By Meredith Knight <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Submitted: January 2003
Summary: Exhausted after a prolonged spell of Superman duty, Clark makes the mistake of falling asleep in Lois's living room. Events spiral rapidly out of control, ably assisted by Lex Luthor and Lois's old rival, Linda King.
The idea for this story came out of a single line from ML Thompson's Super Stud, plus one of the key scenes which popped fully formed into my head one day. I found it convenient to use events from the Series 1 episode The Rival, so it's also an episode rewrite.
This gives me the opportunity to rectify what I consider to be flaws in the original episode. It's probably my least favourite episode from S1, because Lois's role appears to have been written for cheap laughs. I'm not a fan of Postal Lois (except when she has good reason to be angry), and in my opinion she didn't get to be Metropolis's top investigative reporter by being ludicrously unprofessional. However, I remain deeply indebted to Tony Blake and Paul Jackson, scriptwriters for The Rival, from which I reused a number of characters, plot elements and ideas, and one or two lines of dialogue. I also used lines from several other episodes.
I'd also like to thank my wonderful BRs for typo-pounces, masses of encouragement and excellent suggestions; also for brainstorming me out of several blocks. Thanks, Kathy, LabRat, Missy and Wendy — you're stars! Missy and her husband also came up with some wonderfully colourful metaphors for me to use in Perry's dialogue. Thanks also to Pam for emergency BRing and moral support when I was about to be late posting one chapter. :) And lots of waffy thanks to the readers on Zoom's MBs who oohed and aahed at the story, and then complained at the less-than-satisfying bits and made me improve them. You guys are invaluable. <g>
Chapter One: A Date with the Truth
"We're not that different after all," Lois pronounced.
"You think so?" Clark said, shooting a quizzical glance at her. She was bestowing a forgiving smile on him, clearly pleased with her deduction.
"Sure," she said confidently. "According to Jimmy, if you go back far enough we're probably related."
"Somehow, I doubt that," Clark murmured, an unholy amusement stealing over him. Lois raised an eyebrow, and he added hastily, "I'm from Kansas, remember?"
"How could I forget?" Lois said wryly. Her face grew wistful. "I only wish…"
"What?" he prompted as she hesitated.
"I wish I knew what the globe really was. Superman wouldn't say. All he said was that it was his and he was glad to have it back."
"You never know," Clark said uncomfortably. "Maybe one day he'll show you."
"Maybe," she said, clearly unconvinced. She turned back to her computer and set to work on her article for the morning edition.
Clark opened the file with the list of art treasures that had turned up in the mysterious vault below the museum. He read through the list, waiting for some connection to form in his mind and give him a lead to investigate. Instead, he found his mind wandering.
Relieved and delighted as he was to have the globe back safely, he couldn't just shrug off the events of the past few days. The globe itself was about as safe as it could ever be, back at home in his Fortress of Solitude, but it had left its mark on them all. Lois, in particular; not only had she been livid over the fact that he had lied to her, but she had also felt obliged to protect Superman from him, which was verging on the surreal. In truth — he grimaced at the phrase — he was very tired of having to lie to Lois. With most people he didn't let it bother him; it was just something he had to do, to protect himself and them. With Lois it was different.
If only he knew how she felt about him…
He looked over at her. She was frowning at her screen, running a pencil absently along the line of her jaw. His eyes followed the movement. On a few occasions his fingers had traced that precise path, feeling the softness of her skin as they edged beneath her silky dark hair to cup her cheek. A few times he had even kissed those full lips that were pursed in thought as she concentrated on her story. And once or twice she had even responded, her lips coming alive beneath his, caressing and clinging to him. In the Lexor hotel, he was almost sure she had started to respond by the time the intrusive maid had removed herself from the room. And when Clark had pretended to be under the pheromone's influence, she had certainly kissed him back with enthusiasm — only then, of course, she was kissing Superman…
Clark suddenly realised that Lois had turned her head and caught him staring. She was looking at him in gathering surprise. He forced a noncommittal smile to his lips and returned his attention to his screen, carefully controlling his physical response to prevent himself from blushing. He must be more tired than he had realised; usually he had no difficulty holding thoughts like that at bay, to avoid embarrassing himself.
He came to a sudden decision. He got to his feet and crossed to Lois's desk, waiting patiently till she looked up from her screen. "We could do with a night off," he said. "How about I bring some takeout and a video over to your place tonight, and we can put our feet up for a change?"
She hesitated for a moment, then smiled. "That sounds like a great idea," she said. "I need to finish this up, but should we say… seven?"
"Great!" he said, smiling in return. He turned and walked away to get his coat, his heart pounding. Did that hesitation mean she was aware there might be more to his suggestion than pure friendliness — or did it just mean there were other things she'd rather be doing?
Maybe it was time he found out.
Clark loped up the stairs to the roof of the Daily Planet building, spun into the Suit and took off, heading west. There was time for a flying visit to Kansas, he decided. His parents deserved to know in advance that he was thinking about talking to Lois.
He landed in the yard, spun into comfortable clothes and went in at the kitchen door. Martha was already turning from her easel, delight spreading over her face. "Clark!" she said. "We didn't expect you back so soon. Your father and I put the globe in the treehouse earlier, then he went over to the Irigs'. He probably won't be back till late."
Clark felt a slightly guilty relief at the news. He didn't really want to hear Jonathan's "dissect you like a frog" speech again — he knew it by heart, and he scarcely thought it applied to Lois, anyway. "That's okay, Mom," he said, bending and selecting a paint-free spot on her cheek for his kiss. "I just wanted to talk to you about something."
She looked at him keenly, then pulled out a chair from the kitchen table. "Sit down, son," she said, and busied herself getting a glass of buttermilk.
"Mom, you know Lois helped me get the globe back," he began as she put the glass in front of him and seated herself opposite. "And you know she was mad at me for concealing it from Superman…"
"Yes?" she prompted, when he fell silent.
He took a firm hold on his thoughts. If he couldn't manage to say this to Martha, he would never be able to broach the subject to Lois. "I'm starting to hope that… there might be something more than friendship between us," he said in a rush. "And if there is, I'll have to tell her that I'm Superman. Not just yet, but if we date for a while, and it goes well… she'll have to know some time."
He looked up nervously to find Martha smiling at him. "We've always hoped that one day you'd find someone you felt like that about," she said comfortably, "and from the first time you mentioned Lois we knew there was something special about her."
"I expected you to tell me to be careful," Clark said ruefully. "After all, it's your secret too."
She shook her head and took his hand between hers. "We trust you, Clark," she said. "When we first heard about Lois we were worried she might print the truth about you if she found out, but she cares too much about you. And she didn't print anything about the globe."
"I wish I was as sure about her feelings as you are," he said, grimacing. He took a long drink of buttermilk, then stared moodily into the glass. "She dates Lex Luthor sometimes, you know — she won't listen when I try to tell her what he's really like."
Martha looked surprised. "You know how she feels about Superman," she pointed out. "She's more than half in love with you."
"But, Mom, I'm not Superman," he protested.
She groaned and glared at him. "Clark, *don't* start that again. Of course you're Superman!"
He leapt to his feet and started striding about the kitchen in agitation. "Mom, Superman is this incredibly romantic guy who flies in and saves the day, and then disappears again. Just like a movie hero. He doesn't have to hold down a day job, he doesn't get hat hair, or… or catch colds… okay, I don't catch colds either, but I get angry sometimes, and I have to do laundry, and pay electricity bills…" He halted and turned to face her, looking tired and discouraged. "You can't fall in love with someone who only exists for an hour a day."
"But Lois doesn't know he only exists for an hour a day," Martha said in a reasonable tone. "As far as she's concerned, he's a real, flesh-and-blood person; in other words, you. You seem to think she's very shallow… I think you need to have a bit more faith in her."
He nodded, brightening. "Well, I'm going over to her place this evening," he said. "And I want to tell her how I feel about her, and find out how she feels about me — the ordinary me."
"You're not ordinary, Clark," Martha pointed out, frowning.
He grinned, and stooped to kiss her again. "You're my mother — you're biased," he said. "I'd better go, Mom. Thanks for the advice!"
By the time seven o'clock rolled around Clark had showered, shaved with his heat vision, and changed his clothes four times. He had finally settled on new jeans and a light blue cotton shirt: not too dressy, not too casual. The bamboo containers holding the takeout from Bangkok were in a plastic carrier bag so that they looked local, and the latest chick flick, as recommended by the video store assistant, was nestling under Clark's arm. After much thought, though, he'd rejected the idea of taking flowers; it would be too obvious, and he wanted to be sure Lois would at least let him through her front door.
Standing outside that door now, Clark raised a hand to tug at his tie before remembering that he wasn't wearing one. The tight feeling in his throat was due to pure nerves. He took a deep breath and knocked.
Lois answered the door almost at once. Her hair was still damp from the shower, and she was wearing jeans and a T- shirt of some soft material that clung to her curves… not too dressy, not too casual. She looked stunning, Clark thought — but then, she'd have looked stunning in a clown suit. He smiled at her. "Hi."
"Hi." Her eyes met his for only a moment — was she also nervous? — and then dropped to the video under his arm. She tugged it out. "Ooh, Sleepless in Seattle — I love that movie! Come on in."
He followed her in, and they spent a few minutes getting drinks, organising plates, and dividing up the food Clark had brought. Soon they were ensconced on one of Lois's hideously uncomfortable loveseats in front of the television, and Clark was dividing his attention between the movie, getting comfortable without making it obvious he was using his powers to support some of his weight, and watching unobtrusively as Lois savoured her meal — the way she closed her eyes with a sigh as she bit into the dim sum, the relish with which she licked satay sauce off her fingers. Nobody could worship food quite like Lois.
When she reached the green curry, however, she started to slow down. By the time he had finished, her glass was empty and she was panting to cool her mouth down. "Can I get you another soda?" he offered, grinning at her.
She shook her head and grabbed the remote to switch the movie off and mute the television. "I think I'll make some coffee," she said, getting to her feet and heading for the kitchen. "Want some?"
"Yes, thanks," he called after her. He stacked the empty plates and followed her through. Would this be a good time to broach the subject of their relationship?
"Admit it, Kent," she grumbled as he entered the kitchen, "you brought that curry just so you could watch me suffer." She slanted a grin at him and carried on filling the coffee machine.
"Suffering builds character," he riposted, and she laughed.
"Aha! So you admit that you enjoy torturing me?"
Usually they could banter like this for ages, but tonight Clark found he couldn't keep it up; he had too much on his mind. He put the pile of plates down on the counter and smiled at her. "I always enjoy being with you, Lois," he said simply.
Clark saw her smile falter at his more serious tone, but she didn't frown. Was that a good sign? She switched the machine on and turned to face him, evidently somewhat at a loss for words.
"Lois, I was wondering if we could talk," he began. She looked at him expectantly, and he continued, "You were very angry with me when I lied to you about the globe, and we were going to talk then, if it hadn't been for Danny's phone call. I thought maybe we should talk now."
She looked puzzled. "But, Clark, I told you I understood about the globe," she said, coming closer to put a reassuring hand on his shoulder. "You don't have to explain, really…"
She was standing very close to him. He slid his hands awkwardly into his pockets. "This isn't really about the globe," he said. You said you loved me like a brother, he added mentally. I want to know if you could love me like a lover… the way I love you. He couldn't just come out with it that baldly!
"What, then?" she prompted.
"Lois, I know you're dating Luthor…" he said. Instantly, he knew he'd made a mistake. Her eyes went cold and she stepped back, her hand falling to her side.
"If you're going to attack Lex again -" she said ominously.
"No!" he interrupted hastily. "I promise I won't say a word against him. It's just…" How could he possibly retrieve the situation? "You and I… I wanted to say…"
His super-hearing chose that moment to kick in, and he froze, cursing inwardly. Could there have been a worse moment? <<… fire at the Nights Inn motel,>> a TV newsman was saying somewhere in the building. <<Firemen are battling to reach the woman, who is trapped …>>
"Say what?" Lois asked, nearly deafening him.
"Fire," he said without thinking, and winced. "I mean, my apartment… could start a fire… I left my iron on… I have to go and turn it off!" He was backing for the door even as he spoke.
"Clark!" Her angry face spoke volumes, but there was no time to mend his bridges.
"Keep watching the movie," he flung over his shoulder as he left the kitchen. "I'll be back later, I promise!"
Chapter Two: The Rising Star
Lois just couldn't understand what had got into Clark. He was always running off without a reasonable explanation, but why right in the middle of a serious talk that he himself had initiated? The last time he had run away from a discussion with her she had been angry enough — but at least then he'd had the excuse of a phone call from that kid about his brother being kidnapped. This time he had no excuse at all, and she was fuming.
The only explanation that made any sense was that he'd had cold feet about what he was going to say. Maybe her gut instinct, that he'd been going to tell her he felt more for her than just friendship, was right; and then he'd remembered her rule about never getting involved with anyone she worked with. Or else — her eyes narrowed — he really had been going to start in on Lex again, and her reaction had scared him off.
Either way, he hadn't even had the decency to come back and finish watching the movie with her. She'd watched the rest of it, her attention only partly on the screen, and then gone to bed. She had tossed and turned all night, too angry to sleep properly, and woken feeling worse than she had the night before.
And now, to add insult to injury, she had to decide what to do with the videotape. If she ignored it, Clark would have to pay an extra day's rental. For a moment, eyeing the offending object balefully, she was tempted to smash it to bits with a hammer and make Clark pay for a replacement. Then her sense of humour came to her rescue. On the whole, she'd rather hit Clark anyway.
No, Clark might not have the consideration to know how to treat a friend properly, but she did. The video box had the store name on it; she would return it for him. It would mean she'd have to drive to work… no, she decided, she'd walk. It would be wise to work off some of this nervous energy before she had to deal with anyone at work. Particularly Clark.
By the time she reached the Planet, however, Lois's temper was in shreds. She had forgotten just how much worse the morning traffic was when you were on foot. She had had an acrimonious exchange of words with a cabbie who had nearly mown her down trying to run a red light, and she had laddered her pantyhose stepping off the kerb to get round a couple of fat, garrulous women more interested in discussing last night's soap opera than in progressing along the sidewalk at a reasonable speed.
She was going to make Clark pay for this, she vowed silently as she retrieved a spare pair of pantyhose from her locker.
Thanks to her detour via the video store and the extra time it took her to change, she entered the newsroom a good ten minutes later than usual; yet there was no sign of Clark at his desk. She stormed down the ramp, nearly running into Cat Grant en route.
"In a hurry, Lois?" the gossip columnist drawled, making no attempt to get out of Lois's way. "What happened, did you stay up too late watching Ivory Tower reruns on your own again?"
It was so close to the frustrating truth that Lois could feel her colour rise. "How come you're in so early?" she returned. "I thought you ladies of the night normally slept later than this."
Cat simply smiled at the jibe. "My, look who got out of bed on the wrong side this morning," she purred. "I did have a hot date last night, as it happens. *All* night. Maybe you should try it some time — it might sweeten your disposition."
Lois swept past her with an angry growl. Not much chance of that if men kept running out on her at a moment's notice, she fumed. But what was the matter with her? She didn't want to sleep with Clark — she wasn't even sure she wanted to date someone she worked with. She had no idea how she would have responded if he'd worked up the courage to ask her out last night, instead of running away. No, she just wanted him to treat her as a friend, instead of blowing hot and cold on her all the time.
And where was he now, anyway? Avoiding her after his appalling lapse of manners? She switched on her computer and checked her email — nothing. Clark usually let her know if he was following up a lead elsewhere before coming into work.
A few minutes later, Perry started calling everyone into the conference room for a meeting. That explained Cat's early arrival, Lois realised; Perry always forewarned Cat if he wanted her to be in for a morning meeting. There must be something important on the agenda.
Perry waited until everyone was seated and he had their full attention, then unfurled the morning edition of the Planet. The main headline read, "Midwest drought worsens", and the article below the fold was about the forthcoming meeting between Foreign Secretary Wallace and the Ambassador of Omir.
"Superman saved several people from a fire last night," Perry said. "He's been helping the fire services fight the blaze all night. Thanks to Clark Kent, who phoned in a brief report in the early hours of this morning, we have a sidebar on our front page…"
Lois's heart was hammering. Clark's iron hadn't *really* started a fire, had it? It hadn't even occurred to her that he might have a good reason for staying away… Then, as Perry put the paper down, she saw the full headline: "Superman fights hotel blaze". She breathed a sigh of relief, even as her annoyance with Clark mounted again. He was so desperate to avoid her that he'd spent half the night covering a lousy fire?
"This is the front page of this morning's Metropolis Star," Perry said portentously. He unfurled a second broadsheet. This one had a banner headline about the fire, above a large colour photograph of Superman swooping down to pluck a victim from the top storey of the blazing building.
"The Metropolis Star has consistently scooped us on every major local story in the last two weeks," Perry said. He was looking seriously concerned, Lois realised. "Their circulation figures are rocketing, while ours are steadily dropping. Our publishers are on the phone to me every day, asking me what I'm going to do about it. So now I'm asking you what *you* are going to do about it."
Lois tuned out as Perry continued to expand on the evils of falling circulation figures and the possibility of staff cutbacks. The Planet had better journalists, there was no question about it. The run of luck the Star had been experiencing had to be just that, pure fluke; it couldn't last.
Right now she was more interested in finding her errant partner and shaking some sense out of him, than in worrying about strategies for scooping the Star's two-bit hacks.
Perry had moved on to asking each member of staff in turn what he or she was working on, and decreeing new stories or changes of focus to pep the paper up. Lois reported that she and Clark were still investigating the mysterious vault below the art museum, and Perry frowned.
"I want you to put that on the back burner for a while," he said. "I need reporters out on the street, ready to report on the stories as they break, not an hour after they've broken. No, Lois -" He shook a finger warningly at her as she opened her mouth to protest. "- you know and I know what makes for good investigative journalism, but if we don't get these figures up soon there may not be a paper to publish the results in."
So she was going to be walking the beat again, like a rookie? Lois fumed as she went back to her desk for her bag. At least she had worn flat shoes today for the walk to work. Still, she was damned if she was going to be the only one to suffer. She threw herself into her chair and reached for the phone. But there was no answer from Clark's apartment, and she slammed the handset back into the cradle in frustration. Clark was *so* going to pay for this!
She stood up and called across the newsroom, "Jimmy!"
Jimmy, busy loading film into his camera with loving care, started and turned an apprehensive face towards her. He obviously thought she was going to set him some research task which would keep him off the streets. The idea that someone at the Planet still held her in awe comforted Lois slightly, and she unbent enough to smile at him. "Didn't Perry say you were on photographer duty today? You may as well come out with me, since I seem to be short of a partner."
At the acid tone of the last few words, Jimmy shot a sideways glance at Clark's empty desk and paled a trifle, but he called back a cheerful, "Great! Be right there!" Watching him swiftly gathering his equipment, Lois wondered cynically how long his bright-eyed enthusiasm would last when faced with a long, hard day pounding the streets.
She turned and led the way out of the building. As they hit the street, Jimmy asked diffidently, "So where do we start?"
"Might as well start with an update on the hotel fire," Lois said. She put two fingers in her mouth and whistled up a cab. It was also the last place Clark was known to have been, but she didn't need to mention that to Jimmy.
Arriving at the Nights Inn downtown, Lois was surprised to find that the fire was not yet out. The hotel itself was little more than a smouldering ruin, but the fire had spread some distance, and a number of fire engines and crews were still battling to control the blaze several blocks from the hotel. An ambulance station had been set up in a vacant lot across the street, and as Lois scanned the area she saw Superman landing there, an ominously still figure in his arms.
She hurried in that direction, watching while he handed over the victim to the medical crew with a few words of explanation. As he turned away he was accosted by a journalist Lois didn't recognise, but who nevertheless looked oddly familiar. The woman asked him a question and then held out her cellphone to catch his answer. Neat trick, Lois acknowledged grudgingly.
Approaching the pair, Lois caught the tail end of Superman's response, delivered in his usual deep, formal tones: "… shouldn't spread any further, but there may still be people trapped. Excuse me."
He looked unusually grim, Lois thought as he turned and sprang into the air. There was something else about his face that tugged at her heartstrings, but she had no time to work out what it was. The auburn-haired reporter said a few closing words into her cellphone and hung up, turning with a satisfied smile. Lois smothered a startled gasp and stopped dead in her tracks.
The next instant she staggered and almost fell as Jimmy, his reactions not quite up to the challenge, barged into her from behind. Lois recovered her balance and wheeled to wither him with a glare. "Sorry," he muttered hastily and darted off towards the cluster of medical staff, pulling out his camera.
Lois turned back, plastering a smile on her face. What was Linda King doing back in Metropolis?
"Linda," she said with false joviality. "It's been so long. You're back in civilisation again?"
"Lois," Linda responded coolly. "I thought I'd run into you sooner or later. Yes, I'm working for the Star now. You know, Metropolis's top newspaper?"
Lois snorted. "That depends whether you go by circulation figures or quality," she said.
"The reading public has the final say on the quality that's appropriate, wouldn't you agree?" Linda said condescendingly.
Bristling, Lois bit back a sharp retort. The Metropolis Star would soon run out of luck and plunge back into obscurity. She'd see to it personally if necessary, she vowed silently.
"Have you been here long?" she enquired. "Had any articles published yet?"
Linda smiled, a slow, self-satisfied smile that set Lois's teeth on edge. "I only started yesterday," she confided, "but I got the scoop on the hotel fire last night. I happened to be interviewing someone two blocks away for another story when it started. I'm just here for the followup."
"That was lucky," Lois said, controlling her chagrin with an effort. "I imagine we'll be seeing a lot of each other in future, then. I'd better go — on with the story, you know!" She laughed brittly and turned on her heel.
The paramedics were all busy with patients, so Lois hurried across the road to get a firsthand perspective on the fire scene and interview the fire crews. There were reporters and camera crews all over the place, but no sign of Clark. Superman was dividing his efforts between helping to douse the remaining pockets of flames, and ferrying stretchered patients to the ambulance station. Within an hour the last of the fire was out, and Lois finally managed to get an interview with the exhausted fire chief.
"The streets in this area are too narrow for us to get proper access, and these old apartment blocks don't comply with modern fire regulations," he said in response to her question about the extent of the fire. "We doused the surrounding buildings as best we could, but the wind shifted early this morning and the fire jumped several streets in quick succession. If it hadn't been for Superman's help it would probably have burnt clear through to the river."
Lois asked a few more questions and then closed her notebook. "I expect you'll be glad to be able to go off duty now," she commented.
The fire chief smiled sourly. "No such luck." He jerked a thumb skywards. "The big guy says there are no more victims trapped alive, but we still have to go through and retrieve the bodies, and check whether the gutted buildings are safe. I hope Superman'll stay on to help us with that — it takes about three times as long when we're on our own."
"Good luck," Lois said. "And thanks for your time." She turned away and retraced her steps towards the ambulance station, feeling slightly sick. It was years since she'd reported on a large fire, and she'd mercifully forgotten about that part of the cleanup operation.
Linda King was no longer in sight at the ambulance station, Lois was relieved to see. As she finished interviewing one of the paramedics, Superman came in with another stretcher. She waited until he'd finished handing over to a doctor, then called to him. "Superman! Do you have time for questions?"
"Lois." He turned and strode over to her. "Yes, that's the last patient for the hospital."
She studied his face covertly as she asked the rote questions. His manner was perceptibly less formal than it had been earlier with Linda, she noticed with a secret thrill; but he still looked grim, and something more than grim. As she asked about the change in wind direction earlier, he winced and dragged a hand down over his face, leaving a smudge of soot on one cheek. Lois suddenly realised with a shock that he looked tired. Superman wasn't supposed to get tired, was he? And there was a hint of some deep emotion in his eyes — pain? Anger?
A flash went off behind Lois, and Superman blinked. Lois turned, ready to blister the photographer with a few choice words, but held her tongue when she realised that the culprit was Jimmy. He was only doing his job, after all.
She turned back to Superman. "I don't suppose you've seen Clark?" she asked.
He looked nonplussed for a moment at the abrupt change of subject, but recovered quickly. "He was here earlier," he said. "Should I give him a message if I see him again?"
Lois smothered a grin at the concept of using Superman as a messenger boy; still, it would be useful if Clark was going to keep avoiding her all day. "It's just that I… we haven't heard from him this morning," she said, "and Perry White is on our tails about getting to the hot news before the Star does. Clark'll get into trouble if he stays out of touch for too long." She looked up at Superman. His eyes were intent, so she added, "The Star's been scooping us regularly, and they're starting to cut into our circulation. Perry's worried about the Planet cutting back, or even closing."
He nodded. "I'll be sure to tell him if I see him," he said. "Now, if you'll excuse me…" Then his eyes suddenly shifted, and his face went blank. When he focused again, he looked sombrely at Lois. "Freeway pileup," he said tersely. "Want a lift?"
"Sure! Uh, can I just tell Jimmy…"
"I'll take him too." A moment later Lois found herself moving rapidly across the ground, Superman holding her with one arm around her waist instead of in his arms as usual. Then he was scooping up a startled Jimmy with the other arm and soaring into the sky to dart across town, leaving it to Lois to explain breathlessly where they were headed.
Chapter Three: Knight in Distress
Thanks to Superman, the Daily Planet got the scoop on the pile-up story at least. Lois sent Jimmy back to the labs as soon as he'd taken a dozen or so shots of the accident scene, while she phoned in her initial copy for the afternoon edition and then returned to get more details for the morning's follow-up. By six that evening she had filed detailed reports on both the pile-up and the fire, and had also stolen some time to start a couple of lines of research into the history of the mysterious art treasures.
The only fly in the ointment was that Clark still hadn't turned up. He'd left voicemail for her around noon to say that he'd be at the Hall of Records, researching the ownership of the land under the art museum, but that was hardly satisfactory. Lois was still itching to give him a piece of her mind about the way he'd treated her, and the longer she had to wait, the sharper that piece got.
Finally, she gave up waiting for him to show his face at work, and headed home. She showered, changed into sweats and tossed a pre-packaged lasagne into the microwave, then tried Clark's apartment again. Still no answer.
Too tired from her long day to go out for a run or do an aerobic workout, yet too restless to settle down with a book, Lois subsided in front of the television and did some channel-hopping while she ate. After a while a news bulletin caught her eye: campaigners in Chicago, where the Ambassador of Omir was engaged in trade negotiations, were protesting against the Omiri human rights record. Lois wondered whether there would be demonstrations in Metropolis next week, when the Omiri delegation arrived to meet with the Secretary of State. It would certainly liven the city up for a few days…
The news announcer segued to local news, and after covering the freeway pile-up in some detail, gave a brief update on the fire. The video clip was from earlier in the day, but the voice-over said that Superman was still busy there, assisting with the cleanup operation. Watching, Lois was reminded how tired he had looked that morning. He'd been on the go all day; what must he be feeling like by now?
She switched off the television and rose to dispose of her plate, her brow furrowed thoughtfully. Then she picked up the phone and called a cab.
Fifteen minutes later, Lois stopped her cab a block from the gutted hotel building and paid off the driver. The fire engines and ambulances were gone, but the street directly in front of the hotel was parked solid with official vehicles. A mortuary van pulled away as Lois approached.
The hotel itself was a hive of activity; floodlights had been set up everywhere, and people with clipboards were busy examining the structure of the building. Lois lifted the yellow warning tape and ducked underneath it, waving her press pass impatiently at the young policeman who came hurrying up to intercept her.
A small knot of men was standing around a trestle table in what had been a courtyard, and Lois spotted the familiar red and blue of Superman's uniform among them. As she walked up to the group, Superman was saying something about the ceiling of the dining room.
A fussy little man with greying hair nodded and started conferring with the others about the best strategy for searching the building. Superman stood by patiently, answering an occasional question about the safety of various parts of the building.
Lois listened, her annoyance mounting steadily. After a couple of minutes, she cleared her throat. "Excuse me," she said firmly and clearly.
The discussion stopped short, and seven pairs of startled eyes fixed themselves on her. The fussy little man stepped forward. "I'm sorry, miss," he said self-importantly, "members of the public are…"
"Lois Lane, Daily Planet," she interrupted. "Can you explain what's going on here?"
The man's chest swelled. "This is an official investigation," he declaimed. "We cannot comment on the results until…"
"I'm not interested in the results," Lois snapped. "I want to know what Superman is doing here."
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Superman start and rub his shoulder self-consciously, but she kept her gaze riveted on the official. Superman folded his arms again and remained silent. The little man pursed his lips for a moment and then, as her attention showed no sign of wavering, said reluctantly, "He's assisting us with risk assessment of the investigation site."
"I see." Lois raised her eyebrows. "And you are… ?"
"Ernest Pickering, Fire Investigation Department," the man said. "Look, Ms Lane…"
"Mr Pickering, isn't it the job of the Buildings Safety Department to assess the safety of buildings after a fire?" She waved an arm at the people busy in the ruins. "Isn't that what they're busy with as we speak?"
"Yes, Ms Lane, but Superman is able to give us the information more quickly," Pickering said.
"What's the hurry?" Lois asked. "Why can't it wait till morning?"
Pickering smiled condescendingly. "They're predicting rain for the morning," he said. "It may destroy valuable forensic evidence. Now, Ms Lane, the sooner we can continue with our job, the sooner we can *all* go home."
She nodded. "How long have you been here, Mr Pickering?" she enquired gently.
"About two hours," he said, and glanced at his watch. "A little more."
"And what have you managed to do so far?"
Pickering began to turn an apoplectic shade of red. "We have set up operations and started the preliminary survey…"
"Almost nothing, in other words. You don't *seem* to be in any great hurry. Tell me, Mr Pickering, have you any idea how long Superman has been on duty here?"
He looked astonished. "I… uh…"
Lois ostentatiously checked her watch. "I make it about twenty-five hours now. Aside from when he was busy with the freeway pile-up, of course."
Pickering looked helplessly at Superman, who nodded impassively. Lois got a sudden strange feeling that Superman was enjoying the confrontation, but she dismissed the flight of fancy. After all, he hadn't shown much sign of a sense of humour to date.
She went in for the kill. "Have you any idea what the labour laws say about allowing workers, particularly emergency workers, to work four straight shifts? No? Well, perhaps you should find out. You wouldn't want your department to get fined, would you?"
Pickering deflated suddenly, going as pale as he had been red earlier, and lifted a hand to tug at his collar. Bingo! Lois thought, and wondered for an instant what other labour laws he'd been breaking recently. "And that's nothing to what'll happen if the Superheroes' Union gets wind of this," she added.
Pickering opened and closed his mouth several times, but nothing emerged. Lois transfixed him with a steely glare. "Well?" she demanded.
He looked at Superman and found his voice at last. "Thank you for your assistance, Superman," he said hoarsely. "I.. my team… we'll be able to carry on from here."
Superman nodded. "You're welcome," he said solemnly.
Before he could say another word, Lois grabbed his elbow. "Excellent!" she exclaimed. "Goodbye, Mr Pickering, and good luck with your investigation." She wheeled and strode away, drawing Superman with her. Their footsteps crunched loudly in the echoing silence as they left the rubble- covered courtyard; not until they were almost out of earshot did the conversation behind them resume.
Halfway back to the street, Lois suddenly realised that Superman's arm was shaking. She shot a curious glance at his face, and was startled to discover that he was trying hard to suppress a fit of laughter. "S… Superheroes' Union?" he stammered after a moment.
Her own sense of the ridiculous kicked in, and a chuckle escaped her. "It worked, didn't it?"
A broad grin lit up his face. "Oh, it worked all right… his face, when you said he'd done almost nothing so far…" He broke into something that sounded almost like coughing; only, Superman didn't cough. Lois walked on beside him in silence, torn between amusement at the scene they had left behind, and amazement at this new and very human facet of Superman's character.
They reached the street, and Superman lifted the tape for Lois to duck underneath; then he floated gently over it and landed beside her. He smiled warmly at her. "'Quis custodies custodiet?'" he said.
She frowned at him in puzzlement. "'Who shall watch the watchers?'" she queried.
"Or in this case, who shall take care of the guardians," he said. "Thank you for your concern, Lois."
"It looked like someone needed to tell you when to quit!" she retorted.
"My m…" he started, then seemed to think better of whatever he'd begun to say. Her eyes narrowed, but he went on glibly, "I dare say you're right. You're a force to be reckoned with, Lois."
As she regarded him dubiously, wondering whether that constituted a compliment, he added, "Can I walk you to your car?"
"I came by cab," she said. "I didn't want to park in this area at night."
"May I offer you a ride home, then?"
"Thank you, I'd enjoy that." She smiled at him as he scooped her into his arms, then they were airborne.
Thank heavens he had taken five minutes to shower and change after he'd finished locating the last of the bodies for the fire crew, Clark reflected as they flew; otherwise Lois would have been covered in soot and reeking of smoke by the time they reached her apartment. Perhaps she was right, and he should have stayed away from the fire scene afterwards, but the sick feeling in his belly wouldn't let him relax. It was better doing something — even something banal and pointless — than sitting at home with his conscience.
And then Lois had come to his rescue, like a breath of fresh air. No, that didn't even come close to doing her justice. Like a sail to a shipwrecked sailor; like a shaft of sunlight to a prisoner in a dungeon. The guilt was still gnawing away inside him, but when he focused on Lois the world miraculously seemed sane and whole again, no longer bleak and filled with nightmares.
He negotiated the window that Lois had conveniently left unlatched, and drifted down to the living-room floor. He gently lowered Lois to her feet, and her clasp loosened from about his neck, but one of her hands lingered on his arm. He looked down into her starry eyes and mentally took a step backward. He might be starving for her touch, desperate for her company to keep his demons at bay a little longer, but he couldn't ignore the warning signs: the blind hero-worship in her gaze, the way her heart had thudded and her breathing had quickened when he had picked her up.
He needed to keep a firm grip on his reaction to this woman.
Her tongue slid out to moisten her lips in unconscious invitation. At least, he hoped it was unconscious. "Thanks for the ride," she said. "And I haven't thanked you yet for taking Jimmy and me to the scene of the pile-up today. We scooped the Star, for a change."
"You're welcome, Lois. I'm happy to help the Daily Planet; you've been good friends to me in the past." Perry was going to kill him when he got in tomorrow, Clark thought with a sudden twinge of worry. He wouldn't be aware that Clark had been looking out for the paper's interests, only that one of his reporters had been AWOL — and in a time of crisis, too.
Hard on the heels of that thought came another, and the bottom dropped out of his stomach. Lois was going to skin him alive. He had scarcely thought about their parting since last night, and not at all since the early hours of this morning, but now it struck him full force just how rude he had been to run out on her, and how she was likely to view his absence since then. Tomorrow was going to be one of the worst days of his life, unless he could do some very fast talking. And for that he would need to have had some sleep… if the nightmares would let him.
He stepped away from her, towards the open window. "Good night, Lois," he said, and turned to leave.
"Superman!" He swung back, startled by the sudden urgency in her voice. "Are you all right? You look… upset."
He stiffened, and straightened his shoulders with an effort. Was the carefully impassive Superman persona failing him? Just how much could Lois see of his inner turmoil? "I'm fine, Lois, really. You don't have to worry about me." He groaned inwardly. Nice move, Clark, he reproached himself — like that's going to put her off!
Sure enough, she stepped closer and laid a hand on his folded arms, her eyes darkening with concern. "You don't sound fine. Would you like to stay and talk? I could make some coffee. You do drink coffee, don't you?"
"Yes, I do," he said, momentarily distracted. "I mean no, thanks, Lois, I don't think I should stay…" He stopped for a breath and tried to pull himself together. He had to think faster than this if he was going to stay ahead of Lois. "It's late, and I should go."
"It's not that late. Is there someone else you can talk to?"
His mind flitted to his parents. They listened when he talked about some of his troubles, and nearly always helped him to see things in better perspective, but he couldn't talk to them about the real horrors of Superman's job. They were simple farmers; they weren't equipped to deal with horror and evil.
Clark realised Lois was waiting for his reply, a frown gathering on her face. "It doesn't matter," he said firmly. "Now, if you'll excuse me…" He pulled back the curtain and prepared to step up onto the windowsill.
"Is this some guy thing?" she said angrily.
He wheeled, astonished. "I beg your pardon?"
"You guys like to think you're so macho, and you don't need to talk about your worries, or your feelings. You think it'll make you look weak, or something. And even when you do start to talk, you'll just up and run away if it gets too personal!"
Her eyes were flashing with scorn. She was no longer talking about Superman, Clark realised with a sinking feeling. He must have hurt her really badly the previous evening, if she was taking it out on her hero.
"I think you're being a little unfair…" he said cautiously.
"Oh yeah? Why don't you want to talk about what's bothering you, then?"
Because I don't want you to get to know Superman, I want you to get to know Clark! He hesitated, casting about for inspiration.
"Is it because I'm a reporter?" she said suddenly. "Do you think I'd publish what you told me?"
"No, Lois, of course not!"
"Because anything you say is strictly off the record," she swept on, disregarding his response. "I only want to help because you're a friend, and I… I care about you."
She sounded genuinely wounded, and Clark conceded defeat. He was simply no match for Lois in Mad Dog mode — not when he was so tired, anyway. He let her lead him away from the window, and subsided onto one of the loveseats with a silent sigh, propping his elbows on his knees.
Lois closed the window and went to fill the coffee machine. A strong sense of deja vu swept over Clark. This time, however, there was no call to action to rescue him from the impending conversation. After a minute, Lois came back from the kitchen and seated herself opposite him. There was a pause; Clark studied his hands, feeling Lois's eyes examining his face intently.
"Is it the fire?" she asked quietly.
"Yeah," he said. Mostly the fire, anyway. He couldn't think of anything to add. Maybe she'd realise what a dumb idea this was, and let him go…
"Was it a bad one?"
"No… Well, yes… It wasn't that bad at first…" This time Lois let the silence lengthen, and Clark found himself thinking back to how the hotel had looked when he'd first arrived: the kitchen wing at the back engulfed in flames and the fire starting to take hold down one side of the main building. And the sounds — the roaring in the kitchen itself, the terrified screams of the people trapped by the mounting flames… The sounds always came back in his dreams.
"They're all bad," he said suddenly. "Fires are the worst — the worst I've had to deal with, anyway. When people set out to hurt each other, or they just don't care who they hurt, that's tough to deal with sometimes, but fire… Fire isn't like a force of nature, it's like a great, malignant, ravening beast, devouring everything it can reach… buildings, people's treasures… people… animals… everything. While I'm trying to get to someone who's trapped, it's finding something else to gobble up, behind my back. And the noise…"
His hands were gripping each other, twisting together. He was conscious of the desire to grab something, clench it in his hands until it exploded into dust… He reached for a fold of his cape instead and forced himself to pleat it gently, controlling the destructive, dangerous emotion.
"When they're screaming, that's bad enough, but it means I can find them. The other ones… I can't hear their breathing or their heartbeats over the fire. And I can't just x-ray a room at a time, the way I usually can, because of the smoke — I have to scan through the whole room to make sure that no one's there, and it takes so long… and then, when I get there -" His voice cracked, and he stopped to clear his throat. "When I get there, sometimes they're so badly hurt, I don't know how to pick them up so I don't hurt them more. But I have to move them right away, or they'll die…"
His cape was twisted and crumpled. He pushed it aside before he tore a hole in it, and clasped his hands again. Lois was silent, and he glanced up at her, anticipating horror and revulsion on her face. But although her eyes were riveted on him, they showed only deep sorrow and sympathy.
"The firemen must have that problem, too," she said.
He hunched his shoulders defensively. "I guess so," he conceded. "It doesn't make it any easier to cope with…"
"I guess they have their team to help them cope with it," she said thoughtfully. "And they get counselling sometimes when it gets really bad. It's not surprising you find it difficult to deal with on your own. You shouldn't *have* to deal with it on your own."
"You're saying I should see a shrink?" He laughed mirthlessly. "That would look great in the tabloids! I'm the most powerful person on Earth, Lois — if people thought I might be going crazy, they'd panic. And rightly so."
"You're too hard on yourself," she said firmly. "Nobody thinks regular emergency workers are crazy if they get counselling. Just because you're invulnerable physically… Well, I don't think it's occurred to most people that you have human emotions," she concluded, looking slightly shamefaced.
Clark shrugged noncommittally. He wasn't altogether comfortable with the idea that Lois was starting to view Superman as human. It was safer if he seemed godlike, unattainable.
"Were many people injured this time?" she asked after a while, when he didn't reply.
"About forty, I think," he said. "And nine dead." He couldn't prevent the harsh note that crept into his voice, and he winced inwardly; then it occurred to him that he could turn the conversation to advantage. If Lois knew her hero had feet of clay, perhaps she'd be a bit less keen on him. "And most of them were my fault," he added.
"Why do you say that?" she asked softly.
"Five people were dead by the time I got there," he said. "Two of them probably died instantly — they were in the kitchen, right near the explosion — but the others…" He swallowed. He was back in the gutted building, looking at the twisted, blackened bodies as the firemen freed them from the debris. "I didn't hear about the fire until it was too late. I should have been there sooner."
"Why didn't you hear earlier?"
"I was… with someone, a friend, talking, and I just didn't hear the sirens. I should have been paying more attention!"
She nodded thoughtfully. It suddenly occurred to him to worry that she would take the mention of a friend as licence to ask about his private life; but her next words seemed to be going off on a different tangent altogether. "What's it like, your super-hearing? You can turn it on and off, right?"
"Right," he said, grateful for a less painful topic of conversation. "I can tune it in to a certain area, or a certain type of sound — it's like normal hearing that way, only more selective. I can focus on your heartbeat…" He did so for a moment, feeling his taut nerves automatically relax a little at the familiar, beloved sound. "… or I can focus on what people nearby are doing…" He broadened his focus and then homed in on the various television sets he could hear. "Your right-hand neighbour is watching a movie — Casablanca, I think… Someone on the top floor is watching LNN… Over the road, they've got the football on, but whoever was watching is snoring…"
She grinned. "Are there any limits to what you can hear?"
"Oh, sure," he said, shrugging. "I can't hear clear round to the other side of the world, if that's what you mean. I can hear pretty much anything that goes on within a few city blocks of me. And some things — sirens, for example, or someone calling 'Help, Superman!' — I seem to be able to pick up from several miles away."
"Does it ever get overwhelming, being able to hear all of that?"
He shook his head. "I don't let myself hear all of it at once — it's too loud. I have to shut my super-hearing off completely to be able to concentrate on my normal hearing, like this conversation. A few times, when I was first learning to use it, I wasn't able to shut it off. Yeah, I guess that was overwhelming… frightening…" He flushed suddenly, remembering his first ever experience of super- hearing. "And sometimes downright embarrassing."
She nodded again, watching him intently. "So how come you blame yourself for missing the sirens last night?"
His eyebrows shot up. "What?"
She frowned at him and spoke with exaggerated patience. "You've just admitted that you can't carry on a normal conversation while you're concentrating on your super- hearing, and that you rely on some sort of special instinct to pick up calls for help. So how is it your fault that you missed the sirens last night while you were talking to your friend? You don't sit in a tank all day between rescues, listening out for distress calls. I mean, I assume you don't."
He had to grin at the image, but his mind was whirling. Lois thought it was okay for him to arrive late at an emergency because he had a private life?
"What about the others?" she asked. When he frowned in confusion, she added, "You said only some of them were dead when you got there. What happened to the others?"
Clark felt his jaw set as he remembered. "That was all my fault. I thought we had the fire under control — it was nearly out. I flew a couple of the worst-injured patients to the hospital, to get them into intensive care, and then I… made a detour on the way back. I thought it wouldn't matter if I took a few minutes off. And while I was gone the wind changed, and the fire spread right through the evacuation zone and into apartment blocks where people were sleeping. Four of them died because I… I was playing hooky!"
"Were you talking to Clark?"
His eyes flew to hers in astonishment. After a moment he managed to suppress his panic and ask, with what he hoped was a reasonable appearance of nonchalance, "What do you mean?"
"Clark phoned in a report on the fire in the early hours of the morning. I just wondered if you decided to let him know about it, that's all. Superman, you couldn't possibly know the wind was about to change -"
"But I shouldn't have taken the chance! It was completely irresponsible, and four more people died because of me!" He buried his face in his hands. "Two of them were just little kids, Lois. Their parents…" He had to clear his throat again. "Their parents are going to be grieving the rest of their lives because of me."
He felt Lois's hand settle reassuringly on his shoulder. "Superman, all those people died tonight because of the fire. Not because of you. Have you any idea how many more people would have died if it hadn't been for you? The fire chief said the fire would have burned all the way to the river without your help. That's an awful lot of sleeping people."
"But I should have been there!"
Her hand gripped his shoulder. He had the impression she would have liked to shake him. "Superman, you *can't* protect the entire population of Metropolis, all the time," she said forcefully. "People die, and yes, it's tragic, but it's one of the things we do. You have phenomenal powers, and you're responsible for using them to the benefit of others — we all have that responsibility with whatever abilities we have. But you're not responsible for our lives."
He lifted his head to look at her. "'Whatever I can do, it's enough.'" She cocked an eyebrow at him, and he added, "Something you once said about me to Clark."
"And I was right," she said firmly. "Do you know how many fires used to flare up again after the fire crews went home? They used to smoulder under the floorboards or in wall cavities, sometimes for days. I did an article on it back when I was a cub reporter. That hardly ever happens any more, because of your x-ray vision. You have to focus on all the good you do, Superman, not on the rare occasions when it's not enough."
Clark nodded silently. He didn't find it as easy to dismiss his responsibility as she evidently did, but he could feel the hurt inside him begin to ease at her words. Perhaps in time he'd be able to forgive himself.
"It was arson, you know," he said suddenly. "I could smell traces of plastic explosive in the kitchen."
Lois stiffened and sat back on the couch, removing her hand from Clark's shoulder. He felt almost bereft, but he didn't allow himself to react. Glancing at her face, he was surprised to see that she was looking embarrassed.
"I guess you must wonder sometimes why you bother," she said in a low voice. "There you are, trying to make the world a better place, and meanwhile the humans you're trying to save are doing their best to kill one another."
He shook his head quickly. "It's not like that, Lois. You said it yourself, it comes down to individual responsibility. People like you are doing their best to make the world a better place, too — fighting crime and corruption by exposing it and removing the perpetrators from society."
"I guess so." She was silent for a while, thinking, then she added wistfully, "There always seems to be another criminal, though; another evil to fight. You give us hope, Superman. Maybe one day the world will follow your example and put an end to it…"
Then she shrugged off the solemn moment. "I promised you coffee," she remarked, smiling. "I'd better go and get it."
"Thank you, Lois — for everything," Clark said. He had to repress a sudden impulse to seize her hand and kiss it.
She had noticed his involuntary movement, but she didn't comment; she merely got to her feet and headed for the kitchen.
Clark let out a shaky breath and dropped his head onto his arms. He wasn't at all sure it had been a good idea to let Lois talk to Superman so intimately, but he had to admit he was feeling a thousand times better. He would drink his coffee quickly and then go. With a bit of luck, he'd be able to sleep tonight without the nightmares.
Chapter Four: The Best Laid Plans
Lois slowly gathered the coffee things, giving herself a bit of a breather. She would never have guessed that the most powerful being on Earth would be so doubtful about his own abilities. She had ached for him as he spoke about the horrors he had to face, the deaths he felt responsible for. By good fortune more than anything, what she'd said seemed to have reached him; he had still looked exhausted when she had left the living room, but the haunted look had gone from his eyes.
Superman also had more of a private life than she had imagined. Well, she had to admit that she had never really thought about his private life beyond wishing she featured in it. He had friends that he visited and talked to… she felt a sharp pang of envy. She'd always thought of herself as his friend, and she felt she'd proved it on more than one occasion, too, yet he'd never visited her just to talk… Did that mean he didn't value her friendship? But perhaps he would, after tonight.
She hadn't missed his double-take when she'd mentioned Clark, either. He obviously visited Clark regularly, even after Clark had hidden that globe thing from him. Just how close were the two men? Superman hadn't mentioned Clark, as she'd thought he might, when she'd asked him whether he had anyone else to talk to. Yet Clark had told Superman what she had said about "whatever he could do" being enough; how much more had Clark told him? Some of the things she'd said to him about Superman… she blushed to think of those being passed on.
She pictured Superman sitting in Clark's apartment, relaxed, the way men were around each other, not sitting tensely the way he was doing now. That sense of humour he had shown tonight for the first time… did they laugh and joke together? And occasionally, in the middle of a conversation, Superman would abruptly get called away to a rescue. She pictured him getting that faraway look, then politely saying "Excuse me," in that deep voice of his; then he would suddenly be gone. That would be… wow. But very frustrating too, she acknowledged as she finished pouring the coffee.
Still, it hadn't happened tonight. They had had a lengthy conversation, and he was still in her living room, waiting to drink coffee with her. Unlike some people she could name, she thought acidly, remembering the coffee that had gone to waste last night; but she wasn't going to let Clark spoil another evening. She picked up the tray and carried it out into the living room, putting it down on the little table beside Superman.
He was still sitting on the loveseat where she had left him, his legs braced apart and his elbows resting on his knees; but his head had sunk into the crook of one arm, and he was fast asleep.
A great wave of tenderness welled up inside Lois. She wanted to reach out and stroke his hair; she wanted to gather him up in her arms and cradle him against her body.
She did neither; she sat down opposite him and sipped slowly at her coffee, waiting for him to start awake again. Her eyes dwelt lovingly, lingeringly, on his smooth hair, what little she could see of his buried face, his hunched shoulders under the scarlet cape, the muscles of his legs outlined by the blue tights…
After ten minutes, she had to admit to herself that he wasn't going to wake of his own accord any time soon. But what was she going to do with him? It went against the grain to wake him up just to send him home — wherever "home" was. She imagined him passing out again on the way home, and ploughing into a mountain or a building; no, that would never do. But she couldn't just leave him here, asleep, and take herself to bed. If he slept all night in that position he'd be awfully stiff in the morning… that is, if Superman got stiff muscles. But if he could get tired, maybe he could get stiff, too.
If she could get him to lie down… but the loveseat looked way too small to accommodate that large, powerful body. It would make more sense to get him into her bed; then she could sleep on the couch herself.
But how on earth was she going to get him there? She pondered for a minute, setting her empty coffee mug down. Then she leant forward and placed her hand gently on his shoulder. "Superman," she said softly, close to his ear.
He shook his head slightly and made a sound of protest, deep in his throat. She felt the muscles under her hand bunch, and her mouth went suddenly dry.
"It's time to go to bed," she went on in the same soft, soothing voice. "Bedtime," she repeated clearly as he shifted again.
His head came up, but his eyes didn't open. "Okay, Mom," he mumbled. Lois's mouth fell open in surprise, but she pressed her advantage, getting to her feet and tugging at his shoulder. He stood up slowly, still fast asleep, and she piloted him painstakingly to the bedroom.
Once there, she backed him up against the bed. "Sit down," she said, and he sank obediently onto the edge of the bed. She knelt down at his feet and fumbled with one of his boots; after a moment he bent forward and helped her to take off both boots.
He didn't stop there, however. As Lois stood up and pulled back the covers, about to instruct him to lie down, he reached under his cape and unzipped the back of his suit. She took a startled step backward and watched open-mouthed as he pulled the suit down as far as his waist and then took off the harness underneath that held his cape. She hadn't turned the bedroom light on, but the glow of light from the living room was enough to reveal his perfect physique; everything the tight spandex had promised, and more. Lois longed to run her hands over that smooth olive skin, to feel those pectorals and biceps bulging under her fingers…
He stood up abruptly, reaching for his belt. Lois gasped and backed as far as the door, but she couldn't manage to tear her eyes off him as he methodically stripped off the rest of the suit. Underneath it was a pair of dark- coloured briefs; flushing scarlet, Lois prepared to exit the room in a hurry if he started to remove those. But he turned and felt for the bed instead, heaving a long, contented sigh as he stretched himself out on his stomach and relaxed. Within seconds his breathing was deep and even again.
Shaking, Lois tiptoed forward and pulled the covers over him, managing with some difficulty to keep her eyes averted from him as she did so. It was bad enough that she had watched him as he undressed; she mustn't take any further advantage of his vulnerability. Although the temptation was almost more than she could bear — her whole body was trembling with desire for him.
She turned away and picked up his suit and cape from the floor. They still held an echo of his warmth, and she held them up to her face for a moment to inhale his scent before she forced herself to drape them neatly over a chair. Then she opened a drawer and retrieved a pair of sensible flannel pyjamas before tiptoeing out of the room again.
She closed the door behind her and leant against it for a minute while she caught her breath.
Superman was lying in her bed, almost naked.
And she was going to get a blanket and a pillow, change into the least alluring nightwear she had, and go to sleep on the couch. Alone. And try not to think about Superman again until morning.
An hour and a half later, Lois gave up chasing sleep. Her couches were just too darned uncomfortable to sleep on; she couldn't imagine why she'd ever bought them. She'd tried each in turn, and she'd even tried pushing the two together, but it was no use.
She got up and padded through to the kitchen for a drink of cold milk. Then she opened the bedroom door a crack and peered in.
Superman was still sleeping as she had left him; by the look of it, he hadn't even stirred. He was lying right over on one side of the bed. The other side, her usual side, was empty.
It wouldn't disturb him if she tiptoed in and lay down there. She could lie with her back to him, and they wouldn't even touch. For a moment her stomach clenched at the thought of lying so close to him, but she fought down the wave of desire. She was an adult, not a silly adolescent schoolgirl with a crush on her best friend's big brother. She could control her wayward longings; nothing untoward would happen, because she would never take advantage of Superman like that.
She stepped silently into the room and slipped into bed beside him.
Clark was dreaming.
The fire was all around, roaring and sucking greedily at him. He picked up the sound of terrified screams and hastened in that direction, even though he knew he would be too late. He was always too late.
He found the children huddled in a corner, hiding their faces from the approaching wall of flames. Miraculously, they seemed unhurt; their hair and clothes weren't ablaze, their skin wasn't blistering and blackening before his eyes. He scooped them up and shot out of the burning building. Their parents were standing on the grass outside, grateful tears streaming down their faces, and as Clark handed them over the mother dropped to her knees to embrace them while the father wrung Clark's hand and thanked him effusively.
Clark turned and flew back into the inferno, searching for the other victims he knew were there. His powers didn't start to fail; the fire licked hungrily at him, but he didn't start to feel the agonising heat. He located person after person, always in the nick of time before the flames reached them or the building collapsed around them, and delivered each one to safety.
As he flew out of the flames for the last time, carrying the last trapped person to safety, he saw the crowd gathered on the grass below him, silently waiting. He flew more slowly, dreading the approaching confrontation, but he knew there was no escaping it. He swooped down and handed his charge over to the paramedics, then turned to face the crowd.
They didn't boo and hiss at him. They didn't turn on him and drive him back into the flames. Instead there was a brief silence, then a smattering of applause.
Clark knew that something was uncannily different about the scene. The dream never went like this; everything he tried to do always went horribly wrong. And then he realised what the difference was. He could hear Lois's heart beating close by. Lois was with him this time.
He turned and she was there, smiling encouragingly at him. He held out his arms and drew her slowly into his embrace, resting his cheek against her hair for a timeless moment as they soared through the air. Then he flew over the fire, still holding her close to him, and blew on the flames with his super-breath. The fire died and the world was quiet, except for Lois's heart thudding against his.
The fire scene disappeared, fading into a different, no less familiar dream. He was no longer Superman, but Clark; the Suit had gone, replaced by… by very little other than bedclothes. He was still holding Lois close to him, however, and her heart was beating rapidly, in time with his. He felt the silk of her hair whisper across the skin of his shoulder as she lifted her face towards his.
He lowered his lips to hers, and heat flared instantly between them. Her mouth opened to his in a mute invitation he was quick to answer. He clasped one hand around the nape of her neck, holding her close as his tongue danced with hers and probed the depths of her mouth; the other hand began a leisurely exploration of her body's soft curves.
The dream was unusually vivid and detailed. He could taste the coffee in her mouth, hear her breathing quickening as they kissed, feel her fingers gently caressing the skin of his chest and shoulder, sending tremors of excitement through him. To his disappointment, her clothing didn't melt away as it usually did; but his hand quickly found its way underneath her shirt to explore her back, and she shivered and arched her body against his.
He stroked her skin, savouring the warmth and fine texture beneath his fingertips. As he worked his way slowly around from her back to her side, the material began to get in his way, and he pulled away from her slightly and made swift work of unbuttoning her shirt. Finally, his hand brushed the fabric aside and stroked across the soft smoothness of her stomach, and she shuddered and moaned deep in her throat.
At the sound, he froze for a long, stunned moment. Then he lifted his mouth from hers. "This isn't a dream," he whispered.
Her rapid breathing slowed a little. "No, it isn't," she agreed. He had never heard that particular smoky, sultry tone in her voice before, and another shock of desire shot through him.
But he had to find out what was going on. They had been eating Thai takeout and watching Sleepless in Seattle together; the last thing he could remember was following her to the kitchen, wondering whether to bring up the subject of their relationship. Everything after that was a complete blank. "Lois, I… I don't remember… going to bed," he faltered.
"You fell asleep after we talked," she said. "You were so tired I didn't want to wake you, so I put you to bed."
So they *had* talked? He tried to remember telling her he loved her — it wasn't the sort of thing one would want to forget! — but nothing came to him. Judging by the way she had been kissing him a moment ago, she must have decided she loved him too… *why* couldn't he remember her saying so? Granted, he was still very tired and confused, as well as being constantly distracted by the movement of her hand on his skin. His bare skin…
"You undressed me?" he asked suddenly, incredulously. He couldn't imagine Lois wrestling his jeans off while he slept — he hadn't been *that* tired!
She chuckled. "No, you did that yourself," she said. "You seemed to be on autopilot."
The movement of her chest had reminded him that his hand was still resting in a very intimate position. "I'm sorry," he gasped, pulling it away and fumbling for the edge of her shirt to cover her decently.
"Don't be sorry," she murmured deliberately, leaning forward and drawing his head towards hers. As her lips closed on his, he groaned and abandoned any pretence of rational thought. The kiss deepened quickly, Lois taking the initiative this time and probing his mouth with her tongue. Her hand wandered down his arm to find his and tug it away from its grip on her shirt, guiding it beneath the material once again.
His fingers explored her body, stroking and caressing her softness, learning from her responses how best to please her. Soon she was breathing heavily, and her hands were wandering over his skin to find and exploit his sensitive spots.
Through the waves of desire rolling over him, Clark was conscious of astonishment at the speed with which things were moving. He had hoped that after he had told Lois how he felt, she might agree to go on a date with him. Never in his wildest dreams had he imagined that within a matter of hours they would be in bed together and, it seemed, on the verge of becoming lovers. Not that he minded — there was nothing in the world that he'd rather do than make love with Lois, short of marrying her — but what had happened to all her reservations about sleeping with a colleague?
He lifted his mouth from hers with an effort. "Lois, are you sure this is what you want?" he managed to gasp.
She stilled for a moment, apparently considering the question, and then propped herself up on one elbow, rolling her body away from his. He couldn't suppress a rumbling groan of protest. He saw her teeth gleam in the faint light as she smiled.
"Quite sure," she said huskily, and shucked off her shirt, tossing it onto the floor behind her. She placed a palm against his shoulder and pushed him flat on the bed, then bent over him. Her hair swung out and fanned across his chest as her mouth began to explore his skin. He was dimly aware of her pyjama bottoms following her shirt, then her hands joined her mouth, roaming across his torso, teasing every inch of him into thrilling awareness.
Clark gave up the unequal struggle to cling onto rational thought. Lois was filling his senses with her her magical presence, and within seconds he was lost in a spell that he couldn't have broken if his life depended on it. The room and the world outside it melted away, and all that was left was two bodies, moving together in the darkness.
Lois floated reluctantly back to earth from the dim mists of pleasure. Every muscle in her body was aching pleasantly, and she felt as though she had run a marathon — only no marathon could have produced this languid euphoria, she reflected with a blissful smile.
Her Super lover was lying at her side, one arm tucked around her shoulders; her head was nestled against his shoulder, one arm flung across his chest, one leg still twined with his.
Her inclination to lie like this for the rest of her life, simply enjoying his presence, warred with and finally lost to the impulse to spend more time exploring his magnificent body. After all, there was no telling when she would have another opportunity. She ran her hand slowly across the broad expanse of his chest, savouring the smoothness of his skin against her palm and the definition of the steel-hard muscles beneath.
He sighed softly and she felt his arm tighten about her, his cheek resting briefly against her hair. Then his free hand captured her roving one, carrying it to his lips. His voice rumbled through the ribcage beneath her ear. "Lois… my beautiful, wonderful, incredible Lois," he murmured.
She chuckled lazily. "Incredible? You're the incredible one!" She turned her palm flat against his larger one, and their fingers locked together. She heard a pleased laugh and then felt him drop a kiss on the top of her head.
Blissfully content as she was, though, there was something missing. "Will you tell me…" she began shyly, "… what's your real name?"
Instantly she regretted the words, as his whole body tensed. "What do you mean?" he asked, a note of what sounded almost like panic in his voice.
She shrugged. "I don't feel I should call you Superman," she said. "That's just the name I -"
There was a rapid flurry of movement beside her, then she was lying with her head on the pillow and he was gone. "- made up…" She trailed off in astonishment. "What are you doing?"
There was no answer except for a gust of wind whipping around the room. She sat up and fumbled for the light switch beside her bed. The light came on to reveal Superman already fully dressed, even his hair neatly plastered back into place. She gazed at him open-mouthed, at a complete loss for words.
"This was a terrible mistake," he ground out in a low voice. His face was ashen, and he cast a single appalled glance at her, wincing as he took in her nudity and averting his gaze again. "I should never have let it happen. I'm sorry, Lois."
"Wait!" she cried. "I…" But he had vanished in a red- and-blue blur, only the faint click of the living-room window behind him marking his exit.
Lois sank back and mechanically pulled the quilt over herself, still gazing at the empty doorway in horror. After a while she closed her eyes and the tears welled up to soak unheeded into the pillow.
Chapter Five: A Fractured Friendship
Superman had run out on her. She couldn't believe it. Without a word of explanation — just "I'm sorry, Lois," and then he had vanished. Gone. Disappeared.
What was it about her that attracted that sort of man? Every man in her life turned out just the same. Daddy couldn't stick around long enough to bring up his daughters. Clark couldn't stick around long enough to finish a conversation. Claude… well, the less said about Claude, the better. At least Superman hadn't stolen her story…
No, that was ridiculous. Superman was nothing like Claude. She shouldn't even be thinking of them in the same breath.
It was her. It was all her fault. Maybe all of them were her fault, even Claude. She must inspire men, even the best of men, to behave like rats.
She had sworn to herself that nothing untoward would happen, when she'd got into bed beside Superman. She'd assured herself that she would never take advantage of him, that she could control her base urges. And it had all been a lie. Within minutes she had been cuddling him and kissing him, and then when he wanted to stop she'd practically forced herself on him. She was a cheap slut, and he was right to despise her.
She would probably never see him again, and it was all her fault. She would be alone like this all her life. She deserved no better.
Exhausted and bewildered, Lois switched off the light and lay staring into the darkness. It wasn't long before she fell into a fitful sleep, but time and again she woke from confused dreams of abandonment, reaching out in vain across the empty bed beside her.
The third time it happened, she sat bolt upright. She had to get a grip on herself.
She was wallowing.
Lois Lane did not wallow. She detested wallowing in all its forms. She refused to wallow for a moment longer.
What had happened to destroy Superman's happiness, and her own? What had she done to provoke his reaction — and what could she do to make amends?
She drew up her knees and wrapped her arms around them, resting her chin on top. Then she closed her eyes and thought back to the moment she had got into bed beside Superman.
She had lain down beside him, with her back to him as promised, and concentrated on going to sleep. She had been on the very verge of sleep when he had suddenly moved, rolling over and putting a hand on her shoulder. He had drawn her towards him and into a warm, tender embrace. The memory still made her insides melt.
She had lain rigid in his arms for a long moment, holding her breath while she waited for his next move, before she had realised that he was still fast asleep. So although in a sense he had made the first move, it really didn't count.
She had relaxed, simply enjoying his touch, still resisting the urge to touch him in return. And then, in a heartbeat, everything had changed. His breathing had altered, she had lifted her face to see if he was awake, wondering if she should withdraw to her own side of the bed… and he had kissed her. Kissed her thoroughly and expertly and masterfully, obliterating any thought of retreat. Aside from the fire he was stoking inside her, the only thought in her mind had been the slightly awed question of how far he intended to go. And while she had timidly stroked his chest and shoulder, his hand had gone roving purposefully, heading straight inside her pyjamas, leaving her in little doubt as to the answer.
Yet that had also been an illusion, because he'd thought he was dreaming. Dreaming of her, or someone else? Someone he'd left back on Krypton? There was no telling; but while he'd been adorably embarrassed when he realised she was real, and had quickly apologised for the liberties he'd taken, he hadn't seemed surprised or disgusted that it was her. He'd been understandably confused about how he'd ended up in her bed, but he'd called her by name. It hadn't been a case of mistaken identity, at least not from then on.
And although she had taken the initiative at that point, he hadn't displayed the slightest reluctance to continue. Quite the reverse, in fact… Initially, a certain hesitancy had betrayed his inexperience, and he'd admitted that it was his first time, but boy, was he a fast learner — and he seemed to know exactly what he was setting out to do.
The mere memory of the response he'd coaxed from her set her heart pounding and her limbs trembling. She'd simply had no idea such an experience was possible. "Fireworks" didn't even begin to describe it. It probably helped to have super-senses with which to gauge your partner's response…
But physical abilities alone didn't account for what had happened between them. More than anything, it had been his unmistakable depth of caring that Lois had responded to. He hadn't spoken a word of love, but it had been implicit in every touch, every caress. And the same was true of his tenderness afterwards. She understood now why it was called the afterglow…
"My Lois," he had called her. "My beautiful, wonderful, incredible Lois." The memory brought tears to her eyes. His contentment, his delight, had been unmistakable — up to the very moment when she'd asked his name. And then, in the twinkling of an eye, it had turned to blind panic.
It just didn't make any sense; it had to be some dreadful misunderstanding. She loved him, although she hadn't had a chance to tell him so; and she knew that he loved her. Perhaps, when he thought back on what had happened, he would realise that it hadn't been a terrible mistake after all — it had been natural and right. Surely he would see that.
And in the meantime, she was going to dwell on the wonderful memory of being with him, not on its tragic aftermath.
Lois lay down again, thinking drowsily of how awesome it had felt to be cradled in Superman's arms. A blissful smile crept across her face.
This time, she slept deeply until morning.
She woke to the sound of raindrops scattering across her bedroom window: Mr Pickering's rain had arrived on schedule. An image of the little man's apoplectic face popped into her mind, immediately followed by one of Superman struggling unsuccessfully not to laugh. She was suddenly seized by a desperate longing to touch him, to reassure herself that last night had been real.
Could it really have happened? Was it possible? The memory seemed almost dreamlike… She sat up, wincing as her body complained. Every muscle she possessed, including several she hadn't thought about for years, was protesting. It certainly hadn't been a dream… But what had possessed her? She couldn't remember a single occasion when she'd ever been so overcome by desire, so blind to any other consideration… except that time she'd been drunk on that pheromone perfume, and that hardly counted. She just wasn't the type to approach sex so casually, and she couldn't believe Superman was, either.
She thrust the hurtful thought sharply away from her, before it could upset her equilibrium. It hadn't been casual sex, that was the whole point. It had been lovemaking between two people who cared deeply about each other. She had no doubt about that, and Superman must know it in his heart of hearts. He would realise it soon enough, and come back to tell her so. Maybe he would come over this evening… maybe he would even stay…
A dreamy smile spread over Lois's face as she got out of bed and started to get ready for work. It was still there when she padded out of the bathroom in her robe and opened the closet to choose an outfit. She had a strong suspicion that Perry would have her out on the streets again today, so pants and flat shoes would be sensible… but she didn't feel like being sensible today. She felt far too feminine.
Her gaze swept her work outfits, and her brow creased. Most of them looked like… armour. "I am a professional!" they proclaimed. "Don't mess with me!" But today she wanted to look like a woman. Her eyes strayed briefly towards the white lace dress she had worn on that remarkable morning at the Planet… she thrust the memory hastily out of sight. Reluctantly, she selected a short, pleated tweed skirt that she could wear with low heels and returned to her morning routine, reaching for her memories of last night to recover her sunny mood.
For the second day in a row she arrived at the Planet later than usual. She made her way out of the lift and through the morning bustle to her desk. Several of her colleagues greeted her as she passed, and she found herself smiling at them in an unusually cheery way. Lois Lane was not known for being a morning person, she knew, but this particular morning she was too pleased with life to care if she raised a few eyebrows.
She switched on her computer and started checking her email. Shortly afterwards, Jimmy walked past her desk with a tall stack of papers in his arms and called out a greeting. She waved a hand and smiled in response, then found her eyes following him as he proceeded in the direction of his desk. Jimmy was growing up and filling out, she thought, and becoming quite an attractive young man in the process. He had a fair pair of shoulders and quite a cute butt.
Nothing to compare with Superman's, of course. She smiled. One of the first things you noticed about Superman was those broad, straight shoulders… and the way his massive biceps flexed when he folded his arms. You didn't usually get much of a chance to see his butt, because of the cape, but she'd had a great view of it last night, clad only in his briefs. She was looking forward to getting to know all of that body better…
She suddenly realised that she was gazing mistily across the newsroom, and that Cat was looking back at her with alert interest. Lois nodded as calmly as she could manage and turned her attention back to her screen, hoping Cat was too far away to notice the hot blush that was sweeping over her face.
A few minutes later, she picked up her coffee mug and went to get the first cup of the day. There might even be a decent doughnut; she rather thought she might have worked off a few extra calories last night.
To her annoyance, Cat followed her over to the coffee machine. Lois ignored her completely, but she sashayed up close, disposed herself artistically against the back of a chair and said in low, conspiratorial tones, "So, I see you took my advice."
Lois raised an eyebrow. "What advice would that be?" she scoffed. "I appear to be dressed decently," she added waspishly, glancing down at her outfit.
Cat didn't bat an eyelid. "*Someone* gave you a really good time last night," she said, eyeing Lois with avid curiosity. "So who was it? Anyone we know?"
Lois achieved a creditable, if slightly high-pitched laugh. "I think you're imagining things, Cat," she retorted. "What happened, did they run out of cocktails early last night, and now you have the d.t.'s?" She turned to the box of doughnuts and carefully picked out one with chocolate icing.
Cat merely grinned at her infuriatingly. "Oh, believe me, Lois, I know the signs." She counted off the points on her fingers. "Staring dreamily into space… checking out other men… walking stiffly… oh, and you have a hickey on your neck."
Lois stiffened and drew in a sharp breath before she remembered — she'd checked carefully in the mirror this morning that she had no such thing. "Gotcha!" Cat crowed triumphantly, as Lois coloured. "Come on, Lois, admit it. Who was it? It wasn't Clark, was it? That'll sure liven up the newsroom…"
"No, it was *not* Clark!" Lois snapped, regretting the tacit admission the instant it had left her lips. She turned on her heel and stalked back to her desk, followed by Cat's low chuckle.
She needed to be more careful, Lois thought sourly. With any luck, Cat would think it had been Lex… Oh, God, she was dating Lex and she'd slept with Superman! She usually had more scruples than that… Well, she'd just have to break it off with Lex next time she spoke to him, that was all.
And what conclusion would Cat draw then? Oh, it was too complicated to consider now! She'd have to think about it carefully when she had more time — not right before Perry's morning meeting.
Cat had done her a favour in one respect, though, Lois conceded as she carried her mug and notebook to the conference room. She hadn't given Clark a second thought since last night, but he still owed her an apology and an explanation. She was no longer angry with him — it just didn't seem that important, after last night's momentous events — but she needed to decide what approach to take with him, when he showed his face again. If he showed his face again…
Clark hailed a taxi outside the Hall of Records. "Daily Planet," he said morosely, and folded himself into the back seat.
Thanks to half an hour of covert super-speed reading, he had the information that he ought to have been able to get yesterday, if he'd been on the job instead of at one rescue after another. With luck, it would satisfy Perry; Clark should just make it to the morning meeting.
Lois was another matter.
Clark stared blindly out of the window. He felt as if he were on the way to his own funeral. His stomach was in a tight knot, and he was sweating in spite of the wintry rain.
He had behaved like a complete and utter heel.
The instant Lois had asked his name, the warning sirens had gone off in his mind. She could only mean his Kryptonian name, and he hadn't been planning to tell her about being Superman just yet. The dark gap in his memory had suddenly assumed a new and menacing significance; and as the fatal word "Superman" had left Lois's lips, as though the lights had suddenly been switched on, the events of the missing twenty-four hours had suddenly sprung into harsh, pitiless relief.
Clark couldn't remember telling Lois how he felt about her, couldn't remember her response, because it had never happened. Instead, the very disaster he had been striving for months to avert had come to pass: Lois had fallen like a ton of bricks for Superman. It was Superman she'd taken to bed.
Panic-stricken, Clark's only thought had been to extricate himself from the situation before it became any worse. He had stammered out the first words that came to mind and then left at super-speed.
Seconds later, safely concealed in the centre of an Arctic snowstorm, he had howled out his agony and frustration. All his hopes for the future had been wiped out, extinguished in one careless act of self-betrayal. There was no longer any hope that Lois would fall in love with him… with plain Clark Kent. His dreams of one day being a normal person, with a wife and maybe even a family, were destined to remain just that… dreams. For ever.
Only hours later, as the storm finally blew itself out, had it even occurred to him to wonder how Lois would have reacted to his hasty departure. The thought still made him physically ill. He knew that his partner's assertive confidence was only skin-deep, that underneath it she hid a deep insecurity about her attractiveness to men. He knew about the men in her past, Claude and her father, who had created that insecurity by their betrayals, and he had often wished he could get his hands on them and choke some sense of decency into them.
Now he had done exactly the same thing. Superman, Lois's idol — the only man she really trusted — had betrayed her. She would be devastated.
After long and careful deliberation, Clark had come to the conclusion that there was only one honourable thing he could do. She deserved to know that the man who had slept with her and then abandoned her so callously did in fact love her; she also had to know that, under the flashy costume, he was only her partner.
Summoning up all his courage, Clark had returned to Lois's apartment, fully determined to confess everything, only to find that she was fast asleep. He couldn't bring himself to wake her; instead, he'd gone back home and fallen into an exhausted sleep himself, until his alarm had woken him.
He didn't know whether Lois would even make it in to work this morning, but he'd thought it best to put in an appearance there before he talked to her. It wouldn't help the situation if Perry fired him on top of everything else. Secretly, he knew that it was just a cowardly excuse to delay the inevitable. But as soon as the morning meeting was over, he would get Lois alone and make his confession.
And what would happen then, he didn't know. Probably either Lois would never speak to him again, or she would decide that being Superman made up for his other defects, and that she loved him after all. He wasn't sure which he dreaded more.
"You all right, buddy?" the cab driver asked, looking round, and Clark realised he had groaned aloud.
"Fine," he said dully. He suddenly became aware that the cab had scarcely moved in the last couple of minutes — Metropolis's cross-town traffic was snarled up again. He looked out at the rain sheeting down outside, and decided it wasn't going to do him any good to walk to work in that. He was going to be late for the meeting after all.
Sure enough, when he emerged from the stairwell the newsroom was deserted and the conference room crammed to the gills. Clark slipped quietly through the door and glanced around the room.
Much to his relief, Lois was there, sitting near Perry with her back to him. There was an empty chair next to her; the other reporters tended to leave space for the partners to sit together even on normal days, and Clark imagined that today they were probably giving Mad Dog Lane a wide berth. He decided not to draw any extra attention to himself by crossing the room, though. Besides, he would be happier if he didn't have to get too close to her until the meeting was over.
As Clark listened to Perry going on about the sales figures, he got the eerie feeling that he was being watched. He glanced casually around the room again. Cat had her eyes fixed on him; as he looked in her direction, her gaze slid to Lois and then back. She looked like a veritable cat at a mouse-hole, and Clark's heart sank. The last thing he needed to add to his misery was a spectator with a predilection for gossip.
He looked back towards Perry, and saw that something had attracted Lois's attention. She was craning round to look at the door, and when she caught his eye she jerked her head at the chair next to her. He frowned, but it was too late. Sensing that he had lost some of his audience, Perry had paused to find the culprit.
"Ah, Kent," he said with ominous bonhomie. "I'm so glad you managed to join us at last. Why don't you sit down, and we can continue."
Clark winced and did as he was bidden. Perry waited with awful patience till he was seated, then resumed his harangue.
Lois opened her notebook and extracted a pencil from behind her ear. A wave of her unique scent washed over Clark, and he clenched his fists to control his physical response. His vision blurred…
~* Her scent filled his nostrils as his mouth traced the soft line under her jaw. She quivered and arched against him… *~
Clark blinked. Lois had pushed her notebook in front of him. The note scrawled on the top leaf said, "Vault story on back burner. Perry on warpath. Follow my lead."
He nodded slightly and pushed the notebook back towards her. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed that Cat was still watching them closely, but now there was a faint pucker between her brows.
Perry wound up his speech and rounded on Clark. "Kent, I haven't seen anything from you on my desk in the last day. What are you working on?"
Lois cut in smoothly. "We got a tip-off that the hotel fire might have been arson. Clark has been following that up while I covered the freeway pile-up. We're hoping to get the report from the Fire Investigation Department this morning."
Perry gave Clark a hard look, but he didn't pursue the point, moving on to question Myerson instead. Clark relaxed a trifle, and his thoughts turned at once to Lois's voice. It had sounded confident and cheerful — not at all what he had feared to hear this morning. He cast a quick glance at her face. She was looking down at her notebook, and seemed perfectly composed; not a hint of the humiliation and heartbreak he knew she must be feeling was visible. Clark was filled with an awed admiration for her indomitable courage, and a renewed guilt for the misery he was putting her through.
He glanced away again, conscious once more of Cat's steady gaze. He shot a look across the table at her, and raised his eyebrows in a faint query. Then he ran his thumb across his chin and glanced down at his tie, as if searching for the cause of her interest. She awarded him an amused grin and finally turned her attention to Perry.
The meeting ended shortly, and Lois got briskly to her feet and joined the queue for the door. Clark followed close behind her, carefully averting his eyes from the swing of her skirt. After last night, he found himself almost painfully aware of every curve, every movement of Lois's body. He thrust his hands into his pockets and concentrated on maintaining a few inches' distance between them until they finally escaped the press of people around the door.
Lois made straight for her desk and put down her notebook and coffee mug, then turned and looked Clark full in the face for the first time. He searched her eyes for the agony and betrayal he knew he would see there, but he didn't find it. There were faint smudges beneath her eyes, cleverly concealed with a little more makeup than usual, but her expression was calm, even buoyant. He blinked. Was she such a good actress that she could hide her pain even from him?
She frowned at him impatiently. "Did you hear me? I said we need to get moving on the arson story."
He cleared his throat. "Lois, I think we need to talk…"
Her face hardened slightly. "Clark, if this is about where you went the other night, I don't want to hear another flimsy excuse." There was a flash of hurt in her eyes now, but it was nothing like what he had been expecting. "I think we should keep our relationship on a purely professional footing, don't you?"
He gazed at her, dumbfounded. After a moment she flashed him a brittle smile and said, "Excuse me a minute. Why don't you try to get hold of the Fire Investigation Department, a guy called Ernest Pickering, and set up an interview? He'd probably turn me down, he's scared of me." Then she turned, picked up her bag and strode away in the direction of the ladies' room.
Clark moved numbly to his desk and sat down like an automaton. It wasn't an act; she simply wasn't the least bit affected by what had happened last night. His world, all his cherished hopes for their future together, had come crashing down around him… and she hadn't turned a hair. Either her infatuation for Superman was so strong that she was willing to forgive his abominable behaviour in return for the privilege of sleeping with him that single time, or else their encounter simply hadn't meant the same to her as it had to him. For him, it had been the most glorious experience of his life… maybe for her, it had been nothing special.
Clark wanted to howl, to double over with agony. Instead, he opened the phone book and leafed through it for the Metropolis Civic Department listings.
Either way, it no longer seemed like a good idea to tell her he was Superman. She could keep her radiant illusions about her idol; he could salvage a scrap of his trampled self-respect, and at least keep working with her. On a purely professional footing.
There was only one thing to be thankful for in this whole sorry mess. By some stroke of fate, some merciful providence, he hadn't told her that he loved her.
He picked up the phone and dialled the Fire Investigation Department.
Chapter Six: Cat and Mouse
Lois looked her reflection over in the bathroom mirror. She looked fine… well, she looked a bit grim, but that was understandable. She certainly wasn't going to cry, nor was she going to give in to the impulse to go and tell Clark she hadn't meant what she'd said. That would only get them bogged down in a pointless discussion of their relationship.
Lois slowly opened her bag and started making completely unnecessary running repairs to her makeup.
Okay, she'd upset him with that comment, and she didn't really even know why she'd said it… except that Cat had been working on her nerves all the way through the meeting. The awareness she'd had of Clark sitting next to her, his every movement, the way he'd followed so close behind her afterwards, without touching her… that was just because she hadn't been able to ignore the way Cat had been watching them, or the reason for Cat's unusual interest. But Lois had been rattled by it, and then when Clark had said they needed to talk… well, she had to acknowledge that she was a lot more upset with him than she'd realised, and so she'd lashed out with that hurtful comment.
And it *had* hurt him, really badly. He'd gone quite white, and just stood there without a word, his wounded eyes searching her face, like a spaniel that had been kicked and didn't know how to apologise.
The lipstick she was applying went slightly awry, and Lois wiped the smudge off carefully and then made a conscious effort to relax her tense fingers before trying again.
Clark's reaction just confirmed the suspicion she'd had, that what he'd wanted to talk about the other night was their relationship. That he wanted to tell her he felt more for her than friendship. And back then she would have listened, and told him how she felt about him, and maybe they would even have gone on a date. But that was before Superman had… before Superman. After last night, her friendship with Clark wasn't going to lead to anything deeper.
And if, when she'd seen how upset he was, she'd wanted to put her arms around him and comfort him, assure him that she hadn't meant it… well, that was just because they were friends. It didn't mean anything more. Of course she cared about him — and of course she didn't want to lose his friendship. Only, it would probably be best if they kept a bit of a distance while she sorted things out with Superman. And if Clark had some time to get used to the fact that they weren't going to be anything more than friends.
She certainly wasn't in love with Clark. She had to admit that he was very attractive, and more than once it had crossed her mind to wonder what it would be like if he kissed her — really kissed her, because he wanted to, not just as a cover in an investigation. But the breathless excitement she felt when she was with Superman, the thrill of anticipation when he took her in his arms and floated into the air… that was what being in love was really like.
But Clark was her best friend, and she could only hope their friendship would survive this. Superman was his friend, too… Lois realised she was biting her lip. She grimaced at her reflection and then set about removing the lipstick from her teeth and reapplying it to her mouth once again.
Clark was probably going to be very upset when he realised that she was in love with Superman, not with him. She hoped it wouldn't wreck the friendship between the two men…
The bathroom opened, and a couple of juniors from Advertising walked in. Lois shut her bag with a snap and left the room, preparing herself to face Clark again.
She could do with another cup of coffee to fortify herself first, she decided, veering in the direction of the refreshment area. On the way down the side passage, though, she heard voices and slowed down to check who it was.
"Hey, Clark," said a voice she vaguely recognised. Lois stopped, just around the corner.
"Morning, Tom," her partner replied as he approached the coffee machine. Of course — that must be Tom Wilson, from the Sports desk. Clark's voice sounded much less cheerful than usual, she thought, trying to work up the courage to walk the last few paces down the corridor and out into the refreshment area.
The two men exchanged a few pleasantries, then Lois heard Tom walk away. She was about to leave her refuge and join Clark when an even less welcome voice intruded on her thoughts.
"Morning, handsome," came Cat's sultry tones. Lois could almost see her running a familiar hand down Clark's tie; she bristled and retreated a step, hoping no one would come along and find her eavesdropping on the conversation.
"Morning, Cat," Clark replied with his usual cool courtesy. It was probably only Lois's imagination that coloured his voice with a faint apprehension.
Lois heard Cat's heels click closer on the hard floor, then she spoke again in a low voice. "Looks like Lois had a really good time last night," she said. "So who's she sleeping with?"
There was a brief, pregnant pause, while Lois wished fervently that someone had had the foresight to strangle Cat at birth. "I have no idea what you're talking about," Clark returned in an unnaturally even voice.
"Oh, don't pretend you don't know all about it!" Cat scoffed. "It's not you and her, like I thought at first it might be, but you're obviously green with jealousy. Tell me -"
Clark interrupted her sharply. "I don't think it's any of my business who my partner is seeing outside work hours," he said, laying faint stress on the word "partner", "and I'm quite sure it's none of yours."
There was another pause, then Cat chuckled throatily. "Okay, play it like that if you want to," she said. "I'll find out sooner or later. I tell you what, though…" Her voice dropped to a more intimate tone. "Since Lois won't be dragging you around on a leash any more, how about you and I have that dinner we never got round to, hmm?"
Lois barely recognised Clark's voice when he replied; she had never heard him speak so coldly. "Thanks for the generous offer, Cat, but I'm not interested. And I'll thank you to keep your claws out of my partner."
In the breathless hush that followed, Lois could hear Clark's measured footsteps receding as he walked away. A moment later, the staccato tap of high heels followed, but they got louder rather than softer. Before Lois could move, Cat rounded the corner of the corridor and saw her standing there, all too obviously a witness to at least the end of the conversation.
For what seemed like an eternity, they stood staring silently at each other. Cat's face, at first pale with anger, flushed a brilliant red, but her embarrassment didn't prevent her from looking daggers at Lois. Then she tossed her head and, still without speaking, brushed past Lois and stalked off down the corridor, no doubt heading for the sanctuary of the ladies' room like Lois before her.
Lois sagged against the wall and rested her forehead against its cool surface. What had possessed her to stand here eavesdropping? If she had simply walked out to the coffee machine in the first place, that whole ugly conversation would never have happened. As it was, Cat was probably never going to forgive her for witnessing her humiliation.
And Clark… could Cat be right? Did Clark know what had happened last night? Surely Superman couldn't have told him? She couldn't imagine him boasting to Clark about it, but on the other hand he'd seemed so upset when he'd left… could he have gone to Clark to ask his advice as a friend? Lois closed her eyes and suppressed an anguished moan. Surely he wouldn't have done that to her… or to Clark?
And what would Clark make of it? Had that been what he meant this morning, about needing to talk? Had he wanted to give her a message from Superman?
No. That definitely couldn't be it. No, she was simply letting her imagination run riot. If that had been what Clark wanted to talk about, he wouldn't have reacted like that to her answer. He'd have insisted on giving her the message.
But he hadn't seemed surprised by what Cat had said…
Lois shook her head in a vain attempt to clear it. She couldn't let herself be fooled into thinking like Cat. Coming on top of what she herself had said to him, Clark would have found Cat's casual cruelty hard to bear. That was all.
If he believed what Cat had said, he would probably also think she'd been with Lex last night. Lois winced; the next few days would be hard enough without Clark radiating his bitter disapproval of her relationship with Lex.
And what of Cat's other comment, about Lois dragging Clark around on a leash? That really hurt. She didn't do that, did she? She and Clark were partners and friends — of course they were together a lot. She didn't go out of her way to prevent him seeing other friends… other women. It must just be Cat's jealousy talking — by the sound of it, for all Cat's boastful tales, she'd never actually managed to seduce Clark after all.
Inexplicably cheered by the thought, Lois finally succeeded in composing herself and strolled round the corner to the coffee machine. She had spent far too long agonising over her woes already; she had work to do.
When she returned to her desk with her coffee, Lois was relieved to find that although Clark was subdued to the point of brusqueness, and seemed to be avoiding meeting her eyes, he was continuing to work normally on their investigation. He had set up a meeting for them at the Fire Investigation Department and started a couple of lines of research into the ownership and management of the Nights Inn Motel.
They were both professionals where it counted, Lois reflected ruefully, remembering how she'd once categorised him as an unprofessional hack from the sticks.
Half an hour later, the rain was still lashing at the high newsroom windows — the same windows through which Superman had flown with her after their first meeting, Lois thought with sudden longing. Dragging her attention back to her work, she offered to drive them to the Fire Investigation Department offices rather than rely on getting a taxi in the downpour.
The lift was slow to arrive and, standing waiting for it, Lois was very conscious of the silent, brooding presence of her partner at her side, of the small but measurable distance between them. Normally they would have been chatting easily or joking together, and Clark would have put a casual hand on her back to pilot her into the lift. Lois would have resented it from almost anyone else, but coming from Clark it was companionable and comfortable. It wouldn't happen today, she was sure, and she felt a pang of loss at the thought.
The prickle along Lois's spine told her that Cat was watching them again. "Let's take the stairs," she said abruptly, and there was a hint of relief in Clark's voice as he agreed.
He followed her down the stairs instead of walking at her side as he usually did, but at least while they were moving, Lois mused, the tension wasn't building up between them. She suddenly wondered whether offering to drive Clark had been such a good idea; yet sitting together in the back of a taxi would be no better. This period of awkwardness was simply something they would both have to endure.
Halfway down the last sweep of stairs to the lobby, however, Lois's thoughts were unexpectedly wrested away from her partner as she registered who was coming in through the revolving doors from the street. She froze between one stair and the next, muttering a low curse under her breath. What was Linda King doing inside the Daily Planet?
"Is something wrong?" Clark asked behind her. It was just as well his reflexes were quicker than Jimmy's, Lois thought gratefully; tumbling down half a dozen stairs to land in an undignified and no doubt painful heap at Linda's feet would have set the seal on what was already promising to be one of the most difficult and distressing days she could remember.
"Yes," she said, half turning. But it was ridiculous to allow Linda King to upset her. "Well, no, not really," she hedged. "Just someone I… used to know."
She turned back and descended the last few steps to the lobby, fetching up face to face with Linda. "Linda," she said coolly. "What's a Metropolis Star reporter doing visiting the competition?"
Great — the perfect opportunity for Linda to state that the Planet was no competition at all, Lois thought with an inward wince; but Linda failed to make use of it. "I thought we could get reacquainted," she said in a slightly breathless voice. As Lois looked at her curiously, she realised that Linda's eyes had barely focused on her for a moment before sliding avidly over her shoulder. Linda's priorities hadn't changed in the last six years, Lois thought sourly, as Linda continued with a honeyed smile, "Aren't you going to introduce us?"
"Of course," Lois said, turning to include Clark. "Clark, this is Linda King, an old acquaintance of mine from college…"
"We were best friends, Lois!" Linda interjected, looking hurt.
"True," Lois conceded unemotionally, repressing the furious urge to turn and lash out at Linda for the cheap trick that had ended their friendship. "And Linda, this is my partner, Clark Kent."
"A pleasure," Clark said, extending a friendly hand which Linda immediately grasped between both of hers.
"I'm delighted to meet you," she gushed. "I've read a lot of your work, and I'm a big admirer. Lois must count herself lucky to be partnered with you!"
"It's quite the opposite," Clark replied smoothly as Lois restrained herself with difficulty from rolling her eyes and groaning. "Lois has taught me most of what I know about big city journalism."
Score one against Linda, Lois thought gratefully. She listened impatiently as Linda continued to fawn over Clark, excluding Lois from the conversation and subtly putting her down at every opportunity. After a minute she checked her watch; they had to get going or they risked being late for their meeting, but Clark showed no sign of wanting to end the encounter. She could scarcely blame him for enjoying Linda's blatant admiration after the morning's events, but it was inconvenient all the same, and seeing him smiling down into Linda's upturned face — Linda, of all the wretched traitors in the world — was quite literally making her feel sick.
A day ago she would have had no compunction about grabbing Clark's arm and towing him away with her. The way she had done last night with Superman… She shook her head slightly to banish the memory. Today, she didn't think she could touch Clark like that.
She drew a deep breath and interrupted Linda's effusion. "Clark, we have to get to that meeting," she said. He glanced quickly at her, and she thought she saw disappointment in his eyes. ~*… dragging you around on a leash… *~ "Why don't I fetch the car and bring it round to the front," she said jerkily, gesturing at the revolving doors. "Linda, doubtless we'll be seeing you around."
She turned and headed for the stairs to the basement parking, silently cursing her unruly conscience. It was one thing letting Clark see other women; it was quite another leaving him in the clutches of a faithless man- eater like Linda.
But by the time she brought the Cherokee to a halt outside the Planet's front door, Linda seemed to have vanished. Clark bolted out of the door through the driving rain and lost no time getting into the passenger seat. His glasses must have been wet, but as she pulled out into the traffic, Lois noticed absently that he didn't take them off to wipe them dry, as most people would have done.
"What did Linda want?" she asked after a moment.
"The Star's new publisher, Preston Carpenter, is throwing a dinner at the Press Club tonight," Clark replied. "She asked me… us… to go along."
"Us?" Lois said thoughtfully. "I would have thought she'd want you all to herself."
Clark hesitated, then said reluctantly, "She's going with someone else."
So Linda had wanted to invite him as her partner — otherwise it wouldn't have been mentioned. Lois felt torn. On the one hand, she wanted to stay in tonight, in case Superman came by… and she didn't relish the idea of standing by at the party while Linda threw herself at Clark. On the other hand, Clark might not go if she didn't, and her wretched conscience was still pricking her uncomfortably. And Superman would probably only come round later, after his evening patrol. Besides… did she really want Linda to think she'd succeeded in intimidating her?
Beside her, Clark said in a voice totally devoid of emotion, "Of course, it wouldn't be a date — just business."
Lois's heart contracted painfully. "Yes, I know," she said quickly. "I guess we should find out what we can about this Carpenter guy and what he's done to make the Star so successful. I'll meet you there — is seven o'clock okay?"
"Fine," Clark said. There was a pause while Lois concentrated fiercely on watching the traffic and not giving in to the tears prickling at her eyes, then Clark added, "You don't seem to like Linda much."
He was still being the perfect friend, Lois thought despairingly. She could take up the offer to talk about it, or she could ignore the statement or return a simple answer, in which case Clark would probe no further. What had she done to deserve him?
The traffic, which had been moving at a crawl, finally came to a halt. Lois shifted the Cherokee into park and took a deep breath. Then she proceeded to tell Clark about how Linda, her college roommate and best friend, had stolen her story and her would-be boyfriend. Not all of it, of course. Clark didn't need to know that Paul had been her first lover, or how she had felt when she realised she'd just been another in his long line of one-night stands. Nor did she really want to tell him how Linda had laughed and gloated when Lois had confronted her. The memory, buried too long in the "untouchable" section of Lois's past, was still too raw and painful.
Clark listened in comfortable silence. "But she seems to want to bury old quarrels now," he commented when the sordid tale was finished.
Lois smiled mirthlessly. "I guess I have a hard time believing that," she said. Look at the way she's gunning for my partner! she added silently.
The traffic started to move again, and the conversation lapsed. The government building they were heading for was fortunately only a few blocks further, but it was stop- start driving all the way. Clark's attention seemed to be riveted on the urban scenery outside the car, but within a few minutes the atmosphere had somehow turned from comfortable to tense without a word's being said.
It took a while for Lois to identify the flutter of movement in the corner of her eye. Then she realised that although Clark was carefully looking away from her, every time her foot moved on the accelerator or brake, his fingers, resting ever so casually on his knee, would twitch.
Damn Cat and her insinuations, Lois thought wrathfully — her idle gossip-mongering had completely upset the balance of their relationship. Lois's own physical awareness of Clark, dormant while they had been talking, quickly mounted until her heart was beating rapidly in her throat and skipping every time he moved.
At last the offices of the Fire Investigation Department crawled into sight and — miracle of miracles — a car was pulling out of a parking place a few yards away. Lois beat at least four other vehicles in the race to fill it, then fumbled for her door handle with a trembling hand. She didn't think she'd ever in her life been so thankful to reach her destination; she'd certainly never been so eager not to be alone with Clark.
Chapter Seven: Carpenter and the Lady
Clark tugged at the collar of his dress shirt with a nervous forefinger for the hundredth time.
Why, oh why, hadn't he simply told Linda that he had plans for this evening? If he'd had the sense, he'd have been on his Friday night patrol now, not standing here waiting for… dreading… Lois's arrival.
The trip in the car with her this morning had been sheer torture. He thought he had covered his reaction pretty well, but he had been aware of every movement she made, every breath she took. The way her long, shapely, nylon- clad legs had shifted as she drove — the same legs that had been intertwined with his last night — had almost been his undoing. It had been all he could do to prevent himself seizing her, flying away with her to some remote spot and making love to her for the rest of the year…
Clark abruptly became conscious that more than just his collar was starting to feel tight, and he took a deep breath and set about controlling his physical response once again. He was deeply thankful for his Kryptonian ability to do that — what did human men do in a similar situation? Embarrass themselves, he could only suppose.
But, super-abilities or no, he simply couldn't afford to keep thinking about and reliving last night. It was over; he had thrown away his chances of winning Lois's love, and now he had to learn to live with the result. Which meant forgetting that their lovemaking had ever happened, and concentrating on keeping their partnership alive. Maybe some day he'd be able to relive those memories without driving himself crazy — he hoped so, because that one night was going to have to last him for a long time… possibly a lifetime. But for now, he had to limit himself to thinking about work.
Their meeting with an underling at the Fire Investigation Department had been short and sweet, and had told them little they didn't already know. A radio-controlled incendiary device attached to the gas main in the kitchen had started the fire. The investigation had therefore been turned over to the Metropolis Police Forensics Department.
To Clark's relief, by the time the meeting was over the rain had stopped. He had mumbled some excuse about going to talk to a source about the hotel management, and set off alone on foot. He thought Lois had been equally relieved that he wouldn't be driving back with her; she certainly hadn't protested, or even shown any surprise. He had spent a couple of hours finding his street contacts and asking about the hotel, but nothing had come of it yet. As word got around, though, something might turn up.
The Press Club was quickly filling up, and waiters were beginning to circulate discreetly with trays of sherry. Clark accepted a glass and took a sip, wishing the alcohol was capable of relaxing his taut nerves. As he lowered the glass a flash of auburn hair at the entrance caught his eye and he turned, expecting to see Linda. Instead, his heart sank to new depths as he realised that Cat Grant had managed to wangle an invitation to the dinner; she was decorating the arm of a thickset man Clark recognised as one of the Star's city reporters.
Cat had been mercifully absent from the newsroom this afternoon when he'd returned. He couldn't fathom how she'd managed to worm any information out of Lois about last night — or perhaps it was merely a shrewd guess — but her sharp and constant vigilance was wearing on Clark's nerves. He could only hope that Lois didn't know what Cat had been saying about her, but given Cat's complete lack of discretion, Lois was bound to find out sooner or later. Especially after he had slapped Cat down… she had gone quite white with fury at his words, and she was unlikely to have many scruples about taking out her anger on Lois. The thought almost made him regret what he had said, but remembering the way she had sneered about Lois still made his blood boil.
He supposed he ought to be worried about what Cat might do if she ever discovered the truth about last night; yet somehow even the prospect of banner headlines about Superman's sex life seemed of little importance compared with the pain of losing Lois… His mind flinched away from the thought. He had to forget what he'd lost and remember what they still had. Work. And maybe, one day, the chance to be friends again.
And here was his partner now, looking cool and poised in a demure dinner dress. Clark ignored the way his heart leapt into overdrive at the sight of her, and concentrated on smiling with the right degree of friendly welcome as he moved to meet her. He even remembered to resume breathing in time to offer a casual greeting.
"Hi, Lois. You look lovely." Oops — that had slipped out.
But his tone had been offhand enough; she simply inclined her head with a slight smile and said, "Thanks. Is Linda here?"
The poise was a facade, Clark realised as Lois's eyes nervously darted over the assembled throng. This rivalry with Linda was cutting into her self-confidence. He had half expected her to be dressed to kill, in an effort to outshine Linda, and he wasn't entirely sure he could have handled that; he could only be thankful that she had gone for understatement instead.
"I haven't seen her," he said as Lois continued to scan the room. He hesitated and then added, "Cat is here, though."
Her eyes flew to his, and her mouth tightened. So Cat hadn't spared her, either. "Oh," was all she said, but her eyes betrayed her apprehension.
He smiled at her with what he hoped was comforting assurance. "I don't know what she thinks she'll gain by watching an ordinary reporting team," he said steadily, "but when she doesn't see anything remarkable she'll soon get bored and look elsewhere."
Lois's face relaxed into the first genuine smile Clark had seen all day, while her eyes grew soft and suspiciously moist. "Yes, of course," she said in a low voice. She lifted a hand as though to lay it on his arm, and took a breath to continue, but whatever she was about to say was lost as a female voice broke in from behind him.
"Who's getting bored with you, Clark? It doesn't sound very likely!"
Lois's hand dropped, and a mask of cool hauteur blanked out her emotions. Linda's timing was faultless, Clark thought with an inward grimace. "Hello, Linda," he said, turning.
For an ominous moment he thought she was going to kiss his cheek, but she contented herself with swaying up close to him and smiling warmly at him. "I'm *so* glad you could make it," she said. Then she turned. "Lois," she acknowledged the other woman's presence. "So you're Clark's date? What else do you do together?"
Clark tried not to wince. "We're just… work partners," he said hastily, forestalling the anger he could see gathering in Lois's face.
Linda favoured him with another honeyed smile. "Of course," she said. She gave Lois's outfit a long, assessing glance. "I do apologise for the short notice," she said slyly. "It didn't give you much time for finding something suitable to wear."
If Linda was planning to spend the evening sniping at Lois, it was going to be even worse than Clark had anticipated. But to his relief, Lois was lifting her chin, the light of battle kindling in her eyes. "Something like what you're almost wearing?" she returned sweetly. "Thanks, but I don't find it necessary to have all my… assets on display."
Linda's smile faltered, her lips tightening, and Lois pressed her advantage. "I thought you had a date?" she enquired solicitously. "What happened, did he develop a headache at the last minute?"
But that appeared to have been a false move; Linda's smile was back at megawatt power. "Not at all," she said brightly. "Why don't you come over, and I'll introduce you?"
She turned and headed into the press of dinner guests, obviously expecting them to follow her meekly. Lois glanced at Clark with a raised eyebrow, and he hastily suppressed the grin which had formed during their sparring match. "After you," he said politely, waving her after Linda and preparing to bring up the rear.
That… that cow! Lois fumed to herself as she followed in Linda's wake. What did Clark see in her, anyway? Lois hadn't missed the way he'd hastened to correct Linda's assumption about their relationship. Well, if it would make him happy to get together with Linda, she wouldn't stand in his way… even if the prospect did fill her with disquiet.
So why did Linda have to make such a show of putting her down? Why couldn't she just make her play for Clark and leave Lois out of it? Lois suspected she knew the answer — Linda didn't just want Clark, she also wanted to feel she was taking him away from Lois. It didn't make Lois any happier about the idea of Clark dating Linda… she didn't deserve him, that was for sure.
At least Clark hadn't seemed to mind Lois standing up to Linda's nasty insinuations. She'd expected him to be uncomfortable, but instead he'd seemed to be enjoying the confrontation. Much as Superman had done, last night… It probably did Clark's male ego the world of good to have two attractive women vying for him, Lois reflected wryly. Well, after the blow she'd dealt his ego this morning, she could scarcely begrudge him that…
Ahead of her, Linda came to a halt next to a middle-aged man, a complete stranger to Lois, who was standing talking to Mayor Berkowitz. He broke off to greet Linda effusively and introduce her to Berkowitz as "one of his top reporters." So this was Preston Carpenter — and Linda's partner for the evening? Which made Linda the hostess for the evening… so that was why she'd been looking smug.
And now Linda was turning to introduce her companions. She introduced Clark first and then added Lois's name as an afterthought, but Lois let Linda's spite wash over her as she turned her smile first on Carpenter and then on the mayor.
"I know Lois well," Berkowitz said, to Lois's satisfaction. She often saw him at functions she attended with Lex; let Linda just try to compete with that! She held out her hand and Berkowitz held it warmly for a moment… rather too warmly for Lois's taste, but it would do for Linda's benefit.
"Is Luthor here?" Berkowitz added, his eyes scanning the crowd behind her. Lois saw Linda's startled expression at the question, and for an instant she could almost have kissed the slimy little man. Another point to her.
"No, Lex is in Washington this week," she said smoothly. "I believe he'll be back in Metropolis tomorrow. I'm with Clark — he's my partner at the Planet," she added with a smile at Clark. At the shuttered expression on his face, however, she suddenly regretted the petty game of one- upmanship. Clark hadn't appreciated the reminder of her relationship with Lex at all.
She turned an attentive gaze on Carpenter, who at her mention of the Planet had broken into lamentations over what he called the decline of a once great newspaper. Lois could feel her hackles rising, and Clark stiffening beside her, but this was, after all, part of what they had come for — to meet Carpenter and find out how he operated. She mentally girded her loins for the task of charming him into as much frankness as possible.
A few minutes later, however, Carpenter's near-monologue was interrupted by a man who appeared at his elbow and caught his attention, then whispered something in his ear. Lois looked at the man curiously; he looked more like a bodyguard than a flunky. He had a hard, dangerous face and a single earring. But he didn't have the self-effacing demeanour of the typical bodyguard, either… as Carpenter turned back to his guests to excuse himself, the other man noticed Lois's interest and gave her an unmistakable once- over, followed by what Lois could only describe as a leer.
Startled, Lois looked away and saw that Linda had taken the opportunity to seize Clark's arm. "You don't mind if I dance with Clark, do you?" Linda said, scarcely waiting for a response before towing him in the direction of the dance floor. Clark shot an apologetic glance at Lois as he departed, then she was left alone with the mayor.
Berkowitz was contemplating whether to ask her to dance, Lois suspected, so she began to ask solicitously after Mrs Berkowitz. The precarious health of the mayor's wife was his usual excuse for attending occasions like these alone, though it was noticeable that he rarely left alone afterwards. Lois had no intention of letting him think even for a moment that she might play his sordid games in Lex's absence; nor did she want his hands anywhere near her.
After a few minutes, Carpenter returned. The conversation shifted to the forthcoming visit of the Omiri ambassador to Metropolis, and his trade talks with the Secretary of State. Carpenter's vehemently expressed opinion was that the US ought to have nothing to do with the Omiri government, which he termed "that terrorist mob". He patronisingly dismissed Lois's suggestion that the poverty- stricken Omiri people needed trade with the US in order to improve their standards of living and education as "sentimental nonsense" and advocated a US-funded revolution instead. Lois was soon seething with suppressed annoyance, and it came as quite a relief when the orchestra stopped playing and, a minute later, Clark and Linda returned from the dance floor.
Carpenter smiled proprietorially at Linda as she approached, and offered her his arm. "Linda, my dear," he said, "shall we dine? Miss Lane, Mr Kent, it's been a pleasure; I hope we'll see more of you later."
He turned and escorted Linda towards the top table, the mayor following them. Linda said something to Carpenter, and Lois noticed his free hand coming up to cover hers as he bent his head attentively towards her. Staking out his territory, Lois thought to herself.
"So that's how Linda got the job," she muttered sarcastically under her breath. She was startled and more than a little embarrassed when Clark spoke as though he'd heard her remark.
"She's not a bad writer, actually," he said. "Doesn't quite have your edge, and of course she's having to conform to the Star's eighth-grade writing standard, but she's pretty good all the same."
"You've been reading her articles?" Lois said tritely, and then winced at how jealous the question sounded. It wasn't as if she had anything to be jealous of — it wasn't Linda who had the dream job at the Planet, the perfect partner and best friend, or the romance with Superman…
"Yes, I read her scoop on the hotel fire to see if there were any leads," Clark replied. "Tell you what was odd, though…" His eyes, which had been following the departing couple, shifted to focus on Lois's face. There was a puzzled, almost disturbed expression in their depths. "Carpenter had an editorial in the same edition, about safety regulations in the older areas of Metropolis. It was remarkably well-informed for someone who only came to Metropolis a few weeks ago. You'd think he'd have needed more time for research."
"The man's a walking opinion, Clark!" Lois said sharply, her annoyance with Carpenter spilling over. "I'm sure he could write an instant editorial on any subject you care to name. You should have heard some of the things he was saying to Berkowitz!"
Clark nodded, and they started to drift towards the dinner tables with the other guests. "I didn't realise you were on such good terms with Berkowitz," he said quietly. "I'd have thought he'd be scared of you, after that expose you did on corruption in the mayor's office a couple of years back. You came very close to implicating him directly…"
So Clark had read her past work, too? A warm glow stole over Lois. "I attend a lot of civic functions nowadays, with Lex," she said without thinking. "I guess he's got out of the habit of thinking of me as a journalist."
"You're not a journalist when you're with Luthor?" Clark queried, his voice suddenly hard, and Lois realised with a sinking feeling that bringing Lex into the conversation had been a big mistake. Damn Clark — what was it with him and Lex, anyway? Pure jealousy? If so, it didn't bode well for Clark's friendship with Superman…
"Lex has a certain position to uphold," she said stiffly. "He may not like sleazeballs like Berkowitz, but he has to work with the man. I try not to prejudice that by being contentious when I'm with Lex."
Clark didn't respond, and Lois sneaked a look at his face. He was staring fixedly ahead, his expression bleak and that muscle once again jumping in his jaw. Lois sighed silently; the warm glow she had felt a minute ago had quite vanished. She could only be thankful that Clark was restraining himself from expressing his opinion of Lex and his business dealings.
And in this case there was some justification for Clark's low opinion, Lois acknowledged to herself. The first few times she had appeared in public with Lex, she had maintained her normal attitude towards Berkowitz and other Metropolis notables, but Lex had been quick to steer the conversation away from sensitive issues where she might embarrass him. She had gradually adopted a less challenging stance, and now her harmless social persona was almost automatic. Lex had succeeded in taming her, she realised ruefully.
But couldn't Clark understand that it was important for Lex to maintain good relationships with the civic authorities and social high-fliers of Metropolis? Wouldn't he do the same in Lex's position?
No, she acknowledged reluctantly. Clark placed far too much value on truth and sincerity. He would — probably did — consider her social persona to be hypocritical. The thought made Lois feel hot and cold, all at once. And as for her sparring verbally with other guests, Clark probably wouldn't be embarrassed by it — he had shown every sign of enjoying her earlier engagement with Linda.
A couple of hours later, Lois's nerves were once again stretched to breaking point. They had been seated at a table with several other reporters, most of them from the Star; unluckily, however, they included both Cat Grant and Murray Mindlin from Channel Six. Cat's hostile stare had dwelt on her colleagues throughout dinner, although some vestige of politeness, or perhaps loyalty to the Planet, had prevented her from expressing her animosity verbally.
Mindlin had had no such compunction; he hadn't forgiven Lois for the egg on his face during the Metropolis heatwave crisis the previous year, and he'd lost no opportunity to sneer at her connection with Superman. Since most of journalists at the table were itching to know how she managed to get so many Superman exclusives, the conversation had been extremely awkward for a while. Under Cat's steady gaze Lois had tried hard to think of Superman purely in terms of his news value, but it had been difficult.
She had been grateful for Clark's calm presence at her side, laughing dismissively at Mindlin's jibes, pointing out that Superman couldn't be stalked and gave exclusives to whomever he chose; and suggesting that if other news organs had had the Planet's reputation for printing facts rather than speculation and gossip, their reporters might have had more luck with Superman.
After that, working in smooth harmony, Clark and she had succeeded in turning the conversation to Preston Carpenter and his reign at the Star. The biggest change he had made seemed to be his insistence on knowing the whereabouts of his reporters at all times. Some of the people at the table were mildly resentful about having to call in constantly like paroled criminals, but all agreed that they couldn't argue with the results Carpenter was getting. Lois was puzzled; nobody seemed to be questioning the Star's good fortune, for good fortune was surely all it was. Just knowing where your reporters were didn't make the news happen there.
And now the obligatory speeches were under way. Berkowitz had started by welcoming Carpenter to Metropolis with one of his sycophantic speeches, praising the Star's popularity in fulsome terms that had Lois biting her tongue to stop herself leaping to the Planet's defence; and now Carpenter himself was speaking. At considerable length, Lois thought with rising annoyance, preventing herself with some difficulty from ostentatiously checking her watch. The man seemed to have an extremely inflated opinion of the importance of what he called "newsmakers" in society, and his politics hadn't improved since earlier in the evening, if the "ills" of society that he thought needed addressing were anything to judge by. Lois shared a disgusted look with Clark before turning her attention to the tablecloth.
Carpenter finally wound up his speech with an exhortation to his guests to enjoy the facilities for the rest of the evening — kind of him when most of his guests were Press Club members anyway, Lois thought sourly — and the orchestra struck up a dance tune. Across the table, Mindlin shook his head.
"Can't deny the man's got class," he said unctuously.
Lois sucked in a breath, marshalling her resources for a blistering retort. As she opened her mouth, she was startled by a gentle touch on her sleeve.
"Would you care to dance?" Clark enquired beside her, his eyes brimming with amusement when Lois glanced sharply at him. He leant towards her and added in a murmur, "We don't want to leave blood on the Club floor…"
In spite of herself, Lois's lips quirked. "Good idea," she responded, rising to her feet and leading the way to the dance floor.
"I agree with your judgement," Clark said as she turned to face him on the dance floor. "He's a nasty piece of work."
Lois wasn't really sure whether Clark meant Carpenter or Mindlin, but it didn't seem important. Her head was spinning slightly, and she realised that she must have had more wine over that stressful dinner than she normally allowed herself at official functions. "You're a wise man," she returned lightly, and Clark grinned appreciatively.
They started to dance. At first Lois held herself stiffly, but after a few bars she found the tension and anger seeping out of her. Clark really was an excellent dancer, she reflected with some surprise. What was it he'd said at the ball, all those months ago — he'd learnt to dance from a Nigerian princess? He'd probably made that up to impress her… which was rather sweet.
She relaxed into Clark's embrace, giving herself up to the dance. Their two bodies moved as one, perfectly in tune, almost as though they knew each other on some more fundamental level… Lois leaned her head against her partner's shoulder and closed her eyes, trusting herself to him completely.
The music drew to a close, and Lois lifted her face towards Clark's, reluctant to bring the magical experience to an end. He looked down at her, his eyes filled with warmth, and she knew he was going to kiss her. For a long moment of breathless anticipation, there was nothing she wanted more.
"Mind if I cut in?"
Clark's head snapped back, and Lois saw his expression change to — relief? — as he released her and turned to face Linda.
The woman's timing was impeccable, Lois thought wryly. But then, Lois's only reason for coming tonight was so that Clark could get to know other women — including Linda. She dredged up a smile. "Of course not," she said graciously.
What on earth was wrong with her tonight? she wondered, turning to head for her seat. As her head started to clear, Lois realised just what she had been about to do, and the thought made her blush with shame. She was totally in love with Superman and, she hoped, on the cusp of a serious relationship with him… yet, now as never before, she felt drawn to Clark in a way she just couldn't explain.
One sexual encounter after years of abstinence, and she started to behave like Cat Grant. A cold feeling began to grow in the pit of her stomach. She didn't want to be that sort of person! And if Clark knew about last night, what must he think of her? No wonder he had looked relieved when Linda had arrived on the scene… he must have been desperate to get away from his best friend's amorous girlfriend!
She needed to get out of this disastrous situation, and quickly. Thank heavens they had the weekend off, and she wouldn't have to see Clark again until Monday, by which time she'd have seen Superman again.
Chapter Eight: Disillusionment
Nearly all of Metropolis was dark. From high in the air it seemed quiet and peaceful, but Superman was under no illusions. He'd already dealt with two break-ins and a teenage would-be mugger, with somewhat less than his customary courtesy and good humour. It wasn't strictly necessary to stay out this long… but he was far too wound up to go home yet.
Clark sighed as he found himself over Lois's apartment for the fourth time. Every time he managed to stop thinking about Lois and the reasons he should stay away from her, his subconscious would immediately draw him back here.
What could he have been thinking of, to come so close to kissing her on the dance floor — and in front of Metropolis's entire press corps, at that? Nothing at all, he thought ruefully. The beloved feeling of Lois in his arms again, their bodies moving in perfect harmony, had enticed him deep into a fantasy world where Lois really cared for him. He had even managed to fool himself for a second that she wanted him to kiss her, but after Linda's judiciously-timed interruption had brought him back to his senses he had seen the disturbed, almost frightened look in Lois's eyes as she turned to hurry away.
As soon as the next dance was over he'd left Linda with some mumbled excuse — his months of practice with Lois coming in handy for once — and set off to look for Lois with the intention of apologising. He'd found her in a snit, however, crossing swords with Murray Mindlin at their dinner table, and as soon as he arrived she'd announced that she had a headache and was going home. Clark had escorted her to her Jeep, carefully keeping a formal distance, and then taken to the air for his patrol.
No matter what he told himself about the patent impossibility of ever having a romantic relationship with her now, his entire body still ached for her. Somehow, her essence had woven itself so deeply into his soul that he was no longer complete without her. He didn't know if he would ever recover… and yet he had to, he knew. He had to walk away from the ruins of his dreams and somehow build a new life that included Lois only as a partner and, perhaps, a friend.
The word was a mere breath from several hundred feet below him, but the familiar voice instantly snapped Clark out of his thoughts. Almost involuntarily, he dropped down towards the apartment roof to look for her.
Her apartment was dark except for a dim, romantic light in the bedroom. Lois herself was fast asleep and, to judge by the smile on her face, dreaming pleasantly.
Clark gulped. He knew exactly what she was dreaming. He himself had relived their encounter a dozen times in idle moments during the day, and thinking about it still turned his bones to water.
If she was still clinging stubbornly — as stubbornly as only Lois knew how — to the hope that he might come back to her, then he needed to disabuse her of the idea. He could fly down and tap on her window, then say…
Lois sighed softly and rolled over, the covers pulling down as far as her waist. Clark whimpered. In stark contrast to the flannel pyjamas he remembered from last night, she was wearing a sheer black lace nightdress that hugged, but scarcely concealed, her beautiful curves. His eyes ran lovingly over the soft skin that his hands and mouth were eager to worship. There was only one man she could be wearing that garment for…
Without conscious volition, Clark found himself at her bedroom window. It was unlatched. In a flash he could be inside, and then…
No. No, and no, and no. That way lay disaster.
And with his returning sanity came merciful anger. Superman had made it quite clear to Lois that he couldn't pursue their relationship, and yet she was cold-bloodedly setting out to seduce him back into her bed. She evidently had no interest in, let alone respect for, his reasons.
Ignoring the voice at the back of his mind whispering that he was being unfair, Clark drifted silently away in the shadows and then headed home to his lonely bed.
"You're very quiet tonight, honey. Is there something you want to talk about?"
The sympathetic question jolted Clark out of his abstraction, and he stopped chasing the fried chicken around on his plate. "No… no thanks, Mom." In fact, his parents were the last people he could possibly talk to. "I'm just tired, I guess."
"We saw the news reports about the fire on Thursday," Jonathan put in. "It looked as if you were there most of the day. Was it very bad?"
In truth, he had barely thought about the fire since Lois had… He dismissed that line of thought hastily. "Pretty bad. There were several people killed, and the fire spread to the apartment blocks over the road. That was my fault — I'd taken a break, and the wind changed." He hoped his voice didn't sound indifferent; he found he no longer blamed himself so harshly for that tragic turn of events, and all his emotions were bound up in the ruins of his relationship with Lois.
He picked up his fork again, and made short work of cleaning his plate. His parents were silent for a space, and Clark imagined them exchanging concerned glances.
Then Martha put a sympathetic hand on his shoulder. "That's terrible, Clark," she said cautiously. "You must feel very guilty…"
"It's okay, Mom," he interrupted. "I… talked to Lois about it. I don't feel so bad any more." He helped himself to another slice of corn bread, just to give himself an excuse to avoid meeting her eyes.
Martha's voice was full of suppressed amusement when she spoke again. "So that's where you were after you left the fire. We tried to call you a few times, but we didn't get any answer. You must have been there quite late…"
He flinched and then started to fiddle with the corn bread, hoping his uneasiness wouldn't show. "Yeah. We talked for a while and then… I fell asleep."
"At Lois's place?" He nodded apprehensively, but to his relief she didn't pursue the point. "So what's worrying you? Letting her get to know Superman too well?"
Clark's agitation grew. He had to stop this conversation, before he found himself confessing what had happened. "Something like that. But don't worry about it, Mom…"
"Maybe it's time to tell her you're Superman," Martha said encouragingly. "Then you'll have no more misunderstandings."
Clark groaned. "It'll never work," he said dejectedly. "She's head-over-heels in love with this paragon of virtue she's made up in her head. She doesn't have the slightest interest in plain old Clark Kent."
Martha clicked her tongue in annoyance, and Clark waited for the lecture on how Superman was only him in another guise. His mom had never seen the blind worship in Lois's eyes when Superman performed some showy feat of strength or flying skill, he reflected. Nor did she know that Lois was prepared to forgive her hero even for seducing her and then running out on her like a rat, while she treated Clark, who had never let her down like that, with extreme suspicion.
He had completely destroyed the corn bread, he realised, and his plate was strewn with yellow crumbs. He dropped the last crust on the plate, got to his feet, and began to clear the table.
"Have you had a fight with Lois?" Martha said abruptly. She had foregone the lecture this time, and was eyeing him with grave concern. She was too perceptive, Clark thought, beginning to regret that he'd come home tonight for his regular Saturday dinner.
"Not exactly, Mom," he said, scraping the plates into the pig's slop bucket. "But I don't really want to talk about it."
"Jonathan, have you fed the chickens?" Clark grimaced; normally his mother's transparent efforts to get Jonathan out of the house so that Clark could talk to her alone gave him a warm and comforting feeling, but this time they filled him with dismay.
"We fed the chickens together, Mom," he said, stacking the plates on the counter and turning back to the table. Jonathan was already rising obediently to his feet, and Clark put a hand on his shoulder to stop him. "Leave Dad be," he added.
Martha looked at him with growing dismay. "What happened with Lois, then, if it wasn't a fight?" Her eyes narrowed, and her voice grew sharper. "Clark Jerome Kent — what happened when you woke up after the fire?"
He could feel himself blushing… way, way too perceptive. He stooped and dropped a kiss on her forehead. "Thanks for dinner, Mom," he said steadily. "I'd better go — I have a city to patrol."
He spun into the suit and headed for the front porch. His parents followed him silently, Martha apparently struck dumb by his sudden exit and Jonathan's calm face giving nothing away.
"Goodnight, son," Jonathan said quietly as Clark sprang into the air.
Smallville was almost out of sight when Clark heard Martha's distant, disheartened voice. "How can we help him if he won't talk to us?"
"We can't help him this time," came Jonathan's reply. "He's not a boy any longer; he has to find his own way out of this mess."
Clark shut off his super-hearing and flew on, isolated and forlorn as never before.
Lois lay still, listening to the tiny early-morning noises of the empty apartment around her. She was trying to stay cheerful, but it was getting more difficult as time passed and Superman failed to turn up. Her home had never seemed so lonely before… Last night she'd even tried to call Clark, just to hear a friendly voice, but there had been no answer and she'd belatedly realised that he was probably out somewhere with Linda. At that point she'd grabbed her purse and coat and gone out herself, but the romantic comedy she'd ended up seeing had somehow failed to lift her spirits.
Maybe she should get a cat… only then she'd have one more worry next time she got tied up by the bad guys and left in some out-of-the-way spot to die…
Ruthlessly thrusting the dismal thought away, Lois rolled out of bed and tackled her Sunday schedule with determination. Two hours later, she had showered, dressed, and done several of the chores she'd lined up for today. Her enthusiasm finally failed at the prospect of cleaning the grout in her kitchen, and she decided it was time for a late breakfast.
She carried her choc-chip waffle through to the living room and switched on the TV to catch up on the news while she ate. A few minutes later, the food was lying abandoned on the table and Lois was tearing out of the apartment. Someone was threatening to commit suicide from a rooftop in downtown Metropolis; if Superman responded to the emergency, Lois might at last get a chance to speak to him.
"… in the care of the paramedics," Clark concluded. "Any questions?"
The little knot of reporters erupted into a confused babble, jostling for position. Clark was grateful, as usual, for the invisible line drawn by Superman's persona, that only the most intrusive of the gutter press seemed willing to cross.
He was also deeply thankful that Lois wasn't here. Far from fading, as he had expected, his yearning to be with her was getting stronger with every day that passed. Like an addiction, he thought wretchedly. At the same time, his hurt and anger were growing.
He had tried to call her last night, after his patrol, to suggest they meet somewhere for lunch today and talk. Not at her apartment — at some neutral place that didn't hold painful memories. But he had only reached the answering machine. At first he'd been confused, until he'd remembered what Lois had said about Luthor at the dinner: "I believe he'll be back in Metropolis tomorrow." No doubt she had gone out with him… the very idea had sliced through his heart like a knife.
He wrested his attention back to the reporters. "Ms King?" She had, after all, been the first on the scene — the rest of the journalists, including Linda's photographer, had only just been hurrying up by the time Clark had arrived. How did she do that?
"What motive did she have for wanting to commit suicide?" Linda asked.
"We didn't discuss her motives," Clark replied. "When I arrived, she was quite happy to come down off the roof." That in itself was strange, he reflected. He'd have put her down as an attention-seeker, or one of the small but burgeoning number of Superman groupies, only she hadn't displayed the usual wide-eyed awe; she'd simply seemed relieved and satisfied, as though she'd successfully completed a necessary task.
Clark nodded to another journalist. "Mr Sullivan?"
But as Sullivan started to speak, Clark was abruptly aware that Lois was nearby. He tuned in his hearing and located her heartbeat approaching across the road, not far away. She was also hurling insults at — he shot a swift glance in her direction — the taxi driver who was daring to contest her right to cross one of Metropolis's busiest thoroughfares without the aid of a pedestrian light. Then, as she reached the near side of the road, she looked straight at Clark and a kilowatt smile lit up her face.
His head spinning slightly, Clark hastily averted his gaze before anyone noticed what had attracted his attention. His whole body was tense with the effort of maintaining his impassive exterior, and he had a brief moment of panic: he could not afford to betray his feelings in front of a crowd of reporters and a couple of live TV news teams.
He interrupted the hapless Sullivan's long-winded question. "I'm afraid I have no more time for questions," he said firmly. "I have to go." And without further ado, he lifted gracefully into the air.
As he accelerated towards the distant horizon, he caught another glimpse of Lois, her jaw dropping and her face turning pale. She had received the message loud and clear this time: Superman would not, could not continue their relationship. The sooner she came to terms with that, the better for everyone concerned. And if she was still dating Luthor, it obviously wouldn't even mean very much to her.
Strangely, the thought brought no comfort at all.
Lois stood on the sidewalk, numb with shock. After a minute she managed to close her mouth, but her thoughts went on whirling round and round.
She would never have imagined that Superman would cut her dead like that… just up and fly away with no word of explanation.
And yet, he'd done exactly that… twice, now.
"Morning, Lois." The sound of one of her least favourite voices in the entire world stiffened Lois's spine and dispelled her gathering tears. "Missed the story, did you?"
"Hello, Linda," Lois returned frostily. "I see you're still trying to get up close and personal with any attractive man."
Linda smiled sweetly. "Well, you're unlikely to get close to anyone looking like that. What's the fashion statement — gutter press?"
Belatedly, Lois realised that she was still dressed in the old sweatshirt and jeans she'd put on to do her housework, with a scarf tied round her hair. There were even dirty stains on her sleeves and knees, from scrubbing her kitchen floor. Blushing furiously, she tossed her head and stalked away, back to her car, pursued by a low laugh from Linda.
Once safely behind the wheel of the Cherokee, Lois inserted the key in the ignition and then paused to let her jumbled thoughts take shape.
How could Superman do that to her — to any woman? Her hero — the man she'd been waiting for all her life, whose motives and integrity she could wholeheartedly admire — had feet of clay. And a heart of stone. And a head… a head as dense as a black hole! How could he do that — have a one-night stand with her and then just walk away, without even giving her a decent explanation?
If that was the way he treated women, Lois was better off without him.
She clung desperately to the thought, willing it to dull the anguish in her heart, but it didn't work. She just couldn't believe Superman was really that sort of philanderer. If he were, he wouldn't have waited so long for his first time. Plenty of women, Lois included, had been hurling themselves at him ever since he'd first arrived…
So did he think that was the right way to behave on Earth? He usually had a better understanding of his adopted culture… Remembering the look on his white face just before he'd left her bedroom, Lois slowly shook her head. He'd been horrified to find himself in that situation, almost as horrified as she was now.
But that didn't excuse what he'd done! Lois's face slowly crumpled as she fought her tears. How could he show her a glimpse of paradise and then slam the gates shut on her? And to run off like that without any real explanation… did he think she was the sort of pushover who would accept that it was a mistake, just because he said so? But, of course, he didn't have to explain if he didn't want to — there was no way she could phone him and insist he talk to her, or write him an angry letter, or camp out on his doorstep until he admitted she had a right to know what was preventing him from behaving like a decent human being instead of a low-down, reprehensible, treacherous…
The blaring of a horn just beside her intruded on her inner babble, and she looked round. A delivery van had stopped right next to her, and by the look of it, the driver had been trying to attract her attention for some time. He was leaning on his horn and yelling something indistinguishable about the parking space.
Unusually, Lois had no desire to trade invective with him; her anger was directed elsewhere. She simply turned the ignition key and headed home.
Two hours later, Lois walked into the Daily Planet newsroom. She had cleaned all the grout in her kitchen, and then the bathroom grout for good measure, slowly working the edge off her fury. Then she'd tried taking another shower, changing into clean jeans and a cheerful sweater, and sitting down to consider her situation; but the silence and the memories in her apartment had been too much for her. She needed the cool, professional atmosphere of the newsroom around her if she was going to be able to deal with this.
She fetched a cup of coffee and sat down at her desk with a smothered sigh of relief. The room was all but empty, only a few isolated figures typing hurriedly at their desks, trying to get their articles off as soon as possible so they could get some time at home. The two people Lois had dreaded to encounter — Cat and Clark — were nowhere to be seen.
Disdaining the computer in front of her, she hunted out a notebook and a sharp pencil. She always did her best thinking with a pencil in hand. She turned to a clean page and then sat staring at it, nibbling the end of the pencil thoughtfully.
So what exactly had happened, three nights ago? She had dragged Superman away from the fire scene, and he had seemed to appreciate her efforts. After taking her home, he'd stayed to talk, and she thought she'd managed to help him vanquish his demons.
And then… then he'd woken up in bed with her, and they'd made sweet, passionate love together. Her heart thumping dangerously, Lois thrust the memories of that magical experience into the dim recesses of her mind.
After the first few minutes, when he'd been uncertain of her reaction, Superman had seemed totally at ease with her, totally dedicated to what they were doing together. Later, in the blissful afterglow, he'd taken her into his arms and murmured tender endearments to her.
It was then that she'd made the fatal mistake. She'd asked his name. And within seconds, in a state of blind panic, he had vanished.
Lois put down her pencil and wrapped both her hands around her coffee mug, blinking back the threat of tears. She was not going to cry, that was certain. Lois Lane, world-class investigative journalist, was not upset; she was angry. And if Superman didn't have the decency to tell her what was going on, she would damned well find out for herself.
She gulped down some of the coffee, then set the mug down again and reached for her pencil. At the top of the notebook page, she wrote, "Why did Superman run away?"
She pondered briefly, then decided to confront her worst fear first. She wrote underneath, in careful, clear letters, "1. He thought I was someone else."
Someone who knew his name. Not a mere acquaintance with a hopeless crush on a hero she barely knew.
But Superman had called her by name, almost as soon as he'd woken up. Could he have confused her with another Lois? But no… he'd spoken to her quite lucidly. He had to have known who she was.
At the thought, a load heavier than she'd been fully aware of was lifted from her mind. She might have seduced Superman, but she hadn't misled him.
With rather less trepidation, she wrote, "2. He's engaged to someone else." Or just seeing someone else, she added mentally; or even married, unlikely as it seemed given that he'd been a virgin. She knew nothing of Kryptonian customs, after all.
It didn't match with what she knew of Superman's character, though. Even after what he'd done to her, Lois found it hard to believe that Superman was just another no-good, two-timing male. But if he had another girlfriend, then either he'd completely forgotten her until afterwards — which meant he was both irresponsible and amazingly dense — or he'd callously betrayed her with scarcely a second thought.
Lois drained her coffee mug, trying to ignore the sick feeling in her gut at the idea of Superman being that duplicitous. Then the pencil went back into her mouth while she pondered on.
Why would he have panicked, if he had known from the outset what he was doing? Could her question have reminded him that Superman was supposed to have better morals than that?
But that suggested Superman's whole character was a charade. Lois baulked at the thought. Would someone who put his own pleasure first like that spend his time in life-or-death situations, helping others for no material reward? Even if there was no danger to his own life, she had seen for herself how it affected him psychologically.
Besides, what had attracted her to Superman in the first place… once she'd got over her first, overwhelming impression of his amazing abilities and good looks… was his honour and integrity. She couldn't be that hopelessly wrong about his character, could she?
Lois abstractedly removed a splinter from her teeth and tossed it into her waste basket. No, she couldn't bring herself to believe in another woman.
"3. His regulations forbid him to fraternise with humans." Maybe his superiors were worried about romantic entanglements clouding his judgement… or about Kryptonian/human half-breeds.
Lois gasped as she suddenly realised that she hadn't even thought about safe sex at the time. Okay, she was on the pill, and sexually transmitted diseases weren't exactly the first thing that sprang to mind in connection with Superman — in fact, he was probably immune — but she ought at least to have *considered* it!
Blushing, she turned her mind back to her task. The theory sort of fitted — he could have forgotten why he was here on Earth until she reminded him that he was Superman. But how could he possibly forget that he was Superman, for heaven's sake? He was so different — okay, not to look at… Focus, Lois.
If Superman ever forgot who he was, he stood every chance of destroying his surroundings with a careless gesture, or setting them on fire with an angry look. Besides, surely you couldn't grow up on one planet, travel millions of miles — or was that light years? — to a completely strange world and then suddenly forget that you were an alien. Or, in his terms, that the people surrounding you were aliens.
Number three seemed unlikely.
She tapped her teeth pensively before adding, "4. He doesn't want me to know about his private life." That also fitted with his panic at her question. Maybe he'd forgotten she was a journalist? "4a. He's afraid I would print it."
But he'd said, after the fire, that he trusted her not to print whatever he talked about, and he'd gone on to bare his soul to her. He *must* know she wouldn't reveal his name! And if he were worried about what she printed — well, the mere fact that he had slept with her would be dynamite, and her being a journalist had very little bearing on the matter. Dozens of publications, world-wide, would pay millions for that inside story.
No, surely he couldn't think for a moment that she would betray his friendship like that. But if he wasn't afraid of what she might print, then what? "4b. He's afraid of my knowing too much about him." But that was ridiculous; what could his real name — a Kryptonian name — tell her?
His true name.
Lois gasped. A few years ago, she'd investigated the activities of an occult group here in Metropolis. It had turned out that, far from the illegal blood sacrifices Lois had originally suspected them of, their main occupation had been enticing new members into sex orgies, followed by blackmail of the more influential victims; but Lois's background reading had turned up interesting information on different beliefs about magic.
And one of the widespread beliefs was that knowledge of someone's true name gave you power over that person.
Could Superman's powers possibly be magical? She had never believed in magic… yet she had never believed in flying men who could catch bullets, either. Or in love, the sort of love that was twisting her insides into a knot as she sat here and tried not to think about… anything upsetting.
Did Superman fear the consequences if anyone knew his Kryptonian name — that they might be able to harm him, perhaps even take his super-abilities away?
If his powers came from magic, he might not even be Kryptonian. He might have grown up on Earth, a perfectly ordinary human being, until he discovered an extraordinary spell.
He looked completely human, after all — and Lois had seen more of his body than most… She blushed. He had called his mother "Mom" that night. "Okay, Mom," he had said in his sleep. His English was flawless, and he seemed to have a comprehensive understanding of American culture. He hadn't queried her reference to the "Superheroes' Union" as something he didn't understand; he had recognised it as absurd.
Could Superman possibly have lied about his Kryptonian heritage? Lois waited for her belief in his honesty to well up and banish the possibility, but instead she found herself thinking that he might lie to protect himself. Besides, it wouldn't just be for his own protection… if people knew a method existed to turn an ordinary person into a super-being, the entire world would be at risk.
If he didn't have a Kryptonian name, then — and he probably wouldn't stoop to making one up — his real name would be a human one. He would have a human identity… probably someone well-known for helping others. A humanitarian, a philanthropist, someone like… Lex?
Lois's pencil snapped loudly, and pieces shot across the desk in all directions. She gathered them hastily and dumped them in the bin, surreptitiously checking that no one had noticed.
Of course, Superman couldn't actually be Lex. They'd been together on a number of occasions, such as when Lex had handed the Man of the Year award on to his successor. As far as Lois knew, Superman wasn't able to be in more than one place at once, or to go back in time. And she'd just admitted to herself a couple of days ago that Lex's honesty wasn't quite up to Superman's — or Clark's, but she thrust the thought of her partner away as soon as it surfaced — high standard. Besides, Lex had shot that guy, Mencken, who had been holding her hostage. Superman would never have done that.
No, she was letting her imagination run wild now. If Superman had an alter ego, she'd never met him, or surely she would have been drawn to him in the same mysterious way that Superman had attracted her from the first time she'd seen him. His alter ego probably didn't look the same — if a spell could alter his abilities so radically, it would surely alter his appearance — but she didn't believe her attraction to Superman was based on his looks or his super- abilities. It was the character of the man who spent so much time and effort helping others that she really valued; and surely she would have been able to recognise those qualities in an ordinary man?
Was that what had scared Superman off? Did he think she was so shallow that she would spurn his real self because he wasn't physically attractive enough? Lois's lip curled angrily — maybe she ought to track down his real identity and give him a piece of her mind. That would teach him to underestimate her… and maybe it would all end happily after all.
Lois snorted aloud. Who on earth was she trying to fool? Magic princes, secret names, a worthy princess and happy- ever-after… it was like all the soppiest of Disney tales rolled into one. She must be crazy — or desperate — even to entertain the thought for a moment! This was real life, not a spun-sugar fantasy, and it was time for her to accept that there was never going to be a happy ending.
So was she any closer to understanding Superman? She doubted it; but at least she'd given herself some possibilities to investigate. She could find out if Superman regularly visited any other city, where he might have a girlfriend. She could follow up on women that Superman had rescued in the past, and see if any of them had kept in touch — Lois grimaced — with him. Especially if any of them were called Lois. She could do more research into magic, and see if that gave her a lead to anyone here in Metropolis. And she could investigate Metropolis citizens to find anyone who fitted Superman's character profile — especially anyone whose lifestyle had changed significantly around the time Superman had appeared.
And if she found anything — then what?
Well, it would depend on what she found. She certainly wasn't likely to publish it… which meant, she realised with some annoyance, that she couldn't ask Jimmy for any help with her research. Nor could she let it interfere with her regular work. Well, she would prove that she was a good enough reporter to do her own research, after hours if necessary. And even if she never did anything with the information she found, even if no one else ever knew what she was capable of achieving, it would boost her bruised ego to manage what no one else could, and uncover Superman's secrets.
She switched on her computer with an air of grim determination, and watched it start booting up.
And in the meanwhile, she'd better make sure nobody could find out what she was up to. She ripped the top sheet out of her notebook, then added a few more for good measure. About to wad them up and toss them in the bin, she paused thoughtfully; then she took a trip to the ladies' room, to dispose of her notes where no one, not even an inquisitive Cat Grant — especially not Cat Grant — would ever find them.
Chapter Nine: Red is for Passion
Monday morning, and she was late for work again. And Lois Lane was never *this* late for work… at least, not unless she had a good excuse, like working till four in the morning on a story. Not on a private investigation that would never see newsprint.
The moment the lift doors opened, Lois was out and striding confidently across the newsroom, as though daring anyone to challenge her late arrival. She couldn't prevent her eyes darting in the direction of Clark's desk. Unsurprisingly, her partner was already in; but instead of meeting her eyes immediately in the uncanny way he had, he was gazing at his computer screen, his face set in grim lines.
Lois's heart sank. Was he still upset about Friday night? She'd thought the weekend apart would give them both time to adjust. She had even cherished a faint hope that they would be able to make a fresh start this week… get back to their old, comfortable partnership somehow. She'd so wanted to talk to him this weekend, to let out some of the pain and confusion she was feeling. Except that she couldn't, of course… because of Superman…
Perhaps she was just being too sensitive. Perhaps his mood had nothing to do with her. He could be obsessing over the fire victims, or something…
Lois was startled out of her abstraction by the sound of her name being called. "Coming, Chief!" she responded automatically, her eyes leaving Clark to find Perry at his office door. "I'll just hang up my…"
Her voice trailed off and she halted, stunned, as she finally caught sight of her desk. There was a huge bouquet of red roses covering fully half of it. Instinctively, Lois knew this was what had put that angry expression on Clark's face this morning. Her heart leapt for instant… but no, it wouldn't be Superman. It would never be Superman. Which left only… "Lex," she murmured under her breath.
She had barely thought about Lex for days. She had all but forgotten that she needed to call him and explain that she no longer had any interest in a relationship with him. But, she suddenly remembered, Cat thought — or must be made to think — that Lex was her mystery lover. Mindful of the interested eyes that she could sense on her from around the newsroom, Lois summoned up a pleased-looking smile as she dealt with her coat and purse and then headed for Perry's office.
She expected Perry to lay into her about being late, but to her surprise that didn't seem to be uppermost in his mind. Once she'd shut the door and taken the seat he waved her towards, he steepled his fingers and gazed at her sombrely over them.
"I hear you're friendly with the new reporter at the Star — what's her name?" he began abruptly.
"Linda King," she acknowledged. "I knew her in college. But, Chief, 'friendly' is putting it a bit strongly…"
He frowned. "I'm going to ask you to put your personal feelings aside here, Lois. The Star's hitting us badly with all their scoops, and if we don't do something about it quickly, we're going to lose half our advertisers. Linda King alone has managed two big scoops in the week she's been here. I want to find out how the Star is doing it, and to do that you're going to have to stick to her closer'n hair gel on an Elvis impersonator."
"I don't think it's going to work, Chief. We loathe each other." Lois's mouth twisted as she thought of the sort of comment Linda would produce if Lois suddenly professed such affection for her that she wanted to accompany her everywhere. She looked away from Perry, her eyes prickling at the thought of yet more hostility.
There was a pause, then Perry asked gruffly, "You okay, Lois? Is there something you need to tell me?" He was looking concerned and sympathetic, Lois realised with surprise. When she didn't answer, he added, "Have you had a fight with Kent?"
"No!" she said quickly… too quickly, perhaps. "Nothing like that — I just…"
But she couldn't tell Perry about any of her real concerns. And if she said anything at all, it would sound as though she was blaming Clark for something. "Actually, Chief," she added, trying to sound casual, "you might try asking Clark to keep an eye on Linda. They seemed to hit it off quite well."
"I see," Perry said. The faint speculation in his eyes made Lois flush, but he only added, "Okay, Lois. But remember — we need big front-page stories for a while, until this paper recovers."
Clark drew another careful breath and typed a few keys to keep up the appearance of being busy working.
He was managing to resist the temptation to eavesdrop on Lois and Perry's conversation, but he couldn't stop thinking about her. Not that he'd been able to get her out of his mind once since that night…
He'd been terribly rude to her again yesterday, he'd realised when he'd been able to think again. He'd tried to locate Lois then, to find out whether she'd been badly upset, but there'd been no sign of her all afternoon and well into the evening. He'd eventually given up checking and gone for an extended swim in the warm sea off Indonesia.
He'd obviously just pushed her into Luthor's arms, he thought bitterly. She'd spent most of the weekend with Luthor, and now he was sending her huge floral bouquets at work. Clark had avoided watching her entrance this morning, but he'd heard her heart race when she saw the roses, and the way she'd whispered "Lex" under her breath. Clark's hands knotted themselves into fists, and it was a long minute before he managed to relax them again.
Why Luthor, of all people? Any other man… almost… and Clark would have forced himself to accept that it was best for Lois to move on. Why did she have to choose Metropolis's arch-criminal? She was no better at seeing past Luthor's facade than Superman's, he thought bitterly.
Perry's office door opened, and instantly Clark was hyper- aware of Lois's presence again. He focused on his screen, realising that he'd typed scarcely two words of his email since Lois had arrived in the office.
Cat chose to saunter by just as Lois got back to her desk, inevitably sneering, "Sending flowers to yourself again, Lois?" as she passed.
"I imagine they're from Lex," came the blithe response, followed by the sound of Lois opening the card which accompanied the bouquet. "Yes, they are… oh, that's sweet."
Cat tossed her head and walked away, and Clark breathed a sigh of relief. He'd been regretting his cutting words to Cat ever since he'd spoken them, but he had to admit there were benefits… like preventing her from making another unwelcome pass at him right now.
But he still had to cope with a lovestruck Lois. What was she doing now? He reluctantly lifted his gaze from his screen at last, and turned to see Lois burying her face in the roses to breathe in their scent. His jaw set grimly.
The roses were beautiful, but they didn't have much scent. Hot-house flowers, Lois thought; Lex's usual choice.
Her face was starting to ache with the strain of keeping up her sunny expression, and she sank into her chair and turned her computer on. Hidden from most of the office behind the bouquet, she turned to look at Clark. He was no longer giving her the cold shoulder; now he was staring at her, his mouth thin and hard.
Lois's heart twisted as she realised just how badly Clark was taking this. Would they never be friends again? Then her hurt was submerged in a wave of anger. What right did he have to judge her actions? If he knew about her and Superman, he must know that she had to prevent the secret from ever getting out, and Lex provided a very convenient smokescreen. And so what if she enjoyed getting flowers from another man? It wasn't as if Superman was going to be sending her any — he'd just tossed her aside like a broken doll!
The last traces of cheerfulness dropped from her face, and she favoured Clark with a chilling glare. For a moment his eyes went wide; then he inclined his head slightly and turned back to his computer.
For a moment, Lois was tempted to throw something at him. She even reached out and wrapped her fingers around her coffee mug. Then she took a deep breath. This was the office, and she had to be professional. Maybe she and Clark needed to talk things out, but if so it should be done calmly, and preferably behind closed doors. She could do calm. But first, she could do with some coffee.
As she rounded the corner of her desk on the way to the machine, her phone rang. She eyed it for a moment, tempted to let it go to voice mail. But what if it was a tip from one of her sources? She snatched up the receiver. "Lois Lane, Daily Planet."
"Ah, you're in at last, my dear," came the smooth baritone voice she'd been dreading. "I've been trying to reach you since I got back from San Francisco."
If Clark had been disturbed by her phone all morning, on top of the flowers, she could understand his bad mood a little better. Lois remembered the interested spectators in time to adopt a delighted smile, however. "Lex! Thank you for the beautiful roses."
"No more beautiful than the recipient, I assure you." Lex's voice had dropped to a satisfied purr, to Lois's chagrin; but she could think of no way to warn him off while still giving the office gossips the impression that they were a devoted couple. "I know you're busy, my dear, and I won't keep you, but I called to make sure you haven't forgotten our date."
"Our date?" Lois chuckled, ducking her head coyly while, behind the curtain of her hair, her eyes searched desperately for her desk diary. There it was — inevitably, underneath the vase of roses. "Of course I haven't forgotten," she added, quickly abandoning her mug to whip the diary out and flip quickly to the page for this week. There it was. "It's Wednesday night, the charity gala in New York. You didn't say how we were going to get there, though."
"That's why I'm calling. We can take my jet, and I thought it would be pleasant to start a little early and have dinner on the way. Would it be convenient to pick you up at… five, perhaps? Or is that too early?"
She usually took about two hours to set her hair and dress… After her late arrival today, she would have to make up a lot of hours if she wanted to leave that early. But it didn't matter — she would call Lex back later, in private, and cancel. "I should be able to manage that," she replied, smiling sweetly for the benefit of the newsroom.
"Excellent. Oh, and Lois… what colour will you be wearing?"
She had to think of a dress now, for this imaginary date? Fortunately she had been through her wardrobe just last week. The dress she had rejected as being too competitive for Linda's dinner… "Blue. Dark blue."
"Thank you, Lois," he said warmly. "Wednesday at five, then."
"I can't wait," she said, and hung up. She bent to scribble the time into the diary, then grabbed her coffee mug again. She sneaked a look at Clark as she straightened. He must have heard her side of the conversation — she'd certainly been making no effort to keep her voice down. Sure enough, although he was typing busily, his eyes fixed on the screen, his face was pale and that little muscle was jumping in his jaw again.
Coffee first; then she *had* to talk to Clark.
Clark relaxed slightly as Lois disappeared in the direction of the coffee machine. He'd thought he would be up to the challenge of working beside Lois… but that was before he'd been slapped in the face by her relationship with Luthor. The roses had been bad enough; overhearing her arranging dates with Luthor was almost more than he could bear.
Maybe it was time to cut his losses and stop working with her. The pain inside him swelled to a new level at the thought… but why try to fool himself any longer? If he could only be sure that Lois wouldn't be left to Luthor's non-existent mercy… But where would he go, anyway? Working in the same newsroom would be just as bad. What could he do — switch to the Sports section? Move to another paper? Even another city?
All his options seemed like a form of living death. Clark propped his forehead on one hand and gave vent to a nearly inaudible groan.
"Kent! My office!" came Perry's bellow. Clark snapped out of his daze and got to his feet. If he carried on like this, he thought, he'd get fired… that would certainly cut down his options. And his chances of ever getting another top job.
Inside Perry's office, the editor gave him a hard, searching stare. Clark drew on his months of practice to make his face an impassive mask. He had a hard time resisting the urge to fold his arms, square his shoulders and brace his legs apart; he dropped into a chair instead and took a careful grip on the armrests.
Perry was still watching him closely, the glare now softened by a gleam of what might have been approval. "Son, there wouldn't be anything going on in my newsroom that I ought to know about, would there?" he asked, leaning back in his chair.
Clark's mind raced. This might be the time to tell Perry that things weren't going well with Lois. That in this time of crisis, they would do better chasing stories separately on the street. By the end of the day, he might even be able to switch desks, and he could rearrange his working pattern to be in the newsroom as little as possible while Lois was there. He'd barely have to see her.
He swallowed painfully and shook his head. "I can't think of anything, Chief."
Perry nodded, apparently satisfied. "Good. Because, as you know, we all have to work together to beat the Star if this paper is going to survive." He paused and ran a large hand over his grey hair. "Ya know, the Star has been getting too many scoops lately. 'Tain't natural. An old newshound like me wants to know how they're pullin' that off."
Clark nodded cautiously. When Perry's Southern speech pattern broadened, he was usually preparing to spring some sort of trap.
"Now, one way to skin that cat would be to have, say, one of our reporters cosyin' up to one of theirs, to see how they go about it," Perry continued. He pinned Clark with his gaze once more. "Whaddya think of that plan?"
Clark couldn't quite suppress a grimace. He was well aware that Linda would welcome the opportunity to spend more time with him, but so far, he'd been careful to appear completely oblivious of her come-hither signals. If he gave her a hint of encouragement… his life would become even more complicated than it was already.
On the other hand, time with Linda would be time away from Lois; and right now, that seemed like an excellent idea. Reluctantly, he met Perry's eyes. "Lois introduced me to an old college fr… acquaintance of hers last week — Linda King. She's just started at the Star. I could try to spend some time with her."
There was approval in Perry's smile, as well as amusement; though what should be amusing him, Clark couldn't fathom. "That should do the trick. Off you go then, son — I don't have to teach you how to do your job."
But Clark stayed seated. Perhaps it was time to share his suspicions about the latest string of emergencies — and since Lois wasn't going to give him the time of day…
"Chief, I've been wondering about the cause of some of these incidents," he began.
Lois scowled as she headed back to her desk, steaming mug in hand. No Clark. This time he'd managed to pre-empt the looming confrontation by disappearing before it even started. He'd run off without his coat, too… did that mean he was still in the building? Perry's blinds were drawn now; maybe Clark was in there. Or maybe Perry was just putting his feet up and listening to Elvis to get his blood pressure down…
She'd better start some work while she was waiting for Clark — do her bit to keep the Planet afloat. There was some research to be done into the arson story, for a start. And if she could put her feelings aside for long enough, she could write something on how the city was going too far in demanding Superman's help… no. She wasn't brave enough for that yet.
She stood up, leaving her coffee behind, and headed for Jimmy's desk. "Jimmy, I've got some work for you to do," she announced.
Jimmy swung his chair away from his screen. "I'm sorry, Lois," he replied guiltily. "I'm all tied up for a few days."
"Well, drop it!" Lois snapped. "This is urgent!"
Jimmy looked, if possible, even more apologetic. "Clark gave me a whole lot of research to do," he said. "He said it was urgent, too. I've been working on it all morning…"
Lois ground her teeth. Clark was doing research without telling her about it? Her curiosity warred briefly with her wounded pride, and won. "What's it about?" she asked, looking over Jimmy's shoulder at his computer screen.
To her surprise, Jimmy gave her an embarrassed glance and then appeared to become absorbed in studying his fidgeting fingers. "This part's, um, to do with some of last week's Superman rescues." Lois gave him an impatient glare, and he stumbled on. "Clark wanted to know if any of the properties or people involved are, um, connected with, uh, you know… LexCorp."
Lois opened her mouth and then shut it again with a snap. So Clark wasn't content with speaking ill of Lex at every opportunity — now he was investigating him, too? Not to mention trying to steal Lois's arson story! In between wandering off in his usual, totally irresponsible fashion…
"And are they?" she snapped.
"Uh… no. Not that I've found so far."
That would teach Clark to let his paranoia drive his investigations! "I see," she snorted. "Well, I guess I'd better find another researcher." Abandoning the now pale and sweating Jimmy without another word, she whirled around and headed for the lift down to Research.
It was nearly lunch time before Lois was back in the newsroom, and she was fuming. The researchers downstairs seemed to be a collection of drooling idiots — either that, or they were expert at appearing slack-jawed to get out of being assigned any work. Lois had had to spend hours with her chosen victim, explaining to her in exhaustive detail exactly what she wanted; she could have explained it to Jimmy in two or three sentences.
And to add insult to injury, her abandoned coffee was, of course, stone cold. And Clark was still missing.
She looked more closely at his desk. No — missing again, and this time he'd taken his coat.
Could he simply have gone to lunch? And could Lois possibly catch him at lunch and make him listen to her for a few minutes without him rushing away again?
She looked at her own desk. No note to say where Clark had gone; and now that she thought about it, he was unlikely to leave a conciliatory note on the same desk as Lex's enormous bouquet.
At that moment, the phone rang. Lois picked it up immediately, her heart thumping for some unknown reason; but it was only Bobby Bigmouth, calling to arrange a rendezvous this afternoon. It lifted Lois's spirits, all the same — a tip from Bobby usually meant a good story on the way.
Now, what had she… oh, yes. Casually approaching Clark's desk and sweeping a quick glance over the neat piles of paperwork, Lois hit the jackpot immediately. On the pad next to the telephone, Clark had scrawled the name of an upmarket restaurant in a downtown hotel.
Her day was finally looking up. She would drive to the Tri-Crown for lunch, and have a quiet, calm talk with Clark — she really could do calm, she assured herself. Then she and Clark would pick up some food for Bobby, and drive together to the rendezvous.
Lois grabbed her coat and purse and left the newsroom, mustering the most tranquil thoughts she could manage.
Fifteen minutes later, however, her good intentions had deserted her. There had been a traffic jam near the Tri- Crown, and Lois had heard the urgent braying of sirens nearby. Desperate to scoop the Star for once, she'd managed to sneak up a side street and find a parking space. The man who'd rushed out of a nearby apartment and remonstrated volubly with her over parking in a "reserved" space had been a minor annoyance, but what she'd found at the hotel — source of both the sirens and the traffic jam — was a bitter pill to swallow.
For there in the lobby, at the very front of the gathered crowd, was Linda King. And, what was worse, there was no sign of Clark. What sort of reporter could be right on the spot at a major incident like this, and fail to cover it for his newspaper?
Whatever the incident was. Lois could see people milling about in front of an open lift, but there was no indication as to why. She forced her way through the crowd, which was starting to break up, and accosted Linda.
"I suppose I shouldn't be surprised to find you here," she said by way of greeting. She couldn't quite suppress the sneer that had somehow crept into her tone. "What happened?"
Linda turned and smiled with the barest hint of a gloat. "Oh, were you too late again, Lois? At least you're properly dressed this time… There was an accident with the elevator, but Superman arrived in time to save the occupants." Her eyes narrowed after the word "Superman", and Lois wondered uncomfortably what Linda might have seen in her face. But Linda merely continued, in a lower tone, "You know, you're a bad influence on that partner of yours. We were lunching in the restaurant together, but he didn't manage to follow me out in time to see the whole thing. Someone needs to teach him to run faster, if he wants to keep up with Superman. Not that anyone could… Superman's incredible, isn't he?"
Lois could feel her face stiffening with anger, and everything around her took on a faint red tinge. How dare anyone who'd known Clark for barely a few days comment like that on his reporting ability — let alone insinuating that it was somehow Lois's fault? "You… you just stay away from him!" she snarled.
Linda's eyes widened in disbelief, then narrowed with amused mockery. "Who, Superman?" she scoffed. "You're not deluding yourself that the Man of Steel belongs exclusively to…" She raked Lois from head to toe with a disdainful glance. "… you?" she finished, contemptuously.
It was on the tip of Lois's tongue to correct Linda's misunderstanding, but she was already regretting having let Linda goad her so far. She contented herself with an icy glare at her adversary.
The next second she was closing her eyes in abject thankfulness; for Linda's eyes had shifted over her shoulder, and she could hear Clark's diffident voice starting to offer some lame excuse for his absence.
Lois turned and cut him short. "Oh, there you are, Clark. Don't let me disturb your date. I have to go now, anyway… to meet a source."
She met his eyes as she uttered his own favourite excuse, and got an angry thrill of pleasure from his wince. Then she turned on her heel and walked out.
Two-thirty, and Lois still wasn't back. Clark gave up trying to think coherently about his filler piece on Metropolis's crime statistics.
First he couldn't concentrate while Lois was in the newsroom; now he couldn't concentrate while she was somewhere else. He just couldn't win.
Where could she be, anyway? She'd mentioned a source, but that could just have been a dig at him. What if she was doing something foolhardy — getting herself into trouble without him around to save her neck? Not that she'd exactly welcome the company of either Clark or Superman right now.
Or would she? He just couldn't tell any more. He'd been convinced that she would be livid with Superman after his crass behaviour, and her sudden flurry of interest in Luthor had seemed to confirm it. But then he'd overheard her remark to Linda about Superman, and she'd sounded amazingly possessive… what was that about?
Clark shook his head. He didn't think he'd ever be able to understand her thought processes.
Superman was supposed to be invulnerable, he brooded. The Man of Steel. A derisive smile touched his lips and then faded away. Not when his heart had somehow left his body and attached itself to the fiery blend of passion and beauty that was his partner. Who wasn't even conscious that he had a heart, let alone that he'd lost it to her.
He forced his attention back to the falling rates of violent crime, but it was an uphill battle. He dropped the printouts with alacrity, his heart suddenly doing a little skip of joy, when he finally heard a familiar heartbeat approaching up the lift shaft.
His heart sank again, however, when the lift doors opened and her gimlet gaze settled on him. Her heartbeat accelerated and became a little erratic. She didn't seem to have calmed down at all since she'd left the hotel lobby, he reflected; and judging by her determined advance, he was about to feel the full force of her anger.
He kept his expression carefully neutral as she approached his desk. As she stopped in front of it, he offered a cautious, "Hello, Lois."
Some dark emotion flared briefly in her eyes, and his heart twisted. "Clark, we need to talk," she said in a low, carefully controlled voice.
Was that good or bad? "Sure," he returned, rising to his feet. "I think the conference room is free."
Once the conference room door was closed behind them, however, Lois seemed reluctant to speak. She paced the floor for a minute, and Clark caught a sotto voce mumble of "Calm. I can do calm."
At length she halted, folded her arms and turned to face him. Clark couldn't help wondering whether the resemblance to Superman's trademark stance was conscious or not.
She moistened her lips, and Clark's gaze skidded away to look through the window behind her. The newsroom staff was showing considerable interest in the proceedings, he noted absently. Then he completely forgot the spectators at Lois's first words.
"Clark, are you trying to steal my story?"
He gaped at her. "Steal… What story?"
Her face had softened slightly at his reaction, but her tone was still challenging. "The arson story. You've been doing your own investigation."
His eyes narrowed. "Lois, last I knew we were investigating it together. We're supposed to be partners. Is it *your* story now?"
She looked shamefaced now. "No, I just… of course we're partners — if you still want to be…"
His eyebrows drew together. If he still wanted to be? What crazy notion had she got into her head now? He knew Lois was insecure about men… was she starting to doubt her professional ability now?
She faltered on, "You weren't in the newsroom this morning when I wanted to talk to you…"
"Wait a minute," he interrupted. "*I* wasn't in the newsroom? I was here most of the morning, Lois — you were the one who wasn't around. And you're the one who went to meet a source without me!"
She bit her lip. "I followed you to the Tri-Crown so we could talk, Clark. I would have taken you to see Bobby afterwards. I didn't realise you were on a date with that… with Linda!" Her eyes were flashing angrily again.
His voice grew cold. "Is that what this is about… my seeing Linda? Because for one thing, Perry asked me to keep an eye on her so we can find out how the Star is bringing in all these scoops. And for another, I don't see how your dislike of Linda gives you the right to run my personal life…"
Her face had gone white, and her voice was shaking. "Don't flatter yourself, Clark. I don't… I don't care what you and Linda have going on your own time." She strode forward to loom over him, hands clenched at her sides. "But I can't believe you have the gall to sit there and say that, after what you've said in the past about me dating Lex!"
So that was it, he thought despairingly. No crisis of confidence; she just wanted to protect her rich boyfriend, and to hell with her partner and his feelings. But he'd had enough of her intimidation tactics. He rose to his feet, and she fell back a pace. Now she had to look up at him, and there was a trace of nervousness in her eyes as she took in his angry expression. Good.
"I have to admit that Linda can't match you for sheer pigheaded brilliance," he rasped. "But Luthor isn't just a slime that I wouldn't want dating my sister; he's also the biggest crime boss in Metropolis. And one day soon, I'm going to prove that. Pardon me if I'd prefer my *partner* not to be caught up in his fall from grace."
Lois looked daggers at him. "Don't be an idiot, Clark. I don't know why you're so jealous of Lex's success, but it's blinded you to all his better -"
Something snapped inside Clark, and he saw red. Lois must have seen it in his face; she stopped on a gasp and took a step backwards. He followed her until she was backed up against the window.
"If anyone in this room is an idiot, it's you, Lois," he growled. "And it's not just Luthor you're blind about, it's any man who gets close to you! Even Superman…"
Her lips parted in shock, and he took hold of her shoulders, pulling her against him; then he lowered his head and covered that full, enticing mouth with his own.
At first he felt only anger, but in a second that was swept away, to be replaced by a rush of emotions that he'd only ever experienced once before. It was like coming home to the one place in the universe where he belonged. He'd been slowly starving for want of her, and now that he was holding her again, he wished the moment could last forever. He yearned to feel her melting against him, responding with the same eagerness that she'd shown last time. His lips softened against hers, questing urgently for the passion he knew was hidden within her.
Her mouth, at first slack under his, moved… and pulled away. He lifted his head and took a half-step backwards, breathing heavily. There was a blur of motion in the corner of his eye, and he only just had time to soften his aura so that the impact against his cheek wouldn't hurt her.
He was just her partner, Clark reminded himself with harsh self-loathing, dropping his hands and retreating another step. Not anyone she could feel like that about.
"I… I don't… I'm sorry, Lois," he said, his voice hoarse with the emotions still churning inside him. He turned and fumbled for the door.
As he stepped out into the newsroom, the breathless hush hit him. Every eye in the place was riveted either on him or on the conference room window where Lois still stood as if turned to stone.
He lifted one hand to cover the spot where no red handprint would be forming. Then he ducked his head, turned, and made his way to the stairwell through the echoing silence.
Chapter Ten: A Tangled Web
What on earth had possessed him to do such a thing?
Clark sank down with his back against the access door on the roof of the Daily Planet, buried his head in his hands and groaned.
He'd known full well that his only remaining chance with Lois lay in keeping his distance from her, for however long it took her to get over what he'd done to their relationship. He'd been reminding himself of that for days.
And what had he done? In the space of a minute… a few seconds, even… he'd ruined not only what was left of their friendship, but his professional standing as well. He'd have to leave the Planet now. And he'd humiliated Lois in front of virtually the entire daytime staff. He'd be lucky if she didn't slap a sexual harassment suit on him…
On top of that, he had lost his temper and lashed out at Lois. Superman had lost control — the control he'd been building so carefully for over a decade, ever since he'd realised what his strength could do to the people around him. He wasn't sure he could continue to be Superman, if he couldn't trust himself to keep his cool.
He'd wrecked every single thing he cared about. Lois, the woman who seemed like the other half of himself, was out of his reach forever. His dream job, where he'd been so happy for all these months… he'd never get another job like it, especially if he got fired now. He could no longer trust himself to use his powers responsibly as Superman. And even his parents probably weren't talking to him since Saturday's disastrous dinner.
He couldn't even think of anything to do about it. Apologising to Lois — even in the unlikely event that he could get her to listen to him for long enough — wasn't going to do him any good. She'd been livid already about his attitude to Luthor; humiliating her publicly would have been the last straw. And if he was going to leave the Planet, he might as well leave her despising him. It would be easier for her in the long run.
There was only one thing he could do… and that was resign right now, before he was forced to leave. That would make it easier for everyone concerned, and Perry might even be willing to give him some sort of reference.
The sooner, the better. Clark got stiffly to his feet and trudged downstairs.
What on earth had possessed him to do such a thing?
Lois wiped her smudged lipstick off with a trembling hand, and looked at her reflection in the mirror. Her mouth didn't look as bruised as it felt, but her eyes were wide and dark. She looked scared… and no wonder, because that was how she felt.
The mirror faded away, and she saw the image of Clark's face, closing on hers. Not the comfortable, safe Clark she knew and trusted; this was a Clark she'd never met before, his face white and set, his eyes flashing with anger. She ought to have been frightened of him, and indeed, she'd retreated as he'd closed on her; yet something in her had responded to his intensity in a way she wasn't prepared for. He'd grabbed her abruptly, and his lips had claimed hers in a hard, punishing kiss — but instead of being outraged, she'd found her whole body coming alive at the contact.
And as she'd stood there, bewildered by the feelings churning inside her, the nature of the kiss had changed. From harsh and indifferent, Clark's mouth had become searching, exploratory; demanding a response from her. And Lois's desire had leapt in answer, its liquid heat melting away the last vestiges of her anger. She'd started to move, to open her mouth beneath his, to lift her hands so that she could cling to his body and mould herself against him…
And then the real fear had struck. Fear not of Clark, but of the unfamiliar, passionate woman he had conjured up inside her. A woman who longed to throw caution to the winds and live for the moment. Who ached to lose herself in his kiss, to trust herself to him completely, no matter where it might lead.
Lois Lane wasn't like that. She didn't trust anyone like that. And on the thought she had pulled herself away from him, turning the movement of her hand into a desperate blow against his cheek. He had released her instantly and stepped back, shuttering the contempt in his eyes behind a stony mask. Within a few seconds he had stammered out a hoarse apology and left. It should have been a relief; instead, her prevailing emotion had been an aching sense of loss.
Then guilt had stabbed at her; the same guilt that was still gnawing away inside her now. Even if it was all over between Superman and her, she still loved him. Was she so faithless that she could have these feelings for two men at the same time?
She'd stood frozen to the spot for a long minute, unable to trust her trembling legs. Then she'd gathered the shreds of her dignity and headed for the conference room door. It was only when she registered the expectant hush in the newsroom that she'd realised the whole incident had been witnessed by her colleagues. Almost everyone had had their eyes fixed discreetly on their work, except for Cat, whose avid gaze had absorbed Lois's deep blush with glee. But no movement, no whisper, no cough had disturbed the silence as Lois collected her purse and retreated to the ladies' room for running repairs.
Her hands were still shaking slightly, but she had managed to reapply her lipstick with reasonable skill. It was time to face down the gossip-mongers, before the story got out of hand.
The usual newsroom noise was back, if a little subdued, but she kept her gaze firmly fixed on her desk as she strode defiantly back to it and sat down. There was no sign of Clark… no surprises there, Lois thought angrily. He'd probably fled halfway across the city by now. And perhaps it was just as well, because she was still far too shaky to talk to him. If she got behind closed doors with him right now, she'd probably end up screaming at him like a banshee… or throwing herself at him and kissing him senseless.
Lois made an effort to pull herself together. She couldn't afford to keep thinking like that. Clark was off limits, she reminded herself sternly. And really, she ought to demand a pretty grovelling apology from him before she even agreed to talk to him. Starting with an explanation of exactly what he thought he'd been doing.
He'd accused her of being blind… about Superman, as well as Lex. What could he have meant by that? Surely not that Superman was a crook… Clark despised Lex, but he was a close friend of Superman's. That couldn't be it.
Did he mean that Superman wasn't in love with her? Well, she'd pretty much worked that out for herself. Although she was still convinced, on the evidence of their one night together, that Superman had strong feelings for her — just as she had for him, she thought with a pang of misery — he obviously wasn't going to act on them any further.
What, then? Could her suspicions be correct — did Superman have a girlfriend, maybe even a secret identity? Well, she was pursuing that investigation. She hadn't turned up anything interesting yet, but her instincts told her she was close to something big… she just hadn't found the right key yet. Perhaps soon she would be able to make Clark eat his words.
But if that was what Clark had meant, why had he followed it up by kissing her? It certainly hadn't been a loving kiss. Not a hint of love or even liking had shown on his face, before or afterwards. Had he done it out of sheer contempt for her stupidity? Lois suddenly realised that one finger had strayed to her lips, to trace the imaginary imprint of his lips on hers, and she hastily pulled it away, blushing scarlet.
Sitting here musing wasn't doing her any good… it was about time she got some work done. Lois Lane had a reputation to protect.
Turning to her computer, she scanned through her list of articles in progress. She didn't have enough information to complete any of the big ones yet — though Bobby's tip might be the breakthrough she'd been looking for with the gun-running operation — but there were a few filler articles which had been languishing on her hard drive for a while, for lack of attention. She decided to finish them first before going out on the streets in search of more meaty stories. It would allow her to stay at her desk for a while, too… not that that was particularly important, she reassured herself quickly.
A few minutes later, the office door behind her opened. The sudden drop in the newsroom noise level and the inquisitive glances at her and at the door alerted her, and she realised with a sinking heart that it was Clark emerging. Had he been reporting to Perry on his lunch with Linda?
Her spine prickled as she heard his footsteps approaching down the short flight of steps. Her heart began to race, and she felt a dangerous weakness flooding her body, but she kept her eyes fixed firmly on her screen.
There was the slightest hesitation in the footsteps behind her, but as she typed a few more words into her computer she heard them resume, heading for Clark's desk. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw him pick up his coat and, without another glance at her, walk steadily out of the room.
He hadn't returned to the newsroom that day, though Lois had stayed at her desk, finishing her filler articles and looking over the pile of unsifted web hits that gormless idiot in Research had produced for her. At about seven, when the rest of the day shift had gone, she'd dialled her home phone and set it to forward calls to the Planet; then she'd stayed on all evening, working on her Superman investigation. But Clark hadn't called, either.
Several times she'd reached for the phone on her desk, intending to make the call herself, but something had stopped her each time. It was Clark who'd been out of line; he ought to be the one to take the first step. And if he really did despise her, as she feared, then calling to beg him to talk to her would only make matters worse.
In any case, waiting till tomorrow would give her time to get over these runaway hormones of hers. She'd never been attracted to him — at least, she thought, remembering a certain kiss in the Lexor Hotel, not very strongly — before her encounter with Superman. She must just be on the rebound, and having a rebound fling with Clark was about the worst idea she could think of. It would hurt them both, and ruin their partnership forever… and her partnership with Clark was about the only positive thing left in her life right now.
She frowned uneasily. How had Clark become so essential to her happiness? Even her long-cherished job at the Planet seemed flat and uninspiring now when she thought about working on her own. When she looked back over the last few months, Clark seemed to be everywhere… Investigating alongside her, so that the two of them consistently pulled off brilliant results. Turning a tedious stakeout into a fun evening together, with nothing but a few board games and his sense of humour. Losing his memory during the Nightfall panic, and giving her a welcome distraction from Superman's disappearance. Saving her life when Mr Makeup had tried to kill her, and holding her securely, uncritically, while she sobbed in terror.
Sure, Superman had also been around during the same period, and seeing him had always been exciting… but he generally only flew in to save the day when she got herself into some life-threatening predicament, then disappeared again. It was Clark who'd been there when she'd needed companionship. Except, of course, when he did his own disappearing act…
Lois sighed. It was nearly midnight, and even her Superman investigation wasn't going anywhere. Was she losing her touch? She shrugged the thought aside. She was just tired, and cut up by all the confusion in her private life. Once she'd straightened things out with Clark, she'd be back to normal.
She got her things together, and stood eyeing Lex's roses balefully as she shrugged her coat on. Once again, she'd forgotten about Lex completely. She should have phoned him this evening to cancel Wednesday's date; but it was far too late now. Tomorrow.
Meanwhile, she had to dispose of his flowers. She couldn't dump them at the Planet — that would cause exactly the sort of gossip she was trying to avoid. She'd have to take them with her… maybe she could find a dumpster on the way home.
Lois made it in to work early the next morning, for the first time in days. There weren't many people about yet; nevertheless, as she stepped out of the elevator her eyes flew straight to Clark's desk.
The next moment she stopped in her tracks and gasped as though someone had thrust a dagger into her chest. Clark wasn't at his desk; nor were any of his personal possessions. Even his nameplate was gone.
He must have come in in the small hours of the morning and cleared his desk. Only now did Lois realise what had kept her at her desk so long into the night… the unacknowledged fear that Clark would leave the Planet again, just as he had once before, during the heatwave crisis. Only this time it was even worse — this time it was Lois herself who'd driven him away, not the City of Metropolis.
Suddenly conscious of the curious eyes around her, Lois forced her unwilling legs to carry her forward, across the newsroom to her desk. She dumped her things, noting absently that at least there were no ostentatious floral displays to cope with today, then headed straight for Perry's office.
Perry's face grew concerned as soon as Lois walked into the room. "Sit down, Lois," he said abruptly, in an almost commanding tone.
Lois cursed internally. She would have to control her expression better… or apply more makeup, if she was looking pale. "It's okay, Chief," she said hurriedly. "I just want to know what's happened to… my partner."
Perry's eyes gleamed alertly at the last words, but he leant back in his chair and took his time choosing a response. "Clark resigned from the Planet yesterday," he said finally. "I believe he's going to work for the Metropolis Star."
The dagger in Lois's chest twisted. After a moment she sank into the nearest chair. "But… why? How could he do that — go to the opposition?"
"Well, now, Lois, you can't blame the boy for being worried about his prospects here," rumbled Perry. "I've been warning you about cutbacks; now management has cut expense accounts, as you'd know if you'd made yesterday's morning meeting. Job cuts are only a matter of time if we don't turn this paper round — and Clark's one of the last to be hired."
Lois nodded, her head still spinning at the thought of Clark in the enemy camp. But, of course, this was a chance for him to work with Linda. She shouldn't begrudge him that, no matter how it turned her stomach. She could always hope that it would let him get to know Linda really well… in time to prevent him doing anything stupid…
"He also mentioned," Perry added, watching her closely, "something about sexual harassment charges. I don't suppose you'd know anything about that?"
Lois could feel herself blushing furiously, even as her heart sank to previously unplumbed depths. Trust Perry to know about that kiss… but could Clark really believe she'd be that spiteful? Was his opinion of her so abysmally low? Sure, she'd slapped him — as any self- respecting professional woman would have done. But she didn't want it to lose him his job! She just wanted him to apologise properly… ok, to grovel a bit… and to explain why he'd done it…
She raised her eyes to Perry's. "Clark gets on well with nearly everyone here," she said. "I can't imagine anyone wanting to do that."
Perry nodded with a wintry smile. "I'm relieved to hear it," was all he said, but Lois knew him too well to miss the satisfied spark buried deep in his eyes. Why would her response matter, though, if Clark had already left? Unless Perry hoped to coax him back…
The idea gave her a gleam of hope in an otherwise dismal future. She got to her feet. "Thanks, Chief," she said, as briskly as she could manage, and strode back to her desk.
If her job was all she had left, she'd better get on with it.
Clark tugged uncomfortably at his collar. He'd been standing in front of the Omiri Embassy for nearly two hours now, and he was starting to wish he were somewhere else. Anywhere else.
That was at least partly due to Linda. Clark had gone to see her yesterday, as soon as he'd left the Planet, to find out if her offer to recommend him for a job at the Star was genuine. He'd only told her that he and Lois had quarrelled, and that he thought it was time to leave the Planet for a better job. She'd looked delighted at the news, and had intimated that if he wanted more than just a new partner, he had only to ask.
He'd done his best to laugh it off at the time, but it had disturbed him. He'd encountered predatory women from time to time, of course, but he'd never been partnered with one before. He didn't want to make an issue of it — but neither did he want to have to spend all his time fending her off.
He should have been flattered, he mused — that if Lois didn't have any interest in him, there were other women who did. The trouble was, he didn't want any other woman. He was aching for Lois every moment they were apart, and Linda's closeness was merely oppressive.
Was this what it felt like for Lois, being near him? he suddenly wondered. Now that she knew for certain that he was in love with her… Did he make her skin crawl when he stood too close? Did her heart drop every time he made a gesture that might possibly turn into a caress? Clark broke out in a cold sweat. There was just no way he and Lois could work together again, regardless of what happened to the Metropolis Star in the near future.
Speaking of the Star, the official deadline for its afternoon edition, like that of the Planet, was rapidly approaching. Linda would probably phone in a report shortly. They'd hung around in front of the Omiri Embassy all morning, waiting for something interesting to happen, but so far it had been a damp squib. There had been a flurry of activity among the demonstrators when the official Omiri delegation had arrived from the airport, and a few stones had been thrown, but there hadn't been anything like the riot in Chicago last week.
At least Linda was no longer clinging to his side the way she'd been doing earlier. She'd even started touching him familiarly at one point, putting a hand on his lapel and then adjusting his tie. He'd been taken aback for a moment, until his hearing had alerted him to Lois's approaching heartbeat. Then he'd stepped away from Linda and asked her, politely but firmly, to keep her distance. She'd looked up at him through her lashes, chuckled, and told him there was no need to be so formal. Then she'd confirmed his suspicions of what she was up to by suggesting that being friendlier with her would be a good way of making Lois jealous.
She'd seemed most put out when he'd informed her crisply that he had no desire to make Lois jealous, but at least she'd backed off at last. It was easier to stop himself thinking about how close Lois was when he wasn't constantly being reminded of his surroundings by Linda.
His new partner was checking her watch now, and taking out her cellphone to call in the story. Clark covertly listened in for anything suspicious, but there seemed to be nothing out of the ordinary until the end, when Linda was transferred from the copy desk to Carpenter's office. Linda's and Carpenter's manner still seemed quite natural, but to Clark's surprise, Carpenter's instructions were to stay where they were for a while longer.
Linda hung up and repeated Carpenter's words to Clark, who listened politely and nodded. So Carpenter seemed to think something exciting was going to happen? He had chosen his time wisely, Clark realised; most of the other journalists were starting to pack up and drift away. Ten more minutes, and the Star reporters would probably have the field to themselves. Unless…
"… then we can find a quiet place for lunch," Linda said, looking suggestively up at Clark and taking a step closer. "Just the two of us…"
Clark hastily stepped backwards, holding his tie flat with one hand to keep it out of her clutches. "I'm sorry, Linda," he interrupted, "I've just remembered something. I have to… pick up a prescription before the store closes. I'll be right back!"
He backed away, leaving her staring open-mouthed, and headed down the street at a deceptively leisurely pace to find a quiet back alley. One quick spin-change later and he was soaring into the sky, coming round in a wide arc to a point above the Omiri Embassy. Once he was sure he'd been spotted, he drifted down to land on the roof immediately above the entrance, where he stood ostentatiously surveying his surroundings. Even the policemen in riot gear forming a cordon in front of the building turned to gape at him, and the journalists who had been on their way came swarming back in a hurry. That would put a spoke in Carpenter's wheel, Clark thought with grim satisfaction; and perhaps anyone planning a foolhardy demonstration would have second thoughts now that they knew they'd be up against super-powers.
There was only one person his little display wasn't working on. Lois had been one of the first to spot him, but instead of hastily snapping pictures of him and getting a notebook or dictaphone ready for a big story like the other reporters, she was making her way through the excited crowd towards a quieter area some way up the street.
What was she up to now? Clark thought disgustedly. He was doing his best to ensure that the Star didn't scoop the next big story, and Lois wasn't going to cover it for the Planet? His annoyance prevented him from having to think about how forlorn she looked, trudging up the street alone.
He was scanning the crowd again, partly for signs of trouble and partly to mask his interest in Lois, when he heard it: the unmistakable sound of automatic weapons being loaded, a short distance from where Lois was walking. A split second later he was standing outside the shut doors of what seemed to be a recently-closed repair garage. X- raying the doors confirmed it — a group of men in the uniform of the exiled Omiri Liberation Front were readying a variety of firearms and boarding a couple of military- looking Jeeps.
At super-speed, Clark ripped open one of the workshop doors and collected all the visible weapons. A handy cable drum at the back of the workshop caught his eye, and on his next pass he rounded up the members of the OLF squad and trussed them efficiently with the cable.
As he finished, he registered Lois's presence at the sagging door, assiduously snapping pictures of the action. His plan had worked after all — a Planet reporter was first on the scene this time.
Without acknowledging her, Clark began to scan the further reaches of the warehouse for any more gunmen. A few seconds later he had retrieved another man from behind a wall of oil barrels — the camera clicking busily — and was busy immobilising him beside his fellows. As Clark tied the last knot and stood up, he heard Lois's footsteps behind him.
"Superman, can I ask you for a quote…?" she began tentatively.
His nerves tightened, and the adrenalin still coursing through his body set him trembling. If he wasn't careful, he'd find himself kissing her again… To his intense relief, his hearing picked up the sound of someone trying to escape from the rear of the building. "Excuse me," he interrupted, and shifted back into super-speed for a quick exit.
By the time he returned with three more men in OLF uniform, police sirens were blaring in the street and the building was being cordoned off. He was able to hand over his captives, make a brief statement to the officer in charge, and make his escape without speaking to Lois.
Now all he had to do was mollify Linda about his having run off just before the story broke.
The warehouse was pitch dark except where moonbeams slanted in through the dusty skylights. Lois shifted uncomfortably in her hiding place on top of a stack of empty packing cases, hoping fervently that the gun-runners would arrive soon. If they didn't hurry, she'd be demanding a meal out of Bobby for a change.
She'd had no trouble forcing the window of the little office, and the pile of metal crates had been easy to spot in the largely empty warehouse. She'd inspected them carefully by torchlight before searching for somewhere to conceal herself. They were completely anonymous, but certainly the right size and shape for rifles or machine- guns. Now she just had to wait till someone arrived to move them.
At least she was uncomfortable enough to be sure she wouldn't fall asleep. Not that there was much chance of that anyway — more than twelve hours after Superman's cowardly exit, she was still livid about it.
Had she really thought, standing in her kitchen making coffee for her erstwhile hero, that it would be romantic having him suddenly leave in the middle of a conversation when he heard a call for help? Because she couldn't have been more wrong. It was utterly infuriating!
But it scared her as much as it angered her. Not only had she come to rely on her partner much more heavily than she'd realised; her recent work owed much more to getting regular exclusives from Superman than she'd ever have admitted to anyone.
Now that he was scrupulously avoiding her, would she be able to make the grade? She'd done it before, of course… but it had been unremittingly hard and lonely work, and it had left precious little room for anything else in her life, as Lucy had taken every opportunity to point out. She wasn't sure she really wanted to go back to being that Lois…
She *had* managed to phone in the scoop on today's incident, of course, while the other reporters were still waiting for the police to release a statement; and she would have tomorrow morning's banner headline all to herself, with a page three photo spread as well. But she was well aware that it had been an exceptionally lucky coincidence, and that her article had lacked a certain zing without the usual Superman quote. You're only as good as your next story, she reminded herself.
Worse yet, Superman would probably take all his exclusives to Clark now. And that preening parasite, Carpenter, would pin one more undeserved medal on his own chest. Maybe it would even spell the end of the Planet… Lois felt the tears begin to gather once again, and furiously blinked them away. Self-pity was for losers.
She had been on the verge of tears more times than she cared to think about, over the last couple of days. Mostly over Clark. And that was the heart of her misery, she admitted reluctantly. She was missing Clark intensely, and the idea that he might never work at the Planet was breaking her heart. Her only hope was that Perry would somehow pull off a miracle and get Clark to come back.
She'd do almost anything to get him back, she thought sadly. Give up her infatuation for Superman — and it really was just infatuation, she realised. Oh, the physical attraction was still there, and she still admired his dedication and integrity, but the past few days had brought home strongly how little she knew of him; and she certainly couldn't admire the way he'd treated her since their passionate encounter. Her wistful yearning for him was fading, eclipsed by her longing for her partner to return.
She'd even drop her investigation into Superman's background if it would make any difference. In fact, she should probably drop it anyway. It was going nowhere, and she'd really only started it out of anger at the way she'd been treated. And if she ever did find out something about him, and it somehow got out… well, Superman might not be the paragon of all virtue that she'd first thought, but what he did for Metropolis and the world was undeniably good. She wouldn't want to compromise him in any way.
As for Lex — the fact that she rarely even thought about him emphasised how little he meant to her. She hadn't even phoned to cancel tomorrow's date yet, she remembered guiltily. She'd meant to tell Clark yesterday that she had no intention of dating Lex, but somehow the conversation had gone in a completely different direction… She fingered her lips unconsciously. If she told Clark how little she cared about Lex, would he be more likely to listen to Perry?
Too late for that, she thought glumly. Clark had given up on her. She'd seen him today, standing so close to Linda as they'd talked, until he'd noticed her arrival and backed off. The glances Linda had thrown at her had been positively triumphant, and Lois had found it difficult to concentrate on anything but her desire to walk up to them, floor Linda with a couple of well-judged tae kwon do moves, and throw herself into Clark's arms.
Her hormones were evidently still in overdrive, she reflected miserably. Clark would be even more disgusted if he ever guessed how she was feeling about him. How she fantasised about him kissing her, slowly and tenderly; and her unruly imagination didn't stop at kissing, either…
She blushed in the darkness and took a grip on herself. She had to stop thinking about Clark that way, or she'd go crazy.
It was too late to cancel her date with Lex, she thought abruptly; if she was so desperately in need of a rebound fling… She moistened her lips, suddenly dry. The thought made her feel light-headed. It was incredibly cynical, and yet… if she had a brief affair with Lex, both of them would walk away unharmed afterwards. Lex didn't love her any more than she him, she recognised with sudden clarity; she just represented a challenge he couldn't resist. Sleeping with him would probably be the quickest way to end his interest. The prospect still gave her a very odd feeling, though…
The clanking of the main door on the far side of the warehouse being opened interrupted her musing. She flattened herself in the nick of time as the ceiling lights came on. In the sudden dazzle, she heard a van being driven through the door.
It had been backed right up to the pile of crates, she saw when her eyes had recovered sufficiently, and a couple of men were now transferring the crates into the van. Didn't these guys know anything? she thought sourly. They were supposed to leave the van outside and carry the crates out by hand, giving Lois a chance to sneak out and conceal herself amidst the cargo. They weren't playing fair. All she could do was to take the van's number as they closed up the back and prepared to drive away. And even that wouldn't help much, since Bobby had said the men had been hired just for this occasion.
Her hot tip hadn't come to much after all, she thought as she watched the van drive out and the door close again. Bobby definitely owed her after this!
Chapter Eleven: The Orani Jewels
Clark sat fidgeting in the Omiri press conference. The nuclear arms treaty had been signed this morning, and now the Ambassador was publicly donating the Orani Jewels to the U.S. Government as a "goodwill gesture" before the trade delegation went on to New York for further talks. But before the donation itself took place, there was to be a brief question-and-answer session.
Lois, who had arrived in the nick of time before the dignitaries and taken a seat at the front of the reception room, had started the ball rolling with a question about the arms treaty; and Linda, not to be outdone, had followed it with one about Omir's civil rights record. The answers had been totally predictable, the Ambassador saying as little in as many words as he could, and Secretary Wallace toeing the party political line. Now Wallace was answering a third question, on U.S. foreign policy, and Clark's attention was straying.
It didn't help to be constantly distracted by Lois's ramrod-straight figure in the corner of his eye. The instant she'd arrived, all his senses had become attuned to her, and try as he might, he couldn't manage to focus elsewhere.
When this investigation was over, he decided, he was going to have to leave Metropolis. Just being in the same room as Lois was sheer torture.
And yet, if he was too far away, who would save her neck the next time she dangled above the jaws of death? He'd barely been able to sleep last night for nightmares of the OLF gunmen driving their jeeps out of the garage and spraying their surroundings with bullets, mowing down his beautiful, brilliant, *impossible* Lois as she rushed forward to catch the story. He could feel himself start to sweat again at the memory. He could almost hear, once again, the sound of the rifles being loaded…
Actually, he *could* hear rifles being loaded. Jerking to attention, and incidentally earning himself a disapproving glance from Linda, Clark blocked out the press conference noises and listened for more suspicious sounds. He located the source immediately, and a glance over his glasses filled in the details: four more gunmen in OLF uniform, sporting gleaming assault rifles, were gathered in an adjacent room, only ten yards from where Clark sat at one end of a row of chairs. The only obstacle between them and a hundred unarmed civilians was a large pair of double doors which, to Clark's dismay, weren't even locked.
He bent his head towards the notebook on his knee, and raised one hand as though to shade his eyes from the podium lights. Then he hastily pulled his glasses down with the other and directed a beam of heat vision through the door's keyhole. The door catch started to glow a dull red inside the door, and a short while later the mechanism was a molten, immobilised mass.
Clark sent a hasty blast of icy super-breath at the door to prevent the wood from charring. His gambit wouldn't hold the gunmen for long, he knew; one or two solid blows against the double doors, and they would simply swing apart. He had to get the room cleared, and fast. He lifted his head and shot a swift glance around the room. Lois was back on her feet, prefacing another question with the usual "Lois Lane, Daily Planet."
Clark stood up abruptly, his heart clenching. Lois was going to hate him — but then, she probably did already. "Clark Kent, D… Metropolis Star," he interrupted. "May I ask -"
Lois stiffened. "Excuse me," she said without turning, "but I believe my question has priority -"
"You've already asked one question," Clark said, his stomach churning at his own rudeness. "It's someone else's turn now."
He heard a shocked gasp and a half-suppressed giggle from beside him, as Lois finally turned to pin him with an enraged glare. "Just because you -" she hissed, but she got no further, because Wallace loudly announced, "No more questions!" and gestured for silence.
Clark and Lois both subsided onto their chairs, Clark cursing silently at the fact that Wallace hadn't cleared the room — or at least thrown him out, so that he could come back as Superman. He couldn't quite bring himself to cause any further disturbance, though.
The Omiri Ambassador started on what seemed likely to be a lengthy oration about the Orani Jewels. Clark blew out his cheeks in frustration and started covertly examining the ceiling for smoke detectors. Then, to his simultaneous relief and apprehension, someone in the adjacent room noisily tried the door handle.
As the Ambassador stopped speaking and looked around angrily for an aide, Wallace leant over to whisper something in his ear. Both men stood up, and Wallace announced tersely that the donation would take place in private. Within seconds the two men and the jewels were on their way out of the room, while the door handle started to rattle furiously.
The assembled journalists got to their feet, many of them casting annoyed looks at Clark. The security guards left their posts around the walls of the room and came forward to usher them out of the exit doors at the back of the reception room. Clark manoeuvred himself and Linda to the rear of the departing throng, wishing he could use a touch of super-breath to hurry them along. They were moving so slowly… Should he grab a security guard, inform him of the gunmen's presence, and ask him to get the police? But how could he possibly explain knowing who was in the room next door?
The rattling of the handle stopped, and then there was a thump at the door, which shook ominously. Someone had finally put a shoulder to it. Clark looked anxiously round and saw one of the guards hurrying over to another, smaller side door. Tipping his glasses, he x-rayed the wall to see another side room with a communicating door to the one where the gunmen were arguing over what to do next. If the guard walked in on them, was he likely to get shot? More likely taken hostage, Clark reasoned; still, Superman would be needed shortly.
The next moment Clark grew pale as he spotted Lois strolling casually after the guard. Was she determined to get herself killed? He swung round to go after her, but one of the nearby security guards stepped into his path, clearing his throat.
Clark cast a glance at the exit; the last of the other journalists was just leaving, and Linda was just turning round to look for him. She raised her eyebrows as she saw him. Another quick look over his glasses showed the security guard speaking to the gunmen — who, surprisingly, were neither hiding their weapons nor threatening the guard — and Lois eavesdropping at the communicating door. Any minute now she was likely to be discovered, or take it into her head to walk in…
He nodded at the man blocking his path, then wheeled and walked briskly through the exit door, Linda falling into step beside him. She kept casting curious glances at him, but Clark had no attention to spare for appeasing her. Lois was in danger.
He was overjoyed to see, not far from the reception room, a "men's" sign on one of the side doors. He stopped as he reached it, and mumbled in an embarrassed tone, "I'm sorry, Linda — I have to…" He waved a hand at the sign.
She looked resigned. "I'll call the copy desk while I wait, then," she suggested.
"Oh, no, don't bother," he said urgently. At her startled look, he back-tracked hastily. "I mean — why don't you call from outside? That way you'll catch Wallace as he leaves. I'll meet you there."
"Good idea," she said, still eyeing him dubiously. Then, as he turned towards the men's room, she shrugged and walked on.
Moments later, Superman was hovering outside the window of the room where he had last seen the gunmen. His heart sank as he saw what he had feared — Lois being held at gunpoint on the far side of the room while the leader of the group shouted threats through the double doors at the security guards in the reception room. There was no sign of the guard Clark had seen talking to the gunmen earlier.
He wrenched the window open and burst into the room. The gunmen turned as one to face the noise, and Clark shifted into super-speed to relieve them of their rifles before they could turn them on Lois again. It was almost too easy, he reflected, dropping back to normal speed; the Omiris evidently hadn't taken account of super-abilities in their planning.
He motioned the bewildered men, still staring blankly at their empty hands, away from Lois and into the opposite corner. Then, keeping a close watch on them, he put a hand on the double doors and exerted a hint of super-strength. The doors burst open, revealing a gaggle of sweating security guards, their pistols waving at the doors like daffodils in the breeze; and behind them, the welcome sight of Bill Henderson and a squad of the Metropolis Police Department's finest arriving on the scene. Someone must have called them the minute anything suspicious had occurred, and of course they had been on the alert for trouble ever since the Omiri delegates had landed in Metropolis.
The Omiris were quickly cautioned and cuffed, and Clark could relax at last. He gave a brief report to the police and stepped towards the window to leave; then he froze as he heard Lois's voice behind him. It was the first time she'd spoken since he arrived, he realised suddenly.
"Superman, may I speak to you?"
He turned, carefully keeping an impassive expression on his face. "Yes, Ms Lane?"
He could see the colour rise in her face. Her eyes were fixed somewhere about the level of his chin. "In private, please," she said uncomfortably.
His nerves tightened at the thought of being alone with her. And what could she want to say? She wouldn't try to change his mind, would she? Yet he couldn't very well refuse such a public request.
He looked at Henderson. "Inspector, may we -"
"Sure, Superman, use the room next door," said Henderson, waving a hand at the door Lois had been eavesdropping at earlier. "It's empty now, we'll be using it to interview the Embassy staff later." He bent a stern gaze on Lois. "But, Lane, I still need your statement — no sneaking off till I've seen you."
Lois nodded, and Clark opened the door and stood back. "After you, Ms Lane."
She walked past him without looking at him, and he followed her and closed the door. When he turned, he found she'd moved into the centre of the room. He breathed a silent sigh of relief, at the same time curbing his traitorous body's urge to move closer to her.
Now that she'd got him alone, she didn't seem to know where to start. She stood gazing absently out of the window, twisting her hands nervously together.
"Are you okay?" he asked as she showed no signs of speaking.
The simple question had a marked effect on her, if not quite the one he'd intended. Her spine stiffened, her shoulders straightened, and her eyes flashed as they finally met his. "I'm fine, just fine," she said in a tone she'd never used on Superman before. "I've just been held hostage at gunpoint — all in the day's work."
Clark blinked at the tone and the look in her eyes. There was not a trace of her normal hero-worship to be seen in them. The rush of disappointment he felt at the discovery shocked him — wasn't that what he'd been aiming for, wishing for, all these months? Had something inside him been relishing her admiration, deliberately showing off in front of her to foster the worship he'd claimed to detest? Clark felt sick at the thought.
"Why is it any of your business, anyway?" Lois continued in the same icy voice. "You didn't care how I felt last week when you left me, or how I feel when you won't even give me a press statement after a rescue. Why are you suddenly concerned now?"
He stared at her, aghast. He'd been hurting her so badly, and he hadn't even realised. He hadn't thought hard enough about how she'd been feeling… too caught up in his own misery and the end of his dreams. He fumbled for the right words. "Lois, I did care… I do care… I just…"
Her words dripped contempt. "You just what? You just decided it was more important to keep your distance? You didn't even think to find out if I was pregnant, did you? No, I'm not," she added, backing away as he took an involuntary step towards her. "But it's obvious you didn't even think about it till now. I could have fallen ill from some Kryptonian virus, and you'd never have known. I wasn't even sure you'd bother to rescue me from those thugs, though I'm glad you did. I guess you don't let personal considerations interfere with your job…"
He was still gazing at her without a word. There just weren't any words to defend himself with. He'd been blind, and more than blind; he'd behaved despicably. Of course, he'd been close by her as Clark, and he'd have known if she'd fallen ill or, God forbid, been pregnant — but she couldn't know that. She was right to be angry. He deserved every word she'd said, and more.
She seemed to have run out of steam; she was looking down at her hands, trying to regain her composure. "Lois, I never meant to hurt you," Clark said remorsefully. "I made a mistake, that night, and everything I've done since has just made it worse. I'm sorry…"
She lifted her head again, and her eyes focused once more on his chin. "It doesn't matter," she said dismissively. "I didn't ask you here to fling accusations at you, or to force you to apologise. I know there's nothing between us, and I'm not going to run after you or embarrass you. I won't ask your name again. I won't even investigate you any further."
With difficulty, Clark suppressed a gasp of dismay. Lois, investigating Superman? His panic threatened to overwhelm him, until the fact that she'd decided not to go any further sank in. Obviously she hadn't managed to work out who he was yet, or she'd have been round at his apartment in a flash to disembowel him with a rusty tin-opener — or at least the verbal equivalent.
If she'd opened her eyes far enough to start investigating Superman, dare he hope she'd done the same to Luthor? No, that was probably asking too much. But why had she decided to stop?
She was having difficulty finding words again; her eyes were back on her hands. "All I wanted to ask," she said slowly, "was that you stop avoiding me. When you're at rescues and things, I mean." Her hands were twisting again, and Clark realised to his horror that her eyes were brimming with unshed tears. "I'm not asking for exclusives… just that you let me do my job and report the news."
And her job was under threat, Clark completed silently. The Daily Planet was in danger of folding, her partner had run away to the Star, and she'd lost her access not only to Superman exclusives, but even to the day-to-day reports and quotes he gave any other reporter. She probably thought all his exclusives would go to Clark at the Star from now on. She couldn't know that he was working to expose Carpenter's felonious activities. Once again, he'd completely failed to spare a thought for her.
He wanted to take her in his arms and comfort her, but he'd lost any right to touch her. "Lois, please accept my sincere apology," he said formally. "I'll do my best to treat you like any other reporter in future." However difficult that may be, he added silently.
She nodded, turning away from him and bending her head so that the dark curtain of her hair hid her face. The audience was over. He turned to the door and then hesitated. She hadn't asked, wouldn't ask… but it was the only thing he could offer her, short of telling her everything. And hurting her even more when she realised it was Clark who'd betrayed her so unforgivably.
"My name is Kal," he said. "Kal-El."
Her heart skipped a beat, but she didn't move. After a moment, with cold finality, she said, "Thank you, Superman."
"Lois, my office, now!"
Lois, en route to her desk, automatically changed direction towards Perry's office. This would be about her articles on the donation of the Orani Jewels and the hostage drama. She'd mailed them only a few minutes ago; Perry was on the ball today.
In his office, she took the chair Perry waved her to. He nodded at her, looking pleased. "Two fine articles, Lois. Our front page is gonna look good again tomorrow. But tell me now, after going through all of this, how are you feeling? Do you want the afternoon off?"
She shook her head. "I'm fine, Chief. And I've got a lot to work on…"
"What have you got there?" Perry enquired, looking at the thick folder of print-outs in her lap.
"I just picked these up from Jimmy. It's the stuff Clark asked him to look into on Monday — it's for the arson investigation we were working on together, among other things."
"I'll look through it and give anything on the arson case to you," Perry said, getting up and coming round his desk to get the folder. "I may assign the rest of it to someone else."
Lois clutched the folder more firmly. "But Chief," she protested, "Clark's… Clark was my partner! I ought to take over the work he left behind!"
Perry shook his head firmly. "No, Lois, I still need you out on the street. And right now I want you to go home and rest, anyway — you're looking pale."
Lois started to protest again; then she remembered her date. Maybe leaving early wasn't such a bad plan after all. "Okay," she said grudgingly. "As long as you don't assign that out till tomorrow, at least."
Perry was looking at her almost nervously. "What do you mean, 'okay'?" he asked suspiciously.
"I mean I'm going home now," she replied, handing over the folder.
His eyebrows drew together. "To do what?"
"To have a nice, relaxing hot bath."
"And then to get ready to go out on a date. Perry, what's this inquisition all about? Are you my mother? You told me to go home and relax, I'm going home and relaxing. What more do you want from me?"
He waved the folder irritably at her. "Go on, then, get out of here!" he grumbled; but Lois could feel him watching her covertly as she collected her things and headed for the lift.
He'd been behaving rather oddly ever since Clark… ever since Monday, she reflected as she climbed into her Cherokee in the basement car park. He'd been watching her constantly, and she could almost swear she'd seen him furtively taking something from Clark's desk earlier while she was getting coffee. Maybe he was having a mid-life crisis or something.
In any case, she couldn't deny that she found his solicitude handy on this occasion. She was feeling drained after today's events — that dreadful press conference she was trying not to think about, the shock of finding herself suddenly at the wrong end of several assault rifles, and then her confrontation with Superman.
Superman. She was kidding herself, thinking that her attraction to him was fading. She'd had to grit her teeth, forcing herself to walk past his big, powerful body without touching him. Apparently, to her everlasting shame, she was capable of feeling like this about both Superman and Clark at exactly the same time. It had rattled her so badly that she'd lost her temper and showered him with accusations she'd never intended to mention. He'd behaved with far more dignity than she had, apologising for what he'd done without trying to justify himself. Not that there could be much justification for what he'd done…
And after that she'd nearly disgraced herself a second time by bursting into tears. She'd managed to stammer out her request that he stop avoiding her, and he'd apologised and agreed, but she'd felt as though she'd been through an emotional wringer by the time he'd left.
Suddenly realising she was still sitting in the driving seat of her parked Jeep, Lois started the engine and set off home. She needed that hot bath to relax her tense muscles.
And what of that curve-ball Superman had thrown her just before he left? She shook her head in confusion. First he'd run out on her because she'd asked his name; then he'd made her a present of it. Kal. Or Cal? Either way, it didn't mean anything to her. Kal-El of Krypton…
She hadn't worked up the courage to ask him whether he'd told Clark about their encounter. She desperately wanted to know… and yet, it made no real difference. Clark either thought she'd slept with Lex or knew she'd slept with Superman; and in either case he despised her. And even if she explained about Lex… well, she couldn't start anything with Superman's best friend…
She wrenched her straying thoughts back to the Omiri Embassy. After Superman had left, she'd given her statement to Bill Henderson. She'd told him that the man she'd been following had spoken to the gunmen familiarly while she'd listened at the door, and that he'd handed her over to them when he'd found her there on his way out. She'd added that she'd seen that particular man before, talking to Preston Carpenter at the Press Club. Then she'd spent an hour with a police artist, drawing up an identikit picture, earring and all. Unfortunately, the man had long since vanished from the Embassy.
What she hadn't told Henderson was that the crate on the floor of the room, from which the rifles had obviously come, was a dead ringer for the ones she had seen being removed from the warehouse in the middle of last night. She had no proof, no names, no useful information at all; but her gun-runners appeared to be supplying the Omiri rebel forces, at least here in America.
She shrugged as she parked outside her apartment block. One more fact to file among her "incomplete" investigations.
She rode up in the lift to the third floor, where she stepped out and walked automatically to her front door, hunting for her apartment keys. As she finally drew them out, she looked down and stopped in surprise.
On her doorstep was a long paper parcel. No, not a parcel, she realised as she bent to inspect it carefully before picking it up — a bunch of unfamiliar flowers, somewhat inexpertly wrapped in plain paper. Lois skilfully negotiated her multiple door-locks at speed, then slammed the door behind her and dropped all her belongings on the hall table in order to examine the unusual gift.
There was a card tucked between the layers of paper, bearing her name in very familiar writing. Lois looked at it for a long, apprehensive moment before sitting down and opening the envelope.
"I'd like to apologise for my deplorable behaviour. I'm not asking you to forgive me, because it's probably unforgivable, but I wanted to tell you that I deeply regret any hurt I've caused you.
Lois sat staring at the card. Clark was apologising as abjectly as she could have wished. She should have felt jubilant; instead, she was simply numb.
Did it mean that he didn't despise her after all? Or had Superman talked to Clark this afternoon and asked him to apologise to her? The timing was too neat to be sheer coincidence. Did Clark really care about her opinion of him, or was he simply paving his way back to the Planet? Maybe he'd discovered that the Star's eighth-grade writing standard wasn't such fun after all. Or maybe he'd found that with Linda, a little went a long way…
Lois got up abruptly, ashamed of her bitchy thoughts. She took the flowers to the kitchen and began to arrange them in a tall vase. They seemed to be wildflowers; their open faces, every shade from white to pink, tossed on long stems. They smelt of warm sun and blue skies. Where had Clark found such flowers at this time of year? Or had Superman fetched them for him?
Was she going to forgive him? she wondered suddenly. His behaviour at the press conference had really hurt… would he have some sort of explanation for why he'd chosen to undermine her like that? And yet, she realised, professionally it reflected much worse on him than on her. If he genuinely was sorry, she'd have no difficulty forgiving him.
And then there was that terrible, wonderful kiss. She'd already slapped him for that, in front of the whole newsroom, which was punishment enough. In truth, she'd already forgiven him for the kiss itself; all she really needed was to know why he'd done it.
Of course, there was also the affront to her professional dignity…
Lois began to tidy up, picking up each leaf and piece of stem, one by one, and collecting them into neat piles.
For years she'd lived under the shadow of the humiliation she'd felt when Claude had seduced and then dropped her, telling the whole newsroom what a lousy lay she'd been. It had crushed her spirits at the time, and she'd fearfully imagined the story following her throughout her career. Yet, in retrospect, the story had been old news within a week or two, and even at the worst of it she'd got as much sympathy as derision — some from Claude's previous victims.
And now she'd been grabbed forcefully by Clark and kissed in front of the whole staff. She should have been feeling the same anguished humiliation… but she wasn't actually sure she even cared. There were far more crucial things for her to worry about than what a bunch of gossiping harpies chose to say about her and her private life.
The realisation was liberating, and Lois smiled as she swept the piles of offcuts into the empty wrapping and bundled them into the bin. Arguably, she owed Clark a favour for helping her to that discovery.
Clark. Her smile evaporated as she thought over his message again. There was still a vacuum where she should have felt joy, or relief, or some sort of emotion. She was scared, she realised suddenly. She didn't want to risk feeling joy or relief over Clark, because she no longer understood him — if she ever had. She could no longer trust him, or her feelings for him.
She looked at the flowers. Simple, pretty, wholesome country flowers. Was Clark really the simple, wholesome, devastatingly attractive country boy he seemed to be? Why had he kissed her like that… what did he really think of her?
Her muscles were tenser than ever. Lois went through to the bathroom to turn the taps on, throwing a generous handful of bath salts under the steaming water. But before she stepped in to start her long, blissful soak, she collected Clark's flowers and disposed them carefully on a shelf above the basin, where they could easily be seen from anywhere in the room.
Chapter Twelve: A Night Out
Lois was ready for her date in good time. The blue dress hugged her curves in all the right places; the long skirt and lace sleeves were appropriate for a winter flight to New York, but the deep, scalloped neckline and the slit that revealed flashes of one thigh when she moved made it look anything but practical.
She felt very feminine tonight, Lois thought as she checked her curls one last time. That was the thing about going out with Lex… he always made her feel so feminine and desirable, in contrast to her hard-hitting, no-nonsense daytime persona. And the pampered luxury in which he lived, and which she got to taste when she accompanied him, was very agreeable after a hard day's work.
A hothouse existence, she thought, remembering his flowers; she wouldn't want to live there for long, but it was fun to visit.
She sat down on one of her loveseats and turned the television on, flicking through the channels while she waited for Lex. Her eyes kept straying to Clark's flowers, on the coffee table where she'd moved them after her bath. It was something of a relief when, at five o'clock precisely, there was a knock on the door.
Lex's eyes scanned her appearance as she opened the door, and widened appreciatively. He himself was looking as handsome and well-groomed as ever in a black dinner jacket with a cream carnation at his lapel. He was empty-handed, somewhat to Lois's surprise; after he'd gone to the trouble of asking what colour she'd be wearing, she'd vaguely expected him to bring flowers.
He smiled at her and stepped forward to brush a kiss on her cheek. "You look stunning, my dear," he said, casting another admiring glance downward, and her cheeks turned a little pink. "Are you ready to go?"
"Of course — I just need my things…" She turned to pick up her bag from the hall table, and Lex stepped forward to help her with her lacy wrap.
"I don't think I've seen flowers like that," he said casually as he stepped back and waved her to the door. "Where did they come from?"
Lois kicked herself internally. She should have put the arrangement elsewhere — another man's flowers were bound to annoy Lex. "Oh, they came from Clark," she said in an offhand tone, waiting for him to pull the door to behind them.
"Oh — country flowers, I suppose," he said in a superior tone. Lois felt her hackles rising and forced herself to relax as he took her arm to pilot her down the corridor. Clark had said enough unpleasant things about Lex in the past; she shouldn't begrudge Lex his turn. At least he hadn't accused Clark of being a crook. "Were they a parting gift?" Lex added.
"You knew he'd left the Planet?" Lois said in surprise.
Lex shrugged. "He had a by-line in the Metropolis Star today," he pointed out. "It wasn't difficult to guess."
"True," Lois conceded; but she had the oddest feeling that Lex knew more than he was letting on. "We quarrelled over… a story," she said after a pause, "and he decided to leave. He sent the flowers to apologise."
"And did you accept?" Lex asked lightly. He was smiling when Lois glanced up at him, but his eyes were intent.
"I haven't responded," she said diplomatically.
"Very wise." They had reached the limo, and Nigel was holding the near door open for her. Lex waved him away and closed the door behind her himself. After a moment he opened the far door and got in next to her; then the car slid smoothly away from the kerb. The shutters were up between passengers and driver, Lois noted, so she and Lex had complete privacy. He knew that she wasn't comfortable treating his staff as deaf and blind, the way he tended to do, and she appreciated his consideration.
"I'm rather glad Kent has left the Daily Planet," Lex said after a moment. She glanced at him curiously; was he about to admit to disliking Clark? But he continued, "I know he's been your partner for a while, but I never thought he was good for you. You write much better on your own."
Lois almost opened her mouth to defend Clark hotly, but she caught herself in time. She wasn't going to let the stupid ill feeling between the two men ruin her evening out. Still, Lex's last comment was quite untrue. She'd never admitted as much to Clark, but she knew his more emotional style complemented her own more clinical one, and their partnership had increased the Planet's circulation. But perhaps Lex was simply trying to be supportive.
"Thank you," she said, smiling at him with an effort. "I'm just worrying about the Planet — the Star's new editor, Preston Carpenter, is turning it into quite a rival."
Lex's face grew concerned. "Yes, I've heard that the Daily Planet is starting to lose money. Your editor, White, is an old-fashioned manager. It's time the paper got in someone younger, more forward-thinking." Over my dead body, Lois thought, her fingernails digging into her palms. "Carpenter isn't the type to let grass grow under his feet."
"Oh, you know him?" Lois asked, clutching at a less controversial topic of conversation.
"I had business dealings with him some years back," Lex said smoothly. "He's a very… ambitious man." There was a faint edge on the word, which surprised Lois — Lex himself was ambitious, she knew. Why should he disapprove of ambition in others? Unless it threatened his own position, and that was scarcely likely…
She started to talk about meeting Carpenter at his dinner the previous week, and the conversation flowed along less stressful channels for a while. Lois started to relax. Lex was his usual charming self, chatting about mutual acquaintances and asking about the stories she'd been busy on. She was less forthcoming than usual about her work; she talked about the vault full of art treasures that had been found the previous week, but she said nothing of the suspicions she had about Carpenter. When she asked Lex about his trip the previous week, he spoke entertainingly, as ever, about the places he'd visited, the people he'd met, even the food he'd eaten; but, as ever, he said little about the actual business dealings he'd gone for. A fair trade, Lois thought drily.
She found herself very aware of the physical presence of the man beside her. She noticed his smooth, controlled movements as he got a soft drink for her out of the limo's built-in bar fridge — she'd refused the champagne he'd offered. And she was very conscious of the long slit in her skirt, and the way his eyes dropped to it when she adjusted her position on the soft leather seat. It woke the same fluttery feeling within her that she'd had when she'd first thought about having an affair with him, last night.
She looked at his face, smiling animatedly at her as he talked. He'd only ever kissed her hand before, or dropped a chaste kiss on her cheek. What would it be like to feel those lips on her own, to run her fingers through that wavy hair? The dizzy sensation increased, and her legs began to feel shaky.
The intercom beeped softly, and Nigel's voice said, "Airfield in five minutes, sir."
Lex reached out to open a small cupboard concealed amid the soft upholstery. "I mustn't forget," he said, his eyes twinkling engagingly at her. "This is for you."
He drew out a small box and handed it to her. Looking through the cellophane panel in the top, Lois gasped in surprise. A beautiful, delicate orchid lay inside; the five elongated petals were cream-coloured, veined and tipped with blue, and the trumpet shaded from royal to midnight blue. "Lex, it's stunning!" she breathed.
She opened the box and lifted the orchid out, and its rich vanilla-like scent filled the car. She ran a gentle fingertip along one petal, marvelling at the fine blue tracery.
"May I help you pin it on?" said Lex's voice unexpectedly in her ear.
"Of course," she said graciously, hoping he hadn't noticed her tiny start of surprise. He took the orchid from her, and she leant back against the seat and pulled her wrap away from her shoulder.
He skilfully pinned the flower to the fabric of her dress, his warm fingers moving gently against her skin. He paused when the task was done and raised his eyes to her face. She realised that she was trembling slightly, and that her eyes were staring at his mouth in fascination.
She looked into his eyes and saw them darken. She licked her dry lips, and his gaze flickered to her mouth. Then his face began to move, closer and closer to hers, and she knew he was going to kiss her. She closed her eyes and waited in breathless anticipation.
The first brush of his lips on hers was soft but confident. As she tilted her face closer to his, the kiss became firmer and his lips began to move rhythmically. They were cool and dry, she noticed — this was no slobbering adolescent but a self-assured, experienced adult. The unfamiliar feelings inside her swelled and grew, bringing her breath faster and weakening her limbs. She moulded her lips to his, waiting for the rising tide of desire to sweep her away — but nothing happened.
She wasn't actually enjoying it at all, Lois realised suddenly. The sensations within her were more like apprehension than desire, and she was starting to feel claustrophobic. She made a small sound of protest and tried to pull away, but her back was already pressed tightly against the soft leather upholstery. Lex evidently took her moan as encouragement, and his tongue came out to explore her lips, probing at her mouth. As she tried to speak, to object, his tongue slipped into her mouth and began to ravish it hungrily.
The fear inside her coalesced into a tidal wave of revulsion and panic. How far was he going to take this assault on her? No one would come to her aid if he chose to have his way with her — no one would even hear her screaming…
She raised her hands desperately, but before she'd found his shoulders, he suddenly swayed away from her. The car had stopped, she realised thankfully. Looking up at his face, she glimpsed the desire glittering in his eyes as he turned to lower the privacy panel on his window.
By the time he turned back, she had her expression under control. Of course Lex would never force himself on her — she must be crazy to imagine such a thing. "You're wearing my lipstick," she said breathlessly, and he laughed.
He captured her hand and lifted it to his lips, smiling proprietorially at her, before taking out his handkerchief and wiping his mouth. "And you probably want to apply some more before we board the plane," he said, running a careless finger down her cheek before opening his door and getting out.
The door slammed, and Lois was alone. Her heart was still hammering, her breath coming in shallow pants. Lex probably thought she was mad with desire for him, she thought in disgust as she fumbled in her bag for her makeup. How was she going to dissuade him from taking things any further — or from kissing her again at all — without offending him?
The habitual motions of renewing her lipstick were soothing, and Lois was feeling calmer and braver by the time it was done. Closing her bag again, Lois cast a quick glance through Lex's window and caught a flash of a vaguely familiar-seeming object moving by outside. Her curiosity piqued, she opened her door and stepped out onto the tarmac, gathering her wrap tightly around her in the cold air.
There was a cargo van parked on the far side of the limo, she saw, and Lex was standing talking to the driver. The contents of the van were being unloaded and wheeled to Lex's jet. A few of the boxes and crates obviously contained drinks, or food for the dinner Lex had promised her. The others were very familiar indeed… she had seen them piled in a warehouse last night, and one of their fellows this morning at the Omiri Embassy…
The blood roaring in her ears, Lois turned, oh so casually, till she was facing away from the crates. An observer might have thought she was admiring the lights of the city, until she closed her eyes and sagged against the side of the car.
Lex was a gun-runner. He was supplying would-be terrorists with weapons, and he had who knew what other "business dealings" with Carpenter. She had been ruthlessly kissed by a master criminal. Clark had been right about Lex, and she hadn't listened to him. Lex was a gun-runner…
Footsteps sounded behind her. "Lois, are you all right?"
This time she was hard put to it not to scream. She caught her breath and mustered all her courage, then opened her eyes and turned to face him. "Lex, I'm sorry…" she faltered. "I'm not feeling too good… I think I have a migraine coming on."
The light was too poor for her to see his face clearly, but his voice sounded genuinely concerned. "My dear, you should have said something! It's far too cold for you out here — come and sit down in the plane, and we'll find some painkillers for you -"
She didn't have to fake the tremor in her voice. "I can't fly with a migraine, Lex — it'll just make it worse. I'm terribly sorry, but I'll have to go home and lie down."
"Of course I'll take you home, Lois." He looked towards the brightly lit plane, where Nigel was supervising the last of the cargo loading, and Lois caught a glimpse of the fury lurking in his eyes. Suddenly she wasn't sure he'd been fooled by her sudden indisposition, and she was interfering with his plans for the evening. She didn't think her fragile composure would survive a trip back home with him, alone in the limo…
"You should go on to the gala, Lex," she suggested. "Don't let my stupid head spoil your evening. I can call a taxi."
"Of course not! Nigel will drive you home — that is, if you're sure you don't mind…"
She smiled feebly and allowed him to guide her back into the car, suppressing her shudder as he took her elbow solicitously. He shut the door, and she sagged back onto the cushions, closing her eyes. A minute or so later he opened the door again to bid her a speedy recovery and press a kiss on her icy cheek; then the car was pulling away again. She had escaped.
Unless, of course, Nigel had instructions to kidnap her, or do away with her… She trembled, the panic leaping in her throat once more. But surely Lex wouldn't be so foolish — virtually the whole of the Daily Planet staff, for a start, knew that she was going out with him tonight!
And what did he have against her, anyway? With luck, he would simply think that his display of a passion he'd kept carefully under wraps before tonight had scared her. He'd be wooing her with more roses in the morning — pink ones this time, no doubt. Even her standing him up for the New York Charity Gala Concert would be only a temporary setback — he had hours yet before it started, and doubtless dozens of willing New York women vying for the honour of accompanying him.
No, she was perfectly safe. At least for the present.
The rich, cloying scent of Lex's orchid wreathed around her in the warm car, turning her stomach. She unpinned the flower from her dress and imprisoned it once more in the box, replacing it in the cupboard where its mute reproach wouldn't disturb her any further.
And yet, the apprehensive knot in her belly refused to go away.
Clark stood in his kitchen, slowly and methodically making himself a sandwich. He wasn't particularly hungry, and he should really have been doing an early evening patrol, but somehow he couldn't quite motivate himself to go.
Ever since he'd left Lois this morning, he'd been unable to erase the picture of her small, dignified figure from his mind's eye. She'd been badly hurt, hurt enough to lash out at the man she'd once almost worshipped, and it was all his doing.
He'd been so wrong, so hopelessly, horribly wrong. Lois hadn't taken his betrayal in her stride — either of his betrayals, he thought grimly. First Superman had rejected her like a complete and utter louse; then Clark had turned his back on their friendship and abandoned her, humiliating her in the process. And not only had Lois's feelings been hurt, but he'd damaged her self-confidence as well. It was eating away at her, dimming the bright spirit that he loved so much. It would be a miracle if she wasn't scarred for life by his thoughtless, contemptible actions.
Clark cut more bread and started to fill another sandwich, channelling his self-loathing with iron discipline into the small, finicky movements. He couldn't afford to lose control again.
There was no way he could ever make amends to Lois for the harm Superman had inflicted on her, but Clark at least could apologise for his part. He'd made a quick trip to pick her some flowers — not roses, to vie with Luthor's, but simple wildflowers — and spent a full hour composing a note that expressed his miserable regret without demanding anything from her. Linda had needed a lot of smooth- talking before she'd accepted his excuse for being away so long that time.
It was only after he'd left the flowers on her doorstep that he'd remembered where she was planning to go this evening — and with whom. The thought of Luthor escorting Lois, touching her, maybe even kissing her, was agony. Clark carefully laid down his knife and took several deep breaths before picking it up again.
The shadow of Lois's date had lain over his mind like a pall all afternoon, lining his belly with lead. Several times he'd found himself picking up the phone at his new desk to call her and beseech her not to go, but each time he'd managed to restrain himself.
And now it was too late. Lois must be halfway to New York by now, no doubt looking as stunning as she had at the Orchid Ball, and talking and laughing with Luthor…
Clark cut the latest sandwich neatly into precise halves and took a step back. He'd finished off two entire loaves of bread, and the counter was stacked high with enough sandwiches to feed an army. He sighed and shook his head, then started to search for storage containers.
He was wiping down the empty counter when he became aware of soft, stealthy footsteps outside his front door. Perry was taking this undercover thing a bit far — probably enjoying the chance to relive his youth, Clark mused.
Checking his glasses were in place, he strode briskly to the door and opened it. "I wasn't expec-" he began, but the words died as he recognised the figure tiptoeing down the dimly-lit stairs outside. "Lois?"
She stopped, but she didn't turn or speak. He cast a quick glance at the floor, but she didn't appear to have left anything. Her small figure was hunched inside her coat, her arms huddled about her. He had the impression that if he startled her, she'd take flight like a meadowlark.
"I thought you were going to New York this evening," he said neutrally.
She flinched visibly. "I was," she replied in a toneless murmur. "I… decided not to go." She turned and looked up at him, squinting against the bright light from his apartment door. "I don't know why I came… I was just out walking… I didn't mean to…"
Her face was chalk-white, and she was shivering. What had Luthor done to upset her so? Her teeth were chattering faintly, too. "Lois, it's freezing out there!" he exclaimed, taking an involuntary step towards her. "Come inside and have some coffee -"
At his movement she shied and retreated a step, shaking her head. "No! No, I'll just go…"
Clark's arm dropped impotently to his side. Of course she was scared of him after what he'd done. But he couldn't just let her go in such a state. He made his voice as low and soothing as he could. "At least let me walk you home. How about I buy you some hot chocolate at the Fudge Castle?" The little cafe would be busy at this time of the evening — she could hardly think he would attack her there.
She peered up at him dubiously for a moment, and he held his breath. "Okay," she said at last.
He took a slow step towards the stairs, letting out a long, silent sigh of relief, but her voice halted him. "Lock your door," she said. "You don't want another burglary. And you'll need a coat."
He shook his head in confusion as he obediently fetched his coat from behind the front door. Two weeks ago he would have sworn she had not the slightest concern for him or his possessions; now, in the midst of her distress, she was fussing over him like a mother hen. He'd never understand her.
He quickly picked out a woolly hat, a pair of gloves and a thick scarf, and then stepped outside and locked the door. To his relief, Lois was still standing where he'd left her, gazing absently into space and shivering. He walked slowly down the stairs, careful not to move directly towards her, and she stood passively until he stopped beside her.
"Here, put this on," he suggested, proffering the hat. She focused on it for a few blank seconds, then did as she was told. He followed it up with the scarf and gloves, and she accepted them without comment. She was wearing ordinary sneakers, he noticed, but there wasn't much he could do about that.
"You look like a scarecrow now," he said comfortably when she'd finished. She cast a startled glance up at him and the corners of her mouth tweaked up into a tiny smile; then tears suddenly welled up in her eyes and rolled down her cheeks.
Clark managed to suppress his instinct to draw her into his arms. Instead, after a startled pause, he began to search through his pockets for a hanky. Weeping silently, she closed her eyes and swayed towards him, and for a breathless moment he thought she was going to lean her head against his shoulder. Then she straightened and grasped the banister rail for support instead. Heart thumping painfully, Clark carefully wiped her eyes.
After a while no more tears were forthcoming, and Clark returned the hanky to his coat pocket. "Fudge Castle?" he suggested gently.
This time Lois did smile. "Okay," she agreed in a stronger voice.
They walked down the stairs together and out into the street, maintaining a hand's breadth of distance between their bodies. They skirted the edge of Centennial Park, keeping to the well-lit roadside. Neither of them said a word, but as they walked Clark could feel the tension slowly draining out of Lois, her heart beating more steadily and her stiff posture slowly relaxing. Between the steady pace and her extra clothing, she wasn't even shivering any longer.
As they reached the door of the Fudge Castle, however, Clark stopped in dismay. By the look of it, a movie had just finished at the nearby cinema, and the cafe was packed to the gills with rowdy teenagers. There wasn't a seat in sight, never mind a quiet table for two.
He turned to Lois to ask where they should go, but she forestalled him. "Get carry-out," she suggested. "We can find a park bench to sit on while we drink."
She didn't mind being alone with him? Clark wondered as he made his way through the throng to reach the counter. She didn't even seem angry with him — though she might be, once she'd got over whatever was scaring her so. Dare he hope that he hadn't ruined everything, after all?
He half expected her to have vanished like a mirage when he returned bearing two styrofoam cups, but she was standing just inside the doorway. Her face still looked tense under the over-sized hat, but there was a little colour in her cheeks.
They made their way across the road and into Centennial Park, and found an empty bench near the entrance. Lois subsided onto it with a quiet sigh, wrapping her gloved hands around her cup. Clark sat down a few careful inches away, bending forward to rest his elbows on his splayed knees in a carefully non-threatening posture.
The silence stretched out, and Clark wondered uneasily whether he should break it by asking a solicitous question, but some instinct kept him silent.
"You were right about Lex — he is a crook," Lois said abruptly, and Clark nearly dropped his cup. Collecting himself, he listened quietly while she told him about Bobby's tip-off, and the crates she'd seen in the warehouse, at the Omiri Embassy, and being loaded into Luthor's plane this evening. "The Omiri trade delegation leaves for New York tomorrow — I'd guess there's more violence scheduled to happen there," she concluded.
"That's good news," Clark said, and Lois shot him a startled look. "Forewarned is forearmed," he pointed out. "If the police know what to look for -"
"But we don't have a shred of proof!" she protested. "They'll never take our word for it!"
"No, but they might listen to Superman," he said. Lois turned away and looked down at her hot chocolate, biting her lip. Clark closed his eyes and berated himself for a second. "Is that why you decided not to go to New York with Luthor?" he added.
The diversion worked. Lois turned brick-red and then white again. "Partly," she said in a low voice.
Clark fixed his eyes on the cup he was holding between his knees, waiting patiently for her to continue.
"He kissed me in the car," she blurted out in a trembling voice. "He wouldn't stop — I was so scared -"
There was a sharp crack as Clark's cup gave way under the pressure of his fingers. "I'll kill him," he said in a hoarse growl.
Lois turned to stare blindly at him. "No — no, I… invited it," she said. Clark flinched as her words lashed at his heart, but she didn't seem to notice. "It was a date. But Clark, he's ruthless — I never realised before. I never want to see him again! I don't know what I'd do if he ever -"
He cut into her rising panic. "Lois, I'll never let him hurt you!" he said firmly, holding her eyes with his own. "Never, as long as I live, do you hear?"
Lois's mouth went round, and her eyes searched his earnest face. "You really mean that, don't you?" she whispered in awe. "But, Clark, it wouldn't do me any good if you got hurt…" Her eyes dropped to the cup he still held. "Oh, you got hot chocolate all over your hand!" she exclaimed. "Are you burnt?"
"No, I'm fine," he said, setting the squashed cup down and bringing his hanky out again to dry his hand. "It wasn't that hot any more."
Lois sipped her chocolate experimentally and her eyes widened, but after blowing on it for a while she carried on drinking slowly. Clark waited silently for her to finish, ashamed of his atavistic outburst. He didn't want to wreck her trust in him a second time.
When she'd savoured the last mouthful, he held out his hand for her empty cup, and took both to the rubbish bin a short way up the path. When he turned back, however, he found she'd followed him. "Would you like me to take you home now?" he asked.
Her eyes skittered nervously away from his. He'd scared her again, he thought bitterly, but her reply cast him into confusion. "Shall we walk through the park?"
He fell into step beside her again, and they strolled down the path in silence, Clark's mind churning. Why was she suggesting a totally unnecessary detour? She must have something more to say to him, he decided after a while. Perhaps about his dreadful behaviour. Was she going to accept his apology? Or tell him she could never work with him again? See him again? His heart began to pound uncomfortably at the thought, and thrust deep in his pockets, his palms grew moist.
She halted in front of the brightly lit fountain, and he turned to face her. She still didn't speak, and his nervousness grew. "Lois, is there… do you want to say something to me?" he stammered out at last.
She nodded pensively, her eyes still fixed on the water. "I want to know…" she said slowly, and paused to moisten her lips, "… why you kissed me."
"Lois, I'm truly sorry," he said wretchedly. "I had no right — I should never — and especially not at work…"
She shot him a completely unreadable glance and then looked down at her hands. "But why did you do it?" she repeated. When he didn't respond, she added, "Do you despise me? Because I've been so blind?"
"No! Lois, I could never despise you. I… I knew you'd figure Luthor out sooner or later. I just wanted it to be sooner. And I lost my temper when you said I was jealous of his success…"
She inclined her head. Her voice was flat and rigidly controlled. "So it was some sort of male dominance thing?"
His stomach twisted. "Male dom… No! Lois, how can you say that? I'm -" He caught himself on the brink of a declaration he couldn't afford to make.
He sighed. "Lois, I don't want to say it."
"Why not?" she said implacably.
Involuntarily, he took a half-step backwards. "Because if I tell you how I feel, you'll never want to see me again."
She turned towards him at last, her eyes, dark and opaque, searching his face. "How do you feel?"
He closed his eyes and surrendered. "I love you." A dead silence greeted his words, and he opened his eyes warily, but she was still there, still examining his face as though she'd never seen it before. "I know you don't feel like that about me," he went on, "and you'd never get involved with someone you work with. That's okay…"
"You don't work with me," she said flatly, and he winced.
"It's probably for the best," he said sadly. "You'd never feel comfortable around me, and the office gossips -"
"Clark!" He stopped, startled, and saw that her mouth had turned up at the corners. There was a spark of humour in her eyes, and something else… something he'd never expected to see there…
"If we're not working together, that rule doesn't apply," she said huskily.
It was his turn to gaze at her dumbly. She couldn't be… it just wasn't possible… but she was…
"Are you asking me to kiss you again, Lois?" he said, in a strangled voice that sounded nothing like his own.
She coloured and dropped her eyes. "When… when Lex kissed me, it was disgusting," she said, raising one hand to wipe her lips at the memory. "But when you kissed me, it wasn't like that." She raised her eyes to his again, and he could see the echo of her confusion. "It felt… right."
He took a slow step towards her, delight surging through him. "But you slapped me," he reminded her without heat.
"You were asking for it," she replied with a flash of spirit. But as he nodded in assent, her eyes softened. "I was scared, Clark. Of me. I'm not used to feeling like that…"
"And you're not scared now?" he said gently, taking another step. They were very close together now, but still not touching. Her eyes fell to his top coat button.
"Yes, I am," she said honestly. "But I have to know if what I'm feeling is real…"
"What are you feeling?" he asked, turning her own question around. When she blushed again and bit her lip, he added, "I love you, Lois. Completely. You can tell me."
She was shaking her head slowly, looking distressed. "But I don't know if I love you, Clark. I know I…" She swallowed, taking a moment to work up the courage to continue. "… I desire you. And you're the best friend I've ever had — I miss you when you're not there, and I've been longing for you these last two days. But I don't know if I can love you."
He chuckled, and she flinched. "Friendship and desire… that's about the best description of love I've heard," he said. "No, don't take offence… just come here." He reached out for her shoulders, turning her gently back towards him, then put one finger under her chin to lift her face to his. Her eyes widened as she took in his adoration, shining from his eyes for the first time ever.
He dipped his head slowly and brushed her lips with his, closing his eyes in wonder as the world tilted around him. Her hands came up to grasp his coat lapels for support, and her lips clung to his. He slipped his arms around her back to hold her gently, securely, as he dipped again to cover her mouth with his in a second tender kiss.
Keep calm, he reminded himself. Keep it gentle… you don't want to scare her away…
He was quite unprepared for the avalanche of desire that swept over him as her mouth opened beneath his, blotting out the entire universe to leave only himself and the woman he adored.
Lois came up for air, her heart racing and her senses reeling. She'd shaken off her gloves to wind her fingers deep into his hair. Tiny firebolts were shooting through her from where Clark's mouth was working its way down her neck, impatiently pushing aside the scarf she was wearing. She arched her body against him, and his hand tightened on her waist to pull her closer against his hips. A small part of her mind revelled in the ease with which he was supporting her weight; the rest was totally preoccupied with the mounting urgency of having less clothing between them.
Clark's face emerged from her scarf, glasses awry. He was breathing hard, and the desire in his eyes sent a primitive thrill through her. "Scarecrows have way too many clothes," he said in a low growl that curled her toes.
"I love you, Clark Kent," she said softly. A memory of his words from long ago sprang into her mind and she added, mischievously, "If you still want me, I'm yours."
His eyes gleamed. "Here?" he said, shooting a quick glance around them. He seemed to be having trouble focusing on anything except her.
She chuckled. "Anywhere," she said boldly. "Everywhere. Take me to bed, Clark. Your bed," she added, her mind shying away from the idea of her own apartment. She seized instead on the familiar image of Clark, shame-faced and desperate, stammering a pathetic excuse as he backed away. "You aren't going to run away this time, are you?" she said facetiously.
To her horror his head snapped back as though she'd struck him, and his face turned ashen. His arms dropped away from her and he did try to back away, but she held onto him, and he stopped. "Clark, you lunkhead, I didn't mean that," she said desperately. "I love you. Please don't run away from me!"
His eyes came back to hers, but his bleak expression didn't soften. "And I love you," he said heavily. "But there's something I haven't told you about myself, Lois — and once I do, I don't know if you'll still feel the same way." He stepped back, and this time she let him go.
She shook her head, bewildered. "I know you, Clark," she said, still more confused when his face darkened at her words. "Whatever you need to say, it can't be *that* bad. Just tell me, and you'll see."
He nodded fatalistically. "I'll tell you. But not here. I'll take you home -"
"To your apartment," she interjected firmly.
"- to my apartment, if you want," he conceded. "When I've told you you can walk out if you want — or call a cab — or throw me out. Whatever."
"Or drag you to bed," she insisted, glaring at him.
He smiled faintly, but he obviously didn't believe it could happen. "Whatever," he repeated, bending to retrieve her abandoned gloves from the path. "Come on."
Lois hurried to follow him, refusing to let fear take hold of her. She'd wanted to find out if her feelings for Clark were real, and the answer had been as clear as crystal. After that, she wasn't going to let Clark go without a fight. She was done letting men she loved walk out on her.
And yet, while Clark hadn't physically run away, he was about as remote from her as he could be. He was striding along ahead of her, his face bleak and forbidding.
She put on a spurt and came up beside him, thrusting a cold hand into the crook of his arm. His strides shortened automatically to match hers, and she no longer had to scurry along, but he refused to look at her. Instead he gazed resolutely at the path ahead, the tic pulsing in his cheek once more.
Greatly daring, she freed her hand from his elbow and tucked her arm around his waist. After a long pause in which she held her breath, he lifted his arm and placed it lightly around her shoulders.
For now, it would have to do.
Chapter Thirteen: No More Secrets
"Make yourself comfortable — I'll fix some coffee."
Lois turned, still taking off the scarf and hat Clark had lent her, but he was already halfway across his living room. He'd been in such a hurry to get home so they could talk, yet now he was suggesting coffee… was that a delaying tactic, or just an excuse to get away from her?
She hung the woolly garments next to her coat, toed off her sneakers and stripped off her socks for good measure. She was glowing warm after their brisk walk, and Clark's cool wooden floor felt good under her bare feet. She padded down the steps and across the living room to lean against the kitchen counter and watch Clark.
He didn't acknowledge her presence, but she was fairly sure he wasn't immune to it. Clark occasionally appeared clumsy at work, but usually his movements were neat and confident. Not so now; he was fumbling with everything he touched. He even filled two mugs with water and then fiddled with his glasses for a confused moment before collecting himself and pouring the water into the coffee machine instead.
Lois watched him, enjoying the view as well as her power over him. She loved just being near Clark, she realised with a sense of wonder. She still didn't really know how she'd got to his front door earlier — she remembered being escorted to her door by Nigel, and showering to remove any lingering traces of Lex's presence… and then pacing her apartment restlessly in her robe, feeling more and more upset and afraid. Then there was a blank until she'd found herself about to knock on Clark's front door.
But whatever subconscious homing instinct had brought her here, it was the best thing she could have done. He hadn't questioned her presence or stirred up their quarrel again, just given her the quiet support she needed. Simply being with him had relaxed her, calming her fears and helping her to put her encounter with Lex in perspective. Of course, being with him had also stirred up those feelings she'd been trying to suppress… and this time, his response to her fears about Lex had given her the courage to find out just what she meant to him.
And wow, had that gamble hit the jackpot! He loved her; he'd even forced her to recognise that she loved him. She'd never have guessed she would fall for a naive country boy… yet she had. Hook, line and sinker. They just had to get past this confession he wanted to make, and they'd be free to carry on getting to know each other… intimately…
What could it be, anyway? She refused to believe he could have done anything criminal. He was married and had a pack of children hidden away in Kansas somewhere? No, nonsense — he was far too poor a liar to pull off that sort of deceit. And his mother wouldn't have enquired so artlessly whether he and Lois were sleeping together if he had a wife or a girlfriend.
The memory of her meeting with Clark's parents suddenly made Lois squirm. She'd kept on putting her foot in her mouth on that visit, insulting both of them in the process. What would they think of her as Clark's girlfriend?
Clark's girlfriend. That had a good ring to it. Savouring the thought, she ran her eyes appreciatively over his well- built body, clad in jeans and a black sleeveless t-shirt with "Smallville High" printed across the front. He was standing waiting for the coffee machine to finish, twisting a teaspoon awkwardly between his fingers. Trying not to look at her. She'd have to see what she could do about that, she thought with an inward chuckle.
She looked down at her clothes. She'd dressed herself in well-worn jeans that clung like a second skin — so far, so good — and a thick sweatshirt. The apartment was warm, and she was still tingling from her exercise… and from thinking about Clark. Checking quickly that she could feel a t-shirt underneath, she gripped the bottom of the sweatshirt with both hands and drew it slowly over her head. She heard Clark clear his throat, and smiled innocently as she dropped the sweatshirt on the counter and ran a hand through her hair.
How was he taking it so far? His attention was still apparently fixed resolutely on the coffee machine, but he was surreptitiously straightening out a bend in the teaspoon. Lois's eyebrows rose — it hadn't seemed like a flimsy implement.
Time for stage two. Lois checked her t-shirt. She'd obviously grabbed the first thing that came to hand; it was thin cotton with skimpy sleeves and a low neck, quite unsuitable for winter. Her bra showed clearly beneath it. Perfect.
She reached behind her with both hands and undid the clasp of her bra. It parted with a satisfying snap, and she hooked one shoulder strap out of her shirt and pulled it down her arm.
"Wh-what are you doing?" She certainly had Clark's full attention now. He was staring at the strap with wide eyes, and he'd gone quite pale.
"You said get comfortable," she said in a deliberately husky voice. She withdrew her arm from the bra and then hooked the opposite strap out of her shirt, pulling the entire bra out this time. "I'm getting comfortable." She shrugged, and his eyes snapped to the front of her shirt.
Her femme fatale impression had him just about where she wanted him… at her mercy. Nor was she immune from its effects, either — her provocative actions were fanning the flames of her own desire. Don't play with fire or you may get burned, she thought suddenly. Well, whoever invented that adage could speak for themselves… she was throwing herself wholeheartedly into the conflagration. She leant forward and rested her elbows on the counter, close together so that they accentuated her cleavage.
"Lois…" he protested hoarsely, dragging his gaze upwards with an effort. There was fear and determination in his eyes as well as desire, and she took pity on him. She wasn't going to let him off the hook yet, but she'd give him a bit more line to play with… until it was time to reel him in.
She stood up and moved round into the kitchen. "It's okay," she said. "I'm not going to leap on you and ravish you on the kitchen counter." He choked slightly as she brushed past him and opened the fridge.
"Wh-what are you doing?" he stammered again.
"I'm raiding your fridge," she said prosaically. "I'm hungry." Her gaze swept the shelves. "Clark, why do you have so many sandwiches? Have you made lunches for the next month or something?"
"No, I… I just felt like making sandwiches, that's all."
"So what's in the tupperware? *More* sandwiches?" She grabbed one and stood up, closing the fridge. "Are you planning to go on a picnic or something?" She took a bite of it and then choked. She swallowed the mouthful with difficulty and gingerly opened the sandwich. "Tomato and peanut butter? Clark Kent, are you crazy? Or is that what they eat in Kansas?"
"I guess I wasn't paying much attention," he muttered, his eyes on the coffee he was pouring. He looked very embarrassed. "I thought you were in New York with Luthor…"
Her heart melted at the admission. She pictured him standing here, taking out his frustration on a loaf of bread, and the image made her want to giggle; at the same time, she felt a wave of guilt for what she'd been putting him through.
"I'm sorry," she said softly. She discarded the sandwich on the counter next to her and reached out to lay a gentle hand on his back.
He started and let go of the coffee pot with a clatter, then whirled around and grabbed her hand. "Lois, please don't!" he pleaded.
"Why not, Clark?" she said, furrowing her brow. "I love you — you love me — why shouldn't I touch you?"
His jaw worked for a moment. "Because the more you do — the more I take advantage of you, the more you'll hate me when you hear what I've got to say."
"Okay." She stepped back, and he let go of her hand. "Just tell me what it is, Clark. No more delaying tactics."
He opened his mouth, but his voice seemed to have dried up. He was white as a sheet, and his eyes wouldn't meet hers.
"Is it about Linda?" she suggested. She was safe enough there… if Linda had made any headway with Clark, she'd never have left him home alone. "You married her yesterday?"
Her feeble attempt at humour fell completely flat. "No…" Clark swallowed. "No, it's about… Superman."
"Superman." The word hit Lois like a ton of bricks, and she took another step back, feeling the counter-top digging into her back. "I… I forgot." Of course, she hadn't really forgotten — but she'd been refusing to think about him or what he'd done… or his friendship with Clark. "It's okay, I know…" She might not care what Superman thought or felt any more, but of course Clark did. And of course he didn't want to get involved with the woman his friend had slept with. Just last week. What was she doing? Was she so promiscuous she could just hop from one man's bed to another, without a second thought?
"You know?" Clark was looking at her in complete confusion.
"Yes, you and Superman… I worked it out, it wasn't that hard…" She was wringing her hands now. "Oh, God, the way I've been throwing myself at you all evening — you were angry enough when I was just going on a date with Lex, you must be disgusted with me, of course you don't want me like that — at least, I suppose you do, but it's just physical, isn't it? You don't want to get involved with me after I slept with him. And I've been acting like a cheap trollop, leaving my clothes all over your apartment, and trying to seduce you right after I was in bed with him — you must think I'm such a slut…"
Her face was burning, and she desperately wanted to get away from Clark before she burst into tears. He was gripping her shoulders and talking to her, but she didn't want to look at him — she didn't want to hear…
"Lois, what are you trying to say — you slept with Luthor?"
"No! I slept with S-" She gave a horrified gasp. "You mean — you didn't know? He didn't tell you? I thought he must have talked to you about it, but he kept it a secret after all, and now I've just blurted it out…" She twisted away from Clark and ran for the stairs, her stomach roiling. If she didn't get away soon, she was going to throw up. "I'll just go, I'm sure you don't want to hear any more…"
She hadn't heard his footsteps following her, but as she reached the landing and fumbled for her coat he was behind her, gripping her arms. "Lois, wait. Please don't run away from me!"
Her own words from earlier. Her movements slowed as she faced the sudden dilemma… she hated the way Clark always seemed to be running away from confrontations. She didn't want to behave like that herself. At the same time, she just couldn't bear to face him after what she'd said. Her coat slipped to the floor, and she wrapped her arms tightly over her chest, refusing to turn around.
His grip loosened, and his hands shifted to cup the points of her shoulders. The movement woke the fires of desire she'd been trying to bury.
"Lois, I'm done running away from you. Please listen to me. Then you can go if you want to."
She nodded, but she didn't want to speak. Her body was betraying her again. She wanted Clark… just as she'd wanted Superman, and that had been an unmitigated disaster. She had to keep control of herself now. She'd listen, and then she'd leave, before she betrayed herself a second time… and before she betrayed Clark.
He was talking in a low voice behind her. "Lois, I love you. I've loved you ever since I first saw you in Perry's office. I hoped, working with you, you'd start to feel something for me in time. At first it didn't seem you would…"
She had been so blind, Lois thought sadly. Dazzled by glamour, both Lex's charisma and Superman's powers, not realising what a prize she was overlooking right beside her. And now it was too late.
"And then, in the last few weeks, it seemed you might feel something for me," Clark went on. His breath was tickling the back of her neck… if he leant forward just a little way, his lips would be against her hair. Lois closed her eyes and fought the urge to lean back against him. "I wanted to tell you how I felt, and ask you if … if there was any hope. Maybe ask you out on a date. And then I made the worst mistake of my life…"
He broke off to clear his throat and take a deep breath. *He'd* made a mistake? Lois thought in confusion. Nothing to what she'd done, she was sure. She just wished he'd hurry up and get to the point, though. The urge to turn around and cast herself into his arms was getting overwhelming. His hands were still on her shoulders — if he so much as stroked her arms or caressed her neck, she wouldn't be able to resist…
"I woke up one night beside my love," he said slowly, his voice so deep that it sent thrills through her. "In her bed. I had no idea how I'd got there, but she welcomed me. It was like a dream come true… and we made beautiful, passionate love. And afterwards, when I realised she thought I was someone else… I lost my head completely. I ran away. And I don't know if she can ever forgive me."
Lois had stiffened slowly as she tried to comprehend what Clark was telling her. Anger was rising within her, blotting out her craving for his touch. How could Clark be doing this to her? Did he think it was funny to mock her pain with this ridiculous story?
She drew herself up, and his hands dropped away from her. Ignoring the sudden chill at the loss of contact, she spun to face him. "Don't be ridiculous, Clark!" she snapped. "I think I know the difference between you and…"
Her voice died in her throat. He was standing a step below her, and his face was nearly on a level with hers. It was white and apprehensive… and totally serious.
"Do you, Lois?" he said when she didn't continue. "What's the difference between me and Superman?"
She reached out a trembling hand towards his face. He flinched away instinctively; then, as she grasped his shoulder — for support or to prevent his escape, she wasn't sure which — he allowed her to remove his glasses. Without them, he didn't blink myopically; his eyes still held hers steadily. His face looked broader now, but no less familiar.
She dropped the glasses on his hall table and reached out again to smooth his hair back. It felt thick and wavy between her fingers. Of course, Superman used hair gel to slick his hair back…
The renewed contact was working its familiar magic, fanning the coals of her desire into a raging fire. And finally she understood it. She had lain with this man before, sharing more than just her body with him — sharing her heart. She hadn't been lusting after two men at the same time, only one. Her body had recognised his long before her conscious mind caught up.
"You're Superman," she said, and he nodded. He was still waiting, pale and silent, for the storm of her fury to break. And the anger was there, swirling formlessly inside her, waiting for her to build it and shape it and cast it forth. She could scream and rant and hurl imprecations at him, injure him with words the way he'd injured her with his actions, and then walk out of his life, refusing to have any more to do with him. Walk home to her empty life, her fishtank and her fear of Lex Luthor.
She'd already lost her temper once today, with the man who stood before her again, radiating remorse and despair. He hadn't defended himself against her accusations then, hadn't asked her to forgive him — just apologised for the hurt he'd caused her. He knew what he'd done to her, and she could see in his face the tortured fear that she'd never be able to forgive him.
~* I love you. I know you don't feel like that about me, and you'd never get involved with someone you work with. That's okay… *~
~* Lois, I love you. I've loved you ever since I first saw you in Perry's office. *~
~* I woke up one night beside my love. It was like a dream come true… and we made beautiful, passionate love. *~
~* Lois… my beautiful, wonderful, incredible Lois. *~
She couldn't do it. She couldn't take the tender, fragile feelings they shared and trample on them in her rage, defile them with angry, hurtful words. Not tonight, when she needed his warmth and companionship as never before. Not when the alternative was to reach out and take hold of the love she'd been yearning for, all the past week… all her life…
Her anger dissolved in a tidal wave of relief. Her heart was no longer being torn in two; the shame she'd felt at her seemingly wayward desires had melted away like snow in the spring. Even the looming shadow of Clark's friendship with Superman was gone.
She moved closer to him, looping one arm around his neck. The other hand drifted out of his hair to trace the line of his jaw. His eyes darkened and his breathing quickened, but he didn't move.
"That man who made amazing love to me… in a way I'd never even dreamed was possible… that was you," she murmured huskily. His eyebrows quirked slightly, and to her delight he began to blush. Even his ears went pink.
She brushed her fingers down the side of his neck, then slowly down his chest, while she moved closer still and let her lips explore the line her fingers had followed along his jawline. He groaned softly and his hands came up at last to grasp her hips. "Lois, what-" he started, then caught his breath as she tugged his t-shirt out of his jeans and ran her fingers over the taut abdomen underneath.
She pulled her head back to look up into his face. His eyes were half-lidded, and there were lines of strain around his mouth from the struggle to contain his passion. Her own passion was rapidly spiralling out of control, but she'd long since ceased to care. "What are we waiting for, Clark? Let's go to bed," she breathed, and leant forward to capture his mouth with her own.
Clark needed no further urging. He gathered her body to his and sped through the air towards the bedroom, Lois deepening the kiss as they flew. If this was some elaborate scheme to punish him then he was in deep trouble; but he lacked the willpower to resist her any further.
He lowered her gently to the bed and stretched himself out next to her. She murmured a breathless "Wow!" before renewing her assault on his senses, kissing her way down his neck and pushing his t-shirt up to explore beneath it with her hands. He levitated off the bed and away from her lips for long enough to strip off his shirt in one quick movement; then he settled back beside her to start his own exploration.
In a short while she was tugging impatiently at his waistband, and he dealt with his jeans and footwear at super-speed, coming back to rest beside her clad only in his briefs. He found her regarding him with a quizzical gleam. "Aren't you going to help me with my clothes?" she asked in that smoky tone he'd heard once before, and for a moment he wondered if his underwear was going to do him an injury.
"Of course," he said hastily. "I just… I haven't done this before."
"I suppose you haven't," she said, her voice filled with awe and just a hint of smugness. He gently lifted her shirt, hoping he wouldn't tear it in his eagerness, and she raised her arms so that he could pull it over her head. He let out a groan at the sight of the breasts that had been tantalising him all evening, finally exposed to his gaze. He paused to worship them for a moment with his hands and mouth before kneeling back to attend to her jeans. Her eyes were glazed and she was breathing heavily, but she helped him to peel the tight denim away from the swell of her hips. Her panties followed, and at last her body was arrayed in beautiful, sensual nudity before him.
"This time I can see you," he said with deep satisfaction, as first his eyes and then his hands roamed over her.
She reached out to remove his own underwear, and he could feel her avid gaze surveying his own nakedness. "What made you wait so long?" she asked. "There must have been plenty of women who wanted you — Cat, Toni Taylor…"
"I was waiting for you," he replied simply. "For the woman I could share everything with."
She drew in a long breath, and he could feel her body trembling. When he looked at her face, he was horrified to see tears pooling in her eyes. Even her voice was shaking as she stammered out, "Oh, Clark — is it real, this time?"
He leant forward to cup her cheek with one hand and gaze solemnly into her eyes. "It was always real, Lois," he replied earnestly. "This time it's forever."
She drew his head down to kiss him, and his body covered hers. The fire leapt between them again, and this time there were no barriers to contain it. For a time there were only sighs and moans of rising excitement to be heard, interspersed with loving murmurs of each other's names, before her final cry of triumphant delight was answered by his. Then there was silence, broken only by ragged breathing slowly returning to normal.
His weight was still resting on her, Clark realised as conscious thought returned. He levitated them both slightly and, holding Lois's body securely against his, rolled slowly onto his back. Her head settled into the hollow of his shoulder and she gave a contented sigh.
He landed them back on the bed again, relishing the slight weight of Lois's body pressing onto his own. He lifted his free hand to draw a wisp of hair from her damp forehead and tuck it behind her ear, then started to caress her soft skin, tracing the lines and angles of her sensual beauty with infinite care.
For a long time she didn't move, though he could tell from her breathing that she wasn't asleep. Her heartbeat, too, was constantly varying, slow and calm one minute, rapid and tempestuous the next.
"Penny for your thoughts," he said after a while. She started as he spoke, then let out a long sigh.
"So you really had forgotten you were there as Superman," she said at last. "I didn't think it was possible."
"I couldn't remember anything since the night before, when I was there as Clark," he confirmed. "I thought I must have told you I loved you, just as I'd planned — and, from the way you were responding, it seemed you must have said you loved me, too. I was pretty upset that I couldn't remember that."
She nodded thoughtfully, and then eased away from him and propped herself up on her elbow to look into his face. Her other hand started to draw intricate patterns over the skin of his chest.
"But, Clark, I still don't get it," she said. "You're Superman — so why did you say I thought you were someone else? Were you planning to keep it a secret for ever?"
"No, of course not! I wanted to tell you, but I needed to know how you felt about me first."
"But you did know how I felt about you!" A puzzled frown was gathering on her brow. "I'd just made love with you, Clark!"
He shook his head uncomfortably. "Not really — you'd made love with Superman."
"But you are Superman!"
He sighed heavily. "Lois, Superman doesn't really exist. He's just a role that I play when I need to use my powers to help people."
The frown was growing. "He was pretty real in bed, I assure you, Clark!"
"That's because it was me in bed, not him."
Her eyes flashed angrily, and her hand balled into a fist. "You just said I made love with Superman, now you're saying it was Clark. And both of them are you, anyway!"
He looked away, frustrated by her inability — or unwillingness — to understand. "Lois, Superman is this comic-book character with amazing powers. The ultimate selfless hero, perfect in every way. I'm not like that — I have faults and weaknesses. I needed to know if you could love me, not just him."
There was a silence, and Clark wondered nervously if he'd gone too far. He had just accused her of being shallow, after all. But when he looked back at her, her cheeks were pink and there was contrition in her eyes. "I was fooled by the disguise — just as I was by Lex's. I'm sorry, Clark. I really was blind, as you said."
He reached for her hand and drew it to his lips. "Oh, Lois — we see what we expect to see. I created Superman to draw attention away from me; I shouldn't blame you for being taken in like everyone else."
"But you did?" She was looking searchingly into his eyes, but she didn't seem angry.
It was his turn for contrition. "Yeah, I did, a little," he confessed regretfully. "But, Lois, I didn't mean to hurt you, I swear."
"So why didn't you tell me, Clark? I know you panicked and ran, but why not tell me afterwards?"
He shifted uncomfortably. "I meant to. I'd decided I had to tell you, even if you killed me for it. But when I got to work…"
"I blew you off," she finished softly. "I told you I didn't want anything to do with you outside of work. That must have hurt… I'm so sorry, Clark."
He shrugged it off, reaching out again to cup her jaw and run his fingers into her hair. "You couldn't know, Lois. What stopped me wasn't that… it was that you didn't seem to care about what Superman had done. I thought it… sleeping with me… hadn't meant anything to you."
"Oh, Clark!" She closed her eyes and leant her cheek against his chest, hugging him tightly to her. "I'd persuaded myself that you'd come back — that you couldn't possibly abandon me like that. Perfect in every way, you know…"
He wrapped his arms around her, holding her close. "So many misunderstandings…" He dropped a kiss on her hair, wondering if things could have been different. After a while he added, "Are you disappointed? Now you know he's just me?"
There was a brief, anxious pause, then she chuckled. "I'm not seeing him, am I? It's you I'm in love with." She raised her head to smile at him. "And I think you underrate yourself, Clark Kent. The only complaint I have about you is an unfortunate tendency to run off in the middle of conversations. At least now I'll know where you are!"
He gazed back at her, shaken by the strength of her love for him. "Lois, there's one thing I can't figure out," he said slowly, wondering if he was a fool even to mention it. "Why aren't you angry with me?"
Her eyes grew thoughtful. "You know, if you'd told me the morning afterwards, I would probably have torn you limb from limb — or at least, I'd have tried. But if there's one thing I've discovered in the last couple of days…" Her eyes darkened with remembered pain as she spoke, but they held his bravely all the same. "… it's that I can't bear the thought of not having you in my life."
He was gazing at her, his eyes glowing as though she'd just given him the world. And perhaps, Lois thought suddenly, she had. She'd heard the loneliness in his voice when he'd spoken of needing to know that he was loved for himself. If, as she guessed, he'd been different growing up, he must have felt that he would never fit in anywhere; but she'd shown him that he fitted with her.
She ran a finger down his cheek, and he turned his head to press a kiss against it. "So, Kent," she said, summoning up a threatening stare, "no more secrets from now on, right?"
"No more secrets," he agreed wholeheartedly, his eyes twinkling at her. "I haven't told you everything yet, but I will. And if I forget anything, you only have to ask."
She nodded, her mind turning swiftly. "Okay, it's a deal. For now, I think I have only… two questions to ask."
"Only two?" His eyebrows climbed, then he laughed as she waved a fist at him. "Let me see — you want to know about Kryptonite… and the globe."
Her eyes gleamed with interest. "Kryptonite? Oh, of course — that paper cut! And Trask beat you up, and he would have shot you. You know, maybe it's not so surprising I never guessed you were Superman!" She laid her hand over his mouth as he tried to speak. "No, I didn't want to ask about those. Yet. What I want to know is… where did the flowers come from?"
Clark seemed startled by the question, and she took her hand away while he recovered. "They came from South Africa," he said after a moment. "They grow along the roadside and in the fields all summer long. They're called cosmos."
"You laid the cosmos on my doorstep?" she asked, and he laughed joyously.
"I never thought of it like that," he said. "Next time I'll lay it at your feet."
She grinned fondly at him. "I was angry this afternoon when I thought Superman had fetched them for you," she said. "Now I think I'd better tell him how grateful I am, next time I see him."
"Go ahead," he said, his eyes glinting. "He may even give you a kiss… on the cheek, of course. What was your other question?"
"I seem to have worked up quite an appetite," she replied, and her stomach growled suddenly to prove it. "Do you think you could find me something — a sandwich, say — that's fit to eat?"
"You have only to ask," he repeated, and rolled suddenly so that his body pinned hers to the bed. Her breathing grew shallow at the intimate contact between them, and he had to clear his throat before continuing huskily, "But I may demand a forfeit in return."
"You have only to ask," she replied in dulcet tones, and he grinned and sat up.
He was just getting to his feet, however, when he cocked his head in a familiar way, dismay spreading over his face.
"You have to go and be Superman?" she guessed, sitting up. He turned towards her, opening his mouth unhappily, but she shook her head. "Go on!" she commanded. "I'll be here when you get back."
"Lois, it's not that," he hissed, "it's worse! Quick -" There was a sudden blur of motion and then she found herself standing in the bathroom, Clark dropping a bundle of clothes beside her. "- get dressed!" he finished.
"What's going on?" she demanded.
A knock on the door answered her question, and Clark shrugged helplessly. "That's one of the things I forgot to tell you about," he said hastily. "Get dressed, I have to -" And the next second he was gone and the bathroom door was firmly closed.
Shaking her head, Lois began to pick out her clothes and put them on. Some of Clark's clothes had made their way into the bundle, too. She had barely started to dress when she heard Clark's voice. "Come in and sit down — I'll make some coffee."
Pressing her ear to the door, Lois caught part of the reply: "Thank you, Clark. I've got…" Then the voice faded away, but Lois had heard more than enough to identify it.
What on earth was Perry doing here? He could have come to persuade Clark to return to the Planet… only, Clark seemed to have been expecting him. She drew on her jeans slowly, trying to make sense of it. Perry watching her reaction to Clark's departure from the Planet with hidden satisfaction… taking something from Clark's desk… relieving her of the file with Clark's research results, before she could go through it…
~* One of the things I forgot to tell you about. *~ Those… those… men! They'd been plotting behind her back. Clark had never left the Planet at all — he'd simply gone under cover to find out what Carpenter was up to. Well, she could have helped them with that — if they'd troubled to ask!
Lois fastened her jeans with a snap and reached for her bra. Then she paused. There was more… she thought she could acquit Clark of any complicity, but Perry had quite definitely been match-making. He'd probably put Clark up to leaving in order to make her jealous, and he'd certainly been pleased when he'd seen how miserable she was about it.
Lois's eyes narrowed, and a vengeful gleam entered them. Boy, was Perry in for a surprise…
Chapter Fourteen: Just Deserts
Clark collected his clothes at super-speed and spun into them hastily. His shirt and socks were missing, but he grabbed clean ones from his closet rather than waste time hunting for them. It took him longer to locate his glasses, but after a minute he recalled Lois putting them down on the table on the landing. He arrived respectably dressed at the door just as Perry knocked a second time.
"Sorry, Chief," he said, opening the door. "I was just getting — uh, getting something in the other room." He beckoned Perry in and turned to lead the way down to his living room. "Come in and sit down — I'll make some coffee."
Perry shut the door and followed him down the steps. "Thank you, Clark," he said, depositing the thick file he carried on the coffee table. "I've got -" Straightening up, he suddenly noticed the two mugs of coffee on the kitchen counter, and he broke off, looking agitated. "Have you got company?" he demanded in an undertone. "It isn't that Linda King, is it? If so, I should go…"
He turned towards the front door, but Clark hurried to cut him off. "Of course not, Chief," he said soothingly. "Lois is here, but she's in the bathroom -"
"Lois?" The word came out in a sort of muffled bray. "Lois is here? She'd better not see me, or -"
He was interrupted by the sound of the bathroom door opening, and he paled and dived towards the closet opposite the bedroom. He was halfway inside before Clark caught up with him again.
"Chief, just calm down," he said, grasping Perry's shoulder. "Lois won't bite, and it's time we let her in on the secret."
"What secret would that be?" came a glacial voice from behind him. Both men turned, Clark opening his mouth to respond. Then they both froze.
Lois was standing in the bedroom archway, her hands on her hips. She was wearing her own jeans and Clark's Smallville High t-shirt. Clark closed his mouth with a gulp. The shirt fitted him snugly; on Lois it hung loose, clinging lovingly to her curves and undulating as she breathed. And the large armholes made it quite clear that she was wearing nothing underneath…
"Are you coming out of the closet, Perry?" she enquired sweetly, as neither man moved or spoke.
Perry cleared his throat and stepped out into the living room again. He was making a valiant effort to cover his discomfiture with a smile, but his eyes looked hunted. "Uh, Lois, it's not what you think…" he said gruffly.
"Oh?" Lois's tone would have stripped paint. "You mean Clark hasn't been secretly working undercover for you at the Star?"
Clark winced and moved towards Lois, holding out a hand. "Lois, please don't be angry," he said urgently. "We can explain -"
"Explain what?" She stopped him with a look. "Explain the fact that you let me think you'd left the Planet, when you'd done nothing of the sort? It had better be good. You said yourself, Kent, that I'd be angry when I heard your secret — so now I'm good and angry! Go on, explain yourself!"
Intrigued by her choice of words, Clark looked at her quizzically; but before he could decide on the best response, Perry came barrelling past him to square up to Lois.
"Now jest a minute, Lois," he said. "Before you go jumpin' to any more conclusions — Clark resigned from the Planet on Monday. I refused to accept his resignation, told him you and he were perfessional enough to resolve your differences and carry on workin' together. You gonna prove me wrong?"
Lois hesitated. Her gaze slid to meet Clark's, and he could see genuine regret and apology in her eyes. Her angry expression faded, and she looked back at Perry enigmatically.
"Clark and I have settled our differences," she admitted. Perry relaxed and beamed at her, only to do a double take as she continued, "but I don't know about working together. After all, Clark's at the Star now. And with the Planet's current difficulties, I was starting to wonder if it was time to leave journalism and concentrate on writing my novel."
Perry was starting to sweat. "Ah, Lois, are you sure you want to burn your bridges?" His attempt at a casual laugh merely succeeded in sounding uneasy. "It can take an awful long time to sell your first novel…" He swung round. "Clark, you tell her…"
"But she has a point," Clark said in a reasonable tone. "If she wants to try her hand at fiction, she should give it a go — otherwise she'll never know if it's the right thing for her. And she should really give it her best shot."
Perry glared impotently at Clark for a second. Then he turned back to Lois, the light of battle in his eye. "Well, just as long as you're willing to sit back and watch Clark here win the next few Kerths. Or that Linda King…"
There was a pregnant pause, then Lois shrugged. "I might just do that," she said, with only the faintest suggestion of gritted teeth. "Now, why don't you *men* -" She shot a sharp glance at Clark. "- carry on with your plotting and scheming, and I'll just sit around and look decorative?"
Perry's eyes opened wide, and he drew a breath to speak, but Clark interjected smoothly, "Why don't you make us some coffee?"
Another breathless hush fell. Perry took a step back, his eyes darting between Clark and Lois; he looked as though something were slowly strangling him. Lois's gaze was fixed on Clark, her eyes promising awful retribution, but after a long, ominous moment she summoned up a saccharine smile. "What a good idea," she simpered, and headed for the coffee machine.
Perry was still standing petrified, his eyes starting from his head, but at Clark's quiet suggestion that they sit down, he regained the power of movement and sank into an armchair. Clark took one end of the couch and calmly proceeded to fill him in on the way Carpenter tracked his reporters' movements. "As far as I can tell, Linda and the other reporters are right out of the loop," Clark concluded. "Carpenter's evidently coordinating it all from his office, but I'm no closer to finding out who's setting up the incidents themselves."
"I brought Jimmy's research -" Perry started, but he was interrupted by a voice from the kitchen area.
"J. Harvey Stark," Lois said casually, switching on the coffee machine. She swung round and strolled over to the living room to arrange herself on the other end of the couch, facing Clark, with her legs drawn up under her. "Oh, haven't you stumbled across him yet?" she added, as Perry and Clark continued to gape at her.
Perry sighed. "Would you care to enlighten us?" he said plaintively.
"I saw Stark with Carpenter at the dinner on Friday," Lois said airily. "And he was at the Omiri Embassy today, dressed up as a security guard. I heard him talking to the gunmen — he was obviously in on the plan. I did an identikit afterwards, and the police came up with the name and record this afternoon. He had several juvenile convictions, but nothing in the last twenty years. Works in casinos, night clubs, that sort of place; declares surprisingly high earnings which he claims come from tips. The Feds suspect him of being a hit-man, but they don't have any concrete evidence." She smiled kindly, adding, "I'm sure you guys would have found out sooner or later," before picking up a sports magazine from Clark's coffee table and starting to flip through it.
"Is there anything else you haven't mentioned?" Clark asked, watching her with amused admiration.
"Hmmm?" Lois looked up abstractedly and then reached out with one bare foot to stroke Clark's thigh. He captured her foot before it could retreat, and held it gently. "Oh… no, I already told you where they're getting their guns from. You can fill Perry in if you like." Her eyes dropped back to the magazine. "Oh look, the Metropolitans are thinking of trading two of their top players."
Perry cleared his throat and got to his feet. "I can see I'm about as useful as a screen door on a submarine. I'll just leave you partners to handle it together, shall I?"
"Okay," Lois said absently, but Clark frowned.
"I'm not sure we can be partners again, Chief," he said in a worried tone.
Beside him, Clark was aware of Lois looking up. Perry fixed him with a hard stare. "Just why would that be?" he enquired.
Clark shrugged slightly. "Lois has this rule," he said apologetically. "She never gets involved with anyone she works with…"
"I see," rumbled Perry, his interested gaze returning to Lois. Clark turned to observe Lois's reaction.
She was looking at him open-mouthed, but she swiftly collected herself. "That doesn't necessarily work in reverse," she said. "Besides, once we've caught Carpenter, you can't go on working for that rag!"
Clark pursed his lips and shook his head slowly. "I just don't know if it'll work, Lois," he said sadly.
Lois yanked her foot out of his grip and sat up straight, the magazine sliding unheeded to the floor. There was a hint of panic in her eyes now. "But we work so well together," she said persuasively. "And I'll need you to help investigate L- uh, the gun-runners." As he continued to look dubiously at her, she laid a coaxing hand on his arm. "Clark, come back and be my partner — please!"
He broke into a beaming smile, and her eyes narrowed. "I thought you'd never ask," he chuckled. He caught the fist she aimed at his chest and swept her into his lap. "I'd love to be your partner again, Lois," he said, and kissed her.
After a second the fight died out of her and she started kissing him back. Clark was only dimly aware of Perry backing quietly away and letting himself out of the apartment. His super-hearing caught Perry's soft laughter on the stairs, however, and the mutter of, "Never thought I'd see a man who could manage Lois Lane!"
Lois stood beside Clark in the stairwell, waiting for Linda to finish luring Carpenter out of his office. Clark had his glasses down and was watching what was going on in the office; Lois just had to stand and wait patiently. Never her strong point, she admitted silently.
She reached out a hand and ran it down Clark's tie. His breathing deepened slightly, but he captured her hand in his. "Behave yourself," he murmured before drawing her hand to his lips and kissing it. He didn't let it go afterwards, though.
Lois scanned his face, feeling the light-headedness that still affected her when she tried to match up Clark with Superman. Or when she reflected on the fact that they — he — was now firmly committed to her. Her boyfriend. Her lover.
They'd spent all of last night together, alternately talking and making love. Getting to know each other. Lois felt a dreamy smile spreading over her face, and her own breathing deepened. She'd had a hard time stopping herself from caressing Clark, or even holding his hand, while they'd talked to Linda this morning and persuaded her to help them. Be professional on the job, she reminded herself.
"They're leaving the office," Clark said quietly. "Coming down the corridor — passing — let's go!"
Lois followed him through the door, up the corridor, and into Carpenter's office. She cast a swift glance around and then headed for the computer. She hit the screen's power switch and stood tapping her foot impatiently while it warmed up.
"Someone's coming," Clark said suddenly beside her. "Get under the desk, quick!"
She refused to let him push her into the cramped kneehole, however, protesting, "But what about you?"
"Lois, just do it!" he said urgently, then sighed. To her surprise he stepped closer to her and wrapped his arms around her; then she was hard-pressed to stifle an startled squeak as he floated them up to "lie" on the ceiling.
Not a moment too soon, either, as Stark opened the door and strode into the room. He latched the sturdy briefcase lying on the desk and picked it up, then stood looking suspiciously around the room. He probably had the instincts of a hunting cat, Lois thought, closing her eyes and holding her breath. Then Stark was walking out of the office again and closing the door behind him, and both partners were breathing soft sighs of relief.
"That's quite a party trick," she said as Clark floated them back to the ground. "If I hadn't known you were Superman, and I'd gone under the desk, I wonder where you'd have said you'd hidden?"
He cast a cursory glance around. "Behind the plant, I guess," he said, grinning as she smacked him on the biceps.
"Clark, those branches are only an inch wide!" she protested. "What sort of idiot do you think I am?"
"Focus, Lois," he suggested, still grinning fondly at her. "We're here to get information, not wrestle."
"Hmm, wrestling on the ceiling — that sounds like fun," she murmured suggestively. As his eyes darkened, she added, "Focus, Clark! That was our hit-man who just left. Should you be following him?"
He considered for a moment. "It's nearly time for today's orchestrated news item, but Carpenter's safe with Linda for the moment. Let's finish up here first."
He led the way to the computer and dropped into the chair, pulling the keyboard towards him. Lois thought for a moment about protesting, but as she watched his hands blurring over the keyboard she changed her mind. One more application of super-powers she'd never thought of.
"Here's his document directory," Clark said after a few seconds. "Darn it — he's got a password on it." He tapped out a few fruitless combinations. "Linda says he's got a Citizen Kane fixation… no, not Kane…"
He looked up to meet Lois's eyes. "Rosebud," they said simultaneously, grinning foolishly at each other.
One minute of concentrated reading later, Clark shot abruptly to his feet. "They're going to assassinate Secretary Wallace!" he said disbelievingly.
Lois scanned the editorial quickly and nodded. "To start a war, I expect," she agreed. "And he'll have some sort of plan to get himself in charge in the process, I bet. Wallace is staying at the hotel just across the street — come on!"
A second later, Lois was discovering what it was like to descend a stairwell at super-speed. She hadn't yet recovered her breath, let alone her stomach, by the time they ran out onto the street together.
"Stay here," Clark rapped out. "I'll go and warn Wallace!" He dropped her hand and sprinted into the hotel.
"Stay here? Not a chance!" Lois grumbled sotto voce, gathering her breath to follow him. Then she grimaced as Linda appeared at the door of the hotel restaurant.
"Did I just see Clark vanishing again, Lois?" Linda said as Lois reached the sidewalk. "You know, that has to be one of the most irritating habits I've ever come across. How do you put up with it?"
Lois brightened. She had the advantage over Linda now, she realised with a secret thrill. "You mean he did it to you, too?" she asked innocently. "I thought you were going to take him in hand?" She watched with satisfaction as Linda's mouth thinned. "But no, this time he's gone to warn Secretary Wallace. Your boss's scheme for today is to assassinate him."
"So what are you waiting for?" Linda demanded. "Let's go get the story!"
Lois shrugged. "If there's any shooting, it'll happen out…" Her voice died, and Linda swung to follow her gaze, as Carpenter, Stark and two strangers crossed the hotel foyer. "After them!" she hissed.
The swing doors of the buffet kitchen on the top floor of the hotel closed behind the four men. Lois and Linda, panting heavily after climbing four flights of stairs, reached the doors a few moments later and peered cautiously through the glass panes. The men were poring over some sort of plan at the far end of the otherwise empty kitchen.
"One of us should go after them," Lois hissed, "and the other should call the police."
"I'll go after them, then," Linda said recklessly.
Lois opened her mouth to argue, then shut it again. It was more important that Clark get the assassins than that she, personally, get the story. "Be careful," she said softly and, ignoring Linda's dropped jaw and popping eyes, headed back to the stairs.
Once there she listened carefully, but there was no untoward sound. "Clark!" she called, and before she could draw breath for a second call, he was in front of her. "Wow!"
His eyes twinkled. "What have you got?" he asked.
"Carpenter's in the kitchen on this floor with Stark and a couple of backup thugs," she said. "I think they must be planning to use the roof access to find a vantage point to shoot from. Did you find Wallace?"
He grimaced. "His bodyguards wouldn't let me see him," he said. "I didn't have the opportunity to change. I'd better do it now, though."
He checked his surroundings quickly, stepped back and whirled into a column of colour. It was Superman who came to rest again in front of Lois.
Another "Wow!" was all she could dredge up.
He smiled cockily. "You keep saying that," he murmured, and snatched a swift kiss. "I kinda like it." Then he was hurrying out of the stairwell.
Lois followed in his wake, still smiling rather dazedly. By the time she reached the kitchen, Carpenter and the two thugs were each laid out neatly on a Hostess trolley and tied up with the electric cable. There was no sign of Superman, Stark — or, she suddenly realised, Linda.
She walked over to Carpenter. "Where's Linda King?" she asked.
Carpenter simply glared at her and refused to speak, but one of the other men called out, "In the freezer!" and jerked his head towards a metal door a short distance away. As Carpenter started to issue a string of insults, his accomplice shrugged. "I don't want a murder on the rap sheet," he muttered.
Lois's eyebrows rose. "The freezer? That won't kill her," she observed. It wouldn't hurt Linda to cool off a little longer, she thought.
"The pipes are damaged. The gas'll kill her pretty quickly."
That was a different matter. Lois ran to the door, noting the stout padlock on the door with a sinking heart. "Where's the key?" she yelled.
"Search me," the man said sullenly. "It was open when we arrived."
Lois started opening drawers at random, but there was nothing useful. She scanned the counters: knife blocks, racks of tools, food processors… no key. She could call for Superman — but then Wallace might get shot. Suddenly she whirled around and looked along the bank of stoves along one wall. At the end of the row were a fire blanket, a fire extinguisher… and a fire axe.
Several exhilarating swings of the axe later, the padlock parted company with its hasp and shot across the room. Lois swung the door open and raced in to drag Linda's limp, bound body out of the freezer. She hurriedly shut the door again to contain the gas and started to apply artificial respiration to her old rival.
Lois smiled happily as her colleagues clapped and cheered. The walls of the break area were festooned with copies of this morning's front page, and petty cash had even run to a few streamers and a large chocolate cake.
Lois cut the last few slices of cake and then turned to Linda, standing beside her. "A movie script?" she said. "I wouldn't have thought it was that exciting. Clark and I have been in tighter spots than that."
Linda's self-satisfied smile faltered. "Well, the producer liked the idea," she said defensively. "Of course, I might use a bit of artistic licence here and there. Just for effect."
"Let me guess," Lois said drily. "Your character won't get captured and locked in a freezer to die?"
Linda had the grace to blush. "Yeah, well… about that, Lois… I really have to thank you for saving my life."
Lois regarded her sceptically for a moment, but she seemed perfectly sincere. "That's okay," Lois said slowly. Then she grinned. "I bet that hurts."
Linda glared at her. "You've got three Kerth awards, a job at Metropolis's top paper and a gorgeous hunk for a partner, and you have to go and save my life as well. Yeah, that hurts!"
"I'm sure Superman would have done it instead if he hadn't been busy catching the assassin," Lois said, in tones that were rather too breezy to be truly comforting. "At least he gave you a lift to the hospital, to get your lungs checked out."
Linda snorted. "So I even missed out on writing up the scoop. Gee, thanks, Lois!"
Lois shrugged. "Clark insisted that you go on the by-line anyway, even if it was only 'special contribution'."
Linda eyed her resentfully. "Where is Clark, anyway? I've got something I want to ask him."
"He was supposed to come in this morning. I imagine he'll be here soon." On the big newsroom TV screen, a few minutes ago, Lois had caught sight of Superman leaving the site of a car crash.
Jimmy, busy helping himself to seconds of chocolate cake, chipped in, beaming from ear to ear. "Is CK coming back, Lois? I know he was undercover at the Star, but I thought, well, you and he… after… well, you know…" His delight had given way to nervous embarrassment by the time he sputtered to a halt.
Lois was aware of the listening silence around her. Time to trot out their fabrication. "You mean us quarrelling, and Clark kissing me?" she said airily. "Oh, no — we staged that, to give Clark an excuse to go to the Star."
She'd noticed Clark emerging from the stairwell as she spoke, and being waylaid by Tom Wilson. Others had noticed, too; the buzz of conversation in the break area had died away to a murmur, and heads were craning to look curiously at one or other of the partners. Lois raised her coffee mug to take a sip.
She nearly choked as Cat's voice sounded behind her. "So that kiss was faked?" Cat drawled, her voice pitched to carry no more than a few yards. "We should have guessed — not much reason for a cute guy like Clark to kiss you, otherwise."
Lois's eyes flew involuntarily to Clark as she swallowed her mouthful of coffee. She groped unsuccessfully for a snappy comeback, her temporary loss of composure not helped at all by the sound of a smothered giggle from Linda. Then Clark clapped Tom on the arm, turned, and came striding easily down the steps and into the break area. His eyes met Lois's and a brilliant devil-may-care smile lit up his face.
"Morning, everyone," he said breezily. "Sorry I'm late — and thanks for leaving me some cake."
"Welcome back, partner," Lois said with a glowing smile.
Jimmy and several others joined in with cheerful greetings, but Clark paid them scant attention as he stepped closer to Lois. "It's good to be back," he said, eyes fixed on her face. He put one arm around her shoulders. "And congratulations on the scoop!"
She lifted her face to his as he drew her in for a kiss. She was expecting no more than a light peck, but Clark evidently had other ideas. By the time he let her up for air, her legs were shaking and she was clinging to his shoulders for support.
Immediately she became aware of the chorus of cat-calls and wolf whistles all around them, and Jimmy's elated shout of "Way to go, CK!" As Clark released her, blushing furiously, she heard Cat laughing good-naturedly.
"Well, well — I never thought you'd manage to land him, Lois!"
Lois looked at her sharply, but her expression seemed perfectly genuine — without a trace of malice or even envy. Still smiling, Cat turned to Clark with a careless "Good luck — you'll need it!" and then headed for the coffee machine. Around them, the newsroom staff lost interest and returned to their interrupted conversations or started wandering back to their desks.
On Lois's other side, Linda said stiffly, "Congratulations, the two of you. I guess I ought to be going — got a lot of packing to do, you know." Turning politely, Lois saw that Linda was taking their display of affection a lot less gracefully; her face was pale and her smile was patently false.
"Packing?" Clark enquired. "Where are you going?"
"Hollywood," Linda replied succinctly. "I've been hired to write Preston Carpenter's story as a screenplay." She looked up at Clark for a moment, biting her lip. "I was going to ask you if you wanted to come along — but I guess the answer's pretty obvious." She cast a glance full of bitter jealousy at Lois. "See you some time," she bit out and turned on her heel to stalk out of the newsroom, head held high.
"Okay, that's enough standing around!" came a bellow from the door of Perry's office, and a hasty exodus from the break area began. "This is a newspaper, not a garden party — Lane and Kent may have nailed the Star, but we still have to get our circulation back up! Oh, and Lois — Clark -" he added at a lower volume as they approached their desks, "- if the follow-up articles are on my desk by five you can have tomorrow off. You're looking tired. But I want you back bright and early on Sunday!"
"On it, Chief," chorused the Daily Planet's top reporting team.
"Clark, I really don't know that this is a good idea!" Lois blurted out, panic sharpening her voice.
Clark halted in mid-air, his cape swirling around them, and raised her chin with a gentle finger until she reluctantly met his gaze. The shimmer of tears in her eyes made his heart tilt crazily.
"Lois, we've talked it over," he reminded her. "They think you're wonderful, and they'll be really pleased to see us. Trust me."
"But I insulted them last time I was there!" she wailed. "And what if they don't approve of us… you know…"
He sighed. "I know they will. Okay, so I didn't actually speak to Mom this afternoon — just to the answering machine — but really, you have nothing to worry about. If they're upset with anyone it's me, for hurting you." She still looked unconvinced, and he drew her closer for a reassuring hug, dropping a kiss on her hair. "But if you don't want to go, we can just turn round and go home. It's okay."
He waited patiently for her response, and after a short while she sighed, some of the tension seeping out of her small frame. "No, let's go, and get it over with," she said with a faint smile. "I… it just felt as if you were steam-rollering me into it."
"I'm sorry, Lois," he said with quick concern. "I hope you know I would never force you into anything…"
The smile was bright this time. "That's good to know, fly- boy. Okay, then, let's go!"
A few minutes later they landed in front of the farmhouse. Martha and Jonathan must have been keeping a careful watch, for they bustled out of the door immediately, smiling warmly at Lois. Clark's heart plummeted. Were they still angry at him after all?
"It's so good to see you again, Lois," Martha said as he set Lois carefully on her feet. "No, no — please call me Martha!" Her gaze shifted to Clark, her smile becoming less personal. "Thank you for bringing Lois," she said formally. "Are you going to fetch Clark now?"
An enormous load lifted off Clark's shoulders, and he nearly whooped for joy. A huge grin lit up his face. "It's okay, Mom," he said. "She knows."
He set down the overnight bag he still held, stepped back and spun back into casual clothes. Then he swung the bag over his shoulder and reached for Lois's hand.
His parents' warm smiles included him now. "Clark, that's wonderful," Martha enthused. "Did you try to kill him when you found out, Lois? Oh, you're shivering, honey, come inside!" She tugged at Lois's arm, and Clark let go of her hand so that Martha could tow her inside. "We'll put you in Clark's old room again, and make up the couch for Clark later." Halfway to the door, she paused. "That is, unless…"
Lois flung a half-amused, half-embarrassed glance at Clark, silently apologising for her earlier doubts. "Actually, Martha," she said quietly, "that won't be necessary."
Martha threw a doubly delighted smile at her son, then resumed her progress towards the warmth of the kitchen, bubbling merrily about dinner and Clark's appetite.
Jonathan's hand closed warmly on Clark's shoulder. "Well done, son," he said softly. "Knew you'd sort it out. Come on in."
(c) Copyright Meredith Knight, 2002
The line from ML Thompson's Super Stud which sparked this fic runs as follows: "He'd discovered that after his night with Lois, it wasn't as easy going back to abstinence as he had hoped." I got to thinking how much harder it would be if Lois didn't even know it was Clark, and so Superman's "dreadful mistake" was born.
The scene that first popped into my head was where Clark kissed Lois in the conference room, and she slapped him. That meant I needed somewhere for Clark to go when he walked out of the Planet — which is why I decided to use The Rival for the setting. That turned out very useful in other ways, too! <g>
I hope you enjoyed the story. Drop me a line at email@example.com to let me know. :)