By Doc. Klein's LabRat <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Submitted: December 2000
Summary: The threat of Nightfall looms over the world in this adaptation of the episode "All Shook Up." As time runs out, two people, alone and afraid, take solace in one another, try to find some shred of meaning in their lives … and find that hope and love are shining constants in even the seemingly most disasterous of times.
Notes: This one's for Corrine, who — a very, very long time ago — had kind of an idea…and asked if I could run with it. Namely, what if Martha and Jonathan never made it to Metropolis in ASU, never connected with Clark…and what if he connected with Lois instead? ;) Thanks for the inspiration, Corrine. Hope it turned out, more or less, to be the story you wanted.
Some particular thanks are due in respect of this one, so bear with me. Firstly, thanks to Becky and KathR for their usual, thorough editing and to Ann and Wendy for their encouragement and occasional beta reading on various segments. Special thanks go to Helene, for all her naggi…er, encouragement and for those wonderfully productive brainstorming sessions on irc. And finally to Jeanne — a truly wonderful GE to work with — for all her help. :)
Thanks go too to everyone (Zoom, Ultracape, Becky and others) who responded to my email requests for recognition on the Balzar's Cat theorem, many moons ago. Most of you probably don't even remember my asking by now, but you came back with such witty answers that I just had to include some of them in Lois and Clark's conversation on the theorem itself. And to the #lanekent regulars, who demanded to know on a regular basis when this would be finished and who, quite rightly, refused to accept 'I was abducted by aliens, so I didn't have time to write more this week' as any kind of excuse. Also to those FoLCs on the Fanfic List and Message Boards, who answered various queries — even the weird, twisted ones ;) — with their usual wit and intelligence. Thanks, guys. :)
I've used some lines of dialogue/situations taken from the original script of ASU by Bryce Zabel and added my own twist to them, just for fun. And I've skewed the timeline to fit events herein. The timeline in ASU never made much sense to me, and when I watched the episode again just lately while researching this story, it made even less than it had previously. ;) We won't even touch how Clark managed to miss noting something odd was going on over several days of memory loss, yet still managed to shave each morning. ;) A very special thanks to KathyB for coming up with the k-razor. Just when I thought I was going to have to ignore that one entirely.
Strange, Clark thought often in the days that followed. That, at that time of all times, in this place of all places, with the world seemingly in the grip of its last, eternal night and what seemed like the snuffing out of hope, that the achievement of all his heart's desires should begin with a simple phone call…
"Clark? Hi, it's Lois. Listen, uh, I was just wondering if you could stand some company?"
The immediate brightening in the voice that had sounded uncertain and depressed when it had answered warmed Lois and assured her that making the call had been the right thing to do. She had walked past four other pay phones, rolling over the idea in her head, before finally giving in to the temptation. Loneliness was a new phenomenon for her. At least, that was what she stubbornly maintained. How could any unattached, single female who liked it that way be lonely? She was *never* lonely. The idea was just plain ridiculous.
But then…these were far from normal times. And perhaps feeling small and lost and as afraid as a child alone in the night, filled with the need to reach out for some human contact, *any* human contact, was acceptable right then.
Of course, if it was simple comfort and companionship that she was looking for…she could have run back to Lex. At least spent some time with him, even if she couldn't accept his offer and stay. Wouldn't you think, in your last few hours on Earth, that the man you'd been dating most recently would be fairly high on your list of people to spend time with?
Curiously though, she had barely considered it. Perhaps because she felt she had already said her goodbyes and there was nothing left to say. Or perhaps because, deep in her heart and barely admitted, she already knew that she wouldn't be welcome. She had rejected him and she already knew enough of the man to know that he didn't take rejection lightly. Oh, he had been urbane about it, gentlemanly, civilized, and she doubted that he'd bear a grudge…but she was a realist and she knew the limits of his feelings for her. So she was equally certain that, in his quest for the perfect…companion…to share his lonely survival, she had undoubtedly already been replaced in his…'affections'. Besides, a more pragmatic part of her had decided, Lex would be…well he'd be busy with preparing his refuge, making last minute arrangements…he wouldn't be expecting to see her again and —
No. No, she wouldn't be welcome.
And, besides, Lex had merely been a brief postscript in her thoughts. As she'd wandered the streets aimlessly, feeling the weight of what was coming settle heavily on her shoulders and the chill burrow its way deep inside of her, it had been her partner she had thought of.
The city she had always felt safe in had become a desolate and menacing place now. The stench of panic was in the air. And something darker — survival at its basest. A siren blaring in the dark, a common sound she barely noticed in saner times, made her startle like a rabbit under headlights. Standing by the pay phone, she'd found herself warily scanning the deserted street and had shivered, pulling the collar of her coat up tight. Feeling threatened by shadows that had never disturbed her before.
Besides, she'd told herself firmly, Clark needed her. Much more than Lex did. Didn't he? Well, he was all alone out there, unsure of who he even was, or who he could turn to. So, really, calling him would be doing him a favor, wouldn't it? Helping him. Nothing to do with how she felt at all. She couldn't leave him there, hurt and alone. So, calling him would be…the Samaritan thing to do. A humanitarian gesture. That was all. Least she could do.
Still, she had listened to the burring of the dial tone in her ear twice and to Clark's puzzled voice repeatedly requesting a response once before losing her nerve and hanging up. On the last, he had even murmured, tentatively, "Lois…?" before, spooked, she'd slammed down the receiver.
And, always, having decided this was a *real* bad idea…she'd immediately picked up the receiver and redialed a number she knew by heart. That need in her to reach out for human contact as irresistible and as difficult to fight against as the pull that was drawing death to them irrevocably from the cold, bleak heart of space.
"If…that's okay? I mean…well, maybe you have other plans or…did you manage to contact your parents? You said that last message from Martha said they were coming out here, didn't you? Are they with you? I wouldn't want to intrude at…a family time…"
She trailed off awkwardly, remembering her last moments with her own family a scant few hours before. Finding something sad and shaming in the fact all at once that, with time fast running out and the end of everything looming large, she was running to her partner for solace rather than those she should care about most. And who should care about her. She felt a sudden prickling at the back of her eyes. She blinked rapidly until her vision cleared, banishing the swell of self-pity that threatened to overwhelm her, and focused grimly on the richly warm voice caressing her ear.
"No! Uh, no. I finally connected with…the Kents. At least Mrs…uh, *Mom*…left another message on the machine. Seems like the planes are grounded. I guess it's chaos down there, just like everywhere else, huh? She said they were worried about me; they wanted me to fly to Smallville when I got the message. I don't understand that bit. I mean, if the airports are closed…"
Lois gave a mental shrug. "Well, maybe they thought there might be planes out of Metropolis still that might make it somewhere close to one of the surrounding airports. I mean, with this being a big city and all. Not a hick — uh, I mean, not a backwater…not so countryfi — " She blew out a soft, irritable sigh. "Clark, can I come on over?" she switched tracks abruptly and winced at the clear, plaintive note she heard in the question.
Lois closed her eyes. Relief made the threat of tears more immediate. She barely heard herself murmur a quick response before she hung up the receiver, hastily breaking the connection before they could find their way into her voice.
A sudden rustle to her left snapped her eyes open again. But it was only a rattle of litter, tossed along the gutter by a sudden gust of wind. The buildings around her were blank-eyed, seeming to study her like weary sentinels.
She shook off the morose mood that had settled on her, cursing her over-active imagination, knowing that even in the midst of this bleak darkness, there was light and warmth somewhere to welcome her. And a man who needed her, even if others didn't.
Yet she still felt the eerie prickle of those eyes on the back of her neck, as she wrapped herself tighter against the wind that tugged at her coat, and stepped out into the street.
Clark tried to disguise the way his heart leapt at the plea in his partner's voice. He would have invited her anyway, even if she hadn't asked. He'd heard the tremor in her voice, the threat of tears beneath her words, and that worried him.
But, more than that, he realized with a small start of surprise as he hung up the phone, he wanted to see her, was anxious to see her. More than he had been at the thought of his parents arriving. He hadn't actually been looking forward to that at all. He'd felt awkward listening to the concerned voice on the machine.
Lois had said that he had a good relationship with his parents — close — yet he had felt nothing much at all listening to the tape spooling its way through that message. He had heard the fear in the…his Mom's voice, suppressed tears. Then there had been a moment's silence and a second voice, gruff and almost hurried had said simply, "Goodbye, son. Remember — we love you. Call us…if you can."
Clark had heard the distant sounds of the woman crying, the soft sounds of his father comforting her, before the line went dead.
He had stood there, in the darkness of the apartment, listening to the faint static hiss of the tape as the message ended and it played on in claustrophobic silence. Waiting for something to emerge from the dead feeling centered in his chest. Devastation was hurtling for their world. It was probable he'd never see his parents again. There should be something.
After a moment he'd reached out to put his fingers to the small square of plastic in the center of the answering machine. As though by touch alone he could bond himself to those voices, bring them closer, make them count. When the harsh click broke the weighted silence of the room like the crack of old bones, sounding the tape's end, he'd pressed the button to rewind and play the tape again. The plastic had felt hard and cool and smooth beneath the tips of his fingers as he'd listened. This was perhaps the last time he would hear those voices, the last memory of them he would ever have.
But nothing had come. No memory. No emotion. No sense of loss.
And it was that absence that made him cold inside.
He had tried calling back — he didn't like to upset anyone, even a stranger, and he could at least tell the woman that he was okay — but the phone lines to Smallville had been down.
Now, he let his hand linger on the phone a moment, pondering the warm sensation in his chest that his partner's voice — even the memory of her voice — kindled in him. After a moment spent puzzling over that, he wandered over to the large window that overlooked his terrace and stared out thoughtfully into the barren brick of the wall opposite. The red neon pulse of the ad sign mounted on the wall blared its fractured brilliance into the room behind him: a manic, disorganized strobe in the darkness.
It had been broken for days now. He had considered asking the ubiquitous Harry — whose 'Place' it apparently sign-posted — to have it repaired; the uneven flicker disturbed his sleep nights. But, somehow, he couldn't bring himself to do it. Somewhere, along the way, the sign had become a metaphor for his own feelings, for the vague unsettled flicker of life within him. The connection wasn't hard to understand. Like him, the sign was disconnected, defective. It made no sense any more. As nothing in his world made any sense now.
And it was somehow…comforting…to know that he wasn't the only one with a crazy paving view of the world these days. That he wasn't alone.
Besides, without the sign as a convenient scapegoat, he might well be forced to examine too closely the other reasons that his sleep stayed disturbed and restless in the small, night hours that crept up on dawn. His head seemed full of half formed thoughts and dreams that had him starting up out of sleep, sweat soaked and trembling, afraid of some nameless dread that crouched in the shadows and watched him balefully from out of narrow, red-tinged eyes.
Several times, he'd found himself curled in a corner of the room, weeping. There had been the frightening moment the previous night when he had woken abruptly to find himself standing in the street below his apartment, with no memory of how he'd gotten there. Naked but for the sleep shorts he'd worn to bed that evening he had, it seemed, been standing staring up into the blank, overhung sky, fists clenched into hard balls at his sides. As though confronting an enemy.
He hadn't been there long. At least he wasn't chilled, so he couldn't have been. But the experience had left him shaken and disturbed, worse for the fact that he had no idea why he was so afraid.
More frightening still was waking to find the soles of his feet mud stained…his skin wet with more than sweat, smelling faintly of salt with the tang of brine…leaves and turf strewn among his sheets…and no memory of where he had been.
Often, his dreams were filled with images and sensations that made even less sense than this nocturnal stargazing and unremembered night wanderings — vague feelings of disconnection, of being apart from the world, as though he were floating in a timeless void. Stronger, more powerful, than the feelings of panic and disorientation his lack of memory had bred in him. Something beyond the mere fear of not knowing who he was or how he fit into the world around him. It was so strong, so close, and so clear in the landscape of his drowsing mind that at times it almost seemed the only reality he had. And yet, always, it shredded itself into nothing, like early morning mist, and was lost when he woke.
Once, he had been startled to note that his hair was damp when he awoke. The chill dampness of morning dew. Or sailing through fog. The way it got when he hit pearled streamers of —
He shook his head sharply, shying instinctively away from the thought, pushing himself back from the brink of the strange, half formed idea that was morphing in his head, even as he tried desperately to hold on to it. The inner struggle between his subconscious and conscious mind was growing. He felt as though he was being softly torn apart. And he wanted to know. He did. He wanted desperately to know why the thought of clouds and damp, spring air in his hair and the softness of a breeze on his face could scare him so badly.
But it was gone. Like a flash of lightning in the darkness of night, barely seen before it was lost. And the night closed in.
A low shudder traveled through him before he could prevent it. No, he didn't want to examine his nightmares too closely here in the light of day. He focused his gaze on the wall opposite. Or under the red tinged flicker of that broken sign.
Harry's Place. He shook his head, turning to safer topics. What on earth had possessed him to choose an apartment with such a depressing view?
He sighed. Real estate in the big city was expensive and at a premium. Maybe he'd had no other choice. How much *did* he get paid for working at one of the city's most historic and prestigious newspapers anyway, he wondered. He turned his head and looked around the apartment with a judicious eye that he suspected hadn't been used on it for a time. By the looks of what he could afford to lease, his salary sure wasn't in the Top Five Hundred, he considered, a wry smile flickering for a moment at the corner of his lips.
He cocked his head a little, examining the idle thought, as he did with even the smallest stray idea these days, working it over in his head. Anything that provoked an emotion in him, no matter how small or how crooked, was worthy of examination now. From this particular thought came the idea that money wasn't that important to him. The wry tint to his mood deepened as his eyes roamed the room. *That* was plainly evident.
Still, although slightly spartan for his tastes, the apartment was kind of…cozy, he supposed. The thought brought him up short. His tastes? What kind of tastes *did* he have? And, considering that he had undoubtedly been the one to decorate the apartment in the first place, why weren't they the same tastes he'd had all along?
He frowned and then shook his head with a sigh and returned his blank gaze to the window. Don't go there, Kent, he admonished himself wearily. Second guessing yourself can drive you insane.
Behind him, in the background, the low, somber voice of an LNN newscaster drifted into his head. The station, as with all others, had been running a countdown on the approach of the giant asteroid that was hurtling towards them like a vast, unfeeling and uncaring colossus. There was so much fear in the man's voice, in the voices of the people they were polling in the streets. It hurt Clark like a spear in his chest.
How could he feel so much pity for strangers he'd never met and none for himself? And why did he think he should do something to calm those fears? What could he do? Write up a darned good piece for the hottest paper in town? Who cared when there wasn't going to be a readership tomorrow to read what he said? Or thought. Or cared about.
This defeatist attitude sat uneasily in him too. There was something, a small, quiet voice in the back of his head, which told him repeatedly that it wasn't a part of him. But he couldn't shake the mood. Over the past days, his own fear had vanished somewhere into the midst of this dead feeling in the pit of his chest. There had been moments when the loss of everything he had been had struck him in the heart like a physical blow, like a rending of his soul. There was no explaining that fear, the terror, the sense that he was lost, adrift, with nothing to anchor him to people and places he knew, people he should care about.
"…Superman sightings around the downtown area of…"
Clark's ears pricked up sharply with the newscaster's weary report and then his interest dimmed as he returned his gaze to the window. His lips twisted in a grimace. The great Metropolis hero: where the hell was *he* when they needed him? What a swell time for the guy to vanish into the smoke and let everyone down.
He didn't know what Lois saw in him.
The strength of emotion that the thought sparked in his chest might have surprised him, had it not been the one constant in his life. Still, he wondered at it. That she, alone, seemed able to drag him from the dead pool of emotions and the smothering blanket of apathy that his mind seemed to have dropped over his thoughts.
He had almost asked her about that today, about why she apparently meant so much to him, but, somehow, hadn't found the courage. He was plagued by the vague impression, strange but unshakable, that they were more to each other than she was confessing to. More than partners. More than just friends. There was a warmth in his chest whenever he thought about her — and he thought about her often, to his confusion — that disturbed him, that couldn't just come from knowing her as a friend and partner alone. He felt that, intuitively, more strongly than he had felt anything these past few days.
Earlier, when he had asked her in the most oblique way he could, he hadn't missed her fleeting, though obvious discomfort with the question. They hadn't *not* liked each other when they'd met, she'd said. But her body language had said she wasn't telling him the whole truth. And she was uneasy about the topic, that much was obvious.
But why would she lie?
He had sensed that same odd duality, a schism between words and body language, before, too. He had no idea, either, what had prompted him then to ask if they were more than friends, just an odd prickle of intuition and something about his partner. Strange, because he had had precisely the opposite reaction when…what was her name…Cat…yes, Cat…when she had insisted *they* were more than friends. He had felt nothing, nothing at all, when she had hugged him. Yet with Lois…with Lois there had been an instant shock of…well, not recognition — that was clearly expecting far too much in his present state of mind. His lips twisted wryly with the thought. But…something.
*Definitely* something. And strong. So strong that he had found it hard to believe that partners and friends were all they were. And though Lois had seemed to deny that he was right, there *had* been something odd, something out of kilter, in the way she'd responded to his question. Close, but not close. Friends…but not friends?
Clark frowned. It was all so confusing. Perhaps they had *been* an item, were now yesterday's news, and Lois, not wanting to upset him with that truth, was being just a tad too careful of his feelings.
Somehow though, Clark knew that, for him at least, his partner would never be old news.
Perhaps Lois hadn't — didn't — feel the same way.
He sighed. He knew he couldn't ask. The earlier lapse had been a mistake. He supposed he should be glad that it had borne no fruit. The psychiatrist at the police precinct who'd evaluated him had told him that he must find his own answers, his own memories, independent of other sources. If he relied too heavily on the answers others gave him, then he would simply find himself through their eyes, form himself around their template. It wasn't always the same thing.
"We have a tendency to perform for those we love," she'd said with an understanding smile. "We become all things to all men, in many ways what's expected of us rather than what we are. If you try too hard to feel what your family expects of you, become what your friends expect to *see* in you, there's a very real possibility you might never recover your memory. It will simply be replaced — overlaid — with a false set of standards. What you assume from them you should be and who they want you to be. Not who you are."
He had tried to heed the advice, which seemed sound, but it was hard. He felt as though he were fumbling around in a darkened room. And passing up the chance to grab an offered flashlight.
Anyway, he didn't think his partner was the type to be careful of his feelings. No, there was something more to their relationship, something he couldn't quite grasp. But he knew it was there. Like a shimmering haze of sunlight, just over the horizon, barely seen, hard to catch hold of. He was sure that given time he could have gotten her to talk to him about it, but then there had been Luthor.
Clark frowned, remembering the sudden animation that had overtaken his partner when she had received the message from the man. All that Clark knew of Lex Luthor was what he'd seen that afternoon on TV…a handsome, expensively suited and self-confident billionaire philanthropist…and Lois had certainly seemed to think he was someone who had all the answers. She had been very eager to meet him. Someone she had to interview. Was that all he was? She *had* been real eager. Too eager. Too delighted to hear from the man.
Clark's preoccupied frown narrowed his eyes. But it hadn't been Luthor that had gotten that reaction from her, had it? he thought, more darkly than he was prepared to admit to. Luthor was simply a means to an end. What Lois had been eager about was the possibility that Luthor might know where Superman was. That he might help her find him.
There he was, that name again. Funny how he kept popping into the frame. Especially where his partner was concerned.
Of course, he was their last, best hope of survival. Naturally, Lois would be keen to find him. And he guessed her reporter's instincts hadn't been dulled by recent events either…the thought of pulling off that particular coup had been an obvious driving force. But, somehow, Clark didn't think that was it. There had been something in her eyes when she spoke about Superman. Something that Clark knew would have solved his confusion over his own relationship with his partner in a heartbeat if it had been directed at him. Like earlier. It hadn't been difficult for him to pick up on that vibration, that soft undercurrent, in Lois' tone when she had spoken of the superhero. The thought of him had transfigured her face, like a beatitude. He meant a lot to *everyone*, she'd said.
And you, Lois? What does he mean to *you*?
More than 'a lot', that was obvious.
There had been that kiss.
Clark scowled. He didn't want to think about that. He had few enough memories in his head right then. Why did half of the ones he retained have to be images he didn't want to contemplate?
He shook himself irritably, like a large dog getting rid of fleas, trying to displace both thought and mood. It remained stubbornly in his head though.
What *was* Superman to Lois?
And what was she to him?
And what did it matter to Clark Kent? Who surely had no right to be asking the question? Or even be interested for that matter. What had Lois' personal life to do with him? She was his partner. A friend. End of story. He wasn't her keeper. Or her judge.
Despite his vexation, however, and his attempts to cut off the path his thoughts were taking, they persisted. Like probing painfully at a decaying tooth.
The kiss. On the Plaza. As Superman was about to leave on his abortive mission to destroy Nightfall.
Lot of good the all-conquering superhero had done there, Clark took time out to think acerbically, and then immediately regretted the uncharitable thought. Superman might have died in that attempt to save them. Lois certainly seemed to be beginning to believe that he might have, although she was trying to cling to the hope that he would reappear in the eleventh hour and rescue them all.
The kiss now…that had been played and replayed, over and over, in the wake of Superman's vanishing act. It had even featured as the page one lead in several of the tabloids, under banner headlines such as The Last Farewell and Give It Up For Superman! Clark grimaced. He had been surprised that his partner had left herself open to such abuse, kissing Superman in public like that! At a press conference, for Pete's sake! But she had been unrepentant when teased about it by their colleagues. Although, he thought, a little embarrassed too. He suspected actually that at that moment she hadn't been aware of the milling reporters around them at all. Completely focused on her dashing red-caped, blue-spandexed hero.
Lois had initiated the kiss. Was that something he should be pleased about? Or dismayed over? Superman certainly hadn't made the first move. Was that encouraging? Did it denote an interest that burned more brightly in Lois' heart than in the superhero's? More…hero-worship…than true love? The former was much less likely to endure than the latter.
On the other hand, he thought dismally, Superman hadn't exactly tried to work himself loose from the stranglehold Lois had had on his throat, either. Nor had he looked displeased at her assault on him. On the contrary, he had seemed to put himself wholeheartedly into returning it. And Clark remembered the gesture that the superhero had made just prior to that kiss, studying it intently in his mind's eye as carefully as he had when he had seen it on tape at the Planet. A soft cupping of one hand against Lois' hair. A tender gesture…one that she certainly hadn't looked surprised at.
Clark felt his gut tighten with the memory, just as it had watching the tape. That the image of Superman and Lois sharing a clearly intimate moment could provoke such a strong and negative emotion in him was a further cause for confusion. But try as he might, he just couldn't seem to prevent it.
The look in the superhero's eyes after the kiss had been tender too, he pondered morosely. More than that. He had looked as though the entire world was carried in her eyes. Clark suspected that at that moment Superman had been less than concerned with reporters and cameras watching them either.
His mind tortured him, replaying that instant, slowing it to a crawl in his mind's eye, even as he tried to shy away from it uncomfortably.
It left him with one, undeniable conclusion. Superman was in love with Lois Lane. And she with him.
He froze a little on that one. Lois was…involved with Superman? He tried to discount the notion almost immediately, but it persisted, bolstered by what scant information he'd gathered on the superhero in the past couple of days, as he'd sifted through everything he'd heard about the man, everything his partner had said and her reactions to every mention of his name.
The TV stations had been running archive footage on the Man of Steel almost constantly since his mysterious disappearance. Much of it had also featured Lois. Lois in the forefront of the press pack; Lois interviewing the superhero; Lois desperately trying to attract his attention. And in those…Clark focused on those moments in particular, aware distantly that he was on to something…in those, although Superman seemed not to have noticed her, often flying off without so much as a glance in her direction or a word spoken between them, Clark had found himself completely convinced that he had noticed her only too well. That he was deliberately putting distance between himself and the reporter.
Now, why would he do that?
Because he didn't want the public to know that they were closer than they appeared?
A depressing thought. And one that he didn't particularly want to dwell on now. Or accept.
He sighed. Maybe it was nothing, he soothed himself. Maybe he was seeing dragons in clouds. Just because she'd kissed him didn't mean she was in love with him. Maybe she was just…trying to keep up his spirits. Women did that kind of thing. They had in the war. Kissed perfect strangers just because they knew they were heading off on dangerous missions and might not return. A little piece of…home comfort… He sighed again, not entirely convinced by the theory.
Well, Superman just seemed to be on everyone's mind. Why should Lois be any different? Or him, for that matter. He didn't understand his *own* fascination with the superhero, let alone anyone else's. Or why his subconscious seemed to want to return time and again to the man. Maybe it was just the reporter's instinct he supposed he must have somewhere within him, the scent of an obvious mystery prickling at him.
Where *had* he gone? Was he out there, somewhere, perhaps as lost as he himself was? Was that what made him find such puzzling affinity with the missing Man of Steel?
Theories abounded, naturally, on the superhero's disappearance. Superman was dead, vaporized in the black heart of space when he hit the asteroid — their last savior gone.
He had seen that his efforts were futile and had abandoned them, fled his adopted home, choosing to find another and save himself while he could.
There were even those who accused that he had never intended to help. That it had all been a ruse. That Nightfall was the vanguard of the alien invasion that Superman had come to Earth to plan and spearhead. That behind the giant rock tumbling towards them a spaceship lurked, its alien crew intent on invasion now that Superman had joined his own.
Clark sighed. Now that one he *didn't* believe. Lois would never have trusted a coward or traitor. Though jealousy — an emotion he would never admit to — laced his chest tight around his heart with even the thought of connecting Lois and Superman — at any level — he had to reluctantly find that good in the man since his partner did. Lois was no fool. And if she found something to admire in the Caped Avenger…Crusader…whatever he called himself…then Clark had to accept that he was admirable. Despite the seeming evidence to the contrary that filled his TV screen night after night.
On the TV a sobbing woman was demanding that something be done to stop the asteroid's inexorable descent to impact. Her reasoning was hysterical, her anguish another pinprick in his head. A cut to a blustering man, hope desperate in his voice as he proclaimed that Superman would come through for them, just as he always had. He wouldn't *abandon* them. Not now. He couldn't. He was out there. Somewhere. Had to be. And he'd turn up. Save them. Yes, he would. And anyone who thought different was just toting a barrel of —
Cut to commercial.
Crazy Jack's was offering a once in a lifetime deal on luxury car hire in the downtown area. "…take a stretch…go out in style!!"
Right name, wrong offer, buddy, Clark thought acidly.
His Dad always had said city folks knew nothing about keeping their heads in a crisis.
/Had he?/ he immediately thought and then shook his head. Who knew? His head was a clutter of half-remembered statements and ideas, and none of them made any sense. Like a jigsaw puzzle missing a few vital pieces, the overall picture was skewed.
He sighed and returned his gaze to the flicker of the neon sign opposite. His mind cut back to the sound of Superman's advocate. Beneath the bravado had been a fear as sharp as the woman's before him. It pervaded the city, like a funeral stench, a fog of decay. Only that morning, LNN had carried a report about two looters found hanged in Suicide Slum. Riot squads had been drafted into the Hobb's Bay area. Ten people had been found, huddled together in the basement of their rented apartment building, their bodies contorted, their faces black and bloated — evidence of the industrial waste cleaner they'd drunk like cheap wine. Scrawled on the walls around them and hastily scribbled on tattered scraps of paper clutched in dead hands had been the last testament of their insane ramblings. Basically, it all boiled down to the fact that they'd rather be dead than subject to alien rule.
Madness. Of the worst kind. Spawned out of terror and helplessness and the crumbling of all that had once seemed unassailable, permanent like sunrise and sunset — constants that had proved less than constant at all in the end.
Clark thought, distantly and with as much concern as he might have focused on the approach of a thunderstorm, that he really supposed he ought to be afraid too. Of dying, of losing everything, of what was approaching them out of the unnaturally growing darkness.
But, just like the rest of his emotions, that fear wouldn't come either. Maybe he couldn't be afraid of these things because they were, for him, already lost. Had been lost, when he'd hit his head in that dumb accident with the car and what had been him, the essence of who he was and how he thought, the core of what made him Clark Kent, had been snuffed out like a candle's dying flame. How could he fear death when he was already dead inside?
How could he fear the unknown, when he faced it every moment of every day?
And how could he fear losing everything — everyone — he loved, when they were already reduced to shadows in his head, not even memories of them surviving. Lost and dead. Gone.
He waited — with a certain, cool and clinical detachment — for the spear of pain to follow that thought, for the following tide of grief. But all that he could muster was a slight distress at that lack of panic and fear. At the loss of emotions that he was failing to experience with the rest of humanity with whom he shared this city. This world. What he felt was nothing. There was that black hole in the center of his chest and it filled him like a tide of sand. And, somehow, that just didn't feel *right*. He had the feeling he wasn't normally so distant and remote from the world, that these things should matter to him, should mean something. There were people out there who were afraid. Who would die. And that should mean *something*.
He focused a little deeper on his feelings, trying to analyze his way to something stronger than the dead and shadowed emotions that sealed his chest tight, trying to force some reaction out of the fog in his head. But in the end all that he could think of was that he felt just a little…sad. Sad that he was leaving behind something that should mean everything to him and yet meant nothing at all.
Leaving everything behind…
Something that meant everything to him…
A flashbulb pop blinked into his mind with the run of his thoughts, the brief, flickering of an image that was there and then lost in an instant before he could truly grasp it. His partner. Lois. Seated at her desk, looking up at him with an expression of…
…of confusion…of loss…and betrayal…
…as he leaned down and put his hand against the soft warmth of her cheek and kissed her. He remembered the feel of her lips against his. And her eyes, brimming over with tears she refused to shed…
…and then, as quickly as it had come on him, the memory was gone.
Clark sighed and then reached up a hand to remove his glasses, closing his eyes as he pinched wearily at the bridge of his nose. He shook his head and paused as he moved to replace the spectacles. He looked at them as they dangled by one temple from his hand. Another minor mystery. His days were filled with them.
He lifted his hand, squinting through the glass lenses as he held them aloft to the fitful light of the window. Just why was he wearing glasses with plain glass lenses? His vision seemed perfect. There was no blurring, none of the haziness he expected when he removed them. They were completely unnecessary.
He'd known that from the first of course. He'd only worn the pair he'd been given because he had been confused and disorientated and it was easier to accept them than it was to upset someone who'd seemed anxious to help him. But then, Lois had given him his own pair when she'd taken him to the Planet from the police precinct. And that made no sense at all.
That helpful policeman, Inspector Henderson, hadn't seemed surprised to see him wearing glasses either. Obviously he was in the habit of doing so. So…what? They were some kind of fashion statement? He remembered what the down and out who'd rescued him had said when he'd urged that old pair on him. Maybe he hadn't been the only one who thought wearing these made him look more intelligent. Studious. Had he been trying to impress someone? Mr. White?
Somehow the thought that he might want to impress his self-assured, beautiful partner didn't sound that far from the truth at all. But there were pictures scattered around the apartment of him wearing the things — apparently from his teens at least — and with the people Lois had said were his parents…
Clark shook his head again tiredly. None of it made any sense. He'd been about to question Lois on it at the time, when something even stranger happened. He had taken off the glasses the down and out had given him, paused to ask her — and the words just hadn't emerged. It was almost as though some small, wiser part of him had stepped right up, reached right out, and nudged a warning elbow into his ribs as it hissed caution in his ear. He hadn't understood that instinctive warning, but he had heeded it.
He looked at the glasses again and then put them back on. Well, maybe he would ask Lois. He couldn't see how it would hurt, especially now.
He found himself drawn to the dark patch of night sky he could see above the brick building opposite. Behind him, the lights of the apartment flickered, dimmed and then brightened. He frowned. There had been brownouts all over the city in thepast two days; services were breaking down more and more by the minute it seemed. He wondered if he should go search the apartment for a flashlight or candles and then grimaced. Candles and brownouts. What did it matter?
Metropolis had more to concern itself with than these.
And he had Lois. He thought about her imminent arrival, about how much he was looking forward to seeing her again. In the midst of madness a shining ray of…well, if not hope, then certainly a gentle solace.
His mind filled itself with thoughts of her, like a flame in the dark, and he lost himself in the one memory he had. The one thing that was bright and shining still in his life.
He was still staring blindly out into the growing night and the crazy paving stutter of a red neon glow when he heard the soft, tentative knock on the front door.
Actually, he thought he'd heard a rustle of clothing and Lois muttering to herself just seconds before the knock. Something about straightening up and flying right and if you start crying now, Lane…
But he couldn't have, could he? So he must have been imagining that.
Lois looked pristine as ever when he bounded up the stairs and opened the door. If she *had* been considering dissolving into tears there was no sign of it on her face, which was cool and collected…and beautiful. Just as he remembered it.
He smiled at her and felt his heart give that inexplicable little double beat that the sight of her always seemed to produce. "Hey. Come on in."
But she stood there, her face changing, suddenly uncertain, poised on the stoop as though about to take flight. Clark regarded her quizzically. Behind her, in the shadowed darkness of the porch, he saw to his surprise that it was raining. Drops of it glistened on the upturned collar of her coat like a scatter of zirconia and in her hair, which had that slightly fuzzy, curled look of dampness.
He saw her swallow slightly. She shook her head, backed up a small, reluctant half pace. "You know, maybe this wasn't such a good idea. I mean you must have lots to do…*I* have lots to do and — "
She stopped as he reached out to snag the sleeve of her coat, tugging her easily over the threshold before she could evade him.
"You forgot your umbrella again," he commented mildly, ignoring her dissembling as though she hadn't spoken at all, and suddenly, from out of nowhere, almost as though it was another who spoke, he heard his voice take on a knowing, teasing note, "I keep on telling you about that."
He saw her glance at him, looking just a little startled and felt his own sense of surprise at the words.
"Yes. Yes, you do." Lois' gaze turned examining. Under it, Clark felt suddenly like a fly caught in amber. "You think I should have it — "
" — permanently tied to your wrist. Like those mittens kids used to have so they couldn't lose them." he finished and then, awkward with the moment, shrugged. "Mother Hen Kent," he mimicked a scathing falsetto and then, more softly and dropping the mockery, "Funny…the things you remember."
And the things you don't.
Lois nodded and then gave him an uncertain smile. "I guess."
He smiled back. "Well," he said lightly, dismissive of the memory, taking nothing of hope from it and weaving a veiled warning beneath his jocularity that she shouldn't either, "looks like I can be certain of one thing, at least. I was…I am…clearly a pretty smart guy. I'm not the one who got soaked forgetting my umbrella in the rain," he elaborated with a small grin as she frowned.
Lois blinked and Clark gestured with an easy charm for her to precede him down the stairs before she could work up a retort in answer.
Closing the door sealed off the blast of chill air that had come in out of the night with her. Clark grew immediately contrite. "I should have had some tea already brewing. You must be freezing. I'm sorry, I got…kinda lost. I was thinking about — "
" — things. Well," he shrugged as she glanced at him, "you know."
She nodded. Both of them barely avoided taking a quick, flickering look at the darkening sky beyond the windows as it suddenly seemed much closer with the words, and the thoughts that lay behind them, making the room claustrophobic all at once. Then, the instant passed. Relief lay heavy as old dust on the air.
"I'll just go — " He indicated the kitchen nook uncomfortably and she smiled, nodding quick assent as she eased off her coat and settled herself on the sofa. She rubbed fitfully at her arms and he glanced at her as he set out mugs for them both.
"I can turn up the heat if you like."
"Oh no. That's okay. I'll be fine."
He shrugged and then smiled at her before turning back to his preparations. Lois settled herself back into the sofa.
It didn't take her more than a few moments to join him though. She leaned against the edge of the counter, watching him. "Need any help?"
He looked around at her with another smile. "That's okay. I can remember how to make oolong tea."
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean — "
"No. I know." He cut through her blurted apology. "It's all right. Really. I think I'm kind of getting used to not remembering things. Like you said, maybe it's a good thing, you know? Not knowing what I'm missing." He gave in to the urge to take that glance at the darkening light outside the apartment windows and then cleared his throat softly as he pulled his gaze away again. "What I'm…leaving behind."
There didn't seem to be much conviction in his voice. His hands stilled on the mug he was holding, his gaze settling on it, becoming lost in its depths as though it held all the answers to the universe. As the uncomfortable pause lengthened, Lois said softly, "You know…some of us might envy you."
That jerked him out of his fugue. "Me?" He looked at her, startled.
She shrugged. "Maybe you're the lucky one in all of this. With what's coming…" her own gaze darted to the windows and back, before softening on him, "…if you can't remember how it was…how will you miss it?"
Clark considered that. Then he grunted, a soft, wordless protest, and shook his head as he reached to fill the kettle from the tap. He frowned as the water sputtered briefly before coming online. "Maybe. I never thought of it that way. I don't feel so lucky," he added bleakly. "I think…" he paused, struggling to find the words to express his thoughts and then blurted, '…you know, we're *reporters*, Lois! That means something, doesn't it? It should stand for something! I don't want to miss out. I want to experience it. *All* of it. I mean, don't get me wrong. I don't want to die. I'm not *crazy*. I'd really much rather none of this was happening at all. But, if it has to…if we can't stop it…well, not being completely there, not having the whole picture…it just feels wrong. I need to know. I need to…to…"
"Be part of it," Lois said quietly.
"Yes!" He looked at her gratefully and then repeated softly, "*Yes*. Otherwise…what was the point in being here at all? What's the point of being alive?"
Lois, struck by the echo of her own, earlier words to Lex, nodded. "I'm sorry," she said. "I didn't realize…that was a dumb thing to say, wasn't it?"
He smiled a little. "Not really. And not half as dumb as some things I've heard in the past few days." He shrugged, dismissing the impact of what had been at times hurtful and unconsciously cruel remarks from colleagues and others. "It's like being bereaved, you know? People don't know what to say, what to do to help. And sometimes what they say doesn't come out too good. But I know they meant to help. Their intentions were good. And I appreciate it." He reached out a brief hand and laid it lightly to her shoulder. "Really. Don't worry about saying the wrong thing. To be honest, I'm just glad someone mentions…my circumstances…at all. Most people seem to think that it's not that bad a thing…all things considered. I mean, what's a little knock on the head compared to…well, you know. And as for the rest… That sports guy…the photographer…"
"Amos?" Lois said, her embarrassment overtaken by curiosity now as she watched him. She had never really considered what it must be like for him, fumbling around in a world he barely recognized any longer. She had thought of his amnesia as something that he would 'snap out of' eventually. And yes, it had seemed low on the list of priorities considering what was facing them. Like worrying over a rip in your jeans when you've just broken your leg, she supposed. Some of her colleagues thought it was almost a joke, she knew. She'd barely taken it much more seriously than that herself. And suddenly she was ashamed for not understanding just how frightening and disorientating his loss of memory was for him.
"Yeah, Amos. He almost tied his larynx in a knot yesterday trying to avoid mentioning my amnesia. Like it was some dirty little secret he wasn't supposed to know."
She shook her head and he said hastily, "No, it's okay. He was trying to be nice. He just didn't know how, that was all. You know, that's one thing I think I've learned in the past few days that I suspect that I always knew? You know…before. There aren't many people around who are mean for the sake of it. Most are just blundering around, making the best of a bad deal. They don't always get it right, but, hey, you can't fault them for trying."
Lois looked skeptical. In her opinion, almost everyone was mean for the sake of it. And if they weren't trying to screw you over or pull a fast one on you they were going to have to prove it first, before she changed her mind about them.
"Anyway…" Clark smiled again, a little wistfully she thought, as he returned to his task. "Such is my life right now." He sighed a little, a small sound she knew she wasn't supposed to hear and then, as the pause threatened to stretch into uncomfortable silence again, "Mr. White called earlier," he said casually. "He said everyone was gathering at the Planet. I thought that's where you'd be too."
He looked back at her, questioningly, and she shrugged. "I wanted to be with…we can go there after the tea. If that's what you want?"
Clark paused, thinking about it. Then he turned his head to view her. "To be honest? No. No, I don't think I do. I mean Mr. White and Jimmy and the rest are a great bunch of guys, but…well, it's not really where I fit in. Is it? I mean, not right now. And…" he hesitated, his eyes resting solemnly on her face. "This is nice. Just being here. With you."
Lois smiled shyly and then, because she realized it was becoming an especially sloppy smile and that perhaps there was more in her eyes than she'd intended there to be, she cleared her throat and glanced away. Why did gazing into his eyes give her such a feeling of…home? Of comfort and warmth and a sense of belonging, of being exactly where she was supposed to be? Where she needed to be?
Seemingly oblivious to her sudden discomfort, Clark reached into the overhead cupboard for the tea. "Did you get what you wanted?" he changed the subject smoothly. "From Mr. Luthor?" he added, as she looked faintly startled.
"Oh." She shook her head. "No. No, Lex…wanted to talk about something else." She paused and he turned his head after a moment as he felt the weight of her stare.
It was a look he recognized. One he'd been seeing more and more often on the faces of his friends over the past few days when they spoke to him, studied him, though they tried to hide it from him. As though they were waiting for him to do or say something he couldn't quite grasp. An almost palpable disappointment radiated from them when he failed to answer that faint questioning in their eyes, failed to fill in the expectant pause in the conversation they held out to him like a baited trap, failed to make the right move.
Whatever the right move was, he thought dispiritedly. Sometimes, he felt as though the whole world was keeping some awesome secret from him. In on the joke and laughing at his fumbling around. Playing a game with rules that only he didn't understand.
Lois' studying gaze on his held that same sense of expectant waiting now.
"What?" he said uncomfortably.
She shook her head, as though irritated with herself for expecting a response and, somehow, that hurt him more than not knowing. He didn't want to let her down, disappoint her. He *should* know. Obviously.
At least…it was obvious to her. Whatever it was.
He held back a small sigh.
"Nothing. I was just waiting for the usual Clark Kent Lecture on why Lex Luthor is a despicable person. He's not exactly on your list of nominations for Human Being of the Year," Lois explained, as he looked curious.
"He isn't?" Clark frowned as he went back to his preparations. "Why?"
She shrugged and regarded him quizzically, as though it was something she'd often tried to answer herself. "I don't know. I guess it was just one of those instant dislikes. Like two cats meeting on a rooftop. You…bristle…"
Clark gave her an amused sideways glance. "I bristle?"
"Every time you find yourself sharing the same room," she confirmed firmly. "You get this little…bite in your voice when you talk to him. He does too."
"Really? Well that's strange. He seems like a nice enough guy," said Clark slowly as he set out a plate of cookies on the counter.
"He is a nice guy," Lois said reaching over and snagging one of the almond and cherry squares. "He's a very nice guy. Mmmmmm…hey, these are good! Are they homemade?" She demolished the first cookie with the enthusiastic endorsement and reached to pick up another.
Clark regarded her and then the rapidly emptying plate as she took a third, before he said, "Thanks," sardonically and refilled it. "I think so. At least, I think maybe Mom left them for me at some point. I don't recognize the handwriting on the label of the container. I just know it isn't mine. I saw him on TV last night," he added. "Luthor. He's donating a substantial sum of money to emergency relief agencies, in the event any of them are still around to help out after…well, anyway, that seems like a humanitarian gesture. And he's asked for private collectors and museums to transport national art treasures to him for safekeeping in some safe storage facility he has that he says should withstand the impact."
Lois frowned. "What kind of…storage facility?" Hadn't Lex said he didn't want his private little hideaway advertised?
Clark shrugged. "Dunno. He didn't say. No one asked. That I heard of. I guess he meant a private bank vault somewhere. Most millionaires have one of those for storing their private art collections, don't they?" He gave her a half-curious glance and she nodded.
"Yeah. Yeah, I guess that's what he must have meant."
"Well, anyway, it seems a generous enough offer." He paused in the act of setting the small strainer with its cargo of leaves over one of the mugs. "Although…"
"Although?" Lois prodded as he stopped again.
"I dunno. Maybe I just think safekeeping people might be more useful than making sure some paintings survive, that's all."
Lois nodded sagely as she went back to nibbling. "Balzar's cat."
He glanced at her.
"Balzar's cat," she reiterated. "You know. Balzar's theorem. If you're standing before a burning building and you only have time to make one choice, do you rescue the cat trapped inside it or the Michaelangelo painting hanging on the wall?"
"Oh," Clark said. And then, after a few moments of silence, "The cat."
They spoke in unison, her decision overlapping his. Clark grinned at her and she returned it and then leaned her elbows on the counter with a sigh and took another bite of cherry. "You realize that proves us to be Philistines?"
Clark's grin widened as he went back to diffusing the tea with an unconcerned shrug. "But heroes to the cat," he predicted.
Lois laughed and he felt a small spark of warmth fill him, listening to it.
"Cats can look after themselves," she told him wisely. "By the time you got in there to rescue it, it would already be out the back door and watching you from the sidewalk."
Clark made an absent moue of agreement with this pessimism.
"Now, you ask Balzar's theorem of the cat and *he'd* choose the cat," Lois added, waving the remains of the cookie at him in emphasis. "Always looking out for number one, that's your basic cat."
"You could teach the cat to rescue the cat," Clark considered.
"Or rescue the painting," Lois countered.
"Or teach it fire fighting skills so it could put out the fire."
"Or hit the alarm."
"Or dial 911."
They paused and, in the natural lull formed in the wake of this batting back and forth, grinned at each other. Lois bit into another cookie.
Clark, feeling a slow warmth bloom in the center of his chest, knew that this was something familiar and known to him, something he'd indulged in often with the woman beside him. Sparring and teasing and exchanging thoughts as swift as ideas.
"Well, much as my Mom has an appreciation for good art, she'd never forgive me if I left the cat," Clark said after a moment. "Whether it needs rescuing or not."
Lois paused in her quest for the perfect cookie, which had now amassed four victims. Caught in his preparations, Clark failed to note her sudden attention.
"Your Mom likes cats?" she said finally, her tone both casual and careful.
"Well, yeah. I guess it comes from living on the farm, you know. Not that cats are her favorites. We never really had house cats. Most of them were barn cats. Big guys. Liked to live outdoors. They were friendly enough, but kinda aloof, you know? Knew their own minds. I remember — "
He blinked suddenly and Lois put a soft hand to his arm as she looked up into the startled expression that had overtaken his face. "You remember?"
"We had a cat called Barnabas. Big. Blue striped tabby. With the most amazing green eyes. Like jade. He used to lay in wait behind the barn and ambush me when I got home from school…" Clark's voice faltered and he turned his head, seeming to come back to her from a long distance. "I remember. I can see him so clearly."
Lois' eyes were alight. "What else do you remember?"
Clark paused, squinting into air. Lois watched him, her heart reaching out to him, and then he sighed, shook his head. "Nothing," he said.
His disappointment was painful to hear. Lois huffed out a sigh and patted him against the arm. "Oh, well. Never mind. It'll come," she said confidently. "Cats," she added and as he gave her a glance, shrugged. "Hey, you stick to what you know, right?" She smiled and, after the barest hesitation, he smiled back.
"Right!" Lois insisted firmly. "So…you like cats?"
"I…think — " He caught her chiding expression out of the corner of his eye and amended, "Yes." He nodded. "Yes. I like cats. You know…" he went on, more thoughtfully, losing the definite edge he'd injected into his voice as his eyes took on a faraway cast again, "I *do* like cats. At least…I don't think I've ever kept a cat…have I?"
He glanced at her. She shook her head, her expression riveted on him, her eyes softly encouraging…
Clark pulled his gaze away and fixed it on the mugs, before he could be lost in that velvet trap and lose the thread of a train of thought he was keen to explore further. "But," he continued falteringly. "I…I remember just last week I saw one stuck on the third story ledge of an apartment building. Goodness knows how he made it up there, but that little guy was pretty scared by the time I spotted him. Only took a minute to fly up an' get him though…he clung onto my arm with his claws all the way down to the street and when I took him to the animal shelter — "
Lost in the unspooling memory now, he wasn't watching his partner at all any more. Had he been, he would have been silenced by her suddenly round-eyed expression. The cookie she'd been delicately nibbling at was frozen at her lips, oatmeal slowly melting, unheeded, on her tongue.
She remembered that cat. It had been a slow news day and a couple of the dailies had picked up the rescue as a page four, human-interest story. She had carefully cut out the three-quarter-page photo that had accompanied the two paragraphs of copy as a cute addition to her scrapbook. The Superhero intent on the cat, barely noticing the camera's attention as he cradled the wet and bedraggled little urchin ofan animal gently against his chest with as much care as he'd have taken with a child. The same care he took with her, she'd remembered with a wistful smile as she'd pasted it carefully into the book, when he took her flying with him.
Ohmi…*God*, she thought, the exclamation gibbering in her head as realization struck her. He thinks he's Superman now! She recalled the department shrink at the police precinct talking about how her partner was suffering from Superman Complex, but no way had she thought the woman meant it this literally! She opened her mouth to put him right —
/He's what we call a chronic do-gooder…this kind of frustration can be a set-back…/
Lois closed her mouth with a snap as the shrink's warning tones sounded in her head like an alarm.
Easy, Lane. Remember? she added her own warning to herself. Don't push. Go with the flow. Humor him. She frowned. Or was that lunatics you were advised to do that with? Dangerous criminals? Wild animals? Rabid Dobermans? She shrugged. Whatever. Anyway —
Clark, oblivious to her dilemma, was still rambling on softly to himself about cats he had known.
Lois pasted a smile on her face and reached out abruptly to pat him on the shoulder. It ended up slightly harder than she'd intended. Jolted, Clark stopped in mid-stream and threw her a quick, startled glance.
"That…that's great, Clark!" Lois enthused brightly. "Just…great! Um…you think this rain is gonna stop anytime soon? You know, if we're gonna check out soon I'd much rather do it with a tan than — "
Clark frowned after her as she headed for the windows on the other side of the room and then sighed. Obviously he'd been boring her. 'Course you were boring her, Kent, he admonished himself. Cats I loved when I was a kid? Geez…
En route for the windows, Lois bent quickly to switch off the TV.
"No, don't," he blurted, forgetting his self-castigation.
She froze, looking up at him and then straightened, awkward as she took back her reaching hand. Clark gave her a rueful look.
"Sorry, I just…I know it's kinda morbid, but I need to know what's happening. You know?"
She nodded. "Yes, I know. I guess it takes more than being hit by a car to dull those reporter's instincts, huh?" she added as she walked to stand by the window.
A few moments later, he appeared at her side. "Here." He handed her a cup of the hot, soothing tea and she sipped gently at it before making a small sigh of approval.
"You're the only person that I know of who can make good tea," she said with a soft smile. "And the only person who could persuade me to drink it."
He chuckled softly and she felt her heart leap suddenly. He hadn't laughed like that, easy and warm, since the accident. And all at once, she realized just how much she had missed it.
"What?" he said, watching her, his smile dying as his expression turned quizzical.
Lois shook her head. "It's just…oh, nothing." She returned her gaze to the window, took another sip of the warming tea.
"Do I keep it for you?"
She frowned and turned her head to view him with the question. "What?"
"The tea. Do I keep it for you?" He indicated her cup with a nod of his head and then looked in the direction of the kitchen. "I don't think I drink much tea myself."
"Are you kidding? Mister 'I invented oolong tea'? Clark, if it wasn't for my insisting you dose up on good old American deep roasted double blend at least once a day, I'd think you'd drunk enough tea to have some of that English ice-water permanently siphoned into your blood!" Lois smiled a little and then asked, puzzled, "What makes you think that?"
"Oh…well it just took me a while to find the kettle. It was tossed right in the back of one of the cabinets. So, I kind of figured tea didn't feature very much. Or coffee, come to that. Although, strangely enough, I seem to have been enjoying both in the past couple of days. Maybe my tastes are changing. It's odd. I eat a lot of takeout too. Right?"
"Well…some. I guess…but — " Lois shook her head as though re-orientating herself and then said, "Why?"
Clark shrugged. "No pot holders around. Not one."
"Oh. Well…that's odd."
"In a lot of ways, I don't think I spend a lot of time here at all," Clark mused, looking around the room with a jaundiced eye. "Usually."
"I wouldn't say that. Why would you say that?" Lois' frown creased deeper into her brow.
Clark shrugged. "Just a feeling."
"Well, maybe you needed *new* pot holders," Lois returned gamely to the earlier question. "Maybe you'd just tossed out the old ones when you had your accident and you didn't have time to replace them. Or, you know, maybe you've just misplaced them somewhere around here. Let's face it, Clark, you're not exactly compos men — uh, I mean you're a little confused, that's all."
Her tone had turned sickly soothing, a patronizing undertone that once upon a time would have immediately had Clark seething with mingled frustration, annoyance and amusement, unable to decide which he should choose.
But now he said nothing and she went on cheerleading, in the same sweetly saccharine tone, "Once you get your memory back you'll probably find all these things you've lost and in perfectly sensible places too. Like the kettle. You probably put it in the cupboard when you were…well a little more confused than you are now…and you just didn't notice, that's all. I mean, it's always been out when I've been here. And I'm sure I've *seen* pot holders around. I mean, you must *have* them, right. So they must *be* here. Somewhere."
Delighted with this logic, she beamed up at him. Mystery solved.
"Maybe." Clark seemed to have lost interest all at once. He shifted position, leaning up against the window frame. He looked out into the gloom of the alley. "Listen to us. Trying to solve the Great Pot Holders Mystery when everything's about to go to hell in a hand-basket. It doesn't matter. None of it matters."
He looked down at the slim hand she reached out to rest on his arm and then up into her earnest face in surprise.
"It's not over yet. I haven't given up. You shouldn't either. There's still time."
"Time?" Clark gave a short laugh that brought her up short. A sound she'd never heard from him before. Despair. Anguish. A fatalistic bark that chilled her to the marrow. That wasn't her Clark. Her Clark was the optimistic one of this partnership. The one who cheered *her* on, who refused to accept the bad in people or give in to the cynicism of failing hope. That was *her* role. She was the cynical pessimist; he was her anchor who reminded her that, now and then, good people existed in a world she'd long decided had gone rotten and to the bad. Hearing the bitter tang in his voice now made her as disorientated as though the ground had rocked under her feet.
"Time for what?" Clark asked and then, as he stared at her intently, disbelief flared in his eyes. "You still think he's going to save us, don't you? Superman. You *still* think he's going to fly to the rescue." He shook his head as though at a bad joke.
Lois flushed and pulled back her hand. "I haven't lost faith, Clark. Not in him," she insisted, and yet, she looked away, out into the gathering dark, and knew that she hadn't really meant the words of reassurance she'd tried to offer him, that he was right to be scathing about them. She'd lost hope long before. Superman wasn't going to magically appear to save them. Not this time. Nothing would save them now. They were living in a bad horror movie and doomed to extinction. And the one person she had relied on to provide a miracle had abandoned them all.
Clark seemed to regret his response, seeing her sudden despondency grow as a result of his mockery. "Hey, maybe he will," he said, a lame attempt to humor her.
Lois sighed. An awkward, lonely silence ensued. "Is it just me," she said at last, "or is it starting to feel like Siberia around here lately?"
Clark nodded, falling in gladly with her change of subject, feeling ashamed of himself for baiting her. It was just so galling to hear her put so much faith in the superhero, somehow. It made him feel things he didn't understand. Anger for one. And frustration. Jealousy? He shook his head.
"Weather's getting rougher," he agreed. He followed her glance out through the glass. "The rain's stopped though. Why don't we take this onto the terrace? It'll be fresh out there. There's something about the air after the rain. It makes the whole world seem…new." A small sadness entered his voice with that last and he glanced automatically up into the grayed out sky.
He moved away from the window with the suggestion. "No!" Lois blurted, darting out a hand and grabbing at his sleeve to stop him cold.
God, no! He thought he was Superman! He hadn't realized it himself yet, she could see that, he'd had no idea what he'd said, rambling over the gaps and new-found nuggets of his memory, just a moment ago. But what if he did? What if he figured it out? Lois glanced through the window. That terraced wall was far too low for her peace of mind. And way too high off the ground. What if he decided to try out his newly recalled 'powers'? What if he — ? A sudden, terrifying image of her partner leaping off the terrace headfirst and crashing into the garbage cans far below — far, far below — flashed into her tumbling thoughts.
No…no, she had to protect him from himself. She had to keep him away from…from high places and…sharp objects and electrical sockets and gas stoves and…and…tall buildings and locomotives —
Locomotives? Lois, what are you saying? Get a grip.
"No." She took a hard breath and then gave her partner, who was frowning at her now as though she was the freshest inmate in the asylum, a completely ingenuous smile.
A sharp rattle of the windows made them both jump, and they turned their heads to where a sudden gust of wind had lashed a spray of rain against the glass.
"There, see?" Lois breathed out thankfully, waving her free hand at the view. Her other hand seemed frozen onto his sleeve, her fingers clenched in the plaid material. She didn't think she could let go if he asked her to. "It's not stopped raining. We'll get wet. On the terrace," she went on. "Not good."
Clark was beginning to grow an amused gleam in his eyes. "No," he agreed solemnly, lips twitching. "Not good at all. It's okay, Lois. We can stay here," he assured her as his grin emerged.
Lois nodded. "Good. That's…yes. Good."
"So…you can let go now."
She pried her hand loose of his sleeve and moved awkwardly away, heading for the kitchen with the intention of dumping her mug. Forget the tea. She needed coffee. Strong coffee.
And that was when the lights went out.
There was a small pause.
"Where d'you keep your flashlight?"
Clark turned his head to find Lois peering around her, inching towards the kitchen nook as she felt her way across the wall. He wondered why she was having so much trouble. The unsettled strobe of the ad sign behind him seemed to be providing more than enough illumination for him to see quite well.
He moved closer and put a hand on her arm, then let go again hastily as she gasped out a small, startled breath.
"For God's sake, Clark!" she hissed. "Do that again and I won't live to *see* the end of the world!"
"Sorry," he whispered back and then, frowning, "Why are we whispering?"
She gave him an impatient glance and then turned away. Clark noticed for the first time that she'd stopped in front of the electrical junction box. Lois reached up to tug open the metal door and brought out the object of her quest.
"How'd you know that was in there?" Clark demanded as she switched on the Maglite with a satisfied sigh.
Lois shrugged. "Doesn't everyone keep their flashlight in there?" she said. She jiggled the circuit breaker half-heartedly, as though already aware that it wasn't going to make any difference. She wasn't disappointed. "Not local then. Half the city is probably out." She glanced across his shoulder at the still faintly glowing ad sign illuminating the alley. "Looks like the next block is on a different circuit."
Clark followed her glance briefly and nodded. "It's breaking down," he said morosely.
"Everything. The phones, the lights…people are abandoning things all over the city. Their jobs, their homes. I heard it on the news. The roads out are jammed with people trying to get clear before that thing hits. As though that'll do them any good. Shops are being looted…even the police are giving up and trying to get home to their families. Society's ripping apart at the seams."
"Tell me about it. Do you know how long it took me to find a cab that would take me here? And as for finding a bus or a train…" She threw up her hands in exasperation at the appalling lack of consideration public servants had in times of crisis.
"They've shut down most of the stations. Not enough staff left to man them. And I heard on the news that — "
"Yeah, well, anyway, right now I'd loot the nearest candle store, if I could find it," Lois cut him off with a dismissive mutter, as she used the shallow flashlight beam to pick out a path through the furniture of the living room. She didn't want to get into a discussion on how their world was going insane around her in its death throes. She couldn't bear it. Better to focus on the immediate, on the now…let each moment pass unremarked. Anything else was too painful to endure.
"Okay. Candles." She stopped by the kitchen nook and turned back to face him, sweeping the flashlight beam low to avoid hitting him in the eyes with its glare. "Candles?" she prompted again impatiently when he hesitated.
"Oh. Sorry." She shrugged in the darkness, her expression turning suddenly contrite. "Dumb question, I guess, huh?"
He flashed her a bright grin from among the shadows. "Yeah. If you hadn't found the flashlight we'd still be looking for that too," he added ruefully as he followed her path through the furniture and ended up at her side.
She smiled back and then, drawing in a tight breath and looking purposefully around her before coming back to him, "Well," she put up a hand and patted him against one shoulder briefly, "you're a pretty methodical kinda guy. Usually. Organized. You know?" She turned around. "So, let's think. Where's the most logical place to keep candles?"
Clark tilted his head to view her. "Where'd you keep yours?"
"Mine? Oh," she shrugged again, looking slightly hunted, and he held back a smile, guessing that Lois Lane wasn't at all as methodical, organized or logical as she'd claimed *he* was. "I…forget. Kitchen cabinets," she added a hurried guess. She headed for them, sure of her direction now.
Clark reached out and snagged her arm, pulling her to a halt and turning her in the opposite direction. "*Bathroom* cabinets."
"Really?" She glanced back at him as he guided her carefully in the right direction. "Why?"
"Well, because…there's only two cabinets in there to search rather than a half dozen," he said, after thinking about it for a moment. He grinned down at her in the darkness. "And because if we don't find any in there, we can always use the scented candles I discovered in there yesterday."
"Oh," Lois said.
/Scented candles? Clark?/ she thought, as she followed him hastily through the bedroom. She tried gamely to match his long, determined stride and keep the darting, dodging flashlight beam ahead of him to light his way. But he hardly paused or hesitated as he made determinedly for the bathroom and it was hard not to have to skip and hop to catch him up. Lois frowned. The darkness hardly seemed to be bothering him at all. Must be all that country raising, she thought sagely. Martha probably fed him a ton of carrots when he was a kid. But Clark's enviable night vision hardly prickled at the edge of her thoughts any longer than a moment as they were swamped by the much more interesting and intriguing images provoked by those scented candles he'd just mentioned.
*Those* produced thoughts she'd never considered before and gave her partner altogether a more sensual side that she'd never thought to ascribe to him. Well…at least…sometimes…she'd harbored the odd — rare…very, very rare — thought that maybe there was more to Mr. Urban Reporter than a few semi-smart suits and some garish ties…but she hadn't really ever thought —-
Blushing slightly, she cut off the gibbering in her head with a quick shake. No need for embarrassment, Lois, she told herself firmly, if somewhat unconvincingly. Everyone fantasizes about their partner. Now and then. It's natural — obvious curiosity. It doesn't *mean* anything.
Her thoughts wandered on to an image of a steam filled bathroom and that sensual, handsome…muscular…partner about whom she wasn't curious at all. Not in the least. Uh-uh. No way…
…reclining in a foam filled bath. Sculpted chest and arms cast in a soft, golden glow from the candles flickering around the room…as he soaped up that barrel chest and —-
The erotic images scattered into oblivion as Lois buried her nose hard in the point between Clark's shoulders. They'd reached the bathroom, she realized belatedly as she righted herself with a grunt of annoyance. And he'd stopped dead in the doorway. Right in front of her. Without any kind of warning at all. What kind of place was that to stop? In the dark, like that? How was she supposed to see where — ?"
Clark had turned to lay a steadying hand on her shoulder. She shrugged it off, irritated. "You're a great case for fitting people with indicator lights, Clark," she grumbled, rubbing hard at her throbbing nose. Boy, those shoulder-blades of his must be made of plate steel! She saw the question forming on his face and added crabbily, before he could work up to asking, "I'm fine. Just give me a little warning next time, okay? Candles?" she prompted as he looked unsatisfied with her answer.
Clark paused and then, to her relief, he took the hint and went back to their quest, entering the bathroom and making straight for the cabinet above the sink. He opened its door.
Lois avoided looking at him as she directed the Maglite's beam into the cabinet's interior. Inside, she saw nothing remotely similar in any way, shape or form to utilitarian candles. Just a very orderly collection of typically male accoutrements, the type of thing they always seemed to find necessary to have around. And they said women were packrats with this kind of stuff! Hah! She hadn't known the man yet who didn't have more cosmetics hidden in his bathroom cabinets than a whole troop of Miss Universe contestants combined. The only difference was in the type of cosmetics they hoarded. The quantity was entirely the same. And she defied any macho he-man to prove differently.
Clark seemed to be one of the less vain of the species, she grudgingly admitted, as she swept a curious gaze through the small collection of bottles and jars. She raised a brow as she recognized an expensive brand of powder and cologne. Mystique. She would have thought Adonis or Man About Metropolis would have been more his style. She actually *liked* that brand. She blinked as she found herself leaning forward a little on reflex with the drift of her thoughts and caught herself trying to sniff out the scent on her partner as he stood, oblivious, before her. Appalled, she rocked back abruptly on her heels.
What is *wrong* with you, Lois? she demanded of herself in dismay. You've smelled cologne on him before.
Yes, she had, but it sure hadn't been Mystique he'd been using then. Not that it hadn't been nice, what he'd been using previously, at least she had always thought it was and it had always made her feel…
/Oh, for Pete's sake, what does it *matter* what he used?/ a savagely impatient inner voice interrupted. /Or what he uses *now* for that matter? Geez!/
She didn't seem to have an answer. But, despite her inner self's disgust, she seemed very aware of him all at once as he continued his search of the cabinet's interior. Even in the shadows, she could see the broad expanse of his shoulders, filling the space before her. A soft heat, ignited in her belly in the wake of her earlier carnal thoughts and barely extinguished, began to make its presence known again and she grimaced as she watched him,irked with herself.
So now you know, Lane, she told herself acidly. The End of the World makes a gal just plain horny as a bobcat in heat.
The deliberate crudity of the thought failed to produce its intended result. She flushed, ashamed of herself, but making herself feel guilty didn't stop her thinking about her partner in ways she never had before. Or, at least, in ways she'd never admitted to doing before. And in the lewdest of terms too.
And there was one unexpected result of her deliberate attempt to shame herself. She felt tears prickle at the corners of her eyes.
She shook her head and sighed irritably, blinking them back into retreat before they could become a serious threat. The end of the world is nigh, Lois. For God's sake, that doesn't mean you have to check out as a quivering pile of emotional jello. Straighten up!
"Nope." Clark's voice broke into her sudden miserable mood. Lois craned closer automatically to view the cabinet as he sighed. "Nothing."
"Nothing?" Lois pushed past him to rummage through the cabinet herself. "Nope. You know, your reputation as a boy scout is in serious danger, Kent," she advised as she gave up.
There was a small, but discernible pause in the air of the room. She turned to find Clark looking back at her, a quizzical glint in his eyes.
"You think I'm a boy scout?" He sounded amused.
She frowned. She'd never really thought about it much, but… "Well…yeah. You give that impression."
The sudden drawl in his voice sent a low, electric shiver down her spine. Clearly Clark didn't view himself as a boy scout at all, to judge from the darkly humorous note that had suddenly entered his tone. And suddenly Lois was less than certain of that mild mannered reputation herself. There was something in that voice of his that made her feel…at risk…all at once. Something dangerous. She swallowed. "Um…"
He shifted his stance, a simple, sinuous motion of his hips bringing him a step closer. A step that crowded her up against the washbasin behind her all at once as it cut off her automatic move backwards in retreat. Flustered, Lois looked up into the face of her partner in confusion as he reached out a hand to cup her chin and tip her head upwards.
"Maybe I need to work on that," he murmured, locking her disconcerted gaze with his.
For one insane and crazy moment, she thought he was going to kiss her. Then, before she could decide whether to be horrified at the thought or merely curious, he let her go. Lois stifled a small spark of something that couldn't possibly be disappointment and eyed him with the same amount of wariness that she might have used had she found herself facing a rogue panther in his bathroom. A man-eater. About to pounce.
Clark didn't move back. He set his palms against the porcelain on either side of her, effectively trapping her in what was an unsettlingly small enclosure, making it impossible for her to reclaim her own personal space or avoid touching him in…places she didn't really want to think about. Although, she couldn't seem to help thinking about them, try as she might to keep her mind clear and detached.
She could feel the softness of his shirt against her arm, the firm pressure of his hip pressing into her own, and their heads were so close…so close she could smell the aroma of the shampoo he'd used that morning…so close she could feel heat rising from the skin of his throat…so close it would take only the barest motion from either of them to bring their lips into contact…for her to…for him to…oh, sweet…
For a horrified moment, Lois thought she'd moaned aloud. She swallowed the heart that had suddenly climbed into her throat, closing it up tight. The electric heat that was coursing through her suddenly seemed to have transferred itself to the air in the room; heavy and cloying, tense with the friction of gathering storms. It prickled at the back of her neck like the brush of soft, teasing fingers against her skin. Lois was no novice. She was able very well to recognize the spark of sexual heat in the charged ion atmosphere drumming between them. And, from the very uncharacteristic glint in the eyes of her partner — a feral gleam in the dimness of the room — it was clear he wasn't immune to it either.
His face was in shadow, but she found that she could trace every contour, every angle and curve from memory as her startled eyes traveled across it, trying to gain some clue as to his intentions.
This is crazy… she told herself faintly. This is *Clark*, for Pete's sake! This is your partner!
Crazy or not, the bathroom suddenly seemed very small and claustrophobic. And Clark still way too close for comfort.
"Um…the kitchen!" Lois squeaked. "Let's try the kitchen!"
"Hmmmm?" Clark's gaze traveled over her in a way that suddenly made her wish for body armor. He tilted his head, eyeing her consideringly. "Okay… A little kinky maybe. But, hey, suits me…"
/Kinky?!?/ Lois blinked rapidly in shock and then hastily closed her mouth from where it had hung open. Not a word she had ever expected to hear emerge from the lips of her partner. And certainly not a word she'd ever envisaged hearing him voice in regard to her! To…them! But then…he wasn't her partner was he? He was a stranger suddenly, someone she'd never seen before, someone she didn't know at all. She had never met this man before. This tall, shadowed, hard-bodied, well-muscled man who was crowding her close, invading her space, heating her up and dizzying her with the heavy scent of musk and Mystique…
"No!" She jerked upright in panic, and then regretted the move as it brought her into tantalizing contact with the hard male body imprisoning her. The soft press of her breasts against his chest gave her her first indication of just how aroused she'd become and she flushed with shame. Despite her humiliation, however, she found herself still focused on how good he smelled up close, how firm that body was…she forced herself back the miniscule inch of space that remained to her, breaking the provocative touch of him against her.
"Uh…Candles! Remember? We're looking for candles!"
"*Were* looking," Clark corrected in a soft voice that Lois had never heard from him before and which widened her eyes even as it sent shivers coursing through her spine. "Right now though…" he smiled and Lois caught her breath, "I think we've got all the electricity we need."
He reached out and traced a light finger down the outer curve of her arm, all the way down to her wrist. Lois barely suppressed a shiver in response. Her breath was becoming a rasp in her throat, her heart a wild thing beneath her breast, its heavy thud a sharp staccato beat against her skin. His fingers curled around her wrist, ignoring her soft, wordless protest as he lifted her hand.
Lois found her eyes drawn to the dark gleam of his hair as he bent his head over her outstretched palm, and involuntarily closed her eyes as she felt the hot, light sweep of his lips graze her skin. This time the shiver that ran through her was more pronounced. She stuttered her eyes open again as she felt his touch recede, unwilling to let him see how easily he was able to arouse her, how disconcerted she was by his attentions.
He smiled as he raised his head to look into her eyes and she was suddenly mortified to realize that she wasn't hiding anything from him at all. He smiled as he straightened, a lazy, knowing grin that she suddenly longed to slap off his face, and then he said, "Don't you agree?"
That confused her. The intensity of the moment had made it seem to stretch to infinity; she had all but forgotten his earlier words, before his kiss had dizzied her senses and made a mockery of her thoughts.
"W-what?" she blurted, more than passing aware that he still held her wrist lightly within his grasp. His thumb was caressing a soft, aimless path against the pulse point in its hollow in an entirely disconcerting way that made her want to squirm. The touch was so intense, she was almost surprised that it didn't produce an instant sizzle of heat or a flash of sparks, and she was aware that he must also be able to feel the panicked jolt of her pulse beneath the thin veneer of skin he was smoothly stroking with that feather-soft, back and forward glide of his fingertips.
His grin sharpened. He let her loose. "Electricity," he reiterated obligingly, his tone much like one would use to a backward child or foreigner who was having difficulty understanding simple English. "All we need. Right?"
"No…" Lois shook her head violently, suddenly roused to make some kind of protest. "No, we haven't! That's why we should go look in…in…the kitchen! That's right, the kitchen! Right now!"
Lois stifled a wince at the clear tinge of panic she heard in her voice. But Clark chuckled and stepped back, releasing her suddenly from the curious spell he'd cast. And, like a shattered picture which had been a jumble of jigsaw pieces and now had abruptly been put back together, he was her partner again. The same old Clark she'd always known. And how could she have seen him as threatening? As dangerous? How could she ever seen him as…
Well, not *that*. Definitely not that. Uh uh…she hadn't been thinking of him like *that* at all.
"*I'll* try the kitchen."
"What? No, wait! Here, take the — " Lois started after him, offering up the flashlight, and paused as he turned back briefly and shook his head.
"Don't need it. Keep it." His hand brushed at her cheek fleetingly and she started. "You get those scented candles, just in case. Okay? I'll be right back."
Lois nodded, unable to speak any more and a moment later he had gone, leaving the room cold in his wake. The only source of heat the blazing throb against her cheek where his fingers had briefly connected with her skin, as though he'd branded his touch there. And leaving Lois weak at the knees and curiously aware of just how close peril had come to her before moving on. Like a mouse crouched in a burrow, feeling the shadow of the hawk sweep over it and away, she found that she was trembling. She told herself that it was anger. He had been teasing her. That was clear by how quickly he had switched off the seduction and reverted to good old Clark, boy scout, partner, friend and safe bet in a heartbeat. Trying — *deliberately* trying — to confuse her, in retaliation for that boy scout comment. How dare he tease her? How dare he play around with her feelings like that?
/Oh? So you do *have* feelings then? For Clark?/
"Shut up," she muttered aloud.
/You're only mad at him because it worked,/ the irritating voice in her head informed her smugly.
Lois snarled under her breath and began a rough search of the bathroom.
Clark made it all the way into the kitchen before the enormity of what he'd just done struck home.
He put his hands on the smooth top of the counter and leaned heavily on his palms, bowing his head. He took a long, deliberately slow breath as he tried to ease up on the ragged thump of his heart against his ribs, fighting against the heated flash of arousal that threatened still to sweep him into the maelstrom.
And then he took another.
And a third.
Finally, when he felt that he had a better grip on his emotions…and when the physical manifestations of that arousal had eased somewhat…he let himself review what had just happened, back there in his bathroom.
/Kinky?!?/ a dismayed part of him immediately demanded in a splutter.
Clark groaned, closing his eyes as though that could stop the flood of images scattering through his head and reminding him all too clearly of the word emerging from his lips and Lois' wide eyed reaction to it. He slid a hard palm across his face, leaning on his elbow. He dragged it down until it covered his mouth, as though the belated attempt to gag himself could change things, and then opened his eyes.
He hadn't, had he? Had he really, actually said that? Had he actually twisted his partner's innocent suggestion so brazenly, had he *actually* implied she wanted to — ?
A heavy flush of embarrassment flooded his cheeks and he felt hot with shame as he recalled that yes, he actually had done *all* of those, and his mind obligingly and somewhat irritatingly took the opportunity to remind him of some of the other things he'd said to her to boot. What had he been *thinking*? What must *she* be thinking?
/My God, Kent…you are seriously deranged, do you know that?/
Well, he hadn't meant to…he certainly hadn't intended to go *that* far! His only intention had been to get a little payback for that boy scout remark. He didn't know why, but there had been something in the way she'd said it that had irked him.
She hadn't meant it as anything derogatory, she hadn't been trying to be insulting, but still it had stung him all the same, pricked at his pride, goaded him into a response, a need to prove to her that she was wrong. That he couldn't be dismissed that easily, or ignored that lightly. He'd just felt the need to show her that she didn't have him as neatly pigeonholed as she thought she did. He'd just wanted to…prod back a little.
He wasn't a boy scout, or a…a farmboy from Kansas, he was a man. A man who was enamoured of his partner, a very beautiful woman, and he'd just wanted — needed — to convey that somehow. And it had all unraveled from there, gotten a little out of hand somewhere along the line, he still wasn't sure where or how. He had no idea where he'd taken the wrong turning, just that somehow, suddenly…there he was pressing his partner up against that washbasin and acting like —
/A total jerk!/
He groaned again and then began to laugh weakly and helplessly. Boy, that car didn't just scramble your brains enough to jar your memory loose, did it? he asked himself ruefully. It took away every last ounce of sense you had right along with it.
But…had it? For all *he* knew this was exactly how he'd always behaved with his partner. Teasing her this way. Flirting with her. He had few points of reference to tell him either way. Maybe this was perfectly normal behavior for him. Shameful or not. He cocked his head to one side, examining every nuance of his partner's reaction back there to his…
/…hitting on her, you were hitting on her, and don't deny it!/
He flushed, wondering just when his conscience had gotten to be that brutally honest. And so much of an irritation, besides. He *was* going to deny it too! He'd been…teasing, like he said. That was all. He hadn't exactly expected her to…throw her arms around him and reciprocate! His brains hadn't been scrambled to *that* extent by that car! He was still able to recognize wishful thinking when he encountered it. And though his thinking at the time had been *very* wishful, he was still capable of separating it from reality.
So…was it normal or not?
/To hit on a beautiful woman? You betcha, buddy!/
Clark sighed. No — he countered his other self's enthusiasm — to mess around with your partner.
Well…she hadn't been *that* surprised, it seemed to him…right up until he'd stepped over the boundaries of gentlemanly behavior with that kinky line. She had been…flustered. Yes. She sure had. A little confused, he thought. Disconcerted. Unsettled. All of which could be evidence on either side of the coin. What had been paramount in her eyes? Shock? Or…desire?
Okay, well — *against* desire — she certainly *hadn't* reciprocated. Wouldn't she have, if she'd been happy with the way he was behaving? On the other hand…perhaps she wasn't the type to take the lead in these matters. Maybe she liked a guy to be a little…pushy. Force the issue — so to speak. Just a little. Superman wasn't exactly the shy, retiring type. If she went for that kind of thing, then…maybe…he fit the bill back there.
Besides, he'd definitely gotten the impression over the past few days that his partner was a little too serious, a little more tense and strait-laced than he suspected she should be. More than anyone with a body that hot and a face that beautiful had a right to be, perhaps, he considered. He didn't think flirting was in her daily game-plan. That didn't mean, however, that she necessarily objected to being the target of some mild sexual teasing from a colleague, even if she didn't participate herself. Heck, it had been known to happen. Who knew what was going on in that head of hers? She might be secretly pleased. Flattered by the attention. Some women were.
And some weren't.
Clark pondered that and decided to lean heavily on the side of the former diagnosis. On the other side of the coin, after all, she hadn't exactly protested either. If she'd objected, he was pretty sure he would have known about it. And pretty quickly too. She hadn't kicked him in the shins or kneed him in the groin or tried to claw his eyes out, or even slapped his face. Which, he reminded himself, he would have justly deserved, treating her as he had, like some kind of…plaything. Someone he could use to score points off, boost his own ego, without considering her feelings at all.
But she hadn't done any of those things.
/Maybe she liked it,/ a sly voice, way down deep in his head, suggested.
Clark shook his head. Oh, yeah, sure. Every young reporter's dream. To have some…Neanderthal…push you up against a bathroom washbasin and breathe lewd suggestions into your ear! Accuse you of having perverted ideas about making out on kitchen cabinets and…sure, that was just what you wanted to hear from your partner.
/*You* liked it./
Clark flushed. Well, yes, he couldn't exactly deny that one. It may not have been his partner's wildest sexual fantasy, but it sure appeared to have been one of his. His mind, as though given permission by the thought, immediately began to flick through the moments back there in the bathroom, images and scents, sounds and sensations flashing through his inner eye in a mortifying wave. Not to mention instant recall on the images that had flown through his head at the time — chief among them that romp on the kitchen cabinets. He might not have been entirely serious when he'd twisted her words and called it a suggestion. He may just have been trying to provoke her by challenging her as lewdly as he could think of in the heat of the moment. But, hoo boy, that hadn't stopped his libido trying it out as a darn good idea in his imagination.
/Hey, you know how much dollar value there is in that kinda thing these days? Women lap that stuff up. If you'd written up that little scenario in some cheap, trashy romance novel you'd be a millionaire by now. Maybe her imagination wasn't a million miles away from yours, buddy. I'm telling you, she was loving every minute. You know she was,/ the sly voice insisted.
Clark was beginning to suspect it belonged to a part of himself he didn't much like.
Okay…so maybe she was. So maybe she had gotten…heated up a little. What did that prove? That wasn't the point! So what if she'd been aroused by him? That didn't give him the right to come on to her like some kind of…sleazy Lothario!
Flirting, that's all, he reiterated, immediately denying the charge. That's all it was. Just harmless…innocent…flirting. People do it all the time. Don't they?
Well, he certainly hadn't done much flirting with her during the past few days, that was true, Clark conceded, but, well, he'd had plenty of other things on his mind — and so had she. At the Planet there'd hardly been time to take a rest break or more than a few gulps of coffee and lunch on the run. And, apart from that brief interlude when she had brought him back here because he couldn't find his own way home in his current condition, they hadn't really even been alone.
She had flirted with *him* a little then. Well, maybe not so much in what she said…or did…or in the way she acted…or…okay, so maybe she hadn't flirted with him at all. There had been a definite spark though, he insisted doggedly as the memory of their conversation failed to live up to his interpretation of it in retrospect. More wishful thinking, his conscience suggested, and he scowled at it.
Maybe, he told it, stubbornly. But there *is* something. I don't know what it is, but it's something.
What had just happened proved it.
/Proves what? That you're a man…she's a woman…want me to draw you a diagram?/
Clark frowned. A diagram of what? he asked, confused by the intrusive thought, and then he sighed. This was getting him nowhere.
/A diagram of how many hormones you've got. And all of them raging and pointed at your partner./
That was true, he conceded. Maybe his 'something' was just something purely physical. Pure, animal heat.
He winced at the bare sound of that.
Desire, he amended, feeling much more comfortable with that term than the other.
His other self snorted, obviously of the opinion that there wasn't much of a fine line between the two.
Clark ignored it. So, he considered, getting back on track, the million-dollar question remained. Was flirting with his partner something acceptable between them that they — he — did all the time? Or not?
And…just with his partner? it suddenly occurred to him to widen the question. Or with all women? Dear Lord — the idea jolted him all at once, enough that he straightened away from the counter abruptly — he wasn't the office Don Juan, was he?
He discounted the horrified thought almost immediately. His female colleagues hadn't shown any sign of wariness around him. They had been friendly and casual with him, not on edge at all, and they certainly hadn't avoided him. Wouldn't they have avoided him if he spent his time constantly hitting on them?
Unless…well, all that that really proved was that maybe any move he'd made on them hadn't exactly been unwelcome. Maybe they weren't averse to him hitting on them? And yet…still, they hadn't seemed to give any impression that he had a reputation as a bed 'em and leave 'em heartbreaker. Clark seemed to understand just how that kind of guy was tolerated in the newsroom and he knew the way that people — male and female — responded to them too. And that hadn't been how his colleagues had treated him at all.
There had been Cat, of course. She had certainly seemed friendly. He frowned. Turn it every which way he had though he just hadn't been able to make himself believe that she was his type. Oh, she was beautiful…no doubt about it. Sexy. But…they were involved? Intimate? No. He had called her bluff and she had more or less confessed that she had been lying when she had said they were…well whatever.
He remembered the way she'd wrapped herself around him in the newsroom though and the breathy way she'd whispered in his ear. He blew out a soft, mental breath. From what he'd heard elsewhere from Lois and the scuttlebutt around the newsroom that he hadn't entirely been able to escape, it seemed that Cat hadn't convinced only him that they'd been having an affair.
He could also remember how uncomfortable he'd felt when she'd hugged him. How grateful he'd been for Mr. White's interruption. And also…disappointed?
Had he been disappointed because they'd been interrupted or because Lois hadn't seemed to care whether Cat hugged him or not? Had he been hoping for more from her, some reaction, some sign, that she was angry or —-
/Jealous. You wanted her to be jealous./
And she hadn't been. She had been…exasperated? Amused? Irritated? But certainly not jealous.
He sighed and went back to considering his reputation around the office.
No. No, somehow, he knew he wasn't in the habit of dating his colleagues. At least not in the sense of tomcatting his way around.
For one thing, his days at the Planet — Cat Grant aside — had been entirely free of any conversation that would hint at a relationship with any of his female co-workers. Many of them had expressed sympathy for his current plight, there had been offers to help him out…and maybe one or two of those had had the hint of something more than just friendly advice or the offer to whip up a pot roast and bring it on over. But nothing that gave him the impression he was expected to reciprocate or take up such offers or even that those women had been in the habit of making such offers on a regular basis.
And his nights had been free of telephone calls or answering machine messages. Surely if he was involved with a woman — or women — be it someone he knew at the office or someone outside his professional life entirely, she — they- would have called him to find out why he hadn't been in touch lately? No irate girlfriend had come pounding on his door demanding to know why he'd stood her up at the MoviePlex.
His apartment showed no signs of co-habitation, no physical evidence that he was in the habit of bringing women back there, or having anyone stay over. There were no feminine articles of clothing or toiletries lying around. With the exception of a sweater and a worn pair of sneakers, which he had discovered in one of the closets, but they turned out to belong to Lois. Clark still couldn't decide if he was relieved or disappointed that what might have been proof he was seeing someone had turned out to be nothing after all.
No, he didn't think he was dating anyone. Not anyone in the office. Not anyone elsewhere.
Except…Lois. His thoughts came full circle. Was he in the habit of dating her?
She had claimed that the items of clothing he'd found had been left behind during evenings spent at his apartment trawling through story notes. Or on the (very occasional, she seemed at pains to point out) nights when they celebrated a scoop with pizza and a movie. And Clark was inclined to take her at face value on that one. At least…until he was given proof to the contrary. It seemed…plausible.
Disappointing — definitely disappointing — but plausible.
Could pizza and a movie in his apartment be considered dating? he argued, somewhat wistfully and without any real hope of an affirmative answer.
Clearly, Lois didn't think so.
Did he flirt with her *then*, if not at the office? Snuggled up close on the sofa, did he resort to the old cliché of trying to slip an arm around her when she was engrossed in the on screen antics of those celluloid heroes, who always got the girl, when he apparently didn't?
He shook his head, ruefully. Or did he just say to hell with such subtleties, pin her to the nearest convenient piece of furniture, and let his hormones get the better of him — just like he'd done a moment ago in that bathroom?
He frowned. Now that he thought about it, considered it a little more clearly and logically and without the clutter of his fantasies or hopeful wishing to cloud his memory, he thought that perhaps he'd been wrong in his earlier assessment. Maybe she had been more than flustered, even before he'd stepped over the mark.
Maybe *more* than maybe, he was forced to reluctantly admit.
He gave himself a moment's pause to examine the incident with a clarity and detachment that had hitherto eluded him. It wasn't a conclusion he wanted to accept, but he had to recognize that…yes, she *had* been surprised from the first. Not just heated up, not simply confused, but genuinely taken aback by his behavior.
Right from the first.
Given that new-found admission, the surprise in her eyes back there would seem to suggest that the answer to his questions was no on all counts. He didn't flirt, he didn't tease and he didn't date her either.
And, of course, she thought he was a boy scout. Which was hardly the ideal for a romantic partner. He was either the most uninteresting lover in the history of time, or he was barking up the wrong tree entirely here.
Which sort of put a sizeable dent in the image of himself as some Don Juan seducer, cutting a swathe through the hearts of the Daily Planet newsroom. Or the heart of his partner either.
He sighed. Horrifying an idea as it was, he thought he'd much rather be Don Juan.
Cat Grant didn't think he was a boy scout.
He wished that one made him feel better.
But it didn't.
Not even the conversation he'd had with Lois on the subject of Cat made him feel better.
Cat had thoroughly disconcerted him with that hug. Her story of a clandestine affair they had kept secret from his partner and their colleagues had left him bewildered. Not only because he felt nothing he expected to when being hugged by a lover, no sign of any reciprocal feelings at all, but also because at some gut, instinctive level, it just hadn't rung true for him. It just didn't seem…right.
But that was hardly a recommendation these days on which to base his opinions on what was true and what wasn't. His instincts seemed as skewed as the rest of his emotions, half the time. After all, he didn't feel any great warmth or friendship for Mr. White or Jimmy. They were colleagues and they were obviously very nice people, although Mr. White was a bit intimidating at times, but he didn't feel as though he knew them well either. And Jimmy stoutly maintained that they were real 'buds'. Hung out together at ballgames and everything.
So Cat had left him unsettled all afternoon. The EPRAD assignment had kept him and his partner out of the newsroom for most of the day, luckily or otherwise, since it left Cat unable to ambush him again, but also meant he couldn't confront her about it either. Finally, of course, Lois had noticed his mood. She'd been watching him closely, perhaps seeking signs of some returning memory. It hadn't been hard.
Clark could easily have put her off the scent; it would have been relatively easy for him to persuade her to put his distraction down to general disorientation. Instead, without any real design to it, he had somehow found himself confiding in her. Asking her advice. Perhaps because she was the only person he felt close enough to at that moment to talk to at all. He knew that Cat had told him that their relationship was especially a secret from Lois, but somehow he found himself blurting out his concerns anyway.
Lois hadn't exactly been sympathetic. Nor had she given him any real consolation. Apparently, there had been some suggestion around the office that he and Cat were spending their evenings together exploring the boundaries of the Pleasure-Pain Principle, back at her apartment. Black leather? Chandeliers? Clark found himself shuddering all over again at the horrifying memory of his partner's scathing recitation of those rumors. At the time, he had simply gaped open-mouthed at her and blurted out something about not believing a word of it.
Actually, he wasn't all that sure that Lois believed a word of it either, he thought, narrowing his eyes slightly. There had been a certain something in her eyes at the time that had suggested she had certainly waited an awful long time to discomfit him with that one. Although she had pretended to be irritated by it at the time and had quickly changed the subject.
Which wouldn't have left him any the wiser on just where, precisely, Cat Grant fit into his life, had he not figured it out on his own. Although, for a time there, it had been touch and go as to what he believed on that one.
Which meant that the truth had to be faced. All the evidence pointed to his fears on that score being unfounded. He wasn't in the habit of hitting on his colleagues. Not even the beautiful ones. The ones that made his heart skip a beat or two whenever she walked into the room and…
No, not even her. Not even Lois.
A small sigh escaped him. No matter how he thought on it, no matter how many angles he considered it from, his musing just made things more complicated rather than simpler. He didn't know what to think. He didn't know what he was saying any more.
/That was pretty clear. Or doing either./
Or doing, Clark agreed dismally, ashamed of himself all over again.
Somehow she just seemed to work on him that way. The heat of her body, the scent of her perfume, the deep, drowning pools of her eyes…
They all seemed to conspire to make him act like a prize idiot. He just couldn't seem to help himself.
He pondered that. And more. Because there was something else though. Something more than just plain and ordinary, everyday lust. Just for a moment back there he had actually felt…alive. Connected. *Real*. The dead zone in his chest was gone. It had been the first time he had truly felt…no, he corrected himself as the word hovered again on his lips, no, not alive…anything. It had been the first time he had felt anything at all since the accident. Real emotion, real energy, real heat. Not something grafted on to a lost memory, not something manufactured because it seemed the appropriate emotion to feel for the moment.
For the past few days he had felt as though he were trapped behind a gray glass wall, a thick, impenetrable barrier that separated him from the rest of the world and his own feelings. Through which he saw and heard and experienced, but which cut him off from sensation and emotion. But back there, with Lois, teasing her that way, watching her respond and responding to her, he had suddenly felt as though a switch had been thrown. All of his emotions humming through him all at once like a current of wildfire. A heady sensation. And perhaps it was that more than anything else that had driven him, overwhelmed him, enticed him into pushing further than he might otherwise have done. Just to provoke her into more reaction and himself into another response. Another emotion. Another moment of reality.
To live. To feel alive. To banish the dead chill that had enveloped him since he'd lost his sense of self.
Except…it hadn't been reality, had it? It had been a fantasy played out against the wishes of someone he cared about, who he thought he might even…
He shied away from the thought, cutting it in half and going back to safer ground, almost instinctively. He cast a speculative glance out into the gloom that led to his bathroom. Provoking him into idiocy wasn't the only magic she could work on him then, it seemed. Maybe — he couldn't help the small grin that tugged at his lips with the notion — he should stick close, see what else she could prod him into.
He chuckled softly. Then shook his head, bewildered suddenly by the revelations he'd worked his way to.
His body — he grimaced — was certainly alive. Much more than he'd have liked it to have been.
He tried to force himself away from the subject of his partner, onto something just a little less dangerous, a little more innocuous, but it was difficult. His mind seemed full of her. Saturated.
Just what was his problem with Lois Lane? Why was she a constant companion in his thoughts, a source of calm in a suddenly chaotic world? Sure she was his partner, obviously they worked closely together. And she was his friend, she'd said. Close…but not close. He frowned, slightly irritated by that. What did that mean anyway? Were they close or not? Well, okay, so friends. Close friends, he decided, for the sake of argument. And she was beautiful…stunningly beautiful…smart…
Images spilled through his mind's eye like falling autumn leaves in bright, spinning bursts of color.
It seemed that he could never get tired of finding superlatives to describe her.
Adorable. She was…utterly adorable.
He propped his elbows on the counter, sank his chin into his palms and gave vent to a low, soft sigh, barely even trying to stop the sloppy grin curve up his lips with the thought. After a moment though, it faded.
There had to be some reason she filled his head this way.
/You love her./
Did he? This time he allowed himself to consider the thought, now that it had been voiced in his head, broken through his attempts to stifle it.
He frowned. Was that what love was? Drowning in images, unable to escape the lure?
He sighed. Of course this didn't seem to be exactly a cause for celebration. Quite clearly, Lois didn't feel the same way. That much was obvious. In fact, depressingly enough, he could recall her only ever showing that kind of emotion and excitement over one man.
Well, he thought stubbornly, wearing the habitual scowl that just seemed to appear these days whenever that name entered his head, Superman wasn't here, was he? He'd abandoned her, just when she needed him most. Clark flushed, but carried on doggedly with the train of thought, no matter how guilty it made him feel. Like he was stealing someone else's girl at the prom. He shook his head. That was an entirely juvenile way of thinking! He couldn't help it if Superman wasn't on hand to comfort Lois and he was. That wasn't *his* fault.
/Doesn't mean you have to take advantage of it,/ his conscience told him sternly.
Clark ignored it. He wasn't taking advantage! Well, not in that way. He wouldn't! But, that didn't mean he couldn't…well, if Superman wanted to call him on it, he could show up before…well, he could show up at some point and Clark would be more than happy to discuss the issue, he decided bullishly.
Until then…he didn't see any reason why he shouldn't…be a friend to his partner. Help her through this. Help himself too. He needed her. More than he suspected she needed him, but that didn't matter. The plain fact was that he was here. She was here. This night was looking to be their last. And together they were all they had to cling on to.
The image of her kissing Superman flickered into his head again and he scowled.
He had wanted to kiss her too. Back there. In the dark. When just the smallest of moves would have put her in his arms, her body held close against his, every curve of her, every soft, scented part of her, in contact with him, filling his senses with white heat and blinding light and…her lips had been so close…why hadn't he kissed her?
Wouldn't that have solved all of his questions in one instant?
For a moment his mind played out the scenario for him, giving him what he had denied himself a moment earlier. Her lips were beckoning, so close, and he moved his head just a little, just an inch or so, and…there. She tasted salt and sweet all at once, her mouth moving moistly under the pressure of his kiss, her arms wrapping themselves around his neck as she pressed herself against him, driving him crazy. His hands smoothed their way down her shoulders, across her spine and lower to settle on —
He was jolted out of the daydream so fast at the sound of that impatient yell that he almost hit his chin against the counter as it slipped from its resting place in his palm.
"Uh, yeah…I'm looking!" he yelled back hastily.
He shook his head. Like everything else lately, his feelings for his partner and the emotions she invoked in him were mysteries.
Mysteries he had no time to solve.
Why now? Why was time running out for him now, when he was on the cusp of understanding something that he sensed was more important than anything he'd been searching for these past days? Something that, if finally grasped, would light up his life like a flare and spin it around like a hurricane?
Another sigh escaped him.
Were you always this unlucky, Kent? Or did your luck turn when that car hit you?
Questions. More questions than there were time or answers for.
And she'd be wondering what was keeping him.
With another softly sheepish groan he levered himself clear of the counter and went in search of the candles.
Lois was leaning over the bath, training the flashlight over all its far corners in an attempt to find Clark's elusive scented candles, when she gradually became aware that she was being watched.
In practically the same instant, she also became aware of her position, stretched precariously into the bowl of the bathtub, one knee up on the rim, one hand clutching at the frame of the shower stall beside it for balance, the image not one that was in any way decorous, flattering or…just how short a skirt *had* she put on that morning?
Hastily, she jerked to stand, almost losing balance and ending up in the tub on her butt as she did so. The image *that* sparked into her head was so appallingly mortifying that it gave her the needed impetus to make sure it didn't happen and she managed to successfully land on her feet and face her partner without too much embarrassing flailing around.
She eyed him warily, trying to judge his mood as he filled the bathroom doorway. But he was surrounded by shadows, his expression a mystery, and she couldn't fathom what he was thinking.
Nothing at all, it seemed, as he appeared to realize all at once that he was simply standing there, doing nothing, and that she was expecting him to make a move.
"Found a couple of table candles," he said casually as he entered the small room.
Lois threw him an incendiary glance, irritated with his dissembling. How dare he act like nothing had happened!
/What *did* happen?/ a small, confused voice asked within her.
/Nothing. Nothing happened./
/But — /
/He confused me, that's all. That's all it was. I was…confused./
She jerked up her head. "What?" she snapped and then, seeing his look of surprise, sighed. What was the point in being mad at him? He was a man, wasn't he? Men were all the same, even farmboys from Kansas who tried to fool you they were different. She'd known that all along. So he was a late developer. So it had taken a blow on the head to make him drop the polite, homegrown façade and show his true colors. She'd known he would eventually. She should have expected it. Didn't they all? Sooner or later? She glowered back at him, unforgiving. No one embarrassed the heck out of Lois Lane and got away with it.
Her stare turned challenging, daring him to engage her on the subject. His right eyebrow twitched, rising slightly.
"You got the others?" was all he said though. "The other candles?"
Lois hesitated, then gave it up. Or at least put it on the back burner, while she pursued more immediate concerns.
"No." She looked at him, her anger simmering down to exasperation, and waved a hand at the unadorned room. "No candles, scented or otherwise."
"Well, they were here just yesterday. I found them when I was looking around." Clark pushed politely past her and hunkered down at a cupboard to one side of the bath that she'd failed to notice in the darkness, ignoring her jolt back a pace as she hastily avoided contact with him. "You know, trying to orientate myself, like the doc. said. See if anything looked familiar or jogged a memory. Nothing did though. Might as well be living in a hotel room. Ah, here they are. Told ya."
"Well, you didn't say there were in a *cupboard*, Clark," Lois said waspishly. "You know most people have them where they can see the glow!"
"Oh, I didn't mean I used them." Clark sounded amused again. "Me? I might not remember much, but somehow I don't think scented candles are my style, Lois."
Lois glared at him. She was tempted to tell him differently, just to see the look on his face when he couldn't dispute it. Just to teach him a lesson about playing around with your partner's feelings.
"I think they must have been gifts or something," Clark went on, as he rose to his feet with an armful of garish candles in various mind-numbing colors and others still in the unopened cardboard cartons they'd come in.
"They've obviously never been out of there in months." He blew a coating of dust from the nearest and juggled his burden into the crook of one arm. "Here." He offered her the nearest, a square, medium sized box with cheaply glued on labels.
Lois took it from him less than graciously and then blinked as she got a better look at the pictures that claimed to represent the contents.
"No *way*!" she breathed out. She hurriedly opened the box as Clark frowned at her, confused, and tipped what it contained gingerly into the palm of her other hand.
Together, they stared at the object, appalled. Clark's jaw dropped before he recovered, closing his mouth with an audible snap.
"Okay, now *that's* what I'm talking about," he blurted. "No way I actually bought that…monstrosity! I mean it!" he insisted as his partner looked skeptically back at him. "That has to be someone's idea of a bad joke! I don't care if you're about to tell me I was some kind of kitsch freak in a previous life or…or I spent all my free time at conventions for junk fanatics…you are *never* gonna persuade me that I actually walked into a store and put down good cash for that…that…*thing*!"
The thing in question grinned inanely up at him from its haven on Lois' outstretched palm. A novelty candle — a bright, pink…perversion…in Clark's book, there was nothing novel about it! — in the shape of a fat pig sitting on its haunches, its snout wrinkled in an unconvincing smile and an overloaded suitcase beside it, bursting at the seams. "Greetings from Tuloosa" was scrolled in candy red across its base.
Lois pursed her lips. "Well, who knows," she suggested, unable to resist a little fun at his expense. She owed him. Let him be the uncomfortable one for a change. "Maybe it's a reminder of Smallville. I bet you spent a lot of time around pigs and — " she frowned, " — cows…and…things…when you were a kid. Maybe it appealed to you because you were homesick."
"Lois, please," Clark protested pitifully. "We're talking about taste here. My whole sense of style! Suggesting I'd ever give that thing house-room is…insulting!" His jaw twitched, tightening in a stubborn cast that Lois immediately recognized. "I'm telling you, it has to be a gift. From someone who's never had a visit from the Good Taste Police."
Lois grunted reluctant agreement. "Probably from Great Aunt Lilian from Palooka," she mused, raising her hand and bringing the obnoxious beast closer so that she could examine it with a jaundiced eye.
"Do I have a Great Aunt Lilian?" he questioned.
"I do. Well, she's called Great Aunt Beth and she lives in Florida, but the principle's the same," Lois concluded darkly. "Everyone has a Great Aunt Lilian, Clark."
"Yours send you pigs from Tuloosa?" Clark asked, continuing to look askance at the fat pink candle.
"No. She sent me Elizabeth Arden Makeover Vouchers from Neiman Marcus every Christmas."
"Oh." He met her eyes quizzically, over the pig. "Is this where I say you don't need makeovers?"
She scowled at him.
"You don't," he added hastily. "But I guess it's the thought that counts."
"I was six years old when she started, Clark."
"Oh," Clark said and then, sympathetically, "Ouch."
Lois' glare didn't lighten. The conversation had turned on her again — why did that always happen when she was around him? She never seemed to get ahead, never seemed to get a break, always ended up the one with the bloodied nose and the black eye, somehow. And now she'd been reminded of bad times and, even worse, the gnawing realization that she would endure the worst humiliations of her childhood all over again if it meant that she had — if they all had — a future. Somehow, with hindsight, it didn't seem that bad at all. And the truth was that she'd give anything to hug Great Aunt Beth or her father right now. If it would only —-
She tightened her fist around the pig candle abruptly. "This isn't getting us anywhere." She looked at him critically, searching the bundle of objects he was cradling against his chest and in the hook of one arm. "Matches?" she demanded.
"Matches?" Clark's expression turned blank. He sounded a little lost. And then, "Oh! Yeah. Never found any of those either," he admitted ruefully.
"No matches? Well…how do you light the candles when you have dinner guests?"
Clark shrugged. "Beats the heck outta me."
"Oy," Lois said.
"Gas burner?" Clark suggested.
She nodded. "Right."
She turned away, heading for the door. He was in her way, so she was forced to brush gingerly past him to get there. Mindful of the earlier incident, she tried to limit the amount of contact with him, but she was still painfully aware of his body against hers. A brief moment, but a disconcerting one nevertheless. She found that she was flushed when she reached the door, her breathing just a little ragged. Damn the man, she thought testily, and jumped as he spoke suddenly at her back.
"Lois — "
She turned jerkily around as she felt his hand touch her arm and to her surprise saw a look of guilty contrition on her partner's face as he released her.
"Look, I just want to say," he glanced away from her to take a quick look around the bathroom, before he shook his head slightly and then came back to fix her with those disturbingly penitent eyes, "about earlier. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have…I got a little…carried away. It was…it wasn't — "
Lois laughed suddenly; a sound that was just a little forced, even to her own ears. She slapped the back of one hand against his chest. "Honestly, Clark — lighten *up*! I know what you were doing back there. Geez, you think I was fooled for one minute by that Antonio Banderas he-man act? Come on!"
She rolled her eyes and shook her head. Clark looked a little taken aback. "Well…yeah," he said, sounding surprised. "I mean you seemed to be a little…wound up — "
Lois laughed again and this time was pleased to hear that it emerged a little more naturally, bolstered by the sudden look of confusion on her partner's face at this second, scathing interruption. She faked a put-upon sigh.
"Clark Kent, you are *so* gullible. I swear if I told you you were Superman you'd believe — !"
As soon as the words were out of her mouth, she wished them back. Inwardly she winced as she remembered her earlier decision to play safe on what she said to him, careful and cautious. But to her relief there was no flicker of response in his eyes to what she'd just blurted out and she moved to capitalize on it, before he could change his mind and focus his attention on it.
"Come on," she ordered brusquely, turning and marching through the door, despite her momentary apprehension feeling suddenly very much better about the entire incident.
She glanced across her shoulder — now what?
"Who's Antonio Banderas?"
Lois groaned and grabbed him by the shirt sleeve. "Never mind."
As she pulled him in her wake he twisted slightly, shaking her grip loose. Before she could protest or question him, he grinned at her disarmingly and then, getting a firmer grip on the candles he was carrying, he slipped his free hand into hers and took the lead, tugging her carefully after him.
Surprised by his sudden return to assertiveness, Lois looked downward, trying to find their joined grip in the darkness, and then gave up and let him. His hand was warm and strong entwined in hers as they made their way back to the kitchen. His grip was gentle, not demanding or threatening. She found herself amazed at herself all at once for her earlier reactions. Clark — her Clark — dangerously unpredictable? A smooth and sexy Don Juan seducer? She put a swift hand to her mouth to stop a threatening giggle escaping. Hoo boy, she must have been crazy!
Clark must have taken the sudden tension in her body as a sign of something other than stifled amusement because his fingers flexed, giving her hand a reassuring squeeze as he continued to guide her unerringly for the kitchen. And, suddenly, Lois melted, her annoyance and embarrassment, her amusement, all slipping away from her in a curious instant. Clark…her protector, always anxious for her safety, always there for her, always her friend.
And, somehow, though she had never had been able to understand why, his touch made her feel…safe. Protected.
Protected? She questioned the thought blankly as they reached the kitchen and Clark let her go. She watched him move to light up the burner. Protected from what? And when had Lois Lane ever needed a man to keep her safe? She could look after herself, thank you very much!
Irked with whatever part of her psyche had produced that rogue thought, she scowled at the flickering blue ring of flame.
"Lois? You okay?"
She blinked and shifted her eyes to her partner's face. "Huh? Oh, yeah. Sure."
He smiled, mounted a newly lit candle into a saucer, and held it out as though offering up a gift. "Here. First one's for you."
She took it in silence and carried it solemnly into the living room, where she placed it on the low table in front of the sofa. In a quirk of sudden spite against the vagaries of fate, she defiantly lit up the pig from its guttering flame and plonked it down on a coaster by its side.
Perched uncomfortably on the sofa's edge, she watched Clark move around the room, adding the stubby candles here and there and supplementing their glow with the more dignified elegance of the long tapers of the table candles in bronze and red and gold. And as he went, the candles worked their mystery in his wake, turning the apartment into a fairyland; producing a mellow, soothing tapestry of light that was a balm to even Lois' troubled soul.
It was actually kind of pretty, she thought, looking around her. Clark's apartment, though it had never seemed to be her style, had always been a welcoming place for her, she realized all at once. Cozy. Familiar. A safe haven, which somehow even her own apartment never was. Intim —
She cleared her throat softly, not at all comfortable with that word popping into her head right at that moment. Well…yes. Even that. Her gaze flickered upwards to find Clark and then darted away again. She was too much the realist not to be aware that her emotions weren't secure right then, that they weren't to be trusted, that they were balanced on a knife edge and unpredictable, unreliable, had to be guarded. Made into a mishmash of conflict and sham by the situation they found themselves in. The blackout…the soft comfort of candlelight and the tension of storms…the fact that their world was slowly coming to an end, painfully and terminally, about to be snuffed out as easily as she could reach out now and douse that flickering flame on the table in front of her…
"Lois? Hey… Lois?"
She started and turned her head to give her partner a wan smile as he settled himself on the sofa beside her.
"You're shivering. Are you sure you're not cold?"
"No…no, I'm fine. I was just thinking. That's all." She flicked a quick glance at the dark, somber mirrors of the windows opposite. To her surprise, instead of the oppressive dark that she had expected to see, pressed up against the glass like a hulking beast and smothering the night along with all their hopes, she saw…
In the reflections of the panes she saw the glimmer of a thousand fractured candle flames, cavorting on the glass like wood sprites, weaving strange images, like colors in a campfire's heart. There was something hypnotic about those reflected, swaying pinpoints of lambent light. Like being in a cathedral.
Who'd have thought dying could be so…romantic, Lois thought wistfully, her heart clenching around an inner sigh. Her expression crumpled with the unwary thought and the dancing candle flames blurred and exploded into a wavering sea of yellow and gold, drowned by the mist that filled her vision all at once.
Clark had followed the direction of her glance. His eyes softened as he watched her react to whatever thoughts had shaken her so badly, so suddenly, and saw how hard an effect they obviously had on her.
Her left hand lifted and he could see that the fingers she pressed tight against her mouth were shaking every bit as hard as the trembling lips they were trying to still. Her eyes were so wounded suddenly…he felt his heart tighten in his chest and, all at once, looking into the dark pain in that soft, tearful gaze, he couldn't imagine how anyone could believe in the Mad Dog Lane, hard-bitten, to hell with the world and every woman for herself persona that she projected and that he'd heard so much about in the past few days. She carried everything in her eyes. Every hurt, every emotion. How could he be the only one to see them there? To understand how fragile and vulnerable this woman really was?
Impulsively, he reached out to put his hand over hers where it lay clenched on her knee.
Almost as though they had a mind of their own, her fingers entwined themselves into his, gripping tight, like reaching for a lifeline before drowning. Clark didn't comment. But his own grip tightened a little around hers.
Blinking rapidly for a moment, Lois decided she didn't need to say anything either. After a moment, she eased her hand free.
"Wine?" she said, too brightly, indicating the bottles on the table.
"I found them when I was looking for the candles. Seemed like an occasion for them." Clark shrugged as he reached to open the first and poured a generous measure of the dark, ruby wine into two glasses. Overgenerous, some might say. Lois began an automatic protest and then subsided.
"Trying to get me drunk, Kent?" she teased with a weak smile as she took the glass he offered her.
He didn't smile back, his heart still heavy and full of what he'd just seen in her eyes. "Would it matter if I was?" he said soberly. "Tonight of all nights?"
Lois' eyes met his, trying to gauge his mood, judge what he was insinuating here and what she might inadvertently be agreeing to. But despite the invitation to flirtation in her comment, she saw no hint of sexual subtext in either his words or his eyes; nothing of the dangerously seductive mood that had marked his teasing of her earlier. There was only an air of weary defeat. And, perhaps, a sour hint of bitterness. Slowly, feeling her own mood deflate to match his, she shook her head.
He was right. What did it matter? What did any of it matter any more?
"I guess not," she whispered.
Clark nodded, vindicated. He clinked his glass softly against hers. "To getting drunk," he murmured.
The evening shifted, interminably, one second leaching into the next, a flow of moments that seemed to stretch into infinity and, conversely, to condense time into a fraction of an instant, moving too fast for comfort. On this night, their last night, when time was running out for them and for the world.
They sat side by side on the sofa, sipping red wine and watching the hypnotic dance of the candle flames, lost in the depths of their own minds, their silence growing thick around them, like thorns.
Conversation seemed nonsensical. What was there to talk about? Tomorrow's edition? How the Tigers were doing? Whether the rain would let up soon? Or worse…what was truly lurking in their minds. The thoughts and fears they daren't speak aloud?
As the silence had settled heavily on them, as the soft, intimate glow of candlelight and the redolent heat of the wine in their bellies had worked their soporific effects, Clark had slowly eased himself deeper into the back of the sofa, legs stretched out and his feet on the table, crossed lazily at the ankles. His gaze was deep and inward-searching, hardly seeming to be aware of her at all. Lois had wedged herself gradually into the opposite corner, surreptitiously kicking off her shoes and drawing her legs beneath her. She cradled her glass in both hands. The wine had picked up the warmth from her palms and the small glow it created in the pit of her stomach insulated her slightly against the deep chill of ice that had formed itself inside her. A coldness which, no matter how she tried, she couldn't banish.
She found her eyes drawn to the steady flames of the candles, losing herself in the yellow flicker, until her thoughts merged and melded into a barely discernible hissing in her head. Like static on a radio. There, but barely noticed. The room was full of the cloying scents of amber and cinnamon, wild rose and lavender, sickly and sweet. But they helped stifle thought, their mingled fragrances making her drowsy. Clark too, it seemed. She flicked a glance at him and saw that his eyes were closed, his face calm in repose, his breathing steady and regular. Yet she could tell — from the way that the wineglass resting on the sofa arm was held securely by the fingers of his right hand wrapped around its stem, never dipping nor wavering — that he wasn't asleep.
She sighed quietly and snuggled back deeper into the sofa, cradling her own glass closer against her breasts like a favored child, losing herself again in too many thoughts.
"You know, they do say that there's a silver cloud in every lining."
His soft voice confirmed her suspicions. She turned her head to find Clark watching her from out of heavy-lidded eyes. For a moment, with the abruptness of the motion, she felt a flare of disconcerting wooziness fill her head. A very familiar wooziness. She blinked, surprised, and then flicked a glance at the glass she held. Her second. Wasn't it? Or was it her third? It seemed to her that she'd been nursing her glass a long time…thinking…musing…turning over the shards of her life…and, truth be told, the wine was a little on the strong side for her tastes… so, she couldn't have drunk *that* much of it. Could she?
Her gaze landed briefly on the table, where one bottle drained and the second showing signs of wear definitely seemed to testify otherwise.
Well…Clark had taken the lion's share of demel..damel..demolishing that, surely? Hadn't he?
/Did you *see* Clark filling his glass up more than you?/
/Well…no…/ Lois concluded reluctantly, /but — /
/And didn't he always offer to top up your glass first when he took more for himself?/
/So…?/ The disapproving image in her head that conjured up that inner voice and which now looked disconcertingly like her old high school gym coach, folded its arms and lifted a well remembered, interrogative brow.
Lois sighed. Okay, okay…so maybe the wine taking had been more on the…shared side then, she conceded.
Three glasses? Four?
She shook her head and immediately regretted it as the wooziness ambushed her again.
Taken aback, feeling a spark of righteous annoyance at the way the wine had snuck up on her so ungallantly, she forced herself to focus instead on what her partner had just said. Silver cloud linings? No, wait a minute…that wasn't…that wasn't…*right*. Was it? Her annoyance shifted, turning to pique. With herself for not being able to work out where it was wrong and why, with him for saying it wrong in the first place and making her work so…so…darn *hard* to figure it out.
Ah…wait. Wait. Hold it. Yes, that was it.
"A silver lining in every *cloud*."
"A silver lining in every…cloud," she corrected again and was surprised all over again at how slowly she had to accentuate each word in order to ensure its safe arrival into the world. How strong *was* that wine anyway? "Not silver clouds. Lining…whatever."
"Oh…oh yeah. " Clark waved a dismissive hand and then nodded. "That too."
She stared at him, her surprise blossoming at the abruptness to his manner and the faint slurring of his words. Was he…tipsy? she thought, amazed. Her gaze flickered back to the empty bottles on the table. The wine had definitely been of the strong variety, she could figure that much out, she recognized the signs all too well…and wine had never affected her so strongly before…or…well, there *had* been that wedding…Lucy's college friend, Amber…the wedding Lucy never failed to bring up at family gatherings, droning on and on about it, like she'd done something to shame the entire family name. As if Daddy hadn't managed to mangle it into the mud years ago! And anyway, she hadn't *done* anything! Much. She had been…okay, so, she'd been having fun. So what if she'd been having fun? There was nothing *wrong* with having fun, was there? she asked herself, belligerently. It wasn't as though she was having fun every day of the week, now was it? She was entitled to…okay, maybe getting up on the table to dance had been a little too *much* fun, but…honestly, it *hadn't* been as bad as Lucy claimed.
Lucy just exaggerated the heck out of that incident, Lois told herself firmly and then frowned. What had she been thinking of again? Before Lucy being her usual pain in the butt younger sister had gotten in the way?
Oh, yeah. Clark.
Clark. Her partner, Clark. Her friend…Clark, her friend. Her tipsy friend.
Yup. Definitely dipsy…uh, tipsy. Yes. Okay. He was. She was too. And that was okay, she reminded herself. She'd decided that was just fine. She knew what it was like to be tipsy. She could handle it just dandy. But Clark… well, that wine did seem to have been more than good old Clarkie boy could handle, she thought and for a moment felt a tiny spark of satisfaction. Lois Lane gets the grades yet again. She always had been able to drink most of those high school boys under the table. Hah! You never lost that edge once you found it. Nope, you sure didn't.
'Course…she knew Clark didn't drink liquor that often. That would definitely lower his grade point average there. And, on only three glasses — it had been three she was sure, not four — she herself could feel the subtle tug of its effects. Kind of like…standing in a shallow ocean with an undertow dragging at your ankles. Threatening to pull you down and under. And Clark…she looked back at her partner, her competitive streak losing its delight at being ahead in the game as a tickle of concern overtook it…she'd never seen *Clark* allow himself to get this out of control on liquor before. Not that he *was*…especially…out of control. He certainly wasn't *drunk*. Uh uh. But he was…a little on the sloppy side of…on the sloppy side of…what was that darn word? Oh…yeah…inebriated. That was it. In-eb-ri-at-ed. And that was odd enough. Yes, very odd. She knew that Clark's sobriety had become legend on boys' nights out at the Planet. A couple of their colleagues had taken to teasing him about his 'secret'. How he managed to stay sober, no matter how much drink they plied him with.
Well, she considered numbly, this wasn't such a surprise. Was it? She figured there were people all over the city, all over the world who were, right now, finding unexpected habits and behavior in people they knew well and had never seen them exhibit before. The end of the world did that for people. Even the upright and morally upstanding Clark Kents of the world. He wasn't…inum…*immune*. She wasn't either, she confessed. She couldn't remember the last time she'd let herself drink this much or let herself lose so much control. She wasn't drunk either…or tipsy…she reminded herself sharply and nodded silent agreement with the thought. No…no, she wasn't. *She* was…warm…and comfortable…and a little sleepy and the edges of the world had a pleasant, soft-focused haze around them now, which, together with the low, not altogether unpleasant, buzzing in her ears was kind of…okay. But she wasn't drunk. Uh uh. No way, no how, meester. Perhaps a little…mellow…that was all. And anyway, if she was…a *little* tipsy (only a little, mind) a little out of control maybe, her emotions on the crisp side of fritzed, strung out and constantly on the tightrope line between the hysteria of tears or insane, uncontrollable laughter…well…she cut a brief glance at the darkness beyond the apartment, before her gaze shied away…it hadn't been liquor alone that had gotten her there, had it?
So, yeah…even super-sober-party pooper-designated driver-all round good guy in control-Clark was entitled to let his hair down once in a while, she concluded magnanimously. And he had such *nice* hair, she considered with a soft sigh. Her eyes settled on the hair in question, darkly gleaming as it picked up shadow and light from the flickering candles…deep and dark…darkly deep…and soft…like his eyes…he had such beautiful eyes…
She couldn't see his eyes from her position, but she couldn't help but notice how his hair followed the contours of one ear and swept high over a classically intelligent forehead…Clark was very intelligent…she'd noticed that right awa — almost right away — when she'd first met him…
A flush of heat spread its way across her throat as she remembered how enticing that hair had smelled up close and personal, back there in that bathroom, when he had —
Anyway, he was entitled. Not to…not to *that*, she amended horrified, just in case any part of her psyche got the wrong idea there. Certainly not to that. Not that he was getting that…getting her…getting his own way with…no! He wasn't. And that was all there was to that, thank you very much! To…loosen up a little. That was it. That was what he was entitled to. To…loosen up and fly right…um…get a little…comfortable. Just like she had. She nodded, pleased with the conclusion, and ignoring the meandering and painfully winding route it had taken to get there.
Especially when…especially now…well, all things considered. Well done, Clark! was *her* opinion. She wondered what the guys who had teased him so mercilessly would think if they could see him now. His discomfort with the office banter had amused her at the time. His secret, she had always suspected, was nothing more than a good old staid and old-fashioned Kansas backwater upbringing. They probably didn't even allow liquor in the State unless it was part of a church service! They probably hadn't even had liquor shipped *in* till late in the…minimelon…um…millenium.
She found herself smiling slightly, distracted by the thought of her righteous, straight as a die partner having any secrets at all. From her or anyone else. Clark? She stifled a snort of amusement. Mr. Transparent? You could see right through him better than a cracked mirror.
/What you see is what you get!/
Right, she agreed. You sure had the measure of him, didn't you…ah…what had been her name again? Marjorie? Daisy? Whoever. Certainly had the measure of good ol' farmboy Kent.
She started. Clark was staring at her with a wounded look in his eyes.
"Sure!" she assured him hastily, straightening a little against the sofa back and fixing him with what she assumed was an attentive stare. "Sure, I'm…lishen…listening. Go *right* ahead." She enforced the invitation with a lift of her glass and a preemptory wave of her hand. "Hit me. Uh, I mean," she worked her way back muzzily from her distracted thoughts, to the start of the conversation, "they do? Have silver linings?"
"Yup." He pushed himself to sit, struggling slightly to free himself of the sofa's seemingly magnetic pull on his body, and then reached hazily for that last bottle of wine — already half empty.
/Half empty…half full… Was it possible to still be a…to still look on the dim side of things…when it's the end of the world as we know it?/ Lois asked herself dismally. /Don' the two…cancel each other out? Or something?/
"Yeah…an' you know what our silver cloud lining…lining cloud…is?" Clark asked as he poured wine into his glass. Some of it slopped onto the table, but he didn't seem to notice. He held up the bottle at her in invitation and then replaced it when she shook her head.
"No." She fixed a bright look on him, genuinely intrigued by what pearls of wisdom he might impart. "What?"
He waved the hand holding the glass in the direction of the pig candle. More wine spilled over its edge with the sharp motion and Lois winced, thinking of the cleaning bill. Red wine was just hell to get out of carpet. She knew that, because there had been that time Lucy had decided to use the apartment for a student party when she…where had she been? That had been March, hadn't it? April? Oh…on assignment! Of course! Perry had sent her on assignment. She'd been out of town. Paris. Paris was lovely in spring…it really was. It really had been…never would be aga — a soft, regretful sigh hitched in her chest and Lois blinked, feeling a sudden tightness bind her heart before she dragged herself away from where her thoughts had begun to lead, the route to mawkish morbidity that she saw hovering like a black cloud up ahead. Thoughts of family or moments of fragile — all too fragile and soon to vanish — beauty she had seen were not to be dwelled on right now. Not if she wanted to avoid embarrassing herself entirely with a maudlin display in front of her partner, weeping like a bar-room bum into her liquor. Her emotions were on a hair-trigger already and she'd been foolish to allow the wine to take hold on her — even if it was only a little…teensy little…hold and she wasn't drunk at all. It wouldn't take much to pull her over the edge and into that black pit of despair that already hovered on the dark edges of her mind. She yanked herself back from the brink
/Wandered perilously close for a moment there, Lois, old girl/
and refocused her attention instead on Clark.
"*That* abomination isn't gonna survive that asteroid any more than we are," he pronounced with owlish satisfaction, oblivious to her temporary distraction.
Lois stared at the candle for a moment, giving the thought all the solemn consideration that it deserved and then nodded. "That is good," she agreed. She took another, reckless, gulp of wine. What the hell. In for a penny… "That's very, *very* good."
Yeah, she thought approvingly. He was right. That balanced things out with a kind of…linear simplicity. A Zen beauty. Losing the pig definitely made up for stained carpets and all the other debits that fate was dealing them. No doubt about it. Fair deal.
She nodded mulishly, raising her glass a miniscule inch in a salute to Zen minimalism. The cure for what ails ya, she thought and stifled another urge to giggle. An urge that swiftly died as she suddenly became aware that Clark had taken to studying her, his expression intense and penetrating.
Lois squirmed a little, shifting position on the sofa. "What?" she questioned him finally, uncomfortable with the scrutiny.
"Neiman Marcus, huh?" Clark said.
Lois reddened. "So?" she said, tone a touch pugnacious, sure he was about to make fun of her again.
Clark shook his head. "Nuthin'…" he said and then tilted his head to one side, his study of her growing sharper. "Jus'…tryin' to figure out what you'd look like as a kid," he mused.
"Oh. Cute," she said without thinking.
Clark's eyebrows climbed into his hairline.
The high bloom of color on her cheeks deepened. "You said…once you said, I would have looked cute. As a kid," she explained, flustered.
"Quit that," she muttered, annoyed.
"There ya go!" he beamed at her, ignoring the bite in her tone.
"There ya go, *what*?"
"Told ya I was smart!" His eyes lingered softly on her face and he sobered. "An' I got taste too."
As though prompted by this assertion, Lois' gaze wandered to the table and the rotund pink little pig sitting there. Clark found himself drawn in that direction too. Then, she glanced back up at him, one eyebrow quirking, and their eyes locked. Clark's grin spread. Lois began to laugh helplessly, no longer able to hold back on the foolish absurdity that had overtaken her mood.
And, just for a moment, the oppressive dark of the evening lifted.
As her giggles subsided, Clark groaned, sitting up straighter and putting down his glass. He hunched forward on the sofa's edge, rubbing his hands across his face with a sigh.
He shook his head. "Either that wine is way stronger than I thought it was or I'm tired as hell," he said as he dropped his hands to dangle listlessly between his knees and lifted his head.
He *looked* tired. /Funny,/ Lois thought. She couldn't remember ever seeing him looking this weary.
He sighed deeply again and for a moment, she sensed him leaving her, retreating into his thoughts again, blocking her and the world out. And for an instant she felt so alone, abandoned, that was a physical slice of pain across her heart. Her lightheaded foolishness dissipated, the inane sense of whimsy that seemed to have taken hold of her floundered, like the deflating of a pin-pricked balloon, as the pain of it engulfed her, leaving her afraid and chilled deep to the bone.
"Clark," she whispered, fighting to stop her voice breaking on his name, hating herself for the fear she heard in it, hoping to draw him back, needing him back. She didn't want to spend the night alone. Not this night. Not physically, not emotionally…not any way at all.
Clark turned his head to look at her and then blinked a little. "Hmmmmm?" He frowned and then sighed again. "Sorry. I have to…think. Properly. My head feels very strange," he murmured, sounding surprised. "Like someone stuffed it full of cotton balls."
Absurdly relieved, Lois snorted. "I think someone stuffed it full of wine, Clark."
"Oh. Yeah, well, that would do it, I guess." He was silent again and then he slid his hands beneath his glasses and rubbed vigorously at his eyes, before forcing himself straighter. He took a few deep breaths, visibly struggling to clear his head of the cotton wool alcohol induced fuzziness that was clouding his thoughts.
"You know, it's strange," he said softly, after a moment. "There's so much to miss and yet this…all of this…" his free hand swept through the air to encompass the room and the window beyond. "I won't miss any of this at all. Somehow, it just doesn't seem important anymore."
Lois was silent. Not only because she sensed his sudden need to put his thoughts in order and talk at last on what was happening to them…to the world… and so was loath to interrupt, but because there seemed nothing to say. Besides, she shared it. Understood it. As though by speaking their fears aloud they could somehow diminish them.
She grimaced. Or maybe it was just the wine. Loosening tongues. Curiously enough, she felt as though her mood had gone in the opposite direction. Suddenly she had no desire to talk. Or to think. The darkness had descended on her again and under its weight even the wine she'd drunk, or the ridiculous — dumb, stupid, desperately painful — absurdity of their situation, couldn't make her feel dizzy with abandon. She seemed to have sobered up all at once, in more ways than one, as though she'd been doused in ice water and shocked into waking. Her thoughts were bound up in sadness and a growing despondency that made it hard to breathe all at once, a sense of darkness closing in, like the grave, around her. In the face of it, nothing could prevail. She felt it wrap around her emotions like a shroud, burying her, weighting her, driving her into the pit.
"You know what bothers me most? About all of this?" Clark went on thoughtfully.
She shook her head.
"It's not that asteroid. It's not…death. It's this." He tapped a sober finger against his brow. "I hate this. Not knowing. Who I am. Who I should miss. Who I'm leaving behind." His voice softened. "Who'll mourn me if they survive. I hate it. I hate the way it cuts me off from the people I love. Now…when I need to love them the most." He frowned. "The woman at the police precinct, the doctor who examined me, she said I needed to be careful, cautious. I shouldn't take anything people told me at face value. I should question everything. I hate how suspicious that's made me. It's not…*me*. I know it isn't."
Lois gave him a confused look. "Why would we lie to you?" she said. It seemed that something could jog her from despondency after all, because all at once she was very annoyed. "We'd never lie to you!" she said hotly, offended by the very notion. But she suddenly remembered Cat, earlier in the newsroom, taking advantage of her partner's affliction, and amended darkly, "Most of us wouldn't."
"No, it's just…well, if my Mom told me some family story about my great grandma Kent for instance. Hearing her name might give me a memory of her."
"Well, that's good, isn't it?"
"Yes. No. I mean, it might not be mine. Would it be something I truly remember? Or a memory of my Mom's that she told me about and I've reconstructed?"
"Oh. Yes, I see."
"Although, right now, it hardly seems to matter," Clark concluded glumly. "Least I'd remember something, one way or another."
Lois nodded. Her fingers played idly on the stem of her glass, her gaze lost in the ruby glimmer within. "Maybe it's better not to remember," she said. "Better not to know." She shrugged, unaware of how much bitterness there was in that simple gesture. "Least then you can't be disappointed. I know what we said earlier and that you don't agree, but I *do* think I envy you, Clark. Truly. At least if you don't know, you can't…"
"Can't…?" he prompted softly as she hesitated. He was looking at her so sympathetically she suddenly wanted to cry.
"At least then you can't know for sure that no one cares."
His expression shifted from sympathy to abrupt surprise. "*I* care!" he proclaimed. He sounded almost annoyed with her, Lois thought, taken aback as he glared at her. "A *lot* of people care about you, Lois."
She smiled at him wanly. "How would you know?"
He made an impatient gesture with one hand. "I know *you*. How could people not care about you, Lois? You're smart and funny and a reporter…I mean, a *great* reporter and…" he paused, seeming to take stock among that automatic babble of endorsement. "And a good friend. My friend. Maybe…maybe even more than that."
His gaze settled on her, almost puzzled. "I don't know what it is about you, Lois Lane. You make me feel…good inside. I know you said we were just partners — and friends — but somehow, I dunno, I don't think it's true. I keep getting the oddest feeling whenever I'm around you, that maybe we could be something more than that and I want to know why. I want to know why I feel this way about you. I want to know how you feel about me. The truth, Lois. I want to know because I think I — "
Lois began to laugh.
"What?" he said, sounding a little aggrieved by this reaction.
Lois shook her head, unable to speak. The laughter seemed to have triggered something, deep within her. Once begun she couldn't seem to stop and, like a three a.m. drunk, she seemed to find the simplest and most inappropriate things hilarious.
"Why…couldn't you have said all that before?" she hitched out finally, when she'd regained some measure of control and caught her breath. "Geez, Kent, you Kansas farmboys sure know how to teach the world a thing or two about procrastination, don't you?" Laughter threatened to overtake her again and she gave in to it helplessly.
"What do you mean, why didn't I say this before?" Clark demanded, his tone definitely on the rear side of offense now.
Lois sighed, leaning forward to put her glass on the table and then swiveling slightly to face him more directly. Clark watched her warily, recognizing a top grade Lois Lane lecture coming on. He'd been subjected to enough of them over the past couple of days to spot the signs, memory gaps or no memory gaps. And he suspected he'd had to listen to a lot of them in the past few months. Maybe there were advantages to not remembering after all.
"I mean why can't people just *say* what's on their mind?" Lois challenged. "Is it really necessary to wait till the end of the world before they get honest with themselves? And other people too? Why go on bottling it all up inside when a couple of simple little words solves everything? Why can't people just tell other people what they feel? We're all just…*people*. Right? We all feel the same way, about the same things. What on earth is so difficult about just saying it out loud, for Pete's sake!"
Clark was frowning now. He guessed she had a point. What was it that held people back from expressing their deepest emotions? "Fear of rejection?" he offered.
"And what? That's so terrible? To be rejected? Worse than saying nothing and regretting it your…your entire life?" She looked at him, brow furrowing. "What are you trying to say anyway? What makes you think I've lied to you about how I feel about you?" Her tone tightened as she took stock of what he'd actually said back there, rather than reacting to the gist of his words.
"Well, I didn't say lying — "
"Yes, you did! Or, at least, you heavily implied it! I *told* you what we were to each other. Partners! And…and friends! I mean, I love you, Clark. You know that. I mean you did know that. You're like, well you're like a brother. Or something."
Clark thought she didn't exactly sound convinced of that one.
"That's all?" he couldn't resist prodding, disappointment welling up in him at this declaration.
"What else would you expect?" Lois demanded.
"Nothing. I guess." Clark took another, morose swallow of wine. He held back a low sigh.
Okay. Well, that seemed to take care of that. She didn't think of him as anything other than a friend. But…that didn't change how he felt at all. He couldn't help it if he felt differently, could he?
Had he always done? Or were there more side effects to his memory loss than simply not remembering the details of his life or who his friends were? The thought scared him a little. It seemed so bizarre, that he might not be the same man he had been only a scant few days before, that a little bump on the head could alter his moods, his thoughts, his opinions, his…his relationships. Who he cared about. Who he loved. Could that happen? Surely he was the same person he'd always been? He held back another sigh.
And just how, precisely, could he tell? If he couldn't remember what or who he'd been before, how could he measure the changes the accident had wrought in him? What was it that made him Clark Kent? That made him unique? Could he lose it? And, if lost, just how was he supposed to get it back? Worse, would he ever know the difference? Recognize what had been lost? Or would he never really know? He didn't know which made him more afraid. To never know, to never recognize what was missing from his life. Or to know, to be aware, and be without the ability to make it right again.
Lois was watching him, waiting. His previous answer didn't seem to have satisfied her, to judge from the expectant look she was giving him.
He puffed out a small breath, thinking about it. "I just don't think I think of you as a friend, that's all. And you know what? Somehow — I can't be sure, but I think I'm right — I don't think I ever did."
Lois blinked. "What?" she said and then, again, "What? What are you talking about? You weren't ever my friend? Why'd you just say you were my friend if you weren't? Are you telling me you didn't mean it? You never meant it? You've been pretending to be my friend all this time when you weren't at all? What were you doing?" Her tone turned hostile as she straightened, eyes flashing daggers at him. "Trying to get on Perry's good side? Trying to soften up the competition? Get some tips from the pro? Pretending you were working with me, when all the time you were watching and waiting for the right time to make a move? Trying to worm your way in, so you could steal my stories, wriggle onto my byline?"
"Huh? No, that's not what I — "
"I knew it! You just can't trust anyone, not in this business, not in this stinking world! Not even Kansas farmboys. Maybe this asteroid's a good thing, maybe we'll get something better out of it than what we have now! At least, in any event, there won't be stories to get stolen right out from under your nose by someone pretending they care about you, playing at being your friend just so they can — "
" — loan you their taxi and then call in their story first?" Clark suggested snippily and then looked surprised at what he'd just said.
"What?" Lois, the flow of her tirade interrupted, stopped to stare at him. "Oh," she said and then she blushed furiously.
Clark watched the abrupt color change with interest. "You know what that means," he accused. He stabbed a triumphant finger at her. "Hah! You know what that means! I'm right, aren't I? If anyone in this partnership was stealing stories it was you, not me! Right?" And then the quick delight in his face dropped into sudden dismay. "You *stole* a story?!? *My* story?"
"I'm not even going to lower myself to answer that!" Lois snapped back.
Clark snorted. "Coward!" he accused, as he reached for more wine, recovering from the shock of remembering the theft, his air of belligerent victory returning.
The charge sent Lois incandescent with rage. "I am *not*!" she hissed.
Clark sat back casually and eyed her with the cool light of victory still bright in his eyes, well aware that his was the moral high ground here and that she was floundering in the quicksand of duplicity.
Recognizing that this particular argument was already lost, Lois made a defensive tackle and changed the subject by means of a particularly vicious barb. "It wasn't even a *good* story," she spat. "And it's a good thing I do remember it, since you don't!"
She immediately regretted the retort, as she saw the triumph in his face crumple into confusion.
"No," Clark said softly, losing the edge in his voice and huddling over the glass in his hands. "No, I don't. I don't know what any of it means." He stared into the darkness of the wine as he swirled it slowly. As though it held the answers to all the mysteries that plagued him.
Lois looked contrite. "Clark, that was a cheap shot. I'm sorry."
He shrugged. "It was the truth."
"It wasn't the truth." She blew out an exasperated breath. "Damn it, why can't I just apply the brakes before I open my mouth?" she questioned herself in irritation, forgetting her previous anger and suddenly ashamed of herself. Just like always. Launch the strike first, regret it later. It had seemed to be her motto from childhood. She should have it framed above her bed in needlepoint, she told herself acerbically, watching the dejection on her partner's face grow.
"Clark, don't listen to me. You never listen to me." She leaned forward, earnest, encouraging. "Come on, if you were able to dredge that out of your memory to say it, then it's not buried that deeply. Pretty soon, more of what you say will be familiar and then it won't be so long before you remember — "
"So long? *How* long? You think I've got enough time to go wandering through my head, waiting for you to spark off something I barely remember?"
Lois looked back at him miserably.
He sighed. "I'm sorry." His tone still held a faint frisson of anger, but she could tell it was directed at himself, at the situation, not her. "It isn't your fault I barely know my own name, is it?"
She couldn't think of anything to say, anything that would make the situation better for him. As she tried to think of something, anything, Clark glanced up and saw the struggle warring on her face.
"Hey, it's okay. Really. It *isn't* your fault," he said. "You know, maybe you're right, maybe I should be looking for the good in this — "
Lois' eyes flashed heat. "Don't patronize me, Kent."
"No, honestly. You are right. I'm the lucky one here." Warming to the theory, Clark glanced around the room, his tone growing more animated. His accompanying gestures too. He swept an arm through the air, encompassing all of the world right there in his small apartment, everything that was so important to him, mattered so much, and yet meant nothing at all in the grand scheme of things, when you got right down to it. "All of this is just — "
He was interrupted by a sharp squawk of surprise from Lois. He turned his head, distracted from his thought, as she leapt to her feet with a small cry of dismay, plucking wildly at the cream knitted top she was wearing in an attempt to keep it clear of her skin. For a moment, she seemed a little unsteady on her feet, swaying, then she recovered with a small growl of irritation.
For a moment, Clark didn't associate the sudden blossom of crimson that had spread its way across the front of the top with the abrupt movement he'd just made. Something was dripping from the ends of her hair.
Lois made a desperate grab for the pile of paper napkins lying on the table and Clark found himself staring stupidly at the now empty wineglass in his hand.
"Oh, Lord! Oh, God, Lois, I'm sorry. I — "
He had been doing so well. The atmosphere had been relaxed and — for the most part — friendly and all without a hint of that disturbing sexual heat in the air that had overtaken him — them — earlier.
And then he just had to go and blow it, didn't he?
Hastily, he set his glass on the table, heedless of the way it smacked up against its mate already lying there. The crystal rang together like a wind-chime heralding the onset of a storm, like the toll of some Hemingway bell, Clark thought distantly, as he stood, trying heroically but without much success, to wipe off some of the wine dripping from…
His eyes widened a little as he suddenly became aware of just what his palms were brushing against. He jerked back the hand that was enthusiastically rubbing its way across the firm flesh beneath the red-stained knitwear, but he found that his eyes refused to obey the urgent commands of his brain so easily. The wine had saturated the woolen fibers of the top, making it instantly more pliable, thinning out the strands, so that it clung to the skin of her ribs and stomach and hugged the lower curves of her breasts, shadowing and emphasizing the voluptuous femininity of her body.
Clark was aware that he was acting like a dumb adolescent as he continued to stare, but he couldn't drag his fascinated gaze away from those soft, rounded curves, shrouded in the thin fabric. In reality, he guessed that it barely took him more than a few seconds before he wrenched himself back to her face and he was sure she hardly noticed the indiscretion, but it seemed to stretch to infinity. For a brief moment, as he stared, he even thought that he could begin to make out the flesh beneath the top, the material fading away as though it didn't exist at all. He could 'see' breasts, perfect, creamy flesh…and then the obviously lust-induced illusion faded and he gave himself a mental shake, appalled all over again at his lecherous turn of mind.
His disconcerted eyes flashed upwards and met those of Lois, amused and knowing. Okay…so she *had* noticed. He flushed heavily, her amusement giving him even more of the jitters than inadvertently touching her (right *there*) like that had done. He felt the heat in his face grow. He turned for the table, fumbling awkwardly for the remainder of the napkins, scrunching them into his fist as he came back to try wiping at the top again in a more circumspect and impersonal manner and just a tad more delicately.
"Here, let me just get something to — "
"No, it's okay, really," Lois protested, trying to take the wad of paper from him, as it merely made the situation worse, spreading the stain.
"It won't take — "
"It was an accident, it's not so — "
"You know, cold soaking it might help reduce it a little…" He gave up on the napkins, dismayed by his lack of success and cast a helpless glance across his shoulder with the suggestion.
"No, it's fine. It doesn't matter, really, it — "
But he persisted, too caught up in his embarrassment to be listening to her. "Lois, please, it's the least I can — "
"Clark!" She sighed, growing exasperated, and then gave him a winsome smile, polite and firm. "Honestly, there's no need. Goodness, it's just a little red wine. I mean it's not — "
She stopped with a jolt, her expression a sudden, curious mixture of startlement, chagrin, and then, abruptly, grief.
Struck by her expression, Clark paused, forgetting his desire to help make up for his social faux pas.
"I…" She began to laugh weakly, but her eyes were shimmering suddenly in the candlelight. She spun abruptly away from him, shaking her head.
Clark took a step after her, concerned. "Lois, what's wrong?"
She didn't answer for a moment, shaking her head mutely, her back presented rigidly to him. When she did turn to face him, her face was ashen, as though everything of life in it had been sucked out of her all at once. Clark felt a stirring of panic. What was it? Was she ill?
Lois took a deep breath, removing the hand that had crept up to cover her mouth in dismay. "I was going to say," she looked up at him miserably and then finished on a whisper, "It's not…the end of the world."
Clark's fearful expression turned to pity — and more — his own sense of grief welling up in him suddenly. "Ah, God…Lois…"
He reached for her, but she moved away, rejecting the offered comfort with a single, violent movement of her head and he let his arm fall helplessly to his side again as she drifted across the room to stand before the dark, empty expanse of glass with its cascade of flickering light held within its heart and reflected in its depths like hidden jewels.
"Don't," she said quietly. She threw him a glance of mute appeal. "Please."
Understanding, knowing how some emotions were too deep, too wild to bear, too all encompassing and restrictive on the soul to endure comfort or solace, even when you longed for it. Even when it was offered by a friend.
He watched her face in the window's reflective sheen, at a loss, feeling more helpless than he could ever remember being his entire life, and then she sighed. She turned to wander through the living room aimlessly, running a soft finger across the polished wood of a cabinet, pausing to pick up the family photos scattered atop it, staring at them for a moment, then replacing them and moving on. She let her fingers drift over the football on its stand and then rested them on the frames of the photographs standing nearby. She picked up the nearest.
Hesitantly, Clark moved closer. Acting more on gut instinct than design, he let his hand rest lightly on her shoulder. He felt already taut muscles tighten further under his fingers, but this time she didn't pull away. Encouraged, he gave the soft flesh in his grip a gentle, sympathetic squeeze.
"Come on," he said quietly, offering some comfort that she might accept. "Let's get you out of that top, find you something to wear."
But Lois didn't take her eyes from the photograph she was studying, didn't even seem to have heard him, so deep was she inside her own dark and pensive introspection. Clark reached for it, taking it gently from her grip and laying it back to the cabinet.
She didn't respond.
"Okay…well, why don't we have some more wine?" he suggested, keen now to jog her out of this mood of melancholy that had settled on her, half expecting the offer to have her whirling on him with a sarcastic zinger about him being sure he could trust himself to keep it in the glass and not on her.
She didn't protest, but she didn't break the silence that had fallen on her either, the silence that was beginning to creep him out. Her gaze didn't waver from where it was settled on the scattered minutiae of his life arranged on the cabinet. Giving up, and somewhat disappointed despite himself that the zinger hadn't happened, Clark decided to take that as assent. Giving her a small, anxious glance, he quickly retrieved the remaining bottle and their glasses and poured out a measure for her.
She took it from him absently and without protest when he offered it up, but set it down on the cabinet almost in the same moment of accepting it from him. Clark, filling his own glass, took a hearty sip of the wine himself, at a loss as to what to try next and playing for time as he tried to come up with something.
Then she made a soft noise in her throat, a small, wordless expression of regret that broke the awkward silence that had fallen, as she finally seemed to run out of objects to focus on and study.
"Clark, what I said…earlier…" she threw him a small glance and then her eyes slid away from his again, "About you not being my friend. I didn't mean it. I — "
"I know." He offered her a soft smile as she glanced at him. For a moment an answer flickered at her lips, then she sighed and returned her gaze to the scatter of mementos on the cabinet.
"You're the best friend I have. That I've ever had," she whispered. "I just…I wanted you to know that."
"Lois — "
"Strange," she interrupted him mildly, as she touched the tip of one finger to the photograph's protective glass and ran it gently down across the smiling face of the handsome man portrayed on the print. "Isn't it?"
Clark paused, then decided to follow her lead. "What is?" he said, watching her face carefully, trying to take his cue from the flutter of expressions displayed there. He put his free hand on top of hers, stilling her absent stroking against the glass by entwining his fingers with hers. It was beginning to unnerve him. Not least because the glossy paper cheek beneath its protective glass covering that she was stroking happened to be his own. It seemed an entirely too…intimate a gesture for his peace of mind. Almost as though the touch was real and not by proxy. He felt his skin heat up a little with the thought and focused his attention firmly on what his partner
…his partner, his friend…remember that, buddy? Nothing else. She doesn't want to be. *You* don't want her to…well, anyway she's involved with *him*, remember? So what you want just doesn't come into it, my friend. End of story…
"The things you take for granted. The things you never — " She looked down at the hand, strong and comforting, atop her own and colored suddenly. Then she laughed a little. " — you never…do."
Clark frowned at her. "Lois?"
She shook her head and felt the laughter bubble up in her chest. All at once it had the faint touch of hysteria in it and she couldn't seem to hold it back as she considered how ludicrous the situation was. Here she was, standing next to *the* most gorgeous guy she had ever known (she felt that, all things considered and with what little time they had left, it was probably safe to admit that now. At least…it wasn't going to *hurt* any) and…
"Nothing, I was just…" She turned a little, towards the windows, waved a hand out into the night and said the first thing that popped into her mind through the uneven hitch of breathless giggles in her chest. "Isn't this where the heroine throws herself at the leading man and declares that if the End Of The World Is Nigh she doesn't want to die a virgin?"
Clark spluttered through the sip of wine that he'd just taken as he choked violently. Lois, immediately contrite — /Lord, Lane, can't you control that mouth of yours for just one minute?/ — thumped him violently on the back until he recovered.
"I'm so sorry! I don't know why I said that! I mean I know *why* I said that, I just didn't mean to say it the way I said it!"
"No! No, it's okay — " he waved off her apology with a hand. "I just — " He looked at her quizzically, a silent question in his eyes.
It took Lois a moment to decipher his expression — Curiosity? Embarrassment? Disbelief? — and then her face changed, consternation blooming among the sudden rosy glow on her cheeks.
"Oh no, I'm *not* I mean, I'm not a…a…I mean you know maybe — sometimes — I wish I was, but…but I'm *not*." She rolled her eyes in a self-deprecating gesture that was also slightly embarrassed. "Uh-uh."
"Oh." Clark said. "Erm…okay." He nodded vigorously with the lame acknowledgement, embarrassed himself now and keen to change the subject just as soon as she liked. "Well, you know that's…" he cut himself off hastily, halfway to blurting out that he didn't mind, that that was just fine — horrified by the thought that the awkwardness of the moment might have led him into such a mistake. As if it mattered to *her* what he thought on the matter and he was certain she wouldn't appreciate him generously giving her his…approval? Sanction?…to be a…a… Well, actually, *not* to be a…
Clark abruptly decided to give up the subject as his mind tied itself into a Gordian knot in its attempt to find a reasonable response to a revelation he'd never wanted to hear and was sure Lois had instantly regretted giving him. Better to just drop the entire subject all together, he advised himself sagely and, relieved for the get-out, he immediately took his own advice.
Well, it just wasn't that *easy* to drop it, now that it was in his head. Somehow, though he was at a loss to explain why, her words seemed to resonate in him at a level too deep to ignore. They made him uncomfortable, way beyond his initial embarrassment, more than simply being discomfited by an unexpectedly intimate confession from his partner.
It wasn't really, he realized, what she'd said or her unexpected declaration, which was really none of his business anyway and just a tad more information than he'd really wanted to know. Or expected her to volunteer. It was something beyond that, something more…personal. He looked at her, at her remorseful eyes shining in the darkness, and a sliver of something, a memory, an understanding, vague and unsettled, sparked its way through the fog in his mind.
His eyes widened slightly. Oh my God — he wasn't! Was he?
"Clark? Clark, are you okay?" Lois said hastily as she watched sudden dismay appear on his face. She put out a hand to his sleeve. "Clark?"
"Huh? Oh, yeah. Yeah, I'm fine," he said, shaking his head slightly.
/How the hell did *that* happen? For Pete's sake, Kent, you're almost thirty years old!/
His thoughts rebounded with sudden shock as they were hit like a Mack truck by another even more astounding. Oh my God…you're not *gay*, are you?
/Don't be ridiculous!/ his other self snapped instantly and somewhat scornfully. /Good Lord, man, only a couple of hours ago you were obsessing over whether you were the Daily Planet lounge lizard! A little bit before that you were acting out Conan the Barbarian in the bathroom with Lois!/
Classic over-compensation? Clark responded dazedly.
/You think? Why don't you take a good, long look at your partner there, buddy? Go on — right now!/
He found himself doing just that and was instantly swept away by how breathtakingly beautiful she was. Just as he always was, every time he found his gaze resting on her. His breath caught in his throat and his heart began to hitch in his chest.
/There you go. Now, does that feel *gay* to you?/ the voice in his head demanded scathingly.
Clark had to admit that it didn't. His body's response to his partner was quite definitely prime heterosexual. There wasn't a scrap of ambiguity in it.
Still…maybe he was just trying subconsciously to deny the truth. Over-compensating like he'd said. Or…maybe he was —
Maybe he was having a hysterical attack, he thought miserably.
"I — I think I have to — " he blurted, backing up blindly for the sofa behind him. He sat down with a thump. His knees seemed to have weakened suddenly.
Lois was studying him curiously, obviously becoming aware that this was something more than a reaction to her words of a moment earlier. "You remembered something," she said, her eyes suddenly intent.
"No! Uh, I mean, I don't think so."
"Oh." A faint flicker of exasperation crossed his partner's beautiful face. "Well, if you don't want to share…"
Clark was concerned with things much more weighty than his partner's pique at being left out, however. "Lois, was I — I mean, before, did I…" he paused and then sighed. "Did I have a lot of…girlfriends? Before?"
Lois blinked, taken aback by the question. "Uh…well…not that I ever noticed," she confessed.
The answer seemed to dismay Clark even more. His face slumped. "I wasn't…overly religious. Was I?"
"Not that you ever said." She was watching him steadily now. She moved to sit down beside him, reaching out to put a hand against his knee. Given the nature of the turbulent thoughts rolling chaotically through his head, it was a touch too intimate by far for Clark. He jerked sharply, wincing, and focused on her abruptly from the distance his thoughts had taken him to, looking suddenly like a startled bear.
"Clark, what's wrong?" Lois said, growing worried now.
"Nothing!" He pasted a wide and, he suspected, completely unconvincing, smile on his face. "Nothing." He put his hand over hers and patted it soothingly. Lois glanced down at the movement, paternal in nature, and then back up to his face with a quirked brow. Clark withdrew his hand, awkwardly. And then, suddenly, as he looked into her face, like a ray of sunlight breaching through heavy cloud, he found a single moment of clarity among his confused thoughts. And, for perhaps one of the very few times in his life — he seemed to instinctively understand — he said something without thinking about it first, without weighing the consequences or wondering if it was right. Maybe it was just the night for it.
"It doesn't matter," he said, and meant it. He put out his hand again and laid it gently over hers and this time there was nothing condescending or paternal in the gesture. "And you're wrong."
"I do want to share things with you. I want to share everything with you, Lois." His eyes, deep and molten in the dusk light, held hers, imprisoning her gaze all at once. "Everything."
The message in that was clear. As was the plea in his eyes. Lois swallowed roughly and jerked her gaze free of his, pulling her hand out from under the warm grip that enclosed it. She formed it into a tight fist against her knee as he watched her in silence.
"Clark, I know why I said…" she stopped, gave him a troubled glance, looked away, "but I didn't mean we should…that is…I mean it's not that I don't…*want* to…I just…we shouldn't…we don't *have* to…I just need — " She closed her eyes, took a deep, re-orientating breath, and then turned to him.
"It's just that…I'm so *cold*, Clark," she whispered. "Worse than cold. It's…it's like…like the cold's in here, you know?" She pushed a fist into the valley between her breasts. "Like there's a ball of ice trapped in my chest. I just…" She stopped again, her words clogging in her throat, suddenly hard to push through what seemed like a crush of rocks blocking her windpipe. "Will you just hold me?" she said in a small voice, looking down at her lap and away from him, ashamed of the weakness that would have her ask him for the comfort. "Please?
"Lois…" Clark looked at her helplessly. His reaction was instinctive. Afterwards, he was never sure which of them had moved first, he to pull her to him, she to let herself be drawn into his arms, but whichever of them it was the result was the same. He reached out for her and she came willingly into the shelter of his embrace as he tugged her close. She buried her face in the strong harbor of his shoulder. Clark wasn't sure, but he thought she was weeping, soundlessly, hopelessly. Certainly, she was trembling like something wild and hunted.
"Lois," he whispered, spreading one large hand against her hair. "Oh, Lois…honey…"
Her arms crept up around his neck and somehow she was in his lap, clinging to him like a child as he wrapped her against him and rocked her gently. She felt so small, suddenly. His valiant, brave, unassailable partner, for whom the world held no terrors she couldn't fight and pummel into defeat. Small and fragile. His grip shifted, cradling her gently against his chest as though she was something easily shattered and broken.
"I'm afraid…I'm so afraid…" she whispered against his skin and he knew, somehow, that she hadn't meant him to hear, hadn't expected him to hear that…her voice had been so low. But, clearly, not low enough.
"It's okay," he whispered as he placed a small kiss against her hair. He set his chin to the top of her head, pressing her tighter into the hollow of his shoulder, his eyes fixed blankly on the air in front of him, seeing nothing as he soothed her with absent words. "It's okay to be afraid, Lois."
There was nothing he could say to comfort her. What else *could* he say? He couldn't tell her that everything was going to be fine. They both knew that it wasn't. That it never would be again. The asteroid hurtling for them wasn't going to reverse course just on his say so and there was nothing he could do to stop its arrival.
He wished there was. He wished with all his heart there was, because he would do anything to stop the woman in his arms hurting the way she was now, to stop her from having to be so afraid. But he couldn't change anything for her, for either of them, desperate though he was to do it. There weren't going to be any last minute appeals or reprieves, the cavalry wasn't going to come charging over the hill, trumpets blaring, flags waving.
Not this time.
He hated to see her scared like this. She was so strong, so in control…he admired that fighting spirit in her, that courage and verve, the way she threw herself bodily into life, into everything she did…
She wept steadily as he held her, his eyes bleak and his movements distant as he rocked her soothingly, finding his own, small solace in the rhythmic motion, until at last there was nothing left, no tears, no emotion, nothing but quiet resignation.
She lifted her head from his shoulder. Her face was wan and strained, but she somehow conjured up a smile for him, and Clark felt a surge of admiration and pride at her courage.
"For not telling me it's going to be all right."
Clark gave her a soft, regretful smile in return and her own faded, her mood abruptly earnest and intense. "For being here. For letting me share this with you."
The glitter of tears still lay on her lashes, reflecting strange glimmers in the flickering light, like diamond prisms. Her eyes, dark and deep as the earth, fixed on him.
"I'm losing so much," she said.
She put up a hand, the tips of her fingers pressed against his lips. She watched them for a moment as they softly explored the moist flesh beneath them, and then raised her gaze to find his again.
"I'm losing you."
He reached up and took hold of those chilled fingers, enfolding them tight in his and shook his head, his smile turning rueful.
"You can't lose *me*, Lois. I got lost four days ago." He reached up with his free hand as he saw the tears gather in her eyes again and dashed them clear as they spilled across one pale cheek. "You have a perfect memory of me. The real me. And…" he swallowed and then continued softly, "I have a perfect memory of you. I think I always did."
He pulled her close again and hugged her tightly. After a moment, she pulled herself clear, wiping the back of a hand across one cheek, before she looked him directly in the eyes.
Clark waited, uncomfortable with the intense study, but sensing that she was searching for…something. She had an air about her of pondering something deep and meaningful, attempting to come to some decision as she looked into his soul. Her face was so solemn that he wanted to tell her that it was okay, that whatever was troubling her, it would work out just fine. And her decision was the right one, no matter what.
But he waited, knowing instinctively that whatever it was that was she was trying to come to terms with, that she was weighing up so earnestly in her thoughts, she had to find her way to that decision alone.
Then she let out a soft breath.
"I think," she said quietly, "you were right."
He tipped his head to one side, brow puckering. "About?"
She glanced downwards and then back up at him with a shrug. "I should get out of this."
She eased herself out of his arms and got to her feet.
"Oh. Oh! Yeah, sure! Right — " Clark moved to push himself to his feet, intending to go look out something in his closet to give her and pushing back the small disappointment that had welled up in him at her retreat from his lap.
But he subsided, confused, as she reached out a hasty hand and placed it on his shoulder, pushing him back to sit. He looked up at her as she stood there, a puzzled question in his eyes. She gave him a soft, hesitant smile and then, before he could understand her intention, she crossed her hands quickly at the bottom of the wine-sodden top, pulling it up and over her head in one swift, sinuous motion. She crushed it against her breasts for a moment, biting at her lower lip, then let it fall to dangle from one hand.
Clark gaped at her, completely flummoxed, as she let the top slide from her fingers to hit the floor. He thought he could almost hear the soft, weighted thump it made as it hit the carpet. Although it was hard to tell as the sudden, rough pounding of his heart seemed, all at once, to fill his ears like a drum of thunder. Heat flashed through him like summer lightning and it wasn't only as the result of his embarrassment.
His gaze dropped instinctively before he could think about trying to stop it. He didn't know if he could have. He knew that he certainly didn't want to and that thought made him ashamed and guilt-stricken. But it didn't stop him looking all the same.
She wasn't naked to his gaze. Of course not. Why had he expected…? He stifled the thought (the disappointment?) irritably, hardly aware that he frowned over it as he was swept away by the sudden rush of blood to his head. She was wearing a simple, white cotton bra — the pristine color of which was now marred by a splotch of red smack in the center valley between her breasts. A splodge that looked for all the world to Clark's boggled eyes like a handprint radiating out crimson fingers where he suddenly longed to lay his own hand.
It was utilitarian rather than designed to entice, which seemed to lend credence to the fact that this seduction hadn't been planned, and yet, at that precise moment, it was the most erotic garment he'd ever seen.
And it revealed practically nothing of what he so desperately wanted to see. Except that it cradled the curves of her breasts and the whole was an entirely frustrating glimpse that teased rather than revealed. His fingers itched with the desire to touch. He clenched his hands into deliberate fists instead. His palms were sweating.
His gaze rose again. Lois' stance was tense, her shoulders tight. Her expression was almost wooden, pale and taut, and difficult todecipher. Was she regretting this? Something borne out of impulse she wished she'd never done? Should he give her an easy way out, be her friend, say something light and teasing as he covered her up again? Let her forget it, brush it off as nothing? An aberration, this strange and emotionally crazy-paved night had fostered in her? In both of them?
He hesitated, and his thoughts returned to earlier. She had been angry at him when he had gone back into the bathroom. And she had had every right to be, he conceded. But she had given it up, forgiven him, her mood changing in a heartbeat. Why? Why had she forgiven what he could only describe as his boorish behavior so easily?
It wasn't like her. If there was one small nugget of memory remaining in the file he kept under the heading Lois Lane it was that she never gave up on anger lightly. She stayed mad. She held a grudge like a miser held onto gold. That was a given. He might not remember much about her, or about their relationship, but that one fact seemed to be an elemental constant in the universe that didn't qualify for dispute.
So what had prompted her to let him off the hook? Why had she been so friendly with him, so seemingly content to let his behavior go unremarked and unchallenged? It just didn't fit with everything he'd heard about her or seen for himself.
He held in a small sigh. He suspected that in his entire lifetime he would never figure out the enigmatic creature who was his partner. And especially not when his lifetime was about to be so spectacularly short. And he had the feeling that even regaining his memory wouldn't help him with that puzzle. He just had to face it. She confused the heck out of him. On any day of the week.
But she had forgiven him. And, for whatever reason she had, he was glad of it. He couldn't have borne there being acrimony or antagonism between them. Not this night. He didn't want to risk that fragile harmony between them. Still…
Was she really interested in him…that way? Was she aroused by him? Excited by him? Or…was she just using him to gain her own gratification? He gave his partner another considering glance. He could have sworn…back in that bathroom…that she was very much aroused. But, of course, she had denied it. Claimed that she was simply playing his game. Was she really *that* good an actress? Had she really been zinging him back so smoothly he hadn't even known he was losing the battle, conning him into thinking he was winning even when she'd been beating him to a pulp? Well, it would certainly be something Mad Dog Lane would revel in, he supposed.
He smothered a small sigh. Mad Dog Lane. A vulnerable, scared and courageous woman. Which one was the real Lois Lane? She certainly was one puzzling woman, that was for sure.
And he wanted to find out. He wanted to find out everything there was to know about her, everything she had to offer him, all of her secrets, her dreams, her hopes and fears…
He wanted her.
He didn't remember ever feeling anything like this before. He stifled a small, self-mocking chuckle. A cliché that was truer than it had ever been.
/And why shouldn't you be attracted?/ a small, amused voice spoke up in his head. /She's *very* attractive./
/Yeah, but — /
/But? But *what*? Geez, Kent…get with the program, huh? You're a *man* and she…she is one *stunningly* beautiful woman. /
Clark sighed and shook his head slightly. Hoo, boy. He was in big trouble. Even his conscience didn't seem to see any good, logical reason why he shouldn't…
…shouldn't what? Put the moves on his partner?
Well…no. No, not that. That would be crass and…
…yes, good…really…really…go — no! *Not* good. He frowned his disapproval at the lapse in his thoughts. Not good at all! Lois was clearly vulnerable right now, her emotions in turmoil, as his own were. The situation was…difficult to say the least. Making any move towards the gratification of his own desires and lust for her would be not only selfish but…well he could never take advantage of her that way!
The small voice of his conscience sighed.
/Clark…you don't have much time left. Neither does she. The world as you knew it is about to descend into hell. Don't you owe it to yourself…to her…to make those last hours as pleasurable as they possibly can be? What could it hurt?/
His body was clamoring at him to stop thinking and start doing — and to hang with the consequences — but what he was beginning to suspect was an overly cautious nature forced him to try to bring some sense of order to the chaotic flow of his thoughts first. To slow down, take a moment to think this through, try to make sense of moments that were happening way too fast for comfort.
Chief in his mind was confusion. What was Lois thinking? Had he been wrong about his earlier assumptions?
Wasn't she with…weren't she and Superman…together?
Of course, the circumstances they found themselves in were less than usual and she could hardly be blamed for acting out of character. If…it *was* acting out of character to suddenly throw herself at a man this way. But, even so… To betray her lover like this? With someone she had barely shown any interest in until now? A bitter distaste rose in his throat with the thought and then he dismissed it.
No. No, he couldn't think of her as being that duplicitous. That shallow or fickle. He had little evidence to base it on, but he somehow knew that Lois Lane didn't offer herself like this to just any man and not on a whim. Not even in circumstances as warped and terrible as these. No matter how great her need for comfort — it wasn't her way.
She had entirely too serious and intense a nature to take matters of the heart so lightly.
So…didn't she care for Superman as deeply as he'd concluded she did? Was he…nothing more than a passing fancy…perhaps not even a lover at all? Bewilderment blighted his thoughts. Maybe he'd been wrong after all? Maybe he'd completely misconstrued her relationship with the superhero. Or, maybe…
…maybe she had finally given up on hope. Believed her lover dead. Held no illusions that he would have survived or would return to her. Perhaps it was grief and loss beyond what this night held for them that had prompted her into such reckless action.
He supposed the thought should make him feel jealous. Used? That she might consider him a poor copy, second-best, was hardly flattering. But he discovered it barely mattered. What mattered was that he was here and he was the one she was turning to for comfort. Perhaps, in saner times, it might have made a difference to him. But not now.
All that mattered was that she was hurting. And needed him.
His heart clenched with pity and then he frowned as a flicker of new uncertainty, much closer to home.
Perhaps he should be examining his own motives, rather than trying to find sense in his partner's. Was he considering the betrayal of a lover too?
Cat had been trying to pull a fast one on him, back in the newsroom. He'd come to that conclusion long before she'd all but admitted it, in response to his challenge. She had, he had learned, a certain reputation for a mischievous nature, not to mention a somewhat incorrigible approach to sex and a casual attitude to the men in her life. Of which there seemed to be more than a few. Right from the first he had had the feeling that he would never be content to be one of a string of bed partners, in any relationship, for any woman, which lent credence to his earlier dismissal of her declaration of love. It had all seemed wrong to him, long before he'd confirmed she'd been lying.
But, if he was sure that Cat wasn't, he still couldn't entirely be certain that there was *no one* in his life, could he?
He could be wrong in his assumptions. There could be someone out there he'd yet to discover existed, who was very much a part of his life, who held a place in his heart.
For all he knew, Cat wasn't the only one whose behavior needed questioning. Wasn't he considering acting exactly the same way as she had? Taking advantage of an unthinkable situation to gratify his own lusts and desires? Wouldn't he be just as reckless, just as selfish, if he did?
For all he knew, he could be thinking about betraying someone who meant everything to him, had meant everything to him…
Just like Lois was…?
With the reminder of the absent superhero, his gaze flickered to the door of his apartment, which he almost expected to see burst suddenly inward and a figure in red and blue to come storming through, angrily demanding to know what the heck he thought he was doing with *his* girl.
The door remained stubbornly intact, however, and, on his own, Clark found himself floundering as to what to do next, since Superman and Fate refused to lend a hand and take the decision from him.
Troubled, frustrated, and confounded to the point where he didn't know what to think any more, he found his eyes returning to his partner, who seemed to have grown tenser in the few moments he'd been distracted, her body held rigid.
But if her posture was defensive, her eyes met his unwaveringly as he lifted them to her face, and he could find no hint of regret in them. Just…something sorrowful. And almost pleading.
He shook his head slightly. He had turned Cat down. Her offer, surprisingly enough, hadn't been made so blatantly as Lois', but the implications of what she'd wanted from him had been clear. Comfort. Sex. The need to hold another warm body against you and block out the pain and the fear. Just for a moment.
/I need to find my own memories. Not fake them with someone else./
If he had felt that way about spending this last night with Cat…then why was he even considering faking those memories with his partner? It was the same thing, wasn't it?
He heaved a small sigh.
It was time to do the right thing.
It was time to prove himself her friend.
Taking a deep breath, he came to a decision of his own and rose to his feet.
Lois was beginning to regret what she'd just done. She didn't even know why she'd done it. That was, she *seemed* to have considered it — mulled it over — thought about it, rolled it over in her mind, weighed up all the pros and cons…she hadn't just done it on *impulse*, for Pete's sake! She definitely remembered pondering it deeply before she'd acted.
Of course it hadn't take a *lot* of thought or pondering. She distinctly remembered that too.
She flushed a little with the admission and then tossed guilt and regret both metaphorically over her shoulder and into her mental trash can, where everything else resided that she didn't really see the need to think about too clearly or often. Or at all.
The plain truth was that these were *not* perfect days, circumstances were less than usual (and wasn't that the understatement of the decade?) The world had committed itself to Bellevue, locked its cell door, tossed the key through the barred window and hidden its head beneath its blankets like an ostrich in a sandstorm…and logic, sense, reason and responsibility had joined it.
The plain truth was she was scared to the point that she heard the scream of it reverberating deep within her skull, like chimes tossed around by a hurricane, and if she didn't let out that shriek soon it would emerge from her throat in an animal howl of terror that would never be halted once it was let loose.
The plain truth was…she thought miserably…she needed to be held. She needed to know she wasn't alone. That she wasn't the only one afraid and longing for comfort. She needed to pacify the wounded beast howling within her before it took control and reduced her to nothing.
And it had felt so good just being held by him.
Being held by him, soothed by him, had stilled the beast. At least for a brief moment. His arms around her, the soft murmur of his words against her hair, the beat of his heart against her own…it had all been like giving up on responsibility, letting herself surrender to…the inevitable? Was it inevitable? That they should be here, together, on this last night? That she should suddenly feel so close to him? Want him? Need him?
Suddenly it seemed so, to her. Suddenly, it seemed as though anything else would be unnatural.
She didn't pause to try to figure that strange epiphany out. There was no time.
She needed release.
And he was here.
He was so quiet, why didn't he say something? *Do* something? Why was he just sitting there?
A sudden, horrific thought occurred to her. One that she had somehow failed to consider, in all her pondering of whether to take that next step into the intimacy she craved.
The fact that perhaps he didn't feel the same way.
That maybe he didn't want her.
He seemed shocked by her actions. Surely he had known, expected, hadn't he been the one to hint that…to ask — ?
But none of that was in his face now. His expression was closed and distant and strained. Had she embarrassed him that deeply? She bit down into her lip, steadying its sudden tremor. She felt tears well up and forced them roughly back, humiliation beginning to take hold. Why had she ever thought — ?
Why had she dropped the top to the floor? she thought with an inner groan. If she still had it, she could at least use it to cover up. Having to kneel to pick it up was an ignominy too far. She felt suddenly as exposed as though she were naked — not only in body, but in spirit. As though she had shown — no, offered up — the very deepest recesses of her heart and soul to this man and had had everything she had to give, everything she wanted to give, all that she was, rejected out of hand. Dismissed. Found wanting.
He didn't want her.
He didn't want her. How could she have been so stupid? How could she have misjudged things so badly?
He didn't *want* her?
If he did, he'd have done something by now…wouldn't he? Said *something*?
Clark, please…say *something*…
He frowned as he stared at her and she felt her skin shrivel, shrinking away from a gaze that obviously found her less than desirable. Tears of mortification burned at the back of her eyes, denied release as she stubbornly refused to let them fall.
He had certainly seemed keen to view what was beneath the top earlier — she hadn't missed him checking her out *then* like some high school drop-out, she thought bitterly, and then immediately castigated herself for the uncharitable accusation. He had been embarrassed by his actions then, she hadn't missed that either, and it hadn't exactly been intentioned besides. She knew that too.
She just wished he'd say something! Even if it was to —
Her thoughts froze like a startled rabbit as Clark rose to his feet.
The burning heat in her cheeks brightened as she forced herself to look into his eyes, knowing what she'd find there.
He was her friend. Her best friend. He'd be embarrassed for her, knowing how shamed she was, there'd be the awkward light-heartedness and attempts to brush off the moment and that would be worse than any —
Her thoughts scattered in confusion as Clark looped a strong and steady arm around her waist, stooped a little to hook the other under her knees, and straightened to hoist her into his arms. Lois blinked as he shifted her more comfortably into his grip, with an ease that surprised and astounded her. My God, he was strong!
Her eyes widened a little. His were still unfathomable to her. She couldn't see past the darkness in them to judge what he was thinking. It disconcerted her. Her partner had always been an open book to her, she'd always been able to —
See right through him? A cracked mirror?
Shocked by the realization, as she began to understand for the first time just how wrong she had been about Clark Kent, who wasn't an open book in any way, shape or form, she felt suddenly vulnerable in the strong grip that held her. Suddenly…she frowned for a moment, trying to identify the sensation, the unfamiliar emotion and felt a jolt of surprise as she realized that for perhaps the first time in her life, she was willing to surrender control of what happened next in her life to a man.
"Do you — ?" she whispered, but he delayed her questions by bending his head and pressing his lips against hers.
His kiss was gentle and soft, but it wasn't tentative. He seemed to be completely in command as he pushed harder, forcing open her lips beneath the pressure of his. He seemed to frown a little as he did, hesitate for a moment, and then it was gone and his kiss became passionate again.
Lois submitted to the caress with a sigh, entwining an arm around his neck. Her free hand pushed its way into his hair, forcing the kiss deeper, entangling her tongue with his in a snaking dance and enjoying the mutual exploration — not entirely willing to surrender after all then, something wry in her head commented, and the thought made her want to giggle suddenly.
/Give as good as you get, honey,/ she told it smugly.
It had always been her motto.
Clark broke the kiss first though, and although Lois felt disappointed at his withdrawal, she acquiesced to it without verbal protest. She had expectations of better things to come — more kisses among them, she was sure. She could feel his breath, sweet and warm, on her lips.
"Everything…" he murmured against her skin and then their lips touched again, briefly, before he raised his head and without a word headed for the archway behind him, his partner a willing passenger in his arms.
In the almost total darkness of the simple yet cozy bedroom, Clark laid her gently — almost reverently — on the bed and paused. In the shadows, he was a vague shape hovering over her. Lois let herself settle onto her back, easing herself more comfortably against the pillow behind her and stretching out voluptuously the full length of the bed. A subtle encouragement in case he was having second thoughts. She watched him, content for the moment to let him take the lead, more than a little curious to see what he would do next, where that lead would take them.
What he did was nothing more dangerous or startling than sit on the edge of the bed beside her. He leaned forward, his hands gripping her shoulders lightly as he kissed her again; softly this time, without the force or urgency of the first, a brief taste of sweetness before he withdrew slightly, enough to be able to look into her eyes. One hand moved downward to lie against the bare flesh of her stomach, shifting in an almost absent caress across the smooth expanse of her skin.
"You want this," he whispered and, though it might have been intended as a question when he formed it in his mind, it emerged less that than it was a sure, heartfelt certainty, as though it was her own heart that had spoken from out of his lips.
Did she? a cautious voice spoke up from inside her. But she knew it wasn't really something she had to question. More, it was a last affirmation that she did, that she would, that she wanted this to continue, than it was an attempt to persuade her to abandon this.
But it wasn't lust or desire or the fact that he made her feel as giddy as a schoolgirl embracing her first teenage crush, made her feel like no other man had ever made her feel before, that made her answer him.
It wasn't even the fact that, mirrored in the dark, mocha colored eyes, flecked with amber heat and glowing into her own, wide gaze, she saw her own passion, her own desire…and love. She had seen those things before, in the eyes of other men, and found them to be nothing more than the tantalizing glitter of fool's gold. They wouldn't sway her now.
It was trust. Pure and simple, unadulterated trust. It was knowing that she could trust this man with her heart, her body, her soul…with everything that she was and he would hold it gently, next to his heart and never betray her.
For as long as they lived.
Her thoughts hitched on that last, bitter knowledge rising in her that these were thoughts that applied to another time, to another world…a sane world, one that wasn't facing its obliteration. That they were things that hardly mattered now, though once they had been all important to her before she gave herself to any man. Love and trust and honor. Like everything else on this night, they were reduced to shadows, pitiful remnants of a more rational time that hadheld them as important and worthy of being cherished. What mattered now was solace. Nothing more.
Trust or not, he would never live long enough to betray her as others had — if it came to that. And she would never live long enough to face the consequences of a moment of impulse and heat and desire.
Such things were obsolete in this brave new world that was on a collision course into darkness and fire.
And yet, she couldn't entirely abandon what had always been important to her. What had always mattered. And she knew, looking into the shadowed eyes of the man beside her, that they mattered to him too. She had always known that. She had told him that he had few girlfriends…lovers, he'd meant lovers, she knew…and she understood that he hadn't because, like her, he didn't throw himself into love blindly or carelessly or without thought for the future. He wasn't in the same league as the men she had given herself to — foolishly — in the past. He eclipsed them. He was decent and gentle and caring and she knew that he would cherish her…for what little time that they had left.
And what more could she ask of him, now, on this night?
What more could she ask of herself?
Her eyes fixed tightly on the rapid beat of pulse in his throat. She could smell the subtle scent of his cologne. She wondered what he would taste like if she let her mouth wander on the skin stretched tight across the tendon of his neck…
"Yes," she breathed hoarsely and he put up his hands to frame her face tight, drawing her towards him to kiss her deeply as his body shifted, settling itself firmly atop hers. Lois reminded herself to breathe…and then forgot again as she found herself being pushed deeper into the yielding bed by the weight of her partner. His hands moved to her arms, holding her against the muscular body hidden beneath that flannel checked shirt and Sloppy Joe sweater. Who would have thought he could be so…insistent…she considered dizzily as Clark's lips continued to plunder hers.
Incredibly, it seemed that there actually were moments when the touch of a man's lips on your own could produce fireworks in your head. Who would have thought that he…could…wasn't that just in those cheap romances she bought off the supermarket shelf? Wasn't that just fantasy…wish-fulfillment…wasn't that just…so…ohhhhh…
She made a small sound, way down deep in the back of her throat, as she surrendered to that forceful pressure, a soft sigh that emerged, startlingly, as a moan of pleasure.
Her body seemed to become something entirely independent of her mind as it arched up into the masculine curves molded to it. She groaned as heat flashed through her and abandoned herself utterly to the hedonism of the moment and the sensations his mouth and hands were producing in her as he began to explore her body as thoroughly as he was her lips.
Pleasure was, however, brief before it died. As she responded eagerly and robustly to the caresses of his lips, she again felt him back off a little. Confused, she encouraged him by pushing harder in return, her lips tasting all the flavors of his feverishly, demanding a reaction from him, demanding more of what he had already given her, of what she so desperately craved. Sensation. Heat. Lust and desire. Emotions that were on the sharp edge of life and had nothing of death in them.
Instead, he jerked back his head and in the soft light of the single candle on the nightstand she saw an expression that was formed half of surprise, half of dazed wonder, flit across his face.
"I've kissed you before," he said, sounding startled.
"What?" She looked up at him curiously.
"Before. We…were in a…hotel. And I was kissing you. We were…" He lifted a brow and then looked down at her sharply. "You lied to me! Why? Why didn't you tell me we were lovers?"
"What?!" Lois spluttered. "Clark, we were never — "
"I remember being in bed with you at that hotel," he interrupted, slightly stubbornly now. He lifted himself slightly clear of her, planting his elbows into the mattress on either side of her and resting on them. A good inch or so of clear air now existed between their bodies and Lois felt the loss keenly.
"No, we — oh!" She remembered too. Clark stared at her enquiringly and she sighed. "We've never," she found herself blushing furiously now, " — well, you know. We were on stakeout, you kissed me because…because you thought our cover was going to be blown by a maid."
"Our cover?" He looked doubtful and, perhaps, just a little disappointed.
"We were supposed to be honeymooners."
"Oh." He frowned. "I remember kissing you in a plane too."
Lois sighed. "The bad guys were gonna throw us *out* of the plane. Kissing you was the only way I could tell you my escape plan."
"Oh," he said again. The disappointed note in his voice was definitely easy to hear now. "And I remember kissing…*you* kissing me…" he stopped. Actually, in that one she'd been wearing some kind of…harem costume? He shook his head a little. Well, maybe that one never had happened. He sighed. "Never mind."
Lois watched him as he stared musingly into air for a moment, having seemingly forgotten her. His lower body still pinned her to the bed. She bit down softly into her lower lip, stifling the small whimper of frustration that had begun to build in her throat, desperately longing for him to cover her fully again, to kiss her. She needed to be kissed rather badly right at that moment.
And then Clark tilted his head and transfixed her again with those dark, expressive brown eyes. "We seem to have done an awful lot of kissing for just partners," he noted.
Lois frowned. "Well…yeah…I guess, but — "
Her breath caught, the rest of the words forgotten, as he leaned forward and granted her wish of a moment earlier. Released from the tension of resisting the temptation to press her body harder against his, Lois groaned and hooked one long leg over his, melding herself against him.
Her lips savaged his, her arms latching around his neck and pulling him down, ensuring that every possible inch of flesh between them connected as her hands eagerly roamed his back and shoulders and ran themselves into the thick silk of his hair. The leanly muscled weight of his body sent sparks of fire raging through her and she tore her lips from his with a sharp breath. A whimper escaped her as she let her head fall back against the pillow and closed her eyes, surrendering herself to the spell of soft, warm, open-mouthed kisses he traced across the taut line of her throat, bared to him.
Clark had decided abruptly that his memory was more faulty than he'd supposed. This all seemed surprisingly familiar…known. It seemed impossible that it was new to him. Or, at least, even if it was, it hardly mattered. Remembering nothing of his previous sexual experiences meant that tonight was going to be a first for him, either way. And it wasn't as though he didn't know what to do with the bundle of sweet scented, softly yielding and desperately tantalizing feminine curves that lay trembling in his arms. On the contrary. There were parts of him that understood only too well and were eager to show that a faulty memory wasn't going to hamper them at all.
His breath flooded, hot and rapid, against her cheek and jaw and neck as he strung those wild kisses over her skin. Blindly, on his quest across her skin, he found the softly rounded curve of her shoulder and explored it with his lips, before he moved his head restlessly, his mouth finding the soft hollow of her throat instead and settling there. His hand cupped at her shoulder, then slid down her arm, finding her fingers and lacing them tight in his own before he pulled their joined grip up to pin her hand beneath his to the pillow beside her.
Her fingers struggled with the buttons of his shirt without much success. With a thick growl of frustration, Clark solved this temporary delay by simply sitting up, reaching down to take hold of both sides of the shirt's open neck and with a practiced, familiar twist of his hands, yanking them apart, tearing it open. He was slightly surprised to find that it parted easily, and with the buttons remaining intact and for a moment, a more clinical, detached portion of his mind noted that it had seemed a familiar thing, something he'd done before, something he'd done often…? He blinked, but the memory, whatever it was, wouldn't come…and — and Lois was gaping at him.
"How'd you do — ?" she started and then forgot about the question as her gaze fell on his now naked, muscular chest. She froze for an instant, her eyes roaming over the bare pectoral and abdominal muscles, heaving with his exertions and already slick with a coating of moisture. His skin glowed with a honey sheen. Her mouth forming a small 'ohhhh' , she reached out and laid the tips of her fingers to the center of his chest. His skin felt warm and smooth and solid as burnished steel. She swallowed roughly.
"Oh, never mind!" she breathed. Her hands spread themselves against the firm pectoral muscles and then slid themselves up across his chest and over his shoulders. They moved down his arms, pushing the shirt back as they went, until it was bunched down around his lower arms, entangling his hands in the soft material and effectively ensuring they were temporarily held captive behind his back.
It took only moments to free himself, but in those moments Lois took full advantage of his imprisonment as she set her mouth to working a string of soft, deliciously teasing kisses across his chest. Clark closed his eyes as he grabbed at the material tying down his right hand with his left, yanking it over his wrist and hand as Lois' caresses drove him crazy.
The feel of her mouth on his skin and the wonderful things she was doing with it were driving him insane. Managing to free himself, the shirt dropping to the floor behind him seconds later, he brought up his hands, unable to bear such torture any longer. He framed her face, his thumbs stroking hard across her cheekbones, his fingers plunging into her hair as he pulled her up and level with him, to where his lips could meld themselves to hers in a taste of heat and moist desire.
"Clark…" she sighed against his lips and he felt a possessive thrill race through him at the sound of submission in that moan.
All of his senses seemed suddenly to have rocketed into hyperdrive as he explored her with his hands and lips. Was making love always this way? Or was it just her that provoked this intensity of sensation in him? Her scent seemed stronger, he imagined that he could smell rosehips and orange, soap and powder, as well as the thick mingling of flowers from her perfume. Her sighs of pleasure and her soft words of encouragement seemed like all he could hear in his head. He had no idea how this experience compared to others he had had — scant though they appeared to have been. All he knew that she was suddenly everything there was in the world and nothing else but her seemed real to him anymore. The room around him, the sounds of distant traffic on the street below, the sudden, ominous rumble of thunder above him as the weather turned again… these were like shadows, distant and having nothing of substance.
As they tussled, exploring and caressing in a frenzy of need and heat, they fell back to the comforter. Lois somehow managed, more by chance than design, to find herself sprawled on top of her partner. She struggled to right herself, pulling back for a moment.
"Wait a minute!" she said breathlessly. "This wouldn't be…some kind of…trick…would it? This…this…losing your…your…memory and — "
"Nope," Clark said simply and flippantly, interrupting as he reached up one hand, wrapped it around the back of her neck, and used the momentum to drag her back down on top of him. He rolled over, pinning her beneath him and quite effectively put paid to any further questions in much the same manner he'd used from the start. It seemed to work and he saw no reason to change track now.
A few moments later though, he paused, drawing back his head to look down at her, beneath him.
"You don't think that, do you?" he said. "Really?"
"Mmmmmm?" Lois opened her eyes, focusing on him from out of the haze that had enveloped her. "Oh. No…not really," she acknowledged, but her gaze shifted away from him, lending more credence to his question than she was obviously prepared to admit.
"You know that I wouldn't."
She gave him a little more attention and suddenly knew how dumb those only half-acknowledged fears really were. Of course he wouldn't. And she hadn't really been serious she knew when she'd said it. More joking than not. But, still…there was that other half, the suspicions and distrust that wouldn't let go. But… "No…" she shook her head, laying a hand briefly to his cheek. "I know."
"I love you," he said.
Lois looked discomfited. "That was what you meant, wasn't it? What you were going to say? Earlier?" She paused, but he didn't ask her what she meant and she saw that he understood, that he too remembered.
/I keep getting the oddest feeling whenever I'm around you, that maybe we could be something more than that and I want to know why. I want to know why I feel this way about you. I want to know how you feel about me. The truth, Lois. I want to know because I think I — /
The words she had cut off before he could finish the thought. Had she deliberately prevented him, she wondered now? Had she already known what he was about to say?
"I knew…I think I knew that it was." She sighed. "Clark, how can you love me? You don't even know me."
"I know everything I need to," Clark persisted. "I know what I feel and it's not just…this…" he made a vague gesture with his hand that encompassed their entwined bodies. He put up a gentle hand to touch her cheek. "I love you, Lois," he reiterated earnestly.
Lois frowned. "Clark, you don't have to say that just to — "
He put his fingers lightly against her lips and shook his head. "I'm saying it because it's the truth. Not just to get you into my bed." He chuckled slightly and his fingers shifted to draw a soft caress across her cheekbone. "Besides, you're already here."
Lois smiled a little, acknowledging the truth of that, and closed her eyes against the warm feeling of comfort that the touch of his hand produced. He lay on his side and reached up to stroke the disordered tangle of her hair back out of her eyes with a calm hand. Lois sighed and then opened her eyes to look into his.
"Clark…" she hesitated and then, began again, awkwardly, "I — "
"No." He interrupted with a smile that was somehow sad and yet completely understanding of her. "I know you don't love me, Lois. You've made that clear. It doesn't matter. Not tonight." His expression became troubled, perhaps, just a little, offended. "I don't want false declarations from you. I don't want lies. I don't want anything from you that you aren't prepared to give me completely willingly. I want…something real. Something honest. Do you understand?"
She nodded. The intensity of what he was telling her struck her so hard that she had to force the agreement out of a throat that suddenly felt as though she'd swallowed glass. "Yes."
Clark nodded at her whisper, as though they'd sealed a bargain, somewhere. And she supposed they had. She was glad that she wasn't fooling him any, that he understood that this wasn't about love…no promises, no commitment. What were such things worth, anyway, now? It was about comfort. Plain and simple. About needing to feel the warmth of another human being close against you, about needing someone to share the pain with…about just needing. Someone.
No, she thought quickly. Not anyone. Not at all. Even now, she couldn't imagine giving herself like this to any other man but this one. She may not…love him. But she cared for him. Deeply. And, perhaps more importantly, she knew that he cared for her. And that he understood her, at a level deeper than anyone she had ever known. That puzzled her at times, sometimes it irritated the hell out of her, how easily he seemed to see right into the core of her soul — but now…now it was a blessing she clutched at eagerly and desperately, as someone drowning.
Why had he said that? she thought disconsolately. Why had he brought love into this when it had no part to play? What had love to do with any of this? Couldn't he have left it at just two people, alone in the dark, needing and accepting comfort from each other? Why did he have to make things so complicated? So difficult?
But the miserable turn to her thoughts was disrupted as Clark set himself to proving the weight of his words with action and were forgotten in another instant as promises and whispers of love and emotions too difficult to handle or accept were swept away in a torrent of need and aching desire.
And who cared what you called it? Love, desire, lust or passion — it all came down to need in the end. Didn't it?
She gave up thought entirely as his lips trailed across her cheek and jaw and found her lips. As his hands roamed her body, his fingers caressing sweet paths of heat against her skin. After some moments, when there remained nothing in her head but light and the thunder of blood, she struggled to regain some sense of control, some degree of clarity. She put a hand to his shoulder, pushed at him, and (to her surprise, for she had never previously known any man deep in the heat of passion to even act as though he knew she was there, let alone take account of her desires) he responded to the mute plea and paused to raise his head, a question in his eyes as he looked up at her.
"I don't want to…to disappoint you."
He smiled at her, a little sadly. "How could you? This is something we'll remember for the rest of our lives."
His hands slid up along the sides of her throat and spread themselves at her jaw, cradling her firmly with his touch, lifting her head until he could ravage her lips with his own. They were moist and sweet against his, eager and needy, and with a low groan, he pushed her back to the bed until she lay beneath him.
For all the strength of feeling he had for this woman, for all that he knew she cared for him, still, what they were doing couldn't be called making love, he thought. Love had little to do with it. There was a ferocity in her motions, rage in her desire. Her lips crushed his with defiance, not lust. And he understood that too. There were emotions in them too huge and encompassing to be contained and they were striving for release, neither going gently into the night, but raging against its dying. Their coupling was a frenetic, savage affirmation that dying for them was impossible. Two people whose hearts beat this fiercely, whose blood sang so swiftly in their veins, whose passion encompassed the world and reduced it to insubstantial shadow, two people for whom life burned so savagely couldn't die. Could never die.
It wasn't fair!
Dammit, none of it was fair!
Lost in the sensations, it took him some time to realize she was weeping softly, soundlessly, as she loved him with a fierceness beyond passion, a desperate, almost despairing, intensity in her movements against his as she drove them higher and deeper, beyond all thought, beyond all despair, beyond the pain and the grief and the sorrow of loss.
Understanding, he said nothing. But his caresses became softer against her skin, his lips more gentle as he kissed the tracks of silent tears from her cheeks and when, finally, they were through, he held her close and tight against him, his own tears seeping into the damp midnight of her hair.
The bed beside him was empty. And cold.
Sitting up, he glanced around the bedroom, its shadows pearl-tinted now with the approaching dawn, but he was alone.
Had he always been alone? Had he dreamed the events of the previous evening? One last wish fulfillment in his head before everything was lost? An epitaph to a fantasy never realized and that now never would be?
But her perfume still lingered among the sheets and in the air and on the pillow beside him.
No, crazy enough as it seemed, it had been real.
He smiled a little, rueful with the thought.
So, what was one more insanity in a world already gone mad?
When you had no idea what was going to happen next, when logic and reason no longer seemed to apply, and when you no longer knew what horrors the future might hold for you, you took your pleasure and found comfort where you could.
Even…even if it was somewhere and with someone you wouldn't have turned to in a million years before?
The smile faded as the empty sheets beside him and that sudden thought forced him to suddenly consider whether Lois felt the same way as he did. He didn't regret what had happened last night. He couldn't. But did she?
He'd already gathered enough from what she'd said to have figured out that her relationship with the old Clark was such that she would never have considered making love with him if the circumstances hadn't been less than normal.
He wasn't a fool, he could see how disconcerted the swift change in their relationship, from her perspective, had made her. As for him, he had no reference point to judge the change. He had always been as he was last night. Perhaps his old self would have been horrified too.
He sighed and then perked up as his gaze lit on the far side of the room.
Maybe she was just in the bathroom?
No light showed beneath the door, but perhaps the power hadn't come back on yet.
He drew back the comforter and got to his feet, padding across the floor.
"Lois?" he whispered to the door's blank face. He knocked softly. "Lois?"
But there was no answer.
Frowning now, he scrubbed a hand through his hair and headed back through the bedroom and into the living room, pausing only momentarily to absently scoop up the glasses lying on the nightstand and put them on.
But there was no sign of her. Not there, nor in the kitchen either.
Had she left? Just gotten dressed, grabbed her things, and left without saying goodbye? Regretting what they'd shared, shamed by it, unable to face him? Sneaking out into the night like a thief of his dreams?
He turned on his heel for the alcove behind him and trod on something soft underfoot.
One dark leather pump.
He bent and picked up the shoe, looking at it thoughtfully. Okay, so she hadn't left. He doubted she'd been so upset by their lovemaking that she'd rushed out into the night barefoot. At least, he hoped she hadn't been.
He spent a few moments searching for the shoe's mate before finding it lying on its side beneath the coffee table. He put them together and placed them tidily and out of harm's way by the side of the sofa. Taking a last, puzzled look around him, he headed back for the bedroom.
As he came through the archway, he caught a brief flash of unexpected color out of the corner of his eye. His gaze searched through the large windows on the other side of the room and then he headed for the door to his right. As he opened it on soundless, well-oiled hinges, and started to slip through into the slightly chilled air outside, he glanced down and paused. Oh. Right. He shook his head and retraced his steps. Dragging open the top drawer of the closet in the corner he took out a pair of plaid shorts and a dark-green sweatshirt and hastily pulled them on before leaving the room again.
Standing on the edge of the terrace, in the shadow of the door behind him, he paused, suddenly transfixed by the tableau before him.
She was sitting on the low wall that bordered the terrace, one foot resting on its wide surface, hands clasped loosely around her bent knee. Clark's first thought was that, with the rain of last night, the stone wall would be damp to sit on. He had noticed this seemingly habitual and instinctual concern for her well-being and comfort before, in the past few days, and it didn't seem to have lessened any since. But she was ahead of him, having brought out some towels from the bathroom and spread them on the wall beneath her.
The dampness and the chill certainly didn't seem to be bothering her any. Her face was lifted to the soft breeze from the east, as though she was scenting out the hint of sunrise just showing on the horizon. It stirred in her dark hair like a lover's hand. In profile, she was serene and mysterious, touched by dying moonlight and the hopeless promise rising in the east. Light and shadow combined to sketch out her curves and the long, sleek lines of her body like an artist's rendition in charcoal and chalk — an almost classical depiction of beauty. From the slim length of her neck, down through the roundness of shoulder and breast, to the voluptuous expanse of one stretched-out thigh…
…one stretched-out, naked, thigh…
All she was wearing was the gray-plaid shirt he'd had on earlier. His eyes slid over her again. He had to admit that it looked a darned sight more fetching on her than it ever had on him. It clung in all the right places, melding itself to her upper body. The open neck, daringly buttoned low, revealed a shadowed and enticing hint of mystery. She'd rolled the sleeves to halfway up her arms, which emphasized their slimness. And, most importantly of all, it barely reached to mid-thigh on those long, curvaceous legs. His fingers twitched against his hip with the need to reach out and lay his hand against what he knew would be smooth and warm flesh.
Despite the fact that he had just spent the greater part of the night exploring every inch of that body, its curves, its angles, its soft, warm hollows…there was something undeniable erotic about the sight of it partly sheathed in a garment he had worn — that belonged to him, that held his scent still and perhaps even some of the fading warmth from his own body, mixing and mingling with hers — that was even more of an aphrodisiac, even more exciting, than anything he'd discovered previously.
Intellectually, Clark understood all of the reasons why finding the woman he'd just spent the last few hours being intimate with wearing one of his shirts was an arousing picture. It was a possessive thing. A guy thing, he thought with a half smile. God, she looked cute wearing it. And somehow…his. The smile became a sheepish grin as he wondered what the independent woman watching the sky and oblivious to him, would think of that one.
Knowing all of this, however, didn't stop the illusion working its subtle magic on him. Arousal stirred in him. Like a restless tide, pulling and tugging and drowning him in liquid fire.
He stood in silence for a moment, watching her, simply enjoying the picture she presented and the effect it had on him, until an awareness of him broke into her communion and she turned her head.
"Hey," she said. Her smile was soft and a little sad. Wistful.
He smiled back and wondered how he could have imagined there would have been any awkwardness between them, any lingering touch of discomfort. "I woke up and you weren't there," he said, voicing the complaint of newborn lovers everywhere.
"I wanted to watch the sun come up." She turned her soft gaze back to the sky.
"Aren't you cold?" he asked, solicitous.
She shook her head, glancing down at the shirt. "No." She looked up at him again. "You don't mind, do you?" She pulled at the front of the shirt questioningly. "I couldn't seem to find any of my — " her color heightened a little, visible to him even among the pre-dawn shadows, " — clothes around. In the dark. Um…I found this first and," she shrugged helplessly, "I just gave up at that point."
"No, no, you keep it, that's fine. It's…it's *more* than fine, it's…wow…" Clark realized belatedly that he was enthusing way too wildly and clamped his mouth shut over the rest of the eager endorsement that threatened to spill out of him, before he could make even more of an idiot of himself.
"It sure looks a whole lot better on you than it ever did on me," he ended up voicing his earlier thought, the sentiment heartfelt.
Lois ducked her head, flushing a little under his frank and admiring stare. He was sure he could see a faint smile playing on her lips. Then she sighed and went back to her thoughtful contemplation of the sky.
Despite her earlier assertions, he saw a low shiver roll through her. Sighing, he returned to the bedroom, pulling an old and faded crocheted blanket from one of the dressers before making his way back through thedoor.
He moved across the terrace and, after a slight hesitation, chose to settle himself astride the wall, behind her, rather than sitting opposite. Without hesitation, Lois let herself rest back against his chest. He pulled the blanket over his shoulders and, holding on to its corners, slid his arms around her waist, entwining his fingers in hers and letting its warm, voluminous folds envelop both of them. Her fingers were chilled.
Laying his cheek against the soft pillow of her hair, Clark breathed in deeply of its scent as she echoed his quiet sigh and nestled deeper against him. He closed his eyes, feeling the warmth of her settle itself into him like a balm. He felt no need for words, not wanting to spoil the easy intimacy of the moment, wanting to savor it, make it real.
For the remainder of his life, he thought, for the rest of his life, he would be forever grateful to her, this beautiful woman — generous of spirit and full of life — for choosing to share her last moments with him. For teaching him — or at least giving him the opportunity to remember — what life was really about: love and tenderness, passion and companionship — desire and heat. For showing him how pure those emotions really were, how perfect love could be. For reminding him of what he sensed he was missing out on, fumbling around in the dark corners of his mind.
For the rest of his life. He lifted his head and looked out into a horizon clouded and streaked with layers of red and soft, golden light. Which wouldn't be for very much longer. Time was running out for them. And suddenly, it seemed important to him that he tell her what she meant to him, what she had done for him. How much he owed her. How much he cared.
"Lois — " he began.
"*This* is what he didn't want me to see," she murmured in the same moment and her words struck him as intriguing enough to not only silence him, but make him forget what it was he'd intended to say.
"What?" he said, curiously.
She jerked her head slightly in the direction of the sky. Clark's eyes followed the gesture out to where the pearl gray was slowly giving ground to a rosy glow. The sun rising. The last time it would. Beauty so often taken for granted, never thought on for more than a passing moment, and yet miraculous in its splendor.
"Last night," she whispered, watching the approaching dawn with him, "someone gave me the chance to miss all of this. A way out. The chance to survive. I turned him down. And you know what? I don't regret it. Not any of it." She paused. "I wouldn't have missed any of this for…for all the oolong tea in — " She sat up again, pulling back to look up into his face with a puzzled frown. "Where *does* oolong tea come from?"
Clark chuckled. "China." He shook his head. "You're amazing, you know that?"
She looked surprised. "Sure I know that! Isn't that what I've been telling you ever since Perry made us partners?"
"Have you? Well, you were right. I think I always knew that too," he mused. "At least it seems to me that I did."
"I'm also smart, witty, have impeccable dress-sense, play tennis like a pro, poker like a gangster, and can boost a car in eight seconds flat. But, regardless," she ended this self-appraising litany with a curious look, "what makes me so amazing now?"
Clark shifted her firmly around, so that she was leaning into his chest again, a move she didn't protest or try to circumvent, remaining pliant in his arms. She laid her head to his shoulder and he bent to brush his lips lightly against the crown of her hair. "You're amazing for all kinds of reasons. But mostly because no matter what, no matter how tough it is, you just keep on going, asking questions, exploring, investigating…you never give up. You never quit being curious, wanting to know."
"Oh," she said and then nuzzled at his throat for a moment, before subsiding against him.
"Well, you know," she murmured drowsily, "maybe I can just ask questions later…for now…this is nice…"
Silence settled on them and as the seconds passed her breathing evened out, becoming ponderous and steady.
Clark ducked his head after a moment and saw that her eyes were closed. Watching her, a sudden wave of tenderness swept him, unsettling him, so fierce and all encompassing that it shook him to the core. His biggest regret, in all of this, was still that he couldn't save her, couldn't make it easier for her, couldn't solve the world's problems just to see her smile. Couldn't keep her safe.
Clark frowned. Keeping her safe. What was that she'd said a moment ago, before he'd been distracted by his admiration for her? Who else had offered to keep her safe? And apparently with more reason to believe she might accept the offer than he did?
And more reason to expect that he could succeed?
"What do you mean, someone offered an escape?" he voiced his curiosity suddenly, startling her out of the doze she'd fallen into, lulled by the warmth of his body against hers and the haven represented by his embrace.
"Mmmmmm?" She blinked up on him, confused and then, "Oh. That." She eased herself clear of him, making him instantly regret asking the question, and dragged a hand roughly through her hair in an obvious diversionary tactic, giving herself time to gather her words.
Clark felt a prickle of unease as he watched her struggle with it, saw how discomfited she was, sure that he wasn't going to like what he was about to hear.
Then she sighed. "When I went to see Lex earlier? He didn't want to see me about Superman."
"Yeah, you said. So?"
"What he wanted was to offer me a place in his secret bunker. He invited me to join a rather exclusive club as his…special guest."
"Secret bunker? You mean, like a fallout shelter?"
"Oh, it was much more than that. His Ark. He has the whole place tricked out like some five star hotel." She smiled a little, wry. "Lex couldn't survive the end of the world without a glass of Chateau d'Yquem or duck liver pate. It was a little…spooky though."
"He had my apartment there too. A complete replica. Well, of the living-room at least. He wanted me to stay there, be with him. All I had to do to save myself was…"
"Was?" Clark prompted as she halted and then, as he saw the look of disgust and loathing bloom in her eyes, "Lois?" His posture tightened almost imperceptibly. Nope, he wasn't going to like this at all.
"Lex offered me a straight bargain. The chance to survive. He wanted just one thing in return."
Lois hesitated. Looking into Clark's puzzled eyes, she suddenly knew that any offer he made to save her would have come without strings attached. Her partner had a pure heart and he cared about her. Loved her…he'd told her so and, curiously enough because she wouldn't have believed many men, she did believe him. He would never have tried to use the situation to his advantage like —- like Lex had done.
"I get a safe place, survive the asteroid. Lex gets a…what was it he called it?
A…companion. He said three years was a long time to be without…a companion."
The sudden darkening of Clark's expression made her add hastily, "I said no!" She shook her head. "I don't regret that. I've been thinking about it. A lot."
She flushed a little, and didn't add that she'd been thinking about it because he had shown her — this night, among the tangled sheets of his bed and in the heat of shared passion — the truth of what Lex had offered her. Not safety, not comfort or security. But simple, basic trade. A straight, dispassionate, business deal. Just like any other. And the realization of how insulting that was, what it said about her and how Lex considered her, made her ashamed that she had taken so long to figure it out. Dear God, she had even *thanked* him! That…that low-down creep!
She had woken in the shadows of an unfamiliar bedroom, with the peacefully sleeping figure of her partner — her lover — holding her close against him. And she had felt safe. For the first time in days, she had felt safe. And calm. Protected. Cherished. And loved. Above all else, she'd felt loved.
And, as she had lain there, mulling over the events of the past hours and what was to come, her mind had returned to her meeting with Lex earlier in the day, and she had suddenly begun to see how cheaply he had held her, how poorly he had thought of her. A mere plaything to while away the boredom of his enforced incarceration as the world died above them, its screams unheard in the deep, cavernous rooms of his 'Ark'. She had thought earlier that he would soon have found a replacement for her after she'd rejected him, but she hadn't fully thought through the implications of that until then. So easy she was to replace in his affections. So simple to cast aside and forget.
She had rejected his offer instinctively, because she had known she could never leave the world to its fate and not share in the last remnants of its future. But it had taken loving a mild-mannered, gentle, small-town farmboy to make her realize just how shallow a thing it was that Lex had offered her. It had taken being loved by Clark Kent.
Clark, she understood suddenly, would mourn her to the end of days, be they five hours away or five thousand years, and never survive losing her. And he would never have kissed her coolly on one cheek and wished her a polite farewell before returning to his concrete and steel sanctuary, leaving her to face the future alone. He would have fought to persuade her to stay out of danger and when that failed he would have stood with her, faced whatever was coming at her side, and would never have forsaken her. Never would forsake her.
Comparing the two men was an exercise in frustration and, as she'd begun to understand just what she had let Lex get away with back there, her anger had grown, until, restless and confused, she had carefully eased herself from her lover's embrace and come out onto the terrace to clear her head.
"At first," she continued to verbalize the thoughts she had come to so painfully as she'd sat there alone, "I thought he wanted me there because he cared. He said he cared. Or at least…implied it. But now…that wasn't what he was offering at all, was it? He was offering the oldest deal in the world." She laughed shortly. "Right back to Neanderthal man. A straight trade. You give sex, I'll protect you from what's out there. He didn't want me there because he wanted to save me, he didn't make that offer because I was *worth* saving. He did it because…because he didn't want to miss out on…on *companionship* and I was the closest to hand! He expected me to prostitute myself to save my life…and I *stood* there and let him —-"
"You said no," Clark reminded her gently.
"Not right away. God, I thought about it, Clark. I actually thought about it. I don't know.
Maybe I thought he wouldn't make me keep my side of the bargain. I mean…Lex isn't the type of man to…if I said no, I think he'd respect that…"
Clark made no comment. He didn't know Lex Luthor well enough to make a judgement on his moral character. But he thought Lois already knew the answer anyway. He could hear in her tone that she didn't believe one iota of what she was saying. If she had accepted Lex's bargain, it wouldn't have mattered one bit if she'd changed her mind about sleeping with him later. A new emotion stirred in him. One that he couldn't remember feeling at all since losing his memory.
He had been frustrated, he had been angry, he had been exasperated…but he hadn't felt anything like this. The thought of Lex with Lois, even willing, made him feel sick with revulsion. *Unwilling*…he felt his fingers curl into sudden, hard fists against his knees. His chest tightened with the intensity of the emotion that had abruptly fired into life within him. Luthor! He'd kill him! If he *ever*…if he hurt her…if he so much as laid a finger on Lois, he'd —
He remembered what Lois had said earlier. /You bristle…he does too…/ Was this then the bone of contention between him and Luthor? Lois?
"You and Luthor are…?"
"No! No, not like that. At least, we've dated a couple of times. I really wanted an interview with him and — " she stopped and then looked at him, stricken. "You accused me of that once already."
"Being willing to prostitute myself to get what I wanted out of Lex. You wanted to know how far I'd go to get the interview with him. You made it sound so…so…sordid."
Clark looked back at her helplessly. He had no memory of such a conversation, no way to know if he had felt himself justified in saying something that on the face of it sounded cruel and insensitive.
"But it wasn't like that. Not then. We went to dinner and then…well, Lex was exciting, you know…it was like a glimpse into another world…he even saved my life…and, well, there weren't exactly guys lining up outside my door, you know? Why shouldn't we date? We're both young, single…" she trailed off, blushing as she realized that what had started out as a simple explanation had become more and more defensive as she went on. And who was she trying to defend her decisions to? Clark? Or to herself more than anyone? "You don't know how flattering it is to have someone like that pursue you, Clark. Lex…he could have any woman he wants. And he came after me. How could any woman not fall for that? He made me feel special. Desired. At a time when I wasn't feeling any of those things. When I'd convinced myself I never would again."
"I'm sorry I said that, Lois. I don't think it's true."
"Anyway, when he offered, it was only a few moments — barely seconds — then I realized that safety wasn't what I wanted. Locked up, away from life, buried in that underground vault…that would be as bad as any other form of death. It would just be slower, that's all. But for those few seconds…I thought about saying yes. God…that makes me feel so…cheap."
"Seconds?" Clark said, surprised. He shook his head. This was what she was beating herself up over? "Lois, most people wouldn't have said no at all!" He shifted, sitting up straighter and leaning forward to take her face in his hands, gazing at her earnestly as she looked back at him in consternation. "I'm proud of you, Lois," he told her firmly and sincerely. "I don't know if I would have had that strength."
He saw tears form in those beautiful eyes and he kissed her. Soulfully and deeply, sharing with her the depth of his pride in her and his admiration for her courage and strength as his lips explored hers with increasing vigor. He heard her breath release in a single, quiet sob, that became a moan of pleasure, and her slim arms found their way around his neck, her body pressing itself against his in invitation.
His hands began to wander and then he paused in his soft exploration of her body, dragging his mouth from hers to murmur breathlessly, "Can I change my mind?"
Lois pulled out of his arms enough to cast an uncertain look up into his face. "About what?"
Clark hooked a loose finger into the neck of the shirt, twisting free the first of the buttons. "About you giving me my shirt back," he said huskily.
Lois blinked. The shiver of sensation his touch created flashed its way straight down along her spine and tightened the muscles in her belly into an aching knot. His caress on her skin and the sound of his words created images in her mind that sent heat flooding through her. She thought disgustedly that she was behaving like some giggling sophomore. But she already knew what it would be like to make love with this man, what he could do to her, how he could make her feel…she bit down deeply into her bottom lip.
Clark stroked a thoughtful finger down her arm, tracing the path from shoulder to elbow and then said, quietly, "Lois, when you said you didn't regret anything — "
"No." She twisted in his arms to view his face. Her eyes caught his gaze and held it sincerely. "No, not that either. Especially not that. Actually," her look turned sly as she studied him with renewed intensity, "there are quite a few things I don't regret not missing."
There was a definite gleam in her eyes and the way she was looking at him as she said it, not to mention the husky tang in her voice, made Clark blush furiously all at once. Lois chuckled.
After a moment of consternation, Clark joined her. He tightened his grip around her, hugging her to him for a brief moment before he let go, fiercely affectionate. "Well, it wasn't that romp on the kitchen countertops *you* suggested," he teased. "But…yeah…it was good."
She poked him with an elbow as she subsided against his chest, and he chuckled, then sobered, burying his face into the hollow of her shoulder and letting her scent wash over him. "Better than good," he murmured, as he began to kiss along the line of her throat.
He sensed her answering smile as she tilted her head a little to stroke her cheek lightly across the line of his jaw with a soft, small breath, arching her back like a cat and all but purring like one too, under the spell of his ministrations. "Kitchen countertops or not," she breathed out after a moment, "this is…oh, this is…good…"
Her eyes were full, pupils darkened by desire and her lips were irresistible as he looked down into her face, transformed into soft light by his attentions. He moved to capture her lips, kissing her softly, then hard as she responded with ardor, her arms slipping around his neck and holding him close.
But not even passion such as theirs could survive the weight of the moment — this unique and devastating moment in a history that would soon see its last entry written — and at last Clark pulled back, shifting to quietly nuzzle his cheek against hers before he lifted his head. He looked into her eyes and smiled softly.
There would be time for passion. For now, tenderness and simple companionship more met the solemnity that lay heavy in the air around them.
"Sun's coming up," he reminded her, gently.
Without words, they watched the sun rise together, punctuating their vigil with quiet kisses and mutual caresses, and when it was hanging, hot and heavy, in the sky, Clark picked her up and carried her back to bed.
This time, their lovemaking was languid, soothing, without the fierce desperation of earlier, their motions gentle, their caresses soft as whispers in the darkness until they were through.
Clark buried his face deep into the hollow of her shoulder, nuzzling restlessly at her skin, hot and rose-tinted with the color of passion. He shifted after a moment or so, turning on his side and pulling her back to fit tight against him, curling his large body around hers and enfolding her into his arms. One hand stroked a light, rhythmic path across her arm, while the other found her fingers and laced them into his own.
"Clark — "
"Shsssssh. Go to sleep." He pulled her closer, his arms tightening around her as he brushed his lips against her hair.
Lois relaxed against him, closing her eyes. Her mouth curved into a faint smile. "Are you crazy?" she murmured drowsily. "You think I can sleep with all of *this* going on?"
"There'll be time. There'll be time for everything," he murmured. "Sleep too." He placed a soft kiss against the nape of her neck. "We've got all the time in the world."
She said nothing and he contented himself with nuzzling gently at the lobe of her ear. After a moment or two, as her breathing steadied and the soft, rhythmic beat of the heat under his hand began to even and slow, he realized that it seemed she could indeed, despite everything, succumb.
He fitted himself deeper to her curves, and rested his cheek against hers, his arms around her. He had no intention of sleeping himself. His heart was too full and his mind too frantic with questions and worries and…
…no. She'd been right. Not regrets. He had no regrets. Not even that brief slam-dunk encounter with fate that had left him without his memory. Because all things being equal he had the strong impression that if he had been entirely compos mentis last night, he might not have allowed this to happen with her. He would have resisted, denied himself that comfort…that sweet, terrible comfort. Freed from the restraints of their friendship, of his previous life, his previous obligations and beliefs, his sense of guilt and uncertainty, he had been also free to pursue her as he was beginning to suspect from what she'd said that he never would have otherwise.
So, no — regrets didn't quite make the equation here.
How could he regret this? He let his hand stroke a soft path down the curved line of Lois' waist and hip. Any of it.
He sighed and laid his head to his pillow, taking one last look at the woman beside him, before he closed his eyes with a contented sigh.
And, smiling, slept.
Rain swept across the terrace in sheets of gray, driven by the angry howl of the wind as it raged around him. Another fierce gust whipped its way across his back, whirled its way into the scant shelter of the doorway behind him, and he shivered as it plucked and tore at his clothes, no protection against it. He blinked slowly, staring around him with quiet bemusement.
"Lois?" He lifted his head, peering out into the slate dark night, trying to see through the lashing sheet of water in front of him. Rain blinded him, making the figure that stood only yards away, on the very edge of the terrace, a vague, blurring patchwork of silver and black.
"Lois?" he asked again, anxiously and he heard her laughter.
For an instant the curtain of rain lifted, like smoke dissolving on a breeze, and he saw her clearly.
She was standing on the low wall of the terrace. Behind her the sky was dark and torn, thick, charcoal clouds boiling around her slim figure as it wavered and swayed in the buffeting gusts of wind. Lightning split the air behind her in savage forks, leaving the taint of ozone in the air behind it, and thunder rumbled ominously as its companion.
She was wearing a silk gown, its color echoing the gray of the shredded clouds behind her, its sheen picking up the distant flashes of light as though she was lit by a glow from within; incandescent. Ribbons of that silk wound themselves like serpents around her arms. More billowed from where it had been thrown around her slender throat like a scarf, all of it streaming in the fitful wind that tore at her voluminous skirts. It tangled her dark hair around her pale, tear-stained face as she lifted her head and he felt his breath catch as he met the lost yearning in her eyes. She stretched out a hand towards him, beckoning.
She was calling to him, lips moving soundlessly, her words drowned by the sudden, rising roar of the storm, impossible to hear. There was desperation in her eyes now, fear and warning, as she held out her hands in mute supplication, and he strained to make out her words, struggled to understand, sensing suddenly that what she needed to tell him was important — that if he could only hear those words he would know everything.
He had to understand!
But, try as he might, he couldn't decipher them.
And then the rain closed in again, obscuring her once more.
"Come on! Hurry!"
He wanted to answer that impatient summoning, but somehow he made no move to it. He lifted a hand to dash clear the chilling drops of rain that had been blown against his face; another brand of lightning flared, blinding him, and in that instant she was gone, the terrace ahead of him empty by the time his vision cleared.
He drove himself forward to the wall's edge, looked down, swaying, on the dizzying drop beneath.
Far below, far, far below, he saw her spinning and twisting, down into the thick dark.
"Lois!" he yelled, glancing frantically around him for some source of help, for someone to aid him, someone to — he threw back his head and howled into the sky. "Help! Please, someone! Help her!"
But there was only the wind, hissing in his ears.
There was no one but him.
He turned desperately to scan the terrace and started back in surprise. A rolling, insubstantial wall of fog hemmed him in, pressing him back to teeter on the edge of the wall.
Ahead of him, high laughter echoed, mocking.
He took a slow, forward step, heart beating a frantic drumbeat in his chest, and stopped, disorientated, in the center of the slow, drifting circle of white mistthat corralled him.
Something moved in the soft, malleable void ahead of him. It came again, vague and indistinct as the scuttling of insect claws, tugging at some primitive, deep-rooted instinct for danger. He backed a shaken pace from that unseen threat and whirled as movement caught at the edge of his eye.
It was behind him now.
To left and right.
He shivered, knowing himself surrounded, knowing he would never make it past whatever lurked out there between him and the safety of his bedroom, never make it in time to help Lois…
But he still didn't know the full terror of it — until it gave itself a sudden voice.
It was a sound like none he'd ever heard. Not human. Nor beast. Tainted and unnatural, a raw, tearing cry that rose to break on terror, turning like a blade in his ears and building, ever building, to a crescendo of wailing howls, as though the very air itself gave voice to an agony of grief.
He screamed as that wail of sound battered at the defenseless edges of his mind and sank to his knees before its onslaught, hands clamped flat against his ears in a vain attempt to drown its crippling song. Painfully, he stared up into the sky and horror filled him as he saw the glowing red ball streaking towards him. He cowered from it, stretched out a hand, pleading with he knew not what…
…and sudden fingers reached out strongly to clasp his tight, dragging him clear of fear and panic like a drowning man from the sea. Sudden calm descended as their combined grip tightened, forming an unbreakable bond. Even the muted howl of the wind was momentarily stilled as he found his feet and rose to stand, barely glancing at his rescuer, who stood, a severe and solemn figure, some yards away.
Beneath that silence, low and bitter, he heard the soft sound of weeping.
"Lois…" he whispered and then, on a yell, "Lois!"
He looked down into the darkness, hoping there was still time. But there was nothing below him but mist and cloud. There was no sign of her. She was gone.
Still the sound of her pain echoed around him.
"Why didn't you help her?" Clark said, brokenly as he stared down into the maw of space below him. "Why? You could have helped her. You saved me." He jerked around to face the figure in red and blue. "You saved *me*. Why not her?" he cried out, anguished.
"You have to do it yourself. Otherwise, what does it mean?"
Arms folded, the Man of Steel fixed him with a stern expression as he floated shy of the ground, cape billowing behind him.
Clark cast a desperate glance behind him. "There might still be time! *Please*! Help her," he pleaded. "Isn't that what you *do*?"
But the superhero didn't answer and, when Clark stepped towards him angrily, he faded like morning mist on a breeze, leaving him alone. He whirled back, hearing the echoes of Lois' screams slice into his skull, fists clenched in impotent fear and anger…
…and somehow he found himself on the edge of the wall, where she'd stood before him.
"Yes," a soft voice told him gently. "It's what you do. Save her. And then save yourself."
The superflop was back. At his shoulder. With more useless platitudes and time-wasting advice that made no sense at all. Clark opened his mouth on a sharp retort and then his eyes flew wide in shock as Superman put out one solid hand and pushed him firmly against the shoulder — sending him tumbling over the edge of the terrace.
And then he was falling. Spinning, turning and flailing desperately in air, his instinctive scream caught tight in his throat and then ripped from him by the rushing wind and torn away.
/Lois!/ he screamed silently, feeling the sound of her name lodge in his throat like tears and then, as though the thought of her had drawn him to her, in the blink of an eye, he was with her, catching her against his chest, stopping her fall cold.
But, what — dear, God, what — had stopped *him*?
They hovered in the dark, storm-tossed sky and, as he tried to work that one out, the woman in his arms looked up at him from the shelter of his embrace with eyes that were shining with adoration.
"Thank you," she whispered, and then she put up a cool hand to his cheek and raised herself a little to kiss him softly, her lips pressing tight to his for an instant before she released him and sank back into his encircling arms. She looked up into his eyes once more and she smiled.
Clark jerked from the dream with a start — and promptly regretted the sharp movement as his skull impacted the hard surface directly above it with a thud.
"Ow!" Reflexively, he winced, squeezing his eyes tight shut in anticipation of imagined pain, and then slowly cracked open one cautious eye as he became aware of something puzzling.
It hadn't hurt.
As this anomaly percolated its way into his still sleepy brain, he opened the other eye too. Slowly, carefully, he looked up.
His second thought of the morning was to wonder how on earth the ceiling of his bedroom got low enough to be immediately over his bed and smack him in the head in the first place.
And then panic set in as his mind became clear and he remembered the events of the previous few days. His mind processed all available information in an instant, put it together with known variables and the rules of physics and came to a logically deciphered conclusion that terrified its owner speechless.
The ceiling. The asteroid! Oh God, it had happened, it had finally happened! The apartment must have collapsed in the aftermath, he was buried under the rubble of what had been his bedroom!
Lois! Dear God, where was Lois?!
Hyperventilating in his panic, he twisted his head frantically, expecting to see nothing more than broken brick and torn debris. But…
But…there she was. Sleeping peacefully on the bed…
…in his perfectly intact and ordered bedroom…
Clark's mind came to a juddering halt in the face of that non sequitur. There were just some scenarios that logical progression wasn't designed to cope with. Mentally it gave Clark the eye and threw up its hands in a shrug that said, 'Don't look at me for answers, pal! I'm outta here.'
Bewildered, beyond the point of coherent thought, Clark put up a hand and dragged it through his hair in a habitual gesture of confusion. His knuckles scraped the ceiling, forcing him, once again, to look up at this anachronism in his normally sane and ordered world and, once again, to face up to the fact that it was the most completely ridiculous thing he'd ever seen.
Strangely enough, his next thought was as curiously incongruous as the situation he found himself in.
/When the Roadrunner tricks ol' Wile E over the cliff edge,/ he told himself sagely, /Wile E never starts falling till he actually notices he's got nothing but air under him./
While he was puzzling over that and where the heck it fit into the grand scheme of things, it turned out to be a perfectly sound scientific principle that applied equally well to cartoon coyotes and big city reporters alike.
Having subconsciously recognized and accepted the conclusion that he was floating level with the ceiling of his bedroom — a fact he had yet to consciously accept or recognize at all, let alone form into coherent words — Clark abruptly found that he wasn't anymore.
Reflexes cut in before he hit the bed, smothering his startled cry in his throat before it hit air, and applying brakes, so that he bounced only slightly as he touched down on the mattress, much more gently than he expected to by that point.
"Huh…?" Lois stirred fitfully against him, jolted from the drowsy sleep into which she'd been drifting. Clark hastily reached for her, wrapping his arms around her and pulling her back against his chest.
"Ssshhhh." He tightened his grip, nuzzled at her hair, his hands stroking soothingly across her skin. "Nothing. Go back to sleep."
"Mmmmmm…" She snuggled deeper against him with a quiet sigh.
Clark lay there a little longer, holding her clutched against him, and then he carefully let her go. Watching her cautiously for a moment to ensure that his withdrawal hadn't disturbed her, he relaxed slightly, flopping onto his back beside her. He drew a shaking hand through his hair as he stared up at the ceiling.
His heart was a wild hammering against his chest. He could hear it like a drumbeat of thunder filling the room. Well, of course he could. He was Superman, he told himself and then fell into another of those stunned silences as that thought ran in wild circles in his skull, gibbering. He could probably hear hers too, if he wanted to, the stray thought interrupted and he frowned, stopping himself from the instantly tempting urge to test out the theory. He had more important things to think about, he chided himself impatiently, than his lusting after the woman lying peacefully beside him.
He lay listening to the gallop of his heart and the air hissing in his ears until his pulse slowed and the thin coating of moisture on his skin cooled.
Superman could do a lot of things, he mused, besides hearing panic thunder a drumbeat against his own chest. Things were suddenly slotting into place so fast, he was having trouble keeping up, thoughts tumbling over in his head like a collapsing deck of cards. The fitful journeys of his dreams, the evidence that he'd been flying — in his sleep? He blanched at the thought. The curious missing items around his apartment. The way he'd been able to see so clearly in the dark when the power had failed. How could he have missed so many clues?
/Lois missed them too,/ a small voice defended him.
/Lois didn't — doesn't — know I'm Superman,/ he countered testily.
/Neither did you,/ the voice pointed out.
Clark suddenly wasn't listening. He'd just remembered how close he'd come to revealing himself to Lois — and others? What deity had been looking out for him, that had stopped him from asking about those glasses of his or from making some stupid, dumb, innocent remark in his ignorance that would have destroyed everything? He stifled a small sigh. If he was ever going to believe in guardian angels now was going to be the time, he considered, heartfelt in his gratitude to that nameless source that had saved his butt.
/Superman,/ he thought in wondering amazement. /You are *Superman*./
/No, you're not. You're Clark Kent./
Yes, Clark Kent. That's who he was. Daily Planet reporter. Smalltown farmboy. Son of Martha and Jonathan Kent… Partner of… His gaze dropped to the woman who slept peacefully at his side and a small smile curled the corner of his lips… Lover of Lois Lane.
He sighed and then chuckled softly. Yes…yes…that part was *definitely* coming back to him…
And sometime Superhero in the red and blue tights.
He shook his head, closing his eyes, and then snapped them open again as something else which was infinitely more scary occurred to him.
Holy — !
He sat bolt upright in the bed, an expression of stunned disbelief on his face.
Sweet Hannah, the asteroid!
He threw a stunned glance at the clock beside the bed, but it showed him a blank face, the power hadn't been restored. He frowned and then concentrated a little. His internal clock, tuned to the Earth's rotations all his life it had seemed, told him that there was still time — but it was fast running out.
Galvanized, he tossed back the bedcovers and threw one leg over the edge of the bed.
He glanced down with that drowsy voice to where Lois lay on her stomach, her hair spread like a dark fan against the cotton pillow, her body outlined by the sheet that molded itself to her curves as diligently as he had just moments before, as his hands had earlier in the dark and the heat of… for a moment, he was distracted by the thought of what lay beneath that shroud, waiting for him, eager for him, willing…
And then he dragged his thoughts free.
He grabbed hastily at the nightstand, found his glasses, and shoved them on before responding.
"I…I have to go do something…real important!"
"'kay." She rolled over, presenting her back to him as she snuggled closer to her pillow with a soft sigh. Her breathing evened out again. Clark stared at her, feeling a little piqued at this easy acceptance of his departure.
No response. Clark hesitated a little longer and then, with a sigh, leaned over and brushed his lips softly against one smoothly rounded shoulder as it peeked from beneath the comforter's edge.
"I'll be right back," he whispered, watching her eyelids flicker and then, with a reluctant sigh, he eased himself carefully from the bed and zapped out of the room.
"Wha…? Huh?" Lois lifted her head as a sudden, sharp breeze ruffled the covers and her hair, and looked around her, startled. She sat up, cautiously pulling the sheets around her and pushing back the hair tumbled around her face with an impatient hand. "Clark?" She gave the room another, interrogatory glance. "Clark!"
That second call carried an edge of panic, before she could prevent it. Had something happened? How long had she slept? Was -
She jumped, startled, as Clark suddenly appeared around the edge of the archway and then, before she could say another word, he'd sprinted the short distance to the bed, putting his hands beneath her shoulders and pulling her up sharply and hard against him to kiss her soundly. He lifted his head after a moment to look at her gravely. "I'll be *right* back. I promise. Don't leave."
"But, Clark — " She frowned. "Where are you going?"
"I'm going to get breakfast. Then we can eat in bed and talk and…" His near frantic air faded for a moment as he let his gaze slide down along her body. Lois shivered, as though that gaze had actually touched her and then he raised his head again and gave her a soft smile. "…and things."
"Clark…" she protested fitfully. "Last night, we…" she gestured seductively, "…you know…"
"Made love," Clark supplied for her helpfully. He found himself wearing a slightly foolish grin. "Twice. And — "
"Uh, yeah." Lois interrupted hastily, ducking her head a little. She reached up to tuck her hair behind one ear, before glancing up at him again. His grin provoked an answering smile, bright as the moon as it shone in her eyes. Then it faded.
"And now you're just going to…leave?" she said, unable to disguise the hurt welling up within her with the words.
He put out a quick, apologetic hand and stroked the back of his knuckles gently down her cheek. "I *have* to. I'll be back before you know it. And, Lois?"
"I love you. And…and everything is going to turn out just fine. The asteroid, I mean. You'll see."
He gave her another quick kiss and let her go, disappearing through the archway in another moment, before she could quite recover from that.
"Breakfast…?" she said aloud, wonderingly, as she heard the apartment door slam. His air of solemn gravity, as though breakfast had been the most important thing in the world he had to attend to, was rather charming really. Maybe even charming enough that she would forgive him running out on her. Her brows puckered. Maybe. She'd want an explanation though when he returned. And…some persuading.
She smiled, a sensuous, sly smile that would have caused no small amount of consternation in her lover had he seen it, and laid herself back against the cooling sheets. She closed her eyes, stretching her arms out above her head, and then letting them fall against the pillows either side of her. Her fingers gently caressed the empty pillow beside her and a slow smile spread on her lips. A moment later and it became soft laughter.
She stretched lazily, feeling the sheets slide sensuously across her naked skin, like the hands of a lover…
A lover who had better return with breakfast pretty soon.
She opened her eyes and grinned up at the ceiling.
Who would have thought that her mild-mannered, Kansas farmboy could be so…
Well, maybe not that skilled…there had been times she'd had the strangest impression he was holding back from her…tentative and hesitant…and there had been a certain amount of awkward fumbling going on there…but perhaps that had been down to the confusion of his lost memory. She had already seen how jumbled up his head was, especially on certain matters. He certainly seemed to have gotten some weird ideas about her and…them…what their relationship was. Well, what *had* been weird ideas. She chuckled again, the soft sound floating up from her to become another delighted surge of laughter on the still air of the room. Now, of course, he was right on the button.
But if not entirely the most skilled of lovers, he had been the best of lovers…at least in her limited experience. Tender…caring…warm…
Hot! That was the word she was looking for. Ooooooh, yes. *Hot*!
Her eyes grew dreamy with remembrance and the hand resting lightly on her stomach began to glide slowly back and forth across her skin with the run of her libidinous thoughts, her mind's eye filled with the memory of Clark's lips on hers, his hands caressing her, his breath warm on her skin and…
Lois closed her eyes, her breathing turning shallow and rapid as she let herself drift with the memories of heat and passion unspooling in her head, her lips forming his name on a broken sigh, her body arching upwards beneath the soft touch of her imaginary lover. Time was lost as the images in her head intensified and brightened…
And then, she grew still, letting her heart cool and her body relax. She sighed as she turned her head to watch her hand trace a lingering path down and onto the sheets, still faintly warm from where he'd lain beside her. Her eyes were drawn to the growing light in the window opposite and clouded suddenly as the last vestiges of sleep and the hazy afterglow of her thoughts were suddenly shredded. She came fully awake, remembering everything.
She cast a mournful look at the windows. Tears gathered in her eyes, shattering the peace and blissful calm of a moment earlier.
"Dammit, Clark Kent…" she said, brokenly, aloud. "Of all the times to get hit on the head and decide you love me."
Unfettered, the tears began to fall and she snuffled loudly. Of all the perfect times… The good old Lois Lane luck was working right on target, as ever, she thought disconsolately. Finally, she'd found the man she wanted to spend her entire life with…
She glanced at the small clock on the nightstand but it was dead and dark. With an irritated flicker crossing her face — was it just *too**much* to ask that they could keep a little bit of light going in the world before it came to an end? — she fumbled for the watch she had discarded on the nightstand the previous night and squinted at its face in the darkness until she made out the time. She slumped back despondently to the pillow behind her, crushing the fragile timepiece in her fist.
…all one hour, 48 seconds that was left of it.
Life -v- Lois Lane.
Lois Lane strikes out. No runs, no hits, but a whole lot of errors. Final score…Life 3, Lois Lane 0.
The tears began to flow unchecked.
"Oh, Clark…" she whispered. "I love you too."
She started as a rush of voices filled the apartment and then realized that the TV had come to life with the return of power. She sat up, rubbing the tears away with the back of a hand, as the excited cacophony of cheers and whoops pulled her out of her miserable thoughts.
"…and this from Charleston Plaza just moments ago from our minicam on the scene! The Mayor greets Superman! This is just amazing, folks!"
Lois slipped from the bed, drawing the sheet around her naked body and dashing a hand against her cheek again as she padded her way through and into the other room. She let herself fall to her knees in front of the TV, staring blankly and wonderingly at the screen. Superman was shaking hands with the Mayor, who was sporting a smile bigger than the one he'd worn on election day.
The LNN broadcaster was continuing to rattle on off camera and Lois listened only vaguely to him confirm again and again that the danger was over, the asteroid destroyed, that Superman had triumphed…and hadn't they all known he would?
Her thoughts and eyes were all for the superhero. The camera work was shaky. The crowd around the platform were clamoring for their hero, milling around the base of the structure now as they chanted and called and thrust up their arms in an attempt to touch their savior. Some of them were sobbing, their cries picked up by nearby mikes. And all of them were getting in the way of the local LNN news crew, who, only there to cover the Mayor's last address to the city, had obviously never expected to find themselves in the midst of a world exclusive and had been taken off guard completely, spectacularly unprepared.
The pictures being beamed back exclusively to the LNN studio were slightly long-range and none too sharp, their focus wavering as the cameraman was buffeted around by the press of people around him. The professional in Lois clicked her tongue. Hadn't these guys ever heard of zooms?
She peered more intently at the fuzzy image on the screen. It could have been the less than pristine camerawork, but she thought he looked…tired. And disheveled. For the first time, he looked almost human. His face was dirty and his eyes looked red-rimmed and wearied. Her heart went out to him.
She put up a slow hand and pressed the tips of her fingers to the blue suited figure on the screen, new tears spilling unchecked across her cheeks now. Tears of relief. And of gratitude. He'd come back. He'd come back to them. He was safe! And unharmed, far as she could tell. Some of the reporters howling for answers were demanding to know what had taken him so long, why had he waited until the last minute, where had he been all this time…but Lois didn't care. He had come back. And he had saved them. Once again, he had saved them all.
It seemed that the dignitaries on the platform and the crowd below didn't care where he'd been either. They had drifted there in despair, gathering at the site of the planned press conference, desperate to hear the Mayor's final words to them. They had known that hope had gone yet still, despite everything, had been sure that somehow he would have come up with some way of destroying the nemesis that threatened them. Instead they had been witnesses to Superman's unexpected arrival and the most joyful news of all.
They were delirious with relief and in no mood to question their hero.
Superman smiled at the Mayor, shook the hand that Professor Daitch offered up exuberantly and then waved briefly at the hollering press pack as he floated over the edge of the hastily erected platform outside the EPRAD Center and landed lightly on the ground beneath. The crowd surged forward, pressing around him and he accepted the backslaps and shouts of congratulations with amiable humility.
He paused to ruffle the hair of a tow-headed little charmer who beamed up at him from the side of her father. She held up her arms and he bent obligingly to accept the child's embrace as she put her arms around his neck and hugged him. Turning her head, she whispered something into his ear that made him grin before he straightened again. He winked at her and then, careful to avoid injuring the people pressing around him, launched himself into the air. The camera swooped dizzyingly around to follow him as best it could and Lois' mouth fell wide as she and the rest of the world watched Superman perform a showy barrel roll, high up in the air, before streaking off.
Clearly, he was pleased with himself.
Down on the Plaza, the first of the reporters had finally managed to breach a way through the crowd and homed in on the child watching Superman's departure with the awed eyes shared by most of the adults surrounding her. Her father pulled her protectively closer to his side with a frown as the pack surrounded them, microphones thrust out like spears, questions hurled like rocks, each desperate to be first to hear what his daughter had said to the Superhero who had just saved the world. The child, as unperturbed by the attention as any Hollywood starlet, looked automatically up at her father for assent and then lisped something, barely heard under the excited murmurs of the crowd around them.
"What, did she say?"
"Did she say something? Gawd, Steve, how can I hear, you keep popping that gum in my damn ear!"
"Hey, Derek, quit hogging the kid, will ya?"
The microphones picked up the rest of the pack's impatience and, suddenly, the voice of the child's father as he said, amused:
"She said she wanted to know why Superman smelled of flowers."
The pack looked abashed. Not exactly the headlining quote they'd been hoping for, it seemed.
"Oh," Derek Lipton, Roving Reporter for the Star, said, sounding disappointed.
Dismissing the child as mercurially as he'd pursued her, he made off for the platform, obviously in the hopes of catching the Mayor. The rest of the pack hared after him, equally obviously hopeful of getting there before him, stalking their leads like rabid wolves.
"Well, I don't know what to say!" The scene cut abruptly away from the Plaza and back to the studio, as the voice of the anchor took over events with smooth authority. "Patrick, in New York there, you're our science expert, what's your take on why Superman waited so long to — ?"
Lois, frozen in place on her knees, tuned out the newscaster's voice abruptly. Her gaze was drawn to the windows behind her. Rising slowly to her feet, cheeks damp with tears, she wandered through the bedroom until she stood, numb and wan, before the glass.
She could see the sky.
The beautiful sky.
Clear and blue…endless and ageless…
It was all there. Just as it had always been. It was a revelation almost too much to comprehend. Beyond her understanding. The days and nights had been heavy with foreboding, with loss and grief, with the slow extinguishing of hope, until there had been nothing left but resignation and defeat. And now…in an instant…the fortunes of the world had been reversed — rescued and restored — by one man.
Relief was a stone around which her heart clenched, heavy and weighted and yet all at once light as air. Her head felt light too. She clung on to the sill of the windows as her balance rocked and the room darkened and closed her eyes until the wave of dizziness and nausea passed.
Lois began to sob, deep, wrenching sobs, such as she had never allowed herself while fate hung in the balance and their destiny seemed bleak. Now, she gave in to all of the fear and terror and despair she had mostly kept locked up within her and barely let loose. She cried — and thought that she might never stop.
She slid down to sit against the wall, her knees hugged tight to her chest, and laid her head against the arms wrapped around them, as she sobbed from the depths of her heart, like a child.
Unable to contain his exuberance a moment longer, Clark let himself roll over in the air, before he laughed aloud in delight and punched an arm heavenwards in a victory salute.
Turning, he headed at a relaxed, leisurely pace for the Azores and the promise of warm sunshine to help take away the cold of space that had leeched itself deep into his bones. He couldn't have hurried if he tried. It wasn't a morning for hurrying. It was a morning for…meandering. Wandering. Savoring. The fresh, clean tang of the air against his face, the softness of clouds, the marvels of how many shades of blue there were that made up the sky…
Everything was new. Fresh and new. And he viewed it all with eyes that seemed never before to have really seen these simple wonders at all.
Drifting north-east, he settled high in the air, above the tiny island of Santa Maria, stretching himself out lazily on a warm, uprising Gulf current. He laced his hands behind his head. He stared up sightlessly into the empty sky above, cast in brilliant, cerulean blue.
It had, in the end, all been so easy. All of the heartbreak, the fear, the distress that had been sown into the hearts of his friends and Earth's populace…and it had all shattered into nothing in a single instant. One heavy blow of his fist and what had been an unstoppable nemesis, a threat of death that there was no escaping from, had become a shower of harmless rocks, none of them any larger than his arm. The irony of it would have been laughable, if it hadn't been so devastating.
Clark shook his head, feeling a momentary pang of guilt for all that he had put people through. How easily he could have resolved this, days ago, if he hadn't…if his memory hadn't gone. How much suffering he could have spared them. If only he'd…
What? What *could* he have done?
He sighed. Nothing, he knew. But still he couldn't help feeling a welling of guilt rise in him. Somehow, he should have tried harder to remember.
He sighed again. Well, at least it had all turned out well in the end. He sent a heartfelt thanks up to whatever deity had given him back his memory before it was too late and then, thoughtfully, he rolled over onto his belly. He rested his chin on his folded arms and stared at the calm seas beneath him. Flutters of white disturbed its surface in the shape of breakers, gently disgorging themselves onto the land. Incredibly, he watched a flotilla of fishing boats set out bravely into the heart of that vast, blue field from the island.
The inextinguishable spirit of Man. It never failed to amaze him. Life went on. Death was a momentary illusion, a mere prickling of terror beneath the skin, and then it was gone. It held little real dominion over the heart and mind. Life and hope were constants, even in the most pessimistic of hearts.
He shifted his head, laying his cheek to the back of one hand and closing his eyes, basking in the sun's warm glow, letting it invigorate him, soothe him, remind him of what had been saved this day. Then, as his breathing slowed and his thoughts grew muzzy, he gave himself a small, mental shake and sat up quickly before he drowsed off into sleep. He was exhausted, both from the rigors of a long, emotionally charged night and from dealing with Nightfall. It wouldn't do to fall asleep in the sun. He had too much to do, too much to take care of.
The calm of his mood was lost with the thought. His stomach clenched and he felt a flutter of unease roil within him.
Adjusting his position, he sat cross-legged, propping an elbow on one knee and his chin in the palm of his hand. And, after another moment, he finally decided that he couldn't put off returning to Lois any longer.
He sighed heavily.
He couldn't regret what his memory loss had wrought between them, the changes it had worked on their relationship…but still…it did leave him in a pickle of a situation.
He was going to have to tell her.
How could he not?
For a moment, his heart twitched in a spasm of panic. He had no idea what her reaction would be to finding out his secret. Although he could guess. She would be humiliated for one thing, when she realized that the superhero she had mooned over and the partner she had confided her hero-worship in were one and the same.
Clark winced as he thought back over all the times Lois had turned up at his apartment, with pizza and others diversions as excuses, desperate to relate some encounter with the superhero that had either had her floating on air all day or plunged her into the depths of despair, convinced he would never look at her twice.
How could she not be humiliated? Or mad? Knowing that the man who had listened to her, sympathized with her, offered her solace and comfort and provided a shoulder she could cry over her hero on was also the man who had ignored her, avoided her, blown hot and cold with her emotions in the depths of his own confusion over how to behave with her when he donned the red cape and tights, and generally confused the heck out of her?
One way or another, she was not going to be happy.
He was a dead man, he thought morosely.
Still…she'd get over it.
Mad or not, she couldn't not talk to him forever, after all. She'd have to listen to him eventually.
/Yeah. She'll get over it. Just like Lana did…/
His eyes grew lost. /Lana was…it was different with Lana…/ he told himself quietly and felt disgust at the tremor of uncertainty he heard in the thought. It *had* been different. He had been younger then…so had she…and Lois was his partner. She couldn't just…vanish on him. They had work to keep them together. Even if their personal life was shot. For a time. It couldn't last. She couldn't leave him forever. She had to come back.
She had to.
He pushed back the unease and held on to that thought. She would come around. It might take a time, but…well, he'd always had enough patience for both of them. This would just take some steady handling, some fast talking, some soothing and maybe giving her time to let it all sink in and get over her snit.
He could do that.
Anyway, regardless of whether she did get over it or didn't, no matter if she never spoke to him again, his conscience informed him sternly, he couldn't avoid telling her any longer. Not with the events of the previous night lying between them. She deserved no less than to know everything that there was of him. No half measures, no secrets, no lies. Just plain and honest truth.
/No matter if she never spoke to him again./
The thought that revealing his secret to her might result in the end of their friendship was unbearable.
But he knew that he had no choice.
Having made his decision, he uncoiled from his position and straightened, shrugging the cape on his shoulders into place as though dislodging a heavy weight.
Yes, he'd talk to her, tell her everything…preferably over a long and satisfying breakfast. Yes, that was it. He'd go get breakfast, like he promised. The works. Blueberry muffins, eggs and bacon, coffee…
He firmly dismissed the jibe from his inner self who suggested that sounded like bribery to him, and nodded, cementing the decision. Yes, that was what he'd do. He'd make breakfast, sit her down, and they could talk. A real heart to heart. He'd tell her everything. And he guessed that there were issues she would want to clarify with him too, all things being equal. Things she'd want to…get off her chest.
Things had changed. And not only for the world. And like all changes, the ripples of its effect on their lives would have to be carefully considered. By both of them.
And there was no time like the present to do it.
Turning in mid-air, he zapped back towards Metropolis, leaving the soft-rolling echo of a sonic boom behind him.
He landed in the middle of Centennial Park a few bare seconds later. He needed to wash up, and with Lois back at the apartment, he didn't have many options available on somewhere to do it. Not keen on attracting any more attention for the moment and having had enough of crowds and flashbulbs, he'd foregone a dip in one of the island's sheltered bays, even though the water had looked warm and inviting.
Spinning out of the Suit in a thick cluster of shrubs, he emerged an instant later as Clark Kent and made a quick visit to the nearby public amenities.
Inside, he winced as he saw how rough he looked and hastily scrubbed the dirt and char-marks his battle with Nightfall had left behind from his face as best he could. He ran a hand roughly across his jaw and grimaced. There wasn't much he could do about the stubble, but he had showered and shaved just before Lois had called him the previous evening and with his slow growth rate it was lighter than it might have been and not so bad. Hardly noticeable, he was sure. He splashed more cold water on his face, dried himself off with a wad of hand-towels, pulled a hand through his hair and studied himself judiciously in the mirror.
Reasonably assured that he looked more or less presentable, he left the empty building and walked the few blocks to his local convenience store.
Finally, there were no more tears left to cry. Feeling drained and wearied, Lois raised her head, her eyes blank on the room around her. The sound of quiet voices gradually seeped into her consciousness and she listened listlessly to the excited jabber of newscasters and crowds, the endless replays of Superman's triumphant return, the repetitive speculation, the ridiculous assumptions, the idiotic questions (So, sir, tell me, how did you *feel* when you realized Superman had destroyed Nightfall?) — the rampant, ridiculous insanity of the media in full flow, mediocre, appallingly self-absorbed, stupid and dumb and…and…
…and it had never sounded so sweet, so wonderful, so…so…
What was she thinking?
Lois sat bolt upright, a startled expression darting over her face.
What the hell was she *thinking*?!
She was *part* of that rampant insanity!
Or, by God, she should be!
The story of the century was out there…there were people to interview…politicians to buttonhole…Superman to —
She leapt to her feet, glancing wildly around the room.
Superman to pry an exclusive out of!
And she — Lois Lane, Metropolis' Finest, Kerth Award winning Reporter of the Year — *she* was sitting here in her partner's apartment, half naked, watching it all unfold on TV, while every two-bit sleaze-hound in the city got there before her!
She dived for the bed. Hastily, she began to root through the covers and then around the room, picking up odd items of clothing that had fallen where they would in her haste to disrobe of the previous evening and tossing them heedlessly onto the comforter.
She grimaced as she picked up her pager from the floor where it had fallen and saw the positive rash of messages it displayed. Perry must be smoking like a green dragon, she thought, appalled. He'd been paging her at twenty-second intervals for the past hour. Guiltily she switched it off the 'vibrate' setting and back on to 'beep' and tossed it onto the comforter, before she moaned in dismay and bolted for the bathroom and a shower.
Lois had recognized fairly early that the ability to make yourself presentable in the shortest possible time span was a basic requirement of a journalistic career; as important as learning to take notes that were legible enough to read from later or techniques for stalking a suspect without being caught. An ability she had fostered and honed to perfection to a degree of obsession ever since. Just like any other.
Seven minutes later, she was back in the bedroom, clad in the navy-blue toweling robe of Clark's that had been hanging on the back of the bathroom door and dragging her fingers through her still-damp hair.
The sounds of the TV filtered into her head as she searched desperately in the jumbled mess of clothes on the bed for a hairbrush. She paused, with a frown, and then detoured into the living room to switch it off.
"…and, just like you can see there, folks, large as life — Superman…there in Charleston Plaza, Metropolis…and we repeat, it seems that Nightfall has been destroyed. Mike, I thought he looked a little rough there, that giving you any clues to where he's been all this time?"
Lois paused with her hand on the remote as Tom Amberson's co-anchor chuckled. "Well, Tom, I gotta say last time I saw a man looking that bent outta shape, I was staring into the mirror after a real wild time…" he paused for effect. "If you get my drift."
The remark produced guffaws from those in the studio.
"Well, Mike, I guess Superman's not the kind of guy to kiss and tell, so we might never know. I tell you though, she must have been good to keep him out of sight for so long."
Lois grimaced in disgust. The man had just saved every one of their worthless hides and they were suggesting he'd been spending all this time tomcatting around with some floozie while the world agonized over its fate?!
She switched off the TV in disgust and shaking her head went back to her search. She'd find out where he'd been and she was betting her last dollar it hadn't been shacked up with some tramp either!
Grabbing her purse from the coffee table on her way back to the bedroom, she scrabbled in its copious depths in vain, muttering at the brush's vanishing act, until finally she grunted irritably and dumped the contents of her purse onto the bed.
She raked through the resulting pile and had just discovered it, pouncing on it with a cry of triumph, when she heard the front door to Clark's apartment open.
Lois stepped into the living room as he came down the stairs. Seeing her, despite his trepidation, his face lit in a smile that flash-illuminated the entire room. He just couldn't seem to help it. She was beautiful. And she was here. Alive. Safe. How could he not feel delight bubble up into his chest at the sight of her? It was all he could do not to laugh out loud with relief. No matter what happened next, she was alive. She would go on. The world would go on. And, somehow, if it came to that, so would he.
"Hey! You're up!" He bounced down the remainder of the stairs and adjusted the grocery bags he carried in the crook of one arm to draw her attention to them. "I got breakfast. Sorry, I took so long. A lot of the stores are closed still. Or their stocks were down, from all that panic buying these past few days." He grinned at her disheveled appearance, dipped into the nearest bag, and brought out a small bottle that he shook at her as though tempting a child with a rattle. "I got aspirin too."
Lois shot him a dark look. "Cute, Kent. As it happens I don't suffer from hangovers. Never have."
"Oh. Well," Clark shrugged, "me neither. Aspirin never does anything much for me anyway." He tossed the bottle back into the depths of the bag it had come from.
Lois wrinkled her nose. "Wooh…you stink of smoke, where have you been?"
"Uh…fires…um, I mean the city's full of smoke," Clark mumbled hastily, after a moment of panic, when his mind froze. "There are still some buildings on fire…dying down, mostly embers, the fire services are out, they've got it in hand, but the stench is in the air still."
"Oh. And the soot," Lois said, eyeing his face in a way that made him immediately wish for a mirror to see what he'd missed in his hasty clean-up. Then she shrugged. "Well, anyway, we don't have time for breakfast."
She bent over at the waist and began to vigorously slash at her hair with the brush in her hand. "Don't you know what's happening out there?" she said, voice muffled through the curtain of hair. "Superman's back!" She paused and straightened abruptly, flinging her head back to give him a censorious look. "And you said he was gone for good! Shame on you!"
Clark frowned, his exuberance of a moment earlier deflating slightly. "I didn't say anything of the kind, I just said — "
"Well, he isn't! He wasn't — and he's back and he saved us and we have to go get the exclusive!" She pulled the brush through her hair again. "Perry's already snapping at our heels. C'mon, Clark, what are we waiting for?"
Clark thought frantically as he began to see all of his carefully laid plans collapse in ruins at his feet. He didn't want this. Not now.
"Um…no, we don't have to rush. I saw Superman on my way back from the convenience store. He promised us the exclusive, said he'd drop by later, answer any questions we had. So, we can relax, talk, have break — "
Lois froze in mid sweep, brush poised in air. "You saw him? Superman? Where?"
"Uh, well, he…he…uh, wanted to make sure you were okay. When he didn't find you at your apartment, he came looking for me. Thought I might know where you were."
"He did?" Lois turned on him, her face suddenly alight. "He was really worried about me? What did he — ? Did he say where he'd been all this time? What he was doing?" A fresh and much more urgent question occurred to her suddenly, her face spasming with fear as she blurted, "He's okay — isn't he? Did he look hurt?"
"He…no. No," Clark answered woodenly, "he isn't hurt."
But he was.
Inside him, ice was forming a fresh scar on his heart and a coldness had him in its grip that was fiercer than anything he had felt out there in the dark, frozen core of space.
Was this what it felt like to have your heart broken?
He should have known it wasn't real, that fantasies and dreams don't come true so easily.
His earlier thoughts seemed suddenly arrogant and ridiculous. In all of his planning, it had never occurred to him that she would want to return to the status quo of the previous few days. That she would just toss him aside, the night they'd spent together meaning nothing more to her than a…diversion…a way to get through the pain. To be dismissed so casually now that the crisis was over. That she might not want to make their newfound relationship work. That she might not even consider they *had* a relationship, other than the same old partners and friends they had been.
And Superman was a hero, of course. Newly minted. Clark, stricken, began to realize that he hadn't only successfully destroyed the biggest threat to Earth in the entire history of the planet. He'd successfully managed to re-ignite Lois' infatuation with the Man of Steel.
How could she resist the man that the entire world would be lauding and praising and be fascinated with for the next few weeks and months? With the press and TV constantly reminding the world of his heroism and how much they owed him and endlessly replaying every single act he had committed since he had first rescued Prometheus and appeared in the Metropolis sky?
It should have been screamingly funny in retrospect. But he wasn't laughing.
When was he going to be able to step out of the shadow cast by the Frankenstein monster he'd created?
Couldn't the Hero give him just one break?
Was that so much to ask?
His grip tightened on the bags he was carrying and he felt something snap under the pressure of his fingers as Lois continued, oblivious, "You're sure? He's okay? My God, what he must have been going through these past few days! And here I've been, wallowing in self pity, when he needed me! Needed my help! I should have been out there, trying to find him, not *here*, acting like some lovesick calf with — "
Lois cut off the prattle of sheer relief as she finally became aware of her partner's face. Of the hurt so clearly displayed in his eyes and the stiffness of his posture all at once. What was she saying? She'd spent the night in the arms of this man — this wonderful, generous, strong and caring man — and here she was rattling on about Superman as though Clark suddenly had no meaning in her life at all. A poor shadow compared to the superhero. Appalled at herself, she denied the charge vigorously. No, no that wasn't it at all! She was concerned for Superman, of course she was, he was important to her — and to the world. But, she was realizing all at once, as a friend. A good friend, but only a friend.
The irony of the epiphany didn't escape her. How mixed up was that? She'd spent months viewing Clark as a friend and nothing more, when in reality he was…her mood softened…he was everything she needed and wanted in her life. Her lover. Her soul mate. And Superman — who she had considered all of these things, wasn't that at all. Geez, Lois, she informed herself wryly, you could fill out a good hour on Jerry Springer with the tangles of your love life, you know that?
But it wasn't funny. She had hurt him. She could see that clearly. She hadn't meant anything, she certainly hadn't meant what he obviously thought she had — that now that Superman had returned, her temporary dalliance with him could be tossed aside as nothing more than a diversion to keep her ticking over until the real object of her affections returned.
How could he think that? she thought with a small spark of exasperation. After what they'd shared? Not just their bodies, not just that, but their souls, their thoughts and dreams, the deepest fears and fantasies and ambitions and hope that they carried in their hearts. How could he think, now, that she would give all of that up for… for, she recognized suddenly, as though that truth had always been known to her, but never fully accepted, a man she barely knew. A man she never could know, fully. Or have a normal life with. A man she could feel friendship for, and support wholeheartedly as a force for good in the world, someone she could admire for his honest and gentle nature and his genuine desire to help. A man she could hero worship from afar. But not a lover. Not a partner. Not the man she wanted to stand by her side and be in her bed and hold her in his arms as he whispered his love for her among the tangled sheets and shadows of their lovemaking.
Clark. Clark was who she wanted. She knew that now.
The man she loved.
The man she'd hurt, terribly, with her insensitivity.
"Oh, God…Oh, Clark…" She shook her head, instantly contrite. "I'm sorry, I — "
"And now you're just going to leave?" Clark interrupted.
Lois winced, hearing the deliberate echo of her words to him earlier in that bitten out question. His eyes turned to ice and her heart broke watching him.
"Clark…" she whispered a protest.
"Well," Clark glanced down at the grocery bags in his arms and then back up at her, "I guess," he said, carefully laconic, "this means breakfast is out."
He stalked towards the kitchen before she could reply. Lois hesitated as she watched him dump the bags to the counter and busy himself with methodically unpacking their contents. She glanced, a little longingly, at the front door, the pull of a Pulitzer winning story tugging at her even now, and then, with a small sigh, followed him.
"Clark, I don't mean to — "
He cut her off with an abrupt shake of his head. "Lois, you don't have to save my feelings. It's okay. Really. I understand. Last night was…a mistake, that's all. We were both confused. We thought we were going to die, that everything was finished. We just needed some comfort, that was all. You don't have to worry. I won't remind you of it. I won't tell anyone about it. I'll forget we ever — "
"No. No, Clark, you don't — "
"We just had funeral sex, that's all. It happens."
She frowned, jogged out of her attempts to explain by the strange term. "Funeral sex?"
He shrugged. "You know, eighty-six per cent of Americans say that making love after a funeral was the most intense sexual experience they ever had? And it's got nothing to do with…with love. Or even sex. It's about proving you're alive. That you can feel. Of denying your own mortality, the knowledge that one day it's going to be you in that pine box, being lowered into the ground. It's a proven statistic. After a funeral, forty-seven per cent of all couples under the age of forty-five go home and make love. And twenty-eight per cent of mourners who aren't couples, too."
"That's…sick," Lois said, stunned not by the statistics, but by how callously he could attach them to what they'd shared the previous evening.
Clark shrugged again, misinterpreting the protest. "Hey, what's good for forty-seven per cent…"
"No, I mean — " Lois shook her head, unable to verbalize what she did mean. How could he say that? How could he dismiss what they'd been to each other as just…just…a primal rutting, more instinct than emotion? A tactile need to hear another heart beat against your own, to feel the warmth of another living body against yours, to know that life went on? That wasn't what had happened last night. That wasn't what they'd shared! Okay, maybe it had been part of it. But they'd both known that, right from the first. No one had been fooling anyone. And after…after that first time, when comfort had been more important than love…then, it had had nothing to do with what was happening to them. She had loved him. And he had loved her. And they had shared something so deep, so powerful, that she couldn't believe now that he could dismiss it all in so cavalier a fashion.
/Why not? You did./
She shriveled up inside at the sound of that scathing voice.
She hadn't meant it. How could he not know she hadn't meant it? Did he really think she was that good a performer? That great an actress?
And…how could she persuade him he was wrong? Now? When she'd managed to make such a mess of everything. And in such a short space of time?
How was she going to fix this now? she thought, dismayed.
Well, she had to. That was all there was to it, she told herself sharply. She had to.
/But he's so cold. So distant, suddenly. I've lost him./
/I've lost him./
Clark moved abruptly away, closing the refrigerator door with a snap that jerked her from her troubled thoughts. He headed for the pile of groceries on the counter and gave her a quick, deprecating glance as he eased past her. "Come on, Lois, face it. How can any guy, any normal — ordinary — guy, compete with Superman?"
She put a hand over his, stilling him as he picked up the bag of bagels. His fingers closed over into a hard fist beneath hers and he stared down at the counter, refusing to look at her. But he didn't pull away.
"The kind of guy," she said softly, "who loves me. Who cares about me. Who wants to be with me. Who helps me every single day of my life, even when I don't want him to…the kind of guy I want to be with…even when he's being the most stubborn, idiotic, stupid —- "
A wet splash of water against the back of her hand startled her. It was only then that she realized she was crying. She put up her hand and drew it in a hard path across the dampness on her cheek. "The kind of guy I love," she said.
Finally, he looked at her. "Lois — "
And then she pulled herself up on her toes, wrapped her arms around his neck and hugged him hard. For a moment, she was kissing something smooth and warm and entirely distant from her as he stood, immobile, under that soft assault, resisting its distraction. Once again, she began to fear that she *had* truly lost him, that he would never believe the truth of what she was saying.
Disappointed, heartsick, she began to withdraw, and then she felt how hard he was trembling against her.
With a soft sound, he pulled her up against him fiercely, giving in to the lure of heat on her lips, his mouth grinding itself against hers in a fever of motion, as he pushed her up hard against the counter, his body pressing her tight. Unable to resist the temptation she represented.
She surrendered herself blindly to his lips and then dragged her mouth away to lace hot, quick-darting kisses across his face and neck.
"I love you, Clark," she whispered against his skin. "You. Not him."
For a moment he was almost sure he hadn't heard it. Then he stilled, his hands coming to rest where they lay on her body. He closed his eyes, almost afraid to breathe or speak, for fear that what he'd heard had been an illusion.
"You do?" he said at last, his voice hoarse.
He felt her nod and then she buried her face against the side of his neck. "I think I always have," she murmured.
There was a small, charged pause, then Clark shook his head, putting his hands on her shoulders and pushing her firmly from him before he held her in place, a few inches distant from him. He was frowning, but as Lois looked up into his closed expression, she thought she saw a flicker of light in his dark eyes, a small chink of hope that he couldn't entirely suppress. She felt her own spirits rise a little, sure she almost had him.
A spark may be, but there was hurt lurking in his eyes still. And uncertainty.
"Lois, I'd like to believe you, but — "
Lois puffed out a frustrated breath. "Clark…just who did I make love with last night?" She sighed and twisted against his hands, surprising him enough that she was able to break free of his restraining grip that sought to keep her at arm's length and wrapped herself around him again. She kissed him. More forcefully this time, her lips melding themselves tight to his and provoking the hint of another response before she retreated. "I don't remember Superman being in the room with us at the time. Do you?"
"Uh…" Clark had time to think just how bizarre that question was, all things considered, floundering for a second before he lumbered on with, "I think he was…otherwise engaged."
"Certainly was!" Lois said and then pulled back to look him determinedly in the eye as she planted a finger in his chest. "Which we're going to get the scoop on later, partner. Don't forget. I want to know exactly why our boy in blue waited till the last moment to get us out of this mess. And just where he's been all this time!" Her eyes brightened. "I should call Perry, let him know we have an exclusive in the bag. Before he wears out my pager! Well…" Her gaze softened. "Soon…" And then, with a quick smile and obviously deciding that work could wait, she reached up and kissed him again.
Clark decided *everything* could wait.
But she released him, looking up solemnly into his eyes. "I wouldn't lie to you, Clark," she told him softly. "Not about this. Please…you *have* to believe that."
And he did. Looking into the soft darkness of her eyes and the hint of tears still glimmering there, how could he not?
With her name a soft sigh on his lips he eased his arms around her, pressing her tight to him, afraid to let her go in case he lost her.
It was becoming difficult to breathe. Gently, she eased herself out of his embrace. She drew back her head to look up into the soft relief in his eyes and his lips met hers again, his kiss sweet and light and gentle as a whisper in the dark.
"I really *don't* love Superman, you know," she told him, after a few moments in which her only thoughts were a whirl of light and heat in her head. Her breath was shallow, but she ploughed on, through its quick hitch in her chest. "Not really. I don't even want him. Oh, I'll admit that for a time there I thought I did. I mean, don't get me wrong, I admire him. A lot. And…well, he's a friend. Someone I know I can rely on. We can all rely on. But…seriously, Clark…can you really see me sitting alone in my apartment night after night, waiting for my hero to return? I just couldn't cope with sharing him that way. Not with the whole world. Besides, I knew I'd never really have him. That was kind of what made him so attractive in a way, I guess."
Clark had barely been listening, but that last finally made him desist from what he'd been concentrating on — a seeming attempt to kiss her into a stupor; a quest that had gravitated to nuzzling at her throat — and lifted his head to give her a questioning look. "What do you mean?"
"Well, he was a safe bet, wasn't he? I always knew I could never have him, so it was safe to let myself love him. He couldn't ever hurt me, or run out me or betray me, because there'd be nothing to betray. We wouldn't ever be together, because he wouldn't ever feel the same way…"
"You think he doesn't…? I mean, that he doesn't feel? Like the rest of us? Like any other man?" Clark amended softly.
"No, not that, but…" she blushed prettily. "Well, you know. What they say. About…him."
Clark frowned. He leaned back against the edge of the counter, dropping his embrace to a looser grasp around her waist, knitting his fingers into the hollow of her back. "What do they say?"
Her blush deepened and with it Clark's interest. This was curious. What on earth could she mean?
"Well, I read an article once that said Superman couldn't even…you know…"
Clark shook his head, mystified. "Couldn't what?"
"Make love. Well, not with a…a human woman anyway. Maybe with one of his own kind, but there don't seem to be many of them around. But with those powers of his, his strength, whatever, this scientist guy said he couldn't. He'd kill her if he even tried. Because…well, because. Of things. You know. Things and — " She cleared her throat roughly, "And…and…things."
Lois ground to a halt, her embarrassment overwhelming her. She took a moment or so before she looked up at him and then frowned. He was standing there with a distant look on his face, as though he hadn't even heard her at all. She sighed. Here she was baring her soul, making an idiot of herself, discussing Superman and…and *that* with…with *him* and he wasn't even listening!
"Huh?" He started and then blinked, focusing on her again. She caught a faint twinkle in his eyes and decided it was worth the embarrassment to gain another chink in that armor he'd closed around himself. It didn't matter if he was laughing at her. Well…almost it didn't.
But he didn't smile. Instead, he nodded solemnly. "Yeah, I read that article too. That author made quite a name for himself on the talk show circuit with those theories of his too. I liked the one about the…uh…" he choked suddenly, as though aware of the topic of discussion all at once andthen he did smile, grinning at her as he went on, "Boy, that guy had some imagination."
Again, she heard amusement in his voice, something a little off kilter that didn't quite make sense. "You don't think it's true?"
"I think Superman's a perfectly normal man," he said, fervently and then, amusement growing, he shifted to lay a hand against her cheek, his thumb moving in a tender path across it. "Just like you are a…very…normal woman. I think Superman can get along just fine. With the right woman." He smiled. "Just like me."
"Oh," Lois said, not quite understanding. She eyed him suspiciously, almost certain now that he was laughing at her, but unable to say why. But her bemusement was suddenly secondary to the fact that she had him with her again. That she'd chipped away at the cloud of dark depression that had settled on him and brought him around. It encouraged her to go for broke.
"Well, anyway…what I'm saying is, Superman can find his own woman. I'm already spoken for."
The light in his eyes shifted, from amusement to something deeper, wilder, and his grip on her changed as he used it to tilt her head back for another, soul-searing kiss, which occupied both of them for quite some time.
"So…" Lois said as she withdrew, gulping on the words as she gasped for air. "What now?"
His eyes sparkled down at her. "I dunno," he said, seeming to consider it and then, as though it was a revelation, "I'm hungry. Are you hungry?"
Lois grinned at his sudden, little-kid enthusiasm. "Yes," she said, nodding. "I'm hungry."
He grinned back at her. "Well, good! Why don't you go find something to put on meantime — " he chuckled and ran a soft finger down the line of flesh revealed by the neckline of the toweling robe, leaving a tingle on her skin in its wake, " — not that I object to your current ensemble at *all*. But," he sighed regretfully and stopped the teasing caress, "you'd probably be more comfortable. And I'd be able to concentrate on cooking. You like your eggs well done or over easy?"
Lois looked a little disconcerted. Actually, her usual breakfast regime consisted of nothing more than a few gulps of strong, black coffee and a couple of bites of dry toast most mornings. Who had time for breakfast? But she hadn't the heart to disappoint him. "Over easy," she decided.
"Okay. You should find some clean sweats in the closet next to the bed."
"All right," she said, suddenly feeling a little shy. She gave him a quick peck against one cheek and a last, sweet smile across one shoulder as she took his advice and headed into the bedroom.
Clark watched her go and then, remembering suddenly, called to her, "Oh, by the way — Aunt Opal."
"What?" She stopped in the archway to look back at him, puzzled.
"Aunt Opal gave me the pig."
"Oh…" Lois said doubtfully and then, like a light illuminating her face, "You remember?" she said, delighted.
He nodded again and broke into a grin just as she did.
"Oh, Clark, that's wonderful!"
She darted back across the room to hug him enthusiastically and he responded in kind and suddenly both of them were laughing, until she reached up and kissed him on the lips. She smiled as she withdrew. "You smell like Temptation…" she murmured as she ran her lips across the hard line of his jaw and nibbled at his ear.
Clark chuckled, his hands moving across her upper body in response in ways that made her breath tighten in her throat. "I thought that was you…"
Lois laughed. "Yes, silly, it is me. It's my perfume. And it's on you too." She nuzzled at his lobe and then pulled back with a grin. "I think I've been scent marking my territory."
"Oh?" Clark bent his head, pulling her close again as he paid attention to the soft curve where her neck merged into her shoulder. She groaned softly. "Well, you smell of flowers."
"That's what I mean. You smell of flowers as — " Lois broke off, frowning. She eased herself clear of him again. "You too," she said, looking at him thoughtfully. He was watching her, puzzled and she continued, "You smell like flowers too.Um…" she glanced sharply away and blurted, "I should go change."
"Sure," Clark agreed. "Oh, leave calling Perry to me. I'll ring him in a minute, once I've got breakfast started, tell him that Superman exclusive's in the bag for the next edition."
"Okay." She nodded, but she seemed distracted. Clark continued to watch her as she headed for the bedroom, a hint of a frown on his face. Before long though, his puzzled expression melted, a soft glow igniting in his eyes; and he sighed before he returned his thoughts to the task at hand.
After a moment, as he set the frying pan on the burner and brought out utensils, he began to whistle softly and contentedly beneath his breath.
In the bedroom, Lois let herself sink down onto Clark's bed, her thoughts in a whirl.
/She wants to know why Superman smells of flowers…/
She shook her head at the suspicious tint that was seeping into her thoughts like a leakage of black oil. /Ridiculous…/ She tried to squash what she was beginning to consider, still-born, before it could even fully form or gain a foothold in her mind. That was just…plain hogwash.
So Clark smelled of flowers. And so did Superman, according to one little girl.
What did that mean?
Nothing! That was what it meant! Nothing!
Flowers was entirely subjective for a start, she declared and latched immediately onto the conclusion, pleased with it. Of course it was! Flowers might mean…well, anything. Superman might have been wearing some kind of cologne. It might not even have smelled of flowers, in the proper sense, just reminded the child of them.
Who knew what went on in kids' heads? Logic meant nothing to them.
/Superman wears the same cologne as Clark./
The thought bounced into play, startling her. Does he? No, he doesn't! she immediately countered. Of course he doesn't, I'd have noticed… And then, pausing, realized that she might be wrong there. Superman *had* always worn a cologne that was very similar to Clark's previous brand. Why had she never noticed that?
Yes, until recently. When he'd switched brands. Because when she kissed him, just before he left to stop Nightfall, he had been wearing Mystique. She remembered that clearly now. She'd kissed him and she'd been thinking…she'd been wishing Clark could…be more like…
Her thoughts staggered to a halt.
Co-incidence. Sure it was. Geez, Lane, you could talk yourself into believing the moon was Pluto, she told herself in disgust. You really could. There must be thousands of men wearing Mystique in this city, millions even. Isn't it the second top selling brand in the country? Well, there you go then, she told herself firmly, trying to keep her mind on track and stop it being distracted by a sudden strand of musing that was wondering just how Superman got his hands on cologne supplies anyway. Somehow, she just couldn't imagine him sweeping into some retailer's in that blue and red and shopping just like any —
Of course! Clark was Superman's friend, wasn't he? And Superman couldn't just wander into a store like any normal person, so…so Clark bought supplies for him! And maybe…well, everyone knew how jealous Clark was of Superman. Maybe he thought copying the cologne choice of the Man of Steel would make him more like the superhero. That wasn't so far-fetched, she told herself blithely. Lord, if she were to print that little gem of information on the front page of the Planet, sales of Mystique would rocket worldwide with superhero wannabes! Why should Clark be immune?
There! She told herself, a little amused now at her earlier thoughts. Honestly. Talk about your overactive imagination! Except…a small, spoiling thought entered her head, causing her to frown. Somehow, she had never thought of Clark as the type of man who would try to copy anyone in an attempt to make himself look better. God, look at those ties he wore! Wasn't that proof enough that the man never followed the fashion scene? He probably didn't even know who Galliano *was*, for heaven's sake…
The slam of a cupboard door from the kitchen jerked her out of thoughts which had begun to wander on to how broad those shoulders had looked *out* of those fashion clueless suits, how delightfully tight those buns had been and how taut and smooth his pecs had felt as —-
She realized she was sitting on the edge of the bed, staring into nothing and wearing a grin like a Cheshire cat.
Lois jolted to her feet, her cheeks flushed pink. This was getting her nowhere. Sweats. Yes, sweats…now, where did he say they would be?
She moved quickly over to the tall cupboard that stood beside the bedroom windows. Opening the door with a hand that she was dismayed to see was shaking, she began to rummage around the clothes hanging from the rail within.
/I am a man, Lois…just like you're a woman…/
She froze, her hand resting on a blue suit jacket as the rogue thought popped into her head from out of nowhere.
No, that wasn't what Clark had said, Clark had said…
The realization hit her like a brick against the chest. Clark had repeated — almost word for word — something Superman had told her months before.
How…how would he have known that?
Superman might have told him. They are friends. Remember? Good ol' buddies. Talking over chicks and sports in the locker room. Tears prickled at her eyes suddenly as the sarcastic run of her thoughts began to feel like a betrayal. That had been a private moment. A very intense moment between them. How could he have…*would* he have…?
Did they discuss her all the time then? she thought, horrified. Clark had been her confidant on many occasions and she had shared some of her deepest, most heartfelt hopes and dreams regarding the superhero with her partner. Lois felt herself go hot and then cold as a sudden wave of humiliation engulfed her.
She turned pale as a horrifying series of images spun through her head like fire. Sly grins, mocking laughter, rueful sighs and commiserating words. Poor Superman, having Lois Lane following him around like some dewy-eyed teen. So boring and tedious. Wouldn't she ever get the message and leave him alone? Was that what they said?
Just what had she said to Clark about Superman? She tried desperately to backtrack and recall, each new remembrance of a confidence shared and a shoulder cried on causing her to cringe deeper within herself. But horror soon turned to a brittle, white-hot flame of rage.
How dare he!
How dare *they*!
And last night? Was Clark just desperate to spill the details of that little interlude to his buddy? Would they laugh over her easy surrender? Would Clark boast of each sigh and moan he'd taken from her? The miserable thoughts doused her fury as quickly as it had flared into life. And with it came some measure of truth.
No. No, Clark would never betray her that way. Never! Not even with a best friend. Not even with Superman, perhaps the closest male friend he had. He hadn't been pulling a fast one on her last night. He had meant the passionate words he'd breathed in her ear as they'd made love. And just now…just now…no, she couldn't believe that he hadn't meant the words that had seemed so heartfelt, so…loving. Sure, she had known men who were capable of the coldest of dissembling to get what they wanted from a woman — from her — but not Clark. She would never believe it of him. Not after the tenderness he had shown her, the concern for her he had exhibited. And this morning…yes, he had left her alone in his bed. But he had come back. Just as he said he would.
Something deep inside her, that had begun to break, to shatter, suddenly rallied and grew strong instead. And it wouldn't let her believe that Clark had or would betray her.
No, this was wrong. All wrong. Examine it from whatever angle she could, she still couldn't make it seem right. Her heart wouldn't let her.
And even if Superman was the betrayer she was imagining him to be, she was sure that Clark would never have so casually used something he'd been told by the superhero in confidence, no matter the circumstances, never would have repeated it to *her*. He would never want to hurt herthat way either.
So what the hell was going on?
How had Clark known about that night at the Planet?
How had he — ?
From the kitchen, tantalizing smells had begun to waft, distracting her. She heard the sudden, irritated sizzle of a pan as some new ingredient was added and heard Clark whistling softly as he —
— made breakfast.
Why *were* there no pot holders in Clark Kent's apartment?
Oh, she knew what she'd postulated the previous evening, but really…now that she thought on it hard…had she *ever* seen pot holders? Even tattered ones ready to be thrown out and replaced?
She'd spent a lot of time in Clark's apartment. Not exactly at an intimate level, she hadn't stayed there, her visits had always been casual. She had watched him cook though. Often. But she'd never seen him use pot holders.
So, how *did* he get those scrumptious, mouth-watering casseroles from the oven to plate when he made them dinner as they worked together? She began to realize that she was never in the kitchen when he did. More often than not he'd shooed her off by that point, complaining with a smile that she was distracting him. Or claiming cook's secrets and teasing her about trying to steal his Mom's heirloom recipe. Or telling her she looked tired and why didn't she just go relax and he'd call her when it was ready?
What else had he said was missing?
She frowned. The kettle. The kettle had been 'right at the back of the cupboard.'
Because he never used it?
He used it when she was there, she told herself tartly and for an instant was pleased at herself for producing something solid to thoroughly debunk what she was thinking…beginning to think was…trying *not* to think was —
But when he's alone?
Her triumph deflated. Maybe, alone, he didn't bother with kettles. Or gas.
Why would you, when you could use heat vision to heat up your tea?
She barely resisted the urge the thought produced. To go tiptoe to the archway, sneak up on her partner, and see just exactly what cooking meant in the Kent household. The sudden image of him standing there, fierce red beams shooting from his eyes and the pan sizzling hard scared her suddenly. It hinted at things she didn't want to consider…wouldn't consider…the possibility that she might be right, that he might be — She jerked away from the conclusions forming in her head like a cloud of noxious gas.
/Lois, you're acting crazy. Quit it,/ she told herself desperately.
What was it that doctor had said about Clark? Be careful, he has a Superman complex? And that can be dangerous?
She'd show *him* dangerous!
She suddenly realized that she'd abandoned the closet and had begun, somewhere along the line, to pace back and forth the length of the room. One hand had formed itself into a fist and was rhythmically slamming itself into her palm in time with her quick, unsettled stride and the increasingly heated run of her thoughts. However, it seemed to be soothing her slightly, so she continued.
It couldn't be. It just wasn't…possible! Nope, you're definitely the crazy one, here, Lois, no doubt about it.
And then another thought, a thought more devastating, one that was harder to dismiss as mere speculation or the product of an over-active imagination, found its way into her head. It was as though a door had suddenly burst open in her mind, and all of the clutter stuffed into the crevice behind tumbling out into the light.
A Pandora's box.
That might well have been best left alone.
There were things hiding in that closet in her head she wasn't sure she wanted to examine in the light of day.
Things that she wasn't really sure she wanted to see.
But the box was open and impossible to close once its contents were let loose.
That damned cat!
Instantly, she was back in the kitchen, the previous evening, listening, awed, to Clark tell her how he'd rescued that cat. *Flown* up and rescued that cat. That was what he'd said. There was nothing ambiguous about that. Flown. As casually as though he had just told her the sun was yellow. And she, idiot that she was, she had dismissed it as just another rambling from his disordered mind.
A Superman complex…
She stopped her pacing dead.
Clark didn't have a Superman complex. He didn't have a Superman complex because —
—- because he *was* Superman.
"That's ridiculous!" she told the air around her crossly in a hiss. She cast a cautious glance through the archway with the savage rejection, aware that there was no door between them and Clark was only a few yards away at most and even the sizzle of that pan wouldn't cover the sound of her voice by much and…
…and maybe he can hear better than a normal man besides…?
/He can *not*!/
"That's just plain…*moonshine*!" she added, trying not to notice that she'd actively lowered her voice several notches even lower than the whisper she'd started on. It gave too much credence to her thoughts that she might be heeding them.
She kicked a nearby storage basket in emphasis as she spat out the word, gratified that the soft rattan would produce no real noise and yet allowed her to vent some of her frustration at being unable to really let rip and scream her annoyance out loud.
"Hogfeathers!" she retorted, kicking it again, harder this time for good measure.
/That's the most dumb, ridiculous thing, I've ever — /
/Is it? Is it really so dumb? /
/Yes!/ she answered her doubts sharply. /Yes! It's ludicrous. Clark?! Please! The man couldn't find his way across the street without someone to hold his hand! It's the most illogical thing I've ever — /
/When all else fails, sometimes the best logic *is* illogic./
Lois didn't have an answer for that one. And, besides, how could she refute the evidence when it was right in front of her? What other explanation could there be?
She froze as Clark's voice drifted in from the kitchen.
"You okay in there?"
"Sure!" She yelled back brightly. "Just…fine and dandy!" Those last emerged through clenched teeth and with a slight growl behind them, as she punched the air before her in emphasis with them, but Clark didn't seem to hear the tautness in them, simply yelling back:
"Breakfast ready in two!"
"Great! Be right out!"
Lois' dropped into a grumbling mutter after the sing song agreement. "Idiot! You stupid, donkey brained moron!"
She had no idea who she was verbally abusing beneath her breath. Her or him. Whoever it was, she continued to scathingly deride their lack of mental acumen as she resumed her tight pacing of the room.
The sudden ring of the telephone in the other room startled her so much that she almost jumped out of her skin. She stood there, skin prickling with a rash of fright, heart pounding in her chest, and listened as Clark crossed to pick it up.
"Mom! Dad! Are you guys okay? Sure, I'm fine. Yes, everything." He laughed, the sound rich and warm, a sound that caused a small flutter in Lois' heart. "Uh…Lois is here. Yes, she's fine too. What happened out there? The phones were down all day — "
Lois went back to pacing, absently tracking the conversation as she did so with only half an ear, as she continued furiously to sort through her thoughts.
She was glad Martha and Jonathan were okay. They were nice people. She had only met them a couple of times, but she had spoken to one or the other of them at various times on the phone since and the events of her weekend in Smallville had been catastrophic enough to have sealed an immediate and permanent bond between them. They had always made her feel…welcome. As though she was a part of them, part of their family.
A part of their son's life.
An important part.
She felt sudden tears form with the thought and frowned, blinking them back furiously. She wondered how long it would take her mother or father — or even Lucy — to think to telephone her and ask if she was okay? She knew it wouldn't be soon. And in her father's case at least, probably not at all. With Daddy, you always had to make the first move, all the effort…
And how important a part did she play in *their* lives?
She sighed, shaking the depressing thoughts from her head.
Martha and Jonathan. They *were* nice people. Straightforward, honest…not the kind of people who would lie. Not about…about…anything important. Anything really important.
Martha and Jonathan? The parents of…
The idea was suddenly so ludicrous that she had to slap a hand across her mouth to stop the spurt of laughter that threatened to spill from her. And, all at once, that one thought destroyed the fragile picture she'd been constructing. Simple as that. Like a breath of wind on a house of cards, it all came tumbling down. One snap of her fingers waking her from the deluded fantasies she'd been constructing.
Doesn't that beat all, Lane, she told herself, shaking with suppressed mirth as she shook her head. How could you have thought…? She was giggling so hard now she had to hold onto the frame of the closet to steady herself. Little baby Kent…toddling around the farmyard, picking up…cows?!…on one hand and tossing them around? Juggling chickens?
The image almost was her undoing. She bit down hard into her lip and gave herself a stern lecture about becoming hysterical, before she was able to keep her laughter in check and regain some semblance of calm.
"Oh my…" She wiped tears from her eyes and hiccuped. "Oh…my…" She leaned up against the closet door, wiped out by the hilarity attack.
That'll teach you to put two and two together and come up with seven, she chided herself sternly. Honestly! You ought to be ashamed of sloppy work like that. If Perry could have heard that little nonsense theory he'd have sent you packing to Pet Page Roundup! And you'd have deserved it too!
Pot holders. Flying cats. Buried kettles. Cologne that smells like flowers.
She shook her head, appalled at her moment of madness. What a poor collection of nothing to base a theory on, she mentally derided herself. She really should be ashamed. She'd better buck up her ideas or she would be covering the Zoo Beat.
No, of *course* Clark Kent wasn't Superman. The very idea was ridiculous. She was mortified that she had even considered it seriously for a moment, let alone almost…oh, my…she thought again, faintly. What's gotten into you? One little asteroid, one night of passion, and suddenly you're Kathie Lee!
No. She'd been right the first time of course. Clark was just confused, that was all. Perfectly natural under the circumstances. Heavens, the doctor had even spelled it out for her. Superman Complex. Thinking oneself the superhero. Clark had the dictionary definition of the disorder, was a textbox case apparently. Of course it was obvious and perfectly natural that he would confuse himself with Superman somewhere along the line.
That's all that cat had meant. Clark identifying himself with Superman. Just like the doc had predicted.
And all of that other 'evidence'…well, all of it could be easily explained, as she'd already shown herself. She ought to start putting more stock in the cynical part of her head and less on the idiot, she told herself crossly.
She straightened, blowing out a quick breath and re-orientating herself, before she thrust the ignominy of the past few moments behind her. Vowing never to refer to it again as she set herself to the task of finding Clark's sweats and resumed her search of the closet.
Superman in sweats. She sighed. Geez, Lois, didn't that tell you all you needed to know right there? Can you honestly imagine?
She lifted her head as Clark's soft voice drifted into the bedroom. Was he whispering? What was he whispering for? Trying to make sure she didn't hear? She frowned, concentrating on hearing more clearly.
"Actually, we need to talk. About things — "
Lois raised a brow as she gave up her fruitless search of the closet's top shelf and dropped to her knees to rummage through the tidy pile of boxes in its base. She'd missed a chunk of conversation while she'd been convincing herself that Smallville Sweatsboy was Superman. But by the sounds of it she hadn't missed much.
She scowled. Where were the blasted sweats? Couldn't he have been more specific? Why was this closet masquerading as a black hole? How much more could there be stuffed in its depths?
"Yeah, thanks, Mom. I think I might need it. Sure, I'll let you know."
She heard him replace the receiver, the sounds of him picking up again and punching out a number on the pad, and then a moderate pause before he identified himself to whoever had picked up the line and asked them to put him through to Perry.
Switching off as she heard him begin to speak to their editor, the murmur of his voice barely registering on her now as she dismissed it, Lois pulled one of the boxes aside to get at its companion. And then sat back on her heels, flummoxed, as her search produced nothing more exciting than a mess of sports shoes, badminton cocks and tennis balls.
As she sat there, her gaze became naturally on a level with the shelf just above the boxes. And to her chagrin, after a second or two, she realized she was staring at the object of her quest. Hadn't she just searched that shelf? She sighed irritably and hauled out the offending sweats.
Turning to toss them onto the bed behind her, she paused as the motion produced a disconcerting flash of color out of the corner of her eye. A flash that she instantly and reflexively recognized as being out of place, even as she turned her head back with a frown to the depths of the closet.
Her searching eye was caught by something right at the back of the wooden backboard. Peering intently into the dark, she inched her way more fully into the closet depths, puzzled.
A scrap of cloth was caught…
Caught in the wood of the closet back?
How could that be?
She lifted her head, tracking the smooth, unbroken lines of the square of wood that formed the back of the piece, then put a hand to the joints and ran it slowly over them.
She found nothing she didn't expect to — just an ordinary, everyday, wooden-backed closet.
Only…only it wasn't, was it?
She looked again at the incriminating scrap of cloth.
Her heart stopped. She was sure of it. Her breath froze in her throat. Time stilled.
And all of her carefully ordered thoughts of moments before flew out of her head.
Very familiar cloth.
Trembling, all at once, she reached out a shaking hand and put the tips of her fingers to the scrap. Almost half certain that it would fade and dissolve before her eyes before she could touch it. But no, there it was. Real. And solid under her fingers. Silk. In a very familiar shade of red.
She took back her hand and released the breath she'd been holding in a soft, sudden rush.
/And the conclusions drawn by this empirical evidence are…?/ she heard herself ask, just as though, for all the world, she was conducting a scientific experiment or forming a theory about her latest story. Something remote and not devastating to her heart and mind at all. Nothing really…important.
Conclusion one: that there was something behind the closet back.
A space, a…a compartment. A hidden compartment. A *secret* compartment. A compartment that Clark Kent didn't want to be easily found.
Conclusion two: and in that secret place — something that was made of the same kind and color of cloth that she had seen so often before…seen on a certain…
No… she thought sharply.
No, that was entirely a speculation too far.
So absorbed was she by this unexpected discovery, lost in the jumbled, disturbing melee of her thoughts, she failed to note that Clark's conversation with Perry had concluded.
Clark put down the phone, still smiling slightly as he wandered back into the kitchen and resumed making breakfast.
As he jiggled the hissing pan of eggs, using the spatula to prod along the rashers of bacon, he found the smile growing. Life was…just, plain good. Back in order. Everything where it should be.
With perhaps a few added ingredients that hadn't been present before.
His smile softened.
And faded as he frowned. The part of him that had been half attuned to her movements in the bedroom suddenly realizing that she had been gone an awful long time. Far longer than it took to change. And was suddenly very quiet.
He remembered that, just before the phone had rung, he had heard her muttering in the other room. But, concentrating on making breakfast and mindful that his ears were liable to pick up all sorts of sounds he might not wish them to should he focus on her, he had been carefully not paying attention enough that he couldn't make out her actual words. Or that she might not wish them to pick up, at least, he amended with a slight grin. She was getting dressed in there after all. Or…she was supposed to be getting dressed.
She *had* seemed fine when he'd called through to check she was okay. He had been just about to go make sure though, when he'd been interrupted by the call from his folks. And, until now, the notion that he ought to had flown out of his head.
She was…very…quiet in there.
Frown deepening, Clark put down the spatula, turned the heat low under the sizzling pan, and then, reconsidering and safety aware, moved the pan off the heat entirely. He picked up a cloth, wiping his hands as he walked towards the archway that led to the bedroom.
He paused on the threshold, not keen on disturbing her if she actually was changing, his ears alert to catch every sound. But the room seemed empty. His gaze flickered towards the bathroom door, but then he was drawn by the sound of muttered curses and a curious noise that sounded almost like nails scraping on wood.
Moving around the bed, he was confronted with the completely unexpected sight of a pert backside, wriggling provocatively a few yards away. The rest of Lois was, for some reason, buried in his closet. His eyebrows rose.
He was distracted for a moment by the teasing sway of her bottom as she…did whatever she was doing. And then, as his libido was over-ruled by a part of him that was a little more alert and questioning, his brow furrowed. Come to think of it — what *was* she doing? Not still searching for those sweats — there *they* were, lying on the bed. He moved closer, dropping the cloth to the comforter as he passed.
There was a thud as Lois started violently and the top of her skull collided with the closet shelf directly above her.
She slumped back, sitting down hard on the carpet, and stared up at him, tears filling her eyes as she rubbed at her head.
"Ouch," Clark said in mild sympathy. "Sorry." He crouched down beside her and reached out to pull her closer. Lois jerked clear. "Are you okay?" he asked.
"Let me look." He tried to tug her forward again and frowned as she resisted the pull. "Lois — "
"I said, it's fine, Clark," she said petulantly.
He gave her a firm glance and she sighed, desisting. Clark pulled her close and she submitted to his ministrations, his fingers probing gently at the back of her skull. She shifted uncomfortably and then Clark straightened, satisfied.
"You're safe," he said, sardonically. "It'll bruise. But you haven't cracked your skull or anything like that."
"How would you know?" Lois grumbled, tugging free of him and sitting back on her heels as she rubbed at the offending area.
"Well, your brains aren't leaking out all over the carpet; I take *that* as a good sign," he said flippantly. "It'll be okay."
"I *told* you it was okay. No thanks to you," she added snippily. "Did you have to yell like that?"
"I didn't yell. I just said — "
"I heard what you said. You didn't have to sneak up on me to say it. And I wasn't expecting to hear you *say* anything!" she grouched.
Clark sighed and rose to his feet. "I'll go get a washcloth from the bathroom. We don't want your head to swell…" he added a wry mutter that caused Lois to toss a sour glance after him.
Wincing again as she prodded at the tender spot on her skull, she found herself studying him suspiciously as he walked away. Scientific theory had it that the first thing you recognized in someone you were familiar with was the way that they walked. 'Course, Superman was more prone to…striding…than walking. He had a habitually purposeful way of walking in that Suit and then that trick of being able to fly straight up instead of walking away did skew the evidence somewhat. But —-
She shook her head and then regretted it as a bloom of pain spasmed across her temples.
But she had to know. She had to.
One way or another. She had to prove — if only to herself — that what she was thinking was right.
/Yes, you could be wrong, Lois./
/You could be./
Slowly, almost as though another part of her had taken over, Lois rose to her feet and started quickly after him. As usual, the professional in her had long since come to the fore. What it might mean for her personally if she was proved right didn't come into it. Wasn't even considered. All that mattered was solving the puzzle before her, getting to the truth…the consequences would be thought on later.
Determined now to prove that she was right, that thought was the one and only clarity that remained in her mind. She caught up with Clark impatiently, intending simply to grab him by the arm, yank him around and start asking some pertinent questions, face to face.
And then she saw it.
The perfect evidence.
Just lying there. Begging her to use it. She reached out, hastily, before the small voice of reason which was beginning to stir frantically way back in the corners of her head, could dissuade her.
"Clark…?" she said sweetly.
"Yeah?" He turned back — straight into the baseball bat she swung at him.
Lois realized she'd made a big mistake the minute the bat connected solidly with the broad chest of her partner. The resulting jolt almost snapped her wrists and the answering judder that traveled up the length of the wood and into her arms was so strong it threw her from her feet and wrenched the bat out of suddenly numb and nerveless fingers. She found herself landing on her backside on the carpet an instant later. From which position, she stared up at the man before her in dumbfounded amazement.
"Oh, my, Go — Cl…ark…?"
Her eyes traveled down across his body and over the bat lying — in two pieces and several splinters of wood — on the carpet. All color drained abruptly from a face suddenly ashen. "Oh, my, God!" She leapt hastily to her feet, her hands flying over his chest and arms as she frantically searched him for bruises or broken bones.
"Lois — "
"Oh, God…Clark…" she continued, dazedly, "I could have — what did I just do? What did I almost do?" Finding no sign of injury on him, she stepped back a pace. She put a shaken hand to her mouth, looking up at him with shock in her eyes. "I could have broken some bones with that bat, your shoulder, damaged your spine…what was I *thinking*? What was I — ?"
"No, you couldn't," Clark pointed out calmly. In the shock of it all — he could see — she still hadn't fully grasped the enormity of what she'd discovered. She was still floundering, trying to pick her way through. Her conscious brain just hadn't caught up with events yet. But it would in a moment or two, he was sure. "Lois, I think you should sit down."
He reached out a hand and eased her back towards the bed. She sank down onto the edge of the mattress absently.
"No." Lois repeated, bewildered. "I couldn't." Then, reiterating the realization as it began — finally — to sink in, "No…I couldn't, could I?" She lifted her eyes to find his face again and this time he saw the shock recede and clarity — real clarity — fill the void it left behind in her expression. She understood. At last, she understood everything.
"Lois — "
"You are…him. You…you're…Superman!"
She leapt to her feet again, ignoring his attempt to stop her. Helplessly, he let her go, knowing there was nothing he could do. There was a major Lane rant coming and the only way through it was to let it run its course. Maybe he could book a word in edgeways a week from next Thursday. If she'd wound down by then.
"I knew it! I knew it! I *knew* you couldn't beat me to an exclusive in a fair fight!"
"What?" Clark said, confused. That hadn't been what he was expecting to be her first port of call. Then, his acceptance of a moment earlier fading as he focused on what she'd said and understood her meaning, "Hang on! An exclusive? Fair fight?" Piqued, he put his hands on his hips and confronted her as she crowed. "Lois, you wouldn't know a fair fight if it — "
But she wasn't listening, pacing the room now. Her elation died abruptly as something else occurred. "You…! Why you…you scheming, unconscionable rat! You…you… Do you know how many nights I lay awake in my room worrying about how you got to be a better reporter than me? Wondering if I'd lost my edge? Trying to figure out how you got to Superman ahead of me? How you persuaded him to give you that exclusive, when I couldn't even persuade him to give me the time of day? Do you *know* how crazy that's made me all this time? Do you?! And all the time — I mean," she suddenly switched track hastily, as though aware she was giving him entirely too much advantage with this confession, "not that I ever seriously thought you could beat me to, well anyway — "
"Now, wait a minute!" Clark's hands lifted from his hips and began to punctuate a rebuttal. "As I remember it, the only way you were going to beat me to a Superman exclusive was by playing dirty, Lois! I mean, if we're talking about taking unfair advantage here — "
Lois propped to a halt, her eyes turning round as she confronted him. "You're not seriously going to stand there and tell me pretending to get an exclusive from yourself, cheating Perry, me, the entire press and the newspaper-buying public of Metropolis — all of that — comes anywhere close to some competition from a fellow reporter?!" she demanded, incredulous that he would even dare try that one on her.
"Competition?! Stealing *my* story?!? I don't *think* so, Lois!"
"I didn't steal it! I — "
"You admitted you stole it!"
"I did not!"
"Yes, you did." Clark eyed her smugly. "Lucy told me you did."
"Lucy — !" Lois squeaked. Her eyes narrowed. "Why that little, blabbermouthed witch! Just wait till I — "
"So, you did admit it to her," Clark accused.
"I said — never mind what I said to her!" Lois flared back at him. "We're talking about *you* not *me*! I may have fought over a story or two, Clark Kent, but I never — ever — invented one!"
"I didn't invent one! It was a real exclusive! It was just — "
"A diary excerpt!" Lois said dismissively. "A page out of the daily journal of a…a…sneak!"
"Perry thought it was a real story! Real enough to give it a page one exclusive!"
"Perry didn't know any better! You cheated, Clark! You didn't go work for it, did you? You didn't track the guy down and find him before any of the rest of us could! You didn't even talk to Superman because you *are* — "
The word hit her like a physical blow to the solar plexus as her dizzied mind reiterated it in a startled squeak, only truly beginning to take it on board. It knocked the wind out of her, cutting her off in mid-rant and driving the breath from her in a rush.
Superman. My God, he was…her partner was…her friend…the man standing right there in front of her, wearing the face of Clark Kent, a man she'd thought she'd known…the man she *had* known, intimately…was —
As the thought reverberated in her skull, it almost drowned out her partner's plaintive voice.
"I only wanted you off my back, all of them off my back! I thought if I gave Perry his exclusive, it would stop! People would stop looking for me. I didn't want that, and maybe it was naïve, but I never expected it either! All I wanted to do was help, to stop the Prometheus failing. It was worth helping! Afterwards…I just didn't expect that feeding frenzy. I had to get out and the story was the easiest way. And I did make up for it, Lois! I gave you that follow-up, because I felt guilty about…well, not just that, but, well the mosquitoes too and the spaceship and…why are you looking at me like that?" he finished, eyeing her warily.
Halfway through his babble of explanation, she had dropped her adversarial stance and her mutinous glare and begun examining him like a bug under a microscope. Now, she was staring at him so fixedly that he began to sweat.
"What?" he demanded uneasily.
"Why do you two look so different?" She intensified her stare and Clark shifted uncomfortably. She wasn't looking at his face. "I mean there's the glasses of course and the hair is…different, but…"
Clark shrugged awkwardly. "It's amazing what a looser fit of clothes can do for a guy," he offered, blushing slightly.
"Oh," Lois said. She swept him from shoulders to groin with that appraising glance and then came back to his face. "I guess so. And of course," she mused, "who'd ever suspect that Superman had such appalling taste in ties? That," she informed him, "was the clever bit."
"What's wrong with my ties?"
Lois snorted. "Oh, puhlease!" She waved a dismissive hand at him. "Anyway, the plain fact is you lied, Clark," she returned to the earlier point of contention, leaving Clark momentarily in her wake with the sudden switchback as he got over having his beloved tie collection so arbitrarily judged and discarded with that single flip of her fingers. By the time he caught up again and got over his pique, Lois was in full flood.
"You can dress it up any which way you like, but you can't get away from it. You know, I really thought you were the last honest man. The most honest man I ever knew. You know? Even when I wasn't convinced about that, when it came to…well, when I thought about…you know…*us*…the one thing I could hold on to, the one thing I was always sure of, was that you had integrity when it came to being a reporter."
Clark looked at her askance. "And now you've changed your mind because I'm Superman?"
Lois glared at the undertone of sarcasm in the words. "I'm well aware of the irony, Clark," she retorted. "Accusing Superman of being less than honest isn't something I ever thought I'd be standing here doing, that's for sure! 'Course there were a *lot* of things that Superman was above…or so I thought! Now, I find out he's just as flawed as the rest of us. Just as…corrupt!"
"I'm not corrupt!" Clark denied vigorously, stung. Anger welled up in him. How *dare* she question his integrity — as a reporter or as Superman! "All ever I did was — "
"All you did was use Superman to advance your career. That was what you did." Lois said quietly and, when he looked shocked at the accusation — the visible flush of anger that had contorted his face and hardened in his voice abruptly floundering under it — continued, "I'm not saying it isn't deserved, Clark. You *are* a good reporter. You're tenacious and talented — maybe a little more touchy-feely than I really — well, anyway, you're good. But you got where you are at the Planet because you brought in a Superman exclusive in your first week at the paper. An exclusive no one else managed to track down. And you got it without ever talking to Superman at all!"
A small trace of bitterness had seeped into her tone and she watched him flinch. She hoped he was recalling how he had not only aced her out of that exclusive by unfair means, but had sidetracked her out of the race by using the cruelest and meanest of tricks besides. She would never have stooped that low!
"I mean, it's perfect for you, isn't it? So easy! You go running around in that costume of yours — "
"Suit," muttered Clark.
"I call it the suit. 'Costume' is a little too…theatrical sounding."
She gave him a glare. He returned it defiantly. Lois threw up her hands.
"Okay, running around in that suit of yours and — so, you think of Superman as being…work, then?" she changed tack, with a new curiosity.
Surprised by the change of subject matter, he shrugged. "I guess. Superman…it's what I do. To help. I don't do it to get medals or glory, Lois. If I could help people as me…Clark…I would. But — "
"But you wouldn't have any kind of life if you did, would you?" Lois gave him a rueful glance. "The Dirt Digger or half a dozen other trashy tabloids would always be there, poking through your trash and following you around trying to snap you kissing your latest girl and — "
She stopped abruptly, her color heightening, perhaps suddenly realizing that she was the girl they might be splashing all over their front pages, these days.
"Well, yeah. Look, Lois, I — "
She cut grimly across whatever he'd been about to offer as apology or defense. "But if you hadn't nailed that exclusive when every editor in Metropolis — in the world — would have slit their grandmothers' collective throats to get it on their front page, you'd have gone through internship like the rest of us had to. Right now, you'd probably still be trying to prove yourself to Perry, writing up dog show articles or reporting on that cute little new baby hippo at the zoo. You certainly wouldn't be my partner. You wouldn't be anyone's partner."
"I thought you were happy having me as your partner."
Lois sighed. "That's not the point and you know it. The point is, most of us worked our butts off to get where we are today. We crawled through every piece of slime and dirt this city can throw at you to bring in the front page exclusives that made us the best. It was hard and it was tough and sometimes it was mind-numbingly boring, and it took us years to do it — "
" — and then I come along and waltz right in there on the back of one story that I didn't even have to fight for," Clark finished for her slowly. He felt himself redden. He had never looked at it that way before, but he knew that she was right. How galling it must be for her to have him partner her on the back of such shoddy credentials. He hadn't earned it. She was right about that.
But the truth was he hadn't been thinking about his career at all when he'd brought in the Superman exclusive to Perry. He'd been motivated purely and simply, by getting one over on his uppity colleague, who'd ticked him off with her Mad Dog attitude and by stealing his story and everyone else's ideas.
He didn't think she'd take that as an explanation though.
"It was only just that one time," he started lamely. "And afterwards, I *did* give you the follow up. Not to mention quite a few exclusives of your own."
"Well, there is that," Lois agreed blandly. She gave him a considering look and then shook her head, almost ruefully. "Anyway, I guess I can't blame you. For using Superman like that." She noted his surprise at her sudden turnaround and shrugged. "I'd have done the same any day of the week. If I'd gotten the chance. Seize the day, Clark. And any opportunity that runs your way. That's what makes us great reporters. All's fair in love and journalism, remember that."
She clapped him, somewhat patronizingly, against one shoulder with this advice, before turning on her heel and stalking into the living room. Clark followed her, thoroughly confused by now. He tried to work his way back to the start of the conversation, but failed to figure out who'd just won the argument, or what her initial point had been. Had she changed track on him in mid-stream? Or was he just missing something? He shook his head and stopped on the edge of the archway.
She was sitting on the sofa, toying with the remains of one of the long, bronze tapered candles from the previous evening. Clark studied her for a moment.
"Are you mad?" he asked finally.
"Mad?" She looked up at him, then put the candle back down on its saucer. "No, I'm not mad." She paused, taking weight of her emotions and then added, "Actually, I'm not mad at all." She met his only half-convinced eyes and shook her head, a little irritably. "I do understand, you know."
"You do?" he said, surprised.
"Of course I do! You think I don't know how dangerous this is for you? I mean, how many people have tried to kill you…Superman…you…" she grimaced slightly and then, taking a small, steadying breath, continued, "…since you came to Metropolis?"
"Well…" he frowned. "One or two…"
"Exactly! And if they knew that Clark Kent was the one flying around in the cape, getting in the way of all their plans? Clark, they know where you live! They know you work at the Planet! And journalism!I mean, God, Clark, could you have picked a career choice that was any more dangerous? You know what reporters are like! They make terriers look like Labrador puppies! Give them a mystery and they'll worry at it till the devil calls in his tabs. Talk about living in the lion's den! You really like making life hard for yourself, don't you? Couldn't you have tried working in a bank or something? Being an office clerk? Some anonymous little nobody, working away in some dark room somewhere, in the bowels of some office, where no one would even remember you were there? I mean, didn't that even — just once — occur to you?"
"Being a reporter was all I ever wanted to do." Clark moved over and sat on the other end of the sofa, twisting to face her. "So, you understand then? Why I didn't tell you?"
"No? But, you just said — "
"I said I understand why you didn't tell the world. I don't have a clue why you didn't tell me!"
"You bet your sweet bippy, I don't! I thought I was your best friend. I've told *you* things! I've told you things I wouldn't even tell my own mother!"
"Lois, you wouldn't tell your mother you had soup for dinner yesterday," Clark accused.
Her eyes flashed fire at him. "Things I wouldn't tell Perry then. I *thought* we were friends. I thought we shared things." She paused then clipped out, meaningfully, "Everything."
Clark flushed with that unsubtle reminder. "You are my friend! You're my best friend! You're more than that, you *know* that!" He stood, agitated now, and waved irritated hands at her. "But you're also that…crazy woman who thinks journalism is war and who stops at nothing to get her name on the front page! Drag-'em-down, knock them out, Mad Dog Lane! Remember her? I mean, admit it, Lois! Six months ago, three weeks, two — if you'd found out about me then, wouldn't the first thing you thought of have been 'Pulitzer'?!"
Lois glowered up at him for a moment, then gave up as he glared right back. She dropped her gaze to the hands twisted into her lap and shrugged. "I guess. I don't always…well, I jump into the water — "
" — without checking the level first." Clark couldn't resist a small smile. "Yeah, you told me that."
She blew out a heavy sigh. "It's like being a cop, you know? The mystery is there. I have all these questions and I just need to know the answer, find the clues, work out who the culprit is. Sometimes…well, okay, most times…I don't think about what happens next. When I get the answers. I mean, how it will affect people…me…others…that comes later."
Clark nodded. "When it's too late."
She shrugged. "Sometimes," she conceded reluctantly.
He let out a soft breath and returned to sit beside her, closer this time, putting a hand over hers as he said earnestly, "It's never been a question of not trusting you, Lois. You have to understand…my entire life there's only been my parents and me. And…" he paused, then shook his head, as though deciding against something.
Lois frowned, but let it go. For now. She could always pry it out of him later if need be. For now, she was cautious about interrupting this confessional flow. She knew all about interviewing a subject. Be it a witness, a suspect, or a partner who was holding out on her. She knew when to interrupt and when to stay silent. She wouldn't risk him clamming up or being distracted by an awkwardly placed question now.
"The thing is," Clark went on, as though he'd never hesitated, "I guess, when you've kept a secret that long, when it's been so important all that time, it's hard to even think about telling someone else. It just wasn't something I *did*. I mean I've had friends, close friends, before. At college, at school…and colleagues, later, that I'd trust with my life…but I never told them either. I told most of them things I wouldn't tell anyone else, growing up, you know, working closely with someone, like you do.
There was a slight off-key note in his tone now that had Lois frowning again. He wasn't telling her entirely everything, she suspected. He was…well, perhaps not lying…exactly…but certainly he was being careful with the truth. And there was definitely something off kilter about what he'd just said. Her instincts, honed to a degree more accurate than any polygraph, were convinced of it. She sharpened her attention on him, alert for any clues as to what it might be.
"But not that. I listened too many years to Mom and Dad worrying about the government coming to take me away from them, watching how afraid they were.
"You know what one of my very earliest memories is? Lying in bed in the dark listening to them worry over my starting school the next day. If someone would get suspicious, if I'd say anything I shouldn't. I can remember the shadows playing on the ceiling of my room from the old cottonwood outside my window and how they seemed to get darker, more menacing, the more that I listened. I don't think I said more than five words at school that day. And only when I had to. It was a week before I 'came out of my shell'. That was how my teacher put it."
He trailed off, his eyes distant, and started as Lois shifted her hand to enclose his fingers tight. He turned his head to view her and then shook it as he saw the sympathy and reflected pain shimmering in her dark gaze. "Lois, I never wanted you to think I didn't trust you. Because I do. More than you'll ever know." He wrapped her hand in both of his. "But keeping this thing secret has been a part of me for so long…"
"…it's hard to let go. I know."
She sounded as though she did know.
"And…I never wanted you to get hurt."
She raised a brow at him.
"If people knew that I was Superman and that you were my friend…"
"Oh, that's ridiculous. Clark, people already know that Superman is my friend. If they want to use me to get to him, they'll do it whether I'm his friend or yours. Knowing who you are doesn't put me in any more danger. Besides," her face took on a mulish cast that was all too familiar to him. "I can take care of myself."
He looked abashed and her expression softened again. "You do have to protect your parents, though. I understand that. If the link to *them* ever got out there…"
"And there were other things too." Clark hesitated.
"What?" Lois prompted after a moment of silence, her eyes watching him, newly curious.
He looked down at their joined hands. "Lana," he said quietly.
He shook his head, refusing — or unable — to lift his gaze, and Lois felt her heart soften. He seemed in so much pain. This was difficult for him, whatever it was.
"Clark…?" she said softly, encouragingly.
He wouldn't look at her. But he did begin to speak. Each word seemingly forced from him, through a pain that she could see was still as sharp and bitter now as it had been back then.
"Lana was…special to me. It seemed as though she'd always been there, you know? The first friend I ever had, right back to kindergarten, through school, and high school…she was my best friend. We were inseparable, right from the first. And later…well, somehow, it just seemed natural that we would date." He looked up at her suddenly, his eyes intense. "It wasn't what I feel for you, Lois. It wasn't even close. But at the time…it was all I had. All that I knew. Being with Lana was…comfortable. Familiar. And as I got older…things changed. My powers started to come online when I was fourteen and over the years they got stronger…and I slipped more and more out of line with everyone around me. I felt…alone. Lana…Lana was the only constant thing in my life back then. She always made me feel…just like any other regular guy. "
He pulled his hand clear of hers and sighed, slumped over on the edge of the sofa, his eyes lost in memories, and Lois felt the pain of it fist itself into her own heart.
"And then I told her. About me."
Lois swallowed past the rock suddenly lodged in her throat, her voice hoarse with sympathy. "She took it badly?"
His smile was more of a grimace. "You could say. I wanted to tell her because I felt so close to her. She was everything. Friend…girlfriend…folks expected us to get married some day. No, she was more than that. She wasn't just a friend, not like the others. She was family. How could I not tell her?" He looked up at her quickly, his eyes bleak, before they darted away again. "But after…she was afraid. Of me."
"Oh, she'd never admit it. Never say so. But I could see it in her eyes. I'd go to touch her and she'd flinch. Or move away, pretend she hadn't seen me try to put my arm around her or kiss her. The thought of making love with me horrified her. Not…not that we ever had…ever did — "
He glanced at her anxiously, and she put a hand to his shoulder. He sighed.
"Anyway, it ruined everything. She just couldn't look at me and see what I was. What I'd always been. Her friend. Clark. I was suddenly someone else entirely. Someone she didn't understand or trust. Someone she was so afraid of she couldn't bear to be near any more. Oh, she tried. She did try. We went through the motions all that last summer. But bit by bit, we drifted apart and then she was gone.
"There was no…big bust-up, no acrimony…somehow, we just stopped seeing each other so much. She started hanging out with new friends, she was busy when I called, it became obvious she was avoiding me around town. I gave up trying eventually. It didn't seem fair to…force her to accept me. She couldn't and that was that.
"We repaired our friendship later, over the years. We were kids back then, maybe it was unfair to lay all of that, something that huge, on her shoulders, you know? Later, years later, she apologized and we're…okay. And maybe it was for the best. If she couldn't really accept me, all of me, everything that I was…am…then what future would we have had? But it was never really the same. Not like it was before."
He looked up at her abruptly and she saw his face was ashen. "But with you…I couldn't risk it, Lois. Not again. I couldn't risk facing that again. You meant so much more to me than Lana ever had. When I first saw you…all these months…I realized then how superficial what I felt for Lana had been. It was nothing like this. If I lost you…because of what I am, who I am…I don't think I could bear it."
"You haven't lost me," Lois said, stunned by the pain in his voice and the realization of the mark that long-ago trauma had set on him. How painful it had been. How cautious and afraid it had made him for the future, how lonely and alone.
Could he really think that she could be so shallow, so cruel as to let what he was affect how she felt about him? Who he was? Oh, this was going to be no picnic, she wasn't naïve enough to think this wasn't going to impact on their relationship, it made things difficult, there was no doubting that. And they would have to work their way through those. But it made it exciting too. Intriguing. An adventure. Something they could share and explore together. Stop loving him? Let him go? Never. She might as well cut out her heart right here.
In his eyes she discovered the pain of past rejection — and more — the fear that now she would reject him too. In his eyes she saw the memory of what had been in Lana's when she looked at him. The accusation — silent, but no less devastating — that he was nothing more than a freak, an aberration, something unclean and dangerous, something…odd and strange.
Her heart clenched as though a spear had been thrust through it and she sucked in a breath. How could he feel that way about himself? Didn't he know what he was? Didn't he know how human that fear made him?
And there was something else harbored in those eyes that made her heart quiver. The sudden understanding of just how much she meant to him. How desperately he needed her. How devastated he would be to lose her. She shifted closer, wrapping her arms around him as she laid her head against his chest. She could hear the muffled, ragged beat of his heart against her ear.
How could he still be so afraid?
Of losing her?
The depth of that overwhelmed her for a moment. No one, in her entire life, had felt so strongly for her. No one.
"I'm not afraid of you, Clark," she said, tightening her hold in an effort to convince him that his confession hadn't changed her feelings towards him at all. "I couldn't be." She heard him draw in a low breath and smiled. "As for making love…if you think I'm not going to drag you back into bed, mister, very first chance I get, you've got another think coming!" she added a dry murmur.
She felt him still and then the soft, welcome sound of his laughter. "Lo-is…" he choked out and she felt his arms tighten around her. She straightened and kissed him.
"Lana blew it," she whispered against his lips. "Her loss. And if she hadn't left, like she did, there would be no you and me. You might never have come here, to Metropolis. We might never have met. Thank her for that."
His eyes were suddenly full and dark with the desire drumming in his heart as he listened to her. He pulled her close, his hand spreading itself against her hair as he pressed her lips hard against his own. Their kiss was sweet and tender, healing as it soothed away the pain of years, and then, all at once, Lois let out a gasp and dragged herself clear of him.
"Lois?" Clark said, slightly alarmed, as she stared up at him, wide-eyed.
And then the color flooded back into her face in a deep flush of crimson.
"Love-making! You stood there…ohmigawd…I don't believe you *stood* there and — "
She moved suddenly, an ambush. Clark grunted as her fist rapped solidly against his chest. But he hardly felt the steady thud of the blows against his sternum that punctuated her words.
"You *stood* there and *listened* to me talk about your…his…*sex life* and *all*…*the*…*time* — why doesn't this hurt?"
"Huh?" Clark said warily as she paused in her attack.
"It doesn't hurt." Anger and embarrassment both, faded into intense and sudden curiosity and before he could stop her she moved closer still, her hands cautiously moving over the muscles of his chest beneath his shirt. "You know, you don't feel like steel. You give. I mean, you feel…warm…and…*firm*…very, very…firm…and…"
Clark began to grin. Lois, catching his shift of mood, glanced up and then flushed deeper. She snatched back her exploring hands and scowled at him.
"You've changed," he said.
"You. You've changed. Since I told you I was Superman."
"You didn't tell me, I found out all by — "
"You don't see me in the same way."
Lois sighed impatiently. "Clark, what are you talking — ?"
"You'd never hit Superman like that. Or…" his eyes twinkled slightly, "test his muscles out like that either." He sobered. "I used to hate seeing that look in your eyes, you know."
"What look?" But she thought she already knew what look and she ducked her head, growing pink again.
"Too wary. So much in awe of me. Of what I could do. Like you always saw the powers, not what was behind them. Not me. And when you did see me…"
"I was never awed," Lois denied hotly and then, giving up the pretense, "Well, okay, maybe I was a little awed. But you have to admit, Clark, you gave me a lot to be awed about! You took me flying!"
"Lois, I never wanted — that's not why I took you flying! It wasn't to impress you. Okay, so maybe it was a little," he amended as she gave him a sharp glance and then he shook his head, chuckling slightly. "You gave me a lot to impress," he teased. "But it was the only way I could get you to notice me and — "
"You figured the suit wasn't enough?"
"The suit…the suit is just what I wear when I'm…working, Lois. It's not me. *This* is the real me. Clark Kent. Daily Planet reporter. Smalltown kid, visits his parents once a week and loves his Mom's home cooking. Just me. Nothing special."
"Anyway, I'm glad. That you don't feel awed any more." He paused. "Lois, about the things you said to me, the things you told me…about him…I'm sorry about them. I never enjoyed being in the middle between you and him. Listening to you confide in me about your feelings for him, knowing that I could never make you feel the same way about me. Wondering all the time if it was the powers that attracted you to him. Knowing I could never compete."
Lois gave him an exasperated look. "You *are* him. Remember?"
"I…" He shook his head. "You think you can't compete with yourself? Heck, Lois, you do it every day. Superman is just the suit. He's the powers. The superhero. Me, I'm just Clark. If I thought about myself that way all the time I'd go crazy. I just want to be — "
" — a normal guy," Lois said softly. Her eyes were luminous suddenly and shadowed in ways he couldn't decipher. She put up a hand, her fingers cool and easy against the skin of his cheek. "You'll never be that, Clark." And then, before the small spark of uncertainty that still lived in him, despite her assurances, could rise up to torment him, she reached up and brushed her lips against the corner of his mouth. He felt her smile and heard her whisper, "You'll always be special to me."
Unable to speak, his heart too full to let him form the words he needed to convey the sheer joy he felt at her acceptance of him, Clark pulled her to him, setting his cheek against hers and burying his face in the dark spill of her hair. "Lois…" he murmured, his voice thick with all of the love and tenderness he couldn't express.
"You're stuck with me, flyboy. I'm not going anywhere."
He shifted, kissing her, and for a time everything floated away from him.
Finally, she pulled gently away, settling herself against him from where they had ended up, lying close together on the sofa, snuggled tight, as they'd traded soft, tender caresses and kisses that were warm and sweet with passion. She slid an arm around his waist and lifted her head from its perch on his shoulder to look up into the dark eyes regarding her softly.
She frowned. "You know, it really is remarkable," she said. "How different you look. Why is that?"
Clark shrugged. "I don't know. I guess people see what they expect to see, you know? Mild-mannered farmboy. About to be award-winning reporter." He smiled down at her. His hand caressed her cheek and the side of her throat. He couldn't seem to stop touching her, as though his need to affirm that she was really there, no illusion, was unquenchable.
The hand currently resting lightly against her shoulder ran down the curve of her spine and settled into the small of her back.
"They don't expect *me* to be flying around Metropolis, nights. So, I guess, they don't think to look any more closely at me than they do anyone else. You know, I don't think there are many people out there who even consider Superman *has* a life. Beyond the rescues and stuff, I mean. I know there was some speculation in the press early on, but it died away pretty fast. I get the impression sometimes that if they polled people most of them would say when Superman's not out patrolling, he goes back in his box till the next time he's needed. Or gets switched off or something. They just seem to accept that he's there when he's needed and where he goes and what he does when he's not isn't their concern."
Lois made a quiet murmur of agreement. The hand resting on her back was rubbing small, soothing circles that made her want to purr in ecstasy. She tried to remain focused, difficult as it was becoming.
It hadn't been *her* reaction to a flying superhero arriving in Metropolis. She had been eaten up with curiosity about what he did — and who he might be doing it with — in his 'off-duty' hours. But she'd seen what he was talking about at work in her colleagues and fellow citizens. A sense, somehow, that to question the Man of Steel too closely, pry into his life too much, might irritate him enough that he'd vanish as quickly as he'd come. Mostly, people had been playing it safe. They knew a good thing when they saw it and they weren't keen to take the risk on losing it. Since Superman's arrival in the city it was almost safe to walk the streets at night, and in a recent Crime Magazine survey, Metropolis had been rated the safest city in America, rising thirty places on the previous year. Lois could understand their caution.
"Maybe," Clark continued to speculate thoughtfully, "they think it's a fair trade-off. Leave him alone and he'll help them when they need it. I overheard someone on the train the other day saying he was sure Earth wasn't the only planet Superman helped out. And — when he's not here? — he's off on them, helping out his alien friends."
He shook his head, experiencing the same dumbfounded amazement he had when he'd first heard that one, and Lois laughed softly. She shifted beneath the light hands caressing her, before they could destroy her concentration entirely, and laced her fingers high on his chest, resting her chin against them as she stared up at him for a long moment. Clark reached up and stroked a quiet hand through her hair, his eyes following the way the light played against the soft strands his fingers were twisting between them.
"You know," Clark mused aloud at last, "I think I'm glad you never figured me out till now. It makes me feel safer, somehow."
"It does?" Lois lifted her head to look at him. Her tone suggested that his next words would be well advised to choose themselves carefully. And that maybe his safety was on more precarious ground than he imagined.
Clark smiled. He reached out his hands, framing her face in his palms before he slid his fingers deep into the thick, soft mass of her hair. He drew her forward gently until she was close enough for him to press his lips to her forehead, moving down to repeat the caress on the tip of her nose and then her lips, where his kiss lost its tenderness and became momentarily fierce before he let her go. He gazed into her eyes.
"Lois, you are the smartest person I know. That I think I've ever known. And the most tenacious journalist I've ever seen. If my secret can survive your attempts to dig it out — I don't think I've got to worry about waking up to see my name on the front page of the Star. Or anywhere else for that matter."
Lois frowned. "Well, maybe. That doesn't exactly make me feel any smarter, Clark. With all those smarts, how come I never figured you out?"
"Well…" Clark offered tentatively. "I have a theory."
"Oh?" She pulled away from him to sit.
Clark sighed as he recognized that their romantic interlude was at an end. Still, it was entirely his own fault for breaking the mood and engaging his partner's unquenchable curiosity, he told himself wryly. He moved his legs out of her way, obligingly, and sat up himself, giving her the room to arrange herself cross-legged on the sofa.
Lois eyed him interrogatively. "Spill."
"Well, maybe you *did* figure it out. So to speak."
She raised a brow.
"Look at it this way. Maybe you didn't want to face up to what you knew. Lois, all of what makes you so smart, such a great reporter, the way you dig out the facts, get to the truth…all of that you use every day to bring down the bad guys."
"So? What does that have to do with not facing the truth?"
"Superman isn't. A bad guy. He's one of the good guys. If you'd admitted back then what you knew, who I really was, you'd have had to choose between being a friend and being a reporter. Whether to write an expose or keep the secret yourself. And you knew that Superman didn't *deserve* an expose, the Mad Dog treatment, the exposure. You knew how it could damage him, set back everything he was trying to do, all the good he *could* do…but you couldn't just let him off the hook either, if you knew. Trying to decide would have torn you apart. So, I guess, subconsciously, you just pushed it back, decided you didn't want to look. You didn't want to have to make that choice. So…you didn't."
Lois stared at him. Clark watched her consider it. "I like that theory," she concluded after a moment.
He grinned at her. She scowled and then, breaking into a soft laugh, she poked him in the ribs. He retaliated with a growl, lunging forward to jerk her into a bearhug against his chest. Giggling and kicking, she struggled in his grip, his laughter rough against her ear as he took advantage of her imprisonment to nuzzle at her cheek, until they rolled into a heap off the sofa and onto the floor, helpless with it, and subsided, breathless, their playful mood turning to soft exploration.
She twisted out from underneath him eventually and settled herself astride his hips. She wriggled provocatively for a moment, enjoying his stifled groans of frustration and delighting in her revenge, before she relented. She splayed her hands against the heat of his chest and stared down at him, her eyes fathomless. Clark, waited, breathless and impatient, for her next move and then, to his disappointment, not to mention his chagrin, she began to chuckle.
"What?" he demanded.
She looked down at him, eyes sparkling with amusement as she planted one slim, firm finger against his sternum. "Four *days*!" she reiterated. " And you never figured it *out*? From now on, Clark, I think maybe you should leave the investigation side of things in this partnership to me! I mean, not only did you not figure it out, you never even found that cape either! Your search skills are worse than a spaniel with a head cold!"
He looked bemused.
"You told me you made a thorough search of this place for clues to jog your memory," she reminded him. "How could you miss that cape?"
"Oh. Well…maybe not entirely that thorough," Clark admitted sheepishly. "By the time I made it to the bedroom I'd already spent most of the day searching everywhere else." He had been despondent by that point, given his lack of success. His search of the bedroom had been half-hearted and of the closet haphazard at best. "I just kind of rifled through the stuff hanging in there and left it at that."
Lois shook her head, favoring him with a sharply smug grin. "Four days…" she reiterated. "Honestly, Clark."
He glowered at her, a little irked now and defensive. Seeing it, Lois laughed. She kissed him, warm and deep, and his momentary pique was forgotten. Lifting her head, she smiled and his heart turned over at how beautiful it made her. She snaked her way sensuously forward, running her palms up along his chest until she was lying full length atop him. She placed a small kiss in the hollow of his throat and then looked up into the dark desire she'd sparked in his eyes. She snuggled against him, closing her eyes as she breathed in the scent of powder and cologne on the skin of his throat and he held her against him, seemingly content to simply have her close in his arms.
"What's it like?" she voiced the sudden, curious thought. "Being you? I've wondered so often what it must be like to be able to do the things you can. I've…envied you, even."
That drew his gaze onto her again. His brow puckered. "I don't know. I'm just…me." He regarded her quizzically. "Envied?"
"Sure! Clark, all those things you can do! I mean, think about it! You can…you can *fly*!" she breathed. "Hasn't that ever seemed wonderful to you? Tell me…" she urged him, resting her head comfortably on his chest and closing her eyes. "Tell me what it's like to fly. Up there…apart from the earth, from everything…and yet connected to it…watching the whole world pass by below…all those people…all those lives…"
Clark smiled. "Yeah, I guess that is how I feel about it. It's so…you feel so small up there, with all that glory spread below you. The green and the blue and the cities too…at night, with all the lights sparkling below you and the stars blazing above…" his words trailed in a soft sigh, inadequate to encompass the emotions he wanted to express.
Clark raised his eyebrows at the murmured interruption as she lifted her head. Lois flushed.
"Sorry, I just…listening to you talk about what you can do…flying…it just seemed…it's a poem, I learned it at school. I'd forgotten about it until I was watching Super…you…on the news one evening, just after you arrived in Metropolis and it just seemed to…well, fit somehow…"
She trailed off, feeling like a prize idiot now, but Clark was nodding. "Yeah, I know it." His voice lowered, becoming a quiet whisper that held her spellbound, caught within the dark intensity of his eyes on hers, as he quoted softly:
"Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth ** And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I've climbed and joined the tumbling mirth Of sun-split clouds —- "
"' — and done a hundred things, you have not dreamed of'," Lois interrupted, her own breath reverent on the words, as though they came from deep within an envious heart. She tossed him a rueful smile and then continued, before he could speak:
"Wheeled and soared and swung High in the sun-lit silence. Hovering there I've chased the shouted wind along…"
Her voice dropped away as he overtook her again, seeming to put a personal resonance on the words, sharing that long ago airman and poet's joy in flight, in the ecstasy of wings.
"…Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue I've topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace, Where never lark nor even eagle flew…"
He stopped, looking slightly embarrassed now by the intensity with which the words had taken on and then shrugged. He had first read High Flight when in his late teens: a sudden gem of discovery in a sun-filled college library. Inevitably, he had felt an immediate kinship with that long-dead poet and his serenade to flight, able and uniquely as no other to understand the intense joy in soaring among the clouds that his fellow aviator had conveyed.
Lois smiled. "Burning blue," she said. "Certainly seems to sum you up out there." She grinned irreverently at him and Clark's heart leapt, delighted to see how little in awe of him she truly remained. This was what he had wanted, for as long as he could remember, for as long as he'd known her, that she would know everything there was to tell about him, and still be his friend…remain his lover…understand him and cherish him…for all that he was. The laughter in her eyes turned sly and her hands shifted across his chest and then moved lower in ways that lodged his heart in his throat. "You certainly were a little hot to handle last night."
Clark began to chuckle as he tightened his embrace around her. Lois tipped up her head to regard him suspiciously, as she settled against him again. "What?"
He shook his head, ruefully. "I was just thinking. You know, you'd think that punching out a world killer asteroid would just about make it to the top of your day for difficult and dangerous tasks to get through." He smiled down at her. "I guess it would be for any other guy. The ones who don't have Lois Lane in their lives."
"I make life difficult and dangerous for you?" she asked playfully.
"Absolutely. You also make it exciting and wonderful and…utterly amazing."
He kissed her. Then lifted his head with a small sigh. "You know what I want to do?"
Lois giggled, moving her body provocatively against him. "I can guess."
He shook his head, bent it to kiss her lightly again. "You're incorrigible, Ms. Lane. Do you know that?"
"Well, it's your fault," she defended herself and, as he looked the question at her, "You taught me what I was missing. Don't blame me if I'm insatiable *now*."
"Oh, I'm not complaining," he told her fervently. "But…that's not what I want."
Lois pouted. "It's not?"
"Nope." He shook his head. "I really need a shower. I can still smell that asteroid on me. And that chill out in space, it just seems to cling to you, seep into your bones. I still feel cold. Course…" he looked down at her, eyes speculative, "no reason we can't do a little of both…is there?" He wiggled his eyebrows at her suggestively and she giggled.
"No reason at all," she agreed.
His grin widened. "Wanna watch me shave?" he asked, as though about to surprise her with something spectacular.
She raised a brow at him. "Maybe later, flyboy. First," she put up a hand to his cheek and ran a provocative thumb across the full bow of his lips, "let's work off that chill."
He chuckled, then moved obligingly to let her loose as she scrambled to her feet. "First one in gets the loofah!" she yelled back over her shoulder as she darted off for the bathroom. She propped to a halt, spun back, her hair flipping out across her shoulders in a gleaming wave beneath the lights, and eyed him uncertainly. "You have *got* a loofah, haven't you? I mean you don't do anything…weird…in there, do you?"
It took Clark a moment or so to get over the breath-taking picture she presented, standing there. In an over-big towelling robe that drowned her slender figure and the lights gleaming rich and warm within her hair. Then he shook his head, trying not to laugh. This was, after all, he reminded himself, the woman who only a few short weeks before had wondered if Superman's suit even came off at all, never mind in the shower. "I have a loofah," he informed her, deadpan.
"Oh, good. Not that I wouldn't mind you using…um…you know…" she winked at him, grinned widely, and then resumed her race for the bedroom.
Clark found himself grinning too. He gave her a good head start before he sped after her.
He beat her, naturally.
Magnanimous, however, in victory, he let her share the loofah.
"I've been thinking…about last night."
Lois' sudden, low chuckle in response to his thoughtful pronouncement sounded rich and just a little mischievous in the soft shadows of the bedroom.
She shifted, startling him as she rolled onto her side and insinuated one long leg between his own, nudging her knee between his thighs. The softness of her thigh against his own, naked skin tantalized him as she lazily rubbed her ankle against his. She laid her hand against his belly, her fingers drawing soft paths across his skin.
"So have I." Her purr against his chest tickled.
Clark smiled. "I'm not talking about that," he said and then, because what she was doing with that hand of hers was making thinking much too difficult, reached down and captured it in his own. She acquiesced without protest, lifting her head to look up into his face among the shadows.
"What, then?" she said, sensing he had something important to say. She rested her chin on the arm slung across his stomach and watched him from beneath her lashes. Her hair was still a little damp from the slow, lingering shower they'd shared earlier, beginning to curl at the ends, and he could smell the powder she'd borrowed from him to use afterwards.
It was an interesting smell, not one he was used to finding on her, and it made him feel another surge of possessiveness to know that she was wearing a scent he subconsciously associated more with himself than her. He snuggled her against him, reveling in the sensation of her bare skin against his own naked flesh as he remembered the delightful experience showering with her had been, one of a growing collection she was introducing him to, and lost himself in a daydream memory of soap and bubbles and froth and pink, steam-tinted skin and the taste of water on her flesh and…
…and then tried to remember what they'd been talking about.
"About my powers."
Lois lifted a brow. "What about your powers?"
"Where were they?"
"Where *were* they?" She levered herself clear of him to kneel at his side, making him regret opening his mouth. In her absence, the air against his chest and belly felt cool. The sight of her as she sat up straight, the better to view his face, distracted him and it was with an effort that he pulled his attention back to what she was saying.
"Where they've always been, weren't they? Where else would they be? Are you saying you lost your powers? With your memory? But…that's not possible. Is it? I mean, I don't know how they work — your powers — I wouldn't know, but it seems like it couldn't be possible. How would that be possible? Are you sure? I mean you didn't…just mislay them or…or something…?"
Lois paused, seeming to recognize the incongruity of that statement, even before he shook his head and said dryly, "I'm not talking about car keys here, Lois."
She looked abashed and then frowned. "So, what do you mean? How could you lose your powers? Just like that?" She snapped her fingers, another move that sent a slow, delicious ripple through her body. Clark sighed softly, remembering the sensations of that body against his own, then shook himself back to the present with a quick frown.
"Oh, I don't think I did. No, I mean…I was thinking about what you said earlier. Four days, Lois. I lost my memory for four days and I had no idea in all that time who I really was."
"Isn't that how amnesia usually works?" Lois asked, drawing a tangle of hair out of her eyes with one hand and frowning harder at him.
"Yes, but…even if I didn't know I was me, like you said, I should have known I was *him*. Superman. Think about it. There should have been a dozen and one clues that I wasn't…normal. But there was nothing. I mean, look at this," He scrubbed a rough hand across his jaw and chin, smooth now, divested of what Lois had complained was a steel-wool growth that definitely had to be dealt with before he kissed her again. "You know, I've shaved for the past four days and thought nothing of it."
Lois looked interested. Watching him shave after their shower had indeed been fascinating. One of many, endearing, little habits she was hoping he would share with her in the future. "You haven't been using that mirror trick," she postulated. "That would have been a give-away. And…" she frowned, "…you *couldn't* use a normal blade…"
"No," he agreed, "there hasn't been a blade made that would cut through the stubble I grow. At least not on the regular market."
"So what have you been using?"
He grimaced. "You remember last month, when Superman helped contain that chemical gas breach at S.T.A.R. Labs?"
"Course, I do. I got the — " She stopped and then cleared her throat. "Superman gave me the exclusive." She gave him a look that dared him to comment. He didn't.
"Well, there's this crazy little guy works there, heads up the R&D section? Charles Webber. I guess he thought maybe I needed some kind of thanks for that…" he shrugged with a self-deprecation that was so familiar to her that it made her smile. "Anyway, he came up with this experimental razor for me to use. He spent hours working on it; I didn't have the heart to turn it down. It looks just like the real thing and it works too, but somehow I just don't like using it. I only tried it out once and then I tossed it in the back of the cupboard in the bathroom and started using the mirror again. He gave me a spare though. I keep that in my locker at the Planet and that's been good. I don't have to keep worrying that someone might come in while I'm using my heat vision. But I try not to shave there too often."
"And you didn't like using it every day. Why not?"
"Well, it uses a kryptonite-coated blade. That's how it works. Not enough of it to hurt me, it's only a thin veneer, but enough to make the hair soften up, so that I can shave more or less normally. It…prickles…more than anything else. But…I don't know…there's just something about using kryptonite that freaks me out. I know he swore that there wasn't enough kryptonite to affect my skin, so there's no chance of any nicks or getting it into my bloodstream, but even so… Even just having it in the apartment…" He shuddered slightly, a quick tremor that was gone almost before it was there.
"But, anyway, it was still there, of course. In the cabinet. I just picked it up, used it, never thought anything of it. It looks just like the real thing. Works just like the real thing. So — are you okay?" he changed tack, slightly alarmed by the set look that had appeared on her face as she looked startled.
"Kryptonite really does exist?! It *does* affect you, makes you sick?! You mean, Trask was *right*?!"
"Oh. Uh, yeah. Well, about that anyway. Only thing that maniac did get right," he said bitterly.
"You don't have allergies." Lois pierced him with a look, obviously collecting more than a few stored memories that damned him as she put together the events of the past. "You know, one day soon, I'm gonna get you for all the lies you told me."
"Lois, I didn't — "
She leaned forward and kissed him. "We have a lot of talking to get to, mister," she informed him ominously, when she let him go at last, but there was a hint of amusement, deep beneath her pique, that softened the threat.
"We'll get to *that*, later," she promised, making him shift uneasily. She settled herself more firmly onto her heels on the bed beside him, obviously settling in for some deep conversation. Clark watched her appreciatively.
"So, that explains why shaving didn't give you a hint. But, there must have been other things that happened that seemed odd. You didn't notice any clues at all? Not even one? I mean, I'm guessing you didn't suddenly find yourself floating or flying around the room, but surely — "
"I dunno. There *were* some clues. Like when we were…making love. I could smell your scent, hear your heartbeat…but I thought I was just imagining things. And the wine…"
She cocked her head at him. "The wine?"
"Made me tipsy. Which it shouldn't have done; it shouldn't have affected me at all."
"You've never gotten drunk?"
"Never. I used to pretend to be a lot. You know, college, football games…I watched my friends and followed suit. I didn't want to look out of place. I wanted to fit in, you know? I never really missed the experience though. Particularly not when I watched them struggling with their hangovers and throwing up the next morning. But pretending…I guess that's what I was doing last night. I just didn't know it at the time."
"How'd you mean?"
"Well, they do say the subconscious mind is more powerful than any of us realize. Look at those fakirs who walk on hot coals or magicians who hypnotize their subjects and make them stiff as boards — "
"The power of suggestion," Lois commented, nodding.
"Yes, that's it. Wine *can't* affect my metabolism; I know that for a fact. But last night…I *didn't* know it. I didn't know I had powers; I didn't know I was Superman. All that the working portion of my mind knew was a simple equation: wine equals inebriation. Ergo, if I drank wine, I got drunk. Simple logic. It didn't have anything else to work with, so it took the path of least resistance and decided I should get tipsy. Subconsciously reacting to that, I went into my loveable drunk routine, just like in college." He grinned at her and she swatted him against the chest.
"Well, I think you're always pretty loveable, drunk or sober," she advised him with a sly smile of her own as she leaned over briefly and swiped another glancing kiss across his lips.
"Really?" He sounded pleased and a little surprised.
She sighed as she straightened. "No, lunkhead. I always jump into bed with guys I don't love. It's a habit."
"Sorry," he said, contrite.
"Forgiven," she said magnanimously. Slipping down the bed, she stretched her body against the length of his in a sensuously lazy movement that made his nerve ends tingle. "This time," she added faint warning.
Clark answered that by slipping his arm around her waist and pulling her a little closer against his side. He frowned, returning to the earlier puzzle, and she gave up her teasing, spreading one hand against the skin of his chest and laying her cheek against it as she listened.
"I think, for the most part, my powers were…dampened down. Almost like…"
"Like maybe I didn't want to know. Didn't want to remember. My powers were the one thing that would have jogged my memory if I'd accidentally used them while I was out of it. Maybe, at some subconscious level I knew that, so I made sure they didn't help me out."
"But why wouldn't you want to remember?" She lifted her head to regard him with a frown of her own. "Clark, that's just plain — "
"Maybe because I was afraid to be him. Superman. That asteroid…I was so sure of myself. So sure that I could beat it. I mean I'm Superman, right? Nothing beats Superman. I was stupid and over-confident…arrogant…"
"Clark…" Lois began, beginning to see where this was going, but he ignored her.
"It beat me. Maybe…" she heard the shame in his voice. "…I didn't want to know who I was because I was afraid to confront it again. I dreamt about Nightfall last night. I saw it coming for me and I was…afraid. It seemed to know me…like it was…alive, somehow. I could feel its hate and the terror in the earth around me… " his voice had softened, becoming very small, "If I remembered who I was, then I'd have to go out there again, maybe fail again, and — maybe…maybe, deep down, I didn't want to find out if I would."
"Okay," she said firmly, hoisting herself up to lean on her elbows and staring fiercely into his face. "You listen to me, Clark Kent. I don't know anyone more courageous than you. Oh, not just because you're that guy who flies around in tights saving the world, but because of who you are, what you've become, the things you've faced and the way you've turned what must have been the scariest time growing up into something wonderful."
Clark looked at her uncertainly. "You think?" he said, sounding none too convinced.
"Of course I do! Clark, through no fault of your own, you got a little mixed up in the head. But you came through for us. Just like you always do. Like you always will. Being afraid of failing doesn't make you less strong, or less brave. You know that. You couldn't help what happened. What matters is, you saved us, just as soon as you were able to. Isn't that the important thing?"
"I…guess…" He gave her a small smile and drew her in to take long and satisfying possession of her lips, in a kiss that softened her in his arms and made her sigh. When he released her, he studied her face in thoughtful contemplation for a long moment.
"Maybe there was another reason," he said. "For not wanting to get my memory back. Maybe I didn't want to remember who I was because the Clark Kent I knew didn't have Lois Lane in his life. Maybe I just didn't want to go back to being without you. When I was…lost…I didn't know how I should behave with you. I just made it up as I went along. Working on instinct. Even if it was a little skewed. And we were closer, because of that. If I hadn't lost my memory I might never have had the courage to take the next step, reach out for you…all that baggage of our partnership, being friends, it would have gotten in the way."
Lois' eyes had filled as she listened, growing bright and glistening in the shadows. She shook her head. "You make it sound as though I fell in love with another man," she told him gently. "But memory loss or not, you were always the Clark Kent I knew. My friend. The best thing in my life. The man I love."
She slipped her arms around his neck to hold him close, her lips drawing moist heat across the line of his jaw.
Clark closed his eyes, enjoying the sensation of her attentions. "There was one other benefit, of course," he murmured a thoughtful addition after a moment. "It sure took away all my worries about being able to make love."
Lois' lips froze on their exploratory trail across his temple. She lifted her head. "Worries?" She shifted, as Clark realized how revealing that last remark had been and began to regret it, settling lower to where she could cross her arms and lay them on his chest. The better to interrogatively study his face. "Are you saying last night was — ?"
"My first time." Clark sighed. No point in trying to deny it now. "Yes."
Lois blinked. "Wow. I never would have known," she assured him.
"Well, that's my point," Clark said, squirming a little beneath her. "I didn't know it was my first time, I mean there was a point there when I realized that I was a…was…inexperienced…but I thought I was imagining it. I decided I was just muddled up, getting confused with what you'd said, you know, about you not being a…not being…well, anyway, I figured I did have experience. It was all so familiar…what we were doing." He looked a little embarrassed. "You've heard of fulfilling your fantasies? Well, I think last night I really did."
"How do you mean?"
"Well, I think I took a few…dreams…I'd had of me and you…doing…that…you know…" Lois' eyes twinkled as she watched him struggle and then he finished, "Well, anyway, I think I made them into memories instead. Like I said, it was all so familiar, being with you, the way you were, I think somehow I got everything jumbled up and decided that if I hadn't made love with you, I had at least with *someone.*"
"Boy, that was some *deep* confusion," Lois concluded and then, smiling at him, "Worked for you, though." She winked.
Clark smiled back at her faintly, but he was clearly preoccupied. He put his hands on her arms, moving her off him so that he could shift on to his side to face her, stroking a soft path against her skin as he said, "You see that was the thing. I could never be sure it would be okay. I mean there was always the worry that I might not be able to control my strength, my powers, that I might hurt whoever I was with. I never wanted to risk that and there was no way to know. Best just to not get so deeply involved with anyone that the question came up. And, besides, I couldn't be certain that I wouldn't give myself away…that level of intimacy…who knew what difference my powers might make to…that. There was never anyone I trusted enough to risk them finding out about me that way. And if they did…" his lips twisted in self-mockery, "…well, Lana taught me how things change…how people change…when they find out what you really are."
Lois put up a hand, her fingers gentle against his cheek. "Not all of us," she reminded him. "Is that why you moved around so often? Before you settled here in Metropolis?"
He nodded. "Part of it. Oh, I wanted to travel, ever since I was a kid. See the world. Experience everything I could. But…yeah…I could never stay anywhere long. People got too friendly, things became too familiar. Colleagues became friends…more than friends…dating anyone was out of the question. You start to get too comfortable…careless… People were always strangers. They had to be. It was the only way to be safe. When they started to become more it was time to pack up and move on. Start over."
Lois' eyes were bleak with pity in the shadows. "That's a lonely way to live," she said.
He looked back at her solemnly. "No more lonely than living in a city of a million people for most of your life and never letting yourself get close to any of them," he chided gently. "People make themselves lonely in all kinds of ways, Lois. You don't have to be able to bend steel with your bare hands to live that way."
"At least I made the choice. A bad choice, but it was mine. You didn't have any choice at all."
"Well," he shrugged. "Maybe." He stopped the soft play of his fingers against her skin and slid his arms around her instead, drawing her close. She laid her cheek against his chest as he laid a light kiss against her hair. "But it's in the past," he murmured. "For both of us. Now…" He shifted and she raised her head to look up at him enquiringly. He smiled and ducked his head to kiss her before sighing, "Now, we've got each other. And that's all that matters."
Her easy acceptance of his embrace and the softening of her body against him as he held her, spoke of her agreement. For a time they were silent, each lost in their own thoughts of how close they'd come to disaster, to losing everything, and how fortunate they had been to not only survive but to find their way to the fulfillment of their dreams besides.
Just as Clark was beginning to drift into the warm haze of sleep, however, she spoke suddenly into the quiet of the room.
"You know, a long time ago, there were people who thought that when you made love to someone they carried a little part of your soul inside them forever afterwards."
"You've always had my soul, Lois," Clark answered, sleepily. "And my heart. We didn't have to make love. Although," he grinned suddenly, "I'm not knocking it any."
Lois smiled and shifted onto her stomach, within the embracing circle of his arm around her waist. She nuzzled gently at his shoulder and heard him groan softly in the twilight warmth that pulling the blinds against the weak sunlight had made of the room.
"You know the craziest thing?" he said. "I was jealous of him."
"He had you."
Lois sighed and rolled onto her side to lean an elbow to the mattress and rest her head against the palm of one hand. She quirked a brow. "Clark, you're making no sense. And this time you don't have the excuse of impact with a deadly asteroid. What are you talking about? Superman," she concluded, archly, "has *never* had me. As you very well know."
Clark looked at her askance and she gave him a chiding nudge. "You know what I mean. Before last night. And anyway," she insisted mulishly, with a glimmer of mischief growing in her eyes, "he still hasn't. I made love with a very ordinary man last night. Name of Clark Kent, I believe."
Clark found himself grinning. His heart swelled with the implications of what she'd just said. The understanding of just how much she viewed both of his personas as separate. Clark Kent and Superman. Not the same. Two distinct personalities. Just as he did.
He shifted a little himself till he was facing her more directly. He reached out to stroke a soft hand through her hair, watching his fingers move among the silk as he went on, "The one constant thing in all of this was my love for you. That never got lost. I might not have fully understood what it was that I was feeling, not at first, but I knew that you were special, that you were everything to me. And Superman…well, I put two and two together of what I'd seen and how you acted around him and how much he clearly felt for you and ended up concluding you were involved."
Lois gazed at him. "How *he* felt for me?"
"Oh, that was obvious. I don't know how anyone else missed it."
"Really?" She frowned. "We're going to have to work on that then."
He grinned at her. "I was ready to fight him for you."
Lois smiled. "That I'd liked to have seen."
He chuckled and gave up his thoughtful caress of her hair in favor of something more direct. He slipped an arm around her waist and pulled her back on top of him. She came compliantly and when she was splayed limply across him, tucked her head against his shoulder. Her breath was light and warm against the side of his neck. He let his hand run slowly back and forth across her hip and felt her sigh.
"I always felt something for you too. I guess I just didn't know it. Wouldn't admit it anyway. It was too dangerous. At least you had an excuse for that. What is it with me, Clark? Lex, you, Superman…why can I spot a villain at fifty paces when he gets in the sights of Lois Lane, Reporter, but when it comes to my personal life…I'm blind and you all get away from me?"
"Well, we've already covered Superman. And Lex — " he stopped, fortunately realizing a hairsbreadth before he let it loose that she probably wouldn't want to hear that Lex was a villain who had escaped her professional radar too.
They had a lot of talking to do on that subject, and he had confidence that this time she might actually listen to what he told her about the Great Philanthropist. He had a feeling that Lex Luthor had made one of the biggest mistakes in his life when he'd asked Lois Lane to share that bunker with him. Unwittingly, he'd set a terrier on his trail whose tenacity when she got on the scent of a villain was everlasting and undefeatable. Together, with her at his side — at Superman's side — to help him, Clark didn't see a whole lot of future for Luthor. A knowledge that was a source of relief.
But that was for later. He enfolded her in his arms and set his lips to her temple. "Lex and I were *too* personal, I guess. You were just too close to see us clearly. It happens to all of us, honey. Even Lois Lane."
"You know…you keep doing that," she murmured. "And I think I kind of like it."
"What?" He tilted his head in a vain attempt to view her eyes. "That we got away from you?"
"No, silly. When you call me 'honey'. And that you didn't. Get away. In the end."
"Oh." Clark smiled at the ceiling.
After a moment's peaceful and drowsy silence, he whispered, "So…does this mean you won't tell? About me?"
Lois shifted, lifting her head and meeting his eyes. "How can you betray the secrets of someone who carries your soul?" she told him gravely and he smiled as he bent his head to kiss her.
"Besides," she murmured against the smooth heat of his lips, "you're mine now, Clark. And I'm not giving you away to anyone."
As he set his attention to rewarding her for that sentiment, conversation became the last thing on his mind for quite some time.
The last thing on Lois' too.
The missile streaked into the night sky with a piercing scream. At the apex of its flight it detonated, peppering the darkness with a myriad array of diamond-white sparkles. Another followed, bursting into a blooming flower of emerald green. And a third. Vibrant color spread out against the backdrop of the glitter of stars. Crimson and gold…incandescent white…silver and yellow…blue…all the colors of the world.
Clark paused in his search to watch them go, tilting back his head and fisting his hands deep into the pockets of his overcoat as he stood before the roaring flames of the bonfire. After a moment, he dropped his gaze again to survey his surroundings.
Around him the festival atmosphere had reached its peak.
It seemed that all of Metropolis had turned up in Centennial Park to celebrate the demise of Nightfall and the vanquishing of the threat it had presented to this small, lonely world and its inhabitants. An outpouring of spontaneous joy and gratitude here on this very first Deliverance Day.
Clark grimaced a little as he repeated the sound of it in his head. The Secretary General of the United Nations had announced the global annual day of celebration just this morning. In future years the date that Superman had saved the world from the deadly asteroid would be immortalized by a day of rejoicing and remembrance. Many countries not allied to the UN had taken the idea on board too. Everyone was falling over themselves, it seemed, to pay tribute to the superhero and to ensure that he knew the extent of their gratitude.
In this, its inaugural year, and given the short notice, it had taken four days to work up to this climactic festival of light, although any organization had been sporadic at best. The intervening days had been one long party, numbers swelling, enthusiasm growing day by day, the populace of the city — as in cities all over the world — joining together in a spirit of laughter and co-operation that few had ever seen. Things appeared to have been organized more by word of mouth and willing hands volunteering on the spur of the moment than by any other means, the event snowballing to its conclusion here in the park.
Clark recognized the need for everyone to let loose the fear of the past week and celebrate their survival. He just wished they hadn't felt the need to formalize it so thoroughly and pin it to him. He didn't want immortalizing.
Still…he supposed it could have been worse. Some bright spark at the Star had suggested naming it 'Thank You, Superman Day' and had even promoted a campaign and petition among the city populace to have it adopted, claiming that not naming their savior directly was an insult. Clark winced with the memory, remembering his reaction on seeing the front page on the news stands on the day that story was carried. Savior. They'd actually printed that. He squirmed a little, sure that the heat of the flames nearby wasn't the reason his cheeks were warming up. Such adulation had always made him uncomfortable. For it to encompass him all at once, on a global scale, from all corners of the earth, was a frightening prospect. And one he didn't care to endure.
Anyway, he was of the cynical opinion that the fervor of the Star's uncredited reporter had more to do with the paper's dwindling sales figures and advertising revenue than anything else. He *had* managed to tactfully make it clear that Deliverance Day was fine with him and that, although he appreciated the thoughts on his behalf, the important thing was that everyone was still around to celebrate. Not who had disposed of Nightfall.
Though he had suffered some embarrassment, he had been relieved to note the campaign had died shortly thereafter with no great impact on the UN's decision.
And he had hope. Yesterday's hero was today's forgotten man. And the collective memory — of governments as well as people — was often blessedly short. He was confident that soon the part he had played in this would be diluted and his status reduced. Perhaps then things might return to some kind of normality.
Of course, there were things he wasn't going to permit them to forget. Not if he had any say in it. More important things than his 'heroics'.
There was the hope that governments around the world that, pre-Nightfall, had been reluctant to put their hands in their pockets would learn some lesson from all of this. Clark wasn't averse to a day of celebration if it firmly kept the potential threat of destruction from another Global Killer in the minds and hearts of those elected to do something to prevent it occurring in the future. And in the hearts and minds of the populace, who might ensure that those government memories remained vivid as the years went by.
He had been gratified to note that already there were murmurings in the halls and conference rooms of governments world-wide about funding proper global early warning defense systems. He made a mental note to ensure that Superman publicly endorsed such talks and offered to help reduce costs wherever he could by any means in which he could aid the project.
Clark raised his gaze to the night stars again, clothed in their brilliant sparkles of color. He had already lost one world to the uncaring heart of space. And although he had never known — could never really know — what, precisely, he had lost, he had the memory of a dying world fixed in his head. A hazy image of that world exploding in a burst of light, which still had the power to cause a small barb of grief now and then whenever he studied the night sky.
He had held one of the few remnants of that world to survive in his hands and felt a flash of…he frowned…he didn't know what it had been. Recognition certainly. An impression of shared consciousness that had been disturbing. And a series of random snapshots imploding in his head, which had been there and gone so fast that he was still unable to truly decipher them. He had tried touching the globe again since, but apart from shifting between depictions of both Earth and that place of his birth that he now knew was called Krypton, it hadn't sent him any more mind images since. Or clarified the ones he already had. Fuzzy and out of focus snapshots in his head. A poor thing to remember a lost world with. Maybe he would never know the details, never know the truth of what those images meant. But he knew one thing at least. It had all been a terrible waste.
All those lives, squandered to fate. All those people. His people. People he would never see or meet, some of whom had loved him and whom he would never get the opportunity to thank for…for their sacrifice in sending him here, where he could survive the catastrophe that had overtaken them. Is that what they had done? He wasn't sure. What the globe seemed to have given him was more instinctive than true knowledge. Like dreams only half remembered on waking and lost to the dawn before they could be truly understood.
What he did know was that there had been people out there, somewhere, whom he would never get the chance to know. Or love. Or truly mourn.
He had lost one home. He wasn't going to let it happen again. Not to this world. Not to these people. Not if he had any say in it. So, while his hero status lasted, he would use it shamelessly to push as hard as he could for any and every means available to reduce the threat in the future.
But these were things for the days ahead and the months to come. And…a smile tugged at the corner of his lips, lifting an expression which unbeknown to him had turned grim with the meandering of his thoughts…he would have help to achieve that. And if the governments of the world thought they could quietly push Superman into the shadows once the immediacy of recent events had faded, they'd have less chance than a cat in hell in ignoring Lois Lane. Clark found himself grinning. Every superhero should have such back-up.
Every man too.
His smile turned momentarily tender, before his gaze resumed its sweep of the park around him, seeking that errant partner, girlfriend and light of his life. Where had she got to?
He found his eyes drawn to a young couple as they passed close by him. Dressed in matching crimson motorbike leathers and sporting close-cropped purple hair, their attention was all on each other and they had eyes for nothing and no one else. Lost in a silent circle of their own.
Closely shepherded by their parents, a gaggle of excited children dashed past, their faces lit up like candles by the iridescent splutter of the sparklers held tight in chubby hands and waved recklessly around them. One of the women was crying, he noted, as she watched them go. The man with his arm around her pulled her closer, murmured something in her ear, and she smiled up at him brightly through her tears.
Watching them, Clark felt a soft warmth suffuse him. The simple joy on that stranger's face was worth more than any accolades by politicians or newspapers. This was why Superman existed. His eyes lit on the laughing children for a moment. And why he always would. For as long as he was able. Then he looked away, feeling as though he was an intruder on the family moment. He returned to his search of the park with a frown, soaking up the fairground atmosphere as he did so, at a peripheral level. His eyes flitted through a dozen snapshots of humanity. A celebration of life that was every bit as colorful and vibrant as the fireworks lighting up the sky above him.
Life. In all its guises. All its forms.
Dozens of people…smiling and laughing…joking, teasing…shrieking high up on the Ferris wheel at the far end of the park, children chasing balloons and barking dogs, their laughter bright like bubbles in his head…a sea of emotions churning and flowing in his ears…tears of joy and smiles of relief…
…kisses and sighs and breathy murmurs…
He pulled his eyes hastily away from the middle-aged couple entwined on the park bench, aware that he'd been searching just a little too deeply there for a moment. He shook his head and chuckled.
*These* were his people now. People who were safe and well…alive and healthy…and always a part of him. As he was of them. And forever would be. He sighed and leaned up against the thick trunk of the old, weather-roughened tree beside him. Yes, life was good. Especially for a Metropolis superhero.
And a plain old city reporter…whose life had suddenly been tossed into a whirlwind. And for the better too.
The scents of barbecuing meat, of cotton candy and candy apples, the acrid stench of smoke from the bonfire, with the sulfur of the fireworks overlaying it all and sharp in his nostrils, all were suddenly drowned by a pleasant aroma of flowers.
Clark smiled and reached up to catch at the small hands that suddenly laced themselves across his chest.
The soft, warm body of his own personal whirlwind pressed up tight against his back and her voice purred into his ear, like rich cream. "Haaaaay there, lover."
He grinned and turned to hook an arm around her shoulders, pulling her in to snuggle against his chest. Despite the flames, the air was a little on the chill side, with a stiff breeze beginning to flutter in the pennants and the branches of the trees. Lois stumbled a little as he tugged her close and giggled as she pitched against him. Clark raised his brows. She sighed, a small, happy little sound that ignited a warm glow in his heart…and which concluded in a soft hiccup. She slipped her arms under his coat and wrapped them tightly around his waist, burrowing against him gratefully as she used his large body as a convenient windbreak.
"I've been looking for you," he said as he dipped his head to look down at her. His tone held a small frisson of threat in it. Although its effectiveness was somewhat diluted as he gave in to temptation and nuzzled at her hair, all ideas of retaliation for her betrayal dissolved in the scent of her perfume as it rose around him in a dizzying cloud.
Last he'd seen of her had been an hour earlier — about the point where Perry had just launched into his fifth Elvis story of the evening. This one postulated that the Chief was certain Superman was an Elvis fan, because the superhero did his best to follow the heroic principles by which the great man had lived his life so closely, it was almost impossible to separate them. Almost. Superman was a hero, no doubt about it. Perry wouldn't want anyone to take him wrong on that. He admired the man tremendously. But he was no Elvis. Who could be? Superman had a way to go before he reached those Elysian heights.
Lois, obviously unable to contain laughter by that point, had abruptly bowed out, ignoring Clark's steady gaze, which held a silent promise of retribution to come, as she hastily excused herself and darted out across the park, traitorously leaving him to it. Clark had seen her shoulders shaking as she did.
Clark kissed her cheek and then pulled back a little, his eyes reproachful. "You know that excuse you made ducking out on me was so flimsy — "
She changed position abruptly, startling him into silence as she fisted her fingers into the lapels of his overcoat and used the leverage to pull herself up close until their noses almost touched. "Uh-uh…can' use it." She shook her head sharply, gazing up at him with eyes that carried more than a hint of capricious mischief. "I got copyright."
"Use it?" Clark said, taken aback. "Why would I want to — ?" And then his demeanor changed as he caught on to the implication in that, the postscript to a sparring match that was, in four days, already old. "Hey!" he protested, stung. "Lois, *my* excuses are *not* — "
"Yeah, yeah…" She snorted, easing up her grip a little. "Like…ya couldn' see daylight if ya held one up to the sun."
He sighed. He'd always thought his excuses were pretty inventive for the spur of the moment. Lois, however, had thoroughly disabused him of that smug notion in recent days. Or, at least, frequently attempted to. Clark was none too sure he agreed. Even when she had reminded him of some of the less…watertight…examples. Hey, occasionally he had a bad day. But on the whole…
Lois shifted against him, suddenly seeming to become aware that his nose was a kissing target she should pay intense attention to. Clark lost the train of thought and then employed himself much more enjoyably as he raised his head a little to meet her lips, exploring their moist heat against his own for a long and very satisfying moment. The vague thought occurred to him that this was a deliberate ploy on her part to distract him, but somehow, even if it was, he didn't seem to care much. A small — and slightly more self-preserving — portion of his mind frowned at that and filed away the thought that this was something he was going to have to find a defense against in the future, otherwise he was doomed…and then gave up and left him to it when it realized he wasn't listening.
Clark enjoyed himself for a long span of moments, in which thought faded and the world dissolved and there was only the scent of her in his arms and the light, sweet taste of her lips against his own, mixed in with a sharpness that made him smile.
Then she shifted with a sigh, laying her cheek to the lapel of his coat and reaching up to fiddle idly with one of its buttons, her gaze absorbed in the motions of her fingers.
"Where'd Perry go?" she asked.
Clark lifted a hand and drew it softly across her cheek as he answered distantly, "Alice took him home. Practically had to pour him into the car." He grinned. "He was pretty much drunk as a skunk by then. He'd finished congratulating me on the 'Nightfall' exclusive for the twentieth time and had gotten on to singing his repertoire of blues songs from the Deep South Collection '72."
"Oh." Lois made a small, knowing murmur against his shoulder. "Deadly." She giggled slightly.
"Jus' rem'bring how much fun it was."
"Workin' on that…'sclusive thingy."
Clark's lips twitched. Yes, it had been fun. Certainly an experience. His mind obliged him with a satisfying image of himself straight out of the shower, sitting nude at his small, cubbyhole desk. Lois, equally naked on his lap as they collaborated on the story between bites of egg and bacon, his partner having declared herself too ravenous to think straight. Feeding each other little tidbits and finding interesting ways of disposing of the crumbs that lodged in some surprising and intriguing places en route. Lois giggling about the dangers of typing with dripping wet hair as he wiped off the keyboard for the umpteenth time. His joking that she couldn't be fritzed if she stayed nestled close enough against his chest. Half hoping she would take the hint, delighted when she did, using the excuse to wrap that amazingly supple and pliable body against his own and suckle the drops of water still clinging to his left earlobe. Those tender, probing, teasing lips against his skin…
He started. Just like they were now. Lois' giggle sounded close against his ear. "Gotta do that again…nice…" she murmured.
Clark grinned. "Well, so long as we make it a habit we only use at home, I'm up for that," he agreed. Lois' teeth nipped at his ear. He smothered a groan. "I don't think Perry would…appreciate it if we…tried it in the office…" he said, around an accelerated breathing rate.
Lois shook her head with another sigh. "Poor Perry. Poor, poor Perry. See? Told ya. Didn't I tell ya? Free beer is a *bad* idea. *Very* bad idea."
Clark smiled, wrapping his arms around her and hitching her a little closer in the embrace. "It's a celebration, honey. Biggest party in the history of the world. I think it was nice that everyone did it for free. Especially when they had so little time to organize. The food…the beer…the transport and entertainment…it's like New Year's all over…" He looked down at her. "I didn't see you turning down those hamburgers." The smile grew as he bent his head and revisited her lips, noting again what had been in her kiss a moment before — the sharp tang to her taste. "I think you might've had a few of those beers yourself," he commented as he lifted his head to look into her eyes.
"Only a couple," she murmured drowsily. "Anyway…life is…short…lots and lots of short…you gotta eat…and drink…what you want."
Clark chuckled, remembering when he'd told her that. It seemed like an eternity ago. He tightened his hold on her, giving her an affectionate squeeze. "Don't tell me I've finally managed to convert the Great Pessimist, Lois Lane, to optimism?"
He felt the dogged shake of her head. "Uh-uh…" She sighed, shifting a little, her forehead pressed to the middle of his chest, her posture a study in contrition. "You're a bad influence on me, Kent Clark," she mumbled into the front of his shirt.
His lips twitched, both at the despondent tone she'd used and her mistake with his name, even as he quirked a brow. He dipped his head to look down on the crown of dark hair. "Oh? How so?"
He heard her sigh again, low and maudlin. "You make me have *fun*," she complained, small-voiced. It sounded for all the world as though he'd forced her to commit a particularly heinous crime.
Clark's laughter was warm and affectionate. "I certainly hope so," he told her. "So…" He shook his head in mock disappointment. "Still got some work to do to get to that optimist I know you've got lurking inside there, huh?" he suggested.
She twisted out of his embrace and back a few paces, suddenly animated with the righteous indignation of the monumentally tipsy.
"I don't know why people think it's so good being an optimalisss…optimist…" she said defiantly. "You…" she waggled a finger at him, before planting it in the middle of his chest, "you optimisses are just always doomed to…" she stepped back again and threw her arms wide, encompassing he knew not what, "eternal disappointment! Where*as**we*…us…we…pessimisses — "
" — get to be pleasantly surprised," Clark finished for her with a wide grin. This beinga favorite hobbyhorse of Lois', he had heard her expound on it often. Especially in the past couple of days, when she vociferously maintained that Superman's last minute, eleventh hour rescue of the planet amply proved her point. She had been *very* surprised, she maintained, to be rescued. She and half the planet.
"Rrrright!" she agreed enthusiastically now.
Clark's amusement deepened into a warm glow around his heart as he watched her. She was so cute when she was tipsy. Cute and funny and…absolutely adorable. He leaned forward and tugged her back against his side with an arm around her waist.
"Sounds as though you need to be in bed," he murmured against her ear, as he nuzzled her skin.
She shook her head.
"Oh," he said, disappointed.
"Nope…don't — "
A sudden bang startled her and she jumped.
"Oooooooh," she said, tipping back her head to watch another of the fireworks burst into a bright halo of gold against the blackness. "Look. Isn't that pretty?"
"Yeah, pretty. Very pretty," Clark agreed, studying her face, alight like a child's with delight and wonder. He sighed deeply; he was reminded again just how amazing his life was. Not because of who he was or what he could do, but simply because this incredible woman was a part of it. And, he hoped, always would be.
Lois shifted her gaze, aware with some strange female intuition that he wasn't sharing her viewpoint. She grinned at him and abruptly snuggled close, putting her arms around his waist. She lifted her face for his kiss and he obliged her, bending his head to find the soft sweetness she offered him.
"Mmmmmmm…" she murmured and then he heard her add, "Fireworks down here *and* up there…nice…"
He smiled. Lifting his head, he glanced up into the darkness and then back to her speculatively. "Want to see them up close?"
She opened her eyes and looked at him, blinking. "Huh? What close?"
She shook her head, gripping the neck of his overcoat tight in small fists and tugging him down for another round of kisses. "Got *alllllll* the fireworks I need right here…"
His laugh was cut off by the insistent press of her lips against his own. He freed himself finally from her lure and stroked a light touch through her hair before decisively taking hold of her hand. "Come on."
"Where?" she said, balking a little as he tugged her after him.
He stopped. "You know…" He glanced around him and then made a quick, surreptitious gesture with one hand. "Up there."
Lois frowned at it and then, understanding, "Oh!" She bit at her bottom lip doubtfully. "Won't people…see us?"
He shook his head. "We'll be up too high and we'll get lost among the bursts anyway. No one will notice us. Not even right in the heart of it. We'll be a speck, if anything. Come on, honey, it'll be fun," he coaxed her. "You'll be perfectly safe, so long as I hold you close. And I do intend to hold you…very…very…close," he murmured, punctuating his words with soft, stolen kisses.
She broke away, leaning backwards at an angle, her hands clasped in the small of his back the only thing stopped her from falling backwards. She peered up at him suspiciously. "Sound awful sure…" she said. "Who've you been flyin' fireworks with to be so sure?"
Clark shook his head. "You're the only one I want to fly fireworks with," he assured her, deadpan. "Well…apart from…well, there is *one* other girl…"
Lois' eyes narrowed, but he couldn't tease her for long. "My mom, Lois. I've flown through fireworks on my own before, but never with anyone. But I do fly my folks places a lot and we've gone through an electrical storm or two along the way. Neither of them has ever been hurt flying with me. I wouldn't let them be." His hand reached out to push a wayward strand of her hair behind her ear. "They're too important to me to risk. Just like you. Wanna come with me?" he cajoled softly.
Lois looked at him. Her eyes sparkled into his, her cheeks were pink and aglow with the sharp, brittle chill of the air, her hair tugged at by the breeze. She smiled. "Let's go flyin'."
He grinned and took hold of her hand again as he drew her with him, stumbling and laughing, her giggles soft on the air, into the thick stand of trees on the other side of the bonfire. Clark made sure they were alone and out of sight of the crowds milling around before he let go of her and stepped back a pace or two to spin into the suit.
An instant later and they were streaking skyward, Lois clinging on tight around his neck. The warmth of her body and the uneven, jackhammer pounding of her heart against his own raised his pulse and made his breath hitch in his chest with excitement.
He had flown through fireworks in the past, like he'd said. But he'd usually been in a hurry — en route to some rescue or other. It had never occurred to him to pause to explore them before. He'd never hung motionless in their midst like this, caught in a bright web of scattered color and sizzling light, sensations surrounding him so intense they were almost overwhelming, impossible to fully grasp or hold on to. When he had been a child, he had been given a kaleidoscope for Christmas and had been fascinated by the swirling ebb and flow of the patterns it contained: so much wonder and harmony pulsing within the small metal tube. This was like being in the heart of that kaleidoscope, patterns of color weaving and twisting in a blinding haze of brightness.
Despite her bravado, he felt Lois' grip around his neck tighten and he responded in kind, pulling her reassuringly close. After a moment or two he felt her relax, the taut position of the body held against his softening in his arms.
"So…beautiful…" he heard her awed whisper from where her head rested on his shoulder.
It was beautiful. It was sheer spectacle, color and light harmonizing in ways few humans had ever seen and never up close — pulses and flares spinning and surging, dying then renewing, like some promise of perpetuity. Like a vow reaffirmed. How strange, how quickly things changed. Four days ago, the sky had been a symbol of threat, one glance at it a reminder that beauty was dying, time running out, destruction inevitable. Now…
…now it was a place of wonder. Intense and thrilling.
Her eyes were dazzled, bursts of green and blue reflecting in their depths. Her heart was drumming up a storm against his chest, her excitement a tangible thing, alive.
And the sky was, once more, a safe harbor.
A romantic haven.
Somewhere they were alone…
Speculation replaced the thrill. Excitement ignited into arousal.
He closed his eyes and sighed softly, urging his breathing into something light and soft, as though invoking a magic ritual which would prevent the moment from ever ending. Just for one moment longer he wanted to remain in the warmth of the fantasy. To just simply enjoy the sensation of holding the woman he loved close against him and secure in the safe circle of his arms. To feel the low, contented murmur of her heartbeat merge with his own.
He felt Lois shift in his grasp and his eyes opened in time to be captured by the sparkle of light and heat in her dark eyes as she reached up her hands to frame his face and pulled herself up to catch his lips. Her hunger transmitted itself to him like the sparking of a flame as she kissed him fiercely, her lips moving ardently against his.
Clark felt as though he were on fire.
He was ice.
A swirl of colors pulsed frantically in his head.
Light flared, dizzying him.
He remembered suddenly to breathe.
And his heart, which had stopped cold in his chest it seemed, like a clock startled into silence by the passage of time, renewed its thunderous drumbeat in his ears.
Lois kissed him again.
The sharpness to the air up here seemed to have roused her by more than a little, chasing away the drowsiness alcohol had induced in her and infusing her with new energy. And with desire. Or perhaps it was just the raw intensity of the moment. It was hard to stay detached in the midst of such glory, such vibrancy.
With a soft groan, Clark eased her against him, shifting her until she was pressed against the length of his body, held tight by his arms entwined around her waist and the hands she had pushed into the depths of his hair. After a moment, he realized that he needed to exert very little energy to keep her with him. Holding her seemed to be less important than simply maintaining contact. So long as he was touching her, it seemed, they stayed together. He wondered about that for a second. Perhaps his aura…? How far would it extend…? If he reduced contact to…what…where was the cut-off point? Would simply holding her hand be enough? The touch of a finger? And what if…?
…and then he decided that the important point of this discovery was not how little grip he needed to maintain on her to keep her aloft with him…but how it enabled him to make some fascinating explorations of her body without the danger that she might fall.
Intrigued by this concept, he put it into practice. Lois' small sounds of pleasure, so familiar to him now, so enticing, filled his ear as she kissed his face and throat. Her warmth permeated every fiber of his body as she snuggled close, her fingers stroking soft paths through his hair as she held on around his neck.
She moaned against his lips, her breath hot and rapid merging with his, and then she twisted, pulling herself up until her legs were wrapped tight around his waist.
Well, Clark thought distantly, that was a secure enough position…
It was a source of endless fascination for him how aware of her he was. And how sensitive his body was to her touch. The tips of his fingers brushed the soft skin of her thighs and transmitted such sensations to him. It was awesome. Incredible. Bullets made no impression on him, barely registered against his flesh. It took such extremes of temperature to make him aware of growing heat or chill in the air around him. Yet Lois could tickle him to within an inch of his life when she took his teasing to heart. As she'd proved over the past few days of intense, hurricane-strength courtship. The silken contours of her body relayed every nuance and temper of passion within him. Her softest touch could drive him insane with longing for her. He shook his head and sighed, unable, as always, to decipher the paradox of love.
As their passion became more heated, Clark murmured against the side of her neck as he kissed the soft skin beneath her ear — a spot that he had already figured out drove her crazy and which he had begun to investigate with a great deal of dedication over the past few days. Just to satisfy himself on how many varying sounds of approval and arousal he could produce by attending to that one little square inch of flesh.
Lois' sigh of appreciation took his personal list up to twenty. The rhythm of her heart changed slightly, ratcheting up another notch, and she snuggled deeper into his shoulder, her lips renewing their soft dance across the skin of his throat.
A sudden change in the atmosphere around them broke through the haze of desire and heat that was pulsing deep within him now, and he looked up. Softness surrounded them, and he realized that he'd drifted in her arms, floating away from the heart of the fireworks and into a passing layer of cloud.
He gave up on the pleasurable sensations of kissing Lois and wrapped an arm around her waist, giving his attention to breaching the damp folds of cloud. He felt her calmly wrap her arms around him in response as they emerged into the clear night sky above.
Here, the sounds of the last, lingering fireworks were soft rumbles in the distance. Below them, the carpet of cloud vibrated with flashes of color, orange and red, green and gold pooling on its surface and fading, only to be renewed a moment later, like some vast, technicolor light show — the magic of the festivities beneath them reduced to blurred reflections in pastel glows among the drifting white and gray.
And above…the glory of the stars. Bright as fire, clear as frost.
He set himself back to the task of kissing Lois. Gradually, he let himself stretch out full length, rotating in the still cushion of air until he lay supine.
Lois paused, slightly disconcerted by her new position, astride his hips with nothing but dark space and a long way down beneath them.
"It's okay," he said softly. He slid his hands up along her arms as he felt her grip on his shoulders clench. "I won't let you fall."
Lois looked at him, her eyes filled with starlight, their expression a mystery. She unclasped her ankles from the small of his back and let her legs dangle freely into the void. She slipped forward, until she lay sprawled in easy abandon on his chest, her lips cold against his throat and then warming as they traced the heat of blood burning beneath his skin.
Clark felt his heart clench at her silent trust in him. He slipped one arm around her, holding her in place as he responded to the fire in her caresses and lost himself in her again. Time drifted as they did, here among the clouds, and the stars and there was a pleasurable oblivion in her embrace.
Lois remained softly pliant against him, showing no signs of concern that she might fall in what was, after all, a potentially precarious position.
He heard her giggle against his ear as she paused in her assault on his cheek and jaw. "Clark…we can't…you know…not here…"
"Uh-huh…" he spelled a rain of kisses against her before thinking to add, "Why not?" He drew back his head. "You *aren't* scared I'd drop you, are you?" he asked anxiously, pricked by his earlier concern. "Because I would never — "
She kissed him. "No, I'm not afraid. I'm not ever afraid when I'm with you." She smiled at him and then, sobering, glanced around her. "But…well…tourists."
"Japanese tourists. In planes." She looked at him seriously and nodded out into the darkness coyly. "You *know*…"
He hadn't until she'd added in the planes. For an instant prior to that she'd confused him utterly. Now though…
He shook his head, a soft chuckle escaping him.
"Well it could happen!" Lois protested indignantly. "We could cause an international incident. A disaster even! A — "
She wobbled as she gestured wildly around her with the increasing vigor of her argument and Clark reached up hastily to grip one arm, restoring her balance.
"I'd hear any planes before they got close," he assured her. He started to pull her closer, but stopped as she pressed a hand to his chest.
"You might be…distracted."
"Really?" He grinned at her, reaching up to clasp the hand on his chest and lacing his fingers into hers. He raised her hand to where he could brush his lips across her knuckles.
Lois watched him. Her eyes held a challenge. "You think I can't distract you…?" she queried softly.
"Well…" Clark broke off with a hissed out breath as she quite deliberately and excruciatingly slowly tightened the muscles in her thighs, clamping them around him. Clark let his head fall back, his upper body arching into a bow as pleasure imploded in his mind. A long, low groan left him.
"Care to rephrase that, flyboy?" she asked, tone dangerous. She squeezed a little tighter.
Clark didn't have any breath left to respond. After a moment, though, she was merciful, easing up on him. Clark thought he might just die. He wondered if she could be persuaded to do that again.
"I'll still hear anything coming from miles out," he insisted.
He'd heard that sound before. Mostly from his mother. "Men!" it said, quite distinctly. But her eyes twinkled with hidden humor. He grinned at her.
"Okay, okay…so maybe we're safe from planes…" she unexpectedly conceded. "But…" she removed her hand from his in order to plant a finger on his shoulder in emphasis. "What about satellites? Did you think of that? We could be the evening's entertainment for some army base right now…" She glanced around her again and shivered.
Clark smiled. "I don't think there are any satellite flight paths due over this area for another three hours," he demurred. He paused, suddenly struck by an idea. An extremely pleasant idea. "But…well, I do happen to knowthis little out of the way spot. No planes, no spies…clear, warm water…beaches that run on forever…" He snuggled her close.
"We could watch the sun come up…" he added.
He shifted, pressing a small kiss into her hair. Reminded again of how much their fortunes had changed in just a few days. How *his* luck had changed. His life too. And how different things were since the last time he had watched the sun rise with her in his arms.
He smiled, feeling his heart swell with gratitude that fate had, in the end, been kind. He lifted his head. Far below them, the crowd was thinning, people drifting away to continue the celebrations of a world newly reborn in the privacy of their own homes, with their families and loved ones. And the last of the fireworks were dying anyway.
At least…he thought with a small smile…they were dying down there. Up here…well, up here it was a whole other story. For both of them, he suspected there were celebration and fireworks still to come. Now and in the future.
He sighed, a small sound of satisfaction, as Lois laid her head to his shoulder with a murmur of content that echoed all of his thoughts and matched them.
He turned smoothly in air and headed due east in leisurely flight…to chase the sun.
(c) LabRat 2000
No intentional infringement of copyrights held.
** High Flight (An Airman's Ecstasy) by John Gillespie Magee