Near Wild Heaven — Half a World Away

By Kaethel <Kaethel@wanadoo.fr>

Rated PG-13

Submitted December 2000

Summary: After he witnesses Lois accepting Lex's proposal in the episode "Barbarians at the Planet," Clark Kent leaves Metropolis, dispirited and lonely, to begin a new life in Paris. Lois, too, is finding life less than blissful. But fate is about to step in and take a hand in turning their lives around…

Author's note:

The premise for this story has been on my mind for over two years, and I'd never been sure I could find a way to write it, until a little over a year ago: while discovering an area of Paris I hadn't ever visited before, an entire scene popped into my head, demanding to be written. Shortly after, the two ideas merged into one, the scene in question giving me the element I was missing to write up my plot, and the plot giving me an occasion to include the scene <g>. The story starts about six months after the end of 'Barbarians at the Planet' episode after which my own continuity differs from the one in the show.

One small vocabulary clarification is required: the word 'arrondissement' that I've been using throughout the story could be roughly translated as 'district' — Paris is divided into 20 administrative areas like these.

I'd like to thank all the people who helped me through various stages of this story: to Elena, Sarah and Chiara, who insisted I write this fic when I started to talk about it, and regularly gave me their encouragement and input. To Wendy, Yvonne, Chris, and Jenni, for the very productive brainstorming session that got me started again when I was completely stalled a few weeks ago. To Chiara and Shayne, who helped me out of a couple of sticky situations in the plot, thanks to their helpful suggestions. And to the MBs' readers for their support and encouragement when I posted the story.

Also, a big thank you to all the people who participated in the beta-reading of this story: Elena, Yvonne, Chris, Wendy and LabRat. Special thanks should go to Wendy and LabRat not only for their nagging talents, but also — and especially — for completely editing this story, for staying on irc very late at night (or was that early? ;P~~~) to brainstorm for hours on plot elements when the Muse was on strike <g>, and giving me excellent ideas and suggestions. You guys are gems. :) And last but certainly not least, a very big thank you to LabRat for GEing the entire story.

'Near Wild Heaven' and 'Half a World Away ' are two R.E.M. songs, the titles of which I borrowed for the purpose of this story. No copyright infringement intended. The main characters aren't mine, but the situations and dialogues are copyrighted with the author.

Feedback is very welcome at Kaethel@wanadoo.fr

***

*Paris, France, Friday*

A tall man in a dark overcoat stepped out of the darkness and produced a lead-lined box from his pocket, from which he retrieved a syringe full of a gleaming green liquid. The shadow of a sly grin passed across his face. The Boss would be happy, *very* happy. He'd heard the worry hidden behind his threats over the phone, but making sure that this young homeless man couldn't talk about what he now knew would ensure them some tranquillity. Of course the incriminating computer disk that the company's vice-president had created was still out God knew where, but tracing it back shouldn't be too much of a problem. But that would come later. For now, what was important was to make sure that none of the information contained in it was spread, and the best way to do that was to get rid of any witness who could become a real nuisance.

And as he'd pointed out to the Boss, it was the perfect opportunity to carry out the first human test of the K Project. The results would probably be… interesting, to say the least, and he was looking forward to reporting them to the Boss.

He was starting to understand the real interest of the project, and why the Boss had seemed so insistent that the hybrid chemical they'd created in this Parisian laboratory could come to be a very reliable resource. One they could use to protect themselves from any leak amongst the henchmen they occasionally recruited on the street. Who would think twice about the accidental death of such scum? Most of them were already addicted to some drug, after all.

The man's grin widened as he looked almost lovingly at the product in his hand. Oh yes, it would be good to see the effect of this miraculous liquid on a human body. The tests on the lab rats had proved it to be a very effective poison, but there was still the problem of the dosage needed in the case of an adult man. This would come with new experiments, though, and he just couldn't wait to put his theory into practice. And considering he still had to get his hands on the evidence that could make the whole project sink, he was pretty sure he'd be asked again to use his creation to make anyone who knew too much unable to breathe a word of it.

Taking a couple of steps towards the homeless man who was still bending over his bag to retrieve some object, the mysterious man's hand made a quick move to stab the needle into the junction of his victim's bare forearm. He slowly pressed the piston of the syringe and watched in fascination as the dizzyingly green liquid disappeared under the man's skin, leaving only a grey blur at the surface of his arm. The homeless man, who'd remained paralysed with the pain inflicted on him by the lethal poison, finally stumbled, clutching at his chest in agony, and a satisfied smile appeared on the killer's face upon hearing the ragged and desperate gasps.

Interesting, how death seemed to be even more violent and rapid with humans than with rats, he thought as he put the now empty syringe back into its lead-lined box. Within a few minutes it was over, and he carefully placed another hypodermic on the floor, next to the lifeless body, before retreating back into the shadows.

Oh yes, the Boss would be very satisfied, this time.

***

*Paris, France, three weeks later, Tuesday*

"Kane!" The editor in chief of the Paris International barked and pointed his thumb in the direction of his office door.

Clark looked up from the report he'd been studying on his computer and complied, knowing better than to resist his boss, even if he knew that hearing Bernard Guerand using that kind of tone with a reporter was no good sign. He'd been working here for four months, but even though he wasn't treated as a newbie anymore, he still considered himself a junior reporter. Coming from one of the most famous newspapers in the world didn't give him any superiority over anyone. No, he hadn't worked there, he mentally corrected. Clark Kent had. Jerome Kane, on the other hand, was a brand new journalist and didn't have any past at the Daily Planet or in Metropolis.

"What's the matter, Chief?" Clark asked upon entering his boss' office and closing the door behind him.

He didn't need to ask what was wrong; a brief look at Guerand's stern yet concerned face was enough to give him an answer to his question. Clark was well aware that his attitude recently hadn't been one of an exemplary reporter and that his employer certainly expected more from him than a couple of human-interest stories every two weeks, especially after his more productive first weeks in the Paris International's newsroom.

A lot of things had changed over the months, though. Perfecting what was a foreign language to him and learning all the weird aspects of another culture had kept his mind occupied for some time. Now that he was settling himself into a daily routine, having to walk to the office every morning, go home every night, patrol around the capitals of Europe for a couple of hours then force himself to get some sleep in his apartment, where no-one and nothing was waiting for him, Clark was beginning to be homesick…

Or was it something else? Some*one* else? He quickly dismissed the thought, refusing to go down that path again. It'd been difficult enough for him to move out of Metropolis- and out of his home country — so as to simply forget everything about his former life and start another one here. The only link he still had with that time of his life was his parents, whom he regularly visited in Smallville.

They'd been very supportive during this entire ordeal. They'd helped him face the truth that she wasn't going to change her mind and come back to him, and they'd done everything they could to help him accept that fact. He never had. He never would. But he'd still felt better, knowing that they cared and that they were here beside him, even when he was in such a state of despair that he locked himself in his room to try and bottle up his grief over her, even when he was turning down each and every one of their attempts at making him confide in them. He knew it hadn't been easy for them when he'd told them he was leaving. It certainly still wasn't easy. He'd patiently listened to them when they'd tried to convince him he was doing it out of cowardice, knowing they were right even if he'd never admitted it to them.

But he just couldn't bear to see her from time to time, face to face, on TV or even in the tabloids, knowing that at night she was sleeping in another man's arms. The thought was unbearable enough. Closing his eyes to block this mental image was worse: she was constantly haunting him. He'd tried everything to keep his mind off her. He'd even met — he barely dared to think about it — another woman, here, in Paris. But it hadn't reached beyond the first date. Not even a goodnight peck; at least, not really. His date had tried to kiss him and even managed to do it at first, but when she'd tried pressing him further, Clark had broken it off, murmured an apology and walked away. She'd never called him afterwards. Not that he was surprised, and anyway, he hadn't minded.

After some time, he'd come to the conclusion it was not worth dating anyone else. Not to mention that the dinner he'd shared with this woman had been followed by a night of remorse and guilt, as if it had been a betrayal of *her*. Oh, of course she didn't own his body, she never had, but she held his heart and the mere knowledge that other women could find him attractive didn't help any in making him feel better, when all he could think about was that the right one wasn't interested, had *never* been interested. No, he'd never let anyone into his heart again; he didn't own it anymore, having lost it a year and a half ago, when Lois had walked into Perry's office.

Clark could still feel the power of that moment. Never had he thought that he could feel something like that, never had he imagined such a floating sensation was possible; but when he'd seen her, he'd forgotten everything about who he was and why he was there. The only thing he'd been aware of was Lois, and the fact that he could die happy if he could just hold her in his arms.

Bernard Guerand cleared his throat, tearing Clark out of his sad musings and reminding him of his surroundings. "Kane," he began, "I've noticed you've been… distant, lately. I don't know if you're aware of that, but you often seem lost in your thoughts when you're supposed to be working, and the quality and quantity of your stories that I've been able to publish have suffered dramatically. Having said that, I wouldn't want to get in your way. But you have to understand that I'm running a newspaper, here. You seemed to be pretty good at what you did when I hired you, and it would really upset me to have to separate myself from one of my most promising reporters," he finished suggestively, eyeing the young man from beneath his glasses, "but I don't have to remind you how the newspaper business works, I suppose."

"I'm… sorry, Chief. I know I've been acting strangely lately, and I promise you that I won't let it happen again."

Guerand's voice softened a bit at Clark's helpless apology. "Now, Kane, don't make promises you won't be able to keep. You think I don't know what I'm talking about, but you're wrong, I'm beginning to know you pretty well. Believe me," he added when Clark raised a doubtful eyebrow. "And I think you're hiding something from me. I won't pry, Jerome. But remember that if you need a sympathetic ear, I'm right here."

"Thanks," Clark answered softly. But he wasn't ready to talk. Heck, he didn't even want to talk about it with his parents. He avoided pronouncing her name, anyway, still nurturing the hope that even if he couldn't forget her face and voice, maybe he'd be able to forget her name; but there were still nights when he woke up screaming it, crying and sweating, hoping she was there. Those nightmares were more and more painful as time passed, although he'd always thought he'd feel better after a few months without seeing her.

What's more, she clearly didn't care at all; the numerous letters he'd sent her in the first weeks after the wedding hadn't elicited any reply. It had comforted him in his decision to disappear without letting anyone know where he was going. At least now he knew why he was doing it; he knew he hadn't anything to lose anymore. His parents had told him that Perry and Jimmy called from time to time, just to hear how he was doing. They didn't know where he was, they knew he didn't want them to know, but they still cared enough to call and ask *how* he was. And each time, when he came home, he was hopeful that his folks would tell him she had called. But she hadn't. And his hope diminished.

"Kane?" Bernard enquired warily.

"Hmm? Oh, um… sorry." Clark lowered his eyes when he realised he'd been lost in his thoughts again. "I'm okay, Chief. I just… I can't talk about it. It's too…" <painful> "soon. But thanks anyway."

"Okay, just don't make an habit of daydreaming, this isn't a place to do that," his editor warned, letting his habitual compassionless mask fall back into place.

"Yes, sir, I know. I apologise, really."

But the Editor-in-Chief dismissed whatever apology his employee was about to give with a wave of his hand. "Now get back to work, I want that piece about the death of this other homeless guy before we go into print. Got it?"

"Right on it, Chief."

Guerand raised a hand. "Oh, and one last thing, Kane."

"Yes, Chief?"

"Stop calling me Chief. It scares the heck outta me. Makes me feel old and responsible."

Clark let out a sad chuckle, remembering how, not so long ago, in another city, in another country, another gruff-looking man had been obsessing over the same details. He could almost hear Perry's southern drawl in his editor's growl, and the nostalgia was back with a vengeance. Sighing, he nodded to Guerand and left the room without a word.

***

That night, Clark went home feeling even more depressed. Oh, it was no new experience for him and he was progressively getting used to it. But now it seemed that people around him were beginning to notice, and it wouldn't do any good if he lost his job, the last thing that helped him maintain some semblance of a social life and gave him a reason to get up in the morning and go home at night.

He locked the door behind him and didn't even bother to switch on the light. He just tumbled onto his couch and buried his head into a cushion, trying to block the thoughts that had haunted him every night ever since he'd left Metropolis.

He woke up a few hours later and got up, avoiding mirrors that, he knew, would reflect the image of fresh tears on his face. He'd been crying a lot lately, even more than at the time he'd been staying in Smallville before deciding to put it all behind him. His parents didn't know anything about his state of mind; he'd tried to spare them any pointless worry, although he knew they weren't fooled. Clark had never wept a lot as a child; neither as an adult. But since he'd been here, rare had been the days when he hadn't cried and felt his heart break under the pressure of not seeing her, or hearing her voice… or simply the urge to hold her. His body and soul longed for her, and the thought that he'd never see her again was more and more unbearable. How many times had people caught him watching in the distance, towards west, towards Metropolis… towards Lois?

He padded to his kitchenette and poured himself a glass of milk. He switched on his TV and resettled onto the couch, grabbing a cover and enveloping himself in it. Flipping through all the TV channels didn't help to ease his mind. He really had to get cable… No, maybe it wasn't such a good idea. If he could receive foreign channels and ran into a report that showed her in her new sophisticated life, or if he caught her reports on LNN, he wouldn't be able to bear it.

It had already happened. Marc, one of the rare friends he'd made here in Paris, had invited him to dinner with him and his wife and kids, a few weeks ago. While Lise had been putting their youngest to bed, Marc had switched on the TV, explaining he had American channels, thinking that Clark would be glad to see a little piece of home. Clark had appreciated the offer, but before he knew what was happening, they'd run into an LNN report, and he'd been mesmerized to see *her* presenting a news report about an earthquake that had taken place in California.

He'd been there, as Superman, helping the EMTs to save the people trapped in discarded buildings, but he hadn't spotted her. He'd avoided the crowd of reporters, anyway, even if he had no idea she'd be among them; but she'd been only a few feet away from him. He'd watched the report, fascinated, completely oblivious to his surroundings, aware only of Lois. She'd been looking tired, but all he'd been able to think about at that time was that she was as beautiful as when he'd last seen her and that he'd do anything to be near her again. Then when the report had switched to something else, Marc had put his hand on his shoulder, shaking him back to reality, and asked him what was wrong. It was only then that Clark had become aware of the moisture on his cheeks. He'd protested a bit too quickly that it was just allergies, and he'd had to put up with his doubtful friend's worried looks ever since.

He'd never admitted to anyone what was wrong when something remotely like that happened; at least, no-one among his acquaintances here. Perry and Jimmy knew; he hadn't needed to tell them. They'd been aware of his pain ever since she'd accepted that… that monster's proposal. They'd tried to talk to him, but he'd bottled up his feelings and kept everyone out of it, with no exception to the rule.

He remembered the last time he'd seen her in Metropolis. She'd been covering Superman's press conference when he'd announced he was leaving the city. He'd said it was time for him to move and help other people in other countries, but that he would always keep an eye on Metropolis. That had been a lie. He hadn't come back to Metropolis since then; he hadn't had the strength to. Lois had been in the crowd, as shocked as everyone else to hear Superman's words, but Clark had tried not to look at her when announcing his departure; otherwise he knew he wouldn't have been able to maintain his superhero unemotional stance. Reporters that had seen tears glistening in the Man of Steel's eyes had taken this unexpected display of emotions as a sign of a profound attachment to the city of Metropolis after the year he'd spent there, but the only person in the audience who could have understood his distress had been Lois. He'd seen the stupor in her eyes as he had flown out of City Hall, and he hadn't looked back, not wanting to see her again.

***

*Metropolis, USA, Tuesday — *-

"Andrew, I need that report on my desk in an hour! Karen, where's my coffee? Lois, assignment time, see you in my office in a minute."

Lois looked up from her desk towards the entrance of her office where her editor David Dooley was standing. "Be right there, Dave!" She closed the folder she'd been studying and got up, following the editor of the LNN news team into his office, and shut the door behind her.

David didn't even wait for her to sit down before launching himself into an explanation of what he would request from her. "Lois, remember that news report that came in yesterday about the strange death of this homeless man in a subway station in Paris, the one that seemingly was found dead after what looked like an overdose? You know it's the second one in less than three weeks, and in both cases, the circumstances were more than a little strange."

"Yes, the Parisian offices dealt with the first case, I can't remember the name of that first guy… Anyway, they covered it, and said the police had concluded it was a heroin overdose."

David nodded. "Well, it *was* their conclusion, yes."

"Was?"

"I've been contacted by one of my sources there and after what he revealed to me, my journalism instincts tell me there's more to this story than what was told to the press. For both those cases, the statements made to the press *claim* it's an overdose that killed those men, and I admit I could have believed that, if it wasn't for the phone call I got this morning. The local police say they've got nothing that could lead to further investigation, but according to my source, it's no ordinary accident, and word got out that both bodies have been secretly kept in a police lab. Actually, my contact seems very certain that none of those incidents are accidents at all. He's convinced that those two homeless men were killed in a pretty cold-bloodied way. Probably *two* murders and only *one* murderer, from what I managed to gather, since the way they died is pretty similar. So I'd like you to go there and try to find out what's exactly going on, because it seems clear as mud to me. Here's your flight ticket: your plane takes off tonight, so don't dawdle with your packing; I took care of everything: you'll be staying at the Hotel de Crillon — it's one of the biggest and most luxurious there, on the Place de la Concorde. Oh, and here's the name and address of my source."

"Do I take Matt and Darren with me?"

"No. You'll go there alone."

Lois raised a surprised eyebrow; it wasn't the network's habits to send a reporter on their own for an investigation involving a murder case. "No reporting team? No cameraman?"

"My contact there gave his conditions," David answered with an apologetic grimace, "and as much as I don't like taking the risk of sending someone alone on a dangerous mission, we can't take the chance of scaring him off. He wants only one reporter there, and a trustworthy one. I chose you because of your background, Lois: this kind of investigation is what you were used to back when you worked for White. Keep me informed of what you find, and when you sense that the story is about to break, if story there is, we'll contact the French offices of LNN and get you a team there. And most of all, please be careful."

Lois gathered the documents that her boss was handing to her and grinned broadly at him, something David hadn't seen in a long time. He even wondered if he'd ever seen her smiling before. "You seem happy about the prospect," he commented lightly.

"Well, I've always dreamt of going back to Europe. Last time I was there was when I was studying. I was living in Dublin and I absolutely loved it. I have fond memories of that time. I'm pretty sure that Paris is really different, but I can tell you it sounds appealing." She winked at him, perfectly aware that he wasn't fooled and that the place where he was sending her had little to do with the reason for her joyful mood.

David smiled knowingly. Lois was a brilliant reporter, and the job she now had at LNN wasn't satisfying her as much as her former activities at the Planet. At least this assignment would give her the spark she missed in her too steady career, not to mention it would help her in relieving the constant pressure on her shoulders and give her the occasion to get some rest from the tabloid reporters who were constantly stalking her because she was the boss's wife.

***

Lois went home almost immediately and started to pack enthusiastically, realising that she was feeling a lot better than she had in a long time. Of course, there would be the problem of announcing to Lex that she'd be gone for a few days, but he was rarely home anyway so that wouldn't change anything for him. On the other hand, maybe *she* would feel less alone than she felt now. She had to admit she'd never felt more lonely than since she'd been married. It was a paradox she didn't quite understand: when she'd accepted Lex's proposal she'd thought that marriage would bring her the happiness she missed. Not that she was unhappy before; after all, she had Perry and Jimmy and Cat…

… and Clark.

But it wasn't like having a man waiting for her at home every night, ready to hear her tell him about her joys and frustrations, helping her relax, simply being there for her like she'd be there for him.

Had she thought that Lex would be that kind of man? No, she couldn't say that. Lex had a charm she didn't really understand, some mysterious light in his eyes that attracted her to him because it spoke of adventure. At that time, she hadn't believed that a regular guy could bring anything to her. Lois Lane had needed a fantasy man, a man that could make her dream, a *super* man. Not to mention that her mother had argued Lex Luthor was one of the most eligible bachelors in Metropolis…

Who was she trying to fool, here? Was she so shallow that the reason why she had married him was because he was successful with women? Lois's mind rebelled against that idea. This was only what her mother had said over and over to convince her she'd made the right choice.

Lex had been the only constant in her life after the destruction of the Planet. Her friends had drifted apart: Perry had decided to retire and leave Metropolis in favour of a small town on the East Coast, and Jimmy had vanished into thin air, reappearing only after Lois's wedding to announce to her that he'd found a job as assistant researcher in the Boston Post. As for Clark, he'd held a grudge against her ever since she'd turned him down that day in Centennial Park, and his attitude at Perry's retirement party had made it clear that he didn't consider her a friend anymore. He'd had no right to tell her the Planet didn't mean anything to her, when the newsroom had been her whole life for so long. He had no right to be judgmental about her decision to accept Lex's proposal just because the man hadn't always behaved like an angel to get where he now stood in the business world…

*Just* because? Was she really sure that was what he'd been trying to do? Of course he'd been deeply hurt by her rejection and he couldn't easily have accepted seeing her marry another man after he'd poured his heart out to her, but could that motivate a continual running down of her fiance? Would Clark have done that? The Clark she knew wouldn't have tried to take advantage of the situation. If he held any jealousy against Lex Luthor, he wouldn't have let her see it. That said, Lois didn't know what to expect from a man who'd been turned down by the woman he claimed to be in love with, even if that man was Clark Kent and she was supposed to know him better than anyone else. But from the moment Clark had expressed his deep feelings for her, she'd felt as if she didn't know him at all. She'd felt trapped, unable to return his feelings and unable to look him in the eye and say the truth. From that moment on, she'd avoided any close contact with him, afraid to see that same look in his eyes as the one he'd worn after her rejection, afraid to hurt him even more, afraid to see a man instead of a best friend.

Lex, on the other hand, had defined the nature of their relationship from the first moment their gazes had met. She'd had time to get used to the idea of him as a romantic partner and not some kind of brother like Clark. His proposal had been unexpected, too, but at least he hadn't taken her aback when he'd told her he loved her. She'd known where she stood from the beginning.

Now, six months after her wedding, she was seeing those events in a very different light. The choices she'd made at this important juncture in her life might not have been the best, she now realised, and she knew that it was her fear of loneliness that had thrust her into Lex's arms. In the middle of the ruins of her former life, the only remaining fortress had been Lex Luthor. Who'd offered her a job when the Planet had closed down, who'd offered her his company when she'd felt abandoned by her friends, who'd offered her his love when Superman had turned her down, and who'd given her the security of an easy relationship when her best friend wanted a passion she didn't think herself capable of sustaining. Except maybe to the only being that had ever been able to sweep her off her feet and made her want to live a passionate relationship with him.

She sighed. It had been a long time since she'd last seen Metropolis's ex-resident superhero. It seemed he'd moved out to Europe, and lately, he'd been doing a number of rescues in Paris.

Maybe he'd settled there.

Maybe she'd see him.

She didn't know whether to smile or cry at the thought. She wanted to prove to him that she was still his friend, but on the other hand, she didn't really want to talk to him. First of all, she was feeling self-conscious about the last conversation they'd had. Humiliated, even. And she was mad at him for the way he'd behaved when she was here in front of him, vulnerable and ready to give him her heart and soul. But that didn't prevent her from regretting the way they'd left things off.

Strangely enough, even if she'd been really upset when he'd left without even coming to see her for a proper goodbye — although she suspected he'd never really approved of her marriage with Lex… probably because he was trying to defend Clark — it wasn't him she was missing the most. Neither Perry nor Jimmy; after all, she was still getting news from them from time to time. They regularly called, although a lot more rarely than in the first weeks of her marriage. But her Clark remained silent. He hadn't come to her wedding, he hadn't written to her, he hadn't called… nothing. She hadn't talked to him since he'd refused her demand that he came to her wedding.

And their last conversation had been a fight.

Lois felt a lump rise in her throat as she thought of him. It was crazy how much she missed him now, and she simply couldn't bring herself to forget him and go on with her life.

She hadn't talked to Lex about that, of course. She knew he couldn't understand and would get jealous. Besides, she didn't trust him on such matters. She didn't trust him, period. But had she ever trusted anyone?

Yes, she had. She'd trusted Clark, and she still did, even if this trust hadn't been returned.

The final straw that had drawn an end to their friendship had been her discovery of Clark's flight. A few days before the wedding, she'd started to harbour some doubts about her choice and after a sleepless night of tossing and turning and counting every fissure on the ceiling of her bedroom, she'd decided to take the first step and make up with Clark. Lois had felt bad knowing that he was upset because of her and she'd wanted to make things easier for him, by offering an apology, first. It hadn't been easy for her to come to this decision. Apologising to someone wasn't something she particularly enjoyed, but she'd resigned herself to it in hope of saving their friendship… and also because she'd been feeling guilty about how she'd handled things between them.

The next morning, Lois had taken her courage in both hands and walked to Clark's apartment, only to find an empty place and a placard on the door advertising it for rental. She'd returned to her own flat, hot tears blurring her vision as she'd come to awareness of her partner's blatant betrayal. Betrayal because he'd given up so easily on them, because he'd run out on her without any regret, because a man she thought she knew by heart had pulled this unexpected act of cowardice on her. He hadn't even had the courage to say goodbye.

Unable to find a balance between hurt and despair, she'd called Perry and asked him if he knew anything about Clark's disappearance, but her former editor hadn't been able to give her the answers she was seeking. He'd already called Clark's parents and had been told by the very worried older Kents that their son refused to talk to anyone about his decision to leave Metropolis.

When she'd ended the conversation with Perry, Lois had been even angrier than she already was, and her tears of frustration had been replaced by a cold rage that wouldn't leave her. Was her partner *that* mad at her? Had she been so wrong to believe that he'd care enough for her to accept her decision? But however infuriated she'd been, it hadn't suppressed the scary feeling of forlornness that was eating at her as the last person who'd have been able to made her change her decision to wed Lex Luthor had showed how little concern he had for her. Superman had left, and now Clark. So she'd thrown herself into the belief that Lex truly loved her and was ready to accept her as a permanent part of his life, ready to develop a real *life-long* relationship with her. She'd thought she'd be happier with him than alone on her own. Who would have thought that Lois Lane feared to be alone? Yet she did, and she had only realised that the void in her life hadn't been filled by her fiance when it was already too late.

As she'd walked down the aisle to get married to Lex, it was Clark who had been on her mind. Mostly good memories of them together: his arrival at the Planet, his annoying habit of editing her copy, his polite manners, and their invulnerable — at least, that was what she'd thought at that time — friendship. But Clark was gone, now, and this time she knew he wouldn't come back. So better move on and try to forget him. Why think about him when she'd been walking towards another man, a man who was willing to love and marry her? A man who was willing to offer her what he had. How naive she had been to think that Lex would be someone she'd grow to love! But desperate as she'd been back in that church, she'd thrown herself into what she thought was her future and said 'I do' without really realising what it implied. It was way easier to stick to the decision she'd made when she'd accepted his proposal, and not think about the consequences.

She'd thought she'd be happy with Lex, even if she'd never been able to tell him she loved him; when she'd accepted his proposal, she'd believed that her feelings for him would grow later. She was attracted to him, which was enough. But love had never come; not during the honeymoon, nor after. Oh, he'd been affectionate with her, satisfying what he thought was her every wish, showering her with expensive gifts and all she could ever have dreamt of, but he wasn't giving her what she really wanted.

Understanding.

Freedom.

Real love.

Besides, he hadn't seemed to be annoyed by her lack of passion towards him. Knowledge alone should have warned her of Lex's real motives for marrying her. *His* choice prevailed over everything; he'd settled on her for matrimony, and having her accept his proposal was all that mattered to him. Soon enough, she'd had to realise that her marriage to Lex was everything but love; on the contrary, it was based upon control, and she wasn't the one holding the reins. Equality between the two partners in a relationship wasn't something that Lex Luthor could conceive of, and Lois had discovered those darker sides of his personality when it was already too late and she was too involved to retreat. Left on her own, with no friends or close family to support her, she'd tried to shut down her past and think about her future, only to yield to the fact that whatever future Lex had prepared for her, it wasn't one the independent reporter she used to be would have wished for.

It was only after a few weeks of marriage that Lex's attentions had started to wear off, when he'd become aware that his dream doll wasn't the tempestuous woman he'd always pictured and fantasized about. Now he rarely came home before she was asleep and he generally left before she woke up, so she practically never saw him, except when there was some mundane dinner that he wanted her to attend. There, she just hung decoratively on his arm and pasted a polite smile on her face, bitterly thinking how wrong she'd been and how much she hated her new life.

Talking about her fears and disillusionment with someone had become impossible. Her father was more absent than ever, her sister had eloped to California with her new boyfriend, and her mother had looked appalled when Lois had admitted the doubts she was experiencing. Ellen Lane had told her there was no way she could ever regret marrying such a handsome, rich and powerful man as Lex Luthor. Having a constructive conversation with her mother had become impossible under those circumstances. As for her former friends, they were just that: *former* friends.

But to be honest, the only person with whom she needed to talk about this was so mad at her that he didn't want to look her in the face any more, and she didn't know where he lived or if he was still alive. After some time, she'd admitted to herself there was no way out and maybe that was what marriage was all about. After all, hadn't her parents' marriage been like that? Dad was never home, Mom was alone… she didn't see much difference with her own life, now.

Seeking refuge in her work wasn't an option any more either. In the Planet days, Lois would have buried herself in her investigations, putting all her energies into breaking stories that could get her a Pulitzer, but now… now she was part of a television team where she wasn't the one making the decisions, where she could seldom leave her office without having a cameraman and an assistant traipsing at her heels. She was getting resigned to it, but that didn't mean she had to appreciate it.

She was well aware that David had done her a huge favour by sending her on this case. Not only was it rather close to what she'd been used to back at the Planet, but it was also allowing her to get away from Lex's luxurious penthouse and the hordes of tabloid reporters that were constantly stalking her for a scoop about her husband's business or trying to find a flaw in her supposedly stainless life as Mr Luthor's wife. A shadow, that was what they wanted her to be. Lois Luthor was becoming the shadow of her rich and famous husband, she wasn't the one in charge, she wasn't the one people wanted to meet. No, Lois *Lane* was getting lost in the middle of her husband's sumptuous possessions. She was glad to leave the country for a week. That would give her some time to think, away from the avalanche of wealth and luxury that made her feel so cheap. She was disappointed that David had booked a room in a four star hotel and wished she could have taken care of the accommodation by herself, but she couldn't blame him; after all, how would he guess that Lex Luthor's wife didn't feel at ease in such rooms?

Lois quickly finished packing her clothes and toiletries and reached for her cell phone. Phone seemed to be the best way to contact Lex lately; he was never there, and she'd quickly given up on any hope of finding him in the succession of floors, corridors and rooms of the Lexcorp building, if he wasn't in his office. Of course, his cell phone was disconnected, so she left a message, telling him she was going to Europe for an assignment and that she'd try to call him from there. She left the details out of her news, knowing he'd be upset that she'd made this arrangement without letting him talk her out of it.

He considered she had no right to leave Metropolis, whereas *he* was never there; but she'd always managed to preserve at least some independence in her life, and he wouldn't prevent her from going on this trip. It had seemed he wasn't particularly keeping an eye on her since Superman had left Metropolis. Of course, had she mentioned she was going to Paris, where the Man of Steel had been seen several times these past few months, Lex would have gone off on one of his jealous tangents. But she'd left that part out. Europe was precise enough, she thought, smiling self-satisfyingly as she grabbed her luggage and left the penthouse.

***

*Paris, France, Wednesday*

It was almost noon when Lois's plane landed in Roissy. She rushed out the gates, grabbed her suitcase, got her ID checked and retrieved the piece of paper where David had written, or rather *scribbled* the address of his source. She could barely read it, but after several tries and mutters of choice words, she finally managed to understand that the guy's name was Maxime Bonneau and that he was living on the Place d'Italie. After a quick but violent exchange of words with another traveller to get a cab, Lois was discovering with mild interest the busy streets of Paris, not so different from her native Metropolis.

The Place d'Italie was a major crossroad with dozens of cars honking and trying to force their way to the thoroughfares leading to other districts of the city, a gigantic glass-covered cinema taking the space of a whole block, and old buildings bathed by the sun. Lois had a hard time orienting herself to find the right address, and she was running out of breath when she knocked on the door of Max Bonneau's apartment.

A well-built man in his mid thirties opened the door. "Hi!" he said with an open smile. "Come on in."

If Lois was surprised at this friendly welcome, considering the man's insistence that she come alone, she was even more taken aback when she entered the apartment and looked around. This place didn't look anything like she'd imagined when she'd seen the Place d'Italie. The neighbourhood seemed cosy and comfortable, but Maxime Bonneau was living in a dark single-room apartment, just under the rooftop of an old building, and even if the place was neat you could still see stains of humidity on the walls. She figured it must be very cold up here in winter, even with the heater in the back of the room.

"Coffee?"

"Huh?"

"I just asked if you wanted some coffee. You must be really tired, coming all the way from Metropolis to Paris. Besides, I've heard airline food doesn't provide very generous portions."

"You'd think on business class they would," Lois said darkly. "Yeah, I guess I could do with a decent meal."

"Oh, I can get you some food if you're hungry. There's a little deli down there and they make great sandw…"

"Don't even think about it!" she interrupted. "Most of my meals back where I live consist of either pastrami or very copious feasts when that husband of mine decides to throw a party for some major customers of his and — Look, let's just say I'm pooped and all I have the energy for is a tossed salad right now. Lightly tossed at that. Maybe you know a nice restaurant where we could sit and talk about those murders."

Maxime looked down with a defeated sigh.

"My treat," Lois added, seeing his expression.

"Okay," Maxime agreed after another moment of hesitation. "There's a place under the multiplex. It's discreet enough and they sell great pastries."

"Mr Bonneau — "

"Oh, please, call me Max," he said, an amused smile playing on his face.

"Max, whatever Mr Dooley has told you, pastries aren't my idea of healthy and light," Lois went on, not sure what to do with this friendly behaviour from her source. Sources weren't supposed to be friendly, and even if it was pleasant to see someone nice for once, she still didn't know what to expect or if she could trust him.

"Oh! Okay, sure, I'll just take you to a small 'brasserie' that I know. Their prices are okay, and the food is good."

"Thanks," she breathed in relief and followed him silently as he guided her into the crowded gallery of the huge City Mall called Italie 2. She wondered why it was called that, since she hadn't spotted an Italie 1 anywhere around, but she'd figured by now that logic wasn't something that prevailed in the architect's mind. They went past the tea room that Max had mentioned earlier and she sighed sadly. There had been a time when she wouldn't have missed an occasion to get French pastries, especially the ones that Cl — that her former partner brought to her from this little Metropolis bakery he always talked about without revealing where it was, despite all her attempts at finding out. If she'd been with him now, they'd probably have stopped at this pastry shop, but thinking about the old times was doing no goodat all. She tried to dismiss all thoughts of her previous life at the Planet as she joined Max where he was waiting for her in front of an inviting restaurant.

***

"Okay, now, tell me what's going on," Lois said once their food had arrived.

"Two bodies have been found in the subway over the past three weeks. In both cases, same circumstances; the bodies were found in dark corners of a station's corridor, and each time it's an overdose that seems to have provoked death."

"Were the bodies found in the same station?"

"No. But the context of their death seems close enough to me for both cases to be linked."

"That's what I'm here to figure out," Lois replied, putting a reassuring hand on his arm. "Do those guys have anything in common?"

"Both were homeless people. That's why the police don't really care about knowing if it's a murder or a suicide or just an accident. At least, it looks like an accident. Or rather, it looks like something that often happens to homeless people. You know, drugs and that kind of thing. But some people on the street say it's no accident, especially since neither Jeremy nor Laurent were heroin junkies, so it doesn't make any sense… unless, of course, the overdose wasn't really an overdose."

Lois noted the information Max was giving her, trying to make some sense out of the case. "You say that both were *found* dead. No-one among the homeless population saw what happened?"

"No. Both deaths happened in the middle of the night, and Laurent and Jeremy were alone. At that time of the night, there are very few people in the subway stations, so it could go unnoticed. Not to mention most commuters don't pay much attention to the homeless, except to tell them to get out of their way, if you know what I mean. So no witnesses at all for either of them. Two lifeless bodies were discovered in a corridor, end of story. Or at least that's what the police and most reporters say."

"David told me they hadn't got rid of the bodies yet, though. Do you know why?"

"Yeah, the police are keeping them in a protected vault somewhere in the suburbs, but I'm not supposed to know that; they ran an autopsy but no newspaper was able to get the report; they were just given confirmation of what the cops had already told them. I think the criminal police will quickly close the file, because nobody really cares. Only a few reporters think that something's going on and they keep investigating, but they can't print anything without proof, not to mention that most editors have no idea this might be a big story, so they assigned junior reporters to it. Those journalists don't feel experienced or respected enough to tell their boss they need more time, and they probably want to make sure their assumption is right before they even start to make the most of this story, I guess." He sighed. "*If* they even suppose there's more to this case than they were told, which I highly doubt for most of them."

"But why didn't you give this information to a French reporter?"

"Well, to be honest, I thought people from here wouldn't want to get their nose into that because I have the feeling no-one thinks there's anything interesting to it. And if it happens to involve something big, I don't really trust them not to run off if they discover its more than they're ready to deal with. Something that would endanger their career or their life."

Besides, I owe a debt to David, too. He helped me out of the street and managed to get me a job as a security guard so that I wouldn't fall again. He's a great guy, really, and I guess this is my way of thanking him for everything he's done for me. When he found me, he was looking for some information about another murder case. I told him what I knew, and when he realised I spoke English, he asked me what I was doing there, considering I had diplomas and stuff that were supposed to give me a chance others hadn't. We talked a lot and I finally agreed to try the job he'd got for me. Now I can live decently and have an apartment in this part of the city. I'll always be thankful to David for that."

Lois nodded absently, concentrating on the story instead. "You knew Laurent and Jeremy?"

Max seemed to hesitate for a few seconds before he finally admitted the truth. "Yeah. We were friends when I was on the street. I still don't know how I ended up there, but I guess I didn't want to work for someone, I preferred to give up on every aspect of an easy life and try to live my way. I didn't fall into drugs thanks to Jeremy. He'd known a guy who died of an overdose in front of him, and he'd assured me it wasn't a pretty sight."

"Did you see your friends again after you got your job and apartment?"

"I saw Jeremy once."

"When?"

"Over a week ago."

"Oh? Was that in any way related to the death of your common friend?"

Max squirmed, suddenly agitated. "Well, we did talk about it a little, and he was the one who first told me the police didn't know half of the story."

"And did *he* know something worth of interest?"

"Nothing besides what I've just told you. I tried to convince him to get out of this trap. The street is a trap, you know, once you're in it, you can't go out by yourself, you need help. But he wouldn't listen. He said he didn't want to live like the government told him to, he wanted to be free, and that even penniless, he was *feeling* free," Max said sadly. "Nobody could annoy him, that way. At least, nobody police-related."

"Was he afraid of what the police might do to him?"

"When you live away from… civilization," he grimaced at the word, "you do things that the police don't really appreciate. You need to earn a living. Some people prostitute, others… take things from other people without their complete agreement."

"You mean he stole."

"Yeah," he admitted. "It comes with being on the street. You end up doing it because you have no choice, even if you're a honest, decent guy. And some guys blackmail you so that you'll do it, when you owe them something. You ask someone for a cigarette, and before you know what's happening, they say you owe them a debt and you have to do something for them, whatever it is. It's even worse when it involves drugs."

"But you said neither Jeremy nor Laurent were into drugs."

"I said they weren't on heroin. Jeremy wasn't a drug addict at all, true. But Laurent… he sniffed coke. And this stuff from hell is expensive. The people who sold it to him didn't always ask for money, but sometimes it was worse. As for Jeremy, he was becoming an alcoholic. That's what I feared, anyway. When I realised what was happening, I tried even harder to get them out of that life, but they wouldn't listen. They even considered I'd betrayed them. That's why I didn't see them for a few months before Jeremy contacted me again last week."

"What kind of thing were they asked to do to get their fix?"

"If there's a word they don't know, it's 'give'. Nobody ever gives anything on the street. You always have to pay back what you got. Laurent didn't have any money, but he was trapped into this coke thing. Couldn't get out of it. So he stole money to get his daily fix, and when he couldn't pay, the people who sold the damned stuff to him were asked him to do some dirty work for them… Laurent never told me what they really asked. As I told you, they considered I'd betrayed them because I'd got a good job and was working honestly. I don't blame them for that, though. When you live there, you can't understand why other people accept society as it is."

Lois left the restaurant a few minutes later, a perplexed frown on her face. Here was a story that didn't seem to make a lot of sense at first, but she had the feeling Max was right, and that there was more to that than the police would say. Those two men hadn't had accidents, they'd been murdered. The question was why, and by whom.

She hailed a cab to her hotel and discovered with dawning horror that it was even worse than she'd imagined. This place was absolutely soulless, and after having talked to Max, she was even more ashamed to be sleeping in such a room. It was four times bigger than his place, it sparkled everywhere, and the bed had silk sheets. Exactly like in her… no, Lex's penthouse.

She missed her small apartment in Carter Avenue. At least, she'd been able to be herself, there, the furniture mirroring her taste and personality. In Lex's apartment she hadn't chosen anything. All the furniture had already been there, and those antiques were not making her feel at home.

She took a disgusted look around and decided she'd spend as much time as she could outside this building… after she'd taken a much-needed hot bath. The trip to France had been exhausting and she needed water and soap to refresh her body and spirits.

***

Superman flew high above the streets of Paris, surveying the northern suburbs where a surge of crime had been noticed recently. After the French government had realised that the superhero's activities had narrowed from extending over Europe to a progressive settling in Paris, the Man of Steel had been requested to help the police on various occasions, mostly as a social arbitrator. It had taken some getting used to, but he now deeply enjoyed this responsibility, preferring this use of his celebrity for a prevention campaign to the use of his physical strength to arrest people who'd already transgressed into crime. So after the Home Secretary had asked for his help, he'd made a habit of checking on this neighbourhood every day, and he'd even managed to reduce the crime rate there, at the same time attracting the attention of the whole government to this under-privileged district. Maybe someday they'd give a part of their budget to improve the way of life of the inhabitants of these areas, instead of letting the police deal with the consequences of poverty and social injustice.

This daily patrol was a way for Clark to force himself to endure his life day after day and help him focus on something other than the depression eating him up. Being Superman wasn't as difficult as being Jerome Kane, and he felt more at ease in the Suit than in his casual clothes now. As Clark, he'd always considered that Superman was an unreal character. But Clark Kent didn't even exist any more, now that he'd left Metropolis. Taking on a new identity had seemed a good idea at first, a way for him to start afresh somewhere else, and most of all, a way to continue his good deeds as a superhero without attracting too much attention to him. If Clark Kent *and* Superman had left Metropolis for Paris, it would have been way too easy to link them together. However, Jerome Kane came from Kansas, not Metropolis; he'd never worked for the Daily Planet, and had only a couple of Superman interviews on his resume. He was Clark's chance to lead a normal life without giving up on his secret identity. But if Superman was a cut-out cartoon character, Jerome Kane was even worse; he had no past, no memories… and he didn't seem to have a future.

His only future now was Superman. When he helped other people it kept his mind off the wreck of his life and he felt less devastated. He focused on the task and saved as many lives as he could. Superman wasn't exactly the same any more, though. He was more distant, rarely stayed to talk to the victims, the emergency teams or the crowd of reporters after a rescue, preferring to fly away and spend more time using his enhanced abilities to help.

He couldn't prevent the occasional twinge of sorrow when he found himself in front of a small brunette who reminded him of Lois. When that happened, he generally lay awake in his bed for a good part of the night, staring at the ceiling and avoiding closing his eyes; he knew which image would fill his mind if he did. So after a while of tossing and turning and keeping his eyes open, he'd throw the quilt to one side, put on the Suit and fly off to the Antarctic, to that same place where he'd found a refuge after having witnessed Lois's acceptance of Luthor's proposal.

At first, he'd tried to hate her. He'd thought that maybe it would be easier to forget someone you hate than someone you love. But that hadn't been the case. On the contrary, it had been even worse. His shame over those thoughts overpowered his attempt to reject responsibility for the failure of their friendship and lay the blame on her. When he'd realised how unfair he was being to her, he'd been more in love than ever and this feeling kept deepening as the days passed. There was no way he could forget her, no way he couldn't be desperately in love with her. She was a part of him that he couldn't get rid of.

He'd also considered getting rid of his human identity altogether, believing that it might free him from her invisible grasp. But when the idea had occurred to him, he'd been reporting the increase in suicides among teenagers and young adults. Seeing the devastation in the eyes of their loved ones had made him aware that faking Jerome's disappearance would only serve to cause more pain to the people he'd met here in Paris, without helping him to forget his grief over what he'd lost. It would have been an illusion: his grief was all the same as Clark, Jerome, or Superman. So he'd given up on the idea, deciding he'd have to live with it and help as many people as he could, since it seemed to be the only reason why he'd been sent to Earth.

Looking down at the city below, Clark realised his course had drifted back to the east and he changed the direction of his flight, heading towards the Paris International building. The imposing construction was situated on a pleasant avenue, planted with trees, and close to the Place de la Bastille. A discreet alleyway allowed him to land nearby and to spin into his street clothes without being seen.

The clerk in the lobby greeted him but Clark answered with only a quick nod of acknowledgment. Back in the Planet days, he would have smiled and stopped at least to shake the man's hand and chat, but he didn't do that any more. He was doing his job and that was as much as people could get from him.

Most reporters were already working at their desks when he entered the newsroom. He was late, as usual. Bernard Guerand took a look at his watch and threw him a disapproving look, but Clark just shrugged, murmuring a half-hearted apology. He sat down at his desk and fired up his computer, retrieving his notes about the on-going story he was working on.

This was a strange case he'd been assigned to: the recent death of two homeless people, apparently from an overdose, if he went by what the police kept saying. But Clark already recognized the faint tingle of a big story under this mystery — Lois had taught him those signs. He put his notes in order and re-read the story he'd submitted to his editor yesterday. Bernard had put it on page three, the change of government and political issues having taken most of the first few pages of the newspaper, today.

Clark was getting used to rarely having front page stories. His editor thought he'd just started in the journalism business, and his performance in the newsroom hadn't helped in changing his boss's opinion. It was as if he'd left his skills behind him, back there, in the Planet's ruins. Had Perry White been aware of what kind of stories he was writing now, he'd have tried to knock some sense into him and forced him to find again the style that had made him a great reporter in the Planet days. But Perry had retired and wasn't even aware that he'd left the US, let alone was on the verge of being made redundant because his job mattered so little to him now that he'd become less and less good at what he was doing.

Clark had the feeling this story was different, though; maybe it would even be a chance for him to become the great reporter he used to be when he was Lois's partner. Bernard had assigned him to it because nobody thought there was something bigger than just another dramatic death among the underground's people, a tragic incident caused by the use of heroin, but it was the second similar case in three weeks, and his source had assured him he'd heard of a man who knew the victims and had linked both cases together. Clark's informant had promised to contact him as soon as he got more information on the subject matter, and he'd been positive that he would get some by the end of the day.

For now, Clark had to do some digging on his own. First things first, he needed to get to the police department and check if Inspector Lucas would agree to trade some information with him. He still had to be very careful; not reveal too much, or he'd have the police force on his heels and wouldn't be able to investigate without them knowing what he'd found and asking him not to print anything. He knew when he could or couldn't print information; it was part of his job as a reporter. Sometimes going into print could get in the way of the police's job. But here, he was pretty sure this wouldn't be the reason why the police didn't want to say anything: this case involved homeless people, and the population wasn't crazy about those. Most people feared them, believing they were alcohol-crazed men who would rob them at the first occasion. Nobody really cared about what had happened to those two men. They had no family, friends were very few on the street, and those who knew something didn't want to talk because of their fear of getting involved with the police and being accused of betrayal afterwards. Street law was hard. When you knew something, you kept it quiet if you wanted to avoid trouble.

***

Clark entered the police headquarters and was introduced into the inspector's office after only a few minutes' wait. He had his contacts at the precinct, so he hadn't been worried about being denied this interview. He had already worked with Lucas on several occasions and the inspector had proved himself a reliable source for his investigations.

The man rarely smiled and never laughed. The police force was his life, and he was aware of his responsibilities and completely devoted to his job. If Clark had found him strange at first, he'd learned to know him and had managed to get past that cold exterior. He had discovered that this man had been seeking refuge in his job after a failed marriage, and that his career was all he had to keep him on track. This knowledge had made him all the more likeable to Clark, and somehow a silent mutual respect had started to build between the two men.

"So, Kane, what brings you here?" Lucas began morosely once Clark had taken his place on an uncomfortable chair in front of the desk.

"I'd like to get some information about the man who was found dead yesterday, after an overdose. Jeremy Mellion."

"I already told the press what I know, I don't have anything to add," Lucas answered and briskly got up, opening the door and clearly showing Clark that the conversation was over.

"That's not what I meant," Clark replied calmly without moving from his chair. "I'd like to know what you didn't tell the other reporters. I'd like to know what the coroner said."

Lucas fixed him with a stern glare. "Listen, Kane, the forensic officer told me what I thought he'd tell me. There's nothing out of the ordinary about the guy's body, except the usual marks you can see on the body of a heroin-addicted man. The stomach contents didn't reveal any trace of heroin, which means the drug was injected. This was confirmed by the presence of a hypo near the body. Every analysis points to an overdose, and I have no idea what you're talking about… or trying to insinuate."

"I'm not insinuating anything. I'm just doing my job."

"So am I," the inspector replied coldly, motioning for Clark to leave.

"Could I see the forensic report, then?" Clark insisted, still not getting up. He'd known it would be difficult to make the police talk, but he certainly hadn't imagined he would have to struggle so much. One thing was for sure, it confirmed his suspicion that the press hadn't been told everything and he wouldn't give up now that he was getting close.

"No, it's in the police files and reporters don't have access to it."

"Another question. If there's nothing out of the ordinary with the body, then why are you keeping it in one of the police labs, exactly like you've kept the body of this other homeless man who died three weeks ago?" Clark played his last card, staring unblinkingly at the inspector.

It seemed to have the desired effect since Lucas closed the door and came back around his desk to sit in front of Clark. "How do you know that?" he asked him, taken aback that this young *junior* reporter would know things that should have remained under complete secrecy.

"I have sources. I know you've kept *both* Morteau's and Mellion's bodies," Clark simply replied, feeling more confident as he sensed he might learn something from the inspector, after all. "And I know the police wouldn't do such a thing unless there was something unclear."

"Okay, Kane, here's the deal. You tell me what you know, and I give you a quote for your story."

"I don't need a quote, Lucas, I may not be a senior journalist, but I'm still a good reporter, and I might know something you're missing," Clark sniped back, trying to remember everything Lois had taught him. She'd always been better than him in such situations, knowing what to say and how to say it to obtain information from uncooperative police officers. Exchanging information with them wasn't unusual to her, and he'd taken some lessons from working with her for a year. Right now he could see the wheels turn in Lucas's brain and he knew that he would soon concede something to him. The police seemed as clueless about all this as he was, and sharing what they knew might be the only way to solve the case.

"Okay," Lucas finally conceded through gritted teeth. "I admit you have a point. You tell me what your sources told you, and I'll get you a copy of the forensic report."

"That would mean this report has something interesting in it?" Clark enquired.

"We've been keeping the bodies in a police lab because another forensic scientist is examining them. We want a second opinion."

Clark raised an interested eyebrow at that. If the police needed a second opinion, it certainly meant something unexpected had been found on the bodies. "What was so strange about the results of the first autopsy?"

"No, Kane. We made a deal, I kept my side of the bargain, now it's your turn."

Clark knew when continuing to fight was hopeless; and this time, he knew that Lucas wouldn't say anything else before he'd told him exactly what he knew. "Okay. My source overheard a guy talking who was a friend of the two victims. It seems he doesn't believe for one second that Laurent Morteau and Jeremy Mellion would have OD'd; and he implied both incidents were linked."

"Have you talked to this friend of theirs?"

"Not yet. I'm tracking him down. My source said he just knew the guy's name was Max."

"Max? That's all you have? Not even a last name or an address or anything?"

"If I had such information I wouldn't be here," Clark replied. "Besides, I'm not sure the guy would talk. My source just happened to hear a conversation he shouldn't have. The man was talking on a pay phone and he was very nervous so my contact listened to what he was saying. When he realised that the guy was talking about a murder, he paid a girl to go and ask him his name. He just said 'Max' and was gone before she could ask him anything else."

"Okay, I could run a search on this Max person. You say that he was a friend of Mellion and Morteau, it's a good bet he lived on the street with them."

"I already thought about that; Max lived on the street for two years, but a couple of months ago, he suddenly disappeared. Seems he got a job and earns a living by himself, now. That's all I could get from the street people. They said they hadn't seen him in a while, except last week, when he had lunch with Mellion."

Lucas's head snapped up. "Then this guy is a potential suspect. I need to find him and interrogate him. Maybe he knows something we don't. Maybe he's the one who murdered Mellion and Morteau," he mused aloud. "Okay, Kane. You've played fair. I'll get you that report and you'll tell me what you think. If you get any other information, of course, you — "

"I'll call you, yes." Clark got up and shook the man's hand. He hadn't planned on giving Lucas so many leads but it had been his only hope of getting information that he wasn't normally allowed to access, and if it could help him get any further with the investigation and bring down the culprit, then it wasn't too bad.

***

Lois went down to the lobby of the Hotel de Crillon and bought a few newspapers; she wanted to check what the local reporters had deduced from the discovery of Jeremy Mellion's body. After rummaging through pages and pages of political issues, she finally found what she was looking for, lost between the obituaries and the human-interest stories. If it had ever been front-page news in any of those newspapers the previous day, there was no sign of it now, and most of the stories she managed to translate thanks to her dictionary brought the investigation to an end, concluding an overdose without even mentioning the possible link with Laurent Morteau's death three weeks before. She knew she was probably missing a lot of significant words even if she understood the general content, but two articles caught her attention. Both Brigitte Marchand from France News and Jerome Kane from the Paris International raised the question of the truth behind those tragic 'incidents' and didn't take the police's version entirely seriously, hinting that there was more than an average human-interest story behind the tragic death of the two homeless men.

Lois remembered Clark's taste for such stories. He'd always claimed you could find amazing things if you just took a look around you, at what people were doing, or how they were behaving. She'd laughed it off, of course, but she knew he was right. This was something she'd learned from working with him: what you saw wasn't always what you got.

Look at him: at first, she'd considered him a simple, nice, country guy, one who would be easy to handle, too much of a pushover to be a good journalist, not experienced enough to be worth working with; but she'd quickly realised she'd been wrong: Clark was strong, and not only physically; she'd found herself relying on him on several tough occasions, and he'd quickly become more than a colleague to her. How grateful she'd been to him when he'd opened his arms and house to her while Barbara Trevino had been trying to kill her, how trustworthy he'd proved himself when she'd been throwing herself at him after having been sprayed by the pheromone compound, how courageous he'd been during the hostage situation at the Planet…

… only a few weeks before he'd run out on her so cowardly.

But this last glimpse of him wasn't the Clark she'd known during the year he'd been her partner. Her Clark had always the other's best interests at heart, he preferred to give rather than take, and he'd taught her to find happiness in other people's eyes. He would have loved to write this story because of its human-interest, and he was the kind of person who'd have gone down in the subway to talk to those homeless people, offer them some coffee and an attentive ear, and got them to talk about Laurent and Jeremy.

She missed her partner.

She missed her best friend.

She didn't even know where he was; probably somewhere around Smallville; he'd always been very attached to his native Kansas. Lois had never taken the chance to go there and see if she could find him; she was too scared that he wouldn't want to talk to her and that she would have to tell him he'd been right when he'd warned her about Lex. He'd told her that she wouldn't be happy with him, that she would be just a part of the furniture, something nice to hang onto her husband's arm at boring parties.

And wasn't that what she'd become? She had to be honest: she hated her life with Lex. If she could go back and change the way her life had turned out, she'd never accept his proposal. But what was done was done, and Lois had lost all her friends. After all, she deserved what she was living now: she had rejected her best friend and married a man she didn't love, and it had been entirely *her* decision; taking the responsibility and facing the consequences without letting anyone else taking the blame was the least she could do. She had no right to complain, not when she'd had the choice.

Shaking her head and forcing herself out of this train of thought, she re-read the only two stories that actually revealed something about those homeless guys. Brigitte Marchand had written it was the second of such 'accidents' in three weeks, clearly suggesting there was a link between the two events. As for Jerome Kane, he explained that the police refused to let the press in on anything about the autopsies performed on the two bodies, and complained that no-one cared enough about such people to find out what had really happened to them. People who were easy targets for criminals who used them without any scruples before getting rid of them, one way or another. It was obvious he wanted to dig deeper and find what had really happened to those two men.

So she wasn't the only one onto this investigation, and those two reporters had probably a major advantage on her considering they had sources and contacts here in Paris. Lois only had Max. Oh, he was certainly a major ally and knew some things no one else did, but he couldn't introduce her to the street circle, where he had very few acquaintances, let alone the underworld, which he'd avoided all along. Or at least, he hadn't mentioned any contact there, Lois reflected; that didn't mean he couldn't help her. She'd call him, try to pry some more information from him, or at least get a lead.

But first, she had to do something she'd dreaded ever since she'd set foot on the Parisian ground. She reached for her cell phone and hit a pre-dialled number, barely able to contain the shiver that coursed through her spine as she waited for someone to pick up the receiver.

"Lex Luthor's office," a female voice chimed in cheerfully.

"Hi," Lois said nervously, "this is Ms Luthor, I'd like to speak to my husband, please." Lois inwardly rolled her eyes; she couldn't believe that this young woman had probably more occasions to speak to Lex than herself and that she had to get past her to actually reach someone who was supposed to live with her.

"Wait a minute, Mrs Luthor, I'll see if Mr Luthor is available."

Available?!

Lois shook her head as she was put on hold and heard the first notes of Vivaldi's Four Seasons through the phone line. She wondered why she didn't simply hang up and let her *unavailable* husband think what he wanted. She knew he'd be furious to know she'd gone to Europe without warning him, not to mention it would probably cost David his job; which was why she had to wait and talk to him: she'd try to convince Lex that she was the one who'd asked for this investigation. She could at least save Dave's job, even if she was well aware the young editor would never get higher in the LNN hierarchy since he would be in the boss's bad books from now on; but keeping Lex in the dark for too long as to where she was might not be a good way to calm his anger against David… or even herself. She wasn't afraid of Lex, she knew he wouldn't do anything to her. But he hated being left out of anything regarding her job, and letting him keep tabs on her seemed to be the best way to calm him down.

"Mrs Luthor?" The female voice got Lois out of her musings. "Mr Luthor is in the middle of a meeting right now, shall I take a message?"

"No, that won't be necessary, thank you." Lois slammed her cell phone shut, sighing deeply to retain her anger.

Anger? Or sadness? She couldn't tell. After all those months, she didn't know what to think any more, or whether to cry or laugh.

'The only thing you have to know about me is that I love you,' he'd told her when he'd first proposed to her.

Ha! What a joke! How could she ever have fallen for his sweet talk and promises? How could she ever have believed for one second that he'd respect their wedding vows and be there for her? No, Lex Luthor didn't have time for her, he was *far* too busy to stoop to the terrestrial delights offered by marital life.

That was a relief, in a way: she never felt like talking to him; it wasn't as if they had anything in common andcould find a conversation that would carry them to the wee hours of the morning, like it always had been the case with… Clark. Why was it that she kept thinking about her former partner like that? She'd never quite managed to put him behind her, to tell herself he wasn't worth thinking about and that she had another life now. Another life, that was way behind the truth. A life where Lois Lane didn't have the right to be herself, a place where Lois Lane simply didn't exist. No, she was Ms Luthor, now, or *Lois* Luthor if she was lucky. She missed Lois Lane. She'd told her colleagues at work many times that she wanted to be called by the name that had made her who she was, only to spot the byline with her husband's name each time she made a report on LNN. They'd never understood that it wasn't the name of her husband she was talking about, but the name that was on her byline back at the Daily Planet. No, they believed she was referring to her job at LNN. She felt close to sick inside when she realised that they weren't completely wrong: if she hadn't married Lex, she wouldn't work for his TV network, but she would be with her friends: Perry, Jimmy… and Clark.

It was Lois *Lane* who was thinking about her partner, the Lois Lane who was here in Paris, the woman who had been emotionally gagged for the past six months and who was finally resurfacing thanks to this investigation where she was being herself, away from her luxurious office at LNN and the constant security guards who accompanied her almost everywhere and prevented her from working the way she'd always loved. An investigative reporter, that's what she used to be, and that's what she wanted to be right now.

She would solve this murder case, prove that Lois Lane was still the best, even without Perry White's support, she thought while dialling Max's number. She'd make a difference, exactly like she used to do less than a year ago.

The phone call to Maxime Bonneau left her with a surprised frown on her face. He'd been breathless when he'd picked up and he'd sounded very nervous. She'd tried to figure out what was wrong but he hadn't wanted to reveal anything, asking her to come to his place instead. From his voice and insistence, she could tell he was completely panicked. Throwing a couple of coins on the counter, she exited the Crillon's lobby and headed out towards the nearest subway station.

***

"Mr Bonneau? Um… Max? It's me, Lois." Lois knocked on the door of her contact's apartment, still trying to make sense of his earlier reaction on the phone. When she'd talked to him that morning, he'd been open, friendly, and everything but panicked. But here, it was as if he was scared of something.

She knocked again. "Max?" she repeated, a little louder.

He was home, that was for sure; he'd asked her to come, after all. Lois heard weird noises of commotion inside before the door opened slightly, a dishevelled face appearing in its edge. The hunted look on his face quickly got replaced by an expression of recognition, and he swiftly ushered her inside, looking around the corridor to make sure nobody had seen her enter.

Lois was taken aback by her source's behaviour and sat on the couch, staring questioningly at him and waiting for him to give her an explanation.

"I got threatened," Max finally whispered. "Someone slid a note under my door a couple of hours ago, but by the time I saw it, the person who did it had long gone. The message said there was some stuff about me that 'displeased' some people, and that it was known that I had contacts with people I shouldn't. Anyway, it seemed to imply that I knew a lot of things about Laurent and Jeremy, and that I was beginning to be annoying. You know what that means?"

"Max, you should go to the police."

"I can't!" he said frantically.

"But they'd protect you. In the US we have this program, the witness protection program, and I suppose something similar exists here…"

"I'm not a witness. I didn't see what happened to them. I just happened to know them."

"But you know the accidents were no accidents," Lois pointed out. "Why don't you want to share your information with the police?"

"I don't trust those guys. They don't care about homeless people."

"That's not true, most policemen I know are doing a great job."

"Lois, there's something you should know about me. I've been part of the street people, and even if I never really got involved with the underworld, I wasn't always right with the law, and they would probably lock me away if they found out. Not to mention a couple of friends of mine back there."

"Max, you didn't kill anybody?" Lois enquired worriedly.

"No! Never. But… I did some things I'm not very proud of, and I don't want the police to find out. I have a good job, now, and I'd lose it if it were known that I'd been on the street before."

"Okay, I understand, believe me, I do, but it won't be any better if you get yourself killed. At least I can help you, but don't you know other people you trust over here? People who could protect you as well?"

"I don't trust anyone. The only people I trusted were Laurent and Jeremy, and now they're dead. I don't even know why they got killed, although I'm pretty sure it's no ordinary murder. It *has* to have something to do with a huge conspiracy. They knew something they weren't allowed to know."

"Do you think it's possible that someone asked them to do a dirty job and killed them afterwards so that they wouldn't talk?"

Max pondered her question for a few seconds before he nodded slowly.

"Okay, I'm going to check if there were murders or robberies or even muggings in Paris for, say, the last two months. Meanwhile, you stay here and be careful, okay? I'll call you as soon as I find something, and then we'll try to figure out if Laurent and Jeremy have an alibi for each of those crimes or if they might be involved in something murky."

***

Clark took a look at the files the messenger had just brought him. The first part of the reports was anything but strange. Both Laurent Morteau and Jeremy Mellion presented all the characteristics of adult males who'd succumbed to a lethal amount of morphine or heroin in their blood. But what attracted Clark's attention was that the analysis of the tissues surrounding the injection mark hadn't revealed the presence of any of those substances, as if those men hadn't ever consumed any of those drugs. Whatever had killed Morteau and Mellion wasn't the heroin contained in the syringe that had been found near each of their body. In both cases, the report concluded to a pulmonary oedema characterised by the flooding of the lungs with fluid. Traces of partly dried oedema fluid had been oozing from their nostrils and mouths, and the diagnosis had only been confirmed by the opening of the upper chest. The absence of heroin wasn't entirely surprising in this case. Many medical reports had falsely labelled those kinds of death 'overdose' when the cause was entirely different, as years of research had proved. In such cases, the death was caused by other substances, or a mixture in which heroin was the smallest component.

The second part of the autopsy had consisted of a search for the mysterious component that had caused the death of those young men. Then had come the problem. Even with the important amount of alcohol found in Mellion's blood, the possibility was out since there was no heroin mixed with it, which could have caused the oedema in that case. Not to mention that Morteau's blood hadn't contained any alcohol. As for the other usual tests, none of them had engendered the discovery of any of the usual substances that could possibly cause such a problem.

On the other hand, the reports explained that the forensic officer who'd performed both autopsies had found an abnormal amount of an unknown substance in both men's blood. This substance, christened U209 by the medical examiner's office, seemed to have provoked clinical death, causing first a heart attack that seemed to be the primal cause of the oedema.

So it looked like what had been set to look like an overdose was in fact a murder, and apparently with a rather unusual technique. What puzzled Clark the most was the presence of this unknown substance in both Morteau and Mellion's blood. The analysis of the hypodermic which had been found beside their bodies, on the other hand, showed definite traces of heroin, which all pointed to a set up.

His instinct had been right, there was something bigger than everyone thought about this case. But why would someone go through all this trouble to disguise a murder? Of course, the first autopsy hadn't detected it, but a further check had revealed the presence of this unknown substance. Had the murderer thought that no real examination would be performed? Or had he been unaware that U209 would be detectable? Or was it some kind of signature of the murders, in which case, was this person a maniac, or a serial killer? And moreover, what was this substance and what was its exact use?

A quick call to the medical centre that had performed those analysis revealed itself fruitless, as Clark was told that the information he was asking for was classified as confidential, not to mention they — of course — claimed they didn't have anyone with those names in their cold chambers.

But even if he hadn't been able to get further information about U209, as a whole the document he'd just read was confirming each and every one of this suspicions. Particularly the fact that both homeless men had been killed in the exact same way, and not by heroin.

The ringing of his phone distracted him out of his musings and he answered it absently.

"Kane? It's Nermont. I've found what you asked for."

That got Clark's attention. His source was certainly referring to the man who knew the victims. "So? Did you find out who Max is?"

"Yeah, kinda. I mean, I got you his complete name. Maxime Bonneau. No address, though."

"Okay, just call me if you get your hands on something else." Clark scribbled the name on his notepad, hung up the phone and jumped to his feet. Now he had a starting point to search for the man. "Michael?" he called out to one of the assistant researchers. "Michael, can you access the city's employment data base?" At the nod of the young man he went on, "Okay, try all the matches you can find for Maxime Bonneau in the last two years. I want to know where he works and if you can find it, a personal address would be helpful. Put this on top of your priority list, please."

"Okay, Jerome, right on it." Michael grabbed the note from Clark's hand and trotted away to his desk.

Clark was about to sit back in his chair when his superhearing picked up the sound of a police radio requiring the presence of a team at one of the towers of La Defense: a man had jumped out of a window. Looking carefully around him to make sure no-one was observing him too closely, he made a dash for the storage room at the back of the newsroom, opened the window, and launched himself into the air, changing into the Suit when airborne.

***

Lois got out of the precinct with a pack of police reports in her bag. It hadn't been too difficult to obtain some of the information she needed: the police officer had been co-operative enough to give her the copies of all the mugging and robberies reports. But he'd stubbornly refused to give her anything that pertained to the murders, referring to procedure and confidentiality, which were just silly details as far as Lois was concerned.

She sighed inwardly as she recalled the officer's stubbornness; sometimes she wondered what mattered most to these people — the admin details or the resolution of the case. Of course, since they seemed to imply Morteau and Mellion hadn't been murdered, they probably found it stupid, if not annoying, that an American TV network sent one of its reporters to the scene. Lois, however, wasn't one to easily give up. If the police didn't want to co-operate, she'd find another way to be informed of any unresolved murder committed in the last few months; and what better information source than the local newspapers? Back at the Planet, she'd found herself looking through the old editions of the newspaper in the Morgue many times, and she supposed that the Parisian newspapers had some similar archives. Retrieving the two articles that had attracted her attention this morning, she noted that the Paris International's offices were only a couple of blocks away from here. Hopefully she'd be granted access to the documentation centre.

She reached the building within a few minutes and showed her press pass to the clerk in the lobby. After gathering the small amount of French she knew to explain her request, she was directed to the documentation room, where her ID was checked again before a friendly-looking man extended a hand towards her and told her he'd help her in her research. She briefly considered refusing his help, her old reflexes to avoid being scooped by a rival taking the better of her for a short moment, but she finally reasoned that the newspaper was already doing her a big favour by allowing her to consult its old editions, and she'd better not push it too much. Besides, what was there to fear for an international TV network when compared to a Parisian paper?

So she smiled politely at the man and shook the hand he was offering and presented her press pass again.

"Lois Luthor, Luthor News Network," the man read aloud with a surprised note creeping into his voice.

Lois chose not to comment; she generally blanked out her feelings when confronted with a raised eyebrow or anything of the sort upon introducing herself. The press pass furnished by LNN gave her marital name and there was nothing she'd been able to do about it. She'd finally given up on even trying to fight against the reaction people had when they learned who she was.

"Nice to meet you, Ms Luthor," the older man said with an open smile. "I'm Marc Falineau. I'm responsible for the Paris International's archives. Excuse my curiosity, but what brings an American reporter here to Paris?" he enquired. "Hot investigation?"

"Maybe," Lois answered evasively. "Mr Falineau, I'd like to take a look at the newspapers published in the last three months, please."

"Last three months, okay, just sit here and I'll get them for you in a minute."

Lois watched him disappear behind one of the shelves supporting years of archives and various publications and sat at one of the large tables nearby. This place didn't look anything like the Planet's Morgue, which she recalled to be much darker and less organised. Back there, no researcher was there to help the reporters in their search, anyway. Or to get in their way, she thought wryly. Shame that this Mr Falineau wouldn't let her snoop around by herself, but on the other hand, he might be useful and spare her some boring time trying to work out the archive's classification.

"Do you want to see something specifically?" a voice called from behind a pile of old magazines.

"Uh… no, just… just the editions of the last three months."

"Ms Luthor, it would really help if you told me what you're looking for. International news? Local events? Cultural meetings?" Falineau finally reappeared and deposited a large box on the table in front of Lois. "It will take you an awfully long time to go through all those newspapers. My job is to help the reporters find their way through all this mess, you know."

Lois hesitated. She wasn't used to working like this, but maybe this man could save her a lot of time and effort; she wasn't particularly keen on deciphering the headlines with the constant help of her dictionary, and even with it she might miss something important, she mused as the man took a place beside her and emptied the box in front of them.

"So, what are we looking for?"

"I'd like to know about all the murders that recently happened here in Paris or in the suburbs, possibly unresolved or unusual cases," Lois explained.

Falineau lightly touched her arm. "Hey, don't be so nervous, I'm not trying to steal a scoop or anything, here."

"I didn't know it was that obvious." Lois smiled shyly at his amused expression.

"As a matter of fact, I don't belong to the newsroom upstairs, so I couldn't write the storyeven if I wanted to," he went on. "I'm just surprised because it's not very often that we have foreign reporters asking for information here, except when there's a bombing or an hostage situation, of course. But nothing like that happened lately, and I can't think about anything that would require your presence here. Not that I'm complaining," he hastily added, "but I'm just wondering."

Lois took pity of the man's blatant curiosity. "Murder case," she whispered with a wink before taking hold of the first pile of newspapers.

***

"Michel Deslauriers, 56 years old, he is — or was — the vice-president of Timon Industries," Lucas explained to Superman while the coroner took care of the man's body. "Seems like he thought he could fly and wanted to practice his theory from his office. 18 storeys didn't give him much chance to survive."

"Any witnesses?" Superman enquired, ignoring the inspector's bleak attempt at humour.

"Just a couple of tourists; they're being questioned by one of my men right now. Afraid they don't know much, though. They're more shocked than anything, and I guess they'd rather see a shrink right now than have someone from the police force asking all sorts of questions about what happened and how it happened."

"And were you able to determine a reason for his suicide?"

"No, and that's what doesn't make sense in this incident. Timon Industries specialise in the import-export of chemicals, and they're one of the wealthiest firms here in Paris. They have big laboratories in the suburbs, and have recently developed their research department. The fact they have their administrative offices here in La Defense is proof, if needed, of their economic success. They made some of the best profits of any French firm last year, and the price of their shares keep increasing at the stock exchange, from what one of the employees told me. No financial difficulties, no tax appraisal, no lay-offs… really nothing that could have pushed Deslauriers over the edge. I'll check everything with Derval, the head of Timon Industries, but he's in the Netherlands right now and he won't be back before Monday. In any case, doesn't seem like there was any kind of professional pressure on Deslauriers."

"And on a personal level?"

"Not sure about that yet, but the employees we questioned were sceptical about any personal problem. He got along with his wife, his children are succeeding in their studies, no recent deaths around him… we're reaching a dead end, here."

"Do you want me to take a look at his office, Lucas?"

"Yeah, that'd be helpful, Superman. I was hoping you'd come, actually, because this suicide sounds too much like a perfect murder for my taste. So if you could try to spot fingerprints or any unusual thing in his office with that vision gizmo of yours, that could help us find who pushed him. Figuratively speaking, of course."

***

Clark LAN-ed his story about Michel Deslauriers to Bernard Guerand and relaxed a bit in his chair. He'd searched through the man's office at superspeed without being able to find anything that could remotely help Lucas in his investigation. Yet he was convinced this wasn't an ordinary suicide either. A man didn't jump out a window without any reason, especially when the firm he was responsible for made such high profits. No, there was something else behind this, he agreed with Lucas. The inspector had set up an inquiry and didn't seem ready to close the case and give up on the murder theory, at least until the reason for Deslauriers's desperate action was known; Superman had informed him that he'd help as much as he could to find out the truth, but so far he didn't see what could possibly give a serious lead to the police. The questioning of Pierre Derval would hopefully shed some light on this suicide, but they had to wait till the man was back from his business trip to interrogate him.

Clark had already heard of the man as one of the business sharks here in France; he was ready to step on anyone's toes to get what he wanted, and he didn't mind trespassing the boundaries of legality to make more money. Nothing could stop him from making more profits and having the shares of his firm increase. If necessary, he wouldn't mind cutting the jobs of half his employees without decent financial compensation. One of Clark's first stories for the Paris International had dealt with the threat of the employees to go on strike when their boss had started to talk about paying them partly with shares instead of their usual wage. The trade unions had finally won their claim and Derval had been forced to refute any rumour that he wanted to carry on with his intention regardless of the employees' rights.

The tension between the employer and the trade unions had eventually died down and the firm's high profits had reassured everyone that no redundancies were planned in the near future. The arrival of Michel Deslauriers as a vice-president of the company had confirmed Derval's efforts to be trusted by his working staff, since the man had an opposite reputation to the president's and was famous for his diplomatic agreements with the unions.

Someone cleared their throat beside him and Clark looked up at Michael, whose help he'd asked for his current investigation about the homeless people's murders. The young assistant researcher explained he'd managed to get hold of the name of the private nightclub where Maxime Bonneau worked as a security guard. A few minutes and phone calls later, Clark had a personal address for the man and was flying towards the Place d'Italie.

He easily found Bonneau's apartment and firmly knocked on the door. A distraught-looking man warily opened, brandishing a knife towards the intruder. Clark held up his hands in surrender, seeing in the man's eyes that he was probably more scared than anything else.

"I'm not here to hurt you, Mr Bonneau. My name is Jerome Kane and I'm a reporter for…"

"For the Paris International, yeah, I've seen your name in this paper a couple of times, I think." That seemed to calm him down for a few seconds, but all of a sudden he was threatening Clark with his weapon again. "How did you find me? Who sent you? What do you want from me?"

Clark retrieved his press pass, careful not to frighten the man with sudden moves, and handed it to him. "I'm just here to ask you a couple of questions about the murder of two people you probably knew from your years in the street. Laurent Morteau and Jeremy Mellion," he explained while Bonneau warily studied his ID.

Max suddenly became very pale and dropped his knife. He opened the door and motioned for Clark to get inside. "I knew I shouldn't have talked to that reporter, she's just too nosy and she talked to you."

"I didn't get this information from another reporter, Mr Bonneau. I found it by myself. But the police will soon find you and they'll have a few questions for you, too."

At the mention of the police, Max made a run for the door, but Clark was quicker and grabbed his collar. "Oh, no, you don't. From the way you greeted me, it seems you're afraid of something. Do the murderers want to kill you?"

"You're working for them, is that right?" Max asked, taking a step backwards.

"No, I just want to help you," Clark said in the most reassuring tone he could muster.

"Why would you want to help? Why do you care?"

"Because I believe that the truth has to be told, and I'm positive Morteau and Mellion didn't die from an ordinary overdose."

Max sighed, slightly reassured. "Okay… I don't trust a lot of reporters, but my best friend is one, so I guess you're not always stupid. I know the newspaper you work for, and it's a serious one. You wouldn't publish things that would put me in danger, would you?" he asked, eyeing Clark suspiciously.

"Of course not. Our conversation will stay off the record if you prefer."

"Okay. Then let me tell you the whole story."

***

It was already dark outside when Lois exited the Paris International's offices, another pile of photocopies in her bag; Marc Falineau had been kind enough to help her throughout the whole research process and miraculously he hadn't asked too many questions. He was probably used to working with reporters who jealously preserved their leads and sources, she supposed. In any case, he'd been very helpful, retrieving every story that dealt with a murder for the past three months and handing them to her so that she could see for herself if it corresponded to what she was looking for. Within two hours, they'd gone over all the editions of the newspaper and Lois had perused all the unresolved murders that had taken place in Paris or the neighbourhood.

However, she couldn't say she was aware of the details of each case, she reasoned, considering she hadn't been able to translate most of those stories; she'd have to trust Max to understand if they were referring to something in which Laurent Morteau or Jeremy Mellion had taken part. She wished she'd paid better attention to her high school classes. That would come in handy right now, and she wouldn't have to rely on her source to speed up her investigation.

Clark knew some French: she'd already heard him speak it on the phone, back at the time when she was observing him very closely. She'd almost spied on him, actually, but it had given her a glimpse into the exotic side of her partner's personality, such as his fluency in several foreign languages. She'd asked him about it and he'd explained he'd travelled around the world before coming to Metropolis. She'd been fascinated to hear about her partner's trips and her opinion of him had grown to learn about his range of experience with other cultures. She shook her head as she recalled her amazed reaction at the discovery. Why was it so surprising that her partner didn't match the stereotypes she'd labelled him with when she'd first met him? Why had she wondered what he was doing in one of the greatest newsrooms in the world? Why hadn't she realised sooner that he meant much more to her than a simple work colleague? Why had she been so blind to believe he considered her his best friend?

Pushing away the sudden rush of anger that threatened to take hold of her, she dialled Max's number on her cell phone. Now wasn't the time to dwell on her past; it was much more productive to work on her investigation, and right now she needed to see her source so that he could confirm if Morteau or Mellion had had a hand in one of those murders.

***

Max was reaching the end of his story about his homeless friends when his phone rang. Clark was surprised to hear him speak English with the person on the other end of the line, and even more surprised when he told this person to meet him at a café in the Nineteenth Arrondissement.

"Come on, I want you to meet someone," Max said when he hung up.

"Who was that?"

"The person I want you to meet: another reporter who is working on the case, and the only person I gave information to. I think you could use each other's skills to work on this."

"I don't think it's such a good idea."

"Why's that, Kane? Can't bear to have a partner?"

Clark got a sad and distant look on his face. The only partner he would ever want to work with was on the other side of the Atlantic, working for a TV network. He should have known she wasn't meant to be with him when he'd seen her disgusted reaction at Perry teaming them up. Even if she'd seemed to get used to it and even appreciated it afterwards, that hadn't prevented her from going down her path *without* him.

"Hey… Kane, did I say something wrong?"

"No…" Clark said reluctantly, realising he had been silent for the last couple of minutes. "I was just… thinking. Let's go, then."

***

Lois found a secluded booth at the back of the cafe that her source had suggested would be rather quiet at this late hour. At least they'd be able to talk without worrying about prying ears, she thought, as she took a sip of her coffee. Max had insisted on seeing her as soon as possible because he wanted her to meet someone that he thought might help her in her investigation; probably one of his former street pals, she supposed. Hopefully, it was someone who'd have known Morteau and Mellion and would give her a serious lead to follow. She only hoped he wouldn't bring the murderer himself, but she trusted Max and her instinct told her he was motivated to find the truth and bring down the person who'd killed his friends. Whatever he had done in the past to survive against all odds, Lois had quickly understood that he was now seeking redemption. Not to mention that the fear she'd seen in his eyes earlier in the day was anything but feigned; whether he was in real danger or not, she couldn't tell, but she didn't want to take the risk, and therefore she had told him to keep a low profile for a time. At least if he was bringing someone here to the cafe it meant he wasn't alone, but that reassured her only slightly.

She didn't like knowing that she was putting a source at risk for the sake of an investigation, no matter how important it was. Everything she'd encountered about this case lead to one conclusion: the person who'd killed those men — since she was now convinced the two murders were linked — had definitely dispensed a lot of energy into hiding the real circumstances of their death, it seemed. But that motivated her even more to dig into the depths of this mystery.

She finally allowed herself to relax in her seat and retrieved the latest edition of the Paris International that she'd bought on her way to the cafe. A quick scan of the first pages didn't grab her attention, the editor still affording major interest to the recent change of government, a subject that didn't hold much interest for Lois. The whole page devoted to the latest rates in the stock exchange was even worse. She smiled inwardly as she remembered the shocked glance that Roy, the Planet's economy editorialist, had thrown at her when the very young and inexperienced reporter she was five years ago had told him she didn't give a damn about shares and holdings. Never mind those unexciting pages in a paper, they didn't make a difference to anyone. The *real* reporting job was to go hit the streets and bring down criminals and murderers. *That* was useful. She shook her head as she recalled how Roy had always avoided any confrontation with her after she'd embarked upon an explanation why she was right and he was wrong. It was around that time that her colleagues had invented that 'Mad Dog Lane' nickname she'd had to bear throughout her years of working at the Planet. She smiled sadly as she realised that she missed that name, even if she'd always denied liking it when it was mentioned. But at least it had meant she was respected for what she did and who she was.

Her eyes suddenly fell on a sidebar that made her sit straighter. It was entitled 'Another Superman Appearance' and was accompanied by a picture of the superhero talking with a policeman. From the little she understood, the reporter was explaining that Superman seemed to have settled in Paris after a few months of wandering around Europe and accomplishing an impressive number of rescues.

Lois's mind wandered back to the last night that she'd talked to Superman, when she'd felt so humiliated and rejected. Even now, after months of reflecting on his behaviour that night in her apartment, she couldn't come up with a plausible reason for such coldness from him. He'd been harsh with her, and what hurt so much was to realise that she'd almost implied the major changes in her life would be the result of his response.

'I've a lot of changes going on in my life… and I just want to make the right decisions… and I can't do that until I know… how you feel,' she'd told him.

Forcing her way with him, almost blackmailing him with his feelings, that's what she'd been trying to do. And that was what made her feel so ashamed and humiliated. Oh, Superman's lead-lined robe comment had hurt all right, but it was nothing compared to the guilt she'd felt when she'd recognised how stupidly she'd behaved in front of a man she pretended to love.

But she hadn't been pretending; she'd been in love with him. Whatever he'd said about her not knowing everything about him, her feelings for him had been real. But he was right, she knew very little about him, and his rejection had at least helped her to understand his point. She didn't know who he was, nor if he had a name other than the one she'd given him, nor why his Suit had a S embroidered on it. She didn't even know if it was a S, actually. Maybe it was a weird symbol they had on Krypton for men who flew and wore tights. She grinned. Those tights of his had made quite an impression on her when she'd first met them… um… *him*.

But she wasn't in love with the tights; she was in love with the man beneath. Or had been. She didn't know any more what she felt for a man she hadn't seen in months. For a man who'd hurt her in a way she never thought he would. But she was sure she hadn't ever been attracted to Superman's good looks only; no, there was more than that to her feelings. She loved his innate goodness, his gentle manners, his tenderness. He was the strongest man on Earth; able to bend steel with his bare hands and lift space stations, yet his gestures with her had always been the sweetest of touches and caresses.

And he'd told her he loved her. Once. Oh, of course, he was under the spell of a pheromone compound, but that wasn't an excuse. She'd known he harboured strong feelings for her from the moment she'd talked to him in Clark's apartment, shortly after their first meeting, and he'd assured her she'd always be special to him.

'You're the only woman who ever… interviewed me,' he'd said.

His hesitation hadn't been lost on her, and she'd understood what lay behind.

Then, when she'd been trapped in a vault that same day, her breathing already laboured from the lack of air, and he'd burst through the wall to save her, his attitude had been enough for her to know that he felt more than a simple physical attraction to her. He'd hugged her tightly, and as she'd gone limp in his arms, she'd noticed something in his gaze that she hadn't thought he was capable of: deep emotion. A blend of passion, love and fear.

He'd been afraid, she realised. From the beginning, he'd been afraid of their relationship, and prying a decision out of him had been the worst thing to do.

But why was he afraid? Was a relationship with Lois Lane such a scary prospect for the strongest man on Earth to consider? What was wrong with her? What was he afraid of? Did he think she could hurt him? How could she hurt Superman?

<Ha! As if you didn't know that physical strength has nothing to do with emotions,> a sarcastic inner voice chimed in.

And the voice had a point: her previous experiences had taught her that much: when feelings were involved, then the hurt was always lurking in the background, waiting to launch itself at you, waiting for you to let down your guard, so that it could attack you even more viciously. It didn't matter how strong you were, you were always more vulnerable when you were in love.

That was what Clark had told her on their first assignment together, as an attempt at comforting her when she'd been pouring out her heart to him.

'We're only human,' she'd answered at that time, but she now realised that human or not, love and vulnerability always worked together. Understanding the other's needs, sharing everything with them, compromising to try and reach an uncertain happiness, a thin balance that could be the strongest or the most fragile link.

And Superman seemed to have been aware of this. Had he had to suffer through this in the past? Somehow, she doubted he'd been very experienced with women. She didn't exactly know why, considering how good looking and kind he was, but she just got the impression that he'd always avoided too close relationships with anyone.

Did he have friends when he was in Metropolis? Well he'd had her… and Clark. He'd never mentioned anyone else, though. And if he'd felt close enough to Clark and her, he wouldn't have left.

Unless…

Unless nothing kept him in Metropolis any more. Clark had left without letting anyone in on where he was going, and probably even Superman didn't know where he was now. And she'd married another man and got on with her life. If he'd had feelings for her, he certainly would have been hurt that she hadn't waited for him.

<But he didn't ask me to wait!> she wanted to scream.

<Oh sure he did,> the inner voice replied almost immediately. He'd said there were things about him she may never know. His statement certainly hadn't been definitive, and it had seemed to imply that he still harboured the hope that she'd know those 'things' someday. But, being Lois Lane, she'd been eager and unthinking, and she hadn't been patient.

Assuming there had been something to be patient for, that is. What was she supposed to wait for? Wait for him to be more confident with her? Wait for him to be sure he was in love? Wait for him to know what their relationship would bring him?

<Get back to Earth, Lois, what could you have given him that he didn't already have?>

She couldn't give an answer to that one. Talk about out of her league, she chuckled humourlessly. Superman. She'd wanted *Superman* to love her. And instead of getting out of her girlish fantasies, she'd found herself believing that there was a chance for them.

On the other hand, he hadn't ever tried to keep his distance from her, on the contrary taking advantage of her always-open window to fly by from time to time. He never stayed long, though, and they didn't talk much on those occasions… actually, most of his visits were related to an imminent danger for her. She'd always found this protective behaviour very irritating from other men, but with him, it was different. It meant he cared, and it made her feel special, particularly when his reassuring words couldn't hide the huskiness in his voice and the warmth of his gaze.

Sometimes, she'd felt confident enough to reach out and touch his arm, or even give him a peck on the cheek before he flew off, a couple of times a more significant embrace, but they'd never gone beyond this stage, and he'd never been the one to take the initiative. Even when sprayed with pheromones, he hadn't been the one to make the first move and kiss her. Which meant… which meant she'd been taking advantage of his feelings, stepping over the barriers he'd carefully set between them to protect himself, throwing herself at a vulnerable man — okay, a *super* man, but vulnerable nonetheless — and that without an ounce of a thought for the way it would affect him.

But now she realised something that Superman himself had probably started to become aware of when she'd confessed her feelings for him: he hadn't ever belonged to her, and he would never have. How could he answer her pleas for him to love her, then? How could she have been so selfish to think he could ever give his love and care to one person when he belonged to the entire world?

Her eyes automatically fell back to the picture in the newspaper. He looked a bit weary… tense, even. Another story was associated with the photograph and reported the reason for Superman's latest appearance, but she was unable to understand anything more than the word 'suicide'… probably someone he'd been too late to prevent from ending their life, she guessed.

She noticed that the byline of this second article read Jerome Kane, that same reporter whose article about Mellion's death she'd found instructive. The story here presented itself in the form of an interview, so this lucky reporter had probably been on the scene and met the superhero. She found herself wondering if Superman still accorded exclusives like he used to do for the Planet when he hung out in Metropolis.

Maybe Max knew about that…

Maybe she'd ask him…

… just out of curiosity.

A faint rush of air made her look up towards the entrance of the cafe and she got up to wave at Max and his companion to join her at the back of the coffee house. But nothing could have prepared her for the person she saw behind him. That help Max was bringing her, that man he'd said could help her in her quest, that man he insisted she meet, that man was her former partner, that man was…

"Clark…" The word escaped her lips in a whisper as she watched them make their way towards her.

He hadn't seen her. Not yet. Maybe she still had time to escape through the back door, or hide somewhere, or maybe if she made herself tiny he wouldn't see her. *They* wouldn't see her. Yes, she needed to sneak out discreetly. With a bit of luck she wouldn't be seen.

But when she tried to move and get out of the booth, none of her muscles responded. She stayed rooted into place, knowing her time was running out and she'd have to face them. She took a deep breath and prepared herself for the inevitable before looking up at…

… at this man who stood completely still as her eyes met his.

***

Clark had followed Maxime Bonneau to this cafe in the Nineteenth Arrondissement, still confused by his new source's enthusiasm concerning this exchange of information. The man was strange in a way he couldn't quite define, and what confused him even more was that he felt like he could trust him, despite his weird behaviour during their meeting. He couldn't bring himself to believe that Max was involved in these murders; his sincerity when he'd told him about his friends had made it almost impossible to suspect him. But what was certain was that Max knew things that put him in danger, and his scared reaction when Clark had appeared at his door, as well as the frantic questions as he'd tried to find out if Clark was someone he could confide in, had only confirmed this first impression. Clark's trust in the man had slightly altered when he'd witnessed his reaction at the mention of the police, but he now suspected that the young man was more of a tracked animal than a criminal.

And right now, the 'animal' in question was sweeping the large room in hope of finding a person that Clark wasn't keen on meeting; he wasn't ready to share information with a competitor newspaper. He felt like he was being forced into something he didn't want, since it was clear from his contact's point of view that this other reporter and he would work together on the case. Clark wasn't an individualist — he'd never been — but his experience had taught him that such associations didn't always work. And last time the consequences had been too hurtful for him to reconsider the possibility now.

How could it have gone so wrong, he asked himself for the hundredth time? Of course, it hadn't been easy in the beginning; Lois had been too used to working alone to accept him without fighting against Perry and his decision to partner them. But, ever so slowly, she'd got used to having him around; she'd almost admitted it when he'd been about to leave the Planet not so long after his arrival in Metropolis. And they'd made a great team, he couldn't deny that. He'd enjoyed so much working with her, seeing her every day…

No, don't go there again, he told himself. It was not worth brooding over; what was done was done and he couldn't go back. And even if he could, how could he make it work considering how badly their partnership had turned out? What he was sure of was that she'd trusted him, at least for a time. She'd proved it on several occasions, turning to him when she was scared and vulnerable, showing him a side of her she rarely let others see.

Lois had never been one to look easily scared by threats from the people she investigated, but Clark knew that she was being brave most of those times, not allowing her fear to show. She bottled it up and threw herself even more into her work, putting her own life on the line without a second thought about it. Or that's what she let people see. But with him, she'd come to a point, in the last months of their partnership, where she didn't fake it any more.

He remembered that night when she'd come to his apartment, shivering and barely blinking back tears, throwing her arms around him to seek comfort in his embrace when he'd told her she could crash at his place. It had been the first time she'd opened up to him, letting him in on a side of the brilliant Lois Lane that people weren't aware of. Vulnerable, like a little girl lost in a hostile world. That night, as she'd clung to him as if she'd never let go, and he'd tried to convey all of his strength through their embrace, their relationship had reached a new closeness. When she'd slowly pulled away, her hands still entangled in his hair, her eyes locked with his, something had happened. A sudden rush of electricity, a new tension that was out of place in the safe haven of their friendship, and Clark had had to use all of his willpower not to close the distance between their lips and kiss her.

That would have been a dumb thing to do, he reasoned now, almost a year after that night. In one second, he could have destroyed everything… and he'd almost done. Lois had sensed the change of mood between them, he was sure of that. She'd turned away a bit too quickly, and started babbling about strawberries you couldn't easily find in December and how the heck he could have found some to make that milkshake. He smiled a little, remembering her frantic attempt at regaining some control; but he'd almost blown it, that night, and if it hadn't been for Lois's trust in him, they would have separated paths a long time before…

Before…

Before that other dreadful night.

He could still see the scene so clearly, as if it had happened yesterday, although it had been six months already. But witnessing Lois's acceptance of Luthor's proposal had been too much for him, and when he'd seen that monster reach into his pocket for an awfully big engagement ring and slip it on her finger, it had been too much for him to bear. He'd shaken his head, refusing to accept the obvious, refusing to admit they'd come to this point and that this time it was really over without having even begun.

That night, when he'd had no tears left to cry, he'd sat alone in the silent Antarctic night, his face expressionless and his mind blank.

He couldn't remember much of what had happened in the next few days. It had been like the journey of a drunk man who woke up from an alcohol-induced stupor after a few days of not knowing what he'd done or where he'd gone, except bits and pieces, although he couldn't recall if he'd dreamt or lived them for real. Those few days that had preceded his departure from Metropolis had been spent in a daze, packing his stuff, thinking of Lois, checking out his apartment, thinking of Lois, dealing with all the taxes and papers, thinking of Lois, reliving that night over and over, thinking of Lois, thinking of Lois, thinking of Lois…

His awareness of the events that had happened around that time started only after his parents had taken him back to Smallville with them, whereas the rare memories that came back to him from those last few days in Metropolis had manifested themselves to him in frequent nightmares. Until he'd seen the despair he felt mirroring itself in his mother's eyes, and he'd decided he couldn't let his grief have such an impact on his parents; he'd decided to leave.

So no, he didn't want to start again on the whole partnership idea; last time had been too painful. *Was* still too painful. Working alone was safer; at least he could preserve his loneliness and avoid the risk of falling in love again.

*Again*? As if that was possible, when he'd been thinking about Lois every day for six months, when he could remember every expression of her face as if they were still seeing each other every day, as if she was there, in front of him, at the back of this almost empty coffee house…

As if?!

He closed his eyes, briefly, praying for her image to leave him and stop playing tricks on him; but when he opened them again, the mirage was still there, dark pools in its eyes, colour-drained cheeks, and Clark's super senses picked up the sound of a racing heartbeat.

But…

Mirages weren't supposed to have a heartbeat!

A sudden shiver ran through him as he stood still, unable to move, frozen into place, and watched the origin of his sudden unease look frantically for an escape. But it couldn't be… *she* couldn't be…

He was experiencing a weird feeling, something new… no, not new, he corrected. Something experienced long ago and now buried deep inside him, something that had waited until this moment to bubble up back to the surface of his subconscious and grasp at his senses, something he hadn't been able to feel for months. A rush of adrenaline coursed through his whole body, making his head spin and leaving him slightly dizzy; an abrupt acceleration of his heartbeat, knots tying themselves in the centre of his chest.

No mirage.

She was here, in the flesh, in front of him, barely twenty feet away from where he was standing at the entrance of the cafe.

His first thought was to rush towards her and envelop her in a hug, eager to feel this physical contact with her that he'd missed so much, eager to feel this undecipherable connection between them, but some intuitive survival instinct prevented him, allowing him only to stare; every second, with each blink of his eyes, he expected her image to disappear, but each time she was still there.

Her darting eyes finally met his and he felt like he'd been struck by a thunderbolt when they locked, aware of the danger she represented yet unable to tear his gaze away from her. The outside world was so far away now, the noise of Max's voice had long ago faded in the background, lost somewhere in that distant concept of the atmosphere surrounding them.

Time stood completely still for both of them as Max advanced on Lois and started to make the introductions. The young man had no idea of the scene that was playing in front of his eyes and had he been aware of what was happening in those two people's minds, where a cascade of emotions and never forgotten memories were freely resurfacing, anger succeeding sadness succeeding surprise, he would have thought twice before pronouncing the words that brought them both back to Earth.

"Lois, let me introduce you to Jerome Kane, he works for a local newspaper and has been assigned to investigate Jeremy's murder; Kane, I won't even ask if you've heard of the famous Ms Luthor."

This time Lois didn't even try to hide a sharp intake of breath.

Jerome Kane?

She briefly wondered if this could be a look-alike, but the idea was dismissed as soon as it had formed in her mind. She'd seen the barely pent-up emotions in his eyes when he'd spotted her and their gazes had locked, the same emotions that were nakedly plastered on her face and were progressively replaced with apprehension. His look on her spoke clearly of recognition, she couldn't doubt it.

Jerome Kane!

To think she'd read two excerpts of his work today and hadn't had a clue he was her long lost partner, Clark Kent. Suddenly an avalanche of questions flooded her; what was he doing here? Why did Max call him Jerome Kane? No, strike that, why did *everyone* know him as Jerome Kane? Had he known he was going to meet her when he'd followed Max to this cafe?

That last one was easy to answer, at least. The shock in his eyes had been unmistakable, and she was probably the last person he'd expected to see here in Paris, three thousand miles away from Metropolis and the ruins of the Daily Planet building.

Three thousand miles away from the ruins of their friendship.

Her jaw tightly clenched as she bit back the spiky words that she'd wanted so much to pronounce for months but which had never come out. They couldn't talk, not here, not now, not with Max listening to their every word. Taking a mental relaxing breath that made her feel even worse, she extended a trembling hand towards him.

"Nice to meet you," she murmured half-heartedly, her steady voice a sharp contrast to her shaky gesture.

Clark, still dazed by the sensations that seeing her was provoking in him, didn't answer nor react. Hearing Max calling Lois 'Ms Luthor' had made him wince despite his desperate attempt at controlling his reactions. Being once again confronted with confirmation that this appalling name was linked to Lois's was more than he could cope with, and the pain it evoked in him was impossible to hide, especially from her.

He was vaguely aware of Max's insistent stare upon him and that he ought to do something, *say* something to get out of the trap closing itself upon him and swallowing him entirely into the whirlwind of unspoken words, this ocean that now lay between them and kept them apart forever. He opened his mouth but no sound came out.

Max loudly cleared his throat, visibly annoyed by this unexpected behaviour from the man he'd just brought here and completely clueless at the reasons for such a reaction, and nudged Clark's shoulder.

Barely breathing, Clark took her hand in his, the contact sending an uncontrolled and violent shiver through his spine.

God, it'd been such a long time since he'd touched her.

Held her.

"Am I missing something, here, guys?" Max asked impatiently, bringing them both back to the reality of their surroundings. "Do you already know each other from somewhere?" His gaze travelled alternatively from Lois to Clark before eventually pausing on their still joined hands.

"Ah… no," Lois answered, finally breaking the eye contact with Clark. "I'm just… surprised. I ran into a few stories by Mr Kane this afternoon, and I was planning to discuss them with him over the notes we have on this investigation, since I gathered he doesn't believe in the accidents' theory either," she explained. She preferred not to involve Max in this, especially since she still didn't know how to react to what was happening, and letting this naturally curious guy in on it wouldn't help her in any way to sort out the jumble of thoughts that were running in her mind.

"I'm afraid Kane here isn't keen on the idea of having a partner," Max objected, turning to Clark and throwing a questioning glance at him.

"I… ah… I… ah… I just heard so much about your work, Ms… La… ah… Ms Luthor." The name was almost strangled in his throat. "I'm glad to finally meet you," he recited automatically in a monotone, his eyes never leaving her face.

Lois let go of Clark's hand, the faint tingle of broken contact where his fingertips had brushed against her skin still ticklish from their lingering caress. She sat back in the booth, grateful for the support of the comfortable seat, and reached for the files in her bag with shaking hands. She took advantage of her task to hide her flushed face behind her hair and attempt to get her racing heartbeat under control, while a completely clueless Max sat in front of her, dragging her former partner in tow and making him settle beside him.

***

Clark watched Lois's slender figure disappear around the corner of the corridor and he released a small sigh. Sitting here across from her was sheer torture when he couldn't talk to her or even show her how much it meant to him to see her again, tell her how long he'd been hoping for this moment but had always thought it would never happen. But his words had stayed bottled up in his throat, and he'd had to see her suffer through the evening, watching her tear up that napkin until there remained nothing but tiny pieces scattered around her empty coffee cup. It was clear enough that she wished she could be anywhere but here, and seeing him didn't release the same emotions in her as it did in him. No, on the rare moments when their gazes had crossed and locked, he'd spotted the uneasiness and fear in her eyes before she had time to protect herself with the blank mask of indifference.

He briefly wondered which was worse, but it wasn't worth dwelling over. Both were reactions he'd never expected from her, and he couldn't help but notice that she'd been mostly ignoring him throughout their discussion with Max. She'd used their source as a mediator between them, addressing her words only to him and avoiding looking directly at Clark when she had to clarify something for his benefit. It was as if she was completely oblivious to him, yet he knew this wasn't true. Her nervousness had been unmistakable, showing itself in every gesture that betrayed her state of mind: the frequent hand that had run through her hair, the way she'd lowered her eyes when she was spoken to, or the thoughtful chew on her pencil as a pretence that she was concentrating on the case.

She hadn't even reacted when Max had said he didn't know whether Laurent and Jeremy could have had a hand in the petty crimes detailed in the police reports she'd brought, nor when he'd assured them he couldn't believe for one second that his friends could be involved in a murder. Even when you needed a fix of coke or alcohol, there were always other ways to get it, and even if those weren't legal ways, it didn't reach a point where you had to murder people, he'd claimed firmly.

Generally, having a lead bring her to a dead end wasn't something Lois took particularly lightly, but here she'd just gathered her files, put them back into her purse and excused herself before walking to the bathroom.

No angry reaction.

Nothing.

She may have fooled Max, but she couldn't fool him. He'd worked with her long enough to recognise those signs and what they meant when she manifested them. Actually, he'd rarely seen her like that when they'd been working together; the only occurrence he could remember was during their first assignment as partners. That day, they'd come across her father in front of the gym where they were investigating what had seemed to be a banal sporting event and which had turned into the breaking up of an organisation to make cyborgs out of ordinary boxers. Clark had noticed Lois and her Dad had behaved around each other like strangers. Later that night, he'd observed her closely while she'd been working at her desk, or rather, pretending to work, he corrected. In reality, she'd been thinking about her childhood, as she'd admitted when she'd finally opened up to him. But even if she'd told him some things about the way her father had behaved with his wife and children, she'd always worn that mask of indifference that spoke louder than any word she could have said.

Lois was hurting, and the wound was too deep for her to express it.

Now he seemed to be on the other side of the barrier, right at the place her father had been during that investigation, and that wasn't a position he particularly fancied. He was the stranger now, some old acquaintance she'd known in the far past and had suddenly reappeared out of nowhere when she wasn't expecting him.

Some old acquaintance she could have done perfectly well without meeting.

"So, what do you think?" he heard Max ask enthusiastically. "Ain't she just great? Are you going to work together?"

Clark sighed. "I don't know," he said almost to himself. "Maybe."

This was more than true. There was nothing he could wish for more than to work with her again, re-instigate this partnership that had given him so much, but considering Lois's behaviour tonight, he wasn't sure it was such a good idea, let alone one he could contemplate at all. Things just weren't the same any more, to say the least. The weight of unspoken words was lying too forcefully on them, preventing them from stepping into dangerous territory. Of course, the way they'd left off didn't help any, and any non-work-related conversation would automatically lead to the same fight that had separated them in the first place. And now that Lois was *married* to the guy, it was bound to be even worse.

The question was, could they work together for a few days and stay completely away from personal matters? He knew he couldn't. There were too many things he wanted to tell her, too many words he felt sorry to have ever pronounced, and others he regretted having kept to himself.

Suddenly, he knew. He wanted, *needed,* to talk to her. Now. He couldn't bear having to remain silent, having to control every and all of his gestures, not being able to reveal how much it affected him to see her again, but not in the circumstances he would have wished for. Reaching a decision motivated more by a primal impulse than by reason itself, he got up hastily and slid out of the booth, telling Max he had an urgent phone call to make and walking away before his companion could reply.

***

Clark entered the corridor just in time to see Lois reach the other end and turn to the bathroom door.

"Lois!" he called to her, unable to suppress the shiver that ran through him as the name he hadn't pronounced for months ran on his tongue, a sweet caress to his ear.

She froze and his enhanced vision allowed him to notice her knuckles turning white as she gripped the door handle a little more tightly than necessary.

"Lois," he repeated, more weakly, this time, like a plea. He took a few tentative steps towards her, almost afraid to scare her away, and stopped abruptly a few feet away from her as he sensed rather than saw her back muscles stiffen sharply. "Lois…"

"Go away," she whispered, her voice almost cracking but still holding a strength that allowed no denial. She was leaning her forehead on the door, her eyes closed and her body tensing with each one of his repetitions of her name.

Her rejection sent a stab of pain through his chest, yet he stubbornly refused to walk away now. His hand reached out but some invisible force prevented him from touching her at the last moment, his fingers stopping a hair's-breadth away from her shoulder.

Lois shivered as the warmth of his hand hovered over her clavicle. There was nothing she wished for more than to feel the sensation of his touch. And there was nothing she dreaded more. She could imagine the hurt that the firmness in her tone had provoked in him, even if she had her back to him and couldn't see his face. But she knew him enough to be aware that his hesitation to touch her was an indication of his fear of being rejected again. She didn't know how she'd react if he actually closed the distance between them: her body was aching for his touch, but her mind was fighting against it.

Unable to stand his closeness any longer, she entered the bathroom without a glance towards Clark and closed the door behind her.

***

Clark stood rooted to the spot, staring at the door that had just closed upon him. She didn't want to talk to him, she didn't want to be near him, she didn't even want to look him in the eye.

The scene replayed over and over in his head, and each time her strangled words resonated with a renewed intensity, reopening a wound that had never healed.

'Go away,' she'd said.

It had been worse than a demand, it had been a plea.

And it *hurt*.

This time he knew for sure that the rift between them would never disappear, and seeing her was probably something he could have wished had never happened. At least before tonight he could have believed that someday they could patch things up and go back to the strong friendship they'd shared, but now… now it was impossible to conceive of such a notion. Lois's reaction wasn't something he'd been prepared for, and now he wouldn't even have his hope to help him to go on. Nothing remained out of their broken relationship.

He slowly walked back to their table and sat with an audible sigh.

"Bad news?"

"Huh?" He raised his head at Max's question.

"Your phone call. Did the person you talked to give you bad news? You look kind of upset."

"Oh." Clark's gaze fell on the hand laying on his arm in a sympathetic gesture. He knew this man meant no harm and just wanted to help, but he didn't need any sympathy right now. He needed to be alone. He wondered whether he couldn't just make his goodbyes and leave the cafe before Lois returned from the bathroom — *if* she ever returned. Maybe it would be better for both of them to avoid another painful confrontation, even with their source's presence. Sometimes surreptitious glances could be much more significant than spoken words, and he wasn't keen on facing Lois's eyes again.

"Hey, buddy, you look like you've just been hit by a ton of bricks. Want to talk about it?"

Clark took a deep breath before turning to face Max again. "No," he said as calmly as he could. "I'm all right. Just a bit tired, I guess," he went on as he got up from the booth. "Listen, would you mind if we just called it a night? I need to go home and — "

"What about Lois?" Max interjected. "That's kind of rude of you to leave like that without a word to her."

Clark threw a sad look towards the corridor. "As if she'd care," he murmured before leaving the coffee house.

***

Lois leaned on the bathroom door, breathing laboriously. Fortunately the heavy wooden barrier muted most of the sounds of the cafe, and she was grateful for the calm it offered, and for the physical distance it put between Clark and herself.

Her hand automatically went up to the shoulder he'd almost touched a few seconds ago, and she closed her eyes, feeling hot tears threaten to overwhelm her. Any attempt at getting her erratic heartbeat under control was in vain. Each time she managed to breathe somewhat more calmly she remembered that the reason for her anxious state was right out there behind that door, and the shivers took hold of her body in an even more violent assault. She reached for the tap with trembling hands and splashed some water on her flushed face, wishing she'd wake up and realise this was all a dream… and at the same time, desperately wishing it was real.

Clark was here. Oh God, Clark was here. All those months when she'd frequently thought about him, wondering where he was and what he was doing, or whether he was still alive, aching to see him again… and tonight he was here.

And she'd pushed him away, she acknowledged painfully.

She didn't really know what had happened back in the corridor, except that all of her wishes to talk to him in private had sunk under some blind fear she couldn't analyse. She rejected that notion — she was never afraid of anything. When she'd spotted him entering the cafe, and after her initial reaction to run away as fast as she could, she'd been wishing she could find some way to get rid of Max, if only just for a moment, so that they could talk or at least acknowledge each other's presence. But what had she just done instead? She'd turned her back on this chance when Clark had offered it to her.

Of course, having to act as if she'd been sitting in front of a stranger called Jerome Kane hadn't helped any. At first, she'd had to think quickly and play along: it would have been awkward to explain how Lois Luthor knew Jerome Kane, when she wasn't supposed to even have heard of the man.

Clark was probably grateful she hadn't blown his secret, if she went by his blatant attempt — and, she had to say, failure — at maintaining some semblance of normality. So she'd taken the hint and postponed her questions until they could have a real talk.

<Oh, five minutes ago you told him to go away and now you want to talk to him?> the annoying little voice of her conscience asked accusingly.

She sighed, not knowing how to honestly answer. A part of her, that same part of her that had been ruling back in the corridor, wanted to run and not look back, forget about him for good and go on with her life…

<Life? What life?> the voice enquired. <The life your so-called husband is trying to lock you up in? Is that what you're aiming at? Do you really want to turn your back on what you've always stood for? Do you really want to turn your back on Lois Lane?>

True, running away right now would close Lois Lane's book for good. Clark was a part of her life that she had never wanted to ignore or erase, and letting him go had been one of the mistakes she regretted the most.

She needed to talk to him, to know that their relationship hadn't turned cold like their last fight had seemed to suggest.

His words at Perry's retirement party, where he had accused her of giving up on the Planet without even trying to find out who had been behind the building's explosion, had been harsh; she certainly hadn't deserved them. And then there had been the stinging comment about her job probably being a lot more enjoyable than the 'boring routine' offered by the old newsroom. She still resented his words; how could a greenhorn who'd been working in Metropolis and the serious journalism business for barely a year understand how much the Planet meant to her?

On the other hand, she was well aware that he'd been carried away by the still fresh wound of his rejection combined with the shock that Perry's early retirement represented for them all. But even if he'd had a reason for being so aggressive that night, nothing could forgive the last words he'd spat out at her.

'Go get in bed with the devil,' he'd said viciously.

Tears threatened again as she remembered the coldness in his eyes before he'd turned away from her. Never had she thought that her gentle, *caring* partner and best friend was capable of such harshness, especially towards her.

Later, when Perry had been drunk enough to call it a night, she'd offered Clark a ride back to his apartment, hoping they could clear the stormy atmosphere between them, but he'd given her the cold shoulder again.

Her anger resurfaced with a vengeance as she recalled his stubbornness and unwillingness to talk things through. Actually she'd been even angrier at herself at that time, for letting his opinion be so important to her. What did it matter whether he appreciated her choice or not? Did it make a difference in the way she'd handle her next decisions?

If it ever had, it didn't any more. Not because she didn't care, but because it was too late. And because he'd been appallingly right about a lot of things.

She wanted to patch things up between them, go back to the friendship they'd shared before Lex appeared on the scene, make him understand that whatever the mistakes they'd both made in the past, they could get over their fight and move on, their friendship growing stronger with the obstacles instead of being reduced to ashes.

Was it too late for that, too? She hoped not, and she'd take the chance that was offered to her tonight. She took a deep breath and exited the bathroom, almost running back to the cafe's main room…

… and stopped short as she spotted only Max at their table.

He was looking towards the door with a frown, and Lois heard him mutter a few cursing words under his breath. Striding quickly back to the booth, she planted herself in front of him and cleared her throat. "Where's Cl… um… Mr Kane?" she enquired, the quiver in her voice betraying her sudden disquiet.

The young man shrugged, nodding vaguely towards the door before taking another sip on his beer. "Gone," he stated the obvious after a few seconds.

"What do you mean, he's gone?" Lois asked weakly, the lump in her throat obstructing her intonation.

"I mean he said he had to make a phone call, he came back, looked kinda funny, said he was tired and wanted to go home, and left," Max said matter-of-factly.

Lois seized him by the collar, her eyes taking on an unusual glow that shone more brightly under the artificial lights of the coffee house. "*Where* *is* *he*?" she asked with renewed energy, a mixture of anger and fear pulsing through every fibre of her being and transmitting itself to her urgent question.

"Man, that's one strong grip you have here," Max remarked, looking down at the large piece of his shirt wrinkled in her hand.

"You've got to have an address, a phone number, *anything*!"

"Geez, I hadn't realised it was so important for you to see Kane again. I didn't think you two had really hit it off for the past hour or so. I mean it's obvious that neither of you are really keen on sharing information so I don't see the point in — "

"Max!" Lois cut him off, rolling her eyes.

"No address."

She released her grip on his shirt and turned fast on her heels, throwing a "See you around!" over her shoulder.

"Hey!" Max called back, outraged, and waited for her to come back near him to whisper, "You can't leave me here, what with the threats I got and all, I'm not sure it's — "

"Max, you're a security guard, aren't you?" she interrupted.

"Um… yeah."

"Then behave like one." And she was out the door.

***

Lois found herself on the pavement, panting more as a result of her anxious state than from real exertion. Looking around her, she couldn't find any clue that could tell her where Clark had gone. And the fact that she was probably responsible for his abrupt departure was progressively sinking in, making her want to cry in frustration. It had taken herthis long to see him again, and in one stupid second she'd completely blown it. Of course he had gone! How could he not when she'd so bluntly rejected him, sending him away when she was aching for him to take her in his arms and hug her like he'd done so many times in the past? Of course he'd preferred to leave rather than face her when she'd made it clear she didn't want to be near him. If he only knew…

Skittish, *dim-witted* Lois, who was only able to hurt the people she loved and get hurt in return, who always made her decisions too late, when she didn't make the wrong ones straight away, who was so arrogant that she couldn't let her best friend make the first step to patch things up between them. No, it had to be *her* choice as for where and when they'd talk!

She let out a discouraged sob as a part of her mind argued it wasn't true and she had needed the time alone in that gloomy bathroom. Even if now it was too late.

The sound of a childish giggle made her raise her head towards the other side of the street and her breath caught in her throat as she saw the object of her thoughts talking to a little kid. She observed the scene from a distance, relief washing over her at the realisation that Clark was still around and her mistake wasn't beyond repair.

When the boy ran away to rejoin his friend, she advanced carefully, bracing herself for the encounter.

***

Clark sat on an isolated bench facing the cafe where his whole life had toppled over, his gaze a little fuzzy and his head still spinning from the experience. Being outside this place, with a light breeze refreshing him, had been what he'd needed, and he couldn't bring himself to leave entirely yet. Despite everything that had happened back there, there was still some tiny hope within him that he would at least spot her when she'd get out, and watch her walk away.

Probably for the last time.

Seeing her again had been like a dream come true, something he'd been wishing for so long… but unfortunately the dream had turned itself into a nightmare. Right now he was wishing he'd never agreed to follow Maxime Bonneau to this cafe, so that he wouldn't have had to suffer through those long meaningful glances he and Lois had exchanged, and, moreover, that shameful scene in the back corridor where he'd had to acknowledge that she didn't want to see him ever again.

He'd often wondered how both of them would react, were they to meet by accident, even if he'd always told himself this would never happen. In his imagination, they'd make a clean sweep of the past and start their relationship all over again, on a new basis. In his imagination, there would be no spandex-clad superhero to keep Lois's fantasies away from him. In his imagination, there would be no Lex Luthor to keep them apart. In his imagination, they'd grow closer with each day, their friendship easily turning into something much more…

… in his imagination.

But true life was very different from his wildest dreams, and Lois hadn't reacted the way he'd wished for. No, she'd purely and simply rejected him when he'd tried to approach her, sending him to Hell as he'd murmured her name, and if he'd touched her she'd have probably winced, if not jerked away from him.

Maybe it was for the best they hadn't met before. Maybe it should have remained that way, and he could have continued to wonder… what if?

Now he knew, and the knowledge didn't make him feel any better.

The sound of roaring laughter made him raise his head and he spotted two young boys engaged in a game of street soccer on the pavement with an old scruffy ball that had probably seen more than one generation of players.

He observed the kids for a while, their screams and giggles reverberating against the buildings' hard concrete, their ball bouncing on the pavement and up into the air as they energetically kicked it. One of them was proudly exhibiting a t-shirt from a famous soccer team and was skilfully reproducing his sports heroes' best moves, the ball twirling so fast between his expert legs that the other child could only stare, each and every one of his attempts at stealing it completely in vain.

Suddenly the ball escaped the young prodigy's feet and landed on Clark's shin before rebounding up in the air and behind the bench. He watched, amused, as an uneasy silence settled between the two children and the one that looked a bit older elbowed the other, pushing him forward. The youngest approached timidly as Clark retrieved the ball from under the bench and handed it to him with a forgiving smile.

"Excuse my brother, he's convinced he's a champ and he doesn't always pay attention to his passes," the boy explained, shifting awkwardly and looking down with a sheepish grin.

Clark bent down slightly and caught sight of the other one who was hiding behind a tree a few feet away. At his companion's words, his gaze hardened and he crossed his arms in front of him with an expression that promised revenge.

"It's okay, don't worry. Your brother and you are playing pretty well. Who knows, maybe some day you guys will be playing in a national team," Clark said with a wink that was rewarded with a broad smile filled with wonder from both kids. The young boy then ran back towards his awaiting brother, babbling so fast in his excitement that even Clark could barely make out what he was saying, although he supposed it had to have something to do with career plans. He chuckled at their eagerness as they walked away, their chatter still reaching his ears through the night's wind.

But his light chortle stopped short as he caught a movement from the corner of his eye. His whole body tensed and he felt the hackles rising at the back of his neck.

Lois.

Lois was only a few feet away, watching him, observing him. Clark sat there, frozen to the spot, afraid to even breathe as she slowly made her way towards him.

***

"Hey," she said quietly, sitting on the bench beside him.

"Hey," he answered, not even bothering to look up.

They sat side by side for a while, staring at the couple of kids who had resumed their soccer game a little further up the street.

"Is it really safe for such young little boys to be out in this neighbourhood at this time of night?" Lois asked, nodding towards them.

Clark couldn't help but chuckle bitterly, shaking his head in disbelief. "Oh no, Lois. *You*, of all people, telling me what's dangerous."

She gave him an embarrassed laugh. "Well, it's just that this area reminds me too much of Metropolis's South side."

"This is probably one of Paris's most secure neighbourhoods," Clark said softly after a while. "Very few tourists, only Parisian people who are trying to live and are facing adversity with a lot of courage and dignity."

They lapsed back into a silence that soon extended to an uncomfortable pause until Lois let out a deep sigh, reclaiming Clark's attention.

"I'm sorry," she finally breathed out, her voice so low that Clark had to strain to hear it.

He averted his gaze to the darkened sky above them, afraid to meet her eyes and get a glimpse of the secrets they held. "What for?"

"Oh… for a lot of things. For blowing up at you, for a start."

Clark briefly wondered if she was referring to her reaction when he'd tried to approach her in the corridor earlier, or to their last fight before he'd left Metropolis, but he didn't dare ask. "I guess… you had your reasons," he said slowly, weighing his every word.

Lois nodded her head slightly, accepting his admission, but she remained silent, reluctant to interrupt him.

Another uncomfortable quiescence settled and stretched between them, punctuated only by the night's muted sounds.

"Lois?" Clark asked softly after a while. "Why did you change your mind?"

She let out a long shuddering breath and shrugged. "I don't know. Just… thinking things over back there made me realise I didn't want to walk away. I didn't want to act like a coward," she murmured.

Clark winced at her words, aware of the unspoken accusation they held, and he looked down as they fell back into a sore silence charged with unanswered questions.

"So, what brought you into this story?" he asked after another few minutes in a new attempt to start a safe conversation.

"David. He's an editor at LNN, and Max gave him the tip on the condition he sent just one reporter. Dave immediately thought of me, and the rest is history. I didn't think I'd run into you, though," she added as an afterthought.

"Yeah," he chuckled softly. "Neither did I."

"Clark, if you prefer we don't work together, I'd understand and I — "

He turned his head towards her. "No, it's not that, Lois. I mean if you're okay with it, then I guess it's — "

"I'd be happy to work with you again," she said firmly, looking into his eyes for any sign of reticence on his part, but finding none. She hesitated for a second before whispering, "I miss you."

Clark swallowed at the truthfulness he heard in her barely admitted words. "I miss you, too," he said, his voice shuddering with emotion.

For a short moment, their eyes locked and they started to show their bare souls to each other, as if trying to convey some secret longing to be together.

Lois was first to break the eye contact, uncomfortable with the significance it seemed to hold and how it called into question everything that had happened between them before Clark had left.

"Clark?" she asked timidly after a moment. "I'd like to know… why?"

"Why what?" he asked without looking up at her.

"Come on, you and I both know what I'm talking about," she said and observed how his shoulders heaved with the sigh he hadn't been able to hide. "I need to know. To understand," she insisted as he remained silent.

"Do you mind if we walk?"

"Clark!" she protested at his complete dismissal of her question.

"Lois, if you really want us to talk about that, then I'd rather we did it somewhere quieter," he answered, nodding towards the two or three men sitting alone at the terrace of the cafe.

"What? You're afraid I'm not going to like it and I might yell at you?" she asked him half-jokingly.

Clark, however, didn't smile. He hadn't foreseen her question, and therefore was worried about what her reaction might be when she learnt his only reason for leaving had been her upcoming marriage to Luthor. He couldn't tell her that, it was out of the question. It would be embarrassing for her and humiliating for him; no, he'd learned his lesson after his confession to her, and he wouldn't make the same mistake again.

"So, where do you want us to go?" Lois enquired impatiently.

Clark looked helplessly around them, raking an exasperated hand through his hair, before his eyes fell on the thick hawthorn hedge behind the fence that ringed the street. "How about the Parc des Buttes Chaumont?" he proposed. "It's a pretty nice one and it's not crowded with tourists like the rest of the city is."

Lois's face took on a surprised expression. "You bet it's not at this time of the night," she muttered, taking a look at the impressive fence. Turning back to Clark, she was about to tell him the park in question had probably closed long hours ago but her partner's mischievous grin and the almost imperceptible movement of his eyes towards the top of the barrier left her speechless. His scheme was only too clear.

She crossed her arms over her breasts and made a face. "Clark!"

He shrugged. "Why not? It wouldn't be the first time…"

She shook her head, a small smile playing about her lips. "When did you lose your ethics, partner?" she teased.

"Oh, I just spent too much time with you back in Metropolis, and you corrupted me." Her heart made a flip flop as he grinned broadly at her, something she'd thought she'd never see again.

"*That* would explain it," she answered with a wink. "After you, then." She gestured for the high gate, feeling like an eager kid getting ready to do something forbidden but incredibly exciting.

Clark cast a worried glance around him and Lois had to stifle a giggle. "The coast is clear, Clark, stop trying to impersonate James Bond, okay?" she said with an exasperated sigh that failed to disguise her amusement.

In the dim light provided by a nearby lamp, she thought for a second that he'd stuck out his tongue at her, but the idea was dismissed instantly, almost too farfetched for her to consider seriously. Although… She remembered Clark had never missed an occasion to tease her when they'd been working together in Metropolis, his playfulness with her one of the characteristics she loved the most in their symbiotic partnership. His sudden taunting attitude despite the gaping rift between them was a reassuring line to which she was holding on, a way for her to cope with the unknown brought by their broken friendship.

She focused her gaze back on his visible concentration as he took hold of the gate's bars and stepped a practised foot onto the handle, lifting himself off the ground in one easy, fluid movement. Before she'd had time to blink, he was letting himself fall on the other side, nimbly landing on his feet before he crouched to the area of soft grass nearby. He stayed there, content to simply watch her calculate her strategy to imitate his moves.

Lois thoughtfully studied the fence, secretly hoping to find a gaping hole through which she could slide, but her inspection brought her back to the high gate and Clark's amused expression within seconds. Cursing against this stupid universe's law that made women wear tightly fitted, tailored suits for the sake of what men dared to call femininity, she hitched up her skirt in a few jerky movements and started climbing.

Intent on her task, she failed to see that Clark was now staring at her, his mouth slightly open, his cheeks flushed, and his eyes considerably darkened. He swallowed and let himself lie back, completely still, prying his eyes away from the tantalising flash of her naked thighs and closing his eyes to force the image out of his mind.

Lois nimbly leapt and landed near him, apparently completely oblivious to the startling effect the rush of air it caused had on him. She straightened her clothes without a look at the recumbent form of her former partner, who, eyes tightly shut and breathing ragged, was fighting for some semblance of control and sanity. His senses were too well aware of the faint fragrance of her perfume mingled with the scent of the thin layer of mist covering the grass under him, and it was threatening to overwhelm him.

How could he have forgotten about the constant thin line on which he'd been walking when he was with her in Metropolis, always having to watch his every reaction, lest she notice his adoration.

For an endless moment his body remained tense: only the small part of him that stayed aware and recognised his danger preventing him from floating a couple of feet off the ground.

"Clark?"

He forced his eyes open when he heard Lois's voice beyond the buzzing noise in his ears; her face gradually came back into focus, and he darted a quick but wary glance at her thighs now covered again with the cream fabric of her skirt. He released a small sigh of relief before he raised his gaze back to her questioning face.

"Are you all right?" she asked, a note of concern creeping into her voice. Clark had been lying on the grass for several seconds, unmoving, as if in some sort of trance only he could shake off, before returning to the reality of the park. She briefly reviewed all sorts of faintness and their possible origins, but his returning smile reassured her.

"I'm okay, Lois. I just…" He trailed off, desperately seeking for a plausible excuse to his odd behaviour and finding none. "I just… fell asleep for a few seconds," he finished lamely, beating himself up for the lack of conviction that was so obvious even in his tone.

"Well, for someone asleep, you seemed rather tense," she commented, raising her eyebrows at him. "That must have been some nightmare."

He nodded slightly, preferring to drop the subject to avoid any further probing that would force him to relive the moment, and got up on his feet in one swift move.

"Clark, if you're tired, we could go back," Lois protested weakly, wanting to give him the choice but at the same time hoping desperately he wouldn't take it.

"Oh! No, I'm not tired… unless… unless you want to go back?" he asked hesitantly.

She shook her head, walking a few steps to close the distance between them, and was rewarded with another bright smile.

***

They strolled along the fence for a while, the silence that had settled between them only interspersed by the roaring engine of the occasional car driving on the street below, before the gravelled road lead them away from the Parisian night's noises and lights and towards a darker side of the park.

Lois became suddenly aware of the hypnotic atmosphere surrounding them as they plunged into the thick darkness, and she took a worried glance behind her at the quickly vanishing lights, the night already closing itself upon them. Somewhere above them, an owl screeched, the noise followed by the panicked rustling of its wings brushing against the leaves of a nearby tree. Lois started and the motion brought her in contact with Clark. She grasped his arm, his closeness a reassurance against the hostile shadows that pressed around them.

Clark looked down at the shivering woman clutching at him and his hand came over hers of its own volition, the tenderness of the gesture emphasised by its soothing effect.

Her eyes rose to the darkened contours of his face and she gave him a thankful nod before he let her go and began to walk again; but she scurried to his side and slipped her hand back in his. His gaze dropped on their joined hands and for a split second, Lois thought he'd disentangle himself from her, but he held her tighter with a comforting squeeze on her quivering fingers.

No word was spoken for another while, both being content with the silent communication passing between them through the simple contact, until they reached a fork from which two identical paths started, their gravelled surface losing themselves in the darkness only a few feet away from them.

"Which way?" Lois asked, her voice low and soft, a silky caress to Clark's ear.

He pointed his finger towards the path leading up onto an old brick bridge; it spanned high across a branch of the lake whose quiet lapping was the only murmur troubling the peace of the deserted park. Lois warily eyed the bleak-looking edifice, her grip on his hand tightening as she nodded towards the small wooden sign nailed up on the parapet. It read 'Pont des Suicides'.

"Do I want to know why it's called that?" she asked with a frown.

"Oh… Well, it earned its name in the second half of the nineteenth century, just after the park was laid out. During its first years, this bridge was used by desperate people who wanted to end their life; when the people in charge of the park realised what was happening, they had the parapet heightened, but the bridge kept its name, probably in memory of the lives lost here."

"Geez, this is one cheerful place you brought me to," Lois remarked dryly.

Clark laughed at the growl in her voice. "If you want there's another footbridge on the other side, but it's a suspended one, and it sways slightly with the breeze. It was closed for years before they fixed it and opened it again for the public. They still close it down though, when the wind is high."

"Okay, then, Suicide Bridge it is," Lois concluded, tugging him with her as she moved decisively forward.

Clark fell in step with her and, still hand in hand, they followed the path that continued up the hill. It ended in a flight of stairs hewn into the hard rock that composed the island which loomed up from the lake below.

Up there on the promontory, a small temple rose up majestically, its stylish columns arranged in a circle and supporting a small dome. The monument overlooked the whole park and offered a sumptuous view of the North of Paris, with the lit up basilica of Montmartre on the foreground and the high towers of St Denis behind. Above them, a multitude of stars shone in the cloudless sky.

Lois let go of Clark's hand, the loss of contact sending a cold shiver through her spine, and lightly leaned her hands on the wrought iron guardrail. "Wow," she breathed after a while. "This is so…"

"Beautiful, isn't it?" Clark completed softly.

She nodded, not taking her eyes off the wonderful horizon.

"I like to come here when I feel down or happy. This place seems to understand people's moods," he said with a distant look, as if lost in his memories. "I come here and stand staring straight across the skyline for hours; I just seem to share everything I feel, happiness or sadness, with this place. I can't understand why, but it has felt like my only home over the past six months."

Lois could hear his voice was losing its steadiness as he spoke and realised that he was on the verge of tears. He was appallingly homesick, even if he'd never admit it. All she wanted to do was take him in her arms and kiss the sadness away, tell him everything was going to be all right and that she'd always be there for him. She heard herself say, her voice quavering, "And now? Are you feeling down?"

He turned his head towards her and they both realised how close to each other they were standing. "No," he whispered. "Definitely happy." He could feel her breath on his lips, warm and inviting, a few bare inches separating him from the sweetest of heavens…

<Not a good idea,> his over-protecting conscience scolded, bringing him back to reality with a hard thump.

… a few bare inches he couldn't allow himself to cross.

A shuddering sigh escaped his mouth as he stepped back and leaned more heavily on the guardrail, the motion putting some well-needed space between them but leaving an even greater void inside him, forcing him to face the complete solitude he found himself in, her presence not even bringing him some soothing solace. Being forlorn hadn't really bothered him before; actually, he hadn't realised that was what he'd become, but now that Lois was beside him he was feeling even more lonely and empty than without her; as if there was some invisible barrier between them that he couldn't cross, both physically and emotionally; a door that had just been slammed in his face.

Taking a look at her from the corner of his eye, he noted that her face wasn't revealing anything regarding what had almost happened. The same mask she'd been wearing in the cafe was back in place, having replaced the warmth he'd spotted in her eyes during the short intimate moment they'd just shared. She was silent, her frozen gaze focused on a faraway dot beyond the buildings and hills they could see from here.

The silence that had settled between them was charged with an electricity that kept them apart even more than words could have, and the weight of their undefined relationship was getting more and more uncomfortable. Back in Metropolis, Clark hadn't ever given it much thought. His feelings for Lois had been present of course, but then there had been hope for them, and they hadn't needed to put up real boundaries of any kind. Now… now he could only struggle not to show how much he cared for her, how much he wanted to take her in his arms here and now, without thinking about the consequences of his actions and words.

It had taken every ounce of his willpower not to kiss her. Even though he'd been more than aware of the situation and how it made any kind of closeness impossible, a part of him had desperately wanted to shut down his conscience and follow his feelings; that was the part of him that was now downcast by his incredible loneliness.

The feeling had been hidden within him ever since he'd left Metropolis, he realised, constantly eating at him like some invisible evil force, insidiously sneaking into his life and leaving him even more desperate each day, before hitting him full force now that Lois was beside him but unreachable.

He made a frantic effort to suppress the gloom that was starting to get hold of him yet again, just like every other night. "So, did you stay in touch with the Planet gang?" he asked, swallowing back the lump in his throat and hoping she would take his lead and engage in a light conversation.

"Kind of," Lois answered reluctantly after a moment, her tone dreary. "Perry retired and moved out of Metropolis to live with Alice at the beach. But after a few weeks he couldn't stand the place any more and took part in I don't know how many humanitarian organisations. I think he's in Peru, now, distributing the food he managed to collect in his area."

Clark couldn't help but smile at the thought of his boss pacing about his house and unable to stay idle. Perry had always wanted to be useful, refusing this world's injustices as much as Lois and himself, rebuffing the idea of simply standing back and watching other people suffer if he could help at least a few of them in giving just a bit of his time and money.

"Jimmy refused to attend the job interview I'd obtained for him at LNN," Lois continued with a sadder note. "We were looking for an assistant researcher, and I thought he'd be interested, but he told me he already had something. It turns out that 'something' was to wash the dishes in a club on the docks," she finished with a shake of her head.

Clark knew exactly what had been behind Jimmy's refusal. His young friend had told his parents that the reason why he'd turned down that job offer was that he didn't want to work for Luthor, just like him. Jimmy had never approved of Lois's choice either, and his respect for Clark's opinion had made him wary of Luthor from the moment his friend had voiced his first reservation about the man.

"Yeah, my folks told me."

"How are they doing?"

"Well, I don't see them very often," he lied. "But we regularly call each other. You should see my phone bill, it's extortionate. They're okay. Dad's had a little difficulty keeping up with the farm lately and he had to hire an employee to help him. At first, he was rather growly about doing that, but Mom told him he had to accept that he was getting old and that it would do no good if he had an accident."

Lois smiled. She'd liked the Kents as soon as she'd met them, even when Martha had embarrassed her so much by implying they might want to share Clark's room the first time they'd been together in Smallville.

"Have you heard from Jack?" Clark enquired worriedly, interrupting her musings.

"Jack Miner?" At his nod, she went on. "Not recently. Perry told me he'd tried all he could to prove the boy was innocent, but with his criminal background, no-one believed it for a second."

"And you?"

"Me? I… I don't know what to think. I don't know any more. Lex always said it was Jack who set the bomb in the Planet's basement, but I just… I mean, Jack had always been a very nice employee, he had a good job, Perry liked him, and so did most of the staff."

"Yet he's now alone in a state prison for a crime he didn't commit."

"Clark, we're not sure he didn't commit it."

"*I* am sure." He glared at her, almost defying her to contradict him.

"Oh, come on, Clark! How could you be sure Jack is innocent? No-one was able to prove it."

"I know him," he insisted doggedly.

Lois winced almost imperceptibly. "You think you know people, you trust them, and then someday they do something that you'd never have expected of them. Look at my *supposedly* best friend, who ran out on me without even bothering to say goodbye, and never showed up again," she finished with a harsh note.

He sighed, eyeing her carefully. "Touche… Listen, Lois, I didn't run out on you — "

"Yeah? What do you call it? Running away? Chickening out? Being so upset by *my* choice that you never wanted to see me again? Or was that your way of showing me how you care?" she snapped harshly, staring angrily at him.

He lowered his eyes under her intent look, refusing to show her the hurt her words were inflicting on him. For a brief second, he thought about leaving her there to deal with her anger and unfairness where he was concerned; she might have the right to be angry, he conceded, but she couldn't project the entire fault onto him. He wasn't the only one to blame in the destruction of their friendship, he hadn't been the one to get married and put someone she despised between them, after all. But then, such a turn of tides was impossible to consider. The difference between Lois and him was that he was in love with her, and she wasn't in love with him. She could have gone on being his best friend, and he couldn't. "It was too hard, Lois. Okay, maybe I'm a coward, maybe I ran away. But it was the only way to — "

"The only way to what?" she cut him off impatiently. "Ruin our friendship?"

"You know that was never my intention; I value our friendship too much to jeopardise it. Actually, I rather saw it as a way to save it. I know it didn't turn out the way I wanted, and maybe I didn't have the best of ideas back there, but I can't undo what happened. It's no use crying over the past."

"Why did you move out of the US? I mean you could have asked for a job in any of the newspapers in New York or Los Angeles, they'd have hired you without a second thought."

"I wanted to start a new life, Lois. A life where the Planet wouldn't haunt me."

"Is that why you changed your name?"

"Yeah. Clark Kent was linked to Lois Lane, wherever he'd settle. And I…" <couldn't bear to hear your name,> he mentally completed.

"Clark, were you ashamed of our partnership? Were you ashamed of… of me?" she asked in a tiny voice.

"Lois, no!" The sharpness of his answer left her in no doubt that he was telling her the truth.

"Then why?"

He waved a hand through the air as if trying to grasp the right words. "I wanted to forget. Go on with my life like you'd done with Luth… Lex. And I knew the best way was to take on a new identity and forget I'd ever been Clark Kent."

From the corner of his eye, he saw her hand come dangerously close to his, as if to close the gap between them. His breath caught in his throat as he imagined the feel of her warm fingers entwining with his, but a brief flash of shimmering light caught his eye and shattered his fantasy. On a finger of her left hand sparkled the bright diamond of her engagement ring, next to the golden reflection of her wedding band, painful memories of a situation he'd been trying to forget.

The hurt building itself in the pit of his stomach, with this ephemeral view of the small objects and what they symbolised, reminded him too much of the distance that lay between them, that had lain between them ever since she'd said 'I do,' and of his inability to cross it. He shuddered as he visualized what his life would have become, had he stayed in Metropolis and beside her. He'd probably have experienced the same range of feelings that were taking hold of his body and mind at this present time, only worse, because witnessing Lois shifting away from him little by little would have killed him, progressively, insidiously, the insignificant details of their everyday relationship changing until nothing remained of him but an empty shell.

"I couldn't go on like that," he murmured, taking a few steps backward and shifting out of her reach.

"Like what, Clark? What is it that you couldn't bear in your life as Clark, so much that you had to forget you ever had a life in Metropolis?"

He stared blankly at her, wondering for a second if she was trying to hurt him on purpose. But her concerned expression, added to the frown that characterised her when she was missing some part of an explanation, told him otherwise. Had she forgotten his heartfelt declaration a few days before he'd left Metropolis? Did she really have no idea how difficult it was for him to imagine her with another man, let alone *see* her with this other man… and to top it all, a man he hated?

Still, something in him prevented him from telling her his reasons. It would be unfair to her to make her responsible for his wrecked life; he had no right to do that.

"Well, there was the fact that I didn't want to work for another paper in Metropolis," he said half-heartedly, already sure he wouldn't fool her. "Being hired by a rival newspaper wasn't something I — "

"Clark!" She cut him off, her tone indicating impatience. Clearly she wasn't prepared to accept his attempts at avoiding her question any longer. "Clark, *why*?"

He looked up at her, an expression of shock on his face, before he heaved a sigh and went back to staring into space. "I've always been used to moving out from time to time, discovering other places, other cultures, other people…"

Lois interrupted him with a touch of her hand on his shoulder. "The truth, Clark."

His eyes travelled from the hand lying delicately on him to the face that was looking at him sternly, and he saw the barely hidden hurt behind her insistent question. "Lois, I'm not sure that it's such a good idea to go over that again and — "

"I *need* to know." Her words were pronounced with an almost desperate urgency. "Or did I matter that little to you that you preferred to leave me out of your life?"

"Lois, I care for you. More than I've ever cared for anybody and — "

"If you really did, why did you leave?"

He averted his gaze from her again, unable to sustain her searching eyes that could so easily read his troubled thoughts. "I was scared," he stated softly.

"Scared?" Lois asked when she realised he wasn't going to say more without being prompted to. "Scared of what?"

"Scared of the future," he answered after another long silence. "Scared of what the future held for you… and for me."

"Why? What dreadful thing could the future hold for us?" Lois inquired impatiently, wondering what his point was.

"Not for *us*, Lois. For *you* and for *me*."

"Don't play on words."

"Oh, that's not playing, on the contrary. From the moment you accepted his proposal, there could be no more us."

"Clark, my marriage with Lex didn't have anything to do with our friendship."

"You're right. It didn't have anything to do with our friendship, I won't argue about that."

Lois looked down, realising his mind was certainly back to that day when he'd told her about his romantic feelings for her, feelings she hadn't been able to return… feelings she hadn't wanted to return. "I know you were hurting," she said softly after another silent pause.

His lack of reaction or answer only confirmed the truth of her statement. He was looking down at his hands, studying with an over-intense concentration the patterns his fingers were tracing on the iron banister.

"I came to see you a few days before the wedding," she said almost casually, noticing how his fingers came to an abrupt halt and his whole body seemed to tense at her words. "Yes," she continued. "Maybe it was completely thoughtless of me — or heartless, even — but I wanted you to come to the wedding. I wanted my best friend to be there."

He stared at her, his expression a mixture of disbelief and hurt. How could she? How dare she have even thought about making him go through the ordeal of sitting in the back of the church and watching her walk slowly down the aisle, dressed in a stunning wedding gown, beautiful flowers in her hair, her smiling face brightening the entire room through the thin white muslin veil… and yet knowing that she wasn't walking towards him, that her smile wasn't for him, that he wouldn't be the one to delicately remove those flowers later in the most intimate of moments… He blinked rapidly to swallow back his tears, pushing the image of her wedding out of his mind.

"Why did you have to throw our friendship out of your life?" Lois demanded forcefully.

"Lois, you'd decided you loved this man and wanted to live the rest of your life with him. You'd made your choice. I didn't have anything holding me back in Metropolis."

"How about your job? Your friends? How about… me?"

"Face it, Lois. You were getting married. Where did it leave a best friend in there? A best friend who…" <who was completely in love with you,> he wanted to say, but knew it would just complicate the situation further.

"A best friend who cared so much for me that he didn't judge it necessary to tell me he'd decided to leave," Lois finished quietly for him.

"Lois, you know that's not how — " he started, a note of annoyance sneaking its way into his voice.

She put a hand on his mouth, stopping him in mid-sentence. "No more lies, Clark. If you'd cared for me just a little you'd have at least said goodbye."

"I couldn't."

"Not even a phone call to tell me you were leaving? Not even trying to contact me afterwards to tell me you were all right? Living somewhere else, okay, but at least alive?"

"Oh come on, Lois, what did you care?!" he exploded. "What did it matter to you to know where I was or how I was coping with my life without you? I know you've always enjoyed having me under your control back at the Planet but that time is over! It's been over ever since you told me you were marrying *him*, and nothing can change that."

Lois stared at him, appalled at the twinge every one of his words created in her heart. The man in front of her was completely different from the one she'd always known. His entire being was speaking of suffering and pent-up distress, the anger of his outburst the only way for him to deal with his grief. He was offering her the image of a man deeply hurting.

The image became slightly fuzzy as she felt the hot moistness of her tears on her cheeks, and the man in front of her quit his harsh stance all at once, his acrimony replaced by a confused expression before she felt him tentatively pull her into the circle of his arms. His embrace was shy in the beginning, as if he was afraid she'd push him away, but she relaxed against him, burying her head in his shoulder and bringing him closer to her, her sobs muffled in his neck.

Clark was murmuring soothing words in her hair, restlessly caressing her back, marvelling at the feel of her body pressed so close to his. It felt so good to hug her, it had been so long. But the wetness on his t-shirt was a painful reminder that he'd made her cry, and he held her tighter to himself, slowly rocking their clasped bodies in a gentle movement, whispering how sorry he was and how much he wished he could undo the hurt he was responsible for.

When he heard her sniffles subside, he slightly pulled away from her and framed her face in his hands, looking at her with the most tender look he'd ever dared reveal. But her gaze held something other than the sadness and hurt he'd expected. It held fear. He stared at her, shocked to the core by the way she was now looking at him, but before he could even express his deep regret, she was flinging out of his embrace, turning back and running madly as far away from him as she could.

Clark stayed stock-still at her flight, his arms and chest sore from the lost contact, his mind empty as he watched her disappear through the darkness of bushes and trees, and out of his life.

***

Lois ran blindly through the park, the dancing lights of the distant street her only guide back to the world and out of an embrace that had suddenly become much too suffocating for comfort.

How many times had she been thinking about him during the past few months, recalled their friendship at the sight of an item that would suddenly bring back a set of bittersweet memories, or with infinite remorse, flipped through the pages of the old scrapbook she secretly kept, or cried herself to sleep in the dark hours of her lonely nights? How many times had she wished she'd see him again, how many times had she wanted to feel his tenderness and gentle strength?

Being held in his arms like that, sensing the concern in his reassuring words, had made her believe they'd managed to go back to the relationship they'd had before Clark had left Metropolis. After the first few months of a rather stormy working partnership, they'd grown closer to the point where physical shows of affection were common practice, whether it was a pat on the back, a peck on the forehead, or a hug like the one they'd just shared. It came naturally to them.

But this time, when Clark had pulled away from her, she'd seen the light in his eyes, that rare light that spoke of pure and unconditional love. This was something she'd been looking for all her life, something she'd never met in any of the men she'd approached, until those few seconds when her partner, her best friend Clark Kent, had displayed it for her.

And there had been that moment when he'd turned towards her and she'd thought for one silly second that he would kiss her. He'd been standing so close to her that she'd been able to feel deep within herself the tingle that preceded a kiss, and her eyelids had closed regardless of her own will. Her senses had whirled into overdrive and her mind had shut down completely. They'd reached this infinitesimal limit where she couldn't tell whether his lips had actually brushed over hers or not. It could have been so fleeting that it'd have made the touch unreal, somewhere on the frontier between dream and reality, lingering between simple closeness and real contact.

God, she'd wanted it so much… Feeling his mouth close over hers in a soft caress, yearning for the sensations that she knew lay ahead if they could forget what kept them apart, if only for a few seconds… a few *thoughtless* seconds…

That was ridiculous. Completely crazy. She wasn't in love with Clark, and therefore couldn't have wanted him to kiss her. No, it was just this whole atmosphere, a mixture of darkness and mystery that gave a romantic dimension to this place surrounding the City of Lights. Not to mention Clark and she had been feeling so lonely and so vulnerable that it would have been easy to just comfort each other this way. After all, that was what best friends were for, wasn't it?

Except that Clark and she weren't best friends any more. From the moment Clark had confessed his feelings for her six months ago, their relationship had taken an abrupt turn to a totally undefined road, and she'd lost her way regarding how she felt about him. When he'd left, she'd placed him in the same category as all the men who had claimed to be in love with her. Those were all cowards of the worst kind, persuading her with sweet talk to fall for them before leaving her hurt, deceived and feeling used. After the last time, she'd promised herself she wouldn't be wooed by gentle words and tender looks ever again. She couldn't trust those, they were too much of a distraction. But she'd fallen into the trap again, with Lex, believing him when he'd told her he loved her, letting herself be lulled by his charming promises and dreams of a perfect life together. Only to discover less than two months later that her husband had tired of her and probably kept her more as a trophy than anything else.

Clark's departure had just about confirmed her resentment towards men's sincerity regarding love. He'd claimed to be in love with her, to care for her more than anything, to have strong romantic feelings for her, and he'd left without a word. Oh, of course, her upcoming wedding to Lex most likely hadn't encouraged him to stay around her, but he could at least have told her he was alive. Somewhere else, but alive.

No, Clark had simply flown out of Metropolis, leaving behind his friends and family and home to start a whole new life in a foreign country, under a fake name.

A new life without her.

Of course, their last fight had left nothing for them to talk about, but like she'd told him at the time, if he really cared for her as much as he claimed, then he should accept her decision and be delighted at the life of happiness that was starting for her. Boy, had she really told him that?

Another surge of tears obscured her eyes as she realised the selfish nature of her arguments, and how much Clark must have been upset about them. Because after the look she'd just spotted in his eyes, she couldn't have doubts any more.

Clark Kent was still in love with her.

Everything was so clear, now: his gentle but unsure reaction when she was touching him, his avoidance of eye contact, his shutting off when she tried to make him talk about his departure. No wonder he'd been upset by her insistence on questioning him over it, when he'd still been suffering for the same reasons as back then. He'd been living here for the past six months, hiding away from the world, vainly trying to hide away from himself, and he hadn't forgotten her. His feelings for her hadn't dulled with time and distance, but had grown stronger.

She'd needed to put some physical space between them as this new knowledge had hit her, full force, after he'dheld her tight. Being near him, feeling his closeness yet forbidding herself to give in again to the intimacy they'd shared as best friends had been unbearable.

Because now she had something to fear: herself. She couldn't trust her feelings towards Clark, or rather, the inextricable jumble they'd become tonight. Seeing him again had evoked so many memories within her, and above all, so many regrets, that she didn't know any more how she saw him.

As a partner? Not any more.

As a best friend? Maybe, although a best friend didn't exactly run out on you without a word.

As… something more?

No. She couldn't, *wouldn't* let herself think that. She was married, not happily, but married anyway. But not once had she thought about Lex back in that park, as if the rush of memories suddenly overcoming her had left her whole life outside the gates, outside her and Clark's secret universe. When she'd taken his hand, when he'd almost kissed her, when he'd hugged her, Lex had been forgotten, as if they'd both come back to a point before the whole thing had begun, as if it had never happened.

Lex.

The notion was distant, the name almost unfamiliar, here, thousands of miles away from him, yet it was constantly there between Clark and her, making them behave almost like strangers around each other, except in those few stolen seconds when the entire world had faded away…

… until *that* look that had spoken louder than any word could have.

Lois's endless run through the darkened park miraculously lead her back to the gates and the safe atmosphere of the street beyond. She quickly climbed over the fence and landed on the other side without slowing down nor turning back, running always faster down the stairs of the first subway station she found.

She held her coat tighter to herself as she walked aimlessly through the freezing corridors. The place was deserted, and the only sound was that of her heels resonating on the concrete floor with each of her footsteps. A gust of wind whistled through the tunnelled passage, causing a glass door behind her to slam with a vibrating boom. Lois let out a startled gasp and whirled around, the motion bringing her in contact with the cold metal frame of a hoarding. The silence around her was sickening, and the faint light provided by the neons above the passageway gave it a bleak and desolate dimension.

She briefly closed her eyes to regain some control over her unease before starting to walk again, faster, irritated for letting a mere draught get to her like this, and for the exasperating clink of her shoes on the pavement.

She had this weird intuition that she was being followed; it was a strange sensation, some kind of shiver in the back of her neck that made her feel like she was being watched, that prying eyes were observing her, waiting for her to let down her guard to make the lethal move.

A small rustling sound behind her, and panic took hold of her. She scuttled as fast as she could, afraid to even look back, the blind fear in her controlling her body and mind completely and guiding her frantic run through the labyrinth of walkways and narrow crossings. This time she was sure it wasn't in her imagination; someone was running behind her, their steps an echo of her own, their breath coming in short gasps and getting louder and louder, closer and closer…

She was trapped.

Squashed against the brick wall of the corridor, the shining blade of a knife pressed to her throat, the strong grip of a hand on her forearm and squeezing it painfully, the soreness spreading itself up her shoulder and making her knees go weak. Her whole body was stiff and unresponsive, her fright preventing her from moving her limbs, leaving her helpless in the hands of her aggressor.

He threw a few quick words at her that she didn't understand and tightened his stranglehold on her. The new rush of pain it caused made her head spin, and her vision became blurry. In one last surge of energy, she screamed, the sound of her voice reverberating around her and her aggressor, but there was no-one to hear her call for help.

The pain was unbearable; the man's words were lost on her as she struggled to stay on her feet, the knife's cold blade brushing against her chin when her legs started to give way to gravity.

The throbbing ache in her arm seemed to slowly subside as she collapsed to the floor, oblivious to the tears and shudders that had been hanging on a thread for the past few seconds and were now taking over her.

Release.

And the retreating sound of running steps before it all went black.

***

Clark stood alone on the promontory, his gaze fixed towards the turn in the path where Lois had vanished. She'd done it again, stepping onto his life, turning his whole existence over and leaving nothing in her wake, before leaving him to deal with the remnants of a sore reality.

Why was it that this woman had the power to make him feel so much tenderness and anger for her at the same time, both emotions inextricably entwined within him where she was concerned? She'd been his partner, she'd been his best friend, she'd been his whole life, and giving up on her like he'd done six months ago had been one of the hardest decisions he'd ever had to take. He'd been aware he couldn't forget her, no matter how hard he'd tried, but what he couldn't have imagined was that seeing her again after all this time would awaken his love for her in a way he'd never have thought possible, way stronger and deeper than anything he could have sensed when they were seeing each other every day. She remained a part of him, and now more than ever.

Catching sight of the ring on her finger had made him all the more conscious of the emptiness within him now that she'd walked out of his life for good. But the worst had been to bear through her insistent questions about the origins of his departure, when she was probably perfectly aware of those already. Having your best friend declare his love for you wasn't exactly something one could forget, certainly even less when your whole life was at a defining point and the decision you were taking right then would affect it in a definitive way. No, she couldn't have blanked it out of her memories. But she could have tried to make herself believe he had another reason for leaving Metropolis, that she wasn't responsible for his disappearance, that none of the last moments of their friendship had happened.

Nonetheless, she couldn't have ignored his deep reasons. He hadn't actually expressed them in the letters he'd sent to her, but he'd inferred them pretty clearly. That was something she couldn't have missed… although…

Something she'd said suddenly came back to him. She'd accused him of not having even tried to get in touch with her after he'd left. Yet he'd sent her those numerous letters, and hadn't even received a reply. Maybe she hadn't ever wanted to read them, maybe that wasn't what she'd been expecting, maybe she'd wanted him to call her, or come to see her? He chuckled humourlessly. Why would he have bothered, anyway? They hadn't been exactly on friendly terms at that time, and they'd probably have ended up yelling at each other again. Not to mention that seeing her again would have broken his heart even more. Would he have had the nerve to leave, then?

Lois seemed to be so sure that his decision had been taken out of cowardice, but what she didn't understand was that it had taken as much courage for him to leave as it would have to stay. It had meant leaving everything that was dear to him, it had meant leaving *her* behind, it had meant giving up on the hope he'd relied on ever since he'd met her. Once he'd had renounced his life at her side, there had been no turning back.

She hadn't been aware of how difficult it was for him to let her drag up their past and demand an explanation that he'd rather have kept silent on. It didn't make any difference to him whether she knew or not. As he'd told her, she was married now, and nothing could change that. What good did it do her to know, anyway? Was she revelling in making him suffer until the end, twisting a scorching knife into him over and over?

He shook his head brusquely, castigating himself for making such an accusation against her. Whatever her reasons were for making him go through this again, she was undoubtedly trying to understand, to know why someone who'd always sworn he'd never betray her had run out on her in — from her point of view — such a cowardly and deceiving way.

He knew Lois probably better than she did herself, the radical alteration of her way of life notwithstanding, and he recognised all the telling signs in her attitude. She'd been hurt, was *still* hurt, by his departure. She probably hadn't imagined he'd go to such extremes, that she'd have to lose her best friend to live her life with another man. No, he couldn't blame her for that, not when it meant she cared for him more than he'd imagined when he'd left.

His superhearing kicked in and tore him out of his musings as a loud scream pierced through the night and alerted all his senses. This voice, this desperate cry for help, was something that he'd always dreaded hearing when Superman had been patrolling in Metropolis, something he'd recognise anywhere. Without a second thought, he flew towards the origin of the frightened shriek at superspeed, spinning into the Suit in mid-air and desperately trying to ignore the renewed terror spreading through him just like every other time her helpless cry had troubled his days or nights months ago.

***

He cut through the overhanging branches of hundred-year-old firs, flying so fast that the wind was whistling in his ears, rushing always faster towards the street's lights and down through the dark rectangle of a subway station's entrance, letting his fear steer him towards the dying sound of her resonating scream until he could hear the wild rhythm of her heartbeat and spot her sitting on the floor, her breathing uneven and her eyes closed.

Then, his attention was drawn by a dark-clad figure quietly running away before discreetly sliding into the shadows of a darker corner. Clark put on a burst of speed, catching the man less than a second later, seizing him by the collar and lifting him several feet off the ground. The guy looked puzzled at being caught like this by the very stern-looking superhero, and he just looked dumbly at Superman, almost silently asking him what this was all about.

But Clark wasn't in the mood to explain. Oblivious to the man's protests, he snatched Lois's purse from the mugger-wannabe and dragged him back to the corridor where his victim had collapsed. She was starting to stir slowly, a grimace on her face.

"Lois?" Clark asked softly. "Lois, are you all right?" His voice betrayed his concern and held nothing of the usual superhero's uncompromising tone. "Lois?" he pleaded again, his voice half-covered by the vibrating sound of a subway train beneath the ground. "Lois…"

To his immense relief, she opened her eyes, and unhurriedly looked around her, as if in search of something. He held out her purse to her, a half-smile playing about his lips. "Is this what you're looking for?"

She took the object absently and raised her head, her gaze finally focusing on his face. She frowned imperceptibly, as if trying to collect her memories of what had just happened, and her eyes went round as she stared at him, unmoving, paralysed. She opened her mouth as if to say something, but closed it almost immediately, her lips tightening and giving an unforgiving expression to her beautiful features.

"Lois," Clark murmured again, smiling at her tentatively, hoping she would offer him some kind of response, some kind of reaction, that she wouldn't act as if she wasn't recognising him or as if he was…

… another man.

The wheels started to turn very fast in his head and he looked down at himself and was reminded of the blue spandex and red boots he was wearing. No wonder she was shutting herself off in front of him. She wasn't seeing Clark, she was seeing Superman.

<Oh no, not *that* again!> he thought, mentally rolling his eyes.

On the other hand, her face didn't seem to harbour the same dreamlike expression it had back when she'd been confronted with his suited self back in Metropolis. On the contrary, she looked less than happy to see him.

How was he supposed to behave in front of her, now? Should he chime in with a 'Hi Lois, long time no see, how's hubby doing?' Or a 'Lois! I'd never expected to have to save you here, so far away from Metropolis'? Or even a 'Lois, nice to see you, are you going to swoon over my cape again?' That last one didn't seem to be likely, he mused as he observed the killing glare that made him wish for a gaping hole to open beneath his feet and swallow him entirely.

He hesitantly extended his hand towards her to help her to her feet, but she brutally shoved it aside, darting another unsympathetic stare in his direction. Clark crooked his head to the side, wondering what to do with this new angry attitude; at least if Lois was displaying anger, that meant she was okay. He didn't have much time to dwell on the matter, though: the mugger swaying at the end of his arm was getting restless.

"Do you guys want me to hold a candle for you or are you gonna fly me out of here?" he asked irritably, flailing his arms and legs about without any success in his attempt to kick the Man of Steel's shins.

Clark snapped out of his reverie at the man's words and switched back to his 'you'd-better-watch-what-you're-saying-or-doing-if-you-don't-want-trouble' pose, idly shaking the mugger like a rag doll.

"I don't think the 'out of' is appropriate for the place I'm flying you to," he answered, to the felon's growls. "Unless you mean 'out of the way'," he finished before tightening his grip on the mugger and flying off to the nearest police station.

***

Blackness… No more sensations… No… maybe not… There was still a coldness against her back and beneath her… and there were sounds, too… Someone was asking her if she was all right. Clark was asking her if she was all right… More sounds… Something like a roll of thunder… no, not really… The voice again…

Lois carefully opened her eyes and looked around her, groggily taking in her surroundings. She was still in the subway corridor, sitting on the concrete ground, leaning heavily against the wall. There was something wrong, though. Something missing. A hand gave her her answer as her purse was presented to her. In the panic that had taken hold of her during the past few minutes, she hadn't realised that her aggressor had stolen it. She grabbed it and focused her gaze on the owner of the helpful hand…

… and stopped short as she recognised the red boots and blue tights that went along with Metropolis's ex-resident superhero.

Superman.

Superman was right in front of her, looking at her with concerned eyes, asking her if she was okay.

She carefully considered his question. Physically, she was okay, she guessed. There was still the pain in her arm, but it seemed to be subsiding a little. And the wild rhythm of her heartbeat was less deafening in her ears, slowly returning back to normal. She was gradually taking control of the shakes of her body, and slightly cooling down. But her mind… her mind was boiling.

She wanted to talk to him, but she didn't know what to say. She seemed totally unable to form a coherent thought regarding how she felt about seeing him again. This was a lot harder than her previous encounter with Clark. At least, with her former partner, she felt safe, she trusted him, she -

<Don't you trust Superman?> the small voice of her inner mind asked with a note of surprise.

She had trusted him more than anyone else, true. She'd have laid her own life in his hands, and she couldn't say the same about any other person. Not Lex, not Perry, not her parents, not Lucy, maybe not even Clark.

But he'd left, and everything had changed. The image of the flawless superhero had been smashed into pieces, making her realise she'd been the one to construct this representation of the ideal man. There was no such thing as perfection, she knew it now; even Superman made mistakes, had emotions, could feel anger,need, greed. Oh, she still believed he wouldn't deliberately hurt someone, and that all his reactions just before he'd left had been motivated by deeper reasons than the ones he'd exposed at his press conference. She'd always wondered what had lain behind his sudden decision, even considering the possibility of her upcoming marriage to Lex. But that wasn't likely; Superman had certainly had far more important things on his mind than an acquaintance's wedding with a billionaire.

<That's not true!> her conscience protested again. <Superman has always said you were special to him.>

Oh yes, he'd said that. More than once. But why would she believe him more than anyone else, after all? He was a man, exactly like all the ones she'd known in her past. Unique, attractive, sweet… and deceiving.

The myth was dead.

From the moment he'd shown he was capable of reacting with his sentiments over his mind, that he could love and hate in the same way as any other man, that the emotions he was faced with could engender a response commanded by something else than his rational mind, he'd unveiled his vulnerability, and the picture of the perfect man that Lois had been forming in her mind regarding the Man of Steel had shattered.

Of course, she'd been aware, just like every other sensible citizen of Metropolis, that Superman was probably more capable of emotions than anyone else, but somehow she'd never considered that his positive feelings could ever be unbalanced by negative ones. And witnessing him react the way he had when he'd talked to her that last night had been some sort of realisation that he wasn't as much of a powerful and invincible Deity as she'd first thought. He was hurting, and therefore could hurt in return.

From then on, she'd found herself caring for him probably even more than before, because she'd felt a surge of protectiveness towards him. For the first time, she'd been able to feel something else than blind love for him, a whole new range of emotions opening itself to her, with all the palette of nuances they conveyed: tenderness and care, friendship and passion, jealousy and fury.

And right now, seeing him express concern for her after all this time when he hadn't ever bothered to visit her, even if putting on a small boost of superspeed to fly to Metropolis would have been easy for him, made her whole being boil with anger.

How dare he? How could he look at her as if they'd just talked five minutes ago and he hadn't been away for so long? How come he was behaving as if nothing had happened? He hadn't even looked surprised at seeing her here, as if it was natural that Lois Lane would get into trouble three thousand miles away from Metropolis.

He did seem a little taken aback, now, she mused as she observed him. He'd just blinked a couple of times, as if realising he was talking to her. But his frown held more annoyance than surprise. What had she been expecting anyway? That he'd jump with joy at the sight of her? That he'd apologise for his rude manners the last time they'd talked? That he'd hug her and tell her he'd missed her? Boy, how naive was she? She supposed she ought to be grateful he'd remembered her name, she thought bitterly.

He extended a hand towards her, but she deliberately pushed it away. If he could act as if nothing had ever happened, then she could ignore him, too. Two could play this game, after all.

She couldn't help but be slightly disappointed when her aggressor interrupted their silent exchange, but it was a relief, after all. The whole situation had started to get uncomfortable, and she'd forgotten they had an audience as she'd unashamedly showed her disregard for him.

Superman snapped his attention away from her and to the mugger, and growled a couple of intimidations before taking his leave rather quickly.

So he didn't want to talk to her. Fine! She wasn't that keen on it either, anyway, she snarled inwardly as she watched him fly off with the young man dangling from his grip like a puppet and towed in his wake.

***

Having dealt with the mugger, Clark rushed back from the precinct to the subway corridor where he'd left Lois, hoping she wouldn't have had time to run away too far yet. What had possessed him to go there as Superman, he wondered for the umpteenth time as he straightened his tie? He couldn't know what had made him do that, but changing into the Suit had been automatic when he'd heard her cry for help, and he hadn't taken time to think about the consequences.

There, he'd let himself forget she wasn't seeing him as Clark, that she wasn't being addressed by the man she'd just left, and his voice had taken on a caring tone that probably wasn't welcome from Superman as far as Lois was concerned. Especially not when he'd stayed away from her during six months without any explanation. At least, Clark's departure could have a plausible explanation, which, even if she'd refused to acknowledge it for the past few months, had been confirmed to her only minutes ago. Superman's leaving, on the other hand, remained mysterious to her.

But Superman hadn't been rejected by Lois Lane. She'd almost pleaded with him to love her and let himself be loved by her; and even if it had hurt him beyond everything to witness her throw herself into his arms when she'd rebuffed him only hours before, to have his worst nightmares confirmed that she didn't love Superman for who he was, but for *what* he was, he could still understand that Lois had been hurt by his refusal, too. It had certainly been a tough decision for her to take to declare her feelings to him. He knew she'd been deceived by men before, that she was afraid of loving someone because, for her, it meant being vulnerable and weak. But she'd told him she loved him. Even if he knew her feelings were a complete illusion, he'd been deeply touched by such a display of trust in him.

And instead of taking this as the most beautiful of gifts, he'd destroyed it by telling her he had secrets he would probably never share with her. She'd been telling him her deepest feelings, and all he had been able to come up with was to imply he didn't trust her. No wonder she'd refused to even acknowledge him as Superman, tonight.

Clark finally spotted Lois and breathed in relief that she hadn't moved. She was still sitting on the ground, her knees hugged to her chest by the arms wrapped around them and her cheek resting on the platform her huddled position created. Her eyes were open, but they were glassy, as if unfocused, and her mouth was a tight line. She didn't even react as he approached her.

He crouched beside her unmoving form and carefully put a timid hand on her shoulder. "Lois?" he asked softly, hesitantly, afraid that he'd be met with an icy silence as an answer.

She blinked, oblivious to the stray tear that rolled down her cheek and fell on her hand, the wetness causing another shiver to course through her. Closing her eyes let other droplets escape, and her attempt at a deep controlling breath turned into a sob. A pair of strong arms enfolded her into a liberating embrace, and she let the tears fall freely, soothing her entire body from the tension she'd been holding for the past minutes.

Clark was holding her again, giving her his strength through gentle caresses and reassuring words, dropping a kiss on the top of her head, letting her cry in his arms, sparing her the need to try to talk. Just being here, with her.

She shifted in his embrace to wrap her arms around his neck, and she heard him sigh deeply against her hair. The new position made their hug even tighter than the one they'd shared previously, and she could feel the strong beating of his heart against the wild pounding of her own. The regular pulse rocked her into a haze of warmth, and as her cries settled, she found herself dozing off slightly, her head against his shoulder, her forehead pressed to his neck.

Clark, upon hearing her breathing getting more even, pulled away, keeping his hands on her shoulders to steady her. She looked lost, her red and swollen eyes darting around helplessly, as if looking for something else to focus on than his worried features. Lois had never liked people to express too much concern for her, especially when it was justified. She preferred to be alone with her pain, bottling it up within her to deal with it by herself without taking the risk of sharing it with anyone. It all came down to her mistrust of the outside world. Telling someone about her sorrow was a mistake for her, because it showed weakness and made her barriers crumble.

How much he wished she'd let him in like she'd done in the past, that she'd allow him to try and help her. But she wouldn't. Not this time. Not after he'd deceived her the way he had, even if he didn't consider his departure as a betrayal. Her trust was gone, and the furtive glimpses into her true self she'd allowed him tonight had never been intentional.

Clark sighed deeply and Lois's eyes met his before hurriedly darting away. It wasn't going to be easy to reconstruct a friendship that both of them thought gone for good, to come back to the close relationship they'd shared before she'd started to date Luthor, to forget about those past six months.

But did they want to do that? Clark knew he did, without a second of hesitation. He'd give anything to go back in time and avoid the mistakes he'd perpetrated back then, to make Lois understand that her friendship was more important to him than his romantic feelings, to make her realise that Luthor didn't deserve her, and that if she wanted to marry someone else than him, as painful as it would be for him, he'd support her if he was sure the man she'd chosen would love her without restriction.

*Anything* to have her as a best friend again.

Lois circumspectly got to her feet, rubbing the dust off her clothes and hands, the extreme concentration on the task allowing her to compose herself. She was only too aware of Clark's worried gaze on her, and as much as she wanted to thank him for his unconditional concern, she was feeling too embarrassed to talk at the moment. Luckily, he wasn't prying; he knew her all too well, she thought as she straightened her jacket. He might have abandoned her, but he was still the person who understood her the best, she couldn't deny that.

And the weirdest thing was that she wasn't feeling uncomfortable with Clark's deep knowledge of her character. She was aware that he wouldn't take advantage of her feelings or weaknesses, that seeing her crying wasn't something that would make him judgmental or superior towards her, that she could trust him to be there for her without pressuring her into sharing everything with him. He'd always been like that, she realised, lending her a sympathetic ear when she needed it, but never asking for more than she was ready to give.

"Lois," Clark started tentatively, trying to draw her attention. The sharp movement of her head as he spoke her name assured him she'd indeed heard him. "Are you all right?" He needed to be sure, to know that this man hadn't hurt her, that he'd arrived in time to -

Oh no… *he* hadn't arrived in time. He hadn't even been there. Superman had. And Clark didn't know that Lois had been attacked. "What happened?" he asked in an awkward attempt at covering himself.

"Yes, I'm all right," she answered shakily in response to the concern she could perceive in his voice. "At least I think so. I don't think he really wanted to hurt me, anyway. He was too busy stealing my purse."

"He?" Clark asked, hoping she'd interpret the quiver of his voice as astonishment, and mentally rolling his eyes at the situation he'd put himself into.

"Yeah, some guy who thought I could be a good target to sharpen his knife on," she stated acidly.

"What?!" This, however, wasn't something he'd known. He hadn't spotted any weapon on the man, but it had all happened so fast that he probably hadn't paid enough attention. "He didn't hurt you, did he?" he gasped, taking hold of her shoulders again and looking her in the eyes.

"No. He just wanted to scare me, that's all. Don't worry, I don't even have a scratch!" she said, exasperated at his doubtful stare. "Is being mugged part of some kind of welcome tradition here?"

"I'd say walking alone in the subway corridors at midnight isn't the best of ideas for a woman. Unfortunately, lots of muggers are hanging around, waiting for the perfect victim. Generally a woman, alone, and if she looks like she's not from here it's even easier for them," Clark said bitterly.

"Well, if I get my hands on this guy, he's going to remember it, believe me! It's just as well Superman caught him before he could escape. At least I got my purse back," she muttered, before decisively walking towards the exit of the subway station.

Clark flinched at her mention of his alter ego's intervention. He was still wondering what had prompted Lois's reaction when she'd seen him in his suit. There had been a time when she'd have jumped into his arms and been more than obvious in her reactions towards him, but tonight, she'd acted as if she wasn't all that happy to see him, almost as if his interference had bothered her. Well, she'd yelled for help, and that wasn't something he could ignore, even if she was still resenting his -

But of course!

Clark almost slapped his forehead as he understood her reaction upon seeing Superman after all this time. She was still resenting his rejection. He growled inwardly. Surely she should have got over it, shouldn't she? She had her life, now, with another man, and she seemed perfectly happy. Didn't she? And anyway, he reasoned, her crush on Superman hadn't been anything more than a passing fancy, so why would she still bear a grudge against his refusal to give in to her overtures to the spandex-clad part of him. No, that couldn't be her reason for being mad… could it?

Where Lois Lane was concerned, nothing belonged to the world of certainties. That was one of the most definite things he'd had to learn during their partnership, he thought miserably as he climbed up the stairs beside her and snuck a glance at her remote face, obscured more by her wretchedness than by the night's shadows.

***

A misty gust of wind whipped at them with a refreshing blast, a nice contrast with the suffocating atmosphere of the gloomy corridors and the unpleasant smell that was so typical of undergrounds. The bathing glow of the streetlights offered a reassurance that the oppressive buzzing of the neon lights had swept away, and the sounds of car honks could be heard from a nearby avenue.

All in all, it was a very ordinary night.

They walked in a companionable silence for a few minutes, breathing in the night's scents and revelling in the gentle quietness surrounding them.

But, despite the soothing ambience of the external world, Lois was still trying to come to terms with her destabilising encounter with Superman, what his attitude towards her could mean regarding their past relationship, and whether there was any hope of repairing their mutual faults. At least with Clark it was much simpler. His whole behaviour had been motivated by his feelings for her, and as much as those had made her uncomfortable back in Metropolis, here she was finding a welcome solace in them.

But Superman…

Well, Superman was entirely different. His whole persona had become a thick mystery to her, as if he'd completely shut her out of his life from the moment she'd confessed her feelings for her. He'd changed for her forever, and the distance he'd taken as soon as she'd manifested her contempt at seeing him had been deliberate. Clearly, he had been as displeased to see her as she had been to see him.

<Be honest, Lois. You weren't so unhappy to see him again,> her inner voice pointed out accusingly.

Yes, okay. That wasn't entirely true. She was angry, but she still respected the man for who he was and what he stood for. Her esteem for the Man of Steel didn't have anything to do with her feelings for him, admitting there were feelings involved. Her irritation, on the other hand, had everything to do with it. Oh, of course, he wasn't the one responsible for her confusion, but he'd cast an obsessive doubt within her, and he'd involuntarily challenged the security of her love for him. But what had upset her the most was his total lack of emotion at seeing her again, as if he was blase about having to save her, in Metropolis, New York, London or Paris.

Was he still the same to everyone else, even if his persona had transformed for her? Did the Parisians praise him as much as the Metropolitans had? Did they appreciate their chance to have a superhero fly to their rescue as soon as they called for help? The story she'd deciphered tonight while waiting for Max in the cafe certainly pointed to a deep awe towards Superman and what he regularly achieved.

And… oh boy! The other story had been signed by Jerome Kane, and since Jerome Kane was in fact Clark Kent, that meant that Clark had stayed in touch with Superman!

"Clark," Lois spoke as calmly as she could, trying not to show her impatience. "Do you often meet with him?"

Clark looked up at her, confusion written all over his face. "Him? Who's him?"

"Come on, you and I both know who I'm talking about. Has he changed?"

"Lois — "

"Clark, I just saw him. He came to the rescue when I called for help. He left shortly before you arrived, sure, but I know I saw him. I know it *was* him. And don't try to deny you have contact with him, because I ran into an interview you wrote for your paper, tonight."

Clark shoved his hands into his pockets and shrugged, his head down. "I guess… I should have known you'd ask," he said painfully, refusing to meet her gaze. But her hand on his arm made him look up at her earnest face.

"I'm not asking for you to get in touch with him for me, you know."

He started, visibly surprised at how easily she'd understood his concerns and discomfort at her question. "Yeah. I do see him from time to time." He brushed a nervous hand through his hair. "But he's very busy here, so I don't always get interviews from him."

Lois stared at him for a long minute, wondering if he was minimising his relationship with Superman to spare her or to protect himself. He seemed so edgy on this topic, even more than he'd been when they'd been partners. Clark had always had a strange kind of friendship with the superhero: he got many exclusives from him, he always managed to get the quote that the other reporters would fight for. Yet, when people were praising Superman he would get defensive. Almost jealously so. And, most especially, when it was she who was doing the praising.

Of course, being aware of the strong feelings she'd harboured for the Man of Steel certainly hadn't helped the matter, considering Clark's love for her. It probably hadn't been easy for him, to helplessly witness her stake a claim on and show her so obvious love for the superhero when Clark had been loving her in secret. And all those times when she'd confided in her best friend, told him the depth of her feelings for Superman, told him how much she wished he'd notice her.

That had been the cruellest thing she'd ever done to him, she realised. Reminding him continually that he wasn't the one she loved, and that his supposed rival was an alien who had incredible powers, and flew. Even if it wasn't what had attracted her to Superman, Clark had certainly thought he was out of his league. Lois inwardly rolled her eyes as she remembered she'd actually told him that once. It had been on their first day of work together, and the circumstances certainly hadn't put him in a position where he could allow himself to play smart with her, but that still didn't excuse her thoughtless words for which she'd never apologised.

But she couldn't have known this was hurting him… or… could she? If she was honest, she had to admit she'd suspected that Clark had been attracted to her for a long time. Heck, even on their first assignment together, she'd felt the need to warn him not to fall for her. His tender gaze hadn't hidden much of his admiration, though, and she knew all too well how easily such a thing could develop into love. But never had she thought that it was real. Even now, it was still difficult for her to take in this realisation.

Yet she'd known, all along, that Clark's feelings for her went beyond simple friendship, and she'd had no scruples about shoving the extent of her love for someone else into his face. For someone who was probably a close friend of her partner's, from what she'd gathered.

But if Superman and Clark were friends, did Superman know about what had happened and why Clark had left Metropolis? He was in on the secret of Clark's real identity, that was for sure, since he'd given him interviews. But had their relationship altered compared with the one they'd had before? And if it hadn't, did Superman's departure have something to do with his support for Clark?

"You and he are friends, aren't you?" she asked urgently, hoping he'd understand what she was implying.

"Depends on your definition of friends, I guess," he answered carefully.

Lois grimaced. Clearly, things had changed between Clark and Superman, and not for the better, from the look of it. "Clark, there has to be a reason why you and he have both settled here," she elaborated.

That seemed to get a reaction from him, since he literally froze to the spot and stood there, immobile, for a couple of seconds before looking up at her. "I… He… We…" he stammered helplessly, obviously taken aback by her question.

She seemed to have got an inkling, here, she thought, as she considered and almost immediately rejected further probing. Instead, she focused her attention back on what she'd first wanted to know. "Have you noticed something different in his behaviour lately?"

"Something… different?" He pronounced the two words separately, weighing them cautiously.

"Yeah. You know, something in his attitude that he adopted here, something that didn't show in Metropolis."

He was still staring blankly at her. "I'm not sure I know what you mean."

"He saved me tonight. I called, and he came… *flew* to the rescue."

"And this is different because?" Clark prompted with an almost bored tone of voice.

"His whole attitude was out of character, Clark! Oh, sure, he caught my mugger, gave me my purse back, and he even expressed some concern for me. But there's something about him… I can't really explain it, but I know he acted different. I mean he *was* different. He didn't look all that friendly, or like he had any intention of staying around, for a start."

"Ah. So you noticed it, too," Clark whispered softly.

"And he… wait, what do you mean, I noticed it, too?"

He shifted slightly. "Well… it's been said in a couple of newspaper stories that Superman has seemed distant lately."

"Distant? Clark, he hasn't seen me for six months, and his only reaction was to ask me if I was all right, as if he'd talked to me just a minute before!"

Clark winced, and she wondered for a brief second if the reference to the closeness she'd come to expect when Superman was near her had something to do with his discomfort. He couldn't be that susceptible to the extent of her relationship with the superhero, could he?

"Well, anyway, he didn't seem that keen to stay for a chat," she added grudgingly.

"Lois, you didn't say a single word to him! What did you expect him to say to you?"

"Well, 'hi, Lois' would have been a good start. And… wait a minute, Kent!'" She stopped short and whirled towards him. "How do you know I didn't speak to him?"

Clark growled inwardly as he realised his faux-pas and raked his brain for a plausible explanation. "Well, I… I suppose that's what you did. When you're angry at someone, you're generally not very talkative."

"What do you mean, I'm not talkative?" she snapped. "And how do you know I was angry at Superman, anyway?"

This conversation with Lois seemed to be turning more and more into the digging of his own grave, Clark thought worriedly. Every single word he pronounced was a new shovelful, and she was pushing him towards the edge. He'd almost succeeded in forgetting the incredibly annoying disadvantage of his Clark Kent persona, but in a few hours, Lois had managed to jog his memory regarding this particular problem. In the last few minutes, he'd probably made a higher number of embarrassing slips of the tongue than in one year of working with her. And this wasn't over yet. At this rate, she'd be calling him Superman before the next morning.

The colour drained from Lois's cheeks, and she grasped his arm. "Oh no, don't tell me he told you," she said faintly.

Clark let out an audible sigh. He had no idea how he managed to get himself into such situations, but it definitely wasn't a place he particularly enjoyed being in. If she believed that Superman had talked to *anyone*, even himself, about Lois's confession, she'd be more angry at him than she already was, if that was possible. Her trust in his alter-ego would be seriously dented, and she'd probably be even more skittish about admitting her feelings to anyone.

But what did it matter, anyway? She didn't have to do that, she *couldn't* do that any more.

"He told you, didn't he?" Lois continued weakly, almost to herself. "How could he tell you?" She looked at him, her eyes glistening with unshed tears. "That's so… so humiliating."

She seemed so desperate, her voice cracking at this discovery of another betrayal she'd never thought her superhero would perpetrate. He hated seeing her like that, to be the witness to her recognition that people she had faith in were deceiving her.

"No, Lois. Superman's intention has never been to make you feel humiliated. Lois, listen to me. It takes a *lot* for someone to admit their feelings, to put their emotions at risk for the sake of their love. It's one of the most courageous things to do, because there's no turning back, and when you declare yourself to someone, you put your future in their hands. Everything hangs on their reaction to your feelings. A lot of people spend their existence being afraid of revealing themselves to others, and they sometimes miss their chance because they didn't jump in the water when it was necessary. But you, you managed to get over this fear."

"Sometimes I wish I hadn't," was her murmured reply.

And how much this was true, she realised with a start. It hadn't been her declaration to Superman that she regretted the most, even if the humiliation of his refusal had left a deep wound within her.

No. What was hurting even more was the memory of those moments in her past when she'd managed to overcome her fear of commitment and wholeheartedly abandoned herself to the lure of a steady relationship with a man.

Each and every one of her relationships had started this way, with some sort of step she'd take and that she'd regret almost immediately. That guy in college that she'd only dated for a couple of weeks… then Claude… and finally, Lex, which was the worst she'd ever done, she supposed. Getting over her fear of taking the big scary step into marriage, accepting his proposal… that implied she must have trusted Lex at some point. But as far as she could remember, she'd never really experienced this kind of reliance on her husband. Not when she'd been harassing his secretary for an interview with him, nor when they'd been dating, nor when they'd been engaged. And even less after, she thought with an inward grimace.

If she'd really been confident that everything would work itself out with Lex, why would she have insisted they wait till their wedding night to make love, for example? Oh, not that she regretted her decision. That had been one of the wisest choices she'd made in her life, for once. But where did that fit in her system of beliefs? She wasn't particularly attached to religious traditions, and she was experienced, though not overly, in this department. Then why? What had made her so insistent for them to wait?

And why had Lex reacted the way he had?

She'd been surprised by his understanding acceptance of her request. Reassured. Ha! Of course, what did he have to fear anyway? She'd said yes to his proposal, so she'd be his in the near future, of that much he was assured. If he'd pressured her into something she said she wasn't ready for, she'd probably have been more cautious around him… which she hadn't been.

What a sick, manipulative *bastard*!

If there was one decision she'd been overly unsure about, it had been when she'd told him she'd marry him. She shuddered, still hearing the quiver in her voice when she'd said those words, and remembering the way she'd been trembling when Lex's cold hand had slipped the expensive engagement ring on her finger. Her shivers hadn't been the usual jitters that accompanied a jump into a really committed relationship, but rather the result of a promise she was less than sure she wanted to keep.

Lex, of course, had been aware of that, and taking advantage of her indecision to charm her into believing he respected her wish, when that respect was false, had been his best card to make sure she wouldn't back off at the last moment. To make her trust him.

She looked up at her companion's sympathetic face; he was silent, but the care in his eyes was unmistakable. The only one she'd ever truly trusted…

… until that one betrayal that she couldn't let herself to forgive… forget… whatever.

Knowing for sure that his departure had only been motivated by his love for her hadn't been flattering like she'd thought it would be. No, it had been very embarrassing, to realise she was responsible for the hurt she'd put him through. But at least it had made her understand that his leaving had nothing to do with their last fight, or those words he'd spat out to her about Lex. Even if he'd probably been right, and she should have listened to him, it was reassuring to know he didn't despise her like their argument had seemed to imply.

But there was still one thing she couldn't fathom, something that remained a mystery for her. Why hadn't he talked his fears out instead of keeping them to himself and running off without a word? Why hadn't he told her he was leaving? Why hadn't he given her a chance to talk him out of his idea? Why had he vanished on her like this, without even leaving an address or a phone number where she could reach him?

Reach him when? And for what purpose? When she'd started to have doubts about her decision? When she'd needed a shoulder to cry on and her best friend's absence had been the hardest to bear? When things had started to turn sour with Lex?

"Oh, Clark," she whispered, averting her eyes from his and shaking her head. "What did I do to us?" When had she become this egotistical and spoiled little girl, caring only for what she couldn't have, and unable to appreciate what she could reach until it was out of her grasp?

Clark inched himself closer to her, extending a timid hand towards her, hesitating a brief second before diffidently laying it on her forearm in a comforting touch. He wanted to do so much more, to hold her against him like he'd done many times in the past, or like he'd done in the park before she'd run away. Any attempt at this kind of closeness probably wouldn't be welcome with her now, he reminded himself. She hadn't shrugged him off, but she hadn't encouraged him either, and he was too aware of how fragile her trust in him was to jeopardise it with a gesture of affection she wouldn't welcome now. No, she wasn't expecting this from him any more. But what was she expecting from him, then? What kind of relationship were they supposed to have? How was he expected to behave around her?

He approached one careful step closer, and she didn't move away, didn't flinch at his advance, on the contrary, she relaxed against him, laying her head against his chest in a wordless search for consolation.

Lois sighed downheartedly. She didn't know why this sudden melancholy was descending on her, why seeing Clark again was making her ever more aware of what she'd been missing those past few months without him. His comforting friendship, his tender and loving care, the way he was always there for her. Everything about him made her regret that decision she'd made to strike him out of her life.

But *she* hadn't been the one to do that. He'd shut himself off from her, leaving her out of his decision to withdraw, although he knew it would affect both of them, and even if he seemed to have some remorse about his abrupt departure, it didn't makeup for what he'd done, and how secretively he'd done it.

"Why didn't you tell me, Clark?"

Her voice was a low whisper against his chest, and, as he looked down at her small figure leaning against him, so vulnerable and delicate, and it took all he had not to bend down and kiss the top of her head. "Lois, I know that I didn't really chose the best way to tell you about my leaving, but I meant no harm, you have to believe me. I wanted to tell you the best way I could, and…"

She tensed slightly. "And not telling me was what you came up with?"

"Lois, I know you probably didn't want to learn it this way, and — "

"Clark, I wanted to know it, that's all. The way I would have learned didn't matter to me at all."

"Then why?" he asked softly, almost pleading with her for a honest answer. "Why did you never try to get in touch with me, why did you — "

She abruptly pulled away from him, her gaze suddenly turning icy. "Oh, you really take the prize, now! I can't believe that *you*, of all people, would stoop so low, Kent. How dare you? How was I supposed to get in touch with you when you didn't leave me anything to let me know where you were, or even if you were still alive? You didn't tell me *anything*. Running away behind my back, that was a lot easier, wasn't it?"

"Lois — "

"But you know what? I'm fed up with your lies and charming pretences, Clark. Fed up with being told there are some things I don't need to know 'for my own good'."

"Lois — "

"I'm tired of people making the decisions for me, and I thought you, at least, wouldn't behave this way around me. Seems I was wrong, once again. But hey, I'm getting used to it," she finished bitterly.

"Are you done?" Clark asked coolly, and was rewarded with a furious glare. Then, more calmly, "I wish I'd been more courageous in the way I chose to tell you, that I'd been able to come out and say I was leaving. But I don't know… I was hoping that those letters to you would have avoided going over the same fight, that — "

"Letters? What the hell are you talking about, Kent? What letters?"

Clark frowned, wondering how she could have forgotten the messages he'd sent her on more than one occasion. The messages he'd always hoped she'd reply to or call him after receiving. Always wishing for some proof that their friendship wasn't dead. "The letters I sent you," he said carefully.

"I never read any letter from you."

"Yeah, I guess… well… I hoped you'd read them, but under the circumstances, I understand that — "

"You didn't send me any letter," she interrupted, her words almost colliding as she spoke very quickly.

"Sure I did."

"I didn't get any letter."

"You didn't?"

"No!" she exclaimed vehemently. "You left without telling me where you went, or even *why* you were going. You obviously weren't expecting me to give you news, were you?"

"Lois, in those letters I explained everything! And I told you I was staying at my folks', which was the case at that time. But when I left…" He trailed off as another unpleasant memory came back to him. After he'd settled here in Paris, he'd written one last letter to Lois. At least, the address he'd written on the envelope had been hers, but this had been something he could have written to himself just as easily, some remembrance of the year they'd spent together, all those missed occasions when he could have told her about his real feelings for her but was too shy to do it, all those times he'd been interrupted by his extra-curricular activities when they'd been having a discussion.

There had been something else he'd wanted to tell her, too: his suspicions about Luthor, all those conversations he'd had with the man, as Superman, and where her husband had implied more than clearly his involvement in several bombings, murders and diverse crimes, always staying vague enough to prevent the Man of Steel from having sufficient reasons to arrest him, but still dangerously flirting with the thin line of open transgression.

Having finished writing it, he'd kept the letter in a drawer of his desk, and each time he stumbled over it, the same question formed in his mind: should he mail it? Should he destroy it? He'd come to the conclusion that this last confession would hurt more than help her, and that his motives weren't all that clear. Of course it would make her realise who she had married, but doing that after it was already too late was unfair to her. It would not only destroy her marriage, but also put her in danger, since there would be no Superman to protect her from the wrathful Lex Luthor. Clark supposed that if Lois ever got too close to her husband's secret and not-so-humanitarian activities, he'd stop at nothing to prevent her from talking.

Moreover, it would have disastrous consequences for Lois herself, destroying her illusions, and therefore, her whole life. And he cared too much for her to do that to her. There was too much at stake, too much for her to lose, and he couldn't let that happen, knowing how much love was a flimsy sentiment for Lois, and how little trust she gave it. No, if she loved Luthor, then she shall be with him, he'd reasoned, and the fact that he wasn't happy with it didn't have anything to do with Lois's life, or the way some selfish part of him thought she should lead it.

After a couple of weeks of dwelling over it, he'd brought the letter back with him to Smallville, one night when he'd been invited to dinner by his parents, and had wordlessly put it into an old trunk in the tree-house not very far away from the farm, where he hoped no-one would ever find it. But he hadn't been able to bring himself to burn it, or destroy it in any other way. There was too much of himself that he'd put in there, and as much as he knew its dangerous potential, should someone ever read it, he wanted to keep it, to make sure he wouldn't forget that those moments he'd lived at Lois's side had been very real.

***

Lois was wracking her brains for any memory of a letter she might have missed, or something that could explain why she'd never received any of those messages Clark claimed to have sent her, but to no avail. She'd definitely remember if she'd had any of those missives in her hands. She recalled that she'd made it her habit to eagerly check her mail and voice messages every morning as soon as she got to work, always nurturing the hope that she'd hear Clark's voice somewhere amongst those soulless calls, or spot his handwriting amidst those envelopes addressed to the eponymous 'Ms L. Luthor'.

But the calls were always from sources that never panned out, or worse, from some unscrupulous tabloid reporter who had nothing better to do than investigate rumours about her husband's juicy relationship with the latest fashionable actress. Those swines harassed her, questioning her about Mr Luthor's visible lack of marital loyalty, asking her who the real Ms Lex Luthor was, and the only thing she wanted to answer before slamming the phone down on them was that Ms Lex Luthor had never been *real,* for that matter, and that who she used to be had ceased to exist when she'd said 'I do'.

She hadn't even had the heart to make a scene with Lex when she'd learned about his flighty behaviour. It was as if she'd always considered this possibility as a part of their relationship, even though she'd never approved it. But there had always been this wish within her that Lex would change, that he was sincere in his declaration of love. She'd wanted to believe him, to have faith in him; for the first time in her life, she'd wanted to compel herself to trust someone she'd barely known.

Had marrying Lex been a challenge for her? No. Probably not. At least, not entirely; but it had been some sort of victory over herself. But what a victory! It had brought nothing but mistrust and sadness in her life. Nothing but regrets and loneliness.

As hope that she might hear from her best friend had diminished, day by day, her mood had darkened, and burying herself in a job that wasn't at all as absorbing as the one she'd had at the Planet hadn't managed to help lift her spirits. Clark Kent was gone, and so was Lois Lane.

Strangely enough, she believed him when he said he'd sent her several letters. There was something in his eyes that persuaded her he was honest. It was a weird feeling, to be able to trust someone like that, after all this time. Even Clark. But if he'd sent messages to her, like he swore he had, why hadn't she ever received anything? What was it fate had played against them?

Clark heaved a sigh, attracting her attention. "When I left," he repeated his earlier words, his tone weary, "my hope that you'd get in touch with me… died."

<So did mine,> Lois thought silently as she listened to his embarrassed confession.

"Each day without news from you was a new disappointment during those first two months I spent in Smallville."

<For me too.>

"But I never forgot what had happened, and I thought that maybe that was why you didn't want to see me ever again."

"Clark, what happened… well, neither of us can forget it. But that never meant I wanted you out of my life. My life, I mean both my professional and personal life… well… it isn't exactly what it was when you were there. With me."

Clark's gaze hardened upon hearing her words. "Yeah, I guess it's much more exciting," he muttered under his breath.

A sharp intake of breath escaped her, but she found herself unable to retaliate. Clark's smart-ass remark about her new job wasn't making her as mad as it was hurting her. She'd hoped that he'd had time to think back to Perry's retirement party, and that he was now regretting what had happened then, but what he'd just said proved her hopes had been illusions only. He still despised her choice. That he'd refuse to respect her decision to marry Lex, she could understand. But she still couldn't take the way he'd categorically rejected the job they'd both been offered at LNN. It was an interesting job, a reporting job, and one where they didn't risk their life every three seconds and…

… and it was darned boring, let's face it!

Okay. So maybe he'd been right about the fact that TV journalism was superficial and didn't offer the same excitement as newspaper press. But did he have to look down on her because she'd taken a job there? Did he have to be so… so *snobbish* about it?

The anger she'd been waiting for bubbled up in her throat. She abruptly turned away from him to hail a cab, at the same time trying to get her emotions back under control. Taking a calming breath and leaning on the open back door of the car that had just stopped in front of them, she whirled back towards him. "You know, Kent, on second thoughts, maybe I was feeling better with you *out* of my life."

She stepped inside the cab and was about to slam the door when Clark grabbed it with a firm grip and got in beside her.

"What do you think you're doing?"

"What I should have done six months ago," was his mumbled answer.

***

Clark buckled his seatbelt and tried to relax, but Lois's presence beside him was making him slightly uncomfortable. Actually, it wasn't so much her presence, but the way she was refusing to talk to him, or even acknowledge his being here beside her, that made him so ill at ease.

He was aware his snappish remark about her way of life had been unfair to her, but it had slipped out naturally, and he'd realised only too late that it was bound to hurt her. At first, he'd been waiting for the explosion that he knew would come, but it had never come. Her lips had tightened and her gaze hardened in that typical Lois Lane fashion that warned him to keep his distance if he wanted to be safe. Only this time, he hadn't wanted to stay away, because he knew that this time, he hadn't made her mad. He'd hurt her. Again.

He released a deep sigh, then another as he saw how she was purposefully ignoring him, having suddenly found a fascinating interest in the rapidly scrolling lights of the buildings they were passing by.

The journey seemed an eternity to him, as he tortured himself trying to think of something that could repair the hurt. He knew there was nothing he could say or do that would make up for his thoughtlessness this time, and that he'd already trespassed the boundaries of what was acceptable for Lois Lane. He knew her, and she wouldn't forgive him this time.

But then, why hadn't she thrown him out of the cab when he'd forced his way in beside her a few minutes ago?

For the same reasons as himself, he supposed. She didn't want to reiterate the mistakes she'd made and that had led them to stay away from each other during those endless months.

The taxi halted in front of the Hotel de Crillon, and a uniformed bellboy opened the back door, motioning for them to step out. Clark frowned and turned towards Lois, but she'd already exited the car, still oblivious to his company. Rolling his eyes and preparing himself for the worst, he followed her.

"Lois!" he called to her as she continued her unheeding walk towards the large stairs of her hotel. Clark jogged to fall in step beside her, and caught her arm, but she wrenched herself free of his grasp.

"Lois!"

She suddenly turned around to face him, and he unconsciously stepped back a little when confronted by her wrathful glare. "What?"

"Lois — "

"What is it this time? The hotel I'm staying in isn't *uncomfortable* enough for your taste?"

"Look, I know I shouldn't have said that but — "

But she interrupted him again, ignoring his conciliatory tone. "Come on, Kent, say it. I'm sure you can come up with one of those snippy comments that you were delighted to hurt me with before I got engaged. So what's the matter? What are you gonna accuse me of? Of being a snobbish woman who happens to sleep in one of those awful palaces they call five-stars hotels? That it was the kind of life that I wanted? That the only reason why I married Lex was for his money? Go ahead, Clark, I know that's been on your mind, anyway. You know me so well that you have me all figured out, don't you? My motives hold no secret for you, do they? Poor Lois, incapable of experiencing sympathy or even love, reduced to being the wife of a billionaire because she didn't want to — "

"Lois!" That seemed to stop her, and she stared at him, panting, but finally silent. "Thank you. Lois, I never thought any of that… okay, maybe I did," he added as he saw her doubtful grimace. "But I know it's not what you found attractive in… the man you married. And I wasn't about to make another observation about this hotel. I think I've made enough hurtful comments to you for one night, haven't I?"

"Yeah. About time you'd realised that, Kent."

"Look, I'm sorry." She kept glaring at him, her gaze unwavering, and he squirmed. "I really am. What I said about your new job was a low blow. I apologise for that, Lois, but it's just that — "

She released a small, resigned sigh. "Accepted."

Clark nodded thankfully. "I think it's been a little too much for me to handle tonight," he said with a tired chuckle.

"Yeah. Neither of us were expecting…" She waved a hand in front of her for emphasis. "This. Some wounds take time to heal," she added as an afterthought. "And I admit I haven't been all that nice to you either, I guess," she conceded reluctantly. "But this isn't all that easy for me either, Clark. Seeing you again, spending this evening with you, with… with my best friend, well, it's something that I've…" She trailed off, and sighed. "I just wanted to say that I'm… I'm — "

Clark reached out to touch her arm. "I've been thinking about this for a long time, too. And… I'm glad to see you again."

Lois looked down at his hand touching her, and then back at his face. When she saw his gentle features only slightly obscured by the darkness, she couldn't make herself be angry at him. There were too many regrets, too much wasted time in her life, for her to stay mad at him. He was there now, at her side, and she could see the inner battle within himself: he wanted to comfort her, to be the best friend he'd always been, but was afraid she'd push him away.

"So, I'll meet you tomorrow?" she asked timidly, ignoring the quiver in her voice. "For the inves… for *our* investigation?"

They shared a smile at what those words meant to them. "Yeah. Our investigation."

***

Lois shifted a little against the cool, crisp sheets of her bed. She stared at the ceiling, watching the red and white lights of the cars outside trace patterns of shadows and beams on the wall opposite the window and listening to the occasional sound that would reach her ears through the double-glazing.

She hadn't pulled the drapes, preferring the reminder of life outside to the obscurity of her enormous hotel room. Somehow that made her feel less alone, even if it couldn't fill the void that had overcome her when she'd seen Clark wave goodbye at her through the glass door of the Crillon's lobby.

As she'd walked through the deserted reception area, the quietness of the place only troubled by the night porter's light snores — and she'd wondered with a giggle what he was actually paid for — she'd turned her head towards the entrance more than once, just to make sure that Clark was still there, that she hadn't spent the last few hours dreaming and he was some kind of illusion that would fade away as soon as she'd return to the reality of her hotel room. But he'd smiled reassuringly, though tiredly, at her, and gently waved goodbye, as a sign that he hadn't wanted to leave, before she'd disappeared behind the elevator's doors.

Separating from him had been harder than seeing him again, she acknowledged, and she'd wished they could have talked more tonight. But both of them had been exhausted by the night's events, and their continual misunderstandings seemed to keep leading them to fights neither of them wanted to get into. As for their investigation, there wasn't much they could do about it now, anyway, even if they'd actually been in the mood to work. Agreeing to meet the next day in the lobby of the Paris International had looked like the best solution for them to be ready to handle her story. *Their* story, she corrected, surprised at the lack of reluctance on her part as she considered the notion of their unexpected partnership. Let's sleep on it, counselled the old saying, and everything would turn out much brighter tomorrow.

Ha! As if!

Being partners again would certainly not be a piece of cake for either of them, since Clark had probably become accustomed to working alone as much as she had, but she knew that they could do it, and that, after a few awkward moments, they'd soon find their places again, and take advantage of how their skills complemented each other. No, working with him again wouldn't be a problem at all. It was rather the rest that scared her; all those little asides that had created their friendship back in Metropolis, and that weren't allowed between them any more, either because he was afraid she'd reject him, or because she didn't want to hurt him again.

And Clark had become so defensive over the months… He wasn't the open, friendly man she'd known when he'd first arrived from Smallville, Kansas. No, now he looked uncomfortable, shifted awkwardly when she got too close and personal with her questioning, or when something she said reminded him of their partnership. He was dragging the year he'd spent with her like a millstone round his neck.

The ringing of her cell phone startled her and she cursed herself for neglecting to disconnect it as she fumbled in the darkness to retrieve it. The voice that greeted her when she finally picked it up made her shudder involuntarily.

"Lois, my sweet, what are you doing way across the ocean?" Lex's suave intonations asked through the receiver.

"Lex. What a surprise," Lois answered sarcastically. "So you finally remembered I existed?"

"Lois!" was his reproachful reply. Clearly, her husband had been expecting a more welcome greeting.

"And of course, you had this sudden urge to call me right now, in the middle of the night just to know how I was doing. Well, thank you for your concern."

"Oh, that's true, I hadn't realised there was the time difference," Lex replied airily.

"Sure, you didn't."

"I beg your pardon?"

"Never mind. So, to what do I owe the honour of your nightly phone call?"

"I was wondering why my wife was in a faraway country and I wasn't informed about it," he answered casually.

"Lex, I called your office today, but you're never available, because of those business meetings you're constantly having and that you don't want to tell me anything about. I figured you didn't need to keep tabs on my work either, and since I'm here on assignment, I didn't have to warn you I'd be late for dinner tonight, right?"

"Sarcasm doesn't become you, darling," Lex drawled, sounding a little hurt by Lois's sudden aggressive attitude. "I only wish you'd told me before you left."

"So that you could talk me out of it?"

"You know I don't like you to work on dangerous investigations, my love. I saw the assignments board in Dooley's office, and this is how I learned you were in Paris. What are you working on, anyway?"

"You're *spying* on me?" Lois blurted out, amazed that he wouldn't even make a secret of it.

"Well, since you're not informing me of your comings and goings, I have to manage on my own," Lex said with a sad note in his voice. "And I have to say I really don't like what Mr Dooley involves you in."

"Don't blame David, I was the one who asked for this assignment," she lied.

"Why doesn't he send another team to investigate… whatever you're supposed to be investigating?"

"Because it would take too much time for someone else to catch up on those murders. And why would I do that anyway?"

"Yes, why would you? You don't need to work, anyway, it's not as if we don't have enough income."

Lois rolled her eyes. They'd already had this discussion several times, but Lex would never understand that what she wanted and what they needed were two distinctly separate things. She was over gnashing her teeth about it, and her initial defensiveness at his insistence had been replaced by a bored annoyance whenever he broached the topic.

"That's what I feared when I got you this job," Lex continued, sounding contrite. "TV journalism has nothing to do with written press, darling, and you don't have to take the same risks as those you did when you were working for White."

"Well, thank you very much for your concern, Lex, but I can take care of myself. Actually, I was doing that perfectly before my sleep pattern was interrupted."

Lex let out a short sigh, and Lois could literally picture him shaking his head in exasperation. "You seem to be upset about something. Want to talk about it?"

"I'm not upset, I'm *tired*."

"I'm sorry, my sweet. I guess I'll let you sleep, then. I'll call you soon to know how you're doing. Goodnight, my love."

***

*Metropolis, USA, Wednesday*

Lex Luthor replaced the phone receiver on its cradle with an aggravated frown. He'd always been aware that Lois was an independent woman, and that he'd have a few difficulties keeping her under his control, but her insistence on autonomy was starting to be frustrating. After all, it had been more than six months that they'd been married, yet she was still stubbornly refusing to obey him and quit her job. Why couldn't she stay in their comfortable penthouse and try her hand at writing fictional books, if that pleased her? Being who he was, he could always find a way to get her books published, even if he doubted that anything his wife produced would be worth something. But no, she was hanging onto this stupid obsession that her writing as a reporter was 'making a difference'.

He shook his head ruefully, wondering how much time he'd need to convince her. After the blue-clad boy scout had left the country, he'd held firm hope that Superman's influence on this city's inhabitants — and particularly on Lois — would subside, and that he'd be able to control criminality as the fancy took him, exactly like he'd done before the sickeningly moralistic superhero had arrived on the scene.

Nevertheless, it hadn't happened entirely the way he'd hoped for. Lois had changed, yes, but it wasn't Superman's departure that had affected her the most. She didn't seem to have been as close to the man as Lex had first thought. No, what had transformed her had been the loss of those people she'd called her friends, and who were in fact simple work colleagues. They'd probably thought Lois appreciated them, but he was sure she preferred to live by higher standards, and the kind of life he had offered her was a lot more interesting than the one she'd led before.

Then why was she being so stubborn? What was it that she hungered after so much in her quest for independence? Why did she claim to need it? No, he'd succeed in making her change her mind soon, he decided. Her little game had lasted longer than necessary, and he was tired of putting up with her whims. If she didn't want to come back home and forget about her stupid project, then he'd have to take more drastic measures.

But what worried him, this time, was that she was in Paris, and seemingly poking her nose into things that didn't concern her. Of course, the fact she was investigating some obscure murder didn't mean anything, and it could be perfectly coincidental, what with the number of homicides these days, particularly in big cities. But he knew his Lois, and the reputation she'd built herself when she'd been working at the Daily Planet. If she was onto something, it was better to know exactly what and control every source of information that came to her, so as not to take the chance that she'd discover anything that she wasn't supposed to know about.

He pressed a couple of buttons on his telephone, and threw a few instructions at his secretary.

Barely a minute later, the door to his office opened and Nigel St John silently slid to the couch in the lugubrious way that seemed to be his trademark. He crossed his legs with a mannered brush of his hand on his pants to straighten them, and stared expectantly at his employer.

"Nigel," Lex started, when he was sure that his main henchman was attentive and listening. "I'd like you to take the Lear jet and fly to France first thing tomorrow, just to check if my beloved better half isn't nosing into something dangerous for her health. It would infinitely pain me to see her hurt herself because of her foolhardiness; prevention is better than cure, don't you think?"

"It certainly is, sir," the Englishman answered with a knowing smile, wishing his boss had implemented this sage advice before marrying this woman who was now causing so much trouble for them. Although he admitted it had seemed like a good idea at the time, to try and control her. She hadn't been as dangerous as Superman, but she was being too curious for his taste, and there were too many risks that her investigations could result in her running into some of Lexcorp's hidden activities. So he supposed that had been Lex Luthor's main motivation in tying the knot with the exasperating nosey parker. He didn't believe in this nauseating story of his employer's love for a stupid reporter, that was just beyond belief. No, Lex Luthor wasn't so stupid as to lose himself in a remake of 'Romeo & Juliet'. Mrs Luthor didn't belong to their world. She was living in a fantasy where everything was white or black, with no grey to nuance it all. Poor woman! Her naivete amazed him, for someone who was supposed to be an intelligent journalist, always assuming that this kind of person could be considered as clever.

"Have you taken care of the basic information we needed?" Luthor asked, interrupting Nigel's musings.

"I have, Sir. My contact in Paris found an individual desperate for some money and gave him a little job to do, just to see what we're dealing with, and hopefully make Mrs Luthor listen to reason. I know he's been on her tail for a few hours, and he was supposed to act as soon as possible. Unfortunately, I just received a phone call from the man who hired him, and it seems Superman caught him."

Lex's smug smile faded at those disappointing news. "I don't like what you're telling me, Nigel," he answered half-threateningly. "My Lois did seem a bit tense when I called her, so I supposed our plan had worked, but it seems I've overestimated your ability to find someone worthy of our trust."

"I didn't have any contact with the person in question, Sir," St John answered defensively. "Which is why there's no need to worry about it. I made sure my contact hired a habitual offender, and put in as many middlemen as possible between myself and him. The police couldn't possibly trace him right back to us, even if he decided to talk and they believed him."

"Oh, I'm not worrying for myself; I was simply expressing some friendly concern for you. If there ever was a leak that led an investigation to your actions, I'd have some difficulty defending you. Your past as a corrupt secret agent would probably be brought up in court and might lengthen your sentence. I, on the other hand, would appear as the perfect victim to your double dealing." Luthor relaxed in his chair and watched his henchman's face fall with a satisfied grin.

Nigel maintained an impassible stance. "If my precautions turned out not to be enough, I could always take care that this man isn't in any shape to talk. Miller would probably be very happy to run another test for our project, anyway. The second human experiment was even more impressive than the first one three weeks ago."

"I still want you to make sure it's undetectable in the blood before we bring it back here. It certainly will be amusing to have this new kind of weapon. It's not that I don't trust you to put enough mediators between Lexcorp and the men you hire so that no link is made, Nigel, but we can never be too cautious."

"And there's the added satisfaction that the K project might help us get rid of some old enemy, were he to go snooping into the business," Nigel added with a smile that didn't quite reach his eyes.

Luthor's grin widened. "Very true. But so far he seems far too busy dealing with social problems, and probably trying to swim his way through the French administration to get a Green Card, to pay any attention to the K Project. Which, I have to say, is perfectly fine by me. However, my Lois is a little tougher to handle than Superman."

"I'll keep an eye on her."

"Perfect! We're all set, then. You take that trip to Paris and call me as soon as you know more. And make sure my wife gets home safe and sound, without realising you've been there at all, will you?"

Nigel St John nodded and left the room as silently as he'd entered it, his expression even gloomier than the one he'd shown upon entering. Now was time for him to prove yet again that he could be trusted by Lex Luthor.

***

*Paris, France, Thursday*

Lois paced about the Paris International's lobby, checking her watch for the umpteenth time and looking at the revolving doors with an impatient sigh. Clark was supposed to have arrived twenty minutes ago, but there was still no sign of him. She'd even asked the clerk if he'd seen him, but the answer had been negative. It reminded her of his total lack of punctuality that had got on her nerves so much when they'd been partners. It had always been public knowledge back at the Planet that Clark Kent had a habit of being late; it had been one of life's certainties, something that had turned into a traditional joke among the staff. Whenever he arrived on the dot, it meant something was wrong.

So, why was she worrying this morning?

Her mind was riddled with this sudden insecurity every time it came to Clark, as if all the convictions she'd always clung to had vanished. He wasn't as reliable as he'd been, he was secretive, he wasn't predictable… he'd left. She sighed audibly: try as she might, she couldn't shake off this obsessive remembrance; there was always something that made it come back to her. Today it was Clark's lateness, tomorrow it would be another insignificant detail about him that would bring back the unpleasant memories.

Tomorrow…

Suddenly, it hit her. She didn't know if tomorrow would be spent with Clark, or back at home, alone. The vague uncertainty of the next day ate away at her, making its way into her whole being progressively, and reminding her constantly that this time with her partner was very ephemeral. He couldn't be the stability she'd beenholding onto when they'd been working together, she couldn't rely on him to lend her a shoulder to cry on when she was feeling down or was upset, she couldn't count on him to bounce ideas around when working on a complex story. Their partnership was so provisory that it could end tomorrow… or even tonight. As soon as they discovered the truth behind the two homeless people's deaths, she'd have to take a plane back to Metropolis, and chances for her to convince Clark to follow her were very thin.

Well, and she couldn't do that to him, now that she knew so clearly why he'd left. Her presence was probably painful to him, and she was sure he'd heave a sigh of relief when she left for good. He wouldn't have to go through the ordeal of seeing her any more; he could put it all behind him, and forget she'd ever been in his life. After all, the odds of working together on a story were so small that it couldn't happen twice in their life, could it?

Somehow, as much as she wanted to stay with him, she knew that it would be a relief for her, too. There were too many memories attached to Clark for her to think clearly when he was around, too many things she regretted from the time they'd spent together as best friends. Last night, she'd allowed herself to confide in him, and she'd let him comfort her. But there had been a new dimension in their relationship that she couldn't quite grasp; something that had scared her, like a frontier she'd forbidden herself to pass, yet towards which her steps kept returning unflaggingly.

And when she imagined tomorrow, when she imagined her life without Clark, she realised the loneliness she'd been fighting against all those years was well and truly there, anchored within her, a depressing feeling she couldn't shake off, and which would be back with a vengeance as soon as she found herself back in the lifeless penthouse that Lex dared call their 'apartment'.

How could it be that she was feeling more at home, here, in this big foreign city that she'd known for less than twenty-four hours, than in Metropolis, where she'd been living all her life?

An immediate answer came from the back of her mind, but she ignored it, refusing to acknowledge the hope and sense of belonging that her partner and best friend had brought into her life, and taken away with him when he'd left.

That was ridiculous, she was perfectly fine before he arrived on the scene, she hadn't felt any need back then, she -

<It's what you've already had that you miss the most.>

She nodded her head sceptically, considering the thought, and rejecting it almost immediately. There was something she'd never had, and yet it was a constant void in her heart, something she knew she'd miss all her life, something that no-one could ever give her…

Love.

No-one had ever truly loved her. None of the men she'd loved had returned the magic feeling she'd thought she was offering them. She chuckled bitterly as she remembered the old romance novel that was sleeping somewhere on the hard drive of the old computer that had died in the Planet's explosion.

'It's about a woman that dies without ever finding her true love,' she'd told Clark once, on one of the occasions when she'd thought her life was nearing its end. And her partner's forceful answer had been that it wasn't going to happen to her. He'd seemed so sure of that, and yet he'd been so wrong.

Her entire life, from her first fling in high school up to her disastrous marriage to Lex, spoke of betrayal and disappointment. Every single man whose amorous attentions she'd accepted had ended up hurting her, or leaving her even more lonely than when they'd met her. Taking all the hope from her, insidiously, sneakily, lulling her into sweet promises of unconditional love, a life of happiness beside them, commitment and fidelity…

But when the first few blissful weeks of a new relationship were over, they drifted apart, making her feel rejected, unloved… and empty.

A prisoner of her solitude.

Could she have been happy with Clark Kent?

The question surprised her, coming almost out of nowhere, but pulling at her mind for an answer she couldn't give. Would Clark have been any different from the men she'd known? Would he have tired of her after getting to know her? Would they have drifted apart when he realised his crush on her wasn't as strong as he'd first thought?

She sighed. Her relationship with Clark was different, so different from any other relationship she'd had with men, and particularly, men she'd worked with. His declaration had seemed so truthful, so sincere that she'd wanted to believe it, even if she hadn't been ready to return it. And as their conversation of the previous night had proven to her, distance hadn't worn his feelings down. If she went by his reactions of the previous night, she'd even dare to say it had strengthened them. And he knew her better than anyone else, but he'd never given her the impression he was drifting away.

He'd done a lot more than that.

He'd run away without a word of explanation. Without bothering to let her know what was really behind his departure, without letting her talk him out of it. And when she'd asked for an explanation the previous night, he'd tried all he could to avoid the conversation in question. Whatever he said about not wanting to go over that ground again, that couldn't excuse his need to run off like he had.

The thought darkened her mood even more, and she lowered her head, breathing deeply in an attempt to shake off the weariness it had installed within her.

"Hey!"

The cheerful greeting startled Lois out of her musings and made her jump. "Clark!"

He smiled sweetly at her, and she felt her insides melt at the sight.

"Don't do that again," she protested. "Why do you always creep up on me like that?"

He looked a bit taken aback. "I do?"

"Well, you did. Used to. Whatever." She shook her head. Going back through old memories of their partnership wasn't doing any good. "What took you so long, anyway?"

"Oh! I… uh… nothing, I… uh… I woke up late, that's all. I'm sorry."

In fact, his lateness was due to a pile up on the freeway outside of Paris. He tensed infinitesimally as he spotted her doubtful frown at his attempt at an excuse. He hated lying to her, but he knew he had no other choice. There was no hope he'd ever tell her about himself now that she was married to a man who'd tried to kill him more than once. If Lex Luthor became aware that his wife knew something about his arch nemesis, he'd stop at nothing to get to him. The secret had to be kept, more than ever. But with excuses like those, he didn't seem likely to succeed in preserving his secret very long… especially when Lois was extending her hand towards his shirt, like she was just now.

What the…?!

Her smile was reassuring, and he looked down at her hands to see her straighten the knot of his tie. The sight made him giddy; she hadn't ever done something like that before. It was strangely reminiscent of the way his Mom used to make the same gesture when he'd first started to wear suits. But with Lois, it held another significance, a different kind of closeness.

She withdrew her hands from his tie and placed them on his shoulders, keeping him at arms length to admire her work with a self-satisfied smile before inching her face closer to his throat again to smooth his collar down.

Feeling her hot breath and the brush of her hands on his neck was the last thing he needed to keep a cold mind, Clark mused wryly as a fresh rush of excitement coursed through him. He'd dreamt of her during the night… dreamt of them, *together*. And what annoyed him the most was that he'd enjoyed those dreams so much and wished they could come true. But there was no way they would, he had to remember that. Lois was married and he had no right to even think about her that way.

No right at all.

Yes, he had to repeat it to himself.

Over and over.

Until it registered.

At least they were working together, and even if their friendship wasn't what it used to be, it was still better than being alone, far from her. They'd come close to fighting the previous night.

<There are other things you came close to,> his nagging conscience reminded him dryly.

But they had managed to control their emotions and avoid it — *both* of them.

A slap on his shoulder thankfully startled him out of his dangerous train of thought. "Kane!" a familiar, cheerful voice exclaimed, making him snap out of Lois's grasp and swiftly turn around.

Lois observed with growing amusement as her former partner hurried to shake the newcomer's hand and showed amazing signs of nervousness at the other man's call of his assumed name. She cleared her throat when she noticed Clark seemed to have gone oblivious to her presence, and his colleague's gaze flicked to her.

"Oh!" Clark said hurriedly again, realising he still hadn't made the introductions. "Marc, this is — "

"Ms Luthor, from Luthor News Network team, I know," the man answered with a smile before extending his hand to Lois in a friendly greeting.

"Nice to see you again, Mr Falineau," Lois replied with a wink to her bemused partner, whose gaze was travelling between them with a frown. "Told you I had my own contacts here," she whispered only for him.

"I had the pleasure of assisting Ms Luthor in her research yesterday afternoon," Marc explained. "But how do you guys know each other?"

"Oh we don't." Clark's reply was betraying his uneasiness. "I mean… we do. But not quite — "

Lois stifled a laugh. "We sort of got set up by a common source, who suggested that Mr Kane and I work together on the same investigation."

"Planning to get a raise or something, Jerome? Working with a big name will certainly look good on your resume."

"Marc — "

"I'm happy for you, man. You deserve it. And you, Ms Luthor, it's really a pleasure to see you again in the Paris International's offices. If you want me to have a quiet word in the ear of the big boss for him to hire you, I'll be more than glad to comply. I used to read your work when you worked for the Planet."

Lois's laugh subsided to be replaced by a curious frown. "You did?"

"Sure. You and that partner you had… what was his name?"

"Clark Kent," Lois said with an almost tender note, and watched Clark's face redden a bit at the mention of his name.

"Kent, that's it. Too bad the Planet sunk and never got back to the surface after the bombing. You guys really did a wonderful job together," Marc finished with a sad note creeping in his tone.

"Yeah. We did." Lois nodded, noticing the shadow that was passing over Clark's gaze at the reminder of the events that had changed their life forever.

"Anyway. Speaking of good journalism, congrats on your latest Superman exclusive, Jerome. Once again, you beat everyone to it. I still wonder how you managed to approach the guy, considering how much he's avoided the press recently. It's been the third interview you got since you've been there."

"I… uh… well…"

"Newbie's luck, Mr Falineau," Lois completed for Clark, whose features had suddenly taken on an unusual crimson appearance, she noticed with a smile.

"Certainly seems so," Marc said before retreating back into the Paris International's library.

Clark released a tired sigh, then turned to Lois. "Thank you. For protecting… my identity."

"Why did he seem so surprised that you got an exclusive? And, by the way, why didn't you make front page with this one?"

"Oh! Well… I don't do front page stories any more." His tone was matter-of-fact, but Lois recognised the signs of a sensitive topic beneath his answer.

"You don't?"

"Jerome Kane doesn't, no."

Lois observed the way he almost flinched as he said the name he'd taken on for this job, and she hooked her arm through his, dragging him towards the awaiting elevators. "Come on, Kane. We'll get this sorted out. I'll make an award-winning reporter out of you."

As Clark let himself be pulled by Lois, he became aware that his main fear as he'd heard Marc's voice behind them had been that she'd refuse to call him Jerome and reveal his real identity. But he should have trusted Lois to understand, he now realised; she'd certainly been a great help back there, coming up with explanations when he'd started to talk gibberish and could have awakened his friend's suspicions.

Why did it seem so complicated to keep to the pretence all of a sudden? He'd carried on this masquerade for four months now, without ever having to think twice about watching his words, the only topic he forbade himself to raise being his life as Clark. But Lois showing up in his life was resurrecting loads of memories linked to his real self, and since last night, he'd felt himself relive them. For the first time in six months, he'd felt very much alive. He'd become Clark Kent again.

He *was* Clark Kent.

His Jerome Kane persona seemed so pale in comparison, so empty. And standing at Lois's side in this newspaper's lobby, talking to one of the rare friends he'd made since he'd settled here, and hearing about the man's regret for the dissolution of the Planet, had robbed him of any coherent thought, leaving only regrets and sadness at a loss very few people were aware of.

And now, if word got passed around that Jerome Kane managed to get exclusive interviews with Superman, when the superhero refused any contact with the media, people would start to get suspicious. It wouldn't be long for Kane to be linked back to Kent, and -

Paranoia.

Good old paranoia was taking hold of him yet again, exactly like it had during those first few months of using a secret identity. At that time, his father's cautious words had made him wary regarding anything that could be considered as a link between Superman and Clark Kent, repeating more than ever his litany about scientists locking him in a lab to dissect him like a common frog. He knew his father was right, and that caution was his best bet to keep some sort of normal life, whatever that meant for him.

His fear of getting caught had progressively subsided, after months of getting used to juggling with two names, two lives, two identities. The world had accepted him as two people, who, although seemingly friends, were very distinct from one another.

When he'd left Metropolis, he'd thought he could put on the same show of being two people for the rest of the world, but he'd ended up being no-one instead, until yesterday night.

To Lois, he'd always been, and would always be, Clark Kent. Her partner and best friend, Clark Kent.

He growled inwardly. Three identities were a little too much for him to bear on his shoulders, and he didn't really feel up to the challenge. "Why is my life so complicated?" he muttered, rolling his eyes.

"Excuse me?"

"Huh?" He looked down into Lois's inquisitive stare, and bit his lip, realising his whine had been said aloud. Complicated, indeed. So complicated that the least of his words were being analysed and questioned by his partner. "Nothing!" he hurried to answer. "Nothing, really. I… uh… was just talking to myself, that's all."

She made a face. "Clark, why do you think your life is complicated? *You* are making it complicated, with that stupid secret identity of yours, for a start."

He stared at her, speechless, and swallowed roughly.

She knew.

How did she know? Since when? Why? Why hadn't she said anything?

"I mean, come on, that's bound to give you some weird identity crisis at some point. And to drive me crazy, too. I'm going to have to call you Jerome in front of everyone, and work with you on this investigation, but I don't know Jerome Kane! I mean, he's a reporter who probably doesn't write much except a couple of human interest stories here and there, no offence to your other persona, Clark," she hastened to add. "And that's pretty much what I know of him. That's what I have a *right* to know."

<Oh! *That* secret identity,> Clark thought with a sigh of relief, which turned into frustration as yet another proof of the way his life was complicating itself hit him. "It's not the same, Lois. You know *me*. The real me. You know Clark Kent, and Clark Kent is who I am."

"Are you sure? How am I supposed to react with you? I don't know who you are any more."

"So what? Do you think a person's name is what makes him who he is? That because you're Lois Luthor, now, you're different from Lois Lane, that — "

"I'm not saying that, Clark. And to answer your question, I think you made it clear that Lois Luthor couldn't be your best friend, right? But what I mean is that if a name can't define who you are, it certainly can tell you who you are *not*. And you're not Jerome Kane any more than I am Lois Luthor. Yet you're asking me to keep up this charade and work with Jerome Kane, even if you're perfectly aware that I can't work with someone I don't know. I've never been able to do that, why would I start now?"

"But you did, Lois." She looked confused, so he clarified. "The first time Perry teamed us up, you didn't really know me. Actually, that's not true. You didn't know me *at all*."

"Well, I think I made it clear I wasn't happy with being partnered with you, didn't I?" she answered defensively, her words stinging him deeply.

"So, what do you suggest? That we don't work together? That you go back to Metropolis and forget you've met me here? Keep up the pretence that I'm dead or that I've vanished somewhere I'll never come back from? Be Lois Luthor so that I can be Jerome Kane?"

"Don't be ridiculous. I have no intention of letting go of this story!"

"Then take my notes and get your Pulitzer," Clark replied cynically. "That's what you want, isn't it? That's what you've *always* wanted, anyway."

Lois stared at him for a moment, then the hurt in her eyes transformed into exasperation, and she let out a sigh. "What I *want* is to have my partner back."

His mouth formed a silent and surprised oh. "I guess… you have it, then," he replied with a weak smile as the elevator doors opened on the already busy newsroom.

***

Lois followed Clark out of the elevator and into the busy newsroom, in which the faint humming of computers and the smell of coffee reheated too many times was reminiscent of the Planet's atmosphere. An intense fever reigned in the Bullpen, and Lois observed the rapid comings and goings of the reporters with fascination, remembering with a certain nostalgia a time when she'd been one of them.

Clark had been right about one thing at least: the atmosphere at LNN was cold — icy, even — when compared to the one she'd known at the Planet. At least, in the newsroom, she'd known everyone by their name, and she could even say she'd made friends with some of her colleagues… sort of… well, at least Clark, and Jimmy, and Perry. Maybe even Cat. In any case, she'd done more than simply pass them in the office's corridors.

She'd felt more than simple concern for her colleagues when there had been mass lay-offs at the Planet, and she'd been ready to start organising strike action before Lex had bought it and tried to salvage it.

Salvage it? Had that really been on his mind?

This particular element of her husband's life was still a mystery to her, and she didn't fully understand what had been his main motivation. Had he really wanted to save the newspaper that was so important to thousands of Metropolitans, even though he knew it represented a rival to his own network? She'd thought that buying the Planet had been part of his strategy to ensure the rule of Lexcorp over the press, but after a few weeks of their marriage, Lex had told her his real reasons for the deal. He'd admitted he'd wanted to get closer to her, and that this opportunity had been too good to be missed. She supposed she should have been flattered, but she hadn't been. She'd felt like a tracked animal, unable to escape; the trap her husband had set for her to ensure she fell under his spell had closed upon her before she was even aware of its existence, and it had been too late to back off.

Lex had told her they were meant for each other, and she had wanted to believe him, to be sure she hadn't been wrong. But now that she was here in Paris, and had found Clark again, it was more and more difficult for her to ignore how she'd been fooled about sentiments that had never existed between Lex and her.

A light weight on her forearm reminded her of her surroundings, and of the visible concern in Clark's frown.

Yes. Fooled all right. Lex had never expressed any concern for her, of any kind. He couldn't have missed the traces of tears on her cheeks sometimes when he came to bed late at night, or the continual melancholy in her eyes. But it seemed he had. Or he'd ignored those signs, and let her sink more and more, letting her grab on to her memories as her only lifeline.

Now, when she looked up at Clark's concerned expression, she realised what she'd given up, and how much she missed it.

She nodded to him with a reassuring smile, but inside, she wasn't feeling all that good. The sight of this newsroom where her ex-partner now worked on a daily basis, *without* her, was a little too much for her to bear. It was a little disconcerting for her to feel almost at home here, whereas she'd been a member of the LNN team for more than six months and had always been a stranger there.

At LNN, she had a spacious office lit by the sun beaming through the large window, a gigantic desk and an impressive chair the likes of which even Perry hadn't owned at the Planet.

Her eyes fell on Clark's cubicle, and she was reminded of her own working area in the Planet's newsroom. She'd been among the reporters milling around the Bullpen, breathing in the excited atmosphere of the newspaper every day, lively even when there was no big story breaking.

She took a few steps forward, advancing through the crowd of oblivious reporters, and reached for the nameplate sitting on the edge of Clark's desk. She observed the unfamiliar name on it: Jerome Kane. What a weird choice of a name. In any case, it didn't sound French, so Clark hadn't lied about his origins, at least. Maybe he'd even told his colleagues about his childhood on a farm, she thought with a bitter chuckle. She walked around his cubicle and sat on his chair, looking at the neat area beside his computer. He hadn't changed his obsession that everything should be organised and tidy, she noticed with a light grin. Everything seemed to be in the right place; there wasn't even a loose pencil lying around to mar the smooth surface of his desk-blotter.

Her gaze rose to find Clark's face and she noticed he was observing her pensively. "What?" she asked, a bit of exasperation underlying her tone.

"Oh, nothing. Just… remembering."

"Seems to be a recurring pattern for us."

He walked closer to her and sat on the edge of his desk. "Yes. I guess… we're entitled not to forget," he said almost regretfully.

"Why would you *want* to forget, Clark?"

He looked down, shaking his head. "I have to," he finally murmured.

"Why? Do you regret our partnership? Or our friendship? Why is it that you're trying to erase your past," she waved his nameplate in front of him, "like this?"

"I have to," he repeated stubbornly, more forcefully, his eyes meeting hers this time. "Lois, I'll never regret anything from the year we spent together as friends, except maybe the way it ended. I have great memories of those times, but that's all they'll remain: memories."

"I guess that answers something I've been wondering for some time."

"Oh? And that would be?"

"Whether our friendship has ever meant something to you or not. Knowing you don't even want to try and save it explains a lot about your behaviour."

"My behaviour? Lois, we've already talked about that, and you know I didn't want it to — "

"You didn't want it to end the way it did, I heard that. You think it's *over*, Clark. You're giving up already, you don't even want to try, even now."

"Lois, it's not that I…" He trailed off and tilted his head to the side in a gesture that announced something Lois had practically managed to forget.

His mind was suddenly somewhere else, far from her and the newsroom, and she could already hear the excuse he'd be stuttering within a few seconds.

His body stance shifted uncomfortably before he took on an apologetic expression. "Lois, I'm sorry but I've got to — "

"Go somewhere and do something you'd totally forgotten about, I know," she interrupted with a resigned sigh. "So, what are you waiting for, go!" she exclaimed when he showed no sign of retreat, but stood there, in front of her, a dumbfounded look on his face.

"Lois, I'll be — "

"Right back, okay."

He frowned slightly, but didn't stay around this time, and she watched him run back towards the elevator. There had always been this mystery surrounding some of Clark's reactions, right from the start of their partnership. Almost every time they initiated a serious conversation, he had this faraway look on his face, and she knew what would come next: he'd find some excuse, and leave for an indeterminate length of time. She couldn't understand what motivated this attitude; even if during the year they'd spent together she'd had time to think about it, she hadn't ever managed to figure out what was behind what she'd realised was a fear to get into too personal matters. His final flight was just confirming her suspicions that Clark Kent preferred to run away rather than face a personal crisis that endangered his equilibrium.

And she understood, in a way, that he wanted to protect himself. But what didn't make sense to her was that sometimes he was the one who made the first move to initiate discussion at a more intimate level, on matters involving their private lives or their deepest thoughts. He'd given her the feeling that he wanted to learn more about her than she'd let her colleagues see, and he hadn't ever been reluctant to talk about his own life experiences.

On those nights they'd spent together on stakeout, they'd had more than one occasion to get to know each other better, and he'd told her some nice stories about his childhood and his travels worldwide. Weirdly enough, there was still one thing that she didn't know anything about in Clark's life: his relationships with women were something he seemed to jealously keep to himself, although the rest was crystal clear to her. His declaration of love had only half-explained his secretiveness, although she couldn't understand why he seemed to listen but not share whenever she'd confided in him about her unfortunate experiences before he'd arrived in Metropolis.

She'd told him about Claude almost right after they'd first met, trusting him with this heavy secret that had made her feel so humiliated for such long months before his arrival. Oh, she'd never regretted having told him about it, especially considering he'd never breathed a word to anyone, probably too scared by her threats of what she'd do to him if he did.

But she hadn't stopped there. Somehow, a few nights later, when they'd been on another stakeout, she'd found herself telling him the details about Claude's betrayal that she'd missed during that first confession, although he hadn't pried. She could have thought he wasn't interested in her life, but she'd felt that he was just being discreet. As soon as she'd started to open up to him, he'd showed his concern for her, comforting her as she'd told him how Claude had managed to make her believe she was in love with him just to drag her into his bed, and given her the reputation of an easy lay. Explaining how it had affected her work in the newsroom, and how she'd almost given up on her job at that time, had been some kind of catharsis for her.

She still had difficulties coming to terms with how easy it seemed to trust him, especially with something that she'd never talked about with anyone, not even Perry. She hadn't realised what a weight it had been for her to keep all this hurt to herself, until she'd talked it out with him. He'd listened to her without interrupting nor being judgmental about it, and he'd even held her as she'd cried herself out. There had been no discomfort afterwards, contrary to what she'd expected, and Clark hadn't taken advantage of his knowledge, or tried to reach for a closeness between them that she wasn't ready for.

But he could have confided in her in the same way, yet he hadn't. He'd kept her away from his personal life, protecting the veil of mystery that surrounded him. Had he been any other man, Lois would have thought he was cultivating it as a deceitful way to seduce women, but she knew Clark was different from his peers.

He was secretive for the same reasons as her: he had difficulty trusting people. Oh, of course, she'd always appeared as the pessimistic one in their partnership, never taking anything she was told at face value, whereas her partner had showed an openness from the start, and she'd even accused him of being too naive and trusting people he shouldn't. But she'd progressively come to the realisation that Clark was even more cautious than her when it came to anything that involved something personal. He hid himself probably more than anyone she'd ever known, even from her, who was supposedly his best friend.

Of course, maybe she hadn't made him feel like she was interested in finding out about him, at first, but after a while, she'd tried to discover more about who he was, and she'd made him tell her those fascinating stories about his travels. Still nothing too deeply personal, but it had been a good start. She'd thought he was beginning to trust her, and his avowal of love had at least proved that he'd felt comfortable enough to open up to her about his real feelings.

Although, he'd seemed compelled to do it before she accepted her husband's proposal. Had he thought it was his one and only chance to ever tell her how he really felt about her? Maybe he'd been waiting for the right time for his confession.

Would she have reacted differently if he'd waited? Could she know?

If she went by what she'd been feeling for him ever since she'd seen him again, she probably wouldn't turn him down in such a definite way, now. She wasn't in love with him, she refused to think that. No, Clark was a very dear friend, and their separation had possibly created this strange connection she was feeling now whenever he was around, or this void when he was away, like right now. But it had nothing to do with love; it was just… a need for the other's presence, a longing to hear his voice and feel his touch and a desire to be lov -

No, it wasn't! It was just a *friendly* fondness for someone she cared about. A *friend*, she insisted adamantly.

Still, even if all she was feeling for Clark was friendship, there were some mistakes she wouldn't make any more. She'd probably even give him the chance she'd refused him six months before, she realised with dawning surprise. But why not? After all, she liked him a lot, that was for sure, and she knew that being part of a couple with Clark Kent would certainly be a lot more fulfilling for her than her marriage.

Somehow, she'd never pictured herself strolling hand in hand, at night, in a romantic park, with Lex. And last night, that was what she'd done with Clark. She couldn't imagine either that Lex and she could spend a relaxing night at home, watching a silly video and necking like teenagers. She'd done that more than once with Clark… okay, except for the necking part.

But she'd never come close to that with Lex. Whenever he spent an evening with her, Nigel was there to serve expensive dishes onto their plates, and they kept the conversation on serious matters. Nothing of an intimate atmosphere was possible, considering there was always someone around them, listening — though with mild interest, if she went by Nigel's behaviour around them — to their every words. She'd even wondered with disgust if Lex wouldn't ask Nigel to attend when he took her to his bed, too. Heck, that was the only time when they could actually be totally alone in their marriage. Alone, that was the right word, since they were probably the moments when she felt the most abandoned.

On the contrary, whenever she pictured what her life could have been with Clark, a reassuring warmth enveloped her, like the strong arms of someone who would consider her as an equal in every part of their life: a colleague, a friend, a lover. She could have shared everything with him, and she wondered if he could have felt the same. Now that it was too late for either of them to consider this possibility, she was letting herself speculate what would have happened between them.

Of course, his flight had compromised everything, but she still thought he trusted her. Even if he kept running away.

***

Clark cursed his powers for making him fly away from Lois yet again, this time to stop a hostage situation in a nearby bank. He knew he'd find her angry and hurt upon returning to the Paris International's newsroom, especially considering he hadn't even bothered to give her an excuse for his abrupt departure, this time. No, he corrected steadfastly, *she* hadn't given him a chance to explain, but had shoved him off, almost encouraging him to leave.

Still, that wasn't giving him any hope regarding her state of mind when he'd return, and somehow, he doubted that bringing her back some coffee or fresh croissants would help soothe her anger. But there was no harm in taking the chance, so he made a small detour by the local bakery, and entered the newsroom with a brown bag from which mouth-watering aromas escaped. Maybe this would calm her down a little, he mused hopefully…

… or maybe not, he thought more darkly as he spotted her remote expression from where she was still sitting at his desk.

He approached her carefully, almost expecting her to pounce on him at the last moment. But she didn't do anything of the sort. She remained concentrated on his computer screen, reading whatever she'd found there and -

Wait a minute. *His* computer?

Suddenly forgetting his fear of being bitten for this new occurrence of what Lois had come to call his 'vanishing act,' he stepped closer to her, tapping on her shoulder and clearing his throat loudly.

She swivelled brusquely, the spinning chair hitting his shin in its momentum, and smiled sheepishly at him. "I had to find something to occupy myself," she explained with a wink.

"Lois! This is my personal computer you're snooping inside! And how did you find the password, anyway?"

"Clark, I wouldn't consider 'Smallville' a *password*. You're so predictable, sometimes."

"Well, now that the whole city has heard it, I guess I'll just have to find a more difficult one, won't I? What were you reading, anyway?"

"Your latest notes about our story. Fortunately, you still make those in a language I understand," she pointed at the text on the screen. "But you'll still have to explain that one to me. What's U209?"

"Oh! That's some unknown substance they found in Morteau's and Mellion's bodies that they haven't been able to identify. It seems to be a artificially created chemical, and it's being analysed right now. And they're running another bunch of tests to make sure the forensic examiner came up with the right results."

"Ah. I see. So the two murders are definitely linked, huh?"

"Yeah. Why, does that seem farfetched to you?"

"No, I've been convinced it was the case ever since I first talked to Max. David implied it as well before he sent me here. But I just think you could have told me yesterday night, couldn't you?"

"I had other things on my mind."

She nodded shyly. "So you think it's this substance that killed Mellion?" she asked, eager to come back to the safe topic of their investigation.

"Quite possibly. I don't believe in the overdose theory. Max is sure that Jeremy wasn't a heroin addict, and that even though Laurent seems to have been taking cocaine, he wouldn't have started to stick needles into his veins. Add to that the fact that no heroin was found in his blood anyway."

"Well, the murderer can't think of everything. He probably didn't know anything about their victims' lives anyway, otherwise he would have been aware that Mellion wasn't on any drug at all."

"I'm not so sure. It's very possible that they knew he was on alcohol, and took advantage of that to inject some product whose effect when mixed with alcohol would be the same as a heroin overdose."

"When are you getting the second lab report?"

"Dunno. Lucas said he'd call me when he got it."

"Lucas?"

"Police inspector."

"Aha! So, you shared information with him on the condition he'd give you some tips, eh?"

"How did you — "

"Clark, I've worked with you for a whole year. It's my job to know my partner so well," she gave him a light shove on the shoulder.

"Predictable again, huh?" He smiled playfully.

But Lois grew serious again. "Depends. Sometimes you pull one of those stunts that I don't understand, like you did just then. You're an open book to me, Clark. Or I thought you were. But I still don't understand what makes you act the way you do, why you always run off, whether it's for five minutes or for six months."

"Lois," Clark started to protest, but she interrupted him with a wave of her hand.

"I know what you're going to say. I know you didn't mean to hurt me. But you did, Clark, and that's not something I can easily erase from my mind. I need time."

"I know, and I'd be ready to give you time, if there was any. But Lois, you're here for a couple of days, at most. Is it really how you want to spend those few hours with me?"

"No, of course not. But I'm not the one who had this sudden need to leave for half an hour and leave me here in the middle of an uncharted territory without any explanation. What was it, this time, Clark? You had to return a video? You had an appointment at the doctor that you'd forgotten about? If you wanted to be on your own, you could have told me. Can't we be honest with each other for once? I thought we'd suffered enough of not talking to each other to stop hiding our real feelings."

Clark looked down at his feet. "I never hid my feelings for you, Lois, and look where that got us," he murmured.

"That's not what I meant."

"I know. I'm sorry, that was irrelevant."

<Not as much as you think,> she thought with a sigh. But it was too late, now, and she didn't need regrets to get in the way of her relationship with her best friend. There wasn't enough room in her life for all the things she should lament over, or wished she'd done otherwise.

"Lois, I know you're probably angry or hurt, but — "

"Leave your excuses for someone else, Clark. I don't want to hear them. What I want to hear is the truth. What I want to have is your trust."

"And you have it."

"No, I don't. If that was the case, you wouldn't feel the need to come back with some croissants to apologise for something you can't explain. By the way, are you planning on letting them go stale in their bag, or can we have breakfast now?"

Clark handed her the bag and watched with fascination as she made a grab for the first pastry, biting into it with a deep sigh of satisfaction.

"Oh, Clark," she breathed when she'd swallowed the first mouthful. "I haven't had such good croissants for… for more than six months. You have no idea how much I've missed that."

"Me, too," he murmured.

"You haven't ever told me where that bakery was where you got your supply in Metropolis," Lois continued, oblivious to his whisper.

"True. I haven't told you. But if I did, I'd miss a chance of seeing you here again."

"Good point. You know I'd fly thousands of miles for such a delight."

"Does that mean I'll have to bear with you full time?"

"You might just have to."

"I wouldn't mind." His playful smile got replaced by a more serious face, and she nodded, holding his gaze at their new agreement.

<Agreement to what?> Clark suddenly wondered. They'd just been talking about croissants, right? Nothing meaningful, nothing involving their relationship. He was just confusing his fantasies with the sad reality, living them out through an insignificant conversation about a pastry instead of seizing them bodily and courageously dealing with them.

<You did that once, and that didn't get you anywhere.>

Maybe. But at least, he hadn't been living his love for Lois by proxy thanks to a French croissant. At least, he hadn't been so pathetic.

A muffled ringing sound suddenly troubled his quiet observation of his beautiful partner, and he watched, fascinated, as she licked the remnants of the croissant off her fingers before retrieving her cell phone in her purse with a disapproving grunt. There was something about Lois that had always captivated him, a charming paradoxical mix of child-like reactions and maturity that made her all the more feminine and attractive. Enthralling. He wanted to discover all the facets of her character, to know every one of her hidden sides, to discover who she really was when she wasn't protecting herself from the outside world behind those barriers. She'd let him see more than a glimpse of the real Lois Lane, when he'd been her friend, but there were still some mysteries that he was longing to unearth and explore, although he knew that was impossible now.

The sound of her startled voice brought him back to the newsroom's reality, and he listened to her end of the conversation, purposefully shutting down his superhearing in a desperate effort to respect the privacy. He briefly wondered if it was Luthor, but Lois's sharp retorts made it unlikely.

Although…

'You're not Jerome Kane any more than I am Lois Luthor.'

Her words of this morning came back to him, and for the first time, he considered their possible significance. What Lois had meant with this wasn't all that clear to him. He knew how much she was attached to her independence, how important to her it was to remain Lois Lane for everyone, and this hidden revelation most likely didn't mean anything more than a plea that he didn't forget who she really was, and stopped thinking of her husband each time he was talking to her. But somehow, that didn't fit in the way she'd said it, and he had the strange intuition that there was more than that behind her argument. Why had she compared Jerome Kane to Lois Luthor? Why had she told him she wasn't who everyone else thought she was? Was she ashamed of her marriage? Was she regretting it?

This was a hope he couldn't let himself believe in. There had been too many times when he'd wondered if she would find happiness in that marriage, yet knowing only too well that she couldn't, wouldn't, although his motives to stop the wedding had always been rejected by her. A couple of days before he'd left Metropolis, he'd even wondered if he couldn't try and prove Luthor guilty so that he could stop the wedding from happening. But there had been this question forming in his mind: what if she really wanted to marry this monster? What if she really loved him?

And, maybe selfishly, he hadn't wanted to be the one to destroy her illusions, to tell her she'd been wrong, naive, and blind. The words sounded so harsh even now, after all this time, and probably even more since she was still married to a man he knew could hurt her if she ever discovered some of his secret activities. If she ever did, Luthor would probably give her a choice between stepping onto his side and help perpetuate a long tradition of crimes and murders to get always further in his control over people, or he'd simply dispose of her as an annoying part of his life. If she got dangerous for him, he knew Luthor wouldn't hesitate to kill her, and the thought sent a shivery chill down his spine.

'If you really cared about me, you'd let me… help me be happy. I've got a good job and found someone who wants to spend the rest of his life with me. What's wrong with that?'

He'd been trying so hard to believe her, to be as confident as she'd been regarding Luthor's intentions towards her, to find a small prize of consolation in her future happiness, even if he was left out of her life. Lois had to be happy in her marriage. That was the only hope that remained from their shattered relationship. He'd always wanted her to find someone to love her the way she deserved, and if she thought Luthor was the right one, then he didn't have to protest or give his disapproval. If she found happiness in this union, then at least he wouldn't have to regret so much not having done anything more to prevent her from taking this dreadful decision.

But something within him had always prevented him from staying around, for fear that her marriage would fall apart. At least, if he was gone, he couldn't give in to the temptation to jeopardise it by telling Lois what he thought about the man she'd chosen to marry. At least he wouldn't be witness to Luthor's insidious and progressive destruction of who she'd been in the past.

Leaving her to what he feared would be a tragic destiny was consuming him with guilt, and he'd almost given in to his protective feelings towards her. He'd wanted to warn her more than once about the real Lex Luthor… and he had, actually. Shortly after Luthor had bought the paper back, he'd tempted to make her understand what kind of man her soon to be fiance really was. He'd even spelled out for her that the man wasn't only evil, but he was a monster whose favourite pastime was to fool everybody about what he really did, hiding his criminal activities behind humanitarian charities so that no-one would have the idea to go snooping around. Not even an award-winning investigative reporter like Lois Lane.

That desperate attempt at making her see through the smooth exterior of Luthor had failed, and he'd been told rather sharply that she didn't want to hear that when she was still thinking about the man's proposal. Clark had been facing a wall of stubbornness, and he'd preferred to retreat once every one of his endeavours had been met with a rejection. Trying to warn her was pointless, anyway. She was too confident with her intuitions to accept being told someone she trusted wasn't as honest as she'd thought he was. And even her partner and best friend didn't make an exception to that rule.

So he'd let her live the life she'd chosen, and after numerous hesitations, had expressed his concerns to her in his letters, making his allegations in veiled terms for fear that Luthor would run onto those and…

And…

His fists clenched tightly, his nails digging into his palm almost painfully despite his invulnerability. Of course! Everything made sense, now. Lois's assertion that she hadn't ever seen his letters.

His fears that Luthor would run onto those messages and his caution to always speak his mind in a way that only Lois would understand, had been well-founded, but Luthor had done worse than suspecting them of exchanging letters where he wasn't praised. He'd purely and simply intercepted their correspondence, probably considering Lois's friendship with him as something he didn't want to get in the way of his marriage to her.

Something that *could* get in the way.

Why? Why did he think that? Didn't he know no-one had any influence on Lois Lane? That Clark Kent didn't mean anything more to her than a work colleague? Occasionally a friend, he supposed, but sometimes he even wondered how she really saw him, especially when she was getting all reproachful, and when she was holding so many grudges against him after all this time, even when he'd profusely apologised for his mistakes.

In any case, he didn't think exchanging letters with Lois would have represented any danger for her marriage to Luthor, unfortunately. She was too pig-headed to consider his opinion about her husband, too proud to admit her gut instincts had fooled her, too insecure for him to impose those doubts on her choice. She was certain that Luthor was the right man, after all. Why would he want to challenge what was entirely *her* decision?

There had been times when he'd been wishing he was right, for selfish reasons, that Luthor wouldn't ever make her happy, that she'd always regret having accepted his proposal and gone through with the wedding. But when he'd run into pictures of the ceremony in diverse magazines, another dreadful thought had troubled his nights: the smile she was harbouring on those pictures looked almost forced. He'd briefly wondered if he wasn't imagining things, but the uneasiness in her eyes had been too obvious to be missed. Lois wasn't so sure of her decision to marry Lex Luthor, and she'd had some doubts during the ceremony. But whatever her feelings had been back then, she couldn't have doubted for a very long time, if he went by the fact she was still married to the man. Surely, if it hadn't worked out for her in the end, she wouldn't have stayed with her husband. Which meant, he thought, his heart sinking, that she'd very probably fallen in love with Lex Luthor, even if she hadn't been entirely convinced of her own decision at first.

Lois slammed down her phone and made a grab for her light coat, throwing it over her shoulder. "Max," she explained as she got up from Clark's chair. "He's at the police station, and visibly in trouble," she added gruffly.

"What the — "

"Yes, Kent. Congratulations! Thanks to you, my source has been jailed by some Inspector I know nothing about. My only lead is gone."

"Hey! Wait a minute, Lois," Clark retorted, grabbing her arm before she could escape. "What do you mean, thanks to me?"

"Oh! That's true, you probably don't understand that one. That was ironic, Clark, I meant *because* of your darned collaboration with the police on this. There goes my scoop!"

"*Your* source? *Your* lead? *Your* scoop?!" The glare she threw him made him release his grip on her arm and take a small step backwards, despite the anger welling up in him. He threw up his arms in surrender. "Okay, I get it, Lois. You want to work alone? Fine! Go ahead, get working on your own, follow whatever lead that it is you're finding, and bring back the scoop to *your* big boss."

That made her stop. She turned back towards him, fisting her hands on her hips and challenging him with a hard nod of her head. "What is *that* supposed to mean?" she demanded.

"I think you know perfectly well." His eyes didn't waver as he bravely confronted her, almost defying her to contradict him and ask for more explanation.

"Okay, Mr Kane. I guess this is it." She held his gaze for a couple more seconds before abruptly turning on her heels, throwing a "See you around!" over her shoulder.

Clark sank into his chair with a heavy sigh, giving a regretful look at Lois's retreating form before the elevator's doors closed behind her. She hadn't even turned around to give him one last regretful glance. She irritated him so much when she was being so stubborn about always being right, making him constantly responsible for every single thing that didn't turn out right in her life. She was exasperating, making him constantly walk on a tight rope between his anger and his love for her, desirous to grant her every wish, and at the same time to rebel against the tornado she was sweeping through him every time she addressed him the way she'd just done.

She'd been spoiling for a fight yet again, pushing him over the edge to make him lose his temper, as if on purpose. Was she testing him? Wondering if he was still the Clark Kent she'd known? Trying to discover if he'd changed a lot or if he was still ready to put up with her moods?

Well, he wasn't. He hadn't ever been, even. She might have taken him for a pushover during his first week at the Planet, but he'd thought he'd made his point long since, and proved to her that the respect couldn't work in only a unilateral way.

She'd just behaved exactly like she would have, had they been just assigned to work together by Perry on the first few days of his arrival at the Planet: considering him the junior reporter, blaming him when something didn't please her or got in her way.

His asking her to work on her own had been impulsive, something he'd been wanting to say but hadn't really meant, or at least something he'd wished for her to reject.

<And admit she needs you? Kent, how badly do you think you know her?>

Even if Lois actually needed him, she wouldn't ever admit it, it wasn't in her make-up to tell anyone their help or presence was appreciated, especially for a work-related problem. No, she would rather get herself in some inextricable trouble than ask for someone to assist her.

Even if she actually needed him.

Even if she wanted him to stay.

He stood abruptly, sending his desk chair rolling a couple of feet behind him with the momentum. A second later, he was flying down the staircase, hoping that it wasn't too late.

***

Lois thwapped her hand on the elevator's control panel, eager to hear the door closing behind her. When her wish was finally granted, she slumped her head on the cubicle's wall and released a tired sigh. This man had the power to make her melt with his sweetness and care one minute, and come off her hinges the other. His remark about bringing back the scoop to her 'big boss' had been another blow below the belt, a reminder of what he was thinking of her new job and the way she'd obtained him. It was bitter, and that was all there was to it, she reasoned stubbornly, refusing again to acknowledge the hurt she'd felt behind his words.

Maybe it was better this way. Maybe she would feel better off without him on her heels in this investigation, reminding her to be careful, to avoid trouble, or editing her copy to death.

She closed her eyes against the wave of nostalgia that swept through her, those memories of her partnership with Clark reminding her constantly of how much she missed it.

Of how much she missed him.

The elevator halted, and she took a deep breath, straightening herself and preparing to face their story on her own. *Her* story.

Funny how something that would have thrilled her a couple of years ago was now turning into a scary prospect. Working alone. Being alone. That was the story of her life, wasn't it? In more ways than one.

The anger she'd felt in the newsroom had been replaced by a gentle melancholy that was leaving her disappointed and remorseful. She slowly made her way to the revolving doors, leaving behind something that meant more to her than she could ever admit out loud.

<Get a grip, Lane! You're a hard-bitten journalist, for Pete's sake! Not some soft-hearted heroine right out of one of your mushy romance novels.>

Yet she couldn't help but consider what had just happened as another failure in her relationship department. It wasn't *her* failure, though. But even her usual, stubborn side lacked conviction this time.

"Lois!"

A voice behind her made her freeze for a second, but she refused to answer its call, and she decidedly continued her march towards the exit.

But a gentle hand grabbed her arm, and she stopped with what she hoped was an exasperated sigh. She had no intention of showing him she was affected by the way he'd reacted. He'd probably followed her to snap off another of those resentful comments at her anyway, and she wasn't in the mood to swallow her pride and tell him she was sorry. What was there to be sorry for, anyway? It wasn't as if she'd been the one to march out on him!

"Lois, listen…" He looked around the lobby, avoiding her harsh gaze, and visibly at a loss for what to say.

"No need to bother, Clark. I know 'goodbyes' aren't your strongest point."

His head snapped up and his eyes sharply met hers, the flame of hurt and anger visible in them. "Look, if you think I came down here to listen to you yell at me again or — "

"I never asked you to come down here."

"Sure you didn't. That would be too much of a humiliation for the great Lois *Luthor* to belittle herself wouldn't it? To expect her to talk to me without using bitter words or glaring at me, right?

"I don't care, Clark. I don't care any more."

"Did you ever, anyway?"

"Will you *please* stop acting like the victim in this?"

He just stared at her without answering, his stance hard and indecipherable.

"Clark, you're not the only one to have suffered from our separation, and I think we already covered that ground last night. I thought we were okay."

"I thought we were, too. And I *am* okay. Mostly."

"Then what is it that you can't bear in working with me?"

"What *I* can't bear? Lois, you yell at me, you accuse me of every single fault possible, you can't look at me without being exasperated, you can't — "

"I *so* do *not*! I'm not the one who said I should work on my own, remember!"

"I was just voicing your inner thoughts, Lois." He realised how much his words were a mistake as soon as they were out of his mouth.

"It doesn't matter, anyway, because you know what? It's over, Clark. *Over*." Her lips tightened, and she whirled, wrenching her arm free from the grip of his hand, that had softened during their conversation.

"How can it be over, when it didn't ever begin?" he muttered to himself, watching her as she determinedly exited the newspaper's lobby, oblivious to his whisper. "Lois!" he called out loudly, but the only answer he got was the bleak creaking of the revolving doors.

He ran after her and fell in step beside her, grimacing as she didn't even acknowledge his presence, ignoring him even more than if he'd been a complete stranger.

They walked in silence for a while, or rather, *Lois* walked, skilfully making her way through the numerous people crowding the Parisian sidewalk, and he did all he could to follow her.

"Where are we going?"

"*We* are not going anywhere, Kent. *I* am going to the police station, and *you* are doing whatever suits you."

"Fine," he answered, a challenging look devouring his face as his hand reached for hers.

Lois froze, a light shiver coursing through her, and she stood there, immobile, her body tense, and looking straight in front of her. "What are you doing?" she asked in a very small voice, slowly turning towards him and raising her gaze to his face.

"Whatever suits me," he answered surprisingly steadily.

***

His eyes were dark, piercing through her soul in a way that made her want to shield herself from their intensity. From the moment she'd felt his fingers slip through hers, his strong hand imprisoning hers in a gentle grip, Earth's gravity had been a distant concept for her. Much to her dismay, her anger was being overpowered by an intense feeling of rightness, mixed with a general astonishment at his boldness.

It felt good. Too good.

She caught the barely hidden uncertainty in his eyes and felt him shy away from her again as he started to loosen his grip. He was giving her a choice, she realised. The choice to walk away, close the door between them, and never see him again, or the choice to stay with him.

And, suddenly, something beyond her own will wanted her to make the craziest decision, to forget about their fight, Jerome Kane, and Lois Luthor, simply go back to Lois Lane and Clark Kent. Unconsciously, she started to squeeze his hand in hers, pressing her palm to his and gripping his fingers tighter. She held onto him, drawing strength from the physical connection between them, and pondering again how much she was missing him.

And she knew.

She knew that she couldn't live without him, that letting him go had been the worst mistake of her life — and God knew she'd made a lot of mistakes — and that she didn't want to ever let him go again because…

Because…

Because she loved him.

The thought hit her, and blind fear took hold of her entire body as she crushed his fingers in a death grip, the warmth of his skin spreading through her arm and making her light-headed. Images of what her life could have become with him flooded through her mind, making her head spin as she recalled all those missed occasions that would never come again.

As crazy as it sounded, as hopeless as it looked, it was suddenly hitting her that being with him was the one thing she wanted, in whatever way she could, and that her feelings for him went way beyond friendship. All this time, she'd been lying to herself. Right from the start of their relationship, there had been this intense connection between them, something she'd never paid much attention to, and something she'd later denied as simple, friendly attachment.

A powerful need to embrace him was overshadowing her entirely, and she swallowed in a desperate attempt at controlling her desire. His unwavering eyes and the force of the passion she knew was probably reflecting in hers was scaring her, and she felt trapped, walls closing in around her. She was caught in a stranglehold, and she needed to escape, to free herself from this grasp that was tugging her, regardless of her fear.

Her grip on his fingers released itself and she wrenched herself free. Of her own volition, her hand came up and slapped his jaw with all the force of her fright, and she held his gaze a few more seconds, just enough time to see his barely surprised expression and his resigned sigh. As she started to run away from him, she was haunted by the bare pain in his eyes, and she knew the memory wouldn't leave her.

***

Her hand felt warm in his, his fingers squeezing hers and his thumb brushing against her knuckles in a tender caress, and it felt *right*. Whatever had pushed him to such a bold move wasn't entirely clear to him, and he still couldn't believe he was holding her hand, and that she hadn't even tried to stop him. He'd made this move entirely on impulse, his instinct making him reach for her instead of giving in to his feelings of resentment and anger eating at him when she was reacting so strongly and unjustifiably.

He'd expected her to act outraged, to wrench her hand free of his and lecture him about stepping out of her life. But she wasn't doing anything of the sort. Nor was she really reacting at all, apart from that indecipherable light in her eyes that was starting to make him feel uncomfortable. She was denying him any permission or rejection, leaving him unsettled regarding the degree of trespass he'd just committed.

'I just don't feel that way about you.'

Her words echoed within him, the taste of that bitter memory making him all the more glad for her touch, but reminding him yet again that whatever she'd had in mind, it certainly hadn't ever involved such an intimate contact.

<A *forbidden* contact,> his conscience scolded.

He wasn't doing anything wrong, he retorted defensively. It wasn't any worse than when he'd almost kissed her the previous night. It was just a friendly gesture, something that he'd done uniquely to stop their everlasting argument and prevent it from spoiling their investigation and their counted time together. Something to make her see that he wasn't the enemy she saw in him when she was treating him like that. And why would he worry about any other motives, considering she didn't love him the way he loved her, anyway?

At least, she'd stopped yelling at him. He held her gaze steadily, and held back a sigh when he noticed it wasn't as much of a good sign as he'd first thought. Her jaw was tightly clenched, her brow furrowed in a tense frown, and she was struggling to avoid showing any hint of emotion on her face. There was no doubt that she wasn't happy with the situation, and she was probably reviewing all her options to make him understand he'd gone one step too far this time and crossed the boundaries of what was acceptable between them.

Or maybe she was giving him a chance to make his retreat, he thought humourlessly. It suddenly occurred to him that it wouldn't be such a bad idea to do so, and he released his grip on her hand, only to feel her squeeze his fingers. She was holding onto him for dear life, pressing her palm against his in a move that had an almost desperate dimension. She was clinging onto him, still stubbornly silent and tense, and he didn't dare to speak or even breathe, for fear of breaking the spell and have her take her hand out of his.

Then suddenly it was all over. The mask on her face fell to reveal an outraged expression mixed with fear and disbelief, and she shrugged off the contact, raised her hand and slapped him.

Hard.

Her eyes were flames of anger that forced him to look down, and her whole body was trembling. She retreated, slowly walking back without losing sight of his slumped form at first, then she turned around and ran into the crowd, her slim figure fading in the stream of hurried passers-by congesting the sidewalk.

***

Too late. It was too late.

She'd had her chance with him, and she'd blown it. No way she could make him go through this again, no way she could give him something he probably wouldn't ever want from her again. He was barely able to be her friend, let alone her partner. And despite his words of the previous evening, she knew she couldn't make him go through this, she knew it wouldn't be fair to drag him into her miserable life. Clark deserved a lot better.

It struck her again how much he'd changed during those past few months, and even though the main traits of his character still showed up from time to time, like those timeless seconds when he'd been holding her hand, silently asking her if she was ready to accept him as a partner again, she couldn't help but notice something was very wrong with him. She'd known a very open country boy, who preferred to see the right in people instead of their flaws, who always tried to make the most of what he was offered, who was content to be beside her, regardless of her mood, even if he'd always put boundaries on her temper.

But for the past few days, she'd been facing a secretive man, who spent most of his time hiding his emotions behind his defensiveness, who was lacking self confidence one minute, and who was being bolder than she'd ever dreamt him to be the next. She'd spotted the passing shadow of hurt when she'd worked off her anger on him, before he'd let his pain express itself in resentful words.

And he knew where to strike, he knew how to hurt her the way she was hurting him. She knew how it worked; it was the story of her life before Clark had appeared on the scene, after all. The betrayal she'd had to face only a couple of months before he'd been hired at the Planet had turned her into such a person, who, from the outside, looked emotionless and cruel. Yet Clark had seen beyond the exterior right from the start, and he hadn't let her rebuff him. Patiently, progressively, he'd worked his way into her heart, until she couldn't imagine her life without him in it.

Until he'd made her fall in love with him.

How dare he? How could he?

To say that his bold grasp of her hand had been unexpected would have been an understatement, but it was nothing compared to the way it had made her feel. Strange, how body and mind reacted completely independently from one another, sometimes. His earlier words had sent flames of hurt through her, making her want to turn her back to him and never show up again, yet the touch of his hand, the gentle pressure of his fingers against hers, had made her feel connected to him in the same way as in the small temple the previous night, only this time, in the light of the day, she couldn't deny any more what it meant. There was no romantic atmosphere involved, no enveloping darkness around them this time.

Her heart had wanted her to melt against him, to feel his arms embrace her in a tight hug and never let go, to hear him tell her he'd never leave her side again. And at the same time, her mind had been darkly reminding her of what he'd done, and how much he'd changed over the past few months, how irritable he'd become, how he could so easily lose his temper and snap at her with the harshest of words.

She sighed, realising her own words must have sounded pretty harsh to him as well. He'd left because he was hurting, and all she could do was remind him he'd hurt her. Some friend she was, projecting the entire fault onto him, not leaving him any chance to explain himself, taking advantage of his vulnerability… That was all too familiar to her, only this time she wasn't on the victim's side.

<It's not the same!> a part of her protested vehemently. <You're not the one who left! *He* left you!>

In spite of herself, the phrase 'like everyone else' rang in her head like the tolling of a bell.

True, he'd left her. But he was no Claude, and the betrayal wasn't the same. She'd just been his best friend… or thought she'd been. Claude, on the other hand… Well, her relationship with Claude was a lot harder to define. A colleague, someone she'd had a crush on from day one, and who'd taken advantage of her naivete to drag her to bed. A manipulator.

Like Lex. Exactly like Lex.

An interview… She shook her head. Some interview that had been! She'd been shocked and hurt when Clark had suggested more than once that what Lex had in mind was a little more intimate than an interview with the Planet's star reporter, but somehow, she'd always dismissed what she'd considered misplaced innuendos as jealousy from him, and had never seen through the man she'd ended up marrying.

She recalled the first time they'd had dinner together. Lex had insisted that she should come to his place instead of a restaurant, on the pretext it would be a more confidential setting. Hunting for the story of the year as she'd been, she hadn't seen through his scheming, and she'd been looking forward to interviewing the man in depth.

An interview… A *date* would have been closer to the reality of things, even if he'd respected her wish that their dinner should remain professionally oriented, after she'd brushed off his attempt at seducing her. Yet he'd kept on hinting strongly at his attraction towards her, and what had remained from the evening spent with him had been a couple of notes scribbled on her pad, but nothing worthy of a front page, and nothing that everyone in Metropolis didn't already know.

What also remained was the feel of Lex's lips on hers. When he'd accompanied her back to her apartment she hadn't been able to resist his kiss. His mouth had been soft and gentle on hers, and he'd surprised her by not asking for more than she'd been ready to give. He hadn't even tried to ask her if he could stay with her a bit longer, nor asked for another date right away. No, he'd played the perfect gentleman, respectful of the Lady's wish…

<A game! That was just a game for him!>

Yes, it had just been a sneaky way to seduce her, like Claude. But didn't seduction work this way, anyway? A game of domination and power, where you showed yourself in your best light just to attract the other, then revealed your true self to them? Wasn't it a game of disguises? After their wedding, Lex had never acted like that again, never been as understanding as he'd been that first night, or later when they'd been engaged.

The mystifying charm that had enthralled her when she'd first met him had ended up creating a sickness within her, some indescribable feeling of unease that she was never able to shake off when he was around her. She never knew what his next move would be, nor how she was supposed to react.

A mystery. One of those that made your blood turn cold when faced with them.

Clark was a mystery to her, too, but he'd never behaved in a sneaky way. He was a pretty straightforward guy, and each time he'd had something on his mind, he'd told her. He hadn't made a secret of his feelings for her, even if it had made him vulnerable. He hadn't ever smooth-talked her, or behaved in a way that would make her cautious of some hidden agenda he might have. On the contrary, he'd let her take the lead, let her set the boundaries of their relationship by herself, never getting closer than what she would be comfortable with.

Except when he'd grasped her hand and forced her to confront her feelings for him.

Her reaction to the force of those feelings had been totally impulsive, and she now realised what a mistake it had been. But somehow, that had seemed like the only way for her to deal with her discovery, to protect herself against…

Against what, exactly?

What was it that was so scary for her to consider in her feelings for Clark?

The fact that it was too late, came the answer almost immediately. Too late, and therefore dangerous. Whatever she might feel for Clark now, there was no way on Earth she'd give in to her… *love* for him. Oh yes, she loved him, and this realisation would only serve to hurt her more than she already was. Why hadn't she known earlier? Why had she been denying this to herself for so long? Now, this knowledge was of little help, and being near him represented an additional temptation for her. She had no right to feel that way about him, she had no right to drag him into this. Being aware that his feelings for her hadn't worn off after all those months apart was little consolation. What would happen to them, even if she decided to take the scary step? They didn't have any future together anyway.

***

Clark stood on the sidewalk, dumbstruck, as Lois disappeared into the crowd. She'd slapped him. She'd gone so far as to slap him! And despite the anger welling up in him at her gesture, he supposed it was only to be expected. He'd completely miscalculated her reactions again, and thatstupid move of his had probably drawn their relationship to a definitive end, this time.

Entering into her game of anger and resentment had been a very bad idea, and she'd probably interpreted his taking of her hand as some kind of mocking challenge to prove his point that he was indeed very much in control, whereas she was driven by her emotions uniquely.

Bad move, Kent. Very bad move.

She'd taken some time to react, though… He'd even felt her squeeze his hand, and had mistaken her reaction for something he should have known he'd never get from her. Something she'd never feel for him. Maybe she'd gripped his fingers out of anger she couldn't control, and his hand was the only thing she was allowing herself to crush. There couldn't have been any deeper meaning beneath her attitude. The idea might have made him strangely thrilled and jittery, a hope that what he'd been wishing for so long, what had filled his dreams ever since he'd met her, might just be within reach. But it had been a false hope. Why did he keep on insisting on making her share his feelings for her? What was it that had made him grasp her hand like that? He should have known it would lead him to a dead end, it would be bound to leave him disappointed and bitter.

Again.

Clark Kent would never be more than a friend in her life. Worse, he would never be more than someone who'd once been a friend. He should stop fooling himself and letting himself believe that he could keep up with her. She didn't want him. She hadn't ever wanted him. She'd wanted Lex Luthor, and she had him. What on earth would she need *him* for? And how had he dared to challenge her status as Ms Lex Luthor like that? Of course she was furious! He couldn't be surprised at her reaction, and he couldn't blame her either. He couldn't believe he'd been so daring; he couldn't believe he'd almost trespassed on the one thing he'd always thought he would respect. *Almost* trespassed? He had trespassed, no doubt there. He hadn't respected the fact that Lois was in love with another man, and he'd wanted to force his feelings onto her without an ounce of thought about her own wants and needs.

He was… he was lusting after her. He wasn't letting her breathe, he was pressuring her into something she wasn't ready for. Into something she wouldn't *ever* be ready for! He was acting like… like she'd been with Superman during the year they'd spent together.

No, it could never be compared. Superman wasn't real. She didn't know him, she thought she was in love with him, but that was all fake. It was just because he was unattainable that -

Oh God!

Was it because Lois was unattainable that he loved her? Was it what attracted him to her? Was it… No, it couldn't be. He'd been in love with her from the first minute he'd seen her, and the feeling hadn't ever subsided since then. If it hadn't been real, his love for her wouldn't have lasted so long. It would have faded with time, exactly like her feelings for Superman had.

She hadn't mentioned the superhero much since yesterday. Just once, after he'd saved her, and only to ask about what he'd become. There hadn't been that drooling tone in her voice that used to exasperate him so much, nor had her eyes lit up when he'd said he still had contacts with the man in blue. Could she have felt real love for him, then? Or had their last fight ripped something between them, something that she didn't think would ever be repaired, even if he actually stepped into her life to sweep her off her feet like she was wishing for him to. Or used to.

Her lack of enthusiasm when she'd spoken of Superman the previous night, and the fact she hadn't mentioned him since then, gave him little hope. She had probably ended up falling for that smooth talker and professional liar that was her husband, and decided to forget about the blue tights and red cape.

Did he regret his decision not to let her lust after his alter-ego? Would it have been better if he'd accepted her love for him as Superman? What would have happened then? Would she have stopped seeing Lex Luthor? Maybe… And then what? Would he have carried on leading a double life? Would he have told her he was Clark?

Clark Kent. The man she'd turned down when he'd declared his love for her, the man she didn't see as anything more than a best friend. How could she have carried on loving him when he'd betrayed her like this? When he'd taken advantage of her feelings like this? When he'd *used* her like this?

And anyway, what was telling him that she would have chosen him over Luthor, even if he'd allowed her the choice? Somehow, he didn't think her marriage to Luthor had much to do with her change of heart regarding his alter ego. At first, he'd found a little bitter consolation in his knowledge that she was just *settling* for the businessman since she couldn't have her 'first choice,' but the solace had been short-lived when he'd been reminded not only that the first choice in question couldn't count, but also that she'd told him she needed to know how he felt 'to take a decision'. Had she really implied that his answer would change her decision? Or would it have just influenced it? Or would she really have taken the time to think it through? As much as the thought disgusted him, he knew she couldn't have married Luthor just because he'd turned her down as Superman. She wasn't so shallow. She couldn't have gone all the way down the aisle with a man if she wasn't in love with him. And as much as it was hurting him to recognise it, he had to start being aware that the woman he loved would never be in love with him, that the woman he loved would always love someone else. Someone he hated. Someone he had very good reasons to hate.

She loved Lex Luthor. She was his wife. How could he challenge that?

***

The police station was a hive of activity; phones ringing on every desk, papers stacked everywhere, copy boys running around the main room, yells and hollers of complaint and verbal abuse coming from custody at the back of the room, cups of coffee circulating between the staff members, and frustrated sighs coming from policemen who were sitting at their desks, typing depositions and looking like they hadn't slept for days.

A quick sweep allowed Lois to spot the reason for her visit at the far end of the room. He was sitting in a corner, his eyes red and puffy, his gaze lost, his body slumped in the chair.

Lois took a couple of tentative steps towards Max, noticing that an officer was sitting across him, slamming his fingers down on the keys of an old typewriter as he listened to his account. The young man seemed completely oblivious to his surroundings, and his intonation was weary, showing definite but controlled signs of tiredness and exasperation.

Lois cleared her throat, and Max's head snapped up. His face brightened with a smile as he recognised Lois, but then fell suddenly. "There she is," he muttered sombrely. "I see you finally came back to your good ole source. Stuck on your big story? Or did you managed to work around your… um… divergence of opinion with Kane?" he asked with a note of sarcasm in his voice.

"Cl… er… Jerome has nothing to do with my being here, and that's none of your business, anyway," Lois answered with more than a hint of annoyance.

"Oh, so now it's Jerome! I was right, you two seem a lot more familiar with each other than…" He trailed off at her killing stare and held up his handcuffed hands in surrender. "Okay, okay! None of my business!"

"Max?" Lois nodded towards his shackles. "Do you have something to tell me?"

"Oh! Uh… yeah. That's sort of why I had to call you," he conceded morosely. "I got arrested."

"No kidding! I couldn't have found that out by myself. And how did it happen?"

"I… uh… Well, I got in a fight."

"You *what*?!"

"Hey, it wasn't my fault, Lois, honest. I wasn't looking for it, those guys just attacked me, and I couldn't let them beat me up without defending myself, could I?"

"And those men are?"

"Dunno. They didn't get caught," Max answered sheepishly.

"Uh-huh. Of course." She stared at him for a couple of seconds, studying how he was starting to squirm under her scrutiny. "Try again."

"Lois, I — "

"Let me get this straight, Max. You got attacked by several… *guys* who beat you up and forced you to fight back, but *somehow* those guys managed to escape and *you* are so stupid that you let yourself be caught? Do you honestly want me to buy that? Or maybe you think I'm dumb enough to believe you?"

"Uh… Lois, listen, I — "

"No, *you* listen to me. I won't raise a finger to help you out of this if you don't spill the beans. Your choice."

"Not here," he hissed, discreetly nodding towards the policeman who was showing signs of a patience that was wearing thin.

"Why? Did you do something you shouldn't have?" Her voice held a warning note that he couldn't ignore.

"No… Not exactly. Well, except getting into a fight, but — "

"But?" she prompted impatiently, eager to know how the hell he could have got himself into such a situation.

"I was the one starting it, and… well… it's just that those guys said something that made me react pretty strongly." He looked down.

"What was it, Max? What did they say?"

"They said I'd be joining Jeremy and Laurent pretty soon, if you see what I mean. And well, they… well, they presented it as revenge. Said they knew I was behind the two murders," he said faintly. "Lois, those guys were my best friends!" he rebelled against the very idea. "You know I would never have done this!"

"Yeah, I know." But a nagging doubt remained within her. How was she to believe that this man she barely knew was honest? How could she be sure he hadn't deliberately set an American reporter on the case to distract everyone from the truth of what had happened? Her intuition was telling her that Max was innocent, but could she really believe her intuition this time?

This was where she would need to discuss it with Clark, she realised. No, she wouldn't call him; she didn't need him, after all. And after what she'd done, he wasn't likely to ever want to have anything to do with her any more, that was for sure. There was no way she could ever make it up to him, even if she wanted to. She'd lost him for good this time; no need to waste her time brooding over it.

"Lois?"

Max's tentative call of her name brought her back to the problem at hand. "How do you expect me to get you out, Max? I have no idea how the French system works you know! Can you be released on bail?"

He shook his head. "Not a chance."

"So what exactly do you expect me to do?"

"Well, I thought that maybe you might help me convince these guys that I don't have anything to do with the murders?"

"And how do you expect me to do that? I don't speak their language, and they obviously don't speak mine. I don't know anything about the law, here, and you won't help me by telling me the truth about what it is that you really know."

"What do you mean?"

"Come on, Max. You think I'm that gullible? You're holding out on me. You keep claiming that Jeremy and Laurent were your best friends, yet you have no idea why *both* of them got murdered?"

"And your point is?"

"My point is that they knew something that made them a nuisance for the person who killed them, and that someone else was well aware of what was going on."

He raised his brow.

"You."

"Lois," he started to protest weakly.

"Max, don't you think it's time to stop beating about the bush? You received two death threats. That has to mean something."

"I'm here as a witness. Nothing more," he replied stubbornly.

She made a face. "A witness with handcuffs?"

"Well, you said you didn't know how it worked, here."

Lois rolled her eyes and had to refrain from seizing him by the collar and shaking him until he'd stop avoiding her questions. She didn't get the chance to put this theory into practice, though, because the officer who'd been observing them since she'd arrived slammed his hand on his desk.

"Could you guys postpone your fight to another time? I'm on a clock, here, and I don't really fancy spending my whole day taking this deposition," he said, exasperated.

Lois didn't get everything he'd said, but she could tell from his tone that he wasn't exactly happy with her appropriation of Max. She couldn't blame him, though; she'd spent a lot of time in precincts back in Metropolis, and was aware that this part of the job wasn't the most interesting for policemen. Having to deal with people who didn't want to co-operate and tell them what they knew was the last thing she'd want to have to deal with, and having Max as a source had taught her how tiring it could get.

She retreated to the back of the room and found a seat a couple of feet away from the desk where Max was being questioned again, but after a couple of vain attempts at following the conversation between the two men, she let her mind wander back to what had happened on the street barely half an hour before, and the intense revelation that had finally come to her. She was experiencing the heady sensation of love, but her heart sank as she remembered she'd ruined every chance they could ever have together. It wasn't just the way she'd behaved, although that certainly couldn't have helped make her loveable in Clark's eyes, whatever he was claiming his feelings were, but it was mostly her marital situation. How could he ever forgive her for having rejected him? How could he ever forgive her for having married Lex Luthor, for having chosen a businessman she barely knew and someone she didn't even love, when she'd turned her back on him?

***

Clark landed in the alleyway near the precinct and spun back into his casual suit and tie. He wasn't particularly enthusiastic about seeing Lucas again, but the inspector's phone call left him little choice. Not that helping the police was bothering him, but he had a strange apprehension that what was awaiting him inside was a little more involved than what he'd supposedly been called for.

Hadn't Lois said she was heading over here to back up Max? What would he tell her if he saw her? How would she react? Would she think he was following her? Or worse, trying to steal what she called her scoop? Not that he cared, he reasoned half-heartedly. After what had happened, any friendship, or even partnership, between them was out of the question.

It would have been better if he'd just forgotten about the last twenty four hours and gone back to his normal life — whatever that meant for him. But as soon as the thought had entered his mind, he'd felt his blood turn cold. The prospect of losing her again was too much to bear for him, and even if he had to recognise that he was most certainly in her bad books now, he couldn't help but harbour the small hope that maybe there was still some means to save the wreck of their relationship. As irritable as she was, she was still Lois, and he couldn't bring himself to hate her for the way she'd reacted. Even the humiliation of having her slap him couldn't stop him, especially considering he was at least partly responsible for that. He'd provoked her, and she'd simply defended herself. Nothing more.

But it didn't prevent him from being shrouded in a feeling of uneasiness as he stepped to the clerk's desk and asked for Inspector Lucas.

He'd felt her presence as soon as he'd entered the room; he'd been able to spot her right away, and had been struck by the sadness he'd seen on her face. She was lost in thought, her eyes closed and her hand supporting her forehead; she looked so frail, and there was nothing he wanted more than to ignore their fight and make his presence known. He started to walk towards her but the clerk's voice snapped him back to his surroundings.

"Mr Kane, Mr Lucas is waiting for you in his office."

He hesitantly looked back at Lois, whose head had snapped up at the mention of his name, and his gaze locked with hers. She wasn't the fury who'd run out on him on the street, nor did she seem particularly surprised to see him. But she didn't make a move to get up and walk to him, and after a moment, she looked down, breaking the eye contact between them.

"Mr Kane?" the clerk called him back impatiently.

Clark nodded towards him. "I'll be there in a minute."

***

From the corner of her eye, Lois saw Clark advance towards her, and she held her breath. She hadn't seen him enter, and seeing him here had come as a shock to her. Of course, she should have expected to see him again, she should have anticipated that he'd follow her. Probably looking for an apology she certainly owed him, but wasn't ready to give. Why did he have to keep on trying?

Seeing him was too painful for her, and she just wanted to be as far away from him as possible. His presence was reminding her of what she was missing, of what she would always miss, and she felt better off without him to trouble her thoughts.

"Lois," he started hesitantly, extending his hand towards her.

She purposefully ignored him, breathing heavily to hide the shiver that had taken hold of her when he'd spoken her name.

He didn't insist, though, and after a few more seconds where he idly watched her, he shook his head and turned around to join the officer awaiting him at the foot of the stairs. He threw one last look towards her before following the other man, and Lois finally released the breath she'd been holding back. This would be a lot harder than she'd first thought, she realised. Stepping away from him had been difficult enough when he'd left, but now that she knew how she felt about him, it was even more painful. She closed her eyes on the tears that threatened to overwhelm her, and tried to kiss her relationship with Clark Kent goodbye. She didn't even have the heart to chuckle at the irony of her thoughts.

"Hey, Kane!" a voice beside her called loudly.

She looked up to see Clark walk back towards them, a wary expression on his face. He slowly made his way through the hallway, barely according her a regretful look as he passed by her.

"What are you doing here, man?" Max enquired, a suspicious frown on his face.

"Don't you think I should be the one asking you that question?" Clark asked pointedly, nodding towards the man's handcuffed hands.

"Well, I… Listen, Lois will explain to you, okay? She came to get me out of here. Looks like she could do with your help, though."

Lois abruptly got up. "I don't need *anyone's* help, Max. There's no two ways about it!"

"Oh, she sure doesn't, Max," Clark added a little too sarcastically. "She has so many contacts in this city that she can do that with a snap of her fingers. Can't you, Lois?" he finally addressed her directly.

She gratified him with a harsh glare before returning her attention to Max. "None of this would have happened if you'd just stayed home and kept quiet. But of course, you had to roam the streets and look for a fight. And now you expect me to get your butt out of this mess on my own? Who are you kidding, Max, exactly?"

"See, Kane? Looks like she could use your connection with Inspector Lucas," Max interjected.

Clark turned towards her again. "*You* need my help, Lois? Why don't you get him out of here on your own? Tell me again, whose source is it, already?"

"Okay, I unjustifiably accused you of having sealed a bargain with Lucas to hand Max to the police," she admitted grudgingly.

"Well, maybe you weren't so wrong about that, Lois," Max interrupted darkly before turning to Clark and switching back to his native language. "Otherwise, how come that as soon as I gave out my name, Lucas was informed that 'the famous Max' was down there, huh? Kane, I think there are some things that need to be set straight in a bargain. I talked to you on the condition you wouldn't repeat the information to anyone else. And barely a couple of hours after, boom, I get busted by the cops and find myself in this smelly holding cell, my only neighbours being a sleepy teen who's been caught red handed in his attempt at burgling his folks' apartment, and an exhibitionist coming right from the Bois de Boulogne. Nice way to spend a night, I'm telling you. I guess it's you I must be thankful to, right?"

"Max, I didn't call the police."

"Yeah, right."

"This all happened *before* you told me what you knew. One of my sources gave me a lead that brought me to you, and the only thingI knew about you back then was your first name. I needed to find you, and my only motive was to find out the truth about your friends' murders. *You* were — *are* — the only chance for the police to arrest the murderers."

"That's what I've been telling him," the officer interjected. "Not that he's listening any, though."

Clark turned towards the policeman and noticed the painful twitch of his mouth as he stirred his muscles, sore from remaining in the same position for hours. "Inspector Lucas is waiting for me in his office; do you think he'd mind if my colleague came with me to this interview?"

The officer threw him an exasperated look and pushed a couple of buttons on his phone. "Who shall I announce?"

***

Lois and Clark were admitted into Lucas's office a few minutes later, and took their places in front of the grim-looking inspector. He had that tired frown that only came from very bad days, and it didn't look like he was in a mood to compromise or share information with reporters.

"Kane! What a… *surprise* to finally see you here," he exclaimed with a note of sarcasm. "Is there a special occasion for you to come and visit the police headquarters? Or did my message remind you that you were supposed to keep me updated?"

"I'm sorry, Inspector," Clark started in French, feeling a smug satisfaction at knowing Lois wouldn't be able to interfere too much in their conversation. "I know I should have called you as soon as I found Maxime Bonneau but — "

"But it was late and you thought I'd already gone home… or do you prefer the version with you getting the scoop for your paper?"

"Well, actually, I came here to talk to you about Max."

"Better late than never."

Clark grimaced at the warning tone he heard in Lucas's voice, remembering his promise to call him if he got more information about the man. "What about the protection of my sources, Inspector?"

"This is different. This man was investigated by the police, and you know that."

"Listen," Clark began in a conciliatory tone. "I know I should have called you as soon as I found him but — "

"But you were too busy interviewing him, I understand."

"Well, I — "

"Kane, just ask him what you and I would like to know," Lois cut him impatiently, clearly tired of listening to their back and forth banter where she understood only a few words here and there, and missed most of the details of what was discussed. "Which is *why* the officers down there are treating him like a criminal and not a simple witness."

Lucas looked taken aback by her aside, and raised intrigued eyebrows at Clark.

"This is Lois La… Luthor, from an American TV network. She's… uh… working with me on this." Clark warily eyed Lois and grimaced at her sharp intake of breath when she heard his allusion. He didn't know where his hint that it was *their* story had come from, nor if it was a good idea to try again, but he was willing to give them another chance.

"Well, Ms Luthor, if I understand your question, you want to know why we had to handcuff Mr Bonneau," the inspector spoke directly to Lois, and Clark noticed her eyebrows raise at the policeman's perfect command of her language. "The answer is simple," he continued with a wicked grin. "If Mr Bonneau hadn't been in contravention of the law when we found him, he would be there as a simple witness. However, he was caught in a fight, and as far as I know, street fights are forbidden by the French law. French penal code, article number — "

"Max is no criminal, Lucas," Clark interrupted with a sigh.

"Oh, yeah? And how do you know that, Kane? You met the guy last night for the first time, and you already know everything about him?"

Clark had to admit he had a point. His intuition wasn't enough of a warranty that Maxime Bonneau was completely honest about what he knew, or even about his relationship with Morteau and Mellion. And he was only too aware that appearances could be very deceptive. "You have no proof he's involved in this," he argued weakly.

"Just like you have no proof he's innocent." Lucas raised a hand before Clark had had time to open his mouth. "I know, I know. You're going to come out with the whole legal mumbo-jumbo about presumption of innocence. Don't bother, I know that. And as far as I'm concerned, Mr Bonneau is a witness."

"I didn't know witnesses wore handcuffs," Lois cut in sarcastically.

"Now, Ms Luthor, Don't jump up on your high horse. You don't know what happened last night before we had to bring him here."

"Max gave me the Reader Digest's version. I'd love to hear it from you, though."

Clark squirmed, uncomfortable with the tension that was building between Lois and the inspector. He knew that Lucas was a good cop who put all his heart into his work, and that he hated his decisions to be contested by people who weren't as familiar with the police as he was, and right now, the dark gleam in the policeman's eyes was an ominous sign. He put a calming hand on Lois's arm and felt her tense under his touch.

"Mrs Luthor," he said calmly, wincing both at pronouncing that name and at Lois's intake of breath upon hearing it from him. "Mr Lucas is a competent policeman and…"

"Don't worry, Kane, I can handle this. Madam, two officers of this precinct were patrolling in the Forum des Halles last night, which is admittedly a delicate area. They ran into what turned out to be a fight between Maxime Bonneau and two other men. Of course my men tried to separate them, and establish their identity. The two other men were injured, so they were transported to the hospital to be examined before we could question them. The third one, however, was unharmed, and when we learned his identity, it was evident we wouldn't release him. It's not only the fight, Ms Luthor, but Mr Bonneau is an important witness in a murder case, need I remind you?"

"Have you asked him why he was fighting with the two other men?" Clark asked, noticing Lois's scowling expression from the corner of his eye.

"Of course. He wouldn't say anything, though."

"Inspector," Lois interjected, "I know something that might be of interest to you."

"Oh yes?"

"Max didn't want this information to be out, but I think it's important for his security that you know he received some serious threats yesterday, after he talked to me about his friends' murders. He was completely panicked when he told me about this, and he didn't want to hear anything about going to the police for protection."

"Did he tell you who made those threats against him?"

"No, he didn't see the person in question. He just received a note that told him he'd better shut up if he didn't want to end up like his friends. And he told me those guys who attacked him told him he was the next one in the queue." Lois preferred to keep silent on the men's accusation. She still hadn't made up her mind on Max's real involvement in the case, but she was pretty sure he hadn't had a hand in the murders, and talking to an police officer who wasn't ready to make any compromise wasn't something that could possibly help him.

"Well, he seems to have handled it just fine, from what I heard about the state of health of the guys in question. They'll be questioned in due time, Ms Luthor, don't worry about that. And I'll make sure Mr Bonneau doesn't run any risk. Discreetly, of course."

"Do we know who the two aggressors are?" Clark inquired with a frown.

"Yes. Their IDs revealed their identity. Thomas Ravertin, 34 years old, and Gerard Berdon, 56 years old. Both of them are packers at Timon Industries. We haven't retained any charge against them, though, and let them go this morning. Not enough evidence," he explained. "Besides, I can't keep all the people who commit an infraction in this precinct. Tell City Hall to give me more funding, and we'll see, then. However, I'll keep an eye out for them."

"Timon Industries? Isn't that the firm whose vice president jumped out the window yesterday?"

"It is, indeed. I'll check if there's any relation, but I doubt it. Street fights happen on a too regular basis, unfortunately, and without necessarily a deep reason, despite what Max Bonneau told you."

***

When Lois and Clark emerged from the precinct, Max in tow, it was well into the afternoon, and their source looked exhausted and discouraged. Lois tried to talk to him, explain he would be under police protection so that no-one could harm him, but that news seemed to depress him even more. He was immersing himself in his silence, turning down every one of Lois or Clark's attempts at convincing him to confide in them. Still, he'd let them accompany him back to his place. As they got on the subway train, however, he slumped in a seat and did his best to ignore them.

Lois lost interest in him after a few minutes, and turned her attention back to Clark. He was holding onto a guard rail, staring into space and skilfully maintaining a fragile balance at each of the train's turns. His head suddenly snapped towards her, but she averted her eyes, afraid to be faced with what she knew would be a hurt expression. Reproach, she could take. But seeing Clark hurt, and knowing that she was the origin of his pain, that was a little too much for her to bear, and she didn't want him to know he was having this dangerous effect on her. It was difficult enough to have to deal with her feelings for him without him making it any more difficult.

No, as soon as they'd dropped Max off at his place, she'd say her goodbyes and work on her own. With a bit of luck, she wouldn't run into him again before she took her flight back to Metropolis. He wouldn't argue with her on that one, anyway; his description of her at the police station, as someone who was working with him on this investigation, had been purely for the purpose of clarity. He'd just meant she was onto the same lead, and was using the same source, that was all. But he wasn't working with her any more. He'd been the one to push her out of the Paris International newsroom, after all.

Her attention was drawn to the strong fingers clutching the guard rail, those same fingers that had gripped hers so despairingly only hours before, and resulted in their ultimate separation.

He hadn't wanted to throw her out of his life, he hadn't wanted to end their partnership. His unexpected grasp of her hand had left her little doubt on the matter.

But it was over, now, she knew that much. No way he would ever want to talk to her after what had happened. Maybe saying goodbye wouldn't be as difficult as she'd thought… At least he wouldn't offer any resistance, she mused sadly.

They soon reached the Place d'Italie and walked up the stairs to Max's apartment in an electrically charged silence. Lois was still observing her former partner from the corner of her eye, waiting for the best moment to broach the topic of what could have been a great partnership between them, but would have to end before it had even started. But she didn't want to do that in front of Max; she didn't want to say goodbye to Jerome Kane, to someone she didn't know. She needed to be alone with Clark, just one last time. She'd briefly considered the possibility of leaving without telling him, but the dark memory of Clark's departure had come back to her, and she hadn't wanted to make him go through what he'd imposed on her. She loved him too much…

The thought sent a thrill through her spine, despite the dead end it represented. She wondered how she could have once again fallen in love with a man who was unattainable. Didn't she ever learn her lesson? First, Superman… now, Clark… Hadn't Lex seemed unattainable, too? She shook her head, bringing herself back to the narrow and endless stairs.

Clark suddenly raised his hand in the shadows, and they stopped halfway up the flight. He barely turned his head and she had to strain to hear his stage whisper.

"Max, did you happen to leave a light on in your apartment?"

There was a stunned pause before their source slowly shook his head.

"Something wrong?" Lois asked, deliberately keeping her voice as low as Clark's.

He turned towards her, and she could see the worry in his eyes. "Just another detail to deal with, I guess," he answered nonchalantly. But she knew him too well not to understand he was concerned. There. He was already tipping his head to the side, taking on his trademark look, as though he was concentrating very hard.

Probably trying to hear if someone was inside, Lois thought. If Max hadn't been in danger, she could almost have chuckled. On the other hand, his attitude was reminding her of the old days, when Clark had played Mission Impossible and tried to break codes to get to some protected information for a story. She had to admit, though, that it generally worked, as surprising as it was.

As he started his swift advance towards the door, though, she rolled her eyes and jostled Max aside to join Clark. If there was one thing she hated above all, it was to be left out of the action, and whatever was happening in that apartment, she wanted to find out about it now, not to be told later. She silently approached behind the immobile form of her partner, straining her neck to try and catch sight of any shadow that might indicate the presence of someone inside. Her hand accidentally brushed against Clark's, and she jerked away from him, startled. He threw her a disapproving look upon noticing her presence, but immediately returned his attention to the door as he started to slowly push it open.

The apartment was a mess.

All the contents of the closets and cupboards were scattered on the floor, piles of clothes were discarded around the room, broken plates and glasses added to the bleak sight of what used to be Max's belongings.

The young man stood at the top of the stairs, mouth gaping, staring at the clutter of knick-knacks he could see from his vantage point.

Lois and Clark exchanged a look upon entering the apartment, and took a couple of tentative steps inside, careful not to touch anything.

Max, though, wasn't in any state to have the same thoughtfulness, and, his shock replaced by fury, he barged into the place, muttering insults at every object he got his hands onto, taking each piece of clothing and throwing it on the couch, and generally muttering against the odds that had transformed an already very bad day into what was turning out to be the worst of his life.

"Max," Lois started to protest. "You have to keep everything as it is so that the police can take fingerprints and do their job." Seeing he was thoroughly ignoring her, she turned towards Clark. "Tell him!" she demanded.

But he shook his head. The memory of the day when he'd found his own apartment burglarised was as fresh as if it had happened yesterday, and he knew how it felt to discover that your belongings, everything that meant something to you, had been touched and broken by an unscrupulous stranger. The mess left by the burglars was too much to bear, and the only clear thought remaining was to try and put everything back in its place, to give the apartment some semblance of normality. To ignore that it had just been visited by someone who'd broken into the privacy of your own home.

He saw Lois roll her eyes; she'd visibly forgotten about what he'd told her when she'd insisted that Henderson should take prints to find the man who had robbed him off some very precious belongings.

His attention shifted back to Max, and the man's attitude reminded him of when he'd discovered that his Globe had been stolen. He was slumped on the couch, his head in his hands, his shoulders heaving with each careful breath. It was perfectly possible that Max had possessed something that sentimentally meant very much to him, and Lois's insistence that they call the police was probably not helping at the moment.

He carefully stepped in, interrupting Lois's tirade as he sat beside Max and murmured some words of sympathy to him. He briefly saw Lois throw him a reproachful glare, but did his best to ignore it.

After a moment, Max lifted his head towards her. "Look, Lois," he started apologetically. "I know you want everything to be resolved, but I just… I don't feel like having the police on my back again. I just spent about twenty hours in a precinct, questioned and questioned and questioned by guys in uniforms. You make me spend one more minute in front of an officer, and I'll explode. Not to mention it won't solve anything. Do you know how many apartments are burgled every day in Paris?"

"I know it's something that unfortunately happens a lot in big cities, but this is no ordinary burglary."

Max's head snapped up. Clark's was quick to follow his lead.

"Look around you, guys. Don't you see something's very wrong?"

"Apart from the fact someone forgot to pay the cleaner, honestly, no, I don't see what your point is."

Lois sighed as she pointed to the broken TV set that was lying on its side, at the foot of what had once been a small storage unit, and whose shelves had been stacked up nearby. "Look at this. Think any burglar worthy of the name would reduce your TV to pieces, unscrew the VCR's cap, and leave all these expensive objects behind? What kind of burglary is that?"

Clark got up from the couch. "You certainly have a point. So the burglar was looking for something specific?"

Their eyes locked in silent communication for a few seconds before they turned back towards their host.

"Max?" They spoke his name in unison, and the young man let out a resigned sigh at their enquiring expressions.

"What?"

***

Lois proudly exhibited the computer disk, a bright smile glowing on her face, and she was rewarded by Clark's knowing grin. Once Max had discovered that nothing was missing beside his PC's hard drive, he'd finally agreed to talk to them about what he'd been hiding from the beginning. He'd produced the square object from his jacket pocket, and had told them the story of the strange disk that Jeremy Mellion had given him the last time he'd seen him, barely a week before his death. Max had explained that he hadn't had the courage to check it out after he'd figured out that his friend's murder had most certainly something to do with the disk in question. It turned out that Mellion had obtained it from Morteau, who had received it from a mysterious man in a business suit, according to the description Max had furnished them with.

Fortunately, Max had been aware of the importance of the disk in question, and had been keeping it with him constantly. From the looks of it, it had been a clever move. The bad side of things was that he was definitely in danger. So after many recommendations to be careful, Lois and Clark had left him to tidy up his belongings, and as they walked to the nearby subway station, Lois felt the weight of Clark's gaze on her.

She raised her head towards him in a silent question, afraid she already knew where his thought had been dragging him.

"Lois, look — "

"The first thing is to figure out what's on this disk. There's certainly some compromising information for two men to have died because they owned it."

"Lois — "

"When you get right down to it, it's weird what such a little piece of plastic can mean to some people. I mean, it's just a computer disk, for Pete's sake!"

"Uh… Lois — "

"But, yeah, okay, I guess it could contain some explosive revelation. Oh, by the way, think it'll be coded? If it's really that important, you'd suppose it would, wouldn't you? We'll need an expert. Do you know one?"

"Uh… actually, yes, I do. We have our own computer genius at the paper, but I guess we could try it out by ourselves, first. The fewer people knowing about this, the better — wait a minute!" He abruptly turned towards her, his hand on her arm preventing her from walking further. "What exactly do you have in mind?"

She frowned. "What do you mean?"

"Lois, this disk is evidence! We have to hand it over to the police! Do you know what could happen to us if the police discover we've been hiding vital evidence from them?"

She crossed her arms, staring at him challengingly.

"Lo-is."

"Clark, this is big. This is a scoop! Come on, this is a chance for us to write an award winning story!"

Clark's heart took a joyful jump at the sound of her talking about them as a working team again. Maybe all hope wasn't gone, after all. But despite his delight, he still hated having to break the law to get his teeth on a story. "We can't, Lois."

This time, the roll of her eyes made him smile inwardly, and he flashed her a broad grin when she took on her most persuasive tone and started to list all the reasons why what they were doing was right. When he couldn't hold back his chuckle any longer, she hooked her arm through his, knowing she'd won again.

***

They'd agreed to work at his place, but as eager as Lois had been to discover where Clark lived, the closer to the building they got, the stronger she felt an uneasiness knot itself in the pit of her stomach. Dismissing his attempt to talk about what had happened hadn't been such a good idea, and she suddenly wondered if she hadn't forced his hand into working with her. But even though he'd seemed keen on having a serious conversation, probably waiting for an apology from her, he didn't appear particularly reluctant to work with her.

As they approached his apartment, however, she dwelt on the cleverness of her move. Being alone with Clark represented a danger for her state of mind, especially now that she knew what she was really feeling for him. It wasn't so much her discovery that bothered her, than the tension that had remained all day between Clark and herself. So many things were left unsaid after this morning, and she couldn't help but be concerned as to whether he was still upset. He didn't give the impression that he was particularly mad at her, but he was a lot more silent than usual. Each time she looked towards him, he seemed to be avoiding looking at her at all costs, and that left her little doubt regarding the lack of trust which now lay between them.

They finally reached the door to what he referred to as his 'studio', and Lois walked around the confined space with a wary eye. It was a lot smaller than his apartment back in Metropolis, and none of the furniture that had graced his place back there had accompanied him to Paris. The furnishings were cheap, but tasteful, and the large window was partially hidden by heavy velvet drapes. All in all, the narrowness of space was nicely compensated by the warmth that made it feel like an inhabited and comfortable home.

Clark watched Lois as she stood in the middle of his small apartment, and felt his heart swell. This was what he'd been missing for so long; suddenly, under the glow of the single bulb lighting the room, his studio didn't look as soulless and depressing as it always had.

He quickly divested himself of his jacket, leaving her the time to observe and get used to what must look to her a weird way of life. As he passed by her to reach the kitchen counter in the far corner of the room, she started to move about the narrow space, picking up objects here and there, examining them for a moment before putting them back into place.

He involuntarily chuckled at her scrutiny as he busied himself preparing drinks for them, and when she finally turned her attention back to him, her satisfied smile told him she approved of his interior design.

"Can I get you a drink?"

"You don't have cream soda, do you?"

"Well, as a matter of fact, I do." He grinned proudly as he produced a can from his fridge.

She looked abashed and tugged the can from his hand to study it carefully.

"I also have the genuine stuff, with extra added sugar, if you prefer."

"I knew it!" she exclaimed. "It looked too weird that *you* would drink… what do you call it, already? Oh yeah, this… 'sugarless-tasteless-insipid-liquid', right? You know, I got worried for a second that you were a clone of Clark or something."

"Well, that's understandable, Lois. The day I'll drink cream soda… You're in luck; I have some for you."

Her smile faded as she realised what that meant, and in spite of herself, she felt the tears prickle at the back of her eyes. If he didn't drink this, why would he have some in his fridge? Sure, he'd always had some for her back in Metropolis, but it was because she visited him a lot, and he wanted to please her with what she liked. Here, however, he didn't have any reason to buy something he wouldn't drink to save himself. The only reason why he would have a supply of that in his fridge made its way into her mind, and she involuntarily shuddered.

Of course, she should have known. This place looked way too neat and welcoming for a bachelor apartment, even Clark's. She couldn't find any feminine touch on the shelves, neither pictures nor anything to indicate the presence of a girlfriend, but that didn't mean anything. It would only be fair that Clark had moved on, after all. She had married, so why wouldn't he be seeing someone?

The thought of Clark lovingly enfolding another woman into his arms caused another pain to start in the pit of her stomach, and she started to pace about the room, trying to distract herself from this feeling she hadn't experienced in months.

She was jealous.

Her head was buzzing with a myriad of questions, each one carrying a more and more painful image. Was she pretty? Did he whisper tender words into her ear? Did they cuddle in front of a movie every night? Had he ever told her what he felt for her? Was he falling in love with her?

She didn't have a right to be jealous. It was perfectly understandable that he'd settle with someone, right? Right? So why was she having so much difficulty admitting it?

<Because you're jealous.>

She hadn't any reason to be jealous. She just wanted him to find the right woman, that's all. She didn't want him to fall into the arms of the first woman who who arrived on his doorstep.

Not to fall into the arms of a woman who wasn't *her*.

She sighed, realising how unfair to Clark that sounded. She hadn't left him much choice, after all, and even if she went by his unexpected declaration last night, she couldn't expect him to have remained celibate just because, six months before, he'd expressed some deep feelings for her. He'd implied he still loved her, but that didn't mean he would be staying alone for the rest of his life. Why would he, when he thought his feelings were unrequited? She hadn't reciprocated, after all.

Clark approached her and handed her a full glass that she accepted gratefully. She drank avidly, the ice-cold liquid freezing her dry mouth, and sat on the couch, returning to her observation of Clark's belongings and what they told her — or rather, didn't tell her — about his life here. Something was missing, though she couldn't put her finger on what it was. A couch, shelves where books were tumbling over each other, a very neat kitchen counter that was probably used as a table as well, thanks to the bar stools standing next to it, stereo equipment, a small desk with his computer sitting on it, and a door just behind it, probably to the bathroom… which left…

"Where do you actually sleep, Kent?"

He smiled mischievously and winked at her, motioning her to stand up. In a few skilful moves, the couch was unfolded into what looked to be a comfortable bed. A *double* bed.

This was the clue she'd been looking for, right? The last piece of the puzzle that told her Clark Kent wasn't the single man she'd once known. "Looks… comfy!" she exclaimed as cheerfully as she could, pushing her jealousy to the back of her mind.

"Ah, well, you haven't seen the whole transformation yet," Clark answered with a grin, misinterpreting her lack of conviction for light teasing. He swiftly removed the couch's stretch cover to reveal a colourful quilt, and reached up inside a cupboard for the pillows.

Two pillows, Lois inwardly noted before refocusing her attention onto Clark, who was explaining that the challenge in small apartments like this one was to save as much space as possible.

She half-listened to him as she processed this new information into her mind. So Clark had a girlfriend. Was she living here on a regular basis? He'd once told her he hadn't ever taken the step of living with someone full time, but that was last year, and so many things could have happened in between. If he'd met someone he really liked, it was only logical she would be spending a lot of time here.

On the other hand, this studio looked a bit narrow for two people, didn't it?

"Don't you feel like you're living in cramped conditions in such a confined space?" she interrupted his rambling about the advantages of those new fold-out beds. "I mean, this is a lot smaller than what you had in Metropolis."

"True, but I don't spend a lot of time here, anyway."

She wasn't living with him. He was living with her. Of course, she should have known. She'd probably been living here in Paris for years, and they'd decided they'd spend their time in her apartment, thus explaining the lack of personal stuff here. Should she feel better about being here, without the worry of tripping over clues of the other's presence? Without the worry of expecting her to burst through the door any minute?

"Yeah, I just come back here to sleep, actually," Clark went on, oblivious to her discomfort.

"Yeah, I bet you do," Lois muttered, cursing herself as Clark's surprised look told her he'd heard her murmur. "I just meant… oh never mind!" She busied herself rinsing her glass in the sink, hoping they'd drop the topic, but Clark's insistent stare told her he had no intention of giving up until she'd told him what was on her mind. "I just wondered what kind of… *job* could keep you outside all day long, that's all."

"Oh! Well, our job at the Planet didn't leave us much free time, either, Lois. Besides, lately I've been working on a series of articles about teen crime in the northern districts. The social-interest-boring stories, you would say," he finished with a crooked grin.

"Must not be fun for her," Lois mused aloud. She remained silent, waiting for the bomb to drop, waiting for him to acknowledge what she'd been dreading to know. She hadn't planned on asking him so directly, but her curiosity had got the better of her, and she hadn't been able to hold back the question forming on her lips.

"I beg your pardon?"

She blushed furiously at Clark's shocked face, cursing her not-so-subtle way of getting the information out of him. So much for making a living interviewing people! "I… Well, I… I mean, yeah, it must be no fun for your girlfriend if you don't have much free time to spend with her and all," she finally stuttered.

Clark's expression clouded over, and he averted his eyes from hers, taking hold of a dish towel to wipe dry the now clean glasses and put them back on the shelf. He turned back to face her at last, dropping the piece of cloth to the counter. "I don't have a girlfriend, Lois. You should know that."

It was only then that she realised her curiosity had hurt him, and she put a comforting hand on his arm. "I'm sorry, Clark, I shouldn't have — "

"Why is it such a problem to everybody?" he interrupted. "I mean, I'm single, okay, big deal! What's the matter with that? Do I have to wear a placard stating it?"

"Clark, I didn't mean — "

"Why is it that everyone is always asking this kind of question? Are you married? Do you have kids? Everywhere, even on a rent receipt. Am I totally abnormal or what?"

"Clark, I'm sorry I asked. It's none of my business, I know, but I just wanted to know, as a… friend, if you'd found someone."

He didn't answer, nor acknowledge her apology, but just stood there, staring at the far wall of his apartment. "We'd better get to work," he finally stated without looking at her.

***

Sitting at the computer with Lois on his side, close enough to him for her perfume to reach his nostrils, was an exhilarating but dangerous experience, Clark mused as he booted his computer and it beeped to life. He was still trying to come to terms with her earlier curiosity over his love life, or rather, lack of it, and didn't really know what to do with it. Why would she have any interest in whether he was seeing someone or not? Did it matter to her if he wasn't the confirmed bachelor she'd known before? Of course, this would be the kind of question people generally asked, he reasoned, but somehow, Lois's roundabout way of getting this information was suspicious to him.

He studied her as she retrieved the disk from her purse and inserted it into the A drive, but her expression wasn't revealing anything. She looked concentrated on the task, though not particularly eager like she should have been at the prospect of exploring the contents of the disk. Was she nervous? She looked a bit nervous, actually; her heart was beating a little faster than average, and her gaze was never meeting his, focusing on the blank screen instead.

A shrieking beep brought his attention back to the computer, and he heard Lois sigh discouragingly.

"A password!" she growled. "Of course they put a password on it."

"Think we can break it up?"

"Ha! As if. Bet they're clever enough not to use 'Smallville'."

"If we knew who this disk belonged to in the first place, that might actually help, you know?"

"Help to do what? Find what their own Smallville is called?"

"Well, knowing more about the owner of this disk could help us figure it out."

"I have a better idea. Didn't you say there was a computer genius at your newspaper?"

"Yeah, there is, but — "

"Then what are you waiting for? Page him! Tell him to get his butt in here!"

"Lo-is!"

"What?"

"Oh, nothing. Just being swept away by your enthusiasm."

"Well, enthusiasm or not, Kent, we have to decode this disk as soon as possible. Especially considering the ultimatum you set that we'd *have* to hand it over to the police tomorrow first thing. So the sooner we get down to it, the better."

"You mean, the sooner *Yannick* gets down to it," he corrected.

"Well, yeah, that, too." She grabbed the phone receiver and handed it to him expectantly.

"No need. I'll just go drop it at his place," Clark answered. "He's living just a block away. Do you want me to bring back some takeout, by the way?"

"You need to ask?"

He just laughed as he threw his jacket over his shoulder and exited the apartment.

***

Left on her own, Lois wandered in the kitchen to make herself some coffee. She sat back on the bed, mug in hand, and reached for the remote control.

A quick scan through the TV channels left her with no hope of finding something in her language, though she ran into an episode of 'Step by Step' dubbed in French and grimaced at the unusual voices. The stupid burst of laughter punctuating every sentence sounded about the same, though, she mused grimly as she switched back to something that looked like the local news.

She watched a couple of reports, one of them featuring Superman, who was deeply involved in a conversation with Lucas at the scene of what looked like another murder. Or was it suicide, she wondered as she caught a couple of familiar words. The story by Kane — *Clark,* she corrected — that she'd read the previous night came back to her. They were probably covering the follow-up, she thought as she listened to the anchorman's serious voice. What was it, already? Oh yeah, something about a guy jumping out a window in La Defense.

She frowned. Hadn't Clark mentioned it this morning, at the precinct? He'd even linked it back to their current investigation. Maybe there was something to dig up there; since working on the disk seemed to be postponed till the computer expert worked his way through the passwords and — most certainly — codes that protected its content, they could take the case from another angle. It seemed rather weird to her that two men who worked for this firm had attacked Max; it could also be a perfect coincidence, though. But the faint tingle in the back of her mind told her there was something to look for on Timon Industries' side.

The sound of a key in the door startled her, and Clark entered the apartment, carrying several paper bags of what looked to be their dinner.

"Healthy food!" he exclaimed as he started to put away the groceries in the kitchen cabinets and fridge. "No, don't look so doubtful, Lois. This isn't your usual takeout treat, but you haven't tasted my special soup with *fresh* vegetables yet," he said with a wink.

Lois eyed a potato suspiciously. "Those are veggies?"

"The best around, yeah."

"Oh no, don't tell me. You actually grow your vegetables by yourself, in a small private garden nearby?"

He chortled. "God, no! You have no idea what land costs by the square metre in Paris! No, I bought them from 'Les Delices d'Alfred'. 'Alfred's Delights'," he added at her blank look.

"Oh! And this is good because…?"

"He grows them by himself, on a farm outside the city."

"Oh. On a farm. That would explain it," Lois answered with a touch of sarcasm in her voice.

Clark grinned knowingly as he started to peel and chop the carrots. "You'll see!"

"Are you actually treating me to dinner?"

He looked up from his task, his smile turning almost tender. "You had other plans?"

She timidly shook her head, and sat back on the bed to watch him cook. It had always been something she'd enjoyed whenever he'd invited her over to his place. Seeing Clark cooking was like watching a well-oiled machine at work; he knew what he was doing, and there wasn't a gesture that wasn't measured. Sometimes he came to an abrupt halt, looking around him for some utensil he'd mislaid along the way, but soon enough the noise of butter melting in the pan and the rapid chopping of the knife's blade were starting again, and a delicious aroma was sweeping through the entire apartment.

"Are you cold? Do you want me to turn on the heater?" he enquired without taking his eyes off his task.

"What? Oh, no. I'm fine, thanks," she said, removing her suit jacket and carefully arranging it on the back of a chair. "Actually, it's a little warm," she remarked.

"The cooking does that. Always the problem in small studios where the kitchen isn't separated with a door."

"Yeah."

<Only the cooking?> a little guilty voice asked innocently in her head. <Isn't it rather the way his broad shoulders ripple under that shirt of his?>

She irritably denied her conscience's accusations, but in the back of her mind, she started to wonder if staying with Clark and deciding not to talk to him about working each one on their side had been such a good idea. She was in this small apartment, a very confined space, with a man she had feelings for, and sitting on his bed, while he was cooking for her. Oh yeah, talk about temptation!

I'm here to work, she told herself firmly. *Only* to work.

She cleared her throat, intent on breaking a silence that was starting to be a little uncomfortable for her. "Clark, I saw this report on TV about the guy who jumped out a window. Remember?"

"Michel Deslauriers, yeah. I was too late to save him," he answered carelessly, concentrated as he was on his cooking.

"You were what?"

"I… oh… uh… I mean, everyone arrived too late. I just thought… well, maybe if someone could have talked him out of committing suicide…" he blurted out, trying his best to sound convincing and repair his faux pas. Fortunately, Lois seemed to buy what he was saying; or maybe she was too preoccupied by the case to pick it out.

"Oh. Yeah, well, he probably didn't warn a lot of people about his intentions. Anyway, I remembered something while I was watching the news. Didn't you say something about him when Lucas questioned us?"

"Yes, it's true. Lucas said the two guys who were in the fight with Max were packers at Timon Industries. I know where you're heading, Lois, but it could be a coincidence."

"Or it could be a link."

"Honestly, I don't know. Timon Industries hires a lot of packers for their export activities. What is telling us the firm would be linked with the murders? Especially since those guys *accused* Max of being the murderer."

"They also said he was the next one in the queue. Sounds like a threat to me. And the vice-president of this company commits suicide without an explanation, and the president refuses to give any comment or explanation. No-one wants to talk, no-one wants to explain what pushed him to such an extremity."

"Sometimes, you don't need to have particular problems to reach a point where you think death is the only way out."

She crossed her arms defiantly. "Don't tell me you also did a series of articles about this topic, Kent."

"Well, it's part of the study about the northern district's problem."

"Michel what's-his-name certainly doesn't correspond to the profile of the desperate teenager who sees death as his only way to avoid society and its trail of problems."

"But wouldn't he have problems no-one would have been aware of?"

"Like being pushed to committing this act by someone who knew of his involvement in some dark murder case, you mean?"

"Lo-is!"

"What? I'm just throwing out a hypothesis. You have to admit it's a lead to explore, isn't it?"

"You're not planning on a visit to their offices, are you?"

She grinned, and Clark sighed.

"Well, in any case, it'll have to wait till tomorrow, because there's no way we could get inside tonight." He raised his hand in interruption as she opened her mouth to object. "And no, no breaking and entering. There's no way we could do that in La Defense. Their buildings have all the safety gizmos you could dream of, along with dog handlers and alarms linked back to the nearest precinct."

"How do you expect us to go snooping around out there if the place is sewn up tight like that?"

"Aaah, but Ms Lane, this is where I'll need your skills at preparing an action plan."

Lois's heart ached as she heard him call her by her maiden name. This afternoon, his use of her marital name in front of the inspector had hurt her despite the logic which told her Clark couldn't know she didn't want to be addressed like that. But tonight, in the playfulness of their banter, he hadn't been thinking of her marriage, and he was acting as if nothing had ever happened to separate them, as if they were sharing a partnership like in the Planet days.

***

Lois pushed her plate to the side with a delighted sigh. "You were right, that soup was heavenly."

"Told you you'd love it!" he exclaimed delightedly, getting up to put the plates in the sink.

Lois remained silent for a moment, quietly sipping on her wine as she chose her words carefully. "Clark," she started after a moment, the hint of a shake perceptible in her voice. "I wanted to talk to you… about what happened."

She saw him freeze and his shoulders heaved in a deep sigh.

"I know, I should probably leave it as it is, but… Look, I'm sorry. I'd never done that before, and you have to know… Well, it's not your fault, it's not because of something you did, or said, it's just… I was just… well, I don't know what happened, really."

She waited for him to respond, talk, yell, whatever, but he stood there, his back to her, letting the water run in the sink and not really paying attention to it, as if lost in another world.

"Clark?" she called after a moment. "Clark, did you hear what I just said? I just apologised, to you, you know, that's not something I do on a regular basis," she snipped out angrily, irritated by his lack of reaction.

He finally turned off the water, and slowly turned around, staring at her for a couple of seconds before he left the kitchen area and started to busy himself in folding back the bed. She reached for his arm, stopping him before he'd even had time to even tuck the cover over his quilt.

"Leave the sofa alone, Clark, it's fine as it is," she said, exasperated. "Why do you always have to try and avoid any conversation with me, anyway? You're even worse than you were back in Metropolis on that matter!"

He squirmed uncomfortably, and she could already see what would happen next. There he went, raking a nervous hand through his hair, and in a few seconds, he'd probably start to pace about the small space in front of the kitchen counter. She decided to put this to an end, and grabbed his arm, tugging him to sit on edge of the sofa bed beside her. He didn't offer any resistance, and after a couple of deep sighs, finally spoke up.

"Lois, what happened this morning, well, that was a mistake, by both of us. And I owe you an apology for mistrusting you, too. I shouldn't have blown up at you the way I did."

"Well, you had reasons. I accused you of being responsible for Lucas's questioning of Max, but he got himself in this mess by himself. He didn't need you to do that."

"I admit it was a bit unjustified of you, but it's true the circumstances were against me." He resisted the temptation to tuck a strand of hair behind her ear.

"And I shouldn't have called Max *my* source, since we decided we were working together… partner." The last word was only half spoken, as if a question.

"Partner," Clark replied decidedly, drawing her into a hug on impulse.

She let his arms enfold her in a comforting embrace, resting her head on his shoulder and listening to his quiet breathing, rocked by the steady heartbeat in his chest. His gentleness touched her, and she held him tighter, ignoring the warning voice that told her to get away before it was too late. For now, she was content to be surrounded by his tenderness, and she didn't want to let him go. His hands running along her back in a soothing caress were sending shivers up and down her spine, reminding her of how much she'd missed being taken in the arms of a man like that. Being taken in Clark's arms, she corrected faintly.

He pulled away after a few seconds, and she held back a sigh of disapproval, keeping her arms around his neck to prevent him from shifting away from her. He didn't protest and kept a light hold on her waist, gazing into her eyes with so much love that she felt a lump rise in her throat.

"Oh, Lois," he murmured huskily, shaking his head in wonder. Hugging her so tightly to himself had reminded him all too much of what he'd been missing for so long, and as she pulled away, the shimmer in her eyes made him want to hold her again, to crush her against him. He was vaguely aware of the screaming voice at the back of his mind that was warning him of what danger lay ahead if he didn't put an end to this *now*, but all he wanted to do was comfort her. They'd shared such a closeness on many occasions before, and like an old habit kicking in, it seemed completely natural for him to hold her close and convey his tenderness for her.

"Lois…" he whispered. "Please don't… don't cry… it's okay…"

Almost on their own volition, his lips inched closer to her face and touched the tear that was slowly rolling down her cheek; he closed his eyes as the salty drop reached his tongue, and drew back, an expression of shock on his face at what he'd just done. He expected her to look irritated, to snap away from his embrace, gather her stuff and storm out of his apartment…

… but she didn't do anything of the sort.

She smiled through her tears, framing his face in her small hands and brushing her thumbs on his cheeks, as if discovering him for the first time. She was intense in her scrutiny of every inch of his skin, studying his features and inching herself so close that he could feel her breath on him.

"Lois," he pleaded weakly, all too aware of the effect her touch had on him and the sudden claustrophobia that was taking hold of him. He needed some space between them if he was to keep some control over his feelings, yet at the same time he desperately wanted her not to pull away. What he wanted to do was reach for her and crush the entire length of her body against his, feel her warm curves mould themselves to his chest, melt against her and forget the rest. A strangled masculine groan escaped his mouth as the wild images suggested by his off-track thoughts played vividly in his mind.

She raised her gaze as she heard him and became aware of their closeness. Her eyes met and held his for what seemed to be an eternity, before she edged nearer, brushing her trembling lips against his. Her eyelids closed as a fierce shiver took hold of her whole body, and she pulled back just an inch, in awe at the ever-increasing rate of her heartbeat the simple contact had created.

"Lois…"

This time it was a whisper. It sent another jolt of electricity through her and she fell forward against him, aware only of the sensations building within her as he wrapped his arms around her and deepened the kiss. She slightly parted her lips, granting him entrance into her mouth, and wasn't able to hold back a moan as she felt the tip of his tongue touch hers.

Clark was in heaven. He didn't know if he was dreaming or if Lois was really in his arms and responding to his passion with equal urgency, but he didn't want to find out. What mattered was that she was here, and he was melting under her searching lips. His hands blindly reached for her and tugged her onto his lap; the renewed nearness it allowed made his head spin, and he didn't give her any resistance when she carefully pushed him back onto the bed, shifting her body to lie atop him, not even giving him time to catch his breath before she fisted her hands in his shirt and started tugging it out of his pants.

He felt the eagerness in her jerky movements but was completely paralysed and unable to help her, although he dearly wished he could. Her hands fumbled between them and before he knew it, she'd already undone his shirt buttons. He remained motionless, his whole body tensing in anticipation as she put her hands on each side of him and raised her body to arms length, looking down at him, her eyes shining with a dark and mysterious light. He stared at her, mesmerised by the fire she displayed for him, and he stopped breathing apprehensively as he saw her lower her mouth to his chest. He grabbed mentally onto the eye contact she kept between them as his only life line.

His sharp intake of breath resonated in his head as she delicately grazed her burning lips on the skin of his pectoral muscles and he felt his limbs become cumbersome as he yielded completely to the spell she was casting on him. The stimulating combination of the feverish kisses she was dropping on his chest and sometimes rasping over his nipples, her flat palms stroking his shoulders and the passing brush of her blouse on his stomach was too much, too soon, and his control was threatening to slip away. He gripped the quilt under him, gritting his teeth and shutting his eyes tightly in a frantic attempt to fight against the inexorable attraction of the sound of her voice gasping his name, to fight against the incredible enticement it represented for him, fighting like Ulysses against the Mermaids' song. A last straw of willpower allowed him to tangle his fingers in her hair and draw her head back to his, his lips reaching blindly for hers.

He put all his fervour into the kiss that followed, thrusting his tongue inside her mouth and sliding his hands down the length of her back before fastening his arms around her to press the tormenting curves of her body more firmly to himself. She hooked her arms around his neck, responding to his ardour with another assault on his senses, and he felt himself being relentlessly pulled into an oblivion of dazed passion.

The overpowering need to feel her skin beneath his fingers without the barrier of clothes soon got the better of him and he almost ripped off her blouse in his haste to yank it out of her skirt. The feel of Lois's blistering lips on his earlobe momentarily blanked out his actions, but he forced himself to recover, his aching want quickly taking over his brief weakness. Just one last effort, and his hands were fervently roaming on her back, the thrill provoked by the rough scrape of his fingers on the clasp of her bra expressing itself in a strangled moan in the back of his throat.

But it wasn't enough any more, and his convulsive movements imprisoned between the cotton cloth and her skin were giving a frustrated dimension to his rapid panting. Lois finally noticed his recurring tug on the fabric of her shirt, and she abandoned her exploration of his neck to sit up and strip off the garment. Her eyes never left his as she slid down the zipper of her skirt and got rid of the piece of clothing in a few skilful moves, the black silky lace of her bra and panties the only remaining obstacles between them.

She observed his captivated stare and felt a tinge of vulnerability at the bare desire she could see in his darkened eyes. But he was already reaching for her again, planting his lips on the side of her neck and slithering them down her throat. She drew her fingers through his hair, marvelling at its softness, and she pressed Clark's head against her.

Her murmurs of appreciation at his attentions were the only encouragement he needed, and his kisses grew more passionate, their cadence merging more and more with the rapid rhythm of her heart as he got closer to its strong beating. He instinctively reached up a hand to her shoulder and slowly slid the strap of her lacy bra down her arm. An approving sigh escaped him when she made things easier for him, reaching behind her back to unclasp the garment. Clark didn't waste any time in stripping it from her, and the piece of lingerie was soon out of the way.

She looked almost defenceless under the smouldering light as his gaze took in the sight of her nudity. She was beautiful, the sheer perfection of a woman, and a sudden shyness took hold of him. It was as if he was afraid that his dream would fade out if he touched it, and he didn't want to spoil the splendour offered to him.

But Lois took his hand and carefully placed it onto her, sighing contentedly at the fascination she saw in her lover's eyes. He didn't resist the temptation much longer and his hot breath grazed her sensitive skin, overwhelming her, blanking out any thought and making her shiver in ecstasy. Her body went limp in his arms, slowly falling back on the mattress and pulling him with her.

Clark's lips found their way back to her face, hovering just an inch above her mouth, in that tantalising way that promised so much but was denied every time she tried to close the distance between them. The torture was exquisite, giving to her every attempt a dimension of shameless begging without her ever falling into a complete submission. She knew she was driving him crazy as well, with the strokes of her hands on the side of his ribcage where she'd reached beneath his shirt, trailing her fingertips up and down in a fleeting touch that made him shake in her arms. More than once he almost gave in and brought their lips into contact, but he always recovered quickly enough to pull slightly away, leaving only a hairbreadth of space between them, enough for them to feel the other's warmth and making their blazing desire increase with each second.

She suddenly felt a quiver build on the side of her leg and realised that Clark's hand had shifted and was now trailing from the back of her knee up to her thigh, pausing for just a moment to trace some complicated patterns there before it went higher, transferring the shiver to her hip and up to the curve of her waist. Ever so slowly, his fingers caressed their way up to the side of her breast, sometimes relayed by his knuckles when his hand would turn slightly to follow the curves of her body.

She was breathless at the trail of fire he was leaving everywhere he touched her, and it took all her willpower not to drop her head back on the pillow and close her eyes, to give in to the sensations. But he was holding her gaze, not allowing her to escape from the physical and mental link he was establishing between them. She shivered violently as he let her go only briefly before cupping the back of her neck and pulling her up to him for a soul-searching kiss, sweeping away all coherent thought, and she let herself be drowned by him, wrapping her arms around his back and hooking her legs around his waist to bring him even closer.

But he suddenly pulled clear from her, causing her to moan in frustration as a chill coursed through her body. Losing contact with him was unbearable when his weight had been so wonderfully pressed onto her. He seemed to understand her dissatisfaction since he bent down to take her lips in another hard kiss, but it was over all too soon, and he was leaving her again.

***

Clark sat on the edge of the bed, panting heavily, and trying to take hold of his senses again. The past few minutes had been exquisite, sending him towards the brink of ecstasy without any thought for the consequences of what was happening, and it had taken all of his willpower to finally hear the voice of his conscience and pull away from Lois. But hearing the sound of her whimpers beneath him, feeling the sizzling electricity of her lips plundering his, had blocked all rational thought, and he was still experiencing difficulty in coming to terms with what was very wrong with this. He carefully looked back at her, shaken by the intensity of her gaze on him, and had to avert his eyes from her again when he felt her inch herself closer to him.

He briefly closed his eyes, a strangled and only half-hearted protest escaping his mouth as she trailed her hands over the sleeves of his open shirt. Every one of her touches was tugging him away from the safe haven of sanity, and uncontrollable shivers were taking hold of him, making him light-headed as he surrendered to the questing fingers that found the hem of his shirt; her movements grew frantic as she yanked it down his arms, the rasping brush of the item of clothing followed by the soothing caress of her mouth, her hot breath on his skin, sent another rush of excitement through his veins.

Lois interrupted her delightful ministrations to help him out of his sleeves, and she stared, fascinated, as the piece of cotton cloth that had fallen off his shoulders revealed the impressive planes of his back. Something beyond her own will made her reach for him again, gently, almost shyly touching the small of his back just above his waistband with trembling fingers. She felt him freeze and, encouraged by the tension she could sense in his muscles, she bent her head and dropped a series of tiny kisses following the path her hand had been taking only seconds before. Looking up briefly from her intense concentration on her task, she noted he'd tilted his head backwards, surrendering to her touch, and was now completely still, his raged breathing the only sound in the room.

Her hands came up to his shoulders and she carefully massaged him, feeling the nervousness in him and working her way up to making him relax slightly under her soft touch. Before he'd even had time to realise he was starting to unwind she drew her lips across the side of his nape in a soft brush and smiled against his neck as she heard him hiss a shaky breath. She gained confidence from his reactions and leisurely ran her tongue along the sensitive patch of skin that her mouth had just explored, only too happy to hear his breathing become erratic at her amorous caress. From her vantage point, her cheek resting on his shoulder, she saw that he'd closed his eyes and was biting on his lower lip, visibly struggling to regain some control against her constant attempts at making him lose it.

She finally took pity on him and let her movements quieten and subside. She stopped her attentions on his neck and pressed her cheek against his, letting them both cool off slightly as she released her grip on him and slid her hands under his arms, hugging him tightly to her. Their panting slowed down progressively as they both found themselves in a haze of warmth and tenderness that replaced their earlier urgency. It didn't allow them to completely lose the arousal provided by the contact of their bare skin, though. Lois cuddled close against him, pressing her upper body to his back, the tingle between them a constant reminder of their physical attraction and intimacy.

They stayed immobile for a few minutes, trying desperately to regain some control over a desire they could barely contain much longer despite their silent struggle.

"Lois?" Clark's voice spoke softly in the silence suddenly surrounding them, and she could still hear the breathlessness in his whisper.

"Hmmm?" she answered distractedly, revelling in the feel of his silken hair pressed to her cheek.

"We can't do this."

"Guess so," she answered drowsily, her eyes still shut, as her hands unconsciously renewed their earlier fleeting caresses over his chest. She sensed him tense in her arms under her strokes, and held him closer, for fear he'd recoil from her. She wanted to maintain the contact between them for just a bit longer, to feel that tonight there was nothing between them but their intense desire to be together, to know that he was hers and she was his, if just for a few minutes… if just for a few hours. Was that really too much to ask?

Clark slowly turned his head towards her, his gaze longing and regretful, and she bent forward, taking his lips in a kiss conveying more gentleness than passion. Before either of them had time to understand what was happening, the butterfly caress grew fiercer and flared back into unrestrained ardour.

He couldn't get enough of her, yet there was still something within him holding him back, pleading with him to see reason and escape while it was still possible. He painfully tore his lips away from her. "Lois, we shouldn't — " His hoarse whisper was cut off as she silenced him with another passionate kiss to which he responded in kind, unable to hold back the force of his emotions.

Did he really want to escape? Did he really want to listen to that last straw of willpower that was begging him to stop? Holding her in his arms, hearing her gasp his name like she was just now, wasn't it what he'd always dreamt of?

<But not under these circumstances!> his conscience screamed frantically at him.

True…

But did it matter, now?

Did any of it matter, when he was finally seizing happiness, after all those lonely months of depression, where he'd been sinking deeper each day from the torture of not seeing her, of not loving her…

As if she'd heard the dilemma playing in his head, Lois pulled away from him with a loud gasp, interrupting his reflection. "Don't talk, Clark… Don't think… Just kiss me," she pleaded breathlessly before sealing her mouth back to his, and sending all logical thinking process flying away as she did so.

He shifted slightly to turn in her arms and laid her back onto the mattress, pausing for a few seconds as he drank in the sight of her, lying there, waiting for him, offering herself to him, naked and vulnerable, body and soul. Her love for him shone in her eyes, a bright spark that she'd never allowed him to see before, even when she'd been mooning over his alter-ego. She looked relaxed, smiling up at him and letting her arms lie on each side of her head in reckless abandon that spoke of her complete trust in him. Clark's heart skipped a beat at this realisation and he found himself enveloped in another wave of tenderness for this woman who meant everything to him.

His gaze locked with hers in a silent promise, and he reached for her.

***

Lois slowly opened her eyes to the bright beams of light that reflected on the comforter at the foot of the bed and sent a delicious warmth up her legs; a sharp contrast with the light chill of morning air that was coming through the open window. The noises of the awakening city were reaching her ears through the fog of her slow return to awareness, and she blinked slightly at the blinding luminosity of the sunny rays streaming through the shutters. The previous night gradually came back to her mind and she smiled ruefully. She stirred, careful not to break that protective cocoon she felt surrounded in, thanks to the radiating heat from the weight of Clark's arm resting on her belly. It brushed against her as she stretched her legs and arms in a cat-like move, and she turned her head towards the slumbering form of her lover.

He looked so peaceful in his sleep, a stubborn lock of dark hair falling over his eye in an adorable way that made her want to reach up and feel the silky black mane beneath her fingers. She stared at him silently, propped up on her elbow and careful not to wake him, captured by his beautiful features. Her eyes followed a path from the delicate shell of his ear down to the sharp ridge of his chin before falling on his neck and his chest until it disappeared beneath the thin white sheet, and it took all her willpower not to let her lips graze his marvellously tanned skin, so soft and inviting. But she didn't want to wake him; not yet. She hoped there was still time before they had to get up; she wanted to treasure those precious minutes alone with him, their bodies lying together with just the hint of a touch, the smile on his face a reminder of the happiness they'd both found in the previous night's delights.

He sighed softly in his sleep and shifted, his arm pulling her closer to him; she didn't offer any resistance to the motion, and let her head rest on his shoulder, dropping a kiss on his chest as she settled on him. She was starting to feel drowsy again, the safe haven of Clark's embrace tugging her almost irresistibly into the temptation of more, restful sleep.

The feel of Clark's lips nuzzling at her hair awoke her senses again, and she raised her head to look into his searching eyes.

He was still dazzled by this simple act of waking up with Lois held in his arms, tightly pressed against him, her warm gaze caressing him. It felt so right, yet so unexpected. He'd been dreaming of this for such a long time, losing hope that it would ever happen. But it just had, without either of them being really aware of what it represented… No, he knew what it meant for him, what it meant for their life: the beginning of something wonderful he'd been wishing for ever since he'd first laid eyes on her. He was happy, incredibly happy, and couldn't prevent a silly grin from creeping onto his face. Holding Lois close to him like this, his arms tightly wrapped around her slender waist, was making him even more aware of the fragility beneath her soft curves, and how much he wanted to protect and cherish her.

She dipped her head into the hollow of his shoulder and trailed a line of kisses at the base of his neck. He surrendered to the touch of her lips, straining his head backwards to allow her better access, and roamed his hands up and down her back, his movements slow and languid, a contrast to the frenzied explorations of the previous hours.

He knew they'd have to get up soon and face another work day, but he wanted to spend at least a few more minutes cuddling in bed with her and forgetting about the outside world. Lois's calm breathing against him made it easy for him to relax into the afterglow of their earlier passion. He felt her faintly shiver and extended his arms around her to pull the sheet and quilt up around them both, protecting her naked shoulders from the slightly chilling breeze, and engulfing them again in a haze of warmth. He could well imagine staying like this for a few more hours, but a swift glance at the clock on the bedside table spoiled his plans. He shifted, pulling away from Lois's sweet attentions and getting up with a reluctant sigh.

Lois's soft moan of protest almost made him lose his resolve, but he knew this story was important to them both, and they had loads to do today if they wanted their lead to enable them to get the break in their investigation. Lois looked up at him interrogatively, the sight of her confused expression making his insides melt, and he instinctively bent down to kiss her lightly on the mouth.

"Do we have to get up, already?" she asked grudgingly, sliding her fingers down his arm and grabbing his hand as he was stepping back.

"Depends if you want to miss the big breaking news," he answered with a wink, bringing their joined hands to his lips.

"I guess I don't have a choice, then. I wouldn't let my partner get the scoop without me."

"That's my girl. But you can sleep for a few more minutes, if you want."

"No fun staying in bed if I don't have my pillow," she replied, eyeing him with a wistful glance as he headed for the bathroom.

"I'll be right back," he said immediately.

"I bet you will," she murmured.

He threw her a challenging look over his shoulder before closing the door behind him, and she relaxed back onto the mattress, sighing happily.

This morning, when she'd woken up and felt his arm still wrapped around her waist, pulling her close to him, a wave of tenderness for this man had swept through her, almost making her heart burst with love. He'd offered her something she'd always been denied in her previous relationships with men: being really there with her in the morning, showing he cared for her as more than a sex object, and that the night they'd spent together meant more to him than just a few momentsof pleasure that he'd forget as soon as he had obtained what he wanted.

The closeness he'd maintained in his sleep, refusing to lose contact with her, was a totally different kind of possessiveness than any she'd been confronted with in the past. He'd held her in the shelter of his arms, maybe in an overprotective way, but it had intensely moved her that he'd needed her soothing touch as much as she did. She knew his behaviour wasn't born only from a wish to please her, but that it ran much deeper than he was letting on.

The tender words he'd murmured into her ear while making love to her told her a lot about the extent of his feelings for her, and as he'd felt her control over her emotions slip away, he'd told her he loved her, and proved it in the most beautiful way he could have. Making her want to burst with joy and love for this man who was giving everything.

His heart.

His soul.

His love.

And for the first time in her life, she knew that the man trembling in her arms hadn't been trying to charm her, or tell her he loved her because that was what he was supposed to say in such moments of intimacy. He'd said it because he meant it, she was sure of that. And it hadn't only been what he'd expressed with words; every one of his actions had also proved to her that he wasn't another seducer using sweet-talk to sweep her off her feet. This time, it was real, it was true. It wasn't any more of an act for him as it had been for her. Last night had been born of love. Unselfish, unrestricted love, without an ounce of deceit hiding in the shadows.

There had been this connection between them, this bond that neither of them had wanted to let go, that had made him seal his lips to hers with a desperate urgency, and held her tightly to him until they fell asleep. And when she'd woken, she'd known the link was still there, that it hadn't disappeared with the morning's dew, and that it would probably last forever.

She sighed happily at the thought of forever with Clark, and reached for his pillow, burying her head against its softness and breathing in the faint reminder of his scent.

She heard the water stop running in the bathroom, and she swung her legs off the bed, clutching the sheet tightly around herself. She looked in dismay at the scattered pieces of clothing covering the floor in front of her, and couldn't suppress a light giggle of happiness at the sight. She bent down, reaching blindly to retrieve her garments from under the bed, but her hand encountered a cold and solid surface. Her curiosity aroused, she knelt on the carpet, her clothes forgotten, and pulled the object from its hiding place, gasping as she realised that it was a framed photograph of Clark and herself.

She shifted to a sitting position, drawing her legs beneath herself, and leaning on the side of the bed before looking again at the picture in her hands. She remembered the day they'd taken it; it had been during one of those quiet nights they'd spent together as best friends, watching a couple of movies and eating some wonderful cooking only her partner knew the secret, to celebrate another victory by the Lane & Kent reporting team. Strangely enough, she recalled only vaguely the story that had lead them to be in such a joyful mood, but the memories of that night were rooted in her mind, and as clear as if it had happened yesterday.

Clark had just bought one of those small cameras, and was proudly showing her the latest latest features it offered. She'd suddenly decided to test the object in question. Snatching it from him and ignoring his protests as she'd begun to click away madly at him, she'd started mimicking a photographer's encouragements to his model. Just like she'd watched a professional doing on the one and only time that Lucy had persuaded her to accompany her to one of her modelling shoots. Clark had looked embarrassed at first, until her comments had made them both dissolve into uncontrollable laughter. When they'd finally calmed down, Clark had taken the camera back from her, and set the self-timer so that they could have apicture of them together. Then, he'd pulled her onto his lap in one bold move and hugged her tightly.

Lois smiled fondly at the recollection, looking at the photograph in question, where their laughter of the previous minutes was still obvious.

The rest of the pictures had actually turned out pretty good, she mused, and that had been the first time she'd really noticed how good Clark Kent looked, if she excepted that one time when she'd knocked on his door and found him standing on the other side, wearing nothing but a towel that left little to the imagination. She blushed slightly as memories of the previous night suddenly rushed back to her. Oh yes, he looked *good*. Of course, getting back to that night, she hadn't known him in the same way as the previous hours, but now, she knew exactly what it was that Clark was hiding beneath those tasteless ties and smart suits of his.

Her eyes fell again on the photograph; he looked so gentle in this picture, his warm gaze on her so full of tenderness and love…

… exactly like last night.

Sighing contentedly, she hugged the frame to her chest, rested her head against the bedding, and closed her eyes. Everything had happened so wonderfully, almost like in a fantasy, somewhere between the hazy oblivion of a dream and the reality of their passion.

He'd been the most tender, caring and ardent lover she'd ever dared to imagine in her wildest thoughts, murmuring soft words of love into her ear as he'd driven her crazy with the attentions of his hands and mouth on her body, sending electric shivers through every inch of her skin with the fleeting strokes of his fingertips, making her gasp in ecstasy when his lips followed the same path and dropped tiny kisses all over her.

Never had she been so completely abandoned in the arms of a man, intuitively submitting herself to his needs as much as he had to hers, without any fear of revealing her true self to him. And he'd been so attuned to her every reaction in return, so careful to grant all the wishes of her body and mind. His every gesture had been full of respect for her, as if asking for permission, letting her set the pace of their lovemaking, until they'd both lost their thin hold on every tiny bit of control, their respective longings merging into one mutual need, so strong and overwhelming that she'd had to dig her nails into his back and muffle her cries against his shoulder. She could still feel his hot breath on her neck, the tiny butterflies in her stomach, and hear the strong pounding of his heart against her breast. Only Clark could evoke such reactions within her, making her giddy with arousal, and nervous upon hearing his every word.

Making her melt in his arms with the faintest of touches from him…

The grin brought to her face by the remembrance turned into a bright smile as she felt Clark's lips brush against her neck in a sensual caress.

***

Clark re-entered the main room, the towel wrapped around his waist catching the drops of water rolling down his chest, and he levitated a couple of feet off the floor, taking advantage of this stolen glimpse of Lois to observe her, adoration shining in his eyes. She was sitting on the floor, on the side of the bed opposite to the bathroom door, the thin cotton of his bed-sheet hugging her curves as she clutched it to her body. Her head was resting against the comforter, the cascade of her brown hair caressing the amber skin of her shoulder.

The sight made Clark float nearer, until he let himself lie in mid-air, head propped on his crossed arms. The stray strand of hair brushing against her neck was too much of a temptation, and he let himself drift closer, progressively losing altitude more out of the overpowering sensation coursing through him than real fear she'd realise he wasn't following the simple laws of Newton.

She didn't move, although he heard her breathing grow heavier and more erratic at his silent approach. Her satisfied smile turned into a giggle as he stroked his lips on her shoulder and up to her neck in a fleeting touch.

"Whatcha grinning at?" Clark asked huskily between kisses.

His low drawl resonated through the skin of her throat, making a shiver run through her, and she went limp against him.

Her light laughter stopped abruptly in a gasp that turned into a moan, and as the caress of his lips on her neck became more fierce and urgent, he noticed absently that Lois was releasing her grip on the sheet.

Her arms reached for him, her fingers burying themselves in his still damp hair and pulling him more firmly to her.

Clark surrendered gladly to her incentive, even more turned on by the slow and tantalising downward slope of the sheet accentuated by the stirring of her body towards him. He wrapped his arms around her, but paused when he felt the coldness of metal where he'd expected the warmth of her flesh.

He pulled slightly away from her, an annoyed frown on his face as he bent down to retrieve the object from her…

… and froze as he recognised the framed picture of them both that he secretly kept under his bed.

When he'd been packing for the move from Metropolis, he'd avoided taking any item that would remind him of her, convinced it was best to try and forget her, but when he'd run into this photograph, the need to keep something related to her had been stronger, and he hadn't been able to resist. He'd told himself he'd just put it in a drawer and not look at it, that the simple knowledge that this photograph was near him would be enough, but inevitably, he'd found himself invariably looking at it for long moments, drawing strength from this image that was all that remained of their moments together.

"So Mr Kent… No girlfriend, huh?" she purred, lazily pointing at the object on her lap.

He smiled inwardly as he recalled her question of the previous night. "Why, Ms Lane, could you be jealous of the beautiful woman in this photo?" He dropped a kiss onto her neck as he spoke, delighting in the shiver that made her tug his head and questing lips to her skin.

"Maybe I should… You two seem to like each other a lot," she answered in a gasp as his mouth found its way up her throat.

"Oh we sure do," he murmured close to her ear. "But if you want me to be exclusive to… to…" He trailed off and froze in mid kiss, his eyes opening wide as a chill made its way through his body.

Even if he did commit himself exclusively to her, this was something she couldn't reciprocate, and what had started as light teasing between them had been a little too close to the dark reality of the situation for him to ignore it any longer. He didn't have a right to talk about exclusivity, not right now, not when her life was such a mess, not when she couldn't commit exclusively to him, not when she was…

Married.

She was married. A wave of heat crept to his face as the impact of what they'd just done hit him. The consequences, not only for their relationship, but also for their whole life, were too huge to be ignored. Last night with Lois had been so wonderful, so natural to him — to them both… but it was last night, and now, in the revealing light of the morning sun, her sighs and moans seemed more like memories of something he had no right to even think about. He'd lived the most incredible experience of his life, he'd been given a glimpse of what living with Lois Lane would be like, just in time for him to realise what he'd been missing all his life, and what he'd always miss.

She was married…

His trembling hands released their hold on the framed photograph, which slumped back on to Lois's knees, unnoticed, and Clark flipped over onto his back. A shuddering breath escaped his mouth, and the heat he'd been feeling pulse through him turned cold, paralysing his limbs and making every move painful.

She was married… Dear God, she was married… and to someone else.

His hands covered his eyes, shutting them tightly, his breathing growing irregular, his heartbeat increasing. He'd been aware she was someone else's wife, yet it had never stopped him from murmuring soft words of tenderness in her ear. It hadn't prevented him from continuinghis thorough exploration of every inch of her skin, her languorous sighs against his shoulder all the encouragement he'd needed. It hadn't prevented him from enjoying the most delicious moments of their lovemaking without envisaging the consequences.

Married…

***

Lois tentatively reached for Clark, brushing her knuckles on his chest and feeling the strong and racing pounding of his heart resonating in her fingertips. He shivered fiercely under her touch, and the hand that was covering his eyes slid down to uncover his face; his gaze showed her so much fright that she instinctively drew back.

"Clark?" she whispered in a question, doing her best to keep her voice even in the face of his lack of responsiveness, and the way he was now looking at her as if she'd ripped something from him.

But he jerked away from her touch, getting up swiftly and grabbing some clothes in his dresser before disappearing back in the bathroom, without a word. She helplessly watched him withdraw from her, and startled when the door slammed behind his retreating form. He'd seemed so panic-stricken, so desperate to get away from her all of a sudden.

Her heart sank as the image of another night, in another time, floated back to the surface of her mind, like a long forgotten memory which had just been triggered by too similar circumstances.

At least, this one had had the decency not to let her wake up alone and miserable in the empty silence of her bed.

<Of course he hasn't done that! Why would he leave *his* apartment?>

Why did she have to believe it would be any different this time? Clark wasn't any better than Claude, after all. He'd slept with her, and was leaving her on the following morning, even more lonely than when he'd come into her life, exactly like Claude. He'd taken advantage of her fragile state to get her to tell him she was in love with him, exactly like Claude. He'd let her believe he really loved her and think that last night was the beginning of something new and wonderful, exactly like Claude.

<That'll teach you to trust your bloody intuition, Lois.>

Some intuition indeed! He was probably the worst seducer she'd ever met, progressively convincing her that his feelings for her were the kind that never faded away, only to make her face hard reality after he'd got what he wanted from her. Lulling her into a false impression of trust and mutual love, and maintaining the charade just a little longer, making the withdrawal more progressive, just in time for him to feel her melt again in his arms, before stepping away from her.

She shook her head with a sigh and threw a longing look towards the closed bathroom door. He'd certainly seemed very eager to be as far from her as possible.

She'd been so sure that something had passed between them last night, something powerful, and that it was so much more than just a pleasurable moment together. There had been this bond between them, a connection that had been forged by their lovemaking and that neither of them had wanted to let go of.

At least, *she* hadn't wanted to let it go. Now that she thought back, Clark had seemed very impatient to get up this morning, and not exactly willing to stay in bed and cuddle for a little while. And whereas she would have wished to stay in his warm embrace, he'd quickly escaped her arms and caresses, on the pretext of getting to work on their investigation. She should have known, then; he had never been one urging them to get on with a story: she was the workaholic in their partnership. But this morning, it had been as if their roles had suddenly been reversed, and Clark had looked very enthusiastic at the prospect of getting to work.

*Far* too enthusiastic.

The tears welled up in her eyes, and she held them back, using the picking up of her clothes scattered on the single room's floor to distract herself from the humiliation of being deceived again.

***

Flying.

Soaring into the air.

This was generally the best way to deal with the toughest of problems. He'd let the wind whip at his body and refresh his mind, and the sorrow and pain would disappear. But today, the guilt eating at him wasn't fading any.

The feel of Lois's body was imprinted within him, and his skin still tingled from her touch, sending chilled shivers up and down his spine. He'd dreamt of this so many times, fantasised about making love to her, feeling her heart beat to the same rhythm as his, losing himself in her arms; but the stream of memories passing through his head now were too much of a reminder that what had always been bound to remain hopeless dreams had happened for real, and even though the thought should fill him with joy, he couldn't prevent a sense of remorse from overcoming his whole being.

<*Marriage*. Does the word mean anything to you?>

Marriage.

A family.

Those values he'd always considered as one of the main goals in his life, as a condition to his belonging to this world, despite his alien nature. But last night, what had always been a positive force in his life had turned to accusation. The accusation that he hadn't been able to respect something he'd always believed was sacrosanct, always believed in, something he'd always longed for.

He'd never felt as much of an outsider to this world as right now; his mind was speaking of deceit, lies, dark secrets and hidden agendas, and the completion he'd reached in the previous hours seemed so far from him now.

His rage against Luthor was back, too, stronger than before, only this time, he knew the feeling was a purely selfish one, born from his jealousy and his need to…

… to possess.

His jaw clenched; he'd never considered the possibility of being a possessive lover, but he was turning out to be one of those. Picturing Lois in the arms of another man was making him fist his hands with jealousy, even though he knew he was the one who wasn't in the right, here. Luthor was the one who had the right to love her, to take her in his arms, to hold her and have her hold him.

Clark Kent, on the other hand, had no rights at all. He could just watch her live her life from a distance, with this memory of a single night to live with him, a constant reminder of what he'd never have.

Which was why it could never happen again, *would* never happen again, he thought decisively as he changed course and flew back to his apartment.

And the best way to ensure that was to act as if nothing had happened. He couldn't trust himself if he let himself see her as more than a friend. As a lover. The word, even barely whispered in his mind, made him shudder.

Anger welled up in him as he realised that was precisely what he was to Lois. A lover. Someone she'd come to see from time to time, just for the pleasure of an extra-marital relationship, before she'd go back to her husband's arms and forget about his existence till her next visit. She couldn't possibly envisage a serious commitment, she couldn't be in love with him, otherwise she wouldn't have married Luthor in the first place. She wouldn't have turned him down when he'd told her about his romantic feelings for her. Last night had probably been a pleasurable but ephemeral moment between them, something she didn't view as being as meaningful an act as he did.

The truth lurking behind his rationale hit him, painfully bringing him back to the reality of his relationship with Lois. Or what it used to be.

<She doesn't love you.>

She did. As a brother. As a best friend.

<But nothing more than that.>

No, probably nothing more than that, he acknowledged reluctantly as he landed on the bathroom's cold tiled floor.

She never had, and she never would.

Last night, during the most intimate of moments between them, he'd told her — again — that he loved her, without really expecting her to retaliate, though harbouring some hope she would start to feel the same way about him. Some silly hope that had been! How could he ever have thought that it meant something as deep for her as it did for him? How could he ever have thought that making love would change something between them?

After his heartfelt confession, he'd seen her eyes glaze over, and for a few seconds, he couldn't help but wish she might be feeling the same way. He'd touched his lips to hers, briefly, conveying a tenderness contrasting with the sharp desire coursing through his body, and she'd stilled in his arms before her hands had fisted themselves in his hair and pulled him back to her for one of her devastating kisses.

Silencing his thoughts.

Even if something within him was reminding him Lois didn't easily express her feelings with words, he was now unable to prevent himself from being convinced that the reason for her distracting technique had been her inability to lie and make him believe she could reciprocate the force of his emotions.

<It was your name she cried out, though. Not Lex's. Not Superman's. *Yours*.>

The thought brought little comfort to him. It didn't mean anything, after all; she'd been in his arms, and well aware that she was making love with Clark Kent.

Having sex with Clark Kent, he corrected grimly.

So what, didn't that make things a lot easier for both of them? They'd enjoyed a nice moment together, and they'd only given in to the temptation because they'd been feeling lonely and lost and -

And Lois had needed someone to hold her, to comfort her. He'd been there, whereas Luthor had been thousands of miles away.

And that made him feel… used.

Second-hand.

His fists tightened. How could she have taken advantage of him that way? She was aware of his feelings for her, she couldn't have misheard him last night; if she didn't feel the same way about him, why hadn't she stopped before it was too late? Why hadn't she answered his pleas to go back to a somewhat normal relationship? Why had she begged him to carry on kissing her?

<You didn't sound very convinced yourself back there,> an accusing voice pointed out to him, reminding him how half-hearted his pleas had sounded, how he'd kept on caressing the soft curves of her body all along, how he'd wanted to hold onto her for just a tiny bit longer, even if he knew they couldn't, *shouldn't* go further.

Yet some part of him had been perfectly aware that he was on the road to ruin.

He was as guilty as she was in the way they'd let themselves get carried away. Oh, he'd vaguely thought about calling it a halt, but her maddening kisses had sent all coherent analysis out the window, and he'd preferred to give in to the moment, and the feel of Lois's hands on him. He dimly remembered his brief attempt at resisting her touch, pulling away with the intention of calling a halt before it went too far, but Lois had pleaded with him with her words and actions, tugging him back to her fiery lips, imprisoning him in the feel of her until he couldn't get away. He'd been drawn to her, inexorably, and even his own protests had been feeble resistance to the desire burning in him.

It would have been easier if he'd been able to blame her for what had happened, to accuse her of having trapped him into something he didn't want, but he knew it wouldn't be fair to accuse her of such a thing. He'd been more than a willing participant, even taking the initiative a couple of times and taking them further in their mutual explorations.

And he'd dearly treasure the memory, if it was all he could retain from this one night where for the first — and last- time in his life, he'd felt like he really belonged.

***

Lois watched Clark finally emerge from his hiding place, and looked for signs of acknowledgement on his face, but found none. He barely murmured that she could use the bathroom before he booted his computer and started to check his email, apparently oblivious to her presence.

She stood, taking a couple of tentative steps towards him and putting a timid hand on his shoulder, but the tension she felt beneath her touch held nothing of the enticing nervousness of the previous night. This time it wasn't a struggle against a pent-up attraction, on the contrary. It held a warning, some infinitesimal wince of discomfort, and as Clark stilled, she could sense the coldness of his stance and almost see the muscle in his jaw clench in a way that forbade any closer contact.

Abruptly turning away, she dashed out of the main room to take a well-needed shower as she realised what his reaction barely hid.

He was treating her like a stranger.

Worse, he was flinching away from her touch, refusing to look at her, refusing to talk to her.

Was that any way to behave with the woman he loved?

With the woman he claimed to love…

His declaration of the previous night seemed so far away, now, that she wondered if it hadn't only happened in her imagination. But even if she didn't want to believe that Clark was like the other men she'd known, who had distanced themselves from her as soon as they'd obtained what they wanted, a small voice within her was expressing the same disturbing concern over and over, bringing back the same memories she'd wished to forget about and forcing her to relive those moments when every man in her life had stepped away from her.

And Clark, the most decent, honest, and caring man she knew, the man she loved, had just proved he was exactly like every other jerk she'd encountered before.

<Men are pigs!> she exclaimed inwardly, hoping her anger would suppress the intense sadness that was now sweeping through her.

So what? She was bound to be unhappy, regardless of the relationships she had? Hurt when she was in love, depressed when she wasn't?

Maybe he was just shocked by what had happened, she thought, trying to orientate her musings towards positive explanations of Clark's behaviour. Maybe he needed some time to think and comprehend the new turn in their relationship, as well as what it meant for them. He was probably just scared by the force of their feelings — hadn't she read recently that men weren't very good at dealing with their emotions?

Holding onto this new found hope, she quickly got dressed and re-entered the apartment's main room, shutting down the worry creeping within her as she silently observed Clark folding back the bed.

"Can I give you a hand with something?" she asked, doing all she could to keep her voice light when she noticed he was making no effort to talk to her.

He threw her a quick and severe look before he returned to the task at hand. "No, I have everything under control, thanks."

She stood at the door, doing her best not to get in his way as he tidied the room, and feeling more lonely than she ever had. He was rejecting her, dismissing their night together as something that didn't mean anything to him, and as she watched him re-do the sofa-bed, she felt like the memories of last night were ripped away from her.

He suddenly raised his head, as if struck by a thought, and turned towards her. "There's some coffee and toast on the counter if you want. Help yourself." His tone was dry and non-committal.

She walked to the kitchen area, resisting the urge to grab her purse and run away from this place where she was suddenly not so welcome. But some part of her wanted to sort this out, to try and discover what had happened in Clark's mind for him to have become the cold being she was faced with now.

<Sex, that's what's happened,> a small voice whispered to her. <That's every man's goal on this planet. *You* should know.>

Claude's aim… Lex's aim… And now, Clark's aim as well. Why hadn't she listened to the continual warning in the back of her mind, that had been telling her he wouldn't be any better than any other man she'd ever known? Why had she been convinced *they* would build something together?

<Because you were in love. *Are* in love.>

And she was trying to find reasons for his unforgivable attitude, when there were none, other than the fact he'd just obtained what he wanted from her. Maybe it was something about the way she made love, she thought irritably. Maybe he hadn't enjoyed it as much as she had?

No. She'd been attuned to his every reaction last night, and she knew he'd been struggling for control as much as she had. The need she'd seen in his eyes as they'd hurtled towards release had been anything but faked, and the fierce trembling of his body had matched hers. Powerful, it had been powerful, overcoming them in waves of pleasure and -

"I'm going to be late for work," Clark suddenly remarked, visibly annoyed, and brutally tearing her out of her recollection of the previous night's events.

"Can we… I mean, is it okay if we go to my hotel first, so that I can change?" she asked, castigating herself for the timidity she could recognise in her question and the control that accorded him.

"Well, it's not exactly on our way, but okay. The chief is used to my constant lateness, anyway," he answered matter-of-factly as he knotted his tie.

An image briefly passed over her eyes, like a shadow, of the gesture she'd made on the previous morning, straightening his shirt collar for him, letting her fingers brush the skin of his neck, and her hands tightened around the mug she was holding. She ached to feel his closeness again, to re-establish the link between them, but his whole attitude was a rejection of her.

"Clark," she finally said, trying to keep her voice under control.

He looked up at her, and she saw a flash of alarm in his eyes before he started busying himself again with tidying the cushions on the couch for the umpteenth time.

"Clark, talk to me. Please." As she still received no answer, she put down her mug and stepped closer to him. "What's the matter, for goodness sake?!"

He stilled, then slowly turned around. He was close, so close to her that she could feel the heat radiating from his body, and this time, he didn't shrink away at their nearness. She held her breath, expecting him to step back, or dismiss her concern with some well-prepared and typically male excuse, but he did nothing of the sort. He sighed, his head down, avoiding her gaze, until he finally raised his eyes to her face, and put his hands on her shoulders.

"Oh, Lois," he murmured huskily.

She felt his hands slide up her neck and cup her face, and a fierce shiver took hold of her. It felt so good to feel his touch again, to obtain this contact he'd been denying her. For a crazy second, she thought he was going to kiss her. Her eyes started to close in anticipation for the sweet touch to come. She felt his lips brush her forehead, and slightly opened her eyes, surprised but moved by this tender gesture. But what she read in his expression held nothing of what she could have hoped. Oh, there was tenderness there, an incredible sweetness, too, but mostly, there was sadness. And in any case, there wasn't love. Not the kind of love she was longing for. A brother's love, at best.

He was already stepping away from her again, and she fought against the tears that threatened to overwhelm her, convincing herself she wouldn't cry. She wouldn't give him the satisfaction of seeing her losing her nerve because of him; he wasn't worth it. No man was worth crying over.

She quickly finished her coffee and rinsed the mug in the sink; when she turned back towards him, he was at the door, ready to go.

"You coming?" he asked as she made no move to follow him.

She silently grabbed her coat and purse, avoiding his bleak expression as he held the door for her.

***

The journey to her hotel was mostly silent, Clark walking in front of her and turning around from time to time to make sure she was still behind him and he hadn't lost her en route.

Lois had briefly wondered if it wouldn't be better for both of them if she disappeared around a corner of one of the subway stations they were walking through, and let him get on with the investigation on his own, but the thought had been too revolting for her to even consider it for more than a couple of seconds. She wouldn't let him get a scoop she deserved at least as much as he did, it would be too much of a concession. There were some mistakes she wouldn't ever make again, and one of them was to let her personal life affect her job in any way. Claude had managed to steal a story from her, but she wouldn't let Clark do the same. Though apparently, and much to her surprise, he didn't seem to want to get rid of her as far as work was concerned; on the contrary, he looked as if he was worried that she might vanish all of a sudden, that she might leave him on his own.

She snorted. It would serve him him right if she did that, and if he was still a fledgling reporter, she'd probably dump him like an old rag; but even without her, she knew he was perfectly able to lead the investigation by himself, and as much as it pained her to admit it even to herself, he'd probably achieve their goal faster than she would, considering he knew his way around here, and benefited from very useful contacts.

So what, did that make her any less able to work this out than him? It certainly didn't, she thought in dismay. But something within her wanted to stay with him, though she refused to believe it was because she was in thrall to the spell he seemed to cast on her. It was rather a need to understand, a need to know that he was Clark, *her* Clark, and not this stranger she'd had to face this morning.

Now resolute that she wouldn't let him get away without an explanation to her, and knowing an occasion would come where he wouldn't have any way out but to talk to her, she decided she wouldn't give him the extra pleasure of thinking this was affecting her in any way. And she fully intended to give him a piece of her mind when the right time came, she thought, pasting a decisive expression on her face as she followed him out of the subway train and up the escalators back to the surface.

***

What neither Lois nor Clark had expected, though, was the sight that greeted them on the Place de la Concorde: blazing lights of police cars everywhere, yellow tape barring the entrance to the Hotel de Crillon, and the deafening sirens barely lessening the noise of eager reporters that officers were trying to prevent from invading the place and making their work even more difficult.

Clark recognised Lucas amongst the policemen present on the scene, and he decisively walked towards him. To his surprise, the inspector didn't try to escape, on the contrary, coming to meet him when he spotted him. After a brief exchange between them, where Clark explained that his partner had a room booked in the hotel, they were admitted in.

They managed to make their way to the reception desk, where several experts and officers were deep in conversation with what looked to be a forensic examiner. A quick check around the desk allowed them to see the white sheet that was most certainly covering a body. Lois grimaced and turned towards Clark, her eyebrows raised in a silent question, but he shrugged, as clueless about what had happened as she was.

Lucas hadn't been in the mood to answer any questions, and Clark had figured it would be better for them to be allowed to get to the scene rather than have it reported to them. A murder was something where the police were generally reluctant to tell reporters anything, for the sake of their own legal investigation, and finding out what was happening by themselves was probably the only way to know the basic facts of this case.

A quick X-ray of the sheet showed him that the victim was a man, visibly in his mid-fifties, and sporting the navy blue uniform of the Crillon. The sleeve of his jacket had been ripped off, and there was a grey blur at the junction of his arm, in the centre of which Clark could clearly distinguish the mark of a needle. He inched himself closer, but suddenly his head spun, and he had to grab onto the counter to steady himself.

He puzzled over the phenomenon, wondering what could have caused it. It was a new sensation. It wasn't painful, or dizzying, but he was suddenly feeling light-headed, and there was an oppressive pressure on his chest. The one and only time that he'd experienced something close to that had been his encounter with the meteorite that he and Lois had come to call 'kryptonite'. But it couldn't be that. The entire chunk had been lost in the pond in the backyard of his parents' farm. Besides, the symptoms had been different, oh so different. The discomfort he was sensing now had nothing to do with the incredible pain and weakness he'd found himself in when faced with kryptonite.

The faint uneasiness slowly faded, and, reassured, he convinced himself he'd just imagined the weird sensation, before he refocused on what the coroner was saying.

His examination had lead to the same conclusion as the one Clark had reached, and he was explaining in clinical terms that the concussion at the back of the man's head wasn't what had killed him, but that a quick inspection had shown the trace of a needlemark in his arm, and not long after, an empty hypodermic had been found near the body. A more thorough analysis would allow them to discover what had been the contents of the syringe, and whether it was a lethal substance that had been injected into the man's veins, but Clark had the feeling he already knew the answer to that question.

He translated what was being said for Lois, and saw her eyes light up as she made the obvious link back to the two murders they'd been investigating. It was certainly a weird coincidence that this porter might have been killed in the same circumstances as Laurent Morteau and Jeremy Mellion.

They couldn't be sure the two events were related, but something in the back of Clark's mind was telling him to dig in a little further; a quick check over Lois's shoulder at the scribbles covering a page of her notepad told him that she had the same suspicions. The answer to the questions raised by the coroner as he spoke were already clear in her head, from what she'd written, and she'd underlined the definite hypothesis that the same unknown substance, U209, would be found in the victim's blood.

This possibility, though, created a churning pain in Clark's stomach. He couldn't see any link between this porter and Max's friends; however, it was hitting a little too close to Lois for his taste. He doubted that the choice of the Crillon's janitor was unconnected with his partner's presence. He was about to voice his worry to her when she abruptly turned towards him, slapping her notepad shut.

"So, Kent, still feeling like you're wasting time in letting me get back here for my change of clothes?" she asked snippily. She didn't wait for his reply, swivelling around and swiftly walking towards the awaiting elevator.

He stared at her for a second, mouth gaping, before jogging to catch up to her, sliding himself between the closing doors. He sighed as he spotted the uniformed bellboy. Clark wished the young man harbouring a sickeningly welcoming smile would leave them alone. With him around, he couldn't exactly voice his concerns to Lois about her safety, especially considering she'd probably see his worry as a patronising intrusion into her life.

And he didn't trust himself to be alone with her. After last night, he was still longing to take her in his arms and forget about his resolution. But catching the glimmer of an unspoken accusation as she'd snapped at him had only confirmed what he already knew: she was bitterly regretting what had happened.

He'd had a small doubt when he'd seen the hurt on her face this morning, when she'd asked him what was the matter, when she'd closed her eyes under his touch as he'd almost given in to the temptation again, but he was perfectly aware she wouldn't ever return the strong feelings he was harbouring for her. Oh, she probably cared for him, and she'd been physically attracted to him all right. But what had pushed her to make love to him, whatever it was, couldn't be related to the same emotion that had been sweeping through him ever since he'd first laid eyes on her.

And the painful evidence for that was still brightly sparkling on a finger of her left hand. She hadn't taken off her wedding band, and this morning, as he'd been trying to appear too busy to talk, he'd noticed from the corner of his eye that she was fiddling with it, as if to make sure it was still there.

She loved Luthor.

She was probably feeling as guilty about what had happened as he was, so what was the point in making them both suffer again and talking about it, only to come to the conclusion it had to be put behind them and forgotten about?

What he couldn't fathom was the way she was treating him now, as if he was the only culprit here. The only one who'd let himself get carried away. Surely, she couldn't be that dishonest, could she? *She* had been the one to kiss him in the first place, *she* had started to undress him, *she* had prevented him from thinking straight as he'd been trying to stop, carrying him over the edge of common sense and making him forget that what they were doing was not only too soon, but also not right, and *she* had begged him for more.

<So did you.> The accusatory voice resonated in his head, over and over, its tone full of reproach.

Well… yeah. He'd experienced an explosion of his senses as she'd touched and kissed him, his limbs tingling from where she'd set her lips and hands, his ache to be with her stronger than wisdom had cautioned him against.

He stole a quick glance at Lois, and noticed her stiff stance; she was avoiding looking at him, but he could hear the increasing beat of her heart as his gaze lingered on her. After a moment, she shifted, decisively whirling towards him and fixing him with a hard stare, and he lowered his eyes, unable to stand the ire burning there.

The elevator finally came to a stop, and she abruptly turned away from him, stepping out of the lift and into the darkened corridor.

***

On the sidewalk across the Place de la Concorde, Nigel St John retrieved his cell phone without taking his eyes off the revolving doors through which Lois and Clark had disappeared.

"I found her, sir," he said as the line got picked up, unable to hold back a smug smile.

"Very good. Didn't take you long, I see."

"She's just entered her hotel. By the way, did you know that LNN spends a fortune on their reporters' accommodations? Anyway, it's different in the case of Mrs Luthor," Nigel hurried to add.

"Indeed," came the annoyed reply through the receiver. "Did you manage to set up the equipment?"

"Of course, I did that last night. The porter turned out to be extremely co-operative."

"I never doubted your ability to convince people. Did you make sure he was also persuaded… um… not to betray your trust in him?"

"Sure did, Sir. Actually, I phoned Dr Miller and told him to take care of that by himself. He was delighted to find another guinea pig for his experiment of the K Project."

"Nigel, I think you've been misunderstanding the use of this hybrid Kryptonite," Luthor answered, and his henchman could literally see the frown on his boss' face. "How plausible is it that the janitor of a hotel as famous as the Crillon would take heroin?"

"Well, I — "

"Not to mention that with someone like that, who is *not* part of the underground community, the police will probably dig deeper and try to find out what really happened."

"Dr Miller seemed very sure of himself this time."

"That man could be sure of himself if he set up an experiment to prove pigs can fly," Luthor argued.

"He claimed that the hybrid kryptonite will be almost completely undetectable, this time, Sir. He said something about molecules that couldn't be separated thanks to the amazing properties of this rock."

"*Almost* is not enough of a warranty, Nigel."

"But science requires tests," the English man protested mildly.

"As long as the tests don't compromise the project altogether.

"This man had seen me, Sir, so getting rid of him was a sine qua non to my being admitted to Ms Luthor's room without raising suspicions," Nigel answered defensively. "But maybe you'll be more interested in what I found out about Mrs Luthor's investigation."

"After all, it's what I sent you there for, isn't it?"

"I doubt she's discovered anything."

"You… *doubt*? I don't want to hear about suppositions, Nigel, I want facts. The K Project is way too important to be jeopardised by your incompetence, you hear me?"

"I know, Sir," Nigel answered apologetically. "And I'll make sure she'll — "

"You'll make sure she gets back home *safely*," Luthor interrupted with a warning tone. "So, what did the records of last night tell you?"

"Um… well, actually, the microphones weren't of any help."

"Faulty equipment?"

"No. Just Mrs Luthor didn't spend the night in her hotel room."

There was a long pause on the other end of the line before the cold reply came through. "Where was she?"

"I'm sorry I can't give you the answer, Sir."

"Let me remind you that I pay you to *know*, not to be unable to answer my questions."

"What I can tell you, Sir, is that I just saw her entering the hotel, and you'd never guess who was with her."

"Who?"

"Does the name… Clark Kent seem familiar to you?"

There was another heavy pause as Luthor seemed to take in this piece of information. "Aha… we found the prodigal country boy. So he's living in Paris, now? Interesting, to say the least. Something else?"

Nigel was taken aback by the way his boss seemed to take these news. Knowing him, he'd have expected some anger, or at least some annoyance, but it was as if there was a joyful dimension to his reply, like a young child who'd just been given the toy he wanted for Christmas. Reassured by the light reaction to his discovery, he answered the new question more cheerfully. "Yes, indeed, Sir. I dug a little deeper and there's absolutely no Clark Kent in the official records in Paris, or even in France, for that matter. I found a Jerome Kane, though, who seems to correspond to the physical description of Kent."

"What do you mean?"

"That he's living here under a secret identity, Sir."

"You're sure it's him?"

"Oh, absolutely. There's something else, by the way. I took a look at the staff list at the Paris International."

"Paris International? What's that?"

"Some sort of pale imitation of what the Planet used to be. I doubt they're as dangerous for the organisation as White was, but you never know. I'll keep an eye on them. Anyway, the interesting thing is that a reporter called Jerome Kane was hired there four months ago."

"Very interesting. So, does this mean Lois and Kent are working together?"

Nigel's voice became contrite. "I'm afraid so, Sir."

"I should have known. Superman has been seen in Paris a number of times these past few weeks. It's fortunate he's too busy to think I have business there as well. Do you have any more delightful news?"

"Well… the disk still hasn't been found."

"Nigel, do you remember what I told you about your past, and how it would be easy for me to come out of this whiter than white?"

"Yes, Sir."

"Then if you want to stay in my service, you'd better make sure that you find it, because God knows what Derval's stupid associate had been filing in there before he decided he couldn't live with the secret. And take care of whoever knows too much about it."

"What I can already tell you is that the last owner of the disk was a former street down and out, a friend of the two homeless people on whom Dr Miller tested his creation. I ordered a complete search of his apartment yesterday, but the men I hired came back empty handed."

"Sometimes I wonder what *kind* of men you hire. I know I asked you to choose among the underworld's people, but your job is to check that they have a brain and know how to use it, or near enough. Anyway, tell Derval he'd better get his hands on the disk that his associate created, if he wants the Boss to still think he's useful for something. I'm sure he'll get the picture. As for you, there are only two things you have to bring back here: the formula for the hybrid Kryptonite as soon as it is perfected, so that we can start the production, and my wife. And don't forget that I want Lois back here *unharmed*. So I want you on her trail, wherever she goes, I want you to see everyone she meets, and I want a complete report of her comings and goings. Prevent her from getting too close to finding out anything, because it would get her into unnecessary trouble. And always remember I want her back here alive. Oh, and find a way to dispose of Mr Kent, in any case. He's already spoiled the picture for too long."

"I will, Mr Luthor."

Nigel replaced his cell phone in his jacket pocket and let out a light chuckle. Oh yes, it would be a pleasure to personally take care of Kent. He was aware that Mrs Luthor had an inexplicable fondness for this uninteresting person. Witnessing her sadness when she learned of Kent's death would be an added bonus that was well worth the trouble of coming to this country.

At least he'd been lucky enough to fly in one of the Boss' private jets, and spared having to spend eight hours with stupid peasants on one of those boring transatlantic flights, where business class and tourist class were separated by a thin curtain. He shuddered.

The hotel he'd checked into wasn't so bad either, he acknowledged reluctantly, although he'd have preferred to be at the Crillon. But Mr Luthor wouldn't have approved, because it could have shone suspicion on him. The Boss overestimated his wife's investigating skills, Nigel mused sadly. If she'd been that good, she'd probably have discovered her beloved husband's activities long ago. Her lack of perceptiveness just about confirmed what he'd always thought of Lois Lane. She was naive, and incredibly stupid.

***

Lois unlocked the door to her hotel room with trembling hands, feeling the weight of Clark's gaze on her and wanting to shy away from it. She reminded herself this was just a temporary situation, and as soon as she was back in Metropolis, she could get on with her life. Whatever that meant. She knew that even if Clark had hurt her the way he had, her whole life had changed from the moment his lips had touched hers, and she would make sure that she didn't remain locked in an existence of boredom any longer.

Last night, she'd felt alive as she hadn't been for months, and it had reminded her of what she'd been missing. She wouldn't stay idle in Lex's penthouse, her only occupation being her memories of that one moment of glory with the only man who had ever offered her something, and knowing that the intensity in their relationship that he had given her had been temporary. He'd taken it back before she could realise the power of such a feeling. So she would forget about that night, put it behind her, and start something new, erasing from her mind the way her life had turned out until today.

Har! As if she could ever erase last night from her mind. It would be like every other disappointment she'd had before, coming back to haunt her dreams for months before it would slowly fade away into the memory of another regretful moment.

She entered her suite, struck by the contrast it offered with Clark's welcoming studio. In the light of how she'd felt, if only for a few hours, back in the small apartment near La Bastille, this wide and empty hotel room was even more soulless and colder than it had been during the first night she'd spent there. The bare walls, the white comforter, the large fireplace that probably hadn't seen a fire blaze in it for decades, everything lacked vitality and life.

Clark, his hands shoved into his pants' pockets, swept his gaze around the room, looking blase. He was visibly doing his best to avoid her gaze, and idly played with the sculpted ashtray lying on the mantelpiece to disguise his lack of composure.

"I'll be a minute," Lois told him, gathering a few clothes before locking herself in the bathroom.

Clark nodded absently and sighed in relief as the door closed behind her. Going through the day would be unbearable, he realised, but he couldn't leave her on her own right now. If his suspicions were right, she might be in real danger. The murder of her hotel's porter sounded less and less likely to him to be a coincidence, and he didn't want to let anything hurt her. Especially after what they'd shared last night. So even if it would be a nightmare for him to work beside her, to breathe in the faint fragrance of her perfume, to feel her so near but not to be able to be as close to her as he would like to be, he would do this.

For her safety.

He hoped that his presence beside her wasn't endangering her any more, but he doubted it was the case; on the contrary, he could use his abilities to get her out of any danger, if needed, at the same time wishing it wouldn't come to that point.

In an attempt to tear himself out of his daunting thoughts, he grabbed his cell phone and called his newspaper to dictate the story of the murder of the Crillon's janitor. The voice of Yannick came through the receiver, breathless.

"Jerome Kane's desk?"

"Yannick, it's me. Look, I need you to get Sonia here for me. I got the story about the murder of the Crillon's porter, and — "

"The chief just sent Emilie there, Jerome, so you'll just have to talk with her about your notes if she needs to complete her report. However, I have decoded the computer disk you brought me last night, and I think you'll be interested in going through the files it contains." The young computer genius proceeded to tell Clark what kind of content he'd discovered once he'd got through the codes protecting the device.

When Clark ended the call, he had a satisfied smile playing about his lips; he was about to hang up when a shrieking vibration reached his enhanced hearing.

Taking a suspicious glance around the room, he listened in, trying to work out what could be the cause of the interference. He'd had to deal with something like that once, back when he'd been working at the Planet. Lois and he had been investigating a problem of unfair competition, and they'd discovered, thanks to a bit of super help, that the projects of the first company were being copied by the second thanks to a skilful spying system that included every gizmo straight from the latest James Bond movie. It was the same sound that was now reaching his ears that had started him thinking about the possibility of hidden microphones.

He tugged down his glasses onto his nose and X-rayed every corner of the place, discovering four hidden mikes along the way. The idea of disposing of them crossed his mind, but he rejected it; not only was it a more delicate operation — though he could easily gather the devices and destroy them in a quick sweep if there was no hidden camera to witness his moves — but it would also unnecessarily raise the spies' suspicions if they discovered their sophisticated installations had been taken care of.

The presence of those devices, however, were pointing more and more to a close surveillance of Lois, and the thought was making him very uncomfortable. There was someone out there who knew she was onto something, and wanted to know the extent of her knowledge. Considering what had happened to the porter last night, it was an ominous sign regarding what could happen to her if she happened to run into something that would make the person responsible for that feel endangered.

He would have to talk to her, to convince her she couldn't stay here any longer, to convince her to…

To convince her to what, exactly?

<You're not planning on asking her to crash at your place, Kent, are you?>

Well… She would be safe, there.

<Safe from *who*?>

He sighed. This was getting him nowhere. Of course he couldn't invite her to his apartment, not after last night. It would have been possible if they were still best friends, but now… Now their relationship was put on hold, and any conversation involving anything else than their investigation was out of the question. In any case, she couldn't stay here, even if Superman maintained vigilance over her hotel room all night. He didn't want her to take the risk, he didn't want to -

Lois emerged from the bathroom, momentarily distracting his thoughts as he took in the sight of her. She'd put on what would have looked like a casual tailored suit to the casual eye, but to him she was just breathtaking. The light grey of her slacks and jacket set off her tanned complexion, and her hair floating freely around her face emphasised the black pools of her eyes. He was aching to tell her how absolutely beautiful she was, and the words started to form on the tip of his tongue, but he held them back at the last moment, realising how wrongly they could be interpreted under the circumstances.

Coming back to the reality of the situation, he grabbed her purse, stepped towards her, and took her by the shoulders, pulling her towards the door and silencing her with a hand on her mouth. She struggled in his grip, her eyes showing fury at his manhandling of her, but he managed to drag her outside without mishap, having just felt her place a couple of skilful kicks on his legs. Once the door was safely closed, separating them from the microphones, he released her, and was only mildly surprised when she punched her fist into his chest. He didn't even have the heart to flinch and feign pain at her assault.

"Damnit, Kent, what do you think you're doing?!"

"Protecting you."

"Huh?"

That had been the wrong thing to say, he mused as she glowered at him, her eyes holding more anger than they ever had. "Look, there's no time to explain, because I just had a phone conversation with Yannick and he told me he'd managed to decode the disk but — "

"He did it? You mean he managed to do it? What's in it? What kind of dark secrets does it reveal?"

"— there are microphones hidden in every corner of your hotel room, ready to spy on every piece of information you let out," Clark continued, too preoccupied to listen to her frantic questions. "So I thought it would be better if — "

"Excuse me?" The gleam of excitement that had shone in her eyes when she'd realised their investigation was on the verge of getting somewhere disappeared, and her gaze hardened. The story forgotten, she put her hands on her hips in a challenging stance. "You *thought* it would be better?! What is it with you men, that every time you've had sex with a woman you think you can decide what is best for her? Is that some stupid machismo gene in your DNA or something? So what, do I look like the helpless damsel in distress who doesn't know how to handle a crisis situation?"

Clark couldn't hold back a gasp when he heard the way she referred to their night together. His worst fear was coming true: she considered their lovemaking as casual sex; she'd just spelled it out for him. Even if he'd already been convinced there had been nothing more than that on her part, it still pained him deeply to hear her confirm his supposition.

But there was still the problem of her safety that bugged him, and he needed to be sure she wouldn't get herself into trouble. If she was at all like the Lois who'd been his partner before, he had enough reasons to feel his stomach tying itself in knots with apprehension.

"Lois, please, I know you think you don't need anyone to keep you safe, but I'd feel a lot better if you didn't come back to this place."

"Ordering me around, now, Kent?"

"You know that's not — "

"Think I can't stay out of trouble?"

He rolled his eyes. "Lois, be reasonable, trouble *is* your middle name."

"Reasonable. *You* ask *me* to be reasonable?" Her voice was reaching hysterical heights this time, and she shoved his shoulder roughly, pushing him a few steps away. "What do you think, Kent? That I can't take care of myself? Is that what you're trying to say? Because if it is, I think it's pretty obvious that I managed to do just that for the past six months, without feeling the need to have some over protective partner around to watch my every step!"

"Oh that's true, you don't need me to protect you, after all, Lex does that perfectly, doesn't he?"

She stared at him, dumbstruck by the sudden irritated tone that had crept into his voice.

"Of course he does," he muttered dejectedly, throwing her a disgusted glance. "That's what husbands are for, right?"

She glared at him, and he caught the glint of pure fury in her eyes. "Oh that's what you think, isn't it? That's what you've been thinking all along? And it hurts your male ego that I don't *need* you to protect me?"

"That's not what I meant!"

"In denial, Kent?" She raised her eyebrows suggestively.

"Okay, I was hurting, fine! I still am, if you want to know. Every day of my life, I wonder what I could have done to prevent you from marrying that monster and from leaving your life behind."

"What *you* could have done? So now it's not only that you want to control my life, but you want to actually live it?"

"You're being ridiculous."

"*I* am being ridic — "

A door opened violently behind them, the grating noise cutting Lois off in mid-sentence. A gruff old man in a schlumpy robe poked his head out into the corridor. "Chill, you two! This is a hotel, not a boxing ring. You wanna fight, fine by me, but just do it out of my earshot."

The door shut with a slam before either of them had time to say a word, and Lois's gaze shifted back to Clark. She bit her sour rant back, and, unable to face this man who was able to irk her so much, she abruptly turned away and marched to the staircase.

"Lois!" Clark called after her, but she ignored him. No need to keep on arguing anyway. Their relationship was destined to fail, it seemed. There was too much separating them now, too many things that had been left unsaid during these past six months, and the rift was too big for them to fix it. And last night had just torn them apart even more than their constant fights.

How thin the line could be between the passion they'd shared for barely a few hours, and the hatred that seemed to lie between them now, Lois mused sadly. Oh she didn't hate him — she didn't think she could ever, even after what he'd done to her — but she'd seen what had been reflected in his eyes when she'd accused him of controlling her. There had been shock at first, but it had quickly been followed with recognition. He wanted to control her, to have her at his mercy, like all the others. And she would *not* let him do that, she decided firmly as she quickly walked down the stairs.

"Lois!"

She could hear approaching footsteps behind her, and she didn't need to turn around to know he was following her. She descended faster, the steps beneath her feet becoming a blur as she accelerated…

… until her legs suddenly gave way as she tripped, bumping against the wall as she tried and failed to make a desperate grab at the guardrail. She shrieked as gravity started to pull her to the darkened bottom of the flight of stairs, her gaze blacking out as if she could already feel herself fall, her muscles tensing in anticipation of the pain that was to come…

… and wobbled as a strong hand gripped her arm, steadying her. For a nano-second, she thought she was floating, and she closed her eyes, trying to regain her balance as her head spun. When she re-opened them, she could feel the ground under her feet again. Her gaze fell on the hand still clasping her, and up to Clark's face as she tried to get her breathing back under control.

"You okay?" he asked, his voice full of concern, the twinge of sourness that had been there before completely absent this time.

"Yeah," she heard herself say, her ears still buzzing with the rapid pounding of her heart. "I think so."

His grip relaxed, and he slowly let her go before lowering his eyes to the ground, avoiding looking at her, as if waiting for her to yell at him again. But as strange as it seemed to her, she couldn't bring herself to be angry any more. His bitterness still rankled with her, no doubt about that; but the way he was showing concern, the worry written all over his face as he'd held her back from falling in a heap at the bottom of those stairs, suddenly reminded her of the Clark she knew. Of the Clark she loved. And her earlier hysteria had been replaced by a calm indifference, leaving her woozy and apathetic in its wake.

And like every other time it had happened in her life, she mentally grabbed onto the only thing she knew was constant, and wouldn't let her down, the only thing that couldn't hold any surprise that she wouldn't be able to handle, the only thing that wasn't personal enough to really affect her. "The disk is decoded, now, so I think we can get back to work," she murmured, turning back towards the last flight of stairs.

Heaving a tired sigh, Clark stuck his hands in his pockets, and mooched after her.

***

"You were right!" Clark exclaimed, getting up from his chair and advancing towards Lois with a broad smile. "There *is* something strange going on at TI, and it's quite possible that it's linked to our murders!" A couple of hours spent working on the disk had revealed a series of files saved onto a disk under the name of Michel Deslauriers, the now dead vice president of Timon Industries.

She eyed him dangerously. "Of course I was right. Why do you sound so surprised?"

His smile faded and he stuttered for a way out. "Well, I… No, it's just that — "

"Don't worry, I was just kidding," she reassured him. The excitement of what she'd just discovered while searching for a name they'd repeatedly seen in the files saved on the disk was making her so giddy that she couldn't bring herself to be snappish with her exasperating partner any more. He hadn't tried to broach the topic of their fight, and she was grateful to him for that; she didn't think she was ready for an explanation that she knew would lead to another round of yelling and she wasn't prepared to let anything spoil the joy she felt at having uncovered what would probably constitute another front page story.

Or in her case, another big breaking news report.

A vague feeling of regret passed through her as she remembered the times when she used to have her byline printed under her written articles, but her sadness was short-lived as she imagined the live images of Dr Henri Miller's arrest. Charged with double murder. Triple murder, even. The last forensic report of her hotel's janitor's body had just been faxed to the newsroom by Inspector Lucas, and confirmed the presence of the same unknown substance in the veins of the man. Even if the quantity of the product was a lot less remarkable than in the previous case, the detection of U209 was like the signature to Miller's killing spree, and considering what she'd just found out about the scientist, plus the evidence that this disk certainly represented, Lois doubted it would be long before Miller admitted it all.

She hadn't thought that checking on his background would be so enlightening. Her first reaction when Clark had asked her to take care of that part had mostly been disappointment, and even a twinge of jealousy that he could decipher the scientific information contained in the disk whereas she had to content herself with backup research. But she knew it was necessary to find out who they were dealing with, and the repeated reference to this scientist called Dr Miller had been too intriguing for them to pass it up. And right now, the wide smile on Clark's face, and the twinkle in his eyes, were telling her that what he'd read had its own interest as well.

"So, what did you learn?" she finally asked him, eager to find out if her discoveries could corroborate his.

"No, you first," he argued. "I need to know more about Miller's background first, before we can jump to any conclusion."

"He's in charge of the research department recently developed by Timon Industries," Lois began. "He got hired by the company six months ago, in order to develop their newly funded research department."

"I see. Yes, TI made quite a fuss about the opening of this branch. I don't think the name of Miller was quoted until the last moment, though."

"Yes, they did quite a lot of fumbling around before they found their director of projects. Several names were proposed, all of them rejected, until the firm did a public offer of exchange with another chemicals company based in Zurich."

"Oh yes, I remember that. I covered the agreement. ALC-something-corporation, I think."

"Interesting things that this paper makes you write about," Lois answered, a hint of sarcasm in her comment. "ACL Corporation for Chemicals Research and Development," she corrected him after a quick check of her notes. "Anyway, the thing is, Miller was working there, as a simple scientist, but when the two companies merged into one, he was sent to Paris so that TI could use his experience for their own projects."

"I see. Did you find out anything about Miller's activities back in Switzerland?"

"Sure did. Guess what he specialised in? The effects of drugs on the human body and mind. Ring any bells?"

"You bet it does. Did he work on heroin?"

She nodded. "Yes, most of his latest work was orientated on the study of overdoses. Including heroin overdoses."

"Well, then you'll be delighted to see what I have here." He waved the disk in the air.

"Spill."

"The scientific mumbo-jumbo that we both found out, with the mysterious formula for what they call the 'K Project', *plus* the copy of a couple of bank accounts."

Lois's ears perked up. "Oh? And anything interesting?"

"Oh yeah! Apparently, Deslauriers had discovered a repeating glitch in the bank receipts of TI."

"What was this glitch?"

"Each month, two hundred thousand francs missing from the company's bank account each month, and transferred into another account based — guess where — in Zurich."

Lois's eyebrows shot up. "Was this account at the name of Henri Miller, by any chance?"

"Yes. The most interesting thing is that very few people have access to the codes leading to the company's account, and Miller wasn't one of them. So Deslauriers, being one of these people, decided to try and find out how this glitch was possible, by checking out every bank operation that involved the company's funds. In every department. And that's how he discovered that every month, just before the glitch appeared, it was Pierre Derval's personal code that was recorded."

"Pierre Derval?"

"TI's chief executive officer. Big head. But not much brains to go with it."

Lois frowned. "But why would he hide what he paid his employee?"

"Because the payment was an extra for illegal activities?" Clark proposed.

"Could be. I found out something about Miller that could corroborate this hypothesis. It seems he's been fired several times from European companies and laboratories, and each time the cause of his lay-off is marked as 'didn't correspond to the firm's ethical policy'. You think that the K Project that Deslauriers keeps mentioning is what that was about? Something that wouldn't have been allowed by the French government and that neither Derval nor Miller wanted anyone to know about? Something that he decided to test on a couple of homeless guys?"

"And your hotel's porter? Possibly. I guess that Lucas will pass the disk to the police labs, and within a couple of days, we should know what these formulas lead to. It would be good to have a couple of samples of this HK element, too, whatever it is. Seems to be recurring in every formula for the famous K Project. But in any case, this disk is a bomb for Miller and Derval."

A tentative smile spread onto Lois's face. "Does that mean we've just figured them out?"

"I think so," Clark answered with a broad grin.

They stared at each other for a moment, smiling ruefully, and then somehow, without either of them thinking of the consequences of their next move, they were in each other's arms, hugging each other and laughing their joy at having wrapped up another investigation. Together. And it felt right.

As Lois held him tightly to her, she marvelled at the feel of his body pressed tightly to her curves, and images of the previous night flashed through her mind. She quickly chased them away. No need to inflict more pain on herself in thinking about something she wouldn't ever have again. So she had to be content in holding her partner in her arms. Holding her friend in her arms. Yes, she decided firmly, he was still her friend, despite everything, despite what she considered to be his betrayal, because she couldn't bring herself to think that the Clark she'd known would ever abandon her the way he had.

Of course, sleeping together had been the worst mistake they'd ever made, and it had probably broken their close friendship forever, but if there was one thing she wanted to remember from him, it wasn't this deceit. She needed to believe that at least one man had brought something else to her than hurt and humiliation. And wasn't that what Clark had given her before they'd inopportunely got carried away? He wasn't rejecting her as a colleague, nor as a partner, after all. And thanks to seeing him again, she would handle her life differently from now on.

He pulled away, a thankful expression on his face, and she knew she'd made the right choice.

"I'm going to tell Yannick to bring it back to Lucas, by the way."

"Huh?" Still lost in the feel of his arms around her, it took her some time to understand what he was referring to.

"The disk," he clarified.

"Oh! Good thinking. Will save us the trouble of facing his wrath when he discovers we didn't hand it to him right away," she interjected. "At least we cut down the work for him."

"Don't count on him to thank us, though. He generally doesn't appreciate the press holding out on him."

"Come on, Clark, we didn't really do that, we just borrowed it to get some information, that's no big deal!"

He raised a sceptical eyebrow.

"Okay, we did hold out on him a bit," she conceded. "But it was just a tiny little thing, nothing, really. Believe me, he'll be happy when we hand him his culprits."

"When we *hand* him back… oooh, wait a minute, you're not thinking what I think you're thinking, are you?"

"Sometimes I wonder if you know me at all, Kent," she retorted, shaking her head as she walked towards the elevators.

***

<How do I get myself in such situations?> Lois wondered as she was unceremoniously shoved into a corner of the room, her hands on her head, and the barrel of a gun poised at her back.

Everything had seemed to go like clockwork until Clark had had the irresistible urge to scupper her infallible plan. They just had to enter the firm undercover, then slip through the security guards' fingers to find the chairman and managing director's offices on their own and snoop around without being disturbed.

But no, Clark had to insist they go the straight way first, asking for an interview with one of the big shots from Timon Industries regarding the suicide of one of Pďerre Derval's main associates.

They'd been turned down at first, of course, and Lois had seriously considered the possibility of breaking and entering on her own, thinking that even Clark's skills at persuading people wouldn't work this time. But surprisingly enough, a man who'd introduced himself as Samuel Ferron had stepped in just as the porter was about to show them out, and gladly agreed to answer every question they wanted to ask.

She should have smelled the rat right then. Ferron, who turned out to be Pierre Derval's right-hand man, had known who they were as soon as he'd seen them, and he'd figured that getting rid of them would be more secure for the hidden business of the company.

So now, thanks to Clark's 'caution', her hands and feet were being tied, and she had to sit on a wooden bench in the corner of Ferron's office, waiting for those sinister-looking men to decide what they wanted to do with her. It probably involved killing her, anyway. It always did. So far, she'd always managed to escape from situations like these, but she hadn't been faced with one since the Planet's destruction, and she wondered if her skills could be rusty from lack of practice. The fact she'd kept taking her tae-kwon-do course brought her little comfort: martial arts could do little against the power of guns.

It would have been so easy to simply follow her lead according to what they'd decided — *she'd* decided — but no, he had to do it his way, under the ridiculous excuse that what she had proposed was dangerous. Talk about dangerous!

She took a look at the resigned form of the man sitting next to her. He seemed a bit restless, but not overly, and she saw him sneak a careful glance at the guy who was tying his ankles. She briefly wondered if he would send a skilful kick into his shins, but it didn't sound like Clark to work like that. Now, if it was her, she wouldn't have such scruples, and if the occasion presented itself, she wouldn't miss it. However, since he'd been the one to choose their way of action, which had put them in this sticky situation, he should be the one to get them out of here.

Clark squirmed as if he'd heard her thoughts, and he turned to face her, opening his mouth as if to say something, then changing his mind and clamping it shut again. She held his gaze for a moment before she turned away, and heard him sigh heavily as she did so.

She suddenly wished, not for the first time that day, that she'd handled it by herself; losing him somewhere on the way to the laboratories wouldn't have been very difficult, would it? And she probably wouldn't have fallen in the trap if she had. On the other hand, Ferron had seemed very well informed, already knowing the aim of their visit before they'd even had time to introduce themselves, though he hadn't judged it necessary to inform them about the identity of his source.

Her musings were interrupted by the arrival of a silver-haired man who appeared to be giving orders to the henchmen who'd tied them. Lois heard a couple of sharp exclamations from him, and saw everyone, including Ferron, exit the room, leaving herself and Clark alone in front of the newcomer who was staring at them with an irritatingly amused frown.

***

Having his hands tied behind his back wasn't something Clark Kent particularly enjoyed, but the arrival of the head of Timon Industries, supposedly still at his congress in Amsterdam, was a very ominous sign for his and Lois's fate. Pierre Derval, in lots of aspects, reminded him too much of Lex Luthor: in his methods to make money at the expense of the weaker, he had visibly more than one common point with Metropolis's star businessman. The word morality didn't seem to be in his vocabulary either.

"Well, well, well," he said, rubbing his hands together. "What have we got here? Nosy reporters snooping around in the premises of my company's new laboratory. Did Samuel make you enjoy the tour?"

"We haven't really had time to take a look around," Clark replied. "That pitbull that calls himself your associate was already all over our case before we even entered the labs."

"Ah well… A man in my position has to have informants to know what's going on in his business, don't you think?"

"Especially when the business in question tries to hide the murder of three men," Clark replied with a snort, stifling a satisfied chuckle at the thought that the man's sources weren't as well informed as he pretended they were, considering they visibly hadn't discovered Jerome Kane's real name. Which was just as well, but Clark couldn't help but feel content that Derval, though he seemed to have delved deeply enough into their identities, hadn't been able to find out everything. It made his smug behaviour almost ridiculous, all of a sudden, and was renewing Clark's hope that they might be able to get out of this mess.

Derval took on an offended expression. "Come on, Mr Kane, you should know better than to accuse people without proof. At least you're so kind as to tell me first, so I suppose I ought to be grateful. You know you guys are in luck; I was just about to leave again for the Netherlands."

"I suppose you didn't come back to be questioned by the police, did you?"

"Wasn't in the plan, no. Why? Should I try to exonerate myself from some bad deed I'd have carried out?"

"You know perfectly well what I'm talking about."

"Am I supposed to know?"

"We have all the evidence we need, Derval."

He feigned a yawn. "You do? How fascinating! Meanwhile, I'm not the one totally impotent right now."

"What's the K Project?" Clark enquired, ignoring the man's provocation.

Derval looked slightly taken aback, but he quickly recovered, re-pasting the exasperating fatherly grin on his face. "I see you're well informed, Kane. Very few people are aware of the existence of the K Project, and you're one of them. Congratulations."

"What is it?"

"Ah, but I notice you're still missing some elements for your paper. Unfortunately, I'm not one to reveal the formula of the chemicals created by TI. Besides, I don't think you want to know," he answered with a contrite grimace. "See, my associate Mr Deslauriers knew, and look where that got him. God rest his soul."

"Because he got in your way?"

"Oh, he wouldn't have dared to get in my way, Mr Kane. Proof is in the way he decided to end his being a nuisance at TI all by himself, and without even being prompted to it. He was way too clever to force me to the extremity of having to tell him his service in the company wasn't required any more… unlike two reporters who unfortunately got too close to the K Project, and got burned. The director of research Dr Miller and myself have been working on this project for barely six months, but as you certainly know, it's a ridiculous amount of time when it comes to science. However, it's amazing how much a couple of experiments can tell you about a research project."

"So that's what it was? You used two innocent homeless people, and a hotel janitor, to satisfy a scientist's curiosity?"

"I'm amazed at your deduction skills. And it's true that Miller was delighted to find an occasion to use his new product on something else than the lab rats I'm furnishing him with." Seemingly bored with Clark's constant questions, Derval shifted his attention to Lois, his smile turning smug, and spoke in her language with a very pronounced accent. "Now, Ms Luthor. Interesting to see you here, so far away from your home country."

"I think you have me mistaken for someone else," Lois said coldly.

"Oh puh-lease! It's true that you've calmed down these past few months, since Luthor married you and you became a society woman, but you can't expect me to have forgotten your career at the Planet. I doubt anyone has forgotten about it, actually. How many people were arrested because of your constant need to snoop around in others' business? On second thoughts, I should probably thank you. You prompted me to take more care and develop the habit of covering my tracks. I'm quite proud of myself, actually."

She glowered at him challengingly. "You shouldn't be, Derval. You're visibly not so good at it, since I found you."

"You did," he admitted with a slight nod of his head. "But you won't make anything of this information, I'm afraid."

"And how do you plan to make sure of that?"

"Oh, I'm sure I can find an idea or two," Derval answered with a mocking grunt.

Lois chuckled, shaking her head.

"What?"

"Oh, nothing. Just wondering what you would give for the evidence that Mr Kane and I have in our possession. Some computer disk that belonged to Michel Deslauriers."

Clark opened his eyes wide, admiring her courage in playing their last card, yet, at the same time, dumbfounded that she could put herself in such danger with this revelation. Derval wouldn't need much incentive to kill her, and taunting him with some incriminating evidence would certainly not help to solve their case. Especially when their hands and feet were tied, and they were in no position to escape any time soon. He wondered how long it would take Lucas to arrive here with the search warrant for TI. Surely, the inspector must be in possession of the disk, now. How long could it take Yannick to drive from the newspaper's offices to the precinct? Twenty minutes? Half an hour? Why was it taking so long for the police to arrive?

He wished he could try and use his powers, but even if he did, he doubted that he could get them out of the building without risking Lois's safety. Ferron's office didn't have any window through which they could fly out, and Derval's men were milling about the premises. He cursed himself, wondering how he could have agreed to go along with her plan to snoop around this place. Of course, he'd insisted they be careful, but she hadn't listened, and had argued she'd been in the journalism business for far longer than he'd been.

Reluctant as he'd been to start another fight with her, he'd agreed to follow her on the condition they didn't go there undercover, and used Deslauriers's suicide to obtain an interview. He'd been certain that his own approach wouldn't hold as much danger, and that it would allow him to try to protect her as best as he could. Obviously, he'd been wrong, and now he had no other choice but to watch her put her life at risk and feel powerless.

But she seemed very sure of what she was doing, and from the expression on Derval's face, she'd certainly hit a nerve. Their captor was harbouring a suddenly interested frown, and his amused smile had been replaced by a tight-lipped grimace. He inched himself closer to her, putting his hands on her shoulders. Lois didn't move, but Clark's fists clenched, and the ropes binding him strained under the pressure he applied to them as he prepared himself to launch himself onto the man, were he to attempt to harm her.

"I see I got your attention," Lois said suggestively at Derval's approach. "This disk must mean a lot to you."

"Look, Ms Luthor, I think you and I could have a little heart to heart."

"What if I don't want to?"

"I don't think you're entitled to have your say in this matter. See, you visibly own something I want to get back, and I have something you want as well."

"Oh. And that would be?"

"Your freedom. So if you're a good girl and tell me where you hid the disk, you'll be free to live."

"Ha! As if you'd let me go, what with the information I now know."

"I'm a man of my word," he said in earnest.

"And what if I refuse your bargain?"

"Then I won't be able to accept any further responsibility for my actions. I could get carried away with anger, you never know."

"Is that a threat?"

"I'm not the one who said it." He released his hold on her shoulders and straightened. "But let's just say that none of Miller's guinea pigs were chosen haphazardly."

"Because they had your disk?"

"Deslauriers made a mistake. He decided to go all noble about whatever it is that he found out. He was well aware I had asked Samuel to put surveillance on him, and therefore couldn't go to the police without me being alerted right away."

"Oh so you were spying on him constantly?" Lois enquired, remembering what Clark had mentioned about her hotel room and the mikes that he'd *somehow* found in there.

"When you're at the head of such a big company, you have to know what happens in your offices. What Mr Deslauriers didn't know, though, was that Samuel saw him hand *something* that he identified as a computer disk to the piece of scum who was regularly loitering on the square in front of La Defense."

"The perfect test subject for Dr Miller's first experiment," Lois completed matter-of-factly.

"Exactly. But I digress. Where's that disk, Ms Luthor?" He stared at her, crossing his arms in front of him as he waited for her to go on.

"I'll show you."

"You'll *show* me? Why wouldn't you tell me, instead?"

"Because I'm the only one who can have access to it at the moment," she argued with a sweet smile.

"I see Mr Luthor's business techniques haven't been lost on you. I've heard of his use of power to convince his business partners. But why would I trust you?"

Lois feigned an exasperated sigh. "Come on, Derval, you're holding a gun and are ready to point it at me, why do you expect me to be stupid enough to try something funny when all I have to do to regain my freedom is to give you back that disk?"

She waited as Derval seemed to process her demand, and weighed his options. It was a case of double or quits, she knew it, but she'd noticed his expression when he'd been taunting her partner. He was very certain of his success and of Clark's and her lack of intelligence, and gladly exhibited his wicked plans. And that was a weakness she wanted to exploit.

Derval's head tilted to the side, as if he'd been hit by a sudden thought. "Yes… Would Mr Luthor be very annoyed if his beloved wife accidentally died when working on a dangerous investigation?" he mused aloud, and chuckled upon seeing Lois squirm under his scrutiny. "Think he'd really miss you, Lane? Or is he the kind of man to marry just because it's what everyone does, and I would actually do him a favour?"

Clark stole a glance towards Lois, hoping to see any reaction that might clue him in about the real nature of her marriage to Lex, but her remote face wasn't letting anything pass. Derval's questions had been obsessing him for six months, now, and the weight of Lois's stubborn silence on this particular topic was getting more and more oppressive for him. And right now, she was looking unmoved, as if she wasn't affected at all by Derval's verbal wanderings. She turned her head towards him, her gaze challenging and forcing him to look away and shift his attention back onto their captor.

"I guess I'd rather not find out. Okay, Ms Luthor," Derval finally said, and Lois rejoiced inwardly like she had every time her plans had worked in the past. It was good to know she hadn't lost her touch, even after all those months when most of her investigations were done in her LNN office.

Hearing him voice out loud what was actually the sad truth about her marriage had been hard, and it had taken all of her inner strength to keep up the pretence that it didn't touch her. It had been even more difficult to feel Clark's heavy look on her, and she'd reacted with an angry stare that had fortunately made him lower his eyes. She didn't think she could have borne with any more of his lecturing.

Derval crouched on the floor to untie her ankles, tugging her back to reality, and she felt a rush of adrenaline as he did so. She knew what kind of danger the handgun he was still holding in his hand represented, but she had to take the chance, and as he concentrated on her ropes, she swiftly retreated her legs and kicked them back into her captor full force, making him lose his balance and fall on his side.

The ropes loosened by Derval's work on them fell at her feet, and she promptly got up, bending down to retrieve the gun before the man could come back to his senses. She turned towards Clark and paused a second as she saw him free of any ties. She raised a questioning eyebrow at him. "How did you — "

But whatever answer he could have had was lost on her as she heard noises of commotion behind the door, and Inspector Lucas barged in, accompanied with a dozen of uniformed policemen wearing guns and walkie-talkies. He frowned at Lois before he took a glance at the businessman sprawled on the floor, clutching at his chest in pain, then back at Lois.

"The advantage of high heels," she answered to his puzzled look with a wink, giggling inwardly as he shook his head and waved for his men to finish the work she'd cut down for them.

***

'Mad scientist charged with murder — Corrupt businessmen accomplices'

Clark looked proudly at the 24 point headline on his computer screen, and at the byline beneath it.

By Lois Lane and Jerome Kane.

When he'd proposed to her that they shared the credit for the story, he'd been expecting a refusal, but Lois had surprised him when, to his delight, she'd nodded shyly, arguing jokingly that she accepted on the condition her name went first. Both had remembered the first byline they'd shared, back at the Daily Planet, and they'd smiled to each other at the recollection, sharing another quiet moment where personal matters were forgotten.

Lois had avoided any attempt at discussing personal issues, and he'd respected her choice, keeping the conversation strictly work-orientated, also grateful for the way they'd managed to keep some semblance of normality between them as they'd worked together and gathered the evidence they needed before presenting their discoveries to Lucas. Whatever differences they had had been put behind them, at least for the moment, and hadn't interfered with their professionalism.

In front of the stormy inspector, too, she'd been very calm and reasonable, explaining to him their reasons for keeping the disk from him, and emphasising the fact that they'd about cleared up the mystery of Jeremy Mellion and Laurent Morteau's deaths. Although Lucas hadn't seemed that convinced that it constituted enough of an excuse, he'd been too preoccupied in obtaining the search warrant for the premises of Timon Industries' laboratory to really lecture them, and they'd been mostly let off the hook.

They'd even managed to go along with the police officers to Dr Miller's home, and Lois had requested a team from LNN France accompany them there. Clark had watched her handle the shooting of Miller's arrest with dawning interest, discovering a new skill of his multi-faceted partner as she'd very professionally reported the gist of the story within the time allowed by an international television network.

She'd growled a bit at the police's refusal to let her interview the two culprits, but she'd soon realised that Lucas would be steadfast on that point, and she'd switched her hunger for information to the inspector himself, who'd agreed to answer a couple of questions for the benefit of the famous American network, suddenly becoming concerned about his appearance and how he would come across on TV.

Clark shook his head and chuckled at the memory before refocusing his attention on the woman sitting across from him in the now empty newsroom. It was only after the agitation around the laboratories had calmed down, and the LNN team had folded back their equipment, that he'd realised she wasn't as cold-blooded as she seemed. The weariness was showing in her whole attitude, and he'd understood that her courage in front of Derval had only been due to the rush of adrenaline produced by a survival instinct. Now that it was over, now that they were safe, and starting to unwind, the peril they'd been subjected to was slowly sinking in.

He'd felt she didn't want to be alone, and despite their differences, he'd asked her to come back to the newsroom and write the story with him, which she'd gladly agreed to. They'd worked together again, he phrasing their expose and she reminding him of important details he might have missed. It had been like the previous year; the surroundings and the country mattered little when he was beside her, and revelling in the pleasure of benefiting from her input.

And for those precious hours, the rift between them and the hurt of the day had been forgotten.

But now, as he looked at her concentrated frown indicating she was trying to decipher the meaning of some word he'd included in their article, he realised he couldn't postpone the inevitable much longer. Their investigation now over, he knew she would take tomorrow's flight back to Metropolis, and if it was the last time he'd see her, then he didn't want her to carry back the memory of his anger and resentment. Because whatever choices she'd made in her life, and however he'd felt this morning when he'd understood the situation they'd put themselves in, he still loved her with all his heart.

Getting up from his chair, he discreetly coughed in hope of attracting her attention, and when she didn't show any sign of having heard him, he slowly approached the desk she was sitting at.

"Lois?" he asked softly, shifting uncomfortably in spite of his resolution to stay calm and rational about this.

"Hmmm?" was her absent reply.

"We need to talk."

She stilled, and he could hear her breathing was heavier all of a sudden. But in spite of the tell-tale signs that he knew all too well and that told him her protecting walls were crashing back into place, enclosing her inside an impassable armour, he wanted to try and clear the air between them, and know that she would leave with his eternal friendship.

He was no dupe, and he was perfectly aware she probably wouldn't want to see him ever again. After what had happened last night, he knew they couldn't go back to the friendship they'd shared before, that something was broken for good this time. But even if it deeply pained him to know that it was those few intense minutes of pure bliss that was now causing their break-up, and that he'd give the world if he could go back and not give in to the temptation of making love to her, there was some part of him that couldn't bring itself to regret it entirely. And if he could still patch things up enough, take back his biting words, maybe she would at least not try to forget him completely like he feared she would.

He took another tentative step towards her, and noticed with an inward grimace that she tensed infinitesimally. "I'm sorry," he finally said with a sad shake of his head. "About what I said, earlier," he added when she didn't react. "About Luth… about Lex."

She remained immobile and silent, and he wondered if she'd heard what he'd just said. Butthen she lowered her face, and as the dim glow of the desk lamp played a game of shadows on her face, he spotted the slight tremble of her lower lip before she bit it with her teeth in an attempt to hide it. Nonetheless, the light caught an ephemeral shimmer on her cheek, and Clark's heart sank. There was something worse for him than Lois's absence, something worse than knowing she thought he was the worst person in the universe, something that was killing him in an even more agonising way. Seeing her cry, spotting so much sadness in her eyes, knowing he was responsible for her suffering, and that nothing he could say or do would soothe her, tore him apart.

"What does it matter anyway?" she murmured at last, so low that even Clark's enhanced hearing had a hard time understanding her words. "It's not as if you were wrong." She chuckled bitterly, adding in a hoarse voice, "Pretty pathetic, huh? Lois Lane confessing she's been wrong, who would have thought?"

Clark stared at her in complete shock, afraid to even breathe as the impact of her words hit him. She was *regretting* her choice? Had she just implied that? Had she just told him that her life with Luthor hadn't turned out as happy and joyful as she'd expected? Was she talking about a temporary disorder in her marriage or was there a deeper wound that meant her relationship with her husband couldn't be salvaged…

Had she just implied that Luthor was a monster?

A series of morbid thoughts suddenly entered his mind, forcing him to close his eyes tight to try and chase them away.

Had the bastard ever…?

No, he couldn't even let himself think about it. If Luthor had raised his hand to her, he wasn't sure he'd be able to control his rage. It wasn't possible, it wasn't conceivable. Luthor wouldn't do that to the woman he'd married, to the woman he loved.

Love? Luthor?

He'd never quite understood what had happened in the man's head for him to propose so quickly to Lois, when he'd barely dated her for a couple of months; a relationship that was hardly serious. Not that Lois had confided in him much regarding what was happening between herself and the most famous Metropolitan businessman, but it hadn't taken much intuition for him to realise that they weren't just friends. At least, on Luthor's part. He'd seen the way they'd interacted when they'd all been held hostage at the Planet, barely a month before he'd departed. There had been tender gestures on Lex's part, and sickening compliments that had made his heart clench when he saw the reaction of embarrassed delight on Lois's face as she heard them.

But whatever reasons he'd considered for Luthor's attachment to Lois, love had never come into the equation. Was Luthor capable of such a feeling? Considering what Lois had just revealed about her marriage with him, it seemed doubtful that her life was filled with the beautiful emotions he'd known with her last night. A cold shiver ran through his spine as the image of Lois, sitting alone on her bed, feeling empty and miserable, haunted his mind. The same image that he'd seen for half a second this morning, before he'd locked himself in the bathroom, reappearing a few minutes later under the disguise of a being as cold and heartless as Luthor.

For the first time since this morning, he started to analyse things from her point of view, and realised of how wrong he'd been, how humiliating for her it must have been to be faced with someone who gave her the impression he didn't want to touch her with a ten feet pole.

And whatever conclusions she'd come to regarding their relationship, whatever reasons had pushed her to make love with him last night, there was no excuse for the way he'd handled things, leaving her out of a decision that concerned her as much as himself, doing his best to control her and not give her the opportunity to express herself. He'd been making all the choices by himself, in an 'I know best' manner that her husband probably tried to use with her all the time.

He hadn't been any better than Luthor.

"Oh, Lois…" he whispered, taking another unconscious step closer.

She gestured towards him, her gaze challenging. "Go ahead, Clark. What are you waiting for? I'm listening. Isn't it time for your 'I told you so' lecture?" Her voice was quivering, but he couldn't tell whether it was from anger or fear.

"Lois, I really wish I'd been wrong this one time, that Lex Luthor wasn't who I thought he was, that — Lois, he didn't… he didn't hurt you, did he?" he finally voiced the concern that had been on his mind these past few seconds, as he'd taken in her admission.

"No!" She abruptly turned her head towards him before repeating her denial more quietly as she saw him breathe out a sigh of relief. "No. Of course not. Not even emotionally… at least, not as much as y… not as much as someone I'd be in love with…" Her sentence trailed, letting the unspoken blame float between them.

Silence settled over them, and Lois absently fumbled with a couple of papers on Clark's desk, reading the words on them without really taking in their meaning, too lost in her thoughts to concentrate on what she was seeing. She wondered what had lead her to confide in Clark, when he'd been the one to hurt her so much these past few hours. He didn't deserve to know how much his attitude had affected her, he didn't deserve to be told that he'd been right in his warnings about her husband, yet she'd just admitted to him the deepest secrets of her mind, although she'd promised to herself she wouldn't.

But there was something about this man, something that made her vulnerable each time he set eyes on her, something that made her want to melt in his arms and forget about the outside world. She loved him. Despite everything he'd done to her, she loved him. And she was too tired of fighting her attraction to him. Voicing her feelings, even in a roundabout way like she'd just done, had come as a liberation to her, and even as she anxiously waited for his reaction — *any* reaction, — she felt as if a weight had been heaved off her shoulders.

She didn't dare look him in the eye, and tried to look busy and uninterested in whatever response he would give her.

After a few endless seconds, he crouched beside her, putting his hands on the arm of the chair for balance. "I'm sorry, Lois. I'm so sorry."

"You don't have to be sorry, Clark," she answered shakily. "I'm the one who married Luthor, after all, right?"

"I mean for this morning. For the way I acted, as if last night hadn't happened at all."

Her fingers started to tremble, and she dropped the paper she was holding. "Oh," she let out hoarsely.

He reached for her shaking hands, squeezing them in his and forcing her to turn the chair until she was facing him. She was looking down at her lap, refusing to let her gaze meet his.

"I'd never imagined… I mean I didn't know that you regretted your marriage with Luthor. And I was… Well, when this morning, you teased me about being committed exclusively to you, suddenly the meaning of what we had done hit me, and I realised what situation I'd just put you into — I'd just put *us* into."

Her head snapped up. "The… situation?" she asked in a very small voice.

"The situation, yes," he answered, lifting up her left hand in his own and brushing his thumb on her wedding band.

Lois's gaze followed his move, and her mouth formed a silent 'oh' of understanding. Her marriage. Of course. She didn't need to hear more of his explanation to know what had been on his mind all day long.

Funnily enough, she couldn't bring herself to experience any guilt towards her husband. She refused to think she had betrayed him; it wasn't a deceit, it wasn't anything close to a betrayal. She knew that to to the casual eye, it would seem like it, but she had never considered it that way. After all, could there be infidelity when there wasn't love in the first place? She was aware that Lex was certainly no stranger to that kind of thing, although her making love with Clark had had nothing to do with revenge. On the contrary, it had been an act born of real emotion, something much more meaningful than a physical act, something she'd buried deep within herself for so long and that Clark had woken inside her.

But even if she wasn't concerned about Lex, it was a completely different story when it came to Clark. She should have known, right from the start, that his ethics wouldn't allow him to make love to a married woman, even if it was her, and that he'd be beating himself up for having given in to the temptation the previous night. Everything was so clear, now: his sudden withdrawal as they'd been enjoying the quiet afterglow of their lovemaking, his distant behaviour, his bitterness when he'd talked about her husband.

But why hadn't he told her, then? Why hadn't he talked about his fears and haunting thoughts? If he really loved her, then he would certainly have explained at least, to try and make her understand, wouldn't he?

Unless he resented her for it, she thought, her hope that he might feel the same way about her as she was feeling about him suddenly thinning. Unless he considered her responsible for something he hadn't fully wanted. His withdrawal came back to her mind, and she flushed, remembering how she'd persuaded him, with her words and caresses, that she wanted him, and that nothing else mattered at the moment. Oh, he hadn't been really difficult to convince, but had he been just giving in to her entreaties, or had he wanted this as much as she did? If she went by his behaviour all morning, chances were his discomfort with their night together went beyond the simple problem of it being unethical for him.

"It's not only that, Clark. There's something else holding you back, or you'd have talked to me this morning."

"You're right, it's not only a matter of ethics," he confirmed.

"Then what is it?"

He looked around, squirming, and withdrew his hands from hers as he got to a standing position. "Luthor."

"Lex?"

"Luthor, Lex, whatever. He's your husband, Lois, and I… I couldn't do this," he finished quietly.

Lois waited for him to go on, but he remained silent for a long moment, avoiding her gaze and staring at his shoes. "What, Clark?" she asked timidly after a moment, when it didn't sound likely that he would explain without being prompted to. He shifted his attention back to her, looking like he had no idea what she was talking about, so she added, "What is it that you couldn't do? What was wrong about telling me what was haunting you?"

"It's just…" He trailed off and sighed. "You and me, like that," he explained after another silence, waving a hand into the air for emphasis. "Seeing each other in secret, always having to hide, to lie, to invent new excuses just to have a quiet intimate moment without the fear of being discovered… Lois, when I try to imagine what the future would look like for us," he continued agitatedly, "the only thing I can see is you coming to Paris from time to time so that we can spend a night together from time to time, then going back to your life in Metropolis, with Luthor, receptions, LNN, and Luthor."

"You said his name twice," she remarked weakly.

"Whatever! I can't take it, Lois. I don't want that from a relationship with you. I don't want a night with you every three weeks. I don't want *just* nights with you." He nervously brushed a hand through his hair and paced a couple of times about the empty Bullpen, before finally coming back to a halt in front of her. "I can't take it because I love you, and what scares me, what tears me apart, is to know that he lives with you, that he sleeps in the same bed as you… that he makes love to you." His last words were a whisper as he knelt back before her and grasped her hands again. "I didn't know how you felt about Luthor, how you felt about *us*. So when I started to ask myself how we would handle that, and imagined a life made of shreds of moments together, somehow, I began to convince myself that you couldn't want a real relationship with me, that you didn't… that you didn't love me."

"Well, you had quite a funny way of showing it," she snipped harshly. "Is that why you acted as if our making love hadn't meant anything to you? As if I'd just been a one-night stand that you could dump the morning after?"

"I… is that what you believed?"

"What did you want me to believe, Clark? You suddenly behaved with me as if I was a complete stranger, and you flinched when I tried to reach for you."

He was appalled at how uncaring he'd appeared to her, at how hurt and humiliated by his behaviour she must have been. "God, I've really blown it, haven't I? Just because I couldn't bring myself to tell you how much you mean to me. Just because I was afraid that you'd reject me… again."

"A lot of things have changed over the past six months, Clark," she said quietly. "Being away from you, feeling the weight of your absence, realising how much I was missing you, and experiencing the joy of seeing you again, that helped me to become conscious of something I'd been trying to fight ever since we've been close friends. I'm in love with you, Clark."

She sniffled and he let go of her hands to brush his thumb on her tear-streaked cheeks, fighting against his anger at himself for being the cause of her pain. He felt her arms encircle his neck, pulling him into their embrace, and he held her tightly, stroking her back in soothing motions.

"I'm such an idiot," he muttered against her hair.

She slightly drew back, keeping him at arm's length and smiling through her tears. "You and me both," she said before bending down and pressing her mouth to his.

Her first kiss was tentative, a sweet touch of her lips on his, as if tasting him for the first time, letting the sensation course through them in a wave of tenderness. She pulled away, leaving just an inch of space between them, keeping her eyes closed in an expression of pure bliss, and then she was falling forward into his kiss, deepening the encounter until he was eagerly responding to the strokes of her tongue and moaning into her mouth. She tangled her fingers in his hair, pulling him even closer, barely pausing as she gasped for air before joining her lips to his again.

But as much as Clark was enjoying her sweet attentions, he didn't want to relive this morning again, and he slowly pulled away from her, bringing up a hand to her face to cup her cheek. The small moan that escaped her mouth as he did so made him want to kiss her again, forget about his earlier concern, but the memories of the morning were still too fresh, and he didn't want to take the risk and experience the same guilt again.

She tried to reach for him again, but he escaped her with an apologetic look, bringing his forehead in contact with her.

"I just wish things were different," she whispered, sighing.

"Me, too," he answered, taking her lips again in a sweet kiss.

"I just want to be with you," she murmured against his mouth.

"Come on," he said, getting to his feet and taking hold of her hand again. "Let's go home."

She nodded, looking down at her fingers tightly entwined with his, and let him tug her towards the elevator.

***

Clark stared at the ceiling above him, unable to find sleep.

If the past few hours had been painful for him, they'd probably been even more for Lois, as she'd told him about what her life had become in his absence, and how her marriage with Luthor had degenerated from what could have looked like a fairy tale, to a spoof of a life together. He'd listened through her account of Luthor's lack of consideration for her needs, whatever they were, and he'd understood the underlying blame beneath her suggested statements. Her husband was making her feel used, and though he never used harsh words with her, there was a coldness about him that chilled her to the core. She'd shuddered in Clark's arms on several occasions as she'd told him various anecdotes of her everyday life. Clark had understood the cruel loneliness hiding behind her words, and the constant remorse at the choices she'd made and was feeling responsible for. Listening to the account she'd made of her life with Luthor had been harder for him than he'd thought it would be, and he'd had to restrain himself from screaming his hatred of the man who'd reduced her to a state where she didn't know what to do with herself, all day long, and spent her time thinking over her past. Her memories her only companion.

And he was feeling guilty, too. She'd told him that he didn't have any reason to, that whatever he could have told her about Luthor wouldn't have changed her mind, because she was too pig-headed to listen to him anyway. But she'd barely made him smile, because he knew that was only half-true. He knew he should have tried harder to expose the man's dark side, to show to the world — and to Lois — that Lex Luthor wasn't the big philanthropist he claimed to be.

He'd felt that Lois was still in denial that her husband could be the origin of any criminal activity, though, and therefore hadn't wanted to raise the topic between them again. But what she now admitted was that he didn't bring her the happiness she'd thought he would, and that she was merely an object to him. He remembered how she'd clung to him and sobbed in his arms when she'd told him how he treated her in their everyday life, how little he cared for her happiness, how abandoned she was feeling day after day, night after night…

His fists clenched as he imagined her fragile form in the arms of this other man, and an icy chill coursed through him. He looked down at the innocent woman sleeping beside him, and tugged her closer to him, his fingers brushing a tender caress on her t-shirt clad shoulder as he dropped a kiss on the top of her head. She groaned slightly, but didn't wake, and one of her arms possessively encircled his waist.

He was suddenly glad for her closeness, needing the reassurance that she was here, that she was alive, and that she was safe within the haven of his arms. He'd felt his heart swell with love for her when she'd asked him in a tiny voice if she could stay with him tonight, and she'd refused his offer to sleep on the floor. There had been no underlying suggestion beneath her demand, nothing that she knew he wouldn't be able to give her. When she'd told him she just wanted to feel his arms around her, if only for one night, it had been impossible for him to refuse her. He'd needed it as much as she did.

The day's events had exhausted her, and she'd fallen asleep pretty quickly, rocked by the soothing rhythm of the strokes of his hand in her hair. But he wasn't having such luck, and the tantalising curves of the body that was tightly pressed to him didn't help him any in finding the rest he needed.

She'd still managed to convince him to stop beating himself over his behaviour today. He'd almost blown it for good, this time, and he'd been amazed at how she'd understood, and how she'd seemed to have forgiven him. Her tone had been dangerous when she'd asked him not to do it again, though, and he got the message perfectly that she didn't want to be left out of the decisions that concerned them.

Them.

Together.

A couple.

How much he loved how that sounded! He knew there were still obstacles they'd have to overcome, but for the first time in six months, he was feeling hopeful that it might work itself out. For the first time in six months, he was feeling complete. Fulfilled. Loved. And the culprit for his sudden happiness was lying in his arms. The thought brought a rueful smile on his lips, and as a warm glow suffused him, he let himself be tugged into a peaceful sleep.

***

Goodbye.

Now had come the time to say goodbye.

The thought brought a lump to Lois's throat, and she swallowed roughly, forcing herself to be brave and not show Clark too much of the sadness she was feeling. There was enough regret in his eyes as it was, and she didn't need to add her own emotions to a moment that would already be difficult for them to get through.

She looked around herself, feeling suddenly lost and tiny in the large air terminal of the Roissy airport, that same airport where she'd arrived three days ago, without any idea of what was awaiting her here. Love. That was what she'd discovered. And what would be ripped from her as soon as she'd let go of the arm she was clinging onto. All the moments of doubt that she'd experienced the previous day, all of the resentment she'd held against Clark when she'd thought he was rejecting her, all of that was nothing when compared to the sadness she was feeling now at losing this one line of hope that had suddenly reappeared in her life.

She wasn't losing that hope, she reasoned. She wasn't losing *him*. Not after what they'd just gone through. If his feelings had survived their fights, and six months of her own marriage with Lex, then they wouldn't disappear as soon as she'd have gone through the gates. They couldn't.

Returning to Metropolis today, after having barely enjoyed her retrieved happiness in the arms of her lover, a short-lived moment of bliss where she'd been transported away from what her life had become, was tough to handle, but she knew it was for the best. The sooner she freed herself from her marriage, the sooner she could come back to him and fully enjoy her relationship with him, without witnessing him being eaten by guilt and doubt like he had been yesterday morning.

She saw him check his watch, almost nervously so, and was once again reminded how fast everything had happened, almost like in a dream, a succession of hazy images that she knew would help her through the next few days. It still seemed to her as though she'd just woken in his strong embrace, feeling the warmth of his body radiating through hers. She'd observed him as his eyes had fluttered open, and had revelled in the appreciative smile he'd gifted her with. His hand had been lovingly caressing her hair, and he'd tugged her back to his awaiting lips for the most tender of kisses. It hadn't carried the same uncontrolled passion as their previous encounters, but it had been caring all the same, and she'd felt herself melt against him as he'd murmured in her ear how much he loved her. They'd stayed in bed for a few more minutes, cuddling and exchanging tender kisses, without ever letting themselves get carried away beyond playful pecks and harmless explorations, until, reluctantly, she'd forced herself to pull away from him.

"Last call for the flight number 254-970 for Metropolis, now boarding at gate 9," a suave voice announced through the speakers, interrupting her thoughts and oblivious to the pain it inflicted on her. "The passengers for this flight are requested to present themselves at the gate with their passport and ticket."

Her grasp on Clark's arm tightened in spite of her best intentions. "I don't want to go," she whispered. She knew that tonight, she would be back in Metropolis, in that large, lifeless, and empty penthouse, dreading the arrival of her husband as much as the lonely hours that would precede it.

He turned towards her, slowly easing himself from her death grip, and taking her hands in his. "I'll be waiting for you," he said earnestly, chasing every doubt she could still harbour that he would forget her.

"And I'll be back."

"Next week," he added, as if needing to hear another confirmation that they wouldn't be separated for too long.

"Yes. Next week." Lois furtively glanced around the already emptying area, the last passengers rushing through the gates to catch the flight that would take her so many miles away from the man she loved, and noticing that no-one was paying attention to them, she lurched forward to plant a kiss on his lips. It lingered for a few seconds before she pulled away and opened her eyes, watching him resurface from the sensation.

"I love you, Lois," he murmured, pulling her into a hug.

"I love you, too," she murmured in reply. She held him tightly to her, her hands caressing the broad expanse of his shoulders and back, and memorising the feel of him.

She disentangled herself from his embrace, and he grasped her hands one last time, bringing them to his lips for a soft kiss. She smiled fondly at him, holding back her tears, and as she let go of him to go through the gate, turning back one last time to see him wave sadly at her, she knew she'd be counting the hours till the next weekend.

***

Hidden in the shadows barely a few feet away from them, a tall white-bearded man in a dark overcoat observed the scene unfolding in front of him with dawning fascination. It was amazing how Mrs Luthor could behave in a different way when she wasn't in the pleasant haven that Mr Luthor had offered to her! Her eyes were gleaming with a light that he hadn't seen for a while, and irritatingly so. It spoke of a new-found happiness, something that looked as if it had been denied to her all this time.

His gaze shifted to the man who accompanied her, and he frowned deeply, remembering the order he'd received regarding this particular individual. Mr Luthor's anger had already been difficult to handle, when he'd had to announce him that the K Project had to be postponed, because Mrs Luthor's and Kent's irritating curiosity, added to Derval's inability to keep his staff under control, had resulted in the dismantling of Timon Industries and the confiscation of Miller's material. And the Boss had barely been calmed down by his assurance that he'd managed to get his hands on the formula anyway, and it would just be a matter of time before they could set the production of Miller's hybrid Kryptonite again.

But Luthor had been categorical. The only thing that could make up for the lack of immediate and complete success of the K Project was the removal of Kent. Unfortunately, the constant presence of Ms Luthor at his side had prevented any intervention, and he was now bound to stay a bit longer in this country to personally take care of the matter. Sometimes life was so unfair, he thought as he reached into the inside pocket of his overcoat to caress the gun he jealously kept in there, feeling some comfort in his making sure that it was still there, beside him, and ready to accomplish the required task.

His gaze was drawn back to the young people in front of him. There was something about them that he couldn't quite grasp, a nervousness in their gestures, furtive glances thrown around, as if to check that no-one was observing them and then -

Nigel St John paused, unsure if what he'd just seen had been the product of his imagination, or if it had been real. He frowned, peering at them more closely, looking for clues to what he'd just witnessed. It had happened very fast, a mere second, the blink of an eye, but he'd caught the movement all right, and the way Kent was now reaching for Mrs Luthor and hugging her in more than a friendly fashion only confirmed his suspicion.

A smile tugged at his lips. It was good, it was very good. Excellent, even. Finally, the fortress that the Boss's wife had been enclosing herself into was opening itself, and he was allowed a glimpse of something forbidden. Oh, yes, it was good. Now had come the time for his boss to realise what kind of person he'd wed, and Nigel knew perfectly well what kind of consequences would follow. Soon would probably come the time for him to get rid of the shadow that had been obscuring his life ever since she'd stepped into Lex Luthor's existence.

He reached for his phone with a dark chuckle. "Mr Luthor?" he said when the call got picked up. "I think there's something about Ms Luthor that you might want to know…"

THE END

To be continued in part II: 'Near Wild Heaven — Vertiges de l'Amour'

Kaethel@wanadoo.fr

December 2000