clark took a few seconds to collect his thoughts, and his resolve. "I *am* serious, Lois. I am the only survivor of a planet called Krypton, which was destroyed — "

Lois could feel her ready irritation returning. "A joke is a joke, Clark, and you're carrying this one too far."

"I'm not joking."

"Oh, please! Give me a break, I've seen this movie."

"Lois, I'm telling you the truth."

"And I told you once that your teasing would get you into trouble some day. Well, Clark, that day is here!" She pulled her hands out of his, angry tears starting up in her eyes. "What your teasing can't hide is the fact that you don't trust me, or care enough about me to be honest with me, so how can I ever trust you again?" She got up abruptly and walked over towards the balcony, to stand staring out through the rain-coated glass door.

From the love seat, Clark watched her and tried to come up with the right combination of words to help her believe him. He was rapidly rehearsing, and rejecting, various speeches in his head, when he noticed Lois surreptitiously wiping a tear from one cheek. All thoughts of convincing her suddenly took a back seat to the more immediate need to comfort her.

Lois heard Clark getting up and she hurriedly wiped at her face with shaky fingers. A moment later she felt his hands on her shoulders and his breath against her hair.

"The last thing I ever wanted to do was hurt you, Lois. I'm sorry."

She placed her arms across her chest and reached up to touch his hands. "I'm sorry, too, Clark," she sighed. "I shouldn't have raised my voice." She let go of his hands so she could turn and face him.

Clark noted the tear stains that she hadn't been able to completely erase. He put up a hand and caressed her cheek with gentle fingers, trying to convey his regret with this loving gesture. Lois leaned into his hand, enjoying the warmth and the strength she could feel there. She took a step closer to him and placed her hands on his chest to comfort him, also.

"Your sense of humor is one of the things I love about you, Clark. I just got a little irritated when you wouldn't stop with the Criptown thing."

Had she said, "love" Clark asked himself? " … one of the things I love about you … " His heart started thumping hard again, but with excitement this time. Now it was even more important that he make her understand. If he backed down on this now, how could he ever reverse it? How would he *ever* be able to tell her the truth?

She watched excitement grow in his eyes and be quickly replaced by determination. He put his hands on her shoulders again, and looked into her face.

"Lois, please … please listen to me. I'm not lying to you — I have *never* lied to you." He paused and took a deep breath. "I am from another planet, and I can prove it to you."

She couldn't believe her ears! Anger flared up, and she yanked her hands away from his chest. "Fine! Let's see it, then! What proof could you possibly have? Your birth certificate from the Criptown City Hall I suppose? Clark, why are you — ?

"First of all, it's Kryp*ton,* not 'town,' and no I can't show you a piece of paper which says I'm who I say I am. The planet was destroyed — "

"Oh, yes. How could I have forgotten? Well, that was convenient, wasn't it? You know what I think, Clark Kent? I don't think you're serious about our relationship after all."

"Lois, if you'd just let me explain — "

"You say you care about me, but — "

"Lois!"

The sharpness of his tone stopped her in mid-tirade. She'd never heard that tone of voice from him before.

"I said I can prove it, and I will." He took his hands from her shoulders, but stayed near her, talking urgently. "I may not look different, Lois, but I am. I don't get tired as easily as you would, and I need a lot less sleep than you do, but that's not all. You see, your yellow sun acts on my body's chemistry, or-or metabolism somehow, and it gives me special abilities, special … powers."

The conviction behind his words was getting through to her.

"I'm very, very strong, and I can see farther, hear better than anyone else … "

Omigod!

The puzzle pieces started snapping into place, and the resulting reverberations were much more deafening than any thunder could have been. Her excellent memory displayed them all for her in disturbing clarity: That first night when Clark had been able to hear her from the other end of the hall! The next morning, down in the lobby, when she'd been hiding from him and had whispered his name!

" … I can move really fast … "

The way he'd saved them from the speeding car! His great reflexes when he was driving!

" … I-I can even see through most things … "

The columns in the lobby! The time he'd stared up at her darkened window and then waved to her!

Omigod! He-he's … She knew her jaw had dropped and her eyes must have been as big as saucers … Flying saucers! Oh, god! She knew a sudden impulse to giggle and conquered it with an effort of will that left her feeling slightly dizzy.

She could see Clark's mouth moving, so she knew he was still talking to her, but only bits and pieces were actually getting through the tangle of thoughts and emotions that her brain had become.

" … Jor-El and Lara … "

< … a bigger secret than I've given him credit for … >

" … in a tiny spaceship to Earth."

Well, my track record with men is still gloriously intact!

" … a globe with maps … "

All this time I've been with … with … !

< … a bigger secret than … >

Lucy would *never* let me hear the end of this! If I were stupid enough to tell her, that is.

" … found the ship, and … "

He's a man, no … a *being* from space! Why hadn't I seen it? Why didn't I notice?

" … raised me as their son … "

< … bigger secret … >

"When I was 21, the globe … "

I let myself trust you, Clark.

< … bigger … >

I could have loved you, I think.

< … bigger … secret … bigger>

Oh, Clark.

"You believe me, don't you, Lois?

She snapped out of her abstraction. Clark was watching her intently, waiting for her response. She looked into his face, into his eyes — those beautiful eyes — and she was very much afraid that, yes, she *did* believe him.

"Yes, Clark. I believe you."

This situation was incredible! She'd finally found someone she really liked, and trusted … someone she enjoyed being with, and being herself with, and … and *this* has to happen!

*

Clark thought Lois was taking this very well.

At first she'd looked shocked, but now she just seemed to be thinking about it. Thinking was good. It was better than shouting, or calling the police, or any of the other worst-case scenarios he'd been afraid of.

*

Seeing her dreams crashing down around her and feeling foolish — which she knew was irrational — Lois was fast moving from self-pity to fury. How dare he be so nice, and so much fun? How dare he make her care about him, and start believing in him? How dare he … ?

"How could you, Clark? How could you keep this from me?"

*

Clark was stunned by the indignation he heard in her voice, and stung by her recriminations. It sounded to him as if she thought he'd planned to deceive her from the start. It felt like yesterday morning in the hotel lobby all over again.

"I always intended to tell you, Lois," he retorted. He'd hoped to sound reasonable, but instead even he could hear the defensive tone in his voice.

"When Clark? When were you going to do that? Was there some magic number of dates that you were shooting for?"

"I told you, Lois. When we'd gotten to know one another better. Surely you can see that I can't just go up to total strangers and say, 'Hi, I'm Clark Kent, an extraterrestrial. So, what do you do for a living?'"

"Sarcasm doesn't become you, Kent — if that's even your real name."

He decided to ignore that crack about his name. "Oh, I see. So it's okay for you to be sarcastic, Lois, but I'm not supposed to say anything when you — "

"You were raised on a farm in Kansas. I grew up in Metropolis."

"What does *that* have to do with anything?"

"Plenty! And stop trying to sidetrack me, Clark. The point is that you were keeping this huge secret from me, even though you knew that I'd want to know about it. And you planned to keep me in the dark as long as — "

" — necessary."

"Don't edit my tantrums, Clark!" she commanded, practically stomping her foot. "I won't be responsible!"

Lois paused and glared angrily at Clark. The thought did flash through her mind that recent, similar overreactions on her part had nearly ended their relationship before it had started, which meant the reasonable part of her brain — the part that usually tried to talk her out of her crazier impulses — was trying valiantly to get her attention. She was too upset to pay it much heed, however.

Why? Why couldn't she find the perfect guy? Why did something always have to happen to mess it up?

"You lied to me, Clark."

"I didn't *lie* to you, Lois."

"Pretending to be something you're not … that's not lying?"

"No, it's — I-I just hadn't told you *every*thing, yet."

"Clark! *This* isn't just a 'thing!' A 'thing' is finding out that you squeeze the toothpaste tube in the middle, or-or that you're tone deaf, but like to sing in the shower anyway. This is huge! This is colossal!"

"I wanted to tell you, Lois."

"Oh, really?!"

"Yes, almost as soon as I met you."

"Why didn't you?"

In his mind Clark could hear again his dad's oft- repeated warnings, "You can't risk people finding out about you … " He met Lois's stormy gaze. "I was afraid to. Especially after — " He broke off abruptly.

"What?"

"Nothing." He shook his head and avoided her eye for a moment, then looked back at her pleadingly. "Can't we just talk about this calmly and rationally?"

"You think I can't be calm? I can be calm and rational, *and,*" she added, putting her hands on her hips, "you *are* going to tell me what you almost said a minute ago."

Clark's hands were back in his pockets, his shoulders hunched in misery. "Lois, I don't — "

"Spill it," she commanded.

"It's just … " he shrugged helplessly. "Well, after you, uh, went off the deep end the other day because you thought I'd — "

"Oh! *I* see! So this is all *my* fault? Is that what you're saying?"

"No! It's nobody's fault, Lois."

She rolled her eyes and crossed her arms, turning away from him in irritation. The more she thought about this situation, the angrier she became. At Clark … at Perry … at the convention (which she hadn't wanted to attend in the first place) … at Kansas City, the world in general, and at her contact for the car theft ring, who, (if he'd gotten back to her as soon as he'd promised) could have made it possible for her to have avoided this trip altogether! This was *somebody's* fault!

Then she thought: Maybe it *is* my fault. I should have walked away that very first night.

Not only had she allowed herself to be bowled over by a charming smile, but, when fate had taken a hand, presenting her with an opportunity to escape, she'd wasted it — reconciling with him, and thereby rebuilding a bridge that had been quite effectively destroyed. She'd then compounded that error by actually crossing the damned bridge — ignoring any and all hazard signs; all her hard-learned lessons on relationships — until she'd found herself smack in the middle of the enemy camp.

<I told you men couldn't be trusted>

I shouldn't have gotten this close to him, she berated herself, but I jumped right into the pool without checking the water level first … again. You'd think I would have learned by now, but no!

If only she hadn't begun to think that Clark was someone she could believe in, someone to build a few hopes around. She'd indulged in girlish daydreams of a happy-ever-after storybook romance, even to the point of starting to picture a future with Clark: maybe a little house in the burbs … 2.4 kids. That wasn't too much to ask. Was it?

Well, apparently it was, so she'd just better realize that, for her, there wasn't going to be any cute little house with cute little kids — no Mrs. Clark Kent, no Lois Lane Kent — and no new monograms on her towels, either. There was just going to be Lois Lane from now on. For ever and ever … and ever.

Dreams are such capricious things, she reflected bitterly.

Clark had only a partial idea about the upheaval Lois was going through. His mother could have told him how it was possible for a woman to be imagining a life with someone while, at the very same time, making every effort to keep that same someone at arm's length (pending the outcome of the trial). She would have been able to clue him in to how a woman's heart could be operating on a different wavelength than her mind. She could have, but she wasn't there.

All he knew was that everything had been fine until he'd told Lois he was from another planet. Now, everything seemed to be falling apart. As far as he was concerned, there was only this one hurdle — that he was from Krypton. If he could just get her to calm down and listen to him, he was certain he'd be able to assuage any qualms she might have.

They cared for each other. Surely that was the most important thing.

Clark tried again. "Lois, if you'd just — "

She went on, unheeding, pacing back and forth in front of the balcony door as she talked, and punctuating her words with a variety of gestures — all indicative of exasperation, confusion … dismay. "Boy, do I know how to pick them … !"

He could hear that she was getting more and more upset. He moved closer to her and reached for her. "Lois, please … "

Out of the corner of her eye, Lois saw Clark's outstretched hands but she was in no mood to be touched at the moment. She jerked away from him, drawing herself together and grimacing over how unfair all this was.

Clark couldn't see her face clearly, but her body language sure came in loud and clear. Throughout his life he'd noted similar reactions to people or things that were considered by others to be "different." Those incidents, while almost never directed at him, had nonetheless underscored what his parents had warned him about from the time his unusual abilities had begun to develop.

In his own experiences, he'd gotten a few startled looks, or the occasional considering glance, but usually only after he'd been a little careless while using one of his powers, and he'd always been able to explain it away, or just make himself scarce. Those other times had been mere child's play compared to this.

Never before had anyone indicated that they didn't want to be touched by him. Convinced that if only he were human, things would be better, at this moment he'd have gladly traded all the powers at his command for the freedom of just being "normal."

What he'd always feared, even dreaded, was coming true. Such was the depth of his sadness at that moment, that he was incapable of imagining any other possible connotations for Lois's words. His dad had been right all along, Clark thought. He'd been a fool to risk it. Now maybe he'd lost everything … Oblivious to all but her own misery over the fact that this was going to be yet another imperfect relationship, wondering what other possible "bombshells" might lying about just waiting to explode, and humiliated that *she,* Lois Lane, had gotten caught in this "romance trap" again, she failed to see how her words and actions were affecting him.

"I was foolish enough to think this might actually lead to something," she continued in a dismal murmur. "I thought I knew you. I thought you were a decent and straight up guy." She could hear a quaver in her voice, but she no longer cared. "I thought you were the last honest man. I thought you were - - " She wiped turbulent tears from her face, and cried dispairingly, "I thought you were Clark Kent! Who *are* you?!"

CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT

Clark's head snapped up at her cry, and Lois waited a moment for a response, but, when he didn't say anything, she turned and ran into the bedroom, slamming the door behind her. Clark was left alone and stricken to his core by what she'd said … and what she'd done.

But Lois, he thought helplessly, I *am* Clark.

His inexorably sensitive hearing told him that Lois was sobbing on the other side of the door, and he felt his own heart breaking. Tears were blurring his vision, and his chest felt tight. He'd hurt Lois very badly, which was the last thing on earth that he'd ever wanted to do, and he didn't know how to fix things.

He took a step towards the bedroom, then stopped. She wouldn't want to see him — she hadn't even wanted him to touch her. Suddenly this room seemed too small, too confining. He had to get out of here, go somewhere else … some place where he could breathe, and think of what to do next.

He started for the door but, before he could even put his hand on the doorknob, he heard some people coming down the hall. They stopped, and stood talking a couple of doors down from Lois's room. Their presence reminded him that there wouldn't be any place in the hotel private enough, and it wouldn't do for anyone to see him in his present state.

The balcony — !

In less than a second he was there, barely taking the time to step through the door, and make a half-hearted attempt to re-close it, before throwing himself up into the night, and the dark and the rain.

**

Lois stopped crying, sat up and sniffed.

Enough! Lois Lane cries for no man, she reminded herself sternly, if a trifle inaccurately.

She wiped her eyes and sniffed again. This wasn't over yet — she had some more things she wanted to say!

Hastily getting off the bed, and grabbing a tissue on the way, she reached the door and jerked it open.

"Clark!" she said sharply. "I'm not finished … " Her voice trailed off. There was no one there but her.

***

Clark didn't notice when he'd finally left the storms behind, or when the air began to turn frigid, or the landscape below him more mountainous. He was flying more by rote than conscious choice. His spirit, wounded by the loss of his love and aching because of the hurt he'd caused her, was instinctively seeking a place of sanctuary.

Bare minutes after leaving Lois's balcony, he was over the mountains of northwestern Canada. He landed with less than his usual grace in the midst of a snowy, rocky seclusion.

In his memory were the sounds of Lois's sobs and the sight of her eyes, bright with tears and clouded by hurt. His hopes and dreams for a life with Lois had died with those sights and sounds. More bereft than he'd ever imagined he could be, his emotions overwhelmed him. He yelled out his grief and despair to the uncaring landscape. Again he yelled, the sound of his anguish echoing off the rocks, the ice and the snow, bouncing back at him as if to mock his efforts to be free of them. He dropped his head into his hands, and wept.

***

Lois tried to unlock the door of her suite with hands that were shaking angrily. She'd just spent 45 minutes fruitlessly searching the hotel for Clark, and she was boiling.

At first surprised when she'd discovered he wasn't in the sitting room, she'd opened the hallway door to see if Clark was out there. Instead, she saw three people chatting outside a room two doors down from hers. They'd looked around when they'd heard her, and she'd started to ask if they'd seen anyone, then decided not to. Closing her door again, she'd noticed that Clark's jacket was still on the chair, so she reasoned that he wouldn't have gone too far.

It was then that her conscience had tweaked her a bit. She had been very upset, and she knew she had a habit of not guarding her tongue under those conditions. What if she'd hurt him? She hadn't meant to. Surely, she tried to convince herself, he'd understood that she'd just been letting off steam. Still, it might be a good idea to see if she could find him.

She'd waited until those people had gone into their rooms before venturing out on her quest. Starting in the lobby and then checking each of the hotel's bars and restaurants in turn, she'd gotten more exasperated each time she'd failed to spot him.

After all, she hadn't said anything *that* terrible to him. And, now that she thought about it, *she* was the one who'd been lied to, not Clark. She'd been well within her rights to tell him what she'd told him … not that she could remember everything she'd said, but … The point is, she'd thought, firmly pulling herself back to the issue at hand … the point is, that she was now ready to make up, be friends, and have a nice, reasonable talk, and Clark was nowhere to be found … which was just silly. She'd been the one who'd received the shocking news, he'd only had to tell it. And, he'd had time to think about it and what he was going to say in response to what she might say, and … and, if she was going to go looking for him, the least he could do was to stand still long enough to be found!

Actually, instead of running off and hiding like this, she realized with a touch of pique, he should be thanking his lucky stars that she'd given him the Reader's Digest version of the riot act instead of the full-length, uncut version. There'd been plenty more she could have told him. If she wasn't such a nice person, that is.

Fine! she'd concluded finally, having convinced herself that she had nothing to blame herself for, if he wants to be childish and immature about this, then let him! She wasn't going to waste any more time looking for him.

It didn't occur to her, and her inner voice judiciously did not point out to her, that she was using anger as a defense against other, less easily managed, emotions.

***

The northern lights were not as spectacular as they would have been a month ago, Clark thought, but they were still quite beautiful tonight. They were one of the charms of this glacier, besides the quiet and solitude that it offered him. He'd stumbled across it years before and had returned to it many times since; sometimes seeking solace or a place to think, and sometimes just for a front row seat for the light show.

Tonight, the raw beauty around him was little help to him, but he found he had no energy left with which to go anywhere else. So he stayed, sitting in the icy snow and chilling wind, watching the lights with his back resting against one of the many boulders which flanked this portion of the glacier.

They're called moraines, he thought idly. These accumulations of boulders and other debris that have been pushed along by glaciers are called moraines. Silly, inconsequential bit of knowledge … like knowing about the mating rituals of Knob-tailed geckoes, or the recipe for a calming herbal tea that he'd learned from a medicine man on Fiji. His head was full of stuff like that, but what use was all of that in helping him to get what he really wanted in life?

He grabbed a handful of loose snow and ice, and threw it. It impacted on some other rocks a couple hundred yards away, creating a sound like multiple rifle shots, which echoed and re-echoed in this lonely place. Sighing, Clark leaned his head back against the boulder's uneven surface again, and looked up at the shifting red, blue and green lights.

So wondrously beautiful, and so deceptively attainable … like rainbows, or this desire of his for a normal life. That had been his dream for as long as he could remember: getting a job, meeting someone, falling in love … having a family.

But, like trying to touch a rainbow, it just wasn't going to be possible. It was time he resigned himself to the fact that there were some things in life he would never have. He should focus on what he did have: parents who loved him, friends, a job, and be contented with those.

He'd learned some hard lessons this week. He knew now, after all this, that he'd never be able to be totally honest with anyone except his mom and dad ever again. And, once they were gone, he'd have to face up to being truly and completely alone for the rest of his life.

***

"Nine *thousand* channels, and nothing on!" Lois exclaimed to thin air as she sat, remote in hand, surfing for something to watch on TV.

<Aren't you exaggerating … just a little?>

"The last thing I need at this moment is you. If I hadn't listened to you, I wouldn't be in this mess right now."

<Whoa there! Don't you mean that if you *had* listened to me, you wouldn't be in this mess right now? Not that I'm one of those people who revel in saying I told you so, but I did tell you to get away while the getting was good>

Since she'd been thinking much the same thing during her argument with Clark, she couldn't come up with an adequate retort. "Oh, just be quiet," she finally said, perfunctorily. It sounded ineffectual, but for some reason, it did the trick, and her inner voice was silenced.

She clicked off the TV, but didn't get up from the love seat right away. Instead, her eye was drawn again to the sight of Clark's jacket where it lay across the back of the chair. When she'd returned from her search for him, she'd seen it and, in her anger, had been tempted to throw it into the hall. Once she'd put her hand on it, however, she knew she couldn't do anything that meanspirited … not to Clark.

Touching his jacket had evoked warm memories of its owner and she'd caught herself fondly brushing its smooth surface with her fingers. But, she firmly reminded herself, even as much as she liked him and cared for him, a romance- based relationship was out of the question. Anyone would be able to see that and, once she'd had a chance to explain it to Clark, she was sure he would see it, too.

Love was a mine field, and no one ever got across it without injury. She'd seen it happen, over and over, and she didn't want it to happen to her. No matter how perfect you may think a relationship is, reality could never match whatever fantasy you've woven for yourself. Her parents were a shining example of how hopes can be crushed … of how love can blow up in your face.

Eventually Clark would come to see that she'd actually done him a favor by nipping this "romance" in the bud. Soon enough he'd have been sorry that he'd ever fancied himself in love with her. If they didn't break this off now, some day he would have realized what a mistake he'd made, or he would have gotten tired of her or-or something, and … So, it will be better to do it this way, before things get too serious.

And besides, they could still be friends, couldn't they? She'd wiped her eyes and sniffed. Being friends would … would be all right … Why is it that all the stuff that's supposed to be good for you isn't much fun?

Well, she'd thought glumly, this wasn't getting her anywhere, except depressed. She'd tried to find something to do which would occupy her mind and thus leave little or no room for thoughts of Clark, and the time they'd spent together.

She'd started on her packing, but in the bedroom she'd seen the phone on which she'd gotten his good night call, and the window from which she'd watched him drive away, and the blouse she'd wrinkled when she'd thought he'd —

"Oh, damn!"

Her inner voice had picked that moment to taunt her.

<Lois Lane … finally, amazingly, swept off her feet! Too bad he's an alien>

I have *not* been swept off my feet! And … and Clark is more human than *Claude* could ever claim to be!

<Humpf!> it had responded in disbelief. <If you're getting all mushy about windows, and phones, and wrinkled blouses … *you've* been swept off your feet>

Don't be ridiculous!

She had returned half-heartedly to her packing, but fairly quickly decided that, as a distraction, it was a total failure. That's when she'd decided to watch some TV, thinking that perhaps some mindless drivel would do the trick. But, besides an old B-movie horror flick (ick) another movie that seemed to be just one long car chase (double ick!), and a few sloppy romances (triple ick!), there was only the usual late night stuff, and reruns of "Flipper."

That had left her right back where she'd started. Well, almost. She hadn't accomplished a single thing, it was now even longer ago that they'd had their fi — , er, misunderstanding, and Clark still wasn't back. Where could he be?

Restless, she got up and wandered into the bedroom, only to stand there for several seconds with no idea about why she was there. Back to the sitting room she went, wondering if she should try looking for Clark again. It occurred to her, almost as an aside, that the moment she left the room, Clark would probably come knocking at the door. Wasn't that one of Murphy's Laws?

An even more unwelcomed thought then popped into her head: she might have already missed him. What if he had come back to the room while she'd been out searching the first time?

Why hadn't she realized this sooner? It made perfect sense. He most likely had needed some time to cool off, as she had done. And then there was his jacket — he wouldn't have waited this long to retrieve his jacket. Of course he wouldn't! She hated to think about what might have been going through his mind when she hadn't answered his knock: that she was trying to avoid him, or didn't want to see him. After some of the things she'd done over the past couple of days, he could hardly be blamed if he had.

She looked at her watch. He really had been gone a long time. If he believed that she didn't want to see him, he must be wondering what to do next. She wished she could tell him that she wasn't angry anymore, that he could come back.

Wait a minute! She could page him; she had the number. She made another trip into the bedroom for her purse, and retrieved his business card from her wallet.

She paged him, then paced between the two rooms waiting for him to call her. She grew impatient as the minutes ticked by without results, but succeeded in keeping her temper under control. Clark wasn't petty, she reminded herself. If he wasn't responding to the page, there must be a reason. Maybe he was trying to get to a phone … maybe he was looking for loose change … maybe he wasn't even wearing his pager.

Clark! Of all the times for you to forget your pager!

Think, Lois. Think! Had he had the damn thing on tonight, or not?

Walking more slowly, back and forth between her two rooms, she tried to picture in her mind what he'd been wearing, and had to admit to herself that she'd spent more time gazing into his eyes than looking at his outfit. However, she'd noticed before that he usually wore his beeper on his right side, sort of towards the front of his belt. She'd been leaning against that side while they'd sat together on the love seat. Wouldn't she have felt it? Yes, she admitted, gloomily, she probably would have, which meant that more than likely, he hadn't been wearing it … and she couldn't get in touch with him. Now, what was she going to do?

On impulse she went to the outer door and opened it, just on the chance that Clark might be hovering in the hallway, trying to get up the courage to knock … but he wasn't there. She felt trapped: she couldn't leave the room to search for him, and yet sitting around doing nothing was not her style.

She paged him again, even though she felt it was useless, and then wandered around the suite hoping the phone would ring. She eventually found herself at the balcony door, staring out at the newly-washed city.

The rain was merely a mist now, the semi-suspended water droplets bestowing halos on the street lights. Large sections of nearby office buildings were darkened, reminding her again of how late it was. Feeling helpless, she leaned forward to rest her head against the glass. She'd been there several minutes before she became aware of a little, chilly breeze, and it was another moment or two before she realized that the door was open … just a crack. She stared at it in confusion, because she distinctly remembered closing this door when she and Clark had come in from the balcony.

She thought about it, just to be sure. Yes! She *had* closed it, and locked it, too! Then, how — ?

Involuntarily she took a shocked step backwards, putting her hands up to her cheeks, her eyes wide in horror. No! Clark wouldn't —

She was back at the door and fumbling to open it before she'd finished that terrible thought. A quick glance around told her that he wasn't on the balcony. That only left —

At the balcony wall without knowing how she'd gotten there, she leaned out and over, looking down … down … fifteen floors' worth, but it was too dark, and too far away, to see very clearly.

CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE

Clark awoke to find himself lying on his side in the snow. He wasn't sure how long he'd been asleep, but it had been long enough for the wind to have blown a light dusting of snow and ice crystals on the parts of his clothing not in direct contact with his body. He rubbed his eyes, stood up and tried to brush off the snow, but was only partly successful. The warmth of his hands caused some of the frosty stuff to melt as he rubbed at it, but when he left that section to tackle another one, it refroze in the icy wind. Finally, he gave up. The cold didn't bother him anyway.

Looking around he noticed that some clouds had moved in while he'd been napping and the northern lights were no longer visible. He didn't know how long he'd been there, nor was he sure that he'd really accomplished anything by making this journey. He'd cried himself out, which had probably been a good thing, but after that he'd just plopped down onto the snow and stared into space; his mind numb and his senses unresponsive. It had been a while before he'd been capable of noticing the aurora's shimmering lights, or the noises made by wind-driven ice crystals as they skied across the surface of the glacier.

Even though these bits of natural entertainment had ultimately been able to calm him, they'd been absolutely useless in providing him with solutions to his problems. He'd eventually tried pacing — that centuries-old aid to serious cogitation — but all he'd done was wear a deep rut into the ice without getting even one step closer to reaching any decisions.

*Never* in his whole life had he ever experienced three such intense days. Being with Lois was unlike anything else he'd ever known before: more exhilarating than the moment he'd learned he could fly, more frightening than the first time he'd set fire to something just by looking at it, and more humiliating than the day his extra sensitive hearing had first kicked in and thereby made him privy to another boy's unflattering opinion of him — someone whom he'd thought was his friend.

How could this have happened, and so fast? He'd been lost from the first moment — unable to set the pace, incapable of holding back, ineffective in keeping to his usual methods of defense. For years, he'd been a master at fading into the background; at being friendly without giving too much away, and he'd seldom had any trouble keeping people at a distance. It had all fallen apart when he'd met Lois, though.

Lois. Just the sound of her name caused emotions to well up within him. Happier, and yet sadder than he'd ever been before; more invigorated and, at the same time, exhausted by all that had happened, he didn't know what to do … what to think. Filled with more emotions than he'd ever known it was possible to feel at one time, his chest suddenly expanded as he sucked in an involuntary deep, ragged breath. He put his head back and closed his eyes tightly, then had to clench his teeth and set his jaw lest the tears start up again.

Finally, the unsettling sensations passed, leaving him breathing hard and swallowing painfully, as he worked to lock away those feelings before they could escape again, and overwhelm him completely. He took one, last slow breath and felt his shoulders sag as he dropped his head towards his chest. God, but he was tired.

Tired, lost … bewildered.

How could keeping company with this slip of a girl be more tiring than a month's worth of chores? Had he said a month? How about more like a year! He looked for, and located, a place to perch on one of the moraine's boulders. As soon as he'd settled himself, his mind automatically returned to what had lately occupied it almost exclusively.

Lois.

She had more energy than a dozen regular people, and more personality in her little finger than almost anyone else had in their whole being. Intelligent, brave, beautiful, passionate … she was all of those things, and more. He did not want to go back to the way his life had been before he'd met her.

Once he'd begun to exhibit abilities that no human could ever possibly have, his life had been all about secrecy, distractions, prevarications … lies. Always the lies. Lies to cover what he'd done or what he was about to do, and other lies to explain why he couldn't go somewhere or be a part of something. He'd had lots of lonely times in his life because of his secret, but before … before Lois … there had always been the hope that when he did find the right person, all that would change. He'd never taken into account the possibility that the right person might not exist — for some reason, that particular variable had never gotten factored into any of his equations — he'd thought only that he hadn't yet met her.

He'd really hoped that, with Lois, he'd seen the end of the lies, but it appeared he'd been wrong, and now … Well, what could he do now?

The first step was to make sure that his parents would be safe. If Lois cared for him at all (and he thought she did), and if he got the opportunity to explain why he was worried for them, she might agree not to print anything about him. After all, she'd promised not to tell anyone about his secret, and he hoped she'd meant it. For the moment he had little choice but to believe that she'd meant it.

First, though, he had to see her … talk to her. Tonight was probably not the best time to try and gain an audience since she'd been pretty upset, and may have even gone to bed by now. The first decision was then obvious: show up at the hotel in the morning and offer to fulfill his promise of a ride to the airport. Hopefully, she would have calmed down enough to listen to him. If she didn't agree to his request, or if she'd already written up something about him, then … then, he didn't know what he'd do. With his secret out, his defenses would be gone, and he had nothing with which to bargain. If necessary, he would have to plead with her.

At any rate, he thought as he stood up, he couldn't make any more decisions until he'd seen Lois. The best thing for him to do would be to get some sleep. He'd be better able to handle whatever might come if he were rested.

Feeling better now that he had a plan of action, even such a small one, he knew it was time to leave. He let the air take him as he rose slowly towards the clouds. The ceiling was only about 1000 feet, which meant that the mountain tops would be playing hide and seek. On another night he might have enjoyed flying along the cloud base, dodging mountains, and watching for wildlife in the forests and valleys below, but tonight he just wanted to get home, so he kept on rising until he broke through the top of the clouds and could see the stars again.

Getting his bearings he set off towards Kansas City, occasionally checking his position by using his ability to see through things.

When he crossed into Kansas, the farmhouse where he'd grown up called to him like a Siren, and he had to exert a lot of willpower not to make a side trip for a little parental advice and encouragement. The thing that stopped him was the hope that, if his conversation with Lois went well, he'd be able to tell them cautiously optimistic news rather than waking them with some that was potentially disastrous.

***

The mist closed in about her as she made her way around the side of the hotel. The moisture-heavy air acted like insulation — muffling distant sounds and virtually obscuring all but the closest objects. Her own footsteps, however, sounded unusually loud in such an enveloping dampness. Lois went as quickly as she dared, but navigating was a bit tricky because the parking lot lights were having a difficult time penetrating the mist.

Her steps slowed even further as she came within sight of her goal — a plant bed, with small trees, shrubs, grasses and a few flowers. There were a few of these spaced throughout the parking lot, adding some decoration and color to what would otherwise have been a sea of asphalt. This particular one, she knew, was directly below her balcony.

It didn't take long for her to see that her fears had been groundless. Not only was there nothing there that shouldn't have been there, but it was perfectly obvious that nothing had been disturbed.

Now she felt a bit foolish. She'd been letting her imagination run away with her. She should have known Clark wouldn't — That Clark wouldn't do what she'd thought he'd done. Besides, wouldn't someone have heard something, or seen something before now?

She really wished she'd asked those people in the hallway if they'd seen Clark. He must have gone that way, and it would have been helpful to know which direction he'd taken when he'd left her room. She still didn't know why the balcony door had been open, though … Then, all of a sudden, she remembered. In her mind, clear as day, was an image of Clark at that door, watching the storm. Now that she had recalled this, she was also able to remember that she'd been on the verge of telling him he shouldn't be standing there, when he'd shut the door and turned back towards the room. That must have been what happened. He just hadn't shut it properly.

See, there's an explanation for everything, if one just takes the time to look for it.

Relieved beyond words, she leaned against the wall to get her balance back. This was all Clark's fault! It had to be. Ever since he'd come into her life, she'd had trouble thinking logically. This wasn't like her! She knew she was a competent person; someone who could look after herself, someone who was intelligent and gutsy. None of that had changed, surely! Then, it must have something to do with Clark.

How could one guy — handsome, kind, intelligent, funny, thoughtful … where was I? Oh, yeah … how could one guy, no matter how many good qualities he may have, be able to do that to me?

She sighed and smiled to herself. Well, he wasn't just any guy, was he?

He was Clark.

For the first time since their argument, she allowed herself to think about Clark — not the Clark she'd been angry with, but the Clark who'd reached for her hand to comfort her when she'd told him about her father, and the Clark who'd sat in the sunshine laughing with her as they'd licked at quickly melting ice cream cones.

Now that these images of him had gotten their foot in the door, others tumbled in behind them before she could shut and bar it again. None were whole or well-formed, but each was vivid, moving and telling. Combined with her jumbled emotions, they made a potent brew.

And then, she was crying again … with relief, with remorse, but behind the tears was a new resolve, a determination to straighten things out with Clark. She was still upset, still confused, but added to that was the reminder that she didn't want to lose him. Unsure as to what actions she could take, because she, herself, was unsure of her true feelings, she knew only that she had to do something … had to talk to him, see him again. She just hoped it wasn't too late.

But first … she had to find him.

At that moment, as if to reaffirm the new direction in her thinking, Kansas City's irrepressible wind began to return, and she felt a breeze ruffle her hair. She looked around her more alertly and wiped her eyes. The mist was being dispersed and the heavy, wet air was being replaced by some that smelled fresher and felt lighter against her skin. Objects gradually re-appeared, and the parking lot lights were once again able to fulfill their intended purpose.

Refreshed, and with a new resolve, Lois straightened and pushed herself away from the wall. She felt strong again, determined to find Clark and talk to him. He'd met her more than halfway before, she should do no less — he hadn't given up on her, so she wasn't going to give up on him.

The breeze grew more insistent, and colder, making her damp clothing distinctly uncomfortable; it was time to get warm and dry. She turned to go back into the hotel and noticed on the way that there were at least four dark-colored Jeeps within a stone's throw of the hotel's entrance. No telling how many more there might be in the entire parking lot! It would be virtually impossible to distinguish Clark's vehicle from any of the others … assuming that it was even still there, of course.

As she pushed open the door, and entered the hotel's foyer, she reflected that if only Clark had had the foresight to have hung some fuzzy dice from the rearview mirror or had plastered bumper stickers all over the back of his car, *then* she would have had something to go on. She'd have to remember to point out that deficiency to him.

It amused her to imagine the look on his face if she ever did tell him such an off-the-wall thing. He'd look just the way he had on the evening of their picnic, when she'd been teasing him about his jacket. She loved that expression of his, and recalling it pre-occupied her so much that she failed to notice the curious glances being cast in her direction by the elderly night clerk at the front desk.

CHAPTER THIRTY

Once back in her room, it didn't take long for her to change into some dry clothes, and make a quick trip to the balcony in order to hang her damp ones on the backs of the deck chairs. The way the wind was picking up, they'd be dry by morning. After that, her first goal was to find out if Clark's car keys were in his jacket.

There were no keys, but that didn't prove anything one way or the other. If she'd found some, then she could have been fairly certain that he wasn't out driving around. Not finding any didn't tell her much either way. So, on to the next thing: phoning.

In the bedroom was the notepad on which she'd scribbled Clark's home phone number. She dialed it, and found herself listening to his answering machine. Another setback, but she didn't let it get to her. She just left him a message to call her, trying to let him know that the coast was clear now.

I'm not upset anymore, Clark, she thought as she hung up the phone. Please come back so we can talk.

It seemed like a long shot, but she decided to find out if he'd gone to the office. That meant a trip into the sitting room for his business card. Rather than take the time to walk back into the bedroom, she used the phone there. It didn't take long to be connected to the newsroom.

No, Mr. Kent had gone home earlier that day, and he wouldn't be back until Monday. Did she want to leave a message?

No. No, thank you.

Now what?

She went to the hallway door, and checked out there again, just in case … but no Clark. She closed the door and leaned against it, looking around the room and biting her lip as she tried to think of other avenues she could search. Another possibility occurred to her, and she picked up the sitting room phone again. The night clerk answered on the second ring.

Had anyone left any messages for her? She held on while he went to check, and thanked him even though his news wasn't what she'd hoped it would be.

She hung up the phone and covered her face with her hands. Things were getting a little scary, but she was trying to keep herself from giving into the fear. She took a quick, purposeful breath, let it out again and pushed her hands upwards, over her forehead, running her fingers through her hair before letting her arms drop to her sides again.

What else could she do … there must be *something.* There *must* be!

She looked around her, but there were no clues, no hints, just memories. Clark's tea mug was still on the coffee table, his jacket lying next to it where she'd dropped it after checking the pockets. She went over, picked it up and smoothed it out before hanging it on the back of the chair once more. Things had been so different when he'd put his jacket there, before their silly fight. Before she'd … She shook her head jerkily and moved away from the chair. This wasn't getting her anywhere. Picking up his business card, she tried paging him again. Maybe she'd been wrong about him not having the pager with him. Lord knows it wouldn't be the only mistake she'd made that evening!

Her inner voice kept trying to convince her that Clark was doing all this just to scare her, so that he could manipulate her … have some sort of hold over her or use her guilty feelings against her, but she very firmly squashed it. If, she told herself, *if* she ever found out that he'd done something like that, she'd make him sorry he'd ever been born. Until then, she was going to give him the benefit of the doubt. After having allowed her fears to light the fuse of her hasty temper, she owed him that much.

Deciding to phone his home number again, she looked around for the notepad with his number on it, and nearly panicked until she remembered leaving it in the bedroom. She fetched it from the bed, where she'd sat to make the previous call, and carried it back to the sitting room, so she'd have everything she'd need in one place. Another phone call … another disappointment … another message.

"Clark, this is Lois again. Please give me a call when you get in. It-it doesn't matter how late it is, just call me … please. I'm sorry that I blew my top before, but it's just … it's just that I'd been so sure something would go wrong, and when it didn't, I — But then it did, and — I really don't mean half the things I say when I get upset. Please call me … "

She hung up the phone and flopped down onto the love seat. She'd tried everything she could think of, and hadn't been able to come up with anything. If this were Metropolis, or if she knew Clark's habits better … but, this was his town, not hers, and she didn't know him well enough to be able to guess where he might be.

She rubbed her forehead agitatedly. It was late. She was tired. Perhaps she should just get ready for bed. Clark would have to go home at some point, and when he did, he'd play back her messages, and call her. That would give her the opportunity to explain things to him, help him see that —

Something moved outside on the balcony! She just caught a flicker of it in her peripheral vision. She jumped in surprise and turned quickly towards the door. What in the — ?

Her surprise turned to irritation when she saw what it was. The wind had blown her outfit onto the balcony's concrete floor and was now attempting to play with it. Muttering some very choice words, she sprang off the love seat and opened the door.

Their recent tumbling adventure hadn't improved her clothes' condition any, as Lois quickly discovered. She picked them up and shook them out in a wind that must have been at least 20 degrees cooler than it had been during the afternoon. That made her think of Clark again. She didn't care what he'd said about having been raised on a farm, and therefore accustomed to all kinds of weather — it was cold, and he could be out there somewhere, without a coat. And, maybe even in wet clothes, because, now that she thought about it, he'd left while it was still raining … She bundled her pants, top and socks together, and hurried back into the sitting room, all thoughts of going to bed were forgotten. The clothes landed in a heap next to the coffee table as she reached once more for the phone.

***

Clark slowed his forward speed as he neared downtown Kansas City. He was looking for a safe, dark place to land that was as close as possible to the hotel. The last thing he needed tonight would be for a shutter bug with insomnia to spot him. All he wanted was to retrieve his car, and get home. At least he'd had the good luck to have worn dark clothing … small comfort that that was.

The closer he got to the hotel, the more he thought he might be able to land right on the hotel's property. Most of the rooms were dark — their occupants already in dreamland. What made it even better, though, was the fact that the storm had apparently burned out all the lights for the outdoor pool and the area immediately surrounding it. That lightning strike had been a blessing in disguise for him.

He smiled grimly to himself. Finally, *something* was going his way!

He looked around carefully one more time, then headed for the trees behind the pool, shifting his body easily from the horizontal to the vertical as he prepared to land. At that moment his sensitive hearing picked up the sound of Lois's tearful voice. He hung there in the air, listening.

"Clark, where *are* you? Please Clark, *please* answer me. I need — "

Without pausing for thought, he was soaring around the building and heading upwards again, towards her window. Before his heart could start another beat, he had landed on her balcony. Lois was there, in the sitting room — pacing — the phone in her hand, and tears on her lashes.

Breathing hard — not from exertion, but from fear — he blurted out, "Are you all right?"

*

" … I need to talk to you." The words were barely out of her mouth before she heard what could only be described as a whooshing sound coming from the direction of the balcony. It was almost instantly followed by a slight thump, and a brief gust of wind which blew into the room through the open door, sending papers flying. A familiar, but worried, voice demanded, "Are you all right?" She whirled around and saw … Clark! He was on her balcony. He was *on* her *balcony!**

For ten long seconds they stared at one another, while neither moved, nor spoke.

Clark saw Lois's eyes widen and her mouth drop open, and belatedly realized that he'd just revealed one of his biggest secrets to her. And he wasn't yet certain whether or not she was going to help him keep the ones she already knew.

What have I done?

Lois slowly lowered the phone's receiver towards its cradle, without taking her eyes off of Clark. She watched fear replace worry on his face, and knew she'd have to be careful or he just might take off again. Her heart was pounding harder than she could ever remember, as she carefully straightened up and pushed her best smile onto her face.

"I — " Her voice quavered, and she tried to steady it. "I'm fine, Clark. I'm … " Her voice faded away as she took in his haggard face and disheveled appearance. Even from this distance and in dim light, she could see that he looked weary and bedraggled, and she wondered where he could have been all this time. His clothes were wet; the shirt torn at the right shoulder. His hair, above his pale face, was in complete disarray.

She quickly wiped her eyes, then rubbed her hands on the seat of her jeans to dry them. "I've been worried about you." She gestured towards the phone. "I-I just called your house … to see if you were there. How … how are you?" she finished quietly.

An impossible question, he thought.

If you want to know the truth, Lois, I'm scared to death that my whole world may come crashing down around me. Other than that …

"I'm … fine." He knew he hadn't sounded fine, though, so he hurriedly added, "I'm sorry if-if I startled you, but I heard you calling me, and I … and I … " His voice trailed off helplessly as he dropped his gaze away from hers, then ran a shaky hand through his hair.

… and you came flying to my rescue, she finished for him in her thoughts. Even though you look as if you feel like hell. Oh, Clark, I'm so sorry.

If Clark had looked up at that moment, he would have surprised a look of great tenderness on Lois's face, but he was too caught up in his own thoughts and worries to be able to do that. He was trying to think of a graceful way to extricate himself from this situation, but his mind was achingly tired, and he couldn't come up with a single thing. Seeing her again like this — so unexpectedly — was harder than he'd thought it would be. Why did he have to still love her so much?

She took a couple of steps closer to him, and was dismayed to see him retreat from her, farther back into the relative darkness of the balcony. Things between them must be worse than she'd thought.

Clark was embarrassed by his reaction to Lois's approach. It had been an involuntary defense to a half-seen movement, but, now that he thought about it, it might be better to keep his distance. If this relationship was over, he didn't think he could bear for them to be close to one another again, and Lois had certainly given him every reason to believe that it was indeed over.

He straightened his shoulders, tried to finger-comb his hair into some sort of order, and cleared his throat. "I just wanted to be sure that you were all right, and … I can see that you are."

Just help me get out of here, he prayed silently to whomever might be listening.

He sent an acquaintance-level smile in her general direction, and, as his eyes avoided contact with hers, he caught sight of his jacket. It occurred to him that maybe he could use that as a segue to an exit line.

"I see that I left my jacket here. If you wouldn't mind handing it to me, I think I'd better be getting home."

Still rather stunned that he hadn't wanted her near him, she glanced around blindly, as if the existence of a jacket was complete news to her. There was something much more pressing on her mind at the moment than retrieving lost clothing. "Clark, I think we should talk."

"Lois, no. At least, not tonight," he pleaded. "We'd probably end up arguing again, and I … I don't think I could handle that right now."

"We're not going to argue. Well, *I'm* not, anyway. I wanted to tell you that I'm sorry I got so upset before. It was just the surprise of it all, and — "

She took another small step forward, caught herself, and backed up again. Clark was grateful for her respecting his wishes about keeping her distance, but it didn't change anything. It couldn't change what had already been said, or done, tonight.

"I understand, Lois. It's okay," he replied, with his hands up, palms out in a placating gesture. "I should have known. I shouldn't have — " He cut himself off suddenly, and ran both hands through his hair. "Nevermind. It doesn't matter. Could I have my jacket, please?"

This time she ignored his request as if it had never been made. "Clark, I don't think you do understand. I'm not even sure that I do. I do know that I care for you, and that I feel badly about hurting you."

"Thank you for that, Lois. I'm sorry, too. I guess we've both made our share of mistakes."

"Yes, I guess we have."

CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE

Another awkward silence.

This was terrible. They were staring at one another as if they were strangers. Lois shivered suddenly, but whether from nerves or because the sliding glass door was still open, she wasn't sure. Clark's avoidance behavior had given her an idea, though.

"Okay, Clark," she said, with resignation in her voice. "If you're so set on leaving, then come in and get your jacket. And, you can close the door while you're at it. It's freezing in here."

He hesitated, but only for a second. She could see that his natural inclination to protect her was battling with his desire to be elsewhere. It was with great relief that she saw him choose her. He came forward through the door and shut it behind him. Part one of her plan was complete — she'd gotten him into the sitting room. Time to field test for part two.

She moved back a couple of paces to give Clark freer access to the chair, and his jacket. It was obvious from the circumspect way he approached it, that he was trying to avoid direct contact with her, and that was the precise information she wanted to confirm. Time to implement part two.

She moved suddenly to get between him and the chair, causing Clark to throw up his arms in exasperation as he retreated to the other end of the coffee table, but Lois was unrepentant. She was going to use his reluctance to her own advantage.

"It's for your own good, Clark, believe me," she muttered under her breath.

"Just tell me one thing before you go, Clark. Where were you all this time? I think that after all the worrying I did, I have a right to know that."

"Do we have to talk about this now?"

"Yes, we do. You can be a weird guy, Clark, and there have been times when I haven't been able to figure out where you're coming from or what you're talking about. And, before, that was okay because I told myself that it was no big deal. But, after all I've been through tonight, I think you owe me. I want an explanation, and I want it now."

Clark studied her face. Determination was there, certainly, but, although her tone held a degree of irritation in it, she really didn't look angry. Presumably, she was trying to keep her promise of no arguing. None of that made him any more eager to tell her where he'd been. On the other hand, he didn't want to start lying to her now.

"I guess I owe you the truth, Lois." Having made that admission, didn't seem to make it any easier to say the words. "I went to … a glacier that I know of," he told her diffidently.

"A glacier?" He knows about a glacier? "Why there?"

He shrugged. "I needed a place to think, and that's as good a one as any."

At first she thought that was pretty weird, but then she realized something: that if she could … fly, and needed a place to think, she just might fly off to glaciers, or mountain tops, or deserted beaches, too. "So, you found a place to think."

He nodded.

"Did you come to any conclusions?"

"Yes," he said, eyeing her cautiously. "I did." He took a moment to frame what he wanted to say. "I realized that I'd jumped into this too quickly — without stopping to look at it from your point of view, Lois. I was being selfish … and thinking only about what I wanted." He paused and seemed to be gathering his courage for what he had to say next. "I don't blame you for being angry, and I want you to know that you don't have to worry about me bothering you once you leave Kansas City. I won't hold you to that offer of staying in touch. You didn't know about me then, so it wouldn't be fair to ask you to — "

"Wait a minute! You think that I got angry because you're from … from … wherever it is that you're from?"

"Krypton."

"Right. K — Cri — What you said." She shook her head. "Don't be ridiculous, Clark! That doesn't have anything to do with it!"

He looked at her in total disbelief.

"Okay," she admitted, impatiently. "Maybe it has a little something to do with it — but only a very tiny, microscopic, infinitesimal part."

"I wish I could believe that, Lois, but under the circumstances, I don't see how I can."

"Clark!"

"You're not being honest with yourself, Lois. You jumped into this black hole as soon as you found out that — "

"I did not!"

"Lo-is!"

"And it was not just because you're from another planet. It-it was everything!"

"What 'everything?'"

"You know! *Everything*!"

"No. I don't."

"It was too fast, Clark. Too perfect. And, I didn't want to believe it. Didn't want to let myself believe it. Only, I finally did believe it … and, suddenly it wasn't perfect anymore."

"Lois, I can't keep up! What is 'it?' What couldn't you believe?"

"This! This-whatever-this-is between us. You … me … I don't know."

"That's just it, Lois," he said sadly. "I don't see how there can ever be any 'us.' There is 'you,' and … and there is 'I,' and that's all there will ever be."

He couldn't mean that, surely. "What about friends?" she asked in dismay. "Can't we be friends, either?"

"No!" he cried out in anguish. "That would be ten times worse!" He whirled sharply away from her and took several hasty steps in the direction of the sliding glass door. Then he seemed to collect himself, for he stopped and said in a softer tone, "I'm sorry, Lois. I didn't mean to yell." He turned to face her again. "It's just that the thought of being only your friend, when I've dreamed of — " He dropped his eyes away from hers once more. "Nevermind. I'm sorry."

"I didn't know that we couldn't even be friends," she replied in a small, tight voice. She moved forward a little, then paused. "Do you hate me that much now?"

His head came up at that, and he walked towards her quickly. For a second she thought he might touch her, but he managed to stop himself — keeping an arm's length of space between them. "I could *never* hate you, Lois," he assured her very solemnly. "But … neither can I stand for being just friends, pretending that I don't … have stronger feelings for you. I-I don't think I could do that."

"Before you said you would."

"Yes, I know I did, but that was when I thought it was for the short term. When there was still hope that things might change, that someday we might — "

They looked at one another, their eyes full of sadness and regret.

"I've said too much, Lois. I need to leave before I hurt you any more." Clark moved to reclaim his jacket, but Lois wasn't ready to give up. Once again, she got between him and it. Thwarted anew, and unable to bear any longer the look in her eyes, Clark turned to escape through the balcony door.

She'd seen the despair on his face, and knew he hadn't believed her when she'd said his origins didn't really matter to her. All of her scheming to keep him there had been for nothing.

Quite a few of her suppositions about Clark over the past couple of days had proved false, but she had been right about at least one. He *had* been searching for something … or rather for someone. Someone with whom he could be himself. Out of everyone else on the planet, god knows why, he'd chosen her. And what had she done? She'd reacted to him on a superficial level, giving him some of the same prejudicial treatment that she, herself, had received at the hands of others. How could she have done that?

Throughout his life he must have been afraid to reveal the truth about himself, enduring years of secrecy, even loneliness. And the first time he tells someone, what happens? He must have been dreading just such a reaction as the one he'd gotten from her. That it had been she who had done it had, no doubt, only made it worse.

It didn't matter that she didn't believe she'd said anything terrible to him, what mattered was how he'd heard what she'd said. If she was going to be able to convince him that she was sincere about continuing this relationship, she was going to have to be up front with him. Scheming couldn't help her now. In fact, if she didn't come up with something pretty darn quickly, he was going to fly right out of her life.

Fly! That's it!

A sudden, flashing revelation soared in from somewhere, and she understood part of why Clark had run, er, flown away. Various things that he'd said, various impressions that she'd received, coalesced in her brain as she got one of her famous inspirations, and she knew what to say.

"This is what you've always done, isn't it, Clark?" she demanded accusingly. "Run away? Flown away? Disappeared? Just when things begin to get a bit sticky."

He froze and jerked his hand away from the door's handle as if he'd just received an electric shock. He didn't look at her, however, he just stood, facing the door; half yearning to be out there, heading for the stars, and half hoping that she'd be able to make him stay.

"All those different jobs — all that traveling? Wasn't that just so you could avoid getting close to people; to avoid being completely open with them?"

He'd turned back around while she was speaking, and the pained look on his face made her falter momentarily, but she didn't stop. "You can't keep running away, Clark. I should know — I've tried it myself."

You have to let others in, Clark, she silently urged him. You can't keep shutting them out. That's something that a … a dear friend helped me discover just recently.

"I ran to the 'Planet' and thought I could find what I needed in my work … but I couldn't, or at least not completely. And you aren't going to find what you need out there on your glacier, or wherever it was that you thought you were headed."

"Lois, that's not fair. And … it's not that simple. I told you — I can't risk people finding out about me. My mom and dad wouldn't have a moment's peace. The 'National Whisper' and other such rags would have a field day. They'd be on my parents' doorstep night and day. I can just hear the questions now." He adopted a smarmy tone of voice, "'Tell us, Mrs. Kent, when did you first notice that your little boy wasn't *quite* like the other children?'" His voice lost its affected tone, as he sketched a newspaper headline in the air before him. "Can't you just see the headlines? SPACE ALIEN RAISED AS COMMON EARTHLING. And, last but not least, let's not forget the wackos and the nut cases with their threatening letters and phone calls — "

"All right! Okay. I see your point." She crossed her arms again and took a couple of quick turns around the chair, then stopped and faced him. "So, you've never told anyone else about … you. I understand that. But … what about now? What about you, Clark? What about your life? Aren't you willing to fight for what you want?"

His answer appalled her.

"I don't have the right," he said resignedly. "I know that now, Lois, because it isn't just about me and my life. The person who would share my life would have to share all the worries, too. How can I ask that of anyone?" He stopped and swallowed hard, then took a shaky breath. "I-I just wish I could have learned it without having to involve anyone else. I'm more sorry than I can say, Lois."

"That's all? Just, 'Sorry, Lois?'"

"What else is there to say?"

"What — ?" She stared at him in perplexed anger. "What else is there to say?! There's plenty more to say, Clark! You can't spend two days with someone the way we just have, and talk about … the future, about possibilities for the future, the way we were starting to — ! You can't … you can't just fly back in here like this and — !"

She turned her back on him — more upset and scared than she wanted to admit.

I'm *not* going to cry, dammit! she commanded to herself.

She whirled around, put her hands on her hips, and glared at him. "You mean I've been having all these feelings for nothing?"

"What feelings?" he asked, not entirely unhopefully.

"Nevermind, I'm not feeling them anymore." She put up a hand to rub her forehead, then paced to the bedroom entrance and back. All that time she'd spent looking for him, and worrying about him. Her wet clothes … "All right," she said with a forced calmness, "you've got it all figured out, and I've got … what? I'll have you know that I've spent the last two hours looking for you, and worrying about you. *And,* I apologized to you. There are only a handful of people who can lay claim to *that* in this millennium! Why do you think I did all that, Clark? Doesn't that prove anything?"

Her tone put him on the defensive. His face was a picture of confusion, consternation and resignation. "I don't know, Lois! I feel as though I haven't known what's been going on from the moment I met you. Maybe you just felt sorry for me. Maybe … maybe this is all just some weird game that I don't know the rules to, but this doesn't necessarily prove that you care for me … No!"

"And what would it prove?"

"It doesn't matter, Lois. It would never have worked out anyway. We're just too different."

CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO

Different.

There it was again. They were back to that. How could she help him to see that it wasn't the differences she cared about, it was all the other things about him — the things that had first touched her?

How about telling him the truth? That would be taking a huge risk, but then … isn't that what Clark had done when he'd told her about himself?

"Different, huh? You think I don't know what that's like Clark? If anybody knows what it's like to be different, it's me. As bad as being lied to is, being different is worse. Different is never quite fitting in, never quite blending. Different is wishing you weren't."

Clark's eyes widened in astonishment, and he took an unconscious step closer to her. She *did* seem to know what it was like. For the first time since he'd told her who he was, he could feel a little bit of the pent up tension begin to leave his body.

Lois reached back into her past to pull forward something to prove her point. "I figured out pretty quickly that my dad wanted sons, not daughters. That was my first taste of what it was like. The harder I tried to be the son my dad didn't have, the more that set me apart from the other kids. It's hard to make friends when you're studying long hours to try and make up those 'two extra points for improvement.'"

Clark nodded his head in sympathy — he knew very well what being "set apart from the other kids" was all about. Emboldened by his approach a little earlier, Lois moved a half-step closer to him and noticed that, though he was avoiding her eye at the moment, he didn't retreat. Did this mean what she hoped it meant?

"And so," she continued, "you spend a lot of time trying to be something you're not, in order to please someone who hardly seems to know that you're there." She straightened her shoulders, temporarily shelving those painful memories.

"Eventually you grow up and get a job. It's good, exciting work, and you are good at it — really good at it — but it becomes your whole life because you're so busy trying to prove you're the best, you don't even notice all the other stuff you're missing out on. But, your life is far from perfect, and your relationships are even farther from perfect, and you've just about given up on the idea of finding that one perfect person."

She'd been gradually inching forward until she'd managed to get within two feet of him, and still he hadn't tried to move away.

"Then, one day, your boss insists that you go to a silly convention … in Kansas City of all places, and you meet someone." His head came up at that, and her heart beat a little faster to see a glimmer of the "old Clark" return to his face. She smiled in gentle irony as she took a couple more steps towards him. "He's fun to be with, and he's the kindest, gentlest soul you've ever met. He teases you and protects you; he makes you laugh and he makes you happy, and you start to think … he's perfect."

He still hadn't moved, and she could tell by his expression that he was very affected by what she was saying. She put out a tentative hand to gently touch his left side, just above his belt. He flinched ever so slightly and closed his eyes for a second, but he didn't retreat. She kept her voice low and level, as if she were just telling a story. "It's easy to get caught up in the moment, you see, and you can forget that 'being perfect' isn't the same thing as being perfect for you."

Lois reached forward with her other hand, placing it at his waist on his right side. This time she heard a slight, sharp intake of breath as she touched the damp fabric of his shirt. His eyes hadn't left her face, as if he were trying to see into her soul, the way he had on the night they'd first met. This renewed openness on his part greatly encouraged her.

"That's what makes the inevitable disappointment that much harder to bear, and it may take a while to understand that while a Mr. Perfect is just a dream (and would probably drive you insane if he *were* real), there's someone else who may be as far from 'perfect' as you can get but … he'll be kind to you, and gentle with you. He'll tease you and protect you, and make you laugh … and he *will* be perfect, because he'll be perfect for you. And then you'll know that *he's* the one you want in your life."

His face was a picture of warring emotions: hope, disbelief; joy, fear. He was teetering on the edge between the two extremes, and she knew her next words might be the key. She chose them carefully, and then said them from her heart.

"I want you in my life, Clark."

He breathed in sharply again, and she could see that he was trying very hard to keep his emotions in check. She slid her arms the rest of the way around his waist and closed the remaining space between them, holding him close to her body. She laid her head against his chest, waiting … hoping. It was up to him now. For maybe a dozen heartbeats they stood like that, and she held her breath. Then, she felt him shudder briefly as he controlled a sob and his arms were around her, too.

"Lois," he whispered. "Lois."

"Oh, Clark, I'm so sorry."

"No, it's my fault." he mumbled against her hair.

"You! What about me?"

"I should have trusted you sooner. I should have — "

"No," she replied, between laughter and tears, "no, you were right to keep your secret from me. Even my family keeps secrets from me."

She heard him give a tired little chuckle, then he lowered his head to her shoulder and sighed as he held her tightly.

"But I really did do everything wrong, Lois. I came on too strong. I should have been more patient."

"And I wish I hadn't treated you the way I did. All my life people have prejudged my abilities based upon my looks, my age, my sex, and I've always hated that. I can't believe that I did the same kind of thing to you." Some of the things she'd said to him flashed through her mind, making her cling to him even more tightly, as if she could make up for the hurt that way.

"It's understandable, Lois. I probably should have told it better, anyway."

"I thought you told it just fine."

He lifted his head from her shoulder, but kept his arms around her lightly. "I'm sorry that I disappeared like that … that I made you worry," he told her remorsefully.

"And I'm sorry that I shouted at you," she responded sincerely.

She put her arms more fully around him and reclaimed her spot against his chest. She smiled to feel his arms encircling her in an embrace that felt more right than any other she'd ever known.

The room grew quiet as they held onto each other, both happy to be back together. For Lois, though, there was something else she wanted to say … something else she needed to share with him. Rubbing as much of his back as she could, she spoke earnestly to him, "I … I do love you, Clark. I'm just not sure in what way yet. I-I need time to think about everything that's happened, and time to sort out my feelings. I don't want to put too great a strain on you, though, so … "

"Don't worry about that, Lois." He brought a hand up to caress the back of her head. "It was only when I believed that everything was over between us, that I — That's something else for me to be sorry for, isn't it? I should have given you more credit."

She shook her head briefly and then settled back against his chest. "It's okay, Clark. I guess we've both made our share of mistakes. Sometimes I think the only right thing I've done these past few days was meeting you."

Her words touched him deeply. He had to bite his lower lip and take a deep breath to keep from crying. "Oh, Lois," he said shakily.

"I wish I could say that everything is going to work out for us, Clark, but I can't." She lifted her head so he'd be able to see her face while she said this next part. "One thing I can tell you for sure is that I would never want to harm you, or your parents. Your secret will be safe with me, Clark."

With that assurance, the last of the tension left him. He took a wavering breath. "Thank you for that, Lois," he replied in simple gratitude. "I-I know this would make a heck of a story — "

"Forget the story, Clark," she interrupted. "This is a part of you, a very personal part, and I couldn't do that to you … even if," she grinned at him, "you do come soaring in here, unannounced, and drip water all over my carpet."

He totally missed the fact that she was teasing him. He backed away from her a bit so he could look down at the carpet. "I'm sorry. I didn't notice. I — "

"Clark! I'm kidding!"

It wasn't like him to miss that obvious a joke, she thought.

"Oh." His eyes came back to her face, and he saw that she was, in fact, kidding. Instead of being relieved, however, his face reflected his dismay as he noted something else. "And I've gotten *your* clothes wet, too! I shouldn't have hugged you. I'm so sorry, Lois, I — "

She interrupted him before he could take this too far. "As I recall, it was *I* who hugged you, *and* I didn't get your permission, either. It's not that bad, Clark."

He finally smiled at her, but from a face that was almost unbearably weary. She could only imagine how he must be feeling — she was tired, too, and she'd been able to get a good night's sleep the night before. She definitely needed to keep him off the road … but how to do it? He probably wouldn't allow her to drive him home, and any suggestion that he stay the night would undoubtedly run smack into his Smallville-based ethics, or something equally as ridiculous.

It appeared to her that some good, old-fashioned trickery was needed here: mislead, misdirect, and misrepresent. Those three tactics had gotten her out of more than one tight spot. "Well," she said in her most helpful tone of voice, "I can see that we need to get you home. First, though, we've got to clean you up a bit. You can't go out like this."

She took his hand and pulled him through the bedroom and into the bathroom, talking rapidly all the way so he wouldn't have time to make any objections, or think up alternatives.

"We'll need to get your clothes dry, Clark. You can't go through the lobby looking like this."

"But, Lois — !"

"What if someone you know sees you. What would you say?"

"Well, I — "

"Exactly!" They'd reached the bathroom. "You hand your clothes out to me and I'll call downstairs to ask about getting them cleaned for you." She grabbed a couple of towels and a face cloth. "Hold out your hands, Clark."

He automatically did as she asked and found his arms suddenly full of towels. "What are these for?"

"The towels?" She sounded surprised. "They're for drying yourself off after your shower," she explained in her most reasonable tone of voice.

"Shower?"

"Yes. Remember, we agreed that we need to tidy you up a bit before you show yourself downstairs."

"We did?"

"Clark!" Don't let him think about it too much, she reminded herself, or he may recall that he has other options. "How can we do this, if you won't work with me?"

"Sorry."

"That's okay." She bustled around, straightening up the room and collecting a couple of personal items that she'd left hanging on the shower rod. "Now, you're going to get out of those wet things, and while you're in the shower, I'll check on getting them dry for you, remember?"

Clark couldn't really remember anything of the sort, but his mind was so fuzzy at the moment, that he couldn't be absolutely certain that he hadn't agreed to some kind of plan. He did get the feeling, though, that there was something he was overlooking. When he tried to grab it and bring it forward in his mind, it slipped away from him again. His brow creased as he struggled to focus his thoughts.

Lois saw him frowning and decided to jump in before he could come up with any objections. "Don't worry about it, Clark. I forgive you. Now," she patted the towels he still held, "you have a nice, hot shower. Just don't forget to hand me your clothes, okay?"

She smiled encouragingly at him and started to leave the bathroom. She had a hand on the doorknob when Clark said, in a tone of sudden realization, "I can get them dry."

"Excuse me?"

"I can get my clothes dry."

"Oh." This didn't bode well for her plan of keeping him with her, but her undercover experiences had taught her to be flexible and creative. She'd just have to think of something else. "Well, if you can get them dry, Clark, then … that's good. You do that, and I'll see you in a few minutes."

She left the room, closing the door behind her. The last thing she saw before the door shut was Clark, standing in the middle of the room, holding the towels, with a look on his face which plainly stated that he still didn't know how, or why, he was there.

*

Clark heard the door click shut behind Lois. That small noise served to snap him out of his semi-stupor. He blinked purposefully, and looked around him.

What now?

Well, he was in Lois's bathroom, holding some towels, and expected to get clean and dry.

Okay … Why?

Because that's what Lois wanted? No, there was more to it than that. They'd agreed — Or had they? He couldn't be sure.

He did remember that she'd said she loved him — that part was definitely coming back to him. Some of the rest of it was pretty hazy. Maybe they *had* decided that he —

But, why couldn't he just fly down to his car?

There was something … something Lois had said … about him running, er, flying from things. Maybe this had something to do with that. He certainly didn't want to run from Lois.

She really had said she loved him, hadn't she?

He looked around him once more. Well, the towels were here. The shower was here … he was here. Why not get cleaned up, and dry his clothes? It would certainly make for a more pleasant drive home, and he could go straight to bed when he got there.

*

Lois waited anxiously to hear the sound of running water. It would mean that Clark had decided to do what she'd asked, and, it would give her time to fine tune her next move.

Two minutes went by without a sound. Then three … four … She was getting nervous. What if he remembered that he could just fly down to his car? Lois stood in her bedroom, listening intently for sounds from the next room and wishing she had some of Clark's abilities. Five … six … That acute hearing of his would come in handy right about now, wouldn't it? Or, even better, what about that being able to see through things? Talk about temptation! A person with that ability would certainly have to exert a lot of willpower not to sneak a peek. Seven … eight …

I wonder if Clark has ever — ?

The water came on at that moment, recalling her attention. Fantastic! Now she could get things set up.

CHAPTER THIRTY-THREE

Clark stood in the shower, the water bouncing off his neck and shoulders before cascading down his torso and legs. It was peaceful here with the hotel mostly asleep, which meant he didn't have to exert much effort to block out what few sounds remained: a couple of TVs, a few snoring guests, an occasional passing car, and Lois humming to herself in the next room. He had to smile as he marveled at her resilience. Why wasn't she passed out from exhaustion by now? Lord knows it wouldn't take much to convince him to lie down right here and now in this tub. He was going to have to really concentrate so he wouldn't fall asleep behind the wheel on the way home.

Clark tilted his head back and let the water flow through his hair as he thought about Lois. From the moment they'd met, she'd had him on the wildest ride of his life. He could dive to the deepest part of the ocean, fly around the world in minutes, float in the airlessness of space, and not suffer any ill effects. It was only since he'd been around Lois that he'd discovered what it was like to feel giddy, lightheaded and dizzy.

He couldn't help wanting to be around her, though. He loved watching her and listening to her. He'd rather be with her than in any of the many wondrous places he'd visited in his travels. He wanted to share everything about himself with her, and to learn everything there was to know about her.

He wanted to spend the rest of his life with her.

Yes, he acknowledged to himself, in spite of everything that had happened, he still felt that way.

Only, now she'd said she loved him, too, she just wasn't sure in what way. Well, that sounded pretty good to him … better than anything he could have dreamed of while he was pacing in the glacial snow. At least it *was* progress.

Their relationship did seem to be made up of a series of starts and stops: two steps forward, one step back. As he turned off the water he found himself wondering when, or if, things might ever settle down. Then he smiled, because with Lois, one just never knew.

*

Lois heard the bathroom door open and turned to see Clark heading towards her, in dry clothes and carrying his shoes.

"Hi, there!" She looked him over appraisingly, a fact that did not go unnoticed by the appraisee.

Clark stopped and glanced quickly down at his outfit as if to assure himself that everything was as it should be.

She hastened to reassure him. "You certainly look much better than you did a little while ago. And, you did manage to get your clothes dry." She walked up to him and gave him a quick hug, noting that he smelled engagingly floral — he must have used her shampoo. "Some day," she said with a smile, as she fingered the now-dry material of his shirt, "you'll have to tell me how you did that."

He smiled back rather self-consciously. "Okay."

For a moment or two they gazed at one another and then Lois seemed to come to herself. "Why am I standing here like this?" She took his free hand. "We have to get you ready to go home!" She pulled on him and he followed her around to the side of what had been Diane's bed. "I've got everything ready for you, Clark."

He looked suddenly apprehensive. "Ready?"

"Yes. Sit here," she told him, indicating the bed. "I'll take those," she added, as she took his shoes out of a surprisingly slack grasp.

"Wait, Lois. Those aren't — "

She noticed something about them. "These aren't dry, Clark."

"I know. Shoes are — "

"Harder to dry, are they? Well, don't worry. I'll put them over near the heat vent. That will help." She suited her actions to her words, then turned to see Clark standing behind her.

"Lois, I think — " he started to say, while trying to reach around her for his shoes.

"Clark! We don't have time to fool around like this. There's still one more thing to take care of to make you presentable." She grabbed his hand again and led him back to the bed.

"What … ?"

"Sit here," she ordered gently, and this time, he did. She put a hand on his shoulder and bent to kiss his cheek. "I know you must be tired, Clark. This won't take long, I promise, and then you can go home and rest."

A little dazed by the kiss and the concern on her face, he asked vaguely, "What won't?"

Instead of answering his question directly, she picked up a folded blanket that was laying on her bed, shook it open and held it up in front of her. "Take off your shirt and give it to me. You can put this around you instead."

Reflexively he started to do as she'd asked, and had actually gotten to the second button before he took a moment to think about it. He looked up at her, and asked in a voice that didn't seem to hold out much hope for a straight answer, "Why?"

"So I can sew up that rip in your shirt," she responded reasonably.

"Oh." He returned to his task and got as far as the fourth button before another question occurred to him. "But, Lois — "

"Clark," she said, with borderline patience, "I'm trying to do something nice here."

"I know, but — "

"Don't you want to get home?"

"Sure."

"And don't you want me to help you?"

"I guess so."

"You guess so?" Now she sounded hurt.

"Of course I do, Lois," he hastily amended.

"Okay, then. Let's quit stalling. Give me your shirt."

He looked at her eager face, sighed, and gave in. After all, the rip wasn't that big, he thought as he finished unbuttoning his shirt. It shouldn't take too long to repair, he added to himself as he removed the shirt and handed it to Lois. Besides, he concluded as Lois wrapped the blanket around him, he was kind of enjoying all this attention.

She put the shirt on her bed, then headed for the sitting room. "I'm heating up some more water, Clark. I wanted some hot chocolate, and I thought you might want another cup of tea."

He started to tell her not to bother, then decided that it would save time to just go along with her, so he kept silent. He adjusted the blanket to make it fit more evenly around him, and scooted further back onto the bed, crossing his legs in front of him. Now he could rest his elbows on his knees.

A huge yawn snuck up on him, surprising him with its length and making his eyes tear up. He wiped his eyes on the edge of the blanket, and wondered what was taking Lois so long.

Lois took her time over the preparation of the drinks. She was trying to be very quiet — to make it easier for Clark to begin to relax. Judging from her own past experiences of trying not to fall asleep during a particularly boring 8 o'clock class, she didn't think he'd be able to hold out much longer.

When she walked back into the bedroom, she saw him sitting cross-legged on the bed, clutching the blanket to himself with one hand, his eyelids at half mast. She watched him for a few seconds, then moved forward with the hot mugs.

"Clark," she said softly, and he opened his eyes. "Here's your tea." From the momentary confusion on his face, she could tell he'd forgotten that she'd promised to bring him something to drink. He remembered quickly enough, and murmured his thanks, but then seemed to be stymied by how best to take the mug from her.

He started to reach for it with his right hand, until he noticed that he was holding the blanket with that one. Changing his mind, he worked to free his left hand, but no sooner had he gotten it out from under the blanket than he decided that his right hand was the best one for the job, after all. He switched the blanket-holding duty to his left hand, and took the mug from her with his right, giving no indication that he was bothered by the heat of it. The whole process had taken only a few seconds, and she'd found it very amusing, but was careful not to let it show on her face.

"Careful, Clark. It's hot," she warned him.

She didn't think he'd heard her, for he put the mug to his lips and took a long sip without first blowing on the tea to cool it. Then, because he liked the way it tasted, or because he was really thirsty, he proceeded to down the rest of it as easily as she would have drunk a tall, cold soda on a summer's day. It was all she could do not to gasp aloud, but he seemed to have suffered no ill effects. He lowered the mug — Lois could see that it was still steaming — and looked around vaguely for a place to put it, before apparently deciding to hold onto it for a while.

"You're … welcome … Clark," she whispered in a stunned voice, then turned and sat down on her own bed, absently picking up his shirt.

She could hardly believe what she'd just seen. He hadn't been injured!

She guessed that a part of her mind had already been processing the fact that he could fly — that he could fly to a glacier and back in one night, that he could fly to a glacier, hang out for a while and not freeze to death — but that process had taken place behind the scenes so to speak. She hadn't consciously acknowledged any of it because she'd been focused on reconciling with him, grateful that he was all right, and that they had another chance to make their relationship work. This small incident with the cup was the first time, since she'd known there was something to watch for, that she'd seen an outright display of his abilities.

Everything else was brought abruptly into focus, and made very real, by having witnessed that.

She could hardly believe that just a short time earlier she'd been joking with herself about what it would be like to be able to do the things Clark does, and worrying that he might remember he could fly away. How could she have been so blase — so accepting — about all this before?

She stared unseeing at the rip in his shirt while her eyes widened in astonishment. What had she gotten herself into?

The single-mindedness which enabled her to focus so completely on her stories, had allowed her to focus so completely on finding Clark, that she hadn't spent enough time thinking about what was going to happen after he'd been found. In typical Lois fashion she'd been totally set on her goal, and hadn't noticed (or even been looking for) possible pitfalls along the way.

He could actually *fly,* for Elvis' sake! He could see through things. He was unaffected by extremes of heat and cold. He-he really *was* someone from far away … someone from another planet — an alien.

Her mouth felt suddenly dry and she took a sip of her own drink. If he could do all those things, she wondered what else he was capable of. He'd said he was very strong. How strong? Stronger than five regular people? Ten regular people?

But, since he can, uh, fly (and by the way, how does he do that … does he flap his arms or something?) maybe his other … abilities were on a par with that. Which meant … maybe he was *very* strong … more powerful than a locomotive, or even an avalanche.

What else? He'd also said he could move really fast. How fast? Well, he'd gotten to this glacier he knew of and back in a couple of hours, with plenty of time in between for thinking. Was he … could he be faster than an airplane … or-or a speeding bullet?

Faster, stronger, with senses more acute than any human could lay claim to, able to fly, and maybe … maybe even invulnerable?

Unable to stop herself, she looked up, her eyes drawn irresistibly towards Clark. Instead of seeing a creature from outer space with horns, or scales, or antennae, or any of the other bizarre things her imagination had been inventing for her, there was just Clark … blanket-swathed, very sleepy and touchingly vulnerable.

She was able to breathe again, and could even find a shamed-faced smile for her extreme reaction. And, she suddenly realized, that exact kind of reaction must be a big part of why Clark has always taken such pains to keep his secret. If she, who'd had a chance to know him before she'd learned of his … powers, was having this kind of reaction, just imagine how others, who didn't know him personally, might treat him. Their reactions, she was sure, would run the gamut from curiosity to awe to fear to horror. All anyone would be able to see would be his "alienness," because she had little doubt that few people would take the time to find out, or even care about, the man behind the amazing feats of strength and speed.

Maybe he *could* fly, and … and see through things, and all that other stuff, but it would be unfair to zero in on just those things when there was so much more to him. It was the little, everyday kind of things that had attracted her to him in the first place.

She would always be grateful that she'd had a chance to know him as just Clark before she'd found out about Cr — , Kr — Before she'd found out about his, uh, original home. She wasn't fooling herself, though, this was still a big deal, and there would still be adjustments … for both her and Clark. In the meantime, it was late, and sitting across from her was a guy who, while he might be sleepy, was no fool, so she'd better at least pretend to be sewing up his shirt.

CHAPTER THIRTY-FOUR

In amongst the free samples of various toiletries the hotel had provided for its guests, had been a miniature sewing kit which Lois had impulsively palmed after Clark had said he could get his clothes dry. She opened it now and tried to look as if she knew what she was doing. It wasn't that she didn't know anything at all about sewing, it was just that she hadn't had a lot of practice at it, and she was worried that if she looked as though she was fumbling around with the repair, Clark might just tell her not to bother.

White, black, gray and pink were her only thread color choices (they always have pink in these sewing kits … is that some kind of sexist stereotyping?), so she was pleased that Clark had had the foresight to have worn a black shirt. She guessed she'd have to forgive him for not having fuzzy dice hanging in his Jeep, then.

She glanced his way again, and noticed that, in the few minutes which had passed since he'd drunk his tea, he'd progressed nicely into stage two of the trying-to-stay-awake- even-though-you're-falling-asleep game. She'd become something of an expert on these stages while suffering through the seemingly endless droning of her Psych 101 professor — a man whose idea of teaching was to pace back and forth across the front of the lecture hall as he read from a 3-inch-high stack of brown-edged notes.

The first stage, a certain languidness, is fairly easily dealt with by fidgeting, sitting up straighter, and opening your eyes really wide. Stage two gets a little harder, because by then the urge to close your eyes is growing more insistent, and input from outside stimuli is being slowly cut off. What were once individual and distinct words, have now become a growing soup of sounds — mostly monotonal. You still squirm, but less often than before, and eyelid calisthenics have become part of your arsenal in the fight against sleep. Almost imperceptibly, your muscles begin to relax and your head starts to nod, and, at that point, you've moved painlessly into stage three.

Lois smiled to herself as she kept one eye on her sewing and one eye on Clark. He must have gotten to stage three and a half already, because his eyes were now closed more often than they were open, and he was finding it virtually impossible to keep his head up.

This had always been the point in the class at which she'd put her elbows on her desk, prop her head up on her hands, and try to look as if she were studiously poring over her opened textbook. She couldn't remember the number of times she'd been jerked suddenly awake from that position, certain that she was about to fall.

Even as she watched him, she saw Clark jerk awake and blink several times, then pull the blanket a little closer around himself and take a deep, long breath. The lure of sleep must have been nearly irresistible.

It won't be long now, she thought.

Once you're in stage four, the outcome is almost inevitable, but Clark was holding out longer than she would have thought possible. This might have something to do with what he'd told her earlier, about him not needing as much sleep as she did. That notwithstanding, it was obvious that he couldn't go indefinitely without resting, which was rather comforting in a way.

She put a couple more stitches in his shirt, sipped at her hot chocolate, and began to relax herself because it really looked as if her plan was going to work. Clark was starting to lean to one side or the other now, and when he'd catch himself he could no longer return to full wakefulness. The best he could do was a state which resembled semi- consciousness. As she watched him, he looked longingly at the smooth, soft surface of the bed, and she could almost imagine what was going on in his head.

If I could rest for just a few minutes … And, when you're this far gone, you actually believe that it's possible to do just that, but you're only fooling yourself.

Another minute went by, with Clark getting closer to the horizontal each time he leaned over, until finally, the effort required to stay vertical became too great and he fell slowly sideways, towards the foot of the bed.

Tiiimmmberrrr, she said to herself with a smile.

Even lying down, he wasn't quite ready to give up. He was still clutching the mug and holding the edges of the blanket together, but whatever reserves he had were nearly depleted so she knew he'd lost the battle. His eyes opened once, twice, three times, but successively less each time … just like the struggles of a drowning man … and then they stayed closed. For the space of two breaths he held that position, and then his body relaxed completely into sleep.

He lost his grip on the blanket, and his right arm fell onto the bed allowing the cup to escape from his slack fingers. For a second or two it tottered at the edge before diving for the floor. Lois cringed and held her breath, afraid that this might awaken Clark, but the mug hit the carpet almost soundlessly, and he never even flinched.

She sighed in relief, and then smiled smugly — she loved it when her plans worked.

**

Lois did a double take as she set the alarm on her small traveling clock. 1:01. That's kind of spooky, since she'd been remembering old "Dr. Snoresby's" Psych classes a little while ago. What had his name actually been? Snofvesley? Smatheby? It didn't matter. She must have picked up something useful from his classes, though … She'd managed to psyche out Clark, hadn't she?

She put her alarm clock under her pillow and turned to look at Clark again. Watching him was almost irresistible. The whole time she'd been straightening up the rooms, locking doors, turning off lights and getting ready for bed, she'd kept glancing his way. He wasn't doing anything except sleeping, but she couldn't seem to not look at him.

As she watched him now, she wondered once again if she should try to put a pillow under his head. It didn't seem possible that anyone could lie for any length of time in that position unless they were deeply asleep, and if he were deeply asleep then it shouldn't disturb him to have her put a pillow under his head, but … There was just enough doubt in her mind that a guy who could hear a softly whispered, "Oh, Clark," over all the other noises in a big, busy hotel lobby, just might be easily awakened, that she hesitated to touch him. She pondered the problem as she stood beside him, hands on her hips and mouth pursed, then decided that she'd put a pillow next to him. Maybe he'd find it during the night.

That problem solved, she was ready to climb into her own bed. His shirt lay on the spread where she'd put it after he'd fallen asleep. She'd sat sewing until she'd used up the thread on the needle, and by then it had appeared that he was going to stay asleep, so she'd felt it was safe to get up and move around. She picked up his shirt and the sewing kit, studying her handiwork before placing everything on the bedside table. There was still about an inch of the seam that needed to be repaired, but she'd already decided that it could wait until morning.

It's a good thing she didn't have to earn a living doing this, because she'd have starved, she thought with a grin.

She adjusted the blankets to her liking, fluffed the pillow to just the right consistency, turned off the light, and lay down, fully expecting to lie awake for a while because of all the evening's excitement.

She was asleep so fast that, if this had been Psych 101, she wouldn't have heard "Old Snoresby" make it to the bottom of the first page.

***

Lois woke up a full five minutes before the alarm would have gone off, which was what she'd been hoping to do. She fished the clock out from under her pillow and deactivated the alarm function, then looked over in Clark's direction.

In the little bit of light which was able to get into the room from around the edges of the drapes, she could see that he was still there … Still sound asleep. At some point during the night he'd found the pillow she'd supplied for him, and somewhere along the way he'd managed to get untangled from the blanket, because it was now half on him and half on the floor.

She eased out of bed as soundlessly as possible, not because it would necessarily be a bad thing if Clark woke up, but because she wanted him to be able to sleep as long as he could. Aaaannnd, because she wanted him to stay and have breakfast with her. Their time together was growing ever shorter and she wanted to claim every moment possible. If he didn't wake up until the food was already on the way, it would then be too late to rescind the order, and he'd have to stay.

She put on her robe and slippers, reached for his shirt and the little sewing kit, then stopped herself. That wasn't the way she'd left the shirt … was it? Involuntarily she glanced back in Clark's direction.

Naaah! Why would he have gotten up during the night and rearranged it? It made no sense. It's more likely that she wasn't remembering things as well as she thought — she had been pretty tired. She shrugged, picked up the shirt, and went into the sitting room, shutting the door carefully behind her.

What a gorgeous day, she thought happily, as she pulled back the drapes in front of the sliding glass door. A perfect day for flying home — unless last night's bad weather was currently heading for Metropolis. She'd have to check the Weather Channel and see. First, though, she had a phone call she wanted to make.

Last night, when she'd gotten the idea of having Clark stay for breakfast, she'd made a call to room service, but had only been able to talk to an answering machine. She wanted to check and make sure the order had been received.

"Yes, ma'am," replied the polite voice on the other end of the phone. "We have transcribed your order, and will deliver it to your room as close as possible to the time you've specified."

Lois thanked the woman and hung up, feeling very pleased with herself. She could hardly wait to see Clark's face when he saw what she had ordered. As soon as she'd spotted it on the menu she'd *known* it was perfect for him.

Now that that was taken care of, she was ready to take up sewing again. She settled herself on the love seat, clicked on the TV with the remote, muted the sound, and found the Weather Channel. The forecast for Metropolis did include showers, but only from the fringes of the storms that had hit Kansas City. It looked as if the bulk of the bad weather was headed straight for Washington, D.C. At least her flight home should be relatively uneventful.

She started flipping through the channels, glancing over the various news reports. She felt as if she'd been out of touch far longer than just a couple of days. It was interesting to see what had been happening while she'd been occupied with the convention … and Clark.

"Ouch!" she exclaimed in irritation, and then quickly clamped a hand over her mouth while trying to suck on her sore finger at the same time. She waited to see if she'd disturbed Clark but, when there was no sign of him, she resumed her sewing … and tried to keep her annoyance in check.

How do regular girls do this? she wondered. How do they keep from sticking themselves with the needle every few seconds? Her fingers were getting really sore. Of course, it might help if she weren't trying to watch television and sew at the same time.

Since she'd found out most of what she'd wanted to know, she picked up the remote again, intending to shut off the TV, but a "headline" on one of the local channels grabbed her attention. "Miraculous Save" it read as the newscaster reported on a near disaster which had occurred in the middle of the night. She quickly adjusted the volume.

In amongst all the talk about silos, heat vs. moisture ratios, electrical shorts and other things which she didn't fully understand, and could have cared less about anyway, was the story of an explosion and fire, one worker who had died … and some others who should have, but didn't.

Just like me, she thought. Just like me … that day on the street. I should have died that day. And I would have, if Clark hadn't been there.

She listened in awe to the survivors' stories: they didn't know how they'd escaped … They'd thought they were goners … All had slightly different stories to tell, but there was a common thread which ran through several — they didn't know exactly how they'd survived. A couple of them said they'd been led out of danger, another said he'd been carried, and yet two more talked of following a "voice" to safety. They'd all thought their rescuers had been firemen, but these particular, courageous firemen seemed to have been capable of invisibility along with their other talents, because they'd vanished into thin air.

The grateful workers hadn't seen their saviors clearly and each of the firemen interviewed at the scene asserted that they'd either been fighting the fire or had been unsuccessful in their attempts to reach these victims. So, for the moment, it was a mystery … at least to everyone but Lois Lane, and maybe Clark Kent?

She started searching channels again, hoping to learn more from one of the other local stations. She did manage to see the last few seconds of one report and most of another one, but they just left her with more questions than answers. And, unfortunately, all the questions led to Clark.

CHAPTER THIRTY-FIVE

Lois flipped through the channels one more time, but didn't see anything else about the granary fires. She turned off the TV and sat, quietly stunned, as she thought about what she'd just heard … and what she was conjecturing.

Had Clark left during the night to rescue those men? Well, let's see. He had been using the pillow this morning, but she supposed he could have somehow rolled onto it during the night. The blanket hadn't been wound around him any longer, but then again it might have been possible for him to have twisted and turned, and pulled on it enough in his sleep to have changed it … maybe. The most compelling evidence she had so far was that she was now certain she'd been right about his shirt. It had definitely been folded up differently this morning than the way she'd done it before going to bed.

His shirt. She held it up before her and took a good, long look at it. A black shirt could hide a lot of things, but she was positive, as she turned it towards the sliding glass door, that she could see tiny holes here and there in the material. Tiny holes which might have been made by tiny burning embers? On impulse she checked the pockets. There was clearly something there. She turned them inside out over the table, and studied what had fallen out. She was no expert, so she couldn't be sure, but she thought she was looking at some kind of grain — wheat? — wheat that had been scorched? … and then had gotten wet?

So … Clark *had* been there.

She thought of what she'd seen on the news: the leaping flames, the blinding smoke, the burning silos, the air full of flying, burning bits of grain, the threat of other explosions … and combined that with her own memories of fires she'd reported on: the intense heat, the noxious fumes, the choking soot, and was astounded once again by what Clark could do.

Without exception, the workers interviewed for the news stories had all worn some form of bandages; their clothing had been torn or scorched, or both. Yet Clark seemed to have repeatedly gone in and out of that disaster area without a scratch.

As if compelled, she got up and walked towards the bedroom. She stood with her ear pressed against the door, listening for a moment, then silently turned the knob and went in.

Things were much as she'd left them, she noted with relief, except that Clark's blanket was now entirely on the floor. He'd turned onto his back, which seemed to have been all that had been necessary to rid himself of his covering.

Lois stood next to the bed glancing from Clark to his shirt, where it was still lay in her hands, and back to Clark again. The light in the room wasn't very bright, even with what was coming in from the opened connecting door, but she couldn't see any marks on him, or indeed any indications that he'd been anywhere near a fire.

How was that possible?

How could he look so much like everyone else on earth … and yet be so different from them? What had Clark told her last night? Something about the sun … that he might look human, but wasn't? She wished she'd been paying better attention … And, if she had been paying better attention all along, might she not have seen it sooner? There'd been indications of it … in his quickness and strength, the way he'd heard things he shouldn't have been able to … Why hadn't she seen it? She should have been more alert … instead of looking at the color of his eyes, his beautifully-shaped hands, or being captivated by his laughter. But, was there something *she'd* overlooked … something she'd missed, or was the disguise really that good?

She had to know. Had to know whether or not she might have discovered it for herself by being more observant, or if … Feeling guilty for what she was about to do, and yet determined to do it, she went over to the drapes and opened them a few inches to allow a little more light into the room, then walked hesitantly back to the bed.

<I can't believe you're doing this!>

Neither can I.

But, she had to see … had to find out if there were clues she'd missed, hints about Clark's origins which may have been masked by his personality, or hidden behind the glasses, bright ties and charming smiles. So she wavered at his bedside while he slept, and wondered what excuse she could possibly give if he awoke while she was there.

He lay with his face turned away from the window, his left arm outstretched on the bed beside him, his right hand resting on his abdomen. She bent over him, studying him carefully, and hardly daring to breathe, or even blink for fear of waking him.

His breathing seemed to be like any normal human's; veins were visible just under the skin in several places; a strong skeletal structure was evident in those broad shoulders she'd admired before; well-developed muscles enhanced his abdomen, chest and arms; and … he needed a shave. She shook her head slowly in wonder. From the outside everything looked so darned human. Even the details were right: the eyebrows and eyelashes, the fine hairs on the back of his arm, the creases in his palm, even down to the little crescent moon shapes at the base of his fingernails. It was astounding that another species could be so much like her own and yet … so very, very different.

Lois straightened and brushed her hair back away from her face. She watched him for moment or two more, while various thoughts jumped about in her head: what a risk he takes when he helps out at disasters like that, how considerate of him to have come back to her when he could have just gone home, had he taken such pains to hide the fact he'd been gone out of habit … or because he was still unsure of her?

She was feeling a bit overwhelmed once more. Every time she would think she was getting a handle on this situation, she'd be brought up short by some new revelation, and she couldn't help wondering if things would ever settle down. That thought made her smile, because, with Clark, one just never knew.

Retreating from the room and closing the door behind her again, she reflected that, while Clark was certainly easy on the eyes, watching him hadn't provided her with many answers to her dilemma. If anything, it had traded some of her old questions for a whole set of new ones.

She wandered aimlessly around the room. It did make her feel a little better to have confirmed just how complete his camouflage really was; she wouldn't have to blame herself for not having caught on to his secret right away. In fact, now that she thought about it, if the people he'd worked with or been friends with hadn't caught on to it, she had nothing to blame herself for, surely. Clark had had years to perfect his "cover:" learning to sip at hot drinks instead of gulping them down, to wear coats and jackets even though he didn't need them, to hide what he could do … who he was.

"I've worked with him for almost two years now, Lois, and he's still something of a puzzle to me … He's just unique."

Part of her conversation with Doris floated back into her mind. Doris had recognized that Clark was "something of a puzzle," so not all of his co-workers were completely clueless about him. She'd realized he was "unique," but had attributed it to his upbringing and his travels, which, Lois had to admit, was certainly a valid assumption to have made. After all, what else would any normal, rational human being think? That he was from another planet?

"A real nice young fellow … "

Perry had been right about that, too. Clark was a *very* " … nice young fellow." Probably the nicest guy she'd ever gone out with, which was part of why she'd gotten so upset when she'd heard about … about where he'd come from. It had seemed so unfair that the first really great guy she'd ever found should turn out not to be human that she'd — "

"They can't all be dull or boring or stupid. Lois, I just want you to meet a guy who's out of this world."

Something Lucy had once said to her interrupted her impending self-pity, and Lois had to chuckle as she imagined her sister's probable expression if she ever learned just how far " … out of this world" Clark actually was.

"What you see is what you get."

Looked at one way, this statement of Alice's had to be one of the most inaccurate ones ever made, Yet, looked at another way, she'd been exactly right. If you thought about Clark as a person: kind, hardworking, caring, honest … then it was true that what you saw was exactly what you got. There was just this one, little thing about him being from another planet … Little thing!

She had to laugh, but quietly. How could she have thought that? And, how could she have gotten there so fast? It wasn't *that* simple. It couldn't be.

Lois turned to face the sitting room, her eyes going towards the closed bedroom door as she thought about the person on the other side. Remembering the way he'd looked as he lay sleeping made her recall why she'd gone into the room in the first place, which reminded her that she *still* hadn't finished repairing his shirt. Thankful for something to do, she returned to the love seat, determined to complete this ordinary, everyday-kind-of-task before she thought about anything else.

This is better, she reassured herself as she worked away on the last little bit of the tear. She needed to give herself some more time, that's all. Enjoy Clark's company while she had it, but get home to Metropolis, and the "Daily Planet," and her normal life … or, at least as normal as her life ever got.

Because of everything that had happened since the two of them had met, they both needed some time to sort through things, think about things. It wasn't as if she was never going to see him again … he could fly to Metropolis whenever he wanted to.

She had knotted the thread and broken it off before she realized what she'd done. How could she use the word "fly" so conversationally? When and how had this all become so familiar?

It was Clark. It had to be.

Ever since he'd held her in his arms there'd been this connection between them. She couldn't explain it … couldn't define it, but it was there. *Still.* In spite of the whole "other planet" thing, she was still attracted to him.

There! She'd said it. Lois Lane was attracted to Clark Kent.

<*This* is ridiculous!>

But, it feels so damned right.

She sat quietly for a while and thought about that. In a life that had contained some pretty amazing stuff, she may have just surpassed all previous efforts.

She gave herself a shake. This *was* kind of ridiculous: to be thinking these kinds of thoughts when she'd only known Clark since Tuesday night. It was all well and good to say she was attracted to him … <You're attracted to chocolate, too, but too much isn't good for you>

That's true.

But she'd really miss chocolate, if she couldn't have it any more.

She sighed. It did make sense to hold by her earlier intention of keeping things casual for a while, until they'd gotten to know one another better. That was really the smart thing to do, and she needed to be smart about this. She owed it to herself, and to Clark, not to rush into something they might both regret later on. Now *that* would really be ridiculous.

Lois came back from her musings to a better awareness of her surroundings, and the time.

Good lord! Look at the time! Our breakfast could be here any minute, and I'm sitting around here daydreaming when there are things to do … !

She gathered up Clark's jacket and shirt and carried them into the bedroom. It was time to wake him up. She laid his things on the bed near him, then retrieved his shoes.

"Clark … ?"

Nothing. Mmm … Well, let's shed a little light on the subject, shall we?

She opened the curtains the rest of the way, but all she achieved was to make him turn onto his side again. This gave her a nice view of his back, and those shoulders. Ah!

<A-hem!>

I'm just admiring the scenery. She grinned to herself, he certainly is no ordinary guy.

<Lois … > her inner voice said warningly.

Buns of steel, too.

<Lo-is!>

All right, all right. What a party pooper!

She walked over to the bed again. "Clark, time to get up."

Tiny reaction. Minimal progress.

Lois picked up the blanket and playfully dropped it on him. "Come on, Clark. Breakfast is almost here."

He rolled over onto his stomach and sighed in his sleep. It exasperated her to recall how carefully she'd tried not to wake him before. She probably could have done any number of things, and it wouldn't have bothered him at all. He seemed more human all the time. As a matter of fact, she thought wickedly, the way those wet clothes had … well, highlighted his, um, form last night, he'd looked *very* human. He certainly did seem to have all the, uh, "parts" of a man.

She felt the urge to giggle. In one way or another Clark had certainly brought a lot of fun into her life. However, she reminded herself sternly, she was losing sight of her objective here. Time to roust the troops! Remembering Doris's success yesterday, Lois tried to muster up a "Mom voice." "Clark Kent, you'd better get up right now!"

His reaction wasn't what she'd hoped it would be. "Jes five more minnes, Mom," he mumbled into his pillow as he wrapped his arms around it and resettled himself for sleep.

Her jaw dropped open in surprise, but then she had to grin. So, when he was a kid he used to try and sleep in, too. A good thwack with a pillow used to work on her little sister, she mused. Wonder if it would work on Clark? She turned to reach for her pillow and heard a knock on the hallway door.

"This is only a temporary reprieve, Clark," she warned him. "I'm going to let the waiter in, and then I'm coming back with a pillow, and a wet wash cloth … see if I don't!"

Lois went out into the sitting room, shutting the bedroom door behind her. She adjusted her robe, tying the tie a little more securely around her waist, and opened the door. "Hi, Lois!"

It was Diane.

CHAPTER THIRTY-SIX

For a few seconds Lois was powerless to speak or move. She hadn't expected this.

Clark … Diane will see Clark … it will be all over the newsroom … Apparently oblivious to Lois's paralysis, Diane breezed past her, talking the whole time. "I'm glad you're up. I left something here yesterday, and since I was coming to the meeting this morning I thought I'd just stop up and get it, so you won't have to worry about taking it back to Metropolis for me."

Diane paused for breath, and Lois was finally able to shake off her momentary stupor. "Diane!" she exclaimed a little too loudly. "What a surprise!" She saw the other woman heading for the bedroom and sprinted after her. "Why don't you let me get it for you? The room is kind of a mess - - "

"Oh, I don't want to bother you. You must have enough to do this morning without having to worry about my little problem." She neatly sidestepped Lois and turned the knob. "I'll be out of your way in a second, I promise."

"No, wait, I — "

The door was open and Diane was already through it. Lois tensed and held her breath, waiting for an exclamation of surprise, or naughty glee, but there was nothing. Well, nothing beyond Diane talking to herself as she looked for her lost item.

"Here it is!" Her former roommate's smiling face reappeared at the door as she triumphantly held up the object of her search. "Found it! Thanks, Lois. Sorry I had to interrupt your packing, though I must say that if you think *that's* messy," she added as she cocked a thumb back towards the bedroom, "I hope you never come to my place! Bye!"

Lois watched in stunned amazement as Diane breezed back out of the suite. "Bye," Lois replied softly to the now closed door, then turned to look into the bedroom. What had just happened here?

She put out a tentative hand to push the door open the rest of the way. A couple of hesitant steps took her inside the room and there she stopped, totally amazed by what she saw.

Her own bed was just as she'd left it, but the other one … The one Clark had slept on had been straightened, leaving no sign that anyone had been on it recently. One of her suitcases was lying open on the spread, and several articles of her clothing were strewn on, in or near it, giving the impression that she'd just started on her packing.

Nice touch, she thought with a smile. But, where was Clark? There was no sign of him, or his belongings. She looked around … nothing. "Clark?" she called out softly.

The curtains moved slightly, and she watched in wonder as he floated out from behind them. She could never have chosen that particular hiding place because the curtains did not go all the way to the floor. For Clark, however, that obviously did not present any difficulty, and the drapes were just tall enough to afford a very startled-looking guy with a safe hiding place.

He was wearing his shirt, but it was unbuttoned, and he held his jacket and shoes, clutching them to him as if they were armor. She didn't blame him. Diane could have that effect on people.

"Hi," she said softly, as she watched him float gently to the floor. "I'm sorry about that, Clark. That can't have been a very pleasant way to wake up."

He smiled, but in the kind of sickly manner of someone who has suddenly realized how lucky he'd been … that two inches either way and he'd have been under the wheels. He exhaled slowly. "So, that's your roommate."

She nodded as she walked towards him.

He appeared to be searching for the right words. "She certainly is … energetic."

"Yeah," Lois replied dryly. "And she snores, too."

Clark had to laugh at that. "A woman of many talents."

"Yes, indeed." Lois glanced around the room again, and then back at Clark. "Thank you," she said with a grateful smile. "That's the second time you've saved my life."

He smiled back, a little self-consciously, then reached to briefly touch her cheek. "Glad to be of service."

"I know. Just like last night."

He looked puzzled. "Last night?"

"Hm-mm. The granary fire."

His eyebrows went up and his eyes opened wide. "How did you — ? I thought you were asleep."

"I was. I didn't know until this morning, when I saw it on TV — "

Fear leapt onto his face. "You saw it on TV! You mean you could see me?"

"No, Clark, no. I'm sorry. I didn't mean — I saw a story about the fire and figured out the rest."

He had calmed down a little, but she could tell he was still nervous, so she explained how she'd been able to put the clues together. "So you see, Clark, there's no reason for anyone else to even suspect you."

He took a deep breath, then moved forward to put his jacket and shoes down. She knew by his face that something was troubling him, and she wondered if it had anything to do with her.

"What's wrong, Clark?"

"It's just … It's so frustrating, Lois. If I could have used my powers openly I could have done so much more. But I can't do that. I'd be jeopardizing my chance for a normal life." He turned from her, pacing to the window and back again. "I can't hide forever, though. There *has* to be a way for me to be Clark Kent and still use what I've been given to do some good!"

Her heart went out to him. She put out a hand to grasp one of his. "I'm sure there is, Clark. And, I'll help you find it … if you'll let me."

He was overwhelmed by her offer. "You will?"

"Yes." She hugged him, and felt his arms go around her.

"Thank you, Lois."

She raised her head to look at him. His expression was so tender that she couldn't resist the urge to kiss him. They'd almost made contact when there was another knock at the door.

"Not again," she groaned.

"No, it's not Diane," Clark said, as he appeared to focus on the wall separating the suite's two rooms. "It's a waiter. He's got a cart full of food," he added with surprise in his voice, as his gaze shifted back to her face.

Wow! she thought, that was so cool! But she said, "Oh, good. That's our breakfast."

"Breakfast?"

"Yes, I figured I owed you breakfast after the other day."

"Lois," he said seriously, laying his hands on her shoulders, "you don't owe me a thing."

Her gaze wavered under his. She felt a little uncomfortable, and yet reassured at the same time. She'd known people who'd enjoyed "keeping score," but obviously Clark wasn't one of them.

"Okay then," she amended, "you're invited for breakfast. How's that?"

He smiled. "Better."

She backed away self-consciously, grinning the whole time. "I'll just go let him in, then. Be right back."

She went out of the bedroom, closing the door behind her. Once the waiter had arranged things to his satisfaction, and had been sped on his way by a handsome tip from an impatient Lois, Clark emerged from the bedroom. He'd gotten dressed, and had even put on his glasses.

He must be more comfortable with them on, she thought, and felt badly for persuading him to take them off the night before.

Clark's voice interrupted her thoughts. "What is *this!*" he exclaimed, his eyes widening as he took in the ladened table.

She grinned and preened a little, proud to have surprised him. "Well, when in Kansas … It's called 'The Farm Boy.' When I saw it on the menu, I couldn't resist."

Clark laughed softly and shook his head in wonder. "I don't deserve all of this. Besides, we farm boys are supposed to do our chores first, you know."

"You did."

"Did I?"

"Sure. I'd call helping out at that fire last night 'work,' wouldn't you?"

He seemed pleased with that notion. "Yeah, I guess I would."

"Let's eat then … before it all gets cold."

Clark laughed again. "Yes, ma'am," he said obediently, as he came around to hold her chair for her.

There was a remarkable quantity of food: scrambled eggs, biscuits, hot cakes, sausages, bacon, toast, coffee and juice. While they ate, Lois asked Clark for some details about the explosion at the granary and he was happy to oblige.

He didn't explicitly say it, but she could tell he was enjoying the novelty of having someone to share his adventures with … someone other than his parents. She began to get an inkling of the kind of responsibility she had assumed now that she'd been let in on his secret.

His description of the disaster scene and how he'd been able to help out, made her curious to hear the story of his origins again, but she hesitated to ask him to repeat it. He sensed there was a problem, though, and questioned her about it. She reluctantly voiced her request and was relieved when he wasn't offended; he even seemed to understand why she'd need to hear it all once more.

Clark was delighted at Lois's interest and readily answered all her questions. Gone were the sadness and despair he'd known last night. He was back with Lois and she'd said she wanted him in her life. She'd accepted him, had promised to keep his secret safe, and had even said she'd help him. So, he gladly told her all he knew of his original home and his birth parents — about their struggle, not just to save him, but also to provide him with a good home amongst a people who resembled his own, and with whom he was biologically compatible. They'd wanted him to be able to fit in it seemed.

"Which means, I suppose, that they didn't know about these powers I now have. At least they didn't say anything about them in the messages they left me in the globe."

"Tell me some more about this globe."

"It was in the ship that brought me to Earth. For a long time I thought it was nothing more than what it seemed: maps of Earth and Krypton. I used to take it out and look at it from time to time, watching it glow as the maps changed back and forth. Then, one day, about half way between my 21st and 22nd birthdays, it … spoke to me. I was so surprised that I nearly dropped it."

He related to her the gist of the five messages left for him by his parents, Jor-El and Lara. She was very affected by the depth of their love for him, and impressed by the extent of their technology. That caused her to ask another question.

"Why didn't they save themselves?"

"I don't know," he replied rather sadly. "Maybe it does. Maybe it will tell me someday."

Lois sat quietly, respecting Clark's sudden somber mood. He probably still has hundreds of unanswered questions, she mused, but it must have been a relief to have learned that he'd been saved, not merely abandoned, by his parents.

As the silence lengthened, she tried to think of something to say. "Well … "

Clark glanced up.

"That was incredible, Clark. What a wonderful story."

He smiled slightly. "Thank you, Lois."

"I just have one question … ?"

He roused himself away from any sad thoughts about the past. "Sure. Shoot."

"How do you spell it?"

"Spell what?" He was looking adorably confused again, which made her grin.

"Where you're from. You wouldn't believe all the different spellings I've come up with … but then I'm a terrible speller … "

His eyes gleamed in sudden merriment as he chuckled over her tone of voice, and he spelled out his home planet's name for her: "K-r-y-p-t-o-n."

"Ah, soooo, you're a … a Kryptonite? A Kryptoner? A — "

"Kryptonian," he supplied with a grin.

"Oh. Okay. I just like having all the facts straight."

"Yes, I'd noticed that about you."

"You had?"

"Hm-mm."

"And you don't mind?"

He shook his head. "No. That's one of the things that *I* love about *you.*"

"Most people would find it intimidating."

"Well, I guess I can see where it might be," he responded with a smile, "but for me it's part of what makes you who you are, and since I love you … "

His smile was making it awfully difficult for her to remember her resolve to be "smart" about this relationship. She tried to haul the conversation away from such potentially dangerous waters and back into safer channels.

"Thank you, Clark. I appreciate you telling me that."

She'd tried to put a lot of sincerity into her voice, but apparently Clark had heard the insecurity behind her words.

"I'm sorry, Lois. I'm doing it again, aren't I?" He got up and walked towards the sliding glass door — putting some distance between them — then turned to face her. "I want you to know that I don't say these things to pressure you. But I *do* love you, and I love saying it to you."

"And I … I kind of like hearing it, Clark." Lois rose from her chair, too, but stayed standing by the table. "But … it really has happened so fast, and … I want to be sure this time. I know that's not entirely fair to you — you're not one of the ones who's hurt me, but — "

"Lois," he said earnestly, as he moved a little closer to her, "I would never want to do anything to hurt you."

"I know that, Clark. At least … part of me does, and that part wants me to just throw caution to the winds, fall into your arms and … but another part is saying 'Be smart about this, Lois. It's too soon.'"

She stepped forward as she spoke until she was close to him once again. Putting a hand out to gently touch his arm, she tried to explain what was troubling her. "I'm just confused, and I need time to get to know you better, and you need time to get to know more about me, too. This will be good for both of us, Clark."

"I do want to get to know you. I want to know all about you, Lois, and I want to tell you everything about me — things I've never been able to share with anyone else." He took her hand into his own. "I feel as though I've been waiting my whole life for you."

"And I'm making you wait even longer, aren't I?" she asked him remorsefully.

CHAPTER THIRTY-SEVEN

For a moment Clark entertained some deliciously vengeful thoughts against those other guys Lois had encountered. How could they have treated her so badly, and how could he make her understand?

He captured her other hand, and pulled them both up to his chest. "It just gives me something to look forward to," he answered reassuringly. "Lois, I'm not asking for a lifetime commitment right now. Every moment we're together is wonderful — "

"Not every moment," she tried to remind him.

"*Every* moment " he asserted firmly, but with a tender grin, " … and don't interrupt me."

"I can't promise that," she said provocatively, as she looked up at him through her lashes.

"Don't I know it!"

"Clark!"

He laughed, and she responded with a giggle, then they both grew silent once again.

Clark was the first to speak. "We've started out as friends — "

"Best friends."

That pleased him. "Best friends," he repeated. "That's a good start. Aaaannd, with your permission, Ms. Lane, I'd like to call on you in Metropolis at every opportunity. You could get to know me so well that we might be going steady by Memorial Day … " he leaned forward to touch his forehead lightly against hers, " … you could be 'pinned' by the 4th of July, and who knows what might happen by Labor Day!"

His words were very comforting, but she'd also seen mischief in his eyes. He was trying to reassure her with humor as he had done before.

And, it was reassuring … to know that she didn't have to please him to make him love her. For the first time in her life she could really be herself with someone and they would love her anyway. It took her breath away as she stood before him, her hands securely in his, her eyes searching his for any sign of doubt. Was it possible to love like that? To be willing to put everything else in jeopardy for love?

Clark was doing it.

She didn't know if she could.

She'd been in awe of his special abilities, his powers, but she was now learning that his strength lay not in what he could do, but in who he was. She'd been searching her whole life for someone who could meet her on her terms, and she'd begun to think that that person did not exist. Clark might just be able to do that, and more … to help her forget the past, and reach for something even better in the future.

Would she be up to the challenge? That's not a question Lois Lane often asked of herself. She usually met all challenges head on, confident of herself and her ability to overcome any obstacles. Was part of the problem that the element of surprise had all been on someone else's side this time?

She had instinctively liked and trusted him from the first moment — she'd gotten into his car that first night, hadn't she? — but there'd been this insidious war going on inside her the whole time. Her past experiences had led her to expect disappointment, and she'd waited for it, even anticipated it. Disappointment was something she knew how to handle.

When it hadn't materialized as per usual, she'd created, or allowed others to present her with, situations in which Clark might fail. Each time he'd rebounded from one of those she'd been thrilled and relieved at his success, but the underlying skepticism she had for the whole institution of love was still there, and the doubts wouldn't leave her alone: it's too soon, give it more time, it's too soon … "You're right, Clark. Who knows what might happen. But," she added, grinning, as she reached up to kiss his cheek, "I'm afraid we'll have to continue this later, or I'm going to miss my plane."

He'd been wondering what she was pondering so deeply, but at her words he started and glanced quickly down at his watch. "How did it get so late? Don't worry, I can still get you to the airport in plenty of time."

"That's all right, Clark. I'll grab a taxi. You've got to go by the hospital and — "

"I can still do all those things, Lois, I'll just do them in a different order. After I've gone home and changed, I'll take you to the airport, see Joel, then go back to my place and leave for Smallville from there. It's no problem, really." He could see that she was weighing the pros of having him for a chauffeur against the cons of inconveniencing him, and decided to help her make the right choice. "And, on the way, you can supply me with directions to your place. I don't suppose you have a landing strip near your apartment, do you?"

She shook her head at his teasing, but wasn't willing to let him have the last word. "Of course I do. It's one of the things I insist on before I'll even consider moving in."

"See … we're destined to be together!"

She choked back a laugh. "Oh, you — ! If you get out of here so I can start packing, I'll draw you a map, okay?"

"Okay. It's a deal." He'd been enjoying their little game, but he didn't let it completely distract him. He checked his watch and seemed to be making some calculations in his head for he added, "I can be back here in less than an hour. Would that give you enough time to get ready?"

"That will be great, Clark. Thanks. I'll meet you downstairs."

"Okay," he said again, "downstairs it is." He reached for her and gave her a quick hug. "Thanks for breakfast, and for sewing up my shirt, and for taking care of me. This is one time I don't mind having been tricked."

It was her turn to be startled. "How did you — ? When did you figure it out?"

"Not until this morning," he admitted. "I was pretty out of it last night."

"And you don't mind?"

"Well, it *was* in a good cause, but I'm wide awake now … " he started to warn her, as he shook a reproving finger at her.

She waved aside his attempted admonition, grabbed his arm, turned him towards the door and tried to push him towards it. "I'll take it under advisement. In the meantime, shoo!"

He allowed himself to be ushered to the door. "All right, I'm going … but I'll be back."

"I'm counting on it."

"Bye." Clark turned in the direction of the elevators, but Lois suddenly noticed something and called him back.

"Clark, wait!"

"What is it?" he asked as soon as he was beside her again.

"You'd better take the back way. Those clothes look as if you've been sleeping in them, so I don't think you'd want to accidentally meet anyone you know."

He grinned appreciatively. "Great idea."

She pointed him in the direction of the stairway she'd used when she'd wanted to spy on him, but of course she didn't tell him that part. "Those stairs will take you down to the convention center. You can get to the parking lot from there, and you won't have to go through the lobby."

"Thanks, Lois. I owe you one." He kissed her forehead and then sprinted for the stairs.

No, I owed you one, she thought complacently as she closed her door, and headed for her bedroom.

***

The world had never seemed a more wonderful or exciting place than it did to Clark that morning. The sun was shining, the sky was deep blue, the city seemed to be positively sparkling, but he wouldn't have cared if it had been pouring down rain, because he was on his way back to Lois.

It still amazed him the way things had worked out. He'd thought about it almost constantly since he'd left the hotel; different events randomly popping in and out of his head and all jostling for dominance at the same time. There was just so much to remember, dwell upon, and even savor that it was impossible for him to reconstruct events in their proper sequence.

The first part of his trip home had been occupied with trying not to let the afterglow of the morning completely distract him from his driving. Thinking about Lois was the best pastime he could imagine, but he decided it was probably better left for a time when he wasn't trying to safely guide a 3000-pound Jeep through heavy traffic at 60 mph.

When he'd pulled into his driveway, he couldn't help but recall how he'd left it the evening before — had it really been only the evening before? — at that time he'd been thinking only about spending more time with Lois, hoping he'd be able to find her, that they'd be able to get together. Now, she knew his secret and … she'd said she loved him.

She'd … said … she … loved … him.

He didn't know *how* long he'd waited to hear someone say those words … a long time, and now, he would never forget that moment as long as he lived.

It had taken him just a few moments to shave and change clothes; less time, in fact than it had taken to listen to the messages on his answering machine. The ones from Lois were very affecting. He listened to her voice as, with each succeeding call, she'd gotten more and more upset. Fear, worry, anger, despair were all there and he deeply regretted having been the cause of them all. But, although he might wish the circumstances had been different, he had to admit that some good had come out of all that they'd been through. They'd certainly covered a lot of ground last night, not all of which had been pleasant, but they'd been able to reach a new understanding.

Lois still had her doubts, but he believed now that they were more for herself than for him, and he was going to keep telling her he loved her until she started believing it, too.

His trip back into town was a little slower because he got caught in the tail end of the rush hour traffic. The pace was both frustrating and welcomed. He was anxious to see Lois, but each time he was stuck at a traffic light, he had to admit it was pleasant to have an opportunity to let his mind drift over to its favorite subject. Only once did the driver behind him have to honk at him to recall him to the business at hand, which he thought wasn't bad at all.

The round trip had taken just over 50 minutes, but even in that brief time Lois had managed to dress, pack, and get all her stuff down to the lobby. She was sitting in a winged- back chair, which was in one of several informal seating groups that were strategically placed around the lobby. Her luggage was stacked up near her, as she worked away on something with a pen and notepad. So intent was she on what she was doing, that she wasn't paying any attention to the activity in the busy lobby. He watched her for a few moments — she was so beautiful! — before moving towards her.

She looked up at his approach and her face lit up at the sight of him. He felt his head spin. Alcohol never affected him, so he wondered if what he was feeling was as close as he could ever get to being drunk.

Vaguely conscious of the departing guests, hotel personnel and other assorted persons scurrying all around them, Clark didn't give into his first impulse, which had been to scoop Lois up in a great big hug. He settled for taking her hand in his and trying to convey with his eyes his delight, his contentment … his love. She blushed a little at the intensity of his regard but didn't look away, finding his attention both flattering and reassuring. The glances they exchanged lasted only a few seconds, but were no less potent for having been of such short duration.

"So," Clark managed to say finally, "I see you've been busy. Are you ready to go?"

"Yes. Everything's here, and I'm checked out." Then she frowned slightly. "I wasn't able to draw that map I promised you, though. I was just starting on it when you came up." She returned her pen and pad to her purse/briefcase. "Maybe I could do it on the way."

"Sure," he agreed, "that would work. I — " He broke off suddenly and she saw his face take on a vaguely distant expression.

"What is it?"

"Shh," he responded, quietly, and she obediently hushed. He refocused on her after a few more seconds, and explained. "It's the Whites. With all the conventions in town, there's a shortage of taxis this morning, and they've missed the most recent airport shuttle. It might be as much as 30 minutes before another one's available."

"You heard that stuff just now?" she asked in an awed tone.

He nodded, looking a little uncertain all at once, but her next words dispelled his wariness.

"You're already trusting me enough to-to use your … powers in front of me in public." She sounded so pleased, and now he knew that her awe hadn't been just for his powers; it had also been because he'd trusted and accepted her.

"You're part of my life now, Lois. I don't want there to be any more secrets between us."

"That sounds … really nice, Clark."

"It does to me, too, Lois."

They were moving even closer together, still clasping hands, when she could tell that he was suddenly tuned into something else again. His eyes then returned to Lois's face, his expression a mixture of apology, entreaty and reluctance.

"They really are in a bind, Lois."

She cocked an eyebrow at him and folded her arms in front of her chest. "And I suppose you want to help them?" she asked resignedly.

He took her reaction at face value. "Well, I know it isn't what we planned, but I'd hate for them to miss their plane, and I — "

"Clark!" she interjected, unfolding her arms so she could reclaim his hands, "I was kidding."

"Oh." He was embarrassed. "I should have known you were teasing." He smiled suddenly, and shook his head in admiration. "You are good, Ms. Lane. Really good."

And you, she thought, are a very charming combination of worldliness and small town naivete.

There were times when she hadn't fooled him at all, and even times when he'd seemed to be two jumps ahead of her, but at other times … It made her uneasy to think of how simple it had been to trick him those other times.

He needs someone to look after him — someone to help protect him from people like me.

<Yeah, well … It doesn't have to be you!>

She paid her inner voice scant attention. "Thank you, Mr. Kent," she replied grandly. "No applause is necessary. I just wanted to show you that you're not the only one around here with special gifts."

He grinned. "I never doubted it for a minute."

That pleased her immensely, but she attempted to deflect his attention away from herself. She looked around the lobby and then back to Clark. "I don't see Perry and Alice."

"They're over that way," he informed her, pointing in a direction that was blocked by columns and plants. Then Clark, too, glanced around briefly before lowering his glasses a little and focusing in the direction he'd just indicated. "And they have only two or three bags. There'd be plenty of room in the Jeep for everything."

"Okay, hero, let's go save the day."

He smiled perfunctorily at her raillery, then said simply, "I'm not a hero, Lois. I just … I just want to help people."

"Okay, Clark," she amended softly. "Let's go help."

CHAPTER THIRTY-EIGHT

It had taken a bit of persuasion to convince Perry and Alice to accept the offered ride. Eventually, however, they'd given in, the Jeep had been loaded up, and they'd set off for the airport, with Lois and Clark riding quietly in the front seats while the Whites sat in the back, squabbling good- naturedly or asking Clark questions about various sites they passed along the way.

Once they'd arrived, everyone was surprised that the airport hadn't yet burst at the seams, there were so many vehicles of every size, shape and description converging upon it. It took a while for them to inch their way up to the appropriate terminal's "Passenger Unloading Zone." Fortunately, both Lois and the Whites were going to be flying with the same airline.

Clark managed to find a spot to pull over that wasn't too far from one of the skycaps' stations. He got out and held Alice's car door for her, while Perry performed the same office for Lois on the other side of the vehicle. An overworked, but still smiling, skycap pushed a luggage cart towards the car as Clark began unloading everyone's bags. Perry became occupied with getting the tickets out and making sure that everything that was supposed to go to Des Moines got tagged for the right flight to Des Moines, which left Alice with nothing to do except … "Thank you, Clark."

Clark took her outstretched hand, accepting her thanks, and the smile that accompanied them. "You're welcome, Mrs. White."

"Alice," she corrected him. "I thought we'd agreed last night that you were going to call me 'Alice.'"

He smiled an apology and she patted his hand before releasing it. "That's better. Now … we hope to see you in Metropolis before too long. See if you can't convince J.D. to send you to Metropolis on business. Tell him you can stay with us."

"Yes," Perry came up and chimed in at that moment, "J.D.'ll like that because it'll save the 'Dispatch' the cost of a hotel. And … " he added with a conspiratorial wink, " … I'll tell you some great stories about him from our days in Beirut."

Clark laughed. "With that kind of incentive, I don't see how I can refuse."

"Neither do I, son," Perry chuckled as he held out his hand. "Thanks for the lift, Kent. 'Preciate it."

"It was my pleasure, sir. Thanks again for dinner last night."

Perry nodded and smiled an acknowledgment, then turned towards Lois to add his farewells to Alice's. In another moment they were on their way.

"Now, you're *sure* he tagged all our bags, Perry?"

"Yes, pumpkin. Flight 258 to Des Moines."

"Are you sure about that, dear? I thought it was Flight 285."

Lois and Clark watched as the older couple conferred their way to the terminal's entrance, then turned to each other and nearly burst out laughing.

"Relationships!" she exclaimed with a grin and a touch of sarcasm.

"It seems to work for them," Clark observed.

Lois nodded and shrugged, her mind already more involved with having to say good-bye to Clark than it was with Perry and Alice's approach to marital bliss. "Well … "

"So … " Clark mumbled back. He yearned to ask her to stay a little longer.

Stay until Sunday, Lois. We've had so little time together, and I love you so much.

He couldn't help what he was feeling, even though he knew it went against Lois's desire to keep things casual for a while, and he'd agreed to that, so … Clark cleared a sudden obstruction in his throat. "Looks like a nice day for flying."

I wish I could fly with *you,* Lois thought.

"Yes, it does," she agreed solemnly.

Why is it, Lois wondered, that grownups always revert to insipid commonplaces under duress? "I really had a great time this week, Clark. Thank you. For everything. And, you're going to come and see me in Metropolis soon — Oh, my goodness! The map! I never got to finish drawing the map for you. Oh, Clark, I'm so sorry!"

He placed his hands gently on her shoulders. "It's all right, Lois. You can send it to me."

"You're right. Of course I can."

Clark observed a wicked little gleam sparkling its way into her eye. "I could fax it to you at the 'Dispatch.' I've got the number … right here on a little business card, which you quite recklessly gave me."

A vision of a fax with a map to Lois's apartment being received by one of the machines in the middle of a very busy newsroom flashed through his mind, and he hardly knew whether to laugh or quake. "Whoa! Well … that would give everyone something to talk about, wouldn't it?" he asked with a grin.

"Uh-huh," she agreed, giggling and blushing, the wicked gleam becoming even more pronounced.

Clark wondered if all women could make such provocative noises; be such mesmerizing combinations of bashful little girls, cunning vixens, and tender friends; and be able to turn their husbands'/boyfriends' insides to mush with just a smile or a tear.

His dad might know.

All Clark knew was that he'd rather be with Lois than with anyone else, that he'd go anywhere, do *anything* to be with her, and … that he'd rather face a thousand well-armed battalions than just one of her tears.

So, if she wanted to keep this parting light, then he was going to do his level best to assist her.

"Maybe," he replied, with a grin of his own, "you should just mail it to me. It won't be as exciting, but it'll probably be a lot safer." He looked around quickly, but everyone around them was too intent on their own business to pay much attention to them. "Some landing lights on your roof would be nice, though," he added softly.

That made her laugh. "I'll see what I can do."

A sudden silence.

They couldn't keep the sad thoughts at bay for very long, it seemed. Clark watched as Lois's face swiftly changed from happy to forlorn, and sought for a way to cheer her up.

"How about if I park the car and come in with you?"

Lois didn't think she'd be able to handle that. It would only postpone the inevitable farewells, and she was dreading them enough as it was. "No, Clark. That's very sweet of you, but I know you have lots to do this morning, and your parents are expecting you." She took a deep breath, then let it go. "I'll be seeing you very soon anyway."

"Of course you will," he said in a voice that was as tightly controlled as hers had been. "You'll be seeing me so often, in fact, that I'll probably get to be a pest."

"You could never be that."

"I'll try not to." Oh, god, but this is hard. "Oh! I almost forgot." He reached into his shirt pocket, pulled out a folded piece of paper and gave it to her. "This is my parents' phone number. Maybe … maybe you could give me a call later. T-to let me know that you got home okay."

She put the paper into her pocket. "I'll be glad to, Clark." She looked down at her watch. "I guess I'd better be going. Thanks for everything." She reached up to hug him good-bye, her face contorting briefly with grief as she buried it against his shoulder.

Don't be so maudlin, she commanded herself bracingly. It's not like you'll never see him again.

She hugged him a little tighter, then kissed his cheek before releasing him.

Clark held Lois close to him, feeling her heart beating against his chest, soaking in her scent and her softness, trying to memorize what this felt like so he'd have something to keep him going until he could be with her again.

Then she pulled back from him, and he saw the fragments of tears on her lashes, and he had to do something … say something … "Lois," he urged her, softly and from his heart, "if you *ever* need me — for anything — call me. I can be in Metropolis in seconds, and I — "

Oh, Clark.

She leaned towards him, her hands finding his, even though her eyes were shut tight against the tears, and she felt him lay his forehead gently against hers. His hands were trembling as badly as hers, and his breath, too, was coming in ragged gasps as he struggled against his own emotions.

"I know you will, Clark," she managed to say. "I know you will."

"I love you, Lois."

She opened her eyes, and reached up to place a hand on his cheek. "I know that, too, Clark," she assured him.

They looked at one another for a little longer, but the moment they'd both been dreading was upon them … and they knew it.

"Take care of yourself, Lois."

"I will." She squeezed his hand tightly. "Good-bye, Clark."

"Good-bye, Lois."

He watched her start to back away from him — still clasping his hand — and he tried to smile for her, but his face was stiff from the recent, Herculean effort to contain his emotions, and the muscles wouldn't function properly.

Lois backed up until their arms were fully extended; only their fingertips still touched. She stood there, as if loath to break this last connection to him, then, knowing that he'd be able to hear her above all the chaos around them, she whispered "Good-bye" one more time before turning and hurrying away.

Clark watched until she'd reached the terminal, then walked stiffly back to the Jeep to close the rear hatch.

Lois got only two steps inside the door before the compulsion to turn for one last look got the better of her. There were dozens of people outside, all hurrying or good- byeing, but she could see only Clark.

Unaware of her regard, and uncaring what others might think, he'd allowed all that he'd been feeling to surface. It wasn't that he was openly weeping or anything like that, it … it was just that she, who knew him so well now, could tell by his movements — by the way he held and carried himself — the depth of his distress. She was leaving him more alone than when she'd found him, and she just couldn't bear it.

Out of the door and running towards him before her head could talk some sense into her heart, she called to him, saw him turn, watched his face change in a flash from concern to confusion to wonder to joy and then she was in his arms.

She kissed him, and tried to tell him at the same time, "I do love you, Clark. I really do." She held him to her tightly, and laid her head against his chest. "I wanted you to know … before I left, because … because I know that if there's one thing in this whole world I can count on, it's the way you feel about me."

She felt his arms tighten around her and was aware that he'd laid his cheek against her hair. She was talking too fast for him to have had a chance to say anything, but his body was communicating volumes: his pounding heart, his quickened breathing, the way his hand caressed her head, all told her of his excitement, his happiness, and his love.

With his arms full of Lois and his heart full of joy, Clark could hardly believe this sudden, electrifying turn of events. Before he could properly assimilate what was happening she was telling him, "I have to go. If only we had more time." She lifted her head from his chest and looked at him with an expression so full of love that it robbed him of what little breath he had left. She took his face in her hands and kissed him, passionately … possessively, embraced him again and whispered fiercely, "I love you," one more time, and then … she was gone.

Clark's eyes followed her — his heart in his gaze. When he could no longer track her progress by conventional means, he switched to his powers without pausing to think about it. He could hear her heart beating faster as she hurried quickly to catch her flight and he could follow her slim figure no matter how many walls or other barriers loomed up to block him. He was vaguely aware that his skin felt extra sensitive in every spot where she had pressed her body against his, but other events taking place around him might as well have been occurring on another planet for all the attention they received from him. Which is probably why the security officer's voice nearly made him jump out of his skin.

"Is that your car, sir?"

"Wha-what did you s-say … officer?" The recall had been too abrupt, and left Clark feeling disoriented. He looked back towards the terminal, but now that he'd lost her, he couldn't quickly find her again in all that press of people, so he very reluctantly returned his attention to the guard.

"Is that your vehicle, sir?" the man repeated.

"Yes. Yes, it is."

"Well, you'll have to move it, sir. It's really busy this morning, and we've been told to keep things moving along out here."

"Yes, of course. I'm sorry." Clark couldn't resist one last glance at the terminal, but Lois was well and truly lost to him. He sighed softly. "I'll move it right away."

The guard saw the sadness in the young man's face and knew a purely human desire to comfort him, despite the demands of his own duties. "I'm sorry I had to bother you, sir. Saying good-bye to someone special?"

Surprised, and even touched by the other man's interest, Clark smiled slightly. "Yes, I was. Someone *very* special as a matter of fact."

"I thought so."

Clark moved to the Jeep's driver's side door; the guard following him and then holding the door for him.

"In this job you get to see a lot of that kind of thing, and I can always tell. Well," he added as he shut the car door for Clark, "you drive safely, sir … for that special person."

A reluctant grin crossed Clark's face. "I will officer. Thank you."

CHAPTER THIRTY-NINE

Pulling back into his driveway after having visited Joel in the hospital, Clark couldn't help but feel that he'd put in a rather full day already. And, it wasn't over yet, by any means. He still had to load up his car with some things he wanted to temporarily store at the farm, and then there was the long, lonely drive home.

I'm going to miss this neighborhood, he reflected as he got out of the Jeep. It had been such a wonderful change from the tiny apartment he'd had when he'd first moved to Kansas City, that he hadn't minded the extra driving distance to and from work. He'd enjoyed the quiet and the privacy — the combination of which would be nearly impossible to duplicate elsewhere. He certainly hadn't had much luck so far in finding a suitable replacement, but the house's true owner would be coming back from Saudi Arabia next month, so his two years of subletting would soon be over.

In the meantime, he needed to concentrate on packing up his stuff and starting on his trip — it was getting late. Maybe he'd better call his parents —

"Mr. Kent!"

Clark had been about to climb the steps to the porch when his elderly neighbor's voice claimed his attention. This would mean a further delay in his departure, but he didn't mind. Mrs. Kelley had been the first person to welcome him when he'd moved into the neighborhood, and she'd always been a kind and unobtrusive neighbor. They'd become friends over the past couple of years, each respecting the other's privacy and yet ready to lend a helping hand when necessary.

She'd always called him, "Mr. Kent," the formality of the address stemming more from an innate sense of courtesy than a superficial convention. Clark's own upbringing had instilled in him that same code of manners — he'd been 25 before he could bring himself to call his dad's friend "Wayne," instead of "Mr. Irig" — which enabled him to reply in kind without difficulty. He liked her and he would miss seeing her on a regular basis, so he reversed his course readily enough and walked over towards her yard, calling out in his usual friendly way, "Hi, Mrs. Kelley. How are you?"

"I'm fine, thank you. I wanted to see if you knew anything about the young man from your newspaper who was in that accident the other night. How is he?"

"As a matter of fact, I've just been visiting him." Clark went on to tell her all that he knew about Joel's condition, and the plans for further treatment. She was relieved to hear that things were improving, even if total recovery would be a while in coming.

"Thank you, Mr. Kent. I've often wished that newspapers or the TV news could have a way of letting us know what has happened to the people they do stories about. We only hear the bad parts, never anything about how things have turned out."

"I hadn't thought about that before. I guess to us in the news business, yesterday's news isn't considered news anymore, it's history, and new headlines are what sells papers, or keeps people tuning in. Still, you've got a good point. I'll mention it to my editor when I get back from Smallville next week and see what he thinks of it."

"Thank you, Mr. Kent. And that reminds me, did you want me to collect your mail and newspapers for you while you're at your parents' place this weekend, as I usually do?"

"Yes, that would be great, if it's not too much trouble."

"Certainly not. I'm happy to do it. You've always been a good neighbor to me, and I'll miss you when you have to move out next month."

"I'm going to miss you, too, Mrs. Kelley … and the neighborhood. I've really enjoyed living here."

"Have you found another place yet?"

"Not yet, but I've got a little more time to look before Mike gets back. I'm planning to carry some things down to the farm this weekend, though, because I'll probably be in a much smaller place wherever I end up."

"Well, I'd better let you go, then. I'm sure you have a lot to do." She started to leave, then remembered something and turned back. "Oh, Mr. Kent, I almost forgot. I have those cuttings for your mother. She and I have had such delightful talks about gardening … I'll miss seeing her, too." She smiled bravely. "I'll bring them over to you in a few minutes."

"I'd be happy to come over and get them."

"No, they're not heavy, and you have enough to do. I'll leave them on the porch for you."

"Thank you, Mrs. Kelley. I know my mother will appreciate receiving them." Clark had noted the sadness on her face, and wanted to say something that might cheer her. "And, she's mentioned more than once how much she enjoys her visits with you. Knowing my mother like I do, I wouldn't be a bit surprised to find out that she's still stopping by to see you when they're in Kansas City … no matter where I'm living."

He was rewarded by a small smile and a brief nod. "Thank you, Mr. Kent. Knowing the kind of person she is, that wouldn't surprise me either. Please give both of your parents my regards when you see them."

"I will."

They separated at that point, and Clark went inside to change into jeans and T-shirt for traveling. There was lots to do, but he took a few minutes to call home and let his parents know when he expected to be on his way. While planning this trip, he'd thought he'd be able to load the car under cover of darkness, and therefore be able to do it at an accelerated rate. Now, however, he'd have to do everything in broad daylight, and, at normal speed.

The doorbell rang just as he was about to hang up the phone. "Gotta go, Mom. Mrs. Kelley is at the door with those cuttings I told you about." … "Love you, too, Mom. See you soon. Bye."

The doorbell rang again.

"Coming!" he called out as he replaced the receiver. He glanced around quickly to make sure there wasn't anything his kindly, but not unobservant, neighbor shouldn't see, slipped his glasses back on, and went to open the door.

"That was quick, I — "

Lois was standing there.

She didn't give him a chance to say anything; she just reached for him and held him, then kept his mouth occupied with an activity that was much more interesting than talking.

The entire journey to his place, she'd been very anxious — worried that she might miss him, that he might have already left — because when she'd tried to phone him she'd only gotten his machine. The relief she'd felt when, as the cab had turned into the cul-de-sac, she'd seen his Jeep parked in the driveway had been so great that she could barely wait for the cabbie to stop his vehicle before she was out of it and headed for the porch.

"Lois, Lois … " he mumbled her name against her mouth as he kissed her, and into her hair while he held her as if he'd never let go. She gave a happy sob and clung to him, her face seeking refuge against his neck while memories of others, who'd found it all too easy to let go of her, flitted through her mind and were finally vanquished. They had little power over her now, and she, who'd always correlated relationships with entrapment, discovered to her great joy that, with the right person, loving is more about freedom than boundaries, and less about walls than it is about vistas.

"Clark, I'm so glad you're still here. I was afraid that I might have missed you."

"I'm glad I'm here, too." He kissed her again. "I can hardly believe this is happening." He put a hand up to caress her head, and then kissed his way from her mouth to her temple before he thought to wonder about why she was there. He loosened his hold on her a bit so he could look into her face. "You're all right, aren't you? The plane — " he broke off suddenly as various terrible images flashed into his mind. "There wasn't anything wrong with the — "

"No, Clark. As far as I know the plane is fine. It just doesn't have me on it." She grinned at him and hugged him. "We needed to talk to you about something."

"Oh … " That was a relief. Nothing bad had happened. "I'm glad you're okay, sweetie. I — " He suddenly comprehended part of what she'd said. "We — ?" he looked past her to see Perry White standing on his porch.

Ohhhh my g —

"Mr. White! What — ?!" Clark looked quickly from Lois to Perry and back again.

"Well," the older man drawled, "aren't you going to invite us in?"

That snapped Clark out of his trance. "Yes, sir! Of course … I'm sorry. I — Please, come in."

"Fine thing!" Perry growled, "keeping a man standing on the porch … "

"Perry!" Lois said sharply at the same time Clark was stammering, "I'm s-sorry, Mr. White. I didn't know — "

Perry held up his hand to stem the flow, winked at Lois, then grinned at Clark. "Just funning with you, son."

"Per-ry!" Lois exclaimed in exasperation. She looked at Clark's concerned face then walked over to her boss and muttered warningly, "Now I know how you got your nickname, Perilous." Then, in a more normal tone of voice, "Behave yourself, Chief, or I'll tell Alice what you've been up to."

Clark was still trying to understand what was happening. "I thought you'd both be on your way by now — "

"So did I," Perry responded sardonically, but with an indulgent smile for Lois. He then shot a penetrating glance in Clark's direction, a rapid-fire switch which left that young man's head in a whirl. "Lois can be very persuasive, however, as I'm sure you'll find out in due time … *if* you haven't already."

Perry walked further into the living room, talking as he did so. "Kent, Lois told me about your dilemma … "

The only dilemma that Clark could recall at the moment was the one about finding a way to help people without giving away his secret. Lois had promised to keep that secret safe, however, so what — ?

He looked at Lois, his eyes telegraphing his uneasiness, his fears, and his need for reassurance. She sent a message back which let him know that everything was all right as she returned to his side and reclaimed his hand. Their silent exchange had taken only an instant and before Perry could finish his sentence and turn around, Lois and Clark were once more composed.

" … and we've been discussing various ways to help out."

"That's very kind of you, sir," Clark said calmly enough, if a little hesitantly. He watched as Perry settled himself in one of the armchairs, and then suddenly seemed to recall his duties as a host. "Could I get you something? I have some — "

Perry held up a hand again. "No, that's all right, Clark. Besides, the meter's running, and I've got to get back to the airport. Alice went ahead to Des Moines, but I'm now booked on the next flight, and I'd better not be late."

Lois and Clark sat down on the sofa, and Perry noted with satisfaction how naturally their hands seemed to find each other. That, and the way the couple had greeted each other at the door earlier, made him feel even better about what he'd come to say.

"Well … Lois told me that you've decided you want to be a reporter again, Clark. Is that true?"

"Yes sir, it is."

"Do you mind telling me why?"

Clark thought about his response for a moment, while Lois held tightly to his hand. He returned the pressure of her hand, but kept his attention focused on Perry's face. "Because … I enjoy it very much. I like being out there … meeting people, hearing about their stories, and feeling as though what I do, what I write, might make a difference for them."

Perry listened carefully to what Clark had to say, as well as the way he'd said it. "I know what you mean, son. I like to think that what we do at the 'Planet' makes a difference, too." He grinned briefly, then appeared to be responding to some private memory as he added, "We sure as heck don't go into it for the money … and it's not exactly what you'd call a 'fast track,' is it?"

Clark smiled back. "No, sir."

Perry studied the young man before him a little longer, then he seemed to make up his mind about something. "I like you, Kent. I like the way you write, and I like the way you think. I know J.D. is very pleased with your work. To be perfectly honest, I'd thought about trying to lure you away from the 'Dispatch' earlier, but I just didn't have any assistant editor's positions available to offer you. When Lois tracked me down at the airport, though, and told me you were interested in going back to being a reporter, well then … "

This sudden turn of events, on top of certain other recent astounding revelations, was almost too much for Clark. Through a kind of fog he listened as Perry talked about an investigative reporter's position that was open in the newsroom … about how he'd be partnered with Lois, at least on some stories and when the time was right … and how Perry didn't know if he could exactly match what Clark was currently making as an assistant editor, but that he'd see what he could do … "So, what do you think, son?"

CHAPTER FORTY

"I … I hardly know what to say. This is very … wonderful, but … unexpected." He looked at Lois and saw understanding there.

"I know this is probably kind of a shock, Clark," she told him, "but it wasn't until I was rushing for my plane that I decided to talk to Perry. The thought of trying to maintain a long-distance relationship with you — even with frequent flyer privileges — "

"Lo-is!" Clark muttered warningly, but she just kept right on talking, although the gleam in her eye became a little less pronounced.

" — well, I've had friends who've tried to do it, and it always puts a strain on everyone. Then I remembered what you'd told me about wanting to go back to reporting, but there wasn't time to try and find you … to ask you … Perry's plane would be leaving, so I just … " her voice trailed off and her expression became concerned. Clark wasn't looking as overjoyed as she'd thought he would. "I'm sorry, Clark."

He put his arm around her at that. "There's nothing for you to be sorry about, Lois. *I'm* the one who should be sorry. I must appear very ungrateful to you. I want you to know," he added as he lightly kissed her forehead, "that I really appreciate what you're trying to do for me. Living in Metropolis, working at the 'Daily Planet,' working with *you* … it-it would be like a dream come true. It's just … J.D.

"Lois, he gave me a chance when other people didn't think he should. It was going to be hard enough having to tell him I don't want to be an assistant editor anymore, but to have to walk in … out of the blue … and tell him … To have to tell him that I'm leaving — "

"I don't think it will be 'out of the blue,' Clark," Perry interrupted, secretly pleased to hear this young man putting his loyalty to J.D. ahead of his own wishes.

Clark quickly glanced at him. "What do you mean?" he asked, not without a touch of hope.

"Well, I told you that I'd asked J.D. about you. He knows you and Lois have, well … fallen in love. Why else would he have arranged for you to take her to lunch that day, and have the afternoon off?"

"You know about that?" Lois and Clark asked in chorus.

"Well, I wouldn't be a man in my position if I didn't know a thing or two worth knowing, now would I?" Perry asked with a tolerant grin. "We knew the two of you would want to find a way to be together. In fact, J.D. and I have a friendly little wager about who will be the one lucky enough to get you both."

Clark smiled at Perry's amused tone of voice, but in a rather inattentive manner. He was thinking fast and hard about this new information, his life in Kansas City, what he owed J.D., and how a move to Metropolis would take him away from his parents … just when they'd gotten used to having him within driving distance again.

He weighed what he had against what he could have, and knew that there was really only one choice … Lois.

He was being offered a chance to be with her daily, work beside her, continue his relationship with her and … who knew where that might lead? But the best part was that it had all been her idea. *She* had sought out Perry, and she must have been very persuasive indeed. She'd convinced him to change his plans in order to accompany her on what could have been a long and fruitless drive.

Perry was probably right about J.D., and in any event J.D. was too kind a person to stand in anyone's way. As for his parents, they might not be able to visit him as often, but he'd still be able to get to them quite easily. He thought some more about Lois, and how much he loved her, and then the answer was easy. In fact, there was really only one answer he could give. He brought Lois's hand up to his lips, kissed it gently, then looked over at Perry again.

"You and J.D. are right about one thing at least, Mr. White: I do love Lois. I'm also deeply flattered that you would want me to work for you. The 'Daily Planet' is a great newspaper, and any reporter would be lucky to work there. Thank you, and … I accept your offer."

"That's great!" Perry stood up and stepped forward, extending a hand to his newest employee. "Well, I guess there's just one thing left to say: Clark Kent, welcome to the 'Daily Planet.'"

Clark and Lois stood also, faces beaming with happiness, and Clark reached to grasp Perry's hand. In his excitement, though, he forgot to control his grip, and was dismayed to see Perry suddenly grimace in pain.

"I-I'm very sorry, Mr. White. I didn't mean — I guess I'm just excited."

"That's all right, son," Perry replied abstractedly while examining his hand for possible damage. "Whoa! That's quite a grip you've got there."

"He played football in college, Chief," Lois interjected, trying to do her bit.

"Yes … I imagine he must have." He looked up and took in the two worried faces before him. "I'm fine you two. Stop looking at me like that. Well, I guess it's time to be getting back to the airport. Clark, give me a call next week after you've had a chance to talk things over with J.D."

"Yes, sir, I will."

"And you," Perry added, walking towards the door while pointing a finger at Lois, "I'll see you on Tuesday."

"Sure thing, Chief. Thanks for the extra day."

Clark wasn't looking forward to saying good-bye to Lois all over again — especially so soon after just getting her back, and most especially since Perry was obviously anxious to return to the airport — they wouldn't have enough time for a proper farewell. He was so caught up in his thoughts about their impending parting, that he failed to understand the significance behind Lois's words … until he saw Perry carrying her two suitcases in from the porch.

She wasn't going back to the airport?!

Lois noticed Clark's dumbfounded look and spoke up. "You don't mind an uninvited guest, do you Clark?"

Clark could only shake his head. Did this mean what he thought … hoped … it meant?

"You see, Clark," she told him, just a little too reasonably, "there wasn't another flight to Metropolis available until Monday. Isn't that incredible?"

Lois was looking at him with a provocative little smile that drew a responding grin from him. "Unbelievable, actually."

She wrinkled her nose at him, which made his eyes light up. "Hey, it could happen!" she exclaimed defensively. "Anyway," she resumed her poor-orphan-unfairly-cast-upon-the- cruel-world act, "I didn't know *what* I was going to do. I mean, I'd already checked out of my hotel."

For someone who was new at this teasing game, Clark reflected, Lois had sure caught on fast. She must be a very quick study. But, good performance or not, he couldn't let her score all the points, so he put a sympathetic expression on his face and said in his most helpful tone of voice, "Well, you've come to the right place, Lois. I'd be happy to help you find another hotel."

Perry gave a brief burst of laughter, but it wasn't heeded by the other two who were fairly joined in their game, spurred on by their excitement at the unlooked-for prospect of extra days spent in each others' company.

She appeared to ignore his offer. "Besides, I'm just *exhausted* after the convention and Diane's snoring. What I think I need are a few days in the country."

"I didn't know you knew anyone who lives in the country, Lois."

"I thought maybe I could stay at … I don't know, a farm maybe … ?" She glanced up at him through her lashes, but all the response she got was a grin and one eyebrow raised in inquiry.

"I think a farm would be just what the doctor ordered," she reiterated. "Peace and quiet — "

"Roosters," Clark supplied helpfully. "And crickets — really loud ones, and tractors. Let's not forget the tractors … "

"Plenty of fresh air, great views," Lois continued, unheeding.

"Breakfast at dawn. Supper at 6. In bed by 8."

"Relaxation."

"Chores. Lots of 'em."

Lois opened her mouth to counter, but Perry jumped in first. "I think I'll leave you two to work this out," he interjected with a grin and a wave.

Both Lois and Clark looked up in shock — they'd forgotten they weren't alone. Clark recovered the quicker of the two, and stepped forward, offering to accompany his soon- to-be-boss to the waiting taxi. Perry accepted because he could see that Clark wanted to talk to him.

They crossed the lawn together, but were almost halfway to their goal before Clark managed to frame what it was he wanted to say. "I just wanted to assure you, sir, that she'll be safe with me. You don't have to worry about her."

Perry stopped and turned to face Clark. "I know that, son. If I didn't, I wouldn't be leaving here without her."

Clark nodded, gratified by the other man's confidence in him. Perry's next words, and the look that accompanied them, made him laugh, though.

"I just wish I could say that you'll be safe with *her!*

"I know what you mean, sir."

They accomplished the rest of the short journey in silence. When they reached the curb, Clark opened the taxi's door and held it, saying, "I don't know how to thank you, Mr. White. The job … a chance to work with Lois … a way for us to be together. You-you've just given me the whole world."

Perry glanced back towards the house, where Lois waited just inside the door. "You know, Clark," Perry replied, smiling, as he reached to place a hand on the younger man's shoulder, "something tells me the two of you will do that for each other."

He released his grip on Clark's shoulder in order to shake his hand, but as soon as they'd made contact, Perry suddenly recalled his last encounter with this ex-football player. "Oops," he exclaimed, with a grin as he retracted his hand. Clark's cheeks flushed slightly in embarrassment, causing Perry to pat his arm just to show there were no hard feelings.

Reassured, Clark said, "Have a good trip, sir."

"Thank you. You, too. Looking forward to seeing you in Metropolis as soon as you can get things settled here." Perry climbed into the cab, waved one last time to Lois, and the vehicle took off.

Clark made the return journey to the house in much better time than the outgoing one. Waiting for him was the love of his life and he was going to be able to spend the whole weekend with her, his parents would get to meet her — they're going to love her, he was sure of that — and she'd get to meet them. He could hardly wait to get started. First though … As soon as he got back into the house, and they'd shut the door, he gathered Lois into his arms and held her. She found her usual spot against his chest and he smiled to himself in contentment.

"I love you," he murmured into her hair as he kissed the top of her head.

She lifted her head so she could look into his face. "And, I love you, Clark."

He reached to gently stroke her cheek and she brought a hand up, pressing hers against his and holding it there while she leaned into his touch. They looked into each others' eyes … each others' faces, and saw there what they'd been searching for their whole lives. They moved closer, as if of one mind, and kissed.

It started out gently, even tentatively … a bare touching of lips. This was the beginning of what could turn out to be a lifetime of exploration and discovery, and they weren't about to rush through it. Each touch, each kiss, grew longer and deeper, and as they gave more they received more; first losing and then ultimately finding themselves all over again in one another.

Lois was glad Clark was holding her securely because, just as with the kiss under the Grandfather Tree, this one was making her feel as if she were floating — a slightly unsettling, but not entirely unpleasant sensation.

She pulled back from the kiss, so she could look into his face … a face that held so much fascination for her that she didn't think she could ever tire of gazing into it, kissing it, snuggling up against it, touching it … Reaching up with her left hand, she gently caressed his forehead, playing with the fringe of hair which lay there, stubbornly refusing to stay back with its fellows.

A wave of tenderness flooded her being as she performed this simple act. I *must* be in love, she thought. Why else would her insides get all mushy over a lock of hair? Wonderment and familiarity, anxiety and contentment, bewilderment and confidence, elation and pensiveness were all inside her — all at the same time, and in seemingly equal measures — bubbling away, like a big pot of stew on a stove. At one moment anxiety might bubble to the surface, and in the next it might be elation, confusion or bliss. She felt all of them. Some she'd known before, some were new, but from all this mix one thing was thankfully absent — something she'd known almost better than anything else. Loneliness. She wasn't alone any more. She had Clark now. Now and forever, she could say to herself with certainty: he was a forever kind of guy.

Smiling for him, then chuckling a little at her lack of success with his hair, she kissed him briefly but sweetly before circling her arms around his waist and nestling into his chest once more.

This could become a favorite pastime of mine, she mused, as, from the shelter of his arms, she let her eyes wander aimlessly from one object to another around the room.

Funny … Those pictures over there. They don't seem to be as high up on the wall as they were when I first noticed them. Isn't that pe … cu … liar.

Omigod!

CHAPTER FORTY-ONE

"Clark!" she gasped as she grabbed at the back of his shirt.

"What?!" Hauled abruptly back from very pleasant, Lois- centered daydreams, Clark looked quickly around for a possible explanation for her sudden outburst. When he saw where they were, he flushed bright red and proceeded to quickly, but gently, return them to the floor. "I'm sorry, Lois. I didn't mean to startle you like that. I just — I mean, you're quite a distraction, and I — What I mean to say is that — "

"It's okay, Clark. I'm sorry I reacted the way I did. I … wasn't expecting to find myself hovering two feet above the floor, that's all."

"Don't worry, I'll be more careful in the future."

"I hope by being "careful" you don't mean you're not going to do that anymore, Clark, because I loved it." She blushed a little, too. "To tell you the truth, this morning at the airport, I was wishing I could fly with you."

A secret-sharing smile flashed across his face. "Well, to tell *you* the truth, I wanted to take you flying the very first night we met."

"Really, Clark?"

He nodded. "There are so many things I'd like to do with you … share with you, Lois."

She put her head to one side, eyes twinkling and lips curved up in delight at the thought of him imagining them doing things together. "Like what?"

"Well, this for instance." He kept one hand securely against the small of her back and held the other up, inviting her to dance.

With an inkling in her mind of what he was planning, she put her right hand in his left one, while placing the other on his shoulder. As she felt him lift them off the floor, her eyes grew wide and her mouth formed an "o" of enchantment, then she was laughing — elated at this sudden turn of events. "Oh, Clark, this is so much fun!" she told him as they swayed to imaginary music.

They "danced" for a few minutes, then Lois couldn't resist the urge to say, "For a football player, you sure are light on your feet."

He groaned at that terrible pun, and said, "Okay, I guess one of us had to say it. I'm just glad it wasn't me."

She made a face at him. "It wasn't that bad."

"Oh, yes it was."

"It was not!"

"Was, too."

"Was not!"

Clark could see that this would go on for a while if he didn't provide a distraction, so he spun them around one time and then leaned forward smoothly, causing Lois to bend over backwards into a perfect, classic dip.

He'd caught her off guard, but she recovered quickly and laughed appreciatively.

He straightened, pulling her upright once more, and telling her softly, "I wanted to dance with you … in the air like this, that first night."

The poignant longing she heard in his voice gave her another insight into what Clark's life must have been like before he'd met her, and it made her remorseful all over again to recall some of the things that had been said the night before. Then she felt a quick, heart-piercing shot of fear as she thought about how close she'd come to missing out on having him in her life. She pulled him closer to her. "I wish you could have, too, Clark."

Hearing emotions in her voice that he couldn't quite interpret, reminded him of all that they'd been through over the last couple of days. They'd each misunderstood and misinterpreted the other's words, thoughts and actions … with nearly disastrous results. Lois seemed to be fine now, and she'd certainly gone to a lot of trouble to be with him again, but he still felt guilty for not trusting her sooner, and for making her cry.

Clark was a little too quiet, so Lois lifted her head from his shoulder to check on him. He saw her look of inquiry, smiled for her and shrugged his shoulders briefly before glancing away from her again. She wondered what he could be thinking about, but, instead of questioning him, she reclaimed her right hand so she could put both arms around his neck. Kissing his cheek, she told him, "We're dancing now, Clark."

His arms went around her in a hug that felt as though it was meant to convey more than affection alone, and then she realized that he was returning them to the floor. When they'd landed he told her, in a voice full of regret, "I listened to my answering machine this morning, Lois."

She'd forgotten about that.

He took her hands into both of his and brought them close to his chest. "I'm so very sorry for putting you through all that worry, Lois. What you must have gone through — "

She jumped on that very quickly. "And I suppose you were having a party out there on your glacier?" she demanded, to remind him that both of them had played a part in last night's drama.

She surprised a reluctant grin from him. He looked at her for a moment then rolled his eyes briefly to concede that she'd probably gotten the better of him in this round. "No," he admitted.

"Clark, part of what happened last night I brought on myself. I've always been an act-first-think-about-it-later kind of girl, which can be a good thing sometimes. It's gotten me some great scoops. But … it can also mean that I do things which later … I'm not proud of."

"Well, I'm sure that my habit of being extremely protective about my secret contributed to the situation. If I'd just admitted to you sooner that I wanted to talk to you about something, maybe … "

"Maybe I still would have gotten upset, I don't know. We could play this 'maybe game' all day, Clark."

"Mm," Clark replied introspectively, as an unexpected thought occurred to him. "How about this for a 'maybe?' Maybe I should have tried for a job at the 'Daily Planet' instead of the 'Dispatch.' If we hadn't met at a convention, we might have avoided some of these problems, and … " He grinned at her. " … maybe we'd even have our first Pulitzer by now."

That idea brought the sparkle back into her eye. "I like that! A Pulitzer for the writing team of Lane and Kent sounds really great."

"Waaaait a minute! What about Kent and Lane?"

She put her hands on her hips. "Don't be ridiculous, Clark. My name should go first."

"Oh, really!" he said with amusement in his voice. "Why?"

"Because I'm the senior journalist."

"'Senior journalist,' huh?"

"Certainly," she retorted, in an and-don't-you-forget- it-tone. "So, for the immediate future, junior partner, once we've started working together, I mean, I think you should follow my lead."

He moved closer to her and put his arms around her, hugely entertained by Lois's competitiveness, drive and sheer bull-headedness. "I do have *some* experience in the field of journalism myself, you know. I'm not exactly a novice at this."

"Clark! This is the 'Daily Planet' we're talking about here, not the 'Smallville Post.'"

"'Press,' and I can take care of myself, Miss 'Senior Journalist.'"

"Good. Because … " Lois looked down to confirm what she suspected — they were leaving the floor behind again. She was determined not to let this distract her, however. " … because I did not work my buns off to become an investigative reporter for the 'Daily Planet' just so I can baby-sit some hack from … Smallville." Clark had leaned down to kiss the tip of her nose, and that along with the increasing altitude, had nearly caused her to forget herself and repeat a phrase from the story Doris had told her.

Clark didn't seem to have noticed her near slip of the tongue. "Really?" he asked softly as he kissed her forehead and ran his fingers through the hair at the base of her neck.

"And another thing," she said, doggedly determined not to let him <wow, that feels good!> distract her. She cleared her throat. "I'll call all the shots, I'll ask all th-the … questions."

"Yes, ma'am." His voice got even softer as he kissed his way down to her neck.

"You are, uh, low man … "

"Hm-mmm." He kissed her shoulder and ran one hand down the length of her arm until he'd captured her hand.

She watched, fascinated, as he raised her hand to his lips and gently kissed her palm. She was so tuned into what Clark was doing with his hands and lips, that she could barely remember what it was she wanted to say. "I … I'm top banana, and … and … "

"Mmmm?" he murmured lovingly as he briefly kissed her mouth while he brought her hand up and held it against his chest.

" … and that's the way I like it." She could feel the beating of his heart through her fingertips, but she dragged her mind kicking and screaming away from such tantalizing sensations and forced it to focus on the rest of her speech. "Comprende?" she asked faintly. There! She'd had her say, and —

A very wicked light glittered in Clark's eyes as he said, matter of factly, "You like to be on top. Got it." In the next moment he'd flipped onto his back, bringing Lois with him.

She lay on his chest, clinging to him and gasping at the abruptness of this change in her circumstances, but she quickly realized that he had her, and there wasn't any danger of falling. Covering almost immediately for her show of surprise, she tossed her hair back with a flick of her head, and told him, "Nice to see that you can follow orders."

Clark looked up into her face with its adorably smug expression and laughed out loud. "Touche, Lois."

"Of course."

Now that she was comfortable again, he put his hands behind his head, looking as relaxed as if he were lying in a backyard hammock.

Not to be outdone by his nonchalant display, she rested her forearms on his chest and made a point of glancing around her casually before returning her attention to his face. She had another sassy remark all primed and ready to go, but the look she surprised in his eyes forestalled her.

He'd accorded her love and respect; shown her friendship and understanding, all of which she'd deeply appreciated, even reveled in. Now, she saw desire, too.

This was something new and thrilling. She had wondered if he could, well … feel what human males felt; if he ever got the old "itch," for lack of a better term. After all he *was* an alien, and that uncertainty had been among the things which had made her doubt that a life-long relationship with him might be possible.

Now, in the instant before he could hide it, she'd seen for herself that he … desired her. The knowledge of that made her love him even more. Because he'd always been such a gentleman, always considerate of her feelings and willing to follow whatever pace she'd set for their relationship, she'd underestimated the breadth of his feelings. Devotion of that caliber was unknown to her; the ability to set aside one's own wants and needs in order to accommodate a loved one hadn't been much in evidence in the Lane household.

She'd seen it now, however, and, he knew she'd seen it. His cheeks grew dully red, and his eyes were wary again. She had to let him know that it was all right, that she'd had "interesting" thoughts about him, too, but in such a way as to not embarrass him further.

She stabbed his chest with one slender finger and grinned at him provocatively, "In fact, 'junior,' *that* was nothing. You are way out of your league, Kent, and you don't even know it."

He was smiling again, and his eyes were once more alight with love. She tapped the end of his nose with that same finger, then winked at him. "If you're a good boy, though, I might show you some of my other tricks."

He gave her a look that was both full of gratitude and brimming with mischief once again. "I plan to be a very good boy, then," he told her as he took his hands from behind his head and reached to cup them on either side of her face.

She watched his face grow serious as he looked into hers. "I do know that I love you, Lois Lane," he said finally, and very sincerely, then he brought his head up for a kiss.

All the feeling that he put into that kiss both humbled and exalted her, affording her a taste of the passion for her that was inside him. "I love you, too, Clark Kent," she told him as soon as she was able to speak again.

Lois laid her head down on his chest and wrapped her arms around his neck. It was lovely to float in the air with him like this, and she had a feeling this particular activity was one in which she could happily participate for the rest of her life. "If I'd have known you guys from Krypton were so much fun, I'd have started dating one long ago," she informed him contentedly, and had her reward as his laughter echoed around the room.

She loved his laugh.

CHAPTER FORTY-TWO

Clark forced himself to concentrate on his driving; normally an easy task, but one which had suddenly become incredibly difficult due primarily to the person dozing in the seat next to him. He couldn't seem to stop looking over at her, and, if his parents hadn't been expecting him, if he didn't have certain obligations … but, they were and he did, so taking a Lois-watching break wasn't an option.

What a wonderful difference it made to have her with him. Packing a car for a trip had never been so much fun, and as for the trip itself — the miles just seemed to fly by. Thinking back now to the drive they'd shared the night they'd met, he had to smile as he remembered how he'd struggled to make conversation — any kind of conversation. He'd been so worried that he was boring her, and wondering how he'd ever gotten up enough courage to talk to, let alone ask out, a creature as amazing and beautiful as Lois.

As if aware that someone was thinking about her, she began to awaken — yawning and stretching — a process which Clark observed admiringly.

"Hi, there. Did you enjoy your nap?"

"Mmm, it was nice." She sat up straighter, reached to smooth down her hair, then leaned forward to check that Mrs. Kelley's cuttings were still safely tucked between her feet. "How long was I asleep?"

"About 20 minutes, I think."

"That's all?"

He nodded. "Huh-uh."

She looked around her. "Where are we now?"

Correctly interpreting that question as, "How much longer?" Clark replied that they were about an hour away from his parents' place. "We're going to be stopping for gas in a little while, though, so you'll be able to stretch your legs."

"That will be nice."

She put her head back against the seat's head rest and turned to look out the window. She found herself wondering once again about Clark's home, his parents and what lay ahead for the weekend. Just how small *was* Smallville anyway? How big was the farm? Did they really have roosters?

After leaving the interstate behind, they'd traveled on 3-4 different state roads — four-lane and two-lane — and she'd seen a lot of small towns. It had been impossible not to look at them and hypothesize about whether or not Smallville would have this kind of town hall or those kinds of churches. She had a big-city-dweller's usual prejudices about rural living … about how everybody knows everything about everybody else, for one thing. But, she had to admit, that particular "truism" was obviously false because sitting next to her was living proof that the village grapevine wasn't infallible.

"Are those silos, Clark?" she asked, pointing to some structures she could see in the middle distance.

He took his eyes off the road long enough to glance over at them. "Sure are."

"Are they like the one that caught fire last night?"

"A little smaller, but very similar."

"I see." She smiled her thanks and turned to the window again.

They'd only passed one cornfield so far — and young, ankle-high corn at that — which meant Clark had been right about wheat being the major crop. In fact, she could see more acres of wheat further down the road. Most of what she'd seen so far was still fairly green, but starting to turn golden in spots. It would probably look really pretty from the air.

"I guess you normally just fly down to Smallville, don't you?"

"When I'm going at night, for a few hours, yes. When I plan to stay for a while, though, I drive down. How else would I explain leaving the car behind?"

"I hadn't thought of that."

"Unfortunately, neither had I. When Mike offered to let me rent his house at such a reasonable rate in exchange for keeping an eye on the place and doing any needed repairs, I jumped at it. I was so eager for the extra space and the privacy after the noisy, cramped apartment I'd been suffering in for eight long months, that I didn't stop to think about the complications of being in a suburban neighborhood. Plus, this is the first car I've ever owned, so — "

"You'd *never* owned a car before?"

"Couldn't afford one in college and I didn't need one overseas. Public transportation, a bicycle or my own two feet could take me just about anywhere I needed to go."

"That's true."

"Based on what I've learned here, I think I'll sell this car before I move to Metropolis. If I can find a decent place in the city — at least until you and I decide what we want to do — I won't need the car, and that will be one less way for my neighbors to keep track of me."

"Well, I'll be glad to help you find something, Clark."

"I'd appreciate that, Lois, since I won't know my way around. Believe it or not, this will be my first trip to Metropolis."

"It will be great to have you there. And Perry seemed eager to get you on board. That reminds me … what were the two of you laughing about when you walked him out to the cab?"

"Oh, that!" Clark chuckled. "He was just worried about leaving me alone with you for the weekend. I guess," he added with grin, "he was afraid that you might try something funny."

She rolled her eyes at him in a "Yeah, right" manner and exclaimed, "Oh, he was, was he? Well, that's rich … considering how hard he tried to get us together the evening of the reception."

"He did? That's a surprise!"

"Why?"

"Because he seemed much more interested in Jim than in me. In fact, now that I think about it, I'm pretty sure that I spent more time talking with Alice than I did with Perry."

"Jim?"

"Yeah, Jim Krebbs, the other assistant editor at the 'Dispatch.' I know I've mentioned him before, but … "

Lois was listening with only half an ear. Krebbs … Krebbs … she thought feverishly. That sounds familiar.

" … I don't know if you ever got a chance to meet him?"

She shook her head, but didn't speak because she was still trying to remember where she'd heard that name before.

"Anyway," Clark continued, "he's a really nice guy. His family has been in the newspaper business for generations. Apparently, Jim's grandfather knows Perry."

Then it clicked. "Krebbs! You mean, 'Old Man Krebbs' is Jim's grandfather?"

"I guess so. Perry didn't call him that while I was there, though. Who's 'Old Man Krebbs?'"

"Only the guy who gave Perry his first job at the 'Daily Planet,' that's all!"

"You're kidding!"

"No! Perry loves talking about his early days at the 'Planet' almost as much as he loves telling Elvis stories." Lois started giggling. "That means it was Jim — Oh, this is too funny! No wonder Perry's mouth was hanging open that night at the reception. There he was, trying to get me to meet his old boss's grandson, and I go and fall for you … !"

Clark was laughing, too. "Well, you have to admit that he took it pretty well. I mean, he quit trying to get you to meet Jim, didn't he?"

Lois didn't respond immediately. When Clark glanced in her direction he saw that she was staring straight ahead of her with an exasperated expression forming on her face.

"Actually," she said in a tone of sudden realization, "he didn't take it all that well."

"Excuse me?"

"Now his behavior at dinner last night makes sense."

"Lois, you've lost me."

"Last night … I thought it sounded like Perry was giving you the third degree and I was right! I couldn't understand it at the time because why would he be grilling the very guy he'd wanted me to meet in the first place?"

"You know, I did kind of wonder about some of the questions he asked me, but — "

She interrupted him. "Boy, am I going to give Mr. Perry White a piece of my mind the next time I see him. He has no business interrogating my … "

She became aware that Clark was silently laughing. "What's so funny?"

"Elvis almost married the wrong person, too, Lois."

She stared at him for a moment while memories of Perry trying to tell his story and Alice trying even harder to prevent him, skipped through her mind, and then she was laughing, too.

**

When they pulled into the gas station a few minutes later, they were still laughing over Perry's aborted attempt at matchmaking — both in agreement that he shouldn't give up his day job.

Used to the huge multi-pump concerns which did a lively business along New Troy's freeways, Lois was captivated by the charm of this 2-pump, home-grown, low-tech country store with its flower beds and window boxes. Clark assured her that it was just as well-kept inside.

"My family's been stopping here on our way to or from Kansas City for as long as I can remember. Mom always comments on how clean everything is."

Recognizing this as high praise, Lois went inside to take advantage of the Ladies' Room, which turned out to be very clean indeed, and to purchase a cream soda from the friendly woman behind the counter. When she stepped back out into the Kansas sunshine, she met Clark on his way in to pay for the gas and buy some more snacks of his own.

It's not fair that he can eat the way he does and still look the way he does, she groused to herself. That made her wonder if his physiology was just better at processing calories than the average human's, or if he spent hours in a gym. She'd have to remember to ask him.

She strolled up to the unlocked car — something you don't see in Metropolis very often — and opened the passenger-side door. Taking a sip of her soda, she put her purse/briefcase on the seat, then bent to check on the cuttings which were on the floor boards. Something bumped her shoulder and she started, just at the same moment that she realized her bag was tipping over. With a baby plant in one hand and a soda in the other there wasn't much she could do, but she tried.

She stuck her left elbow out, but failed to catch the bag at its center, and it slipped past her and upended onto the floor.

"Damn and blast!" she moaned theatrically as she surveyed the mess. Well, she had to admit, it could have been worse. None of the plants had been harmed, nor had her precious camera, binoculars or scanner fallen out of the car and crashed onto the concrete. That was some comfort anyway, she thought as she replaced the plant back with its companions, dropped the soda into the cup holder and tried to retrieve all of her belongings.

It was while she was hurriedly stuffing things back into the various sections of her cavernous bag that she found Clark's note. She recognized it instantly and couldn't believe that she'd forgotten its existence so completely. Her immediate impulse was to open it, but she took a moment to first glance behind her and check for Clark. Through the screen door she thought she could see him talking to someone inside, which made sense as he probably knew them quite well after all these years.

"Stay in there, Clark," she muttered commandingly as she tore open the envelope and spread out the single sheet which it contained.

The note was a perfect reflection of its writer — funny, sweet, charming and utterly disarming. She could feel her eyes tearing up as she reached the end, and she hastily wiped them so she could read it all over again.

Knowing what she now knew — about him, and about all that had yet laid before the both of them on the day he'd written this — she couldn't help the tears. Could things have been different? What if she'd read this sooner? Would it have changed anything?

She didn't know.

Perhaps, though, what they'd been through — as painful as some of it had been — had served some purpose. She hoped so. It would be awful to think that she'd put them both through several kinds of grief just because she'd been too stubborn to read a letter.

She heard Clark's voice behind her, calling out a farewell to someone, so she hurriedly wiped at her eyes again, re-folded the note, and put it, and the remainder of her things, away. By the time he'd climbed back into the Jeep, chatting happily about what he'd learned inside the store, she'd managed to get herself more or less settled. She patched a smile onto her face, slipped her sunglasses on and tried to listen to what he was telling her.

" … and their oldest granddaughter is graduating from college this year." He held out the bag of goodies that he'd bought in the store. "I got us some — " He broke off what he'd been about to say. "Lois, what's wrong?"

She might have known she wouldn't be able to hide what she was feeling from him. "Nothing, Clark. I just … "

He held out a hand to her, a simple, caring gesture, but it was her undoing. She took her glasses off, leaned towards him and found a supportive shoulder ready to receive her. "You just what?" he asked her softly as he held her.

At first she could only shake her head, but after a pause to collect herself, she was able to say, "I was just thinking of you, Clark."

He absorbed that for a moment as he held and stroked her. A couple of days ago, a remark like that would probably have thrown him for a loop, but he was learning fast. "Well, if you were thinking of me, then these *have* to be what my mom calls 'happy tears.'"

She looked up at that, and showed him a rather watery smile. "Oh, you!" she said in a voice which told him she was quickly recovering her composure.

"I *am* right … aren't I?" he asked in a comically worried tone.

"Yes," she assured him, "you are. I was thinking about how much I love you, which makes me very happy, but I can't for the life of me figure out why you love me, and *that* scares me … "

"You know, Lois, as I was growing up, I asked my mom and dad those same kinds of questions: how did they know it was the real thing? How will I know when I've met the right person? And I always got the same answer: you just will." He held her a little tighter. "I knew from the moment our eyes met, that very first night, that you were the one for me, Lois. I just *know* that I love you."

He paused, brought her right hand up to his lips, and kissed it. "Now, if you want to know all the things *about* you that I love, well, that will take a little longer — a lot longer, actually, and … " He smiled. " … I think I'd prefer to tell you in the moonlight, while I'm taking you flying … if you think you could wait until tonight … ?"

"You'll take me flying tonight?"

He nodded.

She sat up straighter, with a "wow" look on her face. He was really going take her flying! "Well," she said, trying to sound casual and collected, while inside she was doing hand-springs, "I'd love to go flying with you, Clark. Thank you."

"You're welcome, Lois. It's a date, then?" he asked, matching her casual manner.

"Yes."

"Great."

They put their seatbelts on and Clark started up the car. Over the sound of the ignition, he heard Lois saying to herself, "This will make that bungie jump I did last year seem pretty tame," but he resisted the urge to laugh or even smile.

"So, Clark," Lois said, continuing in that same conversational tone, "how much farther is it to this farm of yours?"

CHAPTER FORTY-THREE

"SMALLVILLE 12 MI"

"It won't be long now, Lois," Clark said, pointing to the road sign. "Our farm is just a few miles on the other side of town."

"Good," she replied as she took the last bite of her Double-Fudge Crunch Bar. How could Clark have known how much she loved these? "I'm looking forward to meeting your parents," she added, and tried not to sound nervous.

"And I'm looking forward to them meeting *you.*" He gave her an understanding smile. "Don't worry, honey. They are going to love you … even more than you love those," he said, as he pointed towards the empty candy wrapper.

Lois just grinned and shook her head at him.

"I mean it! They will," he insisted. "If it makes you feel any better, you can think about me having to go through the same thing with your parents some day."

"Oh, no!" she protested. "I'm not planning on introducing you to my parents one day earlier than our 20th wedding anniversary … and then only if we can get a really good therapist for the kids."

Clark smiled at Lois's outburst, but didn't try to coax her into changing her mind. He knew that her relationship with her parents was a sensitive subject and he didn't want to add to her distress. Instead he went back to the earlier topic.

"Well, don't worry about it too much, Lois. They sounded delighted when I phoned them. Besides, my mom and dad are really nice — "

"I'm sure they are, Clark. After all, they raised you, and you're probably the nicest person I've ever met."

He sent her a grateful smile. "Thanks. I just wanted to reassure you about them. You've been so quiet since we left the gas station that I thought you might be getting nervous."

"Only a little. If you want to see nervous, try walking into Perry White's office carrying an article you've written and that you know is not thoroughly backed up by hard facts."

Clark laughed.

"Actually," Lois continued, "I was trying to think of a way for you to use your powers and help out more."

"You were? Fantastic! Did you come up with anything?"

"Not yet. Or, at least … no, not really."

She sounded discouraged and he wanted to boost her spirits. "Don't worry, I know we'll come up with — "

"I know how important this is to you."

"To both of us, Lois."

"Yes, and your parents, too."

"Hmm. I've thought once or twice that it's too bad I can't just go undercover like detectives or spies do."

She was immediately struck by the possibilities of this. "Why don't you?"

Clark didn't seem to share her vision. "Because my hat and trench coat wouldn't stay on when I was flying, for one thing."

"I'm serious, Clark. What you need is a disguise that you could wear when things like that granary explosion happen."

"You mean like a mask? Like the Lone Ranger, or Zorro?" He looked very skeptical.

"Maybe. Not necessarily, though. Just some kind of costume that would enable you to help out, but would keep people from finding out that it's Clark Kent who's flying to the rescue." She was growing more enamored of this idea with each passing moment. "We'll have to think up a name for you, too."

"A name?" Clark repeated, doubtfully.

"Sure. How do you feel about Krypton Man? It sounds strong and — "

"Lois, wait a minute. I'm not so sure this would work. And, what if someone finds out that I'm … this person? I seem to remember that people were always trying to unmask Zorro — "

"So, you don't wear a mask. Just take your glasses off and slick your hair back away from your face. Last night, when your hair was wet and you weren't wearing your glasses, you looked very different. Add a flashy costume — "

"Waaait a minute! Flashy?"

"Yeah, so that people see the costume more than the man beneath the costume. In fact, the flashier, the better. Maybe primary colors would be best. And, I've got the perfect name for you: Resplendent Man! What do you think?"

Clark groaned.

"Of course, you can't just buy something like that off the rack, so … "

"And just how am I supposed to get in and out of this disguise? Change in the men's room? … find a phone booth?"

"We'll work out the details later, Clark. You have to admit that this has its advantages. This heroic alter ego of yours will get all the attention, and you'll be able to quietly go on with your life. Hey, maybe you — he — could give Lane and Kent some exclusives … ?"

"Don't you mean Kent and Lane?"

"Well … sometimes." She grinned. "We'll see. But getting back to this idea — "

"It does make sense," he interrupted in a thoughtful tone, "that if I had an effective disguise I wouldn't have to worry about people finding out about me." An image of Zorro leaping from roof top to roof top flashed through his mind. "I wouldn't have to wear a cape, would I?"

"Oh, I think it would be great when you're flying!"

Clark took a few minutes to think over all that they'd talked about and had to admit that there were some good things about the proposed scheme. He still wasn't sure about the cape, though.

"Well, why don't we talk to my parents about it? My mom is very creative, and she knows how to sew. She used to make all my Halloween costumes when I was a kid." Besides, he thought, she's bound to be on my side over this cape thing. Out loud he added, "As a matter of fact, she's even taking art classes. The last time I was there, she showed me a sculpture she's welding."

"Welding?" Lois wasn't quite sure what to make of that. Clark's mom seemed to be a very different sort of mom. Which, when you thought about it, considering who's mom she'd had to be, was probably a good thing. A woman like that would probably really go for capes. "Well, that's interesting, Clark. And, you're right about talking this over with your parents. I'm sure they'll have some good ideas, and … oh, I just thought of something."

She showed him a very worried face. "This idea of ours will make him — you — a target. Every crook in Metropolis will be — Maybe we should get your mom to weld you some armor, or something to protect you, just in case."

He was touched by her concern, and reached over to pat her hand. "That's sweet of you, Lois, but there's nothing that can hurt me."

"*Nothing!*" She'd been right. He was invulnerable!

"Not so far, and I've been in some pretty crazy situations in my travels. I don't think you have to worry about that."

Lois didn't know whether to go "wow" or "whew." "Okay," she replied, finally, "I'm glad to hear it. Well, then," she said, buoyant once again, "all we need now are a costume and a name."

"It's *not* going to be Resplendent Man, I can tell you that right now."

"We'll see."

"Not ever."

"Maybe … "

"Lois, how long can you hold your breath?"

**

A cease-fire was called as they drove into town so Clark could point out various landmarks or other points of interest to Lois. Once beyond the town's boundaries again, however, they went right back to their discussion, each one pointing out good and/or bad aspects of their plan to the other, or proposing various ideas for Clark's costume.

Lois's first glimpse of Clark's childhood home was a propitious one. The day was glorious — deep blue, cloudless skies; young, green things growing everywhere; and the air smelled clean and fresh. The white-painted farmhouse looked cool and inviting, nestled between two large, old trees, with Martha's flower beds spread out around its perimeter looking for all the world like the skirt of a spring frock. Everything, even the outbuildings and sheds, looked cared-for and well-tended.

No wonder he's the kind of person he is, she thought, with having such an oasis in which to grow up. Somehow she just knew that a place like this would have a treehouse as an accessory. She'd always wanted a treehouse when she was a kid, she thought, wistfully.

They pulled up near the back door, and, with the windows down on the Jeep, Lois could hear a woman's voice calling out, "Jonathan! They're here!" There was just enough time for a reassuring handclasp and a loving smile before Clark's parents practically erupted through the door.

Lois hung back from the initial greetings, a bit unsure of her welcome in spite of what Clark had told her, and also very interested in observing a Kent family homecoming, which was definitely more demonstrative than anything she'd ever known.

Clark got hugs and kisses from both of his parents, and then they turned to Lois.

"And you must be Lois," a smiling Martha Kent said as she held out her hand. "It's wonderful to finally meet you."

"Thank you, Mrs. Kent."

"Oh, 'Martha,' please."

"Martha," Lois agreed.

"And you can call me 'Jonathan,'" Clark's father said as he stepped forward to shake hands. "It's great to have you here."

"It's good to be here."

"Well, you sure are pretty," Martha said, then turned to Clark with a touch of doubt in her voice. "It's okay if I say that, isn't it, Clark?"

Her son grinned. "I don't know, Mom. Ask Lois."

"Thank you … Martha," Lois managed to say. Why do the first few moments of such meetings always have to be so awkward?

Martha gestured back towards the house. "It's after lunchtime, you kids must be starving. Let's get you something to eat."

"Oh, I don't know, Mom," Clark said, with that familiar teasing note in his voice. "Lois is pretty full of Double- Fudge Crunch Bars at the moment."

Without thinking, she fired back at him, "And just who was it who ate all those cupcakes and Twinkies on the way over here? Why don't you tell your mom about those?"

Jonathan and Martha started laughing. "You tell him, Lois," Jonathan exclaimed, while Martha said indulgently that sometimes Clark did seem to eat like an 8-year-old.

"Hey, this isn't fair … Lois hasn't even been here five minutes, and the three of you are ganging up on me. I hate to think what might happen by Sunday."

Clark's tone was aggrieved, but his face wore a big grin. Jonathan was still chuckling and Martha was putting her arm on Lois's shoulders and offering to help her get settled in. Lois looked at the three happy faces around her and thought, you already have.

**

They sat around the kitchen table with the remains of a late lunch spread out in front of them. At first, while the three Kents had prepared the meal, Martha and Jonathan had brought Clark up-to-date on Smallville's happenings and had discussed with him the plans for the rest of the weekend. Once they'd sat down to eat, however, the older couple had wanted to hear all about how Lois and Clark had met, since Clark hadn't been able to give them too many details during his visit early Wednesday.

Lois had let Clark do all the talking in the beginning, but it wasn't long at all before she was also telling her fair share … due in part to what she saw as Clark's lamentable memory for details. It didn't occur to her that this was his subtle way of getting her to take part in the conversation.

They told all about their first date, the misunderstanding of the next morning, and the subsequent reconciliation. Then it got a little harder … and took a lot longer. Clark's parents were good listeners, though, and made few interruptions as Lois and their son took turns relating the events of the previous evening. What mattered most to Jonathan and Martha in all of this — even more than the story itself — was the way this young woman was treating their boy.

They'd known Clark was in love with Lois, and they'd been frankly worried for him. All they knew of Lois Lane was what they could glean from her writing, and they couldn't quite let themselves believe that it was love, and not a headline, that was bringing her to their home, until they saw the younger couple together.

The glances which told of secrets shared, the unconscious reaching for one another, the teasing, the way they sometimes completed each other's sentences, the loving tone in their voices when one spoke of the other, all told of a love that was already deep and could only grow deeper with time. Under the table, out of sight of Lois and Clark, Martha and Jonathan found each other's hands and, with the ease of long practice, communicated their thankfulness to one another.

"It sounds like you two have had an interesting couple of days," Martha remarked with a smile.

"Yes, indeed," Jonathan chimed in. "Have you given any thought to what you're going to do now? A long-distance relationship isn't easy … even if one of you can fly."

Clark took a deep breath. He wasn't sure how they were going to take this next part. "Well, we've kind of got that worked out, Dad."

"You have?"

"Yes." He paused to gather his thoughts. "Dad, do you remember our conversation when I was trying to decide whether or not to apply for the assistant editor's job at the 'Dispatch?'"

"Sure I do, son."

"Back then it did seem like a wonderful opportunity, and I can't deny that I've learned a lot, but … "

"But you weren't happy, were you?"

"How did you — ?"

"Son, I've been interpreting Clark Kent for a lot of years now. I knew. And I was hoping you weren't staying in that job just to please me."

"It was more like because I didn't want to worry you. But you were right about my not being entirely happy, so … I've decided to go back to being a reporter. It will mean less money, but I'll be doing what I really love."

"Okay, son, that's your decision, and you know your mother and I will support you, but … how does that help you and Lois?"

Now for the really big news, Clark thought. "Perry White has offered me a position as an investigative reporter with the 'Daily Planet.'" He saw that he'd kind of stunned his parents. "I'll be writing again, and I'll even be able to work with Lois on stories sometimes. This will mean that we can be together." He glanced over at Lois lovingly, then returned his attention to his dad. "We love each other, and were dreading having to be apart. Now, we won't have to."

"Well, uh, wow, son, that's … "

"We think that's wonderful, honey," Martha interjected.

"Of course we do," Jonathan agreed. "That's great. It's … just such a surprise. So, I guess this calls for a celebration."

Clark was pleased with the way things were going so far, but he knew it was only fair to let his parents know about the rest of his decision. After all, this could affect them, too. "Thanks, Dad … Mom. There's something else you also need to know."

They looked at him inquiringly.

"For some time now, I've been trying to figure out a way to use my powers to help people."

Jonathan jumped right in. "And you've decided to do this in Metropolis? Clark!" He ignored the warning hand that Martha placed on his arm. "Metropolis isn't the Outback you know. How can you possibly think — "

"I know that, Dad. As I said, I've been giving this a lot of thought, and it's something I *have* to do." Clark leaned forward, focusing on his father's worried face, and willing him to understand. "I have these incredible gifts, and a need to use them to do some kind of good. I also have all that you and Mom have taught me, and I can't just turn that off, Dad. For too long now, I've had to look past people who are hurting — people in trouble — knowing that I could have helped them, and … having to stop myself. I can't do that anymore, Dad."

There comes a time in every parent's career when it is necessary to completely step back, out of your children's lives, and just have faith … in them and in what you've taught them. Jonathan knew that that moment had come for him. If he said the word, Clark might, because of his deep love for his father, give up this dream of his, but Jonathan also knew that that wouldn't be right. He and Martha had always tried to raise Clark to be proud of who he was and what he could do. Jonathan couldn't go back on that now, nor could he allow his own fears for Clark's safety to force his son to be less than he was. He swallowed a lump in his throat, looked into his wife's understanding eyes, and then back at his son's anxious face.

"I know, son." He smiled at his boy and waited to hear the answer to his next question. "What are you going to do?"

Clark sent his father a look of deep gratitude, then glanced over at his mom. "I have a favor to ask. We … Lois and I … have got an idea. It might be crazy, but … Mom, is your sewing machine still working?"

Martha was puzzled, but willing to help. "Yes, I think so."

Clark looked over at his Lois. She took his hand into hers and gave him a smile of encouragement. He smiled back, squeezed her hand briefly with love and appreciation, then turned to his parents once more and said, "We think I need some kind of … outfit." EPILOGUE

J.D. hung up the phone and ran a hand through the few brave hairs which still graced the top of his head. If there had ever been a crazier day in the news business he certainly hadn't seen it. First the dawn launching of colonist's transport to the Space Station Prometheus hadn't taken off as scheduled, then it was nearly blown up, and was only saved at the last second by a mystery man in blue tights and a red cape. And, just when you would have thought it couldn't have gotten any better — or weirder, depending on your point of view — the blue-tighted one had then *lifted* the transport vehicle into space so that it could dock with the space station!

The phones had been ringing off the hook all day, and the wire services were nearly having a nervous breakdown trying to keep up with the reports which were coming in from all over. Everyone wanted to know who this guy was and how he could do such incredible things. As soon as the news had broken, J.D. had sent additional reporters scurrying for the Eprad Space Center, and their stories had been coming in for the past several hours. He and Jim were having a hard time keeping up with everything. They sure could have used Clark's help with all this mess.

There was a tap on his door and he looked up to see Doris standing there. "Hi, J.D., I'm back, and you wouldn't believe some of the rumors flying around City Hall." She came into the office as she spoke, then handed him a stack of mail. "I passed Brian on my way in and he asked me to give these to you."

"Thanks, Doris. So, what are they saying at City Hall?"

"That this guy," she replied, pointing to the blurry photo of the man in the cape which embellished the front page of one of the East Coast papers, "is an alien from outer space, a Russian experiment, a really fantastic magician, or - - and here's my personal favorite — that the whole thing was just a publicity stunt and the colonist's transport is actually still sitting on Eprad's launching pad."

J.D. snorted. "I bet I can guess which one of our illustrious City Fathers is the author of that particular theory."

"I'll bet you could, too." She wavered at his desk for a moment, watching him as he went through the batch of envelopes she'd brought to him. He looked really tired, and she suspected, although he'd probably never admit it, that he was missing Clark very much. "Well, I think I'll get a cup of coffee and start writing up my piece. Can I bring you some?"

"No, but thank you anyway. If I have anymore coffee, I won't be able to sleep for a week. Weeell, will you look at this," he exclaimed delightedly, as he held up one of the letters. "It's from Clark!"

"Hey, that's great." Just what the doctor ordered, Doris thought, as she watched her editor ripping open the envelope. "How's he doing, if you don't mind my asking."

"Not at all," J.D. said a little distractedly, because he was trying to read. "He says to tell you 'Hi' as a matter of fact, *and* he's hoping to see as many of us as possible in Metropolis this fall for the wedding." J.D. looked up, grinning. "Lois and Clark are engaged. Isn't that wonderful?"

"That's terrific. I knew the moment I saw them together, that those two kids were made for each other. Well," Doris continued in a satisfied tone, "he's had quite a week: exposing a saboteur, making the front page of the 'Daily Planet' *and* getting engaged to the best reporter in town. He's been a busy boy." She picked up the newspaper with the photo of the mysterious rescuer and studied it closely. "He and Lois will probably get the scoop on this Fly Boy, too, and then I'll just have to get jealous. I wonder what the 'S' stands for," she added offhandedly.

"What?" J.D. looked up. "Oh, the 'S' … I don't think anyone's found out yet. Perhaps," he added, with an enigmatic smile, "Clark or Lois could tell you. I certainly can't. In the meantime, I hate to be the proverbial hard- nosed boss, but … "

"Say no more," she replied, dropping the paper back onto his desk and holding her hands up in surrender, "I live but to do your bidding." Then, in a more business-like tone, "You'll have my copy in 30 minutes, J.D."

"That would be great, Doris, but you can take a few extra minutes to get your coffee first."

She grinned and gave him a thumbs-up on her way out the door.

J.D. turned back to Clark's letter, taking his time in the reading of it now that he had a little peace and quiet. It sounded as if Clark was doing well in Metropolis. He was still looking for a place of his own, but he really liked his job and had found the city to be an exciting and interesting place in which to work.

When he'd written this three days before, he'd been looking forward to covering Lex Luthor's White Orchid Ball with Lois. J.D. had read that piece, of course, as well as the other stories Clark had written. It looked as if Perry was giving him a variety of assignments which must have pleased the young reporter very much: the razing of an old theatre, the destruction of Commander Latterman's rocket just as it was preparing to launch, and then the exposure of Dr. Antoinette Baines as the saboteur in that deadly explosion. An auspicious beginning, to be sure.

J.D. re-folded the letter, walked over to where his jacket hung on a hook behind his office door and slipped it into one of the pockets. He knew his wife, Rachel, would enjoy reading it, too. She'd had a soft spot for Clark and had tried to introduce him to some of the nice, young women she knew in hopes of getting him to marry and settle down in the area. It hadn't worked, as it'd turned out, because Clark had ended up following his heart, and Lois, to Metropolis.

Returning to his desk, J.D. chose to stand at the window for a while, looking, not down at the city, but up towards the stars. Presumably, he thought, this guy in the tights had come from one of those stars, and then he shrugged because, everybody has to come from somewhere. What mattered in his book was what you did with what you were given, and whether or not you made a difference in this world.

Yes, where you ended up was more important than where you'd come from, and, from the looks of things, Clark seemed to have ended up in the perfect place for him.

J.D. smiled as he gazed at the eastern-most star he could see, then said quietly to his absent young friend, "Looks as if you finally found your niche."

THE END

June 1997

"Being in love is when two people are better together than they are apart." -Anonymous

***

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

When I began writing this story back in August of 1995, I had two goals in mind: to explore what might happen in Lois and Clark's relationship if she hadn't had that flashy red, yellow and blue suit to fall in love with first; and, to see if I could write a story about you-know-who without using the "S" word one single time. What I couldn't have foreseen was what would also happen.

I didn't plan to use all the L&C quotes … that just happened and, in the process, I came to appreciate, even more than before, the efforts of the L&C writers. The proof of their skill lies the fact that I could borrow their words for my story and have them still mean something in an entirely different context. An added bonus, for you the reader, is that you now have an L&C game within an L&C fanfic. By my count there are 356 different quotes and events from seasons one and two in this story. See how many you can find. :-)

I used parts of every single season one episode and most of season two … the original authors' names are listed below. (The episodes not used were Operation: Blackout, Chi of Steel, and Return of the Prankster.) There's no prize, other than perhaps the personal satisfaction of finding all 356, but I do hope you'll have fun with the game.

BTW, the fact that I used only seasons one and two does not mean that I did not also enjoy the last two seasons of Lois & Clark, because I did — very much. But, I felt that I needed to have a cut off point, and since I conceived the storyline and began writing before the beginning of season three, it seemed prudent to confine myself to the first two seasons.

I'd like to thank my long-suffering proofers: Pam Jernigan, Wade Smith and Claire Hess. They put up with getting my opus in bits and pieces, sometimes going for weeks without seeing anything new as I struggled with certain difficult passages. I really can't thank them enough, but I hope they know how much their time, effort, patience and support has meant to me.

And, finally, to the writers of the first two seasons of Lois & Clark … thank you. You all have given me some wonderful memories, a lot of laughs and even a tear or two, and I will always be grateful: Deborah Joy Levine, Dan Levine, Bryce Zabel, Robert Killebrew, Thania St. John, Paris Qualles, Bradley Moore, Tony Blake, Paul Jackson, H.B. Cobb, John McNamara, Grant Rosenberg, Kate Boutilier, Gene Miller, Karen Kavner, Kathy McCormick, Dean Cain, Hilary Bader, Chris Ruppenthal, Jack Weinstein, and Lee Hutson. CM

***

That's it, FoLCs! Hope you got all the parts, and that you'll enjoy reading them. :-)

Chris

(meetme.txt)