By Meredith Knight <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Submitted: June 2003
Summary: Lois undertakes to water Clark's house plants while he's away… but what will she find in his apartment while she's there on her own?
This story was meant to be a little fun thing, to get my muse going again after Night Errant. Unfortunately it turned out my muse wanted to write introspection and angst — and the resulting tussle took a few months to resolve. <g> It was posted in three parts, for Wendy, Sarah and Annie's birthdays.
My heartfelt thanks to my excellent BRs, Wendy and Kathy, for their eagle eyes, unflagging support and creative input. You guys are the best. Thanks also to Hazel, for solving my ficus pronoun problem!
The characters are not mine, and no copyright infringement is intended; I just borrowed them for a little fun.
Fact or Ficus?
A birthday story by Meredith Knight
A single light was burning in Clark Kent's apartment. In the muted glow, in the middle of the living room, Lois Lane was standing gazing at the object she'd just discovered, her jaw slowly dropping.
After a long moment she sat down abruptly on the couch and swallowed hard. "I just can't believe it!" she muttered.
Her voice rose steadily as her soliloquy continued. "How *could* he? He always seemed so caring — so trustworthy! Yet he's been keeping *this* hidden all along?" By this time she had risen to her feet again, a militant light in her eyes. "Boy, when I get hold of him, is he *ever* gonna regret this…!"
*The day before…*
It was the first Monday of the new year, and Lois was at her desk bright and early. The season didn't explain the butterflies that were busy playing tag in her stomach, though. Those were entirely due to the fact that she would shortly be seeing Clark again, for the first time in over a week.
The last time she'd seen him had been in the early hours of Christmas morning. She'd been surprised but totally delighted when he'd arrived on her doorstep instead of catching his flight to Kansas, and they'd had a wonderful evening together. They'd eaten her Christmas dinner and played silly games and talked and laughed together, and it had been past one o'clock when Clark had finally bidden her a reluctant good night. In the morning he'd been gone, catching the earliest possible flight to Wichita to spend the rest of Christmas with his parents.
Looking back, the word that leapt to Lois's mind to describe that evening was… enchanted. She'd almost have said romantic, though not a word of romance had been spoken by either of them. Yet they'd seemed perfectly attuned to each other, perfectly in harmony… and more than once, Lois had caught herself wishing that the fleeting touches of affection they'd exchanged would become less fleeting, and more loving…
But she hadn't done anything about it except give Clark an occasional yearning look. And once or twice she'd caught what looked like a similar yearning on Clark's face, but it was difficult to be sure — he'd always been laughing or teasing her or cracking another ridiculous joke the next second.
When he'd finally taken his leave, his eyes had flickered briefly to her mouth, and for a dizzying second she'd thought he might kiss her. But if the idea had crossed his mind, he'd evidently thought better of it, because with no more than a friendly clasp of her shoulder and a soft "Merry Christmas", he'd turned and walked away down the hall.
Unfortunately for Lois, she'd been able to think of little else all night. In that brief second she'd realised how badly she wanted him to kiss her. She'd nearly called after him, but as usual, her nerve had failed her. She'd only ever mustered the courage once to tell Clark how she felt about him, and he'd slept through it… doing it again seemed twice as scary. And what if she was only imagining Clark's attraction towards her — projecting her own feelings onto him? She'd never recover from the embarrassment, and it might ruin their friendship for ever.
But her feelings weren't going away. If anything, they'd strengthened in the ensuing week, as she realised how badly she missed him. First Clark had spent a few days with his parents, then on the day he'd returned, Lois had left to spend New Year with Lucy and her current boyfriend in the mountains. She'd spoken to Clark a few times on the phone, but it wasn't the same. And three days with Lucy's social crowd, trapped between fending off the advances of wannabe playboys and listening to vacuous chatter about clothes, soap opera stars, makeup and pop music, had left her desperate for an hour of Clark's intelligent, unassuming company. It had been an enormous relief for Lois, at least, when Lucy and her boyfriend had had a fight, apparently over some guy she'd met at a club, and Lucy had announced that they were going home early.
Lois had phoned Clark as soon as she'd got home, hoping to spend some time with him on her last free day, but he hadn't answered. She shouldn't have been surprised that he had better things to do than sit at home waiting for her to call; still, the crushing disappointment she'd felt warned her just how badly she was smitten with her partner.
She'd spent her day off alternating between catching up on her housework and chasing Superman — who seemed to have had a frantically busy festive season — all over town, trying to get an interview in between traffic accidents and rescues.
And now she was back at work, dressed to look attractive as well as professional for once, sipping her second cup of coffee as she caught up on her email and waiting nervously for Clark to arrive. Every time the elevator bell pinged she looked up, her heart in her throat, but every time it was some other colleague.
She was at the coffee machine, pouring herself a third cup, when a sixth sense told her that Clark was in the newsroom. She swung round towards the elevators, but the doors were closed; then a movement over by the stairwell caught her eye. Of course — trust Clark to use the stairs when every sensible person took the elevator up the three floors from the entrance!
Clark didn't seem to have noticed her; he was making his way towards his desk, grinning cheerfully and greeting everyone in his path. Lois watched him for a moment, her heart doing a crazy little dance at the sight of him. Her face felt odd, and she suddenly realised that she was smiling broadly at the familiar, beloved sight of her partner. She turned hastily back to her coffee, hoping no one had noticed, and added low-fat creamer and artificial sweetener while she struggled to get her facial muscles back under control. Then she grabbed a second mug from the collection next to the machine, and poured a second cup with cream and masses of sugar before making her way back to her desk.
Clark seemed absorbed in his computer screen as she approached, but he looked up with a smile as she placed his coffee next to him. "Hi — and thanks!"
She gazed at him for a moment, fighting to keep her own smile casual as she drank in his nearness, his handsome face and the faint tang of his aftershave. She wanted to run her hand through his soft hair and bend to kiss him good morning… She blinked the thought away. "Hi," she returned weakly, and then, belatedly remembering, "Happy New Year!"
His smile broadened and he leant back in his chair, picking up the coffee mug. He held it up in a salute. "And to you!" he said. "Did you enjoy your skiing trip?"
She snorted. "The skiing was fun, but I discovered that I have absolutely nothing in common with Lucy's clubbing crowd. I don't think I was ever that vapid, even back when I was their age!"
Clark chuckled and sipped cautiously at the coffee. "So you're glad to be back to the treadmill?"
"Sure am!" She smiled warmly at him and, without thinking, blurted out, "I missed you."
His eyes flew to hers, and his coffee mug tilted dangerously for a moment. There was a breathless silence, while Lois berated herself internally; then, just as she'd decided to break the awkward pause by asking what they were meant to be working on, Clark put down his mug and reached out to lay a gentle hand on her arm. The startlement in his eyes had changed to pleasure, and something warmer… something that made Lois feel tingly all over, from head to toe. "I missed you, too," he said simply.
There was another pause, and the words "I wish you'd kissed me goodnight" danced crazily through Lois's brain. She was opening her mouth to say something — she didn't know what — when Perry's office door opened.
"Kent! My office, now!" came the familiar bellow.
Clark's eyes held Lois's for a second longer, then he got to his feet, his hand dropping away from her arm. "Coming, Chief!" he yelled back. Lois gave him a quick grin and retreated to her desk as Clark vanished into Perry's sanctum.
It was a subdued Clark who emerged a few minutes later, however. Lois looked at him curiously as he approached with none of his earlier cheerfulness.
"New story?" she enquired.
"No," he said sombrely. "Well, yes, sort of… Perry wants me in Europe, to report on Secretary Wallace's trade negotiations. Van Heerden broke his leg skiing over the weekend, and they can't find anyone to replace him at such short notice. I'm flying to Brussels this afternoon."
Lois's heart sank. "But that's ridiculous!" she protested. "There must be someone else they can send!"
Her obvious resentment seemed to cheer Clark up a little. "They need someone who can speak enough European languages. Unfortunately, I put that on my resume when I applied to the Daily Planet."
Lois thrust her chin out mulishly. "Well, there are millions of Europeans," she pointed out. "Thousands of them must be multilingual. How about our London bureau? They must have someone who can speak… Belgian…"
"Flemish," Clark murmured, an amused twinkle in his eye. "It's similar to Dutch. Or French — Brussels is bilingual."
"Whatever!" Lois glared at him. "The point is, there must be someone over there they can use!"
"Well, to quote Perry," Clark said, a slow grin lighting up his features, "the Europeans are too parochial. The Planet needs someone who can report the American angle."
Lois stared at him in amazement. "He never said that… did he?" At Clark's nod she gave an involuntary chuckle, and for a moment they savoured the joke together. Then Lois sobered. "I guess you'd better go home and pack, then. Can I drive you to the airport?"
He looked at her with that special warmth again, and gave her another devastating smile. "Thank you," he said. "I'd like that."
The drive out of the city was unusually silent. They were early enough to miss the evening rush hour, but the leaden sky and the icy conditions that had produced so many pile- ups over the last week made driving difficult, and Lois had little attention to spare from the road. In any case, she still didn't know how to broach the subject of her feelings; even thinking about it tightened her throat and constricted her chest with panic.
They were nearly at their destination before she realised that Clark wasn't his usual calm self, either. He was sitting stiffly with one hand firmly clasping the door handle, the other clenching and unclenching on his knee. She didn't think it was her driving; he'd been nervous about that originally, but he'd long since learnt to relax, even when she was bucketing down narrow alleys or skidding around blind corners in pursuit of a hot story. In any case, she was driving far more slowly than usual this time.
"Are you okay, Clark?" she said as she slowed for the airport exit.
He didn't answer immediately, and her brain at once started to invent reasons. He was uncomfortable being with her because he knew she had a crush on him, and he didn't want to let on that he knew. Or maybe he was worried that she'd want to kiss him goodbye at the airport. Or maybe… just maybe… he wanted to kiss her goodbye, and he didn't know whether to risk it or not…
"I don't like flying," Clark said abruptly, cutting short her fanciful thoughts. Of course, he hadn't been thinking about her that way at all. The admission must have cost him something, though. Clark never went out of his way to appear macho, but from the whiteness of his knuckles and the glimpse she caught of the sheen on his forehead as she checked her mirror, this was no mild dislike. If she hadn't known better, she'd have thought he was terrified.
"You flew to Kansas last week," she reminded him. "That wasn't so bad, was it?"
"That was… different," he said. "I guess I'm used to that trip. This one'll be much longer."
"It's funny," she said idly, hoping to give his thoughts a better direction. "I asked you once if you'd rather be invisible or fly, and you said fly…"
He gave a strained smile. "Fly like Superman," he reminded her. "Out in the open, not cooped up for hour after hour in a little metal cylinder. It's quite different when you do it under your own steam… I imagine."
Lois knitted her brows. That sounded almost claustrophobic, but Clark had never shown any signs of distress in enclosed spaces before. Why, she must have ridden in elevators dozens of times with him in the past…
"I'm sure you'll be fine once you're on your way," she said soothingly, turning into the carpark. Then she was obliged to devote all her attention to finding a convenient parking spot and stealing it from under the nose of a large black Lexus without scraping her precious paint.
The airport was thronged with holiday-makers and businessmen, and Lois spent some time waiting with Clark's single suitcase while he queued at the airline's customer service desk to pick up his ticket. He looked tenser than ever, standing fidgeting in the line, and on impulse Lois wheeled the suitcase into a nearby shop and bought him a U- shaped neck support. It wasn't much, but perhaps it would help him relax on the flight.
Clark was almost at the counter when she returned to where he'd left her. With a cautious glance around to check that no one was watching her, Lois quickly retrieved her makeup compact from her bag and dabbed a tiny spot of her perfume on the ends of the cushion. Maybe Clark would be thinking of her on his journey, and not some leggy blonde stewardess…
Then Clark was striding back towards her, ticket in hand, and it was time for him to check in. She waited again while he cleared the mercifully short queue for his flight, then he was standing in front of her once more.
"I'd better go through security right away," he said awkwardly. "There's not much time left. Lois…"
She thrust the shopping bag containing the neck support at him. "You should try to sleep on the plane," she said. "It'll be nearly morning there by the time you reach your hotel."
"Thank you, Lois," he said, his eyes expressing an appreciation that he couldn't put into words. "Well…"
She blinked back a sudden suspicious moisture. It just wasn't fair — she'd had to get by without Clark for a whole week, and now he would be gone for another week, maybe two, while Wallace made a stately progression around Europe. Why couldn't she have picked a better time to fall… to discover she felt this way about him? She suddenly wished for some tangible way to hold onto his presence while he was gone.
"Clark, who's watering your plants?" she blurted out.
His jaw dropped. "My… my plants?" he echoed blankly.
"Yes, Clark, your house plants!" she said. "You know, the ficus tree Perry gave you for Christmas? And you must have other plants. Someone'll have to look after them while you're away…"
"I hadn't thought about it," he confessed. "Maybe Superman…"
"*Superman* water your plants?" She stared at him incredulously. She had a sudden mental image of the superhero walking solemnly around Clark's apartment with a little plastic watering can, but she suppressed the wild laughter that threatened to bubble out of her. "Clark, Superman has *much* better things to do. Come on, give me your keys."
"My keys? *You're* going to water them?" It was his turn for incredulity. "But Lois, you and plants…" She turned a withering glare on him. "Lois, be reasonable! There's been a steady procession of plants over your desk in the year and a half I've known you, and not *one* of them has left alive!"
She bit back a giggle. "They usually last more than two weeks," she said austerely. "And I promise faithfully not to pour any cold coffee into your ficus tree. Now, are you going to give me your keys or not?" He hesitated, and she looked appealingly up at him. "I'll pick you up when you get back, and you won't need them while you're trotting around Europe."
He gave in, smiling at her with a mixture of amusement and resignation. "I wouldn't dare refuse," he said, fishing his keys out of his pocket and presenting them to her with a flourish as she chuckled. "And, Lois…"
She met his eyes, and saw that they had turned serious. The emotion there made her heart beat suddenly faster. "Thanks… for everything," he said huskily.
Ever so slowly, he bent towards her. His eyes flickered downwards, and Lois knew this time he was going to kiss her goodbye; but he was giving her the opportunity to turn her head slightly and present her cheek if she wanted to. Instead, she turned her face up to his and waited.
His lips brushed across hers, and for a moment she feared that he would pull away; then her eyes fluttered closed as his warm mouth covered hers, his lips pressing softly against hers for a blissful moment. Then he was straightening, his hand coming up to cup her cheek gently.
"Goodbye, Lois," he said, sounding as breathless as she felt. "I'll… I'll call you."
"Goodbye, Clark," she responded, wishing she could express her feelings instead of mouthing platitudes. "Travel safely." And come back to me quickly, she added, not quite getting up the nerve to say it aloud.
His eyes dwelt on her face a little longer, as if he was storing away the sight of her; then he gave a little half- wave and turned to make his way through the security checkpoint and vanish into the limbo of the departure lounge.
There was nothing quite like flying to ease the tension out of a superhero's body. Clark smiled and did a barrel roll and then a quick loop, savouring the freedom and the silence.
Not like the other kind of flying. He grimaced, remembering the way his stomach had knotted and his mind had screamed when the plane had finally turned and lumbered down the runway and into the air. Yet the flight itself hadn't been nearly as bad as he'd feared, this time — no worse than his previous flight, coming back from Wichita with Lois after his first brush with Kryptonite.
This time he'd also had Lois with him, in a way. Once the terror of takeoff had eased enough to let his mind function again, he'd remembered Lois's gift of a neck support. As soon as he'd put it in place, its gentle grip had seemed to melt away his tension, and he'd found himself immersed in tender thoughts of Lois. Particularly of that kiss they'd shared just before he'd boarded. The cabin crew had insisted on shaking him awake at intervals to offer him food, but apart from that he'd actually slept through most of the flight.
They'd fallen into the habit, over the last few months, of sharing friendly touches every so often. His hand on her back to guide her into the elevator, her hand on his chest to emphasise a point in a discussion, linking arms as they ambled home from the Fudge Castle of an evening. But they'd never got into the habit of kissing, not even a friendly brush of lips on the cheek. It was as though they both knew that would take them into uncharted territory… and Lois had needed safe waters to restore her confidence after the dreadful mistake she'd so nearly made.
And then, on Christmas Eve, there'd been something new when he'd dropped in to see if Lois needed company. A sort of tingling in the air between them, a thrill of unusual awareness. At least, he thought Lois had felt it too… or had it just been the Christmas atmosphere and the stunning way she'd been dressed, working on his own mind? He'd had plenty of opportunity to ponder that question over the ensuing week, with first himself and then Lois on vacation, but he'd come no closer to an answer.
Until she'd returned to work, and it had still been there. His heart had done flip-flops at the sight of her, and she'd seemed equally pleased to see him. She'd brought him coffee, which he'd barely been conscious of tasting, and she'd even said she'd missed him. For one totally insane moment, the words "I love you, Lois, and I can't face spending any more time without you — will you marry me?" had danced around his brain; but when his dry mouth had opened, all that had emerged was a trite "I missed you, too."
And then Perry had called him into his office and dropped the bombshell. Clark had spent the next few hours cancelling appointments, hastily retrieving suits from dry cleaners, and packing for an unknown length of stay in Europe. He'd spent a whole hour dithering over whether to pack a Suit in his suitcase, where it might be found by a Customs baggage search, or to wear it under his clothes and risk a strip search at the security checkpoint. In the end, he'd left it in… well, wherever his clothes went when he did a spin-change; and to his relief, when he'd woken from his nap after today's trade talks he'd been able to spin into it and head across the Atlantic for his regular Metropolis patrol.
Yet, even while the topmost layer of his mind had been occupied with thoughts of his approaching journey, deep down he'd still been thinking about Lois, wondering whether her feelings towards him had really changed as much as it appeared, and where their relationship was headed. In the early hours of Christmas morning his nerve had failed him at the last moment, and he'd left without any attempt to kiss her goodbye; but in the bustling airport, with couples kissing their farewells all around, it had seemed the most natural thing in the world to bend forward and touch his lips to hers. The difficult part had been pulling away again instead of dropping his belongings, sweeping her into his arms, and yielding to his long-pent-up desire to kiss her senseless.
But, brief as the kiss had been, she'd still responded. Hadn't she? She'd tilted her face up for it, instead of averting it to present her cheek; and when he'd followed his first tentative brush of the lips with a second, warmer kiss, her eyes had closed. That had to count for something, didn't it?
Feeling the old, familiar longing building inside him, Clark groaned and turned his attention back to his patrol. He'd give anything to be able to drop in on Lois tonight and find out just where he stood… but Clark was in Europe, and Superman had no business spending time with her. Whenever he visited her apartment, he tended to lose his head and end up doing something stupid, like dancing with her in mid-air, of all things. No, he had to stay well away from her.
A screech of brakes and an ominous crash, followed by cries of pain, alerted him. The icy weather was still taking its toll on the roads. Clark executed a neat flip and shot off towards the freeway.
Lois was missing Clark as fiercely as ever. It was as if he'd never been back, she reflected morosely… worse, even, because at odd moments she'd find her thoughts drifting to him, reliving that kiss. That frustrating, more-than-friends but less-than-lovers kiss. Had it meant as much to Clark as it had to her? Had the extra warmth she'd seen in his eyes been real — or had she just been imagining it? Had that kiss just been a token of friendship, or even worse, his way of humouring her, because she'd seemed to want more than a peck on the cheek?
As if things weren't bad enough already, Lucy had phoned earlier today, bubbling over with the news that she'd dumped Michael for good and was now dating a guy called Johnny. Lois had been as upbeat about the news as she could manage, but Lucy's happy-go-lucky attitude to dating had once again highlighted the miserable state of Lois's own love life. She'd managed to fall in love with a man she'd known — and worked with — for well over a year, and she didn't even know if he returned her feelings. How dumb was that?
Even her work, usually her refuge from such bleak thoughts, was mocking her. She, who had once guarded her solo status jealously, was missing her partner's input. Oh, she didn't *need* him — she'd managed to turn in two perfectly adequate bread-and-butter articles on her own today — but doing it with Clark would have made the boring task fun. Besides, she was secretly aware that the articles had lacked not only Clark's warm touch, but even the hard edge she usually put on her solo work. She hadn't had the energy to polish them to her normal brilliance before sending them off. She just hoped Perry didn't think she'd lost her edge.
Though maybe, if he did, he'd get Clark back earlier? But Clark was already pulling his weight in Brussels. He must have slept well on the plane after all, because he'd got stuck into the talks straight away. He'd sent a brief summary of today's negotiations over in time for the afternoon edition, followed shortly by a more in-depth appraisal for the morning. The time difference helped, of course… by now it would be close to midnight there, and Clark would be fast asleep in some fancy Brussels hotel.
And he hadn't called…
The PC clock ticked over to 6:00 PM, and Lois sighed and closed it down for the night. She certainly wasn't getting anything done, she thought morosely as she collected her belongings and stood up; to be honest, she'd done very little all afternoon except brood. She might as well just go home now, looking in on Clark's plants on the way.
And what are you going to do at home? a little voice taunted at the back of her mind, as she waited for the elevator. Spend the evening brooding?
I'm not that hopeless! she retorted indignantly. I have plenty to do at home — I've still got Ivory Tower to catch up on, and that book from my mother to read, and maybe Clark will call…
She really was hopeless, she acknowledged miserably, pulling a face at the elevator doors as they closed behind her. Janice from HR, passing by outside, started and shot her an astonished look, and Lois hastily rearranged her face into a polite smile. There was no way Clark was going to call tonight, and by the time she woke up, he'd have been hard at work for hours. The cinema near her apartment was showing Highlander 3… but she'd been hoping to go to that with Clark. An evening in front of the TV, trying desperately to get comfortable on one of her elegant but unaccommodating loveseats and wishing the phone would ring, loomed before her.
Why had she ever bought those awful instruments of torture, anyway? But, of course, she knew exactly why she'd done it: to fend off amorous men. Back when she'd occasionally dated — before Lex, before her reputation as an ice maiden had started to discourage men from asking her out — her forbidding living room had repeatedly saved her from having to deal with tipsy, fumbling advances from the pitiful losers she'd attracted. She hadn't even had to worry about the consequences of inviting them in for coffee; by the time the kettle had boiled, invariably they'd been itching to leave. In those days, Lois herself had been far too busy establishing her career to need a sitting room to lounge about in.
She'd even been saved from a couple of Lucy's less desirable specimens, some of whom she'd have been scared to run into on her way to the bathroom in the morning. She wasn't sure whether Lucy was aware of the part Lois's furniture had played in their rapid exits; it could have been coincidental that Lucy hadn't headed straight for the bedroom with those particular dates, the way she normally did.
The only person who'd ever been able, or willing, to brave those loveseats for any length of time was Clark. Nothing she'd ever done — barring her temporary insanity last summer, which she still tried to avoid thinking about — had ever seemed to put Clark off. Not that he'd ever tried to take advantage of her, of course… if only…
The elevator pinged and opened on the parking level, and Lois sighed and stepped out, fumbling for her keys. A quick visit to Clark's place, and then home to shower and change into a schlumpy robe and slippers.
Clark's living room was a far cry from hers. She'd spent countless evenings there since the wed… since they'd become friends again, watching videos or playing board games or just talking comfortably into the small hours. Clark had seemed to understand, without being told, how badly she'd needed the company to stave off the depression and loneliness, and he'd never seemed to mind how often she came over or how late she stayed. And in the process, she'd fallen ever more deeply in love with him.
Would he mind if she went home to shower first, and then spent the evening at his place? Surely not. She could talk to his plants — that made them grow better, didn't it? And the lights in his windows would discourage any would-be burglars.
Lois suddenly realised she was standing stock-still at her car door, a smile tugging at her lips. The smile broadened as she got into the car and headed for home.
Clark landed silently on his balcony and strode to the door. The crash victims were all going to be fine, but he needed a shower and a change of Suits before he responded to any other calls for help.
As his fingers grasped the door handle, however, he suddenly froze. There was a light on in the living room, and a voice — what on earth…?
"… so caring — so trustworthy! Yet he's been keeping *this* hidden all along?"
Lois! He'd completely forgotten giving her his keys at the airport. He should have known better! By the sound of it, she'd discovered something — he couldn't imagine what — that had given his secret away. And judging from the furious mutterings still emanating from the apartment, she was taking it hard. If he wanted any chance with her, he needed to get in there and start apologising before she worked herself up into a thorough Mad Dog fury.
He gulped and took a moment to gather his courage before heading through the door. He crossed quickly to where Lois was standing in the kitchen, putting out a pleading hand. "Lois, I swear I never meant you to find out this way…" he began.
At his first words, Lois had jumped and let out a startled yelp before whirling round into a defensive crouch. Now she was slowly straightening, her eyes widening as she took in his appearance.
"Superman!" she interrupted, clearly oblivious to what he'd been saying. "Are you hurt? No, obviously… but that blood!"
He glanced down at himself and grimaced. "It's tomato ketchup." Her eyebrows rose, and he added, "A Costmart delivery truck overturned, and there was food everywhere. I just haven't had a chance to shower and change yet. Lois, I…"
She had chuckled at his explanation, and Clark belatedly realised that she was showing no sign of being angry with him. His voice trailed away as he tried to work out what he'd missed.
"What is it, Superman?" Lois's tone was friendly and matter-of-fact. "I assume you didn't just drop by to chat…"
"No, well, I, actually…" She was looking really curious now, and Clark made an effort to pull himself together. Her nearness was starting to unsettle him, and he had a sudden urge to pull her close and kiss her. He folded his arms before he could do anything stupid.
"I was on patrol, and I saw the light on," he said. "I…" If he was back to lying, he might as well do a thorough job, but it felt uncomfortable. He could feel his cheeks growing slightly warm. "I knew Clark was away, so I thought I'd better check. And then I heard you talking — you sounded angry…"
Now she was blushing. "I was just talking to the plant," she mumbled. "It's supposed to be good for them."
He nodded politely, wondering whether she thought someone with Superman's strength must be short on brains. "But what were you angry about?" he prodded.
"It's just — well, look at it!" She waved indignantly in the direction of the living room. Clark turned obediently and peered here and there, but nothing seemed amiss. "The ficus tree!"
"Oh!" Now that she'd drawn his attention to it, it did look rather sorry for itself. Its leaves were drooping abjectly, and many of them had turned yellow. Some were even developing brown margins. "It hasn't been watered?"
"Exactly! And Clark's always so… so caring — you'd never suspect him of neglecting a poor defenceless house plant!" Underneath the indignation, her voice had a subtle extra warmth on the word "caring", and Clark's heart did a somersault. "And besides, when I offered to water his plants yesterday, he was downright rude about my record with plants! What right did he have to criticise me, when it doesn't look as if he's *ever* watered that poor thing?"
He met her eyes guiltily, but of course her wrath wasn't directed at him — at Superman. "So what will you…?"
"Oh, I'll water it — if I can find a watering can — and give it a bit of TLC. I'll probably be here every couple of days. But I'll be giving Clark a really hard time about this, next time I see him! And about leaving his balcony door unlocked while he's away, though I guess with you keeping an eye on it…"
She had fixed him with a disconcertingly clear gaze, and he could feel the heat in his cheeks again. Her eyes narrowed. "Are you all right, Superman? You look -"
"Yes! I'm fine," he said hastily. "It's just…" He waved a vague hand at his Suit. "… I should probably…"
"Get your shower," she finished for him, nodding. A spark of curiosity flickered in her eyes. "Superman, where do you — you know — live? Where do you show-"
"I really have to go," he interrupted hastily. His usual lies were bad enough; he wasn't going to invent any more. "I'll see you, Lois."
He swirled around and headed for the balcony door, out into the safety of the night, praying that it wouldn't be too long before Lois finished reviving the ficus and went home.
The ficus tree rustled unhappily. The unfamiliar human, small and flower-scented, had come right up to self as soon as it had arrived, and the words it had addressed to self had sounded vaguely sympathetic. Then it had moved into the kitchen area, from where self often heard the sound of running water, and self had dared to hope for a minute that it would actually bring self a drink.
But then the big human had arrived, smelling strongly of something sweet and spicy, and there had been lots more words, but no water sounds at all. Now the big one had gone again, in quite a hurry but without its usual swooshing noise; and the small one was just standing there, stone still, breathing rapidly and unevenly.
At last it moved, coming across the floor towards self. Still no water smell. The couch let out a little puff of dust as the human picked up whatever it had dropped there when it first came in. Then its footsteps scuffed up the stairs and paused beside the door.
"You can get your shower now," it said; and a few seconds later, the lock clicked behind it. It was gone.
Self wilted a little.
After a while, the far door opened and the big human returned. It still had the same smell, only overlaid with a hint of sweat. Either it had been working out in the last few minutes, or it was suddenly nervous about something.
As usual, it didn't spare a thought for poor self. It disappeared in the direction of the bathroom, and soon the soft pitter-patter of rain broke the silence. The noise went on for longer than usual, as though the human was lost in thought. When the bathroom door opened again, self opened self's pores and was rewarded with a valuable waft of steamy air. All too quickly, though, the moisture had passed on.
There were quiet movements from the bedroom, and one of the whirlwind whooshes, then the human emerged again. The spicy smell was gone. This time it headed for the front door, right past self, and self gambled some of self's precious juices to send out a desperate plea for water. But, as ever, the big human ignored the chemical message completely; seconds later, it too was gone.
Sadly, self shut off the sap supply to a couple more branches and let a few leaves fall. This was going to be a long drought.
Clark's steady footsteps crunched crisply on the snow- covered sidewalk. His winter overcoat was languishing in Brussels, but the other pedestrians were hurrying along, their heads ducked protectively against the bitter wind, no one sparing a glance for the man abroad in a thin sports jacket. Still, Clark huddled his arms around himself as though the cold were bothering him.
He didn't hurry, though. He couldn't, in all conscience, delay the moment of truth with Lois any longer; but he wasn't looking forward to it. And he had a nasty feeling that it might be the last conversation he would have with her for a very long time.
"You can get your shower now." She'd spoken the words with a complete lack of intonation, giving him no clues to what she'd been thinking. The fact that she hadn't raised her voice, however, indicated that she'd known very well he hadn't gone far. The only question was whether she'd guessed the whole thing, or simply thought that Superman used Clark's shower on occasion.
The fact that she'd walked straight out of the apartment without stopping to water the ficus suggested the former. Why else would she be so upset?
The ficus! He'd forgotten to water the poor thing, too! For a moment Clark was on the verge of swinging round and hurrying back to his apartment; then he grimaced, recognising it as a delaying tactic. Another hour wouldn't kill the ficus.
He came to a halt opposite Lois's apartment block and looked up at her windows. Just over a year ago, he'd sat here all night to protect Lois from a cold-blooded killer. Now he'd be lucky if she ever spoke to him again. Grabbing his courage with both hands, Clark crossed the street and made his way up to Lois's front door.
He half expected to be greeted at the door with a flood of angry recriminations, but to his surprise, Lois let him in without a word. Her face was pale, though, and she refused to meet his eyes as she stood well back to avoid touching him on his way through the door. His heart sank.
She finished fiddling with the door locks and turned towards him. Her gaze flickered here and there before settling on his shoes. "I suppose Superman flew to Brussels to get you?"
Clark had already opened his mouth to seize the excuse before his brain caught up with him. He closed his mouth and swallowed. If he made one false move tonight — if he told any more lies, if he failed to satisfy Lois on any point — they were history. Even if she hadn't already guessed the whole, and he wouldn't have bet a penny on the chances of that, when she found out later that he'd deceived her now, she'd be livid. And rightly so.
He opened his mouth again. It was dry. "No, Lois," he said quietly.
The heavens didn't open up and rain fire and brimstone on the earth. The ground didn't crack and spew forth the armies of the apocalypse. The lights did dim a little, and there was a roaring noise in his ears, but Clark vaguely suspected that was more to do with himself than with the world around him.
When his vision cleared, Lois was looking at him for the first time. There was more colour in her cheeks, but her eyes looked almost terrified. As soon as he met her gaze, though, it flicked away. "Would you like some coffee?" There was a tremor in her voice.
Clark longed to step forward, draw her into his arms, and soothe her fears away; but the tension in Lois's stance warned him that trying anything of the sort would be a horrible mistake. Not that any of her Tai Kwon Do moves were likely to hurt him, but they might well land her in hospital with a broken limb or two.
Instead, he tried to project an air of comfortable friendship. "Why don't you sit down, and I'll get the coffee? I know where everything is," he added as she opened her mouth to refuse.
She gave in, her shoulders relaxing ever so slightly as she moved to a couch and sat down. His heart thumping painfully at the tiny victory, Clark headed for the kitchen.
Lois pulled her knees up in front of her and clasped her arms around them, trying to stop the trembling. It felt as though the ice and snow outside had crept into her heart.
Even after it had struck her like a thunderbolt, standing there in Clark's apartment, what the superhero had been doing there — even after she'd somehow managed to drive herself home, without being aware of a particle of her surroundings — she'd still hoped that Superman would arrive to tell her she'd just been jumping to ridiculous conclusions. Or, better yet, that Superman would bring Clark, and they could laugh together over her overactive imagination and then pick up where that kiss had left off at the airport.
Instead Clark had arrived alone, looking grave and concerned, and making no attempt to pretend it wasn't true. And kissing was right off the agenda.
So how dared he look so unreasonably attractive, in his inadequate jacket, without even a scarf, and his hair tousled by the wind like a little boy's? Even after everything he'd done to her, she'd still had to fight off the impulse to fling herself into those muscular arms.
And as if that wasn't bad enough, instead of staying out of the room long enough for her to collect herself, here he was, barely seconds after he'd entered the kitchen, already back and folding himself onto the loveseat opposite hers. From behind him came the familiar coughing of the filter machine.
"Finished already — are you showing off?" she said waspishly. She regretted the flash of temper instantly. After all, Clark hadn't had to come here to talk; he could have ignored what she'd said and simply flown back to Europe. And from the way he'd looked after he'd tacitly admitted to being Superman, he wasn't finding this any easier than she was.
But before she'd worked up the courage to apologise, Clark sighed. "Lois, if I were trying to show off, I'd bring you freshly ground coffee from Vienna."
Lois closed her eyes as the concept of flitting across the Atlantic for a drink sank in. "Coffee from Vienna," she echoed. "Croissants from a little French bakery. Chinese takeout from… Beijing?"
"Shanghai, mostly." She didn't look at his face, but his tightly clasped hands whitened.
She buried her face in her knees, her hair swinging forward in a curtain. "Oh God, I'm so stupid," she muttered under her breath.
He caught it, of course. "Lois, you shouldn't blame yourself," he said urgently. "You saw what you were meant to see. Nobody was supposed to guess that an ordinary reporter -"
She shook her head sharply. "No, Clark. I, of all people, should have known…"
To her relief, he didn't pursue that. "What gave me away?" he ventured after another pause.
She lifted her head and tucked her hair behind one ear, working it out. "You weren't behaving like Superman at all. You came rushing in… I didn't catch what you said, but why should Superman care what I was yelling about in Clark's apartment? And then when I pointed out the poor plant, he… you… looked positively guilty."
"It's difficult to keep track," he said in what was probably meant to be a reassuring tone. "I usually talk about him — Superman — in the third person."
She hunched a disgusted shoulder, feeling her mouth compressing into a thin line. How could he talk so casually about his deceitfulness? She swallowed to make sure her voice was under control before continuing. "Of course, I still didn't put two and two together until you rushed out with that flimsy excuse. It was just so… Clark."
"It was either that or make up more lies. I hated lying to you, Lois."
This time it was pure rage that spilled over. Lois sat up straight and swung her head round to glare at him. "How can you say that, Clark? You lie to me every day! You've lied to me ever since I first met you! I'd started to think, these past months, that I'd finally found a man I could trust -" Her voice wobbled, but she controlled it through sheer effort of will. "- and now I find you've been deceiving me, Perry, everyone, all along. You're no better than Lex!"
His face had grown whiter and whiter during her tirade; at her last words his mouth gaped in shock, but then his eyes narrowed angrily. "I'm not a thief or a murderer, Lois! All I am is Superman — you know, that flashy hero in the Spandex, that you idolise?"
"Not any more!" she spat back, but her anger was draining away, leaving depression in its wake. She shouldn't have made that crack about Lex; but it didn't change the fact that she couldn't trust Clark any more. She turned her face away from him again towards the nearby window, studying the curtain fabric as if she'd never seen it before.
"I thought Superman was above lying," she said wearily. "And I thought Clark was completely honest, too. How am I supposed to know what you are now?"
"Lois, I swear to you -"
"No!" He sounded exactly like her father, caught in another tawdry affair, swearing to her mother it would never happen again. She wrapped her arms defensively around herself. "Please don't swear anything."
"But Lois, I -"
The hissing and spluttering from the kitchen had ceased. "Will you get the coffee, or shall I?"
He didn't move. After a moment he spoke in a low tone. "Lois, I came here to apologise for what I've put you through, and to answer any questions you might have. So far, you haven't listened to a word I've said. Maybe I should just go."
Cold panic gripped her at the thought. It was true, she wasn't giving him a fair hearing; but what was the point when she couldn't trust what he said?
So why was she aghast at the thought of him leaving?
Because deep down, she was desperate to believe him. If she couldn't turn the clock back so that tonight had never happened, so that Clark and Superman were their comfortable, distinct selves, then she needed Clark to explain what he'd done so that it made sense.
She drew a deep, painful breath. "Please stay," she said in a small voice.
He got to his feet. For a moment there was a feather-light touch on her shoulder; then he turned and headed for the kitchen.
Clark took his time pouring the coffee. He'd been crazy to use super-speed to fill the machine; he could only suppose he really had been trying to show off. What an idiot he was!
Lois's reaction was even worse than he'd feared. He'd expected her to be angry, to yell at him, throw things, maybe kick him out of the apartment with instructions never to return. He hadn't expected her to sit there, chalk- white, looking as ill as she had during those dreadful days when every issue of every newspaper had had fresh revelations of Luthor's villainy.
He should have known she'd take it like this. Her confidence had always been low where men were concerned, and Luthor had wrecked it completely. That was why he'd taken back his declaration of love after the wedding, so he would be allowed close enough to help her back onto her feet; that was why he'd taken such pains to keep his feelings a well-guarded secret until at last she'd seemed ready to meet him halfway. Now, in a moment of blind stupidity, he'd ruined everything.
And yet… she'd asked him to stay. Maybe there was still hope.
He carried the coffee mugs through to the living room. Lois's tight, defensive posture had relaxed slightly and there was a hint of colour in her cheeks. She murmured her thanks as he handed her one of the mugs.
He seated himself opposite her again and cradled his mug in his hands, careful not to drink too early. After a while, he broke the silence.
"Lois, I'm sorry I've hurt you. I hated lying to you, and I sw… I meant to tell you myself."
"Why didn't you, Clark? Oh, I know why you didn't at first…" She looked down at her mug. "When we first met, I wouldn't have cared about wrecking your life if it earned me a Pulitzer. And then… I was really mean to you, always picking on you and insulting you… comparing you to Superman…"
She shot a glance full of humiliated apology at him and then focused on her coffee again, blowing on it and taking a few careful sips. Clark followed her lead, giving her time to compose herself.
There was raw pain in her voice when she continued. "But later, Clark, when we'd become friends… how could you let me go on believing a lie?"
"By then, you were dating Luthor. If he'd ever found out…" He hesitated. It wasn't the whole reason, of course; his greatest fear had been that she would transfer her Superman crush to him. Should he say that?
But the moment had passed; Lois was speaking again. "You think I'd have told him?" Clark winced, half expecting another angry tirade, but instead he was shocked to see tears pooling in her eyes. "Maybe I would have," she muttered. "But that was months ago, Clark — what about last summer, when you helped me pick up the pieces after Lex? I told you practically my whole life story — I never dreamed you were concealing yours!"
"Lois, you know my life story — most of it…"
"And what about when you were shot?" she said, ignoring his words. The tears were spilling down her cheeks now. "You let me think you were dead, Clark! For a whole night and a day, I thought I'd lost you!"
He reached out a hand, but she turned away to yank a tissue out of the box on a nearby table and bury her face in it.
"That was the worst mistake I ever made," he said humbly. "I never realised you'd be so upset -"
"Clark!" Her horrified face emerged from the tissue to stare at him. "What sort of heartless monster do you think I am? My partner gets shot right in front of me — not just my partner, but my best friend and -" She came to a sudden stop, then ploughed on. "And you thought I wouldn't be upset?"
"Lois, I know I was a complete fool," he pleaded. "I didn't think at all — I just ran away. As far as I could see, Clark was dead; my job at the Planet, my friends, my opportunity to work with you, spend time with you — all gone! I didn't see the point of telling you I was alive when I wasn't. There was only Superman left."
She was watching him carefully. "*Only* Superman?"
He closed his eyes. Of course, she still thought Superman was the better part of the deal. "I'm Clark," he said. "I won't pretend Superman isn't important — he lets me help people without losing my privacy — but he's just a cartoon character I play. No sense of humour, no friends, no feelings. Everything that makes life worthwhile belongs to Clark."
He opened his eyes again. She was still watching him carefully; he felt as though she could see right into his soul, spy out all his failings and inadequacies. He met her gaze as bravely as he could manage. "I never meant to hurt you by what I did or said," he said earnestly. "But I did, and I'm sorry. I've only ever lied to you about one thing; I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me."
"Only one thing?" she said slowly. "You told me, that day I took you to LNN, that you loved me. Then, after Lex… after all that, you took it back. You said you'd have done anything to stop me marrying Lex."
He swallowed hard. She seemed determined to wring the last ounce of truth out of him. "Lois, I -"
But she continued as if he hadn't spoken. "But you didn't."
"Didn't what?" His head whirled as he cast about in vain for the thread of the conversation.
"If you'd really been willing to do anything, you'd have jumped at the chance I gave you as Superman. I'd have rejected Lex in an instant… Instead, you rejected me."
He grimaced painfully and set down his mug carefully before he could damage it. "Lois, I regret practically everything I said that day. Especially the crack about your robe. I hope you know I'd never… But you'd already told me you didn't care for me in that way, and then you'd asked to see Superman… I wasn't exactly thinking too clearly." In spite of his efforts to control it, his voice had roughened. "And then you said…"
She looked shaken by the feelings he was revealing. "Said what? That I'd love you even if you were an ordinary man?"
He flinched at the memory, then nodded, not trusting his voice any further.
"But it was true," she said quietly.
It was his turn to gape at her incredulously.
"I did love both of you," she continued, looking awkwardly down at her hands. "That's why I should have known you were the same person. But I wouldn't admit, even to myself, that I loved two different men — that would have made me some sort of pervert. So I thought I could compromise — have Clark as my partner and best friend, and Superman as my boyfriend. You wrecked my plans completely, that day… Superman wouldn't have me, and Clark wouldn't work with me. And he wasn't even a safe friend any more. So I accepted Lex's proposal instead. It took me weeks — right up until the morning of my wedding -" She paused and moistened her lips. "- to realise that I couldn't live without you." She lifted her head and met his eyes at last. There was a strange mixture of emotions in her eyes — love and fear, hope and doubt. "Clark you. That's why I said 'I can't' at the altar."
He was still staring at her, frozen, hardly willing to trust his ears. Was that why she'd always refused to talk about her near-wedding? "You did?" he blurted out. "You turned him down? Lois -"
She shrugged, looking away again, her expression bleak. He'd disappointed her somehow. "It doesn't matter any more."
He switched couches to sit beside her, reaching out for one of her hands. "It matters to me! Lois, you must know how long I've been hoping that one day you'd love me the way I love you!"
She sighed, drawing her hand away and crossing her arms defensively. "I don't know what to think any more, Clark. I do know that you told at least one lie, that day when you took back what you said about loving me. So what I need to work out is…" She looked down at her lap. "… whether you're an ordinary guy who just happens to have lied about two huge, important issues; or whether you're the sort of shallow charmer who just tells any story that suits him at the time."
The sheer unfairness of it took his breath away. It was several seconds before he managed to speak. "You want to know if I'm a pathological liar?" She nodded. "Lois, you've known me for nearly two years now. We spent last summer practically glued together at the hip! You *must* know I'm not like that!"
Her voice was quiet, but deadly serious. "I thought I did know you, Clark… until tonight, when I discovered how completely wrong I was. I thought I knew Lex, too — I was so confident that I nearly married him. I can't risk any more hideous mistakes, Clark. This time I have to know for sure."
"You want to be sure I'm not like Luthor," he said slowly. The thought still hurt, but he knew Lois's distrust was directed more at her own judgement than at him. He paused, then went on deliberately, "Or Claude." Her pulse rate climbed a notch as she inclined her head. "Or your father." This time she winced. "You know, Lois, I do understand. But if you can't believe what I say… I don't know how I can convince you. I guess you're going to have to look at what I've done, not what I've said."
"That sounds like something Lex would have said," Lois whispered wretchedly, and Clark gasped. It felt as though he'd been punched in the stomach. With Kryptonite.
"Lois, you know that's unfair!" he said hotly. "Did *I* manipulate you into marrying me by destroying everything you care about? You said it yourself — I could have used Superman to dazzle you into turning Luthor down, but I didn't! I didn't even use him to convince you Luthor was evil — even though I knew you'd believe *him* without any proof!"
He caught himself before he could go any further. Lois was hunched into herself, her head turned away from him. Was she scared of what he might do in a fit of anger? And how was it that just one person, just this one small package of fiery, obstinate brilliance, could bring him so close to losing the iron self-control he'd built up so carefully over the years? He heaved himself to his feet, away from her, and paced up and down the living room, waiting for his head to clear.
The worst of it was, she was right. Luthor had always taken pains to cover his tracks with what appeared to be lavish philanthropy. If Lois had ever taken Clark's suspicions seriously enough to question Luthor about them, Clark could picture the wily billionaire exhorting her to look at what he had done, not what people might say about him.
Clark stopped pacing with a sigh, and ran a frustrated hand through his hair. Lois was watching him again, her eyes shadowed; at least she didn't show any signs of fear as he walked slowly back towards her. He dropped into a crouch beside her, so that he wasn't looming threateningly over her, and drew a deep breath.
"Lois… if I can't convince you that I'm speaking the truth… that I'm serious about loving you… well, I'll just have to prove myself by my actions. I've waited a long time for you to give me a chance; I can wait longer if I have to. But first, I want you to know exactly how I feel."
He paused, and tentatively reached for her hands; this time she allowed him to take them. He held them gently between his and raised his eyes to hers, hoping that she would be able to see the strength of his feelings there. "I have loved you ever since I first met you. I haven't always treated you the way I should; I didn't tell you my most important secret, and I seem to recall tipping you into a dumpster once, and I guess I annoyed you in other ways, too. And I didn't tell you I loved you, because you didn't seem ready to hear it. But I tried to watch over you and protect you as best I could, both as Clark and as Superman. I don't just want you for myself; I want you to be happy, even if that means you're not with me. But my love for you has never stopped growing stronger and deeper. I love you with all my heart, Lois Lane; I think I always will."
His eyes, full of love and hope, were searching hers. Lois was so tempted just to give in, to accept his words at face value and surrender herself to the tide of delirious joy. But the more eloquently he spoke, the more his words tugged at her heartstrings, the deeper grew her fear that they were just that… words, designed to ensnare her and put her at his mercy.
Lex's betrayal had dented her pride and damaged her self- esteem, but it had left her heart untouched. Clark, on the other hand… if he ever betrayed her, Lois knew her heart would never recover.
She had to be sure.
But she couldn't prevent her face softening, and as her expression changed he smiled hesitantly at her. "Do you remember telling me, right back when we were investigating the Messenger disaster, that I shouldn't fall for you, because you didn't have time for it? You were way too late, you know. I fell for you the minute you stormed into my interview with Perry."
He'd loved her ever since then? There was something wrong with that picture. Lois frowned as she worked out what it was. "But you weren't in love with me when we were sprayed by that Miranda woman… oh. You weren't affected. Of course."
He nodded. "You have no idea just how hard it was not to respond to you. But I knew if I took advantage of you, you'd never speak to me again."
She could feel herself blushing. "And afterwards — when Superman kissed me…?"
He looked suddenly guilty. "That wasn't the spray, either — that was all me. But I wouldn't have done it if you hadn't kissed me first…"
And Lois could remember every instant of that nerve- tingling, toe-curling kiss. The memory had kept her warm on many a lonely night as she'd grappled with her irrational desire for Superman. If Clark had felt like that about her, and had still resisted what she'd been so blatantly offering…
"You didn't try to take advantage of the situation when we were on stakeout at the Lexor, either," she said, remembering. She'd half expected him to; any other male of her acquaintance would have done. She'd even, in a moment of madness — or perhaps a moment of unusual clarity? — packed a sexy, silky nightdress for the stay, just in case… She'd been horrified at herself afterwards. When she'd gone back later for a night on her own, she'd packed her thickest flannel pyjamas.
Clark was obviously remembering, too; his eyes had darkened and he was breathing faster. Lois thought he'd never looked sexier. "And you didn't make it easy," he growled. "It was bad enough with you in the next room, in that enormous bed, wearing only your pyjamas — but when I came in to wake you, and they were on the floor…" He shook his head and looked away, obviously trying to get himself under control.
And suddenly, Lois didn't want him to. Suddenly, finally, she was sure. It all fitted together; he was no saint, but he'd always done his best to behave honourably — even in the face of extreme provocation.
She freed one of her hands from his grasp and lifted it to his face. "Clark…"
He nuzzled his cheek into her palm, closing his eyes for an instant, then focused on her face. The yearning in his eyes was transformed into joy as he read the emotions that must have been plain to see — her aching love for him and, at last, her trust.
"I'm sorry I've hurt you so," she said huskily. "I shouldn't have doubted you…"
He shook his head, hitching himself onto the seat beside her and gathering her into his arms. She laid her head against his broad, familiar chest, feeling her fear draining away to be replaced by a different sort of tension… a nervous anticipation.
"I know it was a lot to take in," his voice rumbled under her ear. "I'm just grateful that you were willing to hear me out. And even if you've forgiven me for lying to you… I'm not sure you've even started on what it means that I'm Superman as well as Clark."
"Or on all the things you need to forgive me for… I've been a lousy friend to you."
His arms tightened. "Lois, you don't need to beat yourself up -"
She shook her head. "Oh, I think I do. But maybe not right away…" His arms around her were starting to arouse delicious sensations in her. She was remembering the way his eyes had darkened earlier, and her heart was starting to pound giddily. She lifted her head to meet his enquiring gaze. "First, we have some other unfinished business."
"We do?" His eyebrows were soaring.
"We do," she said firmly. Her hand left his face to slip round the back of his neck. "You kissed me goodbye at the airport last night, if you remember, but it was a rather half-hearted job." Her fingers threaded themselves through his thick, soft hair. "I've been thinking about it since then… rather a lot, in fact… and I feel you could do much better."
She finished on a breathless note; Clark was grinning broadly, and his hands were beginning to move in the most delightful way against her back. "I'll try not to disappoint you this time," he said as he lowered his face to hers.
The moment their lips touched, the rest of the world disappeared. Lois's whole body seemed to be melting; she couldn't get enough of his taste, his touch, the feeling of his body against hers. When they finally separated and came up for air, Lois found herself sprawled on top of Clark in a most indecorous fashion; one hand was wound deeply into his hair, and the other had somehow found its way inside the back of his shirt. His hands had also done their share of straying, it seemed. Lois should have been alarmed or embarrassed; instead, she had never felt happier or more comfortable.
"So that's why you never minded sitting on my loveseats," she murmured once her breathing had quietened. "Invulnerable rear end… very useful."
Clark chuckled. "I assure you, even invulnerability doesn't save me from these monsters. What does help is being able to levitate."
She propped herself on one elbow to look around. It was true; he'd hooked one ankle under the armrest, presumably to stop them floating away, but most of the rest of him was cushioned on an inch or two of air.
She rolled back to look into his face. His glasses had vanished at some point, and he looked unfamiliar, a strange mixture of Clark and Superman. She explored his face with her eyes and fingers, loving the feel of his soft skin and the faint rasp of whiskers over his chin. As she passed her fingers over his lips, he caught her hand in his and pressed a kiss into her palm.
"I missed you so badly today," she said suddenly. "You didn't even call from the hotel after work."
"I didn't really want to speak to you at your desk. I was planning to call you after I'd finished my patrol. I figured I could call from home, save a few bucks — if I was careful to wait a couple of seconds every time I started to speak, you'd never know it wasn't a satellite connection…"
She laughed. "You're incorrigible, aren't you?" she said fondly, playing with the tousled waves of hair around his forehead.
"But I don't have to lie to you any longer," he said, his eyes suddenly serious. "You don't know what a relief that is! And I can see you every night, even while I'm in Europe. If you'll let me, that is…"
She pretended to think it over. "Only if we can do this every night," she said, and he grinned. "But don't you need to get some sleep? It's already, what, three in the morning in Brussels?"
He shrugged, looking faintly embarrassed. "I don't need much sleep. And I'd want to do my usual patrol over here, anyway." He paused, then added reminiscently, "It's funny… I usually can't sleep on planes, but that cushion you gave me really worked. You seemed so close to me while I was using it… I could almost smell your perfume…"
Lois smiled enigmatically. One day she'd tell him what she'd done… but not tonight.
"Lois…" He traced her cheek with a gentle finger. "If I patrol early tomorrow night… can I take you out for dinner afterwards? We could go anywhere you like — Paris, Rome, Rio…"
She grinned at him in amusement. "Showing off, Kent?" she teased.
He laughed. "Trying to impress my girl, you mean?" She nodded even as her smile slipped; thinking of herself as Clark's "girl" was giving her an odd feeling inside. "Strange as it seems, no… What I really want is to share my world with you, Lois. To show you some of what it's like to be me. My parents know, but they don't really understand. I want you to understand."
"Oh, Clark." She blinked away the tears that were threatening to gather. Her insides seemed to have melted completely. "Venice. With a gondola ride and everything."
He drew her closer and kissed her brow. "You drive a hard bargain," he said, but she could hear the emotion beneath the light words. He knew she'd accepted more than just a dinner date.
She sat up reluctantly, wriggling back onto the couch as he followed suit. She didn't want to let go of Clark, but he still needed to finish his patrol and then get some sleep. And besides… "Clark, I have a confession to make," she said guiltily. "You know your ficus… well, I forgot to water it before I left your apartment. I guess I had something else on my mind."
He nodded. "I know." At her look he added defensively, "I wasn't spying on you! I was stuck out there on the balcony, listening. You have *no* idea what it's like, wondering if you're going to have to perform a major rescue, maybe even get your picture in the morning papers, wearing tomato ketchup. So," he continued over her giggles, "I realised you hadn't watered it. But I forgot to do it after my shower, too. Guess I also had something on my mind." He lifted a hand to smooth her hair back from her face, tucking it behind one ear. "Guess I'd better go and do that now."
"Guess you had," she agreed mournfully. "At least this time I know you'll be back tomorrow."
He leant forward to kiss her again. This one wasn't much longer than their previous goodbye kiss, but it was infinitely more satisfying, and both of them were breathing hard when it ended.
Clark fished beneath the couch to retrieve his glasses, then stood up and moved towards the window. He paused to catch her eye before whirling suddenly into a flash of colours that resolved itself into Superman. He grinned cockily at the stunned expression on her face. "Now *that's* showing off," he observed with satisfaction.
Then he floated to the window and was gone, leaving only the promise floating on the air behind him.
Self quivered blissfully. Even self's rootlets were squirming with joy as they felt the delightful, squishy soil around them in place of the hard, dry sand they'd been enduring for days.
The water had arrived in time. Tomorrow, self would be able to lift self's leaves towards the cool, indirect sunlight that entered this dwelling during the day, and begin to make food again. And if the human started to water self regularly, self would soon be able to put forth new branches to replace the ones self had had to sacrifice to the drought.
There was only one thing preventing self's complete contentment.
The large human had returned, this time smelling of flowers, just like the smaller human. It had given self a long, wonderful drink… but then, in spite of the fact that it was still dressed in the clicky boots and the swirly shoulder garment, it had sat down on the sofa. It was still there, in fact, though many minutes had passed. Every so often, it would sigh or chuckle slightly and then whisper, "Oh, Lois…"
Which was fine, as far as it went. Self didn't begrudge the human its evident happiness.
But a poor plant had no means of blocking its auditory receptors from unwanted sounds. Self could only hope the human would leave the dwelling soon — perhaps to go "on patrol"? Because if that tuneless, off-key humming didn't stop soon, self wouldn't be accountable for self's actions…
Copyright 2003 Meredith Knight