The Accidental Husband

By Erin Klingler <erinklingler@cableone.net>

Rated: PG

Submitted: Oct. 2001

Summary: With her wedding to Lex only two weeks away, Lois is shocked to discover that, according to city records, she and Clark are married. But as she struggles to resolve the situation in time, she learns some very startling things about the men in her life. Will she be able to break through the red tape in time? Or will she even want to?

Author's Note: I want to dedicate this story to so many people: to Wendy Richards, for beta reading, making many incredibly helpful suggestions, and for coming up with such an incredibly clever title (don't tell me you thought *I* came up with that <g>); to Pam Jernigan, for alerting us on the fanfic list to a strange old law in North Carolina where upon this story is based, and for giving me tons of wonderful suggestions; to Hazel, for suggesting I bring in a couple of characters I never would've thought to (no spoilers, but thanks Hazel! ;); to Pat, for her editing help :), and to all my incredibly wonderful, supportive friends on Zoomway's message boards (the members of the 'bubble bath at Clark's place' club <vbg>), who not only motivated me to keep working on this, but who kept me honest in my story telling and characterizations. I could *never* have done this without all you guys! THANKS!

As for the timeframe: This story departs from the first-season timeline in that yes, Clark admits to his feelings for Lois in the park, and yes, Lois then accepts Lex's proposal. But anything in between *or* after those two incidences—including the "Lex taking over the Planet and blowing it up" plot line— never happens in this story.

As usual, any and all feedback welcome!

***

"Excuse me, I'm WHAT?!" Lois stared at the city clerk on the other side of the window in utter disbelief.

"According to my records, you're already married," the clerk repeated, more slowly this time.

"I am *not*," Lois insisted adamantly. "I would *know* if I was married! You think a woman forgets something like that? Maybe *you* would," she spat out, causing the clerk to stiffen defensively, "but I certainly wouldn't! I am not married!"

"Yes, you are. It says right here that you are, as of December 12th, 1993."

"Who does it say I'm married *to*?"

"Umm…" the clerk mumbled as she studied the records one more time. "A Mr. Clark Kent."

"WHAT?!" Lois's face went pale. "There's no way that's even possible! I'm not married, and certainly not to Clark! Let me see that!" She hurried around the edge of the counter and pushed through the swinging door to go stand behind the startled clerk.

"Miss, you can't come back here," the clerk objected.

But Lois wasn't listening. She stopped beside her and bullied her way over to see the screen the clerk was getting her information from. There it was. In black and white. Lois Lane and Clark Kent had been married on December 12th, 1993.

"How…how is this possible?" she stammered, her voice a strangled whisper. "We never got married. We never did. I would've remembered something like that." She turned to stare at the clerk in confusion. "How could this be possible?"

The clerk's somewhat sympathetic expression started to fade. "I'm sorry, Miss, I don't explain 'em. I just read 'em. Now, if you honestly don't know, I suggest trying 'records' on the third floor. Next!"

As the clerk turned her attention to the next person in line, Lois backed away in a daze and pushed unseeingly through the swinging door at the end of the counter.

Married. She was married to Clark. How could this be?

Unaware of anything around her, she wandered out of the office and stepped out into the hall, where she stopped. She stood there in silent disbelief for a moment, then shuffled over to a nearby bench in the hall and slumped down onto it.

This couldn't be happening! She was supposed to marry Lex in two weeks. Two weeks! How was she supposed to explain this? "Oh, by the way, Lex, I have to wrangle myself a quickie divorce. From who? Well, Clark, of course. Didn't I mention that he and I were married?"

She groaned and slumped over, dropping her head into her hands. This was a nightmare! How was she supposed to fix this?

She took a couple of shaky breaths, forcing herself to calm down. 'Breathe, Lois. Just relax. This can't be right. This is just some ridiculous oversight. There's got to be something you can do to prove that this is just all some big mistake!'

After a couple more forced, deep breaths, Lois gathered herself together, straightened her shoulders, and jutted out her chin. This was all a big mistake. And heads were going to roll around these city offices if they didn't fix the problem. And fix it *right now.*

And with that, she stood up and headed for the supervisors' offices upstairs.

***

After two hours of battling city workers who knew nothing, trying to track down supervisors who didn't seem to exist, and working her way through miles of red tape, she was exhausted, both mentally and physically.

"It's useless," she grumbled as she left the city offices building in disgust. "I can't believe I just wasted an entire morning getting the runaround!"

On the short drive to the Planet, however, her exhaustion eventually turned to anger as she kept remembering how she'd been patronized by everyone she talked to, and belittled by stupid city officials. There was nothing she hated more than being talked down to, and if that hadn't been enough, how was she supposed to explain this to Lex, much less fix this in the mere two weeks she had left before her wedding? By the time she arrived at the Planet, she had worked herself into a tantrum, and was angrier than ever.

When the elevator chimed and the door opened, she stomped out of the elevator and down the ramp to the newsroom floor. Her coworkers immediately saw the dreaded and all-too-familiar 'Mad Dog Lane' look on her face and quickly got out of her way. It was an unspoken rule at the Planet. When Lois had that look, you'd better run for cover.

She'd barely gotten to the newsroom floor when Clark's uncanny sixth sense alerted him to her presence, and he looked up from the notes he was reading at his desk, and offered her a friendly smile. But when he took in her angry eyes and her tightly clenched jaw, his smile quickly faded.

'Uh-oh,' he thought. 'Something is definitely wrong.'

He pushed his chair back from his desk and stood up cautiously. They'd only been partners for a few months, but in that time, he'd gotten to know her probably better than anybody else ever had. Or ever would. And he could tell from the look on her face that an approach required caution.

'Especially these days,' he thought dejectedly as he decided how to approach her in her obviously agitated state. Their relationship had been more than a little strained lately with everything that had happened between them in the past couple of weeks. Their partnership had never been smooth and trouble-free to begin with, since they were both very strong-willed and independent people, but when Clark had declared his love for her a couple of weeks ago in the park and had been shot down by her response of "I'm sorry, but I just don't think of you that way," and then heard her acceptance of Lex Luthor's marriage proposal…it was no wonder things were strained between them.

But he still cared for her—loved her—in spite of how much it had cut him clear to his soul to hear that his feelings for her weren't going to be returned, and wanted to be there for her, even if he didn't agree with the choices she'd made and the path she was taking in her life. And part of being a good friend, he realized, meant supporting your friends and being there for them, regardless of whether or not you agreed with the path in life they'd chosen for themselves.

So, in spite of his wounded pride caused by her outright rejection, he took a deep breath and tried to put on his "supportive" face as he walked over to her desk where she'd just thumped down into her chair. "Lois?" he asked tentatively.

She turned to glare at him. "What?!" she practically shouted.

He cringed. But then he steeled himself and tried again. "What's wrong?"

"'What's wrong?'" she echoed, her voice dripping with sarcasm. She sputtered angrily for a moment, too emotional to spout out her words. Finally, she forced herself to take a deep breath and momentarily composed herself enough to speak coherently. "Okay, if you really want to know, I'll tell you," she said, her anger barely checked. "I've been at City Hall all morning, trying to make heads or tails out of this. But now, come to think of it, this is probably all your fault!"

Clark stiffened defensively. "*My* fault? What did I do?"

"As if you didn't know!" she shot back. Seeing his confusion, she pushed her chair back from her desk and stood up, crossing her arms angrily in front of her. Then she forged on, deciding to play along for the moment. "This morning, I went down to the city offices to get my marriage permit in order, only to find out I can't *get* a marriage permit."

Clark's brow furrowed. "Why not?"

"Why not? Why not?! Because they say I'm already married, that's why not!"

Her loud, angry voice carried across the newsroom, but she didn't seem to notice the large group of coworkers who'd stopped to stare at her, suddenly very interested in their conversation.

Clark's confusion spread across his face. "Married? What do you mean, you're already married? To who?"

"Hah! As if you didn't know. Is there something you should be telling me, Clark?"

"Me? What are you talking about? What am I supposed to know about it?"

"Because apparently, I'm married to YOU!"

Clark's jaw dropped open, and the newsroom noise suddenly died completely. A sea of faces all turned to stare at the pair in stunned silence, dying to hear what would come next. But Clark didn't notice the onlookers as he continued to stare at Lois's flushed, angry face. Looking decidedly pale, he asked in a shocked whisper, "To me?"

"Yes, to you. I can't believe you have the gall to stand there and pretend you have no idea what's going on, Clark! How could you do this? Did you think it would be funny?"

Clark recovered slightly, but still looked a little more shell- shocked than Lois would've expected him to be if this had, indeed, been some sick joke he was playing on her. "Lois, what are you talking about?" Clark finally demanded.

Lois threw her hands into the air in exasperation. "You must've had some hand in this! You must've done something, *filed* something, that makes the city think that we're married!"

"Now, hold on just a second," he objected, trying to make sense of this latest news. "*I* didn't have anything to do with this! Don't go flying off the handle and blame this on me!"

"Well, then what happened? Why are you and I married?"

Clark shrugged. "Don't ask me, Lois. I'm just as confused as you are. Did you check the records at City Hall?"

"Haven't you listened to a word I've said?" Lois demanded, stomping her foot in anger. "Didn't I just say that's where I've been all morning? All I've been able to find out is that the city says we're married. I have no idea how this happened!"

"Well, there's one way to find out," Clark told her. Then he turned and yelled, "Jimmy!"

***

"Okay, guys, I've got it!" Jimmy called out as he stood up from his desk and came rushing over to Lois and Clark's desks, where they were pouring over notes in an effort to solve the mystery.

Lois leaned back in her chair and gave her eyes a tired rub. "What have you got, Jimmy?"

Jimmy perched himself on the corner of her desk and grinned at her, then at Clark, who had made his way over to stand next to them. "Are you guys ready for this?"

"Yes!" Lois demanded, tired of the whole situation. "Would you please just get on with it?!"

Jimmy's grin faded. "Okay, okay." He turned to the top sheet of the stack of papers he held in his hand. "I did a little digging, and this is what I found. Does December 12th, 1993 ring a bell?"

Lois rolled her eyes in exasperation. "Jimmy, you know that I know it's the date Clark and I were supposedly married. I was the one who told you what the city clerk said, remember?"

Jimmy shook his head vigorously, a smile working its way back across his face. "No, Lois. Think harder. What *else* rings a bell with that date?"

Lois's brow furrowed in concentration. The date *did* kind of sound familiar. But why? She glanced up at Clark, but he looked as confused as she felt. Finally, she turned back to Jimmy and shrugged. "It sounds familiar. Why? What are you getting at?"

Jimmy's grin broadened as he took the paper off the top of the stack and waved it in her face. "Does the Lexor hotel ring a bell?"

Lois glared at him as she snatched the paper from him, and Clark hurried around behind her to read the paper's information over her shoulder. They skimmed it together, then Lois glanced back up at Jimmy irritably. "This is the invoice when Clark and I stayed at the hotel during our stakeout. So?"

"So," Jimmy began, reaching over to point at the names on the register, "look at the names."

Lois nodded. "Mr. And Mrs. Kent. Again…so?"

"SO," Jimmy emphasized, milking the drama for all it was worth. "According to this," he pulled another paper from his stack and handed it to her, "there's an old New Troy law on the books that state that if a man and a woman register at a hotel as husband and wife, they are then legally and lawfully married." Jimmy finished with a magician's flourish and straightened proudly, eagerly anticipating their reaction.

He got just what he'd been hoping for. Clark's jaw dropped, and Lois went pale. "Wait a minute," Clark interjected. "You mean to tell me that just because we registered as husband and wife at a hotel on an undercover assignment, that we're—"

"—Married?" Lois finished in a hoarse, shocked whisper.

Jimmy's grin threatened to overtake his face. "Exactly!" He looked from Lois to Clark and then back at Lois again. "So you realize you guys have blown it by keeping this a secret, you know," he told them teasingly. "If we'd have known, we could've given you two a really great wedding party, and Clark," he elbowed Clark and winked at him, "I could've thrown you one heckuva bachelor's party! You know, complete with a stripper, and—"

"Jimmy—" Clark began, his tone warning, but it was too late.

Lois jerked up from her chair and shot the young man a look of pure daggers. "I'm glad you think this is so funny!" she sputtered angrily at Jimmy, whose smile quickly faded. "Do you have any idea what this means?! I'm supposed to marry Lex in two weeks! *Two weeks!* How am I supposed to explain that I can't marry him because I'm married to someone else!"

Tuning out of her little tirade, Clark grimaced. Her wedding. Great. As if he needed another reminder about Lois marrying Lex. The man was pure evil. He knew it. He just had to figure out a way to prove it. But by the time he'd be able to prove it, it would be too late. Lois would be married to Lex, and her world would crumble down around her. He certainly didn't want to see that happen. He loved Lois with all his heart, enough to even let her marry someone else, if that's what she wanted to do.

But not Lex. He'd do anything to keep her from marrying him. He'd even tried to come clean with her and tell her his true feelings, but he'd struck out. She'd accepted Lex's proposal and hastened on with her wedding preparations. But maybe this city clerical error was just the thing. If it were up to him, he'd say a silent prayer of thanks for the incompetent workers at the city office building and stay technically married to her, if it meant it would keep her from marrying Lex.

He tuned back into Lois's rantings just in time to see her beginning to descend on Jimmy.

"And do you have any idea how much red tape I'm going to have to cut through to get this cleared up?" she was saying. "I don't have time for this! I've got invitations to finish, caterers to contact, not to mention the fact that I've got dress fittings for the next couple of days! How am I supposed to find the time to clear up something like this?!"

Clark watched her babble on in her anger, seeing Jimmy slip off the corner of her desk and back up as her voice increased in volume. Finally, Clark decided to intervene before Jimmy was reduced to rubble.

"Okay, Lois, okay," he interrupted, quickly stepping between them and putting a hand on her shoulder to try to calm her. "I know this isn't the most opportune time to get this news, but getting all fired up over this isn't going to make the problem go away. I suggest we all just calm down, and see what we can do about getting this resolved. Okay?"

Lois met his pleading eyes with her own angry ones, but the fire in them slowly died as Clark's soothing effect started to take her over. She forced herself to take a deep breath. "You're right, Clark." Then she turned to Jimmy. "Sorry," she mumbled, "I'm just a little stressed out at the moment."

"No sweat," Jimmy accepted her apology and dared to take a step closer. "What can I do to help?"

"The first thing you can do is find out who would do this to us!" Lois demanded. "That would be a start."

Jimmy looked from her to Clark, then back again, obviously confused. "What do you mean?"

"Well, *someone* had to have set us up!" Lois insisted. "Things like this just don't happen."

"You're kidding, right?" Clark scoffed. "You haven't heard of people's driver's licenses being revoked for no reason? Of people's names being accidentally changed on public records? Of warrants being put out on people who've never committed a crime? These clerical errors happen all the time!"

"Maybe in some cases, but not with something like this!" Lois argued. "There is *no* way something like this could've happened without someone taking deliberate action somewhere along the line. It's not like City Records browses through every single hotel registration, looking for couples to torment. So how on earth did our hotel registration get sent into whatever city office that makes us officially married? Someone *had* to have done this. But who? And why?"

Before she could even consider the answers to her own questions, Lois closed her eyes and raised her hands to her head to massage her pounding temples. "Great. Now I'm getting a migraine." Then, under her breath, she muttered miserably, "I just can't believe this whole thing is happening."

Worried that she might actually be making herself sick, Clark put a hand on her shoulder and tried to guide her down into her desk chair. "Here, Lois, why don't you sit down for a minute? You look a little pale."

But Lois shook off his hand and opened her eyes, dropping her hands back to her sides and visibly trying to regain her composure. "Clark, I can't. We don't have time to just sit around here. We've got to *do* something."

"Like what?" Jimmy asked sincerely.

"Well, I think the first thing that Lois and I should do," Clark stated matter-of-factly, trying to take control of the situation, "is to go back down to the city offices and talk to someone about this. There's got to be somebody who can straighten this out." He turned to Lois. "Are you game?"

With a heavy sigh, she nodded. "Fine, let's go," she mumbled as she reached for her satchel and adjusted the strap over her shoulder.

As they stepped into the elevator and Clark punched the lobby button, he glanced over at her and saw the tension in her face and shoulders. He didn't see that this was that big a deal to fix, but obviously it was really stressing her out.

His heart going out to her, he sighed and slid his arm around her shoulder, giving her a sympathetic squeeze. "Don't worry, Lois. We're going to fix this. You'll see."

Feeling a little more heartened by his sympathetic gesture, she looked up at him, her frown slowly fading from her face and replacing itself with a grateful smile. He really was an incredible friend. "Thanks, Clark," she told him sincerely. "I'm sorry for flying off the handle back there. It's just that I'm worried about getting this all straightened out before my wedding, you know?"

Clark stiffened at the mention of her wedding, but forced himself to smile. "We'll straighten it out, no problem," he told her. But in his heart, he was praying for a miracle. A miracle of more city employee incompetence that would take this *months* to work out, hence delaying her wedding, maybe even canceling it completely.

'Yeah, right, Clark,' he found the little voice inside his head retorting. 'Lois has always been stubborn. You've done all you can to stop this, and nothing's worked. You're just going to have to let things play out and hope for the best.'

With a sigh, he realized the little voice in his head was right. All he could do now was hope for the best. If only it would be enough…

***

Perry stood motionless in the doorway of his office with his arms folded across his broad chest, watching with curiosity as Lois and Clark climbed into the elevator. His eyebrows crawled up his forehead as he watched Clark reach up to squeeze Lois's shoulder in what looked liked sympathy, and then linger there for a few seconds longer than necessary for such a gesture. Interesting.

Jimmy passed by his door, and Perry stuck a hand out, motioning for him to stop. "Hey, Jimmy." He nodded towards the elevator. "What's with Lois and Clark?"

Jimmy's brow furrowed. "What do you mean?"

"Lois came stormin' in a while ago in one of her moods, and then, after all that yelling, you went to work on something for them."

"Oh, that." A broad grin spread across Jimmy's face. "Apparently, they're married!"

Perry's eyebrows crawled clear up to his sparse hairline. "Come again?"

Jimmy nodded. "Yep. Married. On some technicality, though." He quickly explained what they'd discovered. "So, officially, whether they meant to be or not, they're married. Isn't that hilarious?"

Perry only grunted noncommittally before turning and going into his office.

***

"What do you mean, there's nothing you can do about this?" Lois shouted, coming dangerously close to losing her temper at the man sitting across the desk from her and Clark.

The man paled a little at her bout of temper, but steeled himself before answering. "I'm sympathetic to your situation, I really am. But whether someone filed something by mistake, or whether it was some cruel, practical joke played on you by someone, as you're claiming, there's nothing we can do clerically to fix this. The only thing we can do to right this is to follow the procedures in place."

"And what exactly *are* those procedures?" Lois demanded, ignoring the look Clark threw her, pleading with her to calm down.

"Divorce, obviously," the man answered casually. "The best thing to do would be to get a lawyer and file for divorce. And since you two haven't been living together as a married couple or have terms of the divorce to deal with, it shouldn't take too long to get it pushed through."

"How long?" Clark asked, posing the question before Lois could.

"Anywhere from six weeks to two months, I would guess."

"Two months!" Lois yelled, causing Clark to flinch. He was certain her voice could be heard clear down to the floor below. Lois stood silently for a moment, and both men fearfully awaited her next outburst. But her voice was surprisingly calm when she spoke again. "So that's our only option? Divorce?"

The man nodded. "Afraid so."

Lois looked over at Clark, much of the steam from her tantrum dissipating under the weight of the word. Divorce. It was so final. 'Wait a minute!' a little voice inside her head screamed. 'What are you talking about—final? You and Clark were never married! Or at least, you never *knew* you were married. It's not like you were married and couldn't make things work. This was some cruel joke or even some ridiculous clerical error, for crying out loud! Not a failed marriage!'

But still, she couldn't shake the finality of the word. Finally, she found her voice and forged on. "Okay, suppose we *do* want to file for divorce. What would we need to do?"

"Well," the man hesitated, obviously debating about whether or not to speak his next words. After a long, painfully silent moment, he forged on. "You'd have to see a marriage guidance counselor. It's, um…mandatory in New Troy for all couples seeking divorce to see one first." He visibly flinched, as if anticipating her next explosion of anger.

He'd anticipated correctly. Lois's anger came rushing back in full force. "A marriage guidance counselor! Are you out of your mind?!" Lois hollered, standing up from her chair so quickly that it nearly toppled it over.

Thinking quickly, Clark reached out and caught the chair before it went over backwards. "Lois," he began, trying to quiet her, "I think you need to calm down—"

"Calm down?! No, Clark, I'm not going to calm down!" Lois exploded. "This whole situation is just ludicrous! Someone—not us!—screwed up, and now we're supposed to go see a marriage guidance counselor because the city can't fix some stupid clerical error? You've got to be kidding! How can you just sit there and not be angry about this! Or expect *me* not to be angry about this?!"

Clark sighed and glanced skyward, obviously pleading for heavenly intervention, or at the very least, the patience to ride out her latest, trademark tantrum. But his patience was waning, and when he spoke, he had a hard time not arguing back.

"Lois, getting angry and yelling loud enough to be heard clear down on the first floor isn't going to accomplish anything!" he raised his voice in exasperation, letting a couple of week's worth of pent up frustration come flooding to the surface. "You always do this, get yourself all worked up over things, and for what? Nothing! You just end up causing a scene, scaring off the people around you, and making yourself look like a two-year-old in a candy store who was told they couldn't have a sucker!"

Startled by his adamant outburst, Lois stared back at him, somehow unsurprised to see that he wasn't backing down. He was the only one she'd ever known who didn't back down from the rage of an infamous 'Mad Dog Lane' tantrum. His gaze leveled on hers, and they stood there for a long minute in a silent battle of wills, neither of them backing down in the heat of battle.

Uncharacteristically, Lois wavered first. "Well, at least *I* feel better after all that yelling," she admitted, her tone a little gentler.

Clark's anger vanished completely, and he found a chuckle escaping his lips. She was just priceless. He felt the sudden urge to grab her and kiss her right then and ther.? Never was she more beautiful than when she was flushed, vibrant, and full of conviction. But somehow he didn't think that'd be appropriate, considering how she didn't see him as more than "just a friend," he thought sarcastically.

Their little interaction hadn't gone unnoticed, however. The man sitting at his desk continued to watch them in bemusement, and, seeing that they were done arguing, he ventured bravely, "Are you sure you guys aren't really married? You sure fight like you are."

But when that elicited a look of pure fury from Lois, he forcibly wiped the smile off his face. "I'm sorry about your situation, really, I am," he told them sincerely. "But we do have a set way of doing things, and there's not much I can do to change them. So why don't you two just go off and talk some about this. If you decide to see the counselor, here's a list of names for you to contact." He scribbled a few names down, then handed the paper to Clark, clearly feeling safer giving it to him, considering the circumstances.

"Oh, one more thing," Lois interrupted as Clark hastily took the proffered list from the man. "I've been wondering how something like this happens. Since this law is so arcane, wouldn't it make sense to assume that someone who knew we'd checked in as husband and wife would have to deliberately get some proof of registration from the hotel and then *bring* it into some city records division to get it filed?"

The man nodded. "That makes the most sense. No one here would waste their time searching through hotel registries because of some old law on the books, and a clerical error seems unlikely, since there's quite a bit involved in filing for marriage certificates."

Lois shot Clark a triumphant look. Then she turned back to the man and asked, "Would there be record of who filed for it? A signature on some forms or something?"

"I would think so, though those records would need to be pulled from the archives, and it would likely take a month or more to get the requested copies."

Clark spotted Lois's returning look of frustration at being told the forms weren't readily available, and in order to avoid another ugly scene, he quickly butted in. "Thank you for your help," he said, holding up the list of marriage counselors he'd been given. "Uh…we'll be in touch." Then he quickly placed his hand on the small of Lois's back and ushered her out of the office.

Once in the hall with the office door shut behind them, Clark rolled his eyes at Lois. "Geez, Lois, why does everything have to be a battle with you? The man was just trying to help—"

"Help?" Lois argued, though this time, her tone held a lighter note to it. "His idea of fixing this is to send us to counseling. Counseling! For a couple who isn't even married, who isn't even a *couple*! Isn't that extremely off the wall?"

"Well, what do you suggest we do, Lois?" Clark asked. "It's not like we have a lot of options. Besides, you know that old saying, 'You can't fight city hall?' Well, I propose that we don't."

"Don't say 'propose,'" Lois groaned, rolling her eyes. Then she sighed. "Fine. Let's arrange to see the counselor. But if I *ever* find out who was behind all of this, they're going to wish they'd never been born!"

***

When they stepped back into the newsroom at the Planet a short time later, Jimmy intercepted Lois on the way to her desk. "Lois, here's a message for you. It's from Lex. He said it's important."

"Great," she muttered as she snatched the paper from Jimmy's hand. "I'm not ready to talk to him yet. This is an even bigger mess than before."

Jimmy glanced at Clark. "It didn't go that great, huh?"

Clark shook his head. "They can't just fix this," he reported. "We have to file for a divorce, which could take six weeks or more to process. But what's even worse is that before we can do that, according to New Troy state law, we have to see a marriage guidance counselor before we can file."

The laughter erupted out of Jimmy's mouth before he could stop it. "Hey, that's great!" he joked. "It'll be the perfect opportunity for you guys to work out some of those issues you have." But then when he saw the withering glare Lois shot his way, he wiped the smile off his face and stammered, "Or…maybe not."

When Lois grabbed her phone and started to punch in a number angrily, Jimmy turned to Clark. "She's not taking this well, is she?" Jimmy asked, keeping his voice down to a whisper.

Clark shook his head. "No, she's sure not."

"Hey, Jimmy," Lois suddenly called out, holding her hand over the phone's mouthpiece. "Would you look into something for me? The guy we just talked to at the city office building said it could take a couple of months to get us copies of our marriage paperwork. See if you can find a way to track them down, would you? I'd just love to get my hands on those forms to see them for myself."

Jimmy nodded. "You got it."

When Jimmy was gone, Clark sat down at his desk, intending to get some work done. But even though he knew he had lots of work to catch up on, he found it hard to tear his gaze—and his thoughts—away from Lois long enough to do any of it.

He watched as she plopped down angrily in her desk chair, then pull open her desk drawer to pull out a notepad and a pencil. When she put the pencil to the paper, she pressed down too hard, causing the lead in the pencil to break. She let out a growl of frustration, then yanked open the desk drawer and threw the pencil in viciously. When she pulled out another pencil, she glared at it before using it, as if daring it to happen again.

Clark started to chuckle. Man, she was incredible. Even angry, she was beautiful. She had more passion in her soul than most people did in any portion of their body. She was fiery and full of life, and he longed to take her in his arms and hold her and kiss her every day for the rest of his life.

He sighed. If only they were married for real, and not just because of some falsely recorded information filed through City Hall. It would be so amazing to be married to her. Nobody knew her as well as he did, and rarely did anyone see the many different sides to her that she'd shared with him, whether she'd meant to or not. To many of her colleagues, she was just an incredibly great reporter, but with an attitude that erupted all too frequently for their liking. He knew they thought of her as volatile, angry…someone never to be crossed. But in her, Clark saw so much more. She was definitely someone unique and special. She'd been hurt in relationships in her life, so naturally she was guarded. But when she let her guard down long enough for Clark to get to really know her…that's when he knew she was the only woman he'd ever love.

And that's what made this whole situation hurt all the more. He longed to be married to her. She saw it as a horribly timed, cruel joke. Not a lot of hope there, he thought heavy- heartedly.

With one last, aching look at Lois as she wrote furiously on her notepad, he did his best to force the disappointment from his heart and focus on his work.

***

A short time later, Lois knocked on Perry's door and entered without waiting for his response. "Perry, I need to talk to you," she said insistently.

Perry smiled patiently. He was used to interruptions from his fiery reporter. Gesturing to the couch across from his desk, he said, "Sure, Lois. Have a seat."

She did, then hurried on. "Perry, I assume you've heard about this marriage fiasco of mine and Clark's, with our stakeout at the Lexor hotel." When he nodded, she continued. "Yeah, well, according to the person we talked to at the city offices, our only option to clear this whole mess up is to file for divorce. But since this all happened on a stakeout, can you arrange to have one of the Planet lawyers draw up the paperwork? I'm not about to find a lawyer of my own and wait weeks to get an appointment."

Perry nodded thoughtfully. "I think that can be arranged. Have you talked to Clark about this?"

"Talk to him about *what*?" Lois demanded, her voice rising dangerously. "We were mysteriously married, and now we have to clear this up by filing for divorce. It's cut and dried. I'm not about to stay married to my partner, for crying out loud."

Perry held his hands up in front of him acquiescently. "Okay, Lois, okay. I was just asking." Then he reached for the phone. "Let me see what I can set up."

Two hours later, Lois walked out of her appointment with one of the Daily Planet attorneys with the simple divorce papers drawn up and signed. She'd been told the next step was to attend the state ordered counseling as they waited for the papers to be delivered to Clark for him to sign. So, with her head swimming with information and a migraine threatening, she hurried back to the Planet, eager to push the whole, horrible divorce proceedings from her mind. But two minutes after walking off the elevator and into the newsroom, she discovered that her headaches were just beginning.

Word had gotten around the Planet that she and Clark had been married on a technicality, and for the rest of the afternoon, coworkers had thrown teasing quips and little digs her way. She did her best to grit her teeth and ignore it, but by the time Lois got into the elevator to go home for the day, she was ready to slug someone. She'd just punched the 'down' button when a hand slipped through the closing doors, causing them to open back up. She looked up to see Clark standing there, smiling gently at her.

"Heading home, too, huh?" he asked, giving her a smile, though he could tell from her expression that she wasn't in the mood to return one.

She nodded coolly. "Mercifully."

"You've had better days, I bet," Clark surmised sympathetically.

Lois's eyes flashed dangerously, and when she answered, it was through gritted teeth. "If I hear one more 'Where's your better half, Lois?' or 'Did you sign a prenuptial agreement, Lois?', I'm going to go ballistic."

"I know what you mean," Clark agreed solemnly. "I've heard them all day, too. But you're just taking this too seriously, Lois. Don't let them bother you."

She turned to him and gave him a cold stare. "I can't believe that you're not taking this *more* seriously, Clark! If you want to play this down, fine. But just so you know, this *is* serious to me, okay?"

Clark caught the slight waver in her voice at her last few words, and he noticed with surprise that she actually had tears forming in her eyes. He stared helplessly at her, completely unaccustomed to seeing his partner get teary-eyed. He opened his mouth to try to respond, but nothing came out. Before he could try again, the elevator door opened.

"Oh, just forget it," she mumbled, obviously trying to cover up the fact that she was on the verge of tears as she rushed out into the lobby.

She'd stormed halfway to the outer doors of the lobby before Clark was finally able to force himself into action. This wasn't just a matter of her being angry at a day's worth of teasing, he decided, or being frustrated over an admittedly aggravating development. There was something more here that he wasn't seeing. And he wasn't about to let her go without finding out what it was.

He rushed after her, finally catching up with her just as she reached the door. Quickly, he grabbed her arm and pulled her aside. "Lois," he began, the concern for her evident in his intense gaze. "What is it? What is it about this whole thing that's making you so angry, that's bothering you so much?" He swallowed, barely able to get out the next words. "Is it Lex?"

What happened next surprised him even further. Her face started to crumple, and she visibly fought to keep her nearly overflowing emotions in check. She seemed more vulnerable than he'd ever seen her before, and it tore at his heart.

Glancing quickly around at the busy lobby, he realized this was no place to have this conversation. There was no way she would open up to him with all these people around, threatening to overhear something obviously so personal. "Come on," he told her, protectively wrapping an arm around her shoulders and steering her toward the lobby door. "Let's go someplace where we can talk in private."

As she nodded numbly, he steered her toward the parking garage and wordlessly took the keys from her before guiding her into the passenger seat. Then he climbed into the driver's seat and quickly headed out. It was only a matter of minutes before they were finally in the privacy of her apartment, and he sat her down on her couch before carefully sitting down beside her.

"Okay," he breathed, gently encouraging her to continue their conversation. "So, what's going on? Obviously, I'm missing something. It's about Lex, isn't it?" Suddenly, a thought occurred to him, and instantly, his face paled and he felt sick to his stomach. Even though he was afraid of the answer, he knew he had to ask the question. "You're not…worried…about him getting angry and…hurting you, or anything, are you?"

Lois's eyes widened, and the look of shock at his question instantly made him breathe a sigh of relief. "No! Oh, no, it's nothing like that. Lex isn't like that. Besides, I haven't even told him, yet. Obviously, I'm going to have to," she admitted forlornly, "but I guess I just keep hoping that someone is going to wake me up and tell me this has all been just a bad dream."

"So what's the problem?"

Lois hesitated. "I guess it's just…well…" Her voice drifted off, and she dropped her gaze down to her hands, refusing to look him in the eye.

He waited patiently for her to reply, but when she remained silent, he reached out and gently tipped her chin up with his finger so she was forced to meet his concerned gaze. "Lois? What is it?"

She took one look at the sympathetic expression on his face and her resolve to stay in control of her emotions quickly dissipated. A tear slid down her cheek, and then another, and another. Embarrassed at crying in front of him, she hastily brushed at the wetness on her cheek and cleared her throat anxiously.

"I guess it's just the whole idea of being 'divorced.'" She made the quotation mark signs with her fingers as she said the word. She visibly fought to control her tears, and his heart ached for her. He reached for her hand, taking it gently in his own and giving it a firm, supportive squeeze. That seemed to give her the strength to go on.

"You know what my family life has been like, Clark," she confided sadly, "and I swore I'd never make the same mistakes they did. But here I am, soon to be considered a 'divorcee,' without even ever having been married. I've failed, Clark. That's what my records are going to say. That I failed. And I failed without even trying, without ever having been married."

Clark felt unbidden tears spring to his own eyes. He'd never thought about it that way. With her views of marriage, sure she would take this seriously. Her parents' marriage had failed, and she was sensitive about it. So he was sure that when—if— she ever did get married, she'd want to not make a mess or her marriage, to make it better than her parents' had been. But here she was, her name being tacked on with the 'failed marriage' label, without even having given it a try. Now he could see how that hurt, see why it was affecting her so much.

"I'm sorry, Lois, I guess I never saw it that way," he offered softly, his voice filled with compassion. "But you have to realize, this is all just some ridiculous error. I'm not upset about it because I see it as such, and not some indication about my ability to have a successful marriage. It just doesn't mean anything. You have to see that."

She nodded unconvincingly. "I do. But for some reason, that logic isn't making me feel any better." She turned and looked toward the kitchen, searching for some way to restore her emotional control. "Oh, this is ridiculous," she said, steeling herself and straightening up. "You're right. You're absolutely right. One notation on some stupid piece of paper isn't going to define who I am. I guess I'm just being overly emotional right now, with the wedding coming up and the stress levels running high."

Clark wasn't sure how he was supposed to respond to that, but before he could decide, she stood up and paced to the far side of her living room, then turned and slowly came back. "I just wish I wasn't it this mess. There's no way I'm going to get this all fixed in a matter of two weeks."

"Why not just ask Lex to use some pull to fix this?" Clark threw out, unable to hide the note of sarcasm that had crept into his voice.

Lois looked shocked that he'd even mentioned it. "No!" she immediately exclaimed, rushing over to Clark and sitting back down beside him. "You wouldn't say anything to him, would you, Clark? I mean, I plan to tell him…I just have to figure out how to do that gracefully."

Clark rolled his eyes and fought to argue back that he wouldn't talk to the man if he were the last person on the earth. But he caught himself just in time and shook his head, instead. "No, this is your business, Lois. I'll do whatever you need me to do to help, but I'm not about to rush over to tell Lex anything. Why don't you want to tell him, though?"

Lois looked embarrassed. She dropped her gaze down to her lap, and fidgeted with a piece of lint on her pants. "I don't know. I guess that I just don't want him thinking there was something more between us than friendship. He knows you and I are close…you know, with being partners and all. But I can see him getting jealous if he thought there was more to our relationship than I was telling him. And he'd definitely think that if I told him we were actually married!"

Clark was silent for a minute, then Lois groaned and slumped forward on the couch, resting her elbows on her knees and burying her face in her hands. "Oh, what a mess," she mumbled in defeat.

As secretly glad as he was that there was a big wedding hitch, Clark would have *never* wished such emotional turmoil on her. Sighing deeply, he laid his hand on her back and began to rub it gently. "I'm sorry this happened, Lois," he told her sincerely. "I wish that things could be different, that you weren't having to go through this. Maybe if we went back and talked to that guy—"

"Oh, Clark, it's useless," she said dejectedly as she waved off his suggestion and sat up a little. "You heard him. 'Policies.' Let's just get on with this and see how fast we can get this done. As it is, I'm going to have to tell Lex we'll need to postpone the wedding until the divorce papers go through. Oh, he's just going to *love* that," she muttered, her voice dripping with sarcasm.

"Well, for what it's worth, I managed to set up a marriage counseling session for us tomorrow night with one of the counselors," Clark told her as he followed her outside. "You don't have plans already, do you?"

Lois sighed. "I guess not. What time and where? I'll come by and pick you up."

"The appointment's at seven."

"Okay," Lois agreed dismally. I'll see you then."

Clark nodded, then stood up and walked with her to the door. She opened it for him, but when he started to leave, he turned back to her and took in her pallid expression, the deep sadness in her eyes, and the tears still lurking in her eyes. Immediately, his heart went into his throat. He'd seen her violently angry, ecstatically happy, boldly determined…but never this completely down and despondent. It unnerved him. She just wasn't the type to give up, to call it quits. She was a fighter. And to see her standing there, with no sign of fight in her eyes, it tore violently at his heart.

Instinctively, he reached out and put a gentle hand to her cheek. "Are you sure you're going to be okay?" he asked when she finally looked up to meet his concerned gaze.

After a moment, she sighed and nodded. "Yeah, I'll be fine. I always am, aren't I?" She laughed a humorless laugh. Then, as if shooing him out of her apartment before she broke down again, she whispered a quick "goodnight" and shut the door between them.

A hand clenched around Clark's heart as he stood in the deserted hallway, thinking of what she was going through emotionally. He knew that some little file in City Hall listing them as "divorced" was only a clerical fix to their problem, and didn't mean anything. But obviously, Lois felt differently. She was taking this personally…and hard.

He quickly racked his brain for a way to help her through this. Yes, things had been a little rocky between them lately, but if anything, he was her friend, and he wanted her to know that he was there for her, no matter what.

But before he could think of what to do, he heard an all-too- familiar cry for help, and a groan escaped from his lips. 'Talk about bad timing,' he muttered to himself. But as he darted into the alley behind her building for a quick change and then launched himself into the night air, it dawned on him that maybe backing away from the situation for a few minutes would help him to know what he could do to help her.

He only hoped that something would come to him soon.

***

It was nearly an hour later by the time Clark finished his Superman duties, and after he'd turned a would-be burglar over to the police, he rocketed into the night sky—and toward Lois's apartment.

He'd been unable to get her off his mind as he darted from one rescue to another, trying not to let the vision of her tear- streaked cheeks and despondent countenance affect him as he did his job as Superman. But when almost an hour had passed, his concern for her had grown so intense and his stomach so twisted up in knots that he just hoped and prayed that no one else would cry for help, so he could return to her.

'I don't know why I'm so anguished to see her like this,' he thought with a hint of anger. 'She's the one who told me she couldn't ever see any future for us romantically, but was willing to accept the proposal of a man who she obviously doesn't know as well as she thinks she does, and would never love her as she deserves to be loved. I should be glad this thing happened! It means that I still have a shot at convincing her of what a mistake it would be to marry that man.'

But even as those thoughts tumbled around in his mind, he found himself feeling incredibly guilty for even having them. While it practically killed him to know that she was planning to marry Lex, he knew that she had her free agency, and was free to choose what she wanted to do with her life. But that still didn't stop him from hoping that she'd see Lex for who—and what—he really was. He also found himself often hoping beyond all hope that *something* would happen to prevent her from marrying him. And maybe this was just the thing. But at any rate, in spite of feeling secretly glad this latest development would postpone the wedding at least a little while, he knew that he definitely *didn't* want to see her so miserable and unhappy.

'Just be her friend," Clark told himself as he neared her apartment. 'I know you're feeling hurt and rejected, but you have to push those feelings aside right now and be there for her. She needs a friend right now more than anything else in the world.'

So, steeling himself and forcing himself to push his own feelings aside, he found himself above her apartment in a matter of moments. He was about to duck into the alley behind her building to change out of his Suit when suddenly, he paused.

Maybe it would be a good idea to take a quick peek to see if she was decent—or possibly even asleep—before arriving at her apartment unannounced. So he cautiously peered into her apartment, but what he saw made his heart lurch. He saw that she was curled up on her bed in her darkened apartment with a box of tissues beside her, looking completely dejected and utterly friendless.

There was no way he was going to let her spend her evening like this. He couldn't. So he knew he had to go in there and cheer her up. But how? She certainly hadn't listened to his reasoning before he'd left, so what made him think she would now? No, she needed something to distract her, something to draw her out of her depression. But what?

Suddenly, inspiration struck. In that instant, he knew the perfect thing to do. With a flash of super speed, he turned and headed back the way he came.

***

Lois shifted her position on the bed so she could stare up at the darkened ceiling of her bedroom, feeling completely lost and alone. She reached for yet another tissue, but her hand met with the bottom of the box. With a start, she grabbed the box and peered inside, confirming that it was, indeed, empty.

She sat up quickly and saw that dozens of damp, crumpled tissues were strewn about her on the bed, and in that moment, she realized what a pathetic sight this was.

"What is *with* you, Lois?" she demanded, forcing herself to sit up and swing her legs over the edge of the bed. "This is completely pathetic! Whatever happened to 'Mad Dog Lane', never letting anyone or anything affect you? All this self-pity isn't going to make the problem go away. Now get up and clean up this mess! Maybe you can think of something to fix all of this if you get moving around."

She stood up and started to pick up the tissues littering the bed, then quickly threw them into the garbage before running a quick hand through her mussed hair and tightening the belt on her disheveled robe. Then she walked out of her darkened bedroom into the rest of her darkened apartment, and, with a disgusted shake of her head, went to turn on some lights.

When she could finally see, she shuffled into the kitchen and opened the freezer. Ice cream always cheered her up, she rationalized. But her freezer was empty, all except for a tray of ice cubes. "Great, no ice cream," she grumbled, slamming the door shut.

Letting a little bit of her depression sink back in, she shuffled back out of the kitchen and dropped down onto the couch. She sat silently, wondering if she had the energy or enthusiasm to get dressed and walk down the street to the grocery store for some ice cream, or something to munch on. As she deliberated, the only sound she could hear was the clock in the kitchen ticking away. It suddenly made her realize just how lonely she felt.

"Oh, I wish Clark were still here," she whispered sadly as she let her head fall back against the couch back.

But then she realized what she'd just said, and it surprised her. True, she'd always thought of Clark as a friend. But never before had she longed for the company of a guy—even as a friend.

'Oh really?' a little voice inside her head challenged. 'And exactly how many guys have you had as friends?'

That thought made her smile. It was true. Even thinking clear back to her days of college and high school, she realized that she'd *never* had a guy as a friend. Obviously, something made Clark different from all the other guys she'd known. But what?

With a sigh, Lois realized she was in no mood to answer her questions. All she did know was that right now, she felt lonely. Lonely and alone. More alone that she'd ever felt in her entire life. Realizing that a fresh bout of tears were threatening, she sank down onto the couch and dropped her head into her hands.

Before she could indulge in another round of self-pity, a knock sounded at the door. Startled, she sat up. With a quick glance at the clock in her kitchen, she saw that it was nearly ten. 'Who would be coming by at this hour?' she wondered as she pushed herself off the couch and went over to peer through the door's peephole.

She was both surprised and thrilled to see Clark standing on the other side of the door. Without hesitation, she flung open the door and stared at him in shock. "Clark! What are you doing here?"

"Well, I figured you were probably still feeling pretty down, so I decided to come over to cheer you up." He held up a large, flat cardboard box in one hand, and a smaller, plastic box in the other. "How does pizza and a video sound?"

Lois looked astonished. "You didn't."

He grinned triumphantly. "I did. I even got your favorite pizza: pepperoni, mushroom, and olive."

"Oh, Clark, you are just the best!" Lois gushed as she ushered him into her apartment and shut the door behind him. "What movie did you get?"

"Oh, I don't know. Some chick flick," Clark shrugged as he crossed over to the coffee table and set the boxes down on it. "But the video store manager assured me you'd love it."

Lois's heart warmed at the thought of Clark going to so much trouble for her. Impulsively, she walked over and gave Clark a hug. "I can't believe you went to all this trouble!"

When she pulled back to look up at him, he grinned happily. "For you, it's no trouble at all." After a lingering moment of bliss in her arms, he stepped back and flipped open the pizza box lid. "So, I hope you're hungry, because I got us a large."

Lois laughed as she sat down on the couch and helped herself to a piece of pizza. "Mmm, this is great," she mumbled through a mouthful.

He smiled as he sat down beside her and reached for a slice. "I'm glad you think so."

For the next few minutes, they ate their pizza in silence, but something was lingering on Clark's mind. Trying to get up the courage to broach the subject, he asked, "So, are you feeling any better than when I left?"

Lois shrugged. "A little, I guess."

It was quiet for another long minute before Clark decided to just come right out and ask her what was troubling him.

"Lois, can I ask you something?" Clark asked, suddenly focusing intently on the piece of pizza he held in his hand.

"Sure, Clark. You can ask me anything."

Clark hesitated, then haltingly began to speak. "Don't you think it's kind of strange that you're talking to me about this whole marriage thing, and not to Lex? I mean, you're supposed to be marrying the guy, but you can't even bring yourself to go over there to tell him. Shouldn't that…tell you something?" he finished nervously.

His words sat heavily in the air for a long moment, and Lois's shell-shocked expression made him wonder if his comment had hit home. But before he could press the issue, she waved off his question with a wave of her hand.

"Oh, Clark, that's ridiculous," she insisted.

"Is it?" Clark challenged, watching her face carefully. "I'm not so sure."

"Of course it's ridiculous," Lois argued, standing up and going over to the kitchen garbage to throw away a handful of napkins. "I'm not afraid to tell him or anything! I mean, he *is* my fiance and everything. I just know that he's an incredibly busy man, and I don't want to bother him with this after he's already gone to so much trouble to make such special arrangements."

Clark followed her and leaned up against the kitchen counter with his arms crossed in front of him. "So you're saying that you don't want to inconvenience him."

"Exactly!" Lois exclaimed, turning to point a finger at Clark. "That's all it is. An inconvenience."

"Your wedding is an inconvenience?" Clark persisted. "Or you're an inconvenience?"

That set Lois's blood boiling, and when Clark saw the fire flicker back into her eyes, he knew he'd gone too far. "How dare you say such a thing!" she growled, stepping closer and eyeing him threateningly.

Clark immediately backed off. Lifting his hands up in front of him as if to tell her he wanted to peacefully surrender, he started to apologize. "I'm sorry, Lois, I didn't mean to put it so harshly. It just seems to me that two people who love each other enough to get married should feel comfortable enough with each other to go to the other person with absolutely *anything,* and not feel like it was an 'inconvenience.'"

"I am comfortable with him!" Lois retorted, her voice rising in anger.

"Comfortable enough to talk to him about City Hall screwing up?" When Lois was once again speechless, he knew that his point had hit home. "Look," he began again, this time more gently, "I'm not just trying to pick a fight here. I'm just wondering…if you're this nervous to talk to him about a wedding glitch, albeit a pretty big one, how are you going to talk to him about other things that come up in your marriage? You can't have a good marriage without open communication, Lois. If anything, I've learned that from my parents' marriage while growing up."

Lois opened her mouth to argue, but Clark sighed and held up a hand. "I'm sorry, Lois, I didn't mean to spoil our evening by fighting with you. Will you just do me one favor though? Please?" When she nodded silently, he continued. "Will you just think about what I said? Just think about it. That's all I'm asking."

Lois was about to tell him to forget it, that he knew nothing about her and Lex's relationship. But then she saw the sincere concern in his eyes, and she felt herself giving in. Clark didn't ask her for much, and he *had* been such a great friend by going to all the trouble to come back with pizza and a video. Granting his request was the least she could do…even if he was dead wrong.

"Okay, Clark, fine," she finally said, letting her words come out in a breathy rush. "But I'm telling you, you're wrong about all of this. Now can we just forget about this? I'd like to have another piece of pizza without getting a lecture, if you don't mind." But she smiled a little when she said it, and he breathed a sigh of relief to see that he hadn't ruined the evening.

With their argument forgotten, their comfortable camaraderie was quickly restored, and they spent the next two hours eating pizza, watching the video, and joking and laughing. As the hour grew late and the movie was nearing its end, Lois found it natural to let her head fall sleepily against Clark's shoulder as she sat next to him on the couch, and it made her realize just how much she loved hanging out with Clark. She loved that she could just be herself around him, and not worry that he might be expecting anything from her. Their friendship was unconditional, and she loved that.

When the video finally clicked itself off at one A.M. and started to rewind, Lois found herself not wanting their evening to end. Suddenly, she realized that Clark had his head resting on top of hers, and she couldn't remember when that had happened. All she knew was, she'd missed this feeling of comfort and security she had with Clark, especially since the past few weeks things had been strained between them.

Sleepily, Lois realized how great it felt to be sitting there next to him on the couch, his arm draped casually around her shoulder, his thigh pressing against hers, and the soft feel of his T-shirt beneath her cheek. In fact, being this close to him felt almost *too* good…

Thinking quickly, Lois jumped up from the couch and started to collect the dirty napkins and put them into the empty cardboard pizza box. Clark seemed confused by her sudden surge of action, but he stood up and wordlessly helped her straighten the cluttered coffee table. When things were thrown away and Clark had collected the videotape from the VCR, Lois walked him to the door to say goodnight.

"Clark," she began, smiling softly up at him, "I can't thank you enough for coming over tonight to cheer me up. You went to so much trouble, and I just want you to know that it really means a lot to me." Then, much to Clark's surprise, she slipped her arms around his waist and pressed her cheek to his chest, hugging him for the second time that evening.

Without a moment's hesitation, he put his arms around her and hugged her back tightly, savoring the moment. He closed his eyes briefly, blissfully inhaling the scent of her shampoo and the scents that were just her.

When she stepped back, Clark smiled down at her, feeling warm and happy. "You're welcome, Lois. I'm here for you anytime. You know that, don't you?"

She smiled gratefully and nodded. "I know. And thanks." Turning a bit, Lois reached for the doorknob and pulled open the door. "Goodnight, Clark."

"Goodnight, Lois," Clark said as he stepped out into the hall. "I'll see you tomorrow."

"It *is* tomorrow," she teased lightly, a smile brightening her entire face as she glanced down at her watch pointedly.

He laughed. "So it is. Then I'll see you today."

Lois shook her head, joining in his easy laughter. "Fine, whatever."

Clark backed the rest of the way out into the hall, then lifted his hand in a little wave. She returned the gesture, then shut the door quietly behind him.

Feeling one hundred and ten percent better, Lois walked around the apartment and turned off the lights. She even found herself humming a little as she headed into her bedroom. As she dressed for bed, her thoughts drifted back to the events of the evening. She'd certainly surprised herself by snuggling up next to Clark, enjoying the feel of his arm draped casually around her shoulders, and his head resting against hers. For the first time in her life, she realized that she was comfortable enough to do that with a guy—albeit a friend, not a boyfriend— without worrying that she might be leading him on. It just felt natural to snuggle up next to him, to enjoy an evening with a good friend.

But she still couldn't figure it out. Why was it she felt so completely comfortable with Clark? Comfortable enough to even confide in him her innermost thoughts and fears, as she had earlier when she'd told him about the real reason for being so upset about "getting divorced"? She'd certainly never felt comfortable enough to do that with anyone else. But for some inexplicable reason, she found herself trusting Clark, and turning to him in times of need. He was solid, reliable. He never betrayed her trust by passing on anything she'd said to him in confidence, at least that she knew of, and he was always there with one of his broad smiles or a word of encouragement just when she needed it. She felt more comfortable with him than she ever had with anybody in her entire life. More comfortable than she even felt with…

Lex.

A gasp escaped her lips, and a hand flew to her mouth. Had she really just thought that? Had she really just insinuated that she preferred Clark's company to Lex's?

"Oh, that's ridiculous!" she argued aloud. "You're *marrying* Lex. Of course you feel comfortable with him! If you didn't, you wouldn't be marrying him."

But suddenly, things didn't seem quite so clear. Did she really feel as comfortable with Lex as she did with Clark? Could she see herself just hanging out at home with Lex, sharing a pizza and watching videos? The thought nearly made her laugh out loud. No, she definitely couldn't see herself doing things like that with Lex. But there were other things that she and Lex liked to do together. He loved to go to the opera, fancy parties, charity balls, and she, well…she sort of liked doing those things.

'No, you don't,' a little voice inside her head argued. '*When* did you start doing those things? When you started dating Lex?'

The thought made her start. Yes, that *was* when she started doing those things. But she enjoyed them. Didn't she? It felt great to be pampered, to be picked up in a fancy limousine and chauffeured around town to dine at elegant restaurants and mingle with the rich and famous at balls. But…was it enough? Was that enough to share a life, a marriage, with someone?

Suddenly, Clark's words flashed into her mind: "Don't you think it's kind of strange that you're talking to me about this whole marriage thing, and not to Lex? I mean, you're supposed to be marrying the guy, but you can't even bring yourself to go over there to tell him. Shouldn't that tell you something?"

His words stung, even now. She had vehemently denied them earlier, but somewhere, deep inside, she wondered if they bothered her because…maybe, just maybe…they were true?

Lois quickly shook her head. 'No, Clark's wrong,' she told herself insistently. 'I can't believe I'm even considering this. Just because I was able to talk with Clark about this, but not Lex, the man I'm supposed to be able to share everything with…that doesn't mean anything. Does it?'

Feeling suddenly confused, Lois paced across her bedroom to the window and looked out into the dark night, as if the answers were out there for her to see. But somehow, she doubted the answers were going to be that easy to find.

***

By lunchtime the next day, Lois's improved mood from the night before had completely disappeared, and she was quickly closing in on the international "enough" line. Not only had her nervousness continued to increase over how and when to explain this all to Lex, but she'd been endlessly tormented with a brand new round of "married" remarks by her co-workers, who, for whatever reason, had continued to find them funny. And as if those weren't bad enough, Ralph had approached her only moments before, grinning like a Cheshire cat, asking if he could "kiss the bride." If Perry hadn't chosen that exact moment to call for Ralph's latest story, Ralph might just have *been* the story. In the obituaries.

But it was Cat's thoughtless comment that had stung the most. She'd sashayed up to Lois's desk and perched on the corner of it while Lois was typing up her latest story in an effort to calm down. Then she smirked at Lois, and said, "So, I hear you're about to be welcomed into the land of the failed marriages. Nice going. Are you going to be getting spousal support and everything?"

Lois stiffened. She was used to Cat's sarcastic remarks, and usually responded with some biting comment in return. But this…

Lois quickly tried to hide the sudden onrush of unexpected tears by bending over to pick up a dropped pencil, but not before Clark saw how Cat's stinging remark had affected her. Quickly pushing back from his desk, he stood up and strolled over, scowling at Cat.

"Don't you have some gossip column to write?" he shot at Cat, his tone icy cold.

Cat looked surprised by the venomous tone in his voice, and she looked sufficiently humbled as she stood up and hurried away. As he watched her leave, Clark felt a momentary twinge of guilt for speaking so harshly to her, but he loved Lois, and there was no way he was going to stand by and let someone hurt her.

When she was gone, Clark turned back and put a gentle hand on Lois's shoulder. "Are you okay?" he asked quietly, no longer surprised to see tears lurking in his partner's eyes. Lois nodded, but he could tell from her expression that Cat's comment had hit too close to home. "Don't mind Cat," he told her. "She doesn't have a clue what tact is."

"I know," Lois said softly, trying to regain her composure. "She's always getting in little digs like that, so I don't know why one little dig should suddenly bother me now."

He gave her shoulder a squeeze. "We both know why, Lois."

She looked up and met his gaze, warmed by the sympathetic and loving expression she saw there. She let a timid smile curve the corners of her mouth. "Thanks, Clark. You're a good friend."

He flinched involuntarily at the word "friend," but tried his best to hide it by managing a smile. "You're welcome, Lois." He paused, then looked thoughtful. "I have an idea. Why don't we get out of here and have a little lunch. I'm all but finished with my story, and it looks like you are, too. What do you say?"

"That sounds great."

She took a moment to put the papers she was working on into a pile on the center of her desk, then grabbed her purse and stood up. As they walked toward the elevator, the Planet's newest copyboy nearly careened into them, and Clark instinctively reached out to put a hand on the small of Lois's back to steady her. It wasn't until they'd gone all the way up the newsroom ramp that he finally dropped his hand from her back. They were completely oblivious to the pair of eyes that followed their progress all the way into the elevator.

When the elevator doors closed and his famous reporting team was out of sight, Perry finally turned away, shaking his head in surprised amusement. The funny thing was, with a room full of reporters, no one even seemed to notice the seemingly insignificant gesture that was indeed *very* significant…at least, in *his* eyes.

He chuckled and shook his head. Yep, things were *definitely* getting interesting around here.

***

Lois had never been more glad to see a day end. Her mom had left two messages for her, insisting that if Lois didn't call her back, she wasn't going to bother making another wedding arrangement since this was Lois's wedding, not hers. Lois had rolled her eyes at that. That sounded like a typical tantrum of her mom's, and there was no way she was in a mood to deal with her mom's negativity and accusations that her daughter *must* be avoiding her for some reason.

And then Lex had also left yet another message, probably assuming that she hadn't gotten his one from the day before. But she just couldn't bring herself to call him back…at least, not until she felt ready to talk to him. Ever since Clark's comments the previous night in her apartment, she had to admit that she'd been plagued with fleeting moments of doubt about her relationship with Lex. And just when she thought the day might be looking up a bit when all the little digs and marriage jokes seemed to taper off, Perry immediately heaped piles of work on her and Clark, and neither of them had time to breathe as they scrambled to finish it all.

When the last of the paperwork was done, Lois heaved a tired sigh, closed the file folder with a thump, and leaned back in her chair wearily.

"Tired, huh?"

Lois turned to see Clark just finishing up with his own work. "Yeah, it's been a long day. I'm looking forward to going home and soaking in a hot tub."

Clark cringed. "Umm, I hate to remind you, but we're supposed to meet with that counselor tonight at seven, remember?"

"Oh, I forgot," Lois groaned, letting her head fall backwards until she could see the ceiling. "Terrific."

Just then she caught sight of Jimmy walking past, and she straightened up in her chair. "Jimmy!" He turned and walked over to her expectantly. "Did you have any luck tracking down that marriage paperwork?"

Jimmy shook his head. "Not yet. I got as far as finding your marriage certificate, and it appears to be legit. Both your signatures are on it."

Lois raised her eyebrows at Clark. "I didn't sign anything."

"Me either," Clark agreed.

"Hmmm," Lois said thoughtfully. "So obviously somebody went to all the trouble to forge our names, which means this person either knew somebody on the inside, or is just really great at getting around the red tape."

Clark nodded. "Appears to be."

"Well, keep looking, Jimmy," Lois told him with a sigh. "At least try to track down the forms that would've been filed. There has to be a clerk's signature on them somewhere. Maybe that would give us somewhere to start."

"I'll start on that first thing in the morning," Jimmy said with a smile. "But right now, I've got a date."

Lois looked surprised. "A date? With who?"

Jimmy's smile deepened. "With this hot new girl I met from down in research. " He winked. "Wish me luck."

"Good luck," Clark called after him, clearly amused.

He was several feet away when Lois quickly leaned around the top of her desk and called after him, "Just don't register in some hotel as husband and wife!"

Jimmy's laughter drifted back to her, and Lois couldn't help but smile. A few moments later, she heard Clark close the lid of the binder in front of him with a thump, and she looked over to see him dropping his pen into his desk drawer.

"I," he told her, "am finally done."

"Probably thought it would never happen, huh?" Lois quipped with a tired smile. She glanced at her watch. "Almost six," she sighed. "What are you planning on doing between now and our counseling session at seven?"

"Well, that really doesn't leave enough time to do much of anything," he answered. "Do you want to just go grab a bite and then head over there?"

"Sounds fine," Lois replied, trying not to sound as irritable as she felt. "Maybe if I get some dinner before we go to meet this counselor, she won't think I'm always this irritable."

Clark cocked an eyebrow at her playfully. "What? You mean you're not?" But as soon as he said it, he laughed and darted away, correctly anticipating her effort to smack his arm.

"Come on," she groaned, rolling her eyes. "Before I show you just how irritable I can be."

***

Lois actually felt her nervousness compounding as she and Clark walked up the steps of the New Troy Family Counseling Center and entered the building. Most of the adjoining suites were dark, but suite 3A's lights still shone clearly through its windows. They crossed the lobby to the suite, but Lois paused at the door.

Clark could visibly see her stiffen. "Lois? Are you okay?"

Lois shook her head. "Have I ever told you how much I hate shrinks?"

"'Shrinks'?" Clark asked, raising his eyebrows. "I'm sure they'd prefer to be called 'therapists' or 'counselors.'"

"Whatever," she grumbled irritably. "The point is, all they ever do is tell you that your parents are to blame for everything that ever went wrong in your life, and then they smile and collect their two hundred bucks an hour. What a bunch of crap."

Clark couldn't help laughing. "That's pretty harsh, Lois. I'm sure there are plenty of counselors out there who are sincerely trying to help people. Can't you at least give this one a break? She's probably had as long a day as you have, and wouldn't appreciate you giving her a hard time."

Lois rolled her eyes. "Yeah, right. Like *she's* had to listen to all the marriage digs we've had to put up with these past two days. All she's had to do is sit in some comfy leather chair and pretend to listen while people tell her their innermost thoughts."

Clark's eyes pleaded with her. "Lois, please? Can't you at least *pretend* to be nice?"

That drew a brief smile out of Lois. "Pretend? Fine. At least *that's* something I can manage at the moment."

Clark watched as she pasted a big, false smile on her face and straightened up before opening the door herself and going through. But Clark could tell by her body language that this appointment had disaster written all over it.

'Heaven help me,' he thought, sending up a silent prayer for patience as he followed her into the office. He could tell already that this wasn't going to be easy.

***

Clark followed Lois in through the office door, and they were immediately greeted by a slender woman with glasses and short, curly brown hair who sat at the reception desk. "You must be Mr. And Mrs. Kent," she inquired.

Lois's eyes narrowed at the use of the surname and opened her mouth to respond, but Clark quickly jabbed her with an elbow to remind her to be nice, then smiled back at the woman and nodded. "That would be us." But when he felt Lois's angry stare on him, he cleared his throat anxiously and added, "Well, so to speak."

She smiled kindly. "Fine, fine. I'm Dr. Jenkins." She stood up and gestured to a door to their right. "Should we get started?"

She led the way into the office, where a long, leather couch and two high-backed leather chairs were situated. Lois glared at Clark as if to say, "See? Leather furniture." But he gave her a look that clearly pled with her to behave. To her credit, she only rolled her eyes as she sat down next to him on the couch.

"Well," Dr. Jenkins said with a kind smile as she settled herself into the leather chair across from them, "I'm glad this could work out. It's the one night a week our clinic stays open late. So, Mr. and Mrs. Kent, I understand that you're seeking a divorce, and you're here because New Troy law says that you can't have one unless you try this first."

Again, Lois cringed at the use of the surname. "You know," she said defensively, unable to stay quiet any more. "I'd feel a lot more comfortable if you'd just call us by our first names."

If Dr. Jenkins picked up on the tone in her voice, she didn't let on. She just smiled acquiescingly and nodded, glancing quickly down at her notepad. "That'd be fine, Lois. So," she sat back in her chair and looked from one to the other expectantly. "You two are partners at the Daily Planet. You wouldn't be the first partners to fall in love. But obviously something's gone awry if you want to get divorced. And since we're all here, why don't we talk for a few minutes and see if we can get to the bottom of your troubles?"

Exasperated and finally losing what little control over her irritability she had, Lois rolled her eyes and sat forward on the couch. "Okay, I'll tell you what, *Dr.* Jenkins," she blurted out, eyeing the doctor condescendingly. "I'm not here for an earful of psychological mumbo-jumbo. We're here to get you to sign us off for counseling time so we can file for divorce. So why don't you just sign whatever little paper it is you need to sign, and we'll be on our way. That way you're not wasting *our* time, and we're not wasting *your* time. I don't know about you, but I'm extremely busy, what with all my wedding plans to reschedule and all."

Dr. Jenkins's eyes widened in shock and surprise at her declaration. It was obvious she wasn't sure if she'd just heard right. She stared dumbfoundedly at Lois for a moment, then turned to the young man sitting next to her. Considering this woman's outburst, she wasn't at all surprised to see this handsome young man turning a deep shade of red.

"I'm—I'm sorry," Dr. Jenkins stammered, turning back to Lois, "did I just hear you say you were planning a wedding?"

Losing her patience, Lois launched into classic babble mode in the blink of an eye. "Yes, that's right. My wedding was *supposed* to be in two weeks. Two weeks! But because of all this ridiculous red tape about having to go to counseling before we can get a divorce, my wedding date's going to have to be pushed back. And that means I have to order and send out new announcements, reschedule the caterers, call the bakery…the list goes on and on. It's giving me a headache just thinking about all of it. So why don't you just sign our little paper and we'll get out of here."

Dr. Jenkins seemed completely flabbergasted for several moments, but then was able to regain her composure. Uncomfortably, she cleared her throat. "Um, I see. Well. I certainly don't have to ask what—or who—has broken up this marriage. Lois, just how long have you been cheating on your husband?"

Lois looked shocked and confused for a moment, then a look of realization spread across her face. "Oh! No…no, hold on a second. I think we've given you the wrong impression. Let me clarify."

Dr. Jenkins looked at her sternly and nodded. "Yes, I wish you would."

Lois glanced over at Clark, then looked back at the counselor. "First of all, *we,*" she gestured at herself and Clark, "were never married. Or meant to be, anyway. You see, we were on a stakeout at a hotel a while back where we registered as husband and wife as a cover. Then, voila! Suddenly, we were mysteriously married because of some stupid old law in New Troy saying that a couple registered as husband and wife are officially and legally married."

Dr. Jenkins let out her breath in a rush and started to chuckle, clearly relieved to hear she wasn't dealing with such a blatant case of infidelity. "Hmm. Yes, I can see that that would cause some confusion. But why didn't you just explain to the records department that this was all just a big mistake?"

"Don't you think we've already tried that?!" Lois argued angrily. "Everyone we've talked said the only way to clear this up was to officially get divorced. Geez, why am I even sitting here?!" She shook her head in exasperation and started to stand up.

But before she could, Clark quickly reached over and slipped a hand onto Lois's forearm, giving it a squeeze. His simple gesture spoke volumes, conveying to her through his touch not to get worked up about everything all over again. Lois sighed in resignation and forced herself to take a deep breath as she settled back down on the couch.

Dr. Jenkins had caught the movement of Clark's hand and watched curiously as the young man reached for the young woman's arm, and was surprised by the almost instantaneous effect it had on his fiery companion.

"Oh, I see," Dr. Jenkins remarked. "That does make things a little complicated, doesn't it?"

"It's not complicated at all!" Lois began, but Clark quickly interrupted her.

"What Lois is trying to say," he interjected, "is that it's hard for us to see why the clerk's office can't just help us fix the problem without having us go through all of this."

Dr. Jenkins turned to Lois. "*Is* that what you were trying to say, Lois?"

Lois looked surprised to be called on. "What?"

"Well, I noticed that Clark interrupted you and told me what it was you were trying to say. Was he right?"

Lois looked over at Clark in confusion, then back at Dr. Jenkins. "Well, yeah, I guess so. What does that have to do with anything?"

Dr. Jenkins smiled insightfully. "It just seems that Clark, here, may be a little overzealous about stepping in and speaking for you. Does he do that often?"

Clark opened his mouth to deny her accusation, but Lois started to laugh. "Yeah, as a matter of fact, he does. But it's not like he's being overbearing and wanting to manipulate the conversation or anything."

"Really? So what *do* you think he's trying to do?"

Lois thought for a minute. "Maybe to stop me from saying something that'll hurt or offend someone. He's a little careful that way. He's always doing things like holding doors open for people, helping you on with your coat, thinking before he speaks, and watching out for people's feelings. I mean, he grew up in the Kansas," she said, as if that explained it all. Next to her, Clark rolled his eyes.

Dr. Jenkins smiled. "I see. So he's a gentleman?"

Lois nodded and offered a slight smile in return. "Yeah, I guess so."

"And you like that? It works for your partnership?"

Lois looked over at Clark, who was waiting expectantly with his eyebrows raised. Finally, she nodded and turned back to Dr. Jenkins. "Yeah, it does. For whatever reason."

Dr. Jenkins nodded thoughtfully. "Hmm. How many partners have you had, Lois?"

Lois seemed offended by the question, but she forced herself to remain composed. "You mean permanent partners? Like, for more than one story?" When Dr. Jenkins nodded, Lois shrugged indifferently. "Well, none, actually."

"Really?" the counselor look surprised. "And why is that?"

"Well," she began hesitantly. "I guess it's because I've been hurt in the past by some people I've been partnered with, so I learned my lesson. Since then, I've always made it a point to work alone. Being partnered up with someone has just never worked out before."

"Why not?" Dr. Jenkins continued to prod.

"Oh, um, I don't know," Lois stammered, clearly looking uncomfortable at the question. She turned to Clark, silently pleading for him to help her out, but he looked just as curious to hear her answer as their counselor did.

Finally, Lois continued haltingly, "Well, the people I've been partnered with have either stolen my stories and run, or have been completely incompetent. And when I try to help them along by telling them what they should be doing, they're usually in our editor's office before the end of the day, demanding to work with someone else."

"Mmm," Dr. Jenkins mumbled noncommittally and nodded. "But Clark didn't do that?"

Lois quickly smiled and looked over to catch Clark's eye. "Surprisingly, no."

"Why do you think that is?"

Lois paused and licked her lips. "I guess he's more patient than the others."

"Patient?"

Lois nodded. "Yeah, I guess. Several months ago, before Clark and I were partnered, I would've preferred to work alone. But I guess Clark and I just—"

"What?" Dr. Jenkins prompted.

"Well…click, I guess," Lois finally answered. "We seem to know what each other is thinking, and our personalities seem to really compliment each other's. Clark's calm when I'm wound up, or I'm rational when he's not…"

"Hey, when am I not rational?" Clark butted in, a challenging smile flickering across his face. "You're always the one wound up and I'm always the rational one!"

Lois opened her mouth in indignation, but Dr. Jenkins quickly stepped in. "Lois, now hold on. Let's take a moment and step back. Is what he's saying really true? And are you just feeling a little defensive about it?"

Lois turned back to look at their counselor, then let her breath out slowly. "Well, I guess it's true," she admitted wryly. "I'm pretty…intense, I guess. And I know I have kind of a temper…"

"'Kind of a temper'?" Clark laughed. "That's the understatement of the year."

Dr. Jenkins quickly intervened once again as she saw Lois's face flush. "Well, what would you call it, Clark?"

Clark grinned as he met Lois's 'I dare you to say it' gaze. But he answered evenly, "I'd call it volatile, unpredictable, sometimes even intimidating…"

"Intimidating?" Dr. Jenkins asked as she turned to Lois, waiting for her to respond.

"Well, yeah, I guess so," Lois admitted sheepishly. "I sort of have a history of flying off the handle. I think people at work can be a little intimidated by me."

Clark grinned victoriously. "Thank you."

"But I can't help it!" Lois rushed to defend herself. "I get fired up about something, and it's nearly impossible for me to back down. Especially when I know I'm right."

Dr. Jenkins smiled. "I understand." Then she turned to Clark. "Does her temper bother you, Clark?"

His smile softened. "No. No, not really. Unless she lets it get her all fired up and causes her to do impetuous things that end up getting her into trouble."

Lois's mouth dropped open in indignation. "They do not get me into trouble!"

Clark looked incredulous at her denial. "You've got to be kidding, Lois! You get into trouble all the time!"

Dr. Jenkins jumped in before Lois could argue further. "Clark, it sounds like it bothers you when this happens."

"Of course it bothers me," Clark insisted. "I don't want to see her get hurt. Since I've known her, she's been kidnapped, thrown out of an airplane, strangled, and shot at. She just seems to find trouble wherever she goes."

"I do not!" Lois protested indignantly.

"Yes, you do."

"Do not!"

"Hold it!" Dr. Jenkins held up her hands to ward off yet another impending argument. When Lois and Clark stopped their arguing and turned to look at her, she smiled and dropped her hands into her lap. "Obviously, you two are both very strong- minded, strong-willed, independent people, which, don't get me wrong, are all great qualities to have," she explained. "But that also means you both need to learn to compromise, to talk through things instead of getting defensive."

As she let that hang out there in the air for a few moments, Dr. Jenkins lifted her pencil to her lips thoughtfully. Finally, she continued. "Okay, let me ask you this. Clark, how do you feel about Lois as a partner, in spite of her temper and tendencies to get herself into danger?"

Clark didn't hesitate with his answer. "She's the best. I wouldn't want to have any other partner." He glanced over at Lois and smiled tenderly. She readily returned his smile.

"And what about as friends?" Dr. Jenkins prodded on.

Clark swallowed. Without realizing it, this counselor was suddenly touching on fresh wounds. He cleared his throat a little awkwardly, then proceeded. "We're great friends. At least…we're still trying to be."

His change in tone piqued Dr. Jenkins's interest. "Trying to be?"

Clark glanced over at Lois and caught the hard stare she gave him that clearly read 'Don't you dare bring my relationship with Lex into this!', but he decided it certainly wasn't going to hurt to open this up to someone who might be able to help with the situation. Finally, he steeled himself and replied, "Yeah, well…up until a couple of days ago, our relationship's been a little…strained."

"Oh? And why is that?"

Lois quickly jumped in to try to take the offensive. "Well, you have to understand that Clark, here, decided to tell me that he's been in love with me for a while now."

"Hmm. And I take it from the tone of your voice that you don't reciprocate those feelings?"

Lois immediately opened her mouth to retort, but suddenly, the memory of Clark being there for her so much these past few days, talking her through her fears of being "divorced," of him showing up at her door with a pizza and a video, them snuggling on the couch, and the sudden rush of emotions that she found stirring in herself from his closeness… And then the memories of the seeds of doubt planted by Clark came rushing back to fill her soul, and she found herself feeling confused and…well, scared.

"Lois?" she heard Dr. Jenkins prompting, drawing her out of her reverie.

Lois shifted in her seat, searching for the right words. But before she could try again, Clark spoke up, oblivious to the sudden conflict going on inside of her.

"No, she didn't," Clark finally said, not bothering to disguise the hurt in his voice.

"But Clark, I—" Lois stammered, not sure what to even say. How was she supposed to tell him all that had been going around inside of her head these past two days? How was she supposed to admit that she *was* wondering if she and Lex were really compatible…and if she might, indeed, be beginning to realize that the one she really loved might have been the man working side by side with her for the past year?

When it seemed Lois didn't know how to respond, Dr. Jenkins turned back to Clark. "So what happened then?"

Clark's stomach knotted up at the memory. "She ran off and accepted another man's proposal."

"Oh, I see. And how did that make you feel?"

"Angry. Hurt. Like my feelings and opinions don't matter."

"Clark, of course they matter!" Lois interjected.

"Do they?" Clark asked, his eyes flashing. "By the way you were treating me and refusing to listen to what I had to say about what you were getting into, it sure didn't seem like it."

Lois rolled her eyes and leaned back against the couch. "Here we go again. This whole spiel about how my fiance's the root of all evil. What is with you and him, Clark? What has he possibly done to make you hate him so much?"

For the first time since they'd sat down, Clark appeared at a loss for words. He stammered for a few moments, trying to explain what he knew without revealing anything about his Super identity. Finally, not knowing what else to say, he blurted out, "I can't tell you how I know, but just believe me when I say that he's not what he appears to be. Besides, the bottom line is, he's not good enough for you, Lois!"

"What, and you are?" she shot back. "Is that what you're saying? That I should just marry you instead?"

Clark couldn't stop the smile from tugging at the corners of his mouth. "Well, technically, Lois, we already *are* married."

Lois's eyes flashed dangerously. "Oh, is that supposed to be funny? Some cutting-edge Smallville humor?"

Dr. Jenkins had been sitting back and listening, and, in a sense, encouraging their exchange to happen, since she knew that once people started being honest and forthcoming about their innermost thoughts and feelings, problems had a way of working themselves out. But when she saw Lois starting to reach what she assumed was a boiling point, she quickly stepped in.

"Okay, you two, let's just calm down. Now Clark." She waited until she had the young man's attention. "Let's go back to something you just said. You said this man wasn't good enough for Lois. Why do you think that? What has this man done to make you think he's not good enough for her?"

"Well, for one, he doesn't treat her like she deserves to be treated," he exclaimed adamantly. "He wants her to come to work for his broadcast station—"

"He didn't say that he 'wants me to,' he just suggested it!" Lois objected. But when Dr. Jenkins shot her a look, Lois retreated into silence.

Dr. Jenkins nodded at Clark. "Go on."

Clark felt the muscle in his jaw twitch, a sure sign that he was getting upset. So he forced himself to take a deep breath before continuing. "For one, he doesn't know Lois like I do," he began firmly, trying to avoid looking at Lois as he spoke. "He might think a job at his broadcast station would be good for her, but it wouldn't be. He'd be dragging her away from all her friends, from our editor, who I know is like a father to her, and taking her away from the thrill of the hunt, which is what I know Lois likes best about investigative journalism."

He paused for breath and then rushed on. "And if that weren't enough, I hate the way he treats her like she's some prize to be won, some pawn in a chess game. Instead of realizing how wonderful and truly unique she is, he's just the type of guy who'll want her to stand quietly next to him at his precious charity balls, hanging on his arm like some Barbie doll trophy! And he's always taking her to operas and parties with all his famous acquaintances, which I bet she pretends to like, even though I'm sure she'd much rather enjoy a night in with a pizza and a video, with a man who's willing to listen to her and hold her and tell her how much he loves her."

At his words, Lois unintentionally drew in a sharp breath, and her heart began to pound. Even though Clark wasn't looking at her, she knew exactly who he was talking about. But she was sure he had no idea how much his words affected her, caused her eyes to tear up and her heart to swell. For a moment, she couldn't figure out why his words had affected her so much, until…

In that instant, it all became clear. She loved Clark. Had probably loved him for a long time now. She loved his patience, his kindness, the way he conveyed his love for her in so many ways, instead of simply telling her, as Lex did. He always made sure to pick her favorite chocolate donut out of the box for her in the morning at the Planet before it could be taken by someone else, and brought her coffee just the way she liked it. 'I doubt Lex even knows or cares about how I take my coffee,' she realized.

But she knew that what it all boiled down to was this: Lex didn't know her like Clark did. In fact, maybe Clark was right. Maybe Lex *did* only see her as a prize to be won. At any rate, how could she ever be certain that he didn't? He didn't know her favorite flavor of ice cream, didn't know just what to say to calm her down when she was mad, didn't know just when to step in to stop her before she could do something impetuous… Clark, on the other hand, knew *all* those things. He knew her inside and out, knew her strengths and her weaknesses, and was still her very best friend because—and in spite—of all of them. Everything she and Clark had together was exactly what she'd always longed for in a marriage. Did she and Lex have any of that? Not one little bit.

'Then why on earth are you planning on marrying him?' she asked herself bitterly. Clark had been right: Lex was all wrong for her. And Clark was all right. Why had she never seen that before now?

Lois swallowed noisily as the realization struck her, but nobody seemed to notice how pale she'd suddenly gone, and how completely silent she'd turned. It was all she could do to tune into the conversation when she heard Dr. Jenkins start to respond to Clark's statement.

"I see," she was saying to Clark, nodding at him encouragingly. "It sounds to me like you know Lois pretty well, as you should, with you two having been partners for a long time. So now that you've told us what you don't think Lois needs, why don't you tell us what you *do* think she needs?"

Clark was quick to respond, obviously not needing to think twice before answering. "She deserves to be using her talents, digging up the facts and continuing to write stories that make the world a better place by putting the criminals she exposes behind bars. She needs someone who will support her in what she does, not hold her back. She needs someone who will hold her when she's sad or scared, or feeling insecure. Someone to motivate her when she's discouraged, to convince her that she can do anything she puts her mind to, to argue with and challenge her. Someone she can come to for advice, or for a shoulder to cry on when she's had a bad day. To tell her 'I love you' when it feels like the whole world's against her. But most of all, she needs someone solid and dependable, who will always be there for her, no matter what…through the good times and the bad."

Clark's voice drifted off, and it was as if he'd suddenly realized how much he'd said. He cleared his throat awkwardly and sank back onto the couch, crossing his arms in front of him. "Well, anyway…that's the kind of guy I think she needs."

Lois found herself sitting in stunned silence, not sure whether to laugh or cry. It had finally happened. She had fallen for the Kansas farmboy she'd always convinced herself she'd despised. So if she'd finally realized that Clark was the one she loved, then why wasn't she throwing her arms around him and telling him how she felt? Why was she feeling such a sudden feeling of dread? She didn't have to think long to answer her own question.

Lex.

How on earth was she supposed to tell him that she didn't love him, and that she wanted to break off their engagement, when she couldn't even bring herself to tell him what had happened the last two days? He was a rich and powerful man, who *always* got what he wanted. That much was obvious from his level of success. How was he going to take it when she broke the news?

Unable to confront those very thoughts, she leaned forward on the couch and buried her face in her hands to hide the tears that suddenly threatened to fall. There was no way she was going to let either of these people see her cry—especially Clark—when she had no idea how she could explain why, exactly, she was crying.

As Clark's words faded in the air and silence prevailed, he couldn't help looking over as Lois leaned forward and buried her face in his hands. His heart sank. What had he just done? He'd opened his mouth, intent on just answering their counselor's question, but instead had poured out his heart and bared his soul. There was no way Lois could miss the fact that he was talking about himself in regards to who he thought would be her perfect match. But he should've known her well enough by now to know that he couldn't take such a bold approach with her, especially when it came to relationship issues. She'd struggled with so much in regards to those issues in the course of her life, and now he was afraid he'd really scared her off. And this time, probably for good.

Groaning inwardly at his lack of sensitivity, Clark straightened up and was about to apologize to Lois for letting so much come flooding out when Dr. Jenkins finally seemed to notice Lois's silence.

"Lois?" the counselor spoke gently. "What do you think about what Clark just said?"

Lois glanced up and saw Dr. Jenkins regarding her carefully, and suddenly, she panicked. The room suddenly seemed to be closing in on her, and the air seemed stale. She knew she had to get out of there.

"I'm sorry," Lois said abruptly, standing up so quickly that she startled both Clark and Dr. Jenkins, "I think I need some air." And with that, she bolted for the door and didn't stop running until she was outside the building.

Once out in the cool, night air, Lois drew in several deep, gulping breaths in an effort to calm herself down. After a minute, she lowered herself down onto the cold, cement step on shaky legs and closed her eyes. 'What am I supposed to do now?' she asked herself, suddenly feeling scared and uncertain about everything: her new feelings for Clark, her soon-to-be-broken engagement to Lex…her—and Clark's—uncertain future…

"Lois?"

At the sound of Clark's voice, Lois jumped and spun around to see that Clark was standing at the top of the steps behind her, his brow furrowed and his expression reflecting his concern for her. Her heart sank. Never before had she ever been loved by anyone so much, or had anyone be so concerned for her, or want so much for her to be happy.

And at the moment, in her state of confusion, it made her feel miserable.

"Lois, are you okay?" Clark spoke again, coming down the steps and sitting cautiously beside her. "What happened in there?" He tentatively put a hand on her back in the way he sometimes did when she was upset, but this time, Lois jerked away from him as if his hand were on fire.

Immediately, she felt guilty for her reaction to his sympathetic gesture when she saw how startled and hurt he looked. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, cursing herself silently. After all those beautiful, incredible things Clark had just said about her, this wasn't the way she'd intended to treat him.

Forcing herself to calm down, she opened her eyes to see him watching her intently. "Clark, I'm sorry," she told him quietly. "It's just…I don't know. Maybe I've just had a hard day. I guess things have just gotten so complicated lately, and I—" She broke off when she realized the tears had returned and were starting to course down her cheeks. Instinctively, Clark reached out and brushed them away with his fingertips.

Feeling as if this wonderful man were suddenly her lifeline in the middle of a raging, dark ocean, Lois closed her eyes and leaned into his hand, allowing herself to be comforted by his touch.

"What is it, Lois?" he asked quietly, sincerely. "What's wrong?"

Lois's heart ached to tell him, to confide in him, but she knew she couldn't. Not yet. This was something she had to figure out for herself. Pulling away, she brushed the tears from her cheeks and stood up, doing her best to compose herself.

"Clark, I'm sorry. I just…I can't talk about this right now. I need some time to be alone. Would it be okay if I drove you home?"

Clark's face fell. His worst fear had just come true. He'd pushed too hard and it had scared her off, and now she was running. Dismally, he nodded. "Okay, Lois."

The ride home was uncomfortably silent, but Clark knew better than to push any harder by trying to make her talk about what had just happened. He hoped that she'd talk about it when she was ready, but this time he wasn't so sure she would. He'd never seen her looked so scared and panicked before in all the time he'd known her.

When they reached his apartment, Clark reached out to open the Jeep's passenger door, but then stopped. He turned to see Lois sitting stonily behind the wheel, and decided he had to say something. Closing his eyes for a brief moment, he hoped for inspiration to strike, hoped that he could come up with the right words to let her know that everything was going to be all right. But when no words magically popped into his mind, he swallowed hard and decided to say something…*anything*…before he lost her forever.

"Lois," he began tentatively, "I know you don't want to talk right now, and I respect that. But I just wanted you to know that I meant everything I said tonight—about you and me, and…well, about you and Lex. I didn't mean to get so carried away and say anything to hurt you, though, or push too hard. I hope you know that, and I hope what I said isn't going to ruin what we have between us."

He stopped and waited to see what reactions his words might have on her, if any, but when her expression remained blank, he sighed heavily. "Well, I guess that's all I had to say. But if you decide that you *do* want to talk, remember that I'll be here for you, night or day. Okay?"

She nodded, and seeing her do that at least made him feel a *little* better. Saying a quiet 'goodnight,' he climbed out of the car and watched from the curb as she drove away. He felt an almost overwhelming sadness as he watched her car disappear out of sight, and he hoped, with all his heart, that it didn't mean she was also going to disappear out of his life.

***

As Lois opened the door to her apartment and pulled her key from the lock, she wondered in a daze how she'd gotten there— not just to her apartment, since she hardly remembered the drive home in her intense state of preoccupation—but how she'd gotten to this point in her life. When had everything become so complicated and confusing?

Two days ago, everything had been running smoothly. She'd been happily engaged to Metropolis's most eligible bachelor and third richest man in the word. She'd been making wedding plans, choosing caterers, and helping design the home where she and Lex would be living. But then, in one life-altering moment, she realized that she'd had everything all wrong. She didn't love Lex; didn't want to marry him.

And if that wasn't life-altering enough, she'd come to discover that she loved Clark, her partner and best friend. Somehow he had managed to sneak his way into her heart without her even realizing it.

Until tonight.

'So what am I supposed to do now?' Lois sighed despairingly.

Just a few weeks ago, Clark had bared his soul to her in the park, told her that he loved her…*had* loved her for a very long time. And she'd responded by telling him that she didn't feel the same way, and that she only ever thought of him as a friend, devastating him in the process.

But looking back, she wondered how she couldn't see then what was painfully clear now: She *did* love him…*had* loved him, even back then. She loved him so desperately that the thought of not having him in her life actually made her heart ache.

She couldn't help wondering what on earth she'd been thinking when she'd rejected Clark, the man whom she obviously had so much in common with, and instead accepted Lex's proposal, the man whom she had *nothing* in common with. She'd been kidding herself all along to think she and Lex were compatible. They lived in completely different worlds, enjoyed completely different things. Could she imagine hanging out with Lex, staying up late into the night to talk and joke with him? Could she imagine playing hours of board games with him as she and Clark had done during their stakeout in the Honeymoon suite? Could she imagine having that same kind of casual, easy camaraderie with Lex?

The answer resounded loudly and clearly in her head: Not a chance.

Lex was very different from Clark—distant, secretive, private. Even with her, his fiancee. She never felt anywhere near the same level of comfort around him that she did when she was with Clark.

'I should feel more comfortable with Lex, my fiance, than with anyone else in the world, but I don't,' she realized. She thought about how she often forced herself to think about things before saying them out loud to him, worrying about how he might react to them, or wondering if it was appropriate to talk to him about certain things. But with Clark, it was completely different. She felt like she could talk to him about absolutely anything, *tell* him absolutely anything. He'd always been there for her, as a partner, as a friend.

For an agonizing moment, she imagined how things would be if she did marry Lex. Surely, Lex wouldn't want her continually hanging around Clark, sharing pizzas and late night videos, taking in a movie, or playing a game of chess and talking, like they did now. The immense sadness that she felt at losing the ability to run to him whenever things got tough or when she needed a friend suddenly flooded her soul.

Why hadn't she thought of this before? Why hadn't she realized just how badly losing him would hurt? Because when you were married, wasn't your husband supposed to be your best friend? That's what marriage was all about, wasn't it? Marrying your best friend? Could she ever imagine Lex as being her best friend?

Lois didn't have to think long to realize that, no, she couldn't ever see herself thinking of Lex as her best friend. Somehow, that place seemed to be reserved solely for Clark.

But to think of treating Clark as more than just her best friend…could she do that? Sure, with their offsetting strengths and weaknesses and complimenting personalities, she could see what a perfect match they could be. But just because they sounded like they'd be a perfect match, were they compatible as far as a relationship's intimacy was concerned?

At first, Lois found herself automatically pushing those thoughts immediately out of her head, almost as if scolding herself subconsciously for thinking about her partner in such a way. But then, with a start, she realized she'd been doing that for a long time, refusing to let herself think of such things. But now, she tried to coax those repressed thoughts and feelings to the surface. *Did* she think about Clark that way? *Did* he affect her physically?

She closed her eyes and pictured his face before her, letting her mind's eye take in his thick, dark hair and luscious brown eyes that spoke volumes of the kindness and gentleness that lurked in his soul. She let her mind's eye trail lower, and took in the little mole above the left side of his lip. She could picture his lips, full and inviting, and parting as he lowered his face to hers to kiss her. Lois felt her heart hammer in her chest and she visualized him coming nearing, lowering his lips to hers very slowly, then parting as they came within inches of her own…

Suddenly, Lois's eyes flew open. She felt hot and cold at the same time, and her hands were shaking and her heart pounding, all a testament to how her little visual demonstration was affecting her. In that instant, it dawned on her. She *was* physical attracted to Clark! Why hadn't she realized it before? Had she simply stifled those physical stirrings, afraid of where they might lead? That they might cause her to let her guard down and potentially be hurt because of them?

She realized that her experience with Claude had caused her to suffer a horrible, emotional setback. She'd allowed herself to let down her defenses with him, and had been hurt. Certainly, it made perfect sense that she'd resolved to never again let her guard down emotionally, even for a moment, so she had simply refused to even acknowledge that she felt anything for Clark other than friendship. But after tonight, there was no way she could deny that those feelings existed.

So there it was. Her testament of truth. She loved Clark, *was* physically attracted to him, *did* want to be in a relationship with him. But now that she was aware of those feelings, what was she supposed to do?

She flopped backward on the couch with a groan and closed her eyes. 'Great, Lois,' she thought. 'You couldn't have picked a worse time to come to this conclusion. What about Lex? You're engaged, and supposed to be married in a matter of weeks. How are you going to explain all of this to Lex?'

But just the thought of talking about this to Lex made her stomach turn. She could just hear how her explanation would go: "I'm sorry, Lex, but I just realized tonight that I'm in love with my partner—well, actually my husband, since I just barely found out I was married to him—so I guess I can't marry you after all."

Lois almost laughed out loud at the thought. But then she sobered. As funny as it sounded to her, she was sure it wasn't going to sound funny to Lex. Regardless, she knew she had to tell him, and she had to tell him soon.

'Just do it, Lois,' the voice inside her head ordered. 'Get it over with. Now that you know what you want, there's no use in pretending you want something else.'

So, before she could lose her nerve, she picked up the phone and dialed the number she had committed to memory. Nervously chewing on a fingernail, she listened as the phone rang once, twice, then three times. Finally, the line picked up and the voice of one of Lex's assistants came across the line, asking where to direct her call.

Lois swallowed noisily. "Lex, please."

"May I ask who's calling?"

"This is Lois."

"One moment, please," came the response.

As she waited, her stomach churned and twisted. Finally, a familiar voice sounded in her ear.

"Lois! How are you?" Lex asked, sounding happy she'd called. "I've been trying to get hold of you—"

"I know, Lex, I'm sorry," Lois quickly interjected. "But things have been really crazy lately. In fact," she hesitated, then steeled herself and rushed on, "there's something I need to talk to you about. Can I come over?"

"Of course, Lois. I'll be looking forward to seeing you."

Lois cringed at his enthusiasm, then said a hasty goodbye and hung up the phone. When she did, she closed her eyes and let out a long, shaky breath. "Come on, Lois, you can do this," she told herself with more confidence than she felt. "Just tell him it's over between you two, and then get out of there. You don't have to debate anything. How you feel is how you feel."

So with that little pep talk to spur herself on, she ran a quick brush through her hair, touched up her makeup so he wouldn't be able to tell she'd been crying, then headed out the door.

***

On the short drive over to Lex's penthouse, she was a jumble of nerves. She had no idea what she was going to tell him, how to approach something like this. She briefly rehearsed several speeches, but none sounded right to her. How *was* she supposed to break it to somebody that she didn't love them?

'What, are you kidding?' the voice in her head immediately argued. 'Just look at the great job you did with Clark just a few weeks ago. With that kind of previous experience, you should be an expert.'

Suddenly, a heavy blanket of guilt encompassed her as she remembered Clark's crestfallen expression that day not so long ago when he'd told her how he really felt about her, and the way he'd looked when she'd told him that she didn't feel that way about him. He'd been devastated. Crushed.

At the memory, Lois groaned inwardly. 'How was I supposed to know that I was in love with him?' she argued. 'I just hadn't realized how much he meant to me, how perfect we were for each other.'

Until now…

Taking a deep breath and then releasing it, she tried to dig deep to find the courage she was going to need to tell Lex the truth: that she didn't love him anymore, and wanted to break off their engagement. 'No fancy speeches,' she told herself, 'no beating around the bush. Just come right out and say it.'

Almost before she was ready, she was in front of Lex's building and being escorted up to the penthouse. Then she was led to the last room at the end of the long, meticulously decorated hall. Opening the double doors wide, Lex's assistant announced her arrival.

Lex, who had been standing by the large picture window across the room, smiled in delight when he saw her, and crossed the room to give her a hug. In the brief moment that she was in Lex's arms, she was suddenly surprised to realize that she didn't find the comfort or excitement in them that she did even a day ago. It was completely different from being in Clark's arms, feeling warm, protected and loved. At that moment, she would've given anything to be in Clark's arms instead.

Giving herself a mental shake, Lois forced herself to push any thoughts of Clark out of her mind. This just wasn't the time or the place.

Forcing herself to take control, she stepped out of Lex's arms and attempted to smile up at him. But he picked up the strained look in her eyes, and his brow furrowed slightly.

"Lois? You said you had something you wanted to talk to me about. Is something wrong?"

The butterflies suddenly started fluttering about crazily in her stomach, and she turned away from the intensity of his gaze. Looking down at the floor, she said, "Something's happened that I've been hesitant to tell you."

Reaching out to put a finger under her chin, he tipped her face up toward his so she would meet his gaze. "Lois, what is it? You can tell me anything, Lois, you know that."

'Do I?' Lois argued silently. But she forced herself to go on, trying to remember some of the things she'd rehearsed in the car. "Well, um, okay, here's what happened," she began. "I went down to City Hall to file for our marriage certificate, and they told me…" Her voice suddenly trailed off as she found her confidence to tell him wavering.

"What?" he prompted.

She let her breath out in a rush and spoke just as quickly, knowing that if she didn't just come right out and say it, she might never find the nerve again. "They told me that I couldn't apply for a marriage certificate because I was, according to their records, already married."

He looked confused and emitted a little laugh. "What?"

She rolled her eyes and nodded. "According to them, Clark and I mysteriously became married when we registered at a hotel for a stakeout as husband and wife. Apparently, there's some old law stating that that's all it takes for a couple to be officially married. Who went to all the trouble to file the paperwork, we still don't know. This can't simply be some clerical error, with all that's involved these days to get a marriage certificate."

"Well, Lois, if that's all you're worried about, that's no problem," Lex told her in a bold, confident tone as he smiled and dismissed the problem with a casual wave of his hand. "I have friends in high places. Why don't you just let me make a few phone calls, and this will all just disappear. Nothing's going to stand in the way of our getting married."

Lois stiffened. "Um, well…that's not all. There's, uh…something else I need to tell you."

"Okay," Lex nodded encouragingly, reaching out to rub her arms soothingly. "But whatever it is, Lois, it can't be as bad as you're making it out to be."

"I don't know about that," she mumbled under her breath, low enough that he couldn't make out her words. Then, loud enough for him to hear, she said, "Well, this isn't easy for me to say…"

When she paused again, Lex let his hands slide down her arms and take her hands into his. Lois had to make a conscious effort not to flinch and pull away. "Lois?" he prompted gently. "What is it?"

Finally, she looked up at him and took a deep breath. It was now or never. "Lex," she said, preparing herself for the worst, "I want to break off our engagement."

She found herself holding her breath as she watched Lex carefully. She was both scared and fascinated as a myriad of emotions played across Lex's features: confusion, concern…but mostly, he looked simply speechless. Several long, silent moments passed when Lex seemed to be waiting for a punch line.

When he finally realized one wasn't coming, he shook his head and furrowed his brow in confusion. "Lois, I don't know what's happened to bring this on, but—"

"Look, Lex, I'm sorry," she interrupted. "I know this is probably out of the blue—"

He pursed his lips characteristically and smiled a little. "You could say that," he answered, attempting to lighten the mood.

Unable to stand still under his scrutinizing stare for even a moment longer, Lois pulled her hands from his and turned away, crossing over to the large picture window and staring out into the starless, black, night sky. She wrapped her arms around herself as if to protect herself from the storm she was sure was approaching.

After what seemed like an eternity, she heard a rustle behind her and the sound of approaching footsteps. She closed her eyes and steadied herself, taking a long, slow breath while trying to draw upon whatever strength she had to get her through this. She was so tense that she almost jumped when she felt Lex's hands come to rest on her shoulders.

Gently, he turned her around to face him, and she was surprised to see that he seemed to have recovered, and was smiling at her as one would when trying to reason with a very young, very emotional child. "Now Lois, whatever's brought you to this decision, whatever you perceive to be wrong between us…it's nothing we can't work out if you just explain it to me."

"I'm sorry, Lex, I know this just came out of nowhere," she began. "But things have just been so crazy and confusing and mixed up these last few days, what with everything going on…"

"Lois." Lex stopped her with a gentle finger on her lips before she could try to explain further. "I think you've just hit the nail on the head, so to speak." He smiled gently and slipped an arm around her shoulders, gently leading her toward the door. "I can see that you're obviously very tired and stressed out from everything's that's happened these last couple of days, and you don't seem to be thinking very clearly. Why don't you just go on home and get some sleep. I'm sure that when you've had some rest and some time to think things over—"

His patronizing tone made Lois stiffen. Feeling angered, she shook off his arm and turned to face him. "No, Lex, you don't understand. I *have* had time to think things over, and I've come to realize just how wrong we are for each other."

But Lex only smiled, pursed his lips slightly, and confidently shook his head. "Wrong for each other? The way I see it, two people have never been more *right* for each other."

"Right for each other? Lex, you don't know anything about me!" she argued insistantly. "For instance, what's my favorite flavor of ice cream?"

Lex shrugged slightly and smiled. "Probably something chocolate?"

Lois couldn't help but smile. Okay, he had her there. But then, *everybody* knew she loved chocolate.

She tried again. "Alright, then tell me…what's my idea of a perfect evening?"

"Ah. That's easy," he answered smugly. "Madame Butterfly at the opera house, and then a late dinner at Jean Pierre's."

Lois shook her head pointedly. "No, Lex, that's *your* idea of a perfect evening. What would I say if I told you I didn't even really *like* going to the opera? That attending balls and hob- nobbing with your rich and famous colleagues is just not my style? That I'd much prefer a quiet evening at home with a pizza and a movie?"

Lex started to chuckle. "Pizza and a movie? Come now, Lois. You're too good for that. You've made a name for yourself. You're talented, you're beautiful, and you have the potential to be so much more. You deserve to be with the elite, the powerful, with those who have style and class."

Lois shook her head again firmly. "None of that's me, Lex. I keep feeling like you want to change me, to make me into something I'm not. You just assume that I'm too good to be where I am, but I *like* where I am. I *like* what I'm doing. I like tracking down leads and digging up things about people that no one else knows, exposing the criminal element, and seeing that criminals pay for breaking the law. Do you have any idea how much satisfaction I get out of that?"

Lex's eyes momentarily flashed, but then he recovered quickly. "I know you enjoy that, Lois, but you'll still be able to do all that after we're married. In fact, with my wealth, power, and inexhaustible source of resources and contacts, you could be one of the most powerful people in journalism. I practically rule this city already, Lois. And with you and me joining forces, our union would make us a force to reckon with."

Lois rolled her eyes briefly. "But see? This is what I'm talking about. You see our marriage as having material advantages, something to bring you more power and recognition. I see marriage as having *emotional* advantages: a best friend to share the rest of my life with, someone to love and *be* loved by… I don't want to marry somebody just because it'll take me up a rung on the ladder of success."

"Lois, I can't believe you have so little faith in our relationship…so little faith in me," Lex responded, giving her a slow smile, which she interpreted as him trying to tease her out of her mood. "Yes, I think of how much of an impact we could make as a team. But that's not the only reason I want to marry you. Don't you know how much you mean to me?"

He looked at her searchingly for a long moment, then lifted a hand to tenderly stroke her cheek. "Lois, the moment you confronted me at that ball and asked me with such confidence why I hadn't returned your calls, I suddenly saw a woman standing before me who had fire and passion, someone who believed in herself and was used to going after what she wants." He paused, then pursed his lips slightly and let a smile curve across his face. "I knew then that I would never be the same."

Lois sighed and stepped away from Lex's touch. "Lex, I've been doing a lot of thinking and soul searching these past few days, and I've come to realize that I just don't love you. Two people wanting to get married *should* love each other, don't you think? They should feel like they're completely meant to be together, that they have strengths and weaknesses that offset the other's, and want to hold each other up and support each other through the good times and the bad. They should be the first person the other person thinks about when they wake up in the morning, and the last one they think about before going to sleep. They should feel like running to tell the other person the second something wonderful happens, or turn to for a hug and words of encouragement when things go wrong. And I don't see any of that in our future, Lex. I just don't."

She paused, then looked down at her engagement ring. Before he could argue further, she slipped the ring from her finger and held it out to him. "I'm sorry."

Lex seemed momentarily stunned that he hadn't won her over with his confession of love, and he looked wordlessly down at the ring he now held between his fingers. Before he could say anything more, Lois turned and started for the door. She'd only gotten a few feet, though, when Lex's voice came, this time sounding both enlightened and agitated.

"There's somebody else, isn't there?"

Lois froze. With her heart suddenly hammering in her ears, she whirled back around to face Lex. "What did you say?"

Lex studied her intently, noting that she suddenly looked terribly uncomfortable. His eyes narrowed. If anything, he'd always thought of himself as an incredible connoisseur of reading a person's body language. And when she didn't come forth and deny his accusation, he knew he had his answer.

In that instant, his entire countenance changed. His brows furrowed and his eyes flashed dangerously. "That's it, isn't it?" he accused. "You've been seeing somebody else. So who is he, Lois? Was he the one who put all these ideas into your head, convinced you that we were all wrong for each other?"

Lois bristled and finally recovered enough to speak. "Lex, this isn't about anyone else except *us*! And don't you dare make it sound like I don't have a mind of my own, because I do!"

"I'm not disputing that," Lex retorted. "I just find it hard to believe that you're choosing somebody else over me. What could he possibly offer you that I can't?"

Disturbed by this side of Lex that she'd never seen, she found herself backing toward the door. "Lex, I already told you, this isn't about anyone else. It's only about us, about our incompatibility. But if you don't want to believe me, then there's not much else I'm going to be able to say to convince you." Then, with a note of finality, she said firmly, "Goodnight, Lex."

She'd just reached the door when he caught up with her. "Lois, please. Wait." He stopped her with a gentle hand on her arm, and turned her back around to face him. When she looked up, she saw that the deep, dark, intense look in his eyes was now gone, and his suave, winning smile was back. It was the smile that she would've described as charming as early as this morning, but now she realized it just seemed practiced and deceitful.

"Look, Lois," he began, his voice smooth and persuasive. "I didn't mean to get angry and start throwing out accusations like that. I'm sorry." He paused to let his words sink in, hoping they would have the desired effect on her.

But when her expression remained firm and determined, he decided to try a different approach. "Lois, the truth of the matter is, you mean too much to me to let things end between us…especially like this. You've obviously had a rough couple of days, and I'd hate for that to lead to any hasty decisions. Why don't you give me some time to prove to you that I can be exactly who you want me to be? We can be happy together, Lois, I know it. At least give me that chance."

Lois sighed heavily. "Lex, I can't. Now please…don't make this any harder than it has to be." And with that, she turned and hurried out the door.

***

Lex stood silently in front of the picture window as he watched the rain starting to pelt the glass. A noise at the door made him turn, and he saw Nigel entering the room.

"You rang, sir?"

Lex put his cigar to his lips and inhaled deeply. He seemed to deliberate over something for several moments, then finally blew out a billowing puff of smoke, gave an almost imperceptible nod and waved his cigar casually in Nigel's direction.

"Have her followed. I want to know where she goes."

Nigel nodded his compliance, then hurried out of the room.

***

The pouring rain fit Lois's mood. When she finally found herself standing numbly on the sidewalk outside of Lex's building, she felt both physically and emotionally drained. It had taken much more energy and willpower than she'd thought to stay calm and rational while talking to Lex. And now that it was over, she just wanted to go home, crawl into bed, and sleep for a month.

Forcing herself to step out into the pouring rain, she hurried to her car and climbed in. But once she was alone in the Jeep and pulling away from Lex's building, the precarious hold she had on her emotions started to crumble. A single tear slowly trickled down her cheek, then another, and another. Before she knew it, she was crying in earnest. All the emotions she'd kept harnessed and pent up over the last few days—and especially this evening—came flooding to the surface, and it was all she could do to see out of the rain-splattered window of her Jeep through her tears.

As she drove along the wet, darkened streets, she concentrated on the sounds of the rain pelting the car and the steady 'swish swish' of the windshield wipers, hoping that it would soothe her, but it didn't. Her emotions were too jumbled and unsettled.

Trying to boost her mood, she told herself that she should feel proud of the way she'd handled her conversation with Lex. She'd stuck to her guns and refused to back down, even when he tried to charm his way back into your heart. She'd done everything she'd planned to: told him how they weren't right for each other, how they lived very different lives and had very different tastes and interests. She'd withstood his attempts at persuasion, given his ring back, and then left.

But if everything had gone according to plan, then why couldn't she shake the heavy, disturbing feeling that this wasn't over?

Her memory flashed to the sudden change in Lex's countenance, in his behavior, during their conversation, remembering how deeply it had disturbed her. If she'd had to describe that darkness in his eyes, that unbridled fury, she would've said it was almost…

But before she could think the word 'evil,' she quickly pushed it out of her mind with a shake of her head. Lex? Evil? No, not a chance. Persuasive, yes. Powerful and determined, of course. But evil? No, she couldn't see him doing anything outside the law to accomplish his gains. But then that sudden look of simmering darkness, the absolute fury that she'd caught briefly in his gaze when she'd refused to back down, flashed into her mind. Obviously, he wasn't used to not being told that he couldn't have what he wanted. And in that moment, she'd been able to see just how much he wanted…her.

She shuddered. He wouldn't go to drastic measures to keep her with him, would he? 'Oh, Lois, that's ridiculous,' she immediately chastised herself. 'Lex isn't that kind of man. He wouldn't hurt you just because you told him you'd changed your mind about marrying him.'

Would he?

A sudden flash of headlights in her review mirror startled her, and she spun her head around to look behind her. But then she saw that the car behind her was signaling to turn, and then proceeded to do so. She let out the breath she hadn't known she was holding and released a nervous, shaky laugh at her paranoid behavior.

"Okay, Lois, that's enough. Get a hold of yourself,' she told herself firmly. You're just letting your imagination run away with you. You broke up with Lex. It's over between you two. Now you can get on with your life.'

'My life?' she thought sarcastically. 'In the last forty-eight hours, my life has been completely turned upside down. Not only am I no longer engaged, but I've just discovered that I'm actually in love with my partner and best friend, the man I told only a few weeks ago that I couldn't ever think of him as more than a friend. So all that leads me…where? What, exactly, *am* I supposed to do now with my life?'

The thought that instantly popped into her head was a familiar one: Go to Clark.

But as much as the thought of talking things out with him, being comforted by him, appealed to her, she found herself hesitating. In the past, this was exactly the time that she would've run to him. But now…now that she knew she loved him, she felt uncertain and unsure about where their relationship stood. She was used to turning to him in those times when she needed a friend, and she certainly needed one now.

So what was stopping her from rushing right over there and spilling out the whole story? He hated Lex, and had told her flat out just a few hours ago that he knew she was too good for him. He'd be thrilled to hear that she'd broken up with him. But would he gloat? Tell her he was glad she finally come to her senses, and that he couldn't believe it had taken her this long? Did she really want to hear that?

'Come on, Lois,' she argued with herself. 'You know Clark's not like that. He's not one to rub salt in the wound, to say I- told-you-so. Just go to him. Tell him what happened, and that you've come to the realization that *he's* the one you really love.'

But as she drove through the darkened and nearly deserted streets of Metropolis, she found herself wrestling with her thoughts, completely indecisive about what to do. So it surprised her when she found herself unconsciously turning the corner onto Clinton Street, and before she'd even made any decisions, she was pulling up in front of Clark's apartment.

'So, just what are you planning on telling him?' she asked herself sarcastically. "Yes, you've just been through an emotionally trying experience, and it just seems the natural thing to do, to turn to Clark. But is this the right time to talk to him about you really feel? Because think about this. You're not going to be able to pour out the whole story of how you finally decided to break things off with Lex, without telling him *why* you decided to do it. So you're going to have to be absolutely certain that you want to tell Clark that you love him, or else you shouldn't talk to him at all.'

With that now tumbling around in her mind, she continued to sit alone in her car, staring up at the lights in Clark's windows for what seemed like an eternity as she tried to decide what to do. As the minutes passed and the tension continued to build, she began to wonder if she'd ever been this nervous in her entire life. Her stomach was completely twisted up in knots, and her heart was thumping crazily.

So what if she *did* tell him? Would it change everything between them? She didn't want to lose Clark as a friend, but she also didn't want to go on being just his friend now that she knew she loved him. Cringing inwardly, she suddenly understood how it must've felt for Clark to have kept his love for her a secret all this time. How could he have loved her as much as he did, every minute of every day, knowing that his love would never be returned? The very thought made her own heart ache like it never had before.

Feeling both restless and anxious, she climbed out of her jeep and stood next to it, still unable to make that decision. She stood in silent debate for several long moments, undeterred by the rain that poured down on her, drenching her hair and her clothes, leaving both sticking to her unattractively. But even as she grew colder by the biting rain soaking clear through her overcoat to her skin, she had a hard time making herself move. She knew that this decision was of utmost, life-altering importance. Did she tell him what was in her heart? Or did she keep her feelings to herself?

She kept mulling the consequences of both choices over and over in her mind. On the one hand, If she didn't tell him, what did she stand to gain? Surely, he wouldn't stay single forever. He was an incredible catch, and if she never revealed how she felt, someone else was bound to snatch him up. Could she possibly stand to see him with someone else? But she had the answer to her question almost before she'd asked it: There was no *way* she'd be able to handle that. The thought of him with another girl was more than she could possibly stand. And even if they never went out with other people, which seemed an impossibility, she knew she'd never be able to pretend that things were the same as they'd always been between them. How could she possibly repress the feelings she now knew she had for him? How Clark had managed to do it all this time, she had absolutely no idea.

On the other hand, she did know how he felt about her already. That helped, at least, since she knew that the possibility of not having her feelings returned wasn't a possibility. And if she did tell him, she was sure he'd be thrilled to hear that she'd finally come to her senses and realized she loved him. But what then? They'd most likely become a couple, an item. They'd belong to each other. They'd be in a committed, loving relationship.

Lois smiled. She'd never realized before how wonderful that would be.

But just as quickly, Lois's smile faded. But how long would their relationship last? It wasn't unheard of for loving, committed relationships to go awry. What happened if theirs did? Not only would it put a huge strain on their working relationship, but it would most assuredly end their friendship. Could she handle that?

Lois sighed heavily and looked up once again at the lights shining through the windows of Clark's apartment.

'So this is it, Lois,' she told herself. 'Sink or swim. Fight or flee. Do or die. Make up your mind once and for all. What are you going to do?'

Standing in the rain for another few moments, Lois finally made a decision. Nervously, she found herself walking forward, her feet moving as if on their own accord. For what it was worth, she was going to tell him. After all, knowing was better than never knowing at all.

***

A pair of eyes watched as Lois finally stepped away from her car in the pouring rain and started up the stairs to apartment 344. It was about time, the man thought. He'd never seen anyone stand in the driving rain so long before in his life. Why anyone would want to let themselves get that soaked was beyond him.

Reaching into his jacket pocket, he pulled out his cell phone and made a quick phone call to one of his contacts to find out who lived in that apartment. He jotted the down the information he was given, then hung up and dialed again. As he held the phone to his ear, he leaned forward in time to see the apartment door open, and the woman go inside.

When his call was picked up, he said simply, "Give me Luthor."

Moments later, his boss's voice came across the line, sounding angry and impatient, so he rushed on to get to the point of his call before he got on his boss's bad side.

"Yeah, it's me," the man said. "Lane's entering an apartment at 344 Clinton Street. I tracked down the address. It belongs to…" he looked down at his notes, "…a Mr. Clark Kent. Does that name mean anything to you?" But instead of getting a response from Luthor, all he heard was a loud 'click,' and then the phone line went dead.

"You're welcome," the man muttered sarcastically into the phone as he pressed the 'off' button and slid it back into his jacket pocket. Then he started the car and drove off into the night.

***

Clark wandered around his apartment, unable to relax. He felt like a caged tiger as he paced to one end of his apartment to the other, and then back again. He straightened pictures, reorganized his bookshelf, and even moved some furniture. But nothing helped.

Ever since his and Lois's counseling session, his mind had been going a hundred different directions at once. Had he really scared Lois off once and for all? After he'd bared his soul in the session, he'd seen something in her expression, something unreadable. Obviously, something—if not all—of what he'd said had upset her. But what exactly had that been? His judgment of Lex? His own feelings for her?

Still unable to decide what she could possibly be thinking or feeling, even hours after she'd dropped him off at his apartment, he finally flopped backwards in utter frustration onto the couch and groaned. What was he supposed to think? Had the things he said finally made her see the light about Lex? Would she now realize that he was all wrong for her?

But as quickly as he asked himself the questions, he knew he was just wishfully thinking. Lois was entirely too strong- willed, too independent. There was no way anyone was ever going to tell her how to feel or who to be with. But right now, his wishful thinking was all he had to hang onto.

Clark stood up abruptly from the couch, knowing that he was just spinning his gears uselessly. He knew the only way he was going to know what Lois was thinking and feeling was to ask her directly, but she'd told him in no uncertain terms that she needed to be alone. Now was just not the time to press the issue. In the meantime, he needed to get out of there before the walls of his apartment closed in on him even further. He needed to go flying.

Just when he'd made up his mind to do a night patrol over the city, a sudden knock at his door made him jump. He'd been so preoccupied with his thoughts that he hadn't even heard the sound of anyone approaching. Glancing down briefly at his watch, he realized that it was nearly midnight. 'Who could be coming over here at this late hour?' he wondered.

Hurrying up the steps, he reached for the door and pulled it open. When he did, his heart leapt into his throat. Standing there before him, completely soaked and trembling, was Lois. Her wet, dripping hair clung to her cheeks, her mascara was smudged under her eyes, and she looked as if she'd been crying.

"Lois! What's wrong? What happened?" he exclaimed, reaching out for her ice-cold hand and pulling her quickly into the apartment. He felt a momentary thrill when he realized she didn't jerk away at his touch, but immediately, he forced the feeling away. Something was obviously wrong, and finding out what had happened and if she was okay needed to be his primary focus.

He shut the door behind them, then turned back to her, his expression filled with concern. "Lois, you're soaked clear through! You must be freezing. Come on," he said suddenly, putting a hand on the small of her back and ushering her down the steps and into the living room. "We've got to get you warmed up."

He let his hand drop from her back and rushed on ahead of her, quickly grabbing the large afghan from the back of the couch, then returned to drape it around her shoulders. When she was firmly and securely wrapped up, he led her over to the couch and sat her down beside him. "So are you going to tell me what happened?" he asked anxiously.

Seeing the concern for her in his eyes—such a stark contrast to Lex's cold, angry ones—almost sent her already tender emotions into a downward spiral. A tear slipped out of the corner of her eye and curved a silent path down her cheek. She wrapped the blanket more tightly about her shoulders, and reprimanded herself firmly for losing her control. 'Lois, stop this! You didn't come here to dissolve into weepy tears in front of Clark. You came here to talk to him about you and Lex, and you and him…'

But before she could convince herself to start, Clark's face looked increasingly worried as she was obviously struggling to control her emotions. Unable to handle her silence a moment longer, Clark put his hands on her arms and squeezed them anxiously. "Lois, you're scaring me! Please…tell me what's wrong."

Whether it was the unmistakable note of concern in Clark's voice or the strength of his touch, Lois's resolve to stay in control dissolved, and the dam holding back her pent-up emotions burst, and the tears she'd promised she wouldn't shed finally started to fall.

"Oh, Clark," she cried as she let herself fall forward against him, burying her face against his strong chest as her tears turned to noisy sobs.

His heart continuing to pound, Clark slid his arms around held her soaked figure tightly, doing his best to convey his love and support through his touch. After several moments, he pulled her more firmly against him, holding her tightly as she continued to cling to his shirt and cry.

After what seemed like an eternity, Lois's tears slowly diminished and she relaxed in his arms, completely spent and exhausted. He continued to stroke her wet hair soothingly for several minutes, then he nudged himself away and tipped her chin up so she was forced to look at him.

"Are you ready to talk about it?" he asked softly, gently.

She sniffled a little, then sat up and adjusted the blanket around her shoulders. "So much has happened tonight, I don't even know where to begin," she admitted hoarsely.

"Just start with whatever's happened that's made you this upset," he prompted patiently.

Lois sighed and looked down at her the afghan covering her wet figure. "I guess the biggest news is…well…" She paused, unable to meet Clarks' gaze. "I broke up with Lex."

"WHAT?!"

Clark's resounding yell startled Lois, making her jump. Nervously, she looked up at him, worried that she might hear the dreaded 'it's about time' speech. But when he just continued to stare at her in shocked silence, she nodded nervously and went on.

"There have been some things these past few days that have made me think, including what you said about him tonight," Lois admitted quietly. "I guess all those things finally helped me realize that Lex and I *were* completely wrong for each other, and that we'd never have the kind of marriage I thought we were going to have."

Clark finally seemed to shake himself out of his stunned silence, but instead of voicing an opinion, he simply nodded. "I see. And how did Lex take it?"

Lois frowned. "Not well. He started off by telling me I was just tired and not thinking clearly, but then I tried to show him that we just didn't have anything in common, and he tried to convince me that I was wrong. But I wouldn't let him change my mind, and when I just handed him the ring back, he got angry."

A scared look flashed across Clark's face momentarily. "He didn't do anything to hurt you, did he?"

"No," Lois quickly reassured him. "But if you'd asked me that even two days ago, I would've insisted that Lex would never do anything to hurt me. But now…I'm not so sure I'd agree with myself."

Clark's brow furrowed. "What do you mean?"

"Well…" Lois paused. "To be honest, Lex kind of scared me tonight. He went through so many changes of emotion, from condescending to persuasive and then to angry. It was almost as if, when the other two responses didn't get him what he wanted, he was ready to resort to force. For a minute there, I *was* afraid he was going to hurt me. It was as if I there was this whole other side to him that I'd never seen before, and it made me wonder what he was really capable of." She stopped for a moment to tuck a wet strand of hair behind her ear. "You know, all that got me really paranoid, and when I was coming over here, I got the strangest feeling that I was being followed. But then the car turned down a different street, so I figured I was just imagining things."

"I don't know about that," Clark stated matter of factly, then surprised Lois by getting to his feet and striding across the room to the front windows. He then pulled the curtains aside and peered out into the darkened street.

A moment later, he let out a relieved sigh. "I don't see anybody," he told her as he let the curtains fall, then came back to stand beside her. When he noted with concern that she was started to shiver, he quickly reached out to take her hand in his and offered her a gentle smile. "I'll tell you what. Let's get you out of those wet clothes and into something dry. I've got a pair of sweats and a sweatshirt you can borrow. While you're changing," he said, pulling her to her feet and giving her a gentle shove in the direction of his bedroom, "I'll make you some nice, warm tea, and then we can talk some more. Okay?"

She nodded wordlessly, unable to speak. Even though her body was shivering from the cold, wet fabric pressing against her skin, the love for her that was evident in Clark's eyes warmed her clear through. For the first time in her life, she had the most incredible sensation that this was exactly where she was supposed to be. The realization nearly overwhelmed her, and she felt her heart start hammering all over again.

It was in that moment that she knew what she wanted to do. She was going to tell Clark she loved him. Here. Tonight. She didn't want to wait even a day longer to tell him how she felt. She wanted to be able to give into the urge to hold him, love him, kiss him…without worrying about the consequences. She wanted to be his, and wanted him to be hers.

Her heart started to pound harder as Clark suddenly reached out to touch her cheek gently, smoothing back the little drops of rain that had dripped down from her hair onto her skin, and she found herself reaching up and covering his hand with hers as if it was the most natural thing in the world to do. He seemed surprised by her response to his touch, but then his smile deepened, and he stroked her skin slowly for a moment with the pad of his thumb before finally stepping back and letting his hand fall to his side.

"Go ahead and get changed," he told her quietly. "The sweats are in the third dresser drawer down. I'll get your tea going."

She nodded and backed toward his bedroom. "Thanks, Clark. I'll be right out." And then, before she could act on the urge to run over and throw herself into his arms, she hurried into the bedroom to change and pep herself up for her speech.

As she opened the dresser drawer, Lois found it a little disconcerting to be rummaging through Clark's clothes. Disconcerting, but nice. She pulled out the first sweatshirt she touched—a light gray one that she'd see Clark wear on occasion that had 'Kansas University' written across the front in bold navy letters. It was big, but the fabric was incredibly soft, as if it had been washed hundreds of times. Without thinking, she held it up to her nose and inhaled slowly. She smiled. It held the unmistakable scent of Clark's cologne.

"Lois? Did you find them?" Clark called out from the kitchen.

Lois gave herself a mental shake and reprimanded herself for letting herself get carried away. "Yeah, I got 'em," she called back as she quickly reached in and pulled out a pair of navy sweats from the drawer, then hurried into the bathroom. "I'll be right out."

"No hurry. Take your time."

Lois shut the bathroom door and quickly peeled off her wet clothes. She shivered as the cool air hit her bare, damp skin, and she quickly reached for Clark's sweatshirt and pulled it over her head. Then she stepped into his large sweatpants and did her best to cinch up the drawstring waistband to accommodate her petite waist. She looked in the mirror. 'Well,' she thought, 'it's not exactly the romantic, irresistible look I would've gone for, but I guess it'll have to do.'

Then she washed her hands and face, grabbed a towel to wring the moisture out of her hair, then helped herself to the comb and hairdryer she found on the counter. When she emerged from the bathroom a few minutes later, she actually felt human again.

She walked into the kitchen where Clark was just taking the tea kettle off the stove and leaned back against the counter opposite him. "Thanks for the use of your bathroom," she tried to say casually, though even she could hear the nervous hitch that had crept into her voice. She hadn't felt nervous a minute ago, but now, as they were standing together alone in his kitchen, with what could very well be a life-altering conversation looming in the foreground, the butterflies in her stomach had suddenly fluttered into action.

Clark turned to assure her that the use of his bathroom no problem, but the moment he saw her standing there, leaning up against his counter and wearing his old college sweatshirt and cinched up sweatpants, the smile he'd intended to give her slowly faded away. He'd seen her in business suits, ball gowns, mini skirts…even an incredibly skimpy—and sexy!—chicken costume, but nothing compared to how she looked standing there in his kitchen, wearing his old, faded clothes. In that moment, she'd never looked more breathtakingly beautiful to him.

"Um," he stammered, desperately searching for something to say. Then he glanced down at the tea kettle in his hand and started. "Oh!" he exclaimed. "Your tea."

Lois watched as Clark quickly turned away, opening two different cupboards in his search for a mug. In a mild case of panic, she glanced down at the sweatshirt and pants she was wearing, wondering if she'd picked something he hadn't wanted her to wear. She'd couldn't help but notice his smile fade as he'd looked at her, then tried to cover it up by stammering about the tea.

'Way to go, Lois,' she scolded herself as Clark finally found a mug and started to pour some of the hot liquid from the kettle into the mug. 'You haven't even broached the subject of your feelings yet, and already you've alienated him.'

Lois sighed in frustration as Clark turned back to her. He hastily shoved the mug in her direction, his quick motion causing the tea to come dangerously close to sloshing over the edge.

"Sorry," he mumbled apologetically.

Lois glanced up at him briefly, then looked back down at the mug he was steadying. "Clark, um, I'm sorry if I picked the wrong things to borrow. I didn't mean to—"

"Oh, no, Lois, what you're wearing is just fine," Clark hurried to reassure her. "In fact," he began, then paused and swallowed noisily. A moment later, he tried again. "Well, it's just…well…I think you…look…*great.*" His last word was said with such a husky, breathy quality that he wanted to kick himself for telegraphing to her just how much she was affecting his ability for any and *all* rational thought.

But she seemed to breathe a sigh of relief at his reassurance, so he simply handed her the mug, which she took and moved toward the couch.

He couldn't help himself as he stole one more longing look at her as she walked away from him, noticing how her hair, still slightly damp, was just barely brushing the collar of this sweatshirt, and how the large sweatshirt and sweatpants did nothing to hide the slim, slender figure and curves that he knew were there beneath the folds of fabric. Suddenly, he felt his body temperature rising at the thought, and he knew that if he didn't get himself immediately under control, something else was going to be rising, as well.

With a glance at her bare feet, he quickly turned toward the bedroom, trying to regain some control. 'Come on, Clark, snap out of it!' he commanded himself. 'Lois is your friend. Your *friend!* She's told you, in no uncertain terms, that all she wanted to be was your friend. So that's what you're going to have to be. And don't you dare even be disappointed, because you're lucky she's even *standing* here after that 'bare your whole heart and soul' stunt you pulled earlier during the counseling session. You could've scared her off for good with that one—and for a while, you were certain you did!—so don't you dare do anything to ruin this, now that she's turned to you after what happened with her breakup tonight. Be there for her, and be thankful for what you get from her, even if it is just plain and simple friendship.'

So, with that stern talking-to, he steeled himself, forced his physical yearnings for her aside, then grabbed something from the top drawer of his dresser and went back out into the living room.

"Here," he said, holding up the soft ball of fabric as he emerged from the bedroom. "Socks. I thought your feet might be cold." He tossed them onto the couch beside Lois, then he went into the kitchen to pour himself his own tea.

When he returned, he noticed that Lois had set her mug down on the coffee table and was slipping the socks onto her feet. "Thanks," she told him with a grateful smile. "My feet *were* cold."

He smiled back at her. "No problem."

When he sat down beside her—at a respectable distance—he turned toward her, stretching an arm out along the back of the couch. "So," he prompted, hoping to continue their conversation. "About Luthor."

"Yeah, well…" Lois said with a heavy sigh. "Let's just say that I'm just glad the whole things is over and done with. Well, hopefully."

Clark caught the uncertain tone in her voice and he wrinkled his forehead in confusion. "What do you mean, 'hopefully'? Did you leave him with the impression that you might change your mind?"

"Oh, no, nothing like that," Lois quickly amended. "I made it crystal clear that it was over between us, and that I just didn't love him like I thought I did. But still…what he said to me before I left makes me wonder if he's delusional enough to think there might still be a chance for us."

"What exactly did he say?"

Lois thought for a moment. "Something about how I meant too much to him to let things end between us, and how he wanted me to give him some time to prove himself to me."

"And what did you tell him?"

"I told him I couldn't, then I left."

Clark's smile reached all the way into his eyes. "Good for you."

"Yeah, I guess," Lois sighed. "I just wish I didn't keep having this nagging feeling that he's not going to let this go. I'm sure a man in his position didn't get where he is by taking 'no' for an answer."

The muscle in Clark's jaw twitched. "Probably not," he agreed stonily. Then his tone softened as he watched her fidgeting with the long drawstring on her sweats. She appeared uncomfortable talking about what had happened, and he realized how hard confronting Lex must've been on her, and how coming to the decision to break up with him must've been even harder.

"So, what made you decide to break things off?" Clark asked, suddenly curious. "Of course, if you don't want to tell me, I understand," he quickly amended when he saw her tense up.

"Oh, um…it's not that I don't want to tell you," Lois responded slowly, carefully. She paused to wet her lips. "It's just that…well…this is where things get kind of complicated."

Clark seemed confused. "Complicated? Um, okay," he answered, wanting to know what she meant by that, but not wanting to pressure her into talking about something she didn't feel comfortable talking about. He leaned back against the couch in what he hoped was a casual 'if you want to tell me, fine. If you don't, that's fine, too' appearance, and waited for her to go on.

Lois knew that this was it—the perfect opportunity to tell him how she felt. But then she noticed just how *great* he looked sitting there, with his beautiful chocolate brown eyes regarding her attentively and his arm stretched out comfortably along the back of the couch. It was that same comfortable, casual ambience about him that had caught her attention from the very beginning. He was always so unflappable, patient and gentle. She doubted he'd have been able to worm his way into her heart without those qualities. And now that he had, she realized how lucky she was. He could've swept any number of women off their feet, chose *them* to give his heart to. But he hadn't. He'd picked her.

Suddenly, Lois felt flustered. What if she couldn't live up to his expectations? He'd told her he'd been in love with her for a long time. That was a lot of pressure, trying to be what someone else perceived. Was she doing the right thing?

'If you're not sure about how you feel about Clark, then don't tell him,' the voice in her head suggested.

'But I *do* know how I feel about Clark,' she argued back. 'I love him more than I've ever loved anybody in my life. There are just so many things about having a relationship that scare me. If we can talk about those things, then we could work on them, and we could be happy.'

'Then tell him already!' the voice demanded impatiently. 'Tell him, and then talk about the things dealing with relationships that scare you. You'll never work past those things if you can't start by telling him you love him.'

Lois knew the voice was right. One step at a time. Even though that first step seemed to be the most difficult and nerve wracking of them all…

'Just take it slow,' she told herself as she tried to calm the butterflies in her stomach. 'If you don't get this right, you could ruin everything.'

Feeling as if a fifty-pound weight was sitting on her chest, she quickly stood up and walked around to the other side of the coffee table. Anywhere but next to Clark. His closeness was making it impossible for her to think clearly.

Lois took a couple of slow steps away, fidgeting with her hands anxiously. "Well, this actually has a lot to do with what you said tonight in the counseling session…"

At that moment, Clark's heart nearly stopped beating. Which part of what he said was she referring to? He wanted to ask, but he forced himself to be patient and wait for her to continue. When she did, her tone was hesitant, nervous.

"Clark, I wanted to tell you something," Lois began, speaking slowly and carefully. "What you said tonight in our counseling session really shocked me tonight."

Clark cringed. He'd been right. He'd pushed too hard. "I know, Lois, and I'm really sorry that—"

"No, Clark, wait," she interrupted, holding up a hand to stop him. "Let me finish."

Clark paused, then nodded slowly. "Okay."

When Lois saw he was waiting for her to continue, she took a quick breath and forged on. "I was listening to what you said, and my first reaction was to deny it, to write you off as not knowing what you were talking about. But…the more I thought about it, the more I realized you were right. Lex wasn't the type of man I needed. That's why I broke things off with him."

Clark smiled with relief. "I'm so glad to hear that, Lois, because I—"

Lois quickly cut him off with a raised hand. "Wait, Clark, I'm not done." When Clark retreated into obedient silence, she continued. "I also realized something else tonight. Do you remember all those things you said about the type of man I *do* need?" Clark nodded wordlessly. "Well, you were right about that, too. I *do* need someone who knows me inside and out, knows how to calm me down when I get angry, to motivate me when I get down, to be there when I need a shoulder to cry on, or just to hold me when I'm sad. I need someone who loves me for who I am, and isn't bent on changing me, like Lex obviously was."

She paused for a moment, trying to figure out how to possibly say the next words. It was nearly impossible with Clark's intense gaze never leaving her own. She licked her lips, stalling for time, and then decided maybe she'd better sit back down. This was going to take an awful lot of courage, and she wasn't sure she could trust her shaking knees not to give out. So she hurried back over to the couch and sat down next to Clark, struggling to find her next words.

Finally, she continued haltingly. "Anyway, that got me doing a lot of thinking, and I finally realized something, something that I never thought was possible."

"What?" Clark prompted when she hesitated.

Seeing Clark waiting anxiously to hear her next words, she felt her heart hammering loudly in her chest. But then suddenly, it dawned on her. She knew *exactly* what to say. In that moment, her nervousness had mysteriously disappeared, and a slow smile crept across her face.

"Well, here's the thing. Since you're my best friend, I thought it only right that you be the first to now." She paused for dramatic effect, watching with delight as Clark unconsciously leaned forward even further, obviously eager to hear what she was about to say. But as much as she was expecting a reaction from him with her next words, she was completely unprepared for the extent of his reaction when she said, "I've finally met just such a man."

All the blood drained out of Clark's face, and his mouth fell open. He looked both stunned and distraught, and was completely able to speak. When he finally closed his mouth and made a weak attempt at clearing his throat, he parted his lips and asked in a hoarse whisper, "You what?"

Lois smiled giddily, hardly able to keep herself from bursting out laughing. " And better yet…I've fallen in love with him."

Clark fell back against the couch, desperately trying to keep the room from spinning. This wasn't happening. This couldn't be real. But one look at her flushed cheeks, sparkling eyes and wide smile told him everything he needed to know. In one achingly miserable moment, he knew the awful truth.

"You've fallen in love with someone," he echoed forlornly, hoping with all his being that this was all some sick, sordid joke.

But Lois nodded. "Yes, I have. It turns out that I've actually been in love with him for quite some time now, but I didn't realize it until I heard what you said tonight about the perfect type of person for me." As she saw that Clark appeared to be in a state of shock, she couldn't help rushing on. "He's a wonderful man, Clark. In fact, I guess you could say you and him have a lot in common."

"Oh. How…nice." Clark could barely choke the words out past the lump in his throat. It was all he could do not to throw something through the wall, or rush out to find this mysterious man who had swiftly won his Lois's heart, and tell whoever it was that Lois was already spoken for.

Feeling completely demolished, Clark leaned forward and dropped his head in his hands, trying to regain his composure after she'd delivered such a devastating blow.

It finally happened, he thought. His worse case scenario. Lois had met someone else. And this wasn't like Lex, because he always held some glimmer of hope that she'd come to her senses and realize what kind of man he really was. And she had. But now she'd gone out and found somebody else. And what was worse, he knew this wasn't just some fling, some rebound relationship, judging from the sparkle in her eyes and the flush to her cheeks. This man was somebody special. Somebody important.

And he hated him already.

'Clark, what have you done?' he asked himself miserably. 'Whatever you said tonight in that counseling session drove her right out of Lex's arms and straight into the arms of an entirely different man. Could you have possibly made this whole situation any worse?'

When he felt at least calmed down enough to listen without completely losing control, he sat back up and studied her intently, feeling even more miserable when he saw how happy she looked. But even if he didn't love her with all his heart and soul, he knew he'd never consider himself a good friend if he let her do something as foolish and headstrong as this without trying to reason her out of it. She meant too much to him to just let her go without a fight.

Taking a deep breath, he asked, "Lois, don't you think you're rushing into this just a little fast? I mean, you just barely broke things off with Lex, and already you're in love with someone new? Don't you think that's a little weird? Maybe you should just slow things down with this guy, Lois, and make sure you really know how you feel about him—"

"But see, that's just it," Lois interrupted. "I love this man. I've loved him for a long time now, and just never realized it until now. He's the perfect man for me, so patient and gentle, and I'm pretty sure he loves me, too. This just feels right, Clark, like nothing's ever felt before in my entire life."

Clark's face fell, and Lois felt a momentary stab of guilt for teasing him. But before she could let him off the hook, he sighed audibly.

"Well, if that's how you feel about it, Lois," he said, knowing that his argument wasn't changing her mind. "I guess I can't stop you." But then his resolve to back off and support her instantly dissolved into thin air, and his anger erupted. "Lois, this is crazy!" he yelled, starting to pace. "You can't know this guy any better than you did Lex! And look how wrong *he* turned out to be for you! Do you really want to get yourself into another dead-end relationship like that? I mean— "

"Clark!" Lois's shout stopped Clark's tirade cold. When she saw that she had his full attention, she stood up from the couch and took a step toward him. She felt a twinge of guilt for making him feel so miserable, but if he didn't stop flying off the handle, how was she supposed to clue him in?

She dared to take another step closer and then stopped when she was only an arm's distance away. "Don't you even want to know who this man is?" she asked, looking up into his pain-filled eyes.

"Okay," Clark lied.

Lois smiled, enjoying her little charade, since it spoke volumes about just how much Clark truly loved her. "He works at the Planet, and we met a while ago when he first started working there," she told him slowly, hoping he'd pick up the hints she was dropping. "It's just taken me this long to realize how right we are for each other, and how perfect we'd be together. So, thanks to you, I made up my mind to just come right out and tell him how I feel about him."

"Yeah, thanks to me," Clark repeated, the sarcasm in his tone unmistakable. He sighed and again ran a hand through his hair. "Well, I guess I probably know him, if he works at the Planet. Who is it?" He paused. But then realization suddenly seemed to dawn in his mind, and a repulsed look crossed his face. "It's not Jimmy, is it?"

Lois almost lost it. "*No,* it's not Jimmy!" she retorted indignantly. "How could you even think such a thing?"

Clark tried to smile, but didn't completely succeed. "Then who, Lois? Because maybe I could tell you if he'd be all wrong for you. I mean…maybe this is just another guy who's trying to pull a Claude!"

But Lois shook her head adamantly. "I know without a doubt that he'd never do that to me," she said softly, taking yet another step closer. "Clark, what I'm trying to say is…I was listening to everything you said in that session tonight, about who that perfect man for me would be, and you know what? You were absolutely right. This man *is* perfect for me, and I don't know why it took me so long to figure that out. But then, I guess I was just blind to the fact that this perfect man was right under my nose all this time. I had plenty of chances to realize it, whether it was during stakeouts alone late at night, or while we talked and laughed as we shared a pizza and watched a video, or even argued over who had the better lead on a story…"

A look of utter confusion came over Clark's face, and his brows furrowed. "Arguing about story leads? Who else have you been investigating stories with, Lois?"

Lois let out a tiny growl of aggravation. She stomped her foot in exasperation and said, "Clark, you are *so* dense! What I'm trying to say is that I'm in love with you! And I have been for a long time. But it took your little speech in Dr. Jenkins' office tonight to make me realize that we *are* perfect for each other, that we love each other, and should *be* together…"

Clark's jaw dropped and he looked simply dumfounded. A moment later, his eyes misted over and he actually looked like he might cry. "Lois, are you really saying what I think you're saying?"

She nodded slowly, her heart warming as she realized she couldn't have possibly gotten a better reaction. "Yes, Clark I am. I love you, and I'm so sorry that I didn't realize it sooner. I probably could've saved us both a lot of heartbreak by being honest with myself from the beginning, but I guess I just wasn't ready to admit it earlier—to myself *or* to you." She paused and timidly reached out for Clark's hands. "So, I guess what I wanted to find out was…do you still love me enough to forgive me for being so dense? So blind to what should've been so obvious?"

Clark paused for a long moment, closing his eyes against the threatening tears, and wanting to simply savor this moment, to store it in his memory for as long as he lived. Never in his lifetime had he expected to hear the things Lois had just said, and nothing could've prepared him for the moment he'd finally heard those words spoken from her lips. The warmth from them started at his heart and radiated out from there until he felt warm all over. And in that moment, he felt completely, wonderfully, and blissfully happy.

He finally opened his eyes and looked down into Lois's, but then some of the warmth in his body started to dissipate. She actually looked hurt, and he suddenly realized that she must've mistaken his silence for rejection.

She let her hands slip from his and looked, downcast, at the floor. "Oh. I see," she simply responded.

She started to turn away, but Clark quickly recaptured her hands and forced her to meet his gaze. "Lois," he said, his voice thick with emotion. "I have to admit, this is a surprise. But I think it's the most wonderful surprise I've ever had in my life. Oh, Lois," he said reaching out to stroke her cheek tenderly. "You have no idea how incredible it feels to hear you say those words. And you already know how I feel about you. I've loved you from the moment I saw you barge into Perry's office, and since then, nothing has changed. If anything, I love you even more."

Lois nearly wilted with relief. "Oh, Clark, I thought you were going to tell me you'd changed your mind about how you felt about me…"

"Not a chance," he whispered huskily. "I've never been so sure of anything in my life."

With tears of happiness and relief gathering in her eyes, Lois tightened her grip on Clark's hands, almost as if she needed the firm pressure to convince herself that all this was real. All the doubts and concerns about what might happen in their relationship in the future faded from her mind, and she found herself wanting to simply lose herself in the moment, in the look of intense love and belonging that she read in Clark's eyes. Her heart swelled, and she knew that this was right. It was as if all the paths of fate had intersected into this one special moment, letting her know that this, here, standing with Clark, their hands clasped and fingers intertwined, was exactly where she was supposed to be.

Slipping one of her hands from his, she gently reached up to trail a finger slowly across Clark's cheek, watching in fascination as he closed his eyes at her touch, then reached up to cover her hand with his own.

"Lois," he murmured lovingly, "I can't believe this is really happening. I've been hoping for this for so long. I just didn't think you'd ever come to your senses."

Lois laughed softly. "Well, maybe *I'm* the dense one, but at least I finally figured it out."

He smiled tenderly and enclosed his fingers around her hand. "I'm so glad you did."

Then Clark's smile started to fade, and, in one heart-stopping moment, Lois realized he was going to kiss her. Breathlessly, she found herself wondering how it would feel to kiss him…not a kiss based on false pretenses, which they had shared before, but one real, wonderful kiss that would betoken the turning point in their developing relationship.

Nervously, Lois watched as Clark took a half step toward her, imperceptibly closing the distance between them until they were only inches apart. Her breath caught in her throat as he slowly lowered his face to hers. As he did, she realized she couldn't move, couldn't breathe. Unable to resist the lure of his lips, she tipped her face up to Clark's, and instantly, the world around them seemed to melt away as their lips met in a brilliant, earth-shattering kiss.

Lois closed her eyes blissfully, savoring the delicious way Clark's lips felt on hers. The heady scent of his lingering cologne wafted around her, and she felt helpless to do anything but to respond to his kiss. She forgot about Lex, about the troubles of the last few days, about the fact that this moment was about to change her life completely. She forgot about everything except the way Clark's lips felt on hers, roaming, nibbling, tasting. The kisses they'd shared before had been nothing like this. As with the others, she'd always been unable to enjoy the sensation of his lips on hers because she was busy thinking about who they were trying to distract or convince of their passion.

But this…this was completely different. Lois felt vulnerable, nervous, and excited, all at the same time, and she wanted to stay this way in his arms forever.

When they finally pulled apart, they were both breathless and dizzy. "Wow," Clark mumbled huskily, obviously as swept away by the moment as she was.

"Yeah," she responded headily. "That was…"

"…incredible."

Lois grinned. "That's just what I was going to say."

Not trusting his weak knees, Clark relaxed his grip on her and let his hands slide down until he found hers and clasped them firmly in his own. He led her silently to the couch, pulling her gently down next to him. She didn't hesitate to snuggle up against him as his arm went around her and she dropped her head to his shoulder.

After a long, luxurious moment of being in each other's arms, Lois lifted her head to look up into the face of the man she loved. She smiled softly. "What took us so long?"

Clark smiled back as he reached out to brush her hair back away from her face. "I don't know. Stubbornness, maybe?"

Lois sat up a little and looked at him indignantly. "Are you saying I'm stubborn?"

"Are you saying you're not?" he shot back challengingly, his eyes twinkling happily.

"Well, okay, maybe I am," she relented.

A comfortable silence ensued as Lois dropped her head back onto Clark's shoulder, and closed her eyes dreamily as he traced gentle circles on her arm. A few minutes later, though, Clark spoke again. "Maybe it took us so long because the things we've experienced—both apart and together—were meant to teach us something about friendships, love, and relationships. Do you think that's possible?"

Lois lifted her hand to Clark's chest and rested it there comfortably. "I guess so. I certainly have learned a lot, especially these last few days, about taking things—and people—for granted, and realizing what I have before I stubbornly let them slip away."

"I've learned a lot, too, I guess. Mostly patience." Clark grinned, and Lois thumped him on the chest. He just laughed at her indignant reaction, then sighed happily as he leaned down to kiss her gently one more time. When he pulled back, he touched his forehead to hers, then closed his eyes, simply reveling in the idea that he was now allowed to kiss her without pretense, to touch her, to be near her. It felt incredible.

Moments later, his eyes flickered open and he smiled down at her. "Won't everyone at the Planet have a heart attack when they hear what's happened between us? I think Perry will actually need oxygen."

Lois laughed. "I kind of suspected he was wishing we'd get together sooner or later."

"Yeah, I did, too." He paused. "And my parents will be beside themselves when I tell them. They've always thought you were great. Kind of the daughter they never had."

Lois stiffened. "Um, Clark," she said, straightening up a bit and looking at him hesitantly. "I know it's taken me a long time to finally get to this point, and that we probably already know each other better than most couples who enter a relationship do, but…"

"But?" Clark prompted, a little nervously.

"Well, it's just that…would you mind so much if we didn't rush into this? Kind of plan to take it slow? I mean, everything's just so new…"

Suddenly, Clark felt incredible guilty for the thoughtless little remark about 'the daughter they never had.' Of course she'd be nervous about starting a relationship! She'd told him before how miserably her parents' marriage had failed, and he knew that she, herself, had had some bad experiences as far as relationships were concerned. Again, he realized he'd pushed too hard.

"Oh, Lois, I'm sorry," he quickly apologized, sitting up a bit and reaching out gently for her hand. "I didn't mean to imply that we should run off and get married or anything…although, technically, we *are* married." He flashed her a quick grin, hoping to tease her out of her sudden change in mood.

It worked. She laughed at his comment, and looked visibly relieved. But then her smile slowly faded, and she looked down at their joined hands thoughtfully. Clark could tell there was more she wanted to say, so he waited patiently until she was ready to continue. Finally, she did. "Clark, I know you've been in love with me for a long time now," she began hesitantly. "But I just realized how I feel about you a few hours ago, and all of that is just so new to me. I'm going to need some time to adjust to the idea of 'us,' you know?"

He nodded, and then she seemed to pick up steam as she continued. "What you just said about Perry and your parents being so happy for us…well, it scares me a little to think that all these people are wanting for things to work out with us. Because what if things *don't* work out for us? We're taking this huge leap into what could be the most monumentally bad decision of our lives, here! What if we commit to this relationship, and things go horribly wrong? Our friendship would be ruined, and—"

"Wait, wait, wait…just hold on a second," Clark quickly cut in as her concerns were starting to turn into full-fledge babbling. When she stopped at his insistence and looked at him expectantly, he gave her a gentle smile and squeezed her hand. "Lois, I understand what you're concerned about. I really do. But don't you think I've asked myself those same things a hundred times before?" He paused. "Well, I have. And do you know what I've come up with is: there really *are* no concrete answers. But, Lois, I *do* know that I love you. And if you love me, we can work through everything else. I know that this must all be so new and scary to you, but I honestly don't want you to feel any pressure. If you want to take things slow, then we will. I don't have any problems at with that."

Lois heaved a huge sigh of relief. "Oh, Clark. You have no idea how much I was hoping you'd say that. Thanks for understanding."

Clark smiled supportively. "Anytime, Lois. And I want you to know that I *will* always try to be understanding. But if I'm ever acting dense," he grinned as he used her earlier word, "just smack me, okay?"

Lois couldn't help grinning back. "Okay."

"Now," Clark said more quietly as he leaned back into the corner of the couch and pulled her back with him. He wrapped his arms around her from behind as she leaned against his strong chest, then pressed a gentle kiss into her hair. "Is there anything about 'us' that's still worrying you? Any doubts or concerns we should talk about to help you to feel more comfortable?"

Lois sighed happily and snuggled deeper into him. "Well, maybe just a few things," she admitted.

"Why don't you tell me?" Clark suggested. "Unless you're too tired and want to get home to get some sleep. I just realized it's almost one AM."

She whirled around to look at the clock, surprised to see that Clark was right. "I had no idea it was so late. But you know what? I'm not tired at all."

"Good," Clark replied happily. "Then let's talk."

***

As Lois slipped her key into the lock of her apartment at almost four A.M., she couldn't remember ever feeling so happy, so free…so completely and totally in love.

Clark had been incredibly understanding and wonderful as they talked into the wee hours of the morning about everything: her concerns about what lay ahead for their relationship, how their newly discovered feelings might affect the way they worked together at the Planet, and how they would take time out of their busy schedules to build what they had between them.

Never before had Lois talked so openly and honestly with anyone before, and to be able to do so with someone she was romantically involved with was an amazing feeling. Even though little doubts and fears threatened to creep into her thoughts, she felt too enraptured with being in love with her best friend to let them have much effect on her.

Walking through her darkened apartment, Lois didn't even bother to turn on any lights. She went straight to her bedroom and changed into pajamas so she could go to bed. She did have to be to work in a little over three hours, after all. But even as Lois lay in bed and stared up at her darkened ceiling, she doubted sleep would be coming anytime soon. Her whole entire life changed tonight in a matter of a few short hours. She'd broken off her engagement to a man who was all wrong for her, then found the man who was all right for her.

'Who would've ever thought Mad Dog Lane would ever fall in love?' she thought with a happily. But it was true. It had finally happened.

Lois Lane was in love.

***

It was almost ten o'clock when Clark finally stepped into the newsroom after an entire morning of questioning witnesses and unsuccessfully trying to track down leads regarding Metropolis's latest car theft ring. Perry had dumped the assignment on him first thing when he'd walked into the newsroom at seven o'clock that morning. He couldn't help wondering if Perry had given it to him because he'd been one of the first reporters to arrive. He was frustrated, tired, and all he wanted to do was to see Lois.

Lois.

He smiled. Just the thought of her was enough to send tingles throughout his entire body. She'd been all he'd been able to think about the entire morning, which probably had a lot to do with his lack of results in breaking open the story. But last night had been incredible, unforgettable. They'd talked practically until dawn, and it had felt absolutely amazing to hold her in his arms as they spent hours talking and laughing, and, well…of course, kissing.

When she'd come over, he'd honestly expected her to tell him off for all the things he'd said about Luthor during their counseling session, to tell him to mind his own business and get out of her life. But he certainly hadn't expected to hear that she'd broken off her engagement to Luthor, that she'd fallen in love with someone—and that that someone had been him! He'd always hoped and dreamed that Lois would finally come around, but to finally have her do so seemed entirely too good to be true. He'd hardly been able to let her go home when they'd realized the night had almost gone, and that they were going to need to be at work in a matter of hours. He'd wanted to continue to hold her forever, to feel her arms around him, to share the kisses and reassurances of love they both sought. But he knew there would be plenty of time for that in the future…a lifetime, in fact. Because that was how much time he planned to be spending with her.

As blissfully happy as he knew felt, however, there was one thing that continued to nag at him. Superman. Now that Lois had chosen him over the elusive superhero—something he doubted would ever happen—he knew he owed it to her to come clean, to tell her the truth about his other identity.

He sighed heavily. That certainly wasn't going to be easy, especially after she'd bared her soul to him, confided that she wondered if he'd been right about Lex after all, that the man held some rather dark secrets. But how would she react when she found out he was holding some very serious secrets of his own? Their newly established trust could be lost forever. It was enough to scare him into never telling her, but he knew that wasn't possible. She loved him. And now that she did, she deserved to know. But not now. She was just in too insecure a time and place in her life. If he told her now with the level of insecurity she was feeling, he'd surely drive her away. And probably for good. No, he had to pick and choose his time to tell her, and he knew for certain, this wasn't it.

"Hey, Clark, where've you been?"

Clark turned to see Jimmy coming up behind him. "Hi, Jimmy. I've been trying to track down some leads on that car theft ring story Perry assigned me. What's up?"

Jimmy held up a handful of papers. "I've got some more information on that mysterious marriage of yours."

After everything that had happened since he and Lois had left the Planet last night, Clark realized he'd forgotten all about it. "What did you find?"

"Just that someone has sure gone to a lot of trouble to cover their tracks," Jimmy told him. "I tried to track down the clerk whose name is on the paperwork, and suspiciously enough, the city doesn't seem to have anyone by that name working for them. And while yours and Lois's birth dates, social security numbers and proof of residence in Metropolis were all verified, according to this, there are no copies of any of those certificates like there's supposed to be."

"So what does that mean?"

"Well, my guess would be that whoever this clerk is who filed the paperwork was either lazy about getting copies of the required information and has since moved out of state, or else they were in on it somehow, and managed to use a fake name and get the marriage paperwork pushed through without anybody asking any questions."

"Hmm," Clark mumbled. "Sounds like getting to the bottom of this is going to be a lot harder than we'd anticipated."

"Do you want me to keep looking?"

"Um, not yet. Let me talk to Lois and see if she has any ideas."

Jimmy nodded. "Okay. But holler if you need me to track down anything else. Oh, by the way," Jimmy said with a wink, "Lois is looking for you."

Clark's eyes widened at Jimmy's knowing smile. Had Lois told him about them? Or had Jimmy just sensed things were changing between them? Before he could ask him, Jimmy had conveniently disappeared.

With a shrug, Clark turned and looked for Lois. As expected, she was at her desk. His brow furrowed, however, when he saw that she was holding a very large bouquet of long-stemmed red roses and reading the accompanying card. He hadn't sent her flowers. So who had?

He started walking toward her, but as he neared, he saw her frown at the card in her hand. Then she turned to an approaching garbage bin that was being rolled past her desk by a custodian, and ceremoniously tossed the roses into it.

Clark couldn't help grinning. "Gee, Lois," he quipped when he stopped beside her. "Remind me not to send *you* flowers." His teasing grin faded, however, as he saw her jaw clench in anger, and she simply tossed the card at him by means of explanation.

Confused, Clark caught it and opened it. His stomach knotted up when he read it:

'Lois,

I still love you. Won't you reconsider?

Lex'

Clark's heart stopped. 'She wouldn't, would she?' he suddenly worried. He quickly glanced up at her, but one look at the temper flaring in her eyes gave him his answer. She most certainly wouldn't. If anything, Lois was stubborn. Once she made up her mind about something, she rarely backed down.

He closed his eyes briefly, breathing a grateful sigh of relief. "Lois," he said soothingly as he stepped closer, putting his hands on her shoulders and gently massaging the tense muscles there. "Don't let this get to you. You already told him how you feel. You don't have to feel obligated to do anything else."

"Yeah, I know," Lois replied, leaning back into his touch. "I just figured I was done with this. And, well…" her voice lowered as she turned to Clark. "To tell you the truth, he still kind of scares me, Clark. You didn't see him last night. In that brief second, I think I caught a glimpse of what he's capable of. And I didn't like it one bit."

Clark turned her the rest of the way around to face him, and he took her into his arms. "Well, he's just going to have to get used to the fact that you're mine now, Lois," he told her, a beautiful look of love and happiness spreading across his features. "And he's just going to have to live with that."

Lois's concern melted away, and she smiled softly. "I know *I* can. Live with it, I mean."

Clark's answering smile rivaled the brightness of the sun. "So can I." Then he leaned down to gently touch his lips to hers, not even considering the fact that they were in plain sight for all the newsroom to see. That was, until a series of whistles and catcalls started to reverberate in their ears, and a deep voice almost immediately followed.

"What is this?" the voice thundered. "Am I running a newsroom or a bordello?"

They quickly broke apart and turned to see Perry White standing not five feet away from them, looking both stunned and intimidating, with a half-scowl on his face and his hands on his hips.

"Oh, um, sorry, Chief," Clark quickly stammered. "I was just, uh, about to fill Lois in on the car theft story you assigned me."

A fleeting smile dared to flash across their editor's face and his eyes twinkled merrily. "Yeah. I'll bet you were." Then, with a hint of a wink at Lois, he turned away and scowled at the gawking newsroom. "All right! What is this, the seventh inning stretch? Let's get back to work!"

Lois breathed a sigh of relief when Perry walked away without saying anything further. But then another thought struck her. How would Clark feel about having been caught kissing her, not only by their editor in chief, but by an entire newsroom, as well? As she turned back to look at him, though, she noted that he only seemed momentarily flustered at the attention, and not in the least bit concerned about letting everyone see how he felt about her. It made her marvel at how truly lucky she was to have someone who cared about her so much, and wasn't afraid to show it, even publicly.

"Oh, I almost forgot," he said, perching on the corner of her desk. "Jimmy told me what he's been able to dig up regarding our marriage paperwork." He quickly filled her in on what Jimmy had discovered. "He asked me if we wanted him to keep digging, but I told him I'd talk to you first. What do you want to do?"

Lois sat down in her chair with a sigh. "Well, since it looks like the research to get to the bottom of this could take a lot longer than we thought, I guess it doesn't make much sense to put in all that effort to figure out *how* this happened. I mean, the divorce paperwork has already been filed, and I'm definitely not scrambling to undo it in order to marry Lex." She shuddered involuntarily. "So we may as well just wait. That's all that's really left to do, since we've already been through the mandatory marriage counseling…which actually proved to be *extremely* helpful in bringing me to my senses." She grinned at him, and Clark smiled back at her brightly.

Clark shrugged slightly. "Whatever you think is fine with me."

"Then let's focus on something else," she suggested, leaning back in her chair. "For now, anyway. You said something to Perry about filling me in on a car theft story he assigned you?"

As they got to work, the time seemed to fly by for Lois, and she found herself happier than ever for the chance to work side by side with Clark. And she had to admit, they made a great team. He thought of angles she didn't, and she suggested different ways to track down the elusive information they needed to tighten up the story that he hadn't thought of. Then they went out to interview a few other witnesses that Clark hadn't been able to contact earlier that morning, and by the time they arrived back at the Planet, Lois was a little tired by all their work, but happy.

Lois smiled at Clark as they rode up in the elevator. Instinctively, she threaded her arm through Clark's and drew him close. "I can't believe all the information we were able to dig up this morning. I always knew we'd make a great team."

Clark laughed. "Oh, really? Like how you told me that first day how I wasn't working *with* you, I was working *for* you, and how I was just some 'hack from Nowheresville'?"

"Okay, well, maybe I didn't realize it *then,*" she admitted sheepishly, "but I realize it now. Doesn't that count for something?"

"More than you know," he told her huskily as he turned to take her into his arms. "And yes, I think we make a *great* team. In more ways than one." Then he leaned down to kiss her gently, causing shivers of pleasure to tingle through his own body. If he had a lifetime to spend kissing her, it still wouldn't be enough.

Just then the elevator doors opened onto the newsroom, and Clark reluctantly pulled away, thrilled to see that Lois looked as disappointed by the interruption as he was. With a tender smile, he stepped back, but reached for her hand, interlocking his fingers with hers as they walked out into the newsroom.

Jimmy spotted them and quickly hurried over, several papers in his hand. He opened his mouth to speak, but then noticed them holding hands and looking incredibly happy, and his eyes widened in shock. He'd wondered about that kiss he'd witnessed between them earlier that morning, but now he was clearly confused. Just what was going on?

When he finally found his voice, he tentatively handed Lois the papers and said, "Um, Lois, you had a bunch of calls while you were gone. There's one from your mom, who insisted that if you didn't call her back, she was going to come down her personally and humiliate you in front of all your coworkers." Lois rolled her eyes and Jimmy grinned. "Apparently, she's been trying to get hold of you for days. As for the rest of your messages, most of them are from Lex."

Lois looked startled. "From *who*?"

"Lex," Jimmy chuckled. "You know…your fianc…oh." His voice trailed off as the reality suddenly hit him, and he glanced down again at Lois and Clark's joined hands.

At his look of confusion, Lois's mouth tightened into a firm line, and she snatched the papers from his hand. As she thumbed quickly through them, she replied, "To answer your question, yes, Lex and I broke up." Then she turned to Clark grimly. "But obviously *he* doesn't see it that way."

"So what are you going to do?" Clark asked solemnly.

Lois frowned as she reached out and pointedly dropped the messages into a nearby garbage can. "Absolutely nothing. If I don't call him back, maybe he'll get the hint and leave me alone."

"Yeah, right," Jimmy scoffed. "Each time he's called, he's gotten more impatient. He didn't sound like he was about to give up."

"Well, he's just going to have to," Lois said matter of factly. "And if he calls again, tell him I'm still out."

Jimmy nodded. "You got it."

As they watched Jimmy head back to his desk, Clark turned to Lois and laid a tentative hand on her shoulder. "You okay?"

"Yeah, I'm fine," she sighed as she moved off to walk with him down the newsroom ramp. "I'm just frustrated. Why can't he leave me alone? I told him last night that we were finished. What part didn't he understand?"

"Do you want me to personally call Lex and tell him where to go?" he asked with a smile.

That made her laugh. "Somehow, I don't see you as that type of person."

"Well, okay, maybe I'm not."

Just then, Perry's shout reverberated through the newsroom. "Lois! Clark! Where's the story on the car theft ring?!"

Clark turned to their boss. "We're on it, Chief."

Perry gave a quick nod. "Good! I want everything you've got on my desk in one hour." Then he turned and went back into his office.

Clark sighed. "I guess we should get on it, huh?"

"Yeah, I guess so." She walked with him over to their desks, then she reached out to touch his arm. "Clark, do you think we could get all our stuff wrapped up at a decent hour this evening? I'd love it if we could get out of here and spend the evening together, even if it's just going somewhere to talk."

Clark's heart soared. With a tender smile, he lifted a hand to tuck a stray strand of hair behind her ear. "I'd love that."

The next hour flew by as Lois and Clark worked intensely to gather everything they had on their latest story to show Perry, and they were both relieved when Perry was pleased with the information they presented him. With the go-ahead to keep working on it, Lois and Clark breezed out of his office, happy to have a few moments to catch their breaths.

"Hey, how about grabbing some lunch?" Lois asked Clark. "I don't know about you, but I'm starved."

"Sounds great. How about that little place—" Clark stopped abruptly in mid-sentence, and his eyes took on a far away look.

Lois frowned. "Clark? What's the matter?"

"Um, Lois…" Clark started to stammer, acting very preoccupied as he reached up to fumble with his tie and backed nervously toward the elevator. "I'm sorry, but, um…I just remembered…I'm supposed to go meet a source about this story, and I just realized how late I was."

"But Clark, we just spent an entire morning talking to sources!" she exclaimed. "Who do you—"

"Lois, I'm sorry, really, but I have to go," he said, tilting his head apologetically as he quickly backed away. "I'll be right back, though, and we can grab some lunch, I promise. Really, Lois, I'm sorry." And with that, he turned and hurried into the elevator.

Lois stared after him, her mouth still open in protest. Why did he always do that? Talk about aggravating. And none of the times he came back from his little disappearing acts did he really have a satisfying explanation for leaving. Lois sighed and shook her head. Someday she was going to find out why exactly he did that. And now that they were together, with things out in the open between them, she was going to get to the bottom of it.

Sitting down at her desk, she did her best to ignore her growling stomach as she started to work on their story. Before long, she was so engrossed in her work that she didn't hear the sound of approaching footsteps, followed by a deep, smooth voice.

"Working hard?"

Startled, she looked up from her desk, and when she saw who'd spoken, her heart sank.

Lex.

She tried to return his smile, but wasn't entirely successful. "Oh, um, Lex. Hi," she managed to choke out.

His smile softened charmingly, and she was surprised that she'd never realized before how practiced it seemed. "Lois, I've been trying to call you all morning, but either someone hasn't been giving you your messages, or you've been avoiding me."

Lois squirmed under his scrutiny. "Oh, um, Lex…I've just been so busy with this story Perry gave me, and—"

But Lex waved off her attempt at an explanation with a wave of his hand. "Don't worry, Lois, I know how busy things can get." Then he smiled and leaned toward her, lowering his voice intimately. "But I didn't come by here to find out why you haven't returned my calls. I came to whisk you away somewhere for lunch…somewhere romantic, somewhere private, where we could go to talk…"

Lois sighed heavily. "Lex, I don't think that's a good idea. I told you last night—"

But Lex cut her off with a slow shake of his head. "Now, Lois, I know you were upset last night, and I know people often say things they don't really mean when they're upset. So I wanted to come by and take you somewhere where we can talk things out, fix whatever you perceive to be wrong between us."

Lois stiffened and was about to argue, but then glanced conspicuously around her. The newsroom was teeming with people, and this wasn't exactly the type of conversation she wanted to have with so many people around. "Lex, let's go talk about this in one of the conference rooms, okay? There are too many distractions out here."

He smiled triumphantly, as if he'd finally gotten what he'd wanted. "Perfect. It'll give us a chance to be alone, and we can get to the bottom of what's bothering you."

Lois rolled her eyes at his back as he turned and led the way to the nearest conference room, and she followed him in and shut the door quietly. When she turned back to him, she saw him perch himself on the edge of the conference room table, and he looked like the cat who'd swallowed the canary.

"So let's get to the bottom of this, Lois," he smiled winningly as he reached for her hand and pulled her closer to him. "What can we do to make things right between us?"

"Lex," Lois began, working especially hard to remain calm but firm, instead of giving in to her urge to throttle him. "We've been over all this. I told you last night how I felt, and it wasn't because I was tired or upset. It's what I honestly feel, and you're not going to change my mind about that."

"But Lois," Lex said patronizingly. "There's always a way to make something you want work. And I really want this to work between us, so let's figure out how—"

Her patience finally gone, Lois jerked her hand out of his and glared at him in utter frustration. "Lex, you're not listening to me! I meant every word of what I said last night. It's over between us! I don't want to go to lunch with you, and we have nothing to talk about. I told you how I felt, and why I was breaking off our engagement. It's nothing that talking things over will fix. I just don't love you like I thought I did. And if you can't understand that, well, then I'm really sorry. But you're *not* going to change my mind."

Lex stared at her for a long moment in shocked silence, almost as if he couldn't believe she wasn't giving in. But when she continued to stand there, unwavering before him, his eyes darkened and he stood up from the edge of the table slowly. "So that's it," he replied, his tone holding an icy chill. "No negotiations? No working things out?"

Lois shook her head firmly. "No. It's over between us, Lex."

He took a step closer, and Lois shivered involuntarily at the cold, angry expression in his dark eyes. "And you expect me to believe you came to this decision all by yourself? That nobody else was involved?"

Lois's eyes narrowed, and she crossed her arms in front of her indignantly. "What's that supposed to mean?"

His smile completely disappeared from his face, and a snarl took its place. "Do you honestly think I don't know where you went last night after we talked?" he demanded, his eyes flashing dangerously. "How *is* Clark, by the way?"

Lois's jaw dropped. "How did you—" She paused, and then it hit her. "You had me followed!"

When Lex remained silent, unable to deny her accusation, she lost what little control over her temper she had left. "Lex, how *dare* you! Even if I hadn't told you in no uncertain terms that it was over between us, having me followed definitely wouldn't win me back! Why are you doing this?"

Lex closed the remaining distance between them, his body language threatening as he grabbed her arm above her elbow. "Did you really think I was going to give up that easily?" he demanded, his jaw clenched tightly. "That I'd just let you break off our engagement and drive off into the sunset? Whatever you think about me, I should let you know that I'm a man who gets what he wants, and I'm not afraid to go after it. Even if it means eliminating the competition, if you know what I mean."

Lois felt a chill run through her body. There was no misinterpreting his thinly veiled threat. Either she stayed with him, or he'd go after anybody who attempted to come between them.

Even Clark.

She swallowed noisily. The thought was even too horrible to comprehend. Now that she finally had Clark in her life, she couldn't bear the thought of losing him. But then her anger flared, and she felt like slugging Lex. How could she have possibly been so delusional to think she could love him and spend her life with him?

Angry with herself as well as with him, she glared at Lex and turned toward the door. "I don't succumb to threats, Lex. And if that's all you're going to do, start throwing threats around, then I'm out of here."

But in a flash, Lex's expression hardened and his hand tightened on her arm, causing her to flinch and turn back to him. In a moment reminiscent of last night, Lois glimpsed something dark, something evil, in his eyes, and she got scared. Lex was a powerful man, one who obviously wasn't accustomed to being told 'no.' Was he capable of violence? She didn't know, but she wasn't about to find out. She briefly thought about resorting to her self-defense training to free herself, but decided that she didn't want to use force unless she had to. She wanted to end this as civilly as possible.

Calmly, but stalwartly, she met his gaze directly and insisted, "Lex, let me go."

But Lex was obviously not in an acquiescent mood. He took yet another step closer until he was pressed up against her, and when she looked up to meet his gaze, she saw that his dark eyes were flashing dangerously. His jaw was clenched when he told her firmly, threateningly, "Lois, I want us to work this out, and I'm not leaving until you tell me that we will."

Lois tried to yank her arm away again, but his grip tightened even further, causing her to yelp. Tears sprung involuntarily into her eyes at the bruising grip he had on her arm, and she had to swallow hard to retain what little control she had left. "Lex, please, you're hurting me…"

But her attempts to reason with him fell on deaf ears as he only continued to stare down at her, unwavering in his determination. Just as Lois was about to take matters into her own hands, a deep voice suddenly sounded in the room.

"Let her go."

Startled, both Lois and Lex turned to see that Clark was standing in the conference room doorway, his shoulders squared and his jaw set. His own eyes smoldered in barely contained fury as he glanced meaningfully at the vice grip Lex had on Lois's arm, then took a step toward Lex menacingly.

It was apparent from the expression in Lex's eyes that he was surprised that the usually mild-mannered reporter from Kansas would dare challenge him so openly, but the look quickly faded and was replaced with one of anger. His and Clark's eyes met in a silent battle of wills, and Lois found herself as surprised as Lex to see the steely look of determination in Clark's eyes. She'd never seen him look so intimidating, so unwavering and unafraid before. It made her wonder what else she didn't know about him, and what other sides to him she hadn't seen.

After what seemed like an eternity, Lex finally backed down, releasing Lois's arm with a final, angry shove. She tried not to cry out at the pain the movement caused, and was surprised when Clark was suddenly beside her, stepping in between her and Lex.

Lex snarled, "You have no idea who you're dealing with, Kent."

Clark's eyes flashed. "No, Lex. It's *you* who has no idea who you're dealing with. Now, before I physically throw you out of this building myself, I suggest you leave. Immediately."

Lex's expression hardened, and he looked from Clark, to Lois, then back again. "Fine," he finally growled through clenched teeth. "But know this. This is *not* over. Not by any means." And with that, he sent a look of pure daggers at Clark before turning and stalking out the open conference room door.

As soon as he was gone, Lois's knees—and composure—crumpled, and Clark's arms quickly darted out to grab her, and then lowered her into a nearby chair. He immediately squatted down in front of her, putting his hands on her knees. He watched, his stomach tightened up in knots, as her shoulders started to shake.

"Lois, are you okay? Did he hurt you?" he asked anxiously, his concern for her evident in his touch and voice. "Let me see your arm." As Lois struggled to compose herself, he quickly reached for her short sleeve and pushed the material up to reveal her already purpling skin. He cringed. "This looks kind of bad, Lois. I think maybe we should get some ice—"

But before he could finish his sentence, Lois leaned forward and dropped her head onto his shoulder, trying to draw strength from his closeness. A quiet sob escaped her lips, and she reached up to put a shaking hand over her mouth in an attempt to contain it.

Clark's heart immediately went out to her, and he kneeled forward, sliding his arms around her and pulling her tightly against him. "It's okay, Lois, it's okay. I'm here," he murmured soothingly as he slipped his hand into her hair and cradled her head against his shoulder.

But Lois only allowed herself a moment of weakness before pulling back stiffly and reaching up to wipe away the few tears that had escaped down her cheeks. Then she cleared her throat and stood up, pushing past Clark and walking over to the other side of the room, as if trying to distance herself from all that had just happened.

Clark watched as she put a hand to her head, pushing back her hair with her fingers, then take a couple of deep, shaky breaths. It was obvious how emotional she still was, and he shook his head sympathetically. He hated to see her trying to repress her feelings, as she'd continually done since he'd known her. Hoping to convince her to not hold back her feelings, he stood up and stepped toward her. "Lois—"

But Lois seemed to anticipate what he was going to say, and she quickly held up a hand to stop him. "No, Clark, I'm fine," she told him shakily. "Really. I just…I just need a minute, okay?"

Clark sighed. "Lois, why do you always do this?" he persisted gently, continuing to walk towards her, though this time more slowly. "If something happens that deeply affects you, why do you feel like you have to repress your feelings?"

Lois dropped her hand from her hair and turned to give him the hint of a smile. "Clark, I've spent a lifetime repressing. It just works for me, okay?"

Clark chuckled softly. "If you say so." He wanted to say more, but decided against it. Stopping beside her, he laid a hand on her back and rubbed her lightly.

"I just can't believe I could be so na´ve," she began quietly, but her voice quickly gained strength and momentum. "How could I possibly believe that Lex was some charming, nice guy? How could I have possibly thought I *loved* him?"

She took a couple steps forward, causing Clark's hand to fall to his side, and started to pace, slowly at first, then with increasing energy. Clark watched in amusement as her body movements and hand gestures became more animated, and she seemed to be on the verge of launching into a full-blown babbling episode. It never ceased to amaze him at how quickly her moods could change. In just a matter of moments, she'd gone from hurt, to tearful, to angry, and he loved her for it. She was truly an amazing woman.

"What did I possibly see in him?" she demanded rhetorically, her hair flipping wildly around her face as she spun suddenly and started pacing the other direction. "Could I be so shallow that I just couldn't see beyond his power, charm, and good looks? I've always told myself that those things weren't important in a guy, and yet I went ahead and fell for it anyway! And just look what I find out is underneath that calm, charming exterior!"

When Clark realized she was staring at him, obviously waiting for him to respond, he quickly replied, "Don't blame yourself, Lois. He's apparently fooled a lot of people."

"Yeah, but I shouldn't have been one of them!" she argued adamantly, her cheeks flushed and her eyes flashing. "My job is to expose people for who they really are, to rip away the veil of secrecy and see what's hidden underneath. But did I have even one clue that Lex wasn't what he appeared to be? No!" She spun back around and threw her hands up into the air for emphasis. "And then he has the *nerve* to come in here, acting all charming, clearly intending to sweep me off my feet. But when I don't cave in, he has the nerve to turn all Jekyl and Hyde on me!"

"I know, Lois," Clark interjected agreeably.

She suddenly stopped pacing and whirled around to face Clark, putting her hands on her hips and staring at him indignantly. "And did I hear right? Did he seriously *threaten* me?!"

Clark nodded, trying not to grin at how fired up she was getting. "Yes, Lois, he did."

"Well, you know what?" she demanded, turning and stalking toward the doorway. "No one threatens *me* and gets away with it. Hey, Jimmy!"

Clark followed her out of the conference room in time to see Jimmy jump up and hurry over, looking startled by her insistent, angry yell. "Yeah, Lois?"

"Dig up everything you can find on Lex Luthor, our Metropolis's Man of the Year and so-called philanthropist. That man's hiding something, and I'm not going to *rest* until I find out what it is!"

Jimmy looked surprised at her request, but knew well enough not to argue. So, with a quick nod, he hurried off to fulfill her request.

As Clark watched the young man dart away, he couldn't stop the grin from spreading across his face. He couldn't believe it. Lois had finally realized what he'd been wanting her to realize all along—that Lex Luthor wasn't at all what he appeared to be. And now that 'Mad Dog Lane' was on his tail, Mr. Lex Luthor had better be running for cover.

***

Fighting his way through the crowds on the sidewalk outside the Daily Planet, Lex finally reached his waiting limo, still seething inside from his conversation with Lois. How dare she refuse to listen to his voice of reason! How could she not realize that he was the best thing that had ever happened to her? He knew people in high places, had connections she'd only dreamed of having for herself. Didn't she see that their union would be that definitive step in her getting that Pulitzer prize she longed for?

He opened the back door angrily and climbed in. When he was settled in his seat, he picked up the phone angrily and hit one of the speed dial buttons. As he waited impatiently for his call to connect, he muttered furiously, "Does she honestly think I'm going to let her choose that hick Kent over me? He doesn't deserve such a magnificent creature, and I'm going to make sure he doesn't get her. She's going to learn—it's either me…or nobody."

Just then the phone picked up and he turned his attention to it. "Nigel. Send the boys out on an errand. I want Clark Kent taken care of. Permanently. Oh, and preferably with Lois around. She needs to be taught that no one stands up to me, not even her. Tell them to do it however they like, but Lois is to remained unharmed." And with that, he hung up the phone.

Turning to stare out his window at the buildings moving past, he muttered, "We'll just see how she fast she comes crawling back to me when her little boyfriend Kent is out of the picture once and for all."

***

"Okay. You wanted it, you got it," Jimmy declared as he dropped a huge stack of newly printed papers onto Lois's desk right next to the other large stack she was already reading through. "This is an up to date list of all of Lex's business holdings, financial records, and investment portfolio."

Lois stared at the huge stack of papers in disbelief. "Jimmy, you've got to be kidding! All of this? There must be an entire ream of paper here!"

"Almost two," he clarified with a grin. "But you're the one who wanted 'em. Have fun." Then, with a quick half-wink, he turned and hurried away.

Lois let out a discouraged sigh as she looked at the now *two* huge stacks of papers sitting on her desk before her. She'd spent the last few hours pouring through every bit of information she'd been able to dig up on Lex, but so far, nothing seemed to stick out as being unusual, other than the fact that the man had more personal and business holdings than anybody she'd ever investigated. She knew Lex was the third richest man in the world and had his hands in many things, but this…this was so much more extensive than she'd anticipated. There was no way she was going to take a mere few days to get a handle on everything he had going. It could take weeks. Months.

'Oh, what am I doing?' she thought in frustration as she leaned back in her chair and rubbed her eyes tiredly. 'I've got other work to do, other stories Perry wants me to write. Unless I find something suspicious on Lex soon, there's no way he's going to let me have the kind of time it'll take to research all this.'

Knowing her time was extremely limited, she leaned forward and picked up the papers, intending to pick through it with a fine tooth comb, searching the information for any anomalies. But as hard as she tried, she just couldn't concentrate. Her mind and body were exhausted, not just from the hours she'd just spent on her research, but from everything that had happened the last several days.

'When did my life become such a soap opera?' she thought sullenly. 'Just when I think that everything is going smoothly in my life, something comes up and confuses everything. Like Lex.'

She shook her head glumly. She'd had no idea breaking up with him would be such a traumatic experience. If he'd just left things alone last night after she'd talked to him in his penthouse, everything would've been fine. But then he'd pestered her all morning with phone messages and flowers, and even came all the way down to the Planet to try to charm his way back into her heart. But when he'd finally realized she wasn't falling for his act, he'd gone all Jeckyl and Hyde on her.

"I can't believe he threatened me like that," she grumbled aloud. "And to think that he even threatened…"

She'd been about to say 'Clark,' but suddenly stopped with a gasp of realization. She'd been so busy tracking down everything she could find on Lex that his words from earlier had slipped into the back of her mind. But now that they'd come to the forefront of her mind, they filled her with dread.

'Even if it means eliminating the competition…' he'd said.

Lois swallowed past the sudden lump in her throat. Had Lex been serious? Would he really follow through on such a threat? Thinking back on the infuriated expression on Lex's face when he'd said it, she felt her heart start to pound. He'd had her followed, hadn't he? Ended up accusing her of cheating on him, and left a nice sized bruise on her arm when he hadn't gotten his way, hadn't he?

She shivered. He had no doubt meant every word.

With her heart still hammering in her chest, she turned to look for Clark, feeling a sudden, desperate need to talk to him, to warn him about what she feared Lex might do. But then she remembered that Clark wasn't there. He'd slipped out for a short time to run some errands, and he hadn't come back yet.

Nervously, she glanced down at her watch. It had been hours since he'd left. What could possibly be keeping him? Had Lex decided to make good on his threat?

But as quickly as the thought entered her head, she forced it away, refusing to let herself even think such a horrible thing. No, even Lex was too smart to try anything in broad daylight, with a city full of people milling around. Clark was fine. But as soon as he came back, she had to talk to him about what she feared possible.

Suddenly, the phone on her desk rang, causing Lois to jump. With a quick laugh at her jumpiness, she put a hand to her chest over her pounding heart and took a deep breath to calm herself. "Get a grip, Lois," she chastised herself as she reached for the phone. If anything, a phone call would be a welcome break. Holding the phone to her ear, she said into the receiver, "Lois Lane."

"Hi, Lois, it's me," came the cheerful voice on the other end.

"Lucy!" she exclaimed, surprised to hear her sister's voice. "How are you?"

"Fine," Lucy replied easily. "But I haven't heard from you in a while, so I thought I'd call and see how the wedding plans are going."

Lois cringed. She'd completely forgotten to tell her sister and mom that the wedding was off. Her mom was probably still working on finishing up the rest of her announcements, as well as finalizing catering arrangements and who knew what else. Before her mom made any more arrangements, she knew she'd better call to tell her not to bother.

Lois sighed into the phone. "Actually, Lucy, there isn't going to be a wedding. I broke off my engagement to Lex."

Lucy gasped. "You what? Why? What happened?"

"It's a long story," Lois said slowly. Then she started to give her sister the short version of how she'd learned she and Clark were technically married, and about all the hoops they'd had to jump through to sort things out, including filing for divorce. But she couldn't bring herself to tell her sister about her budding, new romance with Clark. Not now, anyway. Her feelings were still so precious and new.

When she finished telling Lucy about the ridiculous red tape they were having to go through, her sister started to laugh. "I can just imagine the scenes you must've made in City Hall when you found out you were married to that partner of yours. Speaking of which, what does Clark think about all this?"

"Actually, Clark's fine with it," Lois admitted. "But you know guys. They never seem to get really emotional and worked up about things anyway. They're too 'practical' for that."

But even as she spoke the words, she knew she didn't really believe them. Yes, Clark was practical. But he was also romantic, sympathetic, caring, kind, wonderful…definitely unlike any of the other guys she'd ever known. He was different, special. One in a million.

Suddenly she realized that her sister was talking, and hoped she hadn't missed anything important. Trying to shake herself out of her thoughts, she forced herself to tune back in to what her sister was saying.

"I should've guessed he'd react that way," Lucy was saying. "Clark does seem pretty practical and down to earth. He's quite a catch, though, if you ask me." She paused for a moment, then continued, with a smile in her voice, "If I were you, and I'd just discovered I was married to a great looking and sweet guy like Clark, I don't think I'd be in such a hurry to get divorced."

"Lucy!" Lois scolded, though somewhere in some remote, impractical corner of her mind, she couldn't deny that she'd had fleeting thoughts of just that very thing. "There's no way Clark and I are going to stay married! That's just not possible."

Lucy laughed. "Oh, Lois, relax. I'm just kidding. I can't help laughing, though. My sister. Married." Then she gasped excitedly and her voice rose. "Oooh, wait, I just had a thought! You know who'd get a kick out of this? Mom!"

Lois's heart stopped. Surely her sister wouldn't… Yes, she would. Her sister had never been good at keeping secrets.

"Lucy, don't you *dare* tell Mom!" she exclaimed adamantly. "I swear, if you breathe a word of this, I'll never speak to you again as long as I live! Can you just imagine how much Mom would freak out?! I'd never get her off my back!"

"Oh, Lois, pleease?" Lucy begged. "I owe her one for setting me up with that stuck up son of her lawyer, and hearing that you'd broken off your engagement to Lex and were now *married* to someone entirely different would definitely make her faint dead away!"

Lois knew her sister was right. Feeling a sense of urgency to convince her sister, she rushed on. "Lucy, if you told her, I'd never speak to you again as long as I live! Do you hear me? Don't you say a word!"

"Oh, fine," Lucy conceded, her pout clearly evident in her tone. "But you owe me. Geez, Lois, you never were any fun."

Just then Jimmy stopped next to her desk, and Lois took advantage of the interruption. "Look, Lucy, I've gotta go. But promise me you won't tell Mom!"

"Yeah, yeah, whatever. Let me know what happens, Lois."

"I will. Bye." And without waiting for a response, she hung up the phone and turned to Jimmy. "What's up?"

Jimmy held up a few more papers before dropping them onto her desk. "It turns out our man Lex has quite a few 'friends' in Switzerland, if you know what I mean. Here's some overseas accounts I just tracked down."

"Great," she mumbled. "Just what I need. More work." But as Jimmy headed back to his desk and she looked at the new set of papers, she knew that she would never uncover whatever secrets Lex might be hiding if she didn't have all the facts. So she shook off the discouragement that once again threatened to creep in and turned to Lex's financial records.

As time wore on, though, she found her mind drifting from the research on her desk to the clock on the newsroom wall. An hour passed, then two. Where was Clark? she wondered with increasing desperation. Had something happened to him? Had Lex…?

She once again shook off the feeling of dread at remembering Lex's threats, and tried to remain calm. It wasn't unheard of for Clark to disappear on errands and be gone hours on end. She'd always wondered what kinds of errands he ran that took him so long. He must be a lot busier than she'd ever thought he was. But with what? What could possibly take so many hours to accomplish, and so often?

Shaking her head, she told herself it really didn't matter what Clark was doing, at least right now. What mattered the most was that he was safe. And the more time that passed, the more she worried that he wasn't.

When another half hour passed, she finally stood up from her desk and grabbed her purse, unable to stand it a minute longer. She was going to go out and look for him. But just as she was threading her arm through her purse strap, she heard the elevator chime, and, just as she'd done every time she'd heard the elevator chime the past couple of hours, she looked up at it anxiously.

This time, however, she was rewarded with the sight of Clark stepping out of the elevator, and she immediately felt her body go limp with relief. Unable to contain her elation at seeing him alive and well, she rushed up to him, meeting him near the ramp and throwing her arms around him.

Surprised at her show of emotion, Clark slipped his arms around her and hugged her back, worrying about what had happened to send her running into his arms the moment he'd returned. It made him wish it hadn't taken him so long to help clear up that multiple car pile up on the interstate, so that he could've been there for her for whatever it was that had caused her such concern.

Pulling back from their embrace a moment later, he asked with concern, "Lois, what is it? Did something happen while I was gone?"

Glancing around, she suddenly noticed the curious stares they were getting from their coworkers, and she quickly grabbed his arm and hurried him into one of the empty the conference rooms, swiftly closing the door behind them.

At her hasty actions and the worry lines etched across her face, Clark felt his concern growing by the moment. "Lois, what's wrong? You're kind of scaring me here."

She put her hands on her hips and glowered at him. "I'm scaring *you*?! Clark, do you have any idea how long you were gone? Where were you? I was scared to death that something had happened to you! I kept waiting and waiting for you to get back, and the longer it took, the more worried I got. Don't you ever do that to me again!"

Clark looked at her strangely. "Lois, what's going on? I had some…things…to do, and it took me a little longer than I'd anticipated, that's all. Since when do you worry about where I am, or get scared that's something happened to me when I don't come right back? Obviously, I've missed something while I was gone." He stepped closer and reached for one of her hands. "Care to fill me in?"

Lois caught herself and sighed. "Clark, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to jump all over you. It's just that…when I was taking a break from working on all that research on Lex, I suddenly remembered something he'd said to me this morning, and…well, it scared me."

Clark led her over to one of the chairs at the table and sat her down in it, then lowered himself into the one next to hers. "Scared you? What did he say?"

Lois took a deep breath to calm herself, then went on. "He told me that he knew that I went to your place after I left his penthouse, and said that he wasn't afraid to go after what he wanted—meaning me—" she paused to put a hand to her chest for emphasis, "even if it meant getting rid of the competition. Clark…he meant you!" She paused for a moment, waiting for Clark's reaction to her news. But when Clark remained speechless, she rushed on. "Then you came in when things were getting physical and backed him down. Don't you remember what he said? 'This isn't over by any means.' Well, you warned me about what kind of a man he was, so obviously you knew what he was capable of. And now that I've had a glimpse of that, I'm worried, Clark! What if he follows through on his threat? What if he comes after you, and tries to 'eliminate' you like he said…"

At the grief-stricken look on Lois's face and the unmistakable rising panic in her voice, Clark felt horrible. And horribly guilty. Here she was, worrying about him needlessly. He couldn't be hurt…not by Lex, not by anybody. But she didn't know that. As far as she knew, he was just like every other man on the planet, able to be hurt, able to be killed. He couldn't stand to see her so worried about his health and safety, and it made him feel terrible that she'd obviously been so worried about him the past few hours when he'd been gone so long.

How was he supposed to put her mind at ease, to convince her not to worry about him? Of course she would worry…he'd worry about her if the tables were turned. This wasn't something he could just brush off, and tell her not to give it another thought. When you loved someone, it was impossible not to worry, especially under circumstances such as these. She'd want an explanation, and there was only one he could give her that would convince her of his inability to be harmed. But that would only bring her a whole new set of troubles.

He sighed. In order to put her mind at ease, he knew that it was time to tell her about him. They were, after all, in love and in a relationship. It would be ridiculous to think there'd ever be a perfect time, or a perfect place to reveal his secret, he realized. And there was no way he was going to let her continue to worry about what Lex might do to him. It wasn't fair to her, and it wasn't fair to him. He'd never been able to see Lois upset or scared or hurt. And she didn't deserve to be.

In that moment, he'd made up his mind. It was time. He had to tell her the truth.

"Maybe we should go to the police," Lois was saying as he tuned back into her babbling. "Maybe we should let them know what we suspect Lex is capable of…"

"Lois, wait," Clark quickly cut her off before she could work herself up any further. "I know you're worried about Lex's threats, but really, you don't have to be."

Lois wrinkled her brow in confusion. "But…Lex said—"

"I know what Lex said," Clark interrupted, "but I'm not worried about him hurting me." He paused, trying to summon some inner strength, then began again. "The reason *why* I'm not worried about him hurting me has something to do with me, personally." When she looked even more confused, he sighed in frustration. "Lois, it's something about me that I haven't told you…something I've been keeping from you, from everyone. But maybe in light of the situation, it's time I told you once and for all."

Lois looked at him nervously. "Um, okay. I'm listening."

Clark tore his eyes from hers and looked behind him at the busy newsroom just beyond the conference room windows. "Not here," he said, turning back to her and rising to his feet. "Why don't we go someplace where we can be alone and talk? I'd really rather not have any interruptions."

"Sure, Clark," she nodded, still obviously wary by his anxious tone, and wondering if whatever it was he wanted to tell her was as bad as his fidgeting made it seem. "To tell you the truth, I was actually thinking about leaving a little early today anyway."

Clark looked surprised. "You were? How come?"

She sighed heavily. "I don't know. I'm having a lot of trouble focusing, and I guess I'm just feeling tired and even a little down."

Stepping toward her, Clark put his arms around her and drew her close. "You are? How come?" he asked tenderly.

He pressed a kiss into her hair, and Lois felt herself melt against him. Why hadn't she ever realized how wonderful it felt to be in his arms, to be comforted by him? she wondered. She pressed her cheek against his chest and closed her eyes for a moment, enjoying his closeness. His arms tightening around her drew her back to his question, and she sighed.

"Just so much has happened these past several days? First, that whole marriage technicality that made me crazy, then I stressed myself out about breaking things off with Lex, stressed myself out some *more* about how to tell you how I felt about you." She gave him the hint of a smile. "And just when I think my life is actually turning around, Lex shows up and threatens me- -threatens us both—which leads me to hours of research, and spending long hours worrying about you. I just don't know how much more I can deal with, you know?"

Her words sent a stabbing pain of guilt surging through Clark. She was right. She *had* had a rough several days, and he could only surmise that what he was about to tell her was only going to make it worse. Or at the very least, more complicated and stressful. But he tried to push his guilt aside and be supportive instead.

"I know," he sympathized, tightening his arms around her. "I can see how you'd be feeling like that now after the week you've had. That kind of stress would definitely make you feel drained."

"I do feel drained," she admitted wearily. "What I'd love more than anything is to go home and have a peaceful afternoon, a nice meal, and a long, hot bubble bath." She glanced down at her watch thoughtfully. "It's almost four. Maybe we should just get out of here and go to my place to talk about whatever it was you wanted to talk about. Would that work?"

Clark nodded apprehensively. "That sounds good. I already gave our car theft story to Perry, so I'm sure he wouldn't mind if we ducked out of here a little early. Let me just tell him we're leaving, and then we can go."

***

Fifteen minutes later, Lois was turning off her computers, eager to get out of there a few hours early, but Clark had mixed emotions about it. Mostly, he was apprehensive, nervous about how he was going to tell Lois the truth about Superman. But he also couldn't help feeling a sense of relief that the secret he'd carried for so long was soon to one they could share. He realized this wasn't the most opportune time to tell her the truth, however, with her being so drained by everything she'd had to deal with lately, but he knew there was no way he could continue to let her worry about Lex or his men trying to hurt him.

He was still feeling jittery and anxious as they stepped into the elevator and Lois punched the button for the underground parking garage. "I can't believe it was that easy," she admitted with a tired smile as the doors closed and the elevator began its descent. "I thought Perry would at least give us a little grief about us wanting to head out early."

"Yeah, well," Clark began with a smile, "all I did was tell him you were feeling a little under the weather, and he practically shoved me out the door, telling me to get you home to rest. Between you and me, I think Perry has a big soft spot when it comes to you, even if he won't come right out and admit it."

"Perry has a soft spot for a lot of things. Most people just don't take the time to see it," Lois told him with a smile. "Whatever it is, though, I'll take it. I can't tell you how glad I am to get out of there. Lex has caused entirely too many problems for me today and made this quite a day to remember."

"Speaking of Lex," Clark asked. "How's the research coming?"

Lois sighed. "Slow. Whatever Lex is hiding, he's covered his tracks well. I don't know what I thought, but in all the information Jimmy pulled up for me on Lex, I haven't been able to see anything glaringly obvious. I guess I should've expected that, though. If he'd been careless with whatever shady dealings he may have going, he would've been caught by now. But still, I look at those two huge stacks of papers on my desk and can't help feeling discouraged."

Clark slipped his arm around her shoulder and gave her a little squeeze. "So it'll just take a little bit longer to track everything down, that's all. Don't feel discouraged. We'll just keep looking for as long as it takes."

"Yeah, you're right. But for now, I'm taking a break. After the day I've had, I think I deserve one."

Clark squeezed her shoulder one more time, then let his arm fall to his side. As they rode the elevator neared their stop, their conversation faded into silence. It was then that Lois noticed Clark was starting to fidget, clearly uncomfortable with the prevailing silence. Lois turned to look at him strangely as he buttoned up his coat, then unbuttoned the top two buttons before buttoning them again.

'What is with him?' she thought as she watched him continue to fidget. He wasn't normally a nervous person. But right then, he seemed anxious. Did it have anything to do with what he was planning on telling her? Did it have something to do with their new relationship? He'd said it had something to do with him personally. What exactly was that supposed to mean? Did he have some secret from his past that he'd never told anyone about? Something he was ashamed of?

She shook her head. It couldn't be anything nearly as bad as he was making it out to be. After all, what could he possibly have to hide? He was from Smallville, Kansas, for crying out loud.

When she finally heard the elevator chime and the doors open onto the parking garage, she was becoming nervous herself. A noise to her left made her jump, and she whipped her head around to see that a man had dropped his keys as he was opening his car door. Her suddenly heightened senses caused her to look around nervously, unable to push aside the feeling that they were being watched. Whether or not Clark wanted to believe that Lex wasn't a threat, she wasn't about to take any chances. When she felt a hand on her arm, she instantly jumped and spun around. But when she saw that it was just Clark's hand on her arm as he'd reached out to pull her out of the way of an approaching car, she immediately she felt foolish.

"Sorry," she apologized sheepishly. "I guess I'm just a little bit jumpy all of a sudden. You might not be worried about Lex's threat, but I am."

A fleeting look of renewed anxiety passed over Clark's face, and she wondered once again what was going on. This wasn't the unflappable Clark she knew and loved. Something was going on. And whatever it was, judging by the way he was acting, she wasn't going to be happy about it.

When they finally reached her Jeep and they climbed in, she turned the key in the ignition and drove slowly out of the parking garage. Still, Clark remained nervously silent. She pulled the Jeep out into traffic and had driven several blocks without even a single word spoken. Finally unable to stand the tension even a moment longer, she fought for something— anything—to say.

"You know, Clark, I was thinking," she spoke, breaking the unbearable silence as they turned down her street. "We have Lex's financial records, as well as his personal and company holdings, but we really haven't dug up much on who he was or what kind of work he did before he became who he is now. I mean, we know the standard things, like when he moved to Metropolis and how he started his road to success. But maybe we'd find something in his past that could help us know what to look for now, don't you think?"

"Yeah, I think that's a good idea," he agreed, sounding relieved to be talking about something work-related. "I'm sure his usual interviews in magazines and such wouldn't give us the possible shady details of who he used to be, and who he used to deal with."

Lois nodded. "Exactly. When we get back to it, let's see what Jimmy can find for us there."

Finally, they were pulling up in front of her apartment, and Lois found herself breathing a sigh of relief. In her opinion, it wasn't a moment too soon. He was making her crazy. The exited the car, climbed the steps to her apartment, unlocked the door and went inside.

When the door was shut behind them, Lois dropped her satchel and keys onto the credenza near the door and shrugged out of her coat, giving Clark an expecting, pointed look. "Okay, we're here. So do you want to tell me what it is you're so nervous about telling me?"

Clark took off his own coat and hung it up next to hers. "Nervous?" he asked, turning to raise an innocent eyebrow her direction. "Who's nervous?"

She started to laugh. "You're kidding, right? You haven't stopped fidgeting since we got into the elevator at the Planet."

Clark started to argue, but then stopped. She was right, he realized. He *had* been fidgeting. But what did she expect? He was about to share something of earth-shattering, life-altering importance with her, and he was nervous. And rightfully so. She was the love of his life, the most beautiful, most wonderful woman he had ever known, and just recently, she'd confessed that she loved him, too. Every word he said, every move he made had to be perfect, or he could lose her. And there was no way he could let that happen.

Releasing a shaky breath, he made a feeble gesture at her couch. "Maybe we should…sit down."

Her expression turned solemn as she walked over to the couch and dropped down onto it. "Oh, boy. I'm not going to like this, am I?"

He sighed. "I don't know, Lois. It's not so much a bad thing as it is just…a shock, I guess. But before I tell you, I want you to remember that I love you, and that you mean the world to me. I would never, ever do anything to hurt you. You know that, right?"

She nodded, becoming more worried by the seriousness in his voice. Shifting anxiously, she flashed him a grin that didn't quite reach into her eyes. "What'd you do? Rob a bank, or steal a car or something?" she asked, trying to lighten the moment.

He grinned a little, but her attempt at levity didn't ease his nervousness. He cleared his throat. "Lois—"

"Look, Clark," she interrupted. "Whatever it is, it can't be as bad as you're making it out to be. We're both adults, and we can discuss whatever it is you have to tell me like adults. So just tell me, okay? You're killing me with all this 'remember that I would never do anything to hurt you' stuff."

Clark swallowed hard. He knew she was trying to be supportive, to ease his anxiety. But once she found out what he'd been keeping from her, he wondered if she'd really be able to keep her cool. Lois Lane was famous for *not* keeping her cool. And that was with less important stuff, like stories and sources. How explosive would she become if she found out she'd been lied to, tricked into believing he was two entirely different people, and led on and encouraged by both Superman and himself? Regardless, he knew he had little choice but to tell her and hope for the best.

"Just promise me you'll remember that you said we'd discuss this like adults," he stalled.

"Clark, I know!" she replied in exasperation, quickly losing her patience. "Just tell me already."

He took a deep breath and let it out in slowly. "Okay, fine. Here goes." He paused, searching his mind frantically for the right words. "Lois," he began hesitantly. "You know how Superman and I are friends? That you once said that I seem to be the only one who really knows how to contact him?"

"Wait. This is about Superman?" she asked, looking confused. "What does this have to do with him?"

"Just…bear with me a minute, okay?" he asked, trying to keep this from being any harder than it already was. When she simply nodded and continued to watch him expectantly, he took another deep breath and forced himself to continue. "You remember those things, right? Well, there's a reason why you're always able to contact him through me, and why Superman and I are so close."

"Um…okay," Lois interjected, still clearly confused about what this all had to do with Superman.

"Well, you see…there's a really good reason for all that…"

"Clark, you just said that," she reminded him impatiently.

He blinked. "Oh. Yeah, I guess I did." Unable to stand the tension a moment longer, he stood up, taking a few steps away from the couch and running his hand nervously through his thick, dark hair. Then he turned back to her, seemingly under control of himself once more.

"Lois, Superman and I—we've always been close. But not for the reasons you might think. I mean, I guess you could say we've known each other all our lives."

Lois's brow furrowed. "Clark, what are you trying to say?"

He sighed. Boy, this was tough. Tougher than he'd even thought it would be. 'Just say it, Clark!' the little voice inside his head commanded. 'It's not going to get any easier the longer you stall.'

Knowing the voice was right, he took one more deep breath in an attempt to calm himself, then returned to the couch and sat back down beside her. "Lois, I want to show you something," he said solemnly. Then, quickly and decisively, before he could change his mind, he reached for his shirtfront and started fumbling with his buttons.

Lois watched in confusion as he started unbuttoning his shirt near his chest and continued to work downward. When he'd managed to undo three or four buttons, he gently pulled apart the fabric of his shirt to reveal what lay beneath it. When he paused expectantly, she cocked an eyebrow at him, trying to figure out what it was he was trying to tell her. But as she did, she caught sight of a familiar flash of blue.

'What in the world…?' she thought, startled. Whatever it was he was wearing beneath his shirt, it looked to be made of shiny, blue spandex. But who wore shiny blue spandex? The only person she'd ever seen wear such a material was…

Her eyes widened. No, it couldn't be. There had to be some other explanation. Maybe the fabric wasn't really spandex. Maybe it was some kind of shiny cotton undershirt he'd chosen to wear that day, which was a weird enough thought in itself. But at any rate, there was only one way to find out.

Tentatively, almost afraid to know the truth, she reached out and ran her fingertips across the smooth fabric. When she did, tears immediately sprung into her eyes.

Spandex. It was definitely spandex.

Clark felt his body quiver at her touch, but he forced himself to remain still as she pushed open his shirt further to reveal the famous red and yellow emblem on his chest. For several long moments, he watched her in silent anticipation, unable to move, unable to breathe. After what seemed like an eternity, Lois wordlessly dropped her hand from his chest and rose slowly from the couch. Crossing her arms across her chest and lifting one hand to her lips, she moved slowly away.

Clark waited for the dam to burst, for her to whirl around and start yelling at him, to berate him for betraying her trust and for letting her continue to believe that he was two entirely different people, to throw him out of her apartment and tell him she never wanted to see him again. But when she continued to remain silent, he started to get nervous. Silence was definitely not what he expected.

"Lois, say *something,*" he exclaimed anxiously, unable to stand the pin-drop silence for even one more moment.

She turned around and he could see unshed tears shimmering in her eyes. After several more moments passed, she finally let her hand slide down from her lips and come to rest the base of her throat. When she spoke, her voice was strained with barely checked tears. "What do you *want* me to say, Clark?"

He rolled his eyes and stood up from the couch. "Come on, Lois, don't do this. I can tell you're upset. Not that you don't have every right to be, after the bombshell I just dropped. But you said that whatever it was I needed to tell you, that we could discuss it like adults. So…can we? Please?"

A single tear slid down Lois's cheek. "I know that's what I said, Clark, but this…" she waved her hand feebly in the air before her, "this wasn't what I was expecting you to say."

"What *were* you expecting me to say?" he asked gently, daring to take a step closer.

At his movement, she crossed her arms over her chest again and took an unconscious step backward. "I don't know," she admitted tensely. "But…telling me that you're Superman…that wasn't it." She took a deep breath in an effort to keep from crying. When she was able to swallow the lump in her throat, she went on. "I just can't believe this. I mean, you're Superman. I wouldn't have suspected that in a million years. It does, however, go a long way to explain why you were always able to contact him, but—No, don't touch me," she pleaded desperately as he took another step closer and reached out for her. It was all she could do to stay in control of her teetering emotions, and she was sure that his sympathetic touch would send her tumbling from her precipice. When he quickly withdrew, she swallowed loudly and explained, "I…I just need a little space. I, um…need to think…to get control of myself here before we talk about this—"

Clark rolled his eyes in exasperation. "Lois, I hate it that you do this!" he exclaimed angrily. "You're always so afraid of losing control, of showing that you're human! Why do you do that? You did it this morning when Lex hurt you, and you're doing it now. What do you think, that someone might think less of you if you cried? If you admitted that you had emotions like the rest of us? For once, I wish you would just let me in and tell me how you're feeling!"

Lois whirled back around, the tears clearly evident in her eyes. "What do you want me to say, Clark? That I'm angry you deceived me? That I'm hurt that you didn't trust me enough to tell me about this earlier? Well, I'm sorry. Maybe I *should* be feeling those things, but right now, I'm not sure what I feel. I'm too emotionally drained from everything that's happened to me this week, I'm not thinking clearly, and I feel emotionally unable to cope with this, or anything else for that matter."

Taking a deep breath, Clark forced himself to calm down. "I know, Lois," he said sympathetically, "and I'm sorry. This really wasn't the time I wanted to tell you because I know how stressed out you've been after everything that's happened lately, but I just couldn't let you keep worrying about me being hurt by Luthor."

"Well, I guess at least that's one thing I don't have to worry about," Lois admitted tearfully, "but it certainly gives me a bunch more things to deal with."

"Yeah, I know," Clark said understandingly, uncertain what to do or say next.

Suddenly Lois gave a little laugh and shook her head. "Don't you think this extremely ironic? This whole situation?" she asked, half-laughing, half-crying. "I mean, here I turned you down a few weeks ago because I thought I was in love with Superman, then I turned *Lex* down because I realize that I'm in love with *you*, and now, it turns out that I'm married to Superman. Don't you see some kind of strange, sardonic humor in all of this?" She shook her head and laughed another humorless laugh. "So when is it that my life stops being confusing and complicated?"

"I didn't mean to make things more confusing for you, Lois—"

"I know, Clark," she quickly cut him off before he could finish. "It's just…" She paused. He could see her lower lip start to quiver, and saw her almost instantaneous effort to still it. Then she shook her head and turned away in an effort to hide her threatening tears. "I just can't believe I was so dumb," she whispered tearfully. "To know you all this time and not even realize—"

"Lois, this is *not* your fault," he interrupted before she could degrade herself any further. "The reason I've been able to keep this secret from everyone for so long is that I believed that people would simply see what they wanted to see. And so far, I've been right."

"But me, of all people…I should've had *some* idea," she argued solemnly. "But you know, the really scary thing is, these last two days, I've discovered that I've monumentally misjudged all three key men in my life: Lex, Superman…and you. That doesn't give me a lot of confidence when it comes to my ability to see people for who they really are."

His heart lurched, and he felt tears spring to his own eyes. "Lois—"

But before he could continue, he watched as her face started to crumple and her shoulders started to shake. Impulsively, he opened his arms to her and she stepped forward into them, burying her face in his chest and letting the tears come.

For the first time that week, she refused to try to still them, to make her chest ache by holding them in. She felt a strange comfort in Clark's arms, even though she knew she should feel angry with him, for keeping this secret from her, even when they had become close, first as partners, then as friends, and now, as even more. She cried for the emotional stress that finding out they were married had caused her, cried for how patronizingly Lex had treated her when she'd told him she wanted to break off their engagement, cried for the stress of worrying about how to tell Clark how she felt about him, cried for how Lex had hurt and threatened her just that morning, and cried for finding out that the two men she'd ever really loved in life—Clark and Superman—were really one and the same. Everything and everyone she thought she knew, she was suddenly finding out that she'd been wrong…about everything. She felt as if her wall of security was crashing down around her, leaving her feeling vulnerable and afraid.

When all her tears were finally shed, she stayed where she was, unwilling to pull out of the comforting circle of Clark's arms. She turned her head and rested her cheek on his chest and concentrated on its steady rise and fall as Clark breathed. The rhythm was comforting, somehow.

After a long moment, she noticed that he hadn't buttoned up his shirt, and she caught sight of the silky blue fabric beneath. Lifting her hand, she gently reached out to rest her palm on the smooth blue material covering his firmly muscled stomach.

"So you're Superman," she stated somberly, slowly stepping back from his embrace. "I guess that would explain why I see you eating all that junk food and never gaining a pound. I've always hated you for that." She smiled up at him, but there was little humor in her eyes.

Studying her reddened eyes and tear-streaked cheeks for a long moment, he reached out to smooth her rumpled hair back from her forehead. Knowing he'd hurt her, his own heart ached as he tried to formulate some mysterious, magical words that would make all of this better. "Lois, please…let's go sit down for a while and talk, okay?"

But Lois shook her head wearily. "Clark, I know that we probably should talk about this, but right now, I just can't. My stomach's all twisted up in knots, and my head is throbbing. This past week has just been one earth-shattering moment after another. If I have to deal with even one more thing, I'm afraid I'm going to completely lose it. All I want to do is climb into a steaming hot bubble bath, get a good night's sleep, and try to regain my touch with reality. Maybe after all that, I'll feel ready to soak everything in and come to terms with all of this."

"I understand," Clark answered softly. He wanted so badly to talk this out with her, but he knew going in that she was having a hard enough time dealing with her life at the moment. He could only ask for so much, and this wasn't the time to ask for more. Reminding himself to be patient, he leaned forward to press a gentle kiss to her forehead.

Just as they pulled apart, they were startled by a loud knock at her door. Lois sighed. She didn't want to deal with anyone right now. All she wanted to do was to be left alone, to deal with this new piece of information she'd gotten on Clark. Reluctantly, she stood up and moved toward the door, where she peered cautiously through the peephole.

But as she did, she froze. 'No, not now,' she pleaded silently. 'This can't be happening. As if I don't have enough to deal with already, *this* has to happen.' But taking a second look, she knew she wasn't going to be able to wish this new problem away. Things had suddenly become worse. Much worse. Closing her eyes, Lois cursed under her breath and let her head fall forward against the hard, wood door.

Seeing her reaction and hearing her muttered curse, Clark's brows furrowed. "Lois? What's the matter? Who is it?"

With a heavy-hearted sigh, she pulled back from the door and turned glumly to Clark. "My mother's here."

***

"Really? Your mom's here?" he exclaimed, confused by her reaction. As he quickly fumbled to button up his shirt, he thought about how he'd always been happy to see his own mom. Was he missing something?

"No, Clark, you don't understand," Lois rushed on in a fierce whisper, her eyes widening as she tried to explain. "This isn't a good thing. My mother is…well…she's *nothing* like your mom, let's just put it that way. You'd have to meet her to truly understand what I mean. She's down on absolutely everything I do, she nags me constantly, and I'm sure she thinks her main purpose on this earth is to make my life as complicated and miserable as possible."

Clark grinned at her as she closed her hand in a vice grip on his arm, obviously desperate to keep him from opening the door. "Oh, come on, Lois, she can't be that bad."

"Oh no?" she challenged. "Just wait. In two minutes you'll be running and screaming."

"Lois." His smile softened. "Nothing's going to send me running. Besides, I'm sure you're just exaggerating about this."

Lois shook her head adamantly. "I am *not* exaggerating." Then she quickly ran a hand through her hair and wiped at her cheeks. "Do I look okay?"

He nodded. "You look beautiful."

The knock came a second time, this time more demanding, and then a voice. "Lois? I know you're in there. Your boss told me you went home early, and I saw your car out front, so open up."

Lois rolled her eyes. Then, with more courage than she felt, she unlocked the door and pulled it open. "Hi, Mom."

"Don't 'hi Mom' me," came her mother's bitter response as pushed her way past Lois into the apartment, giving her daughter a cursory glance in the process. "By the way, you look terrible. Whatever happened to taking care of yourself?"

"Gee, thanks. How nice to see you, too," she mumbled beneath her breath. Sighing heavily, she glanced over at Clark, noticing that he looked both stunned and put out by her mother's words. 'Welcome to the wonderful world of my mother,' she wanted to say. But instead, she simply shook her head in resignation and followed her mother into her living room.

Her mom turned to eye Clark critically. "And who are you?"

He seemed shocked by her accusing tone, but then quickly remembered his manners. Offering his hand, he hastened to introduce himself. "I'm Clark Kent, Lois's partner at the Planet."

Ms. Lane's eyes narrowed. "Oh, you are, are you? Well, I have a bone to pick with you, it turns out."

Clark's eyebrows shot up and he squirmed nervously. "You do? For what?"

She shook her head in annoyance. "I'll get to you in a minute. But Lois," she turned to her daughter and gave her a non-too- discrete, scolding glance, "where've you been the last several days?" she demanded. "I've been calling and calling, but you never return my calls. My guess is you're been avoiding me, as usual."

"Mom, I haven't been avoiding you," Lois denied with a 'here we go again' look at Clark. "But I wasn't expecting you to just drop by unannounced this afternoon."

Her mother whirled around to face her and threw her hands up into the air. "Well, what did you expect? I get some short phone message from you on my answering machine saying that you weren't marrying Lex after all, so I shouldn't worry about sending out the rest of the announcements, and then nothing…no details, no explanation…nothing. So when you simply *won't* return my calls, I decided to call Lucy to see if she knew what was going on, and she told me that you told her you were already married to this partner of yours, here! So what on earth is going on?!"

Lois groaned. Terrific. She was never speaking to Lucy again for as long as she lived. Suddenly feeling sick to her stomach, she dropped down onto her couch and buried her face in her hands. "Mom, this is *not* a good time for this," she mumbled through her fingers. She sat up and pushed her hair back from her face and caught the look of sympathy Clark shot her way. Then she turned to her mom, who was standing just on the other side of the coffee table with her hands on her hips and an indignant look on her face. She felt a sudden urge to throw herself out the window.

"Mom, can't we talk about this later? I've had a really rough day—"

"*You've* had a rough day?" her mom exclaimed, her voice rising dangerously. "I'm the one who just found out her oldest daughter's run off and gotten married, and didn't even bother to tell me she was in love with her partner from work! Which, by the way, is *not* the smartest thing to do, if you ask me." She shot Clark a hard, disproving glance.

Clark stood in shock. Had her mom always been this cynical and critical of Lois? If she had, it would go a long way to explain why Lois was so guarded. Anybody would be with verbal lashings such as these. It brought him a whole new appreciation for his own parents, and for the way Lois had become the incredible person she was in spite of not having loving, respectful parents.

"Mom, don't jump on me for this," Lois broke in. "It was all just a big mistake. Clark and I are not really married. Well, okay, maybe we are, but it's not something we planned—"

"So you eloped? How nice, Lois. Just show me you don't care enough about giving my daughter the big, beautiful wedding she deserves by eloping instead—"

Lois groaned and dropped her head back into his hands. 'I quit,' Lois thought, resigned.

Clark saw Lois drop her face back into his hands, and decided this was as good a time as any to jump in. He didn't care if this person *was* her mother. No one was going to treat the woman he loved like this. "Um, excuse me, Mrs. Lane, but—"

Lois's mother scowled at him and corrected viciously, "That's *Ms.* Lane."

He tried not to roll his eyes. "*Ms.* Lane," he echoed and began again. "Let me try to explain. Lois and I were on a stakeout at a hotel, where we had to register as husband and wife to maintain our cover. But somehow, because of some arcane state law, that made us officially married. We're working to undo it, but it might take a little time."

Her mother breathed an audible sigh of relief. "Well, that certainly goes a long way to explain things. I mean, Lois…I'm glad to hear that you didn't just decide to throw your life away by breaking off your engagement to the third richest man in the world and then rushing out to marry some nobody." She gave Clark a disapproving once over, and Clark felt his defenses go up.

In that moment, he'd had enough. Lois didn't deserve to be treated this way, and neither did he. In carefully measured tones, he asked, "Excuse me, Ms. Lane, but are you implying that I wouldn't be good enough for your daughter? That I'm a nobody?"

Lois choked and started to cough. Well, this was new. Someone standing up to her mother. Unable to contain herself, a smile tugged at the corner of her mouth, and she looked up to watch with interest as Clark, who'd suddenly drawn the complete, undivided attention of her mother, squared his shoulders and waited for a response.

"No, I didn't say that," came her mom's argument. "I'm just saying that after Lex, anybody would be a step down. Maybe you're a very good reporter." She said the words with a hint of disdain. "But that's not what I want for my daughter."

Clark squared his shoulders. "So you *are* saying that I'm not good enough for your daughter," he pointed out levelly. But when Ms. Lane opened her mouth to retort, he hurried on. "Just for your information, I think Lois is the most wonderful person that I've ever met, and she deserves someone who will love her and treat her with respect, not expect her to hang on his arm like some trophy everywhere they went, like Luthor would. He may be one of the richest men in the world, but there's a lot more to life and love than wealth."

At her mom's look of shock and speechlessness from Clark's words, Lois's eyes grew wide. No one had ever put her mother in her place as Clark just had, and seeing her mother so completely at a loss for words was totally priceless. She watched as they continued to stare each other down for what seemed like an eternity, each waiting for the other to back down.

When neither did, Lois couldn't hold it in any longer. Dropping her head into her hands, she started to laugh. She briefly wondered if her reaction was a defense mechanism to keep herself from bursting into tears, but she pushed the thought away. What was she supposed to do in a situation like this? The whole thing was just so ridiculous.

Clark broke eye contact with Lois's infuriated mother, and he looked over at Lois in time to see that her shoulders were shaking. 'Great. Now her mom's made her cry,' he thought angrily. Without thinking twice, he went over to sit beside her and put a hand on her back soothingly. But when he leaned over to look at her face, he was surprised to see her laughing. Well, sort of. She appeared to be half-laughing and half- crying.

Lois lifted her head slightly from her hands and wiped a few tears from her cheeks. "I can't deal with this," she muttered to herself, still laughing a little in order to keep herself from crying. "I think I'm finally losing it."

Clark could see how close she was, indeed, to losing it. Deciding then and there to take charge of the situation, he stood up and fixed a firm, determined expression on his face. "I'm sorry, Ms. Lane, but this whole conversation has just come at a really bad time. Lois and I were just about to go and meet somebody when you arrived, and I'm afraid that if we don't leave right away, we'll be late."

"Okay, fine. But Lois…" She turned to her daughter. "I expect a phone call from you first thing in the morning. I'll need your help to cancel some of the wedding arrangements." And with that, she turned and went out the door, shutting it decisively behind her.

Lois sighed with relief when she realized she was once again alone in her apartment with Clark. She turned to him and raised an eyebrow inquisitively. "We're meeting somebody?"

He ducked his head at being caught lying. "I'm sorry, I just—"

"No, Clark, it's okay," she told him reassuringly. "I guess I should be thanking you for getting her out of here. I don't think I could've taken it any longer."

"I know. I could tell," he told her, reaching out to give her shoulder a sympathetic squeeze. "So are you okay?"

His sympathetic tone caused her heart to lurch, and a couple of tears ebbed from the corners of her eyes. "Why can't we all have mothers like yours?" she asked with a watery smile.

Clark's heart went out to her, and he sat down and enfolded her in his arms. "I wish you did, Lois."

Lois savored the feel of his arms around her for a long minute, then pulled back with a sigh. "The only problem with telling my mom that we were on our way out the door is that she's probably out there waiting to see if we really are going to leave."

He looked at her in disbelief. "You're kidding."

"Sadly, I'm not. That's just the kind of non-trusting person she is."

Clark's face fell. "I'm sorry, Lois. I had no idea." He paused for a minute, then inspiration struck. "I'll tell you what. Since I got you into this, why don't we cover our bases and go out—"

"No, Clark, I know you mean well," she interrupted, shaking her head, "but honestly, I don't feel like going out. I just can't handle—"

Clark reached out to cup her face in his hands, cutting off her argument. "What I was going to say," he told her with a gentle smile, "is that we can go to my place, and you can take your bath there. And I can go out to get us some *fabulous* dinner from absolutely anywhere you want…China, Thailand…the sky's the limit…" He was rewarded with a grin and a soft laugh from Lois, and his heart soared. Then he went on. "And we can just relax at my place for a while, and eat, and even talk…*if* you feel up to it. Or if you prefer, I can go out on patrols or something and leave you in peace. You can sack out at my apartment, or just be alone. It's completely up to you, but that way, your mother won't come after us if she *is* out there waiting to see if we really do leave."

Lois had to admit, he had a point. And having dinner brought in to her from anywhere in the world? Hmm. There were some definite advantages she hadn't thought of to being in a relationship with a superhero. But that meant there was also going to be a lot to get used to.

Forcing herself not to think about that, she turned to Clark and gave him a grateful smile. "Thanks, Clark. It sounds wonderful. You're too good to me, I think."

He shook his head. "No, I'm not, Lois. You deserve everything I'm giving you, plus so much more." He lifted a hand to stroke her cheek as his eyes became sad. "I'm sorry for heaping this on you tonight, Lois," he told her quietly. "I know the kind of stress you've been under, and I had no intention of making your week any worse. I just didn't want you worrying about me getting hurt."

"I know, Clark," Lois responded solemnly. "I want you to know, even though this is hard and a lot to deal with, I do appreciate you telling me about this. I think it would've been even harder to find out about it by myself."

He nodded understandingly. "I thought it would be, too." He leaned forward and gave her forehead a gentle kiss. "Anyway, should we get out of here?"

"Yeah, let me just grab a few things," she told him as he helped her to her feet. "What do I need to bring?"

"Just yourself," he told her with a grin. "Seriously, I should have everything there you need. If you want to bring a favorite bubble bath, though, and some comfortable clothes to wear after, that might be good."

Lois hurried off to collect her things, and in just a couple of minutes, she was turning off her lights and following Clark out the door. "Are you sure this isn't going to be an imposition?" she asked hesitantly. "I don't want to be a bother…"

Clark rolled his eyes as they walked down the steps of her building. "Lois, you're never a bother. Besides, it's the least I could do after just killing your evening."

She smiled tiredly. "Yeah, well, I guess you have a point there."

Seeing the stress from her exhausting week still clearly evident on her face, his heart lurched. She'd been through so much, and he knew she was going to need some special pampering and love to get her through this. Reaching out, he slipped his arm around her shoulders and drew her close as they walked along the darkening sidewalk toward her car.

When they reached the Jeep, Lois pulled her keys out of her pocket, but Clark quickly slid them out of her hand. "Let me drive, Lois. You just get in and rest until we get there."

She nodded numbly, then climbed in the passenger door that Clark was holding open for her. As she waited for him to go around and get in his side, she let her head fall back against the headrest. Her lids seemed to refuse to remain open, and she finally gave in, letting them close heavily. She heard the driver's door open and close, then the engine started.

As they started to move, Lois cracked her eyes open and glanced at the parked cars along the street as they drove past.

"Do you see your mom's car anywhere?" Clark asked, knowing that was exactly what she was looking for.

After a moment, Lois shook her head. "I don't see it, but that doesn't mean she's not around."

Clark sighed. "I'm sorry about jumping in and confronting your mother like that back at your apartment. But I just couldn't stand there and let her continue to belittle you."

Lois shook her head before closing her eyes again sleepily. "Don't apologize. In my opinion, she had it coming."

"But I probably should've tried to be more charming, or patient or something. Standing up to her like that isn't going to win me any points when she finds out how we feel about each other."

"Who cares what she thinks?" Lois grumbled without opening her eyes. "I stopped caring about her and my dad's opinions way back in high school. I've learned that no matter what, nothing is ever good enough for them. I mean, even if she and my father found out that you were Superman, they'd probably ask you why you weren't using that status to earn you the money to live a more suitable lifestyle."

He shook his head as he concentrated on the road. He wished with all his heart that he could absorb some of the pain and hurt her parents had caused her in her lifetime. It saddened him to see that this incredible, wonderful woman came from such a tough background. It made his own trials seem to pale in comparison, because at least he'd had wonderful, loving parents who were there unconditionally for him to help him through everything.

Trying to lighten her mood, he smiled and suggested, "So you're saying that telling them their daughter's married to the most powerful man on earth won't impress them? Darn. I was hoping to use that to gain their favor."

Lois laughed softly. "Sorry to burst your bubble."

When their conversation drifted off, so did Lois. It wasn't that far to Clark's apartment, but as he heard her gently snoring from the passenger seat, he almost wished it were. It was obvious she was exhausted, and needed sleep more than anything.

Their arrival at his apartment came too soon, and Clark was careful to slow the car without jarring Lois from her sleep. At this time of evening, all the parking spaces were full in front of his building, and he had to park a short distance away. 'That's all right,' he thought as he pulled over to the curb and turned off the engine. 'I'll just carry her, if she's too tired to walk.'

Then, hating to, he reached out and gently shook her shoulder. "Lois? We're here," he told her quietly.

She stirred sleepily, and her eyes were glazed over when she opened them. She didn't speak, but reached for the handle to let herself out. But Clark was there in a flash, holding her door open for her and helping her slide out tiredly.

"Do you want me to carry you?" he asked as she reached back into the car for her bag.

"No, I'm fine," she told him, the cool night air rousing her a bit more. "It's not that far."

She steadied herself against his arm as she pushed the car door shut and took a few deep breaths in order to further wake herself up. She tried to shake the cloudiness from her mind as they started walking down the sidewalk, and she wondered if she really felt up to taking that bath after all. All she wanted to do right then was climb into bed—any bed—and sleep for days.

"Lois, why don't you let me take your bag?" he asked as he watched her struggling to put it back up on her arm when it slid off.

"Clark, I can carry my own bag," she told him, trying to keep the irritation that her tiredness had caused out of her voice. "I'm not completely helpless. Besides, we're almost—"

But before she could finish her sentence, two dark shadows suddenly flew out at them from the alley between Clark's building and the one next to it, and she barely had time to make out the shapes of the two large, husky men wearing ski masks and dark gloves before they were upon them. One of the men made a grab for Clark, and in the scuffle that ensued, Lois was knocked off her feet and landed on the ground with a thud. The contact briefly knocked the wind out of her, leaving her helpless to fight against the other man who came at her, jerking her to her feet and pinning her arms roughly behind her. As she struggled to get free, her captor slipped his other arm around her neck in a chokehold, managing to subdue her even further.

"Lois!" she heard Clark cry out as she stood gasping for air against the man's strangling grip. Looking his direction, she caught sight of Clark, who'd managed to stay on his feet despite his husky attacker's attempt to knock him down. Before Clark could untangle himself from the man, though, Lois saw the man pull his arm back, and something shiny flashed in his hand. Her eyes widened in horror as she realized the man had a knife.

But then, in a flash, she suddenly remembered that Clark was Superman. That meant he was invulnerable, didn't it? That he couldn't be hurt by these men? But if he wasn't worried about being hurt, then why was he even bothering to struggle with these men, knowing he was strong enough to simply wrap a metal pole around them until the police could come and haul them away? The fact that he wasn't doing that filled her with fear. There was so much about him she still didn't know, and fear for him and their situation gripped at her heart.

She watched as Clark struggled with the man for another few moments, then she watched in horror as the man threw his arm forward, meeting his target and burying the knife into Clark's stomach. She heard herself scream as the man gave Clark a quick shove backwards, sending him tumbling to the pavement.

Then the man turned to his accomplice. "Let's go!" he yelled, causing the man holding her to drop his arm from around her throat and release her arms with a final shove. Then he rushed past her, nearly knocking her from her feet again as he and his partner quickly disappeared into the darkening alley.

When Lois regained her balance, she turned to Clark and saw him start to push himself up off the pavement. "Clark!" she cried out desperately as she rushed toward him. But before she reached him, he was getting to his feet and standing under his own power, apparently unhurt.

Almost faint with relief, she barreled into him, nearly knocking him backwards as she threw her arms around his neck and let her tears of relief and anguish wet his cheek. "Clark, you're all right," she cried as she clung to him, trying to catch her breath, and letting the feel of his arms around her reassure her that he was, indeed, okay.

Clark pulled her deeper into his embrace and held her tightly to him for a long moment, noticing that she was shaking in his arms. "I'm fine, Lois, I'm fine," he reassured her softly as he reached up to cradle the back of her head in his hand. Then he let out an angry sigh and turned to scowl in the direction their attackers had fled. "But those men certainly won't be if I ever find out who they are."

This seemed to draw Lois out of her state of shock, and she shoved herself roughly away from Clark and soundly smacked him on the arm. "Clark, you scared me half to death! Why didn't you just take those guys out? When you didn't, I thought something was wrong with you, or that there was something you hadn't told me about you being able to be hurt. How could you scare me like that?"

"Lois, I'm sorry," he told her hastily, grabbing her gesturing hands and holding them tightly in his own. "I didn't want to do anything that might make them suspect I was Superman. I can't just use my powers whenever I feel like it. I have to pick my moments."

Lois took a deep breath and let it out shakily as she ran a hand raggedly through her hair. "Yeah, okay, that makes sense." Then under her breath, she muttered, "Oh, boy, this is going to take a lot of getting used to."

His heart aching for her, he reached out and pulled her into his arms again and held her tightly. "I know, Lois, and I'm sorry." They stood in each other's embrace for several moments before Clark finally stepped back. "Normally, I'd go after those guys, but I don't know that leaving you alone right now would be such a good idea. Let's go into my apartment and call the police. We'll give them a description and send them out after those guys, whoever they were."

Just then, something clicked inside Lois's head. "Lex!"

Clark looked at her in confusion. "What?"

"Remember how Lex insisted that he was going to 'eliminate the competition'? I bet he was the one who set this up!"

The muscle in Clark's jaw twitched. "I wouldn't put it past him." He glanced again disgustedly in the direction the men had fled, then turned back to her, giving her a quick once over. "What about you, Lois? Are you okay?"

She nodded. "I think so. I'm just a little shaken up." Turning to glance at the ground around her, Lois spotted her bag over by where she'd been knocked down, and she went over to pick it up. When she did, she caught sight of a shiny object a few steps inside the alley. Cautiously, she went over to it and crouched down beside it.

"What'd you find?" Clark asked, coming up behind her.

Lois picked up the object and turned to show it to him. It was the knife, apparently ditched by their attackers as they fled. As he looked closer, he saw that the blade had been bent to almost an almost perpendicular angle to the handle, and the tip of it was flattened and useless.

"Guess we can't submit this as evidence," Lois stated flatly. "How exactly would we explain it?"

"Yeah, you're right," Clark agreed. "It wouldn't do any good to have it dusted for fingerprints anyway, since the men were wearing gloves. Here, let me have it. I'll get rid of it later."

She handed it wordlessly to Clark, then felt his arm go around her as he steered her gently toward his apartment. When they got inside and Clark turned on the lights, Lois walked over to the couch and slumped down into the deep cushions.

Clark was beside her a moment later. "You okay?" he asked, putting a hand on her knee.

She sighed. "I don't know, Clark, everything's happening so fast. I mean…you're Superman," she finished, gesturing feebly at his chest where she knew the emblem on his Suit lay.

"And?"

"And…I don't know!" she exclaimed, a hint of impatience creeping into her voice. "This is just such a shock. I mean, a few weeks ago, I would've been thrilled to find out I was actually *married* to Superman. But now…"

He waited for her to go on, knowing it was important for her to steer the conversation. But it was a while before she responded, and when she did, she sounded sad.

"I don't know," she repeated dejectedly. "I guess I'm just having too tough a time taking this all in. Suddenly there's this whole other side of you that I have to get to know. What if that changes everything between us? I mean, it's a lot of pressure, being in a relationship with a world famous superhero." Her eyes filled with sudden tears, and Clark's throat constricted with emotion.

"Lois, you're not in a relationship with a world famous superhero. You're in a relationship with *me,*" he said gently, taking her hands in his and holding them tightly. When she looked up tearfully to meet his intense gaze, he continued quietly. "Whether or not you want to believe this, Lois, I'm the same man I was an hour ago, the man you've come to know all this time as your partner and best friend. I'm still the same man who's only ever wanted what's best for you, and who wants nothing more than to love you and hold you for the rest of my life. And when it comes right down to it, it doesn't matter that I have some…admittedly special powers that I use however and whenever I can to help whoever I can. What matters, Lois, is that you know the *real* me. I'm that man with all those funny, obsessive little quirks you always tease me about, like backing all my files up on disks, refusing to step on people's toes, being polite and gentlemanly over and above all else." He smiled gently, and was rewarded by a small smile in return. "*That's* who I am, Lois. Not the man in the Suit and cape you see flying around the world, saving people from erupting volcanoes, or holding up collapsing bridges. That's just a little part of me I hadn't told you about yet."

He swallowed past the lump in his throat, then went on, with tears shimmering in his own eyes. "So please, Lois, please don't tell me that you don't know me, because you do. You know *this* part of me…" He released one of her hands to reach up and tap himself over his heart. "And that's the only part of me you really need to know to understand who I am. And this is the part of me that loves you, with everything I have in me. Isn't that what's most important?"

When he finished, Lois felt her barely restrained tears start to spill down her cheeks. "Oh, Clark," she cried as she leaned forward against him, burying her face in his chest and letting the tears come.

His arms tightened around her, and he held her for a long moment, then pulled back and tipped her chin up with his finger so she looked back into his eyes. "Lois, nothing changes the fact that I'm still willing to give you all the time and space you need to figure things out, but I want you to talk to me if you're upset. Don't repress things, even if that's what you're more comfortable doing, okay? I know this is a lot to have thrown on you, but I just want you to know that I'm here for you, just like I've always been. If you want to talk, even if it's three in the morning, I want you to call me, okay?"

She nodded tearfully. "Okay."

Clark smiled, his heart warmed to know that things were going to be all right between them, even if it took a little time. Lifting a hand to stroke her cheek, he asked, "So what about dinner? Are you hungry?"

"I'm too tired to eat," she admitted apologetically. "Can I take a rain check on your offer, though? Dinner from anywhere in the world sounds amazing."

Clark grinned. "No problem, Lois. Just say the word."

When the conversation stilled, Clark stood up and helped her to her feet. "Come on, Lois, I'll tell you what we're going to do. You go get your things while I draw you a nice, hot bath, then I'll get out of your hair while you soak and relax. Then afterward, you can have my bed for the night and sleep off all that stress here, since I would really rather you not be by yourself at your apartment tonight. Who knows what else Lex might be up to? Anyway, after a good night's sleep, I'm hoping the world will look a little brighter to you in the morning."

"I can't take your bed," Lois replied tiredly. "Where would you sleep?"

"I'll just sleep on the couch. Really, Lois, it'll be fine."

She sighed. "I should probably argue that this is your place, so I should take the couch, but I'm too tired to argue. Whatever you say is fine with me."

"Good, because I wasn't going to take no for an answer," he told her with a smile. "Now go get your stuff, and I'll start filling the tub."

A few minutes later, Clark was perched on the edge of the bathtub, holding his hand under the faucet in order to check the water temperature, when Lois appeared in the bathroom doorway. He looked up at her and smiled.

"What do you think?" he asked, nodding at the water pouring out of the faucet. "Too hot? Too cold?"

Lois set her bag on the counter and walked over to where he was sitting, leaning over him to put her hand under the running water. "Feels perfect," she admitted longingly.

Clark gestured at her bag. "Did you bring some bubble bath?"

Lois nodded, and turned to pull the tall, decorative jar from her bag and hand it to him. Clark took it from her and poured a few drops into the stream of water, watching it immediately start to form into a white cloud of bubbles.

"There," he exclaimed with finality. "You should be all set."

"Thanks, Clark," she told him with a genuine smile. "I appreciate this."

Clark gave her shoulder a gentle squeeze. "You just relax and enjoy yourself, Lois. Take all the time you need." He backed toward the door and reached for the knob. "I'll be right out here in case you need something." Then, with one last, caring smile, he shut the door, leaving her alone.

As Lois listened to the sounds of Clark's retreating footsteps, she felt a rush of gratitude towards him, for how sweet and caring he was, and for all that he did for her. But at the same time, she also felt grateful for the chance to be alone. Today had definitely been the topper of a rather unnerving week, and she was at a complete loss to know how to deal with it.

She knew she loved Clark. The fact that she'd just found out he had a whole other side of him she hadn't know about didn't change that. She realized that this was just something they were going to have to work through, no matter how long it took.

She sighed. Why did her life have to be so complicated? Just when she thought she could be comfortable in her relationship with Clark, this had been thrown at her. Was this how relationships were? One stumbling block after another? If it was, how did people ever get through it? At least Clark was being supportive and patient about the whole thing, and was willing to give her the time and space she needed to come to terms with this new development. She'd always loved that about Clark. He always put her needs before his own. That was a good thing when it came to being in a committed relationship, didn't it?

Confused now more than ever, she sighed heavily. It was just all too much. For now, she just wanted to lose herself for a short time in a long, luxurious bath, then indulge herself in a good night's sleep. Maybe then she'd finally be able to figure things out.

***

As Lois soaked in the tub, Clark wandered around his apartment, unable to relax. Their run in with those thugs—he agreed with Lois that they had to be Luthor's men—just a short time ago hadn't been entirely unsuspected, but the way it had happened and the timing of it made him furious. Lois didn't need any more stress in her life right now after everything she'd recently been through, and especially the bombshell he'd dropped on her tonight. He had half a mind to pay Luthor a little visit as Superman, but he knew that wasn't going to solve anything. Still, he thought, the sooner they were able to put the man away, the better.

Resisting the temptation to use his special vision to peek in on how Lois was doing, Clark told himself that she was fine, and just having some well-deserved rest. He wandered over to his couch and sat down, trying to relax, as well.

It had been a tough day not only for Lois, but for him, too. He kept telling himself that his talk with Lois about his other identity had gone well—far better than he'd hoped. But aside from the stress and emotional exhaustion she was justifiably feeling, something about her demeanor continued to nag at him. He remembered her words from earlier:

'These last two days, I've discovered that I've monumentally misjudged all three key men in my life…'

He shook his head. The fact that she was obviously being so hard on herself about misjudging the men in her life continued to gnaw at him relentlessly. He knew she was very driven, a perfectionist, someone who'd learned to rely on her instincts about people and situations for every choice that she made. To hear her say that proved to him she was suffering a huge blow to her confidence.

And that bothered him.

She didn't have the safety net of people to turn to like he did when things turned sour. Not that he had all that many people to turn to, but his parents were always there for him, no matter what. But she didn't even have that luxury of turning to her own family when she was down. He tried to remember if she'd ever mentioned friends, or certain people in her life who she trusted and felt comfortable enough with to talk to about things, but it didn't take him long to realize that he couldn't think of a single person—except him. And now, *he* was the one who'd thrown the biggest stumbling block of all in her path. And that made him feel terrible.

Just then he picked up the sound of the tub draining, and he figured that meant Lois was done. Deciding a cup of hot, calming tea before she went to bed would be helpful, he started to rummage in his cupboard for the things he'd need.

A few minutes later, Clark heard the bathroom door open, and he turned to see Lois emerging. His heart stopped. She was dressed for bed, wearing a white T-shirt, soft flannel boxers, and white ankle socks, and while she'd combed her hair, it was still wet, and hung down, lightly brushing the top of her shoulders. She looked simply breathtaking. Trying to get his breathing back to normal, he swallowed hard and gave her a smile.

"Feeling better?" he asked from his position by the stove.

"A little," she admitted with the hint of a smile. "Thanks for the use of your tub."

"Anytime." He pulled the kettle off the burner and reached into the cupboard for two mugs. "I'm making you some chamomile tea. I thought it might help you sleep."

"Thanks, Clark, that's sweet of you."

When Clark finished making the tea, he poured the hot liquid into two mugs and set them down on the table. Lois sat down across from him, and they sipped their tea in comfortable silence for several minutes.

Clark finally broke the silence. "I called the police while you were in the tub. I told them what happened and gave them a brief description of those two guys, but they want us to come down in the morning to file an official report."

Lois nodded slowly. 'Yeah, I guess we should. When we nail Lex, it'll just serve as one more nail in his coffin."

Seeing her staring down unseeingly into her tea, he reached across the table and took her hand. "Are you okay?" he asked gently.

She sighed. "I don't know, Clark. There's just so much I have to think about. Nothing seems to make sense to me anymore. Everything I thought I knew, it turns out that now I don't. I mean, in the last few days, I've discovered that I'm not as good as I thought I was at sizing people up. And if I've been so wrong about the key people in my life, what else have I been wrong with?"

"Lois—"

"No, Clark, think about this. Here I thought Lex was some brilliant, charming, wonderful philanthropist, who actually cared about me…the *real* me…and it turns out that he probably never even *knew* the real me, and figured I'd make some great trophy to show off and parade around." And then there's Superman…"

Her voice trailed off, and Clark felt a lump gather in his throat. "What about him?"

"Oh, I still don't know how I feel about that yet. The idea of you being Superman is still going to take some getting used to. But you…" she began. "Look how wrong I was about you. I've always thought of you as this sweet, gentle man—who you are, don't get me wrong—but I would have never guessed that you were the superhero who was single-handedly changing the world. I guess it makes sense, though. You never seemed to be afraid of much, and always walked around with this amazing air of confidence…"

"Lois, don't be so hard on yourself," he told her gently. "You're exhausted and emotionally drained. After you've had some time to sleep this off, I promise you, you'll feel better, and the world will seem to be a brighter place."

"Maybe you're right," Lois sighed.

"I *am* right," Clark insisted. "Now, all I want you to think about now," he began, taking her now-empty mug and set it on the counter, then pulled her to her feet and steered her into his bedroom, "is getting some sleep. I put a couple of extra blankets on the foot of the bed in case you get cold, and if you need anything tonight, just call. I'll be right out there on the couch."

When he pulled back the covers for her, she climbed under them obediently and lay down, smiling as he pulled the blankets back up to her chin. "Thanks, Clark. It feels great to be pampered."

"Don't mention it," he told her with a gentle smile of his own. "Everyone needs to be pampered once in a while, and right now, it's just your turn." He turned his attention to straightening the blankets around her and making sure she was comfortable. Then he turned back to her and met her gaze. "You going to be okay tonight?"

Lois nodded. "I'll be fine."

"Okay," he replied warmly. "But remember. Just holler if you need anything."

"I will."

Their eyes met and held, and Clark felt his heart lurch at the sight of this beautiful, incredible woman, so vulnerable and confused, lying in his bed, trusting him to help get her through this trying time in her life. It had always been something he'd dreamed of, to spend every moment of every day with Lois, and having her there with him now, and knowing that she'd be there when he woke up, it seemed a step toward the fulfillment of that dream.

Feeling more love for her then than he'd ever thought possible, he leaned down and touched his lips to hers, kissing her gently. When they pulled apart, a hint of her usual spark reached into her eyes.

"Goodnight, Clark," she told him sleepily.

He smiled softly. "Goodnight, Lois. I'll see you in the morning." And with that, he turned and left the room, shutting off the light.

***

Clark was already up the next morning when his alarm clock rang. In fact, he'd been awake most of the night, too. Ever since he'd lain down on his couch last night to try to sleep, Lois had been all he'd been able to think about. He'd been unable to erase the image of how vulnerable and lost she'd looked, especially as they'd talked before she'd gone to bed.

Clark sighed. The best thing he could do for her now, he realized, was to be there for her, and to help her through any tough times that might be lurking on the horizon. Once things were back on track and her life started to return to some semblance of normality, he was sure she'd start feeling more comfortable again, and was certain her confidence would return. But until then, he promised himself, he was going to do everything in his power to make her happy.

After lying there for a while longer, he finally got up from the couch and tiptoed quietly into the bedroom to check on Lois. He was sure she'd chastise him for letting her sleep so late, since it was almost already nine o'clock, but he didn't want her waking up a moment before she was ready. He'd even called Perry to let him know that they were going to be a little late to work, since Lois hadn't been feeling well the night before, and he was letting her sleep late. But that may have been a mistake, Clark had realized after hanging up the phone, since their editor had seemed clearly surprised to deduce that they'd spent the night together. If Clark hadn't known better, he would've thought that Perry had actually sounded secretly pleased.

When he reached the bedroom doorway, he caught sight of her curled-up, sleeping form, her curves still apparent from beneath his bedspread, and he felt his breath catch in his throat. Even asleep, she was beautiful.

He dared to take a silent step closer. As he did, a tender smile began to tug at the corners of his mouth. She wasn't beautiful. She was breathtaking. Her dark hair was partially curtaining her face, and her eyes were closed peacefully, her long lashes creating a captivating contrast against her light, smooth skin. He stood there for a long, blissful moment, content to listen to the sound of her slow, peaceful, easy breathing. He had an incredible urge to be there beside her, to feel her skin against his, wishing that he could wake up to her beside him every morning for the rest of his life.

With one last, longing look at her sleeping form, he turned away and walked quietly into the kitchen to start making some breakfast. Opening his cupboards, he studied their meager contents. Maybe if he made a good, hearty breakfast for Lois, she'd have a better start to her day. Heaven knew she could use it. But at the same time, he realized that she'd never seemed like much of a breakfast person. As long as he'd known her, she'd been in too much of a hurry to eat much in the morning, and usually seemed satisfied with a simple cup of coffee and some toast or a pastry.

Deciding to stick with that, he dropped a couple of slices of bread into the toaster and was just preparing to make some coffee when he heard a knock at the door. He turned toward it in surprise. 'Who could that possibly be so early in the morning?' he wondered silently.

He hurried to the door in an effort to get rid of whoever it was before they woke up Lois, but when he opened it, he was surprised to see a relatively young man standing there, who he was sure he'd never seen before in his life.

"Yes?" Clark inquired.

"Mr. Clark Kent?" the young man asked. When Clark nodded, he held out a large envelope. "You've been served. Have a good day."

As the young man turned and disappeared down the steps, Clark looked curiously at the envelope in his hand as he shut the door. 'Served what?' he found himself wondering.

Puzzled, he slid his finger under the envelope flap and worked it open as he walked into the kitchen. When he had it open, he leaned back against the kitchen counter and pulled the papers out of the envelope and unfolded them warily. His eyes flew over the page, and when he realized what the papers were, his heart sank.

The divorce papers.

'How did they get this rushed through so quickly?' he asked in numb disbelief. 'We just barely saw the counselor a couple of days ago. This was supposed to take weeks…months!'

He caught sight of the lawyer's name at the top left corner of the page, and recognized it as one of the Daily Planet's attorneys. It made sense that if Lois had wanted to rush this thing through, she would've asked Perry if she could utilize the Planet's legal offices in order to do so. Clark could even see that Perry probably would've encouraged it, since he would've no doubt felt guilty about such a fiasco occurring during a Daily Planet stakeout assignment.

It made sense, but still, Clark found himself having a hard time feeling better about it. He tried to tell himself that he'd known this was coming, though maybe not quite this soon, and that he should've been expecting it. But for some ridiculous reason, he knew that some tiny, irrational part of his mind had secretly hoped that they could stay married.

'But that's so ridiculous!' he scolded himself brusquely. 'People just don't say, "Hey, we're already technically married, so since we just recently realized that we love each other, what the heck…let's stay married."' The thought almost made him laugh out loud. And even though things were very different between them than they were even a few days ago, and that they'd both opened up about how they felt about each other, he knew exactly what would happen if he told her now that he didn't want a divorce after he'd already agreed to go through the necessary steps to fix this error.

She'd panic.

Such a request from him would put an incredible amount of pressure on her, especially after everything she'd just been through these last few days. After all, she'd just broken off her engagement with another man, found out he was Superman, and was now dealing with a bout of insecurity and self-doubt stemming from the fact that she'd misjudged him, as well as the other men in her life. She needed time to adjust, to come to terms with everything that had recently happened to her, and rushing her into something as serious as talk of marriage just because their relationship was starting off in a good direction—it just wasn't a good idea. Besides, when they *did* get married, he wanted it to be the best moment of his life, and of hers. He wanted it to be something very memorable and special. He didn't want their marriage to happen simply because they had a piece of paper proving that they were.

So, as much as he wanted to simply throw the papers away and pretend he'd never even seen them, he knew that just wasn't possible. After all, Lois had gone to all the trouble to get with a lawyer and have the divorce papers drawn up; obviously, this was what she wanted. What right did he have to refuse?

He sighed. Knowing he was right didn't make this any easier.

With a heavy heart, he turned and picked up a pen from behind him on the kitchen counter, and took a deep breath to give himself the courage to go on. Then he inked his name to the bottom of the papers where it was indicated he needed to sign, folded them up, slid them into a fresh envelope, added a stamp, and quickly copied the address onto the front of the envelope. When it was all done, he held the envelope in his hands and stared down at it, feeling an irrational wave of sadness wash over him.

"Who was at the door?"

At the sound of Lois's voice, Clark jumped. He spun around, trying to slow the pounding of his heart, and hastily hid the envelope behind his back before she could see it. He hated lying to her, but in this case, he felt justified. She'd been through enough these last few days. She didn't need to be reminded of their pending divorce, especially since he could vividly remember how upset she'd been while confiding in him how devastating it was to her that she was going to be officially labeled a "divorcee," and that she felt it meant she'd failed in a relationship without even trying. He wasn't about to stir up all those deeply upsetting emotions after everything she'd just been through.

"Oh, um…nobody," he quickly stammered, hoping she wasn't awake enough to catch him in his lie. "Just someone selling something."

"So early?" she asked through a sleepy yawn. She shuffled toward him and slowly stretched her arms above her head, causing her T-shirt to rise and give him a glimpse of the smooth, silky skin lying beneath.

He swallowed hard. Even with her tousled hair and her sleep- filled eyes, he couldn't help noticing how incredible she looked first thing in the morning.

"Yeah, well…you know salespeople," he went on, trying to cover his nervousness, both from his lie and from his physical yearnings. "They'll do anything to get you to buy what they're selling."

"I guess they will, if they're soliciting this early," she said, dropping her arms back to her side and closing the distance between them. "Is that toast I smell?"

"Um…toast. Yeah, I made us some toast," he stammered, hurrying over to the toaster and quickly lifting the front of the toaster so he could carefully ease the envelope he was still holding beneath it. Then he set the toaster back down, feeling relieved that no one would ever suspect something was underneath. "Are you hungry?"

Lois watched as he reached up to pull a couple of plates from the cupboard and nearly dropped them onto the floor. She cocked an eyebrow at him. "Clark? Are you okay? You seem nervous or something."

Clark jumped guiltily and turned toward her, this time clattering the plates onto the counter top noisily. He felt his face flush with color. "Oh, um, no, Lois, I'm fine. I was just hurrying a little too fast, I guess. I was hoping to have breakfast ready for you as soon as you woke up. How did you sleep, by the way?" he asked, trying to change the subject.

"Good. Better than I thought," she admitted, shuffling to a stop beside him and running her fingers through her hair. "How about you? Did you get any sleep out here on the couch?"

He pulled the toast from the toaster slots and set the crisped pieces of bread onto the plates. As he turned to open the fridge, he nodded, his attention still on preparing breakfast. "Enough. What would you like on your toast? Butter? Jam? Honey?"

She grinned as he watched him, standing poised at the fridge's open door, awaiting her response as if waiting for the answer to the most important question in the world. "Butter's fine." As he pulled out the butter, and some honey for himself, Lois stepped toward him and took the container of butter from his hands. "Clark. You don't have to go to all this trouble. I feel guilty enough that I monopolized your bed last night without you making me breakfast and waiting on me hand and foot."

Clark's face softened into a smile. Setting the honey down on the counter next to the plates, he turned and reached up to cup her face in his hands. "I like to do things for you, Lois. It makes me happy."

She grinned. She wasn't about to begrudge him that. Besides, it had been a long time since she'd felt so pampered and loved. "Well, if it makes you happy," she acquiesced, her grin broadening.

She lifted her hands to his waist and settled them there gently, and Clark drew her face gently toward his, causing her heart rate to increase to dramatic levels. Then when his lips were only a breath away from hers, she closed her eyes, eagerly anticipating his kiss.

When his lips touched hers, any confusion that may have been lingering from the night before was instantly swept away, and she knew that there was no mistaking the feelings of love and passion that surfaced whenever he was near. The touch of his lips to hers simply took her breath away, and she wondered if a lifetime would be enough to savor the feeling. Superhero or not, this man certainly knew how to kiss.

When they finally pulled apart, breathless and dazed, Lois smiled up into his beautiful face. "Thanks for making me breakfast," she told him gratefully. "That was really sweet of you."

Clark grinned at her, then gave her one last, quick kiss before releasing her and turning his attention back to the toast. "Well, it's not the most elegant breakfast, but it didn't seem like you were much of a breakfast person anyway."

"I'm not. Toast and coffee will be perfect."

They finished preparing their simple breakfast in no time, then sat down at the table to talk as they ate. Clark felt a huge rush of relief to see that Lois seemed to be feeling better, both physically and emotionally. But even so, he wondered if the hint of whatever it was that might still be bothering her, still lurking there beneath the surface, was really there, or if it was just his imagination. He doubted it was his imagination. It seemed unrealistic to think that everything that she'd recently been through was going to just resolve itself in a good night's sleep, but he hoped it wouldn't be long before she was able to work through whatever conflicts remained, either on her own or by talking to him. And he hoped that she *would* talk to him, and promised himself that he'd make it easy for her to, by being there for her and giving her lots of opportunities to do just that.

As they finished eating, Lois stood up and walked over to the sink with her dishes. "I can't believe how late it is," she said, glancing up at the clock. "Perry's going to be furious."

"No, he won't," Clark told her as he stood up and followed her. "I already called him to let him know you were feeling a little under the weather, and that we'd be a little late." As naturally as if he did it every day, he put his hand on the small of her back as he leaned around her to deposit his plate in the sink.

She turned at his touch and grinned. "That sounds pretty domestic, you calling in sick for me. I bet Perry was jumping to all kinds of conclusions about us when you called and told him that. I can just see him dying to know all the details."

Clark chuckled. "Well, now that you mention it, he did seem rather surprised and interested when I phoned. And this, combined with that kiss he got on us for at the Planet yesterday, I'm sure he's dying of curiosity."

"Let him think what he wants. What he thinks is probably less confusing than the truth, anyway." She sighed, and a hint of her stress from last night returned.

Clark felt a twinge as he suddenly remembered the divorce papers he'd just been served, but quickly pushed them aside, knowing that this was one of those times he'd promised himself he'd help Lois through. He wasn't about to let herself get down again.

Trying to downplay her reaction to her own words, he put his hands on her hips and steered her out of the kitchen. "Yeah, maybe, but let's not think about it right now," he admonished. "You had some time to relax last night *and* a good night's sleep. Let's start this day off on the right note and not dwell on everything that's happened these last few days. Why don't you get dressed in the clothes you wore over here last night, and then we'll get out of here and go to your apartment, where you can put on something for work."

Lois's hint of a frown was quickly replaced by a smile as she laughed at Clark's gentle firmness. "Man, you're bossy this morning," she quipped over her shoulder at him as he continued to push her toward his bedroom.

When they stopped in the doorway, he turned her toward him and smiled. "You'd better believe it. Now go and change. I'll straighten up the kitchen while you're changing, then I'll change when you're done." And with that, he closed the door between them, leaving her unable to argue.

As he heard her moving about his bedroom, Clark went into the kitchen, then glanced nervously back in the direction of his bedroom. When he was felt certain that Lois wasn't watching, he hurried over to the toaster and quietly, cautiously lifted it up and removed the envelope hidden beneath. He sighed sadly as he once again held it in his hand, then moved quickly over to his suit jacket, which was still draped over the back of his recliner.

With one more wary glance at his closed bedroom door, he lifted his coat and silently slid the envelope into the inside pocket. As much as he hated to, he'd wait until Lois wasn't looking, and then drop it in the first mailbox he could find.

***

"Do you want me to drive, Lois?" Clark asked as they left his apartment and walked down the street to her car.

But Lois shook her head. "No thanks, Clark, I'll be fine," she told him, unlocking the doors and climbing behind the steering wheel. "I feel a lot better today."

Clark finished buckling his seatbelt, then reached for her hand and gave it a squeeze. "I'm glad. But remember, if you need to talk—"

"Clark, I'm fine," she persisted, rolling her eyes in exasperation. As Lois started the car and pulled away from the curb, she sighed inwardly. She knew Clark was serious about wanting to help her work through things and to have her talk to him about what might be bothering her, but the truth of the matter was, she wasn't ready to talk about things yet. There was still so much she wanted to figure out herself first, to come to terms with how she felt about last night's discovery, and about how she was feeling about everything. As of yet, she still didn't know how or what she was feeling.

As Lois concentrated on steering through the mid-morning city traffic, Clark spoke. "You know, as much as I hate to bring this up, we really should swing by the local police precinct to give them our statement about last night's attack."

"Yuck, you're right," Lois grimaced, suddenly slamming on her brakes to avoid hitting the car in front of them. "When we get to my apartment, why don't you call Perry while I'm changing my clothes, and tell him that's where we're going to be. It could take *hours* finding somebody in that donut convention to give our statement to."

When they reached Lois's apartment, they hurried up the stairs and Lois quickly unlocked the door. "I'll just be a second," she said before rushing into her bedroom and shutting the door behind her.

While she changed, Clark called Perry to report in, then waited for Lois on the couch as she finished getting ready. When she emerged from her bedroom, she was dressed in a short black skirt that set off her long, shapely legs, and a smart black and white blouse that accented her newly-brushed, dark, silky hair. But Clark had to bite his lip to keep from laughing as he watched her struggled to carry her shoes under one arm, while trying to put a tiny, gold hoop earring on at the same time.

"Here, Lois, let me help," he offered quickly, standing up to grab her shoes before they fell to the floor.

"Oh, thanks, Clark," she breathed as she worked at her earring for another moment, then started to insert the other tiny hoop into her other ear. As Clark sat back down on the couch with her shoes in his hands, she sighed. "You know…your being here reminds me of last night when my mother barged in. Now that was a moment to remember," she muttered sarcastically as she shook her head. "To tell you the truth, after meeting my mom last night, I would've thought you'd be miles away from here by now."

Clark laughed. "Not a chance," he responded with a definitive shake of his head. "Nothing is going to keep me away from you."

"Not even a wicked mother in law?" she challenged, reaching for her shoes that he still held. "She *is* technically your mother in law, you know."

"I know." He flashed her a brilliant smile. "Let's just say I'd consider it a challenge to win her over."

Lois studied him for a moment, then allowed an answering smile to creep across her face. "With that dazzling smile of yours and those small town charms, you just might be able to pull it off."

"As long as I don't mention that I also moonlight in tights, right?" he joked.

But as soon as he said it, he knew he'd made a mistake. Her smile faded and the troubled look returned to her eyes. "Lois, I—"

"No, Clark, it's okay, you didn't say anything wrong," she reassure him quietly. "I just forgot about that for a minute. It's going to take me a while to adjust to the fact that you're…"

"Superman?" he prompted gently. When she nodded wordlessly, he sighed. "It's all right, Lois, you can say it. Besides, it's not really who I am, remember? We talked about this. 'Superman' is just a name, that's all…a name, by the way, that *you* gave me."

She smiled a little at that. "I guess I did, didn't I?" Then she shook her head. "I'm just going to need some time to figure some things out, and think about things…and no," she interjected before he could say what she knew he was going to say, "I'm not ready to talk about it yet."

He nodded. "Fair enough. Anyway," he said, changing the subject. "Perry knows we're going to be at the police station, so let's get going. I don't want to spend any more time there than we have to, either."

***

"Well, I, for one, am glad that's over," Lois grumbled as she and Clark exited the police station nearly two hours later and walked back to her Jeep. "How could it possibly take them two hours to take a simple statement?"

"They were busier than usual this morning," Clark offered diplomatically.

"Yeah, right," Lois argued with an irritated roll of her eyes. "Perry's going to be furious about us getting to work so late."

"Lois, he'll understand," Clark placated, forcing himself to remain patient.

Lois unlocked the driver's side door of her Jeep and pulled it open. "I hope so, because…" Her voice trailed off suddenly when she saw Clark stop in the process of opening his passenger door, a strange, faraway look on his face. She furrowed her eyebrows. "What's wrong?"

A moment later, he turned to Lois and met her gaze. "Uh, Lois, I've gotta go," he stammered anxiously, reaching up to finger his earlobe. "Something's going on. I hear a bank alarm."

She blinked. "A bank alarm? How can you—ohhh," she said with sudden understanding. He needed to go and be Superman.

She shook her head. For whatever reason, she was still having a hard time associating her mild-mannered, gentle, sometimes even seemingly-awkward partner with a certain world-famous man of steel who flew, captured criminals and helped ease the effects of natural disasters, and who, she had to admit, looked absolutely amazing in revealing blue tights.

The thought of Clark is that skin-tight Suit almost made her laugh out loud. It just seemed so weird. If Clark hadn't shown her the Suit beneath his clothes the night before, and saw the bent knife resulting from when the thug had tried to stab him, she wouldn't have believed he was the same man, the superhero, who single-handedly intimidated the entire world's criminal element. That was definitely going to take some getting used to.

Before she could come to terms with the situation, Clark started fumbling with the knot of his tie as he hurried around the front of the car to stand beside her. "Why don't you go on back to the Planet, and I'll meet you there in a little while?" he suggested, looking rather anxious to get going. "Will you be all right?"

She nodded impatiently "Yeah, yeah, I'll be fine, go ahead. I'll, uh…see you in a while."

With a brief, grateful nod, Clark backed away, looked around him carefully, then darted around the corner of the nearest building and into an alley. Moments later, Lois heard the unmistakable sound of Superman's sonic boom, and she saw a familiar streak of red and blue flash across the sky.

With a heavy sigh, Lois climbed into her Jeep and steered it numbly toward the Planet. Too many thoughts filled her mind, and she found herself wrestling with them uselessly in an effort to sort them out. Before she was ready, she'd arrived at the Planet and was riding up in the elevator to the newsroom. She was still lost in her thoughts when the elevator doors opened, and it wasn't until she was halfway down the ramp and heard Perry's shout from his office that she was able to bring herself back to the present.

"Someone turn on those TVs!" came Perry's shout as he came thundering out of his office, gesturing toward the wall of TV monitors. In a matter of seconds, several of the screens were switched on, and her coworkers started to mill around them, straining to hear what was being said.

"What's going on?" she asked as she stopped next to Perry.

He gave her a quick, cursory glance. "How nice of you to join us," he commented in his customary, gruff fashion. Then he turned his attention back to the TVs and nodded at the picture on the screen of a large brick building—a bank, the reporter was explaining—and responded, "The police just got wind of the bank on ninety-third and Oxford being robbed. They suspect it's the same guy who's been hitting banks and taking hostages all up and down the coast."

Lois nodded in response, then focused on the drama unfolding on the screens before them. The reporter was explaining that the police were gathering outside the bank in response to a silent alarm triggered from within. They were told the would-be robber was holding hostages inside, and was planning to kill a hostage every fifteen minutes if he didn't get what he wanted. The police scrambled about frantically as they tried to summon a hostage negotiator.

Just as the camera panned away from the reporter and zoomed in on the bank, an audible gasp came from the crowd, and the camera suddenly darted to the left, looking for the source of the gathering crowd's reaction. And then she saw him. Superman. Clark. He had drifted down to the ground next to a group of officers and began talking to one in particular, who Lois assumed was the one in charge. Then, moments later, she saw Clark nod resolutely and, in the blink of an eye and a colorful flash of red and blue, he streaked into the building and returned only seconds later with the very disgruntled would-be robber in tow.

A huge cheer went up from the crowd gathered around the bank, as well as from her coworkers standing around her, their eyes riveted to the TVs in the newsroom, as Superman turned the criminal over to the waiting police.

Glancing around, Lois studied the faces of those surrounding her as they stared up in a kind of hallowed awe at the red and blue clad superhero on the TV as he turned his attention to ushering the obviously shaken hostages out of the building. But as Lois herself turned back to the screen, she realized something. She no longer looked at the superhero with the same awe she recognized on the faces around her. Suddenly, he was simply Clark, the man she'd come to know as her partner and friend, the man she hung out with in her off-work hours, sparred with over possible story angles at work, and always turned to whenever she was down or discouraged.

'Superman…' she thought, shaking her head as she continued to watch him on the TV monitor.

She'd always trusted Superman implicitly, knowing without a shred of doubt that he was telling her the truth, and taking what he said as gospel, above and beyond what anyone else said. She, as well as so many others, looked up to him as a pillar of strength and truth and morality and ethics. Not that those things had been a lie. Not by any means. But now, her image of him was changing. Not changing for the worse, necessarily, but simply changing.

Before she'd found out that the handsome and elusive superhero was actually her partner, she had to admit, she'd always thought of him as some sort of God. But now she realized that he wasn't. He was just a man—yes, a super man—but still just a man, like any other man. She'd always thought of the superhero as being invulnerable, and maybe he was physically…for the most part, anyway. But now that she knew that he was Clark, she realized that he was actually quite vulnerable in so many ways. He had feelings and insecurities, and was able to feel joy and sorrow, just like everyone else. He had strengths and weaknesses, goals and aspirations. He wanted to live a normal life, wanted to simply be who he was— Clark.

Yes, he also wanted to help people, to do what he could to help others with the powers he'd been given, and she realized that the costume was just a way he was able to do that and still maintain his ability to lead a normal life. He wanted to continue to be her partner, to be her friend, to come over at night to watch videos and eat pizza, to joke around with Jimmy and take part in the weekly card game hosted by Perry, to have someone to love and be loved by, to feel wanted and needed.

Shaking her head in disgust, she suddenly realized she felt both angry with herself and ashamed for not realizing all this sooner, for not being able to see the superhero beyond the flashy costume and dazzling good looks and physique. If she had, maybe she would've discovered the truth long before this.

"So where's Clark?" came Perry's voice from beside her, shaking her out of her reverie. "Shouldn't one of you two be getting on this?"

Thinking quickly, she swallowed and replied, "Oh, um, he had a source to talk to down at the police station. As soon as he gets back, we'll get right on this." Then, with the hint of a smile, she added silently, 'Maybe we'll even get an exclusive from Superman's point of view.'

Perry nodded, accepting her answer without question, and immediately Lois felt guilty for lying to her boss, the man who she'd come to think of as more of a father than just as somebody she worked for. But even as she turned away guiltily and walked over to her desk to sit down, she knew that she couldn't have told Perry the truth: that he was watching Clark on TV even as they spoke. After all, now that she knew Clark's other identity, she realized she had a responsibility to help maintain his cover.

Suddenly, she felt a strange sense of empathy for Clark. All his sudden disappearing acts now made sense, and all those ridiculous excuses he was so famous for came to her mind. No wonder they always sounded so ridiculous. He was so intent on rushing to the scene of whatever crime he was needed at that he didn't have time to think of a rational excuse. He obviously just said the first thing that popped into his mind so he could go and help those involved. She remembered how angry she sometimes got when he rattled off one of his infamous excuses to her. And now she'd just found herself doing the same thing.

Ironic. Definitely ironic.

She sighed. Her life had certainly taken a dramatic turn in the last twenty-four hours. Clark's admission last night had certainly come as a shock, but the more time she had to think about the reasons why he'd kept his other identity a secret from everyone—including her, until recently—made sense, she had to admit. But she also realized that there were clearly things about him that she still had yet to learn, things that might take a while to discover about and get used to.

Wasn't that what having a relationship was all about, though? she asked herself. Getting to know the other person better, finding out if you were compatible, if you enjoyed the same kinds of things?

But whether or not she wanted to believe it, she knew Clark had been right last night. Superhero or not, she *did* know him, knew the loving, caring, gentle person he was deep down inside. They'd been through thick and thin together, and he'd always been there for her, to stand up for her and protect her, both as Superman and as Clark. He'd cheered her up when she was down, celebrated with her when she was up, and battled alongside her when they needed to fight for each other, or for their stories. That in itself spoke volumes about the person he really was.

Yes, she knew him. And yes, she loved him.

But that wasn't what worried her.

His announcement last night had only served to illustrate a point. Relationships were never smooth. *Their* relationship had never been smooth. So what did that tell her about what lay ahead? Had she honestly thought that once she'd discovered how she really felt about Clark, and gathered her courage to tell him what she'd come to realize, that things would suddenly become smooth sailing? Well, they'd only been a couple for one day, and look what she was now facing: the realization that he was both the partner and best friend she'd grown to love, and the superhero she'd sought after and admired. What other stumbling blocks might be thrown into their path? And would they be able to survive them?

Lois leaned forward to put her elbows on her desk and dropped her head into her hands. It was sad to say, but she knew there were no guarantees, no happily ever after relationships. Being in a committed relationship wasn't easy, she realized, and she wasn't afraid of that. But she was afraid of investing so much time and emotion into a relationship if it was doomed to failure from the start. And if something were to ever happen to break them up, would she be able handle it?

She thought back to the time when Clark—Superman, she now realized—had left Metropolis during the city's heat wave, thinking his super powers were to blame. She remembered how miserable she'd felt, knowing she'd lost her best friend. And that had happened months ago, before they'd gotten to this level of their relationship. Would her heart survive if he ever left her like that again? Her heart lurched at the thought, and she realized then that it wouldn't. She would be simply devastated.

So where did that leave her? Was she going to let this latest development scare her off, to keep her from following her heart? Finding out something about your boyfriend—even though this was admittedly a huge thing to discover—seemed incidental when you compared it with, say, changing feelings or a cheating spouse. Those things happened; sad, but true. She'd seen both in her own family, even. And look what had happened. Her parents had gone through a nasty, bitter divorce, and had dragged her and Lucy along for the ride. She'd never completely recovered from that experience, and she'd only been through it as a child. What would that be like to go through it first hand?

Unable to bear the thought, Lois pushed her deliberations aside and rubbed at her temples in an effort to ease her threatening headache. She doubted the answers she sought were going to come any time soon.

***

Clark stepped off the elevator almost two hours after he'd left Lois at the police station, and his eyes instinctively swept across the newsroom, looking for her. His pulse quickened when he spotted her sitting at her desk, her head bent over a large stack of papers.

He smiled. As usual, she seemed happily engrossed in whatever research it was she was doing.

But as he neared, he watched her put her hands to her temples and rub them tiredly. His brow furrowed. Why hadn't he noticed right away how tired and pale she looked? When he reached her desk, he stopped quietly next to her. "Lois? Are you okay?"

At the sound of her partner's softly spoken question, Lois looked up from the large stack of papers she was perusing and forced a cheerful smile. "I'm fine," she replied, dodging his question. "So? How'd it go?"

"With Superman's help, the bank robber was apprehended and all the hostages have been tended to. I got us both the exclusive story." He winked at her.

She smiled. "I wonder how you managed to do that."

He dropped onto the corner of her desk and scrutinized her carefully. "Lois, are you sure there isn't something else bothering you? Maybe this thing about me and…well, you know…"

She startled, and he knew from her expression that he'd hit the nail on the head. "No, that's not bothering me," she started to argue. But when she saw he wasn't buying it, she sighed. "Well, okay, maybe it is a little. It's just…I know what we talked about, and you're right. I do know the real you. And honestly, this doesn't change the way I feel about you, but it does bring up a lot of issues that I'm not sure I'm ready to face or deal with. To be quite honest, they scare me a little."

"What scares you?" he asked gently. "Is it something about us?"

"Not so much about us, I guess," she admitted, "as much as it is about relationships in general."

He nodded patiently. "So, what is it exactly that's bothering you?"

Lois gave a little sigh and glanced around to make sure no one was listening. Then she continued on in a whisper, "Your news last night—and even everything that's happened in the last few days—has given me a lot to think about, as far as our relationship is concerned. It's proven to me that nothing is ever easy for us, Clark. What makes us think we're going to be able to make our relationship work? Lots of relationships *don't* work. What if ours doesn't?"

"Lois," Clark said, lowering his voice, as well. "Our relationship's going to work because we were meant to be together. I'm certain of that. We love each other, and nothing's going to change that."

Lois sighed sadly. "But see? That's just it. Everyone starts out loving each other in the beginning. Then things come up, problems, and many of them can't be overcome. They tear a couple apart. I know about this firsthand because I saw my parents go through it. They loved each other at the beginning. But now they can hardly stand to be in the same room together. I don't want that to happen to us."

Clark opened his mouth to speak, but Perry's loud voice suddenly interrupted their conversation.

"All right, people! Twenty minutes 'til deadline. Lois! Clark! I need to see what you've got on this bank robber and hostage story, and I need to see it now." Then, without a second glance, he turned and walked into his office.

Lois rolled her eyes. "Oh, yeah, I forgot to tell you. Perry wants us to write something about that for tonight's edition. I already jotted some stuff down, and that, along with your exclusive from Superman should appease him."

"Yeah, that sounds fine," Clark agreed, but he was still too preoccupied by what Lois had just told him to get excited about the story. He saw Lois's gaze drop to her lap, and he wished they'd had more time to talk through her fears and insecurities. "Lois, why don't we hurry and finish up with Perry, then we can go somewhere to talk some more about this?"

But Lois shook her head as she gathered up her papers. "No, Clark, I'm okay. Really. As much as I'm sure you want to help, I'm afraid this is something I'm going to have to work out on my own."

Clark studied her for a long moment, as if deciding to press the issue or let her have her space. Finally, he nodded reluctantly. "Okay, Lois. But promise me that you'll come talk to me when you're ready. I'm willing to listen. All you have to do is say the word, okay?"

Lois nodded, then collected the paperwork she'd been working on and hurried into Perry's office to show him where they were at with their story. But as much as she tried to concentrate on her presentation of their newest leads to their editor in chief, her heart wasn't in it. She had too much else on her mind.

***

"It's been such a perfect day, hasn't it?" Lex sing-songed as he burst into the room where Nigel was setting his table for dinner. "I can't imagine ever having a more perfect day than this," he announced, beaming triumphantly as he strolled out onto the balcony and lifted his hands into the air, gesturing at the world around him before finally resting them on the railing.

"Sir?" Nigel inquired, pausing in his duties to watch his boss turn and stroll back into the room.

If possible, Lex's grin widened even more. "The stock market is up, my costs are down, and Lois Lane will soon be back in my arms, now that I've dispatched of that annoying reporter partner of hers. The world has never been a more wonderful place."

Nigel's jaw tightened and he averted his gaze. "Before you continue to take over the world, I think you should have a look at the evening paper."

Lex took the paper eagerly. "Ah, the Daily Planet. I wonder what kind of grief they're splashing across their front pages, reporting the untimely passing of one of their reporters." He grinned victoriously as he gave the folded paper a shake, causing it to open in his hand.

But when he didn't see the headline he was expecting, his smile changed to a confused frown. It wasn't so much the headline that caused his change in his demeanor, but the byline:

Would-be Robber Apprehended by Superman, Hostages Safe by Lois Lane and Clark Kent

Slowly, his fist started to clench around the paper, balling it up tightly. "Kent's alive?" he demanded, looking up at Nigel, who was suddenly busying himself by setting the trays containing his boss's dinner onto the table. "How could this have happened? Didn't you send the men to take care of him?"

"Yes, I did, but apparently they failed. They haven't reported in since they went out last night."

"Undoubtedly because they couldn't face me after such a failure. Well, what are you waiting for? Find them!" Lex hollered in a fit of rage. "And when you do, I want them killed. Then send somebody more competent to finish the job *they* were supposed to do!"

Nigel cleared his throat and straightened up beside him. "At this time, that may not be wise," he advised.

Lex caught his breath and turned to Nigel with a hint of his customary calmness. "And why is that?"

"Because I've heard through channels that Ms. Lane has been talking to some of your disgruntled, former employees."

Lex lifted an eyebrow. "And?"

"It appears she's investigating you, sir. And when that woman snoops, I suspect trouble is not far behind. You know as well as I do what she's capable of."

Lex's face paled slightly as he pushed his chair back from the table. Then, with a new air of calmness, he stood and walked over to stare out the window for several silent moments, his hands clasped lightly behind him. When he responded, his voice was quieter and more purposeful. "Have you seen to it that all the paper trails have been destroyed?"

"Yes, sir, I have. We're working on that now."

Lex nodded somberly. "Good. I want to make sure she doesn't find anything. Let her sources talk. As long as we're covering our backs, she won't find any incriminating evidence." Lex shook his head and turned back. Strolling over to the table that Nigel had finished setting for him, he mumbled, "I hope what I did didn't put her on my trail."

Nigel leaned closer. "Pardon?"

Lex shook his head slowly, then sat down at his plate. "Never mind, Nigel, it's not important. What *is* important is that I be kept appraised of her and Kent's little so-called 'investigation,' understood? I don't want them getting too close."

Nigel nodded. "Understood."

When his servant was gone, Lex continued to sit motionless for several long minutes, staring silently down at his food as he contemplated Nigel's warning. This was an interesting development. He'd never before worried about the lovely and beautiful Lois Lane making waves. She had no reason to suspect him of anything. He'd been suave and charming, literally sweeping the woman off her feet. He'd dazzled her and shown her a lifestyle much more exciting and enchanting than her own.

But now…

He shook his head. Maybe he shouldn't have gone so far yesterday morning. With Lois's stubbornness and temperament, he should've known she couldn't be pushed or threatened so brazenly. He'd overstepped himself, and had caused a potentially dangerous problem. He, of all people, knew what Lois Lane was capable of.

Picking up his fork, he pushed his food around his plate for a few minutes before setting the fork back down. With a sigh, he pushed his plate away. For some reason, he'd suddenly lost his appetite.

***

"Jimmy! What were you able to dig up on those leads I gave you on Lex?" Lois asked a few days later as she bustled into the newsroom after a morning of following leads. She was pleased that several of those leads had even panned out.

The day before yesterday, an anonymous source had tipped her off that Lex had ordered an incriminating paper trail to be destroyed, and she and Clark and Jimmy had flung themselves into it, determined to gather up and learn what they could before it disappeared. As things started to unfold before them, it was beginning to be clear that Lex had made many enemies and burned many bridges as far as his dealings were concerned, and now, the people he'd once trusted with his underground dealings were angry enough to come forward under a veil of anonymity to shed some light on his criminal business and personal dealings. If things kept going as they were, and they kept uncovering incriminating evidence as quickly as they were, Lex's life was soon to be a whole lot more interesting. It was obvious the authorities were going to be able to build quite a substantial case against him.

Because of the recent flood of information and paper trails being uncovered, though, she and Clark were up to their eyebrows with work. But Lois honestly didn't mind. This was when she was at her best: focused, unrelenting, following leads and striving to bring down the bad guys. By all appearance, Mad Dog Lane was back.

At least, that was what almost everyone else around her thought.

Everyone except Clark, that is.

While she was outwardly the same tenacious, determined investigative reporter everyone knew, only Clark seemed to know the truth, that her "business as usual" attitude was just a facade. He knew she was fighting an internal battle, and she could tell that he was genuinely worried about her.

He made a valiant effort to be there for her every day, to be supportive, and to try to make her happy. He showed up at her apartment every morning to ride with her to work, fussed over her much of the day, bringing her coffee and her favorite chocolate donuts, and was with her every evening, either bringing her to his apartment to watch videos, or keep her company and talk with her at hers. And knowing her as well as he did, Clark suspected her fears and insecurities were at work. It tore him apart, knowing that she was battling the silent war raging within, and even though she'd told him that she needed to figure some things out on her own, he'd made every effort to get her to talk over the last few days. But Lois knew she just wasn't ready. She'd been unable to come to any decisions, and talking about it seemed pointless until she did.

Ever since that day almost a week ago when she'd watched Clark as Superman on TV, her days passed in a haze. She'd forced herself to go through the motions of getting up, going to work, and pretending to be busy. But truthfully, all she seemed to be able to think about was Clark, and the concerns and insecurities his revelation of his other identity had presented.

The only thing that seemed to make her forget her woes for even a little while was the fact that their investigation on Lex was going so well. She smiled. She would love nothing more than to be the one to reveal him for what she suspected he was to the world. That would be such sweet revenge for the way he'd treated her, and everybody else, for that matter.

Jimmy's answer to her question brought her back to the present. "Still working on it, Lois. But you did have a call from somebody named Cochran. He said he had some information for you on Lex."

She felt a surge of adrenaline at the mention of one of Lex's employees who she suspected could give her that important piece of information that would help her put the nail in his coffin. "Great, Jimmy, thanks," she replied. "Where's his number?"

"On your desk," he called back. "Oh, and there's a package for you there, too. It must be important because it was delivered special courier a little while ago."

Lois looked surprised. "Oh…okay, thanks." Temporarily forgetting her phone message, she walked curiously around the corner of her desk and spotted the large, official looking envelope. Curiously, she pulled open the seal along the edge of the envelope and removed the papers. When she did, her heart landed in her feet with a thump.

The papers were from the Metropolis circuit courts, and explained that her and Clark's paperwork had been completed, and they were being summoned to appear before the judge for final resolution of their divorce in two days' time.

'How could this be?' she thought dismally as she continued to read the details, the words blurring together on the page and her mind whirling. She'd only met with the Planet's attorney approximately two weeks ago, and she'd been told it would take months to finalize the divorce. Besides, she hadn't heard a single thing from Clark, saying he been served, or even signed and sent the paperwork in. Surely he would have said something, wouldn't he?

She was so wrapped up in trying to come to terms with the paperwork in her hand that she didn't hear Perry approaching.

"Lois? Is everything okay?" he asked, his usual southern drawl subdued by the quietness of his voice.

"Oh, um…yeah," she responded, trying to pull herself together. She waved the papers in Perry's direction. "I'm just a little…stunned, I guess. These are from the Metropolis circuit courts. They say that Clark's and my divorce paperwork is done, and that we're supposed to appear in court in two days." She met Perry's gaze for several moments, then glanced back down at the papers in her hand numbly.

Perry's brow furrowed. "It's what you wanted, isn't it?"

Feeling somewhat disoriented, Lois pulled her eyes from the paper and looked up at him once again. "What? Oh…well, yeah," she exclaimed hurriedly. "I guess I just, um, wasn't expecting to see them so soon, that's all."

Perry put a hand on Lois's shoulder. "Well, I confess that I may have had something to do with that. I felt somewhat responsible for this whole thing since it happened when you two were on the job, so I asked our legal department to use their connections to push your case through as quickly as possible. I hope that was okay."

"Yeah, Perry, that's fine," she assured him. "I guess I should thank you for doing that. I just…I didn't expect this right now, you know?"

At the dazed and pained expression in her eyes, his heart went out to her. After all, he felt closer to her than he did his own sons. If he'd ever had a daughter, he would've wanted it to be her. People often called him hardened and calloused. Maybe he was in some respects, but he always had a soft spot in his heart for this young lady.

Giving her a sympathetic smile, he gave her shoulder a squeeze before backing away. "Hang in there, Lois," he said simply before turning and heading back to his office.

Lois watched him go, then turned back to the papers in her hand. Perry's sympathy definitely helped, but still she felt numb and more than a little shaken up. She reached for the desk beside her and used it for support as she lowered herself into her chair.

Staring blankly down at the documents, she realized she didn't know how she felt. On the one hand, she knew she should be relieved that the proceedings were almost over. Once they were, she could forget about dealing with divorce legalities and get on with her life. And her life was certainly different now than it had been before all this had happened. After all, she and Clark were now in a happy, solid relationship. Sure, there were going to be some things about his alter ego to get used to, but she knew she would after time. She loved him, alter ego or not, and she knew he loved her. But did that mean they were going to stay in love forever? *Would* what they had last? She remembered her deliberations over the past several days, and was once again forced to wonder about the future.

She stared at the legal documents in her hand. Was *this* their future? she couldn't help wondering. If they got married sometime down the road, was this what she was going to see again in five years? Ten years? Twenty years? Her mom and dad had been madly in love with each other, as she and Clark were now, but she knew how *that* had turned out. They'd slowly grown apart, became different people, and turned to other sources of fulfillment: her father to his secretaries, and her mom to alcohol. Would Clark turn to something else? Someone else?

Obviously, there were things about him she didn't know. That was obvious by the blow he'd just delivered to her in her apartment not so many days previous. So how well *did* you have to know a person before you knew if you'd stay together forever? And could anyone guarantee "forever" in the first place? With her track record with relationships, she had a hard time believing in forever. 'This reality,' she thought, her hand tightening on the papers, 'seems more likely.'

With her fears and insecurities continuing to assault her, sending her into a deep, spiraling depression, she was too preoccupied with her own struggles to notice the pair of eyes that were suddenly upon her, watching with concern and confusion as her eyes began to mist with tears.

Just having come from the research department, Clark watched as Lois slumped dejectedly in her chair, staring dismally at the papers in her hand. Stunned, he found himself unable to move as he watched the single drop of moisture escape her lid and start a path down her cheek. His heart lurched. She was crying. And what was more, she was crying at work. He knew how obsessive she was about showing any kind of emotion that could be perceived as a weakness, especially at work.

Knowing that whatever she held in her hand must be the key, he glanced quickly around him to make sure nobody was watching, then lowered his glasses and used his special vision to zoom in on the papers she held. He skimmed the first couple of paragraphs, then grimaced. The court system certainly wasn't wasting any time in rushing this divorce through. He didn't know whether to be relieved or saddened. Regardless, it was obvious how Lois was taking the news.

And it wasn't well.

He couldn't help remembering what she'd confided that day in her apartment not so long ago:

"You know what my family life has been like, Clark, and I swore I'd never make the same mistakes they did. But here I am, soon to be considered a 'divorcee,' without even ever having been married. I've failed, Clark. That's what my records are going to say. That I failed. And I failed without even trying, without ever having been married."

He shook his head, trying to clear his mind of the haunting insecurities she'd confided in him that day, but he simply couldn't. This was a big blow for her. If there was something he could do to help, to cheer her up or simply offer her a shoulder to cry on, he wanted to be there for her.

His heart breaking for her, Clark detoured at his desk to drop off his armload of papers, then walked timidly over to her. "Lois?" he began tentatively.

Lois jumped at the sound of his voice, then hastily reached up to wipe away the unsuspecting tears and quickly clearing her throat before turning to him and attempting a sad smile. She indicated the papers she was holding. "These were on my desk when I got back. Do you know what they are?"

He nodded grimly. "Yeah, um…I saw. Are you okay?"

She shrugged, then straightened up a bit in her chair. "Well, I have to admit, they came as kind of a shock. I mean…I didn't even know you'd been served, or had signed the papers and sent them in or anything. Why didn't you say something, Clark?" she asked, an accusing tone creeping into her voice as her gaze hardened. "If you had, at least I would've been a little more prepared for this."

Clark panicked. 'Oh, way to go, Clark,' the little voice in his head chastised him. 'Instead of trying to save her some heartache by *not* telling her about receiving the divorce papers, you've only succeeded in upsetting her more.' Realizing his intentions had once again backfired, he crouched down beside her and lowered his voice apologetically.

"I'm sorry, Lois," he told her quietly. "After you ran out of our counseling session with Dr. Jenkins that night, she signed off on our paperwork and told me I just had to drop it by the courthouse. Then when I got served the official papers last week, I decided not to tell you because I didn't want to make you more upset about this than you already were. I was only trying to protect you. I honestly didn't think that it would upset you not to have some warning. I'm really sorry."

Lois stared at him intently, and she could tell from the concern in his eyes and the worry lines forming around his mouth that he truly was sorry, and that his intentions had indeed been good, if not a little misguided. That seemed to be one of Clark's personality quirks, she was beginning to realize, to protect people first and worry about the consequences of those actions second. It probably stemmed from all those years of having the responsibility of superpowers.

Her anger dissipating, she gave a weary sigh. "Oh, just forget about it. I know you were only trying to look out for me, Clark, and I'm sorry I snapped at you. I was just a little caught off guard, I guess, that's all." When the worry lines around his mouth started to fade, she forced a smile and tried to lighten the mood. "Well, we're supposed to appear before the judge the day after tomorrow to finalize the divorce. Turns out this all went through so quickly because Perry asked the legal department to use connections to rush it through. So, if all goes according to plan, we'll be divorced in less than a week. You'll be officially rid of me."

She gave a half-hearted smile to prove she was joking, but Clark didn't buy it. He saw how incredible forced it seemed. Besides, he knew how she felt about this. To her, it was no joking matter.

His heart aching, he placed his hand on her arm. "Lois, I don't *want* to be 'officially rid of you.' I love you." But when she only turned to stare back down at the papers, he tried again. "I know this has all been such a mess," he said gently, "and you're probably feeling pretty insecure about this right now, but it doesn't have to be this way. I'm still here for you, Lois, and I always will be. Please believe that."

She nodded imperceptibly, but refused to meet his eyes as she felt fresh tears start to threaten once again, triggered by the concern and sympathy in his voice. "I know, Clark."

"Do you?" he asked, seeing the doubt clearly written on her face. "With everything that's happened these last two weeks, you just seem…I don't know, misplaced, or something."

When she didn't respond, Clark gave her arm one more squeeze, then tried to cheer her with a smile. "Hey, I've got an idea. How about a trip to the Chocolate Palace? My treat. We can sit down and talk about things—"

She smiled up at him, grateful for having such a good friend, but she felt too miserable to even think about having company for the next little while. More than anything, she just wanted to go somewhere by herself and indulge herself in some good old-fashioned self pity. "Thanks, Clark, but I think I just want to be alone for a while. Okay?"

His smile faded as he took in the doomed sadness in her eyes, and his heart went out to her once again. But he knew he wasn't going to be able to force her to talk. She would when she was ready, and not a moment sooner. He knew he was just going to have to be patient. Finally, he nodded. "Sure, Lois. I understand. But if you want to talk, I'm right here. And call me later, okay? You know I'll just worry about you if you don't."

She smiled. "I know. Don't worry; I'll be okay. I just need some time to regroup." And with that, she stood up, picked up her satchel and headed for the elevators.

It was all Clark could do to stay where he was as he watched the doors close between them, but he knew he had to let her go. For now, anyway. After all these years, she had her own way of doing things, and she wasn't about to change them now. As much as he hated it, he was going to have to let her sort things out. She'd come to him when she was ready.

***

By seven o'clock that evening, Clark still hadn't heard from Lois. And just as he'd warned her he'd be doing, he was worrying.

He knew she had a lot on her mind right now, but the haunted, depressed look in her eyes made his heart lurch, and he couldn't stop himself from wondering if she was okay.

For what felt like the millionth time that day, Clark crossed his apartment and picked up the phone. Punching in the number he knew by heart, he waited through two, three, then four rings. By the time it rang for a fifth time, he sighed and hung up. She still wasn't there.

'Or maybe she's just not answering the phone,' he suddenly thought. He briefly toyed with the idea of flying over to her apartment to see if that was the case. 'But if she's there and not answering the phone, wouldn't that mean she's not *ready* to talk?' he countered silently. 'If you go flying over there, demanding to talk, you're just going to pressure her.'

He paced back to the other end of his apartment as he contemplated that. It made sense, but it didn't make him feel any better. He'd just about decided to fly over her apartment to just see if she was even there when he heard a sudden knock on his door. His heart pounding, he practically flew up the steps and reached for the doorknob. When he pulled the door open, he sighed with relief. It was Lois.

"Lois, I've been worried about you! How come you didn't call like you said you were going to?" he asked, putting a hand on her elbow and quickly ushered her into his apartment.

"So I came by instead of called," she told him, smiling a little at his fussing. "What's the big deal?"

He shut the door behind her, then turned back to study her carefully. While the bags were still evident beneath her eyes and her face showed the telltale signs of crying, her countenance seemed a little brighter, her demeanor a little less dispirited.

Under his conspicuous scrutiny, Lois shifted uncomfortably. Clark had always been the only one she'd ever known who was able to see right through her carefully-managed, hardened veneer to the emotional, sensitive person hidden beneath. She didn't know whether to be grateful for that or not.

When he didn't say anything right away, she cleared her throat awkwardly. "So, uh, can I come in? I was hoping we could…um…you know, talk."

That seemed to shake him out of his studious reverie. "Oh, yeah, I'm sorry," he stammered, his cheeks coloring. He quickly waved his hand toward the living room couch. "Do you want to sit down?"

"Yeah, that sounds good," she replied softly. She followed Clark over to the couch and sat down, her nervousness growing as he sat down next to her and then leaned forward apprehensively.

"So how are you doing?" he asked with obvious concern. "Are you feeling any better than you were this morning?"

"I think so," she admitted with a tired sigh. "I guess getting those papers hit me pretty hard."

Clark nodded sympathetically. "I could tell. Do you want to talk about it?"

Lois hesitated, and when she did, Clark reached out and gently slid his hand around hers and began to rub the back of her hand with the pad of his thumb. It was an encouraging, patient gesture, and it went a long way to reassuring her and giving her the strength to talk to him about what was in her heart.

"Yeah, I guess I do," she finally answered wearily. She dropped her gaze down to her joined hands for several moments as she tried to gather her thoughts. Finally, she took a deep breath to give herself strength, then looked back up to meet his gaze. "I've been kind of struggling these last few days, and getting the papers this morning just sort of capped everything off."

He nodded encouragingly. "What is it that's been bothering you?"

Taking a deep breath, she told him, "I don't know if you'll be able to understand any of this, since you come from a very different background than mine, but I thought I'd at least get all this off my chest." When he gave her hand a patient squeeze, she continued. "Our partnership's never been dull, Clark, that much is obvious. And if our partnership's never been dull, what makes you think our relationship's going to be anything different?"

His brow furrowed in confusion. "I'm not sure I'm following you, Lois."

"Well, think about it," she rushed on, her voice gathering strength. "Since we've been partners, we've argued too many times to count, battled each other for stories and leads, and challenged each other's ideas and investigative methods. Then there was the time you made me think you were quitting your job at the Planet and going to work at the Star, and that kind of deceit you used to fool me doesn't even begin to include all the times you deceived me while you were pretending to be two entirely different people. You even said goodbye and left when everyone thought Superman was causing that heat wave—breaking my heart in the process, I might add. We've had a rocky year together, Clark," she pointed out matter of factly. "Wouldn't that say something about how our future's going to be?"

"Lois," Clark replied gently but firmly, tightening his grip on her hand. "I won't deny that the past year has been…interesting." He smiled. "But you're just focusing on the stumbling blocks we've had. Do you want to know what I see?" When Lois nodded imperceptibly, he continued. "I see that in spite of those troubles, we're still together, and doing better than ever. And not only are we still friends, we're in love and in a loving, committed relationship. Don't you think that's a good indication about how we've come through all of those trials?"

Lois nodded. "I'm not disputing that what we have is something special. But what happens when things continue to be rocky?" she persisted. "I mean, my parents probably thought they had something special, too, and look how they ended up. They traumatized Lucy and me by going through a nasty, bitter divorce. That doesn't exactly leave me with the best example to follow."

Clark reached out for her other hand and held both of them firmly in his own hands. "But that's not going to happen to us, Lois—"

"How can you know that, Clark?" she interrupted. "I mean, things happen in relationships, Clark; it's sad, but true. Most people going into relationships probably insist that 'that's not going to happen' to them, but often it does." Clark opened his mouth to argue, but she hurried on. "All I know is that I looked down at those divorce papers today and I panicked. I couldn't help thinking, 'Is this going to be our future? Is this some sign, some warning about what's eventually going to happen to us?'"

"Lois," Clark broke in. "I know you worry about this because you've had some bad relationships, both with your family and with others, but I honestly believe that if we truly love each other, we can get through everything that comes along."

He paused for a long moment, seemingly searching for just the right words. When he continued, his voice was gentle but firm. "Lois, I'm not going to tell you that there won't be any hardships in our future because there will be. Any relationship has them. I know because I've seen my own parents go through them. But I firmly believe that two people who really love each other can get through those hard times because they love each other, and are always there for each other. Just like we are, Lois. And if you want to look at it this way, we already have a head start on having a successful relationship. We started out as friends."

He smiled gently as he reached up to tuck a stray strand of her silky, dark hair behind her ear. "Because of that, we've come to know each other so well that we can practically tell what the other person is thinking before they say it. We've been through everything together, Lois, and have been there for each other and have helped each other through everything. I feel like we've *already* spent a lifetime together because of everything we've already been through."

He met Lois's gaze steadily and continued. "But how I feel about this doesn't matter if you don't think it's worth the risk. It's obvious what your head's telling you, Lois. But what's your heart telling you?"

Lois let out a shaky breath. "It tells me that I love you, and that I want to be with you more than anything. I'd like to think you'll always love me and be there for me, just as I will be for you, but it's just such a hard concept for me to grasp."

"Then let me prove it to you, Lois," he insisted emphatically. "I told you before, we don't have to rush this. We can take things slow, and I'll prove to you over time that my love is for real, and that I'm going to be here for you, no matter what."

Lois's eyes misted over at his words. Feeling a rush of emotion and gratitude to have such a wonderful man in her life, she slid her hands out of his and moved into his arms. When she buried her face in the hollow of his neck and he responded by wrapping his arms around her, she sighed contentedly. "Thank you, Clark, for being so understanding…for not running away when I temporarily freak out." She smiled against his neck, and he chuckled softly.

"I think I'm getting used to you freaking out from time to time," he teased, tightening his arms around her. "I'm just glad you finally wanted to talk to me about this." He held her for another minute, then released her and tipped her chin up until she was forced to meet his gaze. "Lois, if it would make things more comfortable for you, let's just take things one day at a time and go from there. No pressure, no stress-inducing expectations." He grinned. "The bottom line is, you're the most important person in my life, and the best thing that's ever happened to me. I'm going to do everything in my power to prove to you that what we have between us is going to last. I love you, Lois. And nothing in the world is ever going to change that."

Lois felt a wonderfully warm shiver of happiness rush through her as he continued to gaze lovingly down into her eyes, and her heart soared. "Oh, Clark," she breathed, feeling as if all the stress, emotional struggles and seemingly insurmountable insecurities from the past two weeks had suddenly been lifted from her shoulders. "Thank you. And I love you, too."

Clark smiled softly, his eyes twinkling merrily as his face moved imperceptibly closer to hers, causing Lois's heart to beat wildly. And when he slowly shifted his position on the couch, moving himself even closer, Lois realized just what it was that Clark's nearness did to her.

To cover the sound of her pounding heartbeat echoing in her own ears, she swallowed noisily. Then, without even meaning to, she found herself starting to babble nervously. "Clark," she began softly, trying not to think about how incredible he looked close up, and how full and inviting his lips looked as they neared hers. "Just so you know, I should warn you that just because we've cleared some things up, that doesn't mean I won't still panic from time to time. But even if I do, I want you to know that it doesn't mean I'm not happy being with you. It just means that if I start to get a little anxious about things—"

"Lois?" Clark interrupted, lifting a hand to trail a finger lightly along her jaw line from ear to chin.

His touch immediately stopped her rambling, and she tried to force her stomach to stop turning somersaults as his face slowly moved within mere inches from hers. "Yeah?" she managed weakly.

His lips now only a breath away from hers, his eyes danced mischievously before hers as she stared helplessly into their depths and watched as a soft smile played slowly across his lips. "Shut up," he said simply.

An answering smile found its way onto her own face, but before she could move, respond, or even breathe, his lips parted imperceptibly and hovered over hers for a delicious, eternal moment. She saw him glance down at her own lips, inviting and hungry, then lift his gaze up to hers once more, as if waiting for some sign of silent permission to be given. Her heart pounding crazily with anticipation, she slid her arm around his neck and traced her finger along the smooth skin along his collar. Obviously, that was all the encouragement Clark needed. She saw him close his eyes, and she let her own eyes drift shut, waiting eagerly for what she was sure was going to be her own little piece of heaven.

With a gentleness she'd never before experienced, she felt Clark's lips touch hers lightly, just an instant before his mouth closed rhythmically upon hers with the contact, sending a firestorm of ecstasy coursing through her veins. Heady and breathless, Lois felt his lips lift gently away from hers, and in that moment of pure elation, the softness of his kiss made her wonder if she hadn't simply imagined it. But before she could wonder further, his lips were on hers once again, moving over hers softly, his mouth opening and closing in time with hers in a passionate, arousing rhythm. Lois tightened her arms around his neck, enjoying the beautiful intimacy of the moment as his lips continued to roam over hers, nibbling, tasting, and best of all, telling her without words just how much he loved her.

When they finally pulled apart, Lois struggled to catch her breath and tried to stop the world from spinning around her as Clark let his forehead fall against hers. For several long, wonderful moments, they simply leaned into each other, reveling in the intimacy of the moment. When the sound of their deep breathing slowly diminished, Lois forced her heavy lids open, still reluctant to leave the comfortable, warm, heart-stopping moment behind. When she did, she saw Clark's eyes staring lovingly back into her own.

"Wow," she added breathlessly, her head still reeling from their kiss.

Clark grinned slowly. "I know. That was…"

"…incredible," she finished with a smile.

Nodding in agreement, Clark's arms tightened around hers, then he leaned in for one more kiss. But in the moment before he closed his eyes to kiss her, Lois caught sight of something incredibly marvelous in those beautiful, warm depths that she'd never seen in them before. Or maybe she'd just never let herself see it before. Either way, she knew there was no more denying it.

In his eyes, she had seen their future. And from what she could tell, it was going to be wonderful.

***

"Lois, come on! We're going to be late."

Looking up from her computer screen at the sound of Clark's pleading voice, she saw him hurrying over to her desk, shrugging into his suit jacket as he went. "Almost ready," she replied. "Just one more paragraph."

She turned her attention back to her monitor and typed furiously for another minute as Clark stood next to her desk, straightening his jacket and fidgeting with the knot on his tie. Then, with a flourish, Lois hit the last two keys and sat up excitedly in her chair. "Voila! One fact-filled expose sure to make Lex run for cover."

Clark watched as she LAN'd their story to Perry, then shut down the program. Dropping his hand from his tie, he held her chair for her while she stood up. "Are you sure we're ready to go public with this?" he asked as she turned and reached for her satchel and coat. "I mean, the police haven't even finished going through all the evidence we've presented them with. Maybe we're jumping the gun here."

"Clark, thanks to some mighty fancy talking and heavy persuasion on my part, Tony Cochran just turned state's witness a mere hour ago. And even if he hadn't, the paper trail on Lex and his empire that we were lucky enough to uncover before it mysteriously disappeared is enough to convict him and his cohorts and put them away for the next fifty years. By the time the officers read Lex his rights for numerous counts of accessory to murder, extortion, blackmail, and many other crimes too numerous to mention, they're going to be hoarse. Whether he believes it or not, he's going to go away for a looong time." She lifted her coat from its hook and threw it across her arm with a victorious smile.

Clark chuckled. "The one lesson in life Luthor obviously never learned: Never mess with Mad Dog Lane."

She grinned. "You'd better believe it." Reaching up to grab his tie, she tugged him toward the elevators. "Come on, Kent. We've got a hearing to go to."

"Hey, watch it, lady," Clark protested with a laugh, brushing her hand off his tie and straightening the silk fabric she'd rumpled. "There's a lesson you need to learn. Never mess with a man's tie."

"Oh, really?" Lois asked as they started up the newsroom ramp. "And just what do you think you're going to do about it?"

"Mmmm," Clark contemplated as they stopped in front of the elevators. "How about this?"

Then, before she could utter another sound, he moved forward and captured her lips with his own, sending a shiver of delight through her. When they pulled apart, Lois was simply speechless.

"You know what?" he asked, flicking a friendly finger down her nose. "I think I like you speechless." Then, with a maddeningly triumphant smile, he stepped into the open elevator and pulled her along with him.

As the elevator doors shut, two pairs of eyes turned away from the scene. "I'd say they're back on the mend," came the gravelly, yet happy, voice of the Daily Planet's Editor in Chief. "What do you say, Jimmy?"

"Well, they certainly look happier than ever," Jimmy agreed with a smile. "I never would've guessed it, but obviously that little accidental marriage of theirs turned out to be a blessing in disguise."

Perry gave a throaty chuckle as he shoved his hands into his pants pockets and rocked forward and then back on his toes. "Yeah, well, sometimes, Jimmy, love just needs a little shove. And I have to admit, when it comes to shoving, I'm the best around."

Jimmy's jaw dropped as he turned to look at his boss. "Chief, are you saying that you were behind all this?"

"Now, Jimmy, don't go jumping to any conclusions," Perry interjected gruffly. "I'm not saying that I did anything. All I'm saying is, a man in my position wouldn't be a man in my position if I didn't know a few things about life and love. Besides, whoever did something like that would've had to be familiar with some rather interesting arcane laws, had some connections down at City Hall, and knew that Lois and Clark were going to be at the Lexor Hotel that night." After a brief pause, Perry gave Jimmy a secretive smile as he turned to walk into his office. "I don't know anybody like that. Do you, Jimmy?"

Then, in the instant before Perry shut his office door between them, Jimmy could've sworn he caught the hint of a wink. But then the door shut, and Jimmy could only stare after his boss in stunned silence. As he turned to leave, though, he suddenly caught an unmistakable sound coming from the other side of the door. He raised an eyebrow. If he didn't know any better, he would've thought he'd just heard Perry yodel.

Smiling and shaking his head, Jimmy headed back to work. Confessions or not, his boss knew way more about life and love than anyone gave him credit for.

***

Later that afternoon…

Lois and Clark walked out of the courthouse and down the cement steps after spending the last couple of hours waiting to see the judge. When they finally had their turn, the judge had heard the circumstances of their mysterious marriage, looked over their paperwork, and quickly granted their request for a divorce. And that was that.

'Well, it's finally over,' she thought solemnly. But as much as she'd been dreading this day for weeks, now that it was all over and she and Clark were officially divorced, she felt surprisingly unaffected.

It had taken her a while to realize that Clark was right, that a mere piece of paper didn't mean she was a failure when it came to relationships. It was just a thing, a mere legal technicality. It wasn't something to dwell on when it came to her happiness. And if you looked at it one way, she could see that their "mystery marriage" had been a blessing in disguise. If none of it had ever happened, she and Clark might still be only partners, and she might've even been married to Lex.

She shuddered. 'Enough of those thoughts,' she insisted, quickly pushing them aside. She didn't ever want to think about that again. Besides, she had more important things to think about now. Like being in love.

As they reached the bottom of the courthouse steps, she felt Clark reach for her hand. When she turned to look at him, she saw that he was looking at her with a tender smile on his face.

"What?" she asked, suddenly feeling somewhat self-conscious.

"Nothing." He grinned. "It's just that it's a beautiful day, and I've got an incredibly beautiful woman next to me. I think I'm the luckiest man in the world."

Unable to stop the smile from creeping across her face, she stopped on the path and allowed Clark to pull her in for a kiss that left her both heady and breathless. When they finally stepped apart, Clark gave her hand a gentle squeeze as they continued down the sidewalk.

"So," he asked lightly. "How does it feel to be divorced?"

Lois let a rush of air escape from between her lips. "Weird," she admitted. "How about you?"

A smile tugged at the corners of his lips. "I never thought a divorce could be so amicable."

Lois laughed, suddenly feeling back to her normal, cheery self. "Oh, really?" she challenged, stopping and pulling Clark over to the building's stucco wall so they were out of the walkway and the crowd of people. "Amicable? Is that all we are?"

"I guess that depends on your description of amicable," he teased back, trapping her against the wall and moving closer until his face was within inches of hers.

Lois cocked an eyebrow at him. "I thought there was only one definition. You know, friendly, on good terms with someone."

Clark's voice became husky as he narrowed the distance between them even more. "Well, we're definitely…friendly." He grinned mischievously at her. "And I guess you could say that we're also 'on good terms.'"

Lois found it hard to be in such close proximity to this man who she'd only recently thought could never be more than a friend, and actually compose an intelligible response. Forcing her gaze away from his full, rich lips, marked endearingly by the tiny mole over his upper lip, she ventured, "Oh, really? How good terms?"

Clark's eyes danced enchantingly before hers. "Let me show you." And with that, he leaned down and touched his lips lightly to hers for the second time in a matter of minutes. But as their kiss went from teasingly light to heart-stoppingly passionate, Lois felt pulled into a heady sensation of total and complete surrender.

"Wow," Lois breathed when the kiss ended and she felt her headiness subside. "If that's 'amicable,' I can't wait to see 'passionate.'"

Clark grinned, thrilled that his kiss could have such an effect on her. "Neither can I," he agreed whole-heartedly. When the intimacy of the moment started to fade, he pulled back and reached for her hand again, pulling her along with him as they walked down the courthouse steps.

As they walked, Lois swung their clasped hands lightly between them. "So now that all the legalities are said and done, I just have one question."

Clark turned to look at her curiously. "What's that?"

"Since we're officially divorced, does this mean I'm entitled to alimony?" Lois grinned wickedly.

His laughter echoed off the stucco walls around them, and Lois knew she'd never tire of hearing the sound of that laughter. "Nice try, Lois," he said simply.

When his laughter faded, Lois leaned over and bumped her shoulder against his. "You know, Clark, after I got used to the idea of being married, even if it was to you," she grinned, "I kind of liked it."

Clark's expression softened as he looked down at her tenderly. "Yeah, so did I."

"Why is that?"

He looked at her in surprise. "What do you mean?"

"Well, I always grew up telling myself that the idea of marriage just wasn't natural, that two people couldn't share their lives together. I didn't ever *want* to get married. But these last few days…I guess the idea of being married— especially to you—well, it kind of grew on me."

Clark nodded solemnly. "It did for me, too."

"So…where do we go from here?" she asked seriously.

He gave her hand a squeeze. "Let's just plan to do what we talked about—take things one day at a time and see where that leads us."

"One day at a time," Lois echoed.

Clark nodded. "You know, continue to be partners, go out regularly, get to know each other a little better. For example, I didn't even know you'd been married before."

Lois's face broke out into a smile. "You didn't? Well, he was quite a wonderful man."

"Really?" Clark taunted, his teasing smile reaching all the way into his eyes, making them sparkle and dance with life. "If he was so wonderful, then how come you're not still married to him?"

"Because it all came on so suddenly," Lois teased, playing along. "We barely knew each other, plus there was this other guy I was engaged to marry."

"But that other guy's history, right? He's no longer part of the equation?"

Lois shook her head. "Nope."

"Well, then next time, I'll just have to make sure it's not as sudden, and that we know each other very well." He leaned in to kiss her, his lips brushing over hers lightly, sending her once again reeling from his touch.

But then his words hit her, and her eyes flew open. She pulled away so she could look into his gorgeous, chocolate brown eyes. "Wait. 'Next time'?"

Clark smiled softly and nodded. "You bet. At least that's what *I'm* shooting for."

Lois mulled that over for a long moment, then smiled as his words crept down from her mind and wrapped themselves around her heart. "'Next time,'" she repeated again, this time with a smile. "I like that sound of that."

THE END

:)