By Kathy Brown <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Submitted: August 2002
Summary: In this sequel to "When Friends Become Lovers" and rewrite of the second season episode, "The Phoenix," Lois and Clark work through their insecurities as they struggle with the question of where their relationship is headed. Finding the answer together becomes difficult, however, when Lex Luthor returns from the dead with plans to kill Superman and take back Lois Lane.
This story is a rewrite of the second season episode, "The Phoenix", and takes place in the universe introduced in "When Friends Become Lovers". A certain amount of dialogue and plotting have been borrowed from the episode, which was written by Tony Blake and Paul Jackson. No infringement of their copyright is intended.
One minor change worth noting is that, in this story, the episode "Top Copy" occurs before "The Phoenix" instead of directly after it. It's a very brief reference, but I saw a parallel too good to pass up. :)
All standard disclaimers apply; the characters that appear on "Lois & Clark" do not belong to me, but the ideas in this story do. No infringement of anyone's copyright is intended. The story itself, however, is copyright (c) 2002 to the author.
I'd like to extend my most special thanks to my beta- readers, Wendy Richards and Annie M, for their patience and support over the many months it took to finish this story, as well as to Bach-us and Sheila Harper, who helped me brainstorm characterization points late into the night several times on IRC. You guys are all wonderful, and I couldn't have done it without you. :)
And to my readers, thank you for spending time with my story. I hope you enjoy it, and, as always, all comments are welcome and appreciated.
Clark Kent sighed contentedly as he kissed his way along his lover's body. It was wonderful, being with Lois like this … skin against skin, mouths tasting each other, hands stroking and caressing. It was the most incredible feeling in the world. He gave a quiet moan and lifted his head to watch Lois's face. Her eyes had fluttered closed as she lay back against his pillow, the gentlest hint of a smile playing on her lips. She, too, looked content.
He moved above her slowly, brushing his skin against hers, enjoying the sensation of being so intimate with her. Some nights their lovemaking was urgent and passionate, but tonight there was no rush … it was a night for making slow and sensuous love.
Clark lowered his mouth to Lois's shoulder and let his lips wander a damp path to her neck. He took her ear lobe gently into his mouth and she murmured encouragingly in his ear. As the minutes ticked by, he could hear her breath begin to speed up and he smiled to himself as he felt his heartbeat begin to do the same. They had already made love once this evening, and the memory of the sounds she made were still fresh in his mind. But they never seemed to be able to get enough of each other, and tonight was no exception. He gave another pleased groan as he felt her hands on his skin.
Lois opened her eyes and smiled at the sound, then seductively rolled them over on the bed. As she began to feather kisses across his chest, Clark dropped his head back to the pillow. "Oh, yeah," he moaned quietly. "Oh, that's good."
"You like that, don't you?" she murmured in a throaty voice.
Without waiting for a response, Lois kissed her way back up to Clark's neck, her tongue tracing light circles across his chin before finding his mouth. As their lips met, they moved together slowly, their bodies intimately familiar with each other, and it wasn't long before words were no longer needed to communicate.
As their passion crested, Lois's moans and sighs washed over Clark, teasing out a deep shudder. Lois was so wonderful … so beautiful and smart and caring and passionate … and she loved him. She loved *him*. The realization of that, even after three months, never ceased to amaze and humble him. His heart welled up with so much emotion that he thought it might burst, and he wrapped his arms tightly around her until their heartbeats slowly began to return to normal.
"Lois," he whispered emotionally. "I love you … I love you."
Lois, in turn, wrapped her arms around him and buried her face in his neck. "Oh, Clark," she gasped. "I love you, too."
They lay that way for several moments, each recovering slowly from the pleasure they'd just experienced, simply basking in their closeness. Eventually, though, Clark gently rolled them to their sides, facing her on the pillow.
As he caught her eye, Clark smiled. "Hi."
Lois grinned back. "Hi."
"I really do love you, you know."
She pecked a quick kiss on his lips, then giggled as he wrapped his hand around the back of her head and drew her back to him so he could return the favor. "I know you do," she responded against his lips. "And you make me very happy."
Clark's eyes twinkled as he released her. "You did seem happy."
Lois closed her eyes for a moment and purred, obviously contented. "Oh, yes … very, very happy." When she opened her eyes again, however, Clark was staring at her with a new seriousness, a new intensity. She reached up and touched his cheek. "You OK?"
Clark's eyes closed briefly at the contact, his expression softening. But when he opened them again, the look of longing was still there. He looked deeply into her eyes. "Marry me, Lois," he whispered. "I want this to be forever."
Lois sighed as she let her hand cup his cheek tenderly. "Oh, Clark … honey, we've talked about this."
Clark grasped her hand and pressed a kiss to her palm. "I know we have … but I can't help it. I love you so much … and I can't imagine being without you."
Lois smiled softly. "You won't ever be without me. This *is* forever."
"Then marry me," he pleaded. "Show me it's forever."
The smile started to fade from Lois's eyes, replaced with something sadder. "Don't do this, Clark … we've had such a wonderful night … let's not spoil it."
Clark withdrew, pulling away from her hand on his cheek. He rolled over to his back, staring up at the ceiling, hurt and angry. "So marrying me would spoil everything."
"That's not what I meant, and you know it." Lois sighed, exasperated, and sat up in bed. "Why do we have to keep doing this? Clark, we've only been together for three months."
"And I've already reminded you we were best friends for over a year before that," he retorted.
"And I've already reminded *you* that my best friend wouldn't pressure me like this," she said warningly.
"Oh, yes, the *pressure*," Clark said sarcastically. "Heaven forbid I pressure you to do something you don't want to do. What in the world was I thinking? Why would I even want to get married, when I can just screw around?! Obviously it's enough for you … but then again, you agreed to marry someone you *wouldn't* sleep with so why am I so surprised?"
As soon as the words were out of his mouth, Clark regretted them. It was a terribly cheap shot, and they both knew it. But his bruised ego had committed him to the fight, so he sat up and turned towards Lois to take his medicine. She was surely gearing up to verbally tear him to shreds.
His surprise that she hadn't immediately started screaming at him turned to dismay, however, as he caught sight of the shocked and devastated look on her face. She had balled up her fists, and for a moment, Clark was sure she was going to hit him … but then her eyes welled up with angry tears.
"Go to hell, Clark Kent," she whispered through clenched teeth. "You bastard, you can just go to hell."
Then, with a choking sob, she ran into the bathroom, slamming the door behind her. A moment later, the water in the shower turned on full blast.
Clark rubbed his hands over his face, stunned and guilt- stricken. "Oh, you *idiot*," he whispered to himself. "You stupid, stupid idiot."
With a heavy sigh, he got out of bed and approached his bathroom door. "Lois?" When there was no answer, he raised his hand to knock, but then thought better of it. She obviously didn't want to talk to him, and who could blame her after what he'd said? Still, he had been wrong, terribly wrong, and she needed to know …
Taking a deep breath, he turned the knob and opened the door. The shower was still running and the bathroom was quickly filling up with steam. Through the glass shower doors, Clark could see his lover inside. She was facing away from him, but it was clear she was crying hard.
"Lois, honey … I'm *so* sorry …"
"Get out, Clark," she demanded in a tearful gasp. "Just get out."
Clark paused, uncertain. He had no right to expect her to forgive him. What he'd said was awful, and what was worse, he'd known it was awful when he'd said it. It didn't happen often, but when his temper got the best of him, he tended to lash out with a sarcastic comment. Usually Lois simply gave it back to him, plus some, but this time he had gone much, much too far. The guilt and fear welled up inside him. What if she never…?
Tears pricking at his eyes, he opened the shower door. "Lois, please … listen to me … what I said, it was awful and mean and cruel … and I am *so* sorry. I was hurt and angry and I lashed out, but that's no excuse and I know that … honey, please believe me," he pleaded.
When Lois just started to cry harder, Clark acted on instinct and stepped into the shower with her. He wrapped his arms around her from behind, wishing desperately that he could comfort her. "Oh, honey," he said, now in tears himself. "Please forgive me. I was such a jerk. I should have let it drop when you told me to. I didn't mean to pick a fight."
"We always fight," she wailed, sobs wracking her body.
Clark held her more tightly. "No, we don't," he soothed. "We almost never fight … just about this one thing, and it's all my fault. I have no right to pressure you, and I promise I won't do it again." Clark gently turned her around so she was facing him, and was relieved when she buried her head in his chest. She was still crying, but at least she was clinging to him instead of pushing him away. "Oh, Lois," he whispered emotionally. "I love you so much."
When she didn't respond, Clark shut off the faucet and steered them out of the shower. Sitting cross-legged on the bathroom rug, Lois in his lap, Clark used his heat vision and a towel to gently dry the water from her body and hair. Lois submitted to his ministrations, just staring at the floor, and remained mostly silent except for the occasional sob. Her eyes were puffy and red and she had such a sorrowful expression on her face, it nearly broke his heart. He had never seen Lois looking so sad, acting so completely vulnerable. As he cradled her in his arms, the knowledge that it was he who had caused her this much pain stabbed at his heart. Recrimination and self-reproach overwhelmed him, and he found himself wondering if she would ever forgive him … or if he even deserved it.
"Have I ruined it?" he finally asked quietly.
Lois sniffled and met his eyes for the first time since they'd been in the shower. "Ruined what?"
Clark stared at her, nearly despondent. "Us … everything?"
Lois wiped at her tears. "It was just a fight, Clark."
His eyes grew wide. "Lois, that was *not* just a fight! That was awful. I *feel* awful."
Lois bit her lip and dropped her head back to his chest. "Me too," she answered softly. "But no, you didn't ruin everything. I know you're sorry."
Clark held her closer. "I am … I am so sorry."
Lois absently rubbed her finger in a circle over Clark's bicep. "I know, and I'm sorry that I keep hurting you over this. Just—" She hesitated, then started again. "Just don't do that anymore, starting a fight when we're like this."
Lois indicated their naked bodies. "After we've just … made love. I feel so close to you, and that makes it hurt even more—"
Clark silenced her by taking a deep gasping breath. "I know," he whispered, his emotions obviously catching up with him.
Her lips quivered, and she closed in on herself again. "Everyone thinks you're so nice, and you are — most of the time." The tears trickled down her face. "But when you get upset, sometimes you can be really … mean."
Clark swallowed. "I know, and it's wrong. I don't like myself when I get like that, but sometimes …" He trailed off before starting again. "The thing is, I can almost always control myself with other people. But ever since I met you …" He gave her a rueful smile. "No one else has *ever* brought out such emotion in me, Lois. Unfortunately, sometimes it's negative emotion like jealousy."
Lois pursed her lips and scowled. "So you're saying I bring it out in you? Isn't that what the wife-beaters say? That it's all the woman's fault for provoking them?"
"Hey," Clark reproached her quietly, clearly pained. "You know that's not what I meant. Now who's being mean?" Lois looked into his eyes, seeing the hurt expression on his face. "You're right; I'm sorry, too," she said softly. She sniffled and tried to smile. "I guess we both need to get better at fighting, huh?"
Placing a kiss on her forehead, Clark slipped an arm under her legs to balance the one already around her back, and levitated to a standing position. Carrying Lois tenderly, he walked them back into the bedroom. "Or maybe we can just agree never to fight again." He attempted a little grin.
Lois smiled in return as he lowered her to the bed and slipped in beside her. "Never say never," she answered quietly, not contradicting him, but knowing that it wasn't possible never to fight. She curled onto her side and let Clark spoon in behind her.
"How about I promise never to pressure you about marriage again?" he asked.
Lois stared off into the darkness for a long moment. "Well," she finally answered in a small voice. "A little bit of pressure is OK … as long as you don't get mad." She turned her head towards him.
Clark met her halfway and feathered a soft kiss against her lips. "I love you, Lois," he whispered emotionally.
She placed her arm over his as it lay draped across her stomach, and intertwined their fingers. "I love you, too, Clark. I never stopped. And I never will."
Clark held Lois close as she fell asleep, focusing his hearing on nothing but the sound of her gentle breathing so he wouldn't hear any calls for help. It was selfish, a small part of him whispered, but he didn't care. He wanted — no, he needed — to be here right now.
Their fight had disturbed him even more than he had admitted to Lois. It had come on so suddenly, his emotions jumping from intense love to anger so quickly it scared him. He never wanted to cause her that kind of pain again. Yet he himself continued to be hurt whenever the conversation turned to marriage. It wasn't Lois's fault — Clark knew that, even though sometimes he had a hard time admitting it. No, it was his own insecurities and jealousy that caused him pain.
In his head, he understood why Lois wanted to wait. But in his heart … sometimes, he couldn't help but feel that maybe he didn't measure up … or that she still had feelings for another man, a man whom she had agreed to marry less than a year before — after she had rejected Clark.
Clark sighed and held Lois more tightly, desperately needing to feel her body next to his, to reassure himself that she was still with him. He would get himself under control, Clark vowed. He wouldn't let this issue come between them. He would love her … and trust her … and wait for her.
He would try to stop the thoughts that haunted him …
'Damn you, Lex Luthor. Even from the grave, you continue to torture me.'
In a dark abandoned subway tunnel under the city, Nigel St. John paced around a large platform, studying the man-sized glass box in the middle. "Well, what is his status, Gretchen?" he asked impatiently.
Dr. Gretchen Kelly checked and rechecked the many monitors connected to the box. "His vital signs are fluctuating wildly. It's been a struggle ever since that fiasco in the crypt."
Nigel barely contained his annoyance. "I do hope I haven't made this trip for nothing."
"Your concern for Lex is overwhelming," Gretchen shot back.
"Mr. Luthor did not hire me for my congeniality," he responded, his voice cool. Nigel turned to see Dr. Kelly fiddling with the monitors. "What are you doing?"
"I have to stabilize his electromagnetic field," she replied, becoming anxious. "Otherwise we're going to lose him!"
Just then the lights surrounding the box began to flicker, and the monitors began to groan in protest. Gretchen continued to adjust the controls, but it was a losing battle. The machinery began to lose power, and the heart rate monitor connected to the box's occupant flatlined. Dr. Kelly stared at the controls, shocked and horrified. "No!" she yelled in protest. "Lex?! No!!"
"It's over, Gretchen." Nigel calmly patted her shoulder as she ran to the platform. "It was a noble experiment."
Suddenly a fist thrust through the glass top of the chamber, sending broken glass flying in all directions. The two observers recoiled in shock and amazement as the hand reached over and unlocked the chamber's top. Pushing the door open, the man inside struggled to a seated position, his eyes flashing.
"Lex?" Gretchen gasped.
Nigel stared, amazed. "I don't believe it," he whispered.
Lex Luthor turned to his former assistant and fixed him with a wild look. "Believe it!" he hissed.
Lois stood in front of the mirror in Clark's bathroom the next morning, putting the finishing touches on her make-up. She'd been able to hear him rustling around in his closet a few minutes ago as she'd fixed her hair, but now it was silent and she guessed that he had moved into the kitchen to make their breakfast. Neither of them had mentioned their fight from the previous night, but she was sure it was as much on Clark's mind as it was on hers. He'd been uncharacteristically subdued as they'd shared the bathroom this morning, even before he'd quietly moved into the bedroom to get dressed for work.
It had taken some time to mesh their morning routines — neither of them had been used to having to share the bathroom, and they certainly hadn't been used to keeping spare work clothes at the other's apartment. But slowly, they'd been able to work things out, and now they rarely encountered any problems. Of course, having a boyfriend who could fly across town at super-speed to retrieve anything either of them had forgotten helped a lot.
They now stayed together several nights a week, dividing their time fairly equally between their two apartments. Just whose bed they slept in generally depended on who had what to do that evening — last night, it had been Clark's need to do laundry that had decided their location, while two nights previously, they had been working at Lois's apartment late into the evening, which had led to Clark sleeping over. But there were many nights when Superman was needed somewhere in the city, and on those nights, unless she was already in Clark's bed, Lois tended to go home. She always figured that if she had to be alone, she'd rather be in her own apartment, with her own stuff.
Three months ago, Lois would have never guessed how different her life would be now. Last November, she had been completely devastated after watching Clark get shot by Clyde Barrow during a stake-out at an illegal casino. Then when Superman brought Clark back to life two days later, Lois had experienced the most heart-soaring relief she could possibly imagine. Though she hadn't been planning to start a relationship with Clark before he'd been shot, they had each been so mentally and physically exhausted by what they'd gone through over the previous two days that neither of them had been able to fight the urgent passion that had overtaken them when their lips found each other in the rain. They had ended up making love in Clark's bedroom, swept away by their emotions and feelings for each other.
The subsequent two weeks had been a roller coaster of emotion. There had been a wonderfully romantic date, and they'd each reveled in the incredible yearning for each other that can only come when two people are falling in love. But between Lois breaking Clark's heart that first morning by acting as if their night together had meant nothing to her, and her own heart breaking the following week when she'd learned that Clark had lied to her about being Superman — and thus, being dead — it had taken them several days to find their way back to each other emotionally. In the end, they had been able to work through their problems, but it had been a very rocky beginning for a relationship. Having come through it, however, Lois felt they were stronger for it, both as individuals and as a couple. She couldn't imagine what she would do without Clark in her life. And Clark obviously felt the same way, since he had begun to talk about marriage almost immediately.
In the beginning, Lois had found these conversations flattering, if a bit surprising. She had only just learned that Clark was Superman, and while overall she couldn't be more pleased that the man she was in love with was also the super-hero she'd been infatuated with, it was still a lot to get used to. It had been while taking a walk together Thanksgiving morning that Clark had first brought up the subject. They'd gone to Smallville for the holiday a mere week after getting back together, figuring that, after all they'd been through, it would be a great chance to get away together, to revel in being in love without the pressures of their daily lives getting in the way.
At first they'd just talked about marriage in generalities as they walked, but when Clark had asked her if she thought it would be more romantic to be surprised with a ring or to go together to pick one out, Lois realized that he wasn't just asking out of idle curiosity. Keeping the tone light, she'd let him know that, while she would love to someday pick out rings with him, it was simply too soon to make such a formal commitment. To his credit, Clark had accepted the information gracefully and they had gone on to have a wonderful holiday.
Lois always grinned when she remembered the night they'd spent at the farmhouse, with Clark on the sofa and her alone in his room. After Martha had embarrassed them during Lois's first trip to Smallville by asking if they'd wanted to share a room, she apparently hadn't wanted to make the same mistake again. The couch had already been made up for Clark when the new couple arrived late Wednesday evening, and despite his earlier assurances that he would talk to his parents about the status of their relationship, Clark had been too embarrassed to tell them that he and Lois were sleeping together when confronted with the situation. With a silent look of longing passing between them, they had politely accepted the separate accommodations.
Of course, it had only been for one night. They had originally planned to stay through Friday, but by Thursday evening, Clark — who had been out all Tuesday night as Superman — had pinned Lois up against the bathroom door, kissed her passionately and informed her that he couldn't possibly survive a third night without making love to her. They had made their excuses and were flying back to Metropolis within the hour, beginning to undress each other before they'd even reached Lois's apartment. They'd gone on to spend most of Friday in bed, feeding each other turkey leftovers and Chinese carryout, and alternately watching football and "It's A Wonderful Life" on the television. Of course, their tickling matches over the remote control had usually just led to more lovemaking, so neither of them had ended up paying much attention to the screen. All together, it had certainly been the most fun Thanksgiving weekend Lois had ever had, and she knew Clark would say the same.
Luckily, by Christmas vacation, Clark had summoned enough courage to tell his parents that he and Lois only needed one room. Lois was pretty sure Martha and Jonathan had figured it out by then anyway, especially considering they had already started calling Lois's apartment when they couldn't reach Clark at his. But Lois also liked to think that telling Clark how she'd fantasized about making love to him in his high school bedroom had given him a little extra motivation. Ironically, they'd only gotten to use the bed once for such purposes, during an afternoon when the Kents had gone out visiting. During their nighttime lovemaking, in contrast, they'd discovered that they needed to float a few inches above the bed, desperately trying to stifle their laughter over how loudly the springs squeaked.
Like Thanksgiving, this past Christmas Eve with the Kents had been the most wonderful one Lois had ever experienced. She and Clark had spent much of the evening at a party given by an old friend of his, where Clark had been so proud to show Lois off to all his high school friends, and she had delighted in hearing funny stories about his childhood antics. Back home, after his parents had gone to bed, the two of them had stood together by the Christmas tree, trading sweet kisses in front of the twinkling lights. Lois didn't think she'd ever forget the look on Clark's face when, at the stroke of midnight, he'd taken her hands in his, told her how much he loved her and how honored he would be if she would become his wife. It was the most romantic proposal any woman could ever want. But in the end, she'd gently explained that they just hadn't been together long enough and she couldn't say yes.
Clark was understandably disappointed, but at the time had seemed to accept Lois's reassurances that it wasn't a no — just a "not yet". Yet he'd strongly hinted about marriage again a mere week later, during their New Year's Eve dinner in Metropolis, and had continued to bring up the subject in the six weeks since. Unfortunately, every time Lois demurred on the subject, Clark got a little more upset.
Everything had come to a head last night, and it had been awful. It was by far the worst fight they'd ever had, and Lois still couldn't quite believe Clark had lashed out the way he did. A few months ago, she probably would have stormed out of the apartment in a rage after he'd said something like that to her and would have held onto her grudge for days. But things were different now. Even as angry and hurt as she'd ever been with him, the idea of walking out had never crossed her mind. Lois wasn't sure exactly what this attitude change implied, but she did know that it resulted from a major shift in her relationship expectations. She no longer wanted to run away from Clark when she was upset with him; she wanted to stick around, somehow knowing that they would work things out before the night was through.
Of course, it had helped to see how devastated Clark was; he'd actually been in tears in the bathroom when he was apologizing. But if she were being honest, Lois had to admit that the largest factor in her quick forgiveness last night had been her fear that Clark might be right.
Lois knew that Clark was terribly hurt by what he saw as her refusals to marry him, and despite her best efforts, this made her feel incredibly guilty. Sometimes she felt like she was being an awful person for not appreciating what she had, for continuing to put him off when all he wanted to do was love her. But at the same time, Lois couldn't understand why he kept asking. Each time, she would make her feelings very clear, and each time Clark would claim to understand … but then he'd bring up the subject again. Lois didn't know whether to be moved or annoyed — she was thrilled that Clark wasn't giving up on her, but at the same time, she was finding herself increasingly frustrated that he wouldn't respect her enough to give her time. And as a result, the more he pressured, the more skittish she became.
Lois knew Clark was nothing like Lex Luthor, but she couldn't help comparing their relationships — Lex was the only other man she'd ever considered marrying. His manipulation still haunted her; she'd been played expertly, like a puppet on a string. Lex had proposed to her but instead of waiting patiently for her answer, he'd set into motion a plan to destroy her world, to throw her so off- balance that she couldn't help but turn to him for some stability.
Yet Lois hated the fact that her history with Lex was making her hyper-sensitive to Clark's proposals … and to his growing insistence. It wasn't fair to Clark to compare him in any way to Lex, and she knew that it made him absolutely crazy. But Lois couldn't deny the feelings inside her, how spooked she got whenever Clark exerted any pressure. And it was crucial to her that when she and Clark finally did get married, it would be because she was ready, not because he had worn down her defenses. She deserved better than that, but just as importantly, so did he.
Lois had always though it ironic that while Clark had worried about her suffering if she'd entered into a public relationship with Superman, it was now Clark who was subject to scrutiny as the man Lois Lane was dating. It had been nearly nine months since Lex had jumped to his death on what was to be their wedding day, but the tabloids still insisted on running the occasional story about her. Lois felt like she had lived a lifetime in those nine months, and in many ways, was a completely different person. But to the rags that made their money embellishing — or outright inventing — stories about well-known people, she was still known as "Lex Luthor's Fiancee".
For the most part, Lois was able to ignore the mentions she received, especially given that they were usually so ridiculous that they weren't worth her attention. The story romantically linking her to a movie star she'd never even met had almost amused her, while early articles linking her to Superman in the same romantic way — while, granted, potentially putting her in danger — had just fed into the romantic crush she'd had on the super-hero. But now that she was with Clark, things had changed. Now, every so often, a story would be called to her attention that really hurt.
The first tabloid mention linking the two Daily Planet reporters had been the most devastating, not only because it had been so unexpected, but also because it had been terribly cruel. Lois still remembered how shocked she'd felt reading the story late last November. It had been released the week after Thanksgiving, just as she was basking in being head over heels in love with the most wonderful man she had ever known. But then the National Whisperer had weighed in with its version of Clyde Barrow's involvement in Clark Kent's death, and it was like she'd been kicked in the stomach.
Perry had called her and Clark into his office after lunch to show them a copy of the tabloid. The front cover had a large photograph of Lois in the Daily Planet lobby, standing next to Clyde Barrow as he was led away by police. The headline took up much of the cover — "Lois Lane's Latest Lover? From One Gangster To Another." Inset next to the larger picture were two smaller ones — one, her official engagement photograph with Lex Luthor; the other, a candid shot of her and Clark holding hands as they'd left the ballroom of Senator Tate's victory party.
The blood had drained from her face as she'd read the article. It had quoted "unnamed sources" that said she and Clyde Barrow had become lovers while he was on his crime spree, and it further suggested that Clark Kent had been shot at the casino because he'd tried to break up a lovers' quarrel between them. The story had gone on to describe Lois and Bonnie Parker's fight in the Daily Planet newsroom, implying that they were doing battle not over Parker's attempted escape, but over the man they both coveted. The most devastating part of all, however, had been the sidebar report that she was now dating Clark Kent, her partner at the Daily Planet, complete with the author's warning — full of sarcasm thinly veiled as humor — that Mr. Kent might do well to watch his back due to "the curse of Lois Lane's love."
Lois's stunned silence over the article had been countered by Clark's loud anger. He had been so furious over the lies in the article that she had felt compelled to brush it off as a result, if only to calm him down. Perry had quickly contacted the Daily Planet attorneys, and by the end of the afternoon, the National Whisperer had been threatened with a libel suit on Lois Lane's behalf. The so-called newspaper had quickly backed down and promised to print a retraction, and Lois had insisted to Clark that they not worry about it anymore. But that night, she had gone home alone and cried herself to sleep.
There had only been a handful of tabloid articles about the two of them since then, but Lois still found herself feeling vulnerable when she remembered how deeply the first one had affected her. There was the issue of Superman, of course — any coverage linking Clark and Superman made her nervous, even only a passing mention of both men having 'dated' the same woman. But the worst part was that the accusations just fed into her own self doubt about her ability to sustain a real relationship.
Could it be true, she couldn't help but wonder … could she really be cursed when it came to love and relationships? And if so, wouldn't she just be ruining Clark's life by agreeing to marry him? Yet at the same time, she couldn't help but worry that if she didn't decide soon, she might lose him forever.
Lois sighed as she studied her face in the mirror. What was she going to do?
Clark watched Lois carefully over breakfast, his brief attempts at conversations overshadowed by the long silences in between. He didn't need to ask what was wrong. She wasn't acting mad — distracted would be a better term. But he was certain that she was still disappointed in his behavior from the previous evening, and Clark didn't blame her. They'd disagreed over marriage before, even argued about it. But they had never, *ever* fought like last night.
The last three months had been the most wonderful months in his life. He loved Lois so much it almost scared him. The intensity that he felt when he was with her, whether they were working together during the day or hanging out in the evenings or making love at night … it both overwhelmed him and left him craving more. Yet whenever he tried to give voice to that feeling, he only ended up making Lois feel pressured.
He knew that Lois had had a difficult childhood and that the break-up of her parents' marriage had made her afraid of getting married herself. He knew how her father had constantly judged her and found her wanting, how her mother had struggled with depression and an alcohol addiction that left her emotionally unavailable. Lois had never wanted to get married growing up, and she freely admitted that, as an adult, she had run as far away from that lifestyle as she could, throwing herself into her work.
And Clark knew that Lois's brief relationship with Lex Luthor had only reaffirmed her belief that marriage was a disaster waiting to happen … the fact that she'd been willing to give Clark a "not yet" so soon after they'd begun dating should have reassured him that she just needed time to get used to the idea.
But although he knew Lois had logical reasons for wanting to wait, Clark couldn't help but feel that her uncertainty was an indictment of his own worthiness. He didn't normally lack self-confidence; he wouldn't have made it as far as he had — either as Clark Kent or Superman — without a healthy ego. Yet when it came to love and marriage, Clark couldn't help but worry. He had long ago recognized that Lois's childhood traumas had deeply affected her, but ironically, his intense need to have her accept his proposal had finally forced him to confront his own childhood wounds.
Clark was thankful every day that it was the Kents who had found him in Shuster's Field so many years ago. There could have been no better people to raise him than his parents. They had protected him and nurtured him and loved him, unconditionally. He was the man he was today because of them. And intellectually, he knew that the fear they had instilled in him, the secrets they had insisted he keep, were essential to keeping him safe.
But emotionally, a child can only keep a secret so big before he begins to live in fear. And a child can't live in constant fear — fear of letting the secret out, of being taken from his family, of being caged and cut open and studied … of never being loved again — without incurring scars.
As he quietly cleared the table and placed the breakfast dishes into the sink, Clark thought back to a day nearly two years before, soon after he'd moved to Metropolis. He'd gone back to visit his parents after his first week at the Daily Planet, and his father had walked him outside when it was time for Clark to return to the city. "All I want is the chance to have a normal life … living, working, meeting someone, having a family," Clark had told his dad. He had confessed this, sure that his father would understand. The response, however, had been devastating.
<< We don't know if that's possible, son. >>
Logically, Clark knew his father wasn't talking specifically about love and marriage. He was simply reminding his son to be cautious, not to get his hopes up. But emotionally, it had hurt. Why shouldn't Clark hope for these things? Was he that different? Was he so terribly *wrong* that no one would ever want to be with him? Was it impossible that anyone could ever love him once they knew the truth? This was the reality that he had lived with since he'd been old enough to understand how different he really was.
But amazingly, Lois *did* love him. He knew she did. Even when Clark felt afraid for their future, he felt her love deep down in his soul. Every time she smiled at him or argued with him or comforted him or kissed him, he knew.
And she deserved better than the way he'd been treating her.
Clark sighed. "Lois—"
They each stopped and Clark attempted a little smile. "Go ahead," he offered. From the look in her eyes, he had a feeling that she'd been thinking about the same things he had been.
It was Lois's turn to sigh. "About last night …" She trailed off as she looked at him, clearly as uncertain about where to begin as he was.
"I know," he answered quietly. "I'm so sorry, Lois. I keep messing up." Unable to face her, he turned and hung his head. "I'm afraid I'm going to ruin everything."
At the sight of his slumped shoulders, Lois wrapped her arms around him from behind and rested her head against his back. "Oh, Clark," she whispered. "I'm scared, too. I don't want to keep fighting about this."
Clark looked at the floor, ashamed. "I hate the way I'm acting. I know how unattractive this insecurity is. And I know that the more insecure I act, the more likely I am to drive you away." He closed his eyes on the quell of emotions. "I love you so much … and I'm just terrified I'm going to lose you."
"But you're not going to lose me," she implored. "Why can't you see that?"
He shook his head. "I don't know. I know you love me, and I love you. You make me so totally, completely happy — happier than I ever thought I'd be. So why do I keep having these doubts? Why can't I just enjoy what we have?" Clark ran his hand through his hair. "Why am I so scared?"
Lois was quiet for a long moment before responding. "Maybe," she finally began in a small voice. "Maybe because deep down, you can't quite believe you deserve what we have. Maybe a little voice deep inside keeps telling you that you're not good enough, and you know it's just a matter of time before the other person realizes that and—" She stopped, her voice cracking.
Clark turned around to stare at her, his brow deeply furrowed. "How did—" He stopped, swallowing hard. "How did you know that?"
Lois looked up at him with a shimmer of tears in her eyes. "Because that's how a part of me feels every time I look at you."
Suddenly unable to trust his voice, Clark pulled her tightly into his arms. "Lois—"
Her voice was soft and terribly sad when she spoke. "Clark, you know I didn't agree to marry Lex because I loved him. I only agreed to marry him because I didn't think anyone else would ever want me."
"But *I* wanted you," he whispered. "And you rejected me."
Lois closed her eyes as her emotions built. "I know."
"Not even once, but twice, Lois. First for Superman, and then for L— *him*." Clark took a deep breath, trying to get himself under control. He and Lois had talked about her relationship with Luthor more than once during the three months they'd been together, but despite Lois's reassurances that she'd never loved Luthor and had even been thinking of Clark while she was walking down the aisle, the fact that Lois had agreed to marry Luthor in the first place continued to gnaw at him. Clark knew it wasn't fair, but every time Lois refused to marry him, it just seemed to bring back the pain of her rejection that day in the park. Clark shook his head emotionally. "I *know* I should be over this by now, and I *know* it shouldn't matter anymore … but it *does*. It still hurts. I don't even know *why*, but it still does."
"But don't you see, Clark?" Lois asked desperately, pulling back to look at him. "That's just it. What I did to you, it was horrible. I told you I didn't love you, then turned right around and asked you to contact Superman for me. Even if you weren't Superman, that would have hurt you. But I wasn't thinking of you; I was only thinking of *me*." Her voice cracked, but she forced the words out anyway. "And then, after all but telling Superman that I would throw Lex over in a heartbeat if only he'd return my feelings … I still went ahead and agreed to marry him." She took a shaky breath herself. "What kind of person does that make me, Clark?"
Clark sighed heavily, his own upset finally pushed aside when he saw the tears on her cheeks. He hadn't meant to hurt her again, but he had. This was wrong — no matter what he was feeling, he couldn't go on doing this to her. "Honey, I'm sorry. I never should have—"
"It makes me a really, really bad candidate for marriage!" Lois wailed miserably, cutting him off. "I've failed in every relationship I've ever had, Clark. My only role models for marriage were my parents, and you know what a disaster that was." She sniffled and added woefully, "I don't know why you would even want to marry me."
At her words, Clark couldn't help but give a little smile. Leave it to Lois to question the obvious. "Well, that's an easy one," he responded tenderly. He cupped her cheek, making her look at him. "I want to marry you because I am head over heels in love with you. Because I can't imagine going even one day without being able to see you and talk to you and hold you. I want to marry you because, for me, a life without you in it wouldn't be any life at all."
Lois stared up at him for a long moment, her eyes wide and dark under a shimmer of tears. "That was beautiful," she finally whispered.
"I meant every word," he assured her, as he wound his fingers through her hair. "But, Lois, no matter how much I love you, it doesn't give me the right to pressure you. I know I've been acting like a jerk every time this comes up, but I promise you I won't do it again. If you're not ready to get married, then we won't get married. I love you too much to risk pushing you away over this."
She wrapped her arms around his waist and hugged him tightly. "I don't want to push you away either."
Clark hugged back. "So are we OK?" he asked quietly.
"Yeah … I think so." Lois pulled back and gave him a smile. "Thank you, Clark. For giving me time."
"I love you, Lois," he murmured. "And I will wait for you, for as long as it takes."
Lex Luthor sat on an overturned box in the abandoned tunnel, impatiently typing away at a laptop computer. As the minutes ticked by, his movements became rougher, his face, more ominous. "It's gone," he called out as he continued to type. "That weasel Bender swindled me out of everything!"
Gretchen Kelly hovered nearby, concerned. Lex had made remarkable progress in the hours since he'd awakened, but she didn't want him to push himself. She was thrilled beyond words that her months of hard work had paid off, but they were clearly in uncharted territory. And Lex getting upset wasn't going to help him recover. "Lex, you should be resting," she said soothingly, lifting his wrist to take his pulse. "This can wait."
Nigel St. John obviously had no such concerns, however, as he sat across the room cleaning a hand bow. The metal gleamed as he expertly rubbed it. "What about the Swiss bank accounts?" he asked.
As soon as Gretchen had taken her readings, Lex returned to his typing, but a few more keystrokes revealed the same results — each account, empty. He sat back, stunned. "I'm broke." He gave a humorless laugh. "Death I could deal with, Nigel. But to be *broke* … no money, no power … that's not something I'm prepared for."
The older man just smiled thinly. "Knowing you, sir, it's just a temporary condition."
Lex nodded. "The money, perhaps. But true power lies in the possession of Kryptonite. Until I find it, I'm nothing." He closed the laptop definitively and walked towards Nigel, his face dark. "But first things first. I want you to arrange a meeting with Mr. Bender."
"And Nigel." He placed a hand on the man's shoulder. "Stop the 'sir'. There's no need for facades." He regarded himself. "Look at us. We are what we are."
Nigel raised an eyebrow. "And what is that?"
"Ordinary street fighters. Just like the old days."
Gretchen had been absently watching the interplay between the two men from her work table, but as Lex stood and began to stalk the room, her eyes followed him appreciatively. She thanked her good fortune every day that she'd been able to convince Arianna Carlin to fund her research into bringing Lex back to life. It had been a project she'd been working on under Lex's watchful eye for the last two years, but she hadn't realized how soon the results of her work would be needed, or by whom. Stealing the body from the morgue had been the easy part … more difficult had been finding the money to put Lex's back-up plan into effect.
Of course, in the beginning, she and Arianna had shared a common goal, but Gretchen didn't deny being pleased that the other woman's obsession with getting revenge on Lois Lane had ultimately been her downfall. Not that Gretchen bore even a shred of goodwill towards the reporter — she had no idea why Lex had wasted his time with her in the first place — but with Arianna now serving a life sentence, there was no one left to compete with Gretchen for Lex's attention. She was just glad she'd been able to purchase or steal the equipment she'd needed before Arianna's money well ran dry.
Gretchen crossed the room and draped her arms around his neck from behind, very pleased. All of her hard work had paid off … Lex was alive and apparently suffering none of the side-effects she'd been concerned about. He seemed healthy and fit. Ordinary street fighter, indeed! "I've never thought there was anything *ordinary* about you, Lex," she purred, making no doubt as to her appreciation.
With a confident smile, Lex lifted one of her hands to kiss it. "Quite right, my dear … you're absolutely right."
Gretchen beamed at his praise. Lex was the most attractive man she'd ever met … from his smoldering dark eyes to his unruly brown curls, he was magnificent. And as soon as they were able to reestablish his power base, Lex would rule over this city with Gretchen at his side, loyal to each other to the end.
Encouraged by the enticing thought, Gretchen ran her fingers adoringly through Lex's hair. Her confidence quickly turned to surprise, however, as she felt a clump of hair come loose in her hand.
Lex quickly took the hair from her hand. "What is this?" he asked. Walking a few steps to another box, he picked up a piece of broken mirror and studied his reflection, pulling at his unruly locks.
Gretchen's eyes opened wide as his inspection yielded the same result — a large clump of hair came out in his fingers, then a second.
"I'm losing my hair." Lex turned to her. "What have you done to me?" Gretchen opened her mouth to respond, but before she could, any vestige of control he had snapped. "WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO ME?!?" he screamed, shoving the hair in her face.
Frightened by his outburst, Gretchen blanched as her mind raced for an explanation. Obviously there were side-effects she hadn't expected. But considering what he'd gone through to get here, he certainly couldn't begrudge a few minor inconveniences. "Lex," she began, trying to placate him, "your body went through a tremendous ordeal. You're bound to experience some temporary side effects. You need to rest."
Lex, however, ignored her pleadings. "All right, shave it off," he ordered.
She hesitated — surely there was another way? — but Lex quickly narrowed his eyes. "Don't just stand there," he spat, his voice full of venom. "Shave it *off*!!"
The raw hostility in his voice sent Gretchen scurrying for a razor and some scissors. Digging what she needed out of her bag, she stood behind Lex as he seated himself on a box, and began to cut the hair close to the scalp. She gave him a nervous smile as he watched her in the mirror fragment.
Lex ignored her, however, and directed his next comment at the other person in the room. "Nigel, I want you to do me a favor. I want you to find out whatever you can about Lois Lane."
At the mention of Lex's former fiancee, Gretchen froze. Lois Lane?! What in the world did he want with *her*? There was no way Lex could possibly still be interested in the woman who had jilted him at the altar only moments before his death. She was a traitor! Clearly, he must be after revenge … he just wanted to finish the job that Arianna had left undone. Glancing in the mirror that Lex held, however, Gretchen was shocked to see a tenderness come into Lex's eyes at the mention of the reporter's name and she narrowed her eyes. How dare he?? Gretchen Kelly was the one who loved him, not Lois Lane! And it was Gretchen Kelly who would rule by his side over Metropolis! With an angry grimace, she 'accidentally' jabbed him with the scissors. The nerve!
"OW!" Lex yelled. He fixed his doctor with an annoyed look, then went back to examining himself in the broken mirror as he muttered, "It's a good thing you're not a surgeon."
Lois was halfway through a chicken salad sandwich from the deli in the lobby when she looked up to see her partner standing in front of her desk. They'd driven in together this morning, but Clark had heard a call for Superman around 10:30 am, and she hadn't seen him since. After their emotional exchange after breakfast, Lois had been hoping he'd be back before lunch. They each always felt a little vulnerable after an argument, but spending time together, even when they weren't doing anything special, made them feel better.
Unfortunately, when noon arrived and Clark still hadn't returned, Lois had been so hungry she'd just gone ahead and purchased a take-out sandwich from the deli downstairs. It wasn't nearly as good as the take-out Clark could find, but it was food. Of course, now that Clark was back, Lois wished she had waited just a little longer, but from the grin on his face, it was clear he didn't mind that she'd decided to eat without him.
"Well, hello, stranger," Lois said with a smile. The rescue must have gone well because he looked exceedingly pleased with himself.
"Hello, yourself," he replied brightly, then his gaze warmed even more as he pulled a colorful bouquet of flowers from behind his back. "For you."
Lois melted as she took them. "Oh, they're beautiful. Thank you."
Clark sat down on one corner of her desk and leaned over to give her a kiss on the cheek. "You're very welcome."
Lois rubbed her hand affectionately over his thigh. "What did I do to deserve these?"
He captured her hand in his and lifted it to his lips. "Do I need a reason?" At her pointed look, Clark relented. "OK, OK," he admitted. "Maybe … I'm still feeling a little guilty about last night." He looked at her sincerely as he intertwined their fingers. "I was a real jerk."
Lois gave a helpless laugh. She'd just known he would continue to beat himself up over this long after she had forgiven him. "I accepted your apology," she insisted. "We're OK."
But Clark only shook his head. "I know, but—."
"Clark!" She squeezed his hand. "Apology accepted." Looking to change the subject, Lois sat back in her chair and fixed him with a smile. "So, what kept you busy all morning?"
He looked at her for a moment, then acquiesced. "A few different things," he answered, helping himself to a few of the mini pretzels she had next to her sandwich. "There was an oil spill in the East River that took some time to clean up, then a bunch of little things. Got a good idea for a story, though, about out-of-business manufacturing companies who leave their toxic waste products behind when they close up shop."
"Sounds like it's worth looking into. You get any lunch?"
He shook his head. "Nah, didn't really have time. I'll just get something from the machine."
"Here, you can finish this." Lois loosely re-wrapped her sandwich and pushed it towards him. "I'm done."
"Yeah, Clark, take it … I can never finish a whole one of these, you know that."
Just then, Jimmy approached them, waving an envelope. "Hey, CK, this just came for you. Says it's from the FBI."
Lois wiped the crumbs off her desk into the waste can. "Who do you know at the FBI?"
Clark studied the envelope for a moment, then nodded in recognition as he tore it open. "Roger Templeton. We met when I was in Washington." He removed a file folder containing a photograph and a series of notes. "Dear Clark," he read. "Thought you might find this interesting."
Lois looked over his shoulder, then grabbed the picture with a gasp. "Clark! That's the woman who stole Lex's body!" Lois would recognize her anywhere — the woman had kidnapped Wanda Mae Walldecker in order to steal Resplendent Man's powers. Lois had followed them to the Perpetual Pines Cemetery, only to become trapped herself. It had been the first time she'd run into serious danger since she was aware of Clark's other identity, and she still remembered how difficult it had been not to call Superman "Clark" when the woman had attacked him. Working together, she and Superman had managed to reverse the power transfer, but in the confusion, the woman had gotten away. Yet now here she was in this photo, sharing a restaurant table with another person Lois would never forget.
Jimmy crowded in for a closer look. "Who's the guy?"
"Nigel St. John," Lois answered. "He used to be Lex's personal assistant."
Clark flipped through the papers in the folder, reading at super-speed while Jimmy was busy studying the photograph. "Get this — they've identified the woman in the photograph as Gretchen Kelly. She was Luthor's doctor."
Lois rolled her eyes. "That would explain her fascination with his body."
"That's not all," Clark continued. "Turns out Nigel was more than Luthor's Mr. Belvedere. He was an agent in Her Majesty's Secret Service gone bad."
Lois took the folder from him and thumbed through the report. "It says this picture was taken recently here in Metropolis … and the agent who took the picture has disappeared." She looked up at Clark and caught his eye. He looked grim.
As Lois watched, he lowered his glasses slightly so he could zoom in on the photo. After a moment, he lifted his head. "Maybe Sheldon Bender knows something."
"Luthor's attorney?" Jimmy asked. "Why him?"
Clark just shrugged. "I don't know … God knows everything, and attorneys seem to think they're God."
Lois gave a little laugh. Obviously he saw something in the photograph that she couldn't see. She re-assembled the contents of the file folder and handed it to Jimmy. "Show this to Perry and tell him we're on it, OK?" Then she handed the wrapped sandwich to Clark. "Hope you don't mind eating in the car, partner."
Lois had to circle the block twice before she found a legal parking space, a block away from Bender's law office. Grabbing her umbrella out of the car in case the cold rain from earlier in the day decided to start up again, she joined Clark on the sidewalk and they began to walk.
They had chatted about the note that Clark had been able to read in the FBI photograph on the way, how it contained Bender's name and address, and they were already planning their strategy for how to approach the attorney. Lost in the conversation, Lois almost missed the fact that Sheldon Bender had exited his office several buildings ahead of them, only to be accosted by a homeless man who'd been rooting through some nearby trash.
Her attention was captured, however, when Bender was roughly thrown into a blue van. "Clark!" Lois quickly exclaimed. "That's Bender!"
Clark blinked as he, too, looked to where she was pointing. "Hold on; I'll be right back." Quickly, he ducked back around the corner to turn into Superman.
The van was just starting to peel away when Superman swooped down and grabbed the bumper. The tires spun for a long moment, then the vehicle stopped. Clark rushed around to the door and ripped it off its hinges. To his immense shock, however, the van was completely empty.
Back in the newsroom later that afternoon, Clark found Lois perched on the edge of his desk, curious to find out what Superman had learned. "So the van was operated by remote control, huh?"
"Yeah," Clark replied with a nod. "The police lab is going over it now. Maybe they'll turn up something else." He shook his head, perplexed. "Why do you suppose someone would kidnap Bender?"
"Well, it can't be for the money," Lois replied dryly. "Who'd pay ransom for a lawyer?"
Clark gave a short laugh, then glanced down as Lois uncrossed and re-crossed her legs in front of him. His guilt over their fight from the night before had lasted all morning, but fortunately, working with her all afternoon had relieved most of his bad feelings. Lois's easy smiles and affectionate touches made it clear to him that she was telling the truth when she said she'd forgiven him, and that helped him begin to forgive himself. Being with Lois was the one thing that seemed to always clear his head.
Clark often marveled at how close they'd become these last few months and how quickly they were able to work through their arguments now. As inexperienced with relationships as they each were in the beginning, they'd certainly had their bumps as they'd forged a new kind of partnership. But unlike in their early working relationship, they were each so committed to making their romantic partnership work that even their most emotional arguments never seemed to hang over them for more than a day. After hashing everything out, they'd usually both end up apologizing for their part in the argument, then they would kiss and make up.
Of course, their making-up frequently led to making love as they sought to reconnect with each other, so it didn't surprise Clark that, after working closely with Lois all day, he now found himself thinking about that kind of reconnection. Suddenly finding Lois much more interesting than the story they were working on, he seductively traced a fingertip over her exposed knee and gave her a slow, mischievous smile. "So what do you say we go out somewhere nice for dinner tonight? Then maybe … back to your place for dessert?"
Lois nodded absently, still thinking about the story. "Dinner sounds great. But I don't have anything in the freezer so we'll have to supply our own dessert."
Clark just grinned, leaning back in his chair and letting his eyes roam unabashedly over her body. "Oh, I don't think that will be *any* problem."
When Lois finally noticed the look Clark was giving her and the enticing path his finger was taking, her eyes widened in amusement. "Why, Mr. Kent," she responded with a coy smile, pushing her already short skirt up even further on her leg, "are you implying that you're going to have *me* for dessert?"
He lowered his voice to a sexy murmur. "Well, you *are* good enough to—"
"Am I interrupting anything?" The sound of Jimmy's voice caused both Lois and Clark to jump.
Lois scrambled off the desk and tugged at her skirt. "No!"
The quickness of their replies and the guilty expressions on their faces led Jimmy to give an amused chuckle. "It's OK, guys, I'm not the principal," he said wryly. He waved the folder he was carrying. "I just came over to give you the lab report on that van. Turns out there's a trap door in the floor."
Lois quickly took the folder, trying to cover the hint of pink blush on her cheeks by changing the subject. "So that's how they got Bender out without anyone seeing."
Clark cleared his throat but couldn't manage to wipe the smile off his face completely as he watched her. She looked so adorable; he couldn't wait to get her home where they could be alone. But first they had an investigation to continue. "Magic always seems to have an explanation," he finally agreed.
"Anything else, Jimmy?"
"Yeah … the van is registered to some guy in Park Ridge. Cops have him down at the station right now."
Lois perked up as Jimmy relayed this final bit of information, and she quickly crossed the aisle to her desk. Seemingly back to all business, she grabbed her purse and slung her coat over her arm. "Clark, why don't you start on the story? I'm going to head over to the police station." But her professional tone was tempered when she gave her partner a little wink before turning away. "And then we can discuss that other matter."
Clark smiled as she left the newsroom, but he quickly realized he wasn't the only one watching her as she hopped onto the elevator; the younger man next to him was also following her appreciatively with his eyes. When the elevator door closed, Jimmy turned to Clark and grinned knowingly.
Suddenly feeling the need to protect his girlfriend's honor, Clark narrowed his eyes. "What?" Jimmy just laughed as he walked away. "Nothin' … I didn't say nothin'."
It was early evening before Lois was able to obtain her information from the police. There hadn't been any other reporters on the scene, so Lois was hopeful that, if there did turn out to be a story here, she and Clark would have the exclusive.
Lois smiled as she thought of her partner. Never in a million years would she have guessed that Lois Lane would come to not only tolerate working so closely with someone else, but to actually enjoy it. She'd always believed that workplace romances were a disaster waiting to happen, even before her horrible first-hand experience. That she'd been able to ignore her own internal warnings about the situation several years ago had been a testament to how smooth her French colleague had been.
But Clark, on the other hand, hadn't set out to seduce her, or even to compete with her. Certainly, when she'd made it clear in those early weeks that she would do anything to beat him to a story, he'd made it equally clear that he wasn't someone to trifle with. But once cooler heads had prevailed — for both of them — Clark had gone on to not only be willing to work with her, but to actually seem eager for the chance.
Knowing what she did now, that Clark had fallen in love with her (or at least deeply into infatuation) at first sight, his interest in partnering with her made more sense. But Lois knew that there was more to it than that. It had been clear from the results of their very first co-written story that there was a chemistry between them. Not just a personal chemistry, though they certainly had plenty of that, even if Lois had denied it for months. But rather, a professional chemistry that was unlike anything she'd ever experienced before. Somehow they seemed to be able to anticipate each other's moves, to be able to play their thoughts and actions off each other, which translated well not only into their interviewing techniques but also into the final act of writing.
Of course, the idea of having this kind of chemistry with a man had scared the heck out of Lois at the time. She had worked too hard to have the evidence of her talents diluted by having to share a by-line. Too many times, she had conducted interviews with a male junior reporter, only to have the person they were interviewing address their responses to her underling, not to her. It made her absolutely furious to begin with, but when her prize- winning story was stolen in the middle of the night by a smooth-talking Lothario, she'd vowed that it would never happen again. From that point forward, Lois Lane worked solo, and pity any person who got too close.
Fortunately for all concerned, Clark had been able to break through those defenses. Confident enough to let his talents speak for themselves, he hadn't tried to impress her by showing off in the early weeks. Instead, he'd calmly let her take the lead, learning what he could in the process. Certainly there had been times when Lois had felt Clark overstepped his bounds as a 'junior reporter', but even as she'd tried to take him down a peg or two back then, she'd had to grudgingly admit (though never aloud) that he had gotten the job done. Occasionally he'd hit a sour note and let his inexperience show (Lois still could work up a head of steam thinking about the way he'd tossed her out of The Metro Club early in their working relationship), but he had learned from his mistakes and had grown into his profession.
And to Lois's credit, once she'd stopped fighting the partnership, she'd actually begun to learn from Clark. While she still didn't particularly like his editing her copy before she'd had a chance to finish it, she now knew that he was usually right in his suggestions. And she'd come to develop the highest respect for Clark's investigative and interview skills. The fact that he could also write up his findings in such a lyrical way only impressed her that much more.
Now that she and Clark were together romantically, however, Lois realized that, while her concerns about an office romance had merit, they didn't have to get in the way of a good working relationship. Indeed, she and Clark had proven that they could focus on their work and not let their personal situation distract them. Well, at least, not distract them to the point where their work suffered.
Lois grinned to herself as she remembered the conversation they'd been having before Jimmy had interrupted them with the lab report. Yes, that conversation had been very distracting. In fact, she couldn't wait to get back to it!
As she began to cross the street to her car, however, Lois heard a voice call out behind her.
"Excuse me, miss … would you help an old man across the street?"
It took a moment for the request to register, as caught up in her own thoughts as she'd been, but when Lois turned around, she saw an elderly man in a wheelchair. "Oh." She looked at him blankly for a moment, trying to clear her head. "Oh, of course."
Taking the handles of the wheelchair, Lois carefully began to navigate the curb. It was a little bumpy and she wasn't as stable as she'd have liked in her high heels on the wet street, but she managed to get the gentleman out into the road. Making sure traffic was stopped, she continued on through the intersection.
"Say," said the man suddenly, looking up at her. "Aren't you that reporter who almost married Lex Luthor?"
Lois pursed her lips, annoyed. Being recognized from her tabloid photos was not high on her list of favorite things. And she especially didn't like having her thoughts of Clark (and 'dessert') interrupted by the mention of Lex. "Uh … yes," she replied finally.
Seemingly unaware of the flatness of her response, the man persisted. "Lois Lane, right? So tell me, what was that fella Luthor like?"
They had reached the other side of the street and once again, Lois struggled to push the heavy wheelchair over the curb. It was hard to concentrate on his question. "Well," she answered, distracted. "He was … uh … very magnetic and very charming." She finally navigated the chair up onto the sidewalk. "He was also a very dangerous criminal."
As Lois stepped away from the chair, the man used his wheels to turn around and face her. He looked into her eyes and smiled, his eyes twinkling. "Ah … but I hear you young women like those bad boy types."
Inwardly, Lois rolled her eyes, but she politely gave the man a little smile, humoring him. "Well, I don't think that's always true. I mean, I guess sometimes it is. But not for me." She met his eyes for a moment, and for some reason she couldn't identify, she suddenly started to feel very uncomfortable. He almost seemed familiar to her, though she was certain they'd never met before. Still … there was something about his eyes…
Lois blinked nervously as she tried to excuse herself as quickly as possible without being rude. "Uh … if you'll excuse me … I'm, uh … I'm late for an appointment." And with that, she hurried off to her car.
As Lois disappeared down the street, Lex Luthor took off his hat and held it to his heart, looking after her adoringly. In a moment, Nigel St. John appeared from the shadows.
Lex sighed happily from the wheelchair. "She's more beautiful than ever."
"Oh?" Nigel said pointedly. He had never understood what Luthor saw in Lois Lane, and was now more convinced than ever that his former employer's continued obsession with her would once again be his downfall. A man taking back what once his was one thing, but to waste precious time and energy on such a woman was absurd. "And what about Gretchen?"
Lex scoffed. "What about her? She's my physician; she doesn't inspire me."
As he took the handles of the wheelchair and began to walk down the street, Nigel raised an eyebrow. "I suppose it has occurred to you that Miss Lane may not come quite so easily this time?"
"If I cannot prove a lover, to entertain these fair well- spoken days," Luthor quoted, "I am determined to play the villain."
Nigel chuckled, this time genuinely amused. "Ah, Richard the Third; your favorite!"
"My hero. And like Richard, I will not be denied. I'll give her the chance to come willingly, but if she won't, I'll take her by force."
"After you get the Kryptonite," Nigel added, a smile playing on his lips.
Lex smiled confidently. "Of course."
It was a little after eight o'clock in the evening by the time Lois and Clark tracked down the source they'd been looking for. Lois had returned to the newsroom after finding out what she needed to know from the police, and had quickly pulled Clark into Perry's office to tell them both what she'd discovered. An ex-con named Ramin Tarbush had borrowed the van used to abduct Sheldon Bender, and was now nowhere to be found. His description was an exact match for the kidnapper, though, and Lois was sure they had found the right track to pursue.
Their search for information had brought them to a little hole-in-the-wall diner on River Avenue — not because they thought Tarbush might be there, but because they knew the one person who seemed to know everything that happened in Metropolis was. Making their way back to the kitchen, the reporters spotted their target … cramming his mouth full of food off the plates that he was supposed to be filling for the wait staff.
Lois called out his name from the other side of the divider. "Bobby?"
Bobby Bigmouth startled, but his face brightened quickly as he saw who was there. "Hey, if it ain't the two lovebirds! Congrats on the possible engagement … it's a big step to be talking about marriage."
Lois's jaw dropped and she whirled around to face Clark. "You told him?!"
Clark looked just as shocked. "No!" he fumbled, embarrassed. He shot Bobby a wide-eyed glare.
Bobby came to the reporter's defense. "Nah, I got it from a friend … he works at that jewelry shop over on 34 th Street. He told me how Clark's been mooning over the wedding rings in the display case every time he passes by on his way to work."
Catching Lois's stunned look, Clark flushed. "I wouldn't say … *mooning* … exactly," he defended weakly. He scrambled to get them back on track. "Look, Bobby, do you know an ex-con named Ramin Tarbush?"
Their source made a face. "Of course. Last I heard he was living on the street and getting his meals at the homeless shelter on Union Street." Bobby picked up a carton of milk from a server's tray and took a swig. Then, seeing the expressions on Lois and Clark's faces, he looked appropriately chagrined. "Aw, where are my manners?" He wiped off the mouth of the carton with his sleeve and held it out to them. "Anybody thirsty?"
Clark shook his head as he and Lois exited the restaurant. "OK, no more meeting Bobby at work … one look at him in the kitchen is enough to make me lose my appetite."
"Wish I could say the same," Lois grumbled. "I'm *starving*. That granola bar I ate this afternoon got digested hours ago."
"I didn't get a chance to call anywhere for reservations … where do you want to go for dinner?"
Lois sighed as she opened the jeep door. She'd been looking forward to going somewhere special but now… "You know, Clark, I don't even feel like going out anymore. I'm too hungry to spend the time picking a place, then waiting for our food to be served." She sat in the driver's seat and inserted the key in the ignition. "Can we just get something quick?"
"Sure, how about subs from Rancino's?" Clark suggested as he fastened his seat belt. "There's one a few blocks from here … we could get take-out and be home eating in twenty minutes. Or if you want me to fly somewhere—"
"No, no, Rancino's is fine," she said as she turned the key with another sigh. "So much for our nice dinner."
The radio came on when the car started, and the two found themselves listening to the half-hour news report as they waited for traffic to clear. << And in Northern California,>> the announcer read, << forest fires continue to rage. Strong winds have shifted the blaze to the north, putting numerous homes in jeopardy … >>
Clark groaned. "And so much for our *dessert*." He gave Lois an apologetic shrug. "I'm sorry, honey. I better get out there."
Resigned, Lois put the car back into 'park' and gave her boyfriend a quick kiss before he hopped out. "Be careful."
"Thanks," he answered. "Go get some food. And don't wait up; this will probably take a while. Love you."
Lois couldn't help but give him a little smile. "Love you, too."
At the Metropolis State Penitentiary, Sheldon Bender sat fidgeting at a large conference table. After being abducted by Lex Luthor and threatened with extinction over a mere billion dollars in embezzled funds, the only way he'd been able to save his skin was with the information that he could find Kryptonite for his former client.
He'd heard through the Intergang grapevine that Rollie Vale had obtained Kryptonite to power his cyborg several weeks ago. When Vale had finally been captured last week, the Kryptonite hadn't been on him and no one seemed to know exactly what he had done with it. Still, there were rumors that Vale kept the piece safely hidden away, and Bender could only hope that this was not only true, but that the man had his price. Finding Kryptonite for Lex Luthor was the only thing that would save the attorney's life.
It hadn't been that difficult to funnel Lex's money into his own personal accounts after his client's demise last year. As Luthor's attorney, Sheldon was the only one with direct information about all of the hidden bank accounts — after all, he was the one who had hidden them in the first place. At this point, he'd have been willing to give Lex any cash he could liquidate quickly, but although a billion dollars had seemed like a lot at the time, it was amazing how fast it had gotten spoken for. After creating a real estate development firm as a tool for Intergang to buy up sections of the city, it wasn't like he had tons of excess cash flow. OK, sure, he'd been able to buy himself the largest penthouse apartment currently available in Metropolis, and he did have his yacht custom built … and of course, there was that island in the Caribbean that was now known as SheldonBenderVille … but it wasn't like he lived like a king! He certainly didn't flaunt his money the way Lex Luthor used to. Which made it all the more surprising that Luthor had tracked him down.
Sheldon shook his head. What was he thinking? After finding out that Lex Luthor had come back from the dead, nothing would ever surprise him again! Now he just needed to find the Kryptonite. Then he and Lex would be even and he could go back to living the life his efforts had earned him.
Fortunately, it wasn't long before the guard arrived with the prisoner.
"You Bender?" Vale asked curtly. At the attorney's nod, Vale looked around the room and noted the two other men accompanying the lawyer. "Who are these bozos?" he sneered.
Sheldon cringed. Nigel St. John had confidently sat down at the table when they'd entered the visiting room, but Lex had chosen to lean against the side wall, disguised in dark clothing and sunglasses. Vale had no way of knowing who the men were, but Sheldon saw no reason to antagonize them any further, at least not until he could manage to extricate himself from his predicament. "I caution you on your choice of words, Mr. Vale."
Vale just snorted. "Oh, yeah? In case you haven't noticed, I'm in prison. What are you going to do? Charge me with being rude?"
Over his shoulder, Bender heard Lex step forward. "Of course not, Mr. Vale," Luthor said smoothly. "I'll simply have you killed." As Sheldon glanced over, he saw that Lex had removed his hat and glasses, showing himself for the first time.
"Oh really?" Vale started smugly. "You and what—" Suddenly he cut off in astonishment as he recognized the man before him. "Luthor! But how—?"
"There are things in heaven and earth not foreseen in your philosophy, Mr. Vale."
Rollie Vale stared at the man in shock for a moment, but quickly composed himself, the arrogant smirk returning to his face. "Sure. OK. So what happened? Forget to bring your hair with you when you came back from the dead?"
Sheldon cringed yet again. He only hoped Lex let Vale live long enough to tell them where the damned rock was hidden before ripping him apart.
To his surprise, however, Lex simply started to chuckle over the insult. "That's funny. That's very funny."
Bender blew out a breath and heard St. John do the same. No sooner had everyone relaxed, however, than Lex reached out and grabbed Vale by the neck, squeezing tightly. "You're in no position to be funny, *Mister* Vale."
To Sheldon's amazement, Rollie Vale simply grabbed Lex's wrist with his left hand and slammed it down on the table, hard. His eyes registered smug satisfaction at the painful wince that crossed Luthor's face. "And you're in no position to put your hands on me, *Mister* Luthor." His eyes set defiantly, Vale used his right hand to pull up his left sleeve. Instead of flesh, his arm was metallic. "Robotic," he explained. "I had to replace the one my thimble-brained cyborg crushed." He let go of Lex's arm with a sneer.
Taking a small step back, Luthor cradled his sore arm, but his demands remained firm. "That cyborg was powered by Kryptonite. Stolen from LexLabs by your brother. I want it back."
As the two men stared each other down, Bender quickly jumped in, trying to diffuse the situation. "Ah … what my client is saying …"
"I know what he's saying," Vale spat. Then he turned back to Luthor. "Unless you got something I want, skinhead, this meeting's over."
"What is it that you want?"
Vale pondered briefly, sizing up the three men before him. "Half a million dollars and my freedom."
Lex didn't ponder long. "So money and your freedom for the Kryptonite. Do we have a deal?"
Casting Luthor a speculative look, Vale rose and knocked on the heavy door back to the prison. As he waited for the guard to open it, he turned his attention back to them. "Sure. We have a deal." And with that, he was gone.
The silence in the room was deafening and Sheldon found himself nervously regarding the two men he'd brought with him. "Lex, whatever it is you're planning," he said quickly, "I shouldn't hear about it."
Luthor just gave an amused snort. "Hear about it? You're going to be part of it!" He then turned to Nigel. "But we're going to need a diversion to get the equipment we need. And I know the perfect sacrificial lamb."
Perry White walked into his office the next morning, engrossed in the copy he'd been handed. They had exactly three hours till the noon deadline for the afternoon edition, and he still had several inches to fill in the city section. The capture of Rollie Vale, the man who'd created the cyborg that had managed to take on Superman before finally being melted down, had been front page news yesterday, but today, Perry was hoping for something else to lead with besides the usual follow-up stories. Fortunately, the article Tony Boemer had just completed on two members of the Metropolis School Board coming to blows at last night's meeting over possible financial impropriety looked promising.
Lost in the text, Perry didn't notice Jimmy stick his head in the office door until the young man spoke. "I'm making a donut run, Chief. Need anything?"
He waved him off. "No, but thanks for asking." As the young man took off gathering orders, Perry absently dropped himself into his chair, his eyes searching for a pen. How many times did he have to tell Tony that the possessive form of 'its' didn't have an apostrophe?!
Perry let out a yelp, however, as his rear end fell several inches lower than he was expecting before being stopped by the bottom of the chair. "Aw, who's been playing with my chair?!" he huffed as he reached down to raise the lift on the bottom. He froze, however, as he noticed some wires coming from the bottom of the chair. Feeling around cautiously, Perry fingered several odd sized containers and sat up slowly. Only then did he notice the note sitting on his computer keyboard.
Luckily, the young man hadn't gone too far. "Yeah?" he asked, sticking his head back in the door.
"I do need something."
"What's that, Chief?"
Perry held up the note for Jimmy so he could read it clearly: ONE SMALL MOVE AND KABOOM.
Down in the lobby of the Daily Planet building, Lois was busy reading "Making Love Last: Will Your Marriage Stand the Test of Time?", the featured article on the cover of "Your Wedding" magazine. Having set her coffee down on the ledge of the kiosk, she'd only intended to skim the article, but soon found herself reading intently.
As expected, Superman had been busy all night, and although she always missed Clark when they couldn't be together, being alone had given her time to think about their relationship. Clark's reassurances had finally convinced Lois that she was being ridiculous to worry about his leaving her just because she wasn't ready to accept his proposal. Clark loved her deeply and completely, and despite his occasional bouts of insecurity, always seemed ready to forgive her anything. Besides, she reasoned, they simply had too much fun together for him to have become truly unhappy about the situation.
What had been especially interesting about last night, however, was the self-realization that with Clark finally backing off on the marriage issue, Lois had felt a little freer to think about the idea herself. Oh, she was by no means ready to start picking out rings. But missing him last night, and knowing that even if he had returned home before morning, he wouldn't have come to her apartment, only served to remind Lois how much she wanted to spend the rest of her life with him. She'd been feeling that way for some time now, but the feeling only seemed to grow stronger the more time they spent together. Suddenly the idea of marriage and permanently sharing a home didn't seem quite so terrifying.
Lois had even decided to test her new-found confidence this morning by flipping through a wedding magazine on the rack of the newsstand. Amazingly, she'd found herself sighing over several wedding gowns that she liked, and once she'd even had to stop herself from thinking about china patterns. At that point, she'd decided to stick with the articles — the photographs were far too dangerous.
Having finished the article that had originally caught her eye — and deciding that it didn't contain any information that she didn't already know — Lois had just moved on to "Seating Arrangements for Divorced Parents" when she heard a familiar 'ahem' next to her. Eyes wide, she looked up to find her partner standing there, his eyes twinkling.
Flustered at having been caught reading what she'd been reading, Lois almost dropped the magazine as she scrambled to replace it on the rack. "Oh, hi! … I wasn't— that is, I was just— drinking coffee." She grabbed her coffee cup and took a quick gulp to illustrate her point.
Grinning at her guilty fumbling, Clark peered inside her cup. "Hmm, what did they put inside your coffee this morning?"
Lois hastened to defend herself. "You just startled me, that's all."
"Mmm-hmm," he murmured, the corners of his mouth twitching.
"Well, you did." Lois quickly changed the subject. "Want some coffee?"
He pulled her close. "No, just some sugar." After pecking a good morning kiss onto her lips, Clark gave her a sexy smile. "I missed you last night."
"Forest fires weren't hot enough?" she answered a little breathlessly. It always sent shivers down her spine when he smiled at her like that, and when he dropped his voice an octave at the same time, she could hardly remember to breathe.
"They've got nothing on you, Lois."
"Mmm, good answer." Relaxing against him, Lois giggled as Clark began to nuzzle her ear. "You still smell like smoke."
"I do?" Clark lifted his head in surprise. "I showered."
Lois looked at him through half-lowered lids. "Well, see, that's your problem … I wasn't in there with you to soap you up."
Clark made a low sound in the back of his throat. "God, Lois, nine in the morning and you make me want to pick you up and carry you home."
"Whose home?" she teased.
"Our home," he murmured in a husky voice. Quickly, though, he backpedaled. "I'm sorry. That wasn't a proposal, I swear." He fixed her with a lopsided grin and stepped back, lightening the mood.
She returned his smile easily. She hadn't interpreted his comment that way, and from the relaxed look on his face, he wasn't really worried that she had. "See, this is why I don't want to get married, Clark," she teased. When she noticed the smile leave his eyes, however, it was her turn to quickly backpedal. "No, no, I just mean … we have so much fun together. I love joking around with you like this, flirting with you."
"Ah." He nodded, then fixed her with an exaggerated look of understanding, a grin once again playing on the corners of his mouth. "You thought you were going to get out of that? See, I fully intend to flirt with you long after we're married."
"And I suppose you'll expect me to flirt with you?"
"Well, I wasn't planning on hiring a pool boy, so I'll just have to do."
Lois laughed, but her voice changed as she rested her hands on his chest. "It's just … I'm afraid marriage will change things, Clark."
At the wistful note that had entered her voice, Clark smoothed one of his hands over her hair. "I'm afraid, too, Lois," he answered her sincerely. "You're the most important thing in the world to me, and I don't want to mess this up." Then his eyes softened. "But I believe in us, Lois, and I know that being with you can never be anything but wonderful."
Lois felt herself melting at his declaration, and wrapped her arms around his waist. "Clark, do you remember what you told me about when we first started dating, why you didn't want to tell me about … you know who … right away? How you knew things would change between us while I sorted things out, and you just wanted a few more days to enjoy the feeling of us falling in love?"
Clark pulled her a little closer. "Yeah, I remember."
"Well, that's what I'm feeling right now. I know you're not worried that things will change if we get married, but I am. And I just want to enjoy what we have right now; I don't want to rush things. Clark, I'm happier than I've ever been in my whole life, and I just want to enjoy it." She looked up at him, her eyes hopeful. "Can you do that with me?"
Lois searched his face anxiously as he mulled over what she had said. When Clark finally smiled, it was the most genuine smile Lois had seen on his face in days. "Yeah," he answered, nodding. "I can do that." He pressed a sweet kiss onto her lips.
Lois smiled in relief and was about to return his kiss with one of her own when a loud shout abruptly echoed through the lobby. Lois and Clark looked up to see several men in jumpsuits rushing into the building, carrying equipment cases with MPD BOMB SQUAD written on the sides.
"We've got an emergency in this building!" barked a man they assumed to be the squad commander. "I need everyone outside!"
The noise level in the lobby increased dramatically as people began rushing for the exits. Shouting to be heard over the din, Lois collared the commander as he rushed past. "What is it? What's going on?"
"Just step outside, little lady," he ordered before moving to the elevator.
Clark was already looking around anxiously, hands fiddling with his tie. "Go on, honey," he said quickly, concern on his face. "I'll take care of it."
Lois started to protest, but closed her mouth when she saw his worried look. "Be careful," she said as she watched him slip away down one of the cleared out hallways.
By the time Superman made his way upstairs to the newsroom, the bomb squad commander was already selecting a pair of wire cutters to defuse the bomb. Clark heard Perry White sigh the super-hero's name in relief.
Kneeling next to the squad commander, Superman peered at the bomb. He normally let the local law enforcement do their job unhindered if they had everything under control, but this was his boss in the hot seat. "Do you need any help?"
"Nah," the man drawled. "I found what I wanted." As he cut the appropriate wire, however, a timer promptly began counting down from sixty. "Uh oh … I underestimated this guy. There's a back-up firing mechanism. We've got less than a minute to clear this whole building!"
Clark didn't waste any time. "Clear a path to the window," he ordered. He picked up Perry's chair from underneath, careful not to set off the pressure bomb before he had to. "Hang on, Mr. White."
Lex Luthor ground his teeth as he lifted the grate covering the entrance to the subway tunnel that was his new home. As far as he knew, everything had gone off without a hitch at the bomb squad's headquarters, but his morning at the Daily Planet had left him fuming.
It had all started out nicely enough. He had disguised himself as a maintenance worker in order to monitor the building's lobby, and had been delighted when Lois Lane showed up shortly after he'd positioned himself. From his vantage point, he could watch her drink her morning coffee. Her beauty was a sight to behold.
He'd been exceptionally pleased when Lois had decided to linger in the lobby, not just so he could gaze upon her, but also because it had given him the opportunity to delay her from going upstairs. Lex had no compunction about blowing up the Daily Planet's newsroom — he'd done it before, and he'd be happy to do it again. But he'd just as soon not put Lois in harm's way if it wasn't necessary. The bomb squad was sure to arrive quickly, and the annoying big blue boy scout was probably going to put in an appearance as well. But knowing how irritatingly curious Lois was, it wouldn't have surprised Lex at all if she had tried to follow the disarmament team up the stairs.
Lex had been prepared to simply block her path and personally escort her outside if that were to happen … he was confident that his disguise would keep his true identity a secret until he chose to reveal himself; after all, Lois hadn't suspected a thing yesterday evening when she'd helped him across the street. But the point had been moot. That she had decided to flip through a magazine before going upstairs for the day — although which magazine, he couldn't be certain due to the position of the newsstand — had only made his job that much easier.
What he hadn't counted on witnessing, however, was Lois's partner approaching her with that sappy smile on his face. Even more outlandish was her response — she'd actually let that hack kiss her! Lex hadn't been able to hear any of their conversation, but it was obvious that Clark Kent felt entitled to put his hands on her.
Lex growled as he worked his way through the dark tunnel. He hadn't expected Lois to live as a nun while he'd been gone — after all, women had their needs, just as men did — - but he hadn't expected her to dally with her partner. A senator, maybe, or a doctor, he could understand, but *Kent*?!
Of course, once someone had been with Lex Luthor, there was nowhere to go but down. And Lois clearly couldn't be serious about the man; Kent was a nothing, a nobody. But Lex really had thought Lois would have had better taste than to have a fling with her partner. It was quite unseemly for a woman of her potential. The mere idea left a bad taste in his mouth and he made a sound of disgust.
Gretchen and Nigel were already in the hideout when Lex stepped into the light. He looked at Nigel impatiently. "Well? Did you get it?"
St. John indicated a metal case containing plastic explosives and a firing mechanism. "Of course."
"No." "Good." Lex nodded, then he fixed his assistant with a hard stare. "Now tell me everything you've found out about Lois Lane."
Unflappable as always, Nigel simply reached inside his jacket and pulled out a notebook. For a moment, Lex could have sworn he'd seen a smirk on the man's face, but when Nigel lifted his head, it was gone.
"Lois Lane," St. John began, "is currently in a relationship with Clark Kent, her partner at the Daily Planet. They've been seeing each other for the last three months."
Gretchen Kelly walked up behind Lex. "Apparently they're quite serious," she added, with a sing-song note of triumph in her voice.
"Impossible," Lex snapped, shooting her a warning look. "They're co-workers. They're probably just keeping each other company until something better comes along."
Nigel lifted an eyebrow. "Well, apparently they've been keeping each other company several nights a week," he said dryly. "All night."
"They're sleeping together?"
Lex's eyes opened wide, then he narrowed them dangerously. "Impossible," he repeated coolly. "Lois doesn't want to have sex outside marriage … she had some bad experiences in her younger days and has decided to wait because of them. Your sources must be wrong."
Nigel opened his mouth, but closed it again without responding. Instead, he just sat back in his chair and watched Lex with a contemplative expression on his face.
Gretchen, however, was outraged by his denial. "Lex! What more do you need?" She inserted herself between the two men. "She's obviously having sex with her partner, a man who pales in comparison to you. She's no longer worth your time — she isn't worth a second thought!"
"I'll decide who is and isn't worth my time, Doctor," he responded sharply, brushing her aside. "Nigel, I want you to look into Mr. Kent. I want something that I can use … a weakness, a secret past, anything that will give me leverage over him."
"Already done," Nigel replied, his arms folded across his chest. "Once I discovered that he was seeing Miss Lane, I took the liberty of updating the background report I had created on him during your engagement last year."
"As then, nothing."
"What do you mean, *nothing*?" Lex stormed, beginning to pace. "No expunged police records, no exaggerations on his resume, no disgruntled ex-girlfriends?? No one is that clean, Nigel!"
In contrast to Lex's agitation, Nigel's demeanor became even more calm. "Apparently Kent is."
After a moment, Lex stopped pacing. "Well, it doesn't matter anyway," he stated matter-of-factly. "Your sources are clearly wrong; they aren't having sex."
Gretchen, for her part, had been fuming in silence after Lex's brush-off, but this last comment sent her over the edge. "This is crazy!" she sputtered. "You're letting your history with this woman blind you to the obvious. What do you think they are doing all night in each other's apartments? Knitting socks?!" She whirled on Nigel. "Tell him!" she demanded. "Tell him this is crazy."
When St. John just sat in silence, however, Gretchen gave up and tried a different tack. Moving close to Lex, she put her hands on his chest. "Lex," she cooed, trying to sound seductive, "she's not good enough for you … you can do so much better."
Lex just regarded her coldly. "Is that your *professional* opinion, Doctor?"
Gretchen stepped back and narrowed her eyes. "Fine," she spat. "I'll just have to prove it to you." She turned away from Lex and grabbed her bag before storming out. "I'll be back. Then you'll see!"
Lex rolled his eyes at her tantrum. The woman really did not take rejection well. But she was a good doctor and was unfailingly loyal, so it wouldn't do to let her leash get too long. "Gretchen," he called after her. "Gretchen!" When she didn't stop, he turned to Nigel, annoyed. "Now where the hell is she going?"
St. John just made a sound of exasperation. "Oh, let her go already … we don't need her today. She'll come back; she always does."
Lex gave a long-suffering sigh. "Fine … we have work to do anyway. Contact Tarbush. We have a prison break to organize."
At a little after five that afternoon, Clark perched himself on the corner of Lois's desk. "I'm finished," he pronounced, "and I think you are, too." When Lois simply raised an eyebrow, he motioned around the room. "Come on, Lois, no one is getting any work done today. The bomb scare this morning pretty much ensured that. The police have been crawling all over the place, and even Perry's been in meetings all day with building security, trying to find out who might have done this. Let's get out of here."
Lois tried to look serious. "Now, Clark," she intoned, "just because everyone else is leaving early, doesn't mean we have to. If the rest of the newsroom jumped off a cliff, would you do it, too?"
Clark grinned. "Well, actually, *I* could." He laughed as she slapped his leg. "Come on, Lois, bug out with me … " His voice took on a coaxing, sing-song tone. "I'll take you to dinner … anywhere you want to go."
She considered this. "Anywhere?"
"*Any*where," he repeated, eyes twinkling. "What do you feel like tonight? Italian? French?" He lowered his voice, glancing around to be sure no one was within earshot. He needn't have bothered, however, since the small handful of reporters left in the newsroom were all clustered around the coffee pot. "I know this great little place in Athens …"
"Greece?" Lois looked tempted, then reconsidered. "No, I think we should stay local tonight. You know what happened last time we flew overseas … almost getting arrested for lewd behavior in a public park is not my idea of a fun evening." She gave a little roll of her eyes.
"We did *not* almost get arrested," he protested, laughing. "I got us out of there in plenty of time."
"Yeah, right." She turned her mouth into a pretend pout. "I didn't even have enough time to grab my doggie bag. And it was all your fault, too … how does someone with super- hearing not hear a police patrol?"
"My fault?" Clark sputtered. "And who distracted me? I wasn't the one wearing the skirt cut up to here and the blouse cut down to there!" His hands motioned in conjunction with his words, even as his skin flushed slightly from the memory. "Honey, you're lucky we made it to the park. It was all I could do not to attack you in the restaurant."
Lois's face wore a satisfied smirk as she ran her hand up his thigh. "I'd say we both got lucky."
Clark gave her a slow grin. "Leave with me now and I'll promise we'll both get lucky again."
Gretchen Kelly sat outside the Daily Planet in her rented car, waiting to put her plan into motion. She craned her neck as a dark-haired couple exited the building across the street, holding hands. Yes, it was them.
She watched as they made their way down to the parking lot at the end of the block and got into Lois's silver Jeep Grand Cherokee. It was a good thing she had taken a look at Nigel's report … knowing some details about Lois's life would make her job that much easier.
As the large SUV pulled out into traffic, Gretchen started her car and began to tail them, being sure to stay several car lengths behind. At the first traffic light, she eyed the equipment on the seat next to her and smiled an evil smile.
She would have her revenge. And then Lex would see that Gretchen Kelly was the only woman for him.
Lois and Clark ended up at Oakley's Pub for dinner, a midtown restaurant which had become popular with the young professionals of Metropolis. The food was good and reasonably priced and there was always chocolate on the dessert menu. They'd run into a few people they knew during the meal — a stock broker they'd recently interviewed for a story, a defense attorney they'd helped by discovering a witness who could verify his client's alibi, and a nurse at Metropolis General with whom Lois had gone to college — but for the most part, they'd been able to enjoy enough privacy during their meal to generate a little heat that didn't radiate off the plates of hot food.
The only tense moment had come when Clark had accidentally overheard a group of attorneys from the prosecutor's office talking at the bar, some of whom he recognized as friends of a certain blonde Assistant DA he'd shared a few casual dates with several months ago. Clark knew that Mayson had been telling people that Clark had dumped her for his partner, implying that their "relationship" had been much more serious than it was. He'd decided at the time not to get involved, figuring that the less he said about the subject, the sooner it would die. He just hadn't expected that her friends would still be making comments about him (and thus, Lois) three months later.
Uncomfortable over the gossip they were sharing at his expense, Clark had suggested that he and Lois leave without ordering dessert, but Lois had found the entire experience to be extremely humorous and she'd flat out refused to leave. Clark had found her amusement puzzling until she'd given him a devilish grin and whispered, "Let's give them something to talk about," right before launching herself into his arms.
By the time dessert had been served, Clark was in a much better mood and ready to leave for a completely different reason, but Lois had only turned up the teasing. All thoughts of gossip flew out of his head when they began feeding each other bites of the chocolate cheesecake they were sharing, and by the time her hand began caressing his inner thigh underneath the table, he'd have been willing to take out a billboard had Lois asked him to. They were both smiling broadly by the time they paid the check, and Clark couldn't help but chuckle as Lois made a point of walking past the bar and giving him another kiss in front of the attorneys' table.
She'd continued to subject him to more of her sweet torture on the ride home, so no sooner had Lois parked her SUV in front of her brownstone than Clark was around the car and opening the driver's side door. Lois smiled as he helped her out of the car, but her smile turned into a gasp as he quickly pulled her into his arms and gave her a soul- shattering kiss.
They traded wet kisses against the car until the strong glare of headlights from another car being parked down the street jerked them out of their trance. "Let's take this upstairs," Lois suggested, smiling against his mouth. "I want to do things to you I can't do in public."
Clark gave a throaty groan. "I thought you'd never ask."
Locking the car, Lois took Clark's hand as they practically ran up the steps to the front door, giggling. It took a few minutes to actually get inside the door since Clark used her pausing to find the right key as an opportunity to continue kissing, but eventually, they managed.
Getting into Lois's apartment was a little quicker, and they laughed as they each tried to turn the inside locks at the same time. Once that little task was accomplished, though, Clark turned to her with a predatory look. "Now, about that dessert you promised me …"
Lois's eyes sparkled as she grabbed him by the tie and walked backwards into the living room, pulling him along with her. "The chocolate cheesecake didn't satisfy you?" she asked as innocently as she could manage.
Clark stripped off his suit jacket as he spoke. "It wasn't what I've been craving for the last two days, no."
As he tossed the jacket over a chair, Lois grinned and began working on the knot in his tie. "I seem to remember," she answered in a sultry voice, "you saying something about me being good enough to—"
The rest of her words were swallowed by Clark's passionate kiss. "I think that can definitely be arranged," he responded in a husky rumble.
The next words out of his mouth, however, were a muttered curse.
Lois pulled back in surprise. "*What* did you just say?"
Clark only continued to mutter under his breath as he pulled out of her arms. If she hadn't known better, Lois would have sworn he'd just used the word "Superman" in conjunction with a few others that would normally make him blush.
"Duty calls?" she sighed.
Sighing heavily along with her, Clark spun into the suit. "I'll be *right* back," he promised as he opened her window. "Oh, and Lois?" he added, fixing her with an aroused stare. "This time, *definitely* wait up."
Twenty minutes later, Lois had just decided to step out on her fire escape to get some air when she heard Clark return. He called her name as he walked through the apartment and Lois knew that he would find her quickly.
Sure enough, she heard him climb through the window almost immediately and walk up behind her. "Mmm," Lois purred as she felt him wrap his arms around her from behind. "Just what I needed to warm me up." The February evening was unusually mild, but she was starting to get chilly in her long-sleeved sweater. She could feel that he had spun back into his shirt and pants but a glance upwards told her he had skipped the tie.
Clark smiled against her skin as his lips traced light kisses down one side of her neck. "Waiting for someone?"
"My boyfriend," she murmured happily. "I thought he might be flying by."
"He came in from the other direction." Clark ran his hands up and down her sweater-clad arms, even as his lips continued to tease her skin. "He had to stop at his place first to pick up a suit for tomorrow."
"Does that mean he's here for the night?"
"Oh, yeah," he murmured in a throaty voice, kissing his way up to her ear. "Oh … yeah." He held her against his body possessively. "God, you look sexy in this outfit."
Lois gave a throaty laugh as she heard the heat in his voice. She was more than ready to pick up where they'd left off, and she was glad the rescue hadn't dampened his interest either. She rotated her hips against him seductively to find the evidence she guessed would be there and grinned. "In the mood you're in, why do I think you'd find me sexy in anything?"
"Oh, you already know that. In anything …" The tip of his tongue barely made contact as it traced the shell of her ear, causing Lois to shiver. "Or out of anything …" He sucked her earlobe into his mouth, as one hand began to play with the little pearl buttons of her sweater. "But I've been fantasizing about taking this sweater off you all day." He ran his other hand down her side and cupped her hip. "And this skirt? Lois, you should know what an outfit like this would do to me."
Lois laughed again. Her outfit wasn't blatantly sexy, at least not in an overstated way. The black leather skirt was shorter than she used to wear, but she'd found it in the career-wear section of the department store. Paired with a prim red button-down knit sweater, it made an outfit that was certainly appropriate for work. Of course, the pairing had been no accident … she didn't deny that the contrast of the proper knit sweater with the slightly naughty short black skirt was meant to emphasize her assets in a way that was still professional. "I'm glad you like it," she said in a breathy voice, enjoying the amazing touches and kisses he was giving her. "You know, last year I never would have worn something like this … I guess now that I have someone to show off for, I don't mind doing it."
"You can show off for me anytime," he whispered in her ear.
"Mmm, too bad I can't come to work naked," she teased.
Clark chuckled. "Cat Grant seemed to manage."
Lois rolled her eyes. "And I suppose you found that sexy?"
"Mmm, no way," he murmured as his lower hand traced a path to her thigh. "Lois, believe me when I say that I spent many hours fantasizing about what was under those suits of yours, but I never spent one minute on Cat."
Lois let her head fall to one side as Clark's lips continued exploring her neck, but couldn't help but smile at her next thought. "And to think she always said I would never entice a man dressing the way I did."
Clark was breathless as he responded. "I'm enticed." He pulled her more closely to him and groaned softly as she deliberately pressed against him, sharpening his arousal intensely. He brought a hand up to cup one of her breasts. "I am so enticed."
Lois's resulting whimper caused his passion to flare even more, and Clark began to caress her through her sweater. Her whimper turned into a throaty moan.
He was about to suggest they take things inside when Lois turned in his arms and began to layer kisses along his neck, making it his turn to moan. "And just what did you fantasize about, Clark?" Lois whispered as her mouth reached his ear. "What did you think I wore under those boxy business suits?"
His hands cupped her bottom as he captured her lips in a passionate kiss. He was breathing hard when he finally responded. "I think I pictured everything at one time or another … sometimes black, sometimes white … sometimes nothing at all."
"Never a seven-veils costume, though, I bet." She smiled against his kiss. "God, that seems like a lifetime ago now."
He couldn't help but smile back, even as he recaptured her lips. "I thought I was going to die trying to resist you."
"You wanted me," she stated in a husky voice. "I could tell."
Clark moaned deep in his throat as Lois's fingers began to tease his nipples through his shirt, and he brought a hand back up to cup one of her full breasts. "What do you mean?"
A seductive smile spread across his lover's face. "I mean, I could feel you … when you finally gave in and pulled me to you. 'If you want me, I'm yours.' You wanted me, too."
He gave a breathless gasp. "You knew?"
"It was difficult to miss." Her chuckle was throaty and her eyes sparkled mischievously. "Clark, do you have any idea how many times I tried to push that memory out of my mind? I tried to pretend it didn't happen. But even as I tried to convince myself I didn't have feelings for you, I couldn't help but wonder what would have happened if I hadn't come out of it just then." She kissed him erotically, letting her teeth tug on his lower lip. "Would you have been able to stop … if I had done this?" She seductively lowered a hand between them.
Clark took a sharp breath inwards as he felt his control slip. Cupping the sides of her face with both hands, he pulled her mouth to his for a devouring kiss. "Lois," he hissed against her mouth. "Inside. *Now*."
She didn't need a second request.
Lying on Lois's bed later that evening, Clark groaned happily as he stretched his muscles. The second round of their 'dessert' for the evening had started in the living room, continued in the shower, then finished on the bedroom ceiling. And it had been so much more satisfying than chocolate cheesecake, he thought with a contented smile.
This was when he felt closest to her, he'd come to realize over the last three months. Not during sex itself, but after, as they basked in the afterglow, sated and drowsy, a tangle of bare arms and legs on the bed. Completely exposed … and completely safe. This was when they had their most intimate conversations. When they planned their future and talked about their pasts, and shared their joys and their worries. Over the last three months, they had talked about so much, yet they never seemed to run out of conversation. She truly was his best friend, Clark thought. And his lover. And someday soon, hopefully more. But they'd agreed to table the discussion of marriage, and this time, he was going to honor the agreement. He could wait, he told himself. He had to. Too much was at stake.
Clark stretched again, then sighed contently as Lois did the same, the action causing her thigh to brush between his. "I never knew it was possible to be this happy," he announced on a yawn.
Lois sighed happily as well. "It's disgusting, isn't it?"
"Well, that's an interesting choice of words."
She just laughed. "No, I mean me. Ten o'clock on a work night, and I've been naked for the past hour and a half. A few months ago I would still have been *at* work, making tracks towards my next big story."
"Not naked I hope."
She smacked him on the arm. "I'm serious. What happened to me, Clark?"
"You fell in love, sweetie."
"But what if I've lost my edge? What if while I'm lying here with you, the Pulitzer Prize-winning story I've been waiting for is lurking right outside my door?"
"Then there'll be other stories." At her frustrated expression, he started over. "Lois, look, I know how important your career is to you. You are the best reporter in this city, and that's not going to change just because you no longer spend every waking minute at the paper." He ran his hand up and down her arm. "Priorities change, honey. That's part of life. A good part, I think. Aren't you happier now than you were four months ago?"
Lois sighed. "Of course I am, Clark. But that's scary in itself. I mean, look at this whole marriage thing that's got us all turned around." At the wary look that crept onto his face, she gave him a reassuring smile. "Don't worry, I'm not going to get into it. It's just that now when I think about the future, I'm not just thinking about my next story anymore. I'm thinking about you … and you and me … and making plans based on you and me. I never thought I'd be planning my life around a man, but I'm doing it … and it scares the heck out of me!"
Clark shook his head. "You're not planning your life around me, Lois … you're planning your life around *us*."
"But what if I lose *me* in the process?"
Clark intertwined his fingers with hers. "Then I would be very sad, because I never intend to lose you."
Lois stared at him for a moment. "That was a very good answer."
He grinned at her. "Thank you."
"So you're saying that you won't let me — or my career — get lost in the process." She furrowed her brow, still concerned.
"Not unless you want it to."
"That shifting priority thing?"
Clark leaned forward. "Just kiss me, Lois. I promise it'll be all right … we'll work through it."
Giving up, Lois pressed her mouth to his. By the time she pulled back, she was sighing contently again. "Oh, great, now I'm back to disgusting."
Clark laughed out loud and pulled her into his arms. "A fear of happiness! Do you have any other deep-seated phobias I should know about, Ms. Lane?"
Lois just smiled. "Rats," she answered.
"No, *rats*. I hate rats." She gave a little shudder.
"You do? I didn't know that."
"Yeah, since I was a kid. They really give me the creeps. They're dirty and crawly and—" She shuddered again.
Clark couldn't help but smile. "Always something new to learn."
Lois looked up at him speculatively. "So what about you?" she asked. "What silly thing are you afraid of?" She started to laugh. "Wouldn't it be funny if you were afraid of heights? Or of flying?"
"Yeah, that's it, Lois … I'm afraid of flying."
They chuckled together before lapsing into a comfortable silence. Lois snuggled up against him as Clark pulled her close, and she sighed again. "So, no silly fears, huh? I'm the only one?"
This time, however, Clark didn't answer.
"Clark?" She glanced up at him, and was surprised to see that he looked a little melancholy. "What is it, honey?"
He was silent for another long moment before he responded. "Knives," he finally admitted. "I don't like knives."
She quirked her head to look at him. "What, like kitchen knives? We're in trouble if you can't chop vegetables anymore." She quit teasing, however, when she saw the subdued expression still on his face. "Seriously?"
"Not kitchen knives. Surgical knives."
"I don't understand."
He sighed as he looked away. "Remember how I told you my dad always warned that I had to be careful with my powers, so no one would find out about me?" Lois nodded, encouraging him to continue. "He used to say that if anyone found out, they'd put me in a lab and dissect me like a frog."
"Ah, those kind of knives." Lois nodded sympathetically. She remembered Clark using that phrase when he had told her about Superman. Then a little pang of guilt hit her as she also remembered her reaction to his explanation, how she had dismissed it as a ridiculous excuse — no one could dissect him because he was invulnerable. But it was clear that she had dismissed something important to him.
"He would say it as a way to impress on me how important it was to keep what I could do a secret," Clark explained. "It never bothered me all that much when I was little; I don't think I really knew what it meant. I used to catch frogs by the pond all the time and keep them as pets, so I guess I figured it must be something like that."
Lois lifted her head from his chest and rolled to her side next to him. She propped herself up on one elbow to watch him.
Clark rolled towards her, but he kept his eyes lowered as he continued. "When I was eight, the high school had a science fair. It was one of those big events where everyone in town goes. They had exhibits set up in the gym and in the halls. You'd walk around and see what everyone had done, and they'd award prizes.
"One of the most popular exhibits with the kids was run by a high school student who was taking biology. He had a bucket of dead frogs, and he'd dissect them as the people watched; he'd talk about what he was doing, that sort of thing. I was walking around with a couple of my friends while our parents were visiting and we got to the booth just as he was pegging down a new frog.
Clark swallowed. "I just stood there, transfixed, watching him. He pinned the frog to the tray, then he took the knife and cut open its belly. After he peeled back the skin, he started taking out the organs, mounting each one on the tray as he went. I don't remember what anyone around me was doing; I was completely fixated on that frog." He closed his eyes. "And all of a sudden, it hit me … this was what my dad said they were going to do to me."
Lois put her hand to her mouth. "Oh, my God," she whispered.
Clark opened his eyes again, but they were unseeing, lost in the memory. His voice grew hoarse. "I— I guess I had some type of panic attack because the next thing I remember, I was outside, getting sick in the bushes. People were making jokes; they thought I just couldn't handle the sight of the frog.
"My dad ran out and wrapped me in his coat and carried me off to the car, and I remember my mom held me in her lap all the way home because I couldn't stop crying. I was absolutely terrified." He took a shaky breath. "That night, after they'd finally got me calmed down and into bed, my parents had a huge fight. My mom was furious because my dad had scared me, but my dad kept insisting that I had to learn to keep quiet. I just laid there in bed, listening to them, knowing that if I wasn't the way I was—" His voice cracked. "They wouldn't have to be ashamed of me and hide me, and they wouldn't have to fight about me."
Tears spilled down Lois's cheeks as she pulled him to her, whispering his name.
Clark took a few deep breaths before continuing, taking comfort in her embrace. "I started having nightmares after that, but I would never tell my parents what they were about. Maybe they knew, I don't know. It probably wasn't too hard to figure out, but I'd always say I couldn't remember." Clark finally looked up to meet Lois's tear- filled eyes. "I've never told anyone this before … about the dreams, what they really were. Don't tell my parents, OK?"
Lois nodded and tried to wipe some of her tears away. "I won't," she promised.
"I don't want them to feel guilty."
"My dad felt real bad about it after, even if he wouldn't admit it. He was scared, too; scared someone would find out about me and take me away. He was just trying to protect me."
Clark was quiet for a long moment. "I got over it … I mean, you know how kids are. You just kind of bury it and get on with your life." He attempted a lopsided grin. "I even took high school biology."
Lois gave a watery laugh.
"It's just that … deep down, Lois … in that little kid place … I think a part of me will always wonder if I should be ashamed of who I am."
Lois pulled back to look him in the eye, her face tender but serious. "Don't think that."
Clark sighed. "I know, honey … as an adult, I know—"
"Clark, listen to me … you have *nothing* to be ashamed of. You put yourself out there every day — not just as Superman but as Clark Kent — to make the world a better place." She paused, making sure she had his full attention. "And you are more *human* than anyone I have ever met. I just wish you could see how special you really are."
Clark inhaled a shaky breath, his emotions catching up with him. "Now which one of us knows exactly what to say?" He swiped at his eyes and attempted a smile. "Thank you."
"Yeah … thanks." He gave a little laugh. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to be such a downer. We've had such a great night, too."
"It's still a great night," she reassured him. "You just reminded me how lucky I am to have you."
"Lois … " He stared into her eyes for a long moment, emotions building once more. "For most of my life, there's been a small part of me that's always wondered whether anyone could ever really love me once they knew who — and what — I am." He swallowed, gathering his composure. "But now that I've found you, I finally *know*. You're everything to me, Lois, and finding you was like finding a piece of myself that I didn't even know was missing."
"I feel the same way," she whispered emotionally.
"I know," he whispered back, "and I am thankful for that every day." He smiled softly. "So when I need a little extra reassurance now and then … like when I freak out about the marriage thing … just know that it's not *you* I'm doubting, but myself, OK?"
She sniffled. "OK. I can do that."
"Good. 'Cause I love you so much."
Lois closed the small distance between them and pressed a gentle, lingering kiss against his lips. "And I love you."
The next morning, Lois and Clark stood in Perry's office, watching him crawl around under his chair looking for another bomb.
"So Superman just dumped you out of the chair without any warning?" she asked, incredulous. She shot Clark a look of amazement. "What in the world was he thinking??"
Clark just looked sheepish. "Maybe it was the fastest way?" he offered weakly.
Perry sat up. "Well, it looks clean. Some yahoo probably just didn't like what he read in the paper. It's a risk all editors take."
Lois rolled her eyes at Clark, then turned her doubtful glance back to Perry. "Don't you think it's awfully coincidental that Nigel St. John, a former spy, is back in town and suddenly this happens?"
"Aww, Lois, you're being paranoid."
"I don't know, Chief," Clark interjected. "Guess who else has magically reappeared? Sheldon Bender. Claims his abduction was just a prank by some old fraternity buddies."
"I don't buy that either," Lois scoffed. "Perry, my instincts tell me that all of this is connected with Nigel and Gretchen Kelly."
Just then, Jimmy walked in the door. "Guess what?" he asked. "The bomb squad headquarters was robbed while they were here."
Perry stood up straighter. "You mean I was just a diversion??"
"Kind of cheapens it somehow, huh?" Jimmy said sympathetically.
Lois and Clark, however, weren't even paying attention anymore. They turned to each other in unison.
"You take Bender, I'll take the bomb squad—"
"I'll take Bender, you take the bomb squad—"
Staring at each other for a moment as the words filtered, they gave each other a quick nod and dashed out of Perry's office, hot on the trail.
Staring after them, Jimmy's smile was surprised yet amused. "Notice how they're agreeing on a lot more things these days?"
"Well, talking about marriage will do that for a couple," Perry answered absently.
"Marriage?? How do you know that?"
"Jimmy! I didn't become editor of a major metropolitan newspaper because I know how to yodel!"
Hours later, Lois found herself trotting down the steps of Bender's office building to the sidewalk, her attention only half-focused on her surroundings. Darkness had come early on this February evening, and the cold rain that had fallen earlier gave a shine to the street that reflected the headlights of the cars racing past. It had been a long and frustrating day, made even more aggravating by the fact that, despite her best efforts, Lois hadn't obtained a single piece of information that she could use in her story.
She'd spent most of the day trying to track down Lex's former attorney, but all her attempts had failed. Bender's housekeeper kept insisting that she had no idea where he was, and Lois's efforts to track the man down at his various clubs had also proven futile. It was only on this, Lois's third trip to Bender's office, that his secretary had finally let it slip that he was in seclusion on his yacht in an effort to avoid the press — right before she'd threatened to have Lois arrested for harassment if she didn't leave the premises immediately.
Deciding not to push her luck, Lois had quickly retreated, and was now trying to figure out whether she and Clark should confront Bender immediately or wait until tomorrow. She knew it was too late to make tonight's deadline even if they did manage to get an interview, but the idea of wasting an entire day's work frustrated Lois to no end.
Distracted by her thoughts as she turned onto the sidewalk, Lois didn't notice the man in the wheelchair until he pulled out from the side alley right into her path. The man quickly apologized when he saw her stop short, but as he looked up at the person he'd almost collided with, his face brightened in recognition. "Well, it's Lois Lane. Imagine my luck, meeting you again so soon. In fact, I have something for you."
Instead of returning the smile the man was giving her, however, Lois tensed into a defensive posture. She quickly recognized him as the same person she'd met outside the police station the other night, but as it had after that first encounter, something about the man made her extremely uneasy. Instinct told her that "luck" had nothing to do his being here, and her suspicions only intensified when he'd made his last statement — if he hadn't intended to see her tonight, why would he be holding something for her? No, something was definitely wrong here.
Apparently sensing her reluctance, the man continued, clearly trying to tempt her. "Information about Lex Luthor?" He wheeled himself backwards into the dark alley, beckoning for Lois to join him. "And about the woman who stole his body."
Lois had been prepared to walk away, but upon hearing his offer, her ears perked up. She'd spent the entire day trying to track down Sheldon Bender, and hadn't obtained one bit of information for her story. But if this man had information as to Gretchen Kelly's whereabouts — assuming he even knew it was Gretchen Kelly who'd stolen Lex's body — it could be the big break Lois had been waiting for! Despite her suspicions, Lois let her curiosity take over and she cautiously followed him a few yards into the alley. "Who are you?"
The man in the wheelchair stopped in the shadows. "Do you know the story of the Phoenix?"
Lois blinked at the seemingly abrupt change of topic. "Of course. The sacred bird that was reborn, rising from its own ashes."
The man rose from the wheelchair, removing his hat. "When I was a little boy," he began, "my mother used to tell me that story." As he spoke, he started to peel away at his face, and Lois suddenly realized that he was wearing artificial features to disguise his identity. "I always liked the part where he came back from the dead," he continued. Pulling away the last of the make-up, Lex Luthor stood before her in the alley. "It's good to see you again, Lois."
Lois gasped at the sight, her eyes wide. Lex? Alive? But that was impossible! Nine months before, she had watched him jump to his death from the balcony of his penthouse. He'd landed not twenty feet away from her as she'd buried her face in Clark's chest. She had seen his broken body lying in the street. Lex couldn't be alive; he just couldn't!
A dozen possibilities ran through her mind — the man in the alley was an imposter … or this was someone's idea of a sick joke. Even the possibility that she was seeing a ghost somehow seemed easier to accept. But even as Lois searched for another explanation, she knew she wouldn't find one. The man before her really was Lex Luthor. And as the realization hit, Lois could only stare, speechless.
If Lex was aware of her inner turmoil, he didn't acknowledge it. "Did you think I wouldn't come back for you?" he asked, his voice tender. "We must take the miracle of my resurrection as a sign that even death can't keep us apart."
Lois's head spun at his words, and she found herself barely able to process what he was saying. When she finally found her voice, all she could manage was a hoarse whisper. "But how?"
"Don't question a miracle, Lois. We're together now and that's all that matters."
"Together?" she echoed. As her mind raced to make sense of the impossible situation, Lois finally began to comprehend what he was saying. It sounded as if he expected her to take him back … "No," she protested, shaking her head. "I could never—"
Lex stepped closer. "Lois," he implored, "I've lost everything … my fortune, my reputation. Everything but my feelings for you." A soft smile crept over his face. "I know in your eyes I've fallen from grace," he admitted. "But surely a creature of such abundant benevolence would allow me the chance to redeem myself."
At his words, Lois furrowed her brow, confused. Redeem himself? In *her* eyes? "But … I don't have those feelings for you anymore," she stammered.
Lex simply smiled, unconvinced. "Because of Clark?" he asked smoothly.
The sound of her partner's name jolted Lois from her confusion. "Yes— No!" The idea that Clark was the only reason she wouldn't want to be with Lex sparked a sudden flash of anger, and she sputtered the rest of her response. "Even if I wasn't—!"
Lex cut her off by bringing a hand up to cup her cheek. "Darling, I forgive you … it's understandable that you'd turn to someone else in your time of grief."
Her shock at his action was only overshadowed by her amazement at his words. "My time of—?"
"But I'll make it up to you," he promised. "I may no longer have my fortune, but your love makes me rich."
Lois jerked away from his touch and took a quick step backwards. "Lex, I told you," she said firmly. "I don't feel that way about you."
"I don't believe you." At her outraged look, he simply smiled charmingly. "Give me a chance to win you back."
Lois was completely astounded. Lex couldn't actually believe she would still be interested in him?! "After everything you've done?" she gasped. "How could you expect??"
"Yes, I did terrible things," he confessed. "But I did them for you. Provoked by the blinding light of your beauty." Lex gave a resigned sigh and pulled a cell phone from his coat pocket. "But if you can't forgive me … then turn me in."
His invitation, however, barely registered with Lois as his words sank in. Lex did those horrible things for *her*? Blowing up the Daily Planet, putting all those people out of work, killing and injuring dozens in the explosion … all just to win her? Because he *loved* her??
Lois's mind raced as she stood transfixed. It was impossible … inconceivable … true? "No," she gasped. "It can't be."
Lex smiled at her words of refusal and tucked the phone back into his pocket. "I knew it." He pressed a tender kiss onto her cheek, then quickly retreated back into the shadows. "Till we meet again, my love."
The feel of his lips against her skin woke Lois from her trance. "No!" she exclaimed angrily, jumping back so quickly that she almost stumbled. "No! I told you—" But he was already gone.
"She still has feelings for me, Nigel. She tries to deny it, but I know they're there!" Lex Luthor stood in the tunnel hideout, triumphant. His latest encounter with Lois Lane had told him all he needed to know. Granted, she seemed more shocked than happy to see him, but he was more sure than ever that they were meant to be together.
"Well, if she does, she's playing you for a fool, Lex," a haughty female voice responded.
Lex whipped around to face Gretchen Kelly. "Where the *hell* have you been??" he ground out sharply.
Gretchen simply waved an envelope. "Getting the proof I said I would get. Proving to you that Lois Lane is not the woman you think she is."
"What are you talking about?" he asked, clearly annoyed. "You disappear for two days and you come back spouting nonsense."
"Oh, it's not nonsense, Lex. It's— well, I'll let you be the judge." With a satisfied smirk, Dr. Kelly opened her envelope and pulled out a stack of 8x10 inch photographs.
It had gone better than she'd ever imagined, Gretchen thought as she fanned out the pictures in front of Lex. She'd left yesterday fully expecting that it would take a few days to get the goods on Lois Lane. She'd never expected to get what she needed the very first night. She'd tailed Lane and Kent yesterday evening as they went to dinner, then back to Lois's apartment. While Gretchen had managed to get a few photographs of them behaving like sloppy teenagers outside the brownstone, her goal for the evening had simply been to determine the best location to set up her surveillance equipment. A little digging during the afternoon had told her which nearby apartments were vacant, and a bit of advance reconnaissance work had showed her which ones had views into Lois Lane's bedroom. Her plan had simply been to set up a video camera in an apartment across the alley, hoping to catch Lois and her lover on film at some future date. But things had worked out so much better than that.
Initially buoyed by the fact that she'd had a clear shot into the bedroom, Gretchen had become incensed when Lois pulled closed the draperies covering the window. Cursing with frustration, she'd been about to give up when she noticed Lois and Clark getting hot and heavy on the fire escape. Hardly able to believe her luck, Gretchen had quickly changed the camera's direction and within minutes, had exactly what she needed — visual proof of what a slut Lois Lane really was.
Unfortunately, the living room draperies had ensured that the camera couldn't follow them as they'd continued things inside the apartment, but Gretchen was satisfied with what she'd been able to get of them on the fire escape. Once Lex saw the pictures — she'd taken the liberty of making still photographs from the video tape this afternoon — Lois Lane would be history in his book. And then Lex would come back crawling back to the woman who had brought him back to life!
Lois raced through the Daily Planet lobby and punched the elevator button, her hands shaking. This was big … this was huge! Lex Luthor, alive? It was impossible, but she had seen it with her own eyes. Lois had no idea how it had happened, but she was going to find out. Was it possible that Gretchen Kelly had actually done what she'dbeen trying to do? That she'd brought Lex back to life? They'd discovered that Kelly was trying to do just that, after the encounter they'd had with her during the Resplendent Man incident … but Lois and Clark had dismissed the doctor as insane. Except now it seemed like Kelly had actually succeeded! Stepping into the elevator car, Lois paced anxiously, willing it to go faster. This could be the award-winning story she'd been talking about!
The doors slid open on the newsroom and Lois practically ran down the ramp towards Perry's office. "Perry! Clark! You're not going to believe this!"
Clark and Jimmy jumped up as she ran past them, and followed her into their editor's office, confused. "What? What happened?"
Lois waited till they were assembled, barely able to contain herself. "He's alive! Lex Luthor! He's alive!"
Jaws around her dropped. "Very funny, Lois," Perry finally drawled. "I don't have time for jokes tonight."
Lois shook her head. "No joke, Perry. I saw him … he was outside Sheldon Bender's office … in a wheelchair. He approached me a couple days ago, too, but I didn't realize it was him until tonight."
The men in the office exchanged looks. "Lois …" Clark started carefully. "Honey, maybe you saw someone who *looked* like Luthor, but—"
Lois whirled on him. "Clark! Don't patronize me! I know what I saw … it was Lex. He was wearing a mask, a disguise. He approached me on the street after I left Bender's office. He told me he had information about Lex Luthor … I followed him into the alley."
"You did *what*? Lois, that's dangerous!"
She shot her boyfriend a warning look. "I've been taking care of myself for a long time, Clark; save the lecture." She turned back to Perry. "At first, I wasn't sure what he was talking about, but when we got into the alley, away from the street, he started referencing an old myth, about a magical bird that rose from the ashes."
"The Phoenix?" Clark asked.
"Exactly … he asked me if I'd ever heard the story, which, of course, I had. Then he pulled off his mask — one of those professional-type ones, Clark, like Mr. Make-Up used last year? And under the mask, it was Lex!"
Perry was astounded. "Lex Luthor? You're sure?"
Lois rolled her eyes as she looked at her editor. "Perry, I was engaged to the man. I think I'd know. He must have a hide-out somewhere … he said he'd lost everything, all his money. But he's obviously been back long enough to check on me because he knew I was dating Clark."
"You *talked* to him?" Clark stared at her, completely incredulous.
"Of course I talked to him! I couldn't believe it. He kept saying how he'd come back for me, that even death couldn't keep us apart. I touched him; he was real. He even kissed me."
Clark exploded. "He *what*?!?"
Lois faltered, suddenly realizing how bad it sounded. "No, Clark … it wasn't like that! It was just on the cheek … he was trying to convince me—" She stopped and tried again. "I didn't kiss him back … I pushed him away!"
"How could you let him get that close? Lois, what were you *thinking*?!"
Jimmy looked uncomfortably between Lois and Clark, worried that things were about to get ugly. He tried distraction. "So what did Luthor say he wanted … besides you, that is?"
Lois glanced at Jimmy. "Uh … I don't know … nothing, really. Just that he wanted me back, he wanted to know if I could forgive him." She looked back at Clark quickly, nervously. "I told him no!"
"Why didn't you call for help? He could have done *anything*!"
"No, Clark … he wouldn't hurt me. I mean, I don't think so." Lois swallowed, the enormity of the situation finally catching up to her. How could she have felt safe around Lex? After all the things she had learned about him? After all the terrible things he had done? "He said he'd done all those things because of me …" She trailed off, upset at the memory.
Clark just stared at her. "He wouldn't hurt you?" he repeated. His anger quickly channeled into controlled fury. "He wouldn't hurt *you*?!" He was about to continue when he noticed how closely the other two men in the room were watching them. With a growl of frustration, Clark took Lois by the hand. "Conference room!" he barked, striding out of Perry's office and down the hall to the meeting room. Lois practically had to run to keep up with him.
"Clark!" Lois protested as he shut the door. "What the hell is the matter with you?!" She pulled her hand away indignantly. "Look, I'm sorry if this is stepping on your insecurities over Lex, but I'm not giving up this story!"
"The story?!" he sputtered. "You think this is about a story?!"
"Then what is it? What gives you the right to pull me out of a meeting with Perry?!"
"Why didn't you call me?" he demanded. "If you couldn't call the police, why didn't you at least call for Superman? I could have been there in seconds. For God's sake, Lois, it was Lex Luthor!"
The fear behind his anger finally reached her, and Lois faltered. "I don't know," she answered, upset. "I was so shocked. I couldn't believe it was really happening. I probably should have called the police on his cell phone—"
"You had his cell phone?!?" Clark just gaped at her.
"No! He had it … he offered it to me … but it all happened so fast! I just didn't think—"
"You didn't *think*?! Lois, he's a monster! I thought you knew that!"
"I do! Clark, I do! But I don't think I was in any danger … he didn't try to hurt me."
Instead of comforting him, however, her words had the opposite effect. Clark's eyes narrowed and his face darkened with fury. "But he did try to hurt *me*."
"What?" Lois asked, confused. She'd checked in with Clark several times today and he'd never mentioned seeing Lex. He couldn't have had a run-in with him tonight, too, could he? "When?"
Clark was incredulous. "When you were busy getting *married*! He had me in a cage … you know this!" Clark took her by the shoulders, bringing them face to face. "He locked me up … and tortured me … then came to kill me." His voice was low, horrible. "He took an *ax* from the *wall* to chop me up … and the only reason he didn't succeed is because somehow I was able to crawl into a corner and hide, even though I was already half-dead from the Kryptonite!"
Lois felt all the blood drain from her face. She tried to respond, but couldn't form any words. Lex had tried to kill Superman on their wedding day; that was why Clark hadn't come to stop the wedding. Clark had told her this months ago, yet it hadn't once occurred to her when she'd seen Lex tonight.
Clark continued, almost over the edge. "Do you think for one *second* that Luthor will just disappear and never bother us again? He knows about Kryptonite and he knows how to get it. And fortune or no fortune, he'll try to get it, so he can kill me and take you back." Clark's face hardened even further and the rest of his words hissed out through clenched teeth. "And you let him *go*!"
"Clark!" Lois gasped, finally finding her voice. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry! You have to believe me."
"Are you?" he asked sarcastically, stepping back.
She stared, incredulous. "Of course I am … what's that supposed to mean?"
"I don't know, Lois … that's what I'm trying to figure out." Clark threw his hands in the air, hurt and frustration clear on his features. "I can't figure out any reason you'd let your former fiance go when you know he tried to kill your boyfriend!"
Lois grabbed the lapels on his jacket. "Clark, don't be like this!" Under other circumstances, she would have been angry at his insinuations, but at the moment, she was too worried to care. She knew how it looked, even though it wasn't true. "I wasn't thinking clearly; I was so shocked. I never expected him to—"
"To what?" he cut in angrily. "To come back for you?"
"To come back at all! To even be alive! Clark, we watched him die!"
"And now he's back." It was an accusation.
Lois was horrified. "How can you even think that?" she gasped. "After all we've been through? You know I don't care about him!"
He turned away from her. "I don't know what I know anymore, Lois."
"Stop talking like that!" Lois was really starting to panic. His voice was so cold, his body language so angry. She had made a huge mistake — she could see that now. But what if Clark really believed—? No, she couldn't lose him over this! Not over Lex! "Honey, I love you! What can I say to convince you?" When he refused to look at her, she grasped for the first thing that came into her mind. "Clark, I'll marry you."
Time seemed to stand still as Lois watched Clark's back stiffen. He turned around slowly, a look of disbelief on his face … along with intense pain.
"How could you?" he whispered. "You— you—" He stopped, unable to continue for a moment as he stared at her. "You take the most important thing in the world to me … and you offer it up as a sacrifice to ease your guilty conscience?" The look of complete devastation on his face took Lois's breath away. "How could you?"
She took a step backwards, stunned. "No … it wasn't—."
"I need to get out of here," he said, his breath starting to come in hard pants. He turned towards the door.
"No!" Lois lunged for his arm. "I won't let you go! Not like this."
Just then, a knock came at the door. Perry opened it, his face grave and concerned. "Everything OK in here? Clark?" He fixed his male reporter with an especially serious look.
Clark glared back for a moment, then shook himself loose from Lois's grip. "No," he replied sharply. "Everything is *not* OK." He brushed past Perry, refusing to look back at his partner. "I need some air."
Lois ran to the conference room door in tears. She watched as Clark wrenched his suit jacket from the back of his desk chair then gave the chair an angry shove out of the way. Any staffers unfortunate enough to be in his path took one look at his face and quickly gave him room as he rushed up the ramp and disappeared into the stairway.
Lois's hands were shaking as she fumbled with her keys outside Clark's apartment. A barely stifled sob escaped her lips and she dragged the back of her hand across her cheeks in a useless attempt to remove some of her tears. She didn't know which was worse, the guilt swirling inside her over what she had done, or the fear that Clark might never forgive her.
Replaying the past hour in her head, Lois still couldn't believe how horribly wrong everything had gone. After her initial shock of seeing Lex alive in the alley, her only thoughts had been on the investigation into Sheldon Bender and Gretchen Kelly, and how Lex's resurrection might be connected to them. It had never occurred to her that Clark might be upset over her encounter … and it certainly hadn't helped that her fumbling explanations had only made everything sound much worse than it had been.
She'd managed to pull herself together long enough to leave the newsroom without her tears betraying how upset she was. It was humiliating enough to have Perry and Jimmy witness her guilty backtracking in Perry's office; she wasn't about to let the entire evening staff see how much Clark's storming out had affected her. Luckily, the conference room doors were thick, and Clark had lowered his voice every time he'd said anything that might connect him to Superman, but even the thickest office walls wouldn't have been able to hide the fact that they'd been fighting behind the closed door. That Perry had felt the need to intercede made it all too clear that their angry voices, if not the words themselves, had carried into the newsroom.
But even Lois's best attempts at hiding her feelings had only bought her enough time to leave the building. As soon as she'd reached the Jeep, her tears had started to fall again, and it had taken all her concentration to drive to Clark's apartment. But now that she was finally here, there was nothing to stop the self-recrimination from taunting her.
How could she have not understood immediately why Clark was so upset? She'd been shocked and amazed that Lex was alive, and it had left her too stunned to think clearly. But was that any excuse for talking to him, for letting him escape without even trying to stop him? She had panicked, that was all there was to it. She had let Lex get away without a call to either Superman or the police, and now Clark thought that it meant she still had feelings for her former fiance.
And then, just when she thought she couldn't dig herself in any deeper, she had offered to marry Clark as an apology.
Lois took a gasping breath as she remembered the look of utter devastation on Clark's face after she'd said those words to him. She hadn't meant to hurt him … she'd been grasping for straws, trying desperately to break through the wall of anger and hurt he'd put around himself and convince him of her feelings for him. Yet it was all too clear to her now that she had only made things much, much worse.
Pushing her way into the apartment, Lois practically ran down the steps into the dark living room. "Clark?" she called out, her voice cracking. She had no reason to think that he'd have come back here immediately after leaving the newsroom, but she didn't know where else to go. She had to let him know how sorry she was, how much she regretted hurting him. Her desperation growing, she ran into the bedroom, looking for any evidence that he'd even been back at all tonight. But like the rest of the apartment, it appeared untouched.
Returning to the living room, Lois felt her eyes fill with fresh tears. The guilt and fear in her heart built up until she thought it might smother her. How could Clark ever forgive her? She'd been unthinking and uncaring — she'd put her own excitement over a story above her knowledge of how dangerous her former fiance had been, and she'd pushed the memory of what Lex had done to Clark out of her mind. And far worse, she'd taken the most important thing in the world to Clark and had tried to use it to manipulate him out of his anger.
Overwhelmed by her emotions, Lois sank to her knees in the middle of the living room. "Clark?" she cried, hoping against hope that he might hear her from wherever he'd gone. "Clark?!"
With her final shout still echoing through the apartment, Lois lowered her head to the floor and began to sob.
Clark floated in the darkness high above his apartment, his head in his hands. He could hear the anguish in Lois's voice as she called for him, but as much as it hurt him to hear her cry, he had no comfort to give her … he couldn't even comfort himself.
He had exhausted most of his anger as he'd watched Lois make her way to his apartment — as upset as he was with her, he was unable to ignore the fact that Lex Luthor was still out there somewhere — but his anger had been replaced by other equally unsettling emotions now that she was safely inside: hurt, fear, confusion. "Why, Lois?" he agonized for the hundredth time. "How could you have done this?"
He had looked up in surprise when she'd rushed into Perry's office spouting something about how she'd just seen Lex Luthor on the street. At first, he'd figured she was imagining things, that she had simply seen someone outside who bore a resemblance to the man they'd all seen jump to his death several months earlier. But as Lois had begun to tell her story, his doubt had turned first to astonishment, then to fear — not for himself but for her. Had Luthor tried to hurt her? Tried to take her somewhere against her will? Was her life in danger?
But in contrast to Clark's fear, Lois had seemed fine — excited, even. It was an impression that he'd found far more disconcerting than the story she was telling. She'd quickly told how Luthor had disguised himself and lured her into the alley, yet it was blatantly obvious to Clark that he was far more upset about the situation than she was.
Lex Luthor had tried to kill him. He had imprisoned Superman in a cage and tortured him with Kryptonite. And then there'd been the ax… Clark stifled a shudder at what would have happened had he not escaped from the cage and hidden himself just as Luthor had flung open the cellar door. Lois knew all of this — Clark had told her himself months ago. So how could Lois have not run the minute she'd recognized Luthor? How could she have stayed to talk to him, let alone allowed him to get close enough to kiss her? And how could she have not called for help — either from the police, or from Superman himself? Why hadn't she turned Luthor in?
Images whirled through Clark's mind, memories that he was no longer able to suppress. Lois cuddling with Luthor on the conference room floor when they'd all been held hostage by the terrorist group. Lois refusing to listen to Clark as he tried to explain his suspicions about the man. And Lois accepting Luthor's engagement ring, kissing him deeply as she did so.
Clark shut his eyes tightly as he began to shake, the knot in his stomach tightening unbearably. He needed her so desperately, had given her everything … and now it looked like she had betrayed him.
Lois jerked out of a nightmare in the middle of the night, disoriented by the merging of reality and fantasy as she slowly came awake. Taking note of her surroundings, she choked back another sob as she realized where she was. She had cried herself to sleep in Clark's bed … and now, hours later, the spot next to her was still empty.
It wasn't unheard of for Clark to stay out most of the night when Superman was needed, but this had been no ordinary night, and once again, Lois found herself fighting tears as she worried that he might never return to her. Besides the fact that he'd been more upset than she'd ever seen him when he'd walked out, she couldn't stop thinking about the fact that Lex was still out there somewhere and might try to hurt him again. "Oh, Clark," she whispered, her voice choked with emotion. "Please come home."
From the corner of the room, a sniffle caught her attention. Lois sat straight up in bed. "Clark?" she questioned again, unsure. Turning towards the sound in the dim light of the bedroom, Lois found her lover sitting on the floor on the far side of the room, his back against the bench of the window seat. She didn't know how long he'd been there, but he was wearing his Superman suit, the cape wrapped around him as he sat, knees to his chest. He looked so lost that it made her heart ache.
Lois took a shaky breath. "Oh, Clark, I'm so sorry," she whispered emotionally. "I never wanted to hurt you." When he didn't respond, she held out a hand in a tentative invitation. "Please … come to bed?"
He shook his head, not meeting her eyes. "I can't," he whispered back.
Lois let her hand drop as his quiet words stabbed into her heart. "Oh," she answered in a little voice. She swallowed hard as the tears she thought she'd exhausted began to fall again. Everything she had feared had come true; she really had ruined it. She had ruined the best relationship of her life, with a man who deserved better than she could give him. She began to cry in earnest and pushed back the covers. "Then I guess I should go—"
"No," he answered hoarsely, stopping her. "I just—" He took a gasping breath. "I just need to know—" He finally looked up at her, his eyes full of unshed tears. "Do you still love him?"
Lois let out a loud sob. "No! Clark, please, you have to believe me. I don't … I never did."
Clark pulled his knees closer to his chest and hung his head. He wanted to believe her; he was desperate to believe her. But his heart still felt as if it had been broken into a thousand pieces and his stomach still ached from the raw emotion churning inside him. He heard her slide off the bed and suddenly, she was kneeling in front of him on the floor, her hands caressing his arms and shoulders. He squeezed his eyes shut tightly at the flood of emotions her touch brought out in him. Even when she'd hurt him, even when he felt as if his world were falling apart, he still needed her so desperately.
"Clark, I love *you*. I made a mistake, but I never meant to hurt you." She looked at him, pleading for him to understand. "Please listen … let me explain what really happened."
He dropped his head again, but nodded silently.
Lois spent the next few minutes repeating what had happened in the alley, how shocked she'd been to see Lex alive and how confused she'd been by all the things he was saying. Clark remained silent as she spoke, but she took hope in the fact that he seemed to be listening to what she was saying and not dismissing her explanations out of hand.
When she'd finally wound down and Clark still hadn't said a word, however, Lois's doubts began to resurface. "Clark, please … I know I made a mistake, but that's all it was. I love you." She swallowed hard. "Please say something," she begged. "I don't know what I'd do if I lost you."
At last, Clark raised his face to hers and Lois was relieved to see that, while there was sadness in his face, there was no longer any anger in his eyes. "I don't want to lose you, either," he finally said in a quiet voice.
She rested her cheek on his knee, longing to be close to him. "Does that mean you believe me?" she asked in a little voice.
Clark averted his gaze, then nodded. "Yeah … I believe you. It still hurts but …" He took a deep breath, clearly trying to gather himself together. "I believe you."
Lois didn't know whether to be more relieved at his acceptance of her explanations, or pained by the fact that he was obviously still hurting inside. Then, suddenly, she remembered what else she had to apologize for. "Clark? Back in the conference room, when I said I'd marry you—"
"I don't want to talk about it," he suddenly cut in, his voice tight.
"Lois," he said in a strangled voice. "Please. I listened to what you said about seeing Luthor, but I don't want to talk about that."
Lois felt her eyes fill with tears once again. She wanted so badly to press the issue, to make him understand that she had never meant to hurt him. But it clearly was too painful for him to talk about right now.
They sat in silence for a moment longer, until Clark finally got up and started to remove his suit. "It's late," he said quietly. "We have to work in the morning. Let's just go to sleep, OK?"
Unable to trust her voice, Lois just nodded. She watched as Clark pulled down the top of his suit and detached the harness of his cape from his shoulders. His shoulders were slumped as he went through the motions, clearly emotionally worn out. With a weary sigh, he picked up a pair of sleep shorts and a t-shirt and carried them into the bathroom, quietly shutting the door behind him.
After a moment, Lois crawled back into bed to wait for him, curling herself into a ball as she lay on her side, facing his empty side of the bed. The tears that had filled her eyes earlier still pooled there, only escaping when she squeezed her eyes shut tightly in an attempt to wish the entire situation away. She finally wiped them off her cheeks, knowing that such a wish was impossible.
It was several minutes later when Clark emerged from the bathroom and silently got into bed. Neither of them spoke, but in the dim glow of the room, Lois could see that he was staring up at the ceiling, his eyes sad and unseeing. With a shaky sigh, she moved closer to him and gently laid her head against his shoulder. "I love you, Clark," she whispered. "And I never meant to hurt you."
He swallowed and took a deep, shuddering breath. Then, after a brief pause, she felt his head tip to the side so he was resting his cheek against the top of her head. "I love you, too, Lois," he whispered. "I love you, too."
Lois awoke to silence the next morning. After listening for a moment for any sounds of movement in the apartment and hearing none, she tentatively reached out to touch Clark's pillow. It was cold.
According to the clock, it was a few minutes before 7:00 am. She remembered that it had been around 3:30 when she'd had awoken to find Clark in the bedroom, and it had been after 4:00 by the time they'd gone to sleep. For his pillow to be cold, he couldn't have stayed more than a short time … and he hadn't even bothered to wake her up to let her know he was leaving. With a lump in her throat, Lois sat up slowly and tightened the sheet around herself. She suddenly felt very alone.
After feeling sorry for herself for several long moments, Lois finally sighed and resigned herself to getting ready for the day. But she went through her morning routine on automatic pilot; her mind was elsewhere.
Clark had been so sad and subdued last night, even after Lois had apologized. He claimed to have accepted her explanations, but he was still clearly hurting deeply inside. She could only hope that, in the light of day, things would seem brighter than they had last night, and he might eventually be ready to forgive her. If he couldn't … Lois swallowed hard, unable to complete the thought. She didn't want to contemplate the alternative.
She was making a small pot of coffee in Clark's kitchen when he finally returned, stepping in from the balcony in his red and blue suit. Swallowing, she met his eyes, searching his face.
He looked tired and very weary, and she suddenly realized that she probably looked the same way. Even after showering and doing her hair and make-up, her head still felt thick from lack of sleep and her eyes were grainy from the crying she'd been doing. A stray thought entered her mind, telling her that maybe he'd been hoping she wouldn't still be here. Her stomach knotted, but she tried to push the feeling away. Clark knew what time they usually left for work, she told herself; he shouldn't have been surprised to find that she hadn't left yet. Still, feeling uncertain, she busied herself by pulling a second mug down from the cupboard. "Coffee?" she asked him in a quiet voice.
With a small smile that didn't quite reach his eyes, Clark nodded. "Sure. Just let me …" He made a vague gesture towards the bedroom and she nodded back.
When Clark returned a few moments later, straightening his tie as he walked into the kitchen, Lois was standing facing the counter, the two mugs of coffee forgotten as she stared into space. She felt him hesitate behind her, and she closed her eyes. It was so hard to be with him like this, not knowing what more she could say or do to apologize. To her surprise, however, he spoke first.
"I'm sorry, Lois." His voice was quiet as he slowly reached up a hand to touch her back. "I shouldn't have run out on you yesterday."
Lois found herself more grateful for this simple touch than she could have imagined, and she quickly turned to face him. "You don't have anything to be sorry for, Clark," she said sincerely. "I'm the one." She looked up at him, her eyes sad. "Can you ever forgive me?" He sighed and ran his hand down her arm. "Of course I can. You just made a mistake."
"Yeah … but it was big one."
Clark met her gaze, and Lois was relieved to see the familiar warmth back in his eyes. "Maybe it was," he said. "But I've been doing a lot of thinking this morning and I finally understand some things I was too upset to see last night." He sighed again. "You just panicked. It all happened so fast and it didn't seem like a problem at the time … but later, when you thought about it—"
"That's exactly it, Clark," she cut in earnestly, putting her hands on his chest. "At the time, I didn't even think, I just reacted."
"I know." He gave her a rueful smile. "It finally occurred to me when I was out flying around this morning that it's a lot like what I did to you three months ago, when I let you believe I was dead."
Lois furrowed her brow in confusion as she studied the comparison. Last fall, she had been furious with Clark when he'd finally told her his secret, that he and Superman were one and the same. But the fact that he'd kept her in the dark over his other identity wasn't what had upset her so much; she'd been angry, yes, but she had dealt with that part of his confession quite well. No, the devastation had come when she'd realized that Clark had never "died" at all, that he had simply played dead when Clyde Barrow had shot him. The realizationthat anyone could be so unthinking, so selfish, as to let his best friend believe that he had died had caused Lois more pain than she could have believed possible. Yet Clark had just summarized his defense in a few sentences — he had panicked, and in his panic, had made choices that he might not have had he been able to think things through more clearly.
"And now I've hurt you in the same way," she said, her eyes pained. "Oh, Clark … I'm so sorry."
He shook his head. "No, you don't understand. *I'm* sorry." He ran a hand through his hair, looking guilty. "I was so upset over the whole thing that I never stopped to think of it from your perspective. I was scared and hurt and jealous … but I never really thought that you still had feelings for Lex Luthor." He sighed and hung his head. "I shouldn't have implied that you did."
Lois wiped away the tears of relief that had begun to pool in her eyes. "Well, I didn't exactly help matters by coming in the way I did … I was tripping over myself trying to explain what happened, but all I did was make it sound like what *didn't* happen—"
"Yeah, but I wasn't exactly helping you think clearly by yelling at you—"
"But I accused you of wanting me to give up the story—"
"Hey, wait a minute," Clark interrupted with a smile. "Just who's supposed to be apologizing here, anyway?"
Lois gave a watery laugh. "I think we both are." She looked up at him through her lashes and added in a little voice, "Did we just make up?"
Clark pulled her into his arms, relief clear on his face. "God, I hope so."
Lois released a deep breath, finally letting go of the tension she'd been experiencing since she'd woken up. "So that's where you were this morning?" she asked in relief. "It was just Superman stuff?"
He gave her a quizzical look. "Yeah, where else—?" Suddenly, though, he answered his own question. "I'm sorry, honey, I didn't think how it would seem to you if you woke up alone this morning." Clark wrapped his arms around her more tightly, bringing her into his chest. "There was a shooting in the warehouse district about five o'clock. You hadn't been asleep that long and I didn't want to wake you."
"I understand … it was just— I wasn't expecting it, that's all. I mean, last night was kind of …"
"Emotional?" At her nod, he continued. "And you thought maybe I'd just left early to avoid you."
"Not avoid me, exactly. Just … I don't know, you needed some space, maybe."
Clark shook his head. "Space is the last thing I need right now, Lois. I need … you. Sometimes I need you so much it scares me."
"Oh, Clark, I need you, too. When I thought that I might have messed everything up—"
He dipped his forehead to hers. "Shh, it's OK. We're OK."
They clung to each other for a long moment, but when another thought struck Lois, she lifted her head reluctantly. "Clark … about what I said about getting married … "
Sadness flickered across his face for a moment, but he quickly shook it off. "I want to forget that ever happened," he stated. "We're moving on."
"I didn't mean to hurt you—"
"It never happened, Lois."
He gave a deep sigh and looked into her eyes, trying to make her understand. "Please, honey … I know you didn't mean it. I just don't want to talk about it anymore."
"Because it hurt you," she whispered, wondering if she'd ever stop feeling like she wanted to cry.
Clark looked away for a moment, struggling to put his thoughts into words. "Because … because I spent all morning dealing with different kinds of pain and destruction, and it made me realize that life's too short to concentrate on the sad stuff." He cupped her cheek and gave her a tender smile. "Lois, I know you're sorry and I forgive you … not just for what happened in the alley, but for all of it. That's what love is all about."
Lois placed her hand over his. "Oh, Clark," she whispered. Before she could finish her thought, however, Lois's pager began to beep. "Oh, no, not now!" she groaned. She reluctantly reached into her suit jacket's pocket and pulled out the small beeper, shutting off the noise. "It's the paper," she told him.
Clark sighed. "I guess you should find out what they need." He stepped out of her way so she could reach the phone.
Lois's voice was tired as she reached their young colleague. "Jimmy, it's Lois; what's going on?" She furrowed her brow and glanced at Clark. "Can't he get someone else to do it? We're kind of busy with this Sheldon Bender thing … no, no," she sighed. "That's OK. Hold on a second, let me write this down."
Her eyes darted around Clark's kitchen counter, but her mounting frustration was cut short when her partner stuck a pad and pen into her free hand. Shooting him a small smile of thanks, she quickly tucked the phone under her ear and began to jot down the information Jimmy was providing. "OK, got it … yeah, we'll head out there now. No, you don't need to page Clark; I'll tell him. He's right here. Yes, *really*. Why? Do you want to talk—?" Lois's voice softened. "Oh. No, everything's fine, Jimmy … we worked it out last night." She lifted her eyes to Clark's and gave him a little smile. "Yeah, me, too. OK … talk to you later. Bye."
Clark took the phone from her and replaced it in its cradle. "Jimmy was worried about us?"
"Yeah, I think he was … he hates to see us fight, you know."
He pulled her back into his arms, cradling her head as it rested against his chest. "I hate to see us fight," he said quietly. "It's the worst feeling in the world." He sighed. "But I suppose it's too much to hope that concern was the only reason he was calling?"
She shook her head. "Governor Harding's in town talking up his new state budget … Perry wants us down there to follow up on that story we did last month."
"You mean the one where we pointed out all the contradictions between his campaign promises and what he's done so far in office?"
"That's the one … we're not supposed to take 'no' for an answer." She gave him a wry grin.
"But that's going to keep us busy all morning," Clark complained. "When are we supposed to nail Bender?"
Lois turned to dump her coffee into the sink. "Let's finish up quickly so we can get back to it. I don't want to lose him by waiting too long. Are you ready to go?"
"I'd rather be alone with you for a little longer," he pouted.
With a smile, Lois took his hand as they walked to the coat rack by the door. She handed him her coat, then turned around so he could help her put it on. "It's only a twenty minute ride uptown to the Metropolis Convention Center, which is where he's going to be talking. Thirty if we hit traffic." She slipped her arms into the sleeves and turned back around to give him a quick hug. "Come on, if we leave now, we can grab some breakfast on the way."
Her positive attitude won him over. "OK," he agreed. "Let's go."
No sooner had they reached for the doorknob, however, than Clark's head snapped up, a familiar look in his eye.
"Oh, no," Lois almost wailed. "Not again. You were out all morning."
Clark groaned in frustration. "Why do I think it's going to be one of those days?"
Lois sighed. "Go … I'll meet you there, if you can make it. If not, I'll see you later at the Planet."
Reluctantly, Clark turned and started back into the apartment, but he'd only taken a few steps when he whirled back around. "No, wait!" At Lois's look of surprise, he looked at her plaintively. "Lois … let's not make any plans for tonight … let's stay in, just the two of us. I need to be with you."
Lois felt her heart melt as she saw his pleading expression. "I need to be with you, too, Clark," she answered sincerely. "Last night—
"I was so scared—"
He quickly crossed the short distance between them and pulled her into his arms once again. "Me, too."
They held each other tightly for a moment, but all too soon, Clark pulled back and spun into his Superman suit. He cupped her cheek. "I love you, Lois."
And with that, he was gone.
It was a little after three o'clock that afternoon when Clark touched down in the alley behind the Daily Planet and spun back into his work clothes. This was his third trip up to the newsroom in as many hours, and frankly, he was getting a little tired of the interruptions. For some reason, Superman had been a hot commodity today, and while Clark was certainly glad he could assist in what had turned out to be some serious situations, he really just wanted to get back to the newsroom and back to Lois.
The little time they'd spent together today hadn't been enough to completely lift the depression he often felt after he and Lois argued. Certainly they had disagreed many times in their working partnership, but when the arguments turned personal, it was a lot harder to distance himself from the resulting emotions. Even after they had worked everything out, he never felt quite right until they were able to spend some uninterrupted time together.
Of course, calls for Superman had been making that difficult since early this morning. He had barely fallen asleep last night when he'd heard the gunshots and had quickly made his way down to the warehouse district. He'd found himself in the middle of a drug bust gone bad, and had arrived just in time to insert himself in front of a young rookie police officer who had just taken a bullet in the arm. His injuries weren't life-threatening, but Clark had flown him to the hospital as soon as he was certain that the assailant was secured.
He had spent some time flying around after that, doing some heavy thinking as he'd watched the sun rise. Last night had drained him emotionally, but the light of a new day had helped clear his head and make him look at things a bit more objectively. And, of course, hashing things out with Lois in the middle of the night, even if it had cost them both sleep, had helped push him in that direction. A few rescues later, and he'd been flying back to his apartment, determined to make up the rest of the way with Lois.
Their heart-felt apologies from this morning had lifted a huge weight off his shoulders, and he had seen in Lois's face that she felt the same way. Still, he was longing for them to be alone together. No crowded restaurants, no late breaking assignments … just the two of them, with no distractions. Working together helped bring them closer, but it wasn't the same as being able to concentrate on each other exclusively, if only for a few hours.
As Clark strode across the Planet building's lobby towards the elevator, he thought once again how grateful he was that Lois knew his secret. Aside from solidifying their personal relationship, it had, he reflected, certainly become a lot easier to get away for his Superman duties now. More than a few times, she'd been able to give him the perfect out when she'd caught the distracted look in his eye. In fact, often she would already be setting up a cover story by the time he'd finished listening to the call for help; she'd become that good at recognizing the signs. He often teased her afterwards that she was a lot better at it than he was, even though he'd had more time to practice.
Lois had ended up covering most of Governor Harding's speech alone this morning, but fortunately, she hadn't been resentful. Clark hadn't been able to join her until it was almost over, although in a remarkable turn of good luck, he'd run into the governor's entourage outside and had been able to corner the man's press secretary as he waited by the limo. Clark had eased into the conversation with a few softball questions, then quickly followed up with some tougher questions on the state's budget deficit and Harding's about-face on campaign finance reform. It was his own personal twist on a technique he'd learned from watching Lois, and by the time the interview was over, he'd seen the normally composed press secretary break into a sweat as he was forced to expand on his normally canned answers.
Fortunately, Lois had been equally successful inside the Convention Center with the governor, and between them, they'd managed to pull together quite an interesting analysis of the current administration's track record for tomorrow's morning edition, each contributing more or less equally to the finished product. It was important to Clark that he pull his own weight in their partnership, Superman or no Superman, romantic relationship or not. The last thing in the world he wanted was for Lois to feel put upon by his need to sometimes leave at the drop of a hat.
When the elevator door slid open on the newsroom, Clark headed straight for Lois's desk, glancing around cautiously to make sure that no one else had missed him. Luckily, he hadn't been gone very long this time. They were almost finished with the story and not only did he not want Lois to have to finalize it herself, but he was also anxious to get back to their investigation of Sheldon Bender … and his link to Lex Luthor.
He slid into his empty chair, still exactly where he'd left it, next to Lois's. "Sorry about that," he murmured, smoothing his tie against the front of his shirt. "Let's hope that's the last one for a while."
Lois just nodded absently and continued typing. "I'm almost …" she murmured as her fingers moved swiftly over the keyboard, transferring her thoughts onto the screen. Clark knew better than to talk to her during this phase of her writing; he was the same way when he was composing. Instead, he watched quietly over her shoulder, reading the words as they scrolled across the screen. Finally, Lois sat back. "Done." She turned to him with a smile. "Everything go OK?"
He nodded and returned her smile, though his was not quite as chipper as hers. "Yeah, fine. There was an overturned chemical truck on the Interstate that I had to help turn upright. Luckily I got to it before the tank ruptured. It would have been a nasty clean-up job otherwise."
"You going to write it up?" she asked.
Clark shook his head. "I don't think so … maybe if things are slow tomorrow. I really got to it before anything happened."
"I guess it's not really news-worthy," she agreed. "If you wrote up every little thing you did—"
"—there'd be no room left for the real news," he finished for her with a smile. "Though sometimes I wish I weren't quite so busy … like today." His face softening, he gently took her hand under the desk, intertwining their fingers. "I'd much rather be in here than out there."
Lois gently stroked her fingers against his as they held hands. "I'd rather be with you, too," she said softly, giving him a tender smile.
Clark enjoyed the contact while letting his eyes flicker back to her screen. "Did you get the sidebar off my hard drive?" he asked. "I finished it right before I got called away."
"Really? No, I didn't know that … that's great, then … I think we're done."
"Sure, I'll go pull it off so you can look at it." He gave her hand an affectionate squeeze before standing up. "And as soon as we have it all put together, we should go fill Perry in on this whole Bender thing … he asked me earlier what we had found out and I think it's time we lay it all out for him so he'll stop giving us other assignments in the meantime."
Lois nodded as Clark walked to his computer and began pulling up his story files. "That definitely sounds like a plan, partner." She couldn't help but smile at him. "The sooner we can take care of that, the sooner we can head home for our evening together."
Clark's eyes met hers from across the aisle, as he pressed the appropriate keys to send his story from his computer to hers. His face broke into a grin. "I can't wait."
A half-hour later, Perry was listening intently to the details of what their recent investigation had turned up so far.
"And there's been no sign of Lex Luthor since last night?"
Clark shook his head. "No, nothing … and Superman's been x-raying abandoned buildings all over the city, trying to figure out where's he's staying, but he hasn't come up with anything there either." At Perry's curious look, Clark quickly added, "I, uh, told him what happened with Lois and asked him to help."
The editor nodded. "Well, it looks like Sheldon Bender is your only solid lead to finding Luthor, then."
"I agree," Lois interjected. "The trick is getting to him. I was a little worried about losing him today while we were busy with the governor's visit, but I made a few phone calls and he's still 'in seclusion' on his yacht … supposedly he wants a break from the press," she added sardonically.
"Well, he's not going to get it!" Perry boomed. "I want you two on him like flies on a T-bone … round-the-clock surveillance!"
Clark's head rose quickly at his boss's words. "Chief, when you say 'round the clock', you don't mean—"
"Yes, sir," Perry responded just as quickly. "Right now. You can set up shop down at Butch Kennebrow's place; he's a friend of mine. Keeps a little hideaway down at the marina."
Lois looked at Clark, sighing with disappointment. "And I suppose you want us to start tonight?" she asked her editor.
"That's right." Perry looked between them. "You've got something better to do?" he asked, making it clear there was only one right answer.
It was Clark's turn to sigh. "I guess not," he said glumly.
"Well, I guess this isn't so bad," Clark finally relented, looking around Butch Kennebrow's tiny waterfront apartment. He motioned to the tape recorder and video camera he was setting up in the window. "And it has a straight view onto Bender's yacht. We couldn't ask for a better location."
Lois just nodded as she did some more exploring. Perry's friend had been generous in letting them borrow his apartment for their stakeout, though considering he was in Milan on business for the week, it wasn't likely he'd be needing it. Fortunately, Perry had been able to get a key from Kennebrow's personal assistant.
The apartment was cozy and tastefully decorated. The moderate-sized living area included a miniscule kitchenette, clearly intended for re-heating rather than cooking, at least according to Clark. There was a tiny bedroom with an even tinier bathroom, but one look at them made it clear why Perry had wagged his eyebrows when he'd deemed it a 'hideaway'. The king-sized bed clearly took center stage behind the etched glass bedroom door, so large that it left little room for walking. And the bathroom sported a luxurious multi-spray shower stall just perfect for two. Lois could picture her and Clark making good use of both rooms had they been here on a romantic getaway, but unfortunately, they had work to do instead.
"No, it's not so bad," Lois finally agreed, completing her exploration of the apartment. "At least we're alone. And I guess if we have to pull an all-night stake-out, this is a lot more comfortable than the Jeep."
"True," Clark replied, "and since I really just wanted to spend some time alone with you, I don't care where we end up." He smiled ruefully. "Not exactly a romantic evening, though. I was going to cook us a nice dinner, open some wine. I know Valentine's Day isn't until tomorrow, but I thought we could start celebrating a little early. Guess that's out of the question now."
"Oh, I don't know," Lois answered with an encouraging smile. "It's a shame to waste the night completely. Maybe we could pretend it's a romantic evening when we're not working."
Clark brightened at her suggestion. "Sure, why not? So what do you suggest we do first? I can't cook here, but I can get us some take-out for dinner in a little while."
"Sounds good to me." Lois looked around. "Maybe I can even find something we can use to make it feel more like a date. I think there was a bottle of champagne somewhere … yup, here it is." She crossed the room to a wine rack resting on a tiny refrigerator and lifted the bottle triumphantly. "Just right for an almost romantic evening." She looked at the bottle. "Too bad it's warm … probably take forever to chill in this little fridge, too."
Clark just smiled and held out his hand for the bottle. "I can take care of that." He held the bottle at arm's length and slowly blew on it until a slight frost began to form on the outside. "That shoulddo it."
Lois laughed. "What would I do without you?" She picked out two champagne glasses from a nearby cupboard and set them on the end table. "I'm going to get out of these clothes while you open that," she said, pulling off her high heels as she walked towards the bedroom. "Are our bags on the bed?"
"Yeah, I put them there when we got here."
"Great," she called over her shoulder. "Be right out."
Clark went to work uncorking the bottle but did a quick double-take as he caught sight of Lois's outline on the etched glass door. It was more shadow than substance, caused by the bedroom light and the tight quarters, but Clark found it enticing, nonetheless. He watched appreciatively as Lois stripped off her top and her skirt behind the door, then stepped into a pair of pants. It wasn't as if he hadn't seen her naked a hundred times since they'd become lovers, but for some reason, catching this unexpected glimpse touched him. It only served to remind him how lucky he was to have her in his life, and as Lois pulled on her shirt, Clark gave a happy sigh and finished uncorking the champagne.
By the time Lois emerged from the bedroom, the open bottle was waiting on the end table. Clark, however, had crossed the room to meet her partway. "Do you have any idea how beautiful you are?" he asked, gazing into her eyes.
Lois looked down at her gray drawstring pants and casual tank top with wide eyes. "Me?" she asked, surprised.
"Yes, you," he reassured her. Then he smiled and cupped one of her bare shoulders, letting his fingertips brush across her skin. "I'm gonna go change, too. Will you pour?"
"Of course," she answered, taking his hand and giving it a little squeeze. She wasn't sure what had prompted his compliment and show of affection, but she liked it, all the same.
As Clark disappeared into the other room, Lois reached for the champagne bottle and poured them each a glass. Lifting her glass to her lips, she took a sip. "Mmm. Temperature's perfect!" she called out. Turning around, however, she almost spilled her champagne as she caught sight of Clark's silhouette on the glass door. He was unbuttoning his shirt and peeling it off his shoulders, the outline of his strong pectoral muscles and erect nipples clear in the glass. And when he dropped his pants, Lois felt her breath catch in her throat. She had seen him naked countless times over the last few months, and dressing and undressing together in the same room now came naturally to them. Yet somehow, catching this private moment seemed a special treat and Lois released a contented sigh. He was a beautiful package, inside and out, and she still sometimes couldn't believe that he was all hers.
When Clark finally emerged from the bedroom, clad in faded jeans and tan t-shirt, Lois handed him his glass while raising hers. "To our almost romantic evening," she offered with a smile.
He clinked his glass onto hers and smiled warmly. "To our almost romantic evening."
Clark fiddled with the surveillance equipment as he stood in the window, making sure everything was working. His empty champagne glass sat on the coffee table. "Well, I think we're ready to go … now we just need Mr. Bender to cooperate."
Lois watched from the couch as Clark lowered his glasses. "See him?"
"Yeah … he's eating dinner. Looks like Greek food. The baklava looks fantastic … wonder where he got it?"
Lois chuckled and joined him at the window. She peered through the eye-piece of the video camera, making a few small adjustments to bring the image into better focus.
"Is it set right?" Clark asked her.
"Yeah, it's pretty good. Your special vision is going to come in handy, though, since I've got some obstructions. I can see the outside of the boat, but when he goes inside, I can tell he's there but not exactly what he's doing."
"Well, it's getting dark and that should help." Clark stepped back and pulled the draperies in a bit tighter, partially covering the window. "Which reminds me, we should probably dim the lights in case anyone looks this way. We don't need Bender noticing that someone has surveillance equipment trained on his boat."
"Aw, and I thought you were just being romantic," Lois teased as she reached for the nearest lamp.
"Double duty," he answered, smiling in response to her wink. "So what do you want for dinner? Greek food like Bender?"
"I was thinking Chinese; we haven't had it in a couple of weeks."
"Ten days," Clark corrected. "I don't think we could go two weeks … we'd suffer withdrawal symptoms." He walked into the tiny kitchenette. "There are some take-out menus by the phone." He flipped through the pages. "Pizza, pizza, pasta — gee, you think Perry's friend likes Italian? — Mexican … oh, here's a Chinese place. Ralph's Pagoda." He handed the menu to Lois. "Never heard of 'em."
"Me neither," she said, looking through the listed items. She wrinkled her nose skeptically. "'Eat at Ralph's, So You Don't' is their slogan?? Clark, that's disgusting!"
"It doesn't say that!"
"It most certainly does!" She thrust it back at him.
Clark's face matched Lois's as he read the menu header. "How 'bout I fly us in some real Chinese food?"
She smiled. "Surprise me."
Clark returned a half-hour later, having made a few quick rescues while he was out. Luckily, there hadn't been anything that had required more attention than he'd wanted to give. Certainly had something major come up, Superman would have been forced to deal with it, but Clark had incentive to let the police handle as much as possible tonight. There was no way he was going to give up a chance to recapture Lex Luthor if he could help it, and right now, Sheldon Bender was their only lead.
Lois had suggested they eat their meal out on the coffee table in order to give Clark an easy view of Bender's yacht, and they quickly set about unpacking the steaming items. The only change Lois had reported in their quarry's location was that he had moved from the kitchen to the upper deck, and now seemed to be reading a magazine.
It was, in fact, a South American travel catalog, Clark clarified upon taking a look, and over the course of their meal, the reporters decided that Bender could well be planning to leave the country soon. Needless to say, the idea made them doubly glad they had decided to stake him out when they did.
They sat on the floor next to each other on the long end of the table, their food spread out before them. They took their time eating, talking about everything from their current assignment to Lois's sister's latest boyfriend to Clark's most recent tie purchase. Neither of them mentioned the blow-up from the night before, though there were a few awkward silences when they got close to the subject. But they didn't last long and as the evening passed, they became more and more relaxed, just enjoying the company and the conversation.
The only excitement came when Bender placed a phone call during one of Lois's turns with the binoculars. Clark quickly joined her at the window, arriving just in time to watch Bender write down the cryptic message, "J.W. tomorrow 7:30 am", on a nearby notepad. Frustrated in his attempt to listen to the conversation when an ambulance siren screamed past at just the wrong moment, Clark had to settle for reading Bender's lips. Unfortunately, the only phrase that meant anything was "ten thousand dollars", said right before Bender turned his back to the window. Who was on the phone and what the money was for remained a mystery, however, and Lois and Clark could only hope that the morning appointment was related to their investigation.
It was pushing ten o'clock by the time they cleared the table, and Clark rolled his eyes as he checked the window for the dozenth time. "What a way to spend an evening. Watching a lawyer get ready for bed."
"Oh, it hasn't been that bad," Lois pointed out from her seat on the couch. "The food was good … and I was able to tolerate the company." She shot him a grin as he raised his eyebrows.
Clark flopped down next to her and pulled Lois into his arms. "Tolerate, huh?"
"Yeah, well, it's a tough life, what can I say?"
Keeping an arm around her shoulders, Clark propped his feet up on the now-empty coffee table and relaxed into the couch. Twisting briefly, he set his glasses on the end table next to him, allowing him to watch Bender without having to make any adjustments to the frames. A comfortable silence filled the dimly lit apartment as they sat, and it wasn't long before Clark felt his eyelids begin to droop.
Lois noticed his sleepy expression. "What's he doing now?" she asked quietly.
Clark roused a bit. "He's putting in a movie," he reported. "There's a VCR in the bedroom." He stared at the apartment wall for a few more moments, then suddenly jerked his head away. "Oh, God, it's porn," he exclaimed, cringing. "I did *not* need to know that."
Lois couldn't help but chuckle. "I guess that answers the question of whether he's in for the night."
Clark shot her a sideways look, then dropped his head to the back of the sofa and closed his eyes. "Easy for you to say; you didn't have to watch him watching it. There are times when x-ray vision is not a gift."
"Poor Clark," Lois teased, ruffling his hair. "He has it so hard."
"Yeah, yeah." His lips formed into a brief smile at her comment, but he didn't open his eyes. "I'm giving notice right now, though," he murmured in a sleepy voice. "If he starts doing more than watch, I may have to put my eyes out."
"I'll keep an eye on him if you want to take a nap. I can't see what he's doing through the binoculars, but I can make sure he stays on the boat."
"Mmm … " He sounded as if he might be drifting off, but after a moment, he gave himself a little shake. "No, I'll be OK … just a little tired."
"You didn't get much sleep last night," she offered sympathetically.
Clark rubbed his eyes. "Only about forty-five minutes. Seems I barely fell asleep before that shooting woke me up."
"I'm sorry," Lois whispered softly.
Clark shrugged. "Not your fault." At her pointed look, he gave a little smile. "OK, maybe it was, a little. But it was Superman who made me get out of bed at five in the morning. That part's not your fault."
"I don't know how you even do it," she said with a little sigh. "I'd probably be passed out already if I'd only had forty-five minutes of sleep last night."
"I don't need as much as you do," he offered, "so getting less than an hour of sleep isn't quite as bad as it sounds. I can usually get by just fine like that for a day or two, as long as I keep busy. It's when things get quiet that it hits me." He forced himself to sit up straighter, rotating his neck against the kinks his fatigue made him feel. "So we should keep busy. You wanna play some cards or something?" He turned to find Lois watching him, a melancholy look on her face. His voice softened. "Hey … what's wrong?"
Lois just shook her head and looked away. "Nothing … it's nothing."
Concerned, Clark reached out to cup her cheek, gently bringing her eyes back to his. "Honey, what is it?"
Lois searched his eyes for a long moment, her face troubled. "It's silly, really," she finally offered. "It's just— Clark, are we OK?"
"You mean about last night? Yeah, Lois, of course we're OK," he answered sincerely. "I thought we worked all that out this morning?"
"I thought we did, too, but …" She glanced away again.
"Lois? Hey, come on, look at me," he said gently. "What's going on?"
Lois gave a sad little shrug as she met his gaze. "You haven't kissed me today," she whispered. "Not even once."
Clark's eyes opened wide as her words sunk in. "Oh, honey, no … it's just that we've been working all day and Superman—" He shook his head, cutting off his explanation. "I'm sorry," he said sincerely.
"So it doesn't mean that you haven't forgiven me?" she asked in a little voice.
Clark sighed. "Come here." He cupped her cheek again and pulled her forward to press a tender kiss to her mouth. When their lips separated, he lowered his forehead to hers in an intimate gesture. "I love you, Lois,"he whispered. "And there's nothing you could do to make me stop loving you … or forgiving you."
Lois wrapped her arms around his neck. "I love you, too, Clark. Nothing could make me stop, either."
Clark gently pulled Lois into his lap and kissed her again, letting it linger. "How could I possibly have gone a whole day without kissing you?" he murmured against her lips.
"I thought you were still mad," she whispered.
"No … just stupid."
They traded sweet kisses for several moments, letting the worries of the day fade away. It wasn't long, however, before their hands began wandering, caressing each other through the thin shirts that they each wore. Clark moaned softly as Lois began to tease his ear with her tongue. "God, Lois … I want to make love to you," he whispered in a husky voice, turning to capture her mouth with his. He ran his hand up the inside of her leg to caress her thigh. "I need you so much."
Lois whimpered against his mouth at his touch. "I want to make love to you, too, Clark," she whispered back, trying to catch her breath, "but we can't. We're working, remember?"
"Hmm, we'll take a break," he murmured, then kissed her again, flicking the tip of his tongue enticingly against hers.
She moaned softly, but soon pulled back apologetically. "I want to, Clark, believe me … but it wouldn't be right. Not in a stranger's apartment."
Clark closed his eyes for a moment, gathering himself. "You're right," he finally sighed, his shoulders slumping a bit. "I just—" He looked deep into her eyes. "I'm not ready to let you go."
She snuggled up against him. "I didn't say you had to." As his arms tightened around her in a hug, Lois suddenly giggled as a new thought struck her. "You realize this is the problem with our making love so often, don't you?"
Clark raised an amused eyebrow. "The word 'problem' isn't one that ever comes to my mind when I think about us making love, Lois."
Grinning, she began to nibble at his ear again, eliciting a husky groan from him. "Exactly … and that's just the problem."
She laughed. "We missed this stage, Clark … the way we got together, the way we started making love right from the beginning of our relationship." She kissed her way down his jaw. "I mean, it's been wonderful … better than wonderful … *amazing*, even—".
"But we skipped this stage."
She pulled back to grin at him. "The make-out stage."
"The make-out stage," he repeated, looking at her like she was crazy.
"Yes, the make-out stage! Think about it, Clark … when was the last time we just kissed and touched each other, without it leading to the bedroom?"
A sly smile spread over his face. "I seem to remember it leading to the living room last time." "You know what I mean."
He chuckled and leaned back against the couch. "You say it like it's a bad thing, that we always end up in the bedroom. I say it just shows how compatible we are." He shot her a saucy grin.
"Oh, we are definitely compatible," she purred, teasing his lips with her tongue before capturing his mouth in a deep kiss. "But you have to admit, that's a fun stage … the sexual tension so thick you can cut it with a knife, both being so excited we can barely stand it, but knowing nothing can come from it."
With a playful growl, Clark flipped them back on the couch, causing Lois to squeal in delighted surprise. "You have a twisted definition of 'fun', Ms. Lane," he accused, his eyes dancing as he pinned her beneath him.
Lois threaded her fingers through his hair and brought him down for a soul-shattering kiss. "Would you have it any other way?"
"Absolutely not …"
Lois sighed contently as she rested in Clark's arms on the couch. They'd had a great deal of 'fun' together over the last hour, their kissing and touching interrupted only by occasional trips to the window to verify that Mr. Bender was indeed sleeping soundly. But she had to admit it had almost been a relief when Clark finally insisted they put on the brakes. She'd had no idea it would be so hard for them to control themselves, knowing full well that, had they been at home, they would have already gone much, much further. But for all his good-natured grumbling, she was more than certain that Clark had enjoyed himself as much as she had.
Making love with Clark, whether they completed the act or not, was everything Lois had ever dreamed of. Before she had met him, she never would have believed that anyone could reach her heart like he did. The way he made her feel — not just physically, but emotionally as well — was deeply satisfying and it only strengthened the bond she felt with him. Whether they were actively engaged in foreplay or simply holding each other, he made her feel more than loved … he made her feel cherished. She could hardly imagine how she had survived all those years alone before him.
Still, sometimes Lois couldn't help but wonder how things would have been different had their behavior the night of Clark's 'return from the dead' not forced them to confront their feelings for each other. How long would it have taken them to admit that they were interested in being more than friends had they not fallen into bed that night?
Things had happened so quickly after that … an all-too- brief few days of dating, then a bitter break-up after she'd found out that Clark had lied to her about dying in the casino. And then, after they'd finally reconciled, things had moved even more quickly, both physically and emotionally. It had been wonderful, a whirlwind of love and excitement … but sometimes she couldn't help but wonder whether they had rushed into things.
"Do you think we got together too soon?" she asked him suddenly.
"What?" Clark cocked his head. "What do you mean?"
Lois traced patterns absently on his arm as he held her. "Oh, I was just thinking … wondering how things might be different if we hadn't gotten together the way we did. Like … would we have fought so much over Lex being alive if we weren't in a relationship? Would it have upset you as much as it did, if we were still just friends?"
Clark considered this. "Well," he said thoughtfully, "I don't think I would have been happy about you running into him, even if we weren't dating yet. I mean, the very idea of you being anywhere near him scares the heck out of me, Lois! But you're probably right that I wouldn't have been so outwardly angry." He gave a resigned sigh. "I would have stewed quietly, I guess."
She rested her head on his shoulder and hugged him more tightly. "You were always worrying about me, even when I couldn't understand why."
He smiled softly. "I think I fell in love with you the minute I saw you … even when I told myself you'd never be interested in me, I couldn't stop feeling the way I feel."
"Thank you," she murmured, lifting her head. "For not giving up on me."
"I couldn't have even if I'd wanted to, honey."
As she pressed a soft kiss to his lips, Lois had another thought. "It does make me wonder, though, if I wouldn't be so skittish about marriage if we'd waited longer before getting serious." At his concerned expression, she hastened to reassure him. "It's not that I didn't want us to get serious; Clark, you know how much I love you. It's just … it seems like we keep getting roadblocks thrown up in front of us … misunderstandings, mistakes being made. I just wonder if we might have had an easier time of it if we hadn't gotten together when we did."
"So when do you think we should have gotten together?"
"Oh, I don't know." She pulled a day out of the air. "What if you were just getting up the courage to ask me out now for the first time?"
Clark smiled at the idea and nudged her. "Hmm, Valentine's Day as a first date … pretty bold of me." At her quiet chuckle, he continued, shrugging. "I don't know, maybe it would have been easier getting together if we'd waited — it certainly couldn't have been any harder," he added with a wry grin. "But, Lois, I wouldn't give up a single moment of the last few months, even if it meant having things go a lot more smoothly now."
"Thank you," she whispered, tipping her head to accept his offered kiss. She sighed. "Sometimes I wonder if you'd have been better off if we'd never met."
Clark gasped, aghast. "Lois, don't you *ever* think that! You are *everything* to me … you have to know that."
"I do, honey, I do," she assured him, "and I feel the same way about you. I just meant … sometimes, I can complicate your life. Look at all the stress we're going through over Lex coming back. Or how you feel torn between spending time with me and being Superman."
Clark turned her in his arms until they were face to face. "Lois, listen to me. You do not complicate my life. You *are* my life." His eyes were troubled and very serious. "Yes, I could manage to be Superman without you … but I would probably lose *me* in the process." He used his fingers to brush her hair back from her face. "Coming home to you gives me the strength to go off and do what I have to do. Even when we were just friends, even when I couldn't tell you about the other part of my life, I relied on you. Honey, I see so much pain and destruction in the world … but in you, I see beauty and passion and love. And sometimes, thinking of you, knowing that I have you to come home to … is the only thing that gets me through."
Lois had tears in her eyes. "Oh, Clark," she whispered. "How did I get so lucky to find you?"
He gently kissed her forehead. "In my mind, I'm the lucky one." Then he gave her a little smile, lightening the mood. "Besides, for every 'complication' you add to my being Superman, there are a dozen cases where you've helped me. Just think of what we've been through in the last several weeks … how would I have managed after I'd been blinded by Dr. Light? Or dealt with the Kryptonite poisoning during that whole Diana Stride/Top Copy expose nightmare without you there to help me?"
"You'd have managed."
"Maybe," he answered, "but I can't imagine how much harder and more stressful it would have been if you hadn't been there. Or even if you *had* been there, but didn't know that I was Superman." He searched for an example. "What would we have done when I was blind? I couldn't have asked you to take me to my apartment because then I'd invite the question of why Clark wasn't there. Would you have invited a blind Superman to stay at your apartment?"
Lois started to grin. "It might have been fun … you know, all those Superman fantasies I had."
Clark stared at her for a moment, then began to laugh as a ridiculous image entered his mind. "I would have slept on your couch … probably would have broken all your furniture, too."
"Oh no!" she exclaimed, laughing with him. "My apartment would have never been the same!" Then she sighed and ran her fingertips over his cheek. "And we wouldn't have been able to make love that night," she finished tenderly.
Clark turned to kiss her palm. "That was so special for me."
"And for me. You were so scared," she whispered, "but trying to be brave."
He looked into her eyes. "And you told me that we'd still have each other, no matter what the future held."
"You will always have me, Clark. No matter what."
"And you, me," he whispered, kissing her softly.
"As long as you don't go kissing any more Intergang assassins," she added a moment later, her stern gaze betrayed by the twinkle in her eye.
"Lo-is!" he groaned in protest. "I told you — I didn't kiss her; she kissed *me*! After she'd tagged me with that radioactive stuff, I just thought she was trying to get the scoop on my identity. I didn't expect her to try to *kiss* me. I pulled back as soon as I realized what she was doing."
"Yeah, well, I wasn't too pleased with that radioactive tag thing either," Lois grumbled. "Especially since we couldn't even sleep in the same bed that week in case she traced you. So I think you can see why I could get mad that you kissed her—"
"I didn't kiss her," he insisted again. "She kissed me."
Lois suddenly raised an eyebrow and gave him a pointed look. "Kind of like how Lex kissed *me* last night? When *I* wasn't expecting it?"
Clark stared at her wide-eyed for a moment, then blushed. "Did you just set me up?" he asked sheepishly.
"Nope!" she replied with a gleeful grin. "Sheer inspiration!"
He couldn't help but shake his head at his own foolishness. "Honey, I'm sorry. I never should have doubted you."
She nudged him to let him know it was all right. "Just don't do it again."
"I promise." He tucked a section of her hair behind her ear. "And no more talk of you complicating my life?
She looked as if she were going to protest for a moment, then relented. "I promise, too."
Clark nuzzled her ear affectionately, then began nibbling on her earlobe. "Good. Promise me something else?"
"Mmm … anything," she said dreamily.
"Don't you *ever* tease me again for an hour when there's not a darn thing I can do about it!"
By 7:28 the next morning, Clark had already been at the window for a nearly an hour, carefully watching Bender's boat. Neither he nor Lois had gotten much sleep last night, staying up talking and cuddling into the wee hours of the morning, but he still felt more rested than he had the day before. They'd each managed a few catnaps on the couch while the other took over the surveillance, but he knew that after two nights in a row with minimal sleep, they'd probably both be ready for an early bedtime tonight.
Lois emerged from the bathroom, slipping a warm shirt over her tank top, and retrieved her coffee cup from the kitchen counter. She came to stand next to him. "Anything?"
He shook his head. "Not yet … but that note definitely said 7:30 am."
Lois lifted a pair of binoculars to her eyes and adjusted the focus. "The 'Sue U'," she read off the side of the yacht. "Oh, *please*.
Clark scanned the boardwalk leading up to the boat slips for the countless time. "It's been really quiet this morning … too quiet."
"Maybe whatever kind of appointment it is, it isn't on his boat?"
"Maybe … but if they kept the same time, he'd have to have left by now … it's past 7:30." Suddenly, movement caught his eye. "Look, down there …" He pointed for Lois's benefit. "See that man? In the business suit?"
Lois squinted through the binoculars. "Doesn't exactly look like he's about to go sailing."
"Yeah, and he's heading straight for Bender's boat."
"I wish he'd turn around … I can't get a good look at him. Can you hear anything, Clark?"
Clark tilted his head, his brow furrowing in concentration as he tried to zone in on the conversation that was now taking place across the boardwalk. The man, whoever he was, was climbing aboard Bender's yacht. "'Glad you could make it,'" Clark echoed, then he shook his head. "They're just chit-chatting right now."
Just then, the man turned. "Wait, I recognize him," Lois exclaimed. "That's Judge Winkler."
"J.W.?" Clark asked. "I thought it would be initials, but the J. could be for Judge if Bender was just jotting a note."
"Or his first name is John—" Lois cut off abruptly as Clark shushed her. "What?" she demanded.
Clark quickly began relating the conversation. "Judge Winkler is getting a new trial for Rollie Vale … Vale's being transferred back to the courthouse this afternoon."
Lois watched intently through the binoculars as Bender handed his guest a black attache case. "What's that? The payoff?
Clark x-rayed it. "It's filled with twenty dollar bills." Clark quickly turned to Lois. "Let's get down there … I'd like to see what Bender has to say about this."
"What about the judge?" Lois asked as they hurried out of the apartment. "He's leaving with the money."
"We can track him down later at the courthouse. Right now, I want to catch Bender while he's still on the deck of his boat!"
Lois and Clark jogged down the boardwalk, then slowed to a fast walk as they turned onto Bender's dock. "Hey, Bender!" Lois shouted as they approached.
Sheldon Bender stood on the upper deck of his boat, and his jaw dropped when he saw them. "You!" he exclaimed in outrage. "Don't you people—?" The rest of his words were cut off, however as his entire body suddenly lurched violently, then collapsed onto the deck.
Shocked, Lois leapt onto the boat, Clark right on her heels. They raced up the narrow stairs to the second level of the boat, skidding to a stop when they saw Bender's body. Clark quickly knelt down next to the body and felt for a pulse. "He's dead," he informed Lois. "What happened?"
Lois furrowed her brow as she noticed a large dart sticking out of Bender's neck. "I don't know. But this was no accident."
Off in the distance, Lex Luthor and Gretchen Kelly sat in a large SUV, watching the scene with satisfaction.
"I've always admired Nigel's creativity," Lex offered as he lowered a pair of binoculars from his eyes, scanning the water for any movement from St. John's scuba gear.
Gretchen concurred with a pleased smirk. "Too bad he couldn't get rid of two nosy reporters as well."
"You mean one reporter," Lex answered absently, smiling as he watched Lois Lane pull a cell phone from her pocket and begin to push the buttons.
Gretchen followed his eyes, then made a sound of disgust as she saw the tender expression on his face. Reaching into her bag, she produced the most explicit of the photographs she had taken, one of Lois and Clark fondling each other on the fire escape, and stuck it under his nose. "Actually, I meant two," she repeated. "Or maybe I need to remind you of how 'your' Lois has been spending her time while you've been gone?" she added sarcastically.
Lex narrowed his eyes and set his jaw as he shoved the photograph back at Gretchen. "*You* don't need to remind *me* of anything," he said sharply. "In fact, I have a little job for you. While Nigel and I are procuring Rollie Vale's freedom this afternoon, I want you to find Lois and bring her to me. But make sure she's alone when you take her. I need time to come up with something more … appropriate … for Mr. Kent."
Gretchen smiled evilly as she slipped the photograph back into her bag. Just the assignment she'd been waiting for. She gleefully wondered how sadistically Lex would humiliate his former fiancee before doing away with her. "No problem, Lex," she purred. "No problem at all."
Back in the newsroom a few hours later, Clark sat back, exasperated, as he listened to the voice on the other end of the phone line. "Sure," he retorted sarcastically, "I'll just wait right here for his call." He hung up the phone and gave Lois a look from across the aisle. "Judge Winkler's clerk," he explained. "The judge is 'temporarily unavailable' for comment."
"Big surprise," Lois responded with a roll of her eyes. "Well, he'll have to make himself available when the police catch up to him … it will be interesting to see how he explains being the last person to have met with Sheldon Bender right before he was murdered." She shook her head. "I don't get it … why is it so important to Bender that Rollie Vale get a new trial? And what would be in it for Lex? As far as I know, they didn't even know each other."
Clark picked up his notebook. "I checked with the prison to see if Vale has had any visitors recently and, sure enough, Bender was there the other day, claiming to be his new lawyer."
"So you think this might be just a case of a lawyer doing whatever he can to get his new client off?" she asked doubtfully.
Clark looked equally skeptical. "It's possible, but I don't think so … Bender brought two other men with him. They signed in under fake names, not surprisingly, but the descriptions were interesting. According to the guard on duty, one was an older guy with white hair and a white beard, which makes me think it could have been Nigel St. John. He didn't get a good look at the other guy, but maybe it was Lex Luthor?"
"That would explain Lex knowing Vale … but what were they after? Why were they visiting?"
"The payoff to Judge Winkler was supposed to be for getting Vale a new trial," Clark mused out loud. "So maybe Bender had something up his sleeve … buying off witnesses, maybe? To change their testimony?"
"But *we* were witnesses, Clark, and they certainly know they can't change our testimony. Or Superman's. And why kill Bender? He hadn't gotten Vale off yet."
Clark blew out a breath, considering this. "Unless Bender did something to make Luthor mad."
Lois started hunting around her desk, looking for her notes. "I did some digging on Bender the other day … he's been living pretty large since Lex died. Made a lot of big investments, bought a lot of property, had that yacht of his custom built … it all started soon after the reading of the will."
She shook her head. "Just his standard attorney's fees; expensive but not extreme. And he wasn't mentioned anywhere else in the will; I checked."
Clark paused, then raised an eyebrow. "Unless he helped himself."
"Embezzlement?" Lois asked in surprise. Then she nodded, quickly warming to the idea. "As Lex's lawyer, Bender would certainly have access to all the accounts, or at least know what was in them. And the police always suspected that Lex had money stashed away that they couldn't find … when his assets were liquidated, they didn't find nearly as much as they thought they would."
"And now that Luthor is back, he's looking for his money—"
"Which Bender spent—"
"Which got Luthor mad—"
"Which is motive to have Bender killed!" Lois finished triumphantly.
Clark sat back in his chair and grinned. "We're good."
She gave a little laugh. "We still have to prove it."
"A minor detail," he replied with an amused wave of his hand. Getting out of his chair, he crossed the aisle and perched himself on the corner of Lois's desk. "So we have a theory on why Bender was killed … but we still don't know how Rollie Vale fits into this."
"What if he has something Lex wants?" Lois suggested.
"Scientific knowledge, lab equipment, smart ass attitude," Clark rambled off. "Expertise with cybernetics …"
"He turned Johnny Corbin into a cyborg … strong enough to beat up Superman."
Clark winced. "Don't remind me. Using Kryptonite as a power source—" Suddenly Clark's eyes opened wider.
Lois was right behind him. "Kryptonite!" she exclaimed. "The police never found it."
"And Luthor wants to know where it is."
"And in return for the information, he gets Vale a new trial."
Clark rubbed his hand over his chin, thinking hard. "Who puts up first? Vale with the information, or Luthor with the trial?"
Lois swallowed. "Clark," she gasped, lowering her voice. "If it's Vale, Lex could have Kryptonite."
He met her eyes. "I know," he said quietly. "But maybe not yet. Vale's pretty smart … and very cocky. I can't see him rolling over and telling Luthor where the Kryptonite is until he gets what he's after. So we might have some time … the trial won't start till next week."
"But what if we're wrong?" she whispered, putting her hand on his knee.
Clark exhaled and covered her hand with his own. "Then we better hope we find Luthor before he finds the Kryptonite."
"And our only lead to him was just murdered," she finished glumly.
Just then, Jimmy came wandering by, his arms full of files. "Hi guys … Oh, CK, I took a call for you while you were on the phone a few minutes ago. It was the director of that homeless shelter. You know the guy Ramin you were looking for? He's eating breakfast down there right now."
Wide-eyed, Lois and Clark stared at each other for a moment, then bolted for the elevator.
Inside Lois's Jeep, the two reporters waited outside the Union Street Shelter.
"Do you still see him?" Lois asked, noting that Clark still had his glasses pulled down.
"Yeah … he's just finishing up."
"Anyone with him?"
Clark shook his head and pushed his glasses back up on his nose. "No, he's alone … and here he comes."
Lois watched as Ramin Tarbush walked out the front door of the shelter, clad in the same scruffy jacket he'd been wearing when she'd watched him abduct Sheldon Bender. "Yup, that's him. Let's go."
The two quickly exited the vehicle and followed Tarbush, maintaining a safe distance behind him so as not to be noticed. A few blocks later, they saw him duck into an alley and they sped up their pace. They got to the corner just in time to see him lift up a large sewer grate and disappear below it. As soon as he was out of sight, Lois and Clark quickly turned into the alley.
Clark peered down into the opening behind the gate. "Well, that would explain why I came up empty on the abandoned buildings," he muttered, annoyed with himself. "I didn't think about looking underground."
"Who would?" Lois asked. "It's not like there's a sign that says 'Secret Hideout Below'." She nudged him. "Come on, let's go in."
Clark picked up the grate and motioned for her to enter. "After you."
Lois climbed down the ladder into the dim, damp tunnel, then waited for her eyes to adjust. It wasn't completely dark underground, but it still took her a few moments to get her bearings. Up ahead, however, she could see a dim light in what looked like an opening, and as soon as Clark was down the ladder, she started towards it.
They continued on through the tunnel until they came to the opening Lois had seen earlier. There were a few bare light bulbs strung overhead, but the crumbling concrete and dripping walls of the abandoned sewer lent an ominous feeling to the place.
"It's a long fall from a penthouse in the sky," Clark observed quietly, taking it all in.
A rustling sound next to them caused Lois to start. "What's that noise?" she asked, taking a few steps off to one side to investigate the sound. As she peered over a low wall into a deep, round pit, Lois suddenly jumped back, right into Clark's arms. "Rats," she hissed, shuddering. "I hate rats!"
Clark kept a reassuring hand on her back as they continued to explore the hideout. It was evident that someone had been there recently; several boxes and crates were overturned for use as tables and chairs, and there were discarded carry-out food boxes off to one side. Splitting up, they wandered carefully through the makeshift room, looking for clues. It wasn't long before Lois called for Clark's attention.
"Look at this," she called. "It's a map."
Clark quickly joined her, looking over her shoulder at the open page. "There's a route highlighted." He traced his finger over it. "It starts at the Metropolis Men's Prison … and ends at the courthouse."
Lois stared at it quizzically for a second, then jerked her head up, eyes wide. "Clark! That's the route they're taking to transport Rollie Vale!"
"Luthor's going to break Vale out of jail!" Clark exclaimed, finally putting it all together. "Come on, let's go."
They jogged quickly back to the ladder at the end of the tunnel and Clark helped Lois get her footing as she climbed back up.
"I'm going to try to stop them," Clark said as soon as they were back in the alley. He was already tugging at his tie. "You get the Jeep and meet me there."
He turned quickly to leave, but Lois had grabbed onto his sleeve. "Clark," she warned, "if Rollie Vale knows where to get Kryptonite—"
Clark's face was grim. "Let's just hope I can get to them before they get to it." Then his eyes softened and he pressed a quick kiss onto her mouth. "I love you," he whispered. And with that, he ducked deeper into the alley and turned a corner, out of sight.
A brief moment later, Lois heard the boom that indicated Superman had taken off quickly. She looked up into the sky from where she stood near the middle of the alley, squinting up into the brightness to see if she could make him out in the sky. "Be careful," she whispered.
Deciding it was best not to leave the grate open as a warning to Lex, Lois struggled to lower the heavy metal grid back into place. Exhaling from the exertion, Lois dusted her hands when she was finished, then turned quickly, intending to head to her Jeep and follow Clark. But she immediately gasped as she found herself looking right into the barrel of a gun.
Gretchen Kelly just gave her an evil smile. "Hello, Lois. Lex wanted me to find you. Thanks for making it so easy."
Clark flew high over the city near the Metropolis Men's Prison, hunting for any sign of a police transfer vehicle. Not seeing any unusual activity in the prison yard, he turned and began to follow the route he'd seen highlighted on the map in the underground hideout. He had no idea where along the route they would be by now, assuming they'd even left yet. But if Vale was on his way to the courthouse, Superman had to get to him before Lex Luthor did.
His apprehension grew as he scanned the streets along the route. It was mid-afternoon, and while there were a few hours to go until rush-hour, the streets were still busy with people and vehicles. Since it was no secret the courthouse itself would be teaming with security personnel, Clark could only assume that Luthor was going to try something before Vale arrived … which meant countless innocent people along the transfer route could be caught in the crossfire.
A moment later, shouts on the street below caught his attention. A black and white Sheriff's van sat in the middle of the street, its side door wide open. Two additional cars were sprawled perpendicular to the road, clearly disabled and blocking traffic. And what was worse, one of the cars was engulfed in flames. Superman immediately put himself into a steep nose-dive.
Landing between the two cars, Clark quickly summed up the situation. Now that he was on the ground, he could see that the second car was a prison escort vehicle and the officer driving it was injured. Even more pressing, however, was the fact that gasoline was pooling on the ground near the burning car — if it caught fire, the explosion would not only take out the drivers of both disabled cars, but most likely several bystanders as well. Taking a deep breath, Clark quickly blew out the flames, then sighed in relief as the driver of the car that had been on fire stumbled out of the door, shaken but apparently unhurt.
Immediately, Clark turned to the prison car's injured driver. The man was conscious, but moaning and rubbing his neck. The man clearly needed a doctor but Clark was afraid to move him in case he had back injuries. "Stay still," he told the driver as the sound of sirens in the distance caught his attention. "Help is on the way."
Satisfied that the driver understood, Clark quickly turned to the police van. As he had seen earlier, its side door was wide open — and Vale was gone.
Torn between immediately taking to the sky in order to hunt for Vale and staying to help the injured, Clark's decision was made for him when he noticed that both the police van's driver and the passenger were slumped forward in their seats. To his dismay, Clark could see a large dart sticking out of each man's neck, just like the one he had seen used to kill Sheldon Bender. Quickly checking for vital signs, Clark sighed in relief when he noted that the guards were still breathing, but he knew he couldn't leave before making sure they received medical attention.
Fortunately, it wasn't long before two ambulances came racing around the corner, sirens blaring. They were followed almost immediately by three police cars. Rushing to meet the EMTs as they jumped out, Clark quickly updated them on the situation, including the fact that the darts could be poisonous and that the driver of the prison vehicle could have neck or back injuries.
Once assured that the police and EMTs were in control of the situation, Clark finally was able to launch into the sky, ready to hunt for Rollie Vale. He presumed Lex Luthor was with him … and if he and Lois were right about Vale knowing where to find Kryptonite, Clark now had a whole new set of problems.
As he flew a search pattern in widening circles around the escape area, however, it suddenly occurred to Clark that he hadn't seen Lois at the scene. A bad feeling coming over him, Clark stopped dead in the air and began scanning the streets below for Lois's Jeep. He'd spent far longer at the accident scene than he'd intended, which should have given Lois plenty of time to catch up with him.
But as the minutes ticked by with no sign of her, his panic began to grow. Where in the world could she be?
Lois struggled against her bonds in vain, glaring at Ramin Tarbush as he tightened the ropes around her legs. After being forced at gunpoint to climb down the ladder into Lex's hideout, she'd been met at the bottom by Tarbush, who had instantly tried to grab her. Noting that he hadn't been holding a weapon, Lois had fought back, figuring that she only had a few seconds before the armed Gretchen Kelly reached the bottom of the ladder. But although she'd been able to take down Tarbush with a well-aimed elbow to the stomach followed by a quick knee to the forehead, Lois hadn't been fast enough to prevent Kelly from pointing the gun at her head. Lois had sized her up for a moment, debating on whether she'd actually use the weapon, but it only took one look at the woman's face to know that she would have been happy — if not downright gleeful — to kill Lois on the spot.
Deciding that — with a gun trained on her, at least — discretion was the better part of valor, Lois had allowed herself to be tied to the one intact chair in the underground hideout. Now firmly secured, she could only console herself with the hope that, with any luck, Clark would have already prevented Vale's escape from prison and Superman would be flying in to rescue her any minute now.
Gretchen Kelly passed Tarbush the gun. "Go watch the entrance for any more 'uninvited guests'," she ordered. "Lex should be back soon and I don't want any mistakes."
Fingering the lump on his forehead tenderly, Ramin fixed Lois with a final glare but did as he was told.
Gretchen took a seat next to Lois and began tossing bits of a leftover sandwich into the round pit next to her, causing Lois to shudder as she heard the rats scurrying around below. Noticing Lois's unease, the doctor fixed her captive with a sneer. "Well, Lois, how does it feel to know that you're finally going to get what's coming to you? Lex should be back any minute and I, for one, can't wait."
Lois shot the woman an incredulous look. Lex Luthor had been responsible for most of the crime in Metropolis over the last several years, yet this woman had not only brought him back to life, but was now acting as if he were the one who had been wronged. "Don't you realize that Lex is insane?" she exclaimed.
Gretchen Kelly just looked at Lois coolly. "If anyone is insane, it's you. You could have married the greatest man in Metropolis. Instead, you turned your back on him. But now Lex will have his revenge." The woman made a sound of disgust as she looked Lois up and down. "For some unknown reason, Lex actually saw something in you once. But we both know he won't have anything to do with you now that he's seen these pictures."
Now thoroughly baffled, Lois looked to where Dr. Kelly was pointing, at an upturned crate being used as a table. Her brow furrowed even further as she saw what looked to be photographs of her and Clark. But Lex already knew that she and Clark were together; how could photos of them out together be any surprise to him?
Gretchen smiled cruelly as she saw Lois squinting in confusion. "Oh, take a good look, Lois. See exactly what Lex has seen. He knows what you really are now." The doctor pulled the crate closer to Lois's chair, fanning out the photographs for inspection.
Finally able to see the detail in the photographs, Lois gasped as she realized what the woman had done. These weren't simply photographs of her with Clark; they were photographs of her kissing Clark passionately. Slowly, she began to recognize the shots as having been taken a few nights ago … she could make out the two them kissing against the door of her Jeep in one photo, and, in another, she could see they were on what looked to be her fire escape. But the last photograph on the table was the most shocking. In it, Lois was clearly fondling Clark as she kissed him, while his hand cupped her breast.
Lois looked up in outrage, her face burning.
Dr. Kelly glared right back. "Yes, go ahead and blush. You *should* be ashamed."
Lois's eyes flashed with self-righteous anger. "Ashamed??" she exploded. "Ashamed of *what*? Of kissing my boyfriend?"
"You were doing a lot more than kissing, Lois," the blond woman mocked.
"How *dare* you?" Lois hissed, fighting against her bonds again, making it clear how much she wanted to wrap her hands around Gretchen Kelly's throat. "How dare you spy on us!"
"Don't put this on me, Lois," the doctor sneered. "You're the one throwing yourself at your partner. I'm just sorry I couldn't see through the drapes into your apartment; then I really would have had something to show Lex."
Allowing herself only a moment to be relieved by the doctor's admission that she hadn't been able to follow them inside the apartment, Lois's anger quickly flared again at the mention of her former fiance's name. "What Clark and I do together is none of your business," she ground out. "Or Lex's!"
"Trying to convince me, Lois? Or yourself?" Dr. Kelly sat back in her chair and raised an eyebrow. "Though you clearly have a screw loose, choosing another man over Lex." Lois was completely astounded by the accusation. "Lex is a psychotic criminal! He could kill any one of us!"
"He'd never hurt *me*," Gretchen scoffed with a haughty laugh. "I gave him life; you drove him to his death!"
"The only one driving Lex to his death was Lex," Lois shot back. "Though obviously he had a little back-up plan," she added sarcastically. "It's too bad you didn't leave him as that puddle of goo I saw in the crypt."
"Be careful, Lois," Gretchen warned in a sing-song voice as she reached into a bag on the floor and pulled out a flat plastic container, "Or I'll have to make sure he sees the videotape."
"Why you little—"
Lois immediately cut off her words, however, as the sound of Lex's voice filtered over from the entrance of the tunnel. For a moment, she felt a small surge of hope. If Clark had already thwarted Lex's plans to break Vale out of prison, Lex would surely be on the run, with Superman hot on his trail!
But her heart quickly sank as Lex strode confidently into the room, flanked by Nigel St. John and Rollie Vale. Ramin Tarbush trailed closely behind them.
Lex immediately turned his attention to his former fiancee, ignoring the adoring look the doctor was now giving him. "Lois, so good of you to join us," he said smoothly.
Lois simply glared at him, her anger flaring over the arrogant smirk he was giving her. "Not like I had any choice," she retorted, flexing against the ropes to emphasize the point.
"Now, now, darling … don't fight the inevitable. When will you learn that I always get my way?" Lex reached down to cup her cheek possessively.
"I'm not your darling," she said through clenched teeth, jerking her head away from his hand.
Lex narrowed his eyes. "Is that right?" he asked. His gaze flickered to the box next to him, and he noticed the display of photographs. "I see Gretchen has been dazzling you with her skill behind the shutter."
"You had her spy on us," Lois accused angrily.
"No, actually," Lex answered with a breezy shake of his head, "she came up with that all on her own." But his eyes went cold as he picked up the top picture and studied it. "However, I do see that Mr. Kent isn't nearly the gentleman I am. I was obviously too considerate of your requests during our engagement." He smiled darkly at her, then turned away. "Rest assured, I won't make that mistake again."
As the implication of his words sunk in, Lois swallowed hard, trying to fight the terror building inside her. She had no doubt that Lex would try to force himself on her after his other business was taken care of. The only question was, now that Vale was free, how long would it take him to go after the Kryptonite? "Lex, don't do this," she begged, trying to stall for time. "You can still give yourself up. You're only making things worse."
Luthor turned back around at her plea, clearly unmoved. "The worst? I've already been through the worst," he sneered. With a final glare, he quickly turned to the other men in the room and barked an order. "All right, Vale. Give me the Kryptonite."
To Lois's immense shock, Rollie Vale simply opened a secret compartment in his cybernetic arm and smugly handed over the green rock.
Lex, however, was triumphant. "My Excalibur!" he crowed.
Lois gasped at the green glowing rock Lex now held in his hands, barely able to believe her eyes. All this time, she'd been trying to convince herself that she could stall them, that even though Rollie Vale had escaped from prison, there would still be time for her or Clark to stop them before they went for the Kryptonite. But she hadn't expected Vale to have it with him. "What are you going to do with that?" she asked, though she knew full well what the answer was.
Lex turned to her, this time with a small smile on his lips. "I'm going to kill Superman when he comes to rescue you." He fixed her with an intense gaze. "And then there'll be no one to take you away from me."
Horrified that she was going to be used as bait to hurt Clark, Lois struggled against her bonds once more. "You'll never get away with this!"
Luthor simply laughed. "And just who's going to stop me?" he asked, genuinely amused. His eyes hardened as he indicated the photos spread out on the crate. "Kent?" Lex reached out and grabbed Lois roughly by the jaw, stopping her struggle and forcing her to look at him. "I can't wait for him try," he sneered. "He'll be easier to kill than Superman. And given what's been going on with the two of you, maybe a lot more fun."
"I wouldn't count on it," Lois said defiantly, jerking her chin out of his hand. But, as her stomach twisted, she knew it was only false bravado. Clark had been right all along. Lex had procured Kryptonite almost immediately after he'd returned, and had wasted no time in setting a trap for Superman. And it was all her fault!
Fighting the panic building inside her, Lois renewed her efforts to fight the ropes that held her arms, and took hope when she felt them start to loosen. If she could escape, she couldn't be used as bait to lure Clark to his death. She had to get out of there. She had to protect Clark!
Focusing all her attention on escaping her restraints, Lois lost track of the conversation in the room for a moment, but when she finally glanced over at the men, she was confused and startled by the sight. Somehow, Nigel was now holding the Kryptonite and he and Ramin were pointing their weapons at Lex, Gretchen Kelly and Rollie Vale. "You've had your day, Lex," the older man said coolly. "Now it's Intergang with the deep pockets."
The clear outrage on Lex's face told Lois that this hadn't been in his plans. And indeed, in the next moment, all hell broke loose as Lex roughly pushed Vale towards Nigel.
Suddenly realizing that this distraction might be her only chance to escape, Lois summoned all her strength and strained against her ropes one final time. When the bonds finally gave way, Lois tumbled out of her chair and onto the filthy floor. But as she scrambled to her feet, she noticed that Nigel and Ramin had disappeared and Rollie Vale lay dead on the floor, a pool of blood under his chest.
Lois's first impulse was to follow Nigel, to see if she could get the Kryptonite, but as much as she hated to admit it, she doubted she could catch them. They had obviously orchestrated this double-cross very carefully, and surely had planned for their escape. They were probably long gone by now. That left only …
"Lex!" Gretchen called in concern. "Don't try to move; you've been hit."
Lois stared at the arrow embedded in Lex's shoulder and took a step towards the fallen man. She wouldn't let him get away, not this time. "Is he all right?" she asked.
"Stay away. I'll take care of him!" Gretchen barked, refusing to let Lois near.
Lex, however, looked past the blond doctor, right into the eyes of his former fiancee. "It's all right, my love," he reassured Lois. "It's just a—" He gritted his teeth and roughly ripped the arrow from his own flesh. "A minor setback."
Upon hearing Lex's tender endearment, Gretchen Kelly finally exploded in fury. Whirling around, she roughly grabbed Lois's shoulders and pushed as hard as she could. "I said … STAY AWAY!!"
Lois screamed as she felt herself tumble over the low wall into the round pit in the middle of the tunnel. Landing hard on her back at the bottom knocked the wind out of her and she gasped, stunned. Almost instantly, however, Lois began to cringe and writhe as she heard creatures scurrying around her head then felt them crawl over her legs. Rats!
Almost instantly, Lex's face appeared over the edge of the wall. Anxious and concerned, he extended his arm into the pit. "Lois! Darling, take my hand!"
Lois's instincts warred. She desperately wanted to get away from the horrors of the rat pit, yet at the same time, she couldn't help but recoil from Lex's touch. She tried to scream for Superman, but she could barely get enough breath to exhale.
Gretchen's face soon appeared behind Lex's; she was pulling him away from the edge of the pit. "Lex, leave her … she never loved you!" With his injured arm, Lex tried to push the doctor from him. "Get away from me!"
Gretchen wouldn't be deterred, however. Clearly desperate, she reached down to pull on the arm he was extending to Lois. "She never loved you … she's not good enough for you. Look at the pictures; she's a tramp, a whore!"
Lois watched as Lex's face turned to rage. "Don't you EVER!!" he roared over his shoulder.
"I love you, Lex! She doesn't! I love you—"
"I said, get BACK!!" With that, Lex turned and shoved Gretchen with all his might, sending her tumbling across the room, propelled by the force of his push. Before he could react, she fell against the high tension wires in the corner, causing sparks to fly everywhere. He stared at the way her body jolted as the electrical current raced through her, then flinched as she slumped to the floor in a heap.
The drama unfolding above her gave Lois enough time to pull herself together, and she finally was able to take a deep breath to call for Superman. But before she could make a sound, his arms were around her and she could feel herself being lifted upwards, out of the pit. Trying to stop herself from shaking, Lois swallowed as she looked into his eyes, seeing the fear in them. Giving him a crooked smile to reassure him, Lois tightened her grasp around his neck and whispered, "Thank you."
The relief in Clark's expression was obvious, but he continued to search her face as he set her down on the ground. "Are you OK?" he asked intently. "Did he hurt you?"
She shook her head and was about to say more when the sight of Lex watching them caught her attention. Her brow wrinkled in confusion. Lex was chuckling.
Superman turned so that he was standing protectively in front of Lois and crossed his arms over his chest. He fixed Luthor with a terse stare. "Maybe you'd like to let me in on the joke?"
Lex just shook his head and gave another humorless laugh. "Me. I'm the joke," he answered. "Twice I've had the chance to kill you, and twice the game has gone your way."
Lois watched as Clark squared his shoulders and straightened to his full height. It never ceased to amaze her how different he looked — and sounded — when he was in super-hero mode. "The game is over, *Luthor*," he spat.
"No," Lex retorted, narrowing his eyes. "I'll never give you the satisfaction of taking me alive." With that, he bolted to the same corner where Gretchen Kelly's body lay and threw himself against the live wires, grabbing hold with both hands.
Lois gasped when she realized what he was about to do, but she soon found herself cocking her head in surprise when nothing happened. The look of shock and outrage on Lex's face proved that he hadn't expected to be thwarted either, and Lois followed his gaze upwards to the wires above his head. The high voltage lines had been severed, no doubt by Clark's laser vision. Lois found her mouth breaking into a grin. "Good thinking!" she complimented Superman, giving him a good-natured clap on the shoulder.
Clark shot her a quick glance of amusement, but it disappeared the moment he turned back to his nemesis. "Sorry, Luthor," he said, a touch of cockiness entering his voice. "Killing yourself is the easy way out. You can't cheat justice twice."
Lex turned slowly, still defiant as he narrowed his eyes over Lois and Superman's interplay. "Don't look so smug," he shot back. "Tell him, Lois. Tell him that once you really loved me."
This time it was Lois's turn to square her shoulders and stand up straighter. "I love *Clark*," she answered, no trace of doubt in her voice. "I never knew what love was until I fell in love with him."
"You loved me enough to marry me," Lex retorted. "Deny what you will in front of your super-hero, but nothing will change that."
Lois's eyes opened wide at his arrogant response, and suddenly, all her emotions over the situation boiled over. "I did not marry you!" she exclaimed, stepping angrily in front of Superman. "I stopped the wedding, Lex. Not the police, not Perry — *me*. I looked you right in the eye and said 'I can't'." She fixed him a caustic look. "Or did that little memory not make it back from the dead?"
Lex flicked his wrist, waving off the idea. "Merely a case of wedding jitters, my dear; you would have come around."
Astounded, Lois actually laughed. "Boy, you just don't get it, do you?" She rolled her eyes. "All right, let me spell it out for you. The reason I didn't marry you is because the entire time I was walking up the aisle, I was thinking of another man." Lois gave him a smug look as Lex predictably shifted his gaze to glare at Superman. "Good guess, but wrong answer!" she almost crowed.
"What in the world are you talking about?"
"*Clark*, Lex; it was Clark," she clarified. "The entire time I was walking up the aisle to marry you, I was thinking about him. Not you … and not Superman. And while I was walking up that aisle, it finally hit me that while I could easily see my life without you in it, I couldn't imagine it without Clark."
"You were cheating on me!" Lex hissed, his face quickly clouding over with fury.
Lois shook her head, not flustered at all by his accusation. "No … Clark and I were just friends then, which I suppose makes it even more ironic." She gave a little smile. "I felt more for my best friend than I did for the man I was supposed to marry. That's how I knew I was marrying the wrong man." Her expression softened. "And now that I'm with him, I just wish I had seen it sooner; Clark Kent is the only man for me. And believe me, Lex, when I walk down the aisle to marry him, Clark Kent will be the only man on my mind."
Standing in the middle of Lois's darkened living room, Clark held Lois tightly as she buried her head into his chest. They had finally been able to return home — Clark, after escorting Lex Luthor to prison, making certain as Superman that the man didn't escape, and Lois, after spending long hours at the police station telling them everything she knew — repeatedly — about Lex's return.
The bodies of Gretchen Kelly and Rollie Vale had been taken away by the coroner and the area thoroughly searched for Nigel St. John, not that anyone really expected he'd be found. The photographs, however, had been destroyed before the police arrived. Lois had gathered them up as soon as the wail of the sirens could be heard at the entrance to the tunnel, and had silently shown them to Superman. Clark's eyes had widened in shock as he'd flipped through the pictures, but if Lex Luthor had been hoping for a sign of jealousy from the super-hero, he'd been disappointed. Just as silently, Superman had fixed Luthor with a withering stare … then had burned up the photographs in a blaze of heat vision, along with the negatives and the videotape that Lois had dug out of Gretchen Kelly's bag.
Superman had returned to the police station after ensuring that Luthor was locked down securely, and had insisted on escorting Lois home despitethe protests of the detectives who claimed they still had more questions for her. The look on Superman's face, however, had quashed all discussion, and the police finally conceded that they'd obtained all they needed to for one night.
Clark had flown them directly to Lois's apartment, but she had barely allowed him the time needed to spin back into his regular Clark clothes before she'd wrapped her arms around him and buried her face in chest. Clark closed his eyes as they held each other, one arm wrapped tightly around her waist, the other hand gently smoothing itself over her hair as he murmured words of comfort. Lois, however, was mostly silent, save the occasional shuddering breath that shook her already trembling body.
Her change in demeanor was disconcerting to him, to say the least. When he'd rescued her in the tunnel, she had quickly reassured him that she was unharmed and her confident dressing down of Lex Luthor several moments later had convinced Clark that he'd reached her before anything horrible had happened. She'd even managed to call in the story of Luthor's capture to the Daily Planet from the detective squad, much to the dismay of the police officers who were trying to interview her. Yet as soon as they'd taken to the sky this evening, away from the prying eyes of the detectives, her defenses and bravado had crumbled and all she'd wanted to do was cling to him, as if reassuring herself he was there with her.
For his part, Clark had been agonizing all evening over what had occurred before he'd found Lois in the underground hide-out. She'd been held captive with Luthor for nearly an hour before Superman had arrived, and Clark still had to stifle a shudder as he relived the panic he'd felt as he'd raced back to the sewer, his heart in his throat. The sense of relief he'd felt when he'd seen Lois cowering in the rat pit, shaken but alive, had been almost overwhelming.
Fortunately, once he'd realized that Lois was all right, he'd been able to cover his emotions fairly well while dealing with Luthor. He'd actually been thrilled — albeit a little confused — when Lois had firmly told Luthor that she was in love with Clark. But for whatever reason, Clark couldn't shake the feeling that he'd entered in the middle of a conversation, that something that had occurred during her capture had prompted Lois's declaration. He also was keenly curious as to how the photographs of him and Lois were involved, but he knew he could wait until later to ask her about them. Right now, his mind was spinning all sorts of horrible ideas over what was making Lois so incommunicative. "Did he hurt you?" Clark finally asked quietly. Lois shook her head against his chest, but still didn't speak. Instead she just seemed to hold him closer. Unable to help himself any longer, Clark cupped her cheek and gently forced her to look at him.
"Lois, please," he pleaded. "You're scaring me. I promise you, whatever it is, we can get through it together. Whatever he did to you—" Clark's voice cracked.
At his desperate tone reached her ears, Lois met Clark's eyes for the first time since he'd escorted her out of the police station. Her eyes filled with unshed tears as she heard the emotion in his voice. "Oh, Clark, I'm so sorry."
Clark took a gasping breath as he saw the wetness, and Lois noticed that his eyes were now tearing up as well. "Lois," he said in a husky whisper, his voice shaking. "Whatever he did … it wasn't your fault. If he forced you—"
Realizing that Clark had jumped to a horribly wrong conclusion about why she was upset, Lois quickly covered his hand with hers. "Oh, no, Clark … it isn't anything like that!" She pressed a kiss to his palm. "He didn't hurt me; I'm sorry I made you think—" She shook her head. "He hardly touched me." After a moment's hesitation, she continued, "He threatened to … but you got there before he could."
A muscle in Clark's jaw jumped as Lois mentioned Luthor's threat, but he was clearly overcome by relief that nothing horrible had happened to her. "Then what are you sorry about?"
Lois closed her eyes. "Because he was trying to kill you again, and it was all my fault," she whispered. "If I hadn't let him go that first night … if I had called the police when he offered me his cell phone … if I had thought about you first, instead of myself, I—"
Clark released a deep breath and the tension in his body visibly lessened as he gently dipped his forehead to hers for a moment. "No … no, no, no," he soothed. "Lois… I've thought about this some more, and I think you were right not to challenge him that night. If you had used that phone, who knows what he might have done to you? Do you honestly believe he would have let you turn him in, despite what he said?"
Lois swallowed. "I don't know."
"You did the right thing, honey, even if I couldn't see it right away." Giving her an encouraging smile, he used the pad of his thumb to lightly brush away a tear that was threatening to fall. "Besides, we got to him in time," Clark added reassuringly. "Without Kryptonite, he had no way of killing me." He gave her a teasing grin, trying to lighten the mood. "What was he going to do, throw me to the rats?"
Instead of smiling at his attempt, however, Lois's eyes just widened in shock. "You mean you don't know?" It suddenly hit her … of course, he didn't! He'd arrived well after Nigel had escaped and he'd been at the prison while Lois was giving her statements to the police. "Clark, Lex *did* have Kryptonite! The piece that Rollie Vale used last month to make Johnny Corbin into a cyborg — Vale had been hiding it in a compartment in his mechanical arm, and he gave it to Lex to use against you."
"So that was why they were so interested in getting Vale out of prison," Clark exclaimed. "We were right, then, as to what the connection was." Then Clark furrowed his brow. "But Lois, I didn't feel any Kryptonite down there."
Lois shook her head. "That's because Nigel St. John double- crossed Lex. Nigel killed Vale and shot Lex in the shoulder. He took the Kryptonite, and he and Ramin escaped before you arrived."
"So there's still a piece out there," Clark murmured, more to himself than to Lois.
Her eyes filled with fresh tears. "Yes, and it's all my fault! If the police had gotten to Lex before he could get break Vale out of prison, Nigel wouldn't have the Kryptonite."
"Oh, honey," Clark sighed, pulling her close again. "It's *not* your fault," he insisted. "Even if we had found Luthor earlier, the piece would still be out there. Rollie Vale would still have it."
"But it wouldn't be with Intergang," Lois said glumly.
"Nigel told Lex that he'd had his day, but now, it was Intergang's turn. He's working for them."
Clark stilled. "Or planning on selling the rock to the highest bidder." He shook his head. "No, Nigel's too smart for that; he'll hold onto it himself. We can keep an eye out for him; maybe we'll get lucky and he'll be picked up on some other charge and they'll find it. We may not know where the Kryptonite is, but at least we know who has it. "
Lois sniffled. "I don't like knowing there's something out there that can kill you, Clark."
"Well, we'll cross that bridge when we come to it," Clark insisted. "Lois, this isn't your fault. I'm sorry I made it seem like it was before, saying you let Luthor go. I was angry and hurt, and I lashed out. But it was an awful thing to say, and it wasn't true."
"I still feel responsible—"
"The only one responsible for any of this is Lex Luthor," Clark said firmly. "And he's finally where he belongs, in prison, hopefully for the rest of his miserable life."
"You took him yourself, right?"
"You better believe it … I wasn't taking any more chances. And it was just as well that I did." The corners of Clark's mouth quirked. "You know the term 'spitting mad'? Well, Luthor was practically foaming at the mouth as the guards were trying to process him."
Lois couldn't help but smile at the image. "He was really furious, huh?"
"Enough to get himself put in solitary confinement. They aren't taking any chances either."
Her voice was firm. "Good."
Clark gave her a tender smile and cupped her cheek. "So you're really OK?" he asked again.
Lois returned his smile. "I'm fine. Really, I am." She wrapped her arms around his neck and gave him a hug. "I'm sorry I scared you by getting so emotional. I guess it was just the stress of everything that happened."
"Honey, you had a pretty rough day."
"We both did." Resting her head against his chest, Lois let out a quiet sigh. "Some Valentine's Day, huh?"
"Well, we didn't completely miss it," Clark replied helpfully, glancing at the clock. "We still have an hour left."
"But it wasn't how I pictured us spending it," she said softly.
"Me neither," he admitted. "But honestly, Lois, all that really matters to me is that we're both here, safe and sound."
Lois lifted her chin and accepted his gentle kiss. "Thank you," she whispered. "You're right, it's all that matters." Then she gave him a little smile. "But I do have a card for you."
"Mine's at my apartment," Clark said apologetically, glancing towards the window. "You want me to get it?"
"No." Lois wrapped her arms around his neck, making it clear she didn't want him to leave. "We can exchange them tomorrow. I just want to hold you right now."
Clark pulled her closer. "That sounds wonderful," he murmured, pressing a kiss into her hair. After a moment, though, he smiled. "Can I still give you my present tonight, though?"
Lois couldn't help but give him an impish grin. "Saving me from killer rats wasn't enough?"
Clark laughed. "Wow, you're easy to shop for!" He ran a hand affectionately down her arm. "But I really do have something … actually, it's kind of an I.O.U." At her puzzled look, he continued. "Remember that 'death by chocolate' thing you had at the Bizou last month, the one you liked so much? You asked them what kind of chocolate they used because it was so good."
"Yeah, and they said it was a small private company on the west coast that didn't sell to the general public." She got a dreamy look on her face. "That was *great* chocolate."
Clark smiled. "Well, I did some digging and I found out that they're located in San Francisco. *And* they give tours of their kitchens, complete with samples." He gently tucked her hair behind her ear with his fingers. "So I was thinking that you should pick a day and I would fly us out there. We could tour the place, see how they make the chocolate, get some to take home, then maybe see the sights a bit. We could make a day of it."
"Oh, Clark, that sounds wonderful … and I know just the day to do it, too," she answered, getting more animated. "In two weeks, on your birthday. We can spend it there."
"That's really sweet, honey," he answered, touched that she would choose that day. "Except my birthday's in the middle of the week this year. We have to work."
Lois just began to grin. "That's what you think." At his confused expression, she continued, looking extremely pleased with herself. "See, my Valentine's present to you is an I.O.U., too. Actually, it's kind of a combination Valentine's Day and birthday present, since it was a little expensive, but I definitely think it will be worth it, especially now that I see what you've gotten me and how we can combine them both into—"
"Lois!" Clark exclaimed, laughing. "You're killing me here … what did you get me?"
"Oh, didn't I say?" she answered innocently. Then, unable to hide her eagerness any longer, she spelled it out. "I asked Perry to give us the day off on the 28th, so we could celebrate. He agreed to keep it a secret, so I could surprise you. Then I booked us into the Presidential Suite at the Metropolis Grand Hotel. I figured we could make a whole day out of it here in town, but San Francisco sounds like an even better place to start."
"Oh, honey, that sounds wonderful," he said, amazed. "Thank you … what a fantastic present."
"And thank you," she answered, wrapping her arms around his neck and giving him a warm hug. "I can't wait to go."
Clark held her tightly. "I can't wait either." Then he pulled back and grinned teasingly. "Though I would have expected you to try for the Honeymoon Suite instead of the Presidential." He wagged his eyebrows up and down. "We could have relived that stake-out."
Lois's laugh was one of pure glee. "Ah, but I did get it! Wait till you hear! When I called, they told me that the Honeymoon suites — they now have two of them — were both booked for that entire week. That threw me, since there had only been one last year when we were there. Turns out that when the new management took over — you know, after they changed the name to the Metropolis Grand from the Lexor? — they did some remodeling. They tore out some walls and created two new suites on the top floor, which they now call the Honeymoon Suites. And the old Honeymoon Suite that we stayed in was renamed the Presidential. And it was available!" She grinned broadly over her coup.
Clark grinned with her, his eyes dancing. "So you mean I *will* be able to get my turn in the bedroom this time?"
She winked at him. "And I get to share that giant bath tub with you instead of phoning you from it."
"Mmm," Clark sighed. "You have no idea how much I wanted to suggest we use that tub."
"Oh, I think I have a pretty good idea," she laughed.
"Boy, talk about looking forward to my birthday this year," he laughed back, pressing a kiss to her mouth, quickly deepening it when she responded in kind. But when they finally separated, his smile was tender. "Thank you, honey; it's a wonderful gift. I can't wait."
"Me neither," Lois agreed. "And thank you for my present … it's a wonderful Valentine's surprise. I definitely wasn't expecting it."
Clark gave her a little grin. "Well, don't worry," he teased. "I wasn't going to continue with my pattern of proposing on every major romantic holiday. I've learned my lesson; I promise."
As he spoke, however, the smile slowly left Lois's face, and she gazed into Clark's eyes with a look of such tenderness, it nearly took his breath away. "Maybe," she whispered, "it wasn't such a bad pattern." She caressed his cheek tenderly. "Unless you want to wait for your birthday."
Clark stared at her for a long moment, uncertain. "Lois?" he whispered back. "Do you mean …?" At her gentle nod, Clark let out a shaky breath. "But you wanted to wait … you wanted to be sure."
"Oh, Clark," she reassured him. "I was *always* sure. I just needed to be ready."
"And now you are?"
Her smile was completely open … and completely sincere. "Yes … I am."
"But … why?" At Lois's surprised look, Clark continued quickly. "I mean, it's not like I'm not thrilled — I am, really — but what made you change your mind?"
"Well," she began slowly. "I've been thinking about it a lot, even though I know I acted like I wasn't … ever since we started dating, really. And the more time we've spent together, Clark … the more we've shared … the less scary the idea of marriage seemed to be to me. All those things I thought I'd dread when living with someone — - the compromises, the forced intimacy, never being alone — -" She smiled and tenderly brushed the hair back from his forehead. "I came to realize that I enjoyed them. Craved them, even."
Clark captured her hand and pressed a kiss to her palm. "Oh, honey—"
Lois rested her finger against his lips. "Wait, there's more. Clark, I can't deny to you that seeing Lex this week really shook me up. I thought I had put that chapter of my life behind me, but this week, I had to deal with it all over again." At Clark's worried look, Lois continued, explaining. "I still had a lot of anger inside over what he had done to me. So many times last year, I wanted to yell at him, to scream at him and hit him and make him regret what he'd done. But when I saw him, none of that seemed important anymore. Don't get me wrong; I'm still angry over what he did and I want them to lock him up and take away the key. But the sense of personal betrayal was just … gone. I'm a differentperson now. A person who is finally ready to put her past behind her, and jump into the future with the man she loves." Lois looked deeply into his eyes. "I love you, Clark, and I want to be with you forever. If you'll still have me?"
Clark gave a little laugh, even as he felt his eyes grow moist. Taking a step backwards, he slowly dropped to one knee in front of her, holding her hands in his. "Lois," he said, his voice choked with emotion. "I have loved you from the moment I saw you … and every minute that we spend together only makes me love you more." He swallowed before continuing, searching her face. "You're my partner, and my best friend … and my lover. Will you also be my wife?"
Not even trying to stop the tears that now flowed down her face, Lois nodded as she dropped to her knees in front of Clark. "Yes," she laughed. "Yes!"
"Yes?" he gasped as they came face to face.
She wrapped her arms around his neck. "Yes! Oh, Clark. I love you and I want to marry you. I've never wanted anything more."
Clark cupped her face with both of his, wiping her tears away even as his own filled his eyes. "I love you, Lois Lane," he whispered hoarsely. "And I will love you until the end of time. This I swear to you."
As their lips met, their bodies melted into each other. Cradled knee to knee, chest to chest, mouth to mouth … their hearts and souls became one.
Partners. Friends. Lovers.
And now more.
Late the next morning, Lois Lane and Clark Kent beamed as Perry White complimented their work on the story of the return and arrest of Lex Luthor.
"I'm just so proud of you kids, I could burst!" Perry exclaimed as Jimmy slapped Clark on the back. "What an amazing story."
"Thanks, Perry," Lois replied, smiling up at Clark. He squeezed her hand in reply, his own grin warming his face. They hadn't told anyone yet of the change in their relationship. They planned to, as soon as they set a date. But for now, they were content to bask in the closeness of their private secret.
"Well, after this, you two deserve some time off. I want you both to take the rest of the week to relax."
Clark looked at Perry, surprised. "Really, Chief?"
Lois, however, didn't have to be asked twice. "That sounds like a great idea, Perry," she responded eagerly, walking around her desk to pick up her purse. She smiled warmly at Clark, her eyes bright. "We can use the time to shop for … you know, that thing."
Clark furrowed his brow for a brief second, then his face lit up with understanding. "Oh! Yeah … that sounds like a great idea. To look at … those things." The grin nearly split his face.
Jimmy cocked his head in confusion, but Perry only rolled his eyes and gave them a little smirk. "You know, you don't have to talk in code," the older man informed them. "You're not fooling anyone. If you're going to look at engagement rings, just say so."
At the stunned look on his favorite reporters' faces, the Editor-in-Chief just grinned and walked back to his office. "Yodel-ay, yodel-ay, yodel-ay-hee-hoo."
THE END :)
All comments welcome and appreciated!
Kathy Brown email@example.com
Completed: July 2002