The Dating Game

By Lanie <shaw@epix.net>

Rated: PG

Submitted: May 2003

Summary: Lois does some comparison dating to determine who's really the best man for her.

***

Dear Tabby,

How do you know when you're in love? Is it wiser to listen to your heart or safer to listen to your brain? Can you guide me toward some ten-step plan to romantic success? I have a history of disastrous choices in men, and I don't trust myself anymore. I had sworn off falling in love, and thought I was doing just fine on my own, then suddenly I realized there are three men I have strong feelings for, and one of them is pressuring me to share an exclusive relationship with him. Maybe I am getting tired of being alone, but I'd rather be alone than set myself up for heartbreak again. If I describe all three of them, could you look through your crystal ball and tell me where my happiness lies?

"Mr. Big" is a national hero. This man is as close to perfect as any man could be, has his own fan clubs, and yet I have good reasons to believe that if he were to choose any woman, it would be me. It began as star-struck infatuation on my part, but now I think I know him well enough to truly love him. Trying to carve a niche for myself in his life would be a challenge, but well worth the effort.

"Luke" is rich, powerful, charming, and has an intriguingly dangerous undercurrent to him. He is the one who wants me to commit to him. I'm flattered by his attraction to me, and he treats me like a queen, but I'm not sure I really know him and even less sure how I feel about him.

Then there's "Chuck". He is a colleague who has become my best friend, but it's pretty obvious he has a crush on me. It wouldn't be hard to fall for him. He is a wonderful guy, a cute, former star-of-the-football-team type, and good to his parents. I'd miss him terribly if he weren't around. It's too easy to take him for granted, to lose him in the shadow of 'Mr. Big' and 'Luke'. In fact the description of him that I just gave you surprises me. Until I tried to describe him, I'd never really noticed how appealing he is.

What do you think, Tabby? Are any of these men right for me, or am I heading toward another romantic disaster? Please make your reply confidential. These men are a part of the public eye. I'd be appalled if anyone recognized one of them or me.

Just call me Dazed and Confused<

Lois tucked the letter into an envelope and put it in her briefcase. She would drop it in the mail on her way to work. If it got an answer in the column, she would take it as a sign and heed whatever advice she received.

***

The next week, Lois turned to the advice column, not really expecting to see a reply to her letter. To her surprise, she found her answer at the end of the column.

*Confidential to Dazed and Confused,

Hearts are unreliable. I suggest you approach the problem of choosing the right man with your brain. Plan the perfect evening, then arrange to have each of the men in your life share it with you. Make a list of your expectations beforehand. Do you want him to be a good talker or a good listener? Are you looking for a man who can quote Shakespeare or one who knows your favorite team's stats? You get the idea. After each evening, decide how your date measured up to those expectations. It can be your own dating game. I'm betting that one of these men will be your ideal choice.*

Lois' mind was spinning. Yes, she would plan the perfect date! What would she judge them on? Grabbing a pencil and notepad, she jotted down the things she sought in a partner: conversational skills, sense of humor, thoughtfulness, intelligence, attractive appearance (might as well be honest), and…she wrote, and scratched out, and wrote again, the word 'chemistry'. It seemed shallow, but let's face it, when choosing a boyfriend, it counted. She would jot other ones down as they came to her. Meanwhile, arranging an evening with Lex and Clark would be no problem, but getting Superman to join her might take some doing.

She sat back down at the table to finish her coffee and skimmed the rest of the lifestyles section. An ad on the society page caught her attention.

*WIN A DATE WITH SUPERMAN!

The Business Women of Metropolis are sponsoring a raffle to win a date with Superman. The winner will enjoy a meal for two with the caped hero, catered by 'Chez Rene', in the privacy of the winner's home. Tickets are priced at one thousand dollars apiece and are available from any member or by calling 999-9999. The winner will be announced on April 3rd at the BWM scholarship awards ceremony, which will be televised on the local access channel. All proceeds benefit the BWM scholarship fund.*

Amazing, thought Lois. It's some kind of karma, seeing this ad just when I need to set up a date with my elusive hero. One thousand dollars! It would require a few sacrifices, but fate had presented this opportunity. She dialed the number in the ad and put the price of the ticket on her credit card. If she won, a date with Superman would be in the bag. If not, she'd at least contributed to a worthy cause.

Her mind racing, she decided to find out the details of the date from some friends who were on the BWM scholarship committee. Then all she would have to do would be to set up similar dates with Lex and Clark. She would try to keep all factors equal except for the man she was with. Even her clothes should be similar. Grabbing her briefcase, she closed the door to her apartment, a woman with a mission.

***

Walking to her desk, Lois took a good look at her partner who was so deeply involved in something that he barely acknowledged her with a quick smile and wave before going back to his computer screen. Would it be a mistake to include him in her dating game? She really did love him as a friend, but how could he ever compete against Superman or Lex romantically? Well, if nothing else, she could use her date with Clark as a kind of trial run for the other two. She could work out the details on him, and he would probably enjoy an evening with her, so nothing would be lost. Besides, she was sure he was interested in her and wanted to give him a fair chance before dismissing him altogether as boyfriend material.

Clark was going through a list of possible leads to contact about unexplained deaths at the University of Metropolis Medical Center. He was considering which call to make first when he felt Lois leaning over his shoulder.

"Dr. Benson. Definitely, start with him. In fact, let's get down to his office now. He'll talk a lot more freely if we see him in person."

He swiveled to look at her as she straightened up. She looked extremely perky for this time of day. Generally, she wanted no human contact until she had checked her messages and started her second cup of coffee. Now she grabbed his phone and dialed.

"Hi, this is Lois Lane from the Daily Planet. My partner Clark Kent and I were hoping to catch Dr. Benson before he starts his rounds." She listened for a short time and hung up the phone. "Come on, Clark. She said if we hurry we can catch him before he leaves the office."

As they stood in the elevator, Clark sensed that Lois was buoyant with something more than enthusiasm for the interview.

"Is something on your mind, Lois?" he finally asked, stepping off the curb to hail a cab.

"Stop, Clark," she said, grabbing his sleeve. "It's a beautiful spring day and the office is only a few blocks away. Let's walk."

He eyed her high heels skeptically but found himself watching her retreating form as she took off up the street. He caught up as she turned to look at him.

Before she could change her mind (and she had once more considered dropping Clark from the list of contenders), she took a deep breath and blurted out, "You know, Clark, I've been thinking I should have you over for supper some night soon. You've brought take-out for us so many times. I owe you one."

He took a second to ponder this. Was she asking him for a date in her own convoluted way? Or was this really just a simple payback? He would have to play it carefully.

"You don't owe me anything, Lois, but it would be nice to eat a meal without worrying about getting pizza sauce on our notes for a story."

"Great. How about tomorrow night? Seven-thirty?"

"Seven-thirty sounds good." They had arrived at Dr. Benson's office.

"We're here," she said. "I'll do the talking."

Clark grinned wryly. "Of course." He was back on firm ground now with Lois in business mode. Tomorrow night should be very interesting.

***

She lit the candles on the table. < I have to make this just like the other dates will be. Just because it's my buddy Clark, I can't make this any less special. > She checked her image in the mirror. You can't go wrong with a little black dress. Adjusting the bodice, afraid that the plunging neckline might give Clark the wrong idea, she nearly changed. She checked the clock. No time for that. Dinner would arrive from 'Chez Rene' at eight o'clock. Appetizers, wine, and glasses were on the coffee table. When the doorbell rang, she felt ready, so the flutter in her stomach surprised her as she opened the door.

In a black silk shirt, with two buttons undone, her partner looked good. The fabric did nothing to hide the breadth of his shoulders and the well-honed muscles that strained against the soft silk. Staring at his torso, the breezy welcome she had planned evaporated.

"Wow. You look good in black."

I am such an idiot, she thought, when she noticed his embarrassed smile.

"So do you," he said, recovering his composure, handing her a spray of fresh flowers. "These are for you."

"Clark, they're lovely."

She filled a vase with water and put the flowers in. As she carried them to the table, she found herself staring at Clark's neck. Without a tie, he looked so different, and that delta of bare flesh below his neck was causing an unsettling reaction in her. Distracted, she tripped as she neared him, and in a flash he caught the vase, one hand resting on top of hers as the other hand grasped her forearm.

"Are you okay?" he asked as he continued to hold onto her.

<No, I'm not okay at all. I've gone insane. I love the fact that Clark is touching me. I want to unbutton the rest of his shirt and feel his chest under my hands. What's the matter with me? I haven't even had anything to drink yet >

"I'm fine, thanks to your quick reflexes. Dinner will be here soon." Seeing his raised eyebrow, she clarified, "It's being delivered by 'Chez Rene'. I didn't really have time to cook, but I did make appetizers. Here, try one."

"Should I open the wine first?"

With a few deft motions, Clark had the bottle opened. She held both glasses up as he poured.

"Here's to good friends," she said raising her glass. Her voice sounded two octaves too high.

"To partners," he said sounding as off-kilter as her.

She sipped quickly, trying to take her eyes off that damned glimpse of his tan chest.

They set their glasses down.

Suddenly aware of Harry Connick, Jr.'s voice coming from her sound system, she tried to keep her voice pitched evenly as she said, "I hope this music is okay."

"I like it. It's kind of romantic." He looked away from her, afraid he had broken the mood by naming it.

"Romantic. Did you ever think about the origins of that word? You know during the Romantic period of the nineteenth century, western culture was obsessed with the ancient Romans. I think I remember reading that toga parties first became popular then. We could have had a toga party tonight. You'd look pretty good in a toga, Clark," she said teasingly.

"We COULD make this a toga party," Lois thought out loud. "All you need is a couple of sheets and a belt or rope."

"Sounds like you have toga experience, Clark."

"I'll admit to a college frat party or two. It was really an excuse to get the girls to show up in a sheet."

"I miss those days. In college, I felt so much less inhibited. Jobs and responsibilities kind of intrude on a person's sense of daring."

They sat in silence, each absorbed in their own thoughts. Suddenly, Lois grabbed his arm.

"Let's do it, Clark. Before they bring our dinner, let's change into togas. I have everything we need. Let's be nineteen again."

Clark raised his eyebrows but smiled gamely.

"Come on." Enthusiastically, she pulled him up from the sofa and headed to her linen closet.

"I don't own any white sheets, but who's to say the Romans only wore white? Here's a blue one for me and a black one for you. You can go in the bathroom. There's a robe hanging on the door with a cloth belt you can use."

She disappeared into her bedroom, emerging again before he had gone into the bathroom.

"Am I being insane?" she asked.

"Completely. Now let me go get changed cause once you see me in a toga, you'll be all over me like flies to molasses."

His grin sent her off with renewed pleasure, and she went into her bedroom glad that she could still be uninhibited.

By the time Lois had satisfactorily draped and wrapped her toga and emerged from her room, Clark was dressed and waiting. Lois eyed him appreciatively. Not every man could pull off wearing a sheet/toga but Clark looked just fine. She finally looked at his face and discovered that he was looking at her with equal appreciation.

"Now, we have to do Roman things," he said.

"Conquering the world? Gladiator fight?"

"Actually, I was thinking I should lie with my head in your lap while you feed me grapes. Got any grapes?"

"Did Romans really do that, or is that just some modern day version of Roman life? Oh, who cares! You go sit on the sofa. I'll be right back."

Feeling a freedom that she hadn't felt since her college days, Lois returned to find him stretched out with a mischievous grin. The muscles of his bare arms rippled as he balanced his head on one hand, causing a tightening in her chest, and she had a moment of hesitation, wondering if she was asking for trouble, but he sat up and patted the cushion for her to sit down, and she did. With his head in her lap, she plucked a grape from the stem and fed it to him. Her fingers absent-mindedly raked his hair.

"Didn't Roman women dance for their men?"

"Maybe the slave women did."

"Well, if this were MY Roman fantasy, you'd dance for me."

"You're pushing it, buster." I've gone this far, so why not? She thought. "But I want you to enjoy your evening. So, okay."

To Clark's amazement, she stood up and began a slow undulation to the Brazilian music that pulsed seductively from the CD player. A vision of her doing the dance of the seven veils flashed before him. It was apparent that she had taken a class in belly dancing. Watching her long legs, and the swaying of her curves below the thin material of the blue sheet, his temperature was not the only thing that began to rise. Her sensuous movements around the coffee table finally brought her back in front of him as the song ended. She has to know what she's doing to me, thought Clark. He looked into her face and the look he saw there gave him courage. His hands went to her waist and he lowered her to the sofa slowly. One hand was still positioned under her bare back as he looked down at her with raw desire.

Molten lava coursed through her veins as he loomed above her, his mouth moving toward hers. She wanted him desperately, and her brain made note of that with faint surprise, while her body tingled in anticipation.

The spell was broken by the buzz of the doorbell. He backed away reluctantly.

"That must be our dinner," she said huskily, not sure if she was relieved or frustrated by the intrusion. "Excuse me a minute." Her hand pushed against his shoulder to help her sit up. For a minute she was tempted to yell at the door, you've got the wrong apartment, but she forced herself to move.

Two young women entered with plates covered by metal lids, exhibiting no reaction to the attire of the diners. Directing them to sit at the table, they placed the dishes in front of them, dramatically removing the covers. Clark was impressed. Lois had spared no expense for this meal. The women left with instructions to Lois to place the dirty dishes back in the box they had left in the kitchen, which they would pick up tomorrow.

They ate the exquisite offerings, talking companionably about friends at the Planet and sharing stories of work on college newspaper staffs. He seemed interested in the most minute details of her life, laughing at her descriptions of eccentric professors, asking perceptive questions about her goals and dreams. Lois marveled at how much she had in common with a boy from Kansas. When Clark looked at his watch, she glanced at the clock, unable to believe how much time had passed since he'd arrived.

"Lois, I've got to go put money in the meter, but I think I'd better change first. I'm not sure I'm ready to let the world see me dressed like this. You stay just like you are, though. The sight of you, in that toga, is one of the highlights of my life to-date."

Sipping her wine in his absence, Lois speculated on his frequent disappearances. She watched out the window, but never saw him go near his car. There was something more to this. Maybe he had a medical condition, something embarrassing that he was concealing. Maybe he had to go give himself insulin shots or had irritable bowel syndrome or something.

He was back shortly, looking quite healthy, and began to help her clear the dishes. He stood in the kitchen and watched while she drizzled chocolate liqueur on two small bowls of fresh raspberries.

"Now go sit down, Clark, and let me serve dessert to you."

"My mother taught me to be helpful. It's hard to sit and be waited on."

"Did she also tell you that a good guest should obey his hostess' wishes? Go sit down."

Walking back to the kitchen to get the dishes of raspberries, she was aware that he was watching her every move. She picked up the dishes and, turning around, came face to face with Clark.

"Raspberries can't be trusted at this time of year," he said. He picked up a chocolate covered raspberry and lifted it to her mouth. "You'd better taste-test this before you serve it to a guest. That's what any good Roman hostess would do."

Intrigued, she obediently parted her lips to allow entrance of the raspberry. Before he could take his fingers away, she grabbed them and licked off the chocolate. It had the hoped-for effect on him. His hand held her cheek and his mouth met her lips, still slightly parted. Their tongues shared the lingering trace of chocolate. He pulled back just enough to look for a sign of encouragement. Her closed eyes and parted lips were all he needed. Taking the dishes from her hands and setting them back on the counter, his mouth again found hers.

Lois couldn't believe this was happening. She was experiencing the most sensuous kiss of her life, and the man sharing it with her was the last one she'd expected to win the chemistry category. They kissed until she thought she would go crazy if they didn't stop. Or maybe she would go crazy if they did stop. Her lips left his mouth and moved to the spot that had tantalized her all evening. His neck was warm and smooth and she could feel the hardness of his body beneath her mouth. Her hand explored the muscles beneath the silk shirt, and he groaned. His hands moved to her waist and lifted her to sit on the kitchen counter. Then his mouth moved down her neck to her collarbone, his hands still holding her by the waist. She felt his fingers move up her side, exploring the areas exposed by the toga. Her body was urging her to let those fingers keep moving, but her brain chose this moment to remind her that this was only one third of her experiment. Clark was going into territory she didn't intend to put on the evaluation form. This had to stop, she told herself without much conviction. She had to try to keep all factors equal if she wanted to do a proper comparison of her three dates. Still, she allowed his hands brief access to their goal before gently pushing them down to his sides and then adjusting her sheet.

Clark looked like any man whose plaything is abruptly taken from him. Lois felt guilty but vowed that when the experiment was over, she would make it up to him. Or would she? What if her dates with Superman or Lex made her forget Clark? No, strangely enough, it seemed that her date with Clark might make her forget Lex and Superman.

"Clark," she said, still breathless from the encounter, and sliding down to stand on two feet again, "wow." He looked a little happier. "You are so full of surprises."

"I'm sorry if I rushed things, Lois. It's your own fault. I take one look at you and lose control of my senses."

>From most men it would have been a standard line, but he said it as though this normal male impulse astonished him. Nobody was quite like Clark Kent. How easy it would be to just skip the rest of the plan and choose him.

"That's okay, Clark. I wasn't thinking too clearly myself. But we'd better slow things down for now. Come on, let's go eat these raspberries…with a spoon."

They finished dessert, and Clark looked at the clock.

"I'd better get going."

"I'm glad you came."

He rose from his chair as she did, and they walked to the door.

His hand caressed her cheek. "Thank you for an unforgettable evening."

Before she could answer his mouth claimed hers in something much more than a goodnight kiss.

She pushed him away, hardly able to speak, her hands lingering on his chest. "Go. Go before I do something I probably won't regret."

He looked at her in a way that made her want to pull him back to her and never let him go. "See you tomorrow."

She closed the door behind him, leaned against it and sighed with pleasurable frustration. How had this date gotten so out of hand? Clark was supposed to be the placebo date…the backup guy to boost her confidence before the really important dates. Instead, he had insidiously pushed his way to the forefront of her desires. Hopefully she would be able to control her evening with Lex better than she had this one. Who ever would have suspected that Clark Kent would go along with the crazy toga idea! When she had suggested it, she'd been sure he would laugh it off as a joke. Of course, he probably jumped at the chance to impress her with the sight of his incredibly toned body in a toga. No, this evening had definitely not gone as planned, but it had really been fun.

Tomorrow she would have to call Lex to confirm their date. He had left countless messages on her machine. Why did she feel so unenthusiastic about talking to him? Maybe it was the lingering taste of Clark or the memory of the way she had felt when his fingers found the bare flesh of her midriff. She got ready for bed, wondering if she would wake up to find she had dreamed this evening.

***

The next afternoon, Lois found herself tied back-to-back with her partner in a storage room at the Metropolis University Medical Center. She should have been worried, but situations like this had become routine in her career, so her biggest concern was whether or not she would be free in time to keep her date with Lex. The male nurse who was responsible for at least ten patient deaths was standing over them, giving them a rationale for the killings.

"…So I'm really doing them a favor just like Dr. Kevorkian. I hope you understand that I'm really sorry I have to do this to you, but you poked your noses where they don't belong. Fortunately, your deaths will be painless, just like mother's and the patients'."

He approached with a syringe, continuing to chatter at them. Lois had tuned him out. She was busy looking for something to kick at him when her bonds broke loose. She turned just in time to see Clark tackle the nurse at his knees. He pinned him down and told Lois to call hospital security. It wasn't long before help arrived, and the nurse confessed everything. Once they'd turned the case over to the officers on duty, they walked out to the car.

"How did you manage to break us loose, Houdini?"

"It was just an old boy scout trick I learned. The kind of knot he tied was easy compared to some of the ones we got out of at our den meetings."

Lois smiled. Who would have thought he'd make such an excellent partner! Clark opened the passenger door for her and leaned in to speak to her before closing it.

"Want to get some supper after we phone this story in?"

She looked up as he continued to hold the door open. It would be so easy to forget this whole stupid dating experiment and just choose Clark. She couldn't bear to tell him the truth…that she had a date with Lex. At least she had a legitimate excuse to give him.

"I think I have rope burns on my arms. I'm going home to put some salve on them as soon as we're through."

He knelt next to her, took her arm, and gently rolled up her sleeve. There was a pink streak, and he kissed it tenderly. Her heart swelled as she stared at the top of his head, and her hand rose to stroke his hair.

"I'll be fine. I just need some rest. Never a dull day for us, partner." Her voice caressed him, trying to make up for the guilt she felt at spending an evening with Lex.

He looked at her with eyes that tore her apart. "Every day is quite a day with you," he said with an affectionate grin, and then he added seriously, "Don't ever change, Lois."

He would probably never say any words that could win her heart like those last four. As he shut her door and walked around to the driver's side, she heaved a contented sigh. With all his power and money, would Lex be able to compete with the simple charm of Clark Kent?

***

Lex arrived promptly, armed with a box of French truffles.

"I still haven't recovered from the last time I had one of these, Lex! I've been fantasizing about eating another one ever since. To own a box of them seems downright sinful."

"Funny how the value of something increases in direct proportion to its rarity. Perhaps that's why I cherish my time with you so, Lois. Our moments together have become far too rare."

She wanted to change the subject. "You look so nice, Lex." She wondered what a tailor-made suit like the one he was wearing cost. Looking down at her own clothes, the black dress bought off the rack at Ann Taylor's, the one she'd worn last night for Clark, she said, "I feel underdressed." Ironically, she remembered feeling just fine in the skimpy toga she had ended up wearing the night before.

He tilted her chin up with one finger.

*"You look lovely, my dear. Besides, your beauty doesn't depend on what you wear.

'She walks in beauty, like the night of cloudless climes and starry skies,

And all that's best of dark and bright meet in her aspect and her eyes.' "*

"I love the fluid movement of poetry, don't you, Lex? As a teenager I dreamed that someone would be inspired to write lines like that about me. To be memorialized in a poem…the ultimate tribute."

"I'll take that as a challenge, although writing an ode to your beauty would be pure pleasure for me."

"I have hors d'oeuvres and wine for us before dinner arrives." She sat on the sofa. "Join me."

Lex picked up the bottle and examined the label. Lois thought she detected a hint of a smirk.

"Did I choose badly? I'm afraid my knowledge of wines is rather limited."

He poured a glass, swirling it and sniffing, then smiled benignly, as one humoring an unschooled child. "A pleasant enough bouquet, hints of vanilla and oak. I'm sure it will be fine." Handing her a glass, he added, "Someday, I hope you will allow me to introduce you to the pleasures of the connoisseur. We'll do our own private tasting in my cellars."

He raised his glass to her.

"A loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and thou beside me in the wilderness, Ah, wilderness, where paradise enow."

"How did you become such a man of the world? You've never told me where you went to school. I'm guessing Oxford."

"To the contrary. I am entirely self-educated. My father insisted on tutors, but while still a teen, I refused to work with any of them. Based on my readings of Far Eastern philosophies, I developed a rigorous system of personal discipline and study."

"Well, it's certainly taken you far." She sipped her wine. "I haven't talked to you since Metro magazine named you one of the city's five most eligible bachelors. You're in pretty elite company there."

"Are you referring to Superman? He's a cartoon figure who's mesmerized the public. I felt insulted to be included with him. Now there's a man who's had it all handed to him. The powers of a god, dropped in his lap, and he hasn't a clue what to do with them."

"Wait a minute, Lex, what are you trying to say? The man gives up personal relationships, uses his powers only to do good…"

Lex interrupted. "Lois, like so many others in Metropolis, you are blinded by the suit. The man has become a parody of himself, rescuing cats, throwing out the first pitch at Little League games…"

Lex was saved from the furious rebuttal building like a tsunami in her when the bell rang, and dinner was delivered. Having calmed down, Lois tried to steer the conversation toward less disagreeable topics.

"Lex, do you ever just feel like letting loose and doing something crazy? Like dressing up in a toga and pretending to be Roman?"

Smiling at her indulgently, he replied, "I suppose that has a certain charm, but my preference would be to jump on my jet and spend a night in Rome. I'm sure a tour of the ruins could be included." He looked at his watch. "Actually, it's daylight there now. Shall I call my man to make the arrangements?"

"Oh, it was strictly a rhetorical question."

"I hope you'll at least allow me to take you to a real French restaurant soon, Lois."

"Is 'Chez Rene' not real?"

"For Metropolis, I suppose it's acceptable. I was thinking of a little establishment on the outskirts of Paris. Perhaps you'd join me aboard my plane soon."

"Wow, what an offer!" She tried to sound enthusiastic although his patronizing attitude was wearing on her nerves. "But for now, you'll have to settle for some Starbucks and raspberries a la Lois. Let me just clear the table, and I'll start the coffee."

"That sounds delightful. Would you mind if I enjoy a cigar while I wait?"

"The fire escape's out there. No smoking in the apartment." She began clearing dishes and couldn't help remembering Clark's assistance the night before. Apparently none would be forthcoming tonight.

Lois announced dessert, and Lex returned to the table. He carried the scent of smoke with him. On the table beside his place, she saw a box of cigars featuring a picture of Fidel Castro.

"Aren't Cuban cigars illegal?"

"Ridiculous, isn't it, to deny us something so essential as a fine Cuban?"

They were interrupted by the buzz of the door.

Lois excused herself and went to the living room, pulling the door open to reveal her partner.

Clark took in her appearance. "Am I interrupting something?" He sniffed. "Are you having leftovers? I thought we polished everything off last night."

"You did have quite an appetite! What brings you over tonight?" She hadn't budged from the doorway, attempting to forestall any effort on his part to enter.

"I brought something for that rope burn. Mom always swore by it."

She reached out for the jar. "Thanks. If Martha trusts it, then so do I. Well, I guess I'll see you tomorrow, then."

Clark was glaring at something over her shoulder. Her stomach knotted.

"Good evening, Clark. Now, Lois, what's this about rope burns?" Lex asked, taking the jar from her hand to read the label.

"Just a minor injury I got on the job today, Lex. I'm fine, really. Clark was kind enough to bring me some lotion for it."

"Bag Balm," he read aloud. "Is this some home remedy from the heartland?"

"As a matter of fact, it's used on cow's udders in winter, but farmers know it works just as well on people," Clark said defensively. "Here, Lois, let me show you."

Taking the jar back from Lex, he pushed up her sleeve and massaged some of the balm into the still-pink mark on her arm. If Lois hadn't been so concerned with salvaging the situation that was unfolding around her, she would have enjoyed his attentions.

"It does feel good." She sniffed her arm. "Smells pretty good, too."

"Let me have my doctor treat that properly for you, Lois. I'll call him." Lex took his cell phone from his pocket.

The steely glares being exchanged above her head reminded Lois of two cowboys challenging one another to a showdown in an old western. She thought she should intervene.

"Really, Lex, it's fine." She held the bottle up. "I'll just save this for the next time I get chapped skin, if that's okay, Clark."

"Great. I'll see you tomorrow. Have you had the raspberries yet, Lex? Eating them was an experience I'll never forget." Shooting a look at Lois, he left.

"What on earth was he talking about, Lois?"

"Oh, nothing. I dragged him to the market with me on our way home from an interview today," she improvised. "He had to sample a few berries, claims they're his favorite fruit."

They returned to the table. Lex tried the berries and looked up disdainfully.

"The man's an unsophisticated rube with a schoolboy crush on you. Be kind, and don't encourage him."

"People have a tendency to underestimate Clark. I've been guilty of it myself. Can I get you anything else, Lex? More coffee?"

Lex leaned across the table and took her hand. "There is one more thing I'd like…"

The phone rang, providing Lois a welcome escape.

Lex watched impatiently, finally walking to the kitchen after her. He encircled her waist from behind and breathed onto the back of her neck.

She hung up, extricating herself from his embrace in the process. "My sister. Have I told you about her?"

"I believe you've mentioned her. You know, philosophy is only one of the many things I learned from the Far East." He took her hand in both of his, turning her palm up as he raised it to his lips. "Let me show you some other skills I acquired there."

She indicated the clock. "I'm a working girl. It's been quite an evening, but I have to call it a day. Let me walk you to the door."

He looked irritated, but moved to the door. There he turned to her, "I'm going out of town for a few days, but when I return, we must fly to San Francisco. We can take my yacht out to Sausalito to a place that provides the finest dining experience on this continent. It's the least I can do to repay you for this lovely evening."

Before she could answer, he leaned forward to kiss her. In one last attempt at conducting an impartial experiment, she met his lips. She was reminded of a kiss in tenth grade with a boy from her neighborhood. After anticipating it for months, the reality was surprisingly lackluster. She pulled back from Lex and wished him a good night.

When he had gone, she plopped down on the sofa, put her feet on the coffee table, and wondered how she would deal with Clark tomorrow. Meanwhile, she decided to discontinue the whole dating game. She'd always suspected that pursuing Superman was pointless, and her date with Clark had been an eye-opening experience. She would invent some kind of explanation to assuage Clark about Lex and forget the whole Superman thing. Her chances of winning the raffle were miniscule anyway. Even smaller, probably…she'd never won anything that relied on luck.

***

Clark hadn't come in yet. Lois had been debating how to explain her date with Lex to him for hours. The truth was definitely out of the question. A man would not appreciate knowing that he was part of a science project. There had to be a plausible lie that would soothe his male ego, but at the moment, nothing usable presented itself.

Her thoughts were interrupted by the ringing phone on her desk. The voice on the other end of the receiver was definitely not Clark's.

"Miss Lane? I have some information about Superman that might interest you."

"Sure. Do you know how many calls I get per week, claiming to have the inside scoop on him? Call the Tattler. Unless you're reporting that Superman was cloned from Elvis' twin brother? That was already covered in their last issue."

"But I really do know his secret identity. See, last night I was drinking with this guy at the Fifth Street Pub, and after we'd had a few shots, he admitted that he was really Superman. By day, he's an accountant, and not even his wife suspects him."

"Did you see him fly? Did he set anything on fire with his vision?"

"No, but he could flatten a beer can with his bare hand."

"Sorry, I've got another call."

Lois tapped her pencil idly on her desk. The crank call made her think about Superman having a secret identity. That was one thing she was convinced had to be true. What kind of disguise would he take? Or maybe he just lived his life in some remote village where no one knew much about him. She forced her mind back to work. Not much was happening news-wise. She checked her email again. Nothing. Looking around again for some sign of Clark, she decided the coast was clear to check his messages. She had learned his password by looking over his shoulder regularly. Well, they were partners, after all. What could it hurt? She found a message he had sent to himself from his home computer at two a.m. It was cryptically brief. "S + B bldg. bsmt."

S+B building basement? Lois checked a city map and eventually located the old Simmons and Baker sewing factory in the industrial section of town. Clark must have smelled a story, so it would make sense to just head over there. She grabbed her purse and stopped by Perry's office door.

"Got a lead on a story, chief. I'm going to go check it out."

"Where's Kent? Is he going with you?"

"He had some other leads. He'll probably meet me there."

Clark was stepping off the elevator as she got on.

"Morning, Lois. How was your dinner last night?"

"Delightful. Lex is a fascinating conversationalist. He quoted poetry to me. See you later, Clark."

The elevator door closed, shutting off her vision of the aggrieved look on Clark's face. Why had she been so curt with him? When the alarm had gone off the morning after her date with him, her second thoughts had begun. Whatever had possessed her to throw herself so foolishly into the arms of her partner? Had someone sprayed her with pheromones again? She needed time to put her date with both him and Lex into perspective, weighing the merits of each objectively, and she needed some space to do it because every time she saw Clark, memories of kissing him threatened her objectivity.

The sports editor intercepted Clark at the coffee table. There was a rumor that the Metropolis Chieftain's coach was about to be fired, and the editor was pleased to have found someone new to discuss the pros and cons of that issue. Clark didn't mind. A good football discussion was a welcome diversion from the fickleness of Lois Lane. Fifteen minutes passed before they saw Perry standing in the door of his office and figured they'd better get back to work.

Perry was the next to divert him. "Get in here, Clark. I want to talk to you about a follow-up to that killer nurse story. How many of these self-styled angels of mercy have there been, nationally? Sit down and let's pick our brains. I smell a series."

Sometimes the reporter in Perry longed to emerge, and when that happened, he wrote his stories vicariously through Clark and Lois. It was half an hour later when Clark left the office and returned to his desk.

Lois hadn't come back yet. Where had she run off to, he wondered? Weren't they supposed to be partners? Or were they maybe something more, he thought, remembering her impassioned response to him the night of their dinner date? He sat down to check his messages. His voice mail included nothing unusual but was time-consuming to listen to. Super speed was worthless there. Finally, he checked his email. That's odd, he thought. I left a clean inbox yesterday, and now it shows six new messages with one already read. But I haven't read any yet.

"Jimmy, have you seen Lois?"

"She was working at her computer last I looked."

"Thanks."

Clark noticed her screensaver, Superman's flowing cape. On a hunch, he walked over to her monitor and hit a key. A list of his own messages appeared, including a highlighted message he had sent himself last night after flying over the city. The old Simmons and Baker factory had smelled strange to him, so he flew in closer to x-ray the building. The basement was acting as a storage depot for some high- powered assault weapons and a cache of illegal drugs. There could be some legal explanation for it, and things had looked as though they hadn't been touched in a while. Maybe the police were already involved, maybe even using it for temporary storage of evidence. He had decided to investigate it as Clark Kent. But what if something illegal was going on? Lois could be walking into trouble again.

"Jimmy, if Perry asks, I'm following up some of the leads he gave me."

Clark was gone before Jimmy could answer. Superman headed to the old factory.

***

Getting into the building presented only a minor challenge for Lois. The doors and lower windows had been boarded up, but the transom above the door had no glass in it anymore. She had to climb up on some old trash barrels to reach it but managed to wiggle through it once she reached it.

The inside smelled of dead animals and mildew. She had a flashlight along and was glad she did because it was a cloudy day, and the remaining windows were so dirty that they allowed scant light to show through. After a few minutes exploration, she found a door that was cobweb-free. It had obviously been used recently. The lock was easily opened with a credit card. It led to a stairway.

Lois didn't get to explore much farther because a hand came around her from behind, and she was shoved against a pole, her mouth covered with a gag, her hands tied behind the pole, and her flashlight gone.

Muffled voices spoke at a distance. She strained to see where they were coming from but could get only a glimpse of faint light in her peripheral vision. Then the voices and the light disappeared. She struggled with the bonds tying her hands. Her ankles were also bound to the pole. Whatever they had used to tie her up was soft, but she couldn't budge it.

Great, she thought. I can't yell for Superman, no one knows where I've gone, and I can't wriggle free. To top it off, she'd had to park her car so far away that it would be a long time till anyone tracked her here. It was tempting to cry, but she refused to give in to the urge.

The light of a flashlight glimmered toward her. They've probably come back to finish me off, she thought.

"Well, well. Maybe I should take advantage of this moment before I rescue you. It's not often I get a chance to talk when you can't answer back."

Her eyes threw daggers at her partner, even as relief flooded her at the sight of him. She tried to speak through the gag, but it was useless.

"Let's see now. Somehow you accessed my email, decided to steal a story I was working on, and pigheadedly went off on your own into who-knew-what kind of danger." He walked behind her to examine her bindings.

"Looks like they used fabric remnants from the days when this was a sewing factory." He removed her gag.

"Clark Kent, untie me immediately. And stuff a sock in it, mister. You're well aware of the methods I use to get story leads. You're just bent out of shape because I had dinner with Lex last night. Anyway, don't you think we ought to find out what's going on in there?"

"Superman came here with me. By now, he's taken the men who tied you up to the police, and before long they should be out here to collect the arsenal of assault rifles stored over there."

"Leaving you to rescue me. Which you're taking your good old time doing."

He stood in front of her, making no move toward untying her.

"I'm just curious, Lois. How do Lex and I compare? He's rich; I'm still paying off college loans. He owns a television station; I write for a newspaper. But, did he think you were the most beautiful woman he'd ever sat across a table from? Did he listen to you talk, enchanted by every word? Did he have a hard time sleeping, remembering how it felt to kiss you?"

She braced herself, sure that he was going to kiss her now, but instead he reached around behind her, so close that she could feel his body heat, and untied her hands. When her hands were free, he pulled them forward and rubbed his hands over them.

"Are you okay? I can hear your heart racing." Now he felt bad for delaying her release.

"You can?" she asked breathlessly. He was still only inches away from her, and he was right. She could feel her pulse pounding rapidly, but it wasn't fear of the situation. Well, it was, but not the situation he thought.

"If anything happened to you…" His anguished voice made her briefly wish that she wasn't so prone to recklessness, but if he wanted her, he'd have to learn to deal with it. She put a finger to his lips.

"Do you wish I'd change? Be more cautious? Less rash?"

"No," he replied with resignation.

She tilted his face toward hers and kissed him. Without a flashy costume or his own jet, he had insinuated his way into her heart. Their kiss was the kiss of two people who were just happy to be together.

The quiet scurrying of feet intruded.

"Clark. Tell me that's not rats."

He quickly untied her ankles and lifted her in his arms.

"Come on. You hold the flashlight and guide us out of here. There are quite a few furry friends around."

They exited through the door whose bolt had now been broken off.

"Where's your car, Clark?"

"I came with Superman. Guess I'll need a lift back to the Planet."

The subject of her dates did not come up again as they drove back, but it was on both of their minds. Entering the newsroom, they found everyone gathered around the television monitor.

"What's going on?" she asked Jimmy.

"Some group held a raffle to win a date with Superman. One thousand dollars a pop! Can you believe it? Who would pay that kind of money for a date? Even with Superman! Listen, they're about to announce the winner."

A representative of the Business Women appeared on the screen, speaking into a microphone held by the TV reporter.

"The Business Women of Metropolis are happy to announce that, thanks to Superman, we've raised one million dollars for our scholarship fund. We never imagined that so many women would purchase a ticket. Thank you, Superman, and thanks to all the women who paid one thousand dollars for a chance. Now, our vice-president will pull a number from the barrel, and the lucky winner can call us at the phone number on the screen. She held up a ticket and read a series of numbers."

Jimmy noticed Lois rummaging through her purse and pulling out a ticket. She looked at it, using all her poker skills to hide any emotion it inspired, and stuffed it back in her purse.

"Lois, you gotta be kidding. Don't tell me you bought one of those tickets!"

She looked around, hoping no one had overheard him, but saw several people looking at her, including Clark.

"Of course not, Jimmy. I was just looking for something to write that phone number on. I thought I'd call and get the name of the winner so I could do a story on her."

Everyone seemed to buy this explanation, and the crowd wandered off except Clark.

"Lois, you did buy a ticket didn't you?"

"It's a good cause, Clark. In fact, I'm a member of BWM…just not active anymore. I was a scholarship winner myself once."

"You didn't win the date with Superman, did you?" he asked suspiciously.

"Clark, I win at Scrabble. I win at pinochle. I've won spelling bees and essay contests. But if it requires luck over skill, you can generally count me out."

He eyed her skeptically. "You know, if you've won a date with Superman, he WILL tell me."

She grabbed his arm and guided him into the conference room.

"Look, let's get something straight. We had a wonderful evening together. We shared some incredible kisses. We're definitely more than best friends. But we have made no commitments. Unless and until we do, I can date Lex or Superman or Jimmy, for that matter, if I so choose."

"Lois, I'm not trying to crowd you. You know how I feel about you. Go ahead and do what you want. I can't say I'm eager to hear the details, but I don't plan to go into a jealous rage either. In fact, maybe you've got the right idea. Commitments shouldn't be made until both parties are sure there's nothing they've missed. So I should probably date some other people myself."

"Exactly," she said with false conviction. "I'm sure there are plenty of women right here at the Planet who would love to go out with you."

"Okay then. We're in complete agreement. More than friends, only phase one. But will you save Saturday night for me?"

"I'll look forward to it."

They each left the room deep in thought. Clark was planning the perfect date for Saturday, wondering if Lois had really won the date with Superman, and Lois had a call to make.

***

Ellie Ziegler explained that the time of the date with Superman would be contingent on his schedule. He hoped to be available on Friday night. Lois would be contacted if any change was necessary and should be assured that he would make every effort to be there.

As the weekend approached, she wasn't sure which date she looked forward to more. An actual date with Superman might be strange. She had waited so long for this moment, dreaming of spending a romantic evening with him. If only it had happened a week ago…before a certain Kansas farm boy had swept her off her feet. Thoughts of Superman had lately taken a back seat to those of Clark Kent, as much as she hated to admit it. At least, she would be able to complete her dating experiment.

At six p.m., Ralph stopped by her desk. "Hey, a bunch of us are meeting at the Cadillac Lounge around eight."

Kelly O'Connell joined him. "Yeah, the Buckskin Boilers are there tonight." Seeing Lois' blank expression, she elaborated. "They were on Conan O'Brien last week? They play that Texas honky-tonk that's so much fun to dance to? Everybody dresses western or rockabilly at their shows?"

"That sounds like a great offer, but I think I'd fall asleep in my drink. Maybe some other time."

"How 'bout you, Clark?" Kelly asked hopefully.

Lois was stunned to hear him say, "I do a pretty mean Texas two-step. I might be late, so save me a seat."

Kelly ran a hand up his arm as she replied, "You can share my seat if there aren't any left. See you later. Sorry you can't make it, Lois."

When Kelly and Ralph were gone, she looked at Clark. "Since when do you do a 'mean Texas two-step'?"

"Since numerous visits to my mom's cousins near San Antonio."

"Clark, the cowboy. What will I find out about you next?"

"Lois, I can assure you there's still plenty you don't know about me. Just don't forget tomorrow night. I'll pick you up at six-thirty. Bring a sweater and wear shoes you can walk in."

He rejoined the waiting group, and she watched him go. She refused to be jealous of a vapid, underfed, third-rate reporter like Kelly. Still, her heart was foolishly longing to spend the evening dancing to twangy, redneck music with Clark. It was one thing to wish she were with Clark when she had a date with Lex, but a very different thing to wish it when her date was Superman.

***

Superman arrived only twelve minutes after the scheduled time of seven o'clock. Making his usual entrance, he arrived through the window, apologizing for the time.

"You're fine. Dinner hasn't arrived yet. Sit down. Do you drink wine?"

He joined her on the sofa. "Not in public. But privately, sure."

"To you, Superman." She raised her glass. "A man who found a way to raise a million dollars in scholarship money."

"I would have participated in this fundraising scheme a lot more eagerly if I had known the winner would be you, Lois."

She felt her face redden. This man still wielded plenty of power over her emotions.

The doorbell rang, and soon they were seated before a sumptuous meal from Chez Rene. Lois knew the prices on the menu all too well. This meal came from the column of entrees she hadn't even considered ordering for Clark or Lex.

"You know, you didn't have to come here wearing the red and blue suit. I bet there are other clothes you're more comfortable in."

"First, Lois, I have to ask you if we're on the record or off? Ellie told me you didn't want anyone to know that you won the raffle, so I thought maybe you would use it as a chance for an exclusive interview. I thought maybe Perry put you up to buying a ticket."

"No, it's not that at all. I was once a BWM scholarship winner. I always support their fundraisers. I never expected to actually win, but I can't say I wasn't pleased that I did. Please consider this conversation strictly between friends tonight."

"In that case, the answer is jeans and a flannel shirt. Unfortunately, I couldn't fly over here in those."

She tried hard to picture him in those clothes but the mental image kept morphing into Clark somehow. Clark was haunting her thoughts entirely too much.

"I've been thinking more and more that there's a side of you the rest of us don't know. There have to be times when you just want to sit down and watch TV or go fishing or spend time with friends."

"You're right. And once in a while, I do get to do all three of those things."

"I get some really crazy phone calls about you. Apparently the receptionist has been told to connect all Superman- related callers to me. You're the subject of quite a few urban legends. Many of them suggest that you have a secret identity, and I have to admit that I suspect you really do."

"I'm holding you to your promise that this is off the record. Actually, I do have a life with another name. I have family and friends and a career. Being Superman is really more of a part time job. Sometimes I catch sight of myself in this outfit and think, 'who is that guy?'"

"A family? Like a wife? Kids?"

With wry amusement, Clark watched her attempt to say those words with equanimity. He decided to quickly ease her mind. "I was thinking of my parents. I've definitely never been married."

"Oh", she said, trying to hide her obvious relief. "So you have a career? It must be hard to hold down a regular job and still run off to perform super feats whenever you're needed."

"You don't know the half of it. It's hard to have even one uninterrupted hour."

She tried to act casual as she asked her next question. "Have I ever met you under your other identity?"

He stiffened to alert posture. "Sorry, Lois. I was afraid this would happen. Someone's getting mugged. Muggings usually don't take long. I'll be back by the time coffee is ready."

Lois was reminded of Clark disappearing the other night to feed the parking meter. Gee, maybe Clark moonlighted as a superhero, too. She giggled. The notion was pretty preposterous.

True to his word, Superman appeared in the kitchen in time to help her carry coffee and dessert to the table. This time, dessert was a crme brulee prepared by Chez Rene.

"Superman, I have to ask you my question again. I was thinking about it while you were gone, and almost wondered if you flew off to avoid answering me. Do I know you as someone else, or not?"

"I promise to answer that before the evening is over, Lois, but first, I'm going to ask you a question, and I hope you won't get mad."

"Oh, please, I've asked you so many questions, I'd say it's your turn."

"You've now had similar dates with Clark, Lex, and me. Could it possibly be a coincidence, or is there something more going on?"

"You and Clark do talk, don't you? That's why I hesitate to tell you the truth. I'm not sure I want him to even know I spent this evening with you."

"Believe me, Lois, he figured out that you had won the raffle seconds after you did."

"Okay, so I have to assume anything I tell you could be told to Clark?" He didn't disagree. She made a decision. "Well, I was going to have to tell him something eventually anyhow. I guess it might as well be the truth."

"I sat here by myself one Friday night a couple of weeks ago, feeling sorry for myself because I was alone. The only thing in my refrigerator was some chocolate ice cream and a bottle of Bailey's. They made a great combination, and half an hour later I was composing a self-absorbed letter to an advice column."

She sent a stern look at him as he began to grin. "A little more sympathy, if you please. Anyway, she suggested that I conduct an experiment. I should set up dates with all the men I was interested in and try to keep all factors constant except for the men themselves. So I did."

"And how have we all fared? I'm assuming there were only three of us?"

His amused tone of voice was reminding her more and more of Clark. She chose to ignore his second question.

"How have you fared?" She thought for a minute. "Well, of course, this date's not really over yet, but I can compare Lex and Clark. IF you promise not to tell Clark what I said."

"I promise I will never repeat a word of this to anyone." He settled back in his chair contentedly awaiting her words, but before she could begin, he stood with that distracted look again. "You know, my mother told me there would be easier career choices than this. This should be another quick one, just a convenience store robbery, I think. Give me three minutes."

He flew off again, and she decided to brush her teeth and freshen up in the bathroom. Her mind raced, deciding what she could dare to tell him when he returned. Talking to him was too easy, like an old friend. Yes, she thought, that's it! I'm over Superman. Now I just see him as a good friend, and that is an infinitely more sensible direction for our future relationship.

She heard the familiar whoosh, felt the breeze he had created even as she walked down the hall, and walked into the room to find him examining a piece of paper.

"Sorry, Lois, this blew from somewhere when I flew into your apartment."

He handed it to her and she recognized her list of judging criteria for her dates. Blushing, she took it from him.

"Did you look at this?"

"I didn't really mean to. When you can read with super speed, it's hard not to read everything you see."

"Well, okay then. Let's just go down this list."

"You don't have to, Lois. Just forget I saw it." He looked embarrassed.

"No. No, I was going to tell you some of this anyway. So here goes. We'll start with appearance. Lex was dressed in an expensive suit and looked quite dashing. Clark was more casual, but extremely appealing. You, of course, are wearing the standard red/blue caped ensemble, which always works well for you. Next: conversational skills. Lex impressed me by quoting poetry and sharing his philosophies, but Clark was more fun. And you? I'm finding myself pouring my heart out to you. Who would have thought? Next: thoughtfulness. Clark helped me clear the table and clean up the kitchen. Lex smoked a cigar while I worked. You? Helpful, and even willing to be interviewed! But, let's move on to the judging category that's underlined…chemistry. How were those crucial goodnight kisses? Do you want to hear about that?" Her attitude dared him to do so.

"Tell me whatever you think I should know." He knew he was on thin ice, but the blue tights sometimes made him behave rashly.

"Well, then…when Lex kissed me I was peeking at the clock with one eye, wondering how long it would take me to clean everything up and get to bed. Kissing Clark was…surprising."

She paused, wondering what had possessed her to pour all this out to him. Strangely, she realized that her feelings toward him and Clark had been reversed. Superman had become her friend and Clark the object of her desire. Her friend was waiting, looking at her curiously.

"Oh…one thing more! Lex was here all evening. Clark had to run out to put money in the meter. He runs off a lot. I'm worried about him, Superman. Has he got some medical condition he's hiding? Maybe something embarrassing? Tell him he could trust me, if that's the case."

"Gee, Lois, I'm not aware of Clark having a medical problem. As far as I know he's completely healthy. But, you're the one with award-winning journalist's instincts. So what do I know?"

He stood up.

"It's been a great evening. The meal was delicious and my date was brilliant and gorgeous. I'll have to thank Ellie for talking me into doing this. I better get going now. It's time for my nightly cruise over the city."

"Goodnight, Superman."

He hesitated before stepping onto the window ledge. "I almost left before you could complete your test."

Moving toward a puzzled Lois, he wrapped his cape around her, pulling her into the power of his aura, and her body molded to his. Their eyes locked until the intensity of his gaze became so overwhelming that she had to close her eyes to escape being absorbed by it. The feel of his powerful body against hers was exquisite torment, but when at last his mouth found hers, a tremor went through her that was at least an eight on the Richter scale. This was only the second time Superman had initiated a kiss with her. His kisses were like him, commanding and masterful. His strong hands moved over her back, pressing her even closer against him as the cape cocooned them. When he finally let her go, she could barely stand.

He seemed a little shaken, too, she noticed with pleasure.

"So, Lois, how will that compare in the ratings?"

"Super," was the only thing she could think of to say. He was about to fly off when she remembered something. "Wait! You never did answer MY question."

"Yes."

He grinned and flew off, leaving her puzzling. She watched him until he was out of view. So, yes, she knew him as someone else. He must only be a passing acquaintance, or surely she would have recognized him. She filed it in the back of her mind and mentally moved on. Hmmph! That kiss had shot holes in her Superman-is-my-new-pal theory. Why did he have to go and complicate everything just when she thought she had it all figured out?

***

Flying a quick surveillance over the city, Clark was wondering why he had found it necessary to compete with himself for Lois' affections. She was finally falling for Clark, but he couldn't be satisfied with that. He'd had to prove that Superman still had the power to make her weak in the knees. It had given him perverse pleasure to realize that she loved both sides of him. Once she figured it all out, he would be in serious trouble. Would that kiss have been worth it? He grinned. Absolutely!

***

At eleven p.m., Lois looked at the clock, feeling restless and decided to head over to the Cadillac Lounge. She needed to see Clark. These bands never got started until late, so everybody was sure to still be there. She pulled on a soft pink v-neck sweater, jeans, and a pair of high- heeled boots. Deciding to call a cab so she could have a couple of drinks, she arrived at the Lounge, paid the cover charge, and walked into the smoky room. The band was on a break, but she soon saw the Planet gang squeezed around a table in the corner.

Stiffening her resolve, Lois walked over. Kelly and her friend Jena could barely hide their disappointment at her arrival. Clark, however, looked pleased to see her and managed to get up and offer her his seat.

"I'm headed to the bar. What can I get you?"

"Look, Clark, if I'm intruding…"

"Lois, I'm trying to be sociable. We never go out with the rest of the staff, and we're getting a reputation for being stuck up."

She looked at the group. Most of their names escaped her, and she hoped she wouldn't be expected to make small talk. Her mind began racing for ways to get Clark alone.

"Rum and diet coke, then."

She sat down next to Kelly, determined to be part of the gang.

"I'm surprised Clark hasn't run off someplace yet. He usually has to return a video or something just when things are getting good," she observed.

"Actually," Kelly said, "he's only been here a little while."

"You know," Kelly said, "Jena and I were talking about the way he disappears all the time, even at work." She lowered her voice. "We thought he might have a coke habit or something. Except, he looks too good…too healthy." The way she said 'healthy' made Lois want to smack her. The word had never sounded so x-rated.

Clark returned with her drink and squeezed in next to her. Someone had just put money in the jukebox to play "Love Shack", and that seemed to be a signal for the Cadillac Lounge regulars to get up and dance. Lois and Clark begged off and found themselves alone in the booth.

"How was your evening, Lois?"

Something in his expression made her suspicious. "You know don't you?"

He looked at her innocently. "Know what?"

"Come on, Clark, do you know or not?"

"Do I know why you decided to join us tonight? Do I know why Superman borrowed my cologne this evening? I can speculate."

"Superman borrowed your cologne?"

"Are you surprised? I guess he wanted to smell good for his big date. Didn't you recognize the scent"?

"Actually, I am surprised. It's not like he feels anything for me. I was just the woman who won a small chunk of his time."

"Is that what you think?"

"Well, he doesn't feel anything for me, does he?"

"Lois, Superman feels for you exactly the way I do."

The group came back to the table, laughing and talking. Lois sat pondering Clark's last statement. What DID Clark feel for her? He'd implied that he loved her, but he hadn't really said it. How could he love her when he was hiding some big secret from her…when he couldn't trust her enough to tell her what it was? And what did he mean about Superman feeling exactly the same way? If he loved her himself, why would he want her to think that his rival loved her, too? The whole thing was mind-boggling, but she was determined to get some answers before this night was over.

An announcement was made that the Buckskin Boilers were about to take the stage again. Soon the infectious blend of Texas swing, honky-tonk, and rock-and-roll filled the room. Clark stood up and offered his hand to her, grinning. Suddenly she noticed how good he looked in jeans, a blue denim shirt, and cowboy boots.

"Come on, I want to prove my two-stepping abilities to you."

"It's fine for you to show off. I'm afraid I didn't have the advantage of a cowboy cousin. I'll make a fool of myself out there."

"Lois, trust me. I'll lead; you'll follow. I know that's an alien concept to you, but just try it once."

Before she could form a scathing reply, Kelly jumped up.

"I'm game, Clark. Teach me."

Clark looked back at Lois helplessly as Kelly pulled him to the dance floor. Lois forced herself to smile as she watched the two of them. It was obvious that Kelly had done this before because by the second chorus of the song, 'You Only Want the Ones that Don't Want You', the two of them were doing dips and spins that made Lois want to scream. After what seemed an eternity, they returned to the table, Kelly giggling.

'Waltz Across Texas with You' started up, and this time Clark pulled Lois to her feet before she could object.

"I know you can waltz. Western waltzing isn't much different than the ballroom version."

He kept her on the floor for the next five songs, and by the end of the set, she realized that she was enjoying herself immensely. She was disappointed when the band announced a fifteen-minute break.

Their attention was caught by raised voices near the bar.

"What did I tell you about starin' at my woman, you little…"

It only took a moment to see that the accused man was Jimmy. His accuser had eight inches and at least a hundred pounds on him and appeared to be very drunk. As his arm was about to land a right hook to Jimmy's jaw, Clark moved between them and intercepted the punch on his own chin. Watching the scene unfold, Lois noticed that Clark's reaction to the punch was delayed. It was as if he didn't register the pain immediately. Or maybe he hadn't flinched in a normal way. She tried to replay the scene in her mind, but all she was sure of was that something wasn't quite right.

Meanwhile, Clark had hoisted the drunk up by the neck and was holding him against the wall, inches off the floor. The bouncer quickly intervened and showed the drunk, who was gingerly feeling his neck, out the door.

"Thanks, C.K. That guy's wife is old enough to be my mother. I was just trying to get a beer."

Walking back to Lois, Clark took her elbow and said, "You want to go out back for some fresh air?"

"Sure."

They stood against the fence in the back courtyard, looking out toward the river below. Clark put his arm over her shoulder but quickly withdrew it.

"Lois, I think I left the iron on in my apartment. I'll be right back."

He was gone before she could protest or even offer to go with him. She decided to just stay right there, watching the lights of Nightclub Row reflect on the river. It gave her a chance to do some reflecting of her own. Fact: she had fun with Clark. Fact: seeing him with another woman made her jealous. Fact: Clark was the man she wanted. Unwanted fact: something weird was up with him, and unless she found out what it was, it was going to throw a monkey wrench into any possible relationship.

It seemed like only a few minutes had elapsed when she felt a strong arm around her shoulders again. She found herself unconsciously nestling in against him. It took willpower to force the issue they had to confront.

"Kelly and Jena think you have a cocaine habit. That's their explanation for why you run off so often."

"Do you agree?"

"Of course not, Clark. But I am worried about you. I even talked to Superman about it tonight. He pointed out that I'm an investigative reporter. So, I'll start by going straight to the source and asking." She held an imaginary microphone toward his mouth. "Mr. Kent, there's been public speculation about your frequent disappearances. Some have suggested drugs. Others say you have a medical condition you're hiding. Care to comment?"

"For the record, Miss Lane, I have never taken any drug in my life, not even an aspirin. As for my health, I occasionally turn green when I see you with another man. Is that considered a condition? Because I don't think I hide it very well, if it is."

"Oh, Clark," she said wearily. "You don't make this easy. Yes, I had three dates this week. Don't pretend you don't know all about them. What you don't know is that I wrote a letter to "Dear Tabby" and she suggested it." She looked up at him with shining eyes. "See, I was blind. You have to admit Lex and Superman are enough to dazzle any woman. But Tabby was right. Putting the three of you into a situation where you all just had to be yourselves, I was able to see the real man. And now I know who I want to be with."

He dared to look hopeful, but she went on. "I saw Lex without his limo or his servants or any of the others tools of power he surrounds himself with. I should have realized that you don't get to be where he is without a large amount of ego and self-absorption. And I realized that Superman needs me to be a friend more than he needs a girlfriend. I won't lie and say I'm not attracted to him, but what normal woman wouldn't be? It's like having a crush on Tom Cruise or someone. His life is just too complicated to take on one more responsibility, regardless of your earlier cryptic remark about his feelings for me. Do you know he claims I know him as someone other than Superman? Do you know who he is? Have you been holding out on me?"

"Hold on, Lois, one thing at a time. Are you saying that the only reason you would choose me over Superman is because you don't believe he wants you?"

She looked at him again with those eyes, sparkling with promise, and his body was reacting in ways he never knew it was capable of. His heart was racing, his temperature was rising, and he had a strange feeling inside.

"I'll probably never understand my feelings for Superman, but I understand what I feel for you. When I finally allowed myself to really look at you, I was stunned. You know, we look at people and see only what we expect to see. I made a superficial judgment of you when we first met, and I refused to ever look past that first impression. Until our dinner…"

Lois stopped, recognizing the look on Clark's face and waiting for him to excuse himself, interested to hear what he would invent this time.

"Wow, look at the time. I promised my mother I'd call her. Hold that last thought."

He headed through the door, and rushing to keep up with him, Lois followed. Superman was right. She was an investigative journalist, so it was about time she got to the bottom of this.

It wasn't easy to keep him in sight, but she thought she saw him run into the men's room. Okay, she thought, I was right. Something bad is going on in there. Without further consideration of the consequences, she barged into the men's lavatory, expecting to see a sick Clark injecting insulin or kneeling over a toilet. Instead, she was almost relieved to see an empty room, no feet visible in the stall, but a window was wide open, letting in a chilly breeze. Looking out, she had a clear view of the park across the street from this side of the building. Overturning the trashcan, she hoisted herself up to climb out the window and ran across the street.

She heard voices behind some bushes not too far away. Keeping in the shadows, she edged closer until she could see Superman kneeling over a prone figure. A man stood, handcuffed to a tree by what appeared to be a belt. A squad car arrived, and the officer got out and spoke to Superman. He picked up the injured person, a woman, and flew off while the police arrested the cuffed man and put him in their squad car. Lois stayed quietly in the shadows by an old tree. Where could Clark have gone? She was about to leave when Superman touched down in a stand of hedges not far from her. He looked toward her.

"Lois?"

She walked toward him. "What happened?"

"Attempted rape. What are you doing out here?"

"You smell like smoke." Ignoring his question, she sniffed the edge of his cape. "No. It must be me." She sniffed her sleeve. "Ah, essence of bar."

He sat down on a bench nearby, hidden from the street in a cove of trees. "Smoky bars aren't your usual style, are they?"

Sitting next to him, she agreed. "I only came to see Clark. Don't you get tired, Superman? You said you have another life. How can you do it?"

Elbows on his knees, he leaned his head on his hands tiredly. "Sometimes I ask myself that same question."

Her heart went out to him. She got up to stand behind him, and sympathetically, her fingers massaged his neck. As she did so she noticed the strong smell of cigarette smoke again. Leaning forward, she realized the smell was coming from his hair. A crazy notion came to her.

"Superman, do you smoke?"

"Of course not, Lois."

She continued to rub his neck and shoulders, and she could tell he was enjoying it.

"I came out here to look for Clark. You haven't seen him have you?"

"Why? Didn't he say where he was going?"

"Yeah, but I didn't really buy it. You remember my theory about his disappearances. I'm thinking about calling his mom to find out if she'd like me to keep an eye on him. Whatever his problem is, it must worry her."

He was leaning back into the pleasure of her hands massaging the tension out of his neck and shoulders.

"I'm surprised you can feel this."

"I learned when I was a kid that I could kind of relax my aura if I wanted to feel things more normally."

"Oh! That's good!" Her hands began to work on his scalp, working through his slicked-back hair, and a sigh of pleasure escaped him. "You know, Clark said something odd tonight. He told me that he feels the same way about me that you do."

"I guess he meant that we both think of you as one of our closest friends."

"Really? Funny that two of my closest friends kiss me with such… I'm searching for the right words…with such 'unbridled passion.' Yeah, I think that describes it."

He still hadn't spoken, but she could feel the tension returning to his shoulders.

"So, since you know that I've been conducting a little comparison test to help me decide who is the right man for me, I need to know. Clark and Lex have both made it pretty clear how they feel about me. You're the only one I'm not sure of. How do you feel about me, Superman?"

"Don't do this to me, Lois," he groaned as her fingers worked their way around his ears and over his temples. "You know what a mess my life is. How could I have a girlfriend? Every crook in Metropolis would target you to get to me."

"They already do."

She leaned against the back of his head as her hands moved down the muscles of his chest. In a flash, he grabbed her and lifted her over the top of the bench and onto his lap. Her arms went around his neck as he bent her over his arm to kiss her. The passion between them raged like a bonfire as his free hand cradled her face. Finally he broke it off, removing her arms from his neck and lifting her to stand on her feet in front of him.

"When I'm with you every rational thought abandons me. I've got to get out of here before someone sees us together. There are at least ten reasons why this is wrong."

"If you're worried about Clark finding us, you don't need to. I haven't made any commitment to him, and besides, he doesn't seem concerned about your feelings for me."

"I've got to go, Lois. I apologize for leading you on the way I have, but you have to understand that there just can't be any 'us'. Obviously, I care a lot about you, but I just can't indulge those feelings. It wouldn't be safe for you. I really have to go."

He flew off, and she stood thinking. Sinking to the bench, pondering the events of the past few hours, she wasn't surprised to hear Clark's voice a few seconds later.

"Lois, what are you doing here? I've been looking all over for you. This park isn't safe at night."

He came and sat beside her on the bench.

"I wasn't alone. Superman was here with me. You know, Clark, I would think you'd resent the way he feels about me."

"Why? Why should I be surprised that any man would want you? You're beautiful, smart, good company, independent, successful…I could go on. From the first day I met you, I knew that getting you to choose me over all the rest of the men who wanted you would be a challenge. Now my rivals are two of the city's most eligible bachelors. Am I giving up? Not on your life."

She grabbed his hand, looking into his eyes.

"Good. Don't give up." In a soft, earnest voice, she said, "This is the most fun I've ever had. Don't make me decide yet."

"Could I take you home, or did you drive?"

"Just help me hail a cab. I need some time alone to think."

"I forgot to tell you how great you look in those jeans and that sweater."

"You fill out your jeans pretty well yourself, Mr. Kent. In fact, you look good in just about everything. You could probably wear Superman's tights and look almost as good as he does."

She turned her head to hide her smug reaction to the look on his face. As the cab pulled up to the curb, he opened the door and helped her into it, brushing her lips with his before he closed the door. I've got to get to Kansas to talk to my mom, he thought. This situation is getting out of hand. Should I tell her? Shouldn't I tell her? I've got to do something before she drives me crazy.

Lois was enjoying doing just that…driving him crazy. She was sure that she had figured out his secret at last. In fact, she couldn't believe it had escaped her so long. But it was the interchangeable way she'd been feeling about Clark and Superman lately that had pushed her toward the discovery. He must be going in circles figuring out how to solve the problem of being his own rival for her affections. Well, let him stew! If he really loved her, he would trust her enough to share his secret. Didn't he know her well enough by now to know she wouldn't use the information as a news scoop?

***

The phone was blinking with several messages. They were all from Lex, and she let out a frustrated expletive. She hadn't yet made it clear to him that she wasn't interested in seeing him anymore. Just because she had rehearsed the conversation in her head didn't mean Lex had heard her. Toying with Clark/Superman was going to be a pleasure. Breaking things off with Lex was not going to be pretty. He wasn't a man accustomed to being denied anything he wanted.

She turned on the television news recap.

"Later on News Roundup, we'll show you a sneak preview of the upcoming interviews with Metropolis' most eligible bachelors as chosen by the readers of Metro Magazine."

That should be interesting, she thought. As she finished brushing her teeth and washing her face, she walked out of the bathroom into her bedroom, untying the belt of her robe. A familiar rap at the window startled her. She walked into the living room to let him in.

"It's a little late, Superman."

"Sorry. Your light was on. I won't keep you up, Lois. I just came to apologize for the way I acted tonight."

"What did you do that needs an apology? Nothing."

"Lois, you know what I mean. I lead you on and then push you away. My only excuse it that I've been burning the candle at both ends lately, and I guess the stress got to me. I witness so many examples of selfishness and the strong preying on the weak. By the time I got to that poor woman tonight, she'd already been subjected to things that will haunt her all her life."

"But you do so much. Even you can't be everywhere at once."

"But if I didn't selfishly try to lead a semblance of a normal life, I'd be able to do more."

She walked to him and put her hands on the side of his down-turned face, lifting it to look at her.

"Stop doing this to yourself. Policemen rest. Firefighters rest. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff rests. They have private lives, families, and hobbies to renew their spirits. You may have super powers, but you're still a man. You have a right to take time for yourself. You have a duty to take time for yourself. Otherwise, you'll burn out in a few years, or even less."

His hands covered hers and moved them to his mouth to kiss.

"How could I not love you?"

Her voice trembled as she replied, "You love me?"

"I can't imagine trying to have a relationship with any woman but you."

"You know how long I've loved you."

"Lois…"

"And then the other night, I discovered I loved Clark, too."

"Lois…" he groaned.

"I thought it would be fun to watch you squirm, competing against yourself for my affections, but you've got enough to worry about. I love you, Clark Superman Kent, even if you didn't trust me enough to tell me the truth."

"My mom suspected that you might know."

"You've been home to discuss this with her already? Well, good! Because Martha's a smart woman. Did she tell you to come here tonight?"

"She told me to get busy and tell you my secret. I was the one that had to see you one more time tonight. How exactly did you figure it out?"

"Superman's hair smelled like smoke…like cigarette smoke from a nightclub. Just like I smelled from sitting in the Cadillac Lounge. Before that, I was starting to feel a little too comfortable with Superman, more like I felt with Clark. Then when you made that remark about Superman feeling the same way about me as you did, it nagged at me like some elusive word that's on the tip of your tongue. Anyway, do you know what a relief it was to figure it out? A: you do not have an embarrassing medical problem. B: you're not doing drugs or hiding a secret wife. C: I'm not hopelessly in love with two different men at once."

"I've really been a fool, not telling you, Lois. You have to see now that it was tearing me apart, too. I wanted you to love Clark Kent, the real me, not some superhero. But Mom pointed out that I'm not just Clark Kent anymore than I'm just Superman. So I needed you to love both parts of me, and I hope you can love the reality of who I am."

"You know what I'm thinking, big guy? I'm thinking you need to be a man of fewer words and more action."

It took only a few seconds for his addled brain to understand, and he spun out of the suit and into the clothes she'd seen him in at the nightclub. Then he scooped her up and carried her to the sofa where he lay back and pulled her down on top of him. Still reeling from the thrill of watching him transform in a spinning blur, her heart was pounding even before her lips found his. This was all new…like kissing a new man. Part Kansas farm boy and part man of steel, and ooh, he did feel good beneath her.

At some point they slid off the sofa and onto the floor. Now Clark was above her, his eyes clouded with passion, and every time he touched her, a new wave of desire coursed through her body. He stretched out beside her and took her arm, turning it so that he could kiss the crook, and she was surprised by the response she felt.

"I want to kiss every inch of you someday, Lois. When you're ready."

Am I ready? She wondered. I've made so many discoveries about this man in such a few days. And yet I feel ready for anything with him.

Before she could answer, the telephone rang.

"Who would call you this late, Lois? Maybe you should get it."

They heard a voice on the answering machine, "Lois, I'm flying to Hong Kong tomorrow to meet some people. There will be several social functions while I'm there, and I want you to attend with me. Please pick up. I know you're home at this hour."

Lois got up and grabbed the phone.

"Lex, I'm really sorry. I can't tell you how flattered I am that you would want me to do this with you, but some things have changed in my life, and I won't be able to see you anymore."

Clark forced himself not to listen to what Lex was saying.

"I'm sorry you feel that way. I had hoped we could remain friends. Goodbye, Lex."

She rejoined Clark sitting on the floor with his back against the sofa. Poised to kiss him, she said, "Now, where were we?"

"Does this mean you're ready for stage two?" he asked as his fingers tangled in her hair.

"No." She kissed him. "I was thinking we'd go straight to stage three." She kissed him again.

"Stage three?" he asked when she let him up for air.

"Yeah. That's the one where we're crazy in love and don't care who knows it."

"That works for me," he said and went back to concentrating on the matter at hand.

***

Perry White looked out at his two favorite reporters from his office window. He watched as Lois came to stand behind Clark seated at his desk, both of them looking at the computer screen. He was pleased to see Lois place her hand on Clark's shoulder as she spoke to him, and Clark placed his hand over hers familiarly, allowing it to remain there for quite a few seconds before turning his head to touch his lips quickly to her fingers while Lois gazed at him adoringly.

Perry turned back to his own desk. He grinned as he remembered the day three years ago when he had received a letter of resignation from Tabitha van Heusen. He had gone down to the mailroom to discover a bag of letters addressed to her and wondered who he could give them to. It wasn't the kind of position you could post an opening for. On a whim, he had opened one of the letters seeking advice and knew immediately what advice the writer needed. He had pecked out a reply on his old electric typewriter. That weekend, he had taken the bag home, chosen a couple more letters that interested him, and his secret sideline as an advice columnist was born. The only people who knew Tabby's identity were the business manager who'd had to be informed that the original sob sister had quit, and one mailroom clerk.

And now his advice to dazed and confused Lois had sent her into the arms of the right man. It wasn't often Perry got to see such direct results from his advice. Occasionally someone did write back to thank Tabby for steering them in the right direction.

Perry felt good inside, and he began to sing, "Like a river flows, surely to the sea, darling so it goes, some things were meant to be."

Lois looked at Clark. "Do you hear something?"

Clark looked toward Perry's office. "I think Perry's singing. Some Elvis song, I'd guess."

"Oh," she said, leaning down until her mouth was near his ear. "I thought I just heard music when I was near you."

A gruff voice interrupted them.

"Lois, you'd better be whispering the name of a source to him, because the last time I looked, we had a front page with nothing on it. Now get busy, and get me some news."

THE END