By Missy Gallant <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Submitted: December 2001
Summary: Interesting chemistry abounds when Lois Lane meets Clark Kent while the two reporters separately investigate Mayor Luthor. Just as things start to heat up, a certain green rock and Lois's special friend Kal complicate the situation.
Author's note: I'd like to thank my ever faithful beta- readers Kath Roden, Carol Moncado, Merry Truitt and Jo March for their wonderful help editing and cheerleading this story. And a special thanks to Marnie Rowe for her brainstorming ideas also.
<> denotes thoughts //* denotes dream/fantasy
The tall figure scuffled his feet along the rough boards of the old worn-out dock, jumping in surprise as the blaring sounds of a boat horn pierced the night like a knife. Red and white flashes of light from the ambulance cast eerie shadows on the gurney several yards in front of him, its unearthly red glow swirling with the mist rising from beneath the dock. He snapped his cell phone shut and tucked it back into his suit coat pocket, wishing his snitch had been wrong this time. Deeply saddened by the death of his acquaintance, Clark wished he'd heard a cry for help or had been there to save him.
The police force was on alert since four corpses had been found while dredging the bay last week. The bodies had been similarly bound and weighted; bags of sand tied around their torsos had sent them straight down to the bottom of the bay. Clark had started looking into the case a few days ago, but the EPRAD investigation with the now-dead scientist had taken precedence.
But those bodies didn't appear to have any connection with Samuel Platt's case. Platt's body had been found floating in the dark waters an hour earlier with no outward signs of violence or injury. Using his super vision to look through the body bag, it appeared to Clark that he hadn't been dead for too long. His features were clearly identifiable; there was no mistaking who he was.
Looks like this story is top priority now, Clark thought as he watched the ambulance crew load the gurney into back of their vehicle. One of the attendants turned the flashing lights off; it was not going to be a race against time this trip.
Clark walked over to Inspector Henderson, who had just dispatched a couple of officers to place crime scene tape around the area. It was still too early to determine if a crime had been committed; forensics and the autopsy results would be a huge factor in how the case was prioritized.
"So you knew the deceased, Kent?" Henderson asked, still staring at the medical personnel as they slammed the back door of the ambulance shut. Clark had briefly identified Platt to Henderson when he'd arrived a few moments earlier.
"Yeah. We spoke earlier this week about EPRAD. He was the employee who'd given me the exclusive on the situation over there. After compiling his data — and believe me, it was quite an undertaking to put it all together — it turned out that he was right."
"That was great work, Kent. Pretty quick also. I read your article on it this morning. The Feds must be pleased that you did all their work for them. And *we* even had to round them up. I have the whole pack sitting in holding cells just waiting for transferring."
"Thanks, Bill," Clark answered sadly. "Of course, you realize that we didn't get all of them. There was still a bomb on the Prometheus this afternoon."
"Was there really?" Henderson sounded doubtful. "I'm having a hard time believing that some guy in a flashy suit can swallow a bomb, then live to tell about it. I saw the news clips on this Superman, but honestly, Kent, I have my doubts."
"I was there; I saw it," Clark replied, smiling to himself. "It didn't appear like a hoax to me."
"If this guy's real, he's destroyed the evidence of that second bomb. No one is going to want to retrieve it now." Henderson appeared slightly amused at his off-handed observation.
"Guess not," he answered, slightly guilty that the proof of the sabotage was now residing in his digestive system. "Time will tell, Bill. I believe he's real."
"If you say so, Clark. I've come to honor your word in the couple of years that we've known each other; but this 'Superman' is one guy who I have to judge for myself."
"Fair enough." He made a mental note to seek out his friend the next time he was in the suit. Having the police respect his abilities was a priority if his identity as Superman was going to work. The last thing he wanted was to undermine the local law; starting with the first lesson learned about being a super hero — don't eat the evidence.
"Back to Platt… Did he think anyone was out to get him? What was his mental state when you talked to him? What can you tell me about him?"
"I guess he would have fallen under the title of eccentric, because he was very passionate about his work. When we finally pieced everything together, he was so thrilled and happy that the corruption was going to be revealed and that he could start concentrating on his research again. I believe that he thought we'd found all of the conspirators. In my opinion, we obviously didn't; there was still another bomb." Clark remembered both of the bombs that he'd located — the one he had secretly disengaged from the Messenger and the other that he'd eaten from the Prometheus.
"Supposing it were true, could that bomb on the shuttle have been missed? If there was one found on the Messenger, couldn't it have been placed there at the same time?" Henderson's doubts still lingered in his eyes.
"Don't think so, Bill," Clark said. "The mission crews were up all night and the next morning inspecting the shuttle. It had to have been someone still on the inside. Security was very tight there today." Clark was glad that he had signed in with EPRAD security that morning before the mission was postponed. Although he didn't think that anyone would check, it was good that he had that alibi.
"You gonna share that autopsy report with me, Bill?" Clark said hopefully. He'd learned not to push the Inspector too hard. Henderson was a fair man and Clark knew that he was bound by regulations and rules, but over the past couple of years, they'd helped each other on more than a few cases.
"That depends on whether an investigation is warranted."
"Now you know I don't need to remind you not to interfere with police investigation, right Kent?"
"No, you don't." Clark grinned at his friend, then waited for the next line.
"And if you find anything *by accident*, that you'll inform me about it."
"Say this turns out to be a full fledged investigation, I don't want you snooping around my in-box for any reports, got that?" Henderson ordered with an innocent expression on his face as he stared out across the bay.
"Wouldn't even dream of it," Clark replied, looking like a cat with feathers sticking out of his mouth.
Henderson liked Kent. He'd gladly give up two men on his force for a man of Kent's caliber. Sure, he had the size and strength to be on the force, but it was his intelligence and patience that Henderson valued. On more than one occasion, he'd bagged the case when his whole team had been left stumped. Plus, he didn't think he'd be one of those hotshot rookies who'd rush the case in order to get a notch on their gun belt.
But he suspected that Kent wouldn't be happy as a man of the law. It was obvious from several occasions in the past that the big reporter had been disturbed deeply at the plight of gunshot or other victims of violence. The pen was mightier than the sword, at least for Kent. Most media personnel were bottom feeders, interfering in his investigation any chance they had, but Kent knew his boundaries. In any capacity, he was glad to have him on the same team, even if they were on warring sides of the fence between the media and law.
"Looks like the boys are finishing up. Don't get into any trouble down here, if you stick around," Henderson instructed. "Thanks for the info about Platt."
"Anytime, Bill," Clark replied. As the inspector walked away, he saw him nod his head in acknowledgment to his answer. Clark was pleased with the relationship that he had established with Henderson. He respected his authority and was careful to keep the trust that he had built up over the past few months. Always mindful not to publicly release any information entrusted to him before it was allowed, he'd been scooped a couple of times by a rival newspaper, but it was a small price to pay for the confidence the officer had in him.
Clark's eyes followed the inspector as he gave short orders to a couple of his men, and then as he drove away in his squad car.
The person or persons who had killed Samuel Platt were still walking around; Clark was almost certain of it. Platt hadn't seemed suicidal to him when they'd talked the other day. As a matter of fact, he had been looking forward to his continuing research at EPRAD.
He wondered if his informant had any more details about what had happened. When he'd received his call earlier that night, he'd only been told the who and the where. Maybe the snitch could tell him more, that is, if he could find him tonight.
He hadn't had much of a chance to think about that second bomb until now. Could he have missed any evidence that indicated that another one was going to be set? He thought Toni Baines was the sole mastermind behind the setup to frame Jack Laderman, the director of the space program. She had cleverly set him up to take the fall for the bomb he'd found on the Messenger. Most of his next-in-line had been bribed by her to point the finger at the ex-commander. Her gain, after his fall, would have been to become the new director of EPRAD.
What did this have to do with Platt's death? It could have been a freak accident, but that seemed unlikely to him, even at this early point in the investigation. The autopsy report should reveal whether he died as a drowning victim or before he was found in the bay.
Why was the scientist in this part of the city? He had lived in a questionable part of town — Clark had seen his apartment the other day when they were working together — but it was at least a couple of miles on the other side of the city. It could be a good place to start his investigation. If the police found out that his death was not an accident, his apartment would be off limits to the media. That sounded like a plan. A quick look around the docks, then it was off to Platt's place.
Lois tugged at the stiff leather top for the tenth time that night. The biker's outfit was creeping down her chest and if she tightened the laced strings on the front any more, she wouldn't be able to breathe, not to mention popping out of the detestable outfit.
Where was Bobby? If he didn't show up soon, she was going to forget about him and head to the Ace O'Clubs alone. She was glad that Kal had loaned her some money; immediately after leaving the Daily Planet, she was able to purchase some cheap fashion rip-offs at a rundown clothing store down the street from her apartment. Not all bikers were rich; she was glad that she'd found that sale rack in the back of the store. Too bad this was the only style on sale that she could afford. No wonder no one had bought this top; it was a torture device, probably designed by a man.
After an extremely long day, which didn't appear to have any end in sight, her thoughts returned to a couple of hours earlier. She'd come back to her apartment with her purchases and quickly washed and set her hair on some fat rollers, ate some ice cream for supper and at last, collapsed on her couch for a half an hour nap.
It would've been so easy to accept defeat after her rejection — again — but after getting over the initial disappointment of being beaten out of the Superman story, her conversation with Perry had actually encouraged her. He really was a sweet man — and he did seem to feel bad when he turned her down. Trying to think optimistically, she looked forward to working with the gruff editor some day soon. But first there was work to be done.
Bobby had better get here soon. It didn't matter that she was an hour late for their nine- thirty appointment, he should have waited for her. Fifty-third and Wharf Street wasn't the most popular corner to hang out on, especially in this costume. She'd received a few crude comments and a couple of offers in the fifteen minutes she'd been standing here; now she was getting nervous. Faces were becoming familiar; she was sure that the unsavory characters were circling her like a pair of vultures. Staying here wasn't wise, but appearing as though she belonged in this section of town seemed to be the offensive strategy. Yanking on her top again, she started walking down the street.
The Ace O'Clubs was located five blocks down Wharf Street, Lois remembered, trying to mentally map out her exact location. The street wasn't located directly on the bay, but about five hundred yards inland. It was the first road off the docks; the space between it and the bay was filled with ancient warehouses and dark loading areas.
A man's deep voice and feminine squeals ricocheted from inside an old boarding house as Lois walked past it quickly, eyeing the rundown building in distaste. The damp air was causing Lois' full hairstyle to droop, and she was going to be a mess before she ever found the club. The extra-hold hairspray had given up its grip after too many bands of fog had drifted over her. She gripped the edges of her leather jacket close to her body, trying to guard herself against the rapidly chilling air, but mainly as a way to cover herself. After viewing her surroundings a little more closely, her suggestive ensemble was making her self-conscious.
Luckily, the dimly lit street was fairly deserted. The only signs of life around her came from a couple of apartments located over a barred-up liquor store and a lone night watchman walking his beat.
But from the distance, the sounds of rowdy laughter bubbling up between the distinctive beat of music began to reach her ears over the noise of the traffic a few streets over. No one ever wanted to drive off the main thoroughfare through this part of town. You kept your doors locked and your eyes straight ahead. Taxi drivers charged extra if they were made to drive down here.
She approached the end of the block and looked carefully around the corner of the building down the cross street. The headlights of a car was turned towards her and she pressed herself flat against wall to conceal herself as much as possible.
The headlights flashed past her as the car continued to turn far past the radius it needed to drive down the street. Lois stole a look quickly from behind the corner of the building and saw it parked in a short driveway about a hundred feet away. A limousine? Could it be the one Bobby was talking about this morning?
Clanging chains pulled open a creaking garage door and the limo drove inside the building. The license plate! This was a great chance to get the license plate number. Not knowing if the huge door would automatically come down, she quickly slid along the wall, listening carefully for voices before sneaking inside. The long black vehicle had stopped ten feet into the building. It was dark inside, and quiet, except for the idling of the car engine.
She quickly memorized the license plate, JD52197, then waited to see what they would do next while scribbling the number on her palm with a tiny pen hanging from her keychain. A motor started grinding again and this time it was another set of doors opening in front of the vehicle. The doors above her began to descend and she stepped further inside the building. This was a good place to start her investigation and a far too tempting opportunity to pass up.
Lois pressed herself flat against the wall once more, the adrenaline causing her heart to pound. A hand clasped itself over her mouth and she was pulled out of the building just under the dropping door.
She struggled against her assailant for a couple of seconds before being released as the door hit the cement driveway with a dull sounding thud. Whirling around, she faced her attacker.
"You! What are you doing here?" she sputtered defensively upon her immediate recognition of her investigation spoiler.
"Saving your neck! That's what!" Bobby Bigmouth retorted. "What do ya think you're doin' trying to get locked up in a building down here?"
"Managing just great until you nearly yanked my arm off. It's a fine time for you to show up, too. Things were just getting interesting. I got the license plate number of that limousine that's been driving around. I was about to see who was in it and then you had to play cave hero."
"Gettin' shut up in there ain't nothin' but trouble. Listen Lois, that place is locked up tighter than Fort Knox. How'd ya think you were gonna get out? Definitely not in one piece if these are the guys who sent Gus on a cheap cruise around the bay."
"I got tired of waiting and the opportunity was too good to pass up. Where were you?"
"I waited for a while, then I got hungry again. It was not like you was busting your buns to get down here. Do you know there's nothing open this time of night except Hobb's Ham Haus?"
"I should've figured you were thinking about your stomach while I was dangling like a piece of meat on that corner. I bet I discovered more new forms of lowlife standing around waiting than scientists have found all century."
"Hey, I'll have you know that I passed up a possible free meal to look for you. This other guy I give info to is a generous spender, but I didn't have anything more for him and told him on the phone."
"Another reporter. Sorry doll, but he's was providing food for me long before you showed up in my alley."
"So what was this tip about?" Lois asked irritably.
"Another body in the bay. This guy promised me authentic Italian pasta if I came up with any more tips. Believe me, I've had his pasta before and where it comes from, he won't tell, but it's unbelievable!"
"Will you stop thinking with your taste buds for a minute?" she snapped as a disgusting hunch of this reporter's identity crept over her. "This reporter, he wouldn't be Clark Kent, would he?"
"How'd ya know? You two ain't working together, are ya?" Bobby asked. "If I'm supplying pertinent information to both of you, my cuisine's gonna hafta go up a star rating or two. I ain't gonna be gypped outta… "
"No! We're not working together! You can stay here and pet your stomach; I'm going to the Ace O'Clubs," Lois said angrily, then stomped off.
Frustration fueled her steps as she stormed across the street. Several seconds later, she heard a small engine rumbling to life. Just let some sleaze ball make a move against her; in her present mood, no one was safe if they made the unlucky choice of getting in her way.
Wasn't there anything that Kent didn't have his fat mitts into? Her only source apparently had been supplying tips to him for some time. Grudgingly she admitted that it was the name of the game — to be quicker and smarter than anyone else — and so far Kent was making her eat his dust. Just seemed so unfair, particularly when she was busting her buns trying to make a break for herself.
An engine backfired behind her and from her peripheral vision, she saw a small wheel rolling slowly in the gutter.
"Hey Lois! You stickin' with the plan or are you goin' alone?" Bobby revved the engine of his bike.
She threw him a quick glance, then did a double-take. "On that thing? Bobby, you must be kidding! That's not a motorcycle, that's a… joke!"
"So I had to borrow my cousin's dirt bike. It cost me big, I'll have ya know. Catering a birthday party with fifteen screaming five year olds ain't no picnic. Geez! You're so nitpicky, you'd drive a monkey crazy!
"And you're not picky enough! I thought even *you* would have enough class to avoid a jerk like Kent!" she blurted.
"Who? Clark? He's a great guy! Whatcha got against him? Is he why you're in such a snit?"
"I don't do *snits* for your information and why is everyone so fooled by him? Just because he has a couple of teeny little Kerth awards, everyone thinks he's the greatest thing since lock picks. First Kal gets duped by him and now I find out you're a slobbering sucker for his act too! He could drop off the face of the earth and it wouldn't be too soon as far as I'm concerned!"
"You're jealous!" Bobby stated, then turned the bike off.
"I said, *you* are jealous." He sat back against the seat of the bike and smiled at her.
"Lois Lane doesn't get jealous; she gets even." Lois glowered at him as she placed her hands on her hips.
"You want what he has and it kills you that he's at the top of his field and you ain't!" he taunted, trying to get another rise out of her. "Admit it! I dare ya!"
"I'm not admitting *anything* to you, even if it were true. And I don't take dares from someone who rides a contraption like that," she replied, avoiding his eyes.
"My cousin, Richie, would take real offense hearing ya say that. I sacrificed big for ya, doll! The least you can do is to show a little appreciation for all my trouble."
"Appreciation? For what? Trying to humiliate me in front of all the sleaze balls on Wharf Street?" Lois exclaimed.
"You're doin' a great job humiliating yourself with that outfit you barely got on," he noted wryly. "My dirt bike only compliments whatever fashion statement you're trying to make."
"I only *let* you come along because I thought you might be useful. All you're doing is picking fights and hurtling insults. I don't need that… not tonight. Go home, Bobby," she snapped back at him. "Thanks, but no thanks. I'll do this myself."
Bobby frowned, then started up the bike. "Okay, Lois. Looks like you gotta handle on things, so I'm outta here. Luck to ya, lady; you're gonna need it."
"Fine," Lois grumbled to herself. She'd handled this notorious section of city perfectly well on her own. Bobby was only distracting her from the main purpose of being in this putrid place to begin with — investigating *her* story.
The motorcycle slowly drove a few feet in front of her, jerking on old shocks as the brakes were over-applied repeatedly by its unfamiliar rider. He seemed reluctant to leave her alone as he drove slowly to the next cross street. Suddenly, the motorcycle began backing up quickly and another loud backfire boomed from the exhaust system as it flew past her in reverse. Lois turned around and saw a panicked expression on Bobby's face. The bike drove forward again and he urgently commanded, "Get on the back! We gotta get outta here!"
"If you don't wanna be carved up by an angry street gang, get your little tail moving! Now!!"
Reacting to the alarm in his voice, Lois flung herself onto the bike's tiny seat behind Bobby, nearly knocking the small bike over in her haste to climb aboard. She was forced to grab him tightly around the waist as the bike spun around in the street so it could head in the opposite direction.
A wall of gang members emerged from around the corner, raising their voices and hurtling obscenities at them as they completed their turn on the motorcycle. Lois tucked her face against Bobby's back to shut out the images of their glinting switch blades and hung on for all she was worth as the straining engine propelled them away from the immediate danger.
After turning down several streets, Bobby pulled them to a bumpy stop a couple of hundred yards away from the Ace O'Clubs. Lois had lost all sense of direction during their getaway, mostly numb from the close call that she'd nearly stumbled into. It was a little surprising to find herself in front of the seedy bar at last.
"You okay, Sweetcakes?" Bobby asked after turning the motorcycle off. The music had stopped for the time being and all that could be heard was the loud voices of the people inside. "You still game, or do ya want me to take you home?"
"I'm fine," Lois answered shakily. "Thanks for not leaving me; especially after I lit into you about nothing. Tonight's been so frustrating and I took it out on you."
"Don't mention it. But ya gotta admit the old girl has some pep when ya need it," Bobby said as he patted the hunk of metal in front of him.
He sat there expecting her to answer but she remained silent.
With a good-natured grin on his face, he turned around in his seat and teased her. "Come on! Admit it!"
"Okay. I'll admit that I'm glad we weren't on foot," she said with a sigh as she climbed off the back of the bike. She took off her black jacket and handed it to Bobby. "Here. This was all I could find for you, plus this thing." She pulled out of her pants pocket an odd- shaped piece of leather and held it out for him.
"What's this? Does that mean you want to go inside?" he asked with a small smirk. "Ya tough, Lois."
"I think you are supposed to wear it on your head; it's a head wrap. Cheap imitation leather, but no one will care in this place," Lois continued, determined to leave the gang scare behind her. "That jacket's an old one from a guy I knew in high school. I hoped it would come in handy some day."
"Okay, Doll. Let me do the talkin'. Better scope the joint first, though, to see if there's any mugs I know."
"Um… Bobby? Why are you disguising yourself as a biker if someone might recognize you? Won't that give us away?"
"Nah! Not at all. Being known for being everywhere and *not* being seen is my specialty," he said confidently. "Plus nobody's ever seen me outta my chef's apron."
She inspected his appearance after he'd placed the head wrap in place. "Not too bad… for an amateur. Let's go!"
Lois felt her stomach lurch the moment she entered the place. Inside the smoke-filled room was the putrid odor of greasy food and stale beer. The first thing she noticed was that most of the patrons were crowding the bar and only a couple of scruffy looking men were seated at a table.
Picking their way across the floor littered with peanut shells and dirty napkins, they choose a location out of the way near the wall by the kitchen which allowed them to observe the bar with ease. Lois tried to listen through the blended chorus of several simultaneous conversations, but making sense of any one conversation was impossible.
Instead, she glanced at Bobby, who was scowling at some lipstick on the edge of his pointed collar. What a peculiar character he was turning out to be. At first, he came across as someone who was out for himself — and his appetite — but she sensed that there were many layers to his character. For someone who was practically a stranger, he'd shown her more loyalty than she deserved. Sure, he was always trying to pick a fight with her, but when it came to her safety in this part of town, he seemed genuinely concerned. Laughing at his bike was being just plain snobbish; anyway, he'd only borrowed the bucket of bolts to help her out.
He wasn't exactly what you could describe as handsome, she pondered, at least not in her book, but he wasn't bad- looking. Just an average Joe from the city. On an impulse, she found herself asking him, "Why are you doing this? You have a life, or at least I think you do, so why are you helping me?"
Bobby stopped glaring at the red smudge on his jacket and shrugged his shoulders. "I have my reasons. Gus was one of those stiffs found in the bay. He and I went back a ways. There's a couple more… I don't want to get into them."
"You said that you're married — what does your wife think about you running around this late at night?"
"Not a problem. She's got crazy hours and we made a deal not to grill each other about what we do when we're apart. Most of the time, Rosie and me'd want to kill each other if we knew. Just works better that way. Our number one marital rule is: no grill; no kill." Looking down at his collar again, he asked indignantly, "You been chewin' on this or what?"
A man in a food-splattered apron approached their table and barked, "Hey, the rules are: you sit at a table; you order somethin'. So what'll it be? The choices are chili and chili. Okay? Chili it is and two beers on tap." He turned around and lumbered back to the kitchen as Lois and Bobby sat there wondering what just happened.
Lois spoke first. "There you go, Bobby. You said you were hungry."
"Even I might not be *that* hungry. Geez, talk about your consumer relations."
A couple of minutes later, the barbarian waiter set two chipped bowls and a couple of mugs of beer in front of them. Bobby's eyes glazed over as hunger ruled once again. Then he picked up his spoon and stuck it in the stiff, lumpy glob.
He nearly gagged while trying to swallow and hastily gulped down half of his beer. "I wouldn't even feed that to my ma- in-law's stick dog!"
"Yeah, the kind that's so hideous looking you'd only want to pet it with a stick," he replied with a mischievous grin as he pushed both bowls to the far side of the table.
Lois rolled her eyes. "You said this place was high risk; now we know why," she retorted, then looked around the room. "Well? Do you know anyone?"
Bobby shook his head. "Just barely recognize a couple ugly faces. Let's finish our beer, then we can get another at the bar and see if we can get someone talking."
A singer began another set, her background music playing from a cheap karaoke box. Bobby jingled his keys unrhythmically on the wood of the table as he tried to keep time with the music. A few minutes passed with no more conversation between them as they watched the crowd from the bar jeer and heckle the entertainment. Before they could finish their drinks, the sneering waiter slapped two more beers on the table, grabbed the bowls and walked away without a word.
Lois turned to Bobby and whispered restlessly, "This is not getting us anywhere. I think we need to snoop around, or at least make some eye contact to see if anyone looks suspicious."
"Uh… they all look suspicious, Sweetcakes," he answered wryly.
"Sweetcakes? Bobby?" a loud female voice spoke from the back of his seat.
The blood drained out of his face at the familiar voice and he turned around quickly. "Rose?"
A tall woman hovered above them, her feet firmly planted on the floor and her hands on her hips. "I was comin' out to see who was refusing to eat my chili again and I find *you* rubbin' on another woman!"
"I wasn't doin' any rubbin'," Bobby said, squirming in his chair.
"Who's your tart?" Rose spat after turning to Lois. "I didn't think you'd go this cheap, Bobby."
"Sweetheart…! It's not whatcha thinking at all," he jumped in quickly.
"Yeah! Then why ya dressed up like a hoodlum on Viagra? You going through some kind of mid-life crisis or somethin'?" she exclaimed loudly.
"Rosie, keep ya voice down; you're making a scene!" Bobby hoarsely whispered after standing up. "I can explain!"
"This should be good! Tell me why that floozy's lipstick's all over your collar."
After listening to this quick exchange, Lois piped in, "So this is Mrs. Bigmouth, I presume? I'd say it's nice to meet you, but I'd be lying. For the record, that *is* my lipstick."
Bobby glared at Lois, who was smugly enjoying herself in spite of being insulted. "Lois! You stay out of this!" Then he turned back to his wife. "And what are you doin' in this joint?"
"Cooking, that's what!"
"You the one who made this slop? Rosie! Haven't I taught you anything?" Bobby waved his hands in a gesture of frustration. "What did you use for meat? Roadkill?"
"You think you can do better, well come on, Romeo. I've got a pot with your name on it." She grabbed him by the ear and pulled him towards the kitchen.
"Ow! Rosie! Get your paws off me! I'm comin'! I'm comin'! First thing ya gotta remember 'bout cookin' is…" His voice faded into the background noise as he was led away through the double swinging doors.
Lois sat at the table for a couple of seconds, amused at the exchange between husband and wife. Rose obviously had less talent for cooking than she did. Apparently, Bobby had to become a chef out of self-defense. She was glad she didn't have to cook for anyone, even herself; that's what take-out was for. Not that she was ready to entertain a man in the near *or* distant future — unless she counted Kal. Her mouth curved into an unconscious smile at the thought of him. He had access to the finest restaurants in the world; why would she want to bother trying to cook?
The couple's loud voices could still be heard arguing above the singer's and the crowd of noisy men. The keys to Bobby's bike lay on the table in front of her. She was exhausted and didn't want to take the chance of Rose returning to put her to work washing dishes or before some local tapeworm had noticed that she was sitting alone. Bobby would be okay; he was with his wife — no one in their right mind would want to tangle up with her.
Tonight hadn't been a complete loss — at least she had the license plate of the limo, and the old warehouse where it entered was a possible stake-out. It was close to midnight; if she got home soon, maybe Kal would stop by for a visit.
She grabbed the keys after placing some money on the table and left the Ace O'Clubs.
Clark conveniently dislodged the old doorknob to open the door to Platt's apartment. The old building reeked of foul, moldy air; the rusty handle was easy to dismantle in his hand even without super powers. As he glanced through the wood door before entering, he saw that the place was clearly abandoned, but even so, it had been completely turned upside-down. He quickly scanned the room for bugs or any surveillance equipment, and to his grim relief, didn't locate any. Apparently the person who did this felt their work was complete and didn't need to keep tabs on this place any longer.
Pieces of furniture were knocked over, and foam stuffing, ripped into small pieces, covered old books and papers were thrown in a fit on the floor. Nothing was left in its original location. When Clark had been there a couple days before, the apartment was dreary and cluttered, but not utterly destroyed as it was now.
Floating over the rubble, Clark methodically began scanning through the papers and debris hoping to find any clues to either who did this, or why they were after Platt. Disappointed after a few minutes of repeatedly searching, he set his feet down on a fairly clear area of the floor to figure out what to do next.
No longer distracted by his close inspection, he began to notice an unfamiliar smell in the room which seem to originate from the musty brick wall that separated the small area of a bedroom from the living area.
Some of the mortar appeared to be of a different texture than the rest of the mildew- coated mortar that joined the bricks together. Upon closer examination, Clark discovered it was fairly fresh, but cleverly painted over to blend in with the rest of the wall.
Taking an X-rayed look through the wall, he saw an old pipe. Lead plumbing was common in older buildings, but it caught his attention immediately. This pipe was short, only sixteen inches in length and didn't appear to have a function, but what piqued Clark's interest was the bright solders outlining the edges.
Using his finger as a tool, Clark removed the fresh mortar outlining a rectangular section of four blocks. The cement was still wet a half an inch deep, and he felt his heartbeat quicken in excitement. This was not a hiding place thought of on the spur-of-the-moment; Platt had carefully planned and prepared this secret compartment.
Hearing the report of a police radio from outside the building, Clark knew there wasn't much time left to retrieve the pipe. Officers were on their way up and would arrive in a couple of minutes. Gripping the edges of one brick, he pulled it out quickly, the others following in rapid succession. The pipe slid out with ease, but there was no time to examine what was inside. The police were already on the stairs and would be at the door in seconds.
After two years of concealing his super human abilities in the city, old habits were hard to break. He rapidly returned the bricks to their place inside the wall, packing the still soft mortar around them. With his heat vision, he lightly scorched the white cement so it blended in with the rest of the wall. Satisfied with his repair job, Clark stepped into the bedroom, opened the window and flew straight into the air, heading for home.
Clark was far too curious to wait to examine the contents of the pipe and didn't want to bother with setting down somewhere hidden and then arriving at his doorstep in a normal manner. The only substance his vision couldn't penetrate was lead or he would have inspected it while in flight. Landing on the balcony of his apartment, he moved so fast that even an alert observer would have had a difficult time detecting him.
Tearing the thick, soft alloy off from the end of one side of the pipe, Clark peered inside, inquisitively. He eagerly removed a rolled-up folder, and immediately recognized Platt's messy handwriting on the first page. The rest of the report was typed so it was easy to scan quickly. It itemized the drugs that the Prometheus had taken to the space station for their medical research; each drug listed had a detailed chemical analysis and experimental procedures.
As he read further into the report, he recalled having seen it with the papers the scientist had given him when researching the threats on the Messenger. Joking with Clark that he'd been too exuberant in gathering his data, he had thrust the report under the bottom of a stack and ignored it the rest of the time they'd worked together.
Although it appeared to be top secret information, Clark was puzzled. This data had to have been shared among the labs and scientists. The technicians on the space station should have access to this if they were to conduct their medical experiments. Platt must have been trying to keep this from the wrong hands, but whoever was after him could have retrieved this information from several other sources. Unless this data was somehow different.
Was this something the police should know about? He could always slip it into Henderson's desk with an anonymous note saying it was found in Platt's apartment. Henderson would suspect that he'd placed it there and if it was important to the investigation, the officer would probably ask him about it on the sly.
Opening his desk drawer, he lifted the large file from the EPRAD investigation and placed it in front of him. He had planned on returning this data to the scientist in the next day or so. If he were to find out who was behind this, it could be fortunate that he still had it in his possession. He turned on his computer and began sifting through the file once more.
Clark blew cold air gently on his keyboard while his fingers typed three hundred and fifty words a minute as he rapidly compared both reports. After ruining a few keyboards in his early days at the Daily Planet, he had learned to become more patient and practical while assimilating data. But the supply of extra keyboards in his closet still allowed room for error when he became too involved in his investigation and failed to watch his typing speed.
Fifteen minutes later, he sat back in his chair contemplating his findings. The two reports were identical, except the one he'd found in the pipe had a slight — but perhaps significant — difference. All of the experiments on the drugs had an extra procedure — an addition experiment involving another substance. The substance was unidentified; it was only labeled as Element X.
Needing to clear his head, Clark spun out of his work clothes until only the suit remained. A first patrol around Metropolis in his brand new identity appealed to him greatly after the grim evening on the docks, followed by plowing through another complex stack of data. Besides, it was time the criminal element of the city knew that Superman was here to stay.
A well-dressed form approached two other lesser dressed men in the dimly lit office. The men were visibly shaken by the newcomer's arrival; it was unexpected and they were not ready to receive the reprimand that they knew was coming.
"Good evening, gentlemen," the impeccably attired man addressed them. "Disturbing my evening to see to this matter personally does not bode well for your future in this enterprise."
One of the men stepped halfway behind his partner, slyly trying to slink away out of sight, then slightly bumped the other man forward, to make him answer to the boss.
"We are… ah, it's a privilege to see you, sir," replied the braver of the two men. "What do we owe the honor of your visit here in our most humble… ah, working place."
Frowning at the lackey's attempt of formal address, he then inquired, "So… Mr. McInnis? I'm assuming that the assignment was performed to my satisfaction and you have in your possession the Element X?"
"Uh, actually, no… Platt's place was clean. Me and Joe here turned that rat hole inside- out, but nothin' was there. Honestly, boss. If it was there, we would have found it."
Summoning an ounce of defense for his partner, Joe blurted bravely, "It's the truth, what Mickey said. We looked hard."
"Do you realize this whole operation is residing on finding that mineral… element… whatever it is?"
"Yes, Mr. Luthor. We know the urgency. You made it very clear how much this means to you… your operation."
"And you have to know that I'm very displeased that the scientist was disposed of before finding Element X. Your inability to think about the consequences of your actions has severely hindered my plans!" His eyes narrowed to dark slits as he lifted his chin; anger and frustration threatening to overcome the cool composure put on for others.
"I don't care what you have to do, or who you have to go through to do it; I want it found immediately or there will be hell to pay. Is that understood?"
"Yes, boss… um, we'll handle it," McInnis stammered. "I'll get guys from the other…"
"*Don't* bore me with your petty details. It's simple. Find the element and you live. Fail again, and you die. Quite simple, even for incompetents like you, Mr. McInnis." Luthor turned on his heels and opened the door to the office. "Oh, and if you even think about going to the police, remember, a few of Metropolis's finest are on my payroll. After all, I *am* the mayor."
Lex Luthor leaned back comfortably in his desk chair and breathed in the aroma of new leather. The approval for the renovations of City Hall had been a hard fought battle, but at last, they were now taking place on his floor. Of course, it was at his insistence that the other city employees had their offices redesigned first; a good strategy in securing loyalties among the underlings started with a chivalrous example of self-sacrifice. Leaving a few dingy offices in their original condition in the basement of the building would be good motivation for anyone who didn't want to be relocated there upon noncompliance of his wishes.
It was quite a challenge implementing his own agenda while keeping his popularity as mayor soaring in the polls and public opinion. Since becoming mayor of Metropolis three years ago, the media had treated him favorably for the most part. Local television personalities and journalists had often produced glowing editorials about his achievements — all but one.
An insignificant observation caught his attention a few days ago. He had basically ignored the speculations about the supposed Miracle Man who had the city in an uproar for the past few months. But when a reporter named Clark Kent invited the Miracle Man out of hiding, it disturbed him. It was his job as mayor to welcome this phenomenon instead of a popular reporter and he was inflamed at the sheer mockery that seemed to be aimed at his position of power.
This reporter had caused many headaches for him in the last couple days — Kent had not only stolen an opportunity to increase his hold on the city, but also exposed Antoinette Baines' corruption within the Space Program. As with all of those who dared, knowing and unknowingly, to cross his path, he had his secretary research Kent's past and reporting history with his administration yesterday afternoon. The inquiry revealed that Metropolis's most respected journalist had never called his office for an exclusive interview, but the Daily Planet had other less- achieved reporters covering his accomplishments. Appearances indicated that Clark Kent seemed to be avoiding any assignments linked directly to his office.
He pounded his fist on the latest edition of the Daily Planet. Kent's byline was printed under the headline once again. It seemed he found that spandex-covered freak-of- nature who appeared yesterday at EPRAD worthy enough to interview. Superman had to be a hoax or a sick practical joke from some warped mind — but he could only wish it were true. If he hadn't seen with his own two eyes what happened on the launch pad, he never would have believed it in a million years.
Now, Superman was the topic on everyone's lips. Depending upon the public's reaction to this blue-caped exhibitionist, he'd have to consider carefully the city's response to his flamboyant arrival. It was yet to be determined how much of a game player this flying boy scout would be in Metropolis, but his endorsement as mayor should count heavily on public opinion.
There were more pressing issues to be dealt with at the moment. First priority had to be given to the discreet elimination of Baines. Pity she was so beautiful, yet he couldn't take the chance of being double-crossed. He had her eating out of his hand now, but being incarcerated tended to erase loyalties among the most faithful cohorts. It was a chance he couldn't afford to take.
It was necessary to have one more conversation with her — to see if she knew the whereabouts of this Element X. She had come to him with the information that Platt had a mysterious substance of unknown origins. The glowing green rock apparently had been circulating through many government departments for years. No one knew what is was or where it came from — only that some offshoot branch of the military had discovered an unknown pure element in rural America.
It finally made the rounds to EPRAD and was entrusted to the care of Samuel Platt, who had discovered its amazing effects on certain research drugs he was preparing for the future experiments on the Space Station. According to the information Baines obtained discreetly, his procedure included exposing those drugs to the slight radiation of the rock, in combination with increased gravity in a specially designed chamber. The results were amazing as they nearly tripled the drug's effectiveness. Super drugs literally. It sped up the time it took for the body to react to the drug, made them longer lasting and only a minuscule dosage was needed. Anyone who was in possession of this Element X would be on the cutting edge of producing drugs for the medical world.
Or illegal super drugs for those who wanted to pay dearly for the latest in fast, potent and nearly invisible substances. But his plans would be for naught if he didn't acquire that rock and find out for himself what was its full potential. If his former lover knew where Platt had stored Element X, a promise of freedom in exchange for more information would be a tasty carrot to dangle in front of her face.
He opened up a wooden box on his desk and withdrew an expensive cigar. Some people deserved to have the finest life could bring them.
Lois pushed another quarter into the pay phone's slot and dialed the number to Lucky's Limos Rentals. The license plate number turned out to be owned by a rental agency whose employee wasn't revealing anything about the person who rented it. So now it was time for another tactic. It was a hunch, but worth taking the risk.
She covered the phone's receiver with a wad tissue and changed her tone of voice to a nasal twang when the call was answered.
"Yeeess. This is the secretary of rental JD52197. We have a very big problem and my boss expects this to be rectified right awaaay."
"What can I do for you, lady?"
"There's a terrible odor just reeking from the back seat. It smells like a couple of alley cats used it for a litter box. My *boss* is extremely upset and wants a replacement."
"Just bring the limo in and we'll see what we can do," the employee drawled in a bored manner.
"Oh! No! Someone needs to get out here with another limo or the *boss* is going to have some heads. I've seen him when he gets angry and you all don't want to be around him when he gets that way. Why I remember one day when his pastrami sandwich had one too many onions on it and he threw it at the delivery boy and hit smack on the back of his head. Then there was the time that our mailman — he brought us the mail for fifteen years, bless his little postal heart — was just an hour late and we never saw the dear man again. I think he was reassigned to another route, but you never know about those things. And who could…"
"Okay, miss! You made your point!" he blurted, anxious to stop this woman's senseless chatter. "I'll see what I can do. You said it's what license plate number?"
Lois heard papers rustling on the other end of the line and crossed her fingers.
"Yeah, here it is. Ms. Cooper. We'll have that replacement right away. Say… ten o'clock. Um… same place as before? Behind City Hall in the alleyway?"
City Hall? Now she might be getting somewhere. "Yeah, same place. That'll do just fine." She hung up the phone in triumph. Looks like she needed to pay City Hall a visit and find out who this secretary, Ms. Cooper, worked for.
Clark sat down at his desk the next morning after going through the pleasantries of greeting and fielding questions from the morning crowd. The newsroom was still buzzing with their excitement and speculation about the new super hero. He'd been stopped many times on his way to his desk with inquiries on what the man-in-blue had been like during his exclusive. Anxious to read the city's, and the world's, reaction to Superman, as well as continuing his investigation of Platt's death, he waved his colleagues off as politely and quickly as possible.
After his spin around the city last night, his last stop had been to check up on Lois. It had been around twelve- thirty when he hovered outside her window. A quick peek revealed that she was sound asleep and slightly snoring, he thought with a tiny smile, and was relieved that she had returned home safely. He didn't want to disturb her sleep as he did the night before. Instead he sat on top of the roof opposite from her apartment and waited for the street life to die down. Around two o'clock in the morning, his eyelids kept finding their way shut, so he called it a night and flew home.
He hated to leave her so abruptly earlier that evening, but the news that Platt had been found floating in the bay produced a burning need to see if there was anything he could do to help. He would have to see her as soon as he found the time again — this new investigation promised to keep him busy for a while.
While thumbing through his in-box, he found an urgent message from Bill Henderson waiting in the pile. He dialed the officer's number and it was picked up right away.
"Bill? This is Clark Kent. Got your message."
"Yeah, Clark. Glad you called. I need you down at Central Lockup right away. I questioned the Baines woman early this morning about Platt's death and it seems she only wants to talk to you."
"She does? Why me? I've never spoken to her in person. She refused to see me during my investigation," Clark responded in a puzzled manner. He recalled that her attitude on the phone was rude and abrupt when he'd tried to contact her a few days earlier.
"Get down here so you can ask her yourself," Henderson replied. "If she knows something, we want it, even if we have to use a nosy reporter."
"Right, Bill. Guess we're forced to work together again." Clark smiled at the friendly sarcasm in the inspector's voice. "Be there as soon as I can."
"Yeah. Meet me in the conference room afterwards. I'll arrange visitation. Just go directly to holding area and someone will let you in."
"Bill? Why do the Feds still have her at Central? I thought she'd be in their custody?"
"She's leaving later this morning. We're just holding her until the red tape guys decide who gets the pleasure of transporting her. That's why you need to get down here pronto."
"Leaving now." After he hung up the phone, Clark finished his steaming coffee discreetly, then hurried out of the newsroom.
Luthor took the round about way through the City Hall complex over through the connecting corridors to the Metropolis' central lockup. It wasn't uncommon to see him wandering the huge complex's halls; he just didn't want to have to explain why he was visiting a Federal prisoner.
He projected a steely look at the guard on duty at the holding area where Baines was being detained. The officer glanced away from his stare as he quietly opened the door and let the mayor in the secured area. Another insignificant puppet whose strings were easily pulled, Luthor noted as he proceeded down the empty hallway. An excellent mayor always knew his employee's strong and weak points, and Stan Brimley's Achilles heel was his little gambling habit that needed monetary support now and then.
He was glad to see that Brimley had wisely chosen to assume guard duty instead of delegating it to someone else. It was satisfying to see that he was able to follow specific instructions — the surveillance cameras were off and the hall had been cleared.
A small figure was curled up on her bunk. She was facing the wall and lay quietly on her side, but her mind was racing around in circles. Hot tears rolled across the bridge of her nose and pooled into the other eye, feeding the wet smear on the side of her face. Betrayal and abandonment was dominating her thoughts; even more than the criminal charges she was facing. The hope that Lex would somehow get her out of this mess had been rapidly replace by hurt, then anger, and foremost, that he'd made no attempt to contact her. After all she'd sacrificed for him, he was leaving her to rot in prison. That's what prompted her to contact this Clark Kent — the reporter responsible for her being here. If she was going to go down, then so was Lex. It was only fair. But it still hurt her deeply to betray the man she so desperately loved.
The mayor placed his hands on the bars of Toni Baines' cell and grinned smugly. He changed his expression on his face to sympathy and concern before speaking. "Antoinette… tsskk… tsskk," he crooned softly. "What have we come to, my dear?"
The woman in a bright orange jumpsuit stirred suddenly, then sat up after recognizing the voice she'd been longing to hear for the past couple of days.
She sped quickly to the bars and gripped his hands tightly and whispered fiercely, "Lex? Oh, Lex! You've got to get me out of here!"
His brows furrowed together and he leaned his forehead against bars. "I'm pulling out all the stops, my love." He kissed her hand and laid it against his cheek. "And I'm hopeful that you'll be free from your plight within the hour."
"The hour! Oh, Lex! That can't be soon enough!"
"Now don't you put worry lines on that gorgeous face; you'll be back in my bed before the day's end. I've missed you… " he said in a syrupy tone of voice. After kissing her hand again, he sighed, appearing distressed and shifting his feet. Delicate matters required perfect timing coupled with genuine concern.
"Antoinette, there's something I need to ask you. It's of the utmost importance or I wouldn't bother you in your current state of distress."
He brushed back her short blond hair clinging to the wet tears that streaked down her face. "It wasn't suppose to be this way, Lex," she said oblivious to his impending request. "Everything that we'd worked for… we were so close… "
"We still are, my dear," Luthor said, trying to hide the shadow of annoyance that crossed his face. His lips twisted into a cynical smile as he continued to placate her fragile emotions. "Our plans are not ruined — just… hindered for the moment. Toni — you are still part of the team. I need you… "
Tears glistened on her pale, heart-shaped face as she raised her eyes to his at last. "You still need me?"
"Of course, love." He pulled a silk handkerchief from his suit pocket and pressed it in her hand. "Now… pull yourself together and listen to me."
He waited until she'd cleaned the tears off her cheeks, then continued. "This element… this E-X that Platt was experimenting with — where is it?"
A sudden icy contempt flashed in her now cold blue eyes as her tone became chilly with suspicion. "Is that why you're really here, Lex? To find that potential gold mine? I should've known that this little visit had a purpose behind it."
"There have been complications," he said smoothly. "The incompetents who were hired to find the rock have failed to locate it. Now I have to find a needle in a haystack and have no idea where that deranged eccentric, Platt, has it hidden, because he is dead. Do you see why I need you to tell me if you know anything? Without E-X, our plans are limited."
She spoke with bitterness, "Your plans, Lex. I've been rotting in this cell for two days without a single word from you. What did you expect me to think?"
"My dear, you know what a high profile my position is in this city. I'm risking everything for you by just being here in this holding cell. Don't doubt my feelings for you; I'm here now."
"Because you want something! I'm not a fool, Mr. *Mayor*," she hissed. "Don't play me for one!"
Luthor drew a deep breath and shook his head in mock defeat. "All right! You win! I don't care if I ever find that abominable rock. If it causes you to doubt me, then it's not worth it." His hand snaked its way through the bars and cupped her cheek. "I'll get you out of this hell hole, then we'll make due with the operations already in place. It cuts me to the quick to see you look at me with such contempt. I'll make it up to you, I swear."
Her anger evaporated, leaving only confusion in its wake. His quick brown eyes flashed pain and tenderness and her heart believed him the instant she saw the raw hurt rippling in his expression.
"Yes, Lex," she whispered. "I… have a small piece of E- X."
He fought to hide the excitement that was causing his blood to pound through his veins, yet barely skipped a beat as he continued contritely, "I don't care about it; just you, my love." His hand wound its way through her hair as he pulled her face close to the bars and showered her forehead with quick kisses.
"It's in my apartment, taped underneath the sink in my bathroom," she confessed, closing her eyes to the touch of his lips.
"Sshhh… how I wish I could see to your needs properly," he murmured against the limited amount of skin that the prison bars allowed him. "Later, my sweet," he said pulling away from her. "Now I need to see about your freedom."
Pasting a weak smile on his lips, he lifted her face up to look directly into his. "The Feds will be transporting you shortly. Do not be alarmed, it's part of the plan; I've arranged to intercept you along the way. Don't say a word, just play the despondent jailbird and soon you'll be under my care again. Do you have faith in me?"
"Yes, Lex, always," she answered, pushing away that nagging doubt about her lover that plagued her earlier.
"Good girl," he said confidently. "Now dry your tears and get some sleep. I plan to keep you very busy tonight." Luthor moved away from the cell and walked backwards toward the exit, still holding her gaze with his own.
"Lex!" she cried softly after him, heated from his smoldering look of passion. "I love you!"
"Adieu! My love!" he mouthed silently, blew a kiss to her with a flourish. He hit the buzzer signaling the guard to open the door, then exited the holding area.
Turning around after shutting the door, he was shocked to see that he was not alone. Besides Brimley's reception desk, another man was present in the small waiting room.
Having just walked up to the guard's reception desk, Clark immediately recognized Lex Luthor as he came through the holding cell's doorway. For a brief second, the mayor appeared to be a little flustered at nearly running into him, but just as quickly, the confusion left his face and his smooth composure was back in place.
Something about Lex Luthor had always rubbed Clark the wrong way. He couldn't place his finger on it, but there was a manner or an air about him that was unsettling. Without any proof or even suspicion that the mayor was not who he appeared to be, Clark just preferred to avoid contact with him. Yet he kept his eyes open to Luthor's activities, observant to note any conflict of interest or chink in the sterling silver coat of armor that the public had built around him. He didn't want to follow the crowd and become another reporter to write glowing, all-is-well in Metropolis' Camelot administration articles. He simply didn't trust the man and preferred to watch him from the sidelines.
Clark thought it was odd that the mayor of Metropolis would be down at the City Jail and he couldn't resist probing for some information.
"Mr. Mayor," he addressed him coolly with a firm nod of his head.
Luthor eyed the impressively built man in front of him but couldn't place him right away. He always prided himself on remembering names that belonged to faces, but for some reason, couldn't lay a finger on this man's identity.
"Do I know you?" he asked, posturing himself into his mayoral stance — friendly, approachable, but with a tad of intimidation.
"I think we were introduced around a year and a half ago after a press conference. Clark Kent, from the Daily Planet," he answered, his hand automatically extending outward in greeting.
"Ah! The elusive Mr. Kent!" Luthor responded, his curiosity piqued, but then winced as his hand was squeezed firmly in an iron-hard clasp. "It's rather odd that I didn't recognize you from any publicity pictures from the Daily Planet."
"That's my choice. I don't believe in letting the criminal element being able to readily identify me. If you were on the wrong side of the law, it would have worked today," Clark replied easily while gauging the mayor's reaction.
"Very true. I was wondering just yesterday why the city's most respected journalist hadn't requested an exclusive interview from me. Or has this been an oversight on your part?"
His tone was velvety, yet edged with a touch of contentiousness which made Clark choose his next words carefully. "Your administration is highly successful and the public loves you. I would just be going through the motions that other reporters have been through before me. Unless there is some deep, dark secret that you need to share? Let me ask you this — why would you want an interview from me? Your public relations department is doing an excellent job."
"You underestimate yourself, Mr. Kent. Perhaps I'm tired of second rate, starry-eyed interns and long for the probing questions that only an award winning journalist like yourself can give me. That is, if you are worth those two Kerth awards on your shelf — unless it is *you* who is hiding something."
Clark straightened his spine and released a dry laugh. "I get to the truth, Mayor; that means more to me than a shiny statue sitting on my bookshelf at home."
"A true defender of truth and justice!" he announced in a glib manner. "It's an honorable profession you have chosen. So, should I assume from your not pursuing an interview that my administration is in your good graces?"
"Appearances would seem to indicate that, Mr. Luthor," he said, exchanging a polite smile.
"What you see is what you get, Kent. Although I intend to withhold my judgment on one subject which you hold favorable. I read your article on this new flying sensation, Superman. A bit on the outrageous side for your style, don't you think?"
"Outrageous? Not at all. Investigative journalists don't want to expose just the bad side of the city. Surely you understand my wanting a more upbeat, encouraging story to report."
"Of course, everyone deserves a little sunshine and roses in their life, but honestly, even roses have thorns."
"No doubt that your administration takes exception to this rule," Clark replied, his eyes darkening slightly from the accusing undertones in Luthor's voice.
"Touch,," Luthor responded, intrigued with this parry and thrust conversation. "Well said, Mayor. A thornless rose — perhaps you missed your calling as a man of words."
"I'll leave the word crafting to you. Though I hope someday that you will challenge me with your journalism expertise — say… for the adventure of it; that is, if you're game?"
"Perhaps, Mayor. Now that we've spoken unofficially, it would be almost rude to *not* follow up on a more in-depth conversation. If you'll excuse me, there's a more pressing interview I need to conduct."
Clark nodded his head and stepped past the mayor up to the reception desk and spoke softly to Brimley, the guard. "Officer Henderson has arranged for me to visit with Dr. Baines."
The watchman squirmed uneasily at Luthor's steely glare from behind the reporter. "Yes, Mr. Kent. I've just received the orders from the Chief. Through that door and down five cells to your right." A buzz sounded as the electronic lock to the holding area was released.
Shrugging his shoulders as Clark disappeared through the door, Brimley whispered hoarsely, "Mr. Luthor, there was nothing I could do. The orders came straight from the top."
After being abruptly dismissed by the reporter, the news that Baines was going to speak to the press sent a shock of white-hot anger through the mayor. A sudden, thin chill hung on the edge of Luthor's voice when he finally spoke, "You failed me, Brimley. You forget, I *am* the top."
The frightened guard watched in silence as the mayor turned on his heels and strode purposefully out of the room. But his composure was not totally shaken; his lips pressed together in a twisted line as he carefully checked to see that the videotapes connected to the surveillance cameras were still running smoothly.
Although it was midmorning, hardly a soul was around when Lois glided up to the office door. She jimmied the lock deftly with a hairpin, wondering briefly if anyone ever used hairpins for their intended purpose. Sliding through the door, she locked it from the inside and looked around.
She was in Lex Luthor's office — *Mayor* Lex Luthor. This was a huge risk that she was taking by breaking in his office in broad daylight, but after discovering that Ms. Cooper was the secretary for the mayor, curiosity got the best of her, and at the very least, she had to pass by and scope out the layout of the floor plan or strike up a casual conversation with the secretary.
To her surprise, the secretary's desk was abandoned and the scheduling calendar for the mayor had penciled in today's date that he was out for the majority of the morning. The lock on the door was old; it hadn't been replaced yet during the remodeling, so Lois was confident that she could get in quickly. The next logical step was to ransack his office for any clue to his possible involvement and presence down on the docks. There were probably other ways she could have started her investigation, but she was desperate.
The office was in somewhat of a disarray; the whole floor was being prepared for remodeling. Old furniture shoved aside along one wall, along with outdated books in open boxes, that were waiting to be carted away.
She headed over to his desk and flipped swiftly through the files in his inbox. Deciding nothing incriminating would be so blatantly displayed, she worked to open the desk drawer. This proved a bit more laborious than the door, mainly because the desk was a newer model. Finally, the lock clicked and the drawer slid open. After a quick survey of the file labels, she pushed the drawer closed. Nothing but city related items — boring, if you're looking for dirt.
Panic set in when the doorknob started to rattle as the sound of a metal key clicked against the old iron lock. She scurried to the other side of the room and squeezed into the space between the wall and an old desk in order to hide in the space below.
Lois held her breath as she heard the door open and someone, a man she assumed from the heavy sound of his steps, strode into the room and sat at the desk.
She was trapped. There was nowhere to escape, but at least she was out of sight. The old desk's front panel was solid except for a horizontal split in the wood. Lowering her head, she placed her eye against the fissure in the wood and discovered a view of the room from about mid level down. Since the angle from the crack didn't allow her to confirm his identity, she presumed it was the mayor in the room. Maybe her predicament wasn't as dire as she first thought; this hideaway could give her the advantage of perhaps gleaning some tidbits for her story. Adjusting her body to a more comfortable position, Lois leaned her head back against the hard surface and waited.
Clark was surprised to see Toni Baines' state of being. She was an extremely attractive woman; even more so than she had appeared on television, but it was obvious she'd been crying for a while; her eyes were red and puffy and her hair was disheveled in a tangled mess.
She looked at him disinterestedly as he cleared his throat to get her attention.
"Dr. Baines, I received your message that you wanted to talk to me. I'm Clark Kent."
"So what? I have nothing to say to you," she said bitterly.
"Inspector Henderson called me a half an hour ago and said that you wanted to speak only to me. Is there something you need to talk about?" Clark asked, but his hopes were dashed at the scowl that crossed her face.
"I couldn't resist jerking the chains of those who put me here, Kent," she said sharply. "Perhaps seeing what you have done to *my* life will give you a few sleepless nights."
Clark chose to ignore her remark and continued his line of questioning. "Dr. Baines, there was another bomb found on the Prometheus yesterday. Do you know anything about it? Are there more people involved who are still running free? Your time in prison could be reduced if you turn evidence against them. Many people could have been hurt yesterday; you don't seem to be the type of person who'd want that."
Her heart nearly turned over in response to the warmth and sincerity in the handsome reporter's deep brown eyes. Another time, another place, she could have found herself extremely attracted to his boyish charm and obvious good looks, but *he* was the man responsible for getting her arrested. She had found hope from Lex's visit and needed to cling to it and him, in spite of the doubts that had plagued her earlier.
"Sorry, Kent. You've wasted a trip. I just want to be left alone," she said, eyeing him with cold triumph.
The buzzer sounded from the door at the end of the hall, and three armed guards swiftly covered the distance to her cell.
"Time to deal with Uncle Sam, Baines," one said as he opened her cell door.
Clark watched as they cuffed and led her from her cell to exit at the other end of the hallway. He turned to leave, but out of the corner of his eye, he spotted a white cloth on the floor lying near the steel bars. After retrieving it, he saw that it was a man's silk handkerchief with the initials "LL" embroidered in one corner. His jaw clenched in determination as he realized he'd found a lead and the incentive to go after Lex Luthor at last.
Perhaps after he'd talked to Henderson, he'd make his way over to City Hall to pay the mayor an official visit.
Time drifted onward with Luthor not showing any signs of wanting to leave, nor was there any information that could be useful for a story. Just polite phone calls, mixed in with minor city problems that were easily solved over the phone. Her body was getting uncomfortable from sitting in the same position for so long, but she didn't dare move or try to rearrange herself, for fear of giving herself away. It was going to be a long day, and in spite of her seating arrangement, Lois could feel herself drifting off to sleep.
Allowing herself to doze lightly, her mind stayed semi- alert as thoughts began to swirl in her head. She'd always been impressed by Luthor's track record as mayor of Metropolis. He was a popular and well-liked politician and was known for sticking up for the middle and lower classes. His attendance could always be counted on at charitable balls and benefits for the underprivileged.
Shuddering inwardly at the memory of one of those events, she remembered the one time that she'd been present at a bachelor auction to raise money for the new children's museum. Lex Luthor had been one of the eligible men to be auctioned — the handsome politician was highly sought after — and the bids for him drew top dollar. But Luthor wasn't the cause of her disturbing memory. Claude was also one of the men on the block to be bid upon that night. She had specifically gone to the event with high hopes of winning a date with him. She'd been admiring him from a distance for months at the Metropolis Star and had finally pulled together enough resolve — and money — to place a bid.
That night was the beginning of their relationship, she recalled bitterly. After a few persistent bids, his eyes found hers in the crowd and didn't stray until the gavel pounded the final blow announcing that she'd won her date with the handsome reporter.
Everything changed between them from that moment on. The following days and weeks were a blur to her as she and Claude Devereaux fell in love — or at least what she thought was love. She had finally gained respect from her coworkers and threw herself into her work with determination to live up to her new status. It was a magical time for her, all the way up to his betrayal. After he slept with her and stole the story that she'd banked her career hopes on, she could have dealt with the fallout of a broken relationship and moved on with her life, but another cruel blow was dealt to her. The events of the next couple of days were too much to handle and she'd left town feeling crushed and hurt.
A knock from the door caused her to become fully awake and she immediately pulled her drifting thoughts together. A secretary's voice — and where had she heard it before? — announced the unexpected arrival of Clark Kent to see the mayor.
Clark Kent!! Not him again! She bit her bottom lip in an effort to keep from uttering a grunt of disgust and frustration. After Luthor granted the secretary permission to show him in, she was caught off-guard at the sudden vibrancy of the voice that filled the room. Something about it almost clicked inside her mind, but then again, the secretary had sounded vaguely familiar to her also. It was probably her over-active imagination acting up again, and she dismissed the thought quickly as the two men began talking.
"Mr. Mayor, I'm glad you found the time to see me," Clark greeted from the doorway.
"Twice in one day. I'm honored, Clark," Luthor answered, rising from his seat to extend his hand in greeting. "What has prompted this most pleasurable visit?"
"I took a chance and hoped we could continue our talk that we started this morning. I apologize for having to rush out on you earlier, but I did have an appointment to keep," Clark said, putting forth his most courteous smile.
"Ah, an interview with Antoinette Baines. Lovely woman. It's unfortunate that greed and power were too much of a temptation for her. I trust your interview went well?"
"I guess you'll have to read about it in the Daily Planet tomorrow," Clark answered, as he tried to rate Luthor's reaction. "Perhaps alongside the exclusive I hope to have with you, Mayor?"
The phone buzzed and Luthor nodded his apology at being interrupted, then answered his call.
Having been given a breather from the break in their conversation, Lois was puzzled. This wasn't the voice of the Clark Kent she had met at the Daily Planet yesterday. This voice was confident, yet sensual, and sent a disturbing ripple of awareness through her body each time he spoke. She lowered her head a few inches to the crack in order to confirm her suspicions.
Peering through the minuscule slit in the wood, a pair of legs clad in dark blue slacks sat in a chair about three feet away. The rich outline of his thighs strained against the soft fabric of his pants and she noted that they obviously belonged to a fairly tall man, at least six feet tall. Her gaze drifted up to find a crisp, white shirt covering what appeared to be a strong, muscular chest — and a rather striking tie. The limited view the crack offered stopped there. Lois was slightly disappointed that her angle from the tiny window was so restricted, but at least her hunch was correct — this was *not* the man she had met yesterday. She would have recognized *this* male physique anywhere.
Lois leaned her back against the hard wood once more. So who was the scrawny creep sitting in Clark Kent's chair? And why was she getting butterflies in her stomach at the sound of this man's voice? Stuffing that bothersome thought away, she dismissed it as mere curiosity. Better yet, satisfaction knowing that the Daily Planet did not esteem a socially challenged moron as its finest. That was it! Her faith was restored in the reputation of the city's most respected paper.
Clark welcomed the interrupting phone call because it gave him a chance to get the feel of Luthor's office and observe the man quietly for a short time. He wondered about the handkerchief he found in Baines' cell and its implications — that Luthor was somehow involved with her. Was it actually possible that he was connected to the second bomb on the Prometheus yesterday?
It was apparent by the one-sided conversation that Clark was privy to that Luthor was making him wait while he chatted social pleasantries with a prominent businessman. Snatches of light-hearted talk referring to the upcoming Orchid Ball didn't seem suspicious enough to justify the use of his powers. During a long pause in the dialogue, he activated his super hearing for a brief moment to confirm that the topic hadn't strayed. At once, a familiar heartbeat filled his head and his mouth almost fell open in surprise.
Lois? Was she here?
Discreetly, he lowered his glasses to look through the only possible place she could be hiding — under the old wooden desk a few feet away. She was hugging her knees close to her body, biting her lower lip, appearing confused and a tiny bit frazzled.
What was she doing here in Lex Luthor's office? His heart immediately jumped to the conclusion that maybe Luthor was someone in her past and she was checking up on him in some attempt to resurrect their relationship. The thought that Luthor and Lois shared some history together alarmed him.
If that were the case, then why would she be hiding here of all places? She did have a gift for finding trouble; it worried him that getting caught for breaking and entering could land her in jail. He'd have to make sure she was delivered from this latest dilemma safely. Considering his growing suspicions of Luthor recently, he wouldn't doubt that he had a hand in the reason why Lois was here hiding.
Luthor concluded his telephone conversation and smiled boldly at his visitor with renewed confidence. Through prearranged code, it was confirmed that the obligation that Steve Bauer, a new upstart in the computer industry, owed him had been fulfilled. The situation with Dr. Baines had been eradicated and he had just received affirmation that she was no longer a loose end to tie up.
Just as well that a *reporter* was here to confirm his alibi at the time of Baines' untimely death. With any luck, Kent would receive a call from the Daily Planet concerning this latest development and he would be able to play the part of a shocked and horrified mayor.
The intercom buzzed just as he was about to resume the conversation and he answered, "Yes, Ms. Cooper? What is it?"
The box spoke in a tinny tone, "The movers are here to take away the old furniture. Shall I have them come back later or wait for you to finish?"
"Give me five minutes." Luthor then turned to Clark who was suddenly stirring uneasily in his chair. "Interruptions… it's all part of the daily routine, but I'll be glad to be rid of all this clutter."
"All in a day's work," Clark answered distractedly as his mind began to race. Time was running out and he had to get Lois out of here before she was discovered. Five minutes — at least there were a few moments to think of something.
"What spurs you to seek an interview from me now, Clark?" Luthor asked directly, his almost black eyes intense with a penetrating gaze.
Clark knew he had to keep his composure and not be shaken. "Let's say our encounter earlier has inspired me, mayor," he responded coolly. "I believe I would find our conversation to be enlightening."
"All your humanitarian contributions, for example. You go beyond the call of duty," he stated. "I'd like to find out what drives you in that area, Mr. Luthor."
"It's really quite simple; I was an orphan, Kent. I've had to claw my way twice as hard as the next person. I understand the little person."
"Even the prisoners in jail, Mayor? That's quite a humbling experience."
"Ah! You're curious as to the reason for my presence in the City Jail. Why didn't you ask me directly?"
"Would you have answered?"
"You see the renovations going on around you, Mr. Kent?" Luthor waved his hand around the room. "I wish to extend those plans and was merely getting a first hand account of the conditions."
"Your generosity is amazing, Mr. Luthor," Clark observed. "Even the criminal element holds your concern."
"I try to treat all the citizens of Metropolis equally. Those that are incarcerated today will one day be put back into society, and also, become taxpayers. I want to leave them with a favorable impression of my administration."
Under the desk, Lois chewed nervously on a piece of her hair as the men conversed. How could Kent be so calm when she was about to be caught? Time was ticking and she had no idea how to explain why she was under the mayor's old desk. There was no place for her to crawl to safety, at least she didn't think so. Her only hope was that the room would be vacated for a short time so she could make a run for it.
The phone intercom buzzed once more — this time announcing Luthor's next appointment. Smiling apologetically, he said, "Sorry, Kent, but I need to meet with Representative Williams. I've already rescheduled him twice this week." Pressing the intercom button once more, he spoke, "Show Mr. Williams to the conference room; we'll meet in there. Also, let the movers come in."
Sliding his chair backwards in order to stand up, Luthor was now in full commandeering mode. "Kent, if it's convenient for you, come back at one o'clock and we'll have that interview." He stood up from his chair and motioned Clark towards the door.
Clark nearly panicked at the abrupt turn the events were taking. He couldn't leave Lois alone to fend for herself. "Um… Mayor? Would you allow me to make a few phone calls here in your office? I need to clear my schedule for our interview this afternoon. It will only take a few moments."
The secretary stuck her head inside the door again, and interrupted, "Mayor, that conference call with Judge Manning is on hold for you and Mr. Williams…"
"Yes, Rose. I'll be there. Very well, Mr. Kent, as you wish," he blurted on his way out the door but paused briefly to whisper fiercely into the secretary's ear, "Watch him!"
Clark grinned to himself as he heard Luthor's orders to his assistant. There was definitely a second side to the Mayor's smooth and gregarious public personality. More importantly, Luthor was out of the way and he now had bought some time in order to help Lois get out of her sticky predicament.
A couple of burly men entered the office to remove the furniture. Clark stood to his feet and edged close to the desk protectively. An old bookcase leaned up against one side of desk and would have to be moved first in order to make room for the solid piece of furniture to pass through.
The secretary popped her head in the door and asked, "Mr. Kent? Would you care for some coffee?"
"Um… no thank you. I'm trying to quit," he replied a little bit too quickly. The movers were already out the door with a chair and a couple of boxes, and it wouldn't be long before they'd be back to grab something else.
Ms. Cooper was eyeing him a little bit too long for his comfort. He pulled out his cell phone and placed a fake call to Jimmy. "Yeah, Jimmy. I need you to call… Mr. Pendleton and see if we can set up another time. Sure, I'll be in later this afternoon. Thanks, Jimmy," he ended his impromptu soliloquy as the secretary disappeared through the doorway.
Good! No movers and no Ms. Cooper; now it was time to get Lois out of here. Then he hesitated realizing *who* it would be that would be helping Lois. He'd be meeting her for the first time as Clark Kent, not Kal. It didn't take long for him to run into her in his real identity. Would she recognize him? A little bit of uncertainty made him frown. Why *was* she here? She was supposed to be looking for a job and this was highly unusual behavior for any one, even Lois. Unless she was a criminal, but he dismissed that thought as quickly as it popped into his mind. This was a situation created out of desperation or just plain being caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. Should he run out of here as Clark and return as Kal? Just to be sure?
No! He trusted her; he was going to give her his wallet last night! Trusting her was something he needed to believe in. Moving around to the side of the desk, he knelt down and grasped the edge of the desk to move it.
"Mr. Kent!" Rose Cooper said loudly as she walked into the room once more.
He jumped up quickly to stand in front of the desk and smiled innocently at her.
"Did you lose something?" she asked politely.
"No… just admiring this old desk. Too bad the front panel is damaged, but it will be a nice restoration project for some antique hunter." He hoped that Lois wasn't panicking yet and wanted to let her know that he was trying to help her.
"Not anytime soon. All this junk is going into storage until they can redistribute it."
"Oh, too bad…"
"If you are through with your phone calls, Mr. Kent, I think that…" "Maybe I will have that cup of coffee. If you don't mind…" Clark cleared his throat as he tried to stall for more time. "Uh… dust… and things…" Pulling on his tie, he smiled broadly at her again and sat down in his chair before she could usher him out of the room.
Rose eyed him suspiciously, then left the office.
Clark glanced through the door, but nearly let out an audible groan when he saw the movers walking through the reception area. When was he going to get a break? He lowered his glasses to check on Lois. She was facing away from him, on her hands and knees, peeking around the back side of the desk, wiggling restlessly like one of his barn cats that was about to pounce on some unsuspecting prey.
He tugged on his tie again, feeling a bit warm from the view that Lois was unknowingly providing for him. With cats, their little hindquarters dance was amusing; with Lois, however, her restless movements were an exercise in cardiac control. Tearing his eyes away reluctantly, he scolded himself for letting his attention wander — however pleasant it was — away from the situation.
No, Lois! He couldn't let her out of that hiding place just yet; the movers and Ms. Cooper would be coming back any second and there was no place to go where she wouldn't be seen by either of them except for behind Luthor's new desk. *That* was not an option either, especially if he returned anytime soon.
Opening up his notepad, he scribbled a quick note, then wadded it up into a ball. The two movers lumbered into the room, pulling their dollies behind them. Clark nodded his head at them and after their attention was diverted back to their tasks, he surreptitiously glanced over the top of his glasses to take aim. A quick prayer was offered up with hope that his strategy wouldn't backfire and send her leaping forward into plain view.
He lobbed the ball of paper skillfully, striking Lois on her bottom. Bull's eye! He smothered a grin at her mixed look of surprise, then disgust at being pegged on that part of her anatomy. For some reason, he found her displeasure amusing as she scurried back under the desk, scowling and appearing as though she wanted to strangle him.
Lois crossed her legs and settled back into her hideaway with a frown on her face. Just when she was thinking about making a run for more stable cover, she got hit on the behind with a ball of paper. Leave it to Kent to get her all flustered and spoil whatever chance she had of escaping by being such a horrible shot, or even worse — a litterbug. His habit of interfering in her life was as about as welcome as a run in a pair of brand new nylons.
She threw an irritated glance at the paper wad, irked by its mere existence, as it lay next to her. On impulse, she reached over and picked it up. The movers were creating a lot of noise while they were loading up some other piece of junk, so she took a small risk of creating too much of her own and uncrumpled the paper slowly. Maybe there were some notes on Luthor or some other small bit of information that she could learn about Kent who, as she couldn't let herself forget, was the competition. Leaning out of the shadow of the desk, she thrust the paper into the thin, barely readable light next to the wall.
It merely read:
Sit tight. I'll help you out. CK
She dropped the note down into her lap and blankly stared ahead. Oh, my gosh! How did he know she was here? Was she *that* obvious, or noisy? Unless he saw movement through the broken front of the desk. That had to be it — his chair wasn't that far away and he *was* examining this old piece of junk a few minutes ago. So what was he up to? If he knew she was under the desk, could he have slipped a note to Luthor informing him that an intruder was hiding in his office? The mayor could be calling the police at this very moment. Maybe Kent thought that by pretending to be on her side, she'd let down her guard and then he would call her bluff. Afterwards he and Luthor would stand by laughing and nudging each other in jovial camaraderie while the police cuffed and took her away.
On the other hand thinking back to their conversation earlier, that scenario seemed highly improbable. Although Kent sounded friendly enough when he was talking to the Mayor, there was enough tension in the air to walk on. No, she didn't think that Kent was in cahoots with Luthor.
So, if he was not trying to set her up, then what was his angle? Why would he want to help someone he didn't know? Unless he had a hidden agenda that would be sprung on her once he helped her get out. <He could just be a nice guy.> Not likely — he's a reporter; they're always out for themselves. No, she shouldn't rely on him. She was smarter than that and needed to make her own plans.
Hugging her legs close to her body, she rested her chin on her knees and frowned. Who cared if the man had always been one step ahead of her for the past couple of days? Who cared if he was now trying to help her out of a tiny little predicament she was perfectly capable of handling herself? She most certainly did not. Least important, what did it matter if the sound of his voice sent an unwelcome stream of excitement through her? Absolutely nothing. Peeking out of the crack once more, she wished she could tell him to leave her alone.
Writing a note back to him probably wouldn't work; she didn't see how it could be delivered discreetly. The paper was crumpled and it wouldn't slide easy under the front panel. Sending it through the crack might work, but with her luck, the movers would see it first and her jig would be up. Plus, she needed a pen. What about whispering to him through the same opening? Knowing that she was under here, he was probably staying alert. She'd have to speak loud enough through the wood for him to be able to hear clearly. Once again, someone else might intercept her attempt at communication.
Morse code! Any reporter worth his byline *had* to know Morse code! What if you got trapped in a collapsed building or became shipwrecked in an overturned ocean liner? You'd have to be able to send a message to your rescuers by beating on pipes or sheets of steel. Tapping noises in an office building was common; people were always pounding on keyboards or drumming their pencils. If Kent was as smart as he was supposed to be, he could think of a cover-up for any odd noise that came from her direction.
<You're beginning to rely on him. Why don't you stop arguing with yourself and just let him help?>
Yeah! And let him hold something over her head? It was far better to try to send him away and only allow him help if there was no other choice.
Sounds from the movers were more distant and muted now. Judging from the ripping screech of strapping tape and knives tearing through cardboard, she concluded that they were boxing the discarded books on the old shelves. They'd be there for a few more minutes and might not be able to hear her message to Kent over their noise.
Clark realized that his reasons for staying here were being stretched thin. After his cup of coffee, he would be expected to leave. Ms. Cooper appeared to have been delayed, for several minutes had passed since she'd left the room. Thank goodness for small favors. His latest check on Lois revealed her to be quiet and still, but the expression on her face told him that her mind was racing a mile a minute. What he wouldn't give to get inside her thoughts for just a moment! On second thought, he'd probably be ripped up and down if that scowl she threw his way just now was any clue to what she was thinking.
Maybe he should have signed the note as Kal. She didn't appear like she was going to be very cooperative since she thought she didn't know him. But it was much more amusing this way. Lois had been so insistent last night that she'd know him in his other identity, he was actually looking forward to meeting her as Clark Kent. If he told her who he was now then they would always speculate, and probably argue, about who would have won the bet.
As he continued to watch her, a look of determination crossed her features as she suddenly turned her face towards the inside wall of the desk and began tapping lightly, but very insistently against it with her fingernail. Six series of taps, then she stopped for a moment and began again. It took Clark only a second to comprehend that she was trying to communicate in Morse code. Her message was to the point: Go away.
Okay. Two could play at this game. Dropping his pencil on the floor, he used the motion of picking it up as a cover to lean closer to the desk. He shot back, "No," and let out a tiny cough to cover his answer. Once upright in his chair, he tapped another message out with his pen on the edge of the mayor's desk: You need me.
Gritting her teeth, Lois shot another loathing glare in his general direction while answering back: Do not.
Before Clark could beat out another retort with his writing utensil, Ms. Cooper returned to the room with his Styrofoam cup of coffee. Folding his hands in his lap, he coughed a warning to Lois as he waited for the secretary to approach him. She handed him his beverage, but instead of leaving the room, she leaned against the edge of her boss's desk, folded her arms and stared at him.
Rose Cooper was a formidable woman. Tall and rangy, yet she had a strength and a command about her that did not lessen her femininity. Her straight brown hair was pulled back into a no-nonsense ponytail at the nape of her neck and her squarish face was scrubbed clean of make-up. Her green eyes were sharp and accessing and it was difficult determining her motives. An attractive woman in her own right; but Clark knew she was definitely not his type nor one that he wanted to cross swords with. The only woman for him was three feet away and in threat of getting into trouble, and he was not going to allow that to happen even if he had to stretch the truth a bit.
The movers left with their current load of boxes and the bookcase leaving them alone. She pasted on a smile of nonchalance and confronted him. "Okay, Mr. Kent! Why are you stalling?" Rose's eyes narrowed speculatively as she spoke to him calmly.
"Stalling? I'm not stalling," Clark said smoothly. "I was waiting for this coffee and didn't want to appear rude or ungrateful after requesting it. So after I down this, I'll be on my way."
"If you're sure that's all, Mr. Kent," she returned doubtfully.
Clark rapidly blew tiny puffs of air into his coffee cup. "What else could it be?" He waved his hand towards the door and stared at her innocently. "As soon this cools…"
"I'm going to have to insist that you take it with you. This is not in compliance with our office rules. Now… "
"Actually, I have a confession to make; my cell phone battery died and I had to use the Mayor's phone to check on my, uh… Cheese of the Month shipment. It's two days late," Clark blurted, instantly wincing at the flimsy excuse. "Mold and things… not good," he added for extra measure. "I'm waiting for them to call me back."
Rolling her eyes, she looked at him dubiously, but was alerted to the phone ringing out in the reception area. As she opened her mouth to speak, Clark interrupted her, "You better get that; it might be for me."
Not bothering to reply, Rose walked briskly past him, but not before throwing him another watchdog glare as she marched out of the room. After she disappeared from view, Clark released a breath he wasn't aware he was holding. Turning this attention back to Lois, he said softly, "It's clear. You can come out now."
"Like I'm going to do that while *you're* still here! Didn't you hear me? Go away!" an irritated voice insisted from inside the desk.
"Don't be so stubborn. We don't have much time," he answered while rising to his feet and walked around the desk's side to help her out.
Impeccable timing as always, the movers burst into the room and headed straight for the desk. Clark moved to the side close to the wall and grabbed a corner. "Here, guys, let me help you," he offered and slid the desk away from the wall about two feet, then moved into the space in order to create some cover for Lois.
"That's okay, man. We got it. Can't let you help because of liability regulations," one of the men stated as the other mover grabbed the other end.
Just as they were beginning to hoist it, Clark placed an index finger on the edge and left it there. The men strained and lifted but the piece of furniture was held firmly in place.
"Sure you don't want any help, guys?" Clark innocently asked the red-faced men as they cussed under their breath.
"Naaa… we'll get some help from the dudes down the hall," said the same worker who answered Clark before. Then to the other mover, he commanded, "Go get the toolbox. We might have to take this sucker apart."
At last they were alone and Clark moved quickly to the desk one more time to pull it a few more inches away from the wall. At first he couldn't see Lois, but almost burst out laughing when he found her up near the top of the desk. She had 'walked' up the two inside walls and was crammed near the far upper corners, probably hoping she could be carted out with the desk. He crouched lower so that he could make eye contact with her and coax her out.
Lois felt the desk move, and the darkness from his shadow receded, but the florescent lighting streaming in was no competition for the one thousand megawatt smile that greeted her. The shock of discovery hit her full force and she landed on the floor with a hard thump on her bottom.
He was… he was…
… a god in glasses!!
Lois was thunderstruck; he was absolutely gorgeous! His face came into focus, revealing classically handsome features, smooth olive skin, and impeccably groomed hair — except for an unruly lock that was falling forward as he bent over to assist her. A faint light twinkled in those dark eyes laying beneath a pair of wired-rimmed glasses, completing a look of flawlessness with a touch of imperfection — a tiny clue that he wasn't from another world, but approachable with a hint of vulnerability.
He chuckled softly while taking her hand and helped extract her from the hiding place. The warmth of his smile echoed in his voice as he said softly, "Let's get you out of here." As she looked at him, he stood up and his height seemed to reach to forever as he pulled her effortlessly to her feet. He brushed a strand of sticky cobwebs from her face, his mere touch sending a surprising shiver through her.
Feeling a gentle tug on her hand, Lois mindlessly let herself be led around the desk and across the room. She tried to throttle back the dizzying reaction to the solid grip of his hand on hers. She knew she should be protesting, but her legs moved on their own accord.
In a trance, she followed the broad muscular back so close to her face, spellbound by the ease in which his muscles played beneath his white shirt. Although it seemed like an eternity until they reached the door, the trip ended way too soon. Lois bumped her nose against his shoulder as her legs kept moving when he stopped to peek out into the hallway.
While Clark was leading Lois to the exit, he was still smiling from her reaction. As soon as their eyes had met, the look on her face was priceless. The heavy lashes that shadowed her cheeks had flown up in surprise as her body released its grip on the inside of the desk and dropped down to the floor. Her response surprised him, yet left little doubt that she had recognized him. He was relieved that it happened so soon and glad that all the secrecy concerning his identity was about to be over.
Oh no! His bad luck continued to hold out for he saw Rose Cooper rounding the corner of her reception desk heading straight for them. There wasn't enough time to hide Lois again; they would have to make this work somehow. Only one plan came to mind in the second he had to think about it. More than likely he'd come up with several ways out of this quandary later, but as for now, this was the most logical, if not the most pleasant, solution.
Surprise turned into determination on his face, and he turned around to face Lois. His hands grasped her shoulders, and in one forward motion, she was in his arms. For a brief instant, his eyes softened and a tender smile played on his face before whispering, "Trust me." His words were smothered as his lips covered hers.
Her arms flailed in weak protest against his shoulders before giving up their halfhearted fight. Whatever rational thoughts she owned after emerging from her hideaway were shattered as her subconscious demanded a response to the velvet warmth of his kiss. Time stood still, as she instinctively reacted to the whisper of sensations stirring inside her.
It was a heady rush to feel her body molded against his, her soft curves yielding against his hard chest and her lips sweet upon his. He felt a twinge of guilt when she protested for a couple of seconds at first, but now her arms had stopped objecting and he could swear she was beginning to kiss him back.
The door opened suddenly and Rose Cooper walked into the office. It took Clark a couple of moments to break off the kiss, but he still held her loosely in his arms. Gathering up his scattering wits, he grinned apologetically at the secretary as he swung Lois around to face the exit. "Sorry, Ms. Cooper. She follows me everywhere and can't keep her hands to herself." Ushering Lois out of the door by her elbow, there was a trace of laughter in his voice as he said, "She's leaving now."
"Hey! What is *she* doing here?" Rose demanded loudly as her whole professional demeanor evaporated. "You're not the only guy she can't keep her hands off of!"
Leaning over Lois' shoulder, he murmured in her ear quickly, "Go before she asks more questions." Then for the benefit of Rose, he spoke louder, "Later, my little tornado. Don't forget where we left off, pumpkin." Clark kissed her quickly on the cheek, while propelling her forward. After gaining momentum, he released her and watched her wobble down the hall.
Around the corner, Lois stopped to regain her bearings. Exactly *what* had happened?!! Was she dreaming or had she just been thoroughly kissed by a Greek god? Her lips still tingled from his touch so she couldn't have imagined it.
<Omigod!>, she thought as the blood drained from her face. She had been kissed by Clark Kent, the Daily Planet's reporter! What a kiss it had been! She almost had to hold on the wall as she staggered down the hallway after being sent on her way. Even in remembrance, the intimacy of his lips against hers sang in her veins…
And he had saved her! Like a guardian angel, he had stuck with and protected her even when she had rejected his gesture of assistance, even though they were perfect strangers. He had created a ruse to fool the secretary and now she was walking free. Her feeble attempt to sneak out by crab walking up the sides of the desk was doomed to fail anyway; the desk apparently was so heavy that the workers were going to have to take it apart and then they would have discovered her.
She knew there were reasons she should be suspicious of him but for now that logic had flown out the window. If he had an agenda, wouldn't he have raced after her and stated his demands? Instead, he had let her go and remained behind to field any questions that the secretary threw at him. Not even knowing her name, he choose to shield her from the movers and create a cover for her.
Not only was he drop-dead gorgeous, but a hero in a colorful tie and glasses. She sighed and leaned her head against the wall to prop it up. Bobby Bigmouth had definitely underestimated him when he said that Clark Kent was a great guy; he was… *wonderful*!
Clark's gaze lingered as she grew smaller in his sight down the corridor. He realized their close encounter had left his ears ringing and his knees a bit shaky. His amazement was then shattered by Rose's next comment.
"That's the same woman I caught with my husband last night. Good luck to you, Mr. Kent; you'll need it!"
Lois shoveled another spoonful of Double Fudge Brownie ice cream into her mouth while staring mindlessly at the napkin holder. Creamy Creations Ice Cream Parlor was the first intelligent concept to stick to her brain cells since wandering out of City Hall. The moment she saw the ice cream cone on the store's sign, she knew what she wanted — comfort food and a place to contemplate. She didn't like being caught off guard the way she had been earlier. Now it was time to rationalize and explain why she had totally short- circuited over Clark Kent.
The weak-in-the-knees feeling was fairly easy to resolve — her legs were simply getting used to walking again after being cramped from sitting for a while. Being weak from hunger could have had a part in it also. The second serving of a triple scoop sundae was almost gone — testimony that she had been practically starving.
<That does not explain why you practically melted in his arms when he kissed you.>
It was a fluke. A one-time innate reaction to a handsome face.
<And a pretty wonderful smile too. And he *did* help you out… >
This was insane! What happened to the levelheaded person she was yesterday? One brief encounter and she was reduced to behaving like a star-struck teenager. Surely this was just infatuation on her part and in a little while she'd only remember their kiss as another way out of a sticky situation. Oh, but what a kiss! It all had happened so quickly, yet every detail of his face, every touch of his hands and body were so real to her. The manner in which he confidently took charge as he gathered her in his strong arms took her breath away. Right before their lips met, she could swear the expression on his face was tender and passionate, even a little apologetic as he whispered to her, 'trust me'.
Trust. Now there was a loaded word, but it wasn't really an issue at this point. You had to know someone before you could trust them and the only thing she knew about Clark Kent was that he was an awesome kisser, gorgeous guy and an unsung hero — to her anyway.
What she needed to do was to confront him again. If she let this brew, he would only end up larger than life in her memory. Maybe seeing him again would dispel any schoolgirl crush that was starting to take root. And no one could be *that* good looking! He more than likely had a wart on the end of his nose or was cross-eyed or wore a toupee. Other than the fact that he was a man, there had to be some other flaw she'd missed.
He was going back to Luthor's office at one o'clock for his interview. Since she was still under the guise of being his girlfriend, or groupie, she thought wryly, simply waiting for him afterwards wouldn't arouse too much suspicion.
At the thought of seeing him so soon again, she gulped down the remainder of her ice cream to calm the nervous tingle in the pit of her stomach. This was not a good sign! Lois glanced at the clock on the wall of the ice cream parlor and it read five minutes to one. Oh no! Had she actually been sitting here for over ninety minutes and had eaten two bowls of ice cream? She must have because the bill had been sitting on the table for quite a while and the waitress was beginning to throw annoying looks her way. She'd better get over there fast if she was going to catch him.
After slapping down some bills with a generous tip, she ventured out onto the street and headed for City Hall once again.
As she paused in the same spot in the hallway where she'd rested earlier, Lois hoped that this feeling in her gut wasn't a precursor to getting an ulcer. In the past few days since returning to Metropolis, her stomach nerves had been getting quite a workout. It was only right that she should return to the scene of the kiss… er, crime — Clark Kent seemed to have stolen her sanity for the moment. This had to be a throwback to the days of high school crushes. The last time she'd felt anywhere near this silly about a member of the opposite sex was, let's see… Claude.
Oh no! Not another Claude! Cla-ude! Cla-rk! They even had the first three letters in their names alike. Not another hotshot reporter! How did she manage to get herself in another situation like this again! Why didn't she see this coming? Of course she couldn't see this coming; she was too busy hiding under Luthor's desk and was blindsided by his dazzling smile… muscular body… and warm lips.
But wait. Claude never would have helped her out. He would have exposed her immediately to the mayor and turned the incident into a headline for the next edition of the Metropolis Star. Either that, or he would have followed her out of the building and demanded some kind of payment of gratitude. Clark was so much better looking than *that* poor excuse of a reporter. Clark had more decency in his little finger than Claude Devereaux had in his whole body.
Clark… Lois bit her lip in an attempt to stop her runaway thoughts. Clark. She was thinking of him on a first name basis now. Not 'Kent' any longer, but just Clark. If she was still back at the ice cream parlor, all the napkins in the holder would probably have his name scrawled all over them. This teenage crush she had for him needed to be dealt with soon or there was no telling where her imagination would take her.
So why was she even here? What was she going to say to him? Simply spying on him could work too, *and* save her the embarrassment of blubbering in front of him like an idiot. No, she'd had her fill of spying on people today. With his uncanny investigative skills, she could find herself in an even more mortifying position than this morning's caper. If she was ever going to get her head straight about that Adonis, she had to face him nose to nose… eyeball to eyeball… face to gorgeous face… lip to…
<Stop it, Lois! Or the Ivory Tower's getting cut off for a whole week!>
Okay. I'll try to stop drooling. No promises though.
Her stomach was feeling a little queasy again. Not a nervous kind of queasy, but a jittery, nauseous kind of queasy. Too much ice cream. Her hands were shaking and the sudden need to sit down was almost overwhelming. Knowing her luck, she would find Clark again and would lose her stomach's contents the moment she saw those dark eyes behind his glasses. Not an ideal first official introduction. Maybe if she just took a drink of water and sat down on that bench across the hall, she could will this upset stomach to go away.
Lois sat down and realized that Clark would have to pass this way to leave the building. Since it was already after one o'clock, the interview with Luthor should be taking place now. Perhaps if she closed her eyes for just a few minutes and rested nonchalantly until it was over, when he came out of the office, he would recognize her as the stowaway he'd just rescued. That way if he really wanted to speak to her, it would be his choice and she wouldn't be forcing herself on him. Nothing like reverting back to the days of being conveniently placed in a strategic location to see your dream guy. She was confident that she could come up with an on-the-spot explanation of *why* she was lounging in City Hall in the middle the afternoon. Now that the manner of course was thoroughly planned out, she laced her hand over her stomach, leaned her head against the wall and let her eyelids drop…
This adolescent preoccupation with Clark was going to rob her of her edge if she didn't let it go. And she really needed to get control over her ice cream passion. One triple dip sundae should have been plenty… this sugar high was not going to let her rest easily.
Her head felt heavy as it rested against the wall; she was still so tired from the late night before… Ice cream and teen crushes… wonder what Clark was like in high school. He probably was a jock — captain of the football team… hero in the last seconds of the championship. Bet he had girls fighting over him all the time. Whole cheerleader squads of them. Could've had any of them, except for one… one girl who didn't have time for romance. The lovely raven-haired junior was the center of his universe. The whole school knew of his great love for her and how she'd spurned him for reasons unknown, she thought amusedly.
Lois sighed and settled into her daydream. What a great way to pass the time while she was waiting…
//*She was too busy being dual editor of the school newspaper and yearbook along with trying to get past the consistent score of ninety-eight in all her classes; boys had to take a back seat to accomplishments and grades. Daddy wanted one hundred percent — nothing less would satisfy him. Still the gorgeous senior with the deep chestnut eyes was so tempting. She fancied herself in love with him but couldn't risk disappointing her father… again. He'd tried many times to ask her out, but she politely and coolly rejected his offers time and time again until one day he simply stopped asking. It broke her heart to let him think that she wasn't interested in him, leaving him to believe that he was the victim of unrequited love, but it was necessary in order to achieve her goals.*//
Lois opened her eyes and squinted at the bright lights in the hallway; fantasizing about how it could have been if she and Clark had attended the same high school was distracting her admirably from her queasy stomach.
//*She attended the football games under the facade of being there for the newspaper even though any of her reporters could have covered them. Always there with a paper pad in hand, she scribbled notes constantly during the game, never letting anyone see what was written. It was the only time she allowed herself to indulge in romantic thoughts about him as she secretly doodled their names together on a hidden sheet of paper. Other girls slipped private notes to each other about their guys, but there wasn't any close girlfriends for her — another casualty fallen by the wayside in the pursuit of excellence. So she wrote them to herself.
Each game he could always find her in the same seat located off to the side of the main spectators — she was his inspiration and his driving force to win. She felt his gazes upon her after completing a successful play; he always sought her out even though she only dared to meet his eyes once or twice during the whole season. But she wanted to be there for him, in some small way, even if it was only an unspoken agreement, a silent pact between star- crossed lovers. She was always gone just before the game ended, disappearing into the crowd and leaving her love for him on the field.
Except for the last game. The championship had been won and her hero had saved the day by running for a touchdown as the game clock counted down the final seconds. She smiled at him for the first time as he pulled back from the jubilation of his team's win and sought her out. The lopsided grin on his face that resulted from her acknowledgment was not caused by victory, but was for her — only her.
She sat there long after the crowd had gone off to celebrate their school's championship. She couldn't bear to leave the small stadium and the familiar seat that had been her only companion for the past few weeks. It was the last game of the season, last game for the seniors, and the last time she would ever be able to watch him play, or for that matter, watch him without it having to be in secret. He was graduating in the spring and there would be no more games unless he attended a college nearby. But he was so talented, she doubted he would choose any of the local campuses. She was losing the only connection she had to him and it hurt her deeply.
From now on to the end of the school year, there would only be stolen glances in the hallway, or from behind a constant crowd of his admirers and friends. She would have to distance herself from him in order to rise above her father's expectations — there was no other way.
The night air was damp with a faint mist glowing around the stadium lights, the only noise sounding from the footsteps of the trash collectors walking up and down the aisles as they picked up the remains of popcorn buckets, hot dog wrappers and empty soda cups. Absorbed in her thoughts, she failed to hear the noise of his arrival and was only aware of his presence after he sat down beside her.
He didn't say a word to her, but shrugged off his varsity jacket and placed it gently on her shoulders. For the first time, she became aware of his essence, his own unique smell as his body heat from his coat reached her nostrils in warm waves. She played nervously with her hands for a moment, then turned her head sideways to look at him out of the corner of her eyes.
He was as handsome as she'd ever seen him — his hair was still damp and tousled from his recent shower and he was dressed in a soft blue flannel shirt and jeans. He shifted nervously in his seat and his movements sent the heavenly aroma of Devin aftershave over to blend with the manly smells from his jacket.
Almost overwhelmed by his close presence, she turned away to restudy her hands.
After a few awkward moments, he spoke first, "I didn't expect you to be here… I just came because…"
"I thought you'd be out celebrating… with your friends," she whispered quietly, more to herself than him.
"There's no one I want to party with except…" he said shyly.
"Thanks for letting me use your coat. It's getting a little chilly out here," she interrupted, not wanting him to complete his thought out loud.
"Why are you still here? I'm glad you are, but you always leave early."
"You know that?" she blurted, a little surprised that he kept track of her comings and goings from so far away on the field.
He blushed as he nervously pushed his glasses up higher on his nose. "Yeah. I want to know everything about you."
"This is the last game. I just needed to think."
"About me? I mean, I'm sorry. That just came out," he stuttered.
"Yeah, about you… and all the other seniors who'll be graduating, of course."
He impulsively reached out and turned her face towards him with gentle pressure from the tips of his fingers. "Celebrate with me, please? Let's go grab a bite to eat or drink a soda or just talk… please? I know you don't like me very much, but just this once… then I'll never ask again."
She drew in a deep breath, surprised at his sudden boldness, but secretly thrilled at the sensation his touch was doing to her insides. Yet, mad at herself for contemplating going with him and even more angry because he thought she didn't like him. She should be home studying or reading the dictionary or working on college entrance exams… but somehow she longed for this one last opportunity to be with him, then she could let him go and concentrate on her academic goals.
He flashed a brilliant smile and held out his hand to her. "Okay."
Her small hand slipped sweetly into his large one and he led the way out of the stadium into the misty night.*//
Lois was faintly aware of her body easing into deeper relaxation, then back out again as she fought against dozing off.
//*Big brown eyes peering through tortoise shell glasses glanced sideways at her over his ice cream cone as they sat in his father's station wagon in the back parking lot. She felt a tiny tremor of excitement tickle her insides — how long could she last without giving into her feelings?
Earlier inside the Dairy Queen, he'd held most of the conversation, mostly talking about school, college and football. Most of it didn't register in her brain; she was held captive by his gentle spirit and quiet grace. He was so different from the other boys she'd known, so much more mature, even down to the brightly patterned tie he was wearing…*//
Vaguely feeling her head shift to the side under the need to drift into a blissful wisps of sleep, Lois' imagination kept driving against her brain's desire to shut down and rest…
//*He reached forward to turn on the ignition key, then fumbled with the radio to find a popular rock station. Accidentally brushing her knee while turning the volume down, he seemed to be just as affected by the unexpected contact.
The music played softly and she shivered, partly from the effect of the cold dessert, but mainly from the atmosphere in the vehicle which was suddenly thick with an acute physical awareness of each other. Then she was hit with the awkward revelation of being a love- starved teenager who was about to make out in the back of a Dairy Queen…
What had changed her mind? The firm resolve she'd maintained since the beginning of the school year was rapidly melting away. She reached blindly for the handle of the door; it was time to end this before there was no turning back…
"You cold?" he inquired as his arm reached behind her to rest lightly on her shoulders. Before he let its weight drop completely, he looked at her questioningly, asking her silent permission to touch her.
His kind eyes were too irresistible; the alarm of her situation disappeared as she nodded her head and returned his nervous smile. Nervous, yet thrilled at his progress, he leaned back in his seat and pulled her in closer, then concentrated on finishing his ice cream. He lowered his cone and offered to share with her.
Reaching out with a tentative tongue, she took a lick, but between his shaking hands and her hesitation, she dripped some on his white shirt and bold tie.
"Sorry," she giggled, then reached for the cone in his hand to unwrap the napkin around it in order to wipe up the small drops. He guessed what she was attempting to do and in his clumsy fumbling to help her, they only succeeded in knocking it out of his hand onto floor.
"It's okay. I'll clean it later." He laughed at her embarrassment while stilling her hands as she reached for the cone to retrieve it. Settling back into the circle of his arm, she blushed shyly at him, her mouth twitching nervously as she gauged his reaction to her ungraceful assistance. Smiling at her for a few moments, his face grew serious as he looked deep into her eyes.
"Being with you… like this… feels so right. Can I ask you something?" he whispered in a low voice, his face inching closer to hers.
"Uh huh… " she murmured, knowing in the back of her mind she should pull away, but magic was happening.
"Why did you turn me down all those times I asked you out?" he asked huskily, his fingers playing lightly with the silky strands around her face.
"I can't…" she replied, confused by the sensations his touch was stirring up. "I have my reasons." 'My father…' she remembered, and tried to withdraw from his ever increasing embrace around her shoulders.
He noticed she was struggling against him and released her reluctantly.
"Sorry. Guess I was right all along… you don't care for me the way I do for you. I'll take you home," he said dejectedly and reached for the ignition to start the jeep.
"Not true… I care…" She couldn't bear to hear the hurt in his voice.
She shook her head slowly as stuffed away memories began pounding inside her head as control over her thoughts eased away…
Her father wanted a son — the drive to be the best — the investigation that she'd nailed — and a handsome reporter who doted on her every word…
The image of a woman falling… swirling into a black hole… arms and legs flailing helplessly as the events around her shattered out of her control…
<Can't… afraid… he's going to hurt me… can't let him take what's mine ever again…> Waves of horror and utter betrayal twisted and turned in her memory as the knowledge of what he had done to her came washing over her with a vengeance. Spinning still… whirling into a giant eddy… had to get away from *him*…*//
A gentle shake on her shoulder lifted her up out of bitter- cold desolation and loneliness; the midnight shadows lightened into the image of Clark Kent's face in her mind's eye.
//*"Trust me," he whispered against her lips as his arms wrapped warmly around her waist and he gently eased her down onto the front seat.
<Can't trust! Never again!!> her mind cried as she melted underneath his well-muscled body. <You'll hurt me, just like he did!> Her arms gripped his shoulders tightly as she opened her mouth to allow him to explore hers intimately. White hot sensations shook her as she was drawn higher and higher… into sounds… and lights… shaking still… He pulled away and smiled triumphantly at her. Glasses faded, facial features twisted into a contemptuous sneer… laughing — at her! He wasn't her hero anymore! Claude was back!!*//
Breathing heavily, Lois felt someone shaking her shoulder and then realized that she must have been dreaming. Slowly opening her eyes, she stared into a familiar smiling face laced with concern, complete with a pair of deep, dark eyes…
As her head cleared from the sleep still clouding her thoughts, it took Lois a moment to recognize the person standing in front of her. His face was familiar to her but the last time she'd seen him in person was a long time ago at a bachelor's auction stage. There was no mistaking his identity as she finally placed a name to his face. It wasn't Claude or Clark or a teenage hero. Her eyes followed his actions as Mayor Lex Luthor sat down next to her on the bench.
"Are you okay?" he asked with a pique of interest in his eyes. "It appeared you were having quite a dream."
"Mayor? Mayor, I was… um, waiting for someone and must have fallen asleep," she said thoughtfully, then became fully alert as she remembered that Clark was supposed to pass this way. Was the interview over? She couldn't see him now, not after that horrible dream! But what if he had seen her and hadn't even bothered to talk to her?
"Did I miss him? Is he gone?" she directed at Luthor. "He was supposed to be with you."
"Yes? Who are you talking about?"
"Clark Kent. Is he still here?"
"As a matter of fact, no," he answered. "How do you know he's suppose to be here? And who are you?"
"I'm Lois Lane, a reporter. And I'm suppose to know things; it's what we do," she commented offhandedly while wondering about Clark's whereabouts. It then dawned on her that part of her investigation was sitting next to her, looking very interested in striking up a conversation. She needed to proceed carefully and then maybe learn something about Lex Luthor.
"Ah! I see… " he replied, now totally curious about the beautiful young woman who he conveniently stumbled upon sleeping in his hallway. Now that she was awake, and in person, her attitude was most alluring to him.
He'd left his office angry that Kent hadn't bothered to show and was now on his way to check on his other operations down on Hobb's Bay. The men he sent over to Toni Baines condominium should have retrieved her piece of Element X by now, and he was anxious to observe it first hand. But now on second thought, it'd been hasty to decide to go over to the warehouse in the daytime. It would be more prudent to wait until later this evening after the Orchid Ball was over. The hour would be late, but after his announcement this evening, he was sure he'd still be basking in the attention he would receive from the media and his other admirers and would never be able to go to sleep.
But for now, this lovely creature had captured his attention and he wanted to know more about her. Intelligence had replaced the confusion and fear in her engaging brown eyes. When he'd first observed her sleeping on the bench, she was moving about in agitated manner, obviously disturbed by some thoughts or nightmare. He almost passed her by and called security to have her removed but, upon closer inspection had recognized her and decided to attend to the matter personally.
So he shook her shoulder lightly at first, then when she started murmuring the almost unintelligible words, 'can't… trust', he was curious to know what was troubling her so much.
Now that she was awake, she seemed oblivious to his power and position, in spite of the fact that she had recognized him. And to top it off, she was looking for Clark Kent, the reporter who had the gall to stand him up for an interview. He needed to determine what their connection was to each other.
"Of course, Miss Lane, is it?" he recalled, presenting her with his most charming smile. "Would you care to come to my office? Mr. Kent has not shown up for his appointment and perhaps you may care to wait there for him."
Lois almost panicked; talking to Luthor one-on-one was a perfect opportunity for her, but did she want to chance running into Clark in Luthor's office? The dream had left her more confused than when she'd arrived back at City Hall — even seeing Claude's face in her memory still had her shaking slightly.
What she did know was that she didn't want to face him yet — not until she had sorted out this dream and its implications. But her emotions were proving nothing but trouble to her, and if she missed this chance to be in Luthor's office *invited*, this time, well, she deserved her current position of unemployment. If anything, that dream had set her straight and she needed to concentrate on her career instead of smooth, handsome reporters.
"I'd love to, Mayor. I apologize for falling asleep in your hallway, but I wasn't feeling the best and felt the need to rest for a moment."
"A little under the weather? That would explain why a vibrant young woman like yourself could fall asleep in the early afternoon. Perhaps I can send for some relaxing tea for you and then we can talk," he said, standing up. Lois followed his actions and stepped in front of him upon his polite gesture to proceed ahead of him.
While passing by the reception area, Luthor spoke to a woman searching through a file cabinet. "Ms. Slatten, could you bring some tea for Miss Lane and a club soda for myself? Rose is out to lunch and I would appreciate it if someone were to fill in for her today. If Clark Kent shows up, send him in right away."
Inside the office, Lois noted that Luthor addressed the assistant with a different name. It was a tiny relief that Ms. Cooper wasn't lurking around to recognize her. She didn't want Luthor finding out that she had been caught kissing Clark Kent in his office; that could be embarrassing. Unless he knew already and was merely buttering her up before springing the fact she was caught red-handed making out in City Hall. Maybe this wasn't such a grand idea after all.
"You were waiting for Mr. Kent; do you work with him?" Luthor probed.
"He's collaborated with me once…" Lois replied, noting that it was actually true. Clark had worked to get her out of her quandary, maybe not with her full cooperation, but they *did* work together. "And I did know that he had an appointment with you… "
"So you are a reporter with the Daily Planet then?"
Lois was starting to feel cornered and wondered what Luthor's agenda was in his direct questioning. Could he mistrust her simply because she knew Kent? There had definitely been tension between the two of them earlier.
If she lied to him at this point, it could ruin any trust he had for her later. That is, if she was actually was on to something after finding out that a limo was rented in his secretary's name. She needed to be straight with him now, at least as much as she could get away with.
"Mr. Luthor… " she began, but was interrupted.
"Lex, call me Lex," he interjected. "May I call you Lois?"
"You can call me Ms. Lane. I believe that is much more professional; don't you agree?" She smiled politely at him but did not allow him to answer. "You're asking about my position as a reporter. I've recently returned to Metropolis and at the moment I do not work for any particular paper, although I have spoken with the Daily Planet's editor on a few occasions and we are currently working out a deal."
"Ah! I see! So are you working with Clark Kent on a trial basis or is this a ongoing partnership now? You could undoubtedly learn much from a reporter of his caliber."
"Nothing like that, Mayor. I prefer to work alone. I have no desire to work with a partner — even if he has twenty Kerths and Pulitzer," she answered a bit defensively.
So she was fiery, independent and beautiful… Squashing a women's independence was always the high point of his relationships and this woman would be worthy of a challenge. With Toni Baines out of the picture — permanently now — he was ready to pursue another interest. And this feisty beauty just might fit the order.
It seemed that Kent had excellent taste in women. As he'd watched the surveillance tapes taken of them earlier, he'd noted that the high security cameras recently installed in his office had already paid for themselves. It was obvious Lois Lane had been planted by Kent in an attempt to dig up some dirt on his administration. He had not just dropped by out of curiosity, but to make sure that his partner found her way out of his office without being discovered and had been clearly defensive in guarding the desk that Lois Lane had been hiding under. Kent had been extremely reluctant to leave earlier — his excuse of having to clear his schedule so he could stay in the office was flimsy to say the least. But it was worth leaving him alone to later follow his private actions on the video tapes.
And that kiss he'd observed between the two of them was a very good indication that there was more to the relationship than simply sharing the same profession. The office door was closed and they couldn't have seen his secretary returning to interrupt their little t^te- .-t^te. Her honesty about whether she worked alone or with Kent was yet to be determined, but he was looking forward to discovering the truth about their relationship in the games ahead.
Speaking of games, it was time to proceed with the next step. Instead of providing Kent with false information like he'd originally planned, perhaps it would be better to divide and conquer. If there was any truth behind that kiss he observed on his video, division by way of a little professional competition could be a good place to start. After tomorrow, the whole world would know of his future plans and any decision he made now would be water under the bridge. Altering his plans by a few hours shouldn't make much of a difference to the overall scheme of things.
"Seeing that you are here and Mr. Kent is not, there are a few important matters I care to discuss with a member of the press before tonight's Orchid Ball. I had originally planned to wait to make my announcement; but after conversing with him this morning, I changed my mind."
"Important announcement? Why would you want to release any vital news early?"
"Oh, soften the blow perhaps… It may not be the news that the city is prepared for. But the second half of my news later tonight may change some citizens' minds."
"Now you have my interest, mayor. So are you offering me an exclusive?"
"On two conditions: One — that you'll only take it to the Daily Planet; I don't want a second-rate rag to get hold of this; and two — that you will save a dance for me tonight."
Wary of his motives but feeling thrilled at this choice opportunity to *finally* get the scoop that she'd been waiting for, she decided to play along. "What about Kent? Were those the conditions you were going to place on him? I believe you would create quite a stir at your gala event if he complied with your second request."
A smile almost reached Luthor's eyes this time as he observed her coy expression. "Yes, Miss Lane. I'm sure many eyebrows would be raised, but *we* would paint a much prettier picture on the dance floor, don't you think?"
"You'll never know unless I get an invitation first," she laughed softly to cover the annoyance at his assumption that she even cared to be in the same room with him much less dancing in his arms.
"I'll personally see that your name is at the top of the guest list tonight, Lois," Lex responded immediately as he leaned forward in his chair, his eyes darkening with interest.
Luthor's intense gaze upon her was beginning to making her squirm, but she hid it admirably as she held his stare. An unspoken challenge filled the air and she was determined not to back down. If she flinched or wavered in anyway, her reputation as a reporter in the Mayor's eye would be weakened and her shot at gaining his respect, and exclusive press release, could be lost.
Since her fiasco at the Metropolis Star a few months ago, she was more in tune to others' character and motives. Some people weren't who they seemed to be, and thanks to the lesson provided by Claude, she discerned that Lex Luthor was one of them. The undercurrent of hostility between Clark and Luthor that she had felt earlier, even while out of sight under the desk, was returning to her now. She'd bet her first Kerth award that Luthor was a dangerous individual, not to be given any ounce of trust. Her guard needed to be kept up around him, that was for sure.
Seeing that this meeting was turning into a flirting session, it was time to establish her no- nonsense approach with him as a reporter.
"Enough 'dancing' around the issue, Mr. Luthor," she smiled. "I cannot guarantee that the Daily Planet will print anything that I write since I'm not officially employed with them at the moment. But *if* your announcement is as newsworthy as *you* believe it to be, then I don't foresee a problem. As I said before, Perry White and I have an agreement and I'm confident that he'll follow through. If by some chance he doesn't want to go to print, then it's your call."
Lifting her chin as a signal that she was waiting for his response, she smiled confidently at him even though her whole body felt like it was sitting on pins and needles. An exclusive — and a potentially important announcement at that — was within reach. Just what she needed to fulfill Perry White's condition of employment, the bonus being that she'd have scooped Kent in the process. It wasn't her problem that he failed to show up for his appointment: his loss — her gain. Mr. White had told her last night that he needed his reporters to be there first and this was exactly what she was doing — following *his* orders.
"Very well, Lois. I will trust that your limited association with Kent indicates that you have the skills necessary to complete the job satisfactorily. I know you wouldn't want to risk your career as a journalist by taking this to the highest bidder… so it's yours. Get your little pad and pencil and take notes — because Metropolis is about to get a shock."
Rummaging through her purse, she informed Luthor, "Oh, I don't do notes; you don't mind if I tape our session? Writing notes is so distracting and I prefer to be able to carry on a conversation — wouldn't want to miss a single word." Lois placed the tiny tape player on the desk then smiled assuredly at him once again. Although there were threatening undertones in his last statement, she could feel her confidence growing by the second.
"Shocking news, Mayor?" Lois questioned. "That's either bad news for Metropolis or arrogance talking. Which is it?"
Luthor looked away and reached for a cigar, his mouth quirking with amusement at her bluntness. The wide-eyed innocence was merely a smokescreen for the quick wit and sharp intelligence that was becoming more evident as he continued to converse with her.
"Very well, Lois," he finally answered after savoring the cigar's aromatic smell. "I'll withhold any predictions in regard to this announcement until *after* it's been released. It's been a well-known fact that I come from a business background. I had given up my CEO position at my thriving company, Lexco, to campaign for the office of mayor when the city was drowning in debt three years ago. During my tenure as mayor of the city, I have turned Metropolis' books around completely — from red to black — and the city is beginning to thrive once again. You see these renovations? They never would have been possible even a year ago, but now they are becoming a reality. Simply put, I feel my work is coming to a close and my job is almost complete."
"My announcement is basically simple: I will not be running for reelection as expected. My career as a politician is over once this term ends, and I'll be going back to my first love as a businessman and entrepreneur."
"No more politics, Mayor?" Lois asked, her jaw dropping open slightly. "It's been predicted that you would have quite a promising career ahead of you. Do you really want to give up that future for a white-collar job in a fancy office? Although," she paused, glancing at her surroundings. "It appears as though plush accommodations are high on your list of priorities."
"Brilliant observation, Lois," Lex answered, amusedly. "A woman who is not afraid to speak her mind regardless of whose company she's in."
"Excuse me, *Mayor*," she replied, noting that this was the second time he had ignored her request to address her more formally. "That's a bad habit of mine — sometimes jumping to conclusions before thinking. I'll try to restrain myself."
"True, I enjoy the finer things in life, but that is not a reason to return to being in business for myself." Luthor responded, lifting an eyebrow at her last remark. "What goals I have set out to achieve, I have accomplished. My work is done." How true it was in more than one sense. In his pockets were many key officials who'd be extremely beneficial to his new business endeavor — one of the many perks he'd discovered early on in his term. He didn't have to be mayor to control the city of Metropolis — his loyal contacts were in place, being his eyes and ears in all areas of city business. He was drawn out of his thoughts as he felt the heat from a pair of sharp and assessing eyes.
"So *Mr. Luthor*," she enunciated firmly once his attention had returned. "Was that the announcement which is going to bring Metropolis to its knees, or is there more?" she asked casually, then pasted on a smile of nonchalance.
Lex smiled back automatically. Her tone was playful, but the meaning was not. This delicate beauty had a hard edge to her that was becoming more of a temptation for him to soften once she was under his spell. The harder this woman challenged him, the more he wanted her. Better to play with her little reporter games for now.
"That is all for now, Lois," he replied, smiling still as he leaned back in his chair and folded his arms across his chest. "My plans for the future *and* this great city of Metropolis will be revealed later tonight at the ball. Please let it be known that this *will* have an important impact on the city and the surrounding areas and that this will *not* be a disappointment, as you will see tonight."
Oh no! She'd gone too far in her eagerness and was practically turning this into a sling fest of insults. In spite of the fact that she distrusted the man, there was no reason to wear her feelings on her sleeves. Chalk this up as a reporter's lesson in using tact — undoubtedly not one of her strong points — her cockiness was threatening to cloud her judgment. Hopefully, she could turn this session from its hostile atmosphere into something a bit more professional — maybe by way of a little sympathy.
"Please excuse my mood, mayor. It seems like I woke up on the wrong side of the bench earlier…" Grimacing slightly, she continued, "And my stomach is still not up to par."
A look of concern furrowed Luthor's brow as he reached for his intercom and he spoke without waiting for an answer. "I requested hot tea and a club soda. Are they on their way?"
"Yes, Mayor," a feminine voice answered. "Right away."
Turning his attention back to Lois, he said soothingly, "I have been a poor host. I should have remembered that you were feeling ill; you were awfully agitated in your sleep."
"It was just a weird dream, that's all," she answered, her face burning as she recalled final seconds of her nightmare and the horrifying way that Clark's face had morphed into Claude's. Shoving that image aside for the time, she added, "I need to be more prudent with my ice cream binges."
The door to the office opened and a couple of seconds later, a steaming cup of tea was placed in front of her. Lois glanced up and met the eyes of Rose Cooper — Bobby's wife! No wonder her voice had sounded so familiar to her earlier that morning. During her escape, she had been so dazzled by Clark's kiss that she couldn't see through the stars and fireworks to recognize her own mother, much less a woman she'd only met briefly the night before.
But unlike last night, the expression in Rose's green eyes was calm and professional as she smiled politely at both Luthor and herself. The eruption that Lois expected, didn't come; instead her eyes flashed a gentle but firm warning to stay quiet. The interaction between them was brief, but Lois understood her completely. She couldn't tell whether Rose didn't want Luthor to know that she recognized her or if it was more elemental, like not acting unprofessional in front of her boss, but after the door closed, she sighed an inaudible breath of relief.
The tea was a perfect temperature and Lois had downed over half of the contents before realizing that Luthor was watching her intently, his raking gaze making her feel like a ornamental goldfish in a tiny bowl.
"I take it that the tea has hit the spot?" he asked, as a thin-lipped smile spread across his face.
The warmth that the tea had left in her insides grew cold as she realized that there was nothing she'd like better than to pour the rest of it over his head. Being appraised as though she were a prize cow was really starting to annoy her and if she didn't get out of here soon, she was going to let him have it with both barrels blazing. But she had to hold it together; as long as she was investigating him, it might be prudent to act civil toward him.
Honestly, she couldn't see what all the fuss was about. Sure, he was a handsome man, in his own right, especially in light of his power and position. It was possible that *some* women would get all ga-ga eyed over him. But as for Luthor holding Metropolis' most eligible bachelor title, the city was most certainly short-sighted when it came to her men. Not that there was anything wrong with being short-sighted; sometimes glasses could be awfully sexy on the right man and… well, never mind. His eyes were bordering on being beady, his chin jutted out way too far and the way he pursed his lips to make a point was… almost too — feminine, in a way.
"Yes, the tea is very good," she confirmed, taking another sip. "But mayor, if I'm going to pitch this to my editor in order to make the evening edition, I need to be going."
"I imagine I have taken up enough of your time, Lois; but please, you must save at least a couple of dances for me tonight at the White Orchid Ball. I'm so looking forward to it," he crooned while rising from his seat.
"Yes, Mayor," she emphasized his title once again, but decided to stick to the topic of the news article. "I'll make sure Metropolis is fully anticipating your announcement tonight. Thank you for the exclusive and the tea." She stuck out her hand to shake his pro-offered one, still icy cold from his drink glass, and to her disgust, he drew it up to his lips for a lingering kiss.
Not the most thrilling experience in her life; the only comfort she drew from it was that it was a departing gesture and not in greeting.
He released her hand and sighed openly at her. "It truly has been my pleasure, Lois. Until tonight."
Once outside his office, Lois wiped her hand on the back of her pants, then allowed the thrill of victory to sing inside her. The interview was finished, and she could now go to Perry White in confidence! Just let him turn her down now!
Lois stood nervously outside Perry White's door for the fourth time in two days. Although she was ninety-nine percent positive that *this* was the news article that would finally get her hired, it was that one percent which was wrecking havoc with her one remaining nerve. The rest of them had been shattered while walking through the bullpen a few minutes earlier as she kept waiting to run into Clark Kent.
She glanced down at the copy of her news release. The entire time that she was writing it, the nervous feelings about seeing Clark Kent had returned. When she was hired, she would have to face him everyday and although she was certain that she wouldn't always feel this giddy around him, it was the initial confrontation that had her climbing the walls.
How was she going to face him again? It wasn't that she'd done anything wrong — unless you count being caught illegally in a city official's office, but who was counting now. She was secretly hoping that when they were formally introduced that Clark wouldn't recognize her as the sneaky individual that he aided and abetted.
Now would be the perfect time for a drastic makeover. Being a blond or maybe a redhead might confuse him into thinking that she was a different person. A little pampering at an upscale salon could be just the thing she needed to set her mind straight once more *and* celebrate being hired at the Daily Planet.
Once she was finished here, she'd have to put some serious thought into changing her appearance. If Kal could have a disguise, then so could she. The only thing that Clark Kent knew about her was that she was a shoulder length haired brunette who he caught hiding under the mayor's desk. He might know her lips intimately, but she wasn't about to be caught kissing anyone she worked with in the future ever again.
The door she was leaning against opened suddenly and Lois stared once again into the face of Perry White, Editor in Chief of the Daily Planet.
"Come in, Lois," he drawled, "I've been expecting you."
"Expecting me?" Lois replied in surprise.
The big burly editor laughed out loud. "Sure, darlin'! I knew you'd be back the moment I saw your face last night. You looked like a hound dog sniffing out its first rabbit and I knew you weren't about to give up. So whatcha got for me today?"
Lois began to relax as the editor set her to ease with his words. "Oh! Nothing much," she answered confidently thrusting the paper into Perry's hand. "Just an exclusive."
He opened up the folder and within seconds of reading it, let out a big shout. "Well, bless my blue suede shoes! This is fantastic! How did you manage an exclusive from the mayor?"
"Let's say I was in the right place at the right time…"
"I don't care if you had to hang from the ceiling… so Luthor's not running for office again?"
"Nope, *and* he'll have more to say about his future plans at the White Orchid Ball tonight. He's planning an even bigger announcement then." Her face grew stern as she began to instruct him in a serious voice. "Now this *has* to go to print in the evening edition. Did I make it? Do we have to stop the presses?"
"Are you trying to tell me how to run *my* newspaper?" Perry bellowed, then immediately laughed at her terrified expression. "Take it easy darlin'; I'm just funnin' with ya! I tend to do that when one of my reporters come through in a big way for me. Don't worry about the deadline! That's why they paid me big peanuts around here — to make the decisions I feel are necessary."
"So Mr. White… I mean Perry…" Lois started hopefully, remembering that he gave her permission to address him by his first name the night before. "Does this mean that I'm hired?"
"You're darn tootin' that means you've got the job — welcome to the Daily Planet," he grinned broadly and stuck out his hand in congratulations.
Lois shook his big hand in triumph as a flurry of emotions washed over her. Relief, excitement, and even a bit of apprehension, but mostly she felt joy at finally landing her dream job.
"Now you scoot on out of here and report back first thing in the morning. You deserve the afternoon off before I really put you to work. Tomorrow, we'll get you to fill out some papers, get settled and I'll have someone available to show you the ropes around here."
"Um… did I mention that I have a personal invitation from the Mayor to attend tonight's ball? I'll be there to catch the second part of his announcement and should have a follow- up for you in the morning, *plus* I'll be here on time tomorrow," she added with a gleam in her eye.
"Atta girl! That's the spirit! Now git!" he grinned, then with a wave of his hand, reached to pick up the phone to call the press room.
Lois left the office and couldn't shut the door fast enough before dancing a little victory jig. She whirled around one more time and saw Cat Grant staring at her from across the room. Since Perry hadn't officially announced her employment to the newsroom, she couldn't trust herself not to gloat in front of her rival yet. There would be time for that — later.
So she waved happily at a confused Cat, then set out for the elevators.
The brightly clad superhero lost a little altitude as he mulled over this morning's events, then before flying into some trees, regained his lost elevation. It was early evening now and he couldn't believe how fast the day had flown by. He'd left Luthor's office after retrieving his coat jacket from the back of the chair. He longed to race after Lois after sending her on her way, but felt the need to watch the secretary for a few minutes longer.
On his way back to the Daily Planet, via Superman skyways, he had spotted from the air several emergency vehicles and decided to investigate. After getting past the shocked expressions on the EMT's and policemen's faces — this was only his second public appearance — he'd been informed that there had been an car explosion. A federal prison transport had been planted with a bomb and all personal, two guards and a prisoner, had been killed. After helping douse the remaining flames from the destroyed car, he had learned that the prisoner had been Dr. Baines.
Clark couldn't help the growing suspicion that Luthor had his hand in this tragedy somehow. His irregular behavior of visiting Baines in the city jail that morning had aroused his underlying mistrust of the man. Now with the death of the scientist, there was something more solid to base his intuition on. No actual facts yet, just the increasingly cold chill in the pit of his stomach whenever he thought of the mayor.
Then Superman activities had kept him wrapped up for the rest of the afternoon causing him to miss his interview with Luthor. A large sailboat had come loose from its moorings and threatened some school children who were on a field trip as they sailed in a half a dozen dinghies. A brief thunderstorm had blown up quickly and caused straight line winds to free the 35-foot boat that was poorly tied up. The children had been terrified to see a massive boat barreling down on them, and had difficulty handling their own small boats with the sudden wind, so getting out of the way was not so easy. A few of them had fallen out their boats when the winds hit, but their life jackets kept them floating while Clark secured the wind-tossed vessel.
Once the children were rescued, Clark had found it hard to leave them. They'd been so frightened from their ordeal and then inquisitive upon seeing the brand new superhero that he'd stuck around under an enclosed picnic table area to answer their questions about him. It had seemed like ages since he first made his appearance as Superman yesterday at EPRAD, but the children were naturally curious and extremely excited to be one of the first to be in contact with him.
After answering a barrage of questions about his abilities — the most popular inquiry wondering exactly how much strength he had — it had been perfectly natural to show them. He held a rope looped around his pinkie finger while the whole class of thirteen and fourteen year olds pulled against him in a rowdy game of tug-of-war. After storm had passed, the wind died, so Clark happily told them get back in their boats, and with his super breath, blew them around the lake for sailboat races. Clark felt immensely gratified seeing the laughter of a fun filled afternoon replacing fear in their eyes.
He reluctantly bade them good-bye, receiving gifts of hugs and a spare candy bar or two from his new admirers. A small crowd had formed, so Clark was glad for the cover. He would be able to write this up for the Daily Planet later, and another Superman article so soon after his first would sit well in his editor's eyes.
Now that the excitement with the kids was over, this morning's events were starting to play again in his mind. It all seemed to be jumbled between the mental sparring with Luthor, the visit with Dr. Baines at the City Jail, followed by finding Lois hiding in the mayor's office and then that wonderful kiss they shared to cover her being there.
But mostly he was excited, yet still a tiny bit scared that Lois now knew he was Kal. What other reason would there be for her shocked reaction upon seeing him earlier? She'd been utterly speechless even before he kissed her in front of the secretary.
Rose's remark about Lois being caught with her husband last night disturbed him also. What was her relationship to Luthor and Rose's husband? He hated to think that she was involved with either of them personally. No, there had to a logical explanation for both instances. It was better to wait and see instead of letting his imagination grow wild.
He *loved* Lois and therefore trusted her. What he should be more worried about was how she was going to react to the truth that it was in fact, *Kal*, who had kissed her that morning. He had promised her that there would be no romantic involvement between the two of them and now he had gone back on his word. Well, technically he'd broken his vow, but he had the strong argument for him that it was in order to protect her. Surely, she would see it that way…
Hopefully, they'd be able to sort everything out when they talked again. He was relieved that she knew his real name and that all the secrecy was out in the open. Almost… being in love with her would still need to stay hidden for a while until she was ready to hear it. Still, there was that tiny optimist lurking in the back of his mind that reminded him that she *was* beginning to kiss him back right before they were interrupted. A guy could hope, could he?
But he supposed that it was time to head back to the Daily Planet and file his report, after all, he hadn't been there since early morning. A conscious effort would have to be made to spend most of his working time there and use his powers to the greatest advantage if he was going to start helping as Superman. Juggling the two jobs wasn't going to be easy, he sighed.
He landed on the roof by the stairwell and changed back into his regular clothes, then took the stairs down to his floor. The bullpen was nearly empty, but the luring smell of fresh coffee pulled him over to the break area. Someone from the night crew must have made a fresh pot to help them make it through their shift. He caught a glimpse of the front page of the evening edition laying next to the coffee pot. It read: Luthor NOT To Run For Reelection. Below it in smaller print it read, Future Plans To be Revealed Tonight. It wasn't the headline that grabbed him but the smaller printed byline underneath it which read — Lois Lane.
Lois? Could it possibly be *his* Lois? It certainly explained the questions he'd had for the last couple of days — like why she'd been in this section of the city yesterday to run conveniently into each other and why she wanted to return here after he'd become Superman. Then, after they had wrestled over his wallet — and information about his real identity — in the alley, she'd acted strangely when he hinted to her about his occupation as an investigative reporter. No wonder! She was one herself!
Clark caught a glance at his reflection in the aluminum casing of the coffee and discovered he was grinning broadly at his epiphany. Smiling still, he placed the paper down on the table as more light bulbs began going off inside his head. Lois, his beautiful Lois, was an investigative reporter. A reporter who, he thought with a great deal of relief, had the scoop of the century — the inside story on the Miracle Man turned Superman — and did nothing about it. She had been wearing her little feet out running around the city of Metropolis looking for a job — or now he realized, a story to land a job — and still kept his secret. His trust in her had been well placed and he felt a new rush of love well up inside of him. Could it be possible that they were going to work side by side at the Daily Planet? This was fantastic!
His missed interview had provided Lois with the opportunity she needed to get a front page headline and hopefully, a new job here at the Daily Planet. Yet, he shuddered at the thought of Lois and Luthor alone in the same room without him to protect her.
His immediate impulse was to fly over to her apartment and see her, but first he had to make sure that this was in fact, the same Lois. Plus, he didn't want to spoil her news.
Well, it looked like that unwanted invitation he had stuffed away in his desk drawer was going to come in handy. It was extremely possible that she would be at Luthor's ball to follow up on his announcement and her new story. And he had to keep his eye on her just in case trouble decided to fall in her lap again. Luthor definitely bore watching after Dr. Baines' death this morning.
It was time to get cleaned up, dust off the ol' tux and put on his dress shoes, because maybe with a little luck, he'd be dancing with Lois tonight.
Filling her lungs deeply with the crisp night air after stepping out of her taxi, Lois sighed happily as she made her way to the entrance of the Lexor Hotel. What a great way to celebrate her new job! She still couldn't believe that her first article for the Daily Planet was a headline exclusive.
Lois ignored the proffered arm of her would-be escort and marched ahead briskly, leaving the bewildered usher shaking his head at her rejection. She proceeded quickly into the waiting elevator and smiled at him as the door closed in his face.
Good! She was rid of that potential pest. Complimentary dates were about as appealing as day-old garbage. Although she liked coming to this very public social event without a token man on her arm, she briefly wished she had one if only to help fend off Luthor in the coming evening. On second thought, the date would probably prove to be as irritating as Luthor was this afternoon, so she was better off coming alone.
The elevator doors clanged and Lois was transposed into a wonderland of twinkling lights, dreamy orchestra music and the soft sounds of murmuring voices. Thousands of tiny lights glowed on the high ceiling, blending seamlessly with the real stars that shone brightly through the high glass windows. White orchid centerpieces adorned each table with dancing flames from candles nestled in the midst of the fragrant flowers.
Luthor had orchestrated a beautiful and quite an expensive production tonight. She suspected that the funds for this extravagant event came from his own pockets. The city would never fund a lavish affair such as this.
The attendant located her name on the guests list, as Luthor had, indeed, included her as he had promised. She gracefully snatched a glass of champagne from a waiter's tray as one buzzed by and stepped further into the grand ballroom.
Feeling more rested than she had been in days, she was glad that she had spent the majority of the afternoon taking a long nap and pampering herself. The last few days had left her exhausted mentally and physically and she was refreshed from her well-needed rest. It had been wonderful to curl up on her sofa with a blanket and some Double Fudge Crunch bars to watch the Ivory Tower as it aired instead of viewing it from an overused video tape. She had fallen asleep during the show; luckily, it was one of those non- eventful days on the soap opera, mostly filler scenes and second rate plot lines.
Her hand strayed to the soft ringlets lightly brushing her almost bare shoulders. It was so tempting to cut it in the hope that Clark Kent wouldn't recognize her, but she enjoyed her long hair. Besides, it wasn't like she needed a disguise for a story. *That* could be a possibility in the future, but she wasn't going to cut her hair to hide from a man — even a great looking one like Clark. Instead, she'd gone to a beauty salon and had them sweep it up into a formal style with some loose strands to soften the look. It was a perfect compliment to her off-shoulder, dark blue satin dress.
She would deal with explaining herself *when* she ran into him again. It was inevitable now… because she *worked* with him. What a glorious thought! Working at the Daily Planet! 'Hello, my name is Lois Lane and I work for the Daily Planet. Would you like to give a quote on…' 'Lois Lane, Daily Planet…'
She felt a tap on her shoulder and turned around to face Lex Luthor. "Lois Lane, Daily Planet?"
Oh no! Did she actually voice that aloud? Her cheeks grew warm from embarrassment as she felt his eyes bore into hers.
"So I take it, it's official now?"
Collecting herself quickly, she smiled automatically and answered back, "Just technicalities really, but yes, I start officially tomorrow."
"You look…" Lex clicked his tongue in admiration. "Absolutely breathtaking, Lois Lane."
"Thank you," she replied briskly, then immediately asked, "What time is your big announcement taking place? The city awaits, if I may remind you."
"Ah! Ever the eager reporter! Later, my dear, but first let us enjoy this little affair I've thrown together." His face lifted in satisfaction as he surveyed the production his vision had created.
"Just thrown together, Mayor?" Lois inquired, unaware that a small smile of enchantment had touched her lips as she gazed around the room. "I hardly think so. This is almost magical."
"What good is all this magic if there is no one to share it with? Would you care to dance? You did promise this afternoon," he said smoothly, and for an instant, a bit of wistfulness stole into his expression as he offered her his hand.
Thinking that she should get this obligatory favor over with now so she could enjoy the rest of the evening, she tentatively placed her hand in his. Surely a man with his reputation with the ladies would have his dance card filled up for the night. Luthor didn't seem quite so creepy as he did earlier — perhaps it was the mood of the evening, or his tux. There was nothing quite as appealing as a handsome man in a well-cut tux — although Luthor didn't quite fit the bill of 'handsome' in her eyes. She supposed it had to be the formal wear and the ambiance of the ballroom that was temporarily increasing her tolerance of him.
His arm circled her waist and drew her in close, too close for her own personal comfort. Her flesh prickled slightly at his touch and she immediately regretted complying with his invitation to dance. Tux or no tux, this man made her skin crawl and she didn't like it or him. Where was it a law that said you had to have concrete reasons for not liking someone? But this was only for a song, a dance and a quick trip around the floor, she reminded herself.
"So, Lois? Thank you for your attention on the announcement in the paper this afternoon. My office received many more RVSP's since it had come out. Well done, my dear."
"Shouldn't those people have responded to your invitation sooner than the afternoon of the affair? That's hardly any consideration given to you to get ready for something of this nature."
"We anticipated and are well prepared. Don't tell me that's why you didn't bring along your Mr. Kent? I'd think two young lovers like yourselves would enjoy a romantic evening like this…" he gazed steadily above her head, not meeting her eyes.
Lovers? He knows. How could he have known about that kiss in his office earlier that day? Lois bit her lower lip and looked down at their joined hands as she tried to avoid his gaze.
"How did you find that out?" she asked.
"Let's say that I'm aware of many things that go on in my City Hall."
Rose Cooper. It had to be her. No wonder she had been so calm this afternoon when she saw her again in the mayor's office. She had already exacted her revenge and told Luthor about catching her and Clark kissing in his office. Just wait until she got her hands on Bobby! He was going to have to make up big time for his wife's loose tongue. Weren't they a lovely pair? Mr. and Mrs. Bigmouth. Although she should feel somewhat grateful to that nosy busybody for providing an escape plan from Luthor tonight.
"So I take it Kent isn't showing up?" His eyes were dark and accessing as he spoke in almost a defiant tone of voice.
He was still baiting her and she didn't know what angle he was playing. Okay. Think Lois. Should she deny that they were a pair, or play along with his little mind games and keep him thinking that she and Clark were an item? If she denied their involvement, then what would that mean to her investigation? If his source was indisputable, then she would be viewed as a liar. She wondered that if she let Luthor continue with his assumptions, it might help fend him off for the evening. Noting that another song had started playing and he hadn't released her, it didn't appear that that strategy was working — yet.
"I don't know if Clark will be able to make it. He may show up; I'm not sure." That was the truth — she had no earthly idea what Kent was doing tonight and frankly, she didn't care. It was time to start acting in a professional manner and hanging her tongue out every time he walked by her *new* desk was not going to be beneficial in her new job. Heaven help her if he smiled at her — all bets might be off.
To her chagrin, Lex pulled her in a tiny bit closer and drew their clasped hands close to his chest. That move made her increasingly more uncomfortable until she wanted to pull away. She could always step on his toes and pretend she was a poor dancer. Just one more false step and she was gone. She didn't have to take this from any man, even if he was the mayor of Metropolis. But she needed to quelch her growing distaste for a few moments longer. This was for a story, and if he was this slimy on a personal level, than perhaps it extended to his business dealings.
Suddenly she was jarred from her thoughts by Lex whispering in her ear. "Did I mention how beautiful you look tonight?"
The feel of his breath in her ear sent shivers down her spine, shivers that left her cold and longing to immerse herself in a long hot shower so she could feel clean once again. Then it hit her! The reason why she distrusted Luthor so much was that he reminded her of Claude! His mannerisms and attitudes — right down to the same arrogant way he held his head in triumphant — was cut from the same mold as Claude. The arm encircling her waist suddenly felt like a steel trap, and even though Luthor wasn't holding her any tighter, it was as though her breath was being cut off. Her mind burned with a memory, a dark remembrance of being held against her will, of struggling against *him*…
Interrupting her from the unbidden recollections, she heard a deep, amicable voice say, "May I cut in?"
She turned towards the voice and saw the friendly grin which had been haunting her daydreams all day. It was Clark, that classic face once again shocking her with its down- right gorgeous looks and appearing very handsome in an elegant tuxedo.
Luthor's face grew slightly sinister from this unwanted intrusion. A second later though, his disturbed countenance had been replaced with its normally polished mask of congeniality as he spoke smoothly, "Good evening, Kent. We were having a lovely time, discussing *you*, as a matter of fact. If the lady wishes…" He released Lois's hand into Clark's waiting one and stepped aside. "I'm sure you two lovebirds have much to talk about…" Lex nodded his head, then turned to cut in on another couple, requesting another dance.
Lois moved into Clark's arms automatically, her mind still muddled from her disturbing revelation and the unexpected appearance of the handsome reporter. Her hero was back and just in time to save her! Well, save her from embarrassing herself in front of the whole ballroom full of people. She'd been just about ready to bolt from the room, her thoughts almost getting the best of her. She took a deep breath and shook rest of those disturbing memories away. Now was *not* the time to deal with them. Her hero was back!
"Hi," he said quietly, all at once a little tongue tied. When he first saw Lois dancing with Lex, his heart dropped in huge disappointment, it appeared his underlying doubts that she was involved with the mayor were true. But then he heard her heartbeat — it was racing erratically and he wasn't sure if it was from excitement or fear until he saw her face. Something was disturbing her and in an instant — as quick as he could be without using his superpowers — he was at her side.
"Hi," she returned thoughtfully, immediately noticing the contrast between the way the two men's arms made her feel. Even though, her heart was racing — for a different reason this time — she felt secure.
"Having a ball yet?" he joked, trying to set her at ease. He wasn't sure what had been upsetting her — maybe she was disturbed at being in Luthor's company almost as much as he was at seeing her in his arms. Or was it the fact that Luthor said they had been discussing *him*?
Her head fell forward in amusement as she let out a tiny laugh. "Not so far, but let's get the ball rolling," she quipped, relaxing a tiny bit as her steps grew accustomed to his elegant dance style.
"My pleasure," he grinned, leaning forward to lightly dip her ceremoniously.
"Awww… is that all you can do, or are you holding back?" His infectious good mood was catching and she found herself entwined in the web of his smile.
"Okay, you asked for it," he grinned mischievously.
The heavy lashes shadowing her cheeks flew up in surprise and she gripped his hand tightly as she felt herself falling backwards. But after Clark had completed his skillful dance move and she was back in the circle of his arms, it was amazing how solid his hold had been as she dipped dangerously close to the floor.
"Wow! Where did you learn moves that?" she asked incredulously, staring at him in amused wonder.
"A good friend taught me," he replied in an offhanded manner.
"Who? Someone who owns a dance studio?" she probed, trying to read his face to see if his modesty was real. "You don't just pick up ballroom dancing… I'm sure you have to have the talent to begin with and then you need a great teacher…"
"Yetunde Gwadabe — a Nigerian princess — I learned from her," he replied shyly. "Her toes were bruised for weeks, I'm sure." He silently thanked Tunde again for her tutelage — she might even be proud of him tonight.
"Oh," was all that she could manage as she settled against his chest. A princess? This guy hangs around royalty? Clark Kent was full of surprises — not to mention how incredible his appearance was tonight — he was so handsome in his black tux that her breath caught in her throat. All of her insecurities from earlier had disappeared in a few short moments in his company. That didn't quite seem right though, a tiny voice nagged at her. Wasn't she supposed to be on guard against his smile?
"I saw your headline tonight," he commented. "Excellent work."
"I hope you're not mad," she replied, his statement startling her as she misplaced a step and landed on his toe. Not a smooth move when you're trying to defend yourself in front of a new colleague. It was his interview before she jumped in to cover it. Maybe he had had plans to return to Luthor's office and found out that she had already usurped his headline. "I knew you had the appointment with him at one o'clock and I wasn't there to deliberately steal your interview. If you were there, it never would have happened, of course. And I came back to thank you for helping me out. Are you angry?"
"Not at all. I couldn't make it," he assured her, after her bit of seamless prattle. "I had to cover… um… *Superman*."
"Oh… Superman," she murmured absently as she remembered her friend. Hmmm… Kal. Wonder what he was up to today. "So you're not mad?"
"Only if you're mad at me." He grinned impishly. "For kissing you."
She drew in her breath slowly. He had to bring *that* up so soon, that wonderful, mind blowing kiss which *still* had her thrown for a loop and now she was in his arms again — strong, tux-clad arms, she noted wryly, and they were in the dreamiest of places. Romance was in the air all around them and they were dancing — together.
Noting how quiet she'd become, he wondered why she hadn't mentioned that she'd recognized him as Kal. Was she trying to string him along as a joke or could she really be mad at him? Clark rattled on nervously, "It was the only legitimate reason I could think of for you being there at the time, and after I prom…"
"It was okay," she interrupted, finally allowing herself to look him full in the face, a tiny bit amused that he felt the need to apologize for something so spectacular.
"Just okay?" he grinned, happy to see the light dancing in her eyes. "Gee! You've got to leave a guy with a little pride."
Her expression grew incredulous again. Her god-in-glasses had security problems? There was no way that she was going to tell him how that kiss affected her, but she could put him at ease.
"You'll do, big reporter," she said softly with a straight face, surprised that she found herself working up the nerve to flirt with him. "I just hope you're not in the habit of kissing strange women the first time you meet them."
"Just you, Lois," he replied, guiding her skillfully into a graceful turn. He chuckled softly and Lois noted the low vibrations coming deep from within his chest. It sounded nice and sincere, unlike Luthor's facade of displaying emotions.
Remembering her dance with Luthor earlier, she whispered hoarsely, "Oh no! I forgot to tell you! He knows… about the kiss! He thinks we… have something going. So what are we going to do about it?"
She gasped in surprise as his arms tightened around her and he lowered his head down to hers…
Clark's cheek slid slowly past hers until he was able to whisper in her ear, "Luthor. He's watching us now. What do you want to do? Do you want to go out on the balcony to discuss this?"
Lois nearly had a heart attack as she saw his face descend to hers, then felt a twinge of disappointment as the smooth skin of his freshly shaven face glided against hers. <This is quite nice just where you are, mister,> Lois thought dreamily, closing her eyes as she breathed in his clean masculine scent. If they moved out to the balcony, she'd lose her lovely vantage point here. "No, let's stay put. If he sees that you see him and then we leave the room, then maybe he'll get suspicious."
"He's already suspicious," he smiled into her hair, reveling in the way the soft curls tickled his chin.
"But he'll get suspiciouser," Lois retorted excitedly, her heart still racing from her near kiss… er, miss. "What is he doing now and why does that even matter to us anyway?"
"I don't know. I was going to ask *you* that question," Clark whispered, grinning at her mutilation of the English language.
"Okay, let's look at the facts. You were in his office hiding under his desk for what I presume was a lead on a story, right?"
"Right," she confirmed.
"So… I conclude that if you were sneaking around the mayor's office, you were suspicious of him to begin with." Clark felt Lois squirming to change her position, which in turn, was causing him to squirm. "Just a second. I'm going to dip you again to spin you around so we can take turns watching him."
Just as dazzled by the second dip as she was from the first, Lois dizzily wrapped her arms around his neck so she could more easily talk in his ear. "All right. Got him scoped out," she said, peeking over his shoulder. "What am I looking for? Or will I know it when I see it?"
"You'll know," Clark answered, secretly loving every minute of having Lois wrapped up in his arms. "I, too, am doubtful of his integrity. That's why I was there in his office this morning. Do you know I saw him at the city jail this morning? I believe he was there visiting a federal prisoner and do you know that prisoner was killed in a car bombing not long after that? There's no evidence to prove this theory of mine, but I can't help thinking that something is way off with him."
Was Clark discussing a story with her? Was this something she really wanted to do again with another reporter? And did they even have a smidgen of a case against Luthor? But his warm hand on her back was distracting her thought processes as once again they were pretending to be a couple in love.
Was this facade even necessary or was it all just Clark's attempt to weasel information out of her? Already she was finding herself dazzled by his mere presence and swept up into a flurry of feelings leaving her breathless — again.
Could she be leading herself into the same, if not worse, disappointment than what she had with Claude?
Somehow she didn't think she was. This man *felt* different from the other men she'd known before — even down to these hard muscles she was pressed up against. No, she couldn't even think about that asset… um, aspect of Clark — it was way too dangerous. Yet, the contrast between him and Claude were like night and day.
Take some insignificant point for example. Unlike Clark, Claude would have bragged about knowing a princess; he had always shoved his important contacts in her face, trying to impress the people around him. At the time, she fancied herself in love with him and let his arrogance slide by unnoticed, happily letting him drone on and on with his boasting.
Clark, on the other hand, had seemed reluctant to talk about his royal connection, even though it was someone she'd never heard of… Of course she'd *heard* of the country of Nigeria before so this princess had to be semi- important, at least important enough to be well-schooled in ballroom dancing. That first dip he gave her was bordering on modesty and if she hadn't have chided him into doing another one, his talent would still be hidden. Hmmm… wonder what other talents he's hiding.
<Don't even go there, girlfriend!!>
Okay. Seeing that her teenage crush had yet to run its course, perhaps she *was* placing him on a small pedestal; it was only a two-foot high one — really. But she could let experience be her teacher this time. She had learned her lesson, hadn't she? But it was so hard being objective while in his embrace. Her heart was racing full speed ahead while her head was tossing road sign warnings at her like poker chips being anted at a hot card game. Wasn't there an old saying that her father used to tell her? Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. Could it be that she was being a fool, or was she using her life-changing experience with Claude to help guide her future paths?
"Lois," he murmured, feeling her tense up again. "If you are uncomfortable, we don't have to keep this up. Let's discuss this on the balcony, if you want to."
Sighing happily, she relaxed against him. Her hero was once again concerned about her feelings and welfare, and she could feel her heart sticking its tongue out spitefully at her practical side. 'Just enjoy the moment', it said; 'heroes don't come along every day.'
Opening her eyes, she saw Luthor staring at them again from across the room, his beady little eyes watching their every move. What a way to spoil the mood. Maybe she should take Clark up on his offer to go out on the balcony. Then they could think of something to do without Luther's prying eyes watching constantly. She pulled away from resting her head against his neck and frowned.
Clark was getting confused. One minute, she was a bundle of nerves and the next she was as relaxed as she could be, sighing contentedly in his ear. Now her lower lip was sticking out in child-like pout, and she still hadn't answered his question about whether she wanted to end this close encounter, or more importantly, she hadn't discussed anything 'Superman' yet. Where was the gloating? Surely she'd be rubbing his face in her victory by now.
"I could use some fresh air. Let's hit the baloney," she blurted.
"Baloney?" Clark asked, puzzled. "Are you hungry? I think they're serving something more elegant than baloney."
"Balcony, silly! Luthor's staring again," she retorted, releasing her grip from around his neck. "He's giving me the creeps!"
"Let's go!" Clark chuckled, loving the way she made his head spin from one moment to the next. Grasping her by the elbow, he led her towards one of the many open French doors into the starry night.
"It's so beautiful out here," she said after they found a place by the railing to watch the lights of the city. "The view is breathtaking."
"It definitely is," Clark gulped. Out in the slight breeze of the night air, the wind played gently with the tiny ringlets resting on her bare shoulders, almost hypnotizing him with their elegant dance. Not wanting to be caught staring, he tore his eyes away and tried to concentrate on the lights below.
Lois could practically feel his warm gaze and turned to face him, but saw that his attention was elsewhere. A muscle in his jaw was twitching nervously, almost as though he was worrying that she'd seen him sneaking a peek at her.
Clark cleared his throat, then asked her, "So… have you been hired by the Planet?"
"Yes, this afternoon! I've been trying for the past couple of days and finally made it with this interview."
"So it *was* sort of fortunate for you that I didn't come back," Clark said, trying to distract himself from his amorous thoughts.
"Not necessarily, buster. I would've found another way to get this job. But believe me, this interview just sort of happened. I wasn't thinking too clearly because I wasn't feeling too well while I was waiting for you. Way too much ice cream; never eat two Big Bertha's before lunch, trust me. Before I knew it, I was in Luthor's office and he was insinuating that I was your partner. Who *knows* what kind of low life excuse could have come in and grabbed this scoop?" she rambled. "But when I arrived at the Daily Planet, I was really nervous about running into you and now I want to set things right and, oh, I'm just talking on and nothing is coming out the way I planned.
"But anyway, this really started bothering me because *he* took my story and that made me so mad when he did that there was no way I could do that to someone else even if I'd just met him. I wasn't really stealing anything — technically. So now you are stuck working at the same newspaper as me and I wouldn't blame you if you disliked me because that's the way I feel about Claude."
She had walked over to the corner edge of the balcony halfway through her tirade and was staring out, she couldn't bring herself to face him. He had the weirdest look on his face the one time she let herself look at him and couldn't tell what he was thinking. The silence finally got too great to bear, so she turned around and saw him lounging back in a patio chair with his hands folded in his lap and a lopsided grin on his face. Her heart fell about two inches in her chest.
"Are you laughing at me?" she blurted defensively, thinking immediately that there was absolutely *no* defense against that smile. "What's so funny? I finally bear my soul, confess my sins and you are sitting there *laughing* at me."
"Lois," Clark said calmly, "I'm not laughing at you. Seemed as though you were going to take a while." Her babbling cleared his head somewhat and indicated to him that it was up to him to move the conversation forward in a more intelligible direction. "I told you before that I wasn't upset."
"Really? Some reporters would be screaming bloody murder if someone took their interview and it would be perfectly natural if you didn't want anything to do with me. Am I talking *that* much?"
"Like a brook! And Lois, I'm happy you're working at the Daily Planet. You'll be a great addition to the staff…"
"Yeah, great addition… but watch your sources; she's been known to appropriate them on occasion."
"Now, stop that! As long as you're confessing… How did you end up under that desk in Luthor's office in the first place?" Clark questioned, knowing from his past experience he had to keep one step ahead of this small and resourceful woman. In this case, he needed to distract her from herself.
"Oh. Just a hunch I had…" Lois was feeling awkward from his direct questioning. "… and I thought I could find some clues in his office."
"Under the desk?" Clark's eyebrows shot up questioningly, but his eyes were dancing. "Did you find something under there? I don't think cobwebs would qualify as solid evidence."
"No." <Solid evidence? Just a pair of muscular legs and a gorgeous body>, she mused distractedly.
"What would you have done if I hadn't have helped you out?" Clark persisted good naturedly as he rose from his chair to stand next to her at the rail. "Become a one woman task force?"
"Only if I had to. Look, sometimes I act impulsively; it can't be helped." Lois stated matter-of-factly. She noticed his face was calm, but the corner of his mouth was twitching to keep from smiling.
She turned abruptly to him and demanded, "Speaking of Luthor's office, what kind of excuse is 'Cheese of the Month' anyway?" Lois laughed. Noticing his crimson blush, she gloated.
Clark shook his head and grimaced as he turned two shades of red. "Oh no! I can't believe you remembered that!"
"Who wouldn't remember a lame reason like that? It was pitiful! Sad! Lacking completely in originality!"
"It was all I could think of at the time. Hey, you remembered it so it couldn't have been that bad!" Clark grinned at her with a pained look on his face. "So I'm horrible at excuses."
"Simply pathetic," she quiped, bumping his arm with her shoulder. "So what else are you going to grill me about?" Surprised at how at ease he made her feel, bantering with Clark came naturally to her, almost too easy.
Clark noticed that her shoulder bump had caused her hand to partially cover his. Why did the simplest of touches seem to mean the most? She seemed to realize it at the same time because she was staring at their partially joined hands also. He met her eyes and the very air around them seemed to be charged with an electrical current. But Clark felt elected to continue with a benign line of questioning. He didn't feel he had the right to initiate anything more between them. That was her call. "Why did you go to the Daily Planet with your story instead of somewhere else? You could have sold it as a freelance or even been hired elsewhere?"
"I *have* worked elsewhere — at a place with the integrity of a pack of hyenas! That's why this is bothering me all of a sudden. I *know* that you're saying it was okay for me to take your place at that interview; I *know* that I had the best intentions for the Daily Planet — I wasn't even employed there officially yet — but deep down I feel like I took something from you. It makes me feel horrible — like I'm turning into him."
"Who took your story, Lois?"
"I tried to tell you before, but I just wanted to get this apology over with. I was so nervous about your reaction to everything and then you were laughing at me…" Lois paused and smiled anxiously at him. "I'm doing it again."
"I'm sorry I laughed. I didn't know." He smiled sincerely, then continued. "Slow down and take your time, I'm listening. Apology accepted." At her smile, Clark felt his never- ending urge to enfold her in his arms and just hold her. This was obviously causing her distress, and that prompted his need to protect her, to shield her from any discomfort. Instead, he reached out and caught her hand in his and gave it a slight squeeze; after all, she knew he was Kal, didn't she?
The warmth of personal contact of her hand in his, gave her the resolve to continue. "I was working on a story not too long ago with someone, he took all my research, leads, everything. I arrived at work one morning, and there was my story, on the front page with his name on it. When I complained about it, he turned the tables around in front of everyone and accused *me* of trying to take *his* story. I couldn't stay here, I had to quit, that's when I left Metropolis." Lois hesitated a moment and saw that Clark was waiting for her to resume.
Even talking vaguely about what happened at the Metropolis Star had Lois on the verge of tears, the hurt of betrayal from both a professional and a personal relationship was still too personal for her to confide completely to anyone, especially to a handsome new colleague. This was the way it started with Claude, first the chemistry and then she was confiding *everything* to him and now she was doing the same thing with Clark. As the flood of unwanted emotions came pouring back, Lois drew her hand away from Clark's and walked over to the corner edge of the balcony again.
As Clark listened to her explanation, he was more in tuned to the expressions on her face than the words coming from her mouth. Obviously, this was a very painful experience for her to talk about; could this be the event that drove her from Metropolis a few months ago? More than ever he wanted to comfort her, to take away her pain. He watched her walk briskly to the corner of the railing and fought the urge to go to her, but he felt helpless to do anything.
"Lois… Are you okay?" Clark inquired quietly after a long minute.
She winced at his kind, soft voice. At that moment, she wished he would go away and let her lick her reopened wounds alone. Why did this have to happen now, here at the ball in front of *him* of all places? Being laid wide open in his presence only made her want to throw herself in his arms and be comforted.
Not having let herself cry once since leaving Metropolis, she recalled the last time she had confronted Claude in his apartment. She remembered the tears which had streamed down her face as she told him exactly what she thought of him for stealing her story. Recalling his self-righteous smirk as she had faced him, Claude had told her he never loved her and that all she was to him was a cold fish in his bed and a stepping stone for some information.
After retrieving her jewelry left on his bed stand from the night before, she had placed her hand on the doorknob of his bedroom door. It had been partially opened before being slammed shut hard by a rough hand behind her. She found herself suddenly pressed hard against the wood doorframe face first, Claude's hands tight around her shoulders.
"I can melt you, Ice Princess." Claude had groaned in her ear as he moved his hands down her arms to hold her hands helplessly at her side.
"Claude, let me go," she had said angrily. "I want to leave."
"Oh, I know what you want, cherie. Let me show you again. Let's forget this… little, um… disagreement we had earlier. You are so beautiful when you are mad."
She felt his hot lips trailing down her neck and her blood had instantly run colder as suddenly she found herself on her back laying on the bed. Twisting in his grasp, her knee had come up and landed square between his legs. She'd scrambled to get herself completely free as he doubled over in pain.
"Come after me again, you moron, and you'll wish you never left France."
When she shut the doors to Metropolis after another horrific scene in front of the newsroom the next morning, she wanted to lock away any part of herself that was vulnerable. Instead, she had busied herself in finding a job at another paper, in getting her life back on track; she didn't allow herself time to grieve.
She blinked back the tears that had started to form while she stood at the balcony and turned back around to face Clark. *He* was making her vulnerable again and she didn't know how she felt about it.
Standing there staring him full in the face, she wished she could breath in his soul and test it against hers. Was this man really who he seemed to be? Was he really the caring, handsome gentleman who turned her heart at the slightest hint of a smile? She tried to regard him objectively, but only returned to the conclusion that here was someone worth his weight in gold, someone worth opening her door, just a tiny crack, to see if he was truly different.
He noticed that Lois had zoned out on him and waited a few seconds before waving his hand in front of her face.
"Lois! Lo-is!" Her steady haunted stare disturbed something deep inside of him.
"What? Did you say something?" Lois came out of her muddle. "Yeah, I'm fine. That's it. Everything's okay."
Not believing her, but needing to do something to break the heavy mood that had settled between them, he held out his hand and asked her, "Would you dance with me, please?"
With a weak smile, she answered him by moving into his arms, and resting her head on his shoulder, finding the comfort that she knew was there. Clark clasped their hands to his chest and leaned his cheek against her forehead. Some memory or thought had disturbed her again, just like before when she was dancing with Luthor. But now was not the time to question her about it; her heartbeat was slowing down and she was gripping his hand as though it were a lifeline. Some things were better left alone until later.
Dancing under the stars was lovely, but Clark longed to scoop Lois up and head to the clouds as they had done the previous day. There were too many people around and she was acting a bit strange. As they danced in silence, he was starting to question if she really recognized him at all as Kal. She hadn't addressed him by name — either name — and surely she would have referenced something to their friendship by now.
"Lois…" he said softly.
"Do you know who I am?"
"Of course I do," she sighed knowingly. "You're Clark Kent, dancer extraordinaire, broad shoulder to wayward souls, and hero to aspiring reporters… Should I go on?"
"We haven't been officially introduced yet, but I assumed you know… hero?" He stared, complete surprise written on his face. So she *did* know!
"Yes, I found out in Luthor's office, remember?"
"Oh, yeah," he answered, remembering her face and dazed expression when they finally came face to face. "So, you're okay with this?" He held her tighter as he spun them in a small circle. "I wouldn't want to presume anything since… I'm enjoying dancing with you so much."
"And I'm having a wonderful time too. Dancing with you… is like walking on the clouds, and the music — I love all these old songs."
Their cloud walk! He felt a burst of satisfaction at her mentioning their time together yesterday.
"Did you come with someone?" she asked, suddenly a bit green-eyed over the possibility that Clark could have a date lurking around here.
"No, I came alone."
"Me too," she admitted quickly.
"Do you mind if I tell you something?" Clark asked, holding his breath immediately after speaking the words. He didn't know what prompted him to blurt out his question but it was too late to take it back.
"Is it good or bad?"
"Um… good, I hope."
"Then tell me."
"You are… " Clark sighed breathlessly, "Simply beautiful tonight. You outshine the stars and moon with just a tiny twinkle of your smile. And… I better stop before I completely embarrass myself, but I had to tell you."
"Why Mr. Kent, you *are* a man of words, aren't you?" Lois shot back at him with a touch of Southern accent, slightly wondrous that practically the same words had been spoken from Luthor's mouth tonight and had left her cold, yet coming from Clark, they were sincere and made her feel whole and alive. *He* thought she was beautiful! And he was appearing terribly embarrassed at his admission of appreciation.
"It's the truth,… I just thought you should know… "
"You don't look so bad yourself," she said, toying with his bow tie via the hand that was still laced in Clark's. "Now that it's been established that we're members of the mutual admiration society, what are we going to do about Luthor?"
"There's not much we can do about him tonight, except keep an eye on him…"
"Just one little eye," she mumbled, distracted by a familiar old tune that the orchestra was playing and the very handsome man who was holding her. "So we can dance… "
Clark was about blown away by Lois' change of attitude tonight — especially in the last couple of minutes. She was flirty and shy, happy and fun when she wasn't perplexed by something that was rolling around in her head. He supposed that they were sticking around for Luthor's announcement. Personally, he hoped it was a long time until then; he was perfectly content to stay right here in Lois' arms.
Could it be that she was changing her mind about a relationship with him already? Could it be that this thing between them was developing faster than he ever dreamed possible? Yet, something was still off. A piece of the puzzle was missing and he couldn't place his finger on it. What he should to do is pull her to the side and start an honest conversation. He wanted to fly her up to the sky and park on the nearest cloud and… was she humming?
Low alto vibrations were barely audible to his normal hearing and he had to listen with his super hearing to confirm that she was indeed humming along with the music. Singing meant that she was happy and although he wasn't familiar with the song, he loved that she was now feeling carefree enough to hum along with the music.
"You're my big and brave and handsome Romeo," she sang in a low pitch. Realizing that she was singing out loud, she lowered her face and leaned her forehead against his chest.
Clark tilted her chin with the forefinger of their entwined hands and lifted it up so he could look her in the eyes. "Hey, that's beautiful! Don't stop singing!" he asked, in a deeper tone than usual. "Please…"
"This is embarrassing," she blurted, as her cheeks became warm, fully realizing the implications of the lyrics to come. It was so ironic how relevant the song was to her feelings this whole day. But what the heck, time to throw caution to the wind — her hero was requesting a song. And he did say please. Perhaps it was time to see if she affected him as much as he did her. So lowering her eyes again to stare at an imaginary speck on his chin, she continued with the haunting melody.
"… but oh, my heart grew active, when you came into view… "
The orchestra held the last note as a few stringed instruments cued for the chorus. The moment stretched into almost unbearable expectation as Lois drew in a deep breath. At the last second before the notes began, she raised her eyes to find his undivided attention was riveted to hers. His face was awashed with a soft wonder as he encouraged her with a tiny smile. Hiding behind the persona of an entertainer, she sang out a bit more confidently than before.
"I've got a crush on you Sweetie pie… All the day and nighttime… Hear me sigh, I never had the least notion that I could fall with so much devotion…"
During her song, her hand had worked its way free from his and seductively touched the tip of his nose, then raked ever so lightly over his slightly opened lips to his chin. Her finger traced a tantalizing path down his neck, easily hooking it in his collar and tugging gently, feeling his animated swallow as the back of her finger brushed back and forth against his Adam's apple. Her knuckles grazed his jaw line, then slowly stroked his cheek in lazy circles.
The words drifted away as her thought processes kicked in. Fall!? Had she fallen for him already? That was such a strong word, almost as dangerous as the word lo… no! She wasn't going to think of that; it was ridiculously too soon and way too dangerous. It was so hard not to flirt with the idea while getting lost in those eyes, those deep rich brown eyes that she wanted to drown in, but her feelings had nothing to do with reason. He was sporting a sexy little grin and then the last two lines of the songs came tumbling out as her face drew closer to his.
Clark stared at her in amazement. He assumed it was part of her singing act… and she was milking it for all she was worth. Her sultry singing and burning touch wasn't the only thing driving him crazy. A different light was radiating from her eyes, dark and mischievous, probing to his very soul. The only thing he could do was to stand there with his mouth open and remain spellbound by her ministrations; her nearness was like a drug, pulling him into euphoria.
In his peripheral vision, he could see Luthor heading in their way and at that moment, there was no decision, no rational thought process to mull through… he was going to kiss her and there was not a thing he could do. Something beyond his control was inching his face closer and closer to hers. There was a deeper significance to their visual exchange and nothing else seemed to matter except this magical moment.
"The world will pardon my mush, 'Cause I've got a crush… My baby, on you."
The last words were whispered against his lips as his mouth closed over hers. She had seen him glancing over her shoulder for a brief second and suspected that this was for the benefit of their nosey residential mayor but didn't care. This time there was no hesitation, no protest as her lips yielded to the sweet firmness of his kiss. The hand on his cheek wound its way through his hair to the back of his head and was pulling him closer.
They explored each other's mouths gently and hungrily, nibbling and tasting far past the time that Luthor had turned around in disgust and retreated in the other direction. His free hand moved recklessly to her neck, playing with the enticing curls that had held his attention captive earlier. He gathered her against him with the arm around her waist, her body leaning against him in inviting contact.
In time, he released her lips reluctantly, the simple act of pulling away was just as sensual as the kiss. The sweet agony of separation was prolonged by the moisture of their mouths as their lips clung together until the last possible second.
Their breathing became one, slowing in unison as the air from their mouths fanned each other's faces, stretching the intimacy for a few sweet moments longer. Passion darkened eyes fluttered open and instantly locked together as a deep look of understanding passed between them. It spoke of surprise and wonder in the discovery they had made, allowing themselves to look into the other's soul and see clearly how much they were affected by their kiss.
"I, ah… " he stammered, feeling dizzy for the first time in his life.
"Hmmm… you're smudged. Hold still," Lois interrupted, still flustered as she used her thumb to wipe her lipstick off his bottom lip. She was relieved his arms were still around her because she wasn't sure if her legs were able to hold her up at the moment.
"Smudged… " he repeated fuzzily, not really wanting to come down out of the heady fog that was swirling around him. Her thumb rubbing his lower lip was causing him further distraction and he involuntarily placed a soft kiss on its pad.
"That was for Luthor's benefit, wasn't it?" she stated with a tiny bit of doubt. Although secretly pleased that she had reduced the reporter to her level of stuttering idiocy, this feeling was way more than she bargained for, so she was almost relieved to have the chance to hide behind their little ruse.
"I thought you had seen… " she said, baffled by his confusion.
"So you were pretending?" he asked, "Because I wasn't."
Seeing the tiny bit of hurt in his eyes, her heart melted once again and she reached up on her tiptoes to place a soft kiss against his lips. "No. I wasn't either, big guy."
As Clark stared down at her in wonderment, the lights in the main ballroom came on suddenly. An announcer introduced Lex Luthor as he stepped up to the podium. "I guess we'd better go inside," he whispered huskily as he released her.
After flashing him a shy smile, Lois looped her arm through his proffered elbow, then they made their way into the ballroom.
Lex Luthor stared out over the crowd as he waited for everyone to gather in the main ballroom, anticipating his upcoming announcement. His pleasure in revealing his future plans were slightly spoiled as he became annoyingly aware of searching for a pair of reporters who were increasingly growing into a sore spot in his eyes. Mainly one. He didn't like Kent butting in on his dance with the beautiful newcomer and he definitely didn't like the way Lois returned his admiring looks. His attempt to drive a professional wedge between the two by granting the exclusive to Lane didn't appear to have worked — they obviously were very much a couple.
When he'd stumbled across them on the balcony in their lovers embrace, it drove him to move up his announcement. He hadn't caught the fair reporter's eye yet and it just added to the challenge of gaining her as a conquest. Kent, it seemed, had just upped the ante with that disgusting public display of his libido, and he wasn't about to let him continue at *his* ball. Breaking them up any way he could, seemed like the right thing to do, at least until he could woo her to stay permanently at his side.
Lois kept her arm securely hooked through Clark's as they waited for the mayor to speak. His other hand rested over hers, giving her the comfortable security that what they experienced on the balcony was real and not just another one of her daydreams. Also, she feared that if she let go of this simple contact, her mind would start arguing with her heart again causing her to say or do something stupid. This was scary; letting her heart go nuts once more — especially so soon after… well, she didn't want to think about it; not now, not here. For reassurance, she gave his arm a little squeeze and was immediately rewarded with an engaging grin.
They hadn't spoken since they'd admitted that the kiss between them was mutual, but had shared several meaningful glances since then. Clark had stopped her before entering the ballroom and brushed a tender kiss on her cheek. His face had been serious but his eyes were alight with a strange fire that warmed her to her toes.
They stood together in companionable silence as Luthor adjusted the microphone to his liking. Clark could swear that he was looking for someone in the audience. He watched as Luthor's eyes roved over the crowd until he met his own and the mayor seemed to stand a bit straighter before dropping his eyes down to the copy of his speech. His brow furrowed as he glanced down at the brunette woman standing beside him and a surge of protectiveness washed over him. With a deep sigh, he pressed her hand close to his arm while stroking his thumb across the back of her wrist.
Luthor lifted his chin and stared defiantly down at Clark once more before stating in a confident voice, "Ladies and gentlemen! I sincerely hope that each and every one of you are having a marvelous evening. Before the festivities continue, I'd like to reveal my plans for the future. Now I believe all of you know that I will not be running for reelection next year. I feel my objectives for the city of Metropolis have been met.
"I was a very successful businessman before running for election. That was a strong factor in my decision to run for mayor — my ability to take a floundering business and turn it around into a profitable enterprise. In my three years in office, I have accomplished that goal for the city of Metropolis — the city is operating in the black again — and at the end of my term, I will return to the world of business. Now because I'm leaving office doesn't mean that I'll be deserting my commitment to the city. I'll remain just as committed as ever.
"I'll be merging all of my smaller businesses into one corporation — Lex Corp. From this new corporation will spring many new jobs and opportunities for the local citizens. Expansion plans have already been outlined for the next five years and experts have predicted that Lex Corp will be an incredible boast to the economy…"
Standing on her tiptoes, Lois leaned up to whisper in Clark's ear. "Sounds like he's tooting his own horn. I wonder how much he paid those so called *experts*?"
Turning his face toward hers, he leaned his head against hers and murmured, "I don't know, but I bet I know a new Daily Planet employee who's going to look into it."
"You bet, buster," she replied, giving his arm a little squeeze. Oh gosh, what was happening to her? She routinely detested women who hung decoratively on a man's arm, but she couldn't get enough of this simple contact. And there was the added bonus of feeling his hard muscles beneath his tux. Definitely well-developed and firm, Clark must have to work out forever to achieve his muscle tone. There was no telling what other delights lay beneath that crisp shirt… If his arm felt this good, then… Oh, she better get her mind back on track before she embarrassed herself. Wow! Even after sharing most of this evening with him — and that wonderful, fantastic kiss — she still held him somewhere between the rank of god and hero.
Okay! Maybe she wasn't exactly being an arm ornament; she hadn't been hanging on for too long. At least that wasn't her prime objective. And the prime objective was… escaping her thoughts for the moment. Her thoughts were instead telling her that what she really wanted was to have those arms wrap around her and draw her close to him again. She wanted to know if the kiss they shared on the balcony was a fluke or something more. She wanted to know if this was all in her head or if it was just some built up image she'd created throughout the day. She wanted to be near him.
She just wanted… him.
And it was beginning to scare her.
Luthor was still singing his own praises and she doubted that his speech was likely to improve. With a silent whimper, she concluded that she should *try* to tear herself away from him for a moment and do something. Do something like go chocolate hunting or… punch! Staying away from champagne might be a prudent idea, but getting a glass of punch sounded like a safe plan. She was giddy enough around Clark now without adding the element of being tipsy around him.
Not sure why she felt the need to step away from Clark, she supposed it was her age old instinct, or annoying habit, to isolate herself and analyze the situation. That could either be a good thing or a bad thing. Bad — if she wasn't careful, she might analyze herself right out of here, but good, if she had a few moments to clear the smoke still circling her head from their kiss.
And clearing her head was a good reason because… ?
Because then she could tell herself that she'd thought things over and that this was exactly where she wanted to be without his presence influencing her senses. After all, she was a woman who knew what she wanted, wasn't she?
She touched his hand with her free one to get his attention. Inclining her head towards the ladies room, she smiled shyly at him and slowly released his arm, mouthing to him, "I'll be back." She decided to make her way to the punch bowl via the woman's facilities just in case he wanted to follow her.
Clark watched Lois walk away, noticing the way her dress hugged all the right places. Just because he was Superman, the new defender of truth and justice, did not mean he couldn't admire the scenery. He wished he had suggested that he fly her to her apartment so they could talk about this next step in their relationship. He was anxious to clear up his promise of just staying friends. And he desperately wanted to kiss her again. This time away from the threat of Luthor's prying eyes. But first talk, then kiss.
Lois ducked inside the ladies room, deciding to attend to business so she wouldn't have to leave Clark's side again, at least not for something as simple as using the rest room when she had the opportunity to do so now. Moments later while standing at the sink, she caught her reflection in the mirror and was surprised at how relaxed and calm she looked. Her appearance and dress was still basically the same as when she arrived, except the ringlets around her neck were in a slight disarray from Clark playing with them earlier. Thinking of his hand on her neck sent a tremor of pleasure through her body. His fingers were so gentle, she remembered, and his arm around her waist was firm, yet yielding. She never felt unwanted pressure from him as they kissed. There was always the chance to break away to end it — not that *that* had once crossed her mind.
Drawing her attention back to the mirror, she looked at her lips — slightly smeared and a bit kiss swollen. As she reached into her small purse for her lipstick, its small linked chain clinking a tiny tune on the sink's counter, seeming to sing along with her merry mood. Leaning forward to apply it to her lips, she stopped inches from the mirror as happiness surged through her body. Nothing like being thoroughly kissed to change your whole outlook on things. Not that she'd had much experience on being thoroughly kissed — nothing that compared to the caliber of their kiss earlier. Most of the men she'd kissed had taken rather than given anything back, they were mostly interested in their own pleasure. Not Clark. Even after they'd both opened their eyes, she could feel him kissing her with his eyes — and he'd seemed just as flustered as she was standing there, his beautiful mouth with traces of lipstick on it — her lipstick. Sharing lipstick with Clark. Hmmm… Definitely an activity she would like to experience again — soon! If Clark had to wear lipstick, she wanted to be the applicator.
The rest room's doors opened and two elderly ladies bustled in, disrupting her thoughts. Lois supposed she had had enough time to gather her thoughts or whatever reputed reason why she was here in the first place. The unwanted company was invading her air space with their cosmic debris and she wasn't ready to come down from this incredible high. Out in the soft lights by Clark's side was where she needed to be, even if Luthor was still harping on and on about himself.
She immediately spotted Clark, looking a bit bored, and set off determinedly in his direction. Even if they hadn't officially come here together, they'd shared something intimate on that balcony earlier. So therefore, whether he knew it or not, he was stuck with her.
From out of her peripheral vision, she saw a couple of informally dressed men standing along the wall. One of them wore an ill-fitting tux and was gorging himself with a plateful of tidbits from the buffet table and the other was waving discreetly, or *trying* to wave discreetly, at someone to get their attention. Following this person's line of vision, it appeared that it was Luthor who was his target and the mayor was looking everywhere in the audience except in their direction. Perhaps he had seen them and was deliberately avoiding making contact?
Clark was going to have to wait a few more moments until she checked those two guys out. Seeing that they were conveniently located by the refreshment table, Lois supposed that sticking with her original plan of getting some punch might be beneficial now. She glanced over at Clark and saw him tugging at his collar, walking towards the balcony. Poor baby! Luthor must be boring him silly if he needed fresh air again.
There were two tables set up — one for drinks and the other for food. Sidling alongside the refreshment table, she inched closer to the questionable subjects by slowly and meticulously taking inventory of the various hors d'oeuvres — tiny sandwiches, crab cake balls, sushi, and truffles were among the choices presented. Everything looked very tasty in its elegant display of silver trays, fine linen and orchids. Eyeing a very plump chocolate covered strawberry, she hoped she would have a chance to share one with Clark, that is, when she was finished investigating these two odd looking suspects.
Lois rounded the end of the table and started moving in the opposite direction as the two men standing along the wall. Now she couldn't see them because her back was turned so she moved a bit faster down the line of food. At the next turn, she grabbed a plate and began alternating between piling samples on it and stuffing them in her mouth. At the completion of her first 'circle', Lois moved to the next table for punch and champagne, edging almost close enough to be within hearing range. Too bad Luthor wouldn't shut up because then she could overhear them without getting too close.
The leader was still halfheartedly trying to catch Luthor's attention and she sensed an edge in the mayor's tone as he continued to speak. Out of the blue, another man approached the two men and Lois heard him hissing angrily at them.
"What are you doing here, Larry?" the newcomer asked with a forced smile.
"Hey, McInnis! Don't get so uptight. Me and Joe just wanted the boss to know we found what he was looking for. It took us a while, but we got it," Larry declared proudly.
The newcomer forced a laugh and then threatened with a straight face. "I hope you idiots had the smarts *not* to bring it here. I think *we* better get outta here before you numbskulls get all of us in big trouble."
Chewing vigorously, but not too loudly, she hoped, Lois noticed out of the corner of her eye that Joe — the less intelligent looking but not by much, of the two original guys — was inching slowly backwards towards the table. He was holding his hands behind his back and she had to scoot out of his way in order to avoid bumping into him. Did he even know that she was there? Quick as a wink, his hand reached blindly backward and something splashed in the punch bowl. Lois saw a weird green glow slide down the side of the crystal and disappear on the bottom. A mushroom cloud of lemon slices and pulp rose up from the base of the bowl and settled back down slowly, covering whatever it was that Joe had dropped.
The leader scowled, and hissed at brain boy, "Joe! You coming or do you need convincing?"
"Um… just thinkin' I was thirsty, that's all," he blurted and turned away to look busy and met Lois' eyes staring at him. Surprise flashed in his dark eyes as he froze in place.
"Let's get out of here…" the leader demanded, then empathized more forcefully. "Now!"
Joe briefly hardened his stare at Lois before turning away and followed his higher up out of the ballroom. Her mouth was still stuffed from sampling the hors d'oeuvres and all she could muster was a 'hmmmrph'. Once they were out of sight, she looked down at the punch bowl with great interest. Pushing up her tight satin sleeve, she glanced quickly around the room to make sure no one was watching her and stuck her hand in the icy liquid.
Clark steadied himself against the railing in the night air, taking deep breaths to clear his head. While listening to Luthor's speech, the strangest sensations had begun to wash over him. For the second time that night, he'd felt dizzy and weak, only this time he couldn't blame it on the aftereffects of kissing Lois — at least he hoped he couldn't blame it on Lois.
He loosened his tie a bit more and shook his head to rid it of the lingering waves of disorientation. Frowning, he wondered if this was a typical Kryptonian reaction to kissing and maybe even other romantic activities. No, this had to something else. It *had* to be! This dizziness was making him feel weird; his head had a dull ache and his stomach was affected also. Queasy? Maybe that was what he was experiencing for the first time in his life.
Glancing over his shoulder, he saw Lois over by the refreshment table sampling the different appetizers. It would be nice if she would join him out here once she was finished with her little snack. Luthor was basically repeating his announcement for the fourth time and he was sure that they could come up with a good write-up between the two of them — later. Now that the dizziness, headache and other unpleasant symptoms were ebbing, he longed to be alone with Lois again. This was the start of something he'd been longing for all his life, and it was happening much quicker than he'd anticipated. Could it only have been yesterday that he knew for certain he was in love? Was it only a few nights ago that he was seriously contemplating leaving the Daily Planet and his life here in Metropolis? It seemed like ages ago.
Suddenly a cry for help rung in his ears… somewhere in the vicinity of Centennial Park. A determined look crossed his face and he shot straight up in the air after noting that no one was watching him. Spinning into his suit in midair, he hoped that this time everything was in place after his on-the-fly wardrobe change. Practice did make perfect and earlier that day, he'd spun in and out of the suit just for grins. Hopefully, this wouldn't take too long and he could return before Lois knew he was missing.
Lois regretted sticking her hand in the punch as soon as the cold enveloped it. After fishing around the bottom of the bowl for a couple of seconds, she realized it was not going to be quite so easy to retrieve the weird green thing. For all she knew, it was the latest fad in bubble gum or kid's candy. Sometimes as she was standing in line at the checkout at a grocery store, she felt a twinge of jealousy at all the interesting junk food available to the kids of today. Life wasn't fair, she supposed, her thoughts straying briefly. But we had better cartoons, she reflected triumphantly as her hand closed around a slippery object and she pulled it out quickly. A lemon slice.
She crouched down behind the table after her first attempt, trying to stay halfway out of sight from the crowd. Her hand swirled around the bowl as it chased whatever it was that she was supposed to be retrieving. As she watched the merry-go-round of green light and lemon slices whirl in front of her face, she heard Luthor wind up his self- promotional speech and saw the crowd begin to look around for other entertainment. Other entertainment in the form of food, she realized, noticing an elderly woman strolling her way. She tried to block the intruder's view of the punchbowl by leaning over the table to reach for a napkin as her hand fished for the object. Still nothing.
After briskly wiping her wet hand with the napkin, she located the ladle — the instrument that was supposed to be used in the first place — and smiled innocently at the woman as she approached the table. She stirred the contents vigorously, scanning the top of the churning drink for any signs of a green glow. She spotted it a couple of times and determinedly tried to scoop it up as it swirled and spun among the fruit and ice. To her dismay, the woman picked up another crystal ladle, and on the first try, dipped the green thing out of the bowl and directly into her cup. The cup was flushed with a fluorescent glow and Lois could see the object's fuzzy outline settling down to the bottom of the glass. The woman hadn't noticed it yet; she was busy concentrating on Luthor's final statements.
Lois took advantage of the woman's divided attention and moved around to the front of the table, not sure of what the plan was, only that she needed to do *something*. She quickly filled another cup of punch and stalked after her as the elderly woman slowly gravitated into the back of the crowd. When she reached her, she tapped her on the shoulder and stated, "Excuse me. I think you took my cup. You wouldn't want to drink after me… strep throat."
Lois cleared her throat for emphasis, swapped the cups while the woman stood there half confused, and made a quick 180 degree retreat, but ran into the middle of another person in her haste. The cup she'd just grabbed dropped to the ground, its contents splashing and sliding along the floor. She saw the green object skitter out of sight under one of the other refreshment tables. Trying to think fast so that she would have an excuse to go after it, she let her purse slide down her arm, then tossed it under the table like a bowling ball.
She hated acting like a klutz *and* this situation was getting to be rather ridiculous, but a woman's gotta do what's she's gotta do. She hiked up her skirt and lifted the heavy tablecloth to peer underneath it. Sure enough, the object was resting against the other side of the tablecloth, well within grasp if she moved to the other side of the table.
Once on the other side, she picked up her skirt again so she wouldn't fall over if she accidentally stepped on it. Glancing up at the last moment before disappearing from view, she caught sight of the three men she'd been spying on before heading her way. The looks on their faces were quite serious, especially the guy who'd dropped the thing in the punch in the first place. Well, she'd worked too hard to leave the silly-looking rock now, and if they were coming back to get it, then it must be valuable. By now, whether it was worth anything or not, wasn't the issue. The thrill of the challenge had gripped her and that *thing* wasn't going to get the best of her.
She crawled under the table, noting once again, that she was taking refuge under a piece of furniture. If this was going to be a habit, then she needed to invest in kneepads, or at least charge them to her expense account at the Daily Planet. After stilling the tablecloth so the men wouldn't notice it moving, she finally spied the glowing green rock.
Lois picked it up and examined it closely. It was unlike anything she'd ever seen before. Only the size of a quarter, it emitted an eerie soft glow, illuminating her hand in the sparse light underneath the table. It was beyond a doubt, one of the strangest things she'd ever seen and it gave her the creeps for some reason.
Okay. Now where was her purse? Not here, she noted. And she didn't want to risk being caught by those goons if she stuck her head out to look for it. So how was she supposed to hide this rock without being too conspicuous? She closed her hand around it and the green glow shone from between her fingers. It was just big enough to separate her fingers if she gripped it. Well, there was always the age old hiding place for women…
Dropping it down between her breasts, she secured it inside her bra against her body. But to her disgust, there was a verdant glow to the low scoop in her neckline. Darn. She glowed in the dark — radioactive breasts! May as well hang a sign over her head to those thugs that said, 'Hey idiots! I have your rock! Come and catch me!'
This would never do. She had to find a way to cover up that rock. Maybe she could wrap it up in a napkin or something. Slowly lifting the end of the tablecloth up, she peeked out to see if the coast was clear. There were no feet walking around the backside of the table, so she stuck her head out further and peered over the top of the table, her eyes level with the tabletop. Hmmm… paper napkins… crab cake foil… something solid might work better than paper or cloth. A used champagne top with a small bit of wrapper still attached… not quite big enough to hide the whole rock but… there was an opened bottle right next to her face with a full dress of wrapper on it — enough to cover that danged rock twice over. The cap was replaced firmly so there was no danger of it spilling, at least so she thought. So should she smell like seafood or champagne? A lush or a crab?
She was just going to use the wrapper; the champagne smell was still in the bottle. Plus, *everyone* smelled like champagne tonight… except for Clark. He smelled heavenly!
Oh no! She hoped Clark hadn't thought she'd run out on him! From her vantage point, she couldn't see him in the room, so perhaps he was still out on the balcony. Wonder what he would think of her new acquisition? Oops! Those goons were heading her way again. She grabbed the bottle and ducked back under the table, smacking it hard against her hip as she settled into position.
Just her luck — the men choose the back of the room for their new office location. She could hear them clinking around the punch bowl on the other table, apparently looking for the rock that she now held in her hands. She frowned as she heard one talking about the woman he saw watching him after he dropped the element in the bowl. Element? And leave it to the goon to suddenly have a fit of conscience and report his misdoing to his higher up. Just great!
Now goon boy was being told to stay put and keep an eye out for the woman — her! — then when he found her, not to let her out of his sight. This was just great! She didn't dare leave, because he was stationed very closely by, only about ten feet away.
The rock glowed ominously in her hand. Maybe she had better cover it up so it wouldn't give her away from under the table. Lois peeled the wrapper quietly from the bottle and enfolded it with as much of the foil as she could strip from the bottle. Now it looked like a harmless wad of trash and she stuffed it back into her cleavage for safekeeping.
She was beginning to loath the underside of furniture, especially feeling so helpless again. Trapped again and this time in a more uncomfortable position than the last time. At least the desk in Luthor's office had a side to lean against. This table was about two feet from the wall and there was no back support except for a hard square leg. That provided no comfort to her for the angle of the cut of wood was such that the corner angle was boring straight into her back.
Hiking her skirt up around her hips, she peeked out from underneath the tablecloth, lifting it just high enough for one eye to have a peep. Her guard was still there scanning the crowd. She'd never have enough time to crawl out from under the table and blend into the crowd without him seeing her. Okay. Let's try the other side.
As she peered out of the short-ended side of the table, she shrunk back immediately. The hungry hoards of people were descending like vultures on the refreshments now that Luthor had ended his speech. No way out… at least for now.
Sitting back down, her back hunched over, Lois sighed. Determination gave way to desperation as a stray tear rolled down her face. She eyed the bottle standing next to her on the floor. After all this trouble, just one little sip couldn't hurt.
Wiggling the cork of the bottle, she moved it from side to side slowly, hoping it wouldn't take too much effort to pop it loose. Since it had already had been opened, most of the pressure should be gone and there should be no problem of it bubbling over.
Suddenly, the cork was released with a small pop and bubbles started running down the side of the bottle. Lois covered her mouth over the opening and inhaled the fizzing bubbles as rapidly as she could gulp them down, but she could feel the sides of her mouth getting ready to break its seal around the bottle from the pressure of the bubbles. Leaning back on the floor, she tipped the bottle upwards until it was liquid she was swallowing instead of mostly air. She guzzled and swallowed until the pressure from the bottle ebbed. Taking one more gulp for good measure, Lois set the bottle on the floor and burped softly, ending with a jerky hiccup.
Surveying the 'damage' done, Lois saw that over one third of the bottle was already gone. Great. This was exactly what she *didn't* need now, a champagne buzz to go with her side order of goons. The bright spot was that she didn't spill a drop; her chin was a little wet but her appearance was still intact. Yeah, right! One look at her and she'd be a poster child for Lush's Anonymous. And did she really expect *not* to be dirty after crawling around the floor chasing after punch-drenched rocks? Ha!
Savoring the lingering taste in her mouth, she noted the champagne was delicious. Luthor wasn't stingy with the liquor he served at his affairs. She rubbed her stomach with her free hand; it was feeling sort of tickly in there. Raising her bottom slightly above the floor, she gingerly lay down on her side and propped her head up with her hand as she leaned on her elbow. May as well make herself comfortable while she waited for Joe Rockhead to get bored or distracted and leave. Plus, now that she was kicking back and waiting, it was easier to keep her eye on him since her line of sight from underneath the tablecloth was practically floor level.
She rolled the bottle on its edge and tilted it back and forth. As long as some nosy busybody didn't go around snooping under tables, she felt relatively safe. She gripped the bottle around the neck and took another small sip. It could be a long wait.
Lois was bored, bored, bored. She tried counting the bubble gum wads on the underside of the table, but that took a whopping time of two seconds since there were only four marks on the pressed wood where the wads had been almost scraped off. She'd succeeded in creating a whirligig from the champagne label. It now proudly hung on her 'ceiling', held there by a small piece of thread from the hem of her dress and the tiny remains of sticky gum that the hotel staff didn't scrub off.
Blowing softly at her paper chandelier, she watched it swirl around for the hundredth time. She'd underestimated the patience that the thug was displaying. He was still at his station, unwavering in his position as watch guard. A few minutes ago, she'd tried to slip out the back of the table next to the wall to creep away into the crowd, but her table was the center of attention now that Luthor had finished his speech. The orchestra had started playing again and people, with their sharp heels and heavy shoes, were everywhere. She had to be sure not to get too close to the edge of the tablecloth or risk getting kicked in the face. The few times that she'd dared to peep out, her sentry was still in place. Plus, the floor was starting to sway a bit when she moved around, so she decided it was rather prudent to stay still and try to think her way out of her latest predicament.
It really hadn't been that long since she'd first crawled under the table — how much time did it take to tear a damp champagne bottle label into a continuous circle? What was driving her crazy was that Clark was out there thinking that she'd deserted him or had fallen off the face of the earth. She was trying to stay alert for the sound of his voice because if she could only get his attention and then he could help her. That was just wonderful… she thought with a frown — since when had she come to rely on anyone this much?
Since today. Since she first saw those kind gentle eyes and handsome smiling face and had fallen head over heels in lo… infatuation with him. Since she'd been held in his arms and had danced the evening away; and since she had been so thoroughly kissed by him.
She sighed dreamily and took another sip from her bottle. He really was a great kisser — the best she'd had in a long time. As a matter of fact, the best she'd had — ever. Nothing like slow passionate kisses under a starry sky. Hmmm… their first kiss. What would their second and third be like? Probably just as spectacular as the first, she concluded as she closed her eyes and savored the tasty liquid in her mouth. Wonder how much more of this stuff Luthor had in his stash and where she could find it? But she couldn't forget about the toe curler in Lex's office. Technically, that one was their first kiss, but Clark was forced into it in covering up for her.
A few moments ago during her failed getaway expedition, she'd found some spare foil on the floor. If there were some decent light under here, it would be twinkly and shiny, just like the stars she and Clark kissed underneath. Stars. Her ceiling needed stars. For the next couple of minutes, she fashioned stars from the foil and stuck them — without touching the used gum — to the bubble gum remnants. Now her sky was complete, although it was undetermined what her whirligig represented — it was pretty regardless of what she had to work with. All she needed now was Clark…
She caught a glimpse of her legs sticking out from the gathered skirt around her waist. She had always been rather proud of them — long and shapely — and had considered them to be one of her most attractive physical features. She'd worked hard enough to whip her body into shape and was fairly pleased with the results. Would Clark find them attractive? Probably not now in the way she was laid out like a floozy on a dance hall's floor.
Matter of fact, she *felt* like a floozy; the champagne bottle in her hand may as well be replaced by a beer bottle. 'Ninety-Nine Bottles of Beer' would be more appropriate than the ballroom music filling the room now. She began humming softly to herself, gently swinging her bottle in time to the music in her head.
Clark hovered in the clouds until he could zip down quickly and land without notice. A would-be mugger had been thwarted and safely delivered to the first police officer he could find. He stayed with the victim until her ride arrived; she absolutely did not want to fly with him because of her fear of heights. He was understanding and supportive of her decision not to fly, but it was terribly hard waiting around when he could take her to safety in a few moments.
But at last he touched down on the roof of the Lexor Hotel and wound his way downstairs to the ballroom. First order of business was to find Lois. Then he needed to get her out of here so they could talk about what happened between them earlier. Although he was ninety-nine percent thrilled that they shared that kiss earlier, a tiny part of him was still bothered by the fact that they hadn't even mentioned his duel identities.
Now that he was separated from her — and his senses weren't clouded by her mere presence — her different conduct towards him tonight was very puzzling. Her behavior seemed a bit off from his past encounters with Lois. She was more flirty, more touchy than when he had been with her before as Kal. Did her knowing his real identity change that much between them? Not that it was a bad change, on the contrary, it was very thrilling, but he wished he knew the reason why she'd changed her mind.
He frowned as he worked his way through the crowd. The place where he had last seen Lois was at the refreshment tables. Hopefully she hadn't strayed very far and he'd be able to locate her quickly. Clark tuned in his super hearing and listened for her heartbeat. Sure enough, it grew louder when he approached the back of the large room. But where was she? He was just about to slip his glasses down his nose and take a peek when he was interrupted by a voice at his side.
"I trust that you're having a good time with the lovely Ms. Lane," Luthor chirped as he fell into step with Clark.
Clark stopped as he reached the refreshment table and turned to face Luthor, puzzled about why Luthor couldn't seem to keep his nose out of his personal business. His ears were still ringing from the mayor's voice shouting in his ear since his super hearing had been activated while listening for Lois. Didn't this man have a life? Why was he so interested in Lois? Of course! Temporary brain glitch! Luthor was suspicious of them! Still, it was better to keep up the ruse with the mayor.
"Lose your companion?" Lex asked suggestively, as he plopped a tiny crab cake into his mouth. After swallowing, he continued, "I would keep a better eye on her if I were you. You never can tell when someone will court her away from your side."
"Oh, I'm sure she'll be back soon," Clark replied with confidence, choosing to ignore Luthor. Actually, there was no telling where Lois was or what she was up to and that worried him. While Luthor was giving instructions to an attendant who passed by, Clark reactivated his hearing. His eyebrows rose in confusion, then his expression quickly turned to amusement. Lois. He'd found her and she was very close by; closer than he'd imagined and she was singing very softly to herself. His cheeks flushed with a slight blush as he discovered *what* she was singing about — him!
"Fiff-ty seven smoochies from Clark on my lips… " she sang unevenly. "Fiff-ty seven smoochies from Clark… "
What *was* she doing under a table for goodness sakes? Under another piece of furniture — again! And was her voice sounding a bit slurred?
"Must still be a young affair if discussing her still embarrasses you. Come now, Clark. Enjoying a beautiful woman's company is nothing to be distressed about."
"Excuse me?" Clark asked bewilderedly, unaware that Luthor had been studying his reaction.
<Clark!> Lois thought with a start at the mention of Clark's name above her. He was out there and now she just had to get his attention. Swigging down the remnants of the bottle, she put it aside and peeked out from under the tablecloth to get the lay of the man. Or land. Black slacks, gray slacks and two sets of black shoes to choose from. Clark was wearing a black tux, she knew that for certain, but as for Luthor, she hadn't paid too much attention to notice. And even if she did notice before, details were kinda hard to remember right now.
Lois laid the bottle on its side and rested her head on the floor. The cold surface provided a welcome sensation to her muttled senses. She tried to cross her fingers for luck but they wouldn't work properly. Eyeballing the target carefully, she pushed the bottle slowly toward the owner of the black pants' shoes.
The bottle rolled the short distance to the target and struck the side of Clark's shoe with an easy nudge. Startled for just an instant, he quickly glanced down out of the corner of his eye to see what had bumped his shoe — a wine or champagne bottle! Its label was missing so he couldn't tell its origin. That could at least explain why Lois was sounding a bit strange, but not how she had happened to be hiding under furniture again. And drinking this time! Surely this was a caper that only Lois could tell about. Slowly, while trying not to be noticeable, he nudged the bottle back under the table, hopeful that Lois would get the hint that he knew she was there. But now he had to get rid of Luthor.
"It's quite contradictory to participate in blatant, amorous displays in public and then be bashful when someone comments on it," Luthor piped up, continuing his intrusive line of conversation.
Clark narrowed his eyes slightly, his full attention back to determining what point Luthor was trying to make. Once again, he felt the bottle lightly hit his shoe. Man, she was persistent! Clark shifted his weight to his other foot and edged the bottle back under the table, but this time he keep his foot in place. The tablecloth rested against leg and he hoped that it would prevent Lois from revealing herself before he had a chance to help her out.
"Is that spoken from experience, mayor, or just wishful thinking?" Clark quipped, feeling the warmth in his face return as Lois' wandering fingers began to tickle his ankle.
"Wishful in that I wanted this to be a civilized affair… This hotel does provide rooms for paying customers…" Luthor replied off-handedly.
"Whatever relationship that Lois and I share is none of your business, mayor," Clark replied. Even though Lois was being a distraction, he wasn't about to let Luthor keep throwing insinuations at him.
"I was just thinking it would be absolutely fascinating for the Daily Planet to do a human interest piece on the quality of the rooms. It would be good for business and alas, good for your blossoming romance."
"I'm not going to dishonor any woman by taking her to a cheap hotel room, mayor." Clark let out a stiff laugh. "That may be your blueprint for a lasting relationship, but not mine. But let's say we go ahead with your idea for that article: I'll even give you research credit since you're so keen on the project."
Luthor shot an appraising look at Clark, then shook his head. "Really, Kent! It was all in jest," he retorted back. He looked at Clark for a couple of seconds longer, then nodded his head to a man standing nearby and moved on through the crowd. The thug waited a couple of seconds, then followed Luthor to a private room off the ballroom.
At last Clark could turn his attention to Lois. He swept around to the other side of the table near the wall and crouched down out of sight from the crowd. Before he could look underneath the table, the cloth was lifted up suddenly as a small hand reached out and grabbed his bowtie. Clark lost his balance as a slim figure pulled him under.
He was temporarily flustered as he landed on his backside, but didn't resist Lois as she hauled him beneath the table. She must have a reason for hiding if she'd stayed under here for any length of time so he felt he shouldn't resist — not that he had any kind of defense against her.
Half laying on his back and half on his side, he found a pair of brown, wide doe eyes inches from his face studying him intently. Lois was sitting cross-legged on the floor, her dress bunched up above the curve of her knees; she was leaning slightly forward to avoid hitting the underside of the table. One hand was supporting her weight and he could still feel the warmth of her hand through his shirt. His mouth went dry. Her time spend under the table had caused her dress to become slightly disarranged and she was revealing more of her body than when they'd been dancing before. Not entirely a bad thing, Clark thought as he gulped noisily, but it was definitely disturbing. Definitely disturbing the way her hair was starting to fall around her shoulders in a ruffled sort of manner. Her appearance was rumpled, but her eyes were shining — she looked utterly adorable.
"Hi there," she greeted shyly. The low husky tone in her voice sent shivers through Clark's body.
"Hi!" he answered, feeling a bit cornered but not wanting to move away for all the oolong tea in China. She fingered his bow tie for a couple of seconds then dropped her hand into her lap.
"Glad to see you could take a hint," she said a bit defensively, suddenly feeling very vulnerable in his company again.
"I came as soon as I could," Clark answered, a bit wary of the slight sarcasm in her tone, but he noticed she was toying with the material of her skirt, apparently feeling a bit awkward.
Lois was in near panic mode. She'd been thinking about Clark practically the whole time she'd been under the table and now that he was here, she didn't know what to do with him. The combination of the champagne and his presence was almost overwhelming and she wasn't sure how to act now that he was here.
Oh no! she thought. Clark couldn't know that she was feeling tipsy. Great reporters didn't get inebriated when they were tracking down leads. She'd just have to find a way compensate.
"Didn't really need your help; I just had to be by myself for a little while," she blurted, then mentally kicked herself for the lame excuse.
"I see," Clark replied quietly. An internal battle of some sorts was rampaging its way through Lois' mind and he thought it would be wise to play it safe until he could figure out what direction it was storming. He could smell the sweet champagne on her breath and was almost positive that that might be the cause of her standoffish behavior.
"See what?" she said tersely, then bunched the fistful of dress material into a tighter ball. Out of the corner of her eye, she spied the empty bottle and covered it quickly with the folds of her dress. "I don't see anything."
Clark smiled amusedly to himself. She wasn't fooling him. He glanced upwards and noticed the whirligig and star decorations.
"What's this?" he asked, giving her the patented Killer Kent smile.
She stared at him for a few blissful moments until registering what he was talking about. Her decorations! Arrgh! He'd found those sophomoric trimmings of her idle imagination and now she was totally embarrassed. She reached up hastily and snatched the whirligig dangling from its string and hid it behind her back, then reached up to rip the foil stars from their places.
After managing to take a couple of stars down, her hand was caught and held by a large warm one.
"Hey! Don't take them down," he entreated her. "Looks like this was home away from home."
"I didn't make them because I was tipsy or anything," she blurted, then held her breath when she realized that she'd had another slip of the tongue.
"I didn't say that you were tipsy," Clark assured her. Now he was positive what was causing her odd behavior — she was embarrassed to be caught in her little underworld.
"I'm not," she said convincingly, then involuntarily hiccupped.
"I didn't think so." He squeezed her hand and gave her an affectionate gaze. Allowing her hand to relax in his for a few seconds, she grew mesmerized under his gentle look and felt the glimmer of magic returning between them.
Another hiccup shook her body, drawing her out of the trance that Clark was casting over her. She pulled her hand away as a fit of conscience or more likely, loose lips from the alcohol, swept over her. "Okay! I admit it! I had some champagne."
"Some?" Clark reached behind her and pulled the bottle from underneath her skirt that was laying on the floor. The look in her eyes was utter dismay when she saw the bottle in his hand.
"I wanted one little sip, then the whole thing started bubbling all over the place, so I *had* to drink it or I'd have champagne everywhere, because if I ever got out of here you'd probably be thinking that I was an alcoholic like my mother. Now everything's ruined… " she whimpered, staring down at her hand. She was glad of the semi-darkness that hid the flush in her cheeks.
"What's ruined, Lois?"
"Us! This night! You probably wish you'd never met me," she blurted, wishing her mouth wouldn't keep betraying her. "I look horrible, been making silly decorations out of trash and I'm halfway drunk. Now I've pulled you down in the gutter with me too." She turned her back to him and sat still. Her emotions were all over the place and she didn't know how to control them. "And you probably don't like me any more."
A warm arm wrapped itself around her waist and she felt herself being pulled a few inches along the floor, her upper back coming to rest against a firm chest. His gentle voice sent shivers down her spine as he spoke into her hair. "I still like you, Lois. Very much." He rested his head against hers from behind and tightened his arm around her ever so slightly.
"Really? Even though I'm a mess from sitting here forever and I have hiccups?"
"Absolutely," he whispered against her neck. He wanted to press his mouth against the baby soft skin which was merely a slight turn of his head away, but refrained — for now. "Tell me about your decorations."
She relaxed a bit and leaned her head back so it was resting in the crook of his neck. "They reminded me of our dance… and when we kissed. I wish we could go back…" She mentally clenched her heart as she realized she'd spoken her feelings out loud, but surprisingly, Clark didn't bolt or run away at her confession. Instead, she felt him swaying to and fro.
"Dancing? Like this?" His voice was deep and husky. "I thought it was wonderful too."
"Mmmm… under-the-table dancing. Who'd have thunk it?" she sighed as she began to sway with him.
His arm loosened from around her waist for a moment as he found a stray star and replaced it on her ceiling.
"Thanks for understanding." He was so irresistibly near and she pressed her lips against the soft skin under his jaw. She felt the muscles under her mouth contract and stretch and imagined his smile.
"Why are you under this table? What's going on?" he asked quietly, feeling his pulse quicken from the heat that her tiny kisses were generating.
"A goon is standing out there watching for me." She waved a hand in the general direction of the back of the room and slipped from Clark's arms to peek under the tablecloth again. "He's still there."
"That's funny; I didn't see anyone standing out there before." He looked down at Lois who was now laying beneath him; she had rolled into that position after checking on her pesky sentry. His eyes closed briefly as her hand began lightly exploring the contours of his face.
"Why is he looking for you?" he asked, struggling to not to let his emotions and body take control as he drifted closer to her.
"Oooh… He's after some shiny rock." She could feel his breath fanning her face and it sent shivers down her spine. Her fingers ached to do some more exploring, and seeming to have a mind of its own, her hand wandered to his broad neck, tangling itself into his thick hair. With the span of it kneading softly, the texture of his skin and hair felt luxurious even to her slightly dulled senses. She felt his inaudible moan from the vibrations beneath her hand and slight tightening of his arm now resting gently on the curve of her waist.
Clark closed his eyes in self defense. He didn't stand a chance between her touch and the heated look in her eyes. It could be so easy to forget everything — their very public location, all that Lois had told him about her previous relationships, the fact that she had been drinking and the questions that still lingered in his mind about whether she knew he was Kal. It wouldn't take much to lose what was left of his rational thoughts; right now, as she was caressing his face, he wanted to do just that.
Swallowing hard, he covered her hand with his and brought it down to a safer place near his heart. Now he could open his eyes again. "Lois, we need to start thinking about how to get out of here. *And* we have a lot to talk about…"
She pulled her hand away from his and propped herself up on her hand facing him. Another Federal disaster was about to come crashing down on her and this time it would be her fault for being such a ditz. She should've known this was too good to be true. "Fine. I can take a hint," she sighed. "You have better things to do than baby-sit some rookie you'd just met."
"Lois," he whispered as he rose to her level, realizing that she thought he'd rejected her. "There's nothing else I'd rather be doing than this…" He tilted her face towards his own and dropped a kiss on her lips. Still seeing the uncertainty in her eyes, he threaded his fingers through the disheveled tendrils laying on her bare shoulders and rested his forehead against hers. "I care for you too much to get carried away under here, with you, like this. Honey, it's been so special between us tonight…"
"Honey? Did you call me honey?" she interrupted. "I've never been anyone's 'honey' before. So do you think I'm too much trouble?"
He laughed softly. "Maybe my little tornado, but never too much trouble."
"Tornado? I can live with being your tornado." After allowing her eyes to meet his again, her doubts came flooding back. "And you're right, we do need to talk. There's something I need to show you, but not here. So I didn't ruin things between us by charging off on a wild tangent?"
"Not a chance…"
Her lowered inhibitions spoke up once again as she found herself wanting to tell Clark everything that was on her mind. Scooting up next to him, she resumed leaning her upperback in the cradle of his shoulder.
"This whole night has been so surreal and I don't know what's my imagination and what's reality." She rolled her head towards him and looked at him speculatively. "This *thing* between us — do you feel it too?"
Smiling tenderly at her, he answered, "Do you mean how the rest of the world fades into the background when we're in the same room, or that time stands still when I touch you, or…" he paused briefly, "Do I feel like I've come home when I kiss you?"
Her hand returned to his face again and she stroked his cheek. "All of the above," she murmured. "Just like now…"
"Can I kiss you one more time before we try to get out of here?" he asked in breathy tone of voice.
Nodding her head, the very air around them suddenly seemed electrified. It was too easy to get lost in the way he looked at her. As she felt his arm draw her closer to him, her lips parted involuntarily. She quivered at the sweet tenderness of his kiss; it was giving, more than taking, unhurried in its thoughtfulness, slowly building as she roused his passion, and hers grew along with it.
They broke apart slowly, Lois opened her eyes to see Clark laying flat on his back on the floor, head slightly raised and his eyes telling her everything that he was feeling, even in the muted light. Somehow in the middle of passion, she had been pulled on top of his chest and both his arms were wrapped securely around her upper body. She smiled at him, then buried her face into the hollow of his neck. His arms tightened protectively around her and she sighed contentedly — all was well.
Carried away by her response to their kiss, she had failed to feel her foot kick the bottle out from under the table…
The evening had been quite a success, for the most part, Luthor thought as he sipped his champagne. The next few months as mayor of Metropolis should prove to be a cakewalk. He should be able to accomplish anything, within certain reason, during the last months of his tenure. An outgoing mayor quite often had the sentimental advantage of the public over any uncertain newcomer who would be voted in next. He was looking forward to ending this phase of his career and moving onward to more ambitious projects.
The men he had hired to retrieve the rock from Baines' apartment had been here at his ball, unfortunately. Although he was pleased and a bit relieved that they were successful in their assignment, they were bordering on being out of control and that disturbed him. Fortunately, he had met with them briefly in order to do some damage control and ordered them to go to the warehouse and stay put. He was anxious to get a first hand look at the elusive Element X later that night.
During his quiet musings, a movement on the floor caught his eye and he turned to see a bottle roll from under the table followed by a quick glimpse of a woman's shoe. A glimmer of panic froze on his insides — could this be someone looking to cause trouble? Or almost worse, trying to scandalize his social event? Not for long! Not if he had anything to say about it!
In an instant, he was at the table and lifting up the tablecloth. His jaw dropped in shock as he immediately recognized the couple laying in a very compromising position on the floor. Not *too* risqu,, Lois Lane was basically being embraced by Clark Kent — fully clothed — but the fact that they were laying on the floor under a table in a public place, *his* place, made him see red. But as quickly as his anger rose, it was immediately replaced by a smug attitude at seeing the upstanding reporter in a less than honorable arrangement.
In a gut reaction to being discovered, Lois scrambled to her feet, but not before falling on top of Clark's chest in the process. Clark's face was turning beet-red, even under the lowered lights of the ball room, she could see how horrified he was at being discovered in this position. This was all her fault and she needed to try to rectify the situation.
"Oh, Kent! How disgusting!" Luthor rebuked, shaking his head in condescension. "You could have taken your little tryst downstairs… tsk, tsk."
Trying to ease his embarrassment as well as hers, Lois straightened her dress and held her hand out to Clark. "Great idea, mayor! Clark, let's continue our *wrestling* lesson elsewhere!" She held her chin up and bumped the table with her hip to push it aside for Clark. But unfortunately, the nudge was just a bit too hard and the table tipped over with a loud crash.
A camera flashed just as she lost her balance on her heels and tumbled onto Clark once again.
The thug Lois had nicknamed 'Rockhead' nervously tapped his foot as he waited for his higher-up to give him the signal. He had returned from his position in the back of the ball room and was now getting impatient for some action. The pesky woman who had taken the rock apparently had left the building and wasn't going to be found any time soon, so that threw him and his compadres into a tailspin. Luthor was expecting to see the Element X tonight after this stuffy old ball and they no longer had it in their possession. Now they had come up with a sketchy Plan B and hopefully the 'B' didn't stand for 'bad' or 'boneheaded'. But after all the things that had gone wrong that night, it was about time that something happened according to plan.
Some sort of commotion happened in the main room right before his leader gave the signal to start. Rockhead slipped the ski mask over his head and charged ahead with his associates.
The room was interrupted by three masked gunman bursting through the doors. Guarding their backs, they ran sideways along the wall to the back of the room. The crowd shrunk back from their presence, some gasping in horror while others screamed.
As they neared the area of the room where Lois and Clark were in a tangled mess on the floor, one gunman, Rockhead, recognized Lois as the woman he was looking for and grabbed her just after she had disengaged from Clark and had managed to stand upright.
"Nobody moves or the babe gets it!" Joe Rockhead shouted bravely, waving his gun wildly as he held Lois with his arm wrapped around her throat. If he held her as a hostage, then after they executed their plan here, he could extract the whereabouts of the rock from her. Of course if they had the rock, they didn't need to execute Plan B, but this was getting confusing; he'd worry about that later.
"Hey stupid! What are ya doin'?" protested the disguised McInnis, the ringleader. "Let her go!"
"Yeah, do what he says," Lois interjected, trying to wriggle out of his grasp. "What do you want from us?" Lois spewed as she tried to loosen the hold on her neck.
McInnis answered arrogantly, "Listen, we want the mayor. He comes with us or the little woman gets bumped off!" On second thought, he realized, the woman would be a nice insurance policy — he reached out and grabbed Lois from Joe. He motioned for the other two gunmen to get Luthor. "Keep still, doll, and you won't get hurt."
The third gunman grabbed Luthor just as he was beginning to back away and started struggling with him.
Joe Rockhead stood there staring for a moment watching the struggle until McInnis motioned for him to do something.
"How dare you lay your filthy hands…" Luthor blurted indignantly. Grinnng broadly beneath his ski mask, Joe hit Lex over the head with the butt of his gun and the mayor slumped backwards.
Clark felt helpless for the moment. When the gunman came upon the scene, he instinctively started scooting on the floor hoping to slip out of the room so he could turn into Superman, but when the gunman seized Lois, his heart dropped. He couldn't reveal that he was Superman, not in front of the crowd. But he had to try to leave; there was a better chance of saving her as Superman he thought as he continued his slow move toward the entrance.
Seeing that all eyes were occupied elsewhere, Clark took the opportunity to inch his way to a private room off the ballroom. He was almost there, when the mayor was clouted on the head. He super sped a short distance out as Clark and in again as Superman.
Everyone gasped as they realized Superman had arrived. Lois' eyes were wide with fear from being held captive, but excitement shone in them also as she laid eyes on her friend Kal.
"Superman!" she barely whispered.
The gunman holding Lois appeared shaken. Apparently in their lack of planning, they didn't account for the super hero's appearance or simply forgot about his debut yesterday. Quickly, McInnis recovered his composure and asserted his authority.
"Let's see what our new boy scout is made of." He motioned for one of the other gunman, Joe, who fired a round of bullets directly at Clark's chest, but he caught them all swiftly, crushed them in his fist and let them slowly trickle onto the ground. The crowd gasped loudly, first in fear, then in amazement after seeing their super hero dispose of the bullets in record time.
"Way to go, Superman!" Lois yelled in triumph, then tried to jab the thug in the side with her elbow.
"Don't do anything stupid, please!" Superman spoke edgily, more to Lois than the perpetrator. She wasn't helping his cause by antagonizing her captor. His heart was in his throat, but he tried not to let his voice give him away.
McInnis backed up slowly until he reached a large window on the wall perpendicular to the balcony. He fumbled with opening the window and backed Lois out until her shoulders were leaning precariously over the edge. It was a straight drop down and she clutched at the thug's arm as he carelessly slung her over the window sill.
"One move, Spaceman, and the lady gets it before she goes flying!" He grew a little taller knowing he had an advantage over the super hero. "You two, take Luthor outta here," McInnis scowled. "Now!"
Joe 'Rockhead' stood stunned as he tried to wave at McInnis who was throwing the *rock* along with the woman out of the window. He sputtered a protest at the command, "But… but!"
The crowd parted as they dragged the mayor through.
The tall gunman waited till his fellow cohorts were out of the room. "Superman, you follow us, and the good mayor dies."
With a sudden shove, the ringleader pushed Lois out of the window and ran for the door.
Lois felt herself falling and falling, as in a dream when you are trying to scream and rendered speechless. Terror flooded her soul as she waited for ground to end her plummeting. Suddenly she was falling no more but changing directions as two strong arms circled around her and lifted her to safety. Her eyes were clinched tight and she found herself being placed gingerly on the floor of the reception hall once again. She opened her eyes to find herself looking into the very concerned eyes of Superman.
"Are you alright?" Clark steadied her with his hands on her shoulders.
"Ka… Superman," Lois gasped. She leaned against him and whispered so only he could hear. "I'm so glad you're here." She felt his arms tighten protectively around her and she welcomed his embrace.
Before he could speak to her, someone yelled, "The gunman! They're getting away!"
"Later," he mouthed to her. Superman whirled around and was out of her sight once again.
Someone offered her a chair and she sat down gratefully. "Can I get you something? A drink?" A well-wisher asked her as they shoved a cup of coffee into her hands. "Are you okay?"
"Oh, I'm fine, thanks to Superman!" Lois felt her heart beating wildly, but not all of it was from almost falling out of a fifty-five story hotel window. She had found her friend again and was surprised by the strong emotions that overcame her.
Lois sipped her drink slowly and waited for her head and heart to stop pounding so hard. The fall from the window had almost sobered her up completely. The adrenaline was starting to ebb and all she was left with was the beginnings of a killer headache. The hovering around her had stopped as attention was drawn on the disappearance of the mayor. People were scurrying around in shock, a couple of older women appeared to be in worse shape than she was, fanning themselves furiously while their husbands fawned over them. They hadn't had the wonderful experience of being thrown out of a window by a mad gunman, Lois thought disgustedly.
The police had started to arrive and she knew that soon they would start questioning her. Where was Clark? She looked around the hall for him and couldn't locate him. Why, she hadn't seen him since the gunmen stormed in! It surprised her that he wasn't there at her side, especially the way that they had stuck together this evening.
Her stomach hit bottom as a horrible thought crossed her mind. The gunmen! Could they have taken Clark also? After all, he had been seen with her earlier preceding the table being overturned. Was this some other plot they'd devised in order to obtain that rock. She discreetly touched the place between her breasts and felt for the small object. In all her tipsy stupor, she'd put off telling Clark about it. She jumped to her feet and frantically started to look for him.
"Excuse me," a male voice intruded into her thoughts. "Are you the lady who fell out of the window?"
"What? I'm looking for someone. Have you seen him?" Lois said desperately to the police officer. "And I didn't fall out, I was pushed out; there is a difference. Now have you seen my date?"
"Looking for who, lady? There are close to five hundred people here." This woman was obviously two slices short of a pizza.
"Let me put it to you another way; did the gunmen take anyone else?" Lois' temper gauge was becoming short and her nostrils were starting to flare.
"No, not to my knowledge. But then I wouldn't be at liberty to tell you. Police business, you know." The officer said standing there patting his gun.
Lois rolled her eyes, then regarded the gun nervously. "Is that thing loaded and if so, how many bullets do you have in it?"
"Six. If I were forced to use it, there'd be six dead bodies on the ground."
Lois almost groaned out loud. "Listen, you Barney Fife wannabe, I need to know if my… date was kidnapped; he's missing. Tall guy, dressed in a black tux, gorgeous, great kisser?"
"TMI, or in your case, WTMI. Way Too Much Information — I mean about the alleged gorgeous and kissing allegations. That's just a matter of opinion," he droned. "Besides, that description describes most of the men here. If I were wearing a tuxedo, you could very well be talking about me. So let's stick to the facts and spare me the gory details."
"Are you out of your gourd, guard? Comparing yourself to him is like 'before' and 'after'. You are the 'before' and he is the 'after'. The way, *way* after."
"Just a matter of opinion; my wife would disagree with you. Lady, did you try the men's room?"
Lois' eyes flashed at his suggestion. "What! I don't think so, I'm not that type of person, you pervert."
"Settle down, Miss. Name calling is not going to get you anywhere. Especially with an officer of the law. He's probably around here, or he's left to do something. Now tell me, other than you, what went down," the officer said unemotionally.
Hoping she was just overreacting, Lois proceeded to tell him what happened.
Clark flew over the city searching for the gunmen/kidnappers. They had completely disappeared by the time he started looking for them, which was amazing in itself because there couldn't have been more than a minute's lapse from the time the gunman pushed Lois out of the window to the time he left her standing in the reception hall. This appeared to be a well thought out plan, disappearing with a prominent politician in the middle of the huge social event shouldn't have happened; it was a brazen, bold move.
Knowing he wasn't going to find them anytime soon, Clark felt a desperate need to find out how Lois was doing. He landed on the balcony and found his way through the crowd. The look on her face still haunted him as she was falling; he hoped he never had to see that look on her face again.
He flew back into the reception hall and started searching for her. He saw her talking to a policeman; she appeared to be fine, but restless. He waited till she was finished, then he approached her.
In a voice loud enough to be overheard, he called out, "Excuse me! Are you all right now?"
She whirled around and caught his eye. Lois knew that they were in public and had to keep a low profile on the fact that she knew Kal personally, so she collected herself before answering. "Yes, Superman, I'm fine, I think."
He was surprised seeing a peculiar gleam in her eyes before falling into his arms, feigning a collapse. "Hey, it's okay," he murmured while tentatively patting her back. "Did he hurt you?"
"No, I'm fine, but… " She lowered her voice to a desperate whisper. "I have to talk to you."
"What is it, Lois?"
He could feel her head moving and felt her attention wasn't solely on him; she was looking for something or someone?
"Oh, Kal!!! He's missing!! I need you to find someone! His name's Clark Kent!"
Clark Kent! She wanted him, as Kal, to find his other identity, Clark. She didn't know! Lois still thought he was two separate people! He felt his stomach clench in a tight ball as he realized the implications of this revelation.
"Come on!" he whispered urgently, then scooped her up in his arms, taking advantage of her fake fainting spell. To a police officer, he asked, "Is it okay if I take this woman to her home to rest? She's been through a lot."
At the officer's nod, he flew slowly out into the night, then once he was clear of people and obstructions began heading towards Lois' apartment.
As soon as she realized that he was leaving the ball, Lois began a tirade of protests. "Kal, we can't leave yet! I don't know if he's been kidnapped or hurt! You've got to work with me here!"
"I'm sure he's fine, Lois. The kidnappers only took the mayor." His jaw was set firm and his head was spinning at the implications this revelation. He hovered in the air outside her apartment and blew the window open. Once inside, he set Lois down and she continued firing her line of questioning at him.
"But how can you be so sure, Kal?"
"Do you trust me, Lois?" he asked almost desperately, disturbed by the notion that he had already broken her trust by kissing her. How was he going to continue this conversation with her before thinking things through? What had he done? He sat down hard on her sofa and leaned his head onto his hands.
Lois scurried over to sit by him and said anxiously, "Of course I trust you, Kal. What's going on?"
He sighed, then looked up plaintively to answer. "Things have gotten complicated."
His words seemed to spark a fire under her. "Complicated! Tell me about it! If ever I needed my best friend, it's now. I've met someone, this guy Clark, and it's confusing the heck out of me."
"I've been acting so stupid around him. Like I've never even left high school," she blurted, trying to downplay her actual feelings for Clark in front of Kal. After all, she had told him that she wasn't ready for any type of relationship other than friendship and here she was only a few days later practically falling in love with someone else. "I'm glad you and I are just friends because I know I'll never act that juvenile in front of you."
Clark closed his eyes in frustration, then asked, "Lois, what are you saying?"
She began pacing up and down the small floor of her living room. "I don't know, Kal. All I know right now is that I have a splitting headache from drinking too much champagne, I'm going nuts over not knowing if this man I've just met has been kidnapped, *and* that I was caught with said man in a compromising position under a refreshment table in the middle a prestigious social event. This is nuts!!! I must be completely out of my mind!"
Clark watched with growing trepidation as Lois beat a path back and forth across the carpet in front of him. Stunned. He felt stunned. How was he going to tell Lois that it was he who was kissing her under the table in the ballroom? And that he had broken his promise to just stay friends? Not that he did it willingly — he thought she had recognized him. But just watching her wrestling with the turmoil she was going through — because of him, he noted with a wince — was enough to make him almost wish that tonight had never happened, that the moments they shared, the wonderful kisses, had never taken place. Almost.
How could she not know it was him? Was his disguise that effective? And what was she feeling now about what had happened between her and Clark Kent?
A hand waved in front of his face, startling him out of his disturbing thoughts.
"Kal. Kal?" Lois' voice rung in his ears. "Will you do it?"
"Um.. er.. do what?"
"Go check on Clark Kent for me. He was the reporter who wrote all those great editorials about you before you became Superman. You owe him. Somebody will know who he is; he's a famous reporter. You shouldn't have any trouble finding him if he's still at the ball."
Noting that this was his chance to get away for a few moments to come up with a direction on where to go next, Clark stood to his feet and said quickly, "I'll be right back."
Seeing her face looking so distraught with worry about his other identity, caused him to reach out and give her a brief hug. He felt her lean up against him for an instant, then she drew away first.
"Thanks… for being such a great friend." She stepped back further from him and Clark felt the space grow further between them than just the distance. She smiled quickly at him, then returned her thoughts within herself, biting her lip in concentration. "I'm not sure if I'm ready to see him again just yet, but I need to know if he's safe. And he needs to know I'm okay too."
He flew slowly out of the window but didn't go very far. The roof where he had sat a couple of nights ago trying to work up enough courage before showing Lois his new suit seemed to be about as far as he wanted to go for the time being.
He'd have to do some quick thinking because he needed to return to her soon with the news that Clark Kent was well and accounted for. But should that news be that Clark was okay or in the form of a revelation that *he* was Clark Kent? How would she react after all they had shared this evening? It turned his heart that she was so concerned about his well-being, yet she said she wasn't ready to see him again.
It *had* been a beautiful evening… she had even admitted it earlier when they were under the table. She had even been the first to bring up the incredible bond that they'd both felt all night. But could it have been the champagne talking instead? She seemed reluctant to want to see him again… maybe she was having second thoughts about the whole night.
He scooted back on the roof and leaned restlessly against the chimney behind him. How could she want that type of relationship with 'Clark' and yet say earlier that she only wanted to be friends with 'Kal'? Maybe it was her way of telling him that she couldn't be anything but friends with an alien. That had to be it! She didn't know that Clark was from another world and therefore allowed herself to differently about him, but from the beginning, she knew that this man she'd met in the night was different, from someplace unknown… a freak!
From the beginning of their friendship a few days ago, he had felt this bond between them; it had been with him the whole time he had known her. But it was only until tonight, when she thought that he was an ordinary man, that she felt it also. Or had acknowledged it. Even more disturbing was the thought that she had felt it and refused to accept it because of what he was, an alien.
How could he have ever thought that he would be able to maintain an ordinary life? He'd found the woman he loved and now it appeared that she was only attracted to the common everyday man side of himself. He supposed he should be thankful that she wasn't dazzled by his powers, but that was a small comfort considering that she couldn't look at him, complete with powers, any other way than as a friend.
He wasn't sure what he was supposed to do. A tiny matter of business needed to be taken care of before he saw Lois again. He hoped that when he was in her presence again, he would know what to tell her. He shot up into the night silently and headed for his apartment.
Lois felt the rush of wind brush the hair from her face as Kal flew off. It was startling to realize that she had practically ordered him to go find Clark; she hadn't even thanked him yet for rescuing her from being pushed out of the Lexor Hotel's window earlier.
Just because she was worried about Clark didn't mean she should treat Kal poorly. Staring at the window again where he had disappeared, she willed him to come back soon. She'd make it up to him when he came back.
Clark. What was she going to do about Clark? The intimacy that they had shared at the ball was too good to be true. There had to be a catch somewhere. She snorted to herself as another realization struck her — once again, someone whom she had been getting involved with had disappeared. Unwittingly perhaps, but he was nowhere to be found when she had needed him earlier.
Maybe she just brought out the worst in men. Clark probably had bolted from her the first chance he got after thinking about the new lows she had made him stoop to. Making out under a refreshment table at a ball. No wonder he had run!
No, she didn't really believe that he would do that. Not Clark! She had to believe in one more chance at a relationship. She had to believe that he was different and in spite of the alcohol that she'd drunk that night, the magic between them had existed.
Clark would have a reasonable explanation on why he disappeared. He *had* to! Her judge of character couldn't be all bad. Well, not counting Claude and the couple of other relationships that had been total catastrophes, but that wasn't the point. The point was that… well, she hated to admit it, but she was falling hard for the big reporter and she couldn't just write him off because of her insecurities.
Those fears had been returning to her all day long — from the dream in City Hall, the dance with Luthor when she finally realized the reason she disliked the mayor was that he reminded her of Claude, and during her confession to Clark on the balcony when the memories during that time with Claude had vividly returned.
Did she have it in her to trust one more time?
The way that Clark kissed her, held her and looked at her wasn't anything like she had experienced in the past and she *had* to believe in him — in them. One more time, one more chance; it couldn't be just her imagination. He had even admitted that he felt the same way. Surely words said weren't always spoken in truth, but Clark wasn't like the others; he couldn't be.
A breeze from her window jostled her out of musings and she turned her head to see Kal landing softly inside once more. The sight of her ignored friend conflicted her heart. Willing the situation about Clark from her mind, she stepped towards him and reached out to grab his hand. Before she could open her mouth to tell him she was sorry, he thrust a note into her reaching hands.
"Here… this is from Clark. He's safe and wanted you to have this," he stared down at her curiously, studying her reaction.
The note was simple; it merely read:
Sorry I missed you and so glad you're safe.
Had to see what I could do to help out.
Call me. 555-1006
She sighed in relief, grasping the note in her hand, then grinned to herself that Clark was at it again, playing hero to whoever needed it.
Wistfully, she sighed again and dreamily spoke aloud, "You should see him, Kal, up close. He's the most magnificent figure of a man I've ever…"
Clark glanced down at her, annoyed. "Sounds like he made quite an impression on you."
Lois looked a bit puzzled, "He did… why? Are you jealous?"
"Of Clark Kent? Should I be?" he asked with more edge in his voice than he intended. He was slightly taken aback that this held a glimmer of the truth — he was becoming jealous of himself. How absurd!
"Of course you shouldn't be, that's ridiculous," she blurted, missing completely the irritation laced in his words.
Distracted by the relief that Clark was okay and not abandoned in an alley somewhere beaten and bruised, she quickly reread the note that Kal had given her, then clasped it to her chest, accidentally brushing up against the small rock concealed in-between her breasts.
The rock!! In all her worrying about Clark, she'd forgotten to tell Kal about the rock. Whirling towards him, she plunged her hand beneath the inside of her dress.
Caught off guard by her sudden move, Clark looked away in embarrassment.
"Kal, you've got to see this! I can't believe I haven't shown it to you yet… "
He shuffled his feet, wondering what in the world Lois was going to get him into this time. Seemed like she was always one up on him, testing him… whether he was Kal or Clark, she could never rest for a single moment without challenging him one way or another. Now she was rooting around the front of her dress for something; he wished their relationship had progressed to the point to where he could ask her if she needed any help…
Suddenly, white hot pain coursed through his body, as dizzying waves of nausea hit his insides, buckling his knees involuntarily. He lurched forward and fell into Lois, crashing them both on the hard sofa.
"Kal!!" she cried, seeing his face contorted with pain as he clutched blindly at himself, writhing in agony. "What's wrong?"
Trapped underneath his heavy body, she tried wriggling out from beneath him. The eerie green rock accidentally brushed his hand as she moved, it having spilled onto the cushion after he pushed her backwards upon collapsing.
Lois heard Clark scream in agony as it touched his skin. The rock!! Could it be the rock that was causing Kal's pain? In a split second, she grabbed the rock and threw it out the window. Immediately, she felt him relax a tiny bit as she drew her arms around him and held him as his breathing returned to normal.
She couldn't move, not while he was on top of her, but at least she wasn't being crushed by his weight. His chest rested over hers and in fear and trembling, she held him tightly, feeling the reassuring movement of his breathing that was letting her know he was okay.
"Are you okay, Kal?" she asked after a moment.
She felt him stir a bit, struggling to rise so she helped him up into a sitting position.
"What happened?" he grimaced, testing his still aching muscles.
"I think it was that rock I was going to show you… Those guys who threw me out of the window were after it. I don't know what it is, but apparently it can hurt you."
"That's an understatement… Lois, that's the first time something like that's ever happened to me! I don't understand it!" he gasped. "My powers are gone…"
"Are you sure? Try something. Barbecue this magazine with your vision thingy," she ordered, holding one up at arm's length in front of him. "Just make it smoke; you don't have to incinerate the whole apartment."
Clark looked intently at the paper, then shook his head. "Can't do it."
"I thought that nothing could harm you… Kal, you're scaring me!" she said anxiously, the color draining from her face. "I'm so sorry! I didn't mean to hurt you!"
"It's okay… You didn't know. Maybe they'll come back," he said hopefully, but a little apprehension still flitted in his eyes. He leaned forward and tried to levitate, but nothing happened.
"I'm sure they will, Kal," she reassured him, but not knowing for certain.
"This rock? Did you have it the whole time you were flying with me?"
"Um… yeah, it was wrapped in foil and I had it in a safe place. You know *where*, don't you?" she said sheepishly.
"Uh, yeah! I was trying not to watch… Foil?" he asked, changing the subject quickly. "Why did you wrap it in foil?"
"It's the weirdest looking thing I've ever seen, Kal. It glows this really sick looking shade of green. I'm not sure whether it's man made or natural. It surely doesn't look like it comes from this world. But I didn't want it shining through my dress so I covered it with champagne foil…"
"Foil wraps… I believe those contain lead, or at least many of them do. The FDA placed a ban on lead wraps for wine bottles last year… The lead in the foil helps prevent insect infestation in the cork and…" Clark pondered out loud, remembering the story he had done for the Daily Planet a few months back.
"How would you know that? Are you a walking encyclopedia or what?" Lois asked curiously.
Caught slightly off guard, Clark realized he couldn't let her know about the story, just yet anyway, and scrambled to find an excuse. "Um… I did an extensive research on lead a few years back because it was the only substance I couldn't see through so I wanted to learn anything I could about it." That bit was true; but he hadn't learned about the lead foil until just last year.
"Oh, I guess that makes sense."
"It does? Uh, good. So where did you get this rock?"
"Well, you see there were these odd looking characters at the ball and I went to investigate them…" Lois proceeded to tell him the story about the goons and the punch bowl, and — minus the bit about Clark kissing her — how she was revealed after hiding under the table.
Clark shifted his position on the sofa and Lois noticed he still winced as he moved around.
"Still hurts?" she asked sympathetically.
"Just a bit… and you're okay? This thing doesn't affect you?" he said, stifling a huge yawn.
"No, other than making me sick to think of what it did to you," she replied defensively.
Smiling weakly at her, Clark closed his eyes and leaned back gratefully into the back of the sofa. He felt a cool hand brush his cheek, gently sweeping away the dizziness that remained.
Still stroking his forehead, she looked at his face after noticing that he had been awfully quiet and saw that he had fallen asleep. Good, she thought; that must mean he wasn't hurting anymore. His cape made an impromptu blanket as she pulled it around his shoulders and across his chest. Still, it didn't seem like enough, so she eased him down to lie across the cushions, tucked a small, albeit hard pillow under his head and covered him with a small throw blanket.
His eyes fluttered open for a second, but closed completely after she reassured him that it was all right to sleep. "Just rest, Kal," she whispered. "It's okay."
"Thanks, Lois," he mumbled and allowed the soothing strokes of her hand to carry him away to sleep.
Alone with her thoughts after tucking Kal in, she wandered to the window where the rock had disappeared.
Gazing downwards into the alleyway, she could barely make out the faint florescent glow of the small rock below. Omigosh! she thought. It just wouldn't do if someone else found it, especially if one of those thugs could trace her back here. She had to retrieve it and put it in a safe hiding place.
Foil or some type of lead wrapping needed to be found so Kal could be protected until she could find out what this stuff was and why it was so valuable. On second thought, maybe it was better to find some other hiding place for the stuff; the goons could possibly find out where she lived and ransack her apartment. Well, she was going to be one up them this time.
She raced to her bedroom and changed out of her now-soiled gown into a comfortable pair of dark jeans and sweatshirt, glad to be rid of the cumbersome dress. After putting her sneakers on, she sat gingerly down on the edge of the sofa and stared at Kal.
Her friend. He had rescued her again today and she still hadn't thanked him for saving her life. She had been too busy mooning over Clark. If criminals knew that there was a substance out there that could hurt the superhero, they wouldn't hesitate to use it on him. It was up to her to find out what it was and to see that it never found light in the public's eye. It was her job to protect Kal. No one else could be told about this crystal… rock or whatever it was.
She gently touched his cheek, vowing to keep him safe, and smiled at her friend. He had been there for her even when she had least expected it and now he needed her help. Well, she was on his side and those criminals, Lex Luthor, Rockhead and whoever was involved with that nasty green rock was going to regret ever tangling with Lois Lane.
Spotting Clark's note which had fallen on the floor, she picked it up and stuffed it in her pocket as an afterthought. Clark might be the only one she could trust with this, after all, he had defended Kal in the newspaper long before she'd ever met him. But she wouldn't bother him unless she had to; this was too important.
Quickly planting a light kiss on Kal's cheek, she quietly slipped out of the door to face whatever the night had to offer.
Clark opened the door to his apartment at three in the morning and walked quickly to his telephone and answering machine. No blinking red lights indicating a message was waiting greeted him as he anxiously stared at his phone.
He had woken up only an hour earlier to find that Lois was missing from her apartment. He had waited for a few minutes for her to return but noticed his note, with his phone number, was gone also. His powers were marginally back; it had taken all his strength to fly the distance to the Daily Planet, where he hoped Lois had gone, then back to his apartment where he then hoped that she had left a message for him.
He was so tired. Whatever the substance was that he had been exposed to had left him feeling like he'd gotten run over by a ten ton truck. Of course, ten ton trucks were no match for him when he had his powers, but he could imagine how he would feel.
Right now he didn't have the energy to spin out of his suit but didn't feel quite right walking around his apartment in it just yet — he still felt like an exhibitionist wearing the outfit and just wanted to get into his regular clothes. Besides, it provided him an activity to do while he formed a plan to find Lois.
<She shouldn't be out this late… where could she have gone at this time of night?>, he thought as he pulled the zipper down behind his back. And he was hardly in a position to help her, scarcely had any powers left and still felt so tired and drained.
Clark shrugged the top of his suit off his shoulders and peeled the rest of it off his body. A cold shiver ran down his spine as he turned to rummage through his dresser drawer for a warm sweatshirt and comfortable pants. He was cold… what an odd sensation.
He'd love nothing more than to crawl into bed and just sleep, but couldn't do that until he knew that Lois was safe and sound. But he hated feeling so powerless. Since it was night, he didn't even have the sun to help him; his energy reserves were zapped completely.
He finally dressed in his warm clothes — his old light blue University of Kansas sweatshirt and faded jeans — and began pacing around his apartment. He supposed he should try to conserve some energy to fly back to her apartment but couldn't keep still.
He levitated to test himself but could only float for a few seconds before having to land. He was practically helpless.
The sound of the telephone pierced the silence of the night and startled Clark. He headed straight for the phone and stumbled into the desk in the process. A pipe — the pipe that he had retrieved from Platt's apartment the day before, rolled to the edge of desk by the force of his forward motion and crashed to the floor with the finality of a judge's gavel hitting a slab of marble.
The leaded end broke off the end of the pipe as another unwanted green crystal spilled out of end of the broken plumbing piece.
For the second time in a few hours, Clark felt searing pain invade his body as he fell to the floor alongside the pipe and the green hazardous substance. Through the fog of disorientation and incomprehensible agony, he managed to hear the message playing on his answering machine, "You have reached the home of Clark Kent. Sorry, I'm not available, but please leave your message at the sound of the beep."
"Clark! If you are there, please pick up the phone. This is Lois and I need your help…"
"Lois…" he moaned. "Lois…is that you?"
"Clark, wake up! I need you to get here right away: I'm at the Ace O'Clubs. I've found where Luthor's been taken and…" A cry and shuffling noises could be heard through the phone receiver. "Clark!"
He heard his name fade away as his world began to go black… but something inside him willed the darkness away. Clark opened his eyes against the pain and forced himself to focus on where the source was coming from. Another piece of that green substance was shedding its creepy poison only inches from his face!
But even more than wanting to rid himself of the torturous rock was the discovery that Lois was in danger. And there was no way he could help her if he was incapacitated or even dead! With all the strength he had left, he reached forward and grabbed the pipe, then covered the stone with the opened end of the lead plumbing, sealing in the harmful radiation. As an afterthought, he rolled over and grabbed his metal waste basket, turned it upside down and covered the pipe for good measure.
The effects were almost immediate as he felt the sharp pain ebb to a dull ache as he lay on the floor recovering from the effort. The answering machine clicked again as the tape inside reached the end and Clark could hear it rewind, jarring his memory back to his main purpose.
Lois was in danger and he had to find a way to help her. <Where did she say she was?> he thought, trying to slog through the remaining pain and disorientation to remember what she'd said on the phone. Something about some club, he was almost certain. Some place where he didn't think she would be in a million years. That was it! The Ace O'Clubs. A sleazy joint in the bowels of the worst section of the city.
Now he had to find her without his powers. He barely had any super powers remaining before this second encounter and just now moving his arm to cover the rock with the pipe had been a major accomplishment; this additional run-in with the strange object had left him with hardly any human strength left.
If the same people who'd killed Samuel Platt, and perhaps Dr. Baines, had captured Lois, then she was in grave danger. They must have been the ones who ransacked Platt's apartment last night before he found the pipe behind the bricks in the wall. It didn't seem like a coincidence that she had stumbled across the same substance as he had the same day — there had to be a connection.
Ace O'Clubs… he had a starting point. How he was going to get there, he didn't know. Where he was going to find the strength to carry on was unknown, but he did know that as long as he had a breath in his body, he'd find his way to her. His love for Lois would have to be the force that drove him to her.
He crawled through his bedroom over to the railing by the entry way and used the rails to pull himself up to standing position. His legs were wobbling and he could feel his temperature climbing as he pulled himself up the stairs to the front door. Straightening his body upright, he waited for the dizziness to ebb so he could take the few steps necessary to the front door. Clenching his jaw in determination, he released his hold on the bannister and stepped cautiously towards the door.
One step at a time, one small goal after another to accomplish and he could make it… he *had* to for Lois' sake. His hand touched the knob and he slumped against the door so he could grip the knob with both hands in order to turn it.
<Stay safe, Lois,> he thought desperately as he eased out the apartment sliding against the frame of the doorway. <I'm on the way!>
The saga continues in Strangers IV: Tender Mercies…