By Kaethel <Kaethel@wanadoo.fr>
Submitted May 2003
Summary: It's Valentine's Day, and Lois's dream date didn't turn out to be as magical as she had planned. Can her unexpected encounter with a handsome stranger change the dull and lonely fate she thinks herself destined for?
This story was written in honour of four women who celebrated their respective birthdays between the 18th and the 22nd of February. I would have liked to write one vignette for each of them, but the premise that occurred to me at the time developed into something longer than I had bargained for (the Muse was a pain in the tushie, to borrow one of Tracey's favourite expressions), so our birthday girls had to share the result.
This is dedicated to to Wendy Richards, one of the most fantastic women I ever got the chance to meet. To our many discussions on irc, to our hilarious brainstorming / beta- reading sessions, and to the fun (though sometimes crazy ;)) times we've spent together in real life, as well! And, most of all, to you, for being such an awesome friend! May you have a wonderful birthday! :)
To Tracey, my dear "twin". This is dedicated to you and the numerous hours we've spent on the phone trying to make up for the geographical distance (and stupid ocean) between us. Thanks for always being there, for the fascinating conversations that sometimes (only sometimes?!?) become so silly that we should be ashamed of ourselves (but we're not <eg>). To the moment when we *finally* meet for real! Oh, and one more thing: redheads rule! ;) Have an awesome birthday, and keep some birthday cake for me, will you? ;)
To Kaylle, who's turning 21, and who'd better hurry to write something on her 123-words-long new story! :D Or else I'll send the shears after her, birthday or not!
And last but not least, to Tasha, who also has a birthday in February (which I didn't know when I started posting this! Tasha!!! You should have hollered! <g>), and who, I hope, will get an easier access to the net soon, because we miss her!!
My biggest thanks to Meredith, who was a rock of support and encouragement, to JoMarch, who BRd the first draft of this story and gave me lots of great tips, to Wendy, who saved my hide when I was stuck on the last section, to Tracey, who even wrote a smoochie for me when the Muse went AWOL, to Elena-the-evil-hyena, who brainstormed and BRd this on irc over several nights and suggested a lot of awesome ideas to make the plot go forward, and to LabRat, who gave me plenty of brilliant suggestions and weeded out the nasty grammar boo-boos. :) Last but not least, thanks to the readers on the message boards and the fic list for their enthusiasm and support, and to my GE Paul-Gabriel Wiener for his very helpful edits. :)
Feedback is, as usual, extremely welcome. :)
Life was strange, Lois mused as she dug a spoon into caramel ice cream that was as hard as a rock. This time last year, she had been lamenting her lack of a social life. She had watched Lucy bustle around the apartment as she got ready for her 'hot date' and even though her sister's relationships rarely lasted beyond a week — the man she had spent that night with had been no exception to that rule — Lois had nevertheless been envious of Lucy's enthusiasm.
This year, though, Valentine's Day had finally become something more than purely commercial when Lex had asked her to spend this special evening with him. She had cheerfully welcomed the invitation, finally feeling part of a group of people she had publicly despised and secretly envied for years.
And today had seemed endless as she watched the hours tick by, until the time had finally come to go home and get ready; she had tried on a dozen different gowns, ignoring the carefully chosen dress that she had bought the previous day for the occasion; it had looked great when she had first tried it on, but now the cleavage was too daring, the length didn't look right with the high heels she had selected, and the colour made her look pale without the advantageous light of the shop's skilfully arranged neon. The nightmare hadn't been over even after she had finally settled on a knee-length black dress. Nor had applying her make-up been any easier. And to add insult to injury, one of her stockings had snagged against the rough wood panel at the back of her nightstand — why had her wristwatch felt the need to fall behind the piece of furniture just then anyway? — and been ruined in the process.
The evening hadn't started well.
And so it had been with a heavy weight in the pit of her stomach that she had climbed into the back of the limo that Lex had sent for her. He had welcomed her warmly, but the feeling of discomfort hadn't left her, and it was with a certain amount of relief that she had seen the evening end. Lex had looked surprised when she had declined dessert, but he hadn't pressured her into staying longer; her lack of enthusiasm had probably shown throughout their date, and she doubted he would call her again.
If only that affected her…
She winced as the chilled carton burned her fingers, and she eyed the microwave wistfully.
She stuffed the freezing mixture into the microwave before common sense could change her mind. Two minutes should be enough to soften the ice cream and make it edible.
She wandered to the living-room as she waited and switched on the TV. Valentine specials didn't do much to improve her mood; what a fool she had been to believe that just because she had spent Valentine's Day with a man, she wouldn't feel the loneliness that assailed her every year on that day. Couples kissing and cuddling, as if it was the most natural thing in the world; those shows were bound to make you feel abnormal if you took them seriously. No-one was alone on Valentine's Day. No-one… except herself.
She welcomed the microwave's 'ding' with relief and hurried back to the kitchen. It was with a sigh of resignation that she contemplated what was left of her ice cream portion. She should have known that two minutes would be too much. She hadn't softened the mixture; she had baked it. She'd never been fond of warm ice cream, and tonight she needed the real thing more than ever. She poured the remainder of the thickly scented caramel concoction into the sink.
She grabbed her coat, thinking as she made her way out the door that cleaning the mess could wait.
On Valentine's day, Metropolis didn't look much different from any other city in the world, Clark Kent mused as he strolled along the slowly emptying streets. His plane had arrived a few hours earlier, the snow that had been falling thickly since early morning having delayed his flight. And his appointment with Perry White had had to be cancelled; he might have missed a position at the Daily Planet just because he wouldn't fly under his own power. Much as he enjoyed the liberating sensation of soaring through the air, he avoided flying in crowded areas where airport or military radar might spot him; it was too risky. Thankfully, Mr White had agreed to postpone his interview till tomorrow. It didn't mean he would be in a good mindset to hire him, but at least all hope was not lost.
In the meantime, Clark had been left with nothing to do. His dusty, seedy hotel room was too gloomy to stay in. He selected a brightly lit cafe and stepped inside, welcoming the warmth that immediately suffused skin prickled by the cold. He seemed to be invulnerable, but sensations weren't lost on him. So, it was with a genuine smile that he sat at the back of the small room and ordered a large cappuccino.
He didn't know how much time he wasted as he sat there, absently observing the couples leaving the cafe hand in hand, and the waitress busily cleaning the tables after them. But when a dark-haired woman pushed open the door to the cafe, her posture dignified but the set of her face betraying sadness, his senses started awake. He followed her progress through the room until she sat at a table not far from his, then forced his attention away from her, suddenly aware that he was staring.
She was beautiful. She was beautiful, but it wasn't what fascinated him, though he couldn't quite pinpoint what it was about her that made it impossible for him to process any thought beyond her presence a few feet away. She shrugged out of her coat and gestured for a waiter; Clark absently noticed as he listened in to her order that his decision to mind his own business hadn't lasted long. Her faded blue jeans and baggy grey sweatshirt made her stand out of the crowd tonight; the couples he had seen throughout the evening had been dressed up, and it was strangely soothing to finally spot someone who wore the same type of clothing as he. So she wasn't out on a date… Why did he find the thought comforting? It wasn't comforting to see a beautiful young woman spending Valentine's evening alone.
Suddenly an image of his parents floated to the front of his mind. They always celebrated Valentine's Day, even after thirty years of marriage. Right now they were probably getting out of Maisie's restaurant, hand in hand and a smile on their lips. Clark had got used to ignoring the whole thing after he left his parents' house to travel the world, but tonight, the feeling that something was missing in his otherwise happy life was overwhelming.
It was crazy to think that what his life lacked could be sitting a few feet away, sipping coffee and staring… directly at him.
"Excuse me. Can I borrow the sugar on your table, please?"
It took him a few moments to process what she was asking, and it was only after she raised her eyebrows and repeated her question that he snapped out of his embarrassing fascination, mutely rising to his feet and handing her the requested item. Her lips moved, but he didn't hear her words.
"I said thank you," she repeated, and he flinched at her obvious exasperation.
"I'm sorry. I'm just…"
"Staring," she completed in a mutter. She shook her head and concentrated on pouring the contents of a packet of sugar into her cup.
"Well… well, I m-might have been…"
"Was," he admitted, feeling defeated by her cold reproach.
She turned towards him. "Still are," she pointed out angrily.
"I'm sorry." Embarrassment at the rudeness of his attitude made him scramble for a plausible explanation, and he grabbed at the first idea that occurred to him without taking the time to ponder its wisdom. "It's just… it's the sugar. So many women are on a health kick these days; I'm not used to…" Not just its wisdom, he mentally added when she looked at him, her glare shooting daggers. Its consequences, too.
"Are you saying I'm fat?"
"No! Absolutely not! You're… You look… great. Really." Heat rose to his cheeks — how much time had it been since he had last blushed? — and he lowered his eyes, wishing the earth would open up under his feet and swallow him whole. You're a moron, Clark.
She kept staring at him, and he heard the ticking of the clock sitting on the bar; each second sent another dagger at him. Poisoned ones, he'd wager.
"Look, I'm sorry. I'm an idiot."
"We seem to have got off on the wrong foot, and I'm sorry about that."
"I'm not. I have no intention of getting off on any foot at all."
"My name's Clark."
Silence. She seemed entirely focused on her coffee, stirring the beverage as she poured a third packet of sugar into it. She raised the cup to her lips, grimaced, and pushed it back to the centre of the table.
"Clark Kent." He extended his hand towards her and smiled, but she thoroughly ignored both friendly gestures.
She seemed to consider his smile for a second before she spoke. "If you're looking for a woman to buy a drink for, find someone else."
"Why is it that in big cities, every time, and I mean every time, a man smiles at a woman, she immediately thinks he's got something on his mind?"
She raised her eyebrows. "You mean you haven't got something on your mind?"
"You mean apart from persuading you to forgive me for my idiotic comment?"
"Which you didn't need to remind me of."
"It's funny how a smile can be read differently in Borneo and in Metropolis."
"You've been to Borneo? Really?"
He didn't know if her interest was feigned or genuine, but at least she had dropped part of her hostility, if just temporarily. "I've spent a few months there."
"Whatever kept you in Borneo for such a long time?"
He shook his head, amused by her voracious curiosity. So much for her determination not to speak to him! He had always enjoyed broaching idle conversations with strangers; to him, every person shone a new light onto the vagaries of human life, by their own experiences and the way they dealt with them. He had forgotten until she reminded him that people ignored each other in big cities, and that it was much better that way.
"I was working at a local newspaper."
She frowned and suddenly looked more animated. "Oh? You're into journalism too?"
"Yes. You are, too?"
"No!" she exclaimed quickly, and she turned away from him again. She reached for her cup absently, then pushed it away with a dismissive hand. She probably remembered how awful it tasted with the amount of sugar she had added to it. Suddenly she was back to ignoring him, but he could tell that a question was burning on her lips. She drummed her fingers on the table, as if unsure whether she should pay and leave, or stay and ask whatever was on her mind. "What made you think I was?"
Ah. The latter. "You asked if I was into journalism *too*," he explained. "I assumed…"
"You should never assume."
"But you're working at a newspaper, aren't you?"
"And you're an extremely nosy person."
"Takes one to know one."
She blinked. "I beg your pardon?"
Wrong move, Kent. And it wasn't the first time. "You've been asking me questions, which I've answered. It's only fair I get my share," he said, feeling a little defensive. She seemed to be tricking him into saying the wrong thing, then pounce on every occasion to rebuff him.
"I'm not the one who started it with the questions. Besides, I'm not interested in whatever it was that you were doing in Borneo."
"I'm a reporter."
"I said I wasn't interested."
"A reporter in Borneo?"
"I thought you weren't interested?"
"I'm not. I'm just being polite." She looked belligerent for a moment, then repeated her earlier question. "So… Borneo?"
She was a bundle of contradictions, Clark decided, unable to decide whether he was irritated or charmed by her attitude. She was fascinating for sure. "Don't look so surprised," he said with an indulgent smile, which he knew she would probably interpret as unbearable contempt. "There *are* newspapers there."
"With as big a reputation as the Planet?"
"Is that the paper you're working for? The Daily Planet?"
"You didn't answer my question."
"Is there a rule that says I have to?"
She glared, her frown reminiscent of the expression adorning her face when she had first snapped at him. "I suppose there isn't," she said slowly. "Just like there is no rule forcing me to listen to the boring conversation of a guy who needs a better hobby than sitting in bars waiting for a woman to annoy."
She rummaged through her purse and dropped a few bills onto the table, then she put on her coat and slid out of the booth where she had been sitting.
She was leaving.
He rose from his seat, and she looked at him, frowning in surprise. "You're not planning on following me out, are you? I'll have you know I'm a brown belt in tae-kwan-do."
He had to laugh at her very serious threat, even though her face became more severe as he did. He knew he should be angry at her rudeness, but he supposed that he could hardly blame her for her bad mood after his unfortunate comment — a comment that had been made to stop his embarrassment, no less!
Her exasperation rose visibly. "Okay, I have to know. What's funny about tae-kwan-do?"
"Nothing. I don't want to get on your bad side."
She snorted. "Men!" she hissed, and he imagined that right about now she probably wouldn't have minded seeing his half of the human species exterminated.
"Look, I'm sorry if my teasing went too far. I didn't mean to upset you."
"Upset me? Don't flatter yourself!"
Ignoring her muttered comment, he extended his hand towards her but accidentally knocked over his mug of cappuccino. Her yelp alarmed him and he caught the mug in a flash of amazingly speedy reflexes. Too speedy. Way too speedy.
He checked her face, not daring to breathe as he awaited her questions. And she was in the journalism business! He had really chosen the right person to reveal a glimpse of his abnormal abilities to! If she had seen anything, it would be splashed across tomorrow's edition of whatever newspaper she worked for.
"Geez, great!" she muttered, wiping her hands on the droplets of coffee that had unfortunately splashed onto her jeans. "That's just… *great*."
At least, she seemed too preoccupied to have noticed anything. He held back a sigh of relief.
Still engrossed in the cleaning of the mess he had made, she snatched the tissue he handed to her and rubbed it across the wet fabric.
"Blot, don't rub."
"Keep your advice to yourself," she snapped at his hazarded recommendation. "I've got to get some water onto it." She marched to the bathroom without a glance back at him.
Lois wiped the now wet tissue onto the coffee stains and shook her head. This was really not her night. First, the stockings, then the ruined dinner with Lex, and now some guy she didn't know from Adam was dropping his coffee onto her. What was his name again? Clark. He'd said he was Clark. Clark from Borneo.
She didn't know why she had kept on talking to him. She usually avoided conversations with strangers. Either they didn't lead anywhere and were therefore pointless, or they were the start of something she didn't want to consider. Something… well, something still pointless. Precisely. That was the right word, either way.
And so she had planned to end the meeting then and there. Before it became even more pointless.
And those stains seemed to be spreading instead of disappearing! Darn that man for ruining what little remained of her evening. Darn her for actually going out when she should have known that going to bed was the best way to forget about the whole night and move on.
/Blot, don't rub./
She dabbed at the most recalcitrant stain. What did he know about cleaning anyway? He was probably one of those men who still took their laundry home every weekend even after they reached thirty years old.
/You're being unfair. He's not that old./
Indeed. His boyish looks seemed to suggest that he was in his mid-twenties. His dark hair rebelliously fell against the bronzed skin of his forehead, and he was clad in a tight t-shirt enhancing his well-built frame…
And how the heck had she noticed that many details about his looks?
She had barked at him for looking at her so insistently, but it was quite possible she had done her fair share of staring as well. She blushed fiercely at the realisation.
At least, he seemed harmless enough. She didn't know why she hadn't felt threatened by his teasing smile and easy- going manners. She had actually enjoyed their banter… well, some of it anyway. She'd been equally exasperated, she added firmly. And she had made sure he knew about that.
That was it. She was losing her mind. She had never enjoyed being teased by a complete stranger before. Strike that. She had never enjoyed being teased by anyone, period. Each time she had strengthened her determination to ignore him, her curiosity had forced her to revive a conversation she had claimed not to be interested in.
She focused on the stain again, shying away from whatever conclusion she should reach. Hey!! It worked! Granted, the right thigh of her jeans was pretty much soaked thanks to the generous splashing she had done earlier, but at least the stain seemed to be gone for good. After she wiped the wet fabric with half the roll of paper towels available in the restroom, she felt decent enough to return to the cafe's main room and face… Clark.
Unless he had left.
She leaned her back against the door and hugged herself, engulfing herself in the warmth of her coat. She didn't want to go back and face him… or rather, she didn't want to go back and discover he had disappeared. It was crazy! She didn't know the man; for all she knew he could be a dangerous criminal, a rapist, a murderer! Maybe he sat in cafes every evening, waiting for the perfect victim: a woman alone and looking a little lost. What better moment than Valentine's Day to stalk his prey and catch it? He softened her up with a warm smile and the idle impression of safety, and then…
She was really losing her mind. Clark from Borneo was nothing like a serial killer! And even if he was, what better way to nail him than play the part he expected her to? Yes. She would treat him just like another investigation. If he had anything to hide beneath that boyish, friendly look of his, she would find out soon enough. And if not… well, she'd rather not think of the consequences if he was nothing more than a nice guy…
It was with a generous sigh of relief that she spotted him sitting at his table upon coming back from the bathroom. Her might-be story hadn't escaped.
He rose again as she approached — why did he keep doing that? "I'm sorry about the coffee…"
"It's okay. No harm done."
"May I buy you a drink?
"You think the one my jeans got for free wasn't enough?"
"I'm really sorry." He looked genuinely contrite. "I just need another chance to reingratiate myself into your good books."
"Don't get ahead of yourself, buster. You were never there in the first place." She sighed and sat in front of him, divesting herself of her coat again. "Is that another Borneo tradition? When a man drops his coffee onto a woman's clothes, he buys her a drink as compensation?"
At last his face lit with a smile, and she was tempted to respond in kind. He had a beautiful smile.
Where had that thought come from?
"Borneo has a lot of traditions you don't suspect. What would you like to drink?"
"Coffee will be fine. As long as it stays *in* the cup." This time, she grinned at his dismayed expression. "It's okay, really. I managed to get rid of the stain. Does that blotting technique come from Borneo, too?"
He laughed, and his eyes twinkled with amusement as he replied. "Smallville, Kansas. Much less exotic, I know."
"You're making that up. Next thing you're going to pretend you're the son of a farmer from the Midwest."
"I *am* the son of a farmer from the Midwest."
"So what are you doing in Metropolis? Everything I've heard about the Midwest makes it a much more pleasant place to live than a big, polluted New Troy city. If you like that kind of thing," she added, her disgust evident.
"I've been travelling the world for a couple of years."
Ah. That pinpointed what kind of man he was. Obviously the adventurous type, never satisfied with what he had, quickly moving on from one place to another… assuming he was telling the truth. He would probably feed her embellished accounts of his travels any time now. He might even pretend to have killed a lion with his bare hands in Africa if she looked gullible enough.
"I'd like to settle down now, though. I'm tired of never staying in the same place for more than a few months."
"So why did you choose Metropolis?"
He shrugged. "I'd never been here."
"Smallville, Kansas, doesn't appeal at all?"
He sighed wearily. "I haven't lived at home for years. I go back regularly to see my parents. But if what's missing in my life is there, then I've failed to see it for more than twenty years."
"But you still call it home," she pointed out softly. Why did she keep on probing for information that could be of no use? And why did she suddenly feel the urge to reach across the table and touch his hand? She quickly recoiled from the thought.
"It's where I grew up. I'm attached to that place."
"I grew up on a big house in Green Meadows. Oh, that's right, you're not from here. It's one of those quiet suburbs in the north of the city. People who live there are either doctors or lawyers. That's where I grew up, but I never thought of it as home."
He sounded genuinely concerned, as if he really cared. She snapped out of her melancholy. Now was not the time to be fooled by a warm smile and a gentle voice. Time to change their topic of conversation, before he tricked her into talking about her childhood. It bugged her that she was tempted to confide in him, though. It made no sense. Why was there something about this man that pushed her to trust him, to open up to him in a way she had never done before? He was nothing to her. He didn't even count as an acquaintance, let alone a friend or a confidant.
Her earlier determination to consider him as a criminal and potential story seemed so far away when she was facing him. It was impossible to meet this man's gaze and think of him as the serial killer she had willed him to be. She should leave now. She didn't even have the excuse of staying for the sake of an investigation. Yes, leaving was best… except… well, except she didn't want to leave. Going home to her empty apartment and facing the failure of an evening she had been looking forward to all week was a rather dreadful prospect.
Even talking with Clark held more appeal. And… and he made her feel strangely attractive. She remembered his comment about health kicks and grimaced. There was a big difference between making her feel like a beautiful woman and actually thinking she was one. But his eyes, when they rested on her, lit up with a flame that she could only interpret as admiration… or desire, she admitted with a shiver.
It should probably scare her away, but in the light of tonight's disaster with Lex, she needed this moment with Clark. His softly spoken apology when she had confessed her lack of any real, emotional connection to her childhood home meant more to her than Lex's cultured considerations about the latest trends in the stock exchange.
Maybe women generally listened to him in fascination, but it had taken a lot of willpower for her to concentrate and feign interest in their very one-sided conversation. The dark and silent atmosphere of his penthouse had made her feel claustrophobic; the presence of a butler standing by the door and staring into the distance as if he wasn't in the room had never left her mind, making her feel inhibited.
Next to the chilling dinner she had shared with Lex Luthor, sitting across from a handsome stranger was refreshing. She felt free to be herself with him; he had no expectations and no disappointment in store… If he didn't like what he saw, she wouldn't lose anything. Right?
Suddenly the prospect of a light conversation with Clark didn't sound so bad. It was better than letting her musings drift to considerations that she didn't want to ponder tonight. Or ever.
She cleared her throat. "So you decided to try Metropolis as a last resort?"
Thankfully, he didn't probe the issue further. "The big city offers opportunities you don't get anywhere else. You've got pretty big newspapers here."
"Bigger than the Smallville Gazette for sure."
"Actually it's the Smallville Post."
"Whatever. And that's right; you're a reporter." At least she would discover pretty quickly if he was making that up. "Looking for a job here? There's no opening in any newsroom that I know of."
"You seem pretty well informed for someone who isn't working in journalism."
"I never claimed I wasn't," she said defensively. Boy… she had to be more careful. She was letting things slip as if she were a rookie.
Fortunately, he let it go. "I had an appointment with the Planet's editor today."
"With Perry?" She hadn't seen this man anywhere near the newsroom today. And it had been a slow news day, so she hadn't gone out for more than a short lunch break.
"I take it you know him pretty well if you're on a first name basis."
"Nice guess. Except I've got you there. I was in the newsroom all day. Perry didn't interview anyone." Which proved he was lying; hopefully he would take it as his cue to leave her alone… and hopefully the regret that weighed on her chest when she thought of shoving him away would disappear.
"I called to cancel."
"You… *cancelled* an interview with Perry White?" Either he was a liar or else he was a complete nutcase. No sane person cancelled an interview with the editor of the biggest newspaper in the city.
"He agreed to give me a second chance tomorrow."
Or else Perry was crazy… Wait a minute… Did that mean that Clark could become her colleague? Fear seized her as she considered her behaviour around him; she had treated him with contempt and… She breathed in relief. At least even if Clark got a job at the Planet, he was forewarned that approaching her was a big mistake. Besides, there was slim chance of him being hired. There was no opening in the newsroom at the moment. But then, why would Perry waste his time with another interview?
And if Clark was telling the truth… well, that put a new light on things. The serial killer possibility was now entirely ruled out. Granted, stranger things had happened, but her intuition, along with what he had said about getting a job at the Planet, pushed the likeliness of her first guess further and further away. On the other hand, if he was just a normal guy settling down in the big city and looking for a job, that left her only with the very disheartening option that he was yet another man in search of some meaningless female company for one night.
She eyed him carefully. His claims fitted so perfectly the image of a man who wanted to pass for an innocent farmboy arriving in the big city… but she was tempted to believe him. He sounded sincere. She supposed that it didn't mean he was, but the part of her that wanted to trust him battled with her determination to consider him no more than another pathological liar who would pretend to be anyone he wasn't as long as it got a woman, any woman — her as it happened right at this moment — into his bed.
Maybe he was looking for a one night stand. Maybe he only wanted to lower her defences, get under her skin, and seduce her. She didn't want to be seduced… but darn it, it was hard to ignore the images cascading through her mind as she considered the possibility. It was entirely too easy to visualise the caress of his lips on hers, the feel of his hands holding her to him as he kissed her, the sweet words whispered into her ear. She jolted out of the fantasy, shocked by the path her thoughts had suddenly taken.
She was letting this go entirely too far. She had been seduced once, and the following morning had quickly doused her schoolgirl romantic notions and brought her crashing back into the real world. She had vowed that day that she would never let a man use her again, and she wasn't about to let that happen. The fantasy stopped right here.
And yet there was no denying that Clark had at least achieved the feat of lifting her spirits after her failed date with Lex. He appeared so very ordinary on the outside, and yet he claimed he had travelled the world and worked for six months on a very distant island. She couldn't even keep on pretending it didn't matter, because now there was a chance she would be seeing him again. Maybe even on a daily basis.
Unless, of course, he was lying. Which should still be the ruling possibility. *Was* still the ruling possibility. An angelic face didn't always hide a sincere mind; she had been fooled one time too many to fall into another trap. Taking everything Clark claimed with a pinch of salt seemed a lot more reasonable than starting to think about tomorrow and the likelihood of becoming his colleague.
Her doubt must have shown on her face, for the man sitting across from her looked down. "I can tell you don't believe me." He sounded sad. Almost dejected. Almost as if… as if he had been telling the truth.
She lifted her head to meet his steady gaze. "How did you —?"
"I guess that being wary of strangers comes with living in the big city, even more so when you're a reporter used to coping with criminality. You never know who you're going to meet, or what their real intentions are…"
"What are your real intentions?" She knew she was blushing as she voiced the question, but she refused to play the role of the coquette and lower her eyes. "What do you want from me?" Why do you make me feel beautiful and wanted, she almost added, but bit her lower lip instead. He had claimed several times that there was nothing on his mind other than talking. Somehow, she couldn't believe that. She didn't *want* to believe that.
She heard him inhale sharply, and she held her breath as she waited for his words to hit her.
"I don't know what I want," he whispered fiercely, his eyes burning with renewed intensity and his posture tense. "But I know what I *don't* want. I don't want to passively watch you walk away from here. I don't want to live with the feeling that what I've been missing all these years was within reach tonight, and, fool that I am, that I let it go."
Clark shut his eyes, wincing even as he voiced the words that had been on his mind since she had agreed to sit at his table and let him buy her another coffee. What had got into him that had made him confess a feeling that seemed to have come out of nowhere, even to him? Cheeks burning and fingers tightening around his mug, he waited for the rustle of fabric and footsteps that would indicate her departure.
It didn't come.
His attuned senses found the racing rhythm of her heartbeat instead, and he opened his eyes, facing her at last. She didn't look… horrified. Nor frightened. At least, she hadn't run away. Yet. That was a good sign, wasn't it? Maybe he hadn't completely blown it and there was still a chance he might…
Might what? He couldn't, *wouldn't* take it back. He had meant those softly spoken words more than anything in his life. Something about this woman touched him to the very core and brought out needs he hadn't consciously suspected until then. What he had confessed to her was the truth: what pushed him from one place to another wasn't an adventurous streak, but the pursuit of something that he was unable to pinpoint himself. Until tonight. Until this amazing woman had stepped into his life and shown him exactly what he was missing.
But what had got into him to blurt out feelings that she couldn't take seriously? How must it look when they hadn't known each other for more than half an hour? It was crazy to feel that way, and even crazier to tell her about something even he didn't understand. He couldn't expect her to respond positively; he would be lucky to get out of this with just a slap in the face.
All the self-confidence that had pushed him to open up to her suddenly deserted him. He had told her he didn't want to stand by and watch her walk out of his life, possibly forever, but what he had done was more than enough to ensure that she'd do anything to avoid him in the future. It wouldn't be difficult. She only had to rise from her seat and walk out the door.
His heart sank as he took in the situation, but he steeled himself for her rebuff and forced himself to look at her at last.
She was staring him, her face pale under the cafe's cold light, but her expression was unreadable. His gaze shifted to her hands; her knuckles were white from the tight grip she kept on her hot cup of coffee. If it burnt her skin, she didn't complain.
Then, suddenly, she seemed to snap out of her immobile stance. She let go of her cup and laid her hands flat on the table. Then she blinked, and when she finally spoke, she sounded much less sure of herself than earlier. "I… I'm sorry. What did you say?"
She hadn't heard him? She hadn't… Regret and relief battled in him. "Nothing. I said… nothing."
She didn't lower her gaze, and he flinched. He started to review a list of safe topics that would put the whole moment behind them. Anything to make her forget that he had spoken and…
"What did you say?" she insisted.
She had heard him. She had heard him well. There was no way he could fool himself into believing she'd been elsewhere for a moment there, deep in her own thoughts, and had failed to hear. And deep down, he had wanted — still wanted — her to know. Carrying the heavy secret of his sudden feelings seemed a lot less bearable than sharing it with her and dealing with the consequences.
He sighed, resigned. "I said… I said I didn't want to lose you. That what I'm feeling now is as much out of the blue for me as it is for you, but I can't help thinking that —"
"No!" Her raised hand stopped him in mid-sentence. "I don't think I want to hear it."
Well, that wasn't a surprise, was it? He had ruined everything. He'd had a chance to escape, and he had blown it instead of taking the way out that she had miraculously offered. "I'm sorry. Not that an apology will do much to repair what I've done, but —"
"I need to get out of here." She rose from her seat. What he had feared all along was happening now. He was getting what he deserved, though. They had started off on the wrong foot, and what had had told her had made matters even worse.
"I understand," he forced himself to say. "I'm sorry I offended you. I… I should have known better than —"
"Are you planning on sitting here all night looking for a proper apology, or will you come with me?"
"C-come with you?" She wanted him to accompany him? Where to? And most of all, *why*?
When she grabbed her coat and walked to the door, he pushed the questions to the back of his mind. He wouldn't let her go. Not when she didn't seem to want to send him away.
Nothing about tonight made sense, Lois decided as she stepped out onto the street. It should have been a perfect day. *The* perfect day. Valentine's Day. And for goodness sake she hadn't spent it alone this year! Not just that, but she had spent it with the most eligible bachelor in Metropolis. Lex Luthor. A charming, cultivated man. And he liked *her*.
But then she'd had to ruin everything with her usual feelings of inadequacy. And when she had gone home, she had known that dating Lex Luthor wasn't what she was looking for.
What *was* she looking for?
Clark had said he was missing something and that he hoped to find it here, in Metropolis. But had she ever stopped to think if her life was complete? If she was happy with what she had? Lex had seemed to fill the void until tonight, but deep down, did she believe that he was what she was looking for? Or was he just a fleeting — and mild, she was forced to admit — attraction that would pass as quickly as her fascination for him had come?
The dinner they had shared tonight had scratched part of the polish that had first attracted her to him. She hadn't liked what she had found beneath. Arrogance and self- confidence were reliable allies in business, she supposed, but she hadn't expected to dine with the businessman tonight. Not that it mattered. She wouldn't see him again anyway.
And now she was telling Clark, a man she had only just met, a man she knew nothing about — except that he was downright exasperating — to follow her God knew where. She had gone from considering him as a potential serial killer to thinking of him as a run-of-the-mill womaniser, and now she had let herself be moved enough by his softly spoken declaration — a declaration that came out of nowhere — that she had invited him to follow her.
She couldn't call it a declaration, she amended. He hadn't vowed eternal love to her; he had just… he had just implied that she might be what he had been missing all his life. Oh God, it *was* a declaration! It was more than any man had ever told her. Mortified, she gritted her teeth and shook herself. She wasn't going to fall for that. He had probably fed a dozen women or so the same well-rehearsed speech. And yet he had sounded so sincere. As if he was really afraid of her reaction.
/Good acting will do that for you./
Except good acting didn't make you blush and look as if you wanted to sink into the floor. Clark had appeared as taken aback by the words rushing out of his mouth as she had been by the force with which they had hit her. And he'd looked taken aback when she had asked him to follow her, as if he expected to get a slap in the face instead. It wasn't the expression of a man confident in his belief that he had the perfect technique to lure women into his bed.
Besides, she refused to believe that it was the case.
/Didn't you learn anything from the past?/
She had. Oh yes, she had. She had learned the hard way that feelings weren't to be trusted, that attraction to a man meant trouble, that true love only existed in the imaginations of the best-selling authors of the romance novels she secretly treasured… But Clark was different. She knew, deep in her heart, that he was different, that what he said didn't come from a carefully planned scheme.
/How can you be sure?/
She couldn't be sure. But what he had said reflected the feelings she had carefully avoided considering. She didn't want to live with regrets. She didn't want to stand by and watch her life go past without seizing the opportunity that was offered to her tonight. Maybe it was another trick; maybe it would hurt in the morning when she realised it had been yet another trap into which she had fallen more than willingly. But it would cost her more to keep wondering than to plunge headfirst into the adventure and deal with whatever consequences came out of it.
Snippets of their snappy banter rushed back to her mind as she crossed the street and walked through the gates to Centennial Park, Clark still in tow. She had been more amused than irritated by his teasing comments. Now this in itself didn't make much sense. How could she have enjoyed the twinkle in his eyes and the smile in his voice when he talked to her? It wasn't something she tolerated from anyone, let alone a man she had just met. But somehow, with Clark, it had felt right.
/You could easily get used to that./
She didn't want to.
/You could even start to like that./
Not in this life.
She really should have left without a word and forgotten about the whole evening. Instead, she was instinctively checking to make sure that Clark was still following her as she made her way to the main gravelled path that was always so crowded during the day. The park was empty and silent now, except for the noise of their shoes against the crisp snow that had fallen all evening long. She slowed down.
He had said he didn't want to watch her walk away from him. He had said he didn't want to live with the remorse of unspoken feelings. And she believed him. Oh yes, she believed him. As new as they were, the feelings he had talked about weren't foreign to her; she had done her best to ignore them all evening, but now she had to concede defeat.
She shuddered. Valentine's Day yearly maudlin mood was hitting her and making her imagine feelings that didn't exist. Clark was an attractive young man, and he seemed nice and friendly.
Appearances could be deceiving. They had always been deceiving where her relationships with men were concerned. She sneaked a quick glance at him, turning her head away when she met his gaze. She had told him that she didn't want to hear what he had confessed. He was probably confused that she had encouraged him to follow her instead of telling him to get lost. Well, he couldn't be more confused than she was. At least his feelings were clear enough to be voiced. *If* he was telling the truth. Hers, on the other hand, were thrown about in her mind and scurrying out of her reach every time she tried to analyse them.
What had pushed her to ask him what he wanted from her anyway? And, she remembered with a growl, he might well be lucky enough to be hired at the Planet sooner or later; which meant she couldn't put the whole evening behind her. Again, if what he claimed was true.
She realised as her companion spoke up that she had groaned aloud.
"Do you want me to leave?"
"I don't know what I want."
"Neither do I."
"You sure give me the feeling that you know precisely what you want."
"I'm not asking anything from you."
"You're not? Then what did you say that for? There was a blank in the conversation that needed to be filled?"
"I told you I was sorry."
She eyed him carefully. "But you're not." He gave her a confused look. "Sorry. You're not sorry. Are you?"
"No. No, I'm not sorry. Not really. I apologise for letting you bear the weight of something that probably doesn't concern you in any way, but I can't honestly say I am sorry I told you. If I hadn't, I would have spent the rest of my life wondering if I let it slip between my fingers."
"Don't ask me to define what I feel."
"I haven't said I believe you."
"You bet it is!"
"It is for me, too. It doesn't make much more sense to me than it does to you."
"Oh, but it does! You were able to tell me the way you feel. I can't do that. I can't tell you anything. And… and I don't believe in that kind of thing. I don't even know who you are!"
"My name is Clark Kent. I come from Smallville, Kansas. I've been travelling in various countries for the past two years, and I've finally come back to the US to settle down and get a reporting job, hopefully at the Daily Planet. I —"
"Whatever you tell me now, Clark, won't make me know you any better. Attraction between two people is one thing, but it doesn't mean anything. It never means anything."
She had a point. He was attracted to her, but if she knew nothing about him, he knew even less about her. Even her name was a mystery to him. How could he act around this woman as if he was sure of feelings that were so very unfamiliar to him? And were they mutual? Assuming they were, how could he make her understand that he only wanted to know her better without the threat of strings attached?
He broke the silence between them. "I don't know anything about you either. I don't even know your name."
"Lois. My name's Lois."
"You could be making that up."
She laughed, and relief washed over him as tension seemed to leave her stance a little. "We'll never get anywhere if we start off with lies."
So she wanted their relationship to go somewhere? Or was he reading too much into an innocuous comment? Unsure whether he should allow himself to take her comment for acquiescence, he chose the safety of non-committal agreement. "Good point."
"I'm a reporter for the Daily Planet. Maybe you've seen my name on a few front page bylines?"
"Actually, I haven't." He grinned at her obvious shock. "Borneo."
She snorted. "I thought they had decent newspapers in Borneo?"
"You always need to get the last word on everything?"
She pursed her lips, as if taking a moment to think about it, then grinned wickedly. "Yeah. I think you could say that."
"Okay. I can't say I haven't been warned."
"Does it frighten you?"
Their resurrected playful mood fell apart instantly. They were walking on a tightrope again, on the edge of something that scared him and, he suspected, terrified her. They didn't know each other at all. He should bid her his goodbyes and walk back to his hotel. Except… except he would see her again tomorrow. She was a stranger now, even if he couldn't think of her as one, but with a bit of luck she would soon become a colleague.
Did it frighten him?
"No, Lois." He reached down to take light hold of her hand. "It should probably scare the heck out of me, but it doesn't."
She stared at him for a long moment, without snatching her hand away as he had first feared she would. Then she rose on her tiptoes and planted a soft kiss on his lips. It didn't linger; she pulled away before he could realise what had happened. He breathed in her sweet scent and opened his eyes to look into hers. She had placed her other hand against his chest, over the thudding pulse of his heart.
She had kissed him. Willingly. She'd stood on her tiptoes and kissed him, leaning against him as if her life depended on it. It hadn't been more than a short peck on the lips; nothing passionate or particularly ardent. But it had been overwhelming all the same. His lips, warm and soft against hers, had only started to respond when she had pulled away.
Coward. She was a coward. First, she had let a complete stranger talk to her, then when he had given her a sign that he wanted to push things further, she had asked him to follow her instead of giving him the brush-off he had deserved. And now, after he had confessed that he wasn't frightened by her domineering personality, she hadn't thought of any better reply than a kiss — one from which she had shied away at the first sign that he was responding. Oh, yes. A coward, she certainly was.
He was looking down at her, a stunned expression on his face. She searched for signs of triumph in his expression, but there was none of the smugness she had expected to see. He looked confused, albeit a little hopeful. Not that she could blame him for that; after all, he had made it clear that he was attracted to her. And if her earlier words hadn't been enough, her kiss had plainly exposed her feelings on the matter. She was attracted to him as well.
She had half-hoped that his self-confidence would rush back as soon as she stood on tiptoes to kiss him. At least she would have had a valid excuse to turn away and mark him down as another seducer; she'd have been content in the knowledge that he hadn't completely succeeded.
But he hadn't reacted as she had expected. He hadn't immediately kissed her back; in fact, it had taken him what had seemed like an eternity to respond to the yielding pressure of her lips. When he had, though… A shiver ran down her back as she relived the moment. When he had, she had felt her knees weaken, and only the summoning up of what little willpower she had left had ensured that she pulled away before it was too late. Before her surroundings faded and Clark became the only anchor to which she had to cling. She had kissed a few men before, but it had never made her nerves tingle. How could a short brush of their lips take her breath away?
"What did you do that for?"
"I needed to know," she said as an attempt to explain her gesture. Not that it helped much. He would want her to tell him what, exactly, she had needed to know, and why a kiss would solve her problem. She wasn't sure she had an answer for that. And had kissing him helped her find out if what she felt — what they *both* felt — was real?
She was suddenly very much aware of his hand clasping hers, of the warmth of his solid chest, and of his lips, descending upon hers again as he closed the distance between them. She was fully conscious this time, and she received his kiss with a mixture of relief and trepidation. It was tentative at first, as if he wasn't sure she was entirely willing. She let the first shivers wash over her and tried to recapture the pleasure she had denied from herself earlier.
Her concentration solely on him, she let her thoughts fall away, leaving only the cosy intimacy of their lips sweeping gently over one another's. Their kiss was sweeter this time, with an underlying passion that quickened the beat of her heart. He didn't press for a deeper touch, though, seemingly content to share this moment with her.
She found herself responding to that more than anything else; a man, content to take steps with her instead of racing ahead of her, was something new to her — but it was a trait that just seemed to fit the man she'd met tonight.
Kissing Clark didn't feel like kissing a complete stranger; it was new and exhilarating, but it was equally natural, as if it was the one thing that would always make sense in her life. She clung to him, kissing him back with reckless abandon.
When he pulled away, the tenderness in his eyes was unmistakable, and she snuggled against him, feeling safer and more cherished than she had ever been with a man.
They stood entwined for a while, Clark's hand brushing rhythmically across her back as she got accustomed to the new sensation of being held in his arms. Nothing could happen to her as long he kept her in his embrace. She laughed softly; it was so removed from her usual attitude towards men that she couldn't take it seriously. But it felt right, just like it had felt right to stay and talk with this stranger instead of sticking to her determination to ignore him.
She had never succeeded at that, had she? Who would have thought? Who would have believed that she could meet a man like him and give him enough of a chance to discover he was worth it?
A thought that had crossed her mind when she had been sitting at home contemplating the failure of her evening came back to her. "Life can be quite strange," she said at last, breaking the comfortable silence.
"Can it?" He looked amused, and she was tempted to playfully poke his arm. How could she feel so much at ease around him?
She straightened in his embrace and slid her hands to his chest. "Well, what were the odds of you being in that cafe when I decided I needed a walk?"
He shrugged. "I'm blaming it on sheer luck."
This time she didn't resist. Her fist connected with his arm, and her grin was victorious. "Blaming?!"
He faked a wince, but his smile widened and his hold tightened around her. He brushed his lips across hers. "On sheer *luck*," he whispered, then stole another kiss.
"I'm glad I got out tonight," she said when their laughter subsided.
"And me. But you know, one thing struck me when I saw you enter that cafe."
"What could a woman like you be doing alone in such a dive, tonight of all nights?"
She rested her head against his shoulder and sighed softly. "Reflecting on life's opportunities."
"And did you decide to seize them?"
She looked up at him, her arms locking about his neck and her face inching closer until her lips touched his. "Yes. Oh, yes."
Sometimes, life was strange indeed. But as they kissed and their surroundings melted, Lois decided that she didn't mind at all.